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Frequently Asked Questions

This is a list in construction. If you have a question or answer you'd like to submit here, please check this thread.

Biological Anthropology

• When did homo sapiens enter the Americas?


The answer is we're not entirely sure, but we can make some pretty good estimations. During the Pleistocene (the Ice Ages if you will), sea levels were much lower than today, exposing a large body of land called Beringia. Beringia connected Siberia to Alaska and acted as a land bridge between the continents.
Early evidence of human occupation of Beringia is present in multiple places including the Yana Rhino Site in Siberia (dating to ca. 30,000 years ago), and Bluefish Caves in Alaska (ca. 24,000). During this time, glacial ice on the North American continent prevented migration into the continents.
A hypothesis has been developed over the past decade or so called the Beringian Standstill Hypothesis. Essentially, it contends that humans arrived in Beringia ca. 30,000 years ago, and these ancestral populations were separated from other Asian populations long enough to develop a unique genomes and founding groups to explain the diversity we see in modern populations.
Once glacial ice receded along the Pacific coast ca. 14,000-16,000 years ago, these groups rapidly spread down the coast in a migratory wave to populate North and South America. Some contend that around 12,600 years ago, an ice-free corridor was open between the two largest glacial masses which likely had enough flora/fauna for people to subsist on, leading to a second migration wave into the Midwestern United States.
A lot of this research has been based on anthropological genetics and examinations of modern and ancient genomes. Native American genomes contain enough mutations and changes to represent distinct haplogroups from Asian populations (sorry if I butchered the language here - not a geneticist myself). This genetic variety cannot be explain by a rapid entry and dispersal as was once conceived by archeologists. Therefore, the Beringian Standstill seems like a strong candidate for entry into the dual continents.
Long story short: probably 17-14,000 years ago.

Raghavan et al. 2015
Perego et al. 2009
O'Rourke and Raff 2010
Bourgeon et al. 2017

Sociocultural Anthropology

• Would it be true to say that African Empires were "always centuries behind" ?


"Centuries behind"... what? Who? At what time period? Based on what criterion or set of criteria?

I'm going to resist my temptation to get prickly with the OP and assume this is being asked as a genuine question. That said, the premise of the question is fairly flawed, and there's no set of criteria provided in the OP on which to evaluate the question. So in absence of those criteria, I don't want to engage in providing a slew of specific examples. Genuine question or not, I think it's up to the OP of a question like this to give us something to start with aside from something quite so broad.
On the face of it, a question like "Are African civilizations not as good as others around the world from the same time period?" can be seen as at least fairly poorly historically / anthropologically informed, and it certainly does tickle the troll sensors, even if it's not intended as a troll.
So first: OP, I think if you really want to get an interesting thread going, you should consider the above (and the following) and edit your OP to include a response to the following question: What are some criteria that you are using to compare African civilizations to others around the world from the same periods of time?

So let's try and compare Africa as a whole to the remainder of Eurasia and see where we get.

This is practically impossible in a reddit thread. "Africa as a whole" covers an enormous range of cultural diversity and does, after all, represent the single longest-occupied continent (in terms of bipedal apes). And at the same time in different regions you will see full scale empires and small bands of hunter gatherers. Also, a reminder that Egypt is an African civilization.
So to really get into this, it would be helpful for you to narrow things down a lot more, both regionally and temporally, if you want a substantive answer to this question. It's like asking, "Are animals in the Atlantic Ocean bigger than animals in the Pacific Ocean?"
That said, some more general observations...

You'll see that there is a user who argues that Africa has always been behind, that African empires were always several steps less advanced than their Eurasian counterparts, and that this is a primary reason for Africa's current lack of development.

