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Taboo [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Nesbett, Peter T. and Michelle DuBois, "Jacob Lawrence : paintings, drawings, and murals (1935-1999): a catalogue raisonne," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

"Over the line: the art and life of Jacob Lawrence," Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 2000.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.


How Taboos Around Menstruation Are Hurting Women's Health

Smithsonian Magazine

In BBC Magazine and the documentary Menstrual Man, we're introduced to the story of self-taught, DIY inventor Arunachalam Muruganantham. It's a classic feel-good story: Muruganantham triumphs over skepticism and other obstacles to create a homemade sanitary pad manufacturing device that's bringing low-cost, locally made menstrual hygiene products to rural India.

This issue is much, much bigger than one man's quirky and inspiring story: strong stigmas around periods may be affecting everything from gender inequality and economic disparity to the prevalence of serious diseases like cervical cancer. Menstrual bleeding is taboo basically everywhere, including the U.S. (sitcoms and commercials with blue water will attest to this). America is a rich enough country that, even if we're not willing to talk about periods in polite company, women have good access to sanitary pads and tampons. But in other parts of the world, stigmas about menstrual hygiene have more serious consequences than some light embarassment at the drug store counter.

In India, say Natasha Khan and Ketaki Gokhale for Bloomberg Businessweek, girls who start their period often have to give up going to school, a source of huge economic inequality down the line. In Nepal and West Bengal, says WaterAid , women who are menstruating are forced out of religious services, school and even social interactions.

A particularly huge problem, though, may be the health problems caused by lack of education, or lack of access to hygiene products like sanitary pads or tampons, says BBC Magazine. “Approximately 70% of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene.”

Poor menstrual hygiene, caused by practices like reusing old cloths or using sand, leaves or sawdust to absorb menstrual blood, seems to be linked to India's dramatically elevated rate of cervical cancer, says Businessweek. This hygiene-cancer link is backed up by a 2003 study, which found that reusing cloths was associated with a 2.5 times greater risk of serious cervical problems compared to clean cloths or menstrual pads.

The exact health consequences of poor menstrual hygiene are hard to suss out, says a 2013 metanalysis. But the negative effects of the social stigma seem a little more obvious, as women are kept isolated and away from educational opportunities because of a natural part of their reproductive cycle. No one man or organization is going to solve the social aspect of these issues. But efforts like Muruganantham's sanitary pad makers, along with projects like Chitenges 4 ChangeProject Dignity and others, taken together, could help improve the health of women worldwide.

Truman Michelson notes on Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho story, 1930 June

National Anthropological Archives
Digital surrogates are available online.

Digitization and preparation of these materials for online access has been funded through generous support from the Arcadia Fund.

Citation corrected from 3188 (part) to 3188-b on 2/28/12.

Title changed from "Miscellaneous notes June 9, 11, 13, 1930" 5/22/2014.

Place supplied from 47th Annual Report of Bureau of American Ethnology, page 2.

Handwritten Cheyenne linguistic and ethnographic notes and anthropometric data collected by Truman Michelson in Oklahoma. Much of the information is from his work with Mack Haag. The materials include vocabulary and notes on grammar and phonetics; a short story in Arapaho about spider with an interlineal English translation; notes on Cheyenne family and kinship relationships, marriage, divorce, adultery, illegitimacy, incest, pregnancy, death, etc.; and anthropometrical data on 22 Cheyenne adult males, identified by name and age.

New Hebrides Film Project: Tanna Island 1973 and 1974

Human Studies Film Archives
Supplementary materials: still photographs, sound recordings, publications, field notes Cataloging supported by Smithsonian Institution Women's Committee Full film shot on Tanna Island at various ceremonial grounds and house sites in the Yoohnanan village vicinity. Film includes extensive footage of the rehearsals of Tannese dances traditionally performed as part of ceremonial life at the Yoohnanan ceremonial grounds; the male and dances and the female (basket-basket) dance (performed in an atmosphere of "custom" revival); daily sessions of kava drinking illustrating the method by which kava roots are prepared as a beverage and imbibed by men; the sequestering and ritual associated with recently circumcised boys; documentation of a ceremony at which and dances are performed, rituals related to clan alliances of exchanges of kava roots, pigs, and "lap-lap" are made between village groups, and pigs are ritually sacrificed. The custom practices documented in this film record (including the traditional dances, kava drinking, and the wearing of penis wrappers) relate to the revitalization practices of the John Frum cargo cult.

