Life, Anthropology, and Love

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For my love letter to anthropology, I have written a series of short vignettes. As Elizabeth Barrett Browning once wrote, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

***

Holding the fossil cast of KNM-WT 17000, the famous “black skull,” in my hands in college thrilled me. This robust australopithecine struck me as magnificent with its broad cheek bones and its sagittal crest running along the top of its skull. Enormous muscles once ran down from the crest, passing behind the flared cheek bones, to its jaw, ready to work molars as broad as my thumb to chew up food collected on the African Savannah.

The skull, tinted black by manganese-rich soil as it fossilized, was a direct connection to evolution two million years ago. I cradled it in my hands, surrounded by other fossils of presumed ancestors and close cousins, and softly shook me head in awe.

***

I lay on the bench inside the large red cage that housed the juvenile drill monkeys. It was a hot Nigerian morning in Calabar, but in the shade of the mango and avocado trees, the cage was pleasant. The drills, the size of small dogs, sat around me, and groomed me with their eerily human hands. I felt in the lap of luxury.

Their tan coats and intelligent eyes and playful demeanor enchanted me. These young animals, their mothers killed for bush meat, now had a chance to come together as a group at Drill Ranch. Drills are one of the most endangered large primates in the world, and one day these juveniles would become a breeding group, adding crucial numbers and diversity to the very small population of drills around the world.

***

The therapists in Colombia used the biological and psychological theories they had been taught to explain the adolescent boys’ drug problems to me – they are physically dependent on drugs, they lack good ego control, there is family co-dependence. But the explanations the boys gave me themselves seemed much more relevant.

They spoke about “wanting more and more,” how drugs made them “querer más y más.” This wasn’t just physical dependence; after all, many of them used cocaine and crack. But it was something about how drugs affected their brains. And I remembered how evolutionary theory and a focus on biological mechanisms, core parts of biological anthropology, had been so illuminating during my studies in college.

But they also spoke about using drugs with their friends “en la calle,” on the street. Home was rarely a place for use, and these boys generally had serious problems at home – fights with parents, earlier abuse, deaths in the family. The street was often a better place, and friends a way to have fun and support all at once.

Drug use on the street was also social, not simply a matter of physical dependence or even solely of wanting. The boys shared stories about effects, just as they shared drugs together. They sought out specific places to use, for example, a park to smoke marijuana, and used drugs to cope and to forget, for example, glue to take away the hunger and cold of living on the street.

Only anthropology offered me the way to bring together these different insights into these adolescents’ lives.

***

I sat with student after student at the Bogotá high school that offered them another chance. They had failed at other programs, or been kicked out, or on rare occasion, simply wanted to go to school in the afternoon. They wore uniforms, and we sat on benches or on stairs or on the small brick walls build around the trees that grew in various courtyards.

I asked them what they thought of alcohol and marijuana and other drugs. The students had a wide experience with those substances, from kids who had never touched alcohol to recovering drug abusers. And yet their answers contained an eerie similarity.

Alcohol was “bueno y malo,” good and bad; marijuana often called “una hierba”, an herb; drugs were “strong,” worse than alcohol and marijuana.

It was culture in action. Over those interviews, I saw the anthropological theory I learned in graduate school come alive. And that made me see the world in a different way. Culture became real, and what tied people together in spite of often great differences.

***

I read anthropologists’ work on co-sleeping, parents sharing their bed with their babies. Co-sleeping was the typical pattern around the world, and could help prevent Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

It wasn’t the typical thing parents were supposed to do in the United States, where cribs and bottles and every other kind of apparatus filled the “baby’s room” in many homes. But it sounded like the right thing to do to me – to share our life with our new child.

Co-sleeping did make life easier for us, where my wife could easily breastfeed during the night. And we learned almost instantly how to sleep lightly, our senses keyed into murmurs and breath. Unlike people saying we might crush our child, we could actually be more attentive.

And the beauty of waking up in the morning, your new baby beside you, its perfect face healthy and happy in the morning’s light, is such a gift.

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