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Pullman exhibit explains discovery and significance of 2,000-year-old tattoo tool

The discovery of the oldest tattooing artifact in western North America earned a Washington State University PhD student international acclaim earlier this year from the likes of National Geographic, the Smithsonian, and the New York Times.

Now, faculty, staff, and students have the opportunity to learn firsthand about the ancient implement and the Ancestral Pueblo people of Southeastern Utah who made it.

Andrew Gillreath-Brown.
Gillreath-Brown

Andrew Gillreath-Brown, an anthropology PhD candidate, created a small exhibit outside the WSU Museum of Anthropology explaining the 2,000-year-old cactus spine tattoo tool he chanced upon while taking inventory of archaeological materials that had been sitting in storage for more than 40 years.

The exhibit explains how the tool was identified and gives viewers a rare glimpse into the long history of customs and cultures of Indigenous groups of the southwestern United States.

“Even the smallest artifacts can allow us to extrapolate and help us understand more about people of the past, how different things like tattooing got started,” Gillreath-Brown said. “In many ways, I think they also give us a better understanding of customs and cultural traditions today.”

This fall, Gillreath-Brown will use the exhibit to help his anthropology 101 students start thinking more critically about the conditions that enabled people in the ancient world to practice artforms like tattooing.

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WSU Insider

Who dominates the discourse of the past?

Male academics, who comprise less than 10 percent of North American archaeologists, write the vast majority of the field’s high impact, peer-reviewed literature.

Shannon Tushingham and Tiffany Fulkerson smile over a stack of books and in front of ancient artifacts.
Tushingham and Fulkerson

That’s according to a new study in American Antiquity by Washington State University archaeologists Tiffany Fulkerson and Shannon Tushingham.

The two scientists set out to determine how a rapidly evolving demographic and professional landscape is influencing the production and dissemination of knowledge in American archaeology.

They found that women, who now make up half of all archaeologists in North America, and professionals working outside of a university setting, who account for 90 percent of the total workforce, were far less likely to publish in peer-reviewed journals.

“The underrepresentation of women and non-academics in peer-reviewed publications is in stark contrast to the landscape of archaeology as a whole, which is rich in gender and occupational diversity,” said Fulkerson, a graduate student in the WSU Department of Anthropology and lead author of the study. “In effect, you have a very narrow demographic dominating the discourse of the past in North America.”

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WSU Insider

Dear Dr. Universe: Why do we dance?

If we traveled around the world, we would see all kinds of dancers. We might see classical ballerinas in Russia. We might see break dancers performing on the streets of New York. We might even see tango dancers in Argentina.

While the exact reasons we dance remain a mystery, there are a few theories about it.

Ed Hagen.
Hagen

That’s what I found out from my friend Ed Hagen, an anthropologist at Washington State University who has researched the roots of dance.

In nature, we actually see a lot of animals dancing. It’s not just humans. Bees do a kind of waggle dance where they step in a figure-eight pattern. This movement helps them communicate important information. It lets other bees know where to find the best pollen to make honey.

Birds, especially male birds, will often flutter their bright and beautiful feathers to attract a mate. Dolphins will also make graceful leaps together and twirl around in the ocean to attract a partner.

This process of using dance to find a mate is part of something called courtship, Hagen said. Dance may also be part of courtship in humans, too.

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Dr. Universe

Dr. Universe: How do you make mummies?

When we think of mummies, we might imagine the kind from ancient Egypt wrapped up in linen. But there are lots of ways to make mummies—and they can even form in nature.

Shannon Tushingham.
Tushingham

That’s what I found out from my friend Shannon Tushingham, an archaeologist at Washington State University and director of the WSU Museum of Anthropology.

In ancient Egypt, priests were usually in charge of making a mummy. They used a special hook to pull out the brain. They put the brain in a jar to help preserve it. They put the lungs, liver, intestines, and stomach in jars, too. But the heart was left in place.

The ancient Egyptians believed it was the heart, not the brain, that was the center of someone’s being and intelligence.

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Dr. Universe

New data platform illuminates history of humans’ environmental impact

The human environmental footprint is not only deep, but old.

Ancient traces of this footprint can be found in animal bones, shells, scales and antlers at archaeological sites. Together, these specimens tell the millennia-long story of how humans have hunted, domesticated and transported animals, altered landscapes and responded to environmental changes such as shifting temperatures and sea levels.

Now, that story is available digitally through a new open-access data platform known as ZooArchNet, which links records of animals across biological and archaeological databases.

Making these specimen records accessible digitally helps provide a long-term perspective on current biodiversity crises, such as animal extinction and habitat loss, and could lead to more informed conservation policies.

Erin Thornton.
Thornton

Zooarchaeological specimens can also provide insights into how, when, and why humans domesticated animals in the distant past. Research by anthropologist Erin Thornton of Washington State University and a colleague on the earliest uses of the Mexican domesticated turkey, the ancestor of modern domestic turkeys, highlights how motivations for raising animals can change over time.

“Our recent work suggests that these birds were first domesticated for their feathers and symbolic links to power and prestige, rather than as a source of food,” she said.

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