Tag Archives: anthropology

Manifest Destiny: Colonialism, Archaeology, and…Video Games?

You are the monster.

In her brilliant Story Collider podcast, Uzma Rizvi perfectly captures the rupture of graduate school, when, as she states, it becomes obvious that archaeology is “a colonial, racist, epistemically unjust system of knowledge production” and you ask yourself “how did I get here?” It is a question that archaeologists should be asking themselves every day. How did I get here? And how do I proceed?

It’s a bit of a wobbly path–unstable, uncertain, PROCEED WITH CAUTION black & yellow tape dangling in the wind. And yet, as cautious and de-centering and as sensitive as you can be, you are, often, still the monster. You are investigating the remains of the past, sometimes in another country, sometimes in your back yard, and you are navigating through your own cultural perceptions and the colonialist, racist foundations of your discipline to tell a story that might or might not be “true” or even important. This instability, I think, makes a lot of archaeologists & heritage scholars actually hate archaeology. It is actually not an entirely irrational decision, but I can’t agree. It’s too important.

It’s important that there are archaeologists who carry around the millstones of our own discipline’s past, that we have critical self-awareness and continue to engage anyway. It is our challenge to confront these disciplinary monsters and come away humbled yet still persistent. Because we need to continue to intervene in grandiose narratives, to rub dirt and stone and rubbish into histories that exclude women, indigenous people, people of color, the poor, the “othered” and to remove the props that hold up the crap politicians and power structures who use the past to justify present oppression.

And…guess what? The magical thing is that we can do this through traditional & alternative venues of publication, teaching, public outreach and…video games!

Manifest Destiny is an entry into Ludum Dare, a regular online video game jam wherein participants take on a challenge to create a game alone or with a team in 72 hours. Go ahead, fire it up and have a play and then come back.

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This entry was made by Tara Copplestone and Matt Sanders and is described as “a ‘hack n slash’ with a twist.” The name, Manifest Destiny, is an expansionist impulse to conquer, to colonize, one that is associated with the spread of white settlers across the continental United States in the 19th century.

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You are a towering figure with a cape, crushing tiny people and structures in your path, getting more points for your efficient destruction. And you have a trail of blood behind you. Sounds pretty accurate, right?

The game goes through four levels with different reconstructed cartoon landscapes, each corresponding to a season. You gain points and you gain dominion, partly represented by the devil horns that point out of your head. You also destroy structures and people with death spikes that come out of the ground. It’s not terribly subtle, but neither was Columbus.

Manifest Destiny is an incredibly detailed game for a 72 hour game jam. The music, upbeat but still slightly sinister, turns dire when you find out the truth of it all.

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I tried to play the game a few different ways. Yes, first I blew up all of the structures and people, then I tried just exploring without destruction. Finally I just stood there, and waited through the levels. The result was the same. In this last play-through where I stood and didn’t do anything, I noticed that the small people were at first running toward you, then milling around, then finally would run away from you.

The result is the same in each case–perhaps the only way to win is not to play at all. Though this message might have been reinforced by a different result if the character just choose to do nothing.

A “Learn More” button on the final screen points toward the EUROTAST webpage, which is a slightly unwieldy match, though appreciated. It did make me think that we need more in-depth online resources that are easy to point to that are arranged around current issues. What does archaeology have to teach us about state oppression? What does anthropological study have to say about forms of marriage?

Manifest Destiny is a creative, appreciated intervention that explores game conventions to highlight historic injustices.


As part of my postdoc, I’ve been making short videos highlighting the research of the PhD fellows associated with EUROTAST. These are mixtures of footage that was shot previously, my own footage, and Creative Commons found footage.

They have been a challenge to make. Finding the proper visuals and music to accompany the incredibly sensitive research on genetics, identity and the difficult heritage of the Transatlantic Slave Trade has made the creative process much slower and considered than usual.

Still, I’m relatively pleased with how they’ve come out, considering they’re such a mixture of visual and audio resources.

The several I’ve made so far feature an anthropologist, an historical archaeologist, a molecular archaeologist, and an archaeologist-turned-historian. I went for the most visual research first. We’ll see how I handle the more conceptual PhD research of the mathematicians, geneticists, and computer scientists!

