Indiana Jones and the Myth of the Moundbuilders (Big Time Spoiler Alert)

The hat. The whip. That crooked, knowing smile. For Indy fans, any excuse to be in the big-screen presence of their idol is a cause for celebration. Yes, as an archaeologist who was a teenager in the late 80’s, of course I have a soft spot for Henry Jones, Jr., but for the record, I have never, ever been tempted to purchase a fedora, and it takes more than the mere mention of the word “archaeology” to sell me on a movie.

In Lucas & Spielberg’s latest collaboration there were plenty of small pleasures for the archaeologically inclined. For example, there is a hilarious scene where Indy crashes through the university library on a motorcycle, and then a student, without so much as blinking at his unusual entry, approaches him to ask a question, the reply to which is the advice to read V. Gordon Childe. (If that’s not hilarious to you, skip ahead to the next paragraph). We also see Dr. Jones in the classroom lecturing on the famous European site Skara Brae. And, of course, there are the usual sets with funky, cool ruins – I particularly admired the locking/unlocking mechanism on one of the temple doors.

My crowd (two other anthropology professors, myself and a bunch of archaeology students) laughed even harder at the references to life in the academy. See the example above, and feel a professor’s incredulity at how certain students will plague you with questions in any setting – the grocery store, the ladies room, a funeral… Additionally, after a particularly intense action scene, Indy’s young sidekick says to him, “I thought you were a teacher!” This time the reply is, “I am (hesitation), part-time.” This was greeted with howls of amusement in our part of the theater. We gasped in horror, however, when the Dean comes to tell Indy that he has been let go (over a Cold War controversy) and agitated whispers ran up and down the rows: “Omigod! Doesn’t he have tenure?! WTF!”

Another area of satisfaction for long-term followers of the franchise will be the relationship between Indiana and his long-lost love Marion Ravenwood. Kudos to Lucas-Speilberg for bringing back this character and letting her be impetuous, charming, assertive, and competent, all while looking her age. She gets to be a mom too, shouting advice to her son about his fencing technique as he battles a Soviet agent in a ridiculously “unlikely setting.” When asked if he hasn’t had plenty of women since they had parted (Indy chickened out a week before their wedding), Indy replies, “Yeah, and they all had the same problem, none of them were you.” Awwwww. Yay! He realizes that her smart-ass, take-no-prisoners, give-as-good-as-you-get attitude is exactly what he wants in his life and it is impossible not to feel a great sense of righteous balance restored to the universe when they marry at the end.

Now, one eyebrow went up the first time that the words Mesoamerica and then “in Peru” came in quick succession. It came back down a hair when Indy speaks to a local near Nazca and tells his sidekick that the language is “Quechua – a pre-Inkan language.” This trust was ultimately betrayed when the movie’s writers, however, bought into one of the oldest and most offensive of the myths colonizers told about the cultures of the New World: their accomplishments came from being taught by more advanced outsiders. Sigh. So painful. So racist. So unnecessary. That’s right, this movie (complete with a nod to Roswell) explicitly suggests that the peoples of the Americas were taught the skills of agriculture and irrigation by aliens.

This patently offensive idea undermines the accomplishments of New World civilizations and, frankly, is disturbingly hard to kill. Over the last 500 years Europeans and Americans have sought nearly any explanation for the complexity of native cultures in the Americas. Possible influences have been sought in a lost tribe from Israel, European wanderers, and even Atlantis. In the twentieth century extremely popular versions of this vein of thinking have included the idea that the Olmec civilization developed under the influence of priest-kings who came from ancient Egypt, and of course, Von Daniken’s Chariots of the Gods, in which ancient cultures around the world are given inspiration and innovation by aliens.

One of the pieces of evidence that is most commonly cited in this less than rigorous scholarship is the presence of pyramids all over the world. If a pyramid is broadly defined as a building that is wider at the bottom and tapers to the top, it is hardly a mystery as to why this structure would be common. Any small child with a block set will tell you that it is very difficult to make the top wider than the bottom. Ditto for sandcastles. More compelling than my ad hoc engineering arguments, however, is the steady accretion of knowledge from around the world of local, indigenous culture histories. Thousands of archaeologists, working on thousands of sites, analyzing millions of artifacts have allowed us to see that pyramid building in Egypt, for example, is a process, developed out of long-standing traditions related to tombs. In Mesopotamia, pyramids are temples, with their own long trajectory of development that can be traced in the archaeological record.

