Biittner’s Book Reviews: Here by Richard McGuire

Sit back in your chair a second, I’d like to try something with you.

Take a look around the space you are in. Really observe it closely. Mark what occupies, what shares the same space as you. Feel the movement of air or lack thereof. Are you warm? Are you cold? Once you feel like you know and have experienced your space I want you to close your eyes for one minute (don’t cheat) then resume reading.

So one minute passed while your eyes were closed and the seconds continue to mark the passage of time as you read these words. Look around the space again and see if you can identify if and how it changed in those sixty seconds.

Now get ready to close your eyes again; when you do I want you now to try to picture that same space but imagine that someone hit the rewind button. What did that space look like one, ten, one hundred, one thousand, one hundred thousand years ago?

Can you do it? Can you see in your mind’s eye time reversing? Can you visualize the transformation of place over time?

HereHere, a graphic novel by Richard McGuire, represents a similar thought exercise in that it presents on each and every two page layout a single, specific place with a date; every two page panel represents the same place, “here”. Through reading Here we see the transformation of a single space into place over time. On some pages this main panel has one or more smaller inset panels, which also have a date. The panels are not arranged chronologically – one larger two page spread may represent a loud house party in the living room of a house in 2008 with smaller inset panels of a single child with a balloon from 1958 and a deer frolicking in the woods in 1858, then on the next page the full panel takes us back thousands of years when the same space was just forest but the panel of the child from 1958 remains having moved forward just a few seconds to when the child has lost their grasp on the balloon and it slowly floats away. As time is not linear in the novel, you’ll find yourself flipping back and forth through the novel – is the child who loses the balloon in 1958 the elderly couch sitter of 2008? It is!? So the child chasing the cat must be their…and so on – we read ahead then flip back tracing and reconstructing the lives of the people who lived in and constructed that place.

It is a lovely story of a place told through snapshots, through fragments of its existence. And that’s why I loved it so much as an archaeologist – through excavation and analyses we strive to reconstruct those places from fragments. We can reconstruct the environment through plant and animal remains; we may get glimpses of individuals through the stuff they created then discarded or simply lost or left behind. From those facts we can make interpretations and we can attempt in our mind’s eye to “see” what the site would have looked like in the past and how it changed over time. I tell my students this is one of the hardest tasks – to stand in a space and visualize what it looked like then versus how it looks today. Here captures this spirit of looking back (and of looking ahead).

Here also captures how people transform spaces into places. Spaces are not culturally meaningful; they are the environment, the landscape, the plants, the animals in a particular location at a particular point in time. Places are meaningful; many archaeologists, like myself, are very interested in how we enculture the landscape, how we give the landscape meaning, how we transform space into place. This process of enculturation includes naming places, leaving objects behind, removing objects from them, or transforming the landscape through building etc. There are representations in Here of space, a landscape not yet marked by humans, but everything else in the novel represents the creation and evolution of place. Here serves as a reminder of the history of our places, one that includes us and one that existed before we did. You too may remember the exact location of your first kiss or can visualize the layout and objects in your childhood bedroom but are you aware of what was there before? Do you know what came after? Here captures this phenomenon of place-making, one that is not simply nostalgia or memory. There is something very human about creating places.

Finally Here subtlety highlights the importance of context, the most important concept in all of archaeology. Place represents part of the context of our finds and our sites. We cannot interpret an artifact without considering place any more than we would attempt to do so without understanding its provenance or its provenience. The elderly person weeping on the couch becomes a more powerful image when you realize that they once were that child weeping over the loss of a balloon in the very same place. Time passes, people come and go, and places are made and remade as we move through them.

I would highly recommend Here. It is simply lovely to look at but the narrative of place is powerful. It will inspire you to consider your “here” more closely too.