The African Muslim Fist-Bump

"Fist bump" by Indy Trendy Skits on Flickr

“Fist bump” by Brady Tulk on Flickr

(filed under cultural marginalia)

It was something that I had become accustomed to, a process of acculturation.

Meeting people in the Gulf and the Middle East was always a bit of a negotiated process. As I have mentioned before, while it is a truism that white women are to be treated as men, we inhabit a third gender, which we negotiate on a daily basis. Though my husband can expect a hearty handshake, a slap on the back, a hug, touching noses, or even, in the case of a man at a Syrian gas station, a rather rigorous attempt to crack his back, when I meet men, touching for a handshake is a complex, political process.

It is awkward the first few times it happens, when the glad-handed American thrusts her hand out in front of her, self-assured, flashing a smile, and this is met with a grimaced wince and a slow, reluctant hand limply meeting her own. I knew vaguely about the various prohibitions in Islam against touching women before praying, touching them with your hands, and so on, but it can be a hard habit to unlearn for someone trying to be polite.

So over the years I’ve congratulated myself for becoming more appropriate, more circumspect. When I meet Muslim men I put my hand over my heart, thus removing the necessity for them to decide to be “rude” and pious or  “worldly” and accommodating. After a time, I became unused to casual contact in the street–crowds would part in front of me, lest they touch me by accident and have to undergo purification–wudhu–again. But I could not become entirely inured to this process. Every once in a while, I would touch my hand to my heart (I’m so culturally sensitive!) and the man would thrust his hand out in front of me, insisting that I shake it. His cultural sensitivity would contest mine, and I would, of course, shake his hand.

In April I went to Africa for the first time, to the EUROTAST meetings in Ghana and Senegal. My excitement did not really register until I looked out of the plane window and saw the ragged line between deep blue ocean and the vast, tawny Sahara. In Senegal we spent most of our time in meetings on Goreé Island, a heterotopia of its own, but afterwards Dan and I headed south for a couple of days, to a crazy little community on the beach. Senegal is primarily Muslim, and felt more familiar to me than Ghana, even though people spoke English in Ghana and French in Senegal.

We were chatting to a man next to a wall who was fingering a misbaha, a string of prayer beads. He gave Dan a fierce handshake (there is the handshake-snap in Ghana, but that is a whole other thing). I was in mid-motion, putting my hand up to touch my chest, when he held out a fist to me. I probably looked at it quizzically, because he shook the beads in his other hand and explained, “you know, because I’m praying.” So I bumped his fist and he seemed satisfied. I was surprised and then delighted at this new (to me) variation of etiquette. Using the outer surface of the hand makes it okay to touch white ladies with while praying, so, the fist-bump. Okay. Got it.

The fist-bump is not rare in West Africa, nor is it a strictly Muslim practice; in Ghana there was a lot of fist-bumping, but it seemed on a more casual basis than a handshake. And that is how I coded it, a less-formal, “hip” gesture of friendship/encouragement. Since the famously infamous Obama “terrorist fist jab,” a few popular accounts traced the fist-bump to sports and it has been endorsed by doctors as being more hygienic. The fist bump is also briefly cited an example of “emergent culture” by Martin Ortlieb.

In Senegal, under a bright, yellowy sun and next to a whitewashed & peeling mosque, I found a slightly different version of the fist bump. Emergent or no, individual quirk or no, I loved to see it incorporated into a system of beliefs that dictate how and when it is appropriate to touch someone.

New Words Needed for Emerging Social Behaviors


Automatic? by Gregory P. Smith

That long pause when you expect automation and then realize that you have to manually work the faucet or hand dryer.

When people are clustered together looking at a computer screen and the person at the keyboard has to type a password and everyone looks away to give the person “privacy.”

Asking permission to smoke an e-cigarette inside.

Ambiguity not conveyed by the range within “like.”

