Posts Tagged ‘anthropology’

Reflections Homeward Bound: Final Dispatch from Extraordinary Cultures Tour

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009

Richard Kurin is the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture here at the Smithsonian Institution. He is a cultural anthropologist specializing in the study of knowledge systems, folk arts, museums, and development. He is currently Study Leader on our Extraordinary Cultures – An Epic Journey Around the World tour, and will be blogging periodically while traveling. This post is the final post in a series. To see the other posts, click here.

The Smithsonian Journeys Extraordinary Cultures trip has itself been extraordinary.

Huli men performing a Sing Sing. Photo: Richard Kurin

Huli wigmen of Papua New Guinea. Photo: Richard Kurin

We have seen wonders of the world and met equally wonderful people around the globe.
I, my fellow Smithsonian scholars, and our colleagues in other nations have given some three dozen lectures and presentations. We’ve witnessed scores of cultural performances and demonstrations of artistry, and heard word and song in two dozen languages. We have dined with royalty, been hosted by ministers and heads of national museums, and experienced monumental and living cultural treasures.

We’ve learned more than a few things.

For one, we have had a glimpse of the tremendous cultural diversity that exists on this planet. At the beginning of the last century, anthropologists estimate there were about 6,000 languages spoken. Now there are 600. If language serves as some measure of our cultural diversity, that diversity is being reduced. We, as a species are probably diminished as a result. That diversity has evolutionary potential and consequences, and besides, it makes the world a lot less boring. Preserving human diversity is in our interest.

Second, we’ve learned that diversity exists both in tangible form—as monuments, and buildings, ruins and landscapes, but also in intangible form as “living cultural heritage. It is the latter that gives culture its vitality and ongoing organic, creative energy. Living culture provides meaning to living people and is often a source of their identity and sense of self-worth. Indeed, culture provides, in large part, the civic identity for nations—lack or loss or denigration of culture can mean the dissolution of nation-states. Culture is also important economically—providing the basis for handicraft, food, fashion, music, entertainment and tourist industries. Loss of culture equals loss of income. Even monuments of the past have significance for their living populations—which is why countries sometimes fight over them and why business interests often compete to exploit them.

In our travels, we’ve perhaps gained some insight into an important theoretical debate. One position, held by Thomas Friedman argues that the world is becoming flatter and that everyone is becoming more similar, sharing the same global culture. The other, associated with the late Samuel Huntingtonargues that we are facing the clash of civilizations—where differences between cultures can only be resolved by conflict. I think we found a third view—that the earth is culturally lumpy, not flat, and that while globalization encourages homogeneity, there is abundant localization to make life interesting. While there are long lived entrenched cultural traditions all over the planet, there are numerous ways in which people share cultures, accommodate and synthesize traditions, invent new ones, and see their own traverse the world. The global is localized—our Bhutanese archers use their traditional bamboo bows, but also Olympic ones made in the U.S.—albeit to hit homemade targets. But the local also goes global. Indian performance traditions presented by Rajeev Sethi and scores of artists are now seen in new forms through movies like “Slumdog Millionaire.”

How then to deal with that diversity and these cultural processes. Awareness of, appreciation for and understanding of diverse cultures is important. We don’t have to believe the same things as folks in the highlands of New Guinea, or sing the same song as the Bedouins of Petra, or have the same religion as the Dogon of Mali. But understanding, appreciating, and respecting that diversity is important. If we don’t, we misapprehend others at our peril. And that can have horrible consequences.


SI Research Notes: Bronze Age Burials of Mongolia

Wednesday, February 25th, 2009

Linda Stevens is Field Notes Coordinator for Smithsonian Journeys. Combing the Institution for interesting projects happening around the world, she prepares these research notes especially for travelers. Learn more about Linda here.

This typical Bronze Age mound contains the remains of a newborn infant, only. The burial site consists of a central pile of rocks covering the burial chamber and a circular stone fence. Photo: Bruno Frolich, NMNH

This typical Bronze Age mound contains the remains of a newborn infant, only. The burial site consists of a central pile of rocks covering the burial chamber and a circular stone fence. Photo: Bruno Frohlich, NMNH

Since 2003 physical anthropologist Bruno Frohlich has led a team of international scientists on a National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) Department of Anthropology survey and excavation of Bronze Age burial mounds (3500 to 2700 B.P.) in the steppe environment of Hovsgol Aimag of Mongolia. Of the 2,000 mounds the research team has recorded and surveyed, they have excavated 35, and in summer 2008, the team uncovered seven additional burial mounds.

During the 2003 field season in Mongolia, researchers were also made aware of a newly discovered mass burial within the Buddhist Gandan Monastery in Ulaanbaatar (Hambiin Ovoo). About 1,200 bodies, all of Buddhist monks, had been removed for cremation, which took place under the direction of Lam Purevbat, who kept about 80 skulls and some femora as physical evidence. Apparently most of the victims were executed by the Soviet regime in the years leading up to World War II. (more…)