A frequent commentary chronicling the creative and intellectual
excitement of discovery at Washington State University.

Brought to you by Washington State Magazine

Archive for the ‘Anthropology’ Category

Archiving, on their own terms

Back in 2002, Kimberly Christen took a dissertation research trip to the newly opened Darwin branch of the National Archives of Australia.

She saw troves of cultural artifacts — baskets, photos, music recordings and more, including many from the Warumungu Aboriginal community she had been working with since 1995.

The indigenous tribe had little to no access to the materials housed in the faraway archives, open to the public, seen by whomever.

Moreover, if they viewed the archives, there were items they just didn’t want to see.

A slide made by Kimberly Christen shows ways that indigenous artifacts and stories have been handled.

In their culture, as in many indigenous communities, the public exhibits violated their cultural protocols. For example, the Warumungu people do not want to see images of dead relatives. Some items are appropriate only for male or female viewers, while others might be limited by viewers’ age or sacred status within the community.

The Warumungu wanted to view their materials on their own terms.

Over time, Christen, a cultural anthropologist and assistant professor in the Washington State University Department of Comparative Ethnic Studies, began researching ways to create a separate digital archive for the community. The archive would include all of the materials from the museum, but within the software, viewing is restricted along culturally appropriate lines. The two archives are kept separate, so Warumungu people can have their own version aside from the public version.

This is all part of the greater trend of repatriation and bringing back in indigenous voices to tell their own stories, she says. It began in the early ‘90s, when museums were ordered to start giving human remains back to their original tribes. Christen has taken that idea and applied it to a new corner of archival work.

“Digital repatriation has taken off,” she says.

The project launched in 2007, and shortly thereafter, indigenous communities from all over the globe began requesting their own version.

In March, Christen received a $49,606 Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to create a free, open-source software that would work for everyone.

For Christen, such archives aren’t about “correcting” or rewriting the record. It’s expanding the record to include the native experience. It’s history with a conscious, she says.

“These materials are theirs … we took this stuff,” she says. (more…)

The 2,000 Year Old Bird

In 1972, Bill Lipe spent several days digging through ancient trash in an archaeological dig in southeastern Utah. Among the junk were coprolites, very old, very dry turkey droppings.

Lipe took the trove back to his job at the Museum of Northern Arizona, then to Washington State University, where he is now a professor of anthropology. In 2008, molecular biologist Brian Kemp came to the Pullman campus to set up a specialized lab capable of analyzing ancient DNA. It turns out that Lipe’s ancient poop contained DNA of one of North America’s earliest examples of domesticated birds.

This image of what is believed to be a turkey was found on ancient pottery in the Mimbres Valley of New Mexico, suggesting how central the birds were to prehistoric peoples of the Southwest. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, from "Designs on Prehistoric Pottery from the Mimbres Valley, New Mexico" by J. Walter Fewkes(SI, 1923).

The WSU anthropologists, who worked with colleagues at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, say the turkeys raised by people in the Southwest were genetically distinct from previously known domesticated turkeys in Mexico.

“We can now say this is the first bird domesticated in what is now the United States,” says Kemp, who helped analyze the mitochondrial DNA of the earliest examples—some dating to 100 BC.

“It highlights the importance of curation,” he says. “We can say, ‘Why do we have this old crap lying around?’ and somebody might say, ‘Why do we spend so much money curating a bag of crap?’ Well, because we have no idea what we’re going to be able to learn from that.”

The research shows that many early Native American groups across the Southwest raised turkeys with genetic signatures distinct from turkeys domesticated in pre-historic Mexico.

The fact that the Southwest domesticated turkeys go back at least 2,000 years is testimony to the persistent innovation of Homo sapiens, says Kemp.

“It speaks to the resourcefulness of prehistoric peoples, our species,” he said. “We are really, really good at taming nature. We see it independently done by different people all over the world at different times.”

For more on Kemp and Lipe’s research, visit Washington State Magazine.

For more on the PNAS paper, visit Discovery News.

And the Los Angeles Times has a nice take on the work.