3D Printing and Scanning in the Lab: Some Points on Practice & on Ethics

Recently our anthropology lab purchased a 3D printer and a 3D scanner. This acquisition was motivated by the increasing use of these technologies in archaeology, museums, classrooms, libraries, and every other place where learning is seen as something that is a) super fun and b) hands on. As a small department with a limited budget, 3D printing also seemed like an affordable way to supplement our existing teaching collections. One of my roles as lab instructor is to make sure we have sufficient resources for our students to engage with in the lab; this can mean having enough copies for each student or small group of students to examine (e.g., twenty human skeletons) and/or to have enough different versions of something to represent variation (e.g., a left humerus for a human, a chimpanzee, a bushbaby, a baboon, etc.).  As lab instructor I’ve also been brainstorming (but have yet to implement) ways to include these tools in lab activities and assignments. For example, if I produce a high quality 3D scan for one of our os coxae to create an open access 3D model of it, all of our students can access it on their personal electronic devices; in Anthropology 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) this model would likely just be used for learning the bones of the body, while in Anthropology 390 (Human Osteology) it could be used for learning methods of sex and/or age estimation and for assessing the use of 3D models versus real or physical copies with these techniques.

So while I have many ideas but not enough time play with these new toys as much as I would like, nor integrate them into classroom learning beyond show-and-tell, I have been able to do some printing.

Femur of H. naledi.

One of the first successful prints I had was the femur of Homo naledi (pictured above with the rafts and supports still in place). It seemed like the only fitting selection as the open access publication of the 3D files of H. naledi was what motivated us to look into getting 3D printing equipment in the first place.  I’ve also printed off a talus, vertebrae, metatarsals, and an articulated hand (pictured below) for this species. We’ve been using them in our Anthropology 209 (Introduction to Biological Anthropology) labs where we set up stations focused on comparative primate and hominin anatomy. Students examine specimens (say a bunch of femora) and then make interpretations and inferences as to why the variations are present (e.g., locomotion, dietary adaptation, reliance on vision versus olfaction, etc.).  We introduced the printed H. naledi specimens to our station regarding locomotion this term. Our students compared these prints with casts of limbs representing quadrupeds, knuckle walkers, brachiators, and bipeds, and asked to interpret the pattern of locomotion used by the unknown hominin. Students were not only excited by having these recent finds to examine (once we revealed which hominin they represented), they loved that the specimens were printed in our own lab; as such this has proven an excellent means to discuss not just the printed specimens but classroom technologies and pedagogy with them.

Articulated hand of H. naledi. Watching this hand emerge from the print deck was awesome.

We’ve also used our printer and scanner for outreach. I try to post the print process (and fails) on my social media feeds; I rely heavily on the open access models my peers around the world share on their sites, which brings specimens from around the world into our lab. For our annual Open House I worked with our Social Media guru to do a time lapse capture of a scaled-down model of a human skill (seen below in its cleaned and finished form), which was used in a video during our annual Open House. We held lab tours throughout the day allowing visitors to see and handle the skull after watching it print in the video; many were both surprised to learn that what they saw happen in 30 seconds took closer to three hours, and that we are striving to integrate these kinds of tools and technologies into our lab courses.

Star of MacEwan’s Open House video.

While we do also have a scanner, I haven’t been as successful using it to create models for our existing materials. I had the opportunity to scan a Folsom point recovered from a site in Alberta but failed in my attempt; at least it represents a promise of this technology – to connect with archaeologists around our province to scan and print materials (including distributing the models for wider use). While I could blame the material and the quality of our scanner for my fail on this attempt, it is honestly because I still have a lot to learn in terms of using not just the scanner and printer but the excellent free software that’s out there for editing files. I do think my students appreciate my transparency in discussing these print and scan fails, an example of a print fail is pictured below, as they see that I am, and will always be, a learner in the lab. I guess this means I’m using the scanner and printer to model behaviour in addition to objects.

An example of a print fail. The raft, a stable base for the printed object that is removed after printing during the finishing process, detached from the print deck creating a mess. Luckily I monitor any prints closely so stopped it before a) I wasted too much filament and/or b) the printer broke.

