Further information: Explaining Riddles of Culture and Culture “Collapse” with a View Toward Our Future

Expanded description:  Each class will be a guided discussion of readings, paying close attention to the texts. During some classes we will also work in small groups on problems related to the readings and to big ideas, such as system behavior and models, which underlie much of the work behind the assigned readings. Two books will need to be purchased or borrowed—Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, by Marvin Harris (the Carleton Library has 6 copies) and The Great Warming, by Brian Fagan.  Both are available for purchase (you can find multiple options through bookfinder.com and other sources) in multiple forms—e-book, hard-cover and paperback, used and new—at prices ranging from $2 to about $36.  Both are also available to borrow for free electronically through Internet Archive.  Despite the visual differences you may see among book covers, each book has only one edition, no matter what the format. Copies of all other readings, along with questions to think about and areas of the readings to focus on, will be shared via e-mail prior to the relevant class. 

Week 1 (week of March 28)—Introduction to cultural ecology—the evolutionary perspective in Anthropology—as a way of thinking about how societies work; how cultural evolution is different from biological evolution; the “new ecology”—how cultural ecology as a field of study has itself evolved; the role of climate change in cultural evolution.  Readings: Mark Q. Sutton and E. N. Anderson, Introduction to Cultural Ecology, excerpts from chapters 1-4 (about 40 pages); Gerald A. Oetelaar and D. Joy Oetelaar, “The New Ecology and Landscape Archaeology;” Fagan, ch.1.

Week 2 (week of April 4) —The sacred cow and other food taboos—Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, pages 3-45; excerpt from Paul E. Smaldino, “Models Are Stupid, and We Need More of Them,” 311-316.

Week 3 (week of April 11) —Pig love and cyclical warfare—an in-depth case study of the Tsembaga, a Maring tribe in New Guinea.  What do indigenous people “know” about the systems in which we believe they are embedded?  Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, pp. 46-80; Roy Rappaport, “Ritual, Sanctity and Cybernetics;” Steven B. Shantzis and William W. Behrens III, “Population Control Mechanisms in a Primitive Agricultural Society;” look again at Oetelaar and Oetelaar (see Week 1), 72-83.

Week 4 (week of April 18) —Origins of the “savage male”—a case study of the Yanomamo people on the Brazil/Venezuela border.  Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, pp. 83-107; and Harris, Cannibals and Kings, 67-97.  In addition, I strongly urge students to view a 45 minute film made by Napoleon Chagnon, the principal ethnographer of the Yanomamo—“A Man Called Bee”—available free on line at https://archive.org/details/amancalledbeestudyingtheyanomamo.  It places the viewer amid the people the anthropologist was studying, an almost unique window into the ethnography.

Week 5 (week of April 25) —Competitive feasts—the northwest coast Indian potlatch system.  Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches, 111-130; Stuart Piddocke, “The Potlatch System of the Southern Kwakiutl:  A New Perspective;”Barbara Nelson and Robbin Carlson, “A Re-Examination of the Northwest Coast Indian Potlatch;” Sutton and Anderson, “Potlatch case study,” pp. 175-185.

Week 6 (week of May 2) —The Maya “collapse.” Marvin Harris, “The Pre-Columbian States of Mesoamerica,” chapter 8, Cannibals and Kings; Alex R. Knodell, “Review essay: Collapse and Failure in Complex Societies”; excerpts, James J. Aimers, “What Maya Collapse?  Terminal Classic Variation in the Maya Lowlands”; Beach, et al. “Ancient Maya wetland fields revealed under tropical forest canopy from laser scanning and multiproxy evidence.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116, no. 43 (2019): 21469-21477; Fagan, chs. 2, 6-8.

Week 7 (week of May 9) — Explaining the evolution of “higher” forms of culture.  Excerpts, Sahlins and Service, Evolution and Culture, 69-122.; David Graeber and David Wengrow, “Unfreezing the ice age: the truth about humanity’s deep past” and the “indigenous critique”; 1805 Speech of Red Jacket to the Missionaries.

Week 8 (week of May 16) —As we ponder the future of our way of life what should we take away from the case studies and scholarly attempts to explain how cultures adapt and change, survive or collapse?  What were the best insights?  Fagan, ch. 13: “The Silent Elephant”; Marvin Harris, Cannibals and Kings, “Epilogue and Moral Soliloquy,” 287-292; Marshall Sahlins,“Culture as Protein and Profit”; Timothy Mitchell, “Carbon Democracy;” and Will Englund, “Plug-in cars are in the future.  The grid isn’t ready,” Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2021.