In the New World, there is clear evidence in Mesoamerica and South America (which is where Peru is by the way, Indy) of the indigenous development of pyramid building traditions. Similarly, in North America, the largest, pyramid-shaped earthen structures of the Mississippian period do not appear suddenly, with no precedent, rather they are part of a long tradition of earth mound building that stretches over thousands of years into the Archaic period in eastern North America. There is absolutely no reason to revert to theories of alien intervention unless you are predisposed to think of Native Americans as dull, lazy, conservative people who lack the initiative, creativity, cleverness, and cultural complexity to be responsible for the archaeological remains we can empirically document in their homelands.

It is precisely these narratives of inherent inferiority that fueled (and later justified) colonial seizures of land, genocide, and the continued oppression of native peoples in the Americas. As long as there are lingering doubts in the public’s mind as to the worth of these first peoples and their cultures, the magnitude of the destruction wrought by Europeans on these continents is downplayed and eased in the dominant culture’s consciousness. Shame on you, Lucas & Spielberg, for fanning those flames! Would it have been so hard for the crystal skulls in the Indiana story to be an indigenous technology? The Soviets could still have been looking for them because of their legendary power. There still could have been an awesome climax in which the temple of the lost city was destroyed because the final skull had been returned.

Ironically, the few times that we hear Indy lecturing or talking to students he seems to be discussing diffusionism. At one point he even tells the students that they will be discussing migration versus exodus next. Maybe this was the archaeological consultant on the movie’s way of crying for help…


To read more about these issues in North America try The Mound Builders, by Robert Silverberg, 1986. Or even Cynthia L. Van Gilder and Douglas K. Charles, 2003. “Archaeology as Cultural Encounter: The Legacy of Hopewell,” in Method, Theory, and Practice in Contemporary Archaeology.

Epiphanies Happen Even When Speaking German

I have been in Germany since August, and taking German lessons since September. I force myself to go to events that are in German, even though I know that I will not be able to understand everything, and that as the evening wears on, I will slowly come to the realization that I understand nothing of import.

Last Saturday evening, I had a minor epiphany. I went to a barbecue, and sat around and talked for two hours, understood almost everything, and even was able to participate in the conversation. The people I talked to even understood me, and I think a couple of times they laughed at my jokes, rather than my extremely flawed grammar, pronunciation, or word choices. I did not day dream, become confused, or tune out. It felt great.

I remember a similar epiphany in 1981 when I was in the Peace Corps and studying Thai. I am sure that professionals in language learning have a word for when these barriers are crossed, but I am not sure what it is. It certainly does feel good.

Is Being A Scholar Right For You? What Business Are You In?

I have often said that I am not in the business of anthropology. By this I mean that while I am trained in the methods and theories of anthropology, I use that training in a different business. I am in the business of insight generation, risk reduction, sometimes cross cultural understanding. But I am not very concerned with the “giving back” to the discipline of anthropology. I enjoy mentoring when someone asks (people should not impose it unrequested), and helping people make that leap from academic to applied work. But I rarely engage in scholarly work of the larger community of anthro folks.

For me, people engaged in the business of anthropology are those that teach the art and science of the discipline, publish scholarly articles and books, are active in scholarly organizations and are usually found in colleges and universities (but thats hardly criteria). Cindy and Donna are certainly in the business of Anthropology and Tony is very much in the business of Sociology.

You as a student of anthropology don’t have to choose one over the other. There are plenty of people that do both. Full-time teachers and published scholars that consult in various applied capacities. There are full-time applied folks that are very involved with applied scholarship. I pose the question because you as an anthropology student can chose to be in thn business of lots of things and still be an anthropologist. I don’t make claims to being a scholar or engage in the traditional scholarly activities for a simple reason: I don’t enjoy it. I have a chapter published in a book. I hated every moment of writing it, and towards the end it just felt it just like so much “yadda-yadda-yadda”. I have done presentations at conferences and classes, but those have been about my career history (perhaps I get invited to serve as a warning to others?). I am a tinker, an inventor, a person that gets the big payoff when I see something change in a very tangible way. For you it might be seeing your name in print, having the opportunity to share the exciting things you have learned with the widest possible audience. It might be teaching.

