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SAPIENS: Why Aid Remains Out of Reach for Some Rohingya Refugees

Even with the right to health care secured, medical assistance is elusive for urban refugees in India.

The anthropology publication SAPIENS has published an article by SMU doctoral candidate Ashvina Patel.

SAPIENS is an editorially independent publication of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research Inc., which is dedicated to popularizing anthropology to a broad audience.

The article, “Why Aid Remains Out of Reach for Some Rohingya Refugees,” published May 17, 2018.

The article resulted from Patel’s 11-month stay in New Delhi, India, in which she interviewed residents of three urban refugee settlements. The purpose was to understand how issues of geopolitics and domestic policy inform various types of human insecurity for refugees.

Patel is currently a visiting student fellow at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre, where she is developing further publications on Rohingya refugee displacement.

She is a doctoral candidate in SMU’s Department of Anthropology. Patel holds an M.A. degree in Cultural Anthropology from SMU and an M.A. in Religion from University of Hawaii, Manoa. As a doctoral student, her research focuses on issues of human insecurity among Rohingya refugees in the context of American resettlement as well as within New Delhi, India as urban refugees. Her research work focuses specifically on defining the subjective experience of human insecurity and how various forms of insecurity are informed by statelessness.

Patel is a student of SMU anthropology professor Caroline Brettell, an internationally recognized immigration expert and Ruth Collins Altshuler Professor and Director of the Interdisciplinary Institute. Brettell is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

A private operating foundation, Wenner-Gren is dedicated to the advancement of anthropology throughout the world. Located in New York City, it is one of the major funding sources for international anthropological research and is actively engaged with the anthropological community through its varied grant, fellowship, networking, conference and symposia programs.

It founded and continues to publish the international journal Current Anthropology, and disseminates the results of its symposia through open-access supplementary issues of this journal. The Foundation works to support all branches of anthropology and closely related disciplines concerned with human biological and cultural origins, development, and variation.

Read the full article.


From the field notes
of SMU PhD candidate Ashvina Patel

Ameena (a pseudonym) is a 25-year-old Rohingya refugee in New Delhi, India, who is seven months pregnant with twins. Her face is gaunt. Often there isn’t enough food at home for her family of five. Nestled among other shanty houses, her home is made of bamboo with scrap boards as paneling; a tattered piece of cloth serves as the front door. Recently, the monsoon rains caused her to slip and fall. Now one of the babies in her womb is not moving. She knows she needs to see a doctor, but she cannot afford one.

When Ameena fled acts of genocide perpetrated by her own government of Myanmar in 2012, she and her husband came to New Delhi. They both suffer from debilitating deformities due to polio, and they heard that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office in New Delhi was helping Rohingya refugees. The UNHCR partners with the Indian government to provide free aid to help people obtain an education, a livelihood, and health care.

But as Ameena and others would learn, being offered access to aid isn’t always enough. Barriers to procuring those free resources often leave urban refugees to fend for themselves; many find they have to negotiate a system that inadvertently creates obstacles to reaching that aid.

Having spent 11 months with the Rohingya community in India from 2015 to 2017, I repeatedly saw how aid missed its intended target. As the UNHCR creates solutions to challenges that refugees face, these solutions can also serve as a catalyst for new obstacles or deepen already existing insecurities by creating additional barriers that are financial, linguistic, cultural, or exploitative. The UNHCR does a lot of good, but the organization could do a better job addressing challenges refugees face in accessing the services to which they are permitted.

Read the full article.

Culture, Society & Family Fossils & Ruins Researcher news Subfeature

Prehistoric humans formed complex mating networks to avoid inbreeding

A new study has sequenced the genomes of individuals from an ancient burial site in Russia and discovered that they were, at most, first cousins, indicating that they had developed sexual partnerships beyond their immediate social and family group.

A new study has identified when humans transitioned from simple systems designed to minimize inbreeding to more complex ones suitable for hunter-gatherer societies.

The study findings are reported in the journal Science and demonstrate that, by at least 34,000 years ago, human hunter-gatherer groups had developed sophisticated social and mating networks that minimized inbreeding.