Overall I’m very satisfied with the printer and scanner. I do not think this was a “trendy technology” purchase; I do believe that the applicability of this technology to our courses and in our lab will remain high for years to come. However, there are ethical considerations whenever any new technology is introduced into the classroom.

Recently I became involved in a discussion on Twitter regarding the sale of replicas of the Ancient One that led to the question of what our response to reproductions should be in light of the rise of 3D printing and modelling technologies in the classroom. These two topics are not unrelated. In light of replicas of the Ancient One being sold, we must carefully consider WHAT we reproduce. Should the Ancient One be replicated? I say absolutely not. The case of the Ancient One is easily one the most controversial and contentious cases in North American archaeology and anthropology for so many reasons and that alone should make anyone take pause before disseminating reproductions of him. Some objects should not be replicated nor printed but what those are must be established on an ongoing and object-by-object basis.  In some cases the reproduction of human remains can be perfectly acceptable when done with approvals and informed consent. This means we ask before we reproduce. We make explicit what the purpose, use, and audience(s) of the models and prints will be. We agree to make models open access or shared or closed on a scan by scan basis. We make plans for the curation of prints and of models – both short and long term – including what to do if the original is repatriated. Finally we cannot profit from these models nor the prints, especially if the item should a) not have been replicated in the first place and b) has been repatriated. April Beisaw aptly tweeted it is “inappropriate to profit from sales of something that was given back. Is the repatriation incomplete if reproducing info retained?”. The Ancient One was repatriated and reburied back in February of this year; can we consider the repatriation complete if so much information (including replicas) of this individual are still in wide circulation. Beisaw argues “unless the tribe an item was repatriated asked for or consented to a replica, making one and using it is counter to repatriation’s ideal”; I absolutely agree.

Clearly this discussion demonstrates that replication (and research) in the context of repatriation is much more complex than what I’ve briefly addressed here but I’m simply arguing that we must be proactive in considering the ethics of 3D scanning and printing technologies in our labs and in our classrooms rather than being reactive. This is part of my hesitation in just rushing forward with using these technologies in my lab – I want to do it right. I want to be deliberate, intentional, and ethical. If nothing else these are the behaviours I want to model for my students and see them replicate as they move forward in their studies and careers.

Biittner’s Book Reviews Resurrected: Ruins by Peter Kuper

I used to post book reviews on my personal blog about what I was reading and quite enjoyed doing so but have sadly let both my reviews, that blog, and my blogging here lapse. Starting with this post  I am going to resurrect “Biittner’s Book Reviews” but rather than just talking about what I liked and why, I’ll frame my discussion explicitly as anthropological.  As in the last few years the kinds of things I’ve reading has shifted to include more comics, graphic novels, and non-fiction (including ethnographies), what I select to review will be “books” very broadly defined. The only thread that will link those books I review will be that they triggered something in my anthropologist’s brain. Note that I’m not being compensated for these reviews unless otherwise stated.


The first book I’ve selected to review is Ruins by Peter Kuper. This graphic novel was suggested by A.M. Christensen on Twitter, who recommended it and Richard McGuire’s Here (next review I promise!) in a Public Archaeology Twitter Conference (PATC) presentation on comics and archaeology. Christensen argues that Ruins, and Here, are excellent examples of the “temporality of the landscape”. So let’s explore Ruins, and I’ll attempt to explain what Christensen means because I absolutely agree with their statement.