Or all of the above. But always remember what business you are in at the moment. Knowing what business you are in helps you keep a sharp focus on the outcome you are responsible for and to who.

Message to HTS Anthropologists: You Need an Experimental Control

Colonel Martin Schweitzer testified before two House Armed Services Committee Subcommittees on April 23 about the Human Terrain Team operating in Afghanistan. After reading it, I was not sure whether to jump up and down and yell yippee! because the military is discussing the role of culture in rural Afghanistan, or simply groan because so little of how social scientists think seem to have gotten through yet.
The statement was interesting for outside social scientists to read for a number of reasons, especially for how the military talks about culture, how the military’s understanding of culture works, and general social science research methods.

The first thing that struck me was the language of the military sub-culture. Much of what Colonel Schweitzer writes is an attempt to force what he and his HTT observe into pre-existing ways the military defines social situation. The terminology is replete with references to the military sub-culture, and their views of Afghanistan as being the focus of first security concerns, rather than issues of human relationships, power, kinship, ritual, etc., and other issues social scientists usually think about first But, the oddest terminology for me was his frequent reference to “kinetic operations” which by and large goes undefined, except to note that HTT cultural knowledge means that you have fewer of them. (I think that kinetic operations though has something to do with a type of search and seizure action that the military orders on its own criteria, and then conducts).
Moderately surprising for me was Colonel Schweitzer’s revelation that there might be more than one source of authority in a village, clan, etc. Apparently the army has always assumed that only one particular village elder is “the boss,” and Colonel Schweitzer’s pleasure—and surprise—that approaching a mullah is also effective. This struck me as Anthro 100 level stuff, but if a five member HTS team is what it takes to get across the idea that authority in “tribal” communities might be diffuse, ok, great. After six years in Afghanistan, it is about time that the military understood that such communities do not necessarily operate using the same type of command structure found in an American police force, for that matter, the US Military.
But, the biggest question I had after reading Colonel Schweitzer’s testimony was whether the HTS concept worked or not. Despite the fact that he is speaking to Congress as an advocate for a program which celebrates the use of social science, the data he presented were only anecdotal, and do not reflect systematic evaluation. It may well be that the decline in the number of “kinetic operations” is due to HTS. But, as they say in research methods classes, “correlation does not necessarily imply causation.” Meaning, that just because two things happen at the same time, one does not necessarily cause the other. The classic example illustrating this principle is that you may eat carrots at dawn, and two hours later see more clearly, but it does not necessarily follow that the carrots cause improved eye sight. In the case of a reduced need for kinetic operations, the causes for that over the last year might have included bad weather, poor crops, good intelligence, bad intelligence, new commanders, a switch in Taliban strategy, switch in American strategy, etc. etc. The point being that just because the number of kinetic operations declined, it does not follow that it was caused by HTS.
The odd thing is that in a pilot program such as HTS, a “natural experiment” is easy to develop. The question to ask is, did the number of “kinetic operations” decline any quicker in the area controlled by the brigade, than it did in areas controlled by brigades which did not have HTS? This would presumably be easy to do in Afghanistan where not only are there more than one American brigades, but other countries also have a military presence. Such other sectors as a “control” and then draw conclusions about HTS effectiveness. Such data is also open to the perils of interpretation, but using it is far better than relying on the vague feelings and anecdote alluded to in Colonel Schweitzer’s testimony. The data is probably already in military files somewhere. I hope that it is analyzed before the next Congressional testimony on HTS.

School Bureaucracies and Childhood

Well, I just got another contract to write another great thriller. The first title was “Bureaucratizing the Child,” and it is about how schools shape childhood and adulthood in the United States. This is no longer the title, but it is not clear yet what it will become. First, I need to come up with about 350 pages by August 2010! I picked the subject because I have been profoundly affected by the education system, as I expect most people are. Most of us today spend at least 13 years in school as a base, and then experience dozens more years of experience whether at the university, or as parents. Many of us also take up careers in education—in fact there are 3 million teachers in the United States! As a result, we all think we are experts about schooling, and all have opinions about how schools should be, are, and will become.

