I recently developed this handout for the students in my intro cultural anthropology course; it’s a (very summary) description of how we usually do research in American anthropology, as I found the explanation in the course textbook a tad lacking. Feel free to use it for whatever purpose, as long as you cite me as the author. Also feel free to make any comments on its accuracy or usefulness! I’m more than happy to consider this a “working document”.
The Stages of Research
A short guide to research projects in cultural anthropology
1. Defining a Research Question
Every research project begins with a topic of interest. An academic will usually define this formally as a research question: a brief, comprehensive summary of what they would like to learn. This helps them focus their research, and later, helps the reader of an ethnography understand what was being investigated. In applied anthropology, the research area is usually defined by one’s employer, and is likely to be a specific, sometimes even quantitative goal.
2. Library Research
Anthropology is a comparative discipline. We are interested not just in what we are studying, but how it fits into our understanding of humanity as a whole. Therefore, almost all research begins with a study of what has already been written on the topic of interest. In academics, this is called a literature review. Literature reviews ensure that research isn’t being needlessly repeated if the answer to the question is already known, and ensures that the researcher will be well informed when going into the field. A private employer will consider summarizing this kind of research part of the job of a researcher, and sometimes even the primary goal of a given project.
3. Ethical Concerns
All research with human subjects raises potential ethical, moral, and even legal concerns. The most important ethical rule for an anthropologist in the field is that the people you are researching always come first. Their well-being trumps any other concern, and it is important that they benefit from your research, or at least are not harmed by it. There are various strategies to accomplish this. In the field, usually participants in a study will sign or verbally agree to a statement of purpose explaining what the project is about and what will be done with the research. This is called informed consent, and is the most important legal step. Academic institutions usually have a faculty committee called an Institutional Review Board whose job it is to regulate the research of the school’s employees and students. The IRB must approve every research project before it can begin.
Ethnographic research is generally quite expensive, so funding must be acquired well before entering the field. Sometimes an academic institution or private employer will have money set aside already for research. However, most of the time this will not be sufficient to cover an entire research project. The most common source of funding is to apply for a grant from a non-profit agency such as the National Science Foundation, the Social Science Research Council, or the Wenner-Gren Foundation. Who you apply to for funding often depends on what kind of research you plan to do. Qualifying for a high profile scholarship such as the Fulbright is not only effective financially, but considered a source of prestige for the researcher.
5. Entering the Field
The first few weeks (or even months) of a long term ethnographic project are usually the hardest for the researcher. One challenge is culture shock, an adverse reaction many people experience when faced with very unfamiliar cultural surroundings. Symptoms can include depression, anxiety, social isolation, fatigue, and nausea. The better informed and prepared you are, the shorter this period of disconnection will be. Another challenge is gaining access to the community. An anthropologist usually begins as an social outsider, and must slowly build trust and rapport with their informants. One strategy is to befriend a key informant who is willing to explain things and act as a sort of ambassador to the rest of the community. A number of other things can help: learning the primary languages spoken by your informants, contributing to the everyday work of a community, or otherwise demonstrating your usefulness to your informants.
6. Conducting Primary Research
Once your research proper has begun, a number of strategies are available to you to help gather information in an organized fashion. These include but are not limited to:
A series of questions submitted to a large number of people in exactly the same way. Better for generating useful statistics, but sacrifices quality for quantity.
Direct conversation with an informant about a topic of interest. Can be more or less structured depending on your goals. Less statistically useful than survey, but usually a source of deeper and better information. An ethnography based mostly on interview of a single individual is called a life history.
3. Direct Observation
The basic method of the physical sciences: observation of a natural environment, where the goal is to eliminate the impact and bias of the researcher as much as possible. For both practical and ethical reasons, this is almost never the primary strategy of an anthropological research project.
4. Participant Observation
Knowledge gained by actually becoming a part of a community and participating in its daily life. Though less objective than other methods, this is the most effective way to cultivate understanding of the intangible aspects of a given culture and society, and often acts as an implicit test of what is “known” about a society. A long period of participant observation is usually the foundation of a published ethnography. Participant observation is probably the most important methodological contribution of anthropology to the social sciences as a whole.
7. Analyzing data
Once data has been gathered, it is time to organize it and start analyzing it for deeper meaning. One popular method is called coding: marking data with all instances of a word or concept and comparing them to each other. In analysis, the existing literature on the subject is often revisited and compared to what you found in the field. Quantitative data may be organized into graphs and charts to better understand it. In some cases, this may involve generating useful statistics from numerical data. Even coded qualitative data can be used to generate useful statistics, such as word frequency in interviews, for instance. This is also a good time for a researcher to contact their colleagues and discuss their findings in more detail.
Eventually, a successful project will result in a publication, a written account of your research made available to the public. This is both an opportunity for the researcher to share their work and an ethical responsibility; you conducted the research and likely accepted money to do so, so sharing the results is not really optional. The mainstay of academic anthropology is the ethnography, a comprehensive descriptive account of a cultural group. Ethnographies can be books, films, or articles, and range from pragmatic factual accounts to well-composed literary works. Your style will depend on what you wish to communicate, and who you wish to communicate it to. In applied anthropology, publication more often takes the form of a report, a “just the facts” presentation of all the data collected by the researcher.
If you’ve never heard of a cargo cult, it’s a religious movement endemic to the Pacific island of Vanuatu that did a good job of capturing the imagination of Westerners: the kind of thing that so aligns with what we already believe about “primitive people” in other places far away that it instantly and easily slips into our worldview without much critical thought. It’s the kind of story that people remember from their Cultural Anthropology class, long after they forget all the boring theory and terminology surrounding it. In the popular, stereotyped mythos, natives living in the jungles of Vanuatu during the 2nd World War were mystified by the parachuted bundles of “cargo” that dropped around the airfields. After the war, they started a cult around the bundles, building elaborate imitations of American airfields, complete with pretend radio towers and air traffic controllers. In doing so, they hoped to induce the “cargo” to return. It is something of a “just so” story, often used to demonstrate a basic anthropological concept which I’ll get to later in this article, or in less scrupulous hands, to demonstrate the folly of imitating what you don’t understand it; famed physicist Richard Feynman coined the term “cargo cult science” to refer to pseudoscientist types who produced sciencey-sounding papers but failed to back it up with replicable research. Like most such stories, it misses quite a few shades of the truth. In anthropology, we have our own derived term, “cargoism”, to refer to the phenomenon of turning real events into ridiculously biased portraits of exoticism. The movement is a real faith, though, and one which is still practiced in Vanuatu.