Why People Turn to Lemurs and Other Endangered Animals for Dinner in Madagascar

Smithsonian Magazine

Madagascar is home to many unique and threatened mammals, such as lemurs and small hedgehog-like creatures called tenrecs. Most people wouldn’t think of consuming one of these animals, but for many in Madagascar, bushmeat is on the menu. Scientists assumed that people turned to wild meat just to survive, but two new studies that examine the entire supply chain for this meat have found that consumption of wild mammals in Madagascar is common and far more open a practice than anyone had suspected.

“One of the issues that’s maybe stymied progress [in thwarting the bushmeat trade] is that it always felt like there was a fight between: Are they people starving? Or are they just rich and they want to eat bushmeat as a luxury good?” says the studies’ lead author Kim Reuter, a biologist previously of Temple University and now at Conservation International in Nairobi. “But I want people to see that the reality is less homogenous, in that these are normal people” eating these animals.

In many cases, ordinary people are buying wild meat when they have some extra money, and the commercial part of the bushmeat trade is out in the open and easy to find, Reuter and her colleagues report in PLOS One and an upcoming paper in Environmental Conservation.

A cook prepares wild bat for a restaurant in Madagascar. (Kim Reuter)

Reuter and her colleagues interviewed people in cities and rural towns across northern Madagascar, including in the capital, Antananarivo, in May through August 2013. At every fifth house, the scientists knocked and asked the head of the household about their meat preferences and meat consumption during the last three days, as well as over their lifetime.

The study area covered a cross-section of northern Madagascar, ranging from urban to rural and including many ethnic and religious groups. Some 83 percent of those surveyed said they held taboos against eating certain kinds of meat. These taboos varied by religion, tribe, family and region. Muslims, for example, are not supposed to eat any forest animals, including bushmeat. And families often have taboos against eating specific animals, such as lemurs or tenrecs, which some believe to be associated with bad agricultural harvests.  

Reuter’s team heard other reasons for avoiding bushmeat, as well. “We're in this village in the middle of nowhere,” she recalls, “and this old guy would just tell us, ‘Oh, I don’t eat any lemurs anymore. It’s bad for my cholesterol.’”

Still, 78 percent of people surveyed had eaten wild meat in their lifetimes, and 31 percent had eaten it in the previous six to eight months.

Those surveyed gave different reasons for eating different mammals. For example, they often ate carnivores like the cat-like fossa because the animals ate human food or were threatening farm animals. Lemurs and tenrecs tended to be consumed for subsistence, in contrast, and bats and wild pig were eaten when people had income to spend.

A smaller study, from 2014, had estimated that 98 percent of wild meat in Madagascar was obtained informally, through hunting, bartering or gifting. But Reuter’s team found that in rural areas, about 30 percent of the bat and lemur meat was purchased. And urban residents, their survey showed, purchased 56 percent of the bat meat they ate and 62 percent of their wild pig meat in markets or restaurants. The commercial trade in urban areas was concentrated in a few well-known market stalls and restaurants. Reuter also saw packaged, frozen wild pig available in some supermarkets.

In Madagascar, some market stalls openly sell bushmeat, such as wild pig. (Haley Randell)

These markets and restaurants were not hard to find. “Once we started asking,” says Reuter, “everyone was like, ‘Of course, that place down the street, didn’t you know?’” She had even eaten at one restaurant without noticing that bushmeat was on the menu.

“This type of comprehensive study is really important,” says Drew Cronin, a conservation biologist at Drexel University who studies the bushmeat market in Equatorial Guinea in Africa. “It's hard to target conservation planning unless you've been out there and have the on-the-ground knowledge.”

This new trove of information about wild meat eating suggests that better enforcement of the law help to conserve the rare fauna of Madagascar, says Reuter. Hunting is currently limited by law, but she says none of the hunters she met had a permit to hunt because rules are overly complex and not well-communicated. Outlawing all hunting wouldn’t be a great option, however, because some people do need bushmeat to survive, she says. Conservation efforts might be better spent on targeting the commercial trade in bushmeat at markets and restaurants.

