Contentious Issues in Anthropology

Course Web page

Anthropology 488/888
  Fall 2012

Class meeting: Tuesday 3:00-5:45 PM, Room 827.1 Oldfather Hall (Anthropology Seminar Room)

Update on Current Issues

Instructor: Raymond Hames
Office: 836 Oldfather Hall

Office Hours:
 Monday 2-4, Tuesday 8-10,
Wednesday 9:30-11:00
Friday 8:00-10:30
Phone # 472-6240


Aim and Scope of Course:

This is a three field (cultural, biological, and archaeology) course designed to acquaint advanced undergraduate and graduate students with current and sometimes controversial issues in anthropology. At the close of their graduate or undergraduate careers students often specialize in particular areas of study and seem to forget that anthropology is an interdisciplinary field. While it is impossible for anyone to keep abreast of all new developments across all fields of anthropology, students should be aware of basic research and contentious issues within the broad discipline of anthropology. In addition, many of these issues receive widespread publicity in the press and it is always interesting for an insider like yourself to judge whether it is accurately portrayed. The aim of this course is to make you knowledgeable and conversant in some of these issues.

All the readings present at least two sides of an issue (e.g., peopling of the Americas, the ecologically noble savage debate) focusing on original initial views, counters, new data, methodological critiques, and alternative explanations.  A major goal in this course is to allow you to become more familiar with the relationship between theory and hypothesis formation, how hypotheses are tested, research methods and design, and how new data is incorporated.  At times these debates are heated and partisans frequently resort to logical fallacies in order to make their points. You will learn how to spot such tactics such as ad hominem ("If you had a PhD you would not have made such an ignorant statement.") ad popularum ("The majority of anthropologists do not take this position, therefore you are wrong."), and the naturalistic fallacy ("That theory cannot be correct because it is immoral.").  Visit Brian Yoder's Fallacy Zoo for a humorous examination of widely used logical fallacies.  Unfortunately, the page is not fully functional.  An even better source on logical fallacies can be found at Fallacy Files.  Throughout the seminar I hope to give you some tips on evaluating theory, methods, research design, and data analysis that will help you determine the strengths and weaknesses of what you read.

Weekly Plan
Each week you will read the assigned articles all of which are locally on-line (usually in PDF format) or in other places on the Internet. Please print them or have them available on your computer for each meeting.  When you come to the seminar to discuss the assigned readings you should have made notes on each of the articles and have prepared a provisional outline that will eventually become a reaction paper of at least 3 pages (undergrads) or 5 pages (grad).  By the way, a page of text is about 290 words.  You will email your papers to me ( the following Saturday morning by 9:00 AM after our Tuesday class.  I will return them via email with my comments and your grade before the next meeting.  When writing please either use MS Word, RTF (most text editors handle this format), or HTML.  Let me know if you have problems with these formats.  The reaction paper should generally follow the guide below.  In seminar I will unpredictably ask to see your preliminary notes and outlines, so bring them with you.  You will be graded on your reaction papers and seminar participation. There will be no final, term paper, or extra-credit work.

Guide to Writing Summaries

In writing your summaries try to organize them by focusing on the following questions:

  • What are the issue or issues under contention?
  • What are the positions taken by each side? Do they have different theoretical perspectives?
  • What kinds of evidence are used to support each position? 
  • Is there a problem with the evidence?  Is it suspect (e.g., poor quality or fragmentary) or not relevant?
  • Are there areas of agreement?
  • Specifically, what kind of additional evidence do we need to settle the controversy and
  • What kind of research is the controversy promoting?

In some of our seminars a faculty guest or "local expert" will be present to serve as a resource in our discussion of the issues. Finally, I am completely open to ideas you might have about issues we might investigate in seminar.  For example, we have no topic for December 6 and I will consult with the class before making a selection.  The structure is modular so there is no problem in adding or subtracting topics.

There is a great web site at Texas A& M University entitled "Anthropology in the News".  It is an extremely useful "one click" source to keep abreast of fast-breaking findings, events, and controversial issues in the field that may become a source of new topics for our course.  Unfortunately, it tends to be dominated by stores in archaeology and biological anthropology.

Rules & Regulations

  • ADA Statement:

Students with disabilities are encouraged to contact the instructor for a confidential discussion of their individual needs for academic accommodation. It is the policy of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to provide flexible and individualized accommodation to students with documented disabilities that may affect their ability to fully participate in course activities or to meet course requirements. To receive accommodation services, students must be registered with the Services for Students with Disabilities (SSD) office, 132 Canfield Administration, 472-3787 voice or TTY.

  • Academic Honesty

Do not plagiarize: all work you submit for this course must be your own.  If not, it should be properly cited.  The university's policy on academic honesty can be found here: 


Readings and Topics for Each Week (beginning with Week 2 for major topics).  Our first meeting
we be organizational with a short discussion of the readings

August 21
Organizational Meeting


Web sites dealing with above issues

August 28
Cannibalism or Witch Disposal?



Additional Readings in the News

"Ethnic Cleansing" in the Southwest (news article)
"Perimortem mutilation of human remains in an early village in the American Southwest: A case for ethnic violence" (the article upon which the above news article is base)

September 4
Indigenous Archaeology


  • "The Premise and the Promise of Indigenous Archaeology" by Cowell-Chanthaphonp et al. (2010)
  • McGhee responds to his critics "Of Strawmen, Herrings, and Frustrated Expectations" by Robert McGhee (2010) 

September 11
Chimpanzee Infanticide and Warfare: unnatural conditions or adaptive behaviors?


Web Sites dealing with Chimpanzee "Politics"

September 18
Moral Engagement, Post-Modernism, and Scientific Anthropology


Web sites & readings dealing with science, public anthropology, and

Margaret Mead vs. Derek Freeman


October 2
Conspicuous Displays


October 9
Evolution and Female Inequality


Web resources on Matriarchy
    Goddess Theory

October 16
Fall Break - No seminar


October 23
Neanderthal: Relative or Dead End? (see
Updates on Current Issues "Neanderthal Burial?")


 Web Resources:

October 30
The Evolution of Menopause (Read Updates on Current Issues "Killer Whale Menopause")


November 6

Liberals, Conservatives, and Morality: A New Perspective



Web Resources
Watch and Listen Haidt

    At the New Yorker
    On YouTube (thanks to Jason)

November 13

WEIRD People


November 20
The Peopling of the Americas: Coastal, Modified Clovis and Solutrean Solutions

In Class Film: Who Were the First Americans? (Recently aired on National Geographic)


November 27
Conservation and Overkill


Web Resources
Some from yours truly on NPR: The Environmental Impact of Coastal Californian Hunter Gathers
Wildlife Utilization in Latin America (United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization publication)
Tragedy of the Commons a fundamental touchstone work
Grayson & Meltzer "A requiem for North American Overkill"

December 4
Readings to be determined