My Top 11 Favorite Anthropology Topics
I started with archaeology and come back to it every time. If I weren’t a writer, I’d be at a dig site, buried in dirt up to my elbows…and I might still do this. Archaeology rocks (pun intended) because you get to ask questions and touch artefacts that people used – as an archaeologist, you’re the link between cultures long gone and the people today. You get to help people understand that our human lineage is vastly diverse – and that people in the past were adaptive, creative, and intelligent. As an anthropologist, I see the world as we do – with individual cultures and perspectives, but I also see the grander total of who we are and the deep past we share. We are so much more than what we think. I’m not just “Darlene – Irish-British-German-American, daughter of immigrants;” I’m also “Darlene – human – homo sapiens sapiens, child of a massive lineage including people who built the Pyramids, who cultivated tea, and who touched the moon.” How cool is that?
I chose dirt over water simply because sharks don’t live in tombs…and underwater archaeology is the most expensive field you can get into. Would it be cool to dig and find pirate treasure? Sure, but I can do that on land, too.
Disaster and Recovery
Some people may think this is a bit morbid, but one of the most interesting research topics is disaster. Catastrophes have a way of bringing out the best and worst in humanity – and we can learn so much by studying them…and try to make sure that the impacts of future disasters are mitigated. For more information on this, check out Catastrophe & Culture: the Anthropology of Disaster, edited by Susanna M. Hoffman and Anthony Oliver-Smith from the School of American Research Advanced Seminar Series.
Out of all the ancient civilizations, the Sumerians were the most interesting. Sumerians invented writing. They started tallying their goods on clay bullae – and from the humble beginnings grew everything you’ve ever read or wrote. This is the place where our concept of civilization began.
I’ve written whole papers on this topic. And I’m pitching them to publications now.
The single question I still haven’t answered from my childhood research lies below the Sphynx. There’s a chamber that Egyptologist (Egyptian archaeologist) Zahi Hawass and others have looked into…and no one has solved it yet. What is the chamber under the Sphynx? Is it a burial chamber, a preparation area, or what? Inquiring minds still want to know. One of the biggest things that makes archaeologists angry is when people destroy cultural finds…and over the last few years this has been happening in Egypt and other places. As writers, this is good information for novel fodder – if you want to break an archaeologist’s heart and get them worked up, have someone loot a museum. Then you can bring in a specialist and work with international organizations and find the goods…and save the day and unite the romance leads in the book…go ahead, we could all write a version of this and not have the same thing. Run with it.
Ancient North America & Hunter/Gatherers
Oh, the simpler (more dangerous) times.
Want a fabulous culture to explore with mythos, diverse sides, several periods to explore, and a historical setting that is one of the best? Take your characters in time or space to a culture similar to Ancient Greece. There’s nothing like it – and they saved a lot of human culture over the years. Between the Greeks and the Egyptians, they pretty much saved a lot of historical records when Europe was in the Dark Ages. I bet there are still caches of knowledge – books, papyrus, or more – in both places.
Lithics and Stone Tools
One of the coolest things that ever happened in an anthropology class happened in archaeology. Want to create someone who is totally amazing and will wow the students? Create an archaeologist who flint knaps. Here’s a link: http://www.wildernesscollege.com/making-arrowheads.html. I’m not kidding when I say this is one of the coolest things ever – one three-hour class made me want to skip out and drive over two hundred miles to fetch a bucket of special rocks. This is the allure of the dirt…and your archaeologists will never have clean hands – unless they’re attending a function and trying to impress patrons (and even then it will only last until they dig the next day). I have yet to meet an archaeologist who keeps nails painted for more than a day – most don’t bother.
Biological archaeology – bones bones bones
You knew it was going to come up. My favorite room in any anthropology building is the basement lab at PLU. I created a similar room for my novel. Here is the perspective Gaea took on it:
Zavier was a three-story brick building built in 1937 and rebuilt after the tsunami. My haven was the basement anthropology lab that covered half the floor with ten rectangular tables arranged in a horseshoe around Dr. J’s desk at the front of the room. Two chairs sat at each table. Floor-to-ceiling metal cabinets were stacked with boxes to the brim. When I had extra time, I cataloged the items for Dr. J.
The wall opposite the door held massive wood cabinets with roll-out drawers from floor to ceiling and two glass cabinets. Inside the first cabinet were Native American artifacts gifted to the department. The glass cabinet next to it was the reason most people avoided the room and a few were attracted to it—the cabinet of skulls from Australopithecus afarensis to Homo sapiens. Skulls were cool! Where else were you going to see not only what we’re made of, but how? I’m talking Darwinian evolution here—it’s the coolest thing ever. Dr. J. dug all over the world, but before I knew her she was an Archaeologist specializing in Ancient Greece and Ancient North America.
I loved the room because of the cabinet’s contents. The skulls were from Physical Anthropology 101. The plaster copies of real skulls were created for study and given to the department ages ago. The first was A. africanus, found in Laetoli, Tanzania, the maker of the Laetoli footprints and the one they call Lucy, the most famous skeleton anywhere, with broad cheeks, huge eye sockets and brow ridges, and a small skull. A. aethiopicus followed, from Ethiopia, with wide cheek bones and smaller brow ridges than afarensis; the main difference was the sagittal crest—a large Mohawk ridge on his head. Pieces from A. gardhi and A boisei kept each other company—neither was a full skull. A. robustus had smaller eye sockets and brow ridges, a bit of a sagittal crest, but a less wide face and smaller nose cavity. Homo rudolfensis followed, the first who kind of looked like a human skull if you squinted. H. habilis, aptly named the “tool maker” was next, followed by H. ergaster. H. erectus followed, the first hominid to use fire and the guy who left Africa. Then came H. neanderthalensis—short, stalky humanoids who buried their dead and used tools which showed how sophisticated they were. Next on the shelf was Homo sapiens, the first of the modern humans who roamed from 1 million to about 100,000 years ago, and then the Homo sapiens sapiens, modern humans. Next to the modern human skull sat a Gorilla skull for comparison. Through the glass-front case, I saw him past my reflection. I was totally not a Pan.
Two full skeletons stood in front of the cabinet, waiting to greet the students. The male wore a bow tie and fez and the woman wore a bracelet of gardenias and a gold and black woven lei. At the back of the room was a bank of airscreens and behind everything, a solid row of bookcases rimmed the room. A few computers from the last century sat in a cardboard box with other antiques. The Divanitnum Project
Concept of Deep Past
I mentioned this briefly above, but it can’t be understated – our human lineage is more diverse and interesting than most people give us credit for. I’ve heard it in many ways, but the one I react to the worst is “stupid ancestor.” People think that just because a person is a hunter-gatherer or lived a long time ago, they didn’t have as much intelligence, passion, or heart as we do now. That’s a deadly mistake. Especially if you’re character is a person who travels to another country or planet. Literature is riddled with people who “stepped in” the same fallacy of reasoning – and paid the price. If you learn one thing from this, please let it be this: people in the past were smart. They created everything from art to literature. Give them the respect they’re due.