In addition, says Cronin, “Education and outreach is pretty much always positive. The only drawback is, it's a long game.”

During her research, Reuter also noticed that some bat, wild pig and tenrec meat was priced high enough that it’s probably aimed at the tourist market. She suggests educating tourists and adopting a voluntary labeling scheme for meat that has been obtained legally, such as from wild pigs that threatened livestock.

“I believe that if we don’t act on this now,” she says, “it doesn’t matter what research we do. There won’t be much bushmeat left in 10 years to study.”

Wolves Courting at Full Moon

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Female Navajo Figure

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Female figure

National Museum of African Art
Wood standing female figure with a crest hairstyle, arms with paddle hands extending out in front of the body and legs that curve, giving the body a slightly arching appearance. The proper right foot is broken off. Plant fiber forms the handle, and is wrapped around the neck and waist.


NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
Sausage Picture tipi model (Sekondoguat). White background with evenly spaced red horizontal stripes. Horsehair tuft at back center. Unpainted hide door. 54" (137 cm). Records: The only taboo associated with this tipi was against intestines, either as such or as sausage. None should come into the tipi or be eaten by anyone living in it. Informant: Tsonkiada. Model by Tsonkiada. (C). Associated names: Bonhagyato; Dontemti; Tsonkiada. (from Merrill, William L. et al. 1997. A Guide to the Kiowa Collections at the Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology, no. 40. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.)

Lizard Pot

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Male Navajo Figure

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Five Ways to Start Eating Insects

Smithsonian Magazine

In the Mexican state of Oaxaca, crispy, chili-spiced chapulines (grasshoppers) are a common bar snack. Bee and wasp larvae are part of the indigenous cuisines of Taiwan and Japan. Stir-fried beef and ants is a traditional Khmer dish in Cambodia, witchetty grubs have sustained many generations of Aboriginal Australians. Insects, after all, are a source of sustainable protein.

Here are a number of new companies and products trying to make eating insects a more palatable prospect in the West, where the idea of ingesting “creepy crawlies” is still fairly taboo.

The Book of Narcissus

National Anthropological Archives
Receipt not recorded. Transferred to the archives by Chang-su Houchins, November 3, 1994.

Information from Huey-ing Jeng, museum intern from GeorgeWashington University, and Chang-su Houchins, of the Department of Anthropology.

Contents: 1. The structure and function of narcissus; 2. The various terms of narcissus and their origins; 3. The myths of narcissus from China and foreign countries; 4. One poem of narcissus from France; 5. The descriptions of narcissus by the Chinese literati; 6. The poetry of narcissus by the poets ofthe Song dynasty; 7. The discussion about the narcissus is not only found in Zhngzhou area but also in other places; 8. The status of narcissus in the ballad of southern China; 9. The research about the narcissus is originated from Wudan san (a mountain in southeastern China); 10. The research about the Chinese narcissus to determine if it is a foreign import; 11. The decorations, games, and taboos related to the narcissus; 12. The method to plant the narcissus; 13. The method to plant the narcissus; 13. The reason why growing narcissus in Zhangzhou is especially prosperous; 14. The production quantity and market demand of narcissus in Zhangzhou; 15. The god(dess), exercise and other information about narcissus. Included is a separate sheet (19.5X13.7 cm), an advertisement of the book. The name Chunxue (illustrator) is the author's nom de plume.

Crow Pot

Smithsonian American Art Museum

George Carlin

National Portrait Gallery
Born New York City

George Carlin was an American stand-up comedian known for his blunt and unapologetic approach to taboo subjects, including politics, language, psychology and religion. Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine led to his arrest in 1972 for violating obscenity laws. The routine later became central to the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation. In a 5–4 decision, the Court affirmed the government’s power to censor material on public airwaves.

Carlin was a frequent performer and guest host on The Tonight Show during Johnny Carson’s tenure as host. He also appeared in numerous films, including the cult classics Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991). He starred in the sitcom The George Carlin Show from 1993 to 1995 and released fourteen HBO comedy specials. In 2008, Carlin was posthumously awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Remembering the Brilliant Maryam Mirzakhani, the Only Woman to Win a Fields Medal

Smithsonian Magazine

Last Friday, Stanford University mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the first and only woman to receive the Fields Medal, died at the age of 40 reports Kenneth Chang at The New York Times.