The study examined genetic information from the remains of modern humans who lived during the early part of the Upper Palaeolithic, a period when modern humans from Africa first colonized western Eurasia, eventually displacing the Neanderthals who lived there before.

The results suggest that people deliberately sought partners beyond their immediate family, and that they were probably connected to a wider network of groups from within which mates were chosen, thus avoiding inbreeding.

The research was carried out by an international team of academics, led by the University of Cambridge, U.K., and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark. The team included SMU archaeologist David J. Meltzer, whose expertise includes the First People in the Americas.

The researchers sequenced the genomes of four individuals from Sunghir, a famous Upper Palaeolithic site in Russia, which was inhabited about 34,000 years ago.

The article, “Ancient genomes show social and reproductive behavior of early Upper Paleolithic foragers,” is published in the Oct. 5, 2017 issue of Science.

Complex mating systems may partly explain modern human survival
Among recent hunter-gatherers, the exchange of mates between groups is embedded into a cultural system of rules, ceremonies and rituals. The symbolism, complexity and time invested in the extraordinarily rich objects and jewellery found in the Sunghir burials, as well as the burials themselves, suggest that these early human societies symbolically marked major events in the life of individuals and their community in ways that foreshadow modern rituals and ceremonies — birth, marriage, death, shared ancestry, shared cultures.

The study’s authors also hint that the early development of more complex mating systems may at least partly explain why modern humans proved successful while other, rival species, such as Neanderthals, did not. More ancient genomic information from both early humans and Neanderthals is needed to test this idea.

The human fossils buried at Sunghir are a unique source of information about early modern human societies of western Eurasia. Sunghir preserves two contemporaneous burials – that of an adult man, and that of two children buried together and which includes the symbolically modified remains of another adult.

To the researchers’ surprise, however, these individuals were not closely related in genetic terms; at the very most, they were second cousins. This is true even for the two children who were buried head-to-head in the same grave.

“What this means is that people in the Upper Palaeolithic, who were living in tiny groups, understood the importance of avoiding inbreeding,” said Eske Willerslev, a professor at St John’s College and the University of Copenhagen, who was senior author on the study. “The data that we have suggest that it was being purposely avoided. This means that they must have developed a system for this purpose. If the small hunter and gathering bands were mixing at random, we would see much greater evidence of inbreeding than we have here.”

Early human societies changed ancestral mating system
The small family bands were likely interconnected within larger networks, facilitating the exchange of peoples between bands in order to maintain diversity, said Martin Sikora, a professor at the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.

Most non-human primate societies are organized around single-sex kin (matrilines or patrilines), where one of the sexes remains resident and the other migrates to another group, thus minimizing inbreeding. At some point, early human societies changed the ancestral mating system into one in which a large number of the individuals that form small resident/foraging units are non-kin, where the relations among units that exchange mating partners are formalized through complex cultural systems.

In at least one Neanderthal case, an individual from the Altai Mountains who died about 50,000 years ago, inbreeding was not avoided, suggesting that the modern human cultural systems that allows to decouple the size of the resident community from the danger of inbreeding was not in place. This leads the researchers to speculate that an early, systematic approach to preventing inbreeding may have helped modern humans to thrive in relation to with other hominins.

This should be treated with caution, however.

“We don’t know why the Altai Neanderthal groups were inbred,” Sikora said. “Maybe they were isolated and that was the only option; or maybe they really did fail to develop a network of connections. We will need more genomic data of diverse Neanderthal populations to be sure.”

Upper Palaeolithic human groups sustained very small group sizes
The researchers were able to sequence the complete genomes of all four individuals found within the two graves at Sunghir. These data were compared with information on both modern and ancient human genomes from across the world.

They found that the four individuals studied were genetically no closer than second cousins, while the adult femur filled with red ochre found in the youngsters’ grave would have belonged to an individual no closer than great-great grandfather of the boys. “This goes against what many would have predicted,” Willerslev said. “I think many researchers had assumed that the people of Sunghir were very closely related, especially the two youngsters from the same grave.”

