Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Taino Research Targeted for Deletion

In a very public manner, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are seeking to ban funding by the National Science Foundation for a range of anthropological and archaeological projects, including one that is specifically about pre-colonial Taino society and culture. This news came from the American Anthropological Association which sent out the following communique:

The NSF Authorization bill for FY2008 is scheduled to come up for debate today on the House floor. Two proposed amendments – introduced by Reps. John Campbell (R-CA) and Scott Garrett (R-NJ) – would prohibit funding of nine already funded National Science Foundation grants in the Social, Behavioral and Economics Science Division based on their “silly” titles. Five of the nine grants targeted fall under the anthropology or archaeology portfolios. There are also amendments being considered to reduce NSF’s overall authorized funding level.

In AMENDMENTS to H.R. 1867, offered by Mr. Garrett of New Jersey, he asks that at the end of section 3, the following new subsection be added:

(h) LIMITATION.-None of the funds authorized under this section may be used for research related to

(2) The diet and social stratification in ancient Puerto Rico.

That particular project, which he thinks is "silly," has already won a grant from the NSF and the details are available at

What the amendment is therefore saying is that no funds should be disbursed to a project that has already been approved by the NSF. The researcher in question is one who many of our Taino readers will know of already, Dr. Luis Antonio Curet.

He describes his research project as follows (I could not find the "silly" part):

With the support of the National Science Foundation, an interdisciplinary team of Puerto Rican and American archaeologists, physical anthropologists, and experts in bone chemistry will conduct eighteen months of research into the relationship between the development of social complexity and changes in human diet at four prehistoric Puerto Rican sites. The principal goal of this work is an increased understanding of the changes in the consumption of foodstuffs over time that may reflect broader transformations of society.

At the time of European conquest, many of the indigenous peoples of Puerto Rico were organized in stratified societies that have been described by modern anthropologists as chiefdoms. These stratified societies had developed locally in Puerto Rico from earlier egalitarian groups through a series of socio-cultural changes that took place over more than 4000 years of occupation. While a great deal of research has been directed at understanding the causes and consequences of increasing social hierarchization in regions like Mesopotamia, Mexico, and the Andes, comparatively little effort has been expended on regions such as the Caribbean. The present study aims to address just one portion of the issues surrounding the development of social stratification in this traditionally under-studied region through the study of food, which in many societies is an excellent barometer of social difference (e.g., such as caviar and pheasants in Western cultures). This work will attempt to tease out changes in the patterns of food consumption through time, focusing on the elucidation of differences in diet between common people and a developing social elite.

In order to accomplish these goals, a rigorous methodology for the study of prehistoric diets will be employed involving the analysis of a large sample (ca. 250 individuals) of human remains from the four sites. Diet will be analyzed at an individual level by means of the chemical analysis of the bones and possible foodstuffs. A technique called stable isotope analysis allows for the relatively precise discrimination of the diets of long-deceased individuals. The data derived from this analysis will be coupled with detailed archaeological information from the sites under analysis and will be rigorously chronologically controlled through the radiocarbon dating of all individuals under study.

The intellectual merit of this project is twofold: First, it seeks to study the in situ development of social stratification in a part of the world that has traditionally received short shrift. Second, it attempts to track social change at the level of the individual, through the study of their diets, rather than using aggregate measures. This technique will allow for the production of much finer-grained data allowing for far more robust theory building and evaluation.

The impacts of the present project will be felt on a broad scale first because the methodology employed will be able to be implemented in the study of other regions and societies, and second because the results of the study will be widely disseminated to both academic and lay constituencies. This project will assist in the training of both Puerto Rican and American (graduate and undergraduate) students and will facilitate further collaboration between Caribbeanists on one hand and American archaeologists on the other.

For those of you who are resident in the United States, please consider calling your Representative and lodging your protest. Only in a totalitarian society do politicians get to set research agendas, and given the number of Republicans who believe that the Earth really was made in six days, sometime around 5000 years ago, readers should be very alarmed.

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