The Fields Medal is often described as the Nobel Prize for mathematics—but it's awarded every four years "to recognize outstanding mathematical achievement for existing work and for the promise of future achievement," according to the Fields Medal website. Recipients must all be under the age of 40.

According to a press release, Mirzakhani received the prize in 2014 for her work in theoretical mathematics focusing on the detailed description of curved surfaces. She also published a major work in 2013 along with Alex Eskin describing the path of a billiard ball around a polygonal table. While it seems simple, it’s a problem mathematicians wrestled with for over century, and Mirzakhani and Eskin's solution was called “the beginning of a new era” in mathematics.

While highly theoretical, her work had implications for quantum field theory and theoretical physics as well as engineering, prime numbers and cryptography. “She was in the midst of doing fantastic work,” Peter C. ​Sarnak, a mathematician at Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, tells Chang. “Not only did she solve many problems; in solving problems, she developed tools that are now the bread and butter of people working in the field.”

Mirzakhani was born in Tehran, Iran, and attended an all-girls school in her youth. She wasn't always interested in math, she says in a Quanta Magazine video. "I was more excited about reading novels, and I thought I would become a writer one day," she laughs. But she soon fell in love with the world of numbers.

She went on to become the first woman to join Iran’s International Mathematical Olympiad team, earning gold medals in the competition in 1994 and 1995. She went to college at Tehran’s Sharif University before heading to Harvard, where she earned her doctorate. Her 2004 thesis is considered a masterpiece and led to articles in three top mathematics journals. “The majority of mathematicians will never produce something as good,” Benson Farb, a mathematician at the University of the Chicago said of the work. “And that’s what she did in her thesis.”

Mirzakhani accepted a position at Princeton before moving to Stanford in 2008, where she continued with the work that led her Fields Medal.

While Mirzakhani has had a huge influence on the field of mathematics, her legacy is having a cultural influence on her home country as well. As Saeed Kamali Dehghan reports for The Guardian, after winning the Fields, Mirzakhani was featured on the front pages of several Iranian publications. Most of the images of Mirzakhani were digitally retouched to cover her head with a scarf since it is considered taboo to publish images of women not wearing a hijab. 

But several papers went against the grain, featuring images of Mirzakhani with no head covering. President Hassan Rouhani even posted a photo of Mirzakhani without a head scarf on his Instagram with the caption: “The grievous passing of Maryam Mirzakhani, the eminent Iranian and world-renowned mathematician, is very much heartrending.”

In 2013, at the height of her brief career, Mirzakhani was diagnosed with breast cancer. Last year, the cancer spread to her liver and bones, eventually taking her life. “Maryam had one of the great intellects of our time, and she was a wonderful person,” says colleague Ralph L. Cohen, the Barbara Kimball Browning Professor of Mathematics at Stanford. “She will be tremendously missed.”

Will a New Discovery About Body Odor Lead to Better Deodorants?

Smithsonian Magazine

There’s nothing like being on a crowded subway in summer to make you consider body odor. Why do we smell in the first place? Why can some of us manage to get away with skipping a shower after the gym, while others reek after a quick walk to the park? And how does deodorant work (or not)?

As to why some people smell more or differently than others: age, diet, genetics and—yes—hygiene do play a role. But much has to do with bacteria. Sterile sweat has no scent. But the bacteria who thrive in the cozy moist environment of your armpits convert sweat molecules to smaller compounds, leading to bad odors. Depending on the type of bacteria that happen to live in your particular pits, the odors can range from sour to meaty to oniony to rotten egg-like. Deodorants work by killing some of the bacteria, by covering odors with perfumes, and, usually, by reducing the amount you sweat in the first place. But, as anyone who’s stood nose-to-armpit with a whiffy stranger on a summer subway knows, they don’t work perfectly.

Recently, British researchers made a discovery that furthers our knowledge of bacteria and the odor producing process—a discovery that may one day lead to more effective deodorants. The biologists, at the University of York, found that several species of Staphylococcus bacteria cause the formation of the smelliest compounds. So a relatively small number of bacteria species cause an outsize portion of smelliness.

But how do these bacteria make unscented sweat compounds so smelly?