For actual practitioners of this religion, the faith revolves heavily around the actions of a mystical prophet, who went by the name of John Frum. Accounts differ, but most sources agree that John Frum was a black American serviceman who appeared among the people to promise them wealth and prosperity if they were to reject the French and British missionary projects on the island. His followers abandoned the missions en masse and regrouped in the mountainous regions, where they revived many of the old traditions of the indigenous population along with new ceremonies introduced by John Frum to bring about Western prosperity without submitting to the invading Americans and Europeans. The missionaries feared that this would become a violent rebellion, and in 1941 arrested a native claiming to be John Frum and several of his lieutenants, exiling them from Vanuatu to other European properties and attempting to stamp out the movement. After the war, it was said that John Frum had gone into the volcanic Mount Yasur to commune with the ancestors of the people, and that he would one day return, bringing with him abundant gifts from them, the much coveted goods of the Western nations. The cargo rituals that so fired Western imaginations began soon after the war, and though they were never the central goal of the movement, they are continued to this day along with the other activities and ceremonies of the movement. They have continued to be a force in Vanuatu political and religious life, and steadfastly opposed both nationalization and Western political subordination generally. John Frum, as a symbol, represents a best of both worlds; a soldier, but black like the natives, a bearer of Western gifts but not Western domination. He is the manifestation of the traditional past, the Westernized future, and a present that therefore leaves room for cultural pride and political autonomy.
There being no record of an American serviceman by the name, it has become popular among many historians to say that he never actually existed. Many modern practitioners say that he was effectively real, but a manifestation of the will of the ancestors, a viewpoint not dissimilar to Docetism in early Christian history. I am inclined to think that John Frum was a real person. It’s not so implausible unless you make the assumption that to exist he must have really been an American airman in order to be real– I think it is quite likely that he was a native, perhaps even the very man authorities eventually arrested, and an airman only in the sense that the ritual airfields are airfields. Certain people in any population are temperamentally inclined to take leaps of intuitive logic like those that our hypothetical John Frum seems to have made. Rather than slowly constructing a logical path from A to B, people of a certain temperament prefer to gather as much data as possible, then make a sudden jump to a conclusion based on that information in a way that they feel is right but cannot necessarily explain. Those who take Meyers-Briggs personality theory seriously may recognize this as a trait associated with introverted intuitives, or as one of the Jungian “functions” of the mind that are represented to various degrees in many but not all individuals. For our John Frum, or whoever helped create the mythos of John Frum, it was a simple matter to take the whole military and colonial occupation as a whole and realize correctly that there was no necessary connection between the benefits and the costs of interaction with Westerners, that by learning to imitate the habits of the interlopers, the rewards could be got without agreeing to sacrifice the entire past and identity of the islands.
And this John Frum, whether or not his name was really John Frum, actually got quite a lot of the story right on. Airfields are a necessary precursor to planes, and all of the elements of the cargo rituals really are necessary to the functioning of airfields. Their landing strips would certainly be serviceable enough; even as a fully equipped airfield, if only the specific elements of technology (like radio) that were not available to them for a host of reasons, not the least of them intentional efforts by colonial administrators to keep them out of native hands as much as possible.
The idea underlying the rituals also demonstrates another principle that is universally found in human cultures, though my students tend to have a harder time seeing it in their own: imitative magic. Imitative magic is sort of badly named, since “magic” connotes to most English speakers either charlatans pulling rabbits out of hats or Satanists and/or Harry Potter performing dark rituals in the dead of night. To an anthropologist, it’s a much more general term that. Any attempt to manipulate outcomes in the natural universe through the use a ritualized pattern counts as magic. Praying to God that you’ll do good on an exam is working magic by the anthropological definition, since it uses a cultural form (the structure of a prayer and the expectations you have about its efficacy) and has an intended real-world effect. So is washing your hands to prevent catching a disease, or taking an aspirin to alleviate an illness you’ve already got. As long as those two elements are present, a cultural form to follow and the expectation that it will work to change something in the physical world, it counts as “magic” as we define it.
Imitative, or sympathetic magic is a specific variant of magic that follows the principle of “like creates like”. This is how most medicines work, especially vaccines- they imitate the disease they mean to cure as closely as possible without actually being that disease. These days, we know a lot more about the biochemistry of medicines and what makes them more or less effective from a scientific standpoint, but we’ve been using the principle of like creates like since long before we could scientifically describe it. This is one reason pharmaceuticals make a small business of going into far-flung villages and asking local healers what plants they use- they know there is likely a grain of truth to at least some of their remedies, so they want to hunt down those plants and test their potential to become the next wonder drug. This practice is sometimes called bioprospecting.
Not all imitative magic is medical, though. We often use it in social situations, for instance. Acting calm because you want someone else to calm down is a good example; while this is not necessarily magic in the sense that it is a practical solution that anyone might come up with on the fly, the specific ways that we act when we are “acting calm” are specific to our culture. Someone trying to do it is likely to imitate scenes that they’ve seen on TV, or the way they remember their parents trying to calm them down, or as in the case of a recent news story, following the advice of a church sermon. The point is that we are following a cultural pattern which says “if you follow these actions in this order, the specific outcome you want will come about”, which makes it magic, and the logic of “if I act out what I need, it will come true in reality”, which makes it imitative. Another good example of imitative magic is advertising: someone who posts a billboard of a person happily munching on a burger is hoping that you will be respond by ordering a burger (imitating the prescribed action) in order to feel happy like the person on a billboard (the desired real) outcome. At the same time, the advertiser themselves is hoping that their action (putting up a billboard of their product) will result in an effect in the real world (people buying that product). It works more often than our dignity would like us to admit.
So does the magic of the “cargo cult” work? Well, that depends on how you look at it. If you talk to an islander today and ask why they are still waiting for John Frum’s return, they will wryly remark that they have only been waiting fifty years for their messiah, while most Americans are waiting for one two thousand years overdue. On one level, a goal of the cargo cults was to create cargo by the imitative magic of the airfield rituals, and this has not yet come to fruition directly, though there is certainly much more material wealth on the islands now than in the 1950′s. On another and I would argue more important level, the movement was an attempt to revive traditional religion and free the people of Vanuatu from the imperializing message of necessary cultural extinction. John Frum was a revolutionary message by his mere existence, and remains a powerful symbol of a different mode of advancing into the future outside of the colonizing thumb of the Western powers. His followers, now a political party in the national government, have endeavored to make this dream incarnate. John Frum provided a means of ritually creating a facsimile of a future that the people of Vanuatu could respect and even desire, and in so doing, paving a way for a different kind of destiny for his countrymen. In this latter goal, it seems to me that he was as successful as any of us can reasonably hope to be.
This June, I had the opportunity to visit a place that I had heard about but not been to myself– Anasazi State Park in southern Utah. The park is within the boundaries of the modern town of Boulder, Utah (not to be confused with the much larger city of Boulder in neighboring Colorado) and exists primarily to preserve a massive archaeological site known as the Coombs village. It is a well-preserved site with a brief but interesting history, settled by Virgin Branch people around 1160 CE and abandoned along with the rest of the nearby area around 1230 CE. There are signs that it was used as a seasonal village site from a much earlier date, but during that time, it was a permanently occupied town with an important role to play in the politics of the region.
