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Caballero Prieto |1

Juan A. Caballero Prieto

Writing 2010

07/09/2008

New technology in Anthropology: A journey of renovation and responsibility

Through history, anthropological discovery has been achieved through intensive data

gathering techniques that have defined the way we look at humanity. However risky, the

anthropologist blends into unknown societies, being exposed to different cultures and possible

violence while attempting to understand how those cultures work, and how the individuals live.

In retrospect, thanks to these efforts, we may learn how our ancestors lived and evolved. Many

of these studies include the scientific analysis of mummies, DNA in relation to patrilineal and

matrilineal descendant lines; the analysis of ancient teeth growth patterns, occlusal evidence,

general bone structure measurements, etc. In this report however, I will focus on two

technologies which, in my opinion, are amongst the greatest contributors to the science: CT

scanning and Geometric Morphometrics.

In many cases, especially when anthropology saw its birth, the understanding of cultures

was based on the anthropologists’ own perspective. Analyzing a culture based on one’s own idea

of behavior was a biased way to understand other humans and their cultural environment. This

practice, known as ethnocentrism, which many would characterize as racism, dominated the

science until early in the 20th century. However, thanks to the contributions of new professors,

the understanding we had changed. Anthropologists learned to study cultures from the inside out,

not otherwise.
Technical advances in Anthropology have been slow coming; the belief that

anthropology is a hands-on science in a way reduced the need, or even denied the

acknowledgement, of new technology. However, many scientists advocated the use of new ways

of gathering information that would not destroy the very history anthropology was responsible

for safe keeping. Could the science be considered a cultural preservationist if it destroyed the

very items it wanted to preserve?

As new technologies that provided a greater amount of detail and data emerged, the vast

amount of information provided by them was open to interpretation. The scientists’

responsibility in regards to handling the new data provided by this technology will be analyzed

in this article, as well as the fact that the data so readily available is not only interpreted by

experts, but also the inexperienced, who tend to beautify information to fit a certain goal.

It is my purpose to demonstrate that anthropological technology is not only beneficial for

humanity, but that it also analyzes the data unequivocally, arriving to a logical conclusion. While

some will argue that the findings aided by this data may be ethnocentric, I will demonstrate that

such judgments are made by those who do not understand the data provided, and refuse to follow

the way the new evidence leads us.

CT Scanning Technology

Through history, ancient burial sites have been vandalized all over world. Whether it be

for gold, pottery or simply something old to sell, the grave robbers are responsible for the

destruction of many mummies from many civilizations. In a sense, these invaluable parts of

history and humanity suffered a second form of vandalism; that of the scientist. Though in the

name of knowledge, many mummies have been destroyed by those attempting to save them.
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A study by two professors, Archeologist Kate Robson Brown and Anthropologist Helen

Wood, of two Egyptian mummies skulls (identified only as A and B), demonstrates the uses of

CT scanning technology: “in the century since Petrie (1898) first demonstrated the use of

radiological technology in the study of Egyptian mummies, diagnostic radiology has made an

invaluable contribution to anthropology” (199). Also known as CT scanning, this technology has

helped anthropologists to, in a sense, to see without eyes. Scientists had to physically open an

Egyptian sarcophagus, unwrap the mummy and analyze the remains; now, with CT scanning

technology the body can be studied in better detail than looking at it with the naked eye. In their

study, Brown and Wood explained that “Using a CT HiSpeed Advantage Scanner (G.E. Medical,

USA) in situ [on location] at Addenbrooke’s Teaching Hospital, Cambridge, UK, CT images

were generated of each mummy in the transverse, sagittal and parasagittal planes. At the time of

going to press, the cost of this treatment was approximately UK£30.00” (199). Not only was it

advantageous to use CT scanning on a mummy, but it was also cheap.