Mount Everest and Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake


It was probably the old-timey packaging that attracted my attention. Nestled in-between the CLIF and LUNA energy bars was a slim, indigo blue wrapper that would not have been out of place on old money, or a commemorative plate. On the back was this legend:

Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake was the first Mint Cake to be successfully carried to the top of MOUNT EVEREST on 29th May 1953 this being the first successful expedition to the summit.
Romney’s were approached by the 1953 expedition to Everest, to see whether they could supply Mint Cake to them within 7 days. Sir Edmund Hilary and Sirdar Tensing ate this Mint Cake on top of Everest as they gazed at the countryside far below them. Since then Kendal Mint Cake has become a firm favourite with hikers, climbers and visitors to the Lake District.
A member of the successful Everest Expedition wrote- “It was easily the most popular item on our high altitude ration – our only criticism was that we did not have enough of it.”

The sixtieth anniversary of Hilary and Tenzing’s successful ascent passed last May, with the requisite press flurry. I am not a mountain climber, much beyond the easiest of the 14ers in Colorado, but Mount Everest has held my interest for years. It is a site of difficult, controversial heritage, and the assemblage that is left on the mountain each year is a fascinating array of technical multicultural detritus and human remains. The narrative around Mount Everest has changed from fearless mountaineering with a heavy overlay of nostalgia to that of egotism, recklessness, and exploitation of the sherpas and the environment.

Each summer there are stories of crowded summits and vainglory; from the 1996 disaster wherein 15 people died while summiting to 2006 when dozens of people passed David Sharp, a British climber who lay dying beside the trail and the previously deceased who had become trail markers, dictated by their distinguishing features. The cold, dry clime of Mt. Everest preserves all of the garbage and corpses, and at one point there were over 200 bodies on the mountain.

Mount Everest has been steeped in colonial overtones since the British access to the mountain was secured in 1904 by Francis Younghusband’s attack on Tibetan peasants, clearing the way. Younghusband was then put in charge of the early mountaineering expeditions, who situated climbing Everest as an extravagantly useless activity. He remarked, “If I am asked what is the use of climbing this highest mountain, I reply, No use at all: no more use than kicking a football about, or dancing, or playing the piano, or writing a poem or painting a picture.” Mountaineering was a patriotic mission to improve British morale.

As Mazzolini writes, an important part of maintaining Britishness at Mount Everest was choosing identity-affirming foods. In the 1920s, meals eaten at high altitudes included quails packed with truffles and champagne, marking the expeditions as a gentlemen’s pursuit. On his 1922 reconnaissance, Mallory noted that there was an abundance of cheese, tinned food of all sorts, and they were “never short of jam and chocolate.”

The shift from luxury to efficacy came between the 1920s and 1930s, when expeditions led by Tilman dined on pemmican (dried beef and fat) with sugar and dried fruit. The climbing body was reconceptualized, says Elizabeth Mazzolini, from an expression of imperialist aesthetics to a machine without excessive concern for pleasure or comfort. This was problematic though, as at altitudes over 22,000 feet eating becomes an unpleasant assignment–diminished appetite, nausea and vomiting are common. Food that was merely monotonous before becomes unimaginable.

In this context, Hilary and Tensing brought Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake along for their successful summit in 1953. Romney’s Kendal Mint Cakes are a mixture of glucose, sugar, peppermint oil and water and were issued as rations on several expeditions. I bit off a small corner of the one that I bought and suffered from near immediate sugar-shock. A bit like a hard York peppermint patty, it was easily the sweetest thing I’ve ever tasted.

The packaging of Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake explicitly ties the summiting of Mount Everest to Britishness, equating eating the sweet on the summit with hikers, climbers and visitors to the Lake District in the quote on the back of the package. On the front is an interesting hierarchy that provides the context for Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake–the outer two images feature English natural heritage in the form of Windermere and Derwentwater, the former is the largest natural lake in England and the latter is on of the principal bodies of water in the Lake District. The next two images feature cultural heritage–Romney House Kendal, a listed building that was build in the early to mid 18th century and the Kendal Castle Ruins, a 12th century castle that was the home of the Lancaster family. Finally, in the center, George Romney, a popular English portrait painter (who is indeed related to Mitt Romney). The mint cake came from a company founded by Sam T. Clarke, who merely named his wholesale business after George Romney; the painter did not invent the mint cake.

The Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake website offers an interesting additional note–according to them, Tenzing Norgay left one of the cakes up on top of the summit “to appease his gods.” If true, Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake also has the honor of being one of the first bits of garbage left on the summit. Food of the gods, indeed.

There are efforts to clean up Mount Everest every year, with an average of 50 tons of discarded climbing gear, human excrement, oxygen tanks, and dead bodies coming off the mountain. As Mazzolini notes, the news always lumps the categories together, corpses and discarded mountaineering gear. The failures, the people who did not make it down the mountain, are unimportant–their bodies could not match their hubris.

Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake packaging provides an ideological link to climbing Mount Everest and portrays it as a quintessentially British triumph, one that can be cited on perhaps lesser adventures around the Lake District. Mount Everest remains a contentious place, where dead bodies are discarded like garbage, where $65,000 buys you a place in line to the roof of the world, and crass individualism is indistinguishable from sublime achievement.

Elizabeth Mazzolini (2010). Food, Waste, and Judgment on Mount Everest Cultural Critique, 76, 1-27 : 10.1353/cul.2010.0013

Participate, Make, Share – My 2013 Commencement Speech


Me and my amazing mother, Elizabeth Kelly.

I chose to be the graduate student speaker at the UC Berkeley 2013 commencement ceremony. It was a difficult audience to write for–I probably should have just copied Neil Gaiman’s keynote from last year and called it a day. I’m a little ambivalent about how the speech turned out, but people seemed to enjoy it. Anyway, here it is:

In the years before I had the opportunity to stand in front of you in these fancy robes, I was one of the graduate student volunteers that helped out during commencement. After grading exams, teaching, securing funding, conducting research and finding time to write, graduate students are called on to help our fantastic staff today. When I volunteered during commencement, I selfishly went for the best job…the person who stands just behind and to the side of the esteemed chair of the department. This person hands the scrolls to the chair, but as I discovered, they have an extraordinary insight into the commencement ceremony.

What this person sees is your face as you achieve an epic win.

Jane McGonigal, famous game theorist, humanitarian and UC Berkeley PhD, class of 2006), describes an “epic win” as an “outcome that is so extraordinarily positive that you had no idea that it was even possible and that when you achieve it you are shocked to discover that you are actually capable of such a thing.” The facial expression is singular: joy, fulfillment, attainment of a goal, perhaps a little bit of disbelief and shock.

After several years of basking in the glow of the achievements of both my fellow graduate students and the amazing anthropology undergrads I taught…now I get to join you.

But I have to admit that I am greedy. I want that job again. I am excited by the potential to enact change in the world, but moreso by the potential of seeing other people achieve their own aspirations.

Accordingly, my dissertation research was shaped by three principles: Participate. Make. Share.

In anthropology we learn about the breadth and diversity of human experience and in my sub-specialty in archaeology, we acquire knowledge about this human experience through material culture. Our education is one of discerning patterns and difference, specifically, we learn how to see. My advisor Ruth Tringham would surely protest–we learn about the past through all of our senses, she would say. We touch the edges of still-sharp obsidian, we smell the dank interiors of caves, we hear the rasp of dirt beneath our trowels and the dull and hollow rattle that marks a grave. Still, this experience, this way of seeing requires your attention and participation.

And that is the first principle that I learned during my studies at UC Berkeley–your full participation is required. No half-measures. Learn and live with both hands.

The second principle is to make things. This may seem like a strange imperative coming from an archaeologist–great, now we have even more material culture to study–but making mudbricks at the San Francisco Presidio on a particularly chilly morning, trying to get the straw-to water-to horsehair-to mud ratio correct, hefting them, slapping the bricks together into a wall, and watching the mudbricks melt in the ubiquitous Bay Area fog gave me particular, if unflattering insights into the early architecture of the colonizers in the area. Making ethnographic movies taught me how to watch regular movies…and commercials and Youtube clips. Always always try it yourself. As part of the outreach program mandatory for Berkeley archaeology graduate students, I developed this mudbrick-making into an exercise for 10-year-olds visiting the Presidio and saw them Get It–that elusive link to the past that we archaeologists take for granted.