“We had discovered that a small number of bacteria were able to produce the odorous chemical 3M3SH from an odorless precursor molecule that we secreted from the axilla glands in our underarm,” says biologist Gavin Thomas, co-author of the study published in the journal eLife. “We wanted to figure out how these Staphylococcal bacteria were able to achieve this feat and have been trying to figure this out over the last few years.”

The team eventually decoded a key step in the process: the structure of the transport protein that allows bacteria to recognize and consume sweat compounds. Understanding this protein means that, in theory, new deodorants could be developed to interrupt the process. Since it’s only a relatively small number of bacteria that produce the worst smells, those bacteria could be targeted while the others are left alone.

“It is definitely helpful to have a more complete view of the biochemical, enzymatic and genetic background,” says Chris Callewaert, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, San Diego, who studies body odor, of the new research.

(University of York and Oxford)

But creating new deodorants—something the York team is not involved with—will likely not be easy.

“Bacteria are not only living on the skin epidermis, but also inside the skin,” Callewaert says. “If they find an ‘enzyme-blocker,’ it will still be difficult to supply it in the deeper skin regions, from where body odor formation starts.”

As to why we smell in the first place, Thomas says, “It is possible that the same bacteria have co-evolved with Homo sapiens as part of a mechanism to produce volatile signaling molecules—pheromones to be more precise—with roles in sexual attraction and mate selection.”

Over time, body odor has become taboo in most of the world, says Callewaert, whose own research involves looking at the potential of probiotic deodorants made out of “good bacteria.” In some places, people can even lose their jobs over their scent, he says.

“Bad smell is associated with bad hygiene,” Callewaert says. “At the same time, people with body odor—and certainly the ones that are aware of it—will wash themselves much more, use lots of deodorant and will change their clothes very frequently. So it is not about bad hygiene, but about the microbiome. It is simply not well understood by the public.”

And it has not always been so taboo. Deodorants and antiperspirants have only existed relatively recently in human history. While people have been using perfumes for thousands of years, the first bacteria-killing deodorant wasn't trademarked until 1888, and the first antiperspirant didn't hit the scene until 1903. It took clever advertising campaigns to convince Americans that these products were necessary, emphasizing the humiliation and romantic rejection faced by the smelly. But the manufacturers had major hurdles to overcome before deodorants became the $18 billion industry they are today. After all, some of our fairly recent ancestors seemed to have rather enjoyed the smell of a ripe armpit.

As Thomas says, “I recall Napoleon supposedly writing to Josephine when returning from the battlefield, ‘I am coming home—don’t wash.’”

Fall in Love With Cannibalism This Valentine's Day

Smithsonian Magazine

We "civilized" folk tend to write off cannibalism as a freak phenomenon reserved for psychopaths, starvation and weird animals (I’m looking at you, praying mantis). In fact, eating others of your kind is a well-established biological strategy employed throughout the animal kingdom. Moreover, our own species’ history is rich with examples of this "eccentric" behavior, from medicinal consumption of human body parts in Europe to more epicurean people-eating in China.

In Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History, zoologist and author Bill Schutt uses science, humor and engaging storytelling to expose all the gory details of this underappreciated yet surprisingly scrumptious subject. We spoke with Schutt about some of the more intriguing tidbits he learned while on the cannibalism beat—perfect conversation starters for wooing your Valentine’s date over dinner. 

What’s the biggest misconception surrounding cannibalism in animals?

Until 15 years ago or so, the party line for scientists was that cannibalism was the result of one of two things: Either there’s no food, or we stuck these animals in a cage and now they’re acting bizarrely. In other words, it was caused by starvation or captive conditions. Researchers have recently discovered that that’s a real misconception. In fact, across the whole animal kingdom cannibalism has all sorts of functions—including parental care. 

For example, some birds lay eggs asynchronously as a "lifeboat strategy."  If there’s enough resources they’ll raise both chicks, but if not, they'll kill the younger chick and eat it so the older one survives. Cannibalism can also be a reproductive strategy: If a new male lion takes over the pride, for instance, he’ll kill and eat the existing cubs to make the females come into heat quicker.

Do you have a favorite example of cannibalism in the animal kingdom?

Probably my favorite example is this weird group of legless amphibians, the Caecilians. There are two types of Caecilians: egg-laying ones and ones that give birth to live young. Both have wild adaptations. In the egg layers, the hatchlings peel and eat their mother’s fat-laden skin—which grows back, only to be peeled again, for several weeks.