We’ve learned a lot more about that political history since the initial excavation of the site in 1958. At the time, the priority of the researchers was to document the archaeology of the region very quickly in advance of its inundation by the Glen Canyon Dam, then under construction. They missed some significant facts. In the 1950′s, there were only three well-known archaeological cultures in the Southwest: the Puebloans, or Anasazi, who occupied the Four Corners region, the Mogollon of northern Mexico and New Mexico, and the Hohokam of Southern Arizona (and even the cultural distinctiveness of Mogollon was still disputed by some). This meant that any large sites found above a certain meridian were simply assumed to be Puebloan, including this one, which was assigned to a large subset of Anasazi called the Kayenta Branch.
Coombs village is indisputably a Puebloan site, but the Puebloans were not, as it turns out, the only vibrant and influential culture in ancient Utah. Starting as early as the 1930′s, some researchers had started to notice some distinctive patterns of rock art and basketry that were unique to central Utah, which they named the Fremont Culture. In fact, one of the early proponents for the Fremont, Jim Gunnerson, visited this site two years ahead of the major excavation, but passed it over, seeing that the artifacts piled on the surface of the “Boulder Indian Mound” were clearly Anasazi and therefore unimportant to his thesis.
However, as the decades marched on, the portrait of the Fremont has become clearer and more compelling. Many large sites have been identified and still pop up periodically as more and more of Utah is disturbed by construction projects, and along the way any doubt as to the existence of Fremont Culture has dissipated. This has had some interesting implications for the Coombs site, which as it turns out was right on the frontier between the Fremont and Puebloan culture areas. Like many Southern Utah sites, it contains artifacts from both cultures, and even structural evidence of cultural mixing.
One of the elements that gives it a Fremont feel is the pit house depicted in the photo above: though above-ground stone pueblos were the norm for Puebloan peoples after the 9th century, it might be fair to say that pit houses are the more standard form of dwellings in the US Greater Southwest. The ancestors of the Puebloans, a culture known as the Basketmakers, dwelt in pit houses that looked much like the one in the photo above, and they continued to build them occasionally in some areas, one reason why the excavators did not find it especially remarkable when they unearthed one at Coombs village. Here, though, we might consider it part of a pattern in the record, because the Fremont also dwelt in pit houses.
What is a pit house? It’s actually a catch-all term for any partially subterranean structure found archaeologically, which makes them a little bit tricky to define. Partially submerged dwellings are a sensible response to dry and arid environments: they stay cool in the summer, warm in the winter, stable in the wind. They are conducive to safe storage, and are quicker to build than the massive stone cities that later became the norm in the Southwest. Because of this utility, we find pit houses in cultures spanning the globe, and in particular the plains and desert regions of the United States. At the time when the Puebloans were most prominent, their neighbors to the east, north, and south, still relied on the basic idea of the pit house, and the Puebloans themselves retained a specialized form of underground structures called kivas.
Most pit houses, in both Fremont and Basketmaker, were relatively large one- or two-room structures, with a central hearth and storage niches ringing the walls. The submerged portion is sometimes lined with stone to keep out moisture, sometimes just plaster. Four or six larger pilasters hold up a sloping roof, which was then sealed with branches and mud. A hole in the roof provided ventilation for a fire, which kept the dwelling warm during the surprisingly chill desert winters (these hills do fill up with 30 inches of snow, some years). Entry was through the roof via a ladder in single-room structures, or sometimes through a narrow antechamber to one side of the house. If there was no antechamber, a chimney of sorts was still needed to ensure a flow of air. In the photo, you can see a hole in the wall near the ground, indicating the location of this chimney. A slab of rock sufficed to prevent the air current from extinguishing the fire. A standard pit house comfortably houses around six people, though they varied in size and the numbers they could accommodate.
A kiva, unlike a pit house, was perfectly round, and became more and more stylized as time went on. Modern kivas in Pueblo towns are exclusively used as religious and community centers, a place for important rituals and events for the town or clan. They are sacred space, and every part of the kiva represents spiritual concepts and purposes. It’s not really clear when and how the transition from pit house to kiva took place in Puebloan history. Kivas were probably dwellings originally as well, like pit houses, as there are sometimes clear signs of occupation inside. By the end of the Puebloan period, though, it is clear that at least some of the spiritual and ritual importance of these rooms was evident, that they were more than just living spaces, and probably reserved for special uses much like their modern incarnations.
Less interest has been taken in pit houses themselves, and I think this is a shame, since understanding them is understanding the life way of many peoples, at most times in Southwest history. There are many locations where one can take a tour of a kiva, but fully reconstructed pit houses are uncommon. In fact, the only other locations I can think of off hand to even see an excavated and rebuilt pit house are at Step House in Mesa Verde, and one at the Crow Canyon Archeological Center nearby. That is one reason why Anasazi State Park is and remains a treasure well worth a visit if you are ever in the Escalante region. The great stone pueblos remain evocative monuments and an important legacy (and you can also take a look at some of Coombs’ reconstructed Pueblo-style room blocks, as shown below) but pit houses are important, too, and a gateway to understanding the interactions at this frontier village caught between two cultural traditions in a shifting and perilous era.
I often recommend science fiction classics to friends and students when talking about anthropological concepts. Considered thematically, the goals of a writer of space operas is not really very different from the work of a social anthropologist: By momentarily stepping outside of the normal subjective experience of humanity, we seek to better understand it. Science fiction writers step off of this planet for inspiration… but never too far. Often science fiction plots occur in a universe with no extra-terrestrial life at all, such as Asimov’s Foundation series or Herbert’s Dune. Others have alien or robotic existences, but those aliens are often very similar to us in most significant respects. Robots who want to be human and struggle with the existence of emotions, bird-creatures with sociopolitical structures suspiciously similar to that of 20th century Russia, intergalactic warlords who suffer from bipolar disorder. This is because a story about a truly alien life would be, aside from incomprehensible, also irrelevant to what most writers embody as their real goal. We want to understand why we are the way we are, even if the means for doing so takes us into the great unknown.
One consequence of this is that science fiction writers are very often conversant in the literature of anthropology or psychology, having at least a layman’s understanding and interest in what’s going on in their environment. An interested student could scarcely find better introduction to the Ecological Anthropology school than a reading of Dune, for example, and it is no accident considering who Herbert was friends with in real life. There is thus a flow of ideas, and it probably goes both ways, as with anything in popular culture. So I wondered, what could we learn about thought in the social sciences by watching Star Trek? The first thing that crossed my mind is that the writers of the show have had to confront the above fact- that science fiction aliens have a tendency to look and act rather a lot like humans- directly and in a way that would allow for suspension of belief on the part of the audience. How they accomplished this tells us a little about the zeitgeist of the social sciences across time.