This dovetails nicely into the final principle, which is to share. It is not enough to participate, it is not enough to make things, these things (and the insights gleaned from them) must be shared whenever possible. The default should be to share. The production of knowledge about humans is for everyone, and should be made available to everyone. Enter your ideas into the commons, publish your own book, and push to make academic journals open access. Though the process is terrifying as a junior academic, it is not only vital for the survival of our field, but imperative that we communicate our knowledge of the diversity of human experience in the face of suffering and violence enacted against alternate ways of life.

What I saw as I stood behind the chair of anthropology and what I am seeing today is the realization of years of effort that resulted in a fantastic, transcendent moment. What I ask of you today is to now work toward the next epic win. Participate, make things, and share.

Thank you.


Post-Apocalyptic Foodways: the Archaeological and Ethnographic Evidence


Starvation, by Gwen Boul.

Popular television and movies like The Walking Dead, I Am Legend and other post-apocalyptic dramas are usually framed in the modern day or near-future, with the characters battling the odds to stay alive in radically changed living conditions. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road followed characters walking through a nightmare landscape, where people turned to scavenging, brutality, and cannibalism to survive.

But how do humans actually cope with extreme conditions of scarcity and stress? Shanti Morell-Hart’s article, Foodways and Resilience under Apocalyptic Conditions, examines ethnographic examples in conjunction with the archaeological record to investigate “collapse” narratives in human history. The social and physiological effects of starvation are more complex than previously imagined and reactions to starving can result in some incredibly diverse strategies for survival. Foraging and gleaning are documented during famines in Ireland, Russia, Sudan, and China, among many examples, and sometimes this foraging becomes emigration. Property boundaries are defended and social structures, such as respect for elite status, can change rapidly. Finally, the stage of exhaustion wherein people first compete with fellow family members or huddle together, inactive. Morell-Hart illustrates this with a brilliant quote from Pendergast, describing a famine and plague in 1652:

Ireland … now lay void as a wilderness. Five-sixths of her people had perished. Women and children were found daily perishing in ditches, starved. The bodies of many wandering orphans whose fathers had embarked for Spain and whose mothers had died were preyed upon by wolves. In the years 1652 and 1653 the plague and famine had swept away whole counties, that a man might travel twenty or thirty miles and not see a living creature.

Physiological signs of starvation can be seen archaeologically in skeletal remains including hypoplasias (underdevelopment of bones and teeth) and stunted growth, but this is well-known. The question is, how do we see signs of coping with this famine? Morell-Hart tracks redefinitions of foodways, including substituting one kind of food (or food-like substance) for one eaten more traditionally or transforming objects that were previously thought of as inedible to potentially edible food.

There are well-known examples of this transition including eating shoe leather or in extreme examples, cannibalism. Morell-Hart finds it curious that the “popular imagination most readily turns to cannibalism” but most examples of cannibalism “appear to have much more to do with the symbolic aspects of this practice rather than the nutritional.” There is some slippage between what we would think of practical and symbolic eating that may have started in response to a famine but then persisted, the famine response having fundamentally altered the foodways of the group.

One of the more striking ethnographic examples that Morell-Hart cites is second harvest and maroma practiced by some of the Cochimí peoples in Baja California. Second harvest involved scavenging undigested seeds from excrement, cleaning and roasting the seeds, then eating them again. Maroma involved “trying a bit of meat to a piece of string, passing the bit from person to person to swallow, and them immediately extracting the swallowed bit with the string to distribute the digestion of the meat.”

Looking toward the ethnographic and archaeological record further reinforces the incredible diversity and adaptability of humans to survive. Indeed, Morell-Hart finds that “rigidity of food paradigms has led to death, in some cases” when populations “struggled with rationed relief foodstuffs because they were unfamiliar.” Archaeology combined with ethnographic studies can contribute to our understanding of how humans respond to famine and how we reconfigure ideas about food in the long term, and allow us to better respond to food shortage crises around the world.

Morell-Hart, S. (2012). Foodways and Resilience under Apocalyptic Conditions Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment, 34 (2), 161-171 DOI: 10.1111/j.2153-9561.2012.01075.x