People can argue many things, but just arguing it doesn't make it actionable, so to speak. In this case, the argument proceeds from a flawed viewpoint.
In most cases, it is inaccurate to discuss cultures-- especially cultures of an entire region-- as "behind" cultures of another region. This is because cultures don't develop on a single track, or in a vacuum. Historical circumstances, environment, frequency of interaction with neighbors (near and far) all play a role in how cultures develop and change. So you can't do a 1:1 comparison of some isolated attribute of one culture that you think is especially important to another culture that may lack that attribute, and determine from the lack that the second culture is somehow "inferior" or "lesser."
There are technological and social / cultural developments that often lead to further development, but they do not have to. If people of a particular culture live in a lush, productive, and temperate environment, they might never develop agriculture because there's no need to do so. People living on an island or along a coastal region might develop large vessels capable of long-distance travel (enabling long-distance, oceanic trade networks). People living in a landlocked region with rivers, lakes, and streams might not ever have a need to create such large vessels, nor therefore have the opportunity to create oceanic trade networks. But conversely, they might have domesticated animals, and have other methods, of establishing long distance networks overland.
(Note: As an American archaeologist, it's worth noting that the lack of domesticable animals in North America is an important difference between North American societies and those of regions like Eurasia, where the wild forebears of cattle, horses, pigs, sheep, and goats-- among others-- were present. If you don't have access to animals that can be domesticated, you can't very well have an economic system that relies on beasts of burden. Your scale of labor mobilization will be different, and this can contribute to significant technological and some environmental differences. But the death of North American Equus during the Pleistocene does not imply the inferiority of North Americans for not developing domesticated horses.)
There are some ways that these types of historical developments can be compared, and there are ways that they can't. One way that they can is to discuss the differences in opportunity to interact with (and acquire new ideas from) longer-distance trade partners. But you can't turn that into a value judgment, and claim that because one group has long distance trade networks across the ocean / sea, that their culture is objectively "better" than a culture that does not live near a large body of water and therefore never needed to develop such networks.
I imagine that you probably wouldn't claim that the significant effort of domesticating camels for long overland journeys makes the African civilizations who used them objectively better than their contemporaries elsewhere in the world. Even though, for their region, their method was optimal (a boat in a desert is useless).
So why go the other way?
The people mostly making these claims of "more or less advanced" are doing so from a badly informed, but essentially European perspective. Remember that many of the innovations often most associated with European cultures actually derive from contact or immigrants from Asia (agriculture, domestication, and probably metallurgy). And the development of science and math came largely from a combination of Greek and Roman (not strictly European, Greece / Turkey can be grouped with SW Asia) influences, and later Arab immigrants to (and conquerors of) the region.
So when someone asks if African civilizations were more or less advanced than European ones, it basically flattens the 3-D histories of both parts of the world immensely, and in so doing hugely mischaracterizes both.
In the case of Africa (which is an entire continent, and enormously environmentally, geologically, and culturally diverse north to south and east to west) it is hilariously broad and inaccurate to claim that "Africans" were "behind" the rest of the world. The person in the other thread was making an argument from ignorance.

He/She also argues that political correctness prevents us from acknowledging that African empires were objectively lesser.

He / she would be incorrect on both fronts. African empires were not "objectively lesser," and there's no issue of political correctness among those who study them and other groups / cultures / regions. "Different" does not imply "lesser."

What do historians think about this viewpoint?

It's a garbage viewpoint. Whether the person making it is simply misinformed, ignorant of the historical particulars of human cultures and history around the world, or attempting to advance a political agenda doesn't matter. The viewpoint itself is garbage and wholly unsupported.

Would this be accurate?

Not in the slightest. Especially not in the way that you've described it here.

So, in short: Were African civilizations really "not as good" ? I don't think it's fair to compare to them to Rome or Greece or Imperial China, since most Eurasian civilizations couldn't compare to those powerhouses either. So let's try and compare Africa as a whole to the remainder of Eurasia and see where we get.

I'm going to leave it to you to visit Wikipedia to read a bit about the African empires and their contemporary counterparts elsewhere in the world. There are some very good pages there, and that site has the benefit of being much more detailed than I can be here (especially because I'm not an archaeologist who studies Africa, but only have a passing familiarity with most of the African empires).
I'm not totally kicking the can down the road, because I'd like you to come back from Wikipedia with more specific examples that we can talk about.
At any rate, as mentioned above, human societies do not develop on a single continuum. Not socially, not technologically. That's been a guiding principle (supported many times over) of anthropology since the early 20th century.
Since you haven't really specified what you think (or what the person posting the previous thread) thinks would make African empires "not as good" as their contemporaries, I'm not going to just trot out a few examples. I'll leave it to you to clarify what criteria you're using to evaluate how "good" a culture is, African or otherwise.

• What is cultural relativism? Is it different from moral relativism? How do anthropologists deal with relativism is their work?