The professors explained that “a scan thickness of 5.0 mm resulted in a high level of

resolution of all tissue types.” (200) yielding high definition images of the mummies that could

be used to create 3D modeling of the skulls. Extensive data was gathered in regards to skull size

and thickness, jaw size, wear and tear of the teeth, etc. These measurements were then used for

metrical analysis (also known as Anthropometrics or, as the science explained later, Geometric

Morphometrics) by the scientists to identify, for example, the individual’s sex: “Mummy B does

not exhibit a large frontal sinus and appears gracile in terms of muscle attachments, size of

mastoid processes and gonial angles; this may indicate female sex” (202). In a separate case

study Nikki Eklektos,1 B.Sc. (Hons); Manisha R. Dayal,1 M.Sc.; and Paul R. Manger,1 Ph.D.

also found this technology applicable “to determine the extent of preservation of the mummified
brain” (499) of an man’s skull found fossilized in Africa.

The technology however, does pose problems; while scanning an item may be relatively

cheap, obtaining the machine itself is certainly not. The expertise needed to use a CT scan is very

specific, and asking an anthropologist to put aside his work to learn to use it seems unreasonable.

Therefore the science may depend on outside sources like the hospital mentioned above to obtain

CT scans, which, done in large scales, for multiple individuals, may put a strain on

anthropological grants. However, “the integration of quantitative information from minimal CT

scans with existing data sets is a valuable way to increase our understanding of existing data, and

of generating new information precluded from other types of study” (Brown, Wood 203).

This technology can also spark racial issues. When CT scanning was used to reconstruct

the great Pharaoh Tutankhamen’s face in 2005, controversy regarding the fact that the Pharaoh

seemed to be shown with white skin and non-African characteristics became headline news. The

data was ‘interpreted’ by three separate teams of forensic anthropologists from Egypt, France

and America, in partnership with National Geographic. While the data was solid and interpreted

by people representative of very different locations individual groups still found the data unjust

and misrepresentative. Especially when backed up by people like Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-

1986). A Senegalese Anthropologist, Diop contends in his article “African nations and culture:

From ancient black Egypt to the problems of black Africa today.” that the conception of modern

Egyptians as “Caucasoid” rather than “Negroid” is a preconception of early Egyptologists. He

further asserts that his reasons are made fact by the idea that life for the Ancient Egyptians was

oriented south, towards sub-Saharan Africa (62, 70). These ideas are further supported by F.L.

Williams, R.L. Belcher, and G.J. Armelagos. In their 2005 publication “Forensic

Misclassification of Ancient Nubian Crania: Implications for Assumptions about Human


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Variation” they state that “Pressure from local law enforcement officials who insist on ‘knowing’

the social race of unknowns may prompt some forensic anthropologists to designate racial

affinity (provided that the sex of the individual can be determined), producing classifications that

some have called ‘bureaucratic races’.” The fact that Nubia (located in the ancient Nile) was

Egypt’s closest trader and rival and that they were of “Negroid” characteristics seems to

emphasize that an Egyptian Pharaoh would have never been of “Caucasoid” traits.

General protestors, moved in part by a media outcry, gathered at the opening of the King

Tutankhamen’s exhibit because they did not understand the data presented nor the evidence used

for the famous Pharaoh’s bust. Most scholars agree that the way we look at history may change

as new evidence is presented aided by new technologies. How can someone refute that three

teams from three different parts of the world arrived to the same conclusion? The truth is that

new technologies give us clear data and help us establish new trends that will guide us to an

understanding of who we were and where we came from. Accepting this data is critical to

accepting ourselves.

Zahi Hawass, Egyptian archeologist and Egyptologist, head of Cairo’s Supreme Council

of Antiquities and arguably the best known Egyptologist today stated that "Tutankhamun was not

black, and the portrayal of ancient Egyptian civilisation as black has no element of truth to it"

and that "Egyptians are not Arabs and are not Africans despite the fact that Egypt is in Africa”

