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Uncovering Ancient Maya

In the third episode of season three, Mae and Alyssa interview Dr. Rachel Horowitz, assistant professor of anthropology at Washington State University.

Listen in as Dr. Horowitz discusses how Classic Maya communities in Belize made and used chert stone tools, and what analyzing tool production processes can tell us about the ancient economy. Alyssa, Mae, and Dr. Horowitz discuss the broader socio-economic implications of chert quarrying and production and what stone tools can tell us about rituals related to the underworld.

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Are anxiety and depression social problems or chemical disorders?

Two anthropologists question the chemical imbalance theory of mental health disorders.

Twentieth-century science was supposed to change everything. Indeed, thanks to vaccinations, antibiotics, and improved sanitation, humans thrived like never before. Yet in that mix was thrown pharmacological treatments for mental health disorders. On that front, little progress has been made.

It can be argued—it is being argued, in a new paper in American Journal of Physical Anthropology—that we’re regressing in our fight against mental health problems. As Kristen Syme, a PhD student in evolutionary anthropology, and Washington State University anthropology professor Edward Hagen argue, psychopharmacological treatments are increasing alongside mental health disorder diagnoses. If the former worked, the latter would decrease.

There are numerous problems with the current psychiatric model. Journalist Robert Whitaker has laid out the case that antidepressants, antipsychotics, and other pharmacological interventions are the real culprit behind chemical imbalances in the brain—a psychiatric talking point that’s been challenged for over a half-century. Patients suffering from minor anxiety and depression are placed on ineffective drugs, often being placed on a cocktail of pills. With many consumer advocacy groups being funded by pharmaceutical companies, we’ve reached a tipping point in mental health protocols.

As Syme and Hagan write, consumer advocacy groups are not the only compromised organizations. One review of 397 clinical trials discovered 47 percent of these studies reported at least one conflict of interest.

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Guide on how to use climate data to inform human adaptation

A framework for combining climate and social data could help scientists better support climate change adaptation ahead of future weather-related disasters.

The Washington State University-led research draws on the expertise of climate and social scientists to show how data on different characteristics of climate variability can be used to study the effectiveness of various human responses to climate change. It could ultimately help policymakers and organizations determine where and under what conditions different climate adaptations have worked in the past and where they may work in the future.

“Our framework enables researchers across many fields to better study the relationship between characteristics of climate and adaptation, including which adaptations emerge under which conditions,” said Anne Pisor, lead author of the paper in the journal One Earth and a WSU associate professor of anthropology. “Our hope is this research will help the global community heed warnings from the recent United Nations Climate Conference (COP28) and direct adaptation funding into programs and efforts that can better support communities as they respond to ongoing change.”

Pisor’s coauthors for the study included Deepti Singh, assistant professor in the WSU School of the Environment.

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WSU Insider

Modernizing an archaeological map collection for the next generation

In 1972, two archaeologists began a project on Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah. The project combined their interests in settlement patterns and statistical applications to archaeology based on probabilistic sampling theory. Little could the two archaeologists know that the project would lead to a 50-year collaboration that resulted in numerous significant contributions to the field of southwestern archaeology, or that Cedar Mesa itself would become involved in a contemporary fight for Indigenous control of ancestral lands as part of Bears Ears National Monument.

Bill Lipe brought the Cedar Mesa project to Washington State University when he joined the faculty in 1976. By the time he arrived on the Palouse, Lipe had been researching the ways in which Ancestral Puebloan societies lived on the landscape of the Southwest since 1958, when he was a crew chief on the Glen Canyon Archaeological Project. His research partner, R.G. Matson, had joined the University of British Columbia in 1972. Together, the two men assembled a wealth of data from Cedar Mesa over four decades that detailed the development of a cultural landscape from a natural landscape.

The approach of considering the landscape as the unit for analysis was rare in archaeology at the time. In addition to the collected artifacts from 995 sites, WSU’s Museum of Anthropology curates the maps from the 800 square-kilometers surveyed during the Cedar Mesa project. Limited excavations occurred in a small number of sites, but the majority of the Cedar Mesa Project results have been based on systematically documenting surface artifacts, a process called archaeological survey.

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Daily News

Aging societies more vulnerable to collapse

Societies and political structures, like the humans they serve, appear to become more fragile as they age, according to an analysis of hundreds of pre-modern societies. The study, which holds implications for the modern world, provides the first quantitative support for the theory that resilience of political states decreases over time.

Triggers of societal collapse have been well studied and vary from conquest and coups to earthquakes and droughts. This new study shows that the risk of states ending because of these events increased steeply over the first two centuries after they were formed. The research identifies several mechanisms that could drive these aging effects, and notably, some of these are still at work today, including environmental degradation and growing economic inequality.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlights the need to understand internal processes that may contribute to the demise of states, said co-author Tim Kohler.

“We tend to concentrate on external drivers such as drought or catastrophes. Yes, these have a role, but often they are just triggers that are effective, or not, depending on the internal dynamics of particular societies,” said Kohler, a Washington State University archeologist.

How states and great powers rise and fall has been an enigma that has puzzled historians for years. In this study, the researchers looked at this question from a new angle, by analyzing longevity in 324 pre-modern states spanning 5 millennia.

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WSU Insider