Unlike a book, a television franchise lasts a very long time, and episodically; the nature of what’s presented on screen is going to evolve, and in the case of Star Trek, it evolved alongside sixty years of changing thought about the social and biological sciences. Another consequence of television is that having human-like aliens is a requirement more than a preference. Especially in the early years, sci-fi show budgets did not allow for elaborate special effects or even creative attempts at costuming and makeup. “In those days”, William Shatner laments in his autobiography “You wrote to a supply house for some alien costumes, and a few weeks later you got some random rubber monster suits”. If they wanted to go down to a planet, the budget problems were worse; it was either a styrofoam quarry, or some excuse to borrow a set from a historical period piece. Nor would producers (or audiences, presumably) green-light a character (especially a protagonist) so unhuman as to be unsympathetic. Mister Spock of the original series very nearly failed to exist, and his design was changed considerably by these concerns. Star Trek abounds with non-humans who are either aspiring to be human or dealing with the reality of already being part human, from Spock to Data to Seven of Nine. But even among aliens who are not main characters, there is a definite tendency for sentient alien species to be bipedal, bodily hairless, possessed of human-like cultures and personalities. Indeed, even in more recent outings such as Star Trek: Enterprise, it can be hard to distinguish between aliens and humans without looking at their faces. TV Tropes refers to these as Rubber Forehead Aliens and notes their tendency to predominate in science fiction plots. Not only are there very similar species on different planets, but very similar societies. Planets just like earth have human-like people in American desert-like dusty playas, living in Old-West like towns with cowboy hats Just Like Ours.
For writers, however, this also creates a problem: Why would another planet or another species just so happen to look or act like us? In order for an audience to suspend belief, some explanation (if not necessarily a good one) is needed. The answer of the original series was to delve into the serious social science of the day. One of the answers that sociologists and anthropologists were offering at the time was convergent evolution.
At the time, anthropologists and biologists were asking a lot of questions about evolution, and how it might apply to culture. One of the outcomes of anthropology’s broad spectrum of interests is that most people trained in the discipline know a fair amount about human evolution, itself a new science when anthropology began. Many biologists and anthropologists early on thought about evolution as a progressive, linear process, in which animals gradually gained in complexity over time.
In such a light, it made sense to posit, in creative moments, that evolution might take a very similar course of action in more than one place, since evolution itself was following a logical blueprint of sorts from most simple to most complex. There are even some examples of something like this happening in real life; animals that have adapted to fill similar ecological niches often display morphological (body shape) similarities. A classic example is the Tasmanian dog, a canine-like animal that evolved on the Australian island of Tasmanian. It’s largely unrelated by heredity to the dogs non-Australians were familiar with, yet at a glance looks very similar and performed a similar ecological role.
In the 1960′s, many anthropologists were excited by the possibility that such convergent evolution could also be possible in human societies. Just as biological species evolved along a logical progression from simple to complex, perhaps cultures did as well. Students at many schools are still taught the basic outline; foragers become pastoralists, pastoralists, then became agriculturalists, then became empires. Since it was the ethos of the day to assume that Western culture was the most “complex”, that meant that every society in the world was destined to become “just like us” eventually. So why not a whole other planet? This assumption underlies not just the plot, but part of the underlying ethos of the Star Trek universe. With the Prime Directive, the Federation, like the Cold War era nations, assumes that cultures inevitably evolve into something akin to themselves, signalled by a change in technology.
However, in both species and societies, convergent evolution in the sense that Star Trek assumes is unlikely, at least to the degree that it occurs in that universe. Canines and Tasmanian dogs may look somewhat similar, but in terms of biology, there were significant differences. Tasmanian dogs were marsupials, not placental mammals, carrying their young in external pouches for some time after birth. They certainly could not interbreed with dogs, as different alien species in the Star Trek universe do with each other. As the ethnographic record filled out, it seemed less and less likely that cultural evolution converged in the same way either. Westernization looked more like a story of conquest and subjugation than pre-ordained evolution. Societies are not unknown to make choices opposite that which unilineal cultural evolution suggested, often for reasons that were perfectly logical from their perspectives- the peoples of the American Southwest intentionally abandoned a state-like system for the more egalitarian pueblos, for instance, and many cultural practices in the historical Southwest seemed aimed explicitly at preventing the centralization of power. A similar process may have occurred among the Maya following what Westerners called the “Classic Period”, one thesis of Jared Diamond’s popular text, Collapse.
The upshot was that by the time the sequel series Star Trek: The Next Generation came out, the “just like Earth” planets were seeming less and less plausible, even for fans with only a casual knowledge of evolutionary science. Biologically akin species evolved separately on two different planets seemed unlikely, and the development of almost exactly similar cultures increasingly seemed, well, not like Earth at all. Serious fans of the show were picking apart the science of the original episodes with fervor. If they were going to continue to save money on alien face masks, a new conceit was needed.
The answer was found in a new debate that had by then taken wing: how life originated in the first place. By the time the 20th century dawned, oppositions to the conventional description of evolution were disappearing. However, the question of how life had actually appeared in the first place remained largely a mystery, and is still an unresolved question if not to the same degree. Life seemed to just suddenly appear in the geological record, and the biochemical path from non-life to life was non-obvious. One suggestion was that rather than naturally evolving here, life had somehow migrated here from somewhere else, perhaps via meteorite impact.
In the TNG episode “The Chase”, this theory was advanced by a Federation scientist, who posited that rather than simply showing up through evolutionary coincidence, the principal species of the Alpha Quadrant had in fact been “seeded” by an already existing race of lonely humanoid aliens, implanted along with certain genetic instructions to make the eventual convergence less a coincidence than a design. This leads to a tense standoff as multiple parties rush toward the uncomfortable truth, leading to one of the most intense lichen-collecting expeditions in television history.
For the time being, we seem to have reached a hiatus in new Star Trek TV series, despite the popularity of the “reboot” universe movies now selling tickets at the box office. Science, however, has continued apace, and we know much more than we ever have about the origins and nature of life. From punctuated equilibria to cladistics to mtDNA, the science of biological evolution becomes clearer with each passing year. Anthropology, tempered by waves of postmodern revision, has entered an era of more and creative fieldwork, less racist assumption, and outlines of more complex multilineal theories of social evolution. Perhaps the next time a network series shows up with a “forehead alien” in need of explanation, we’ll be ready with another fascinating set of theories to offer them. And with a bit of luck, it may even be that both fiction and nonfiction worlds will grow closer to our mutual goals of truth and self-understanding in the process.
Anthropologists have a longstanding love affair with folklore. The study of folklore is a discipline of its own accord, one which attracts researchers of many different backgrounds, so not all folklorists are anthropologists. But most anthropologists have a keen interest in the stories and songs that are passed down from generation to generation about the way things used to be. Many early compendiums of folk culture across the world- Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, William Graham Sumner’s Folkways- are even considered formative to our discipline, and to our sister field of sociology. Moreover, stories can be important for a number of reasons, and to anthropologists of all stripes. Stories are a storehouse of information about the past, which archaeologists can use to flush out our understanding of the past and resolve quandaries. They are an expression of deeply held religious and ideological assumptions, which can help symbolic and cognitive anthropologists figure out the interior life of people in a given culture. They are often exemplars of oral tradition, which help linguistic anthropologists understand what a language looks like when it is “done right”, and how it has changed over time.