First the title is perfect. It refers not just to the archaeological sites (the ruins) the main characters visit, but also the state of their marriage (it is clearly in ruins) and to the rapidly crumbling state of local politics and the local economy. The title is also perfect because much like archaeological ruins, this book has many layers of meaning, of story, of time, and of place embedded in it. On its surface, Ruins is a story of a couple who take advantage of the wife’s sabbatical and the husband’s recent loss of his job to attempt to save their marriage via temporarily moving to Oaxaca. Oaxaca, modeled very closely on the actual city and its history, is situated in the book as the former field research site of the wife. The wife plans to use her time to write her book about the research she previously conducted in Oaxaca, while the husband, a now unemployed entomologist, is to use his time to reconnect with his past as an artist. Through writing the book, the wife is forced to reconnect with her past while considering her future. So in Oaxaca, the present of our characters quickly converges, intermixes, and colludes with the past and their pasts. This is what I think Christensen was getting at, that the past, present, and even future events of the book  are connected to and interconnected by a place, a landscape. In this book memory and history are often one and the same, experiences of the present are influenced by past events, and the future is slowly being shaped not just be experiences but also by the transformation of the place. Importantly the story of the couple is paralleled by the journey of a monarch butterfly. This is a powerful mechanism for revealing the dialectic of the past and present, and the connection to place all living organisms have.

And yes archaeology is very much present in the book.  As I want to avoid spoilers because there is something so lovely and haunting about how Kuper integrates the archaeological past with the personal past in this book I do not want to say too much but solid research went into information presented about the Zapotecs specifically and Mesoamerica more broadly.

Media is another important theme throughout; books, painting, photography, and graffiti all play key roles either in the background of panels or as explicitly undertaken and discussed by characters (most of the main characters are artists or photographers). What media appears and how it is used in the book and by the characters is very deliberate, and parallels another layer of the narrative the representation and communication of struggle. Protest is an important theme and plot point so signs, slogans, and shrines all are illustrated. Connected to media, is the use of colour (or lack thereof) on the pages. I love the shifts from black and white to colour panels to emphasize time and temporality.

Language is also important. The husband does not speak Spanish so struggles to communicate with the housekeeper that “came with” their rental property and most other residents of Oaxaca; this linguistic barrier between outsider and resident parallels the communication barrier between husband and wife. As his ability to communicate with the residents increases, a shift also occurs in his ability to communicate with his wife. This is yet another layer in this book.

Overall Ruins is an excellent read. It can easily be appreciated by a non-anthropologist but the examination of how place and time are interconnected really impressed me and what makes this stand out as an anthropological read.

No Props for ‘Bones’ Because #notanactuallivingscientist

No lie, I totally bought this t-shirt.

Bah it’s the end of the term so I’m grumpy. I’m surviving on chocolate, popcorn twists, Dr. Pepper, tylenol, and coffee. Most of the archaeologists I know or want to know are at the Society for American Archaeology meetings in Vancouver and I’m dealing with end of term insanity. I’m also bombarded by students in my office (which gives me joy and life) who have questions about what classes to take next year, what a career in archaeology or anthropology looks like, and what they need to do if they want to be a forensic anthropologist (!!!) when they grow up. I mention all of this not to solicit your pity nor to brag about how overworked or tired I am because I hate that ideology too but just to provide context for the rant that follows.

Fuck ‘Bones’. Yes some anthropologists love that damn show and there is even an excellent blog by an actual anthropologist (this will become important shortly) that posts on each and every episode breaking down the good and the bad of the forensic anthropology depicted, but I’m not one of those anthropologists. The American Anthropological Association (AAA) recently shared a story by CNN commemorating the vital role that ‘Bones’ (and other shows) have played in encouraging females to become scientists, referred to as the “Scully Effect“. Before you get all ragey with me know I am not angry about female scientists (nor about X-Files because no, I love the X-Files) but I’ve decided in my current ragey state to take a stand against encouraging and promoting stereotypical representations of who a female scientist is and what scientists do as if the ends (people becoming a scientist) justifies the means (misrepresentation to the extreme of depicting really bad, unethical science).

Hell I admit that Indiana Jones sparked my interest in archaeology BUT so did the Nova specials I used to watch with my poppa as did the stories of anthropologists I read about in National Geographic. See I’m getting old and I’m starting to become concerned, even as a huge popular culture consumer, about representations of my discipline and of science more broadly.  Why do we need to make science palatable in the form of popular culture? Why are there not enough real science shows with real scientists? Do NOT tell me that it is because people won’t watch them, that they have to be dumbed down or sensationalized for people to watch because where have we heard that before? Oh yeah – people won’t watch films with female leads or with people of colour leads or with LGBQTA* people in them… but are you kidding me WE DO! *cough* Rogue One, Hidden Figures *cough* We are begging for diversity on our screens! I bet if you gave us shows with actual living scientists we would consume them greedily too and beg for more.