The book is not ethnography per se, but it will certainly draw on the stories others tell. Right now, I am reading a book Left Back: A Century of Battles over School Reform by Diane Ravitch. It is a good read, and explains why and how the current American system of public education emerged in the twentieth century. I am also reading a book of essays from George and Louise Spindler regarding the ethnography of classroom interactions in the United States, Germany, and other countries, and a collection of essays by Pierre Bourdieu’s fans about how education systems create the habitus created by school systems.

I really like the subject of schools, even if writing books about schools (or anything else) is extraordinarily tedious. In fact, blogs are much less tedious! Bottom line is that I will be posting now and then stories and thoughts about the ethnography of schooling. I really enjoy getting feedback and ideas from others on this subject, so if you have any thoughts or ideas there is always the comment line below. All ideas, thoughts, references to other books, etc., are welcome!

Anyway, I am pushing into page 8 of Chapter Two right now. Along with the pages I wrote to get the publishing contract, that means only 312 pages to go!

The HTS program has released the sad news of the death of an HTS team member and military personnel

The following announcement can be found on the HTS website at  This announcement is also found at the SWJ Blog were it includes multiple links that tell you more about Mr. Bhatia.

It is with deep sorrow that we must inform you of the tragic death of Michael Bhatia, our social scientist team member assigned to the Afghanistan Human Terrain Team #1, in support of Task Force Currahee based at FOB SALERNO, Khowst Province.

Michael was killed on May 7 when the Humvee he was riding in was struck by an IED. Michael was traveling in a convoy of four vehicles, which were en route to a remote sector of Khowst province. For many years, this part of Khowst had been plagued by a violent inter-tribal conflict concerning land rights. Michael had identified this tribal dispute as a research priority, and was excited to finally be able to visit this area. This trip was the brigade’s initial mission into the area, and it was their intention to initiate a negotiation process between the tribes.

Michael was in the lead vehicle with four other soldiers. Initial forensics indicate that the IED was triggered by a command detonated wire. Michael died immediately in the explosion. Two Army soldiers from Task Force Currahee were also killed in the attack, and two were critically injured.

During the course of his seven-month tour, Michael’s work saved the lives of both US soldiers and Afghan civilians. His former brigade commander, COL Marty Schweitzer testified before Congress on 24 April that the Human Terrain Team of which Michael was a member helped the brigade reduce its lethal operations by 60 to 70%, increase the number of districts supporting the Afghan government from 15 to 83, and reduce Afghan civilian deaths from over 70 during the previous brigade’s tour to 11 during the 4-82’s tour. A copy of Colonel Schweitzer’s comments can be found at:

We will remember Michael for his personal courage, his willingness to endure danger and hardship, his incisive intelligence, his playful sense of humor, his confidence, his devoted character, and his powerful inner light. While his life has ended, he has not disappeared without a trace. He left a powerful effect behind, which will be felt by his friends and colleagues and by the people of Afghanistan for many years to come.

Steve Fondacaro
Program Manager

Montgomery McFate
Senior Social Science Advisor
Human Terrain System

Cindy’s Top Ten Things Anthropologists Should NOT Do When They Are Drunk

10. Operate heavy machinery (for those of you who are looking for a loophole – this not only includes pick-up trucks, but also flot machines, all remote sensing equipment, AND tape recorders)

9. Call your ex and read your CV over the phone

8. Pinch the silver-back male while he’s sleeping just to see what happens

7. Head back to the site to finish that delicate burial excavation while you’ve “never felt better”

6. Take the hominin ancestor skulls out for a good old-fashioned game of bocce

5. Find out if you really can calibrate those radiocarbon dates in your sleep

4. Tell students fieldschool stories (I’m sorry, but you know it’s true)

3. Send crazed email to complete strangers whose research totally bugs you

2. Anything involving the words Dean, Provost, President, Chancellor, CEO, Principal Investigator, OR minor

1. Call your informants and tell them what you really think of their mother (or sister, father, cousin, puberty customs, cuisine, etc.)

More on AAA “Do No Harm” Policies, and Human Terrain System

All this writing about the Human Terrain System, AAA, and the various ethical questions involved leads me to reflect on my own impressions of the US government overseas during the ten years I have been an expatriate.