For cultural anthropologists in particular, it is interesting to note and compare things that are the same from place to place. There are many genres and even specific tropes and motifs that appear in the mythology of many cultures. Sometimes this is because the same story has been passed down to more than one culture from the same source. For instance, there are many stories told throughout Europe about the medieval emperor and conqueror Barbarossa- some vary wildly, or even contradict each other at points (he is “buried” in many different places!), but all stem from the exploits of the same real person recorded in history. Many modern Muslims are quite familiar with the story of a miraculous palm tree that sprung forth with water and fruit to help Maryam (Mary) when she was carrying Isa (Jesus) in her womb through the desert, but more Christians might be surprised to learn that this was a story commonly known to Christians of the time, illustrated in Christian artwork and writings as early as the 6th century:
However, not all mythic similarities can be explained the same way. Sometimes, the same motif is found in the stories of cultures separated from each other by vast distances of time or space, distant enough that it is unlikely they are telling the same story, yet are found telling stories with interesting similarities. Stories of great floods, which inundate the world and leave only a survivor or several survivors left to repopulate the world are common throughout the planet. Many are familiar with Noah’s flood in the Hebrew and Muslim holy texts, but similar stories are found in Asia, North and South America, and Africa. In many cultures, there are a pair of heroic twins who do important deeds at the beginning of the world. These are especially common in North America, but like the flood narrative, variants are found in many places around the globe.
How can we explain this kind of coincidence? One explanation is that these stories explain or express concepts that are human universals, so one would expect them to show up again and again in different forms. Floods occur everywhere, for instance, and all cultures must deal with the loss and unpredictability of such events. It’s not necessarily surprising that, when considering the past, multiple societies might imagine an even larger event to explain why things are the way they are, or remember a literal flood in apocalyptic terms. Identical twins have always captured the interest of others, who want to parse out the ways that they are similar or different in personality, so they make a natural context for stories that wish to similarly explain the similarities and differences possible between people as a whole. The differences, though, can be as informative as the similarities. Every society has its own contributions to make, even to a very old and familiar tale.
I came across a story recently that made me think of this question of comparative folklore. I’ve been reading some very old issues of American Anthropologist in connection with a research project, and happened to come across this article by Elsie Clews Parsons. Parsons was a prolific ethnographer and folklorist of the American West during the first half of this century, a significant anthropological theorist, and the first female president of the AAA in 1941. In this article, written near the beginning of her career, she repeated a story that she had heard from an elder of the A:shiwi, or Zuni. Zuni Pueblo is an ancient and important polity in what is now the US Southwest, whose ancestry stretches through thousands of years of North American history.
The story concerns a man whose wife perished unexpectedly. In accordance with the beliefs of her people, the woman swiftly passed on to the underworld where the dead reside in peace, making new homes among their deceased kin in a place not far from the place they lived out their lives. The man, however, loved his wife deeply and could not bear the thought of their being parted, even for the course of his lifetime. He undertook a great journey, seeking out a ladder that could take him deep into the bowels of the earth and through to the underworld itself. Once there, he begged the guardians of the underworld to allow his wife to return with him to the living world. They replied that this was possible, but only if no one cried out as they were making the return journey. Joyous, the man and his wife began the return journey up the ladder. Unfortunately, as the woman stepped onto the very last rung of the ladder and into the daylight, an elderly woman saw the pair climbing out of the earth and cried out in terror. Immediately, the man’s wife transformed into an owl and flew away.
Some of my readers may be thinking that this story sounds a bit familiar, and not without reason; the cultures of Europe have been passing around similar stories for thousands of years. In ancient Greece, the closest to the Zuni tale is that of Orpheus, who in grief followed his wife Eurydice into the realm of Hades, the Hellenic underworld. In the most well-known version of the story, Orpheus played a lament on his lyre before the king and queen of the Underworld. He was among the most skilled musicians and poets in history, and the passion of his song moved the heart of Persephone (who though a goddess had herself been forced to move to the underworld) and she convinced her husband Hades to let Orpheus and his wife go, just this once. Hades agreed, but stipulated that what Orpheus asked was still impossible, unless he walked back to the living world with his wife behind him, not looking at her face until they both had reached the upper world. Unfortunately, just as Orpheus stepped forth into the daylight, he heard his wife cry out, and forgetting the rule that had bounded them, he turned to look at her. She faded before his eyes and was lost to him forever.
This mythos spawned a mystery religion known as Orphism, which differed from the orthodox faith in that Orphics believed in the transmigration of souls- a kind of reincarnation- which caused all humans, like Orpheus, to move back and forth from death to life in perpetuity, accumulating grief and finding relief only in the ascetic life. They also had another belief, very different from both their own contemporaries and from the Zuni: they, like the Christians who eventually followed them, believed that the dead are destined to be punished eventually for their transgressions in this life.
Perhaps this explains why at the end of the story, the fate of the wife is different- in the Greek story, the punishment for failing to follow instructions is to be returned to underworld. It is a permanent separation, never to be mended, and assumed to be a punishment in and of itself. For the Zuni, whose underworld was seen as an altogether more kindly place, the punishment for the couple’s presumption must be different from the normal fate, and she turns into an owl, flying away from her sorrowful husband forever. There are many other such signs of differences in religious perspective. It is taboo to say the name of deceased person in Zuni tradition, for instance, so it is not surprising the couple in this story is never named. The nature of the trial is different; it is mostly a test of Orpheus himself in the Greek version, and the guilt of failure falls solely on his shoulders (Plato later uses him as an example of the vice of cowardice). In the Zuni story, neither the man nor his wife are to blame, but rather the reaction of those in the living world. The return still fails, and the consequence is still enacted.
Many have commented on the similarity of the Orpheus myth to the Biblical story of Lot, whose unnamed wife was going to be permitted to flee the destruction of Sodom with him, but turned to look at the disaster and was turned into a pillar of salt in punishment. These are not the only variations on this theme; Izanagi and Izanami of Japan make a similar trip to the afterlife, as do Ix Chel and Itzamma of the Yucatan. Another North American nation, Nez Perce, tells a somewhat similar story about Coyote. In the mythology of Finland, it is a mother who goes after her son, and unlike these others, succeeds. In most of the stories recounted above, however, the ending is sad: the couple fails due to an inability to follow the rules of their deliverance. Sometimes the consequences are incredibly dire. In the Nez Perce tale, humanity is made forever mortal because of Coyote’s failure to return from the underworld with his wife, which task would otherwise have liberated us all from death.