(as quoted in the article “Tutankhamun was not black: Egypt antiquities chief”). Are we to

believe those with an agenda or are we to stand on our own feet? Data specification based on CT

scanning cannot lie. If we are to progress towards a future based in understanding we must first

try to understand how this new technology works; especially when that technology helps us

understand ourselves.
Geometric Morphometrics

In his article “Geometric Morphometrics” Dennis E. Slice, Professor of Anthropology at

the University of Vienna explains to us how this new science has contributed greatly to the

anthropological field. Geometric Morphometrics (Morphometrics from now on) uses data

gathered from measurements of distance and angle from a human bone, a piece of clothing, or

anything that may be used to identify a civilization. By creating certain axes based on the

gathered data “their numerical values reflect the unique location and origination of each

specimen with respect to those axes” (Slice 262-263). The results are used to compare

similarities between items of clothing from Africa and Europe, or bone size between species,

helping determine relationships or even common ancestors. One may compare Morphometrics to

Anthropometrics as mentioned above, yet the sciences are different in that Anthropometrics

focuses on the measurements of the human body, while Morphometrics applies to anything with

a shape, carbon based or not.

Some of the problems that Morphometrics poses however are objectivity and

measurement correctiveness. Slice exposes: “Of primary importance is that the analysis of a

limited set of linear distances, ratios, or angles frequently fails to capture the complete spatial

arrangement of the anatomical points (landmarks) on which the measurements are based.” (262)

In other words, lines cannot conform to round corners. The fact that specimens, especially on

humans, may change in size relative to age is also a problem. However methods are being

studied to solve such issues like standardizing measurements and giving reference points that

would bring about a common measure as well as common mathematical data.

Despite its problems, Morphometrics is a great tool when statistical, anatomical or


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processing data is needed in the anthropological field. As Slice asserts: “The stability and, by

now, familiarity of the above process in anthropological research should not be taken as an

indication that the methodology is fixed or that its full potential has been realized. Active

research is underway to extend the basic paradigm to accommodate unique aspects of specific

data sets and research questions, and some of these sophisticated methodologies though

theoretically developed, have yet to be widely applied in anthropological research.” (270)

One may wonder how Morphometric data can be manipulated. Even in well known

magazines and news reports like National Geographic or ABC news the data can be stretched to

match a specific writer’s point of view. In an online article for the ABC news site the reporter,

Lee Dye, not having an anthropological or archeological background interprets evidence in

regards to arrow head data findings in North America, probably gathered in part, thanks to

Morphometrics: “Nobody knows exactly when this happened, but probably about 2,000 years

ago a clever hunter somewhere in North America figured out that if he had a better way to throw

a small spear he would improve his chances of eating dinner that night” (1). The romantic view

tangles the reader into a lack of factual data. While no one knows when it happened, it is known

that the arrow had its beginnings in Africa, over 18,000 years ago. While the author does not

contradict that arrow technology was initiated in Africa he definitely does not corroborate it;

giving the reader the vague idea that bow and arrow technology started “somewhere in North

America” (1). As Dye states later on, there is “no doubt [our wandering hunter] soon learned he

could use his new weapon to vanquish his technologically challenged enemies, who were still in

the spear-and-dart phase, and quite possible the world’s first arms race began” (1). The authors

comments not only portray inaccurate information, but mislead the audience into thinking that

the “first arms race” was initiated in this very country “2000 years ago” when in reality if it’s
even appropriate to name it so, the first “arms race” would have been initiated somewhere in the

Middle East no less than 18.000 years earlier, where bow and arrow where first developed. The

gross misuse of Geometric Morphological data is evident in this publication; intentional or not.

To the interested reader I would suggest Robert L. Bettinger and Jelmer Eerkens’ 11-page

analysis: “Point Typologies, Cultural Transmission, and the Spread of Bow-and-Arrow

Technology in the Prehistoric Great Basin.” While technology advancements make data

available to the masses one must remain cautious of what is read and where it’s coming from.

Conclusion

Ethnography, as Anthropology used to be known, was biased towards male

understanding, ethnocentric and discriminative. However, through advancements in

understanding, and contributions by female anthropologists like Margaret Mead, anthropologists

gained insight in procedures and understanding. Regrettably, as late as the 1970’s, the

technological advances in the field still consisted of interns examining bones, professors

spending years in the field, and hard data gathering with paper and pencil; simply put, hands on

science. Even though the anthropologist is still, by definition, a hands-on scientist, the

technological advances of the last three decades have made progressive changes in how this

“outdated” science is viewed worldwide. Through technology, the science has acquired more

accurate methods for data gathering and analysis; revealing truths that may very well re-write

history as we know it.