Except for the one year I was a Fulbright Scholar, I have always been impressed at at how embassy people generally avoid other expatriate Americans like me, or anyone with a bent that does not match their world view.  By and large this leaves out people with an culture or anthropology. Instead, the overseas representatives State Department, the military, or even USAID are focused on Washington’s policies, and tend to do their Washington’s bidding, and refight Washington’s battles.  Local conditions or cultural context are secondary. Everything seen up and down the road by “official America” is seen through Washington’s lenses, and for Washington’s convenience.

My experience in Tanzania, where the US embassy was attacked in 1998 by Al Qaeda, and then re-built as a massive fortified structure provides some examples of this mind-set. When a new gas station was built kitty-corner to the new fortified US embassy compound, the gas station was described by the embassy as a terrorist threat. The founding nationalist president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere was believed by the Ambassador and others at the emgassy to be a Communist even in 2003, because he espoused “African socialism” for a time during his 30+ year long political career.

More expensively, hoe-wielding subsistence peasant farmers in USAID project descriptions became close cousins of tractor-driving Iowa maize farmers in the global economy. In this context, expensive consultants from Iowa (and elsewhere) were sent to offer advice to Tanzanians with hoes. Such projects often did not engage very many new peasant farmers in the world economy. Really destructive of US interests were the US visa policy.  The Washington lens means that all applications for tourist visas they needed to show a substantial bank account (variously rumored to be $10,000 or $20,000), whether you were going to Disneyland, or to visit your American cousin. In other words, all except the richest Tanzanians could forget a trip to the USA.

All such assumptions are convenient from Washington’s perspective, and matched foreign policy goals established in—Washington. But such conveniences are often the opposite of what a cultural ethnographer would recommend if the goals of foreign policy were focused by local understandings about the nature of the relationship betwen Tanzania and the mighty USA.

Like Zenia Helbig who went to Iraq out of grad school recently, I too went to Tanzania right out of grad school in 1994, and was appalled by what by US university standards is explicit racism expressed by employees of the US Embassy, UN employees, as well as the many NGOs working in the Rwandan refugee crisis of 1994-1996. Too often, it was the good “us” (i.e. the expatriates working for the refugees) against the bad “them” that were the refugees and Tanzanian nationals. Stereotypes about incompetence, corruption, and the general view of “what do you expect of a people just out of the Stone Age” abounded. All this is of course from a crowd who had the biggest cars, and best accommodations in a very poor country.

Politics ain’t bean bag, but as it sits now, it is not about anthropology, either.  But I see no reason that foreign aid, foreign relations, and even military operations can’t get just a little anthropology, and especially beyond such stereotypes which inevitably breed resentments on the part of those you try to work with.  None of the people in the American expatriate community had even heard of great theorists of the oppressed like Frantz Fanon, or Walter Rodney. I do not exprct them to agree with Fanon or Rodney, but in a place like Tanzania where the educated do know about such books, I expect foreign aid experts to at least understand their reasoning. This espeically in a country where Rodney himself taught for several years! But what would you expect? Such books are not typically assigned in the university courses like International Relations, Political Science, Business, Economics, Engineering, etc., out of which American foreign aid experts come.

This brings me back to HTS and the AAA. Since the Vietnam War, anthropology has taken a holier than thou attitude toward the activity of the US government overseas. Under a presumed “do no harm” doctrine, they have, as Donna or Cindy once wrote, taken the anthropological toys, and gone home. Or at least back to the university. But unfortunately, “do no harm” policies in such circumstances often result in harm as a result of omission.

The do no harm policy of course prevents mistakes of commission, since anthropologists are rarely in a position to do harm. But, unfortunately, such policies mean that anthropologists will not intervene when they should.  This is what has happened in the conduct of US foreign policy in the Iraq, Tanzania, and elsewhere. As a result of the “do no harm doctrine”, flawed policies developed in the culture of Washington are routinely unchallenged within bureaucracies dominated by people from disciplines that teach that technology, economics, power, and anything besides inequlaity or culture is at the heart of the world’s problems.  It is fine and dandy that anthropology knows that this is not true.  But unless such mistakes are confronted on the ground, and students are encouraged to take anthropological insight into ethically difficult circumstances, mistakes of omission are likely to continue.  The result of course is that massive fortified embassies will continue to be built in some of the world’s poorest countries.