Perhaps it is not surprising that similar stories crop up in many places. The spousal bond is often a strong one for good or ill, and a great many grieving widows have pondered whether their loss could be assuaged. For those whose afterlife is thought to have an entrance not far from where they live, who wouldn’t wonder whether the transit from death to life could be traveled in reverse? Faith must have an answer wherever the imagination can run. So we have many stories of the bereaved making the attempt and failing, or in the Finnish case, succeeding only after undergoing a trial so horrifying as to be questionably worth the reward. In all these tales, the supernatural guardian or guardians are kindly inclined toward the hero, but the actual deed of deliverance requires a trial, a test of will. In the European versions, the protagonist fails, and the deceased pays the price. In the Zuni version, it is another person who foils the effort, though still one of the Zuni. Either way, the failure to transcend death is, in the end, a failure of will on the human end, not an irrevocable condemnation by the divine world. This may carry a disturbing moral: Do we truly believe that our mortality is in some sense our own doing?
But this is only one interpretation, and the beauty of a folk tale is that it is interpreted anew by every storyteller and every listener, while weaving a pattern of memory and experience far into our communal history. When we look across cultures, we can weave even more complicated patterns, and find new meanings to some very old stories. Perhaps, in essence, the whole field of comparative ethnology is engaged in much the same project. If that is the case, our discipline’s collective love for a good folk tale is not hard to understand.
The following is a very partial review of Clifford Geertz’ “Islam Observed”; actually, just some remarks on his introductory chapter. I had occasion to read the book not long ago, as I was preparing a paper on religion in Indonesia in graduate school, and this is one of the classics on the subject. Clifford Geertz is a figure who looms large in the anthropology of the last half century. Most people know him for his championing of thick description in ethnography, a style of writing that emphasizes extremely detailed and introspective observations of single events and places, such as his very well known “Notes on a Balinese Cockfight”, in which the careful relaying of an illicit cockfight is Geertz’ door into explanation of the character of Balinese culture. Because he was working in Indonesia, Clifford Geertz was also one of the first anthropological observers of Islam, before the anthropological (as opposed to sociological) study of the major faiths had become commonplace. This is represented in “Islam Observed”, a comparative ethnographic look at Morocco and Indonesia respectively, two very different Islamic cultures, then as now.
Geertz, whose main interest at the time was in social change, comments on the difficulty of figuring out even where to look in order to find the religious experience. He suggests that the academic focus on uncovering the basic structures and mechanisms of religion has little utility in the field, where religion is a contextual aspect of life, difficult to unravel from other elements of philosophy, practice, and political action. “The problem,” he writes, “is not to define religion but to find it.” He names it the most nebulous factor in social change, comparing it to the more solid frames of analysis for economic and political change. Commentators looking to explain the role of faith in recent events such as the fall-out of the Arab Spring may sympathize; because Westerners have a tendency to write their own stories into news events, but we lack narratives to really describe what is happening in Egypt and Syria, dramas as closely knit into the particular history of those nations as to the global trends and movements on which they are often blamed. Said commentators would find no comfort in Geertz’s analysis, however. In fact, he explicitly denies that there is a one-to-one relationship between politics and religion, insisting that the real relationship between the two is much more subtle. Since he wrote this book, political Islamism has become a much more potent element in global politics, and his views may come across a bit naive to a modern reader. If major political parties, as in Egypt, claim religion to be their major motivation, doesn’t that make their political actions de facto representative of their religious beliefs?
To Geertz, though, what religion says in the press, or what is said of it, is less interesting than what religion means to people. Thick description means looking at things from the bottom up, starting not at the conflicts between nations, but from people’s lives and religions. To some extent, I think he is right to banish politicized religion to a superstructure of faith, rather than treating it as a structure itself. One’s political situation is not irrelevant to one’s faith, but it doesn’t control it either. Most people, when it comes down to it, have a much more personal and dynamic relationship with the religious dialogues they participate in, and even for those who value conformity greatly, the connection between idea and action is not simple in either direction. “Being Christian” or “being Muslim” does not create any necessary political orientation, nor does the political situation necessitate any particular faith structure; a fact, that for Geertz, is well represented by the fact that although his case study subjects of Morocco and Indonesia could be seen as broadly belonging to the “Muslim World”, that’s pretty much where their cultural similarities end. He writes that “their most obvious likeness … is their religious affiliation; but it is also, culturally speaking, their most obvious unlikeness.” Even the form of faith in the two countries is not obviously similar. Hierarchy is understood differently. Faith is understood differently.
So to explore the subject of religion, Geertz employs two strategies. One is to look at the role of faith in human lives, regardless of the political “container” we find ourselves in. To him, the search for religion is rooted in a search to understand the social maintenance of communal faith. He was looking for the ultimate subject of religion in a person’s life; very different than a search for the results of faith, and I find this commendable. Personal faith is “the steadfast attachment to some transtemporal connection of reality”, somewhat of an egg-heady way of saying that faith is your personal connection to a truth that lends a structure to the universe. Faith ultimately helps us “make sense” of things by placing them in a wider context, whether that context is the fallout out between conflicts on Mt Olympus or the endless contest between angels and demons. Geertz feels it is critical to distinguish between the subject of faith and its social effects, lest the two become confused. There’s a difference between observing that “The Islamic country of Iraq is in a state of religious warfare” and saying that “Islam is about religious warfare”, a difference that should be obvious but is often blurred in written and visual media, even by those who ought to know better. To make blanket statements about what “Islam” is doing in the crisis areas of the modern world is to be very sloppy about what one is saying, and in a way that is rather insulting to someone who claims the same faith label but does not subscribe to the narratives that are being attached to it, whether from within or without. For someone who is a Muslim but has no violent political aspirations (That is, most Muslims in most places statistically speaking), a statement by a political commenter that a group’s motivations are rooted in Muslim faith is at best personally meaningless, and often quite insulting and offensive.
That said, we are not independent agents, and we respond to challenges in the earthly political realm partly according to what we think about cosmology and the afterlife. “What happens to faith,” Geertz asks, “when its vehicles alter?” Faith is sustained by social structures, whatever its origin, and the faith if individual people cannot ignore the cultural dialogue that surrounds it. This is, in fact, why the faith of Indonesia is so very different from the faith of Morocco despite bearing the same name. The two nations have different cultures and historical trajectories, and this has wide ranging impacts on religious language, ritual, communal identity, and political impact. He treats religion and politics as elements evolving next to one another in the communal consciousness of a culture, neither independent of the constraints of the other nor defined by them.
This results, necessarily, in a very strong emphasis on history. The remainder of the chapter is given to describing the distinct sociopolitical histories of his two subjects, and the remainder of the book continues to refer to them often. This is slow, careful ethnography, and the historical focus represented here is something that is coming back into vogue these days in some quarters of the field. One of the central dogmas of the political ecology school of thought is that temporal and spatial context can never be safely ignored: even things that look similar when viewed from afar, can look very different when you zoom in.