In the species that give birth to live young, on the other hand, the eggs hatch internally. Scientists were puzzled to find that the young are born with tiny teeth, which were lost soon after birth. They were like, “What’s going on here?” After dissecting some specimens, they found that the lining of the mother’s oviduct in the sections where the babies were developing—another area full of nutritious fat—was literally being eaten by them.

This behavior wasn’t aberrant; it was an evolved form of parental care. That blew me away.

What is cannibalism’s forgotten role in Western history?

The big surprise to me was finding out that medicinal cannibalism was practiced frequently throughout Europe, from the Middle Ages on and lasting even into the beginning of 20th century. When we talk about medicinal cannibalism, we’re talking about using human body parts or blood to treat disease. In most instances, people weren’t being killed to be eaten, although the bodies of the newly dead—or even the not-quite-dead—were often used after public executions. 

In fact, people believed that the more violent the death, the more potent and useful the person’s parts. From blood collected at executions and doled out to treat epileptic seizures to human fat used for skin ailments, to ground up skulls or mummies mixed into elixirs, nobility as well as commoners regularly consumed human parts. 

Why did cannibalism become taboo in the West?

Blame the Greeks. It started with Homer and the Cyclops—the one-eyed giant that eats Odysseus’ men—and then moved on to being demonized by the Romans and Shakespeare. It snowballed from there, with the Brothers Grimm turning it into a threat for children, to Robinson Crusoe and Freud—the list goes on and on. It was seen as something that monsters did.

Culture is king, and Western culture tells you that cannibalism is worst thing you can do in a moral sense. Elsewhere, though, cannibalism was not taboo. As a result, some cultural groups that did not get that kind of Western input were just as horrified to learn that we buried our dead as Westerners were mortified to hear that they cannibalized theirs.

What was the effect of such thinking on other cultures?

As explorers went out and stuck flags in places, one of the main things they started with was a spiel along the lines of, “Oh, and that cannibalism thing you guys practice? You’re not doing that anymore.” It was also used as a tool by these “explorers” to justify destroying whole cultures. If you were seen as a cannibal, then it was ok to hunt you with dogs and butcher you, because you were seen as less than human.

In Spain in the 15th century, Queen Isabella basically told Columbus, “You have to treat people nicely when you meet them—unless they’re cannibals, then all bets are off.” (Or words to that effect.) By labeling millions of people across the Caribbean and Mexico as “cannibals,” the Spanish gave themselves permission to beat, enslave and murder those they encountered. There is not a shred of evidence that indicates that most indigenous groups encountered by the Spaniards were cannibals.

How about in the East, where Western influence arrived much later?

In China, human flesh was baked, boiled, fried and made into soup for maybe 2,000 years. There are all sorts of descriptions about human flesh being preferred—of invaders coming in and eating kids and women because they liked the way they tasted best—and recipes for preparing human meat. China also has a Confucian concept called filial piety, which emphasizes respect and care of elders. In its extreme expression, people would cut off pieces of their own bodies—eyeballs plucked out, part of their own livers removed—all to feed to sick relatives as a last-resort medicinal treatment.

In other cases, it’s not culture but stressful circumstances that lead to cannibalism. You write about the Siege of Leningrad during World War II, for example, when starving residents resorted to cannibalism, or of the Donner Party snowbound in the wilderness in the mid-19th century and forced to eat their dead to survive. Could this happen again?

Absolutely. If you look in the animal kingdom, two of the reasons cannibalism occurs is because of overcrowding (tiger salamander larvae eat each other in too close of quarters) and a lack of alternative forms of nutrition (many spiders, insects and snails lay “trophic eggs”—unfertilized eggs that the young eat when they hatch).

If you put human beings in that position—whether it’s a famine, a siege or they’re stranded somewhere—and there’s no food, then they are going to go through predictable steps in the process of starvation. In the end, they’ll either die or they’re going to consume human flesh, if it’s available.

That’s not based on science fiction but on the history of what has happened when there’s nothing to eat. In the future, if there’s an agricultural collapse in a place where there are suddenly no other forms of nutrition, people might resort to cannibalism. Horrible? Yes, but not surprising or abnormal.

What do examples of stress-induced cannibalism say about the limits of human social norms and morality?

