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Anthropology: A Reflection on "Being"

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Anthropology: A Reflection on “Being”

            For me, anthropology is about more than the mere study of the past and present cultures and social structures that have brought our species where we are today; it is about discovering my own existence, my place in the cosmos.  Anthropology sparks my interest because it affords me the opportunity to see, in a holistic fashion, just what it is that makes me human, a Homo sapien.  Of the many cross-cultural topics discussed in this introductory-level course, the three that most excite my imagination and compel me to discover more are human mating and genetic diversity, paleoindian culture, and the collapse of civilizations.

            To begin, I was recently involved in the task of discovering and collecting information about my family’s roots, who we are and from where we come.  My travels the past two years across much of east-central Nebraska have included stops at a host of graveyards, and as I search the headstones for names, dates, and ages, I cannot help but ponder the relative fragility, yet continuity, of all human life.  We are born.  We die.  Some are not even born, do not even have the opportunity to see their first sunrise, to experience hopes and dreams, fears and disappointments.  I am not even sure, after the suffering I have witnessed in this life, whether the unborn are unfortunate or actually lucky.  It is much too often a sad and disheartening thing to see the evils that Men visit upon one another in their greed, lust, and ignorance. 

            So, when I drive to these small towns across Nebraska and talk to the inhabitants, photograph the architecture, and study their lives, I am actually seeking something more personal: I am seeking what it means, for me, to be fully human.  I have traveled parts of Asia and Europe, too, and the diversity I see – from the tiny village of Cornlea, Nebraska, population 40, to the massive, people-laden streets of Tokyo, Japan – astonishes me, particularly as I have grown older.  It seems as though there is no end to the wealth of human diversity, particularly genetically, and I often stop to examine my own roots and ask myself where I am going.  I have had a growing need and feeling in my heart and mind to procreate, to leave some genetic heritage to future generations, lest I risk becoming a Darwinian failure.  Never having met my father or his family, I understand the need, also, to pass on not only genetic information to my progeny, but personal experience from which my children – one already here, and one on the way – can benefit.  Thus, human mating and genetic diversity is not some pedantic, academic abstraction: it is about finding the right partner with whom to nurture and develop the next generation.

            Secondly, the study of paleoindian culture intrigues me.  Having immersed myself, now, in a project of researching for a creative nonfiction book on the lives of two Lakota Sioux Indian women whose unsolved murders in Grand Forks, North Dakota left a gaping hole in the lives of both individuals and their community twenty-three years ago, I have felt a growing sense of empathy and identity with native peoples.  The injustices our nation and Europe at large have dealt these indigenous cultures pains me, and I find myself sometimes dwelling on ways to make right what was, and is still, so wrong.  Social justice compels me to craft this story of violence and tragedy with sensitivity and cross-cultural understanding.

            Lastly, as a haphazard, amateur “historian,” I am constantly looking for signs that our civilization has peaked.  The rise and fall of civilizations like the Sarmatians, the Parthians, the Aztecs, and the Incas, to name a few, titillate my intellectual senses, as I imagine myself a inhabitant of any one of these cultures, trying to picture what “a day in the life” would have been.  Had I been on the shores of some 16th century Central American beach watching the arrival of the first Conquistadores to the New World, I would have turned and told the indigenous peoples, “Kill them.  Kill them all!”  Whether initiated within, as is most likely the case, or from without, the end of civilizations perplex me as much as they excite me.

Furthermore, technology, the advent of a new age in human social development, has a curious effect on human evolution, which relates directly to the life cycle of a civilization.  Although it is said that our species has not had the time to change and adapt to the sociological and technological changes brought about by modern society – diet, increased leisure time, and more – we are now at a point where we may soon wield the ability to change the human gene pool with the introduction of genetic engineering and gene-therapy.  Before our species even has the time needed to adapt to these changes, we might just be changing the weighting of our genome before we really even understand what it is that we are doing.  The fall of civilizations of the future may be due not to deforestation, taxing the climate, or uncontrolled decline of resources due to population growth, but may instead be the result of technology itself, or, rather, our lack of understanding of the role technology does and should play in our culture.  Perhaps it is growth and technology that is humanity’s proverbial Pandora’s box. 

In all, this course was not a class I required – it was a course I desired to take.  Anthropology, and the anthropologists who contribute to their field, fascinate me, and I hope to be able to incorporate into my writing career elements such as ethnography, thereby lending my own research and work in nonfiction writing a sense of universality and truth.  Finally, I am grateful for Professor Alan Osborn’s interesting lectures and outrageously dry humor, both of which I found delightful and personally insightful.  More than once I found myself one of the only ones in class laughing aloud.  You have a passion for teaching that shows!


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