This concern around actual living scientists is a thing; I know it’s a thing because it has its own hashtag #actuallivingscientist. It became a thing on social media in response to the growing anti-science/science-as-elitist position of the populist movements in the United States, Canada, and Britain (among others), which were inflamed by the re-circulation of the results of a 2013 survey that found most Americans could not name a living scientist. So scientists on social media began using the hashtag to introduce themselves and their work, to challenge stereotypes, to humanize science, and to connect with the public. This response and associated hashtag is widely accepted because of how it integrates with intersectionality – a clear demonstration of who a scientist is in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, etc but not only or simply one of those things. Teachers picked up on this creating #actuallivingscientists boards in their classrooms to show their students they too could do exciting, interesting work in science – that science is not what they see on their screens, it is not just what they learn in their classrooms, and it is certainly NOT only done exclusively by the “old, white dudes” textbooks celebrate.

I know that there is a whole organization devoted to ensuring the use of accurate science in the entertainment industry, which is great in combating pseudoscience. This is great but my concerns around representation remain – pat on the back for consulting an #actuallivingscientist but have you actually written a role or cast an actor who represents what a scientist is or are you just doing it because you’ve realized that people get more out of their experience when it is real (a huge motivating factor driving the use of conlangs. Ed: another post!?)?

Why then am I so angry about ‘Bones’? Because I’m told by CNN and the AAA that I should celebrate (mis)representations of people in my field (broadly) because it gets people interested in the field. Sure, I love that people think anthropology or archaeology is cool because they saw something about it somewhere. I love that students take anthropology courses because they saw something they connect with. But I struggle with the let down, the reality check that being a forensic anthropologist isn’t what ‘Bones’ promised it would be (i.e., more bones, poor access to cool tools, and very few explicit “forensic anthropologist inquire within” job opportunities). And listen I’m not saying we can’t have our wonderful shows or movies or books, I will not give up my Dr. Dana Scully. I guess I just want my students to be inspired by #actuallivingscientists like Dr. Kristina Killgrove (who won an award for her public outreach) as just ONE example instead of the fictional Dr. Temperance Brennan even if she’s “based on” Kathy Reichs.  This means we need to not only make sure that we have real science in our shows or celebrate portrayals like the token representations they are but argue for actual scientists doing actual science too. And don’t tell me no one wants it – Bill Nye is coming back!

On New Planets, Mars, & Colonization


I want to be an astronaut when I grow up. I am a child of the Challenger era and I vividly recall watching the Challenger explosion in 1986. Pluto was a planet when I was a kid and I’ve now come to terms with why we no longer classify it as such (thanks NdGT). I would not call myself an emotional person but things related to space just get me good. I openly wept watching Commander Hadfield’s performance of Space Odyssey on the ISS. I cheered out loud watching the Dragon 1 successfully dock with the ISS receiving odd looks from my co-workers (I should have been working but the ability to now watch via live-streaming is just so awesome). My kid recently asked me why I was crying at the computer – I was watching the Falcon 9’s successful landing. I also cried seeing Atlantis in person at the Kennedy Space Center last year, was on the verge of tears the whole time I was there because it was so overwhelming to actually be at Cape Canaveral, and was devastated to miss an actual launch by just two days. Sarcastic Rover is easily one of my favourite twitter accounts and I honestly feel sad knowing Curiosity is alone on Mars. I have always known what Earth looks like from space from photographs and have wanted few things more than to be able to have the experience of seeing it first hand. As I’m unlikely to go in life, I’ve asked my family to send a small portion of my cremains to space. However a love for all things space (and of course science fiction) does not make me any kind of expert in astronomy (#notarealdoctor) but my anthropological perspective can add some insight into recent discussions regarding new planets, colonization, and human evolution. Side note: I’m pissed I didn’t figure out that I could be a space archaeologist sooner because wtf that’s actually a real thing!

