Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Development Economics on Trial

 Front Cover

I was chatting with my friend Niklas Hultin yesterday when he recommended a book about a conflict between anthropology and economics. On his recommendation, I went to the library here at UCF and read the book right away. It's quite accessible, and is both engaging and well documented with supporting evidence. It's a sobering read for an archaeologist interested in agriculture, because Polly Hill (check out this interview) points out how difficult it is to characterize and describe agriculture in the tropics. Some of her strongest points include how ambiguous official statistics can be, how much inequality there can be (and usually is) among farmers, and how farmers do all kinds of things in addition to cultivating, including loaning and borrowing money, trading, and crafts like blacksmithing. Hill's examples are drawn primarily from sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It seems even more bleak when I consider that these are economists, agronomists and anthropologists who have the chance to talk to farmers, not archaeologists trying to interpret material evidence. On the other hand, in pre-Columbian eastern Bolivia at least we have access to some direct evidence of what fields look like, how big they are, and where they are located. That's not always the case in the tropics, as Hill convincingly emphasizes.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Potato Blight

Photo from the USDA

The Smithsonian's blog highlights research sequencing the organism that caused potato blight in Ireland in the mid 1800s. The blog post (and the comments) show how research like this is connected to modern politics, even when the events are 150 years old. It's also interesting to think that this research made use of botanical collections that were made at the time. Apparently, it could lead to more research using dried plant remains. That would open up the collections of museums and botanical gardens around the world. As far as the relationship between potato blight and the potato famine, I think that Glenn Stone's blog and Eric B. Ross' book about Malthus are worth reading.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Touring Ancient Times

(from Silverman 2002:889)

Back in 2002, Helaine Silverman published this article about tourism and archaeology in American Anthropologist, arguing that the local context is where we should concentrate our attention, rather than exclusively on the nation. Her examples were from Peru, with the Inca capital of Cuzco compared to the Nazca lines. I have been thinking that her comparison is not so different from the difference between the monumental city of Tiwanaku, and the earthworks of the Bolivian Amazon. The Nazca lines and Amazonian earthworks are not so easy to appreciate from ground level, especially for the tourist. I am not by any means an expert on tourism, but I am trying to become more of one, because eastern Bolivia is becoming more accessible all the time, and perhaps with the new UNESCO designation for San Ignacio, more tourists will be interested in visiting.

Silverman, Helaine. 2002. Touring Ancient Times: The Present and Presented Past in Contemporary Peru. American Anthropologist 104(3):881-902.