As such, while it may sound good to talk about an “Arab Spring”, that movement is only part of complex architecture that contains real human lives, and the people therein change it as much as it changes them. The Syrian revolution is a Syrian revolution, and even where religion or the politics of despotism or some other factor seem to build bridges of similarity, they are only one voice in a continually unfolding story of personal and social meanings. Beware deterministic models of what will happen, when based on events thousands of miles away from each other, whether those models are built on economic theory or ethnic identity, or yes, even on religion. Ultimately, a person’s story will be their own, and a society’s story will be its own, with the larger structures of faith and politics no more defining of it than the genre in which an author is writing would be. This doesn’t mean that religion can be safely ignored. But it does mean that it can only ever be one factor in a social analysis. If human culture were an artist’s pallette, religion would determine many of the major colors present, but the decisions that humans make in light of particular social and historical factors will determine when and how those colors are used.
How a modern dispute created a useful lesson in stratigraphy
In 2009, the city of Oxford, Alabama made the decision to level an archaeological site in favor of constructing a new mega-store in the same place. Indeed, the dirt from the bulldozed Mississippian mound was used as fill to build the foundation for the new building. Though many archaeologists protested the action, the mayor of the town believed that his detractors exaggerated the importance of the mound and that, in his own words, the proposed store would be “more prettier” than the mound that it was replacing. A report by the University of Alabama recently reinvigorated the controversy, as it emphasized the cultural importance of the site and confirmed that it was man-made. This has not led to the abandonment of the construction project, and the store is expected to open in 2014. Along with the recent revelation that a pair of Peruvian developers demolished a protected Inca pyramid, this has created quite a buzz of people talking about archaeology and the importance of preservation, lately.
However, I thought it might be interesting to use the Sam’s Club site as an example to talk about another subject in archaeology, one that is very important to the day-to-day work of archaeologists in the field. Stratigraphy is the study of geological layers and how they are deposited. The study of stratigraphy goes back to a fellow named Nicolas Steno, who in the 17th century made significant contributions to anatomy, geology, and theology, a Renaissance man in true spirit. Among these contributions were a set of observations he made about the deposition of rock layers, which were later called Steno’s Laws (or Principles) of Stratigraphy. These took the abstract observations he had found in Roman literature and transformed them into a tool that a scientist could use in the field to reconstruct the past. I’m going to focus on three of these (there are actually more, but as there are no volcanic intrusions into the Sam’s Club site as far as I know, I’m focusing here on the three that are usually taught to archaeology students)
- The Law of Superposition. New things are almost always deposited on top of old things, building up over time. Because of this, if you are looking at a sequence of layers deposited one atop another, it is generally safe to assume that the oldest one is on the bottom, and the newest on the top. (“super” means “over” in Greek)
- The Law of Original Horizontality. Gravity being the powerful force that it is, materials are generally laid down in flat layers, parallel to the sky. When things aren’t flat, time and erosion does their best to flatten them. Unless volcanism or faulting manage to tilt layers already deposited, we expect to find exactly horizontal layers under the ground.
- The Law of Lateral Continuity. It is the nature of deposition that things tend to spread out evenly and horizontally until they hit some kind of boundary, generally the valley or basin that sediment is being deposited into. If one finds the same layer in more than one place, therefore, you can generally assume that they were originally continuous (that is, they were touching) and lateral (at the same elevation) to each other .
When archaeology was leaving its infancy and becoming a real science, it was realized that a very thorough understanding of stratigraphy was needed. An archaeological site generally has layers as well, both the natural geological layers it is situated in, and the layers of occupation that we ourselves lay down. Humans tend to occupy the same places over and over throughout history, so a single site can have dozens of human-deposited layers (sometimes called archaeostrata) buried within it; the city of Paris for instance has historical plumbing projects, medieval crypts, dark age villages, Roman military camps, and many other older layers of occupation buried beneath its storied streets.
If we think about the proposed Sam’s club as a future archaeological site, we can see how a hypothetical future archaeologist might be confused if she were trying to use Steno’s Laws as the primary basis for interpreting her site. In a normal depositional environment such as a stream or lake bed, the layers would be neat and orderly, as indeed the natural strata are throughout much of the American South. At this site, however, material was first removed from its original context to build the mound in the first place, 2000 years ago, and now is being removed again for yet another construction. In the process, all three of Steno’s guidelines have been made into exceptions:
- The mound was already an unnatural feature, and we do not now know what the original depositional environment might have been (though a sedimentologist might help us to identify it). But it would have had a archaeostratigraphy generated by its construction over time. By removing the upper layers of the mound progressively, the builders have effectively reversed the order of these layers. Instead of the oldest soils being on the bottom, they are now on top, exactly contradicting the first law. (Though it is a much slower process, this can happen in geological sites as well due to faulting and folding). Our situation could be even more head-scratchingly confusing, if the original mound-builders excavated their material in a similar fashion, leaving our sediment twice inverted and facing roughly right-side up again, but with half of the archaeostrata upside-down!
- As far as original horizontality is concerned, all bets are off when we are talking about man-made hills. While most things we build are relatively horizontal, they aren’t necessarily deposited that way; it may well be that the builders are filling in ditches, building walls outward, and otherwise making deposits in a non-linear fashion that might heavily compromise our ability to understand stratigraphy within the site. In this case, the whole motivation for taking the mound’s dirt in the first place, aside from clearing space, was to level an uneven surface and raise up certain parts of the property in an attractive architectural fashion.
- Original lateral continuity is still safe to assume, but our site is certainly no longer bounded by the natural restrictions of deposition; our sediments are being physically picked up and carried far beyond the place where they were originally or even secondarily deposited. Geological history is full of blocks of sediment getting carried around by various processes, one of the reasons why this rule was needed in the first place. We need to consider, though, that archaeostrata such as building foundations and mounds are not compelled to follow this rule- they aren’t necessarily horizontal or lateral to one another, and they definitely are not confined by a basin. Because of this, they are going to look and behave differently in a stratigraphic profile.
Does this mean that stratigraphy is not useful in archaeology? Of course not! For one thing, Steno’s laws do hold for the original depositional environment, where the sediments which compose both mounds were formed. This gives us a baseline for comparison when we are trying to interpret what we are looking at. They also give us a hint at what may have happened after the two sites were formed. Just as a geologist knows that a sudden vertical disruption in an otherwise horizontal layer might indicate a fault, an experienced archaeoIogist can look at an exposure and instantly know where the human alterations of that layer (what we call features) are probably located, just by noticing where the horizontal layers have breaks. Even without excavating them and finding out exactly what they are, or seeing something an obvious artifact sticking out, they know that something must have happened in that spot to disrupt the layers. For a contract archaeologist, who very quickly needs to assess a situation while removing as little material as possible, such a tool is invaluable. Indeed, the nature of the mound’s stratigraphy is one reason that the archaeologists assigned to the case know for certain that it is of human origin rather than, as the city claims, a natural feature of some kind.
For the rules of stratigraphy to be useful, though, it is just as important to consider just how much a handful of dedicated humans can do to disrupt an otherwise uncomplicated stratigraphic situation. Even before the advent of bulldozers and earthmovers, we have been remarkably effective re-shapers of the world we live in, and the parts of the world we have occupied longest seem to follow almost a separate set of rules. Learning the rules of human stratigraphy is a critical step toward interpreting site formation, and is the most common application of geological principles to anthropological subjects. This study has had a profound impact on archaeology, but has also impacted the way cultural anthropologists think about landscapes and how humans interact with them generally.