So here are some thoughts I’ve been trying to process lately. Note that most of what follows has little to do with space and more to do with the intersection of science fiction and anthropology. I’m reading and watching a lot of science fiction right now so it’s really up in my brain right now.

First, there seems to be a long history of anthropologists or children of anthropologists or people who took anthropology courses as writers of science fiction. H.G. Wells, Ursula K. Le Guin and C.J. Cherryh all have links to anthropology (note: there’s a whole wiki page on anthropological science fiction ftw! [Ed: filed under “things I will have to make you nerds review at some point]). This makes so much sense to me. Culture contact, race, gender, technology, and evolution are all major themes in science fiction; who better to write about it then the discipline of scholars who explicitly study these topics. In particular I think anthropological contributions to understanding what happens when cultures come into contact with each other is invaluable in science fiction and speculative fiction. C.J. Cherryh’s (1983) “40,000 in Gehenna” explicitly asks the question of what happens when a new planet is colonized by humans then is “lost” for forty thousand years before being contacted again? The answer – culture change and speciation.

So here’s my second point: evolution IS occurring now and will continue to occur so it’s not unreasonable to consider the consequences of interplanetary travel on human evolution. Mars is far away. It will take time to get there and back. It will take time to establish a colony; those first Martians will be unlikely to ever return to Earth. While colonizing Mars seems less like science fiction these days, colonizing further out is tougher for me to accept as possible mainly because humans are so short lived and space is so very vast. That said it’s not just a matter of time and distance. Speciation is not inevitable; it’s reasonable but space exploration does not necessarily mean that it will occur. Unless we get into a “lost colony” situation as in Cherryh’s work then we’ll still likely be in enough *ahem* contact to continue to interbreed. Along these lines I like the recent television show Expanse’s portrayal of the “reality” of colonizing Mars and beyond – that eventually there will be changes to and therefore differences in the populations found on Earth versus Mars versus “Belters“, but that ongoing contact between the populations will keep us a single species. What the Expanse gets “right” is not just the anatomical changes but I also appreciate the linguistic changes too AND how these changes all increase tension between populations.

Because colonialism is not good. While I am SO excited about the prospect of humans becoming an interplanetary species, I also find it really hard to be excited about colonizing other planets when I see so many problems caused by colonialism and the colonial mindset here on Earth. The Expanse gets this “right” too – that humans are exceptionally good at dividing ourselves into “Us” and “Them”. I worry that we’ll use it as opportunity to further marginalize humans we’ve already othered on Earth – if we don’t care about you as a human on Earth, why would we care about you as a Martian or as a Belter? Would we privilege the Earth way of life? Would all other populations be Earth’s inferior, labourers who procure the resources we are rapidly diminishing here on Earth? Probably.

Cultures changes. Populations change. Technologies change. These are fact. Change is also good. Variation is very good so we should not fear change. We should reach for the stars but I have two (final) concerns. First, we need to be cautious of framing technological change as advancement; this is a whole other can of worms but while we clearly need different technologies then the ones we have now to get to space, we must be critical of positions (and leaders) that firmly state advancement is progress and therefore inherently superior. Second we need to think about what we are taking with us. Some values (xenophobia, racism, sexism, ableism, etc.) have no place here on Earth; space doesn’t need them either.


I *Heart* Neandertals Part 2

Image result for hunger games i volunteer meme

So a “willing woman” is needed to help bring back Neandertals. It all seems so simple – take some Neanderthal genetic material, science the shit out of it to create a viable embryo, implant the embryo in a willing surrogate, then wait just a short 9-10 months and blamo, you’ve got a living breathing Neandertal baby. Totes adorbs amirite?! Of course I volunteer as tribute…no wait…as surrogate (I wouldn’t last a day in the Games).

