Dr. Anne Pisor is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Washington State University. Her research interests include long-distance relationships and resource management, long-distance relationships and the downsides of climate change, and the evolution of human sociality.
In this episode, we talk about topics in evolutionary anthropology, including: long-distance relationships, and how they’re built; inter-group tolerance; studying human sociality in preliterate societies, and the assumptions we have about them; parochial altruism; how people valuate out-group strangers; Dr. Pisor’s fieldwork in the Bolivian Amazon and Tanzania; and climate change, how it affects human societies, how they adapt to it, and what industrialized societies can learn from them.
With the rapid, unprecedented pace of climate change, it is time to start seriously considering the worst-case scenarios, warns Washington State University archaeologist Tim Kohler.
Kohler, an emeritus WSU professor of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology, is part of an international team of climate experts that argue that although unlikely, climate change catastrophes, including human extinction, should be more heavily considered by scientists.
He and his collaborators discuss how climate change could drive mass extinction events and propose a research agenda to investigate bad- to worst-case scenarios in a new commentary article published Aug. 1 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“It’s a topic that is too scary for most people to contemplate but that needs to change because the risks we face are very real,” said Kohler, who holds the distinction of being the first archaeologist to contribute to an IPCC report as a lead author. “We are entering a period where the climate dynamics are going to be completely outside the norm of what we have experienced in the last 12,000 years.”
“Normally, you are lucky if you find a jade bead.”
Ancient Mayans have been a continuing source of inspiration for their monuments, knowledge, and mysterious demise. Now a new study discovers some of the drugs they used. For the first time, scientists found remnants of a non-tobacco plant in Mayan drug containers. They believe their analysis methods can allow them exciting new ways of investigating the different types of psychoactive and non-psychoactive plants used by the Maya and other pre-Colombian societies.
The research was carried out by a team from Washington State University, led by anthropology postdoc Mario Zimmermann. They spotted residue of the Mexican marigold (Tagetes lucida) in 14 tiny ceramic vessels that were buried over a 1,000 years ago on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The containers also exhibited chemical traces of two types of tobacco: Nicotiana tabacum and N. rustica. Scientists think the marigold was mixed in with the tobacco to make the experience more pleasant.
“While it has been established that tobacco was commonly used throughout the Americas before and after contact, evidence of other plants used for medicinal or religious purposes has remained largely unexplored,” said Zimmermann. “The analysis methods developed in collaboration between the Department of Anthropology and the Institute of Biological Chemistry give us the ability to investigate drug use in the ancient world like never before.”
The scientists used a new method based on metabolomics that is able to pinpoint thousands of plant compounds, or metabolites, in residue of archaeological artifacts like containers and pipes. This allows the researchers to figure out which specific plants were utilized.
In the area where the Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexican borders now meet, ancestral Pueblo societies thrived and then collapsed several times, over the span of 800 years.
Each time they recovered, their culture transformed. This shifting history can be seen in their pottery and the incredible stone and earth dwellings they created. During 300 of those years, some Pueblo peoples, who also used ink tattoos, were ruled by a matrilineal dynasty.
As in the collapse of other ancient civilizations, ancestral Pueblo social collapses align with periods of changing climate – but Pueblo farmers often persevered through droughts, suggesting that there was more to their collapses than just environmental conditions.
“Societies that are cohesive can often find ways to overcome climate challenges,” explained Washington State University archaeologist Tim Kohler back in 2021.
“But societies that are riven by internal social dynamics of any sort – which could be wealth differences, racial disparities or other divisions – are fragile because of those factors. Then climate challenges can easily become very serious.”
More than 20 college students kneeled in the warm July heat, sifting through small square holes in the freshly dug ground on the Fort Vancouver National Historic Site, searching for nails, ceramic remnants and other relics from the past.
Kaeli Stephens, an anthropology major from Washington State University Vancouver, said that she’s enjoyed the fact that the excavation is open to the public, where family and friends can walk up and ask questions about the work she loves doing.
“Seeing women in STEM out here is so cool,” she said. “And I love when little girls walk by and say, ‘I want to be like that when I grow up.’ ”
The crews will use the archaeology lab in the stockade to analyze their findings. After the field school the staff with the National Park Service will do a more detailed analysis and write a report on the excavation.