The people at Sunghir may have been part of a network similar to that of modern day hunter-gatherers, such as Aboriginal Australians and some historical Native American societies. Like their Upper Palaeolithic ancestors, these societies lived in fairly small groups of some 25 people, but they were also connected to a larger community of perhaps 200 people, within which there were rules governing with whom individuals can form partnerships.

“The results from Sunghir show that Upper Palaeolithic human groups could sustain very small group sizes by embedding them in a wide social network of other groups maintained by sophisticated cultural systems,” said Marta Mirazón Lahr, a professor at the University of Cambridge.

Willerslev also highlights a possible link with the unusual sophistication of the ornaments and cultural objects found at Sunghir. Such band-specific cultural expressions may have been used to signal who are “we” versus who are “they,” and thus a means of reinforcing a shared identity built on marriage exchange across foraging units. The number and sophistication of personal ornaments and artefacts found at Sunghir are exceptional even among other modern human burials, and not found among Neanderthals and other hominins.

“The ornamentation is incredible and there is no evidence of anything like that with other hominins,” Willerslev added. “When you put the evidence together, it seems to be telling us about the really big questions: what made these people who they were as a species, and who we are as a result.”

Ancient genomics throw light on aspects of social life
These results show the power of ancient genomics to throw light on aspects of social life among early humans, and pave the way for further studies to explore variation in social and demographic strategies in prehistoric socieities.

“Much of human evolution is about changes in our social and cultural behavior, and the impact this has had on our success as a species. This study takes us a step further toward pinpointing when and why the things that make humans unique evolved,” said Robert Foley, a professor at the University of Cambridge.

Meltzer is Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory in the SMU Department of Anthropology in Dedman College. As a scientist who studies how people first came to inhabit North America, Meltzer in 2009 was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in recognition for his achievements in original scientific research. In 2013 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. — University of Cambridge, SMU

Culture, Society & Family Fossils & Ruins Researcher news Technology

A composite window into human history

Better integration of ancient DNA studies with archaeology promises deeper insights.

DNA testing alone of ancient human remains can’t resolve questions about past societies.

It’s time for geneticists and archaeologists to collaborate more fully in the face of ever greater advancements in ancient DNA research, according to SMU archaeologist David J. Meltzer and his colleagues in a recent article in the scientific journal Science.

The authors write in “A composite window into human history” that over the past decade, DNA testing of ancient human remains has become a valuable tool for studying and understanding past human population histories.

Most notably, for example, is how sequencing of ancient genomes resolved the dispute over our species’ evolutionary relationship with Neanderthals, the authors point out.

Even so, the authors caution that collaboration with archaeologists is key for scientific accuracy as well as navigating ethical implications.

Archaeologists know from the study of artifacts that it isn’t always the case that people who share material culture traits were likewise part of the same biological population.

“One can have similar traits without relatedness, and relatedness without similarity in traits,” say the authors in the article.

At the same time, where there is biological relatedness, cultural relatedness can’t be assumed, nor can language groups indicate that biological populations, material assemblages or even social units are related.

“Geneticists are often keen to use ancient DNA to understand the causes and mechanisms of demographic and cultural change,” the authors write. “But archaeologists long ago abandoned the idea that migrations or encounters between populations are a necessary or sufficient explanation of cultural change.”

The authors make the point that understanding population movements requires broad investigation of many factors, including environmental and social contexts, timing and logistics, how new resources and landscapes were managed, and the transfer of cultural knowledge.

“Hence, it requires evidence for archaeology, paleoecology and other fields to supplement and complement ancient DNA data,” the authors write. “And that entails effective collaboration, one that goes beyond archaeologists serving as passive sample providers.”

Meltzer is Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory in the SMU Department of Anthropology in Dedman College. As a scientist who studies how people first came to inhabit North America, Meltzer in 2009 was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in recognition for his achievements in original scientific research. In 2013 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Co-authors on the perspective piece with Meltzer were Niels N. Johannsen, Aarhus University, Denmark; Greger Larson, University of Oxford; and Marc Vader Linden, University College London.