I’ve been thinking about the potential of ancient DNA studies, of cloning, and of assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs) quite a bit lately. I recently finished reading Svante Pääbo’s 2004 book “Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes”. In this well written and compelling autoethnography, Pääbo tells the story of the trials, successes, and failures in his journey to successfully extract ancient DNA from Neandertal remains. Read this book btw as I love that it is a personal narrative but one that also explains the science in an accessible manner. Connecting the article to this book is important not just because they both deal with Neandertals but also because while the article makes it seem so simple (okay not “simple” but at least something that is possible based on our current technologies), the book makes it very clear that nothing is simple when it comes to ancient DNA.  Yes we have a Neandertal genome that we can engineer but this has some problems as well (read the book to learn from the expert). Yes we can harvest a viable egg from a modern human and we could likely find an appropriate surrogate to impregnate. But should we?

While I not-so-jokingly offer to serve as surrogate (even with gestational diabetes I loved being pregnant), I also know that carrying  a Neandertal fetus to term and successfully delivering a live infant could be extremely problematic. Neandertals have massive heads – their average cranial capacity is above the human average – and they have robust cranial features that create a distinctly non-modern human head shape, both of which would likely cause problems for the narrow birth canal present in modern humans. Birth is already not easy for humans. Reconstructions of the Neandertal birth canal and pelvis suggest birth was also equally difficult for Neandertals. People die in childbirth even when doctors, nurses, doulas, midwives, and other birthing specialists use everything their western biomedicine and/or “natural” birthing traditions have to offer.

Even if we set all logistics aside, what I appreciate about the article is that it actually focuses on the ethical conundrum that cloning a human represents. Should we attempt to clone or to grow a Neandertal? Is curiosity enough to warrant trying? Honestly I don’t know, which is why this is a question of ethics not just what is/is not technologically and biologically feasible. I’m also honestly more interested in what this debate would mean in terms of arguments for/against cloning humans because that’s the subtext of Church’s final statement: that Neandertals are humans.

I will argue that because we are currently entrenched over so many debates regarding ARTs, reproductive rights, adoption, cloning, stem cell research, ape rights, primate research, and parenthood etc. that while we can and should have an academic discussion regarding Neandertal cloning, we must do so fully recognizing it is unlikely to ever happen.

Say I successfully carried a Neandertal fetus to term and delivered it healthy and screaming into our world, would I be its mother? Who would raise it? I could argue that as an anthropological archaeologist who studies human evolution that I am qualified to raise a Neandertal as I am aware of their cultural traditions…but I’m still a modern human aren’t I?  I’m not a Neandertal. Could I even be a mother to this child or is the relationship more like that of a researcher who forms a parent-like bonds with their non-human primate subject (think Patterson and Koko)? Is it right or fair or moral to raise a Neandertal in modern human culture? What would it be like to be the only Neandertal in a modern human world AND one that would be subject to extensive and intensive research for their lifespan. And this is not the time traveler’s dilemma of not being able to process life in “the future” because we aren’t creating a Neandertal from the past. What we would be doing is introducing a new hominin species into a contemporary setting. In this case maybe considering Neandertals as humans IS problematic because I feel like we’d be granting this individual human status without granting them agency and human rights.

To conclude then I’ll stand by volunteering my womb but I won’t actually allow it to be occupied by a Neandertal clone anytime soon. See I see human rights, including my own, questioned and challenged every single day. I don’t think it’s fair to bring another species into this world who will have tenuous status as human until I know that my own rights are secured. I don’t care how simple the technology may seem because the ethical quandaries are anything but simple.



Thoughts on a Pink Princess Party: Gender & Children


Sometimes being a parent influences my teaching and other times it is my parenting that is influenced by my being an anthropologist, a scientist, a teacher. I no longer know how to keep these roles separate, and indeed am not so uncomfortable when I fail to separate them.