We have these sets of rules we try to follow. But when the going gets tough, that stuff eventually goes out the window. The Donner party were good Christians who never thought that they’d be consuming their own relatives because of the horrible conditions they found themselves in. There’s a biological directive to survive and at that point, when you reach that extreme, you’re not worried about the fact that there’s a taboo. You simply want to live.

Have you ever tasted human flesh?

While investigating the phenomenon of placentophagy (placenta-eating), I was invited to test some for myself. This was during my visit to what was basically a one-stop center for all your placenta-related needs. The husband of the woman who ran the place, a chef, prepared a bit of his wife's placenta osso bucco style. The consistency was like veal, but the flavor was more organ meat—like chicken gizzards. It was delicious.

Why These Stone-Age Farmers Took the Flesh Off Their Dead

Smithsonian Magazine

Scaloria Cave is on the east coast of Italy, on a little nub of land that juts out into the Adriatic Sea. Until 1931, it was sealed off from the world, and since it was first discovered, scientists have been unearthing secrets from the Neolithic remains found there. Now, they've come to a new understand of how these farmers mourned their dead 7,500 years ago—they learned that European farmers used to “deflesh” their dead, Garry Shaw reports for Science

When researchers from the University of Cambridge examined the bones of 22 Neolithic humans, they found evidence of cut marks suggesting that farmers removed residual muscle tissue from select bones, which they transported as far as 12 miles before depositing in the cave up to a year after the person’s death.

Though they aren’t sure what exactly was involved in Neolithic burial rites, reports Shaw, the condition of the bones seems to suggest that the farmers defleshed the bones in order to preserve them at the end of a year-long mourning ritual along with other items like vessels and animal bones.

John Robb, who led the team, thinks the cave was significant to Neolithic mourners due to its impressive stalactites, which resembled the very bones they buried there. Unlike modern mourners, he notes, ancient farmers were more comfortable with the dead:

Death is a cultural taboo for us. People in our culture tend to shun death and try to have brief, once-and-for-all interactions with the dead. But in many ancient cultures, people had prolonged interaction with the dead, either from long, multistage burial rituals such as this one, or because the dead remained present as ancestors, powerful relics, spirits, or potent memories.

The team notes that while defleshing has been found in other cultures worldwide, it’s the first time research has linked the practice to prehistoric Europe. But funeral rites aren’t the only things being revealed by research on the farmers of yesteryear—a team from the University of New Mexico has discovered “elaborate irrigation systems” used by Chilean farmers who were able to harness water in the world’s driest desert.

Commemorative head

National Museum of African Art
Low fired unglazed red ceramic head with tiered hairstyle, beaded necklace and a hole from the top of the head through the neck. Traces of white pigment remain on the eyes.

Kickapoo texts from Joseph Murdock, 1929, 1967

National Anthropological Archives
Microfilm- Sol Tax- 9/11/56; University of Michigan-Anthropology, 10/52.

Digital surrogates are available online.

Digitization and preparation of these materials for online access has been funded through generous support from the Arcadia Fund.

English translations by Alice Abraham mailed to Paul H. Voorhis, who in turn sent them to the NAA.

Title changed from "Kickapoo Legends and ethnology 1929" 6/10/2014.

Notebook containing Kickapoo syllabic texts handwritten in 1929 by Joseph Murdock, a Mexican Kickapoo residing in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Also English translations dictated by Alice Abraham of Shawnee, Oklahoma, and handwritten by her granddaugther Susan in 1967. The texts include a story of why rabbits only have fat on their shoulders and an anecdote from Murdock's courtship days. Other texts are on a virginity test, marriage and natal customs, joking relationships, and father and mother-in-law taboos. The notebook also contains 2 pages of linguistic notes in phonetic transcription with English translations.

The Grisly Details of Early Anatomy Textbooks

Smithsonian Magazine

Early pioneers of the medical field went to great pains to learn about the intricate inner workings of human bodies—studying and sketching every muscle, organ and bone to compile detailed descriptions and images of humans turned inside out.

At the time these images were highly controversial, since dissection of human corpses was taboo. Before the 16th century, majority of medical texts were mostly devoid of images, making it more difficult to teach, learn, and advance the medical field.