Anthropology could well be one of the key disciplines focusing the conduct of American foreign policy, but it is not. As a result, few American expatriates working overseas have spent much time in a rural village doing ethnography, reading Fanon, Malinowski, Boas, or anything else an anthropologist is more likely to know about. In the planning meetings, there is no one hammering away at the importance of culture, or the general assumption that “they are just like us, and motivated by the same wants we have.”  And when projects inevitably fail, there is no one there to object to complaints that the locals are all corrupt, incompetent, backwards, “one step beyond the Stone Age”, uneducated, naturally cruel, greedy, etc. etc. True, anthropology cannot be blamed for the failure of the problems such attitudes create. But anthropology is not part of the solution, either.

What are the costs of such errors of omission? Sins of omission are difficult to evaluate, because they always involve asking “what would have happened if we had done something else…?” But such questions are now becoming popular when evaluating events like Gettysburg (e.g. what would have happened if Pickett’s charge had succeeded?). Permit me to ask what might have happened if American anthropology had engaged the foreign and military services after Vietnam, rather than taking their toys and going home. How about this:

–Language competence in Russian, Arabic, Swahili, and Turkic languages would be routine at senior levels of the Foreign Service and the military.

–Home stays in remote villages where people haul their own water would be routinely sought by Foreign Service Officers, and encouraged by their bosses.

–Foreign aid programs would be designed by officers working in the countries and villages where the program was implemented, not in the hallways of Congress, the State Department, and the Pentagon

–Work in a number of embassies (including Tanzania) would be considered an honor, rather than a “hardship posting” on the way to western Europe

–Visa regulations would reflect the needs of the United States, and the realities of the relationship with the country, rather than demands for obscure documents created in Washington

But these are just the little things. Imagine some of the big things, like

–The billions of dollars squandered in USAID projects as a result of the cultural naivete of engineers and economists

–And of course the catastrophe of wars undertaken in the name of spreading good American values/culture, but has resulted in so many  errors because of the cultural cluelessness of the Foggy Bottom and Pentagon types who rarely if ever sat through a senior seminar contemplating cultural difference.

Ok, that’s enough for this exercise in contingent history. But, to be honest, it beats that other great ethnographic sport, which is sitting around the campfire, and complaining about the harm caused by the incompetence of the State Department (and military) guys and their errors of commission in Tanzania, Iraq, or whereever.

Abuses have occurred and will occur in the conduct of the War in Iraq, which I know many of the members of AAA lament. Personally, I believe that some of these mistakes rise to the level of war crimes, even though few if any will be formally prosecuted. The good news for anthropology is that none of those war crimes will have been committed by anthropologists because after all, they stayed home so that they would “do no harm.” But what would Iraq be like today if anthropology had been at the table?  Not every problem would have been solved, or gone the anthropologically correct way.  But would Lieutenants simplistically complaining about the “bad guys” be promoted to Captain?  Perhaps not…

HTS anthropologists are not the cause of the Abu Ghraib scandals, massacres by enraged Marines, poorly targeted bombings, Blackwater massacres at traffic circles or any of the other publicized and unpublicized atrocities. The State and Defense Department folks created the conditions for these tragedies to occur all on their own, and without anthropological insight. That’s the good news for anthropology—the crimes and accidents of war occurred without their involvement.

The bad news for the victims of war crimes, is that the crimes themselves might not have occurred in the first place if anthropology had created a sub-culture informed by the ethics and wisdom of an engaged anthropology. Such could have been the case, but has not been the case since anthropology began blaming itself for the excesses of the Vietnam War.


Waters, Tony “American Relations with Tanzania, African Studies Quarterly, 2006.

Time again for Maker Fair, May 3 and 4 in San Mateo, California!

This weekend is the annual Maker Faire in San Mateo, California.  This is far and away my favorite event of the  year, and I am going to miss it.  I have been to CES, NAB, E3, Detroit Auto Show and the original Cabela’s, but nothing beats Maker Faire for kick ass inspiration.  The exhibits range from the serious to the fantasy.  Where else can you find engineers from JPL in the same building as a guy in a folding chair explaining how all physics as we know it are a fraud?  Nerdy parents will find plenty to keep even the little kids entertained, its frankly a good time all around.  Oh, a hint from last year, all the really off the wall stuff was in the southern most building.  Thats the best part, even better then the power tool races.

It was $15 or $20 last year I think.  Get the two day pass, you wont regret it.