We learn the appropriate ways of thinking and feelings behaving in our society through the process of enculturation. Similarly, socialization is the learning process for the skills we need to successfully interact in our social groups. Teaching gender as a social construct means that anthropologists recognize that socialization and enculturation teach us how we must behave as a gendered individual AND how to recognize other behaviours as gendered within a cultural context. This means that while we are assigned a gender at birth, we must learn what that means.

My husband and I assigned our kid a female gender at birth on the basis of their assigned sex at birth. We gave our kid a name that is identified as female within our culture. However, recognizing that the identities we are assigned at birth do not always “match” our personal identities as we grow and learn, we wanted to ensure our kid was exposed to diverse experiences, objects, and points of reference. Basically we wanted our kid to know that “female” does not necessarily mean sparkly, pink, princesses or other gender stereotypes. So books were purchased showing people in diverse rolls, with skin colours and hair textures and facial features and clothing etc. that are different from those represented in our household. Toys were selected without attention to which aisle in the store they came from. Cars, dinosaurs, dolls, balls, blocks, and costumes all had/have a place in our home. Awesomeness was defined based on personal interests. And it turns out that the last point is an important one.

See my daughter is a sparkly, pink, princess who is obsessed with all things Disney, and she wanted nothing more than a princess party for her fourth birthday. So that’s what she got – an over-the-top princess party. Now this post isn’t to brag about how great of a parent I am because that is far from the truth. It certainly does make clear the privilege I have on so many levels, because that I am privileged is the truth. What inspired this post is one of the things I saw in planning the party – I rented a princess.

It turns out that this is actually a thing (which will not surprise some of you with littles). You can rent an actor to come in full costume and character inspired by those, more often than not, belonging to the very large Disney universe to perform at your child’s party. There are several different companies in our city and each offer different takes on characters (to avoid copyright lawsuits) and packages. Unsurprisingly the more you spend, typically the more “stuff” that’s included in your package. I looked at the companies that focused on Princess Parties but some also had superhero or other characters available as part of their offerings.

What was extremely interesting to me was how the companies addressed gender.

Most companies clearly focused on stereotypes around not just princesses but females in western culture. Activities offered as parts of the packages included make overs, tea parties, and princess etiquette lessons. Some companies would note that other activities could be offered for boys in attendance but these mostly seemed to just include references to dress up items for knights and/or pirates. However some companies are trending towards a more gender inclusive approach.

While clearly a gendered term and while the actors who attend as princesses are female (they are meant to represent specific, beloved, and obsessed over characters), “princess” need not be defined nor represented exclusively as female. Several images used on promotional products for the company we went with show all children participating in various gender neutral activities such as face painting, crafting, singing, and dancing. Our princess painted the faces of any kid in attendance who wanted to have their face painted (I really appreciated the language of consent that was used “Would you like your face painted? May I touch your face?” btw) and offered two choices (shell or fish) based on her character’s world. The craft was for a crown or reindeer antlers because she “recently met a reindeer that another princess has and he was so cute [she] thought reindeer antlers would be perfect for our cold winter day”. She sang a song from “her” movie and read a story about “her” life. Only my daughter was referred to as “princess” because it was her birthday, all other kids were simply “friends”. So the “princess party” was themed to the character but not explicitly to a gender. Further it was inclusive in that the options were participation/non-participation based rather than female/male.

To wrap this up, my experiences with planning the perfect pink princess party as a parent and as an anthropologist reinforced the growing awareness that gender is a cultural construct. At the party I saw kids playing with a character that represented something important and meaningful to them – a princess who my kid described as friendly, fun, silly, kind, and who had a lovely voice. My kid saw qualities they liked, they aspire to embodied in that princess. I can’t find fault with my kid wanting to celebrate her birthday in a way that we might interpret as gendered but which she saw as simply “awesome”.

p.s. I  am also a little biased because I think one princess in particular is very awesome…


Note: I didn’t get compensated for this post. It is really hard to talk about princesses without mentioning Disney because let’s be real, they’ve locked the whole princess thing down!