But that slowly changed when Flemish physician Andreas Vesalius came on the scene. An exemplary teacher, he tirelessly advocated the need for anatomical images and hands-on dissection practice. And in 1543, he published the famous De Humani Corporis Fabrica, the first medical text rife with images depicting human anatomy in exacting detail.

“An immense achievement, this almost 700 pages long huge folio volume [is] one of the heralds of the scientific revolution,” says Lilla Vekerdy, head of special collections at the Smithsonian Libraries.

Even then, scientists like Vesalius needed real, but deceased, subjects for study and illustration.They often dissected the bodies of hanged criminals, explains Vekerdy. All the way through the 19th century, so-called “body-snatchers”—who often dug up graves—were a major source of medical cadavers for both teaching and creating these detailed illustrations. 

These carefully constructed images paved the way for later greats in the medical field to continue to study and detail the human form in all of its gruesome glory.

On October 29, at 1 p.m. ET, the Smithsonian Libraries is serving up an eerie tour of these centuries old anatomy books via the online video platform Periscope. Join in to learn more about the grisly details of these important milestones in medical history.

An animation of a standing figure from 'De humani corporis fabrica,' 1543 (Smithsonian Libraries)

Editor's note (October 29, 2015): Andreas Vesalius' origins were corrected from Finnish to Flemish.

Kickapoo notes and texts from Joseph Murdock, 1929

National Anthropological Archives
Microfilm-University of Michigan, Anthropology. 10/52. Sol Tax-9/11/56.

Digital surrogates are available online.

Digitization and preparation of these materials for online access has been funded through generous support from the Arcadia Fund.

See MS 1203 for rabbit cycle legend in Kickapoo.

Truman Michelson conducted research among the Kickapoo in 1929 in Shawnee, Oklahoma. During this time, he worked with Joseph Murdock, a Mexican Kickapoo and former student at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. This collection contains an assortment of Kickapoo lingustic notes, ethnographic notes, and stories that Michelson obtained from Murdock. Topics include sin and social crimes, clan organization, childbirth, puberty, ceremonies and rituals, and daughter and father-in-law taboos. Among the stories is an English translation of the rabbit cycle legend (see MS 1203 for Kickapoo text), Murdock's experiences as a boy, and stories illustrating bashfulness before mothers-in-law.

The following is a list of other stories, which are in Kickapoo without English translations: Exchanging tooth with a garter snake; How corn came to be on this earth; Wisakea and the mallard duck; Wisakea and the skunk; Legend of witches; Why people began to kill each other; Why it is that some people can understand children before they talk and why they understand dogs; Woman and dog; The maiden and the man who frightened her; A thunderer is captured and made prisoner; Wisakea bungling host stories; Boy told by the giant to feed the lion straw and the horse meat; Skunk and opossum; Garter snake tooth; The one who was left behind.

Archaeologists in Greece Find Some of the World's Oldest Erotic Graffiti

Smithsonian Magazine

On a rocky outcrop of Astypalaia, a Greek island in Aegean Sea, archaeologists have found a bit of 2,500 year old graffiti that has a particular distinction—it's one of the oldest pieces of erotic graffiti anyone's ever found. The inscriptions are of a rather scandalous nature: they feature penises and phrases celebrating the carvers’ sexual conquests.

One of the inscriptions, reports the Guardian, reads "Νικασίτιμος οφε Τιμίονα"—"Nikasitimos was here mounting Timiona."

From the Guardian:

"We know that in ancient Greece sexual desire between men was not a taboo," added Dr Vlachopoulos, who returned to the far-flung island last week to resume work with a team of topographers, photographers, conservationists and students. "But this graffiti … is not just among the earliest ever discovered. By using the verb in the past continuous [tense], it clearly says that these two men were making love over a long period of time, emphasising the sexual act in a way that is highly unusual in erotic artwork. "

This wasn't the only graffiti found at the site; other carvings depicted ships and spirals representing waves. The presence of writing at the site indicates that literacy was not unusual on the island around the 5th and 6th centuries B.C.

The phallic graffiti is certainly one of the earlier known drawings of phalluses, but there are plenty of examples of erotic art that date back far earlier. A stone artifact found in Israel last year was determined to be a carved penis over 6,000 years old. And the Venus of Hohle Fels, an ivory statuette thought to be the oldest example of erotic art, is somewhere between 35,000 and 45,000 years old. 

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