Culture, Society & Family Feature Fossils & Ruins Researcher news SMU In The News

Sapiens: Why the Famous Folsom Point Isn’t a Smoking Gun

A Folsom spear point was discovered between the ribs of an extinct species of bison — but was it really proof that humans had killed the animal?

The research into the arrival of how and when people first arrived in North America by noted SMU archaeologist David J. Meltzer was covered in the online anthropology magazine Sapiens in a column by Stephen E. Nash, science historian and archaeologist at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

The article, Why the Famous Folsom Point Isn’t a Smoking Gun, published Aug. 29, 2017.

Meltzer, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory in SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, conducts original research into the origins, antiquity and adaptations of the first Americans.

Paleoindians colonized the North American continent at the end of the Ice Age. Meltzer focuses on how those hunter-gatherers met the challenges of moving across and adapting to the vast, ecologically diverse landscape of Late Glacial North America during a time of significant climate change.

Meltzer’s archaeology and history research has been supported by grants from the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, The Potts and Sibley Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution. In 1996, he received a research endowment from Joseph and Ruth Cramer to establish the Quest Archaeological Research Program at SMU, which will support in perpetuity research on the earliest occupants of North America.

Read the full story.


By Stephen E. Nash

Remember the iconic Folsom point? The one that I said, in my last post, changed the future of archaeology?

To recap: On August 29, 1927, paleontologists from the Colorado Museum of Natural History (renamed the Denver Museum of Nature & Science in 2000) discovered a stone projectile point embedded in the ribs of an extinct form of bison.

After making that discovery in the field, the researchers left the point sitting where it was and immediately sent out a call to their colleagues to come to northeastern New Mexico to see it for themselves. Within two weeks a number of well-known scientists had visited the site, seen the point in position, and established a scientific consensus: Native Americans lived and hunted in North America during the end of the last Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago, far earlier than they were previously thought to be here.

It turns out, though, that the story at the Folsom Site was more complicated than researchers initially believed. So what has changed since 1927? The latest part of the story began 20 years ago.

In 1997, David Meltzer, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University who studies “Paleoindians,” the earliest inhabitants of North America, began a three-year project at the Folsom Site to reassess and re-excavate the site using modern tools and techniques—which were not available in the 1920s. His goal was to better understand how, and under what conditions, the Folsom Site formed. Meltzer and his team used now-standard excavation-control techniques to record their findings in three-dimensional space and to determine if any unexcavated areas of the site could be found. In so doing, they hoped to find evidence of the Paleoindian campsite that might have been associated with the main bison-kill and butchering site.

As a result of Meltzer’s research, we now know that the bison-kill event occurred in the fall. How do we know? Bison reproduce, give birth, and grow up on a reasonably predictable annual cycle. Meltzer and his colleagues analyzed dental eruption patterns on excavated bison teeth to determine the season of the kill.

The archaeologists also determined that Folsom hunters were experts at their job, having systematically killed and butchered at least 32 bison at the site.

Read the full story.

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Sapiens: Can Medical Anthropology Solve the Diabetes Dilemma?

As the number of sufferers continues to rise, some researchers are moving in new directions to figure out how culture and lifestyle shape disease outcomes.

Sapiens reporter Kate Ruder covered the research of SMU anthropologist Carolyn Smith-Morris, who has studied diabetes among Arizona’s Pima Indians for more than 15 years.

Smith-Morris wrote about what she learned from her research in her 2006 book, “Diabetes Among the Pima: Stories of Survival.”

The Pima have the highest prevalence of diabetes ever recorded, although the disease is alarmingly on the increase throughout the United States. In an effort to understand the rise of the disease, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) from 1965 to 2007 focused on the Pima to carry out the largest continuous study of diabetes in Native Americans. Researchers examined the environmental and genetic triggers of the disorder, management of the disease, and the treatment of thousands of Pimas.

