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August 20, 2019

Wow, it has been one month and 20 days since I last posted a journal entry, and so much has happened!

Olduvai Gorge

I attended the 2019 TOPP Paleoanthropology Field School along with one other student from UNCG, one canadian student, two other American students, and three Tanzanian students. It was an incredible collection of unique experiences, and I don't know how I can possibly do it justice here.

I'm just going to mention connections to topics that belong on this website (to avoid being needlessly long-winded). Rest assured, I could talk for hours about every detail of the trip!

The Maasai

/media/Maasai_Warrior.JPG A Warrior relaxes on a hot afternoon in Olduvai Gorge

It would be impossible to talk about any trip to Tanzania without mentioning the Maasai. People from the massive tribe were ever-present, from when our Land Rover first pulled out of the Kilimanjaro airport to almost every hour spent in the field.

If I had to summarize my impression of the Maasai people, I'd say that they are crafty and resilient. Having not only found an ecological niche as pastoralists, they've managed to secure a cultural niche in this modernizing, globally connected world. While many indigenous groups around the world are essentially becoming extinct, the Maasai have learned to thrive. The combination of their distinctive culture and dress, and their proximity to world-renowned national parks have given them the role of an accessable cultural novelty. Shrewd, natural businessmen (and women), they've capitalized on this. Since their mostly-desert habitat is unfit for agriculture, the Tanzanian government has only gently incentivized them to give up their lifestyle, and international scrutiny also protects them from reeducation camps and their ilk (looking at you, 19th-century United States). TOPP employs Maasai men as guards at the camp and as workers at some of the archeological sites; near our camp is a clique of women who offer handmade souvenirs and take care of their babies; and everywhere are Maasai who have assimilated to some degree and work as drivers, guards, or in other positions.

But is everything good in this corner of the great continent of Africa? In a world obsessed with human rights and dignity, the Maasai represent a troublesome inconsistency for Liberals. Cultural practices like emorata have adament defenders and critics, for instance, but ignoring that controversial public health issue, there are still some hard questions.

Anthropology is obsessed with cultural and moral relativism, so it felt at times like my minor left me unprepared to deal with the reality of Africa in a healthy way. At two of the digs, small groups of Maasai children would come by each day to watch us and to beg for food and water (they usually got some). The liberal in me flames up: "These children are hungry! They are living in poverty, and they will never learn to read or write!" The anthropologist fires back: "They don't want to leave! They don't want to go to school (one of our drivers told us this after chatting with some Maasai boys). They are Maasai! For them, this is normal, and they certainly don't want to become like you." Which instinct is right?

I remember asking my dad when I was a child about deer hunting season. He calmly explained to me that allowing humans to take the place of natural predators (which don't exist where I'm from) during some parts of the year help prevent mass starvation. An adament pacifist might criticize our unnecessary tradition of shooting deer for sport, but every honest pacifist would probably rather be shot than starve to death.

But in large cities, it's in vogue refuse to give money to panhandlers, and instead offer politely to buy the person a sandwich, or share some of your leftovers. The reasoning is that you are statistically likely to be supporting a drug habit and doing little to help the person leave their current situation if you give them money, whereas giving them food just helps them get through another day. But if you feed them, are you also reinforcing their predicament?

/media/flat_tire.jpg A dismayed look after blowing a tire on the way back from an excursion

Our field doctor has limited resources out in the desert, but while she's not assisting field personnel, her and a staff member (Dr. Agness Gidna from the National Museum of Tanzania) occasionally help local Maasai people. I remember one interaction where a woman with cataracts requested medicine (a young man translated for her). Medicine, of course, doesn't exist for treating cataracts. The only treatment is surgery, so the woman would have needed to visit a hospital, which may have been out of her family's reach. After ~15 minutes of explaining and urging, she walked away with some Ibuprofen.


Underpinning my experience was a recently renewed interest in *S*cience, along with a growing skepticism of and disillusionment with soft sciences and the humanities. Despite my misgivings about Anthropology in particular, I found the TOPP researchers (including Charles Egeland (my professor from UNCG) and Cynthia Fadem from Earlham College) to be rigorous and deeply invested in scientific excellence.

<<fit>> /media/shifting_sands_1.JPG The 2016 marker for Shifting Sands, with the dune visible in the distance

/media/shifting_sands_2.jpg A panorama of OT1, the site of an ongoing taphonomy survey. Shifting Sands is again visible on the right

I do have one pet peeve: An oft-repeated justification for Paleoanthropology is that we need to "understand the past to better prepare for the future", or the even more ludicrous "we can learn from how our ancestors reacted to changes in climate to help with current climate change". I was taught this reasoning as fact in two of my Anthopology classes at UNCG, and heard it repeated again by Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo while being interviewed for Tanzanian national TV. It's a highly questionable talking point that does more harm than good.


My fingers are getting tired… I'll wrap this up. In the coming weeks I'll be continuing work on my URCA project with Charles Egeland from UNCG. We now have a concrete plan and I hope to finish a demo application over the next month and a half. As usual, there are two hard things about designing the program.


The Night Watch

To Wash It All Away

James Mickens' AMA on Reddit

How big a deal was the Industrial Revolution?

Software Complexity Is Killing Us

The Bugs in Our Mindware

The Trouble With Scientists

Scrolling with pleasure

Psychology's Replication Crisis Is Running Out of Excuses