The merge with new technologies and further angles of research is a necessity in a world

where everything seems to change in the blink of an eye. Francesca Bray, a professor of Social

Anthropology suggests that the science should not only use new technological methods, but also
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add a branch of its studies based on technology as a culture in itself. Bray proposes “close

anthropological attention not only to representations or consumption of technology, but to the

cultures of the technical communities that produce technologies and to the specific material

effects of technology on perception, communication, and identity” (43).

With such advancements in the science and the speed at which this information is shared

in the world today, anthropologists like Rosa Elena Gaspar the Alba warns that “new

technologies should not be an instrument of control and oppression, but one used for liberation

and education in both developed and underdeveloped societies. Thus social sciences, particularly

anthropology and archeology, utilizing cutting edge technology, increase not restrict the

development of human communities.”(1) It all comes down to responsibility; who is responsible

for what data is used for, and how information is portrayed in this modern world is the key to

understanding the scientist’s role in this issue. Gaspar the Alba denounces that “in the case of

archaeology, not excluding anthropology, its commercialization is something we cannot control:

TV channels and mass media producers are manipulating the information that has been

scientifically generated in order to make the story more attractive to the general public” (3).

Scientists have to make a stand to stop this misuse of data; a stand to apply the technology

appropriately and in a way that will benefit humankind, not confuse it.

In the end, as Gaspar the Alba poses: “will only scientific audiences receive full

information?” (3). As Anthropology turns a page into the 21 st Century, its duty is not only to

modernize, but also to make sure that the information obtained is used properly despite the

commercial usages such information may pose. Anthropology is the ‘Rosetta Stone’ we need to

understand all cultures and all peoples, and the new technologies are affirming its position as a

science that helps us understand who we are and where we come from; developing a sense of
responsibility for such knowledge is essential for its future as a science and its survival as a field.

Bibliography

Bettinger, Robert L.; Eerkens, Jelmer “Point Typologies, Cultural Transmission, and the Spread
C a b a l l e r o P r i e t o | 11

of Bow-and-Arrow Technology in the Prehistoric Great Basin.” American Antiquity,

Vol. 64, No. 2 (1999), pp. 231-242.

Bray, Francesca “Gender and Technology” Annual Review of Anthropology 2007.36:37-53

Brown, Kate Robson; Wood, Helen; “The Utility of Minimal CT Scanning in the Study of Two

Egyptian Mummy Heads” (Short Report) International Journal of Osteoarchaeology 1999

9: 199-204

Cheikh, Anta Diop, “Nations Nègres et Culture. De l'antiquité nègre égyptienne aux problèmes

culturels de l'Afrique Noire d'aujourd'hui”, Tome I, Paris: Présence Africaine, 1979, pp.

62, 70.

Dye Lee “Bow and Arrow Presages First Arms Race” Online publication for ABC News

Eklektos, Nikki; Dayal, Manisha R.; Manger, Paul R. “A Forensic Case Study of a Natural

Mummified Brain from the Bushveld of South Africa” Journal of Forensic Science, May

2006, Vol 51, No. 3

Gaspar de Alba, Rosa Elena (President of the Commission of Visual Anthropology, Mexico)

“Anthropology in the Age of New Technologies” (Online Publication) Jan. 27th 2000

Slice, Dennis B. “Geometric Morphometrics”. Annual Review of Anthropology 2007 .36:261-

281. http://arjournals.annualreviews.org

Unknown Author “Tutankhamun was not black: Egypt antiquities chief” (2007-09-25)

http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5iB6u3XEMp9IrJfl-kH6FHNgZCg_A

Williams, F.L.; Belcher, R.L.; Armelagos, G.J. "Forensic Misclassification of Ancient

Nubian Crania: Implications for Assumptions about Human Variation". Current

Anthropology 2005 .46:341