Smith-Morris is a medical anthropologist and associate professor in the SMU Anthropology Department in Dedman College. Her research addresses chronic disease, particularly diabetes, through ethnographic and mixed methodologies. She has conducted ethnographic research among the Gila River (Akimel O’odham) Indian Community of Southern Arizona, Mexicans and Mexican immigrants to the U.S. and veterans with spinal cord injuries.

The Sapiens article, “Can Medical Anthropology Solve the Diabetes Dilemma?” published Aug. 22, 2017.

Read the full story.


By Kate Ruder

Mary (a pseudonym) was 18 years old and halfway through her second pregnancy when anthropologist Carolyn Smith-Morris met her 10 years ago. Mary, a Pima Indian, was living with her boyfriend, brother, parents, and 9-month-old baby in southern Arizona. She had been diagnosed with gestational diabetes during both of her pregnancies, but she didn’t consider herself diabetic because her diabetes had gone away after her first birth. Perhaps her diagnosis was even a mistake, she felt. Mary often missed her prenatal appointments, because she didn’t have a ride to the hospital from her remote home on the reservation. She considered diabetes testing a “personal thing,” so she didn’t discuss it with her family.

As Smith-Morris’ research revealed, Mary’s story was not unique among Pima women. Many had diabetes, but they didn’t understand the risks. These women’s narratives have helped to explain, in part, why diabetes has been so prevalent in this corner of the world. An astonishing half of all adult Pimas have diabetes.

Medical anthropologists like Smith-Morris are helping the biomedical community untangle the social roots of diabetes and understand how and why the disease is exploding in the United States. Smith-Morris, based out of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, has been working on this cause for over 15 years—from a decade spent among the Pimas, to a new study sponsored by Google aiming to prevent diabetes-related blindness. Anthropology, she says, provides the most holistic perspective of this complex problem: “Anthropology seems to me the only discipline that allows you to look both closely at disease … and from the bird’s eye perspective.”

More than 30 million people in the United States are estimated to have diabetes, and it’s on the rise. If trends continue, 1 out of every 3 American adults could have diabetes by 2050, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The condition involves insulin, a hormone that regulates the way the body uses food for energy. In type 1 diabetes, the body stops making insulin entirely; those affected need daily insulin injections to survive. In type 2 diabetes, which accounts for the vast majority of cases, change is more gradual.The body slowly makes less insulin and becomes less sensitive to it over the years. Gestational diabetes, which strikes during pregnancy, can give mothers a dangerous condition called preeclampsia, which is related to high blood pressure and can harm both mothers and babies. Women with gestational diabetes are more than seven times likelier to later develop type 2 diabetes than women who do not have the condition in pregnancy, and their children are at higher risk of obesity and diabetes. If left untreated, diabetes can cause heart disease, kidney failure, foot problems that can lead to amputation, and blindness.

The preventative measures for type 2 and gestational diabetes are seemingly straightforward: eat healthy foods, lose weight, and exercise. Treatment for both can include taking medications. Yet prevention, lifestyle, and treatment cannot entirely solve the problem; family history, ethnicity, and other factors play a critical role in a person’s susceptibility to type 2 and gestational diabetes. Both forms of diabetes continue to plague Americans, particularly certain groups, including Native Americans. “My interest in diabetes grew out of an interest in Indigenous groups,” says Smith-Morris. “I took on diabetes because it was important to them.”

From 1965 to 2007, the Pimas of Arizona were the focus of the largest continuous study of diabetes in Native Americans. Conducted by researchers from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), it examined the environmental and genetic triggers of the disorder, management of the disease, and the treatment of thousands of Pimas. It also documented that they had the highest prevalence of diabetes ever recorded. The pivotal work told researchers much of what they know about diabetes today, including that obesity is a significant risk factor, and that a mother’s diabetes during pregnancy can pass risk along to her children.

The political and economic contributors to the Pima people’s health problems have long been well-known: Their traditional farming practices collapsed during the late 1800s and early 1900s when non-Native settlers upstream diverted essential water resources, contributing to poverty, sedentariness, and a lack of fresh food. Yet Smith-Morris felt something integral was missing from this picture: the Pimas’ stories.

Read the full story.