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The College of Liberal and Fine Arts

More than Just Digs

Anthropologists Confront Modern Human Issues

Decades before global warming became a front-page issue, subsistence farmers in the tiny villages of Papua New Guinea were noticing subtle changes in their environment. Over the past 100 years, sweet potatoes, bananas and taro, the staple crops that sustained their economy, were able to thrive at increasingly higher altitudes in the mountainous nation. Native tropical vegetation and temperature-sensitive wildlife also were creeping higher into the rugged landscape of the Southeast Asian island.

Jerry Jacka was a University of Oregon graduate student doing field research in Papua New Guinea during the mid-1990s. He copiously recorded the farmers' stories, but didn't make much analysis; there was no widespread awareness about climate change. Now, though, as an associate professor of anthropology at UTSA, Jacka has returned to the country to use it as a living laboratory to study human adaptation to the slow warming of global temperatures.

"I realized that the people there have been very cognizant of the progressively warming temperatures over the last 100 years," Jacka said.

His research interest demonstrates the range of contemporary topics being tackled by anthropologists at UTSA. There's still plenty of research into the historical aspects of human-environment interactions, piecing together the story of humanity before written languages captured episodes for the history books. But modern anthropologists also study how people today are adapting to a wide range of global pressures, from climate change to rainforest exploitation to health care needs.

Jacka's research approach has become as global as the issue he is studying. He has embarked on field research in Ghana and Uganda as well as Papua New Guinea, looking at the effect that global warming is having on the lives of subsistence farmers and their communities.

Just about every Papua New Guinea village he visited as a graduate student has relocated further up the mountains in the past 15 years, following the climate change and adapting crops. He also has documented animal and plant species moving to higher altitudes at his study sites in Africa.

"As anthropologists, we are interested in looking at people's responses to changes in their environments," Jacka said. "Are they going to be enough to allow these small-scale villages to deal with the resulting climate changes? What can we do to help them?"

A culture in danger

Assistant professor Michael Cepek journeys to a different remote outpost—the Andean foothills bordering Ecuador and Colombia—where the Cofán nation, an indigenous Amazonian people, struggles against the transformational pressures brought on by modern industrial development in their rain forest environment.

"As anthropologists, we are interested in looking at people's responses to changes in their environments."

Jerry Jacka, associate professor of anthropology

After surviving hundreds of years of conflicts with the Inca Empire, colonial armies and Christian missionaries, the Cofán spent most of the 20th century in isolation. Beginning in the 1960s, however, global thirst for oil brought corporate giants into their jungle region, which covers some of the richest crude reserves in South America.

With them came drilling rigs, pipelines, roads and Western influence. "They now live in the epicenter of the oil exploration industry," Cepek said. "That has radically transformed their lives."

The quest for crude destroyed much of their rain forest territory and put their future in doubt. But now they have bounced back and are asserting their rights in the contemporary political system.

Cepek, who lived for two years in the Cofán community of Zabálo, has studied how Cofán people are developing innovative strategies to protect their cultural and environmental assets. He is writing a book telling the story of the Cofán nation's miraculous turnaround.

"They moved from being one of the most fragile of communities to being one of the most successful," Cepek said. "How did that happen? How was this group able to be that successful?"

Health disparities

Medical anthropologist Jill Fleuriet is staying much closer to home in the pursuit of her research interest—the complex relationship between culture, economic status and health care outcomes. Fleuriet, an associate professor who came to UTSA in 2003, focuses on the culturally rich region of the Texas-Mexico border, where marginalized Mexican immigrant women in need of prenatal care must navigate the American health system.

Usually, low-income minorities have poorer health outcomes than the general population. But Fleuriet is finding that is not the case among pregnant, low-income women who recently immigrated to the United States from Mexico. They give birth to full-term, normal weight babies, contrary to the expectations of public health officials.

"The birth outcomes cannot be explained by diet, social support, or a lack of risk behaviors, such as smoking. So, what is it?" Fleuriet said. "This is the question I am most interested in answering. I think it is cultural—something in the way in which Mexican immigrant women and their friends and family approach the state of being pregnant that defies known risk factors for low birth weight."

Fleuriet spent 12 weeks at a midwifery center and a primary clinic for women in the Rio Grande Valley talking with patients and staff and documenting how the pregnant women act and are treated.

"I want to identify these cultural processes that promote positive birth outcomes," she said. "We know positive birth outcomes correlate with a host of health benefits in babies, infants, even adults. If we can figure out ways to promote positive birth outcomes—from the women themselves—then, hopefully, we can improve upon the structure and content of prenatal care for this and other populations."

Maize and language

Associate professor Robert Hard has delved into the dual topics of agriculture and language history, tracking the development and migration of both among American Indian cultures of North America. Conventional thinking is that language and agriculture spread together, when migratory people took their crops with them as they moved. They traded seeds as market commodities or taught other tribes about the principles of growing crops when they migrated to new lands.

But Hard and a group of researchers published findings last year that paint a more complex picture in North America, suggesting that maize, the staple crop of many native cultures, and Uto-Aztecan, a large family of related native Indian languages, actually migrated in different directions and at different times.

Maize, or corn, was domesticated by people in what is now central Mexico, and the plant spread from south to north between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago, Hard said.

But Uto-Aztecan, he argues, moved south and west, originating from the Great Basin region of what is now the United States around 8,000 years ago.

The study, published in December 2009 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, is a synthesis of studies done by several other researchers who used techniques that included carbon dating of seeds and linguistic analysis of common root words. "It was a lot of looking at a lot of different studies," Hard said.

The study has been fodder for new academic arguments. It will undoubtedly stimulate further interest in exploring the way people adapted to the North American environments in the centuries before written languages captured events for history books.

"It's just cool," Hard said. "There are a lot of interesting puzzles out there for us to figure out."