Recently I had the privilege of traveling through the American Southwest with a cadre of geology students from the college where I teach, and I was thinking about this blog as we traveled. It’s hard to see in advance where a long-term project like a blog might end up, and I’ve come up with at least a dozen or so very different ideas about it in the two years or so since the name “Homonculus” popped into my head and demanded recognition. I’ve been wanting to start a general-purpose anthropology blog for some time, but you do need more to go on than just a vague subject if something is going to work. Homonculus is meant as a playground for talking about the ideas that make my discipline compelling to me: learning to interpret humanity from the evidence at hand- evidence that is at once all around us and extremely difficult to synthesize and understand. Anthropology is famous (perhaps infamous at times) for walking the boundary between science and the humanities. This is because it has to. We’re complex creatures, and cannot step outside of the hazy world of subjectivity, because a human being is always a subject. At the same time, an anthropology without science is blind, because any project of understanding humans is inundated with data and assumptions, some of them obviously false and others just plain difficult to puzzle out.
I don’t know if Canyonlands was where everything gelled as such, but it is undeniably where I wrote my first post.
For those who have not been there, Canyonlands National Park is an immense preserve in the heart of the Colorado Plateau in Utah. Among the more recent acquisitions of the National Park system, it consisted and still consists largely of empty space, at its conception in 1964 as now. Even its name suggests this; surely, a “real” place ought to have more than just a geographical summary for a name? Well, it does have names. A long list of them, some in English, some in Numic, some assuredly in forgotten dialects. It is a place with history, and a place of names, familiar to those who love it. But it has never been heavily populated. Mostly dry desert highlands, its only reliable water sources are buried in deep entrenched meanders, which have carved out a complex terrain of incomparable beauty.
The district we traveled to last week is called the Island in the Sky and it’s no misnomer. This corner of the park is accessed from Moab UT, more famous as the gateway to another geological wonderland, Arches National Park. As a visitor drives into the region from the town to the east, they pass right by a massive petroglyph panel. Though appended by modern graffiti, the panel is still in relatively good shape, and though it is not the most well-known rock art gallery in the region, or even the park (that honor goes to Horseshoe Canyon) it records 9,000 years of passage along this obvious corridor. At least five cultures are represented here: the complicated metaphysical diagrams of Archaic era hunters, familiar Ancestral Puebloan glyphs, the trapezoidal human figures of the Fremont culture, more recent contributions of Ute bands, and the most recent layers of all, five-pointed stars and names contributed by modern visitors to the park.
One motif found here, and common to many Southwest sites, is an inscribed human hand. The meaning of these hands, like all rock art symbols, has been hotly debated by archaeologists over the years. A few things are certain: they aren’t all just “signatures”; their placement and frequency, and oral historical accounts, make this unlikely. They are not just hand prints in this case. They are physically chiseled into the stone, at great time expense, and sometimes exceed the anatomical limitations of real hands, with long fingers and skinny palms. Science can take us this far; it is very good at helping us discard false possibilities. But what do they actually mean? There we step out of where science can directly help us, and into the contested space of interpretation. I have heard theories about marks of ownership, symbolic icons to mark the presence of resources, ritual objects connected to rites of passage, entoptic visions (the disconnected images you see when going into a trance or hallucination) and mystical gateways to another world cited as explanations for the hands. I don’t think the case is settled, in any direction.
I was still thinking about the petroglyphs later, when we were at Grandview Point, the southernmost extent of that park district and a place which affords a breathtaking view of the surrounding scenery. The professor in charge of the group set aside a moment from discussing the geological processes and layers that created the landscape around us, to read aloud one of the most famous essays in Southwest literature. It’s actually a chapter from a book, Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey. Abbey was a park ranger at Arches when it was just a national monument; Desert Solitaire doubles as an account of the region, and a lament for the inevitable crowding and erosion that were bound to come with increased access and National Park status. In the chapter we read, “Dead Man at Grandview Point”, Abbey is called out to search for a man who had gone missing without sufficient water some several days before. This is generally a death sentence in the summer, and indeed the man was deceased by the time he found him, perched under a juniper tree at the very place we were standing. Abbey speaks movingly of the man’s last hour, and expresses envy toward the place that the man chose to breath his final breath.
It was strange to hear of someone dying in a place that was so isolated then, but is now a parking lot, a half hour’s drive from what passes for a major town in this part of the world. It only made it stranger that the land which Abbey describes in such loving detail has not changed much at all, not in name or geography, except for one little tendril of highway snaking its way into the park: the road on which we were parked, simultaneously isolate and not. In Canyonlands, you are not ever far from the wilderness, and wildness cannot be far from you.
I thought about the petroglyphs, unnaturally long hands inscribed seemingly indelible into the magnesium coating of a protected alcove, marking… what? A passage to another world beyond and between this one? One of a thousand critical resources that a human being needs to live, and doesn’t realize it until they are slowly dying in a desert garden lacking only this one necessary thing? We know so little about the inner life of the people who on nearly every single rock art panel left at least a single human hand among the animals and plants and stars. Like Abbey and his dead man, I cannot ask my dead people what they thought, or felt, or dreamed. I wouldn’t even presume to try, past a certain point at least. It may not have been anything profound at all, for the artist. People are just people, after all, and though capable of profound wonders, our hopes and dreams are more often pedestrian than deep. Those seeking deeply moving significance in the daily lives of our ancestors might well be disappointed if they could actually speak to them.
I can, though, talk about what things mean to me, now. And for me, the placement of our hands, in among the rocks and stars and animals, is profound indeed. We are always just on the edge of wildness. We are as much a part of nature, and it of us, as any arcane fact of zoology or geology. We are never far from the fate of Abbey’s dying hiker. We are also never far from the seeming immortality claimed by those who left their mark on the rock panel earlier. Here, on the very edge of a wilderness so barren that even those ancestors who knew it best ventured into it only occasionally, it is easier to remember these things.
We never have quite all the pieces, not in anthropology or archaeology. The more you explore a “human question”, the more complex and variable it appears, and it is all too easy to miss the critical piece that could have made it all make sense. Sometimes that piece is missing altogether, erased by time and erosion beyond all recollection. But I do feel that the endeavor is worthwhile. If a dead hand on a wall on a cliff in a remote desert wilderness can teach me something about the intrinsic nature of our species, what more can we glean from the whole account of human life, one million years in the making? In among the rocks and the stars and the accounts of my living companions- even among the unanswered questions that may never be answered- there are the hints and clues that will be used to tell the story of humanity to the next generation. It’s why I study, and it’s why I teach, and I hope with Homonculus to reflect in moments of lucidity the nature of the humanity that I am finding in our very busy world.