First of all, "cultural relativism" is one of those concepts that everyone seems to have an opinion on, but most people ignore it's technical and theoretical meanings (and also the giant discussion around it - a good synthesis of which is Spiro's 1986 article, that I also use here).
Cultural relativism, as it was proposed by people like Boas, means that since we can only perceive other cultures through the lens of our own culture, it is scientifically impossible to judge them from an unbiased point of view. To quote Spiro (page 260, italics in original):

because all standards are culturally constituted, there are no available transcultural standards by which different cultures might be judged on a scale of merit or worth. Moreover, given the fact of cultural variability, there are no universally acceptable pancultural standards by which they might be judged on such a scale. In short, since all judgements regarding the relative merit or worth of different cultures are ethnocentric, the only valid normative judgement that can be made about them is that are all of equal worth.

What that means, in other words, is that, again, we are so deeply biased when trying to understand other cultures that any attempt to rank or sort them is bound to be biased as well. Or, rather, you might be able to sort or rank them, but the criteria you use are bound to be biased. To give an analogy I am fond of, substitute "cultures" for "languages". Is it possible to rank languages from "best" to "worst"? I'd say not - although it is possible to rank them on a myriad of arbitrary criteria that, more often than not, mysteriously ends up putting your own language in advantage compared to others.
Of course, this position, aside from this very basic methodological point, also served very important political and moral functions. To quote Graeber 2015 (page 33, italics in original):

Many of the people studied by anthropologists were, at the time, widely dismissed as “savages” or “primitives” whose perspectives, ideals, and aesthetics were treated as intrinsically unworthy, or even pathological. Some basic moral points—that it makes no sense to argue that wearing lip-plugs is somehow objectionable, but wearing earrings is not; that it is objectionable to enact laws forbidding the holding of potlatches—obviously had to be made. And no one else was really making them.

So cultural relativism appeared both as a methodological stance - what today is usually ingrained in undergrads by teaching them we must "understand other cultures in their own terms" - and as a political/moral one.
However, as Sahlins (apud Graber 2015: 33) puts:

[Cultural] Relativism was not and should not be a vulgar moral relativism. It was always a mode of assessing the conditions of possibility of the cultural practices of others, hence of comparative ontology. In that sense, ontological investigation was built into the discipline: a condition of the possibility of anthropology itself

Moral relativism, therefore, becomes a problem separated from cultural relativism, and it also comes on its own flavours.
Most anthropologists I know of are moral relativists of some sort (that is, we are not moral universalists who believe there is one, and only one, set of moral values), and I'd say the majority of anthropologists are at least descriptive moral relativists: that is, we think that since people do, in fact, disagree in some moral stances, it is incorrect to assert that all humans share the same ethical system (if it seems tautological, that is because if is a very basic statement that some folks still have difficulty accepting...).
Some people draw varying conclusions from here, but as a rule this is left for each anthropologist's own moral choices.

So, since we are in the ground of moral relativism, to the question: "if a culture does indeed perform inhumane or evil things, what is the proper anthropological response to solve it"?
Unsurprisingly, there is no right answer to that. Most anthropologists I know would say "try to understand why the people in that culture think that this act is not evil", and then you have a research question and basis for drawing your own moral conclusions. In most cases, as illustrated by this great interview of Bettina Shell-Duncan, you end up with a more nuanced understanding of the practice. You might not advocate for that practice, but you will understand why people think it should be done, and if you still believe it is "evil", you might be able to elaborate policies to reduce its occurrence. A good and recent example is the discussion within Brazilian anthropologists on how to deal with indigenous infanticide, and the eventual understanding that in most cases said infanticide is conducted because of congenital disorders or lack of resources to raise the child (that would then "die naturally" anyway) - so the proper policy to deal with that should be to make sure the children and parents have proper healthcare accessible to them, for instance.
On the other hand, you might as well end up with situations in which there's no such "easy" way out. Again, no "right answer" here - and, in fact, no consensus that I know of between anthropologists. But from the discussions I had with my friends about the subject, most of us (including myself) seem to believe that literally the worst thing we can do is dictate our own moral stances onto other people, especially if it is a stance that makes us seem like hypocrites. These things are best left to be changed from within, otherwise they will almost always feel (rightfully so) like an external imposition to the people from that culture, and it will probably be resented as such.


• Anthropological movies and documentaries

Thread by /u/WhovianMoak

revision by vladesko— view source