Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

No time to think

On leaving school, my advisor reminded me to always take time to think. That seemed like a reasonable suggestion, as I trudged off to teach, write, and, of course, think. But the modern academy doesn’t share this value; faculty are increasingly prodded to “produce” more articles, more presentations, more grant applications, and more PhD students.

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In memoriam: Sidney Mintz

Professor Sidney Mintz passed away on 26 December 2015, at the age of 93. “Sid” as he was affectionately called by his acquaintances, taught for two decades at Yale University and went on to found the Anthropology Department at Johns Hopkins. His best-known work, Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History, was published in 1985.

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Did human grammar(s) evolve?

In order to hypothesize about the evolutionary origins of grammar, it is essential to rely on some theory or model of human grammars. Interestingly, scholars engaged in the theoretical study of grammar (syntacticians), particularly those working within the influential framework associated with linguist Noam Chomsky, have been reluctant to consider a gradualist, selection-based approach to grammar.

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Mentalizing in groups

‘Mentalizing’ is the new word for making sense of oneself, others, and intersubjective transactions in terms of inner motivations. It can be fast and intuitive (implicit mentalizing), as in most informal and routine interactions, or slow and elaborate (explicit mentalizing), when one steps back to indulge in reflective thinking. “Why did she say that?” The thought is such an integral part of being human that it is most often taken for granted. Yet it is an evolutionary achievement.

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We are all African, but we also have our own histories

In May 2015, at a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya, a French-led international team announced the discovery of the oldest stone tools known yet. Dating back to more than 3.3 million years ago, these crude flakes, cores, and anvils represent the earliest steps in our evolution into a species reliant on, if not defined by, the use of tools and other manufactured objects. Coined the ‘pre-Oldowan’ or ‘Lomekwian’ after the site in West Turkana at which they were found, these tools are larger and cruder than the more recent Oldowan industry.

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Selfies in black abayas

Today, when worlds collide with equal force and consequence as speeding cars on a California highway, can we imagine escaping the impact of even a single collision? Is the option of being miraculously air-lifted out of the interminable traffic log-jams available for us, even if we are spared physical injury? Just as avoiding California highways is an impossibility (given the systemic destruction of public transportation system), meeting head-on forces of neoliberal globalization with its unique technological, financial, and ideological structures is an inevitability.

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Ritual in our lives [quiz]

Whether we know it or not, ritual pervades our lives, silently guiding our daily behavior. Like language, tool use, and music, ritual is a constituent element of what it means to be human, joining together culture, archaeology, and biology. The study of ritual, therefore, is a reflection on human nature and the society we inhabit.

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Trust in the aftermath of terror

In the days following the terrorist attack in Paris on 11 January, thousands of people took to the street in solidarity with the victims and in defense of free speech, and many declared ‘Je suis Charlie’ on social media around the world. The scene is familiar with what we have seen in several other countries in the aftermath of major terrorist attacks.

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Druids and nature

How far back in time European communities began to recognize and chart the movements of the sun, moon, and stars it is impossible to say, but for the mobile hunting bands of the Palaeolithic period, following large herds through the forests of Europe and returning to base camps when the hunt was over, the ability to navigate using the stars would have been vital to existence.

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Ebola: the epidemic’s next phase

Although the number of Ebola cases and deaths has jumped dramatically in the short time since we wrote our December Briefing on the epidemic, there are signs of hope. Ebola is slowing down in areas where there was previously high transmission, in Liberia and in Eastern Sierra Leone for example.

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Meeting and mating with our ancient cousins

Two of the biggest scientific breakthroughs in paleoanthropology occurred in 2010. Not only had we determined a draft genome of an extinct Neandertal from bones that lay in the Earth for tens of thousands of years, but the genome from another heretofore unknown ancient human relative, dubbed the Denisovans, was also announced. A one-hundred-year-old conundrum was finally answered: did we mate with Neandertals?

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Earthquake at the lightning huaca of San Catequilla de Pichincha

On 12 August 2014 at precisely 2:58 a.m., a 5.1 earthquake struck, centered at the hilltop lightning huaca San Catequilla de Pichincha. Since this initial earthquake, there were fifty-seven aftershocks, all centered at or close to this hill. Cerro Catequilla is situated where the Río Monjas empties into the Río Guayllabamba, approximately 15 km north of Quito in the Pomasqui Valley directly east of the town of San Antonio.

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What constitutes a “real” refugee?

Refugee identity is often shrouded in suspicion, speculation and rumour. Of course everyone wants to protect “real” refugees, but it often seems – upon reading the papers – that the real challenge is to find them among the interlopers: the “bogus asylum seekers”, the “queue jumpers”, the “illegals”. Yet these distinctions and definitions shatter the moment we subject them to critical scrutiny.

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Anthropology and Christianity

The relationship between anthropologists and Christian identity and belief is a riddle. I first became interested in it by studying the intellectual reasons for the loss of faith given by figures in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are an obvious set of such intellectual triggers.

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Thinking more about our teeth

Most of us only think about teeth when something’s wrong with them — when they come in crooked, break, or begin to rot. But take a minute to consider your teeth as the extraordinary feat of engineering they are. They concentrate and transmit the forces needed to break food, again and again, up to millions of times over a lifetime. And they do it without themselves being broken in the process — with the very same raw materials used to make the plants and animals being eaten.

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