What makes us human?
Research in the Department of Anthropology spans such diverse topics as the evolution of religion, the interactions of Neanderthals and modern humans, and 21st-century public access to medical care.
But each has a common thread: an interest in humanity, the basic qualities that make us human.
Medical anthropology: A UConn tradition
In the early 19th century, European explorers were sailing around the world, encountering different cultures on different continents. They began to notice very different approaches to human health: peoples had evolved different understandings of disease causation and healing rituals. Some physicians and researchers returned to these civilizations and followed up on these findings.
And thus medical anthropology was born.
"From the very beginning, medical anthropology played a main role in the field of anthropology," says Merrill Singer, professor of anthropology and a principal investigator at UConnís Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention (CHIP). "Health issues are a central part of understanding peopleís cultural way of life."
Health is not just a biological issue, says Singer, but about the interface among biology, human behaviors and culture, and the environment. The field of medical anthropology aims to integrate these human and environmental elements into preventative and educational practices.
"People get sick biosocially, not just biologically," he says. "We want to bring into focus the fact that health issues donít occur in a test tube or in a vacuum, but include things like how people feel about each other, how poor or wealthy they are, how they feel pain and how they express it differently."
By the 1960ís, medical anthropology had grown into a distinct subfield. In 1981, UConnís anthropology department founded the first journal on the subject, titled Medical Anthropology.
"UConn has been at the heart of this field from the very beginning," says Singer. "We have been one of the centers of the field and one of the earliest programs to grant medical anthropology-themed PhDs." The program will celebrate its 40th year in the fall with a reunion of it s graduates.
Singerís work involves using anthropological methods to examine risk factors and prevention of HIV and the impacts of global warming on disease and environmental health. A current project involves the impact of one of the nationís largest chemical fertilizer plants on its neighboring town, rural Donaldsonville, Louisiana.
Singer also collaborates with professor Pamela Erickson, who studies the effects of sexual relationships in inner cities on overall health. This summer they will focus on a study of sexual relationships and health among Latinos in Hartford.
With funding from the National Institute of Mental Health and in partnership with the Institute for Community Research and the Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS at Yale University, Singer and his colleagues will also train post-doctoral minority scholars this summer in community-based research on HIV. The program will teach them community research skills and grant writing to help advance their professional research programs.
"Thereís a long history in Hartford of this kind of work," Singer says. "Many students who were UConn undergraduate and graduate students are working in this community and really making a difference."
How cultures evolve
Human behavior is an underlying theme across the field of anthropology, and professor Richard Sosis explores behavior from a different angle. His work, and that of his colleagues who study evolution, cognition and culture centers around the evolution of culture and human cognition.
"Evolutionary theory is the motivating idea behind our work," he says. "We try to understand how natural selection designed the human mind and the diversity of human behavior."
In the 1970s, in the early stages of evolutionary anthropology, researchers focused on comparisons between animal and human behavior, often by studying foraging and mating strategies of traditional hunter-gatherer societies. But more recently, Sosis says, evolutionary anthropologists are concentrating on the uniqueness of human culture and cognition.
Sosisís work centers on the evolution of religion as part of an emerging field that aims to understand the evolution and cognitive foundations of religious beliefs and behaviors. With two colleagues from Boston University, Sosis founded and edits a new interdisciplinary journal entitled Religion, Brain & Behavior.
To biologists, says Sosis, religion poses an evolutionary puzzle.
"Why would people engage in behaviors that are seemingly contrary to their fitness?" asks Sosis, citing examples such as such as martyrdom, celibacy and self-mutilating rituals.
Evolutionary anthropologists, he says, have offered two primary solutions to the puzzle, or ways that the benefits of practicing religion that could outweigh the costs. In many contexts, religion in many contexts is associated with positive health. And second, religion can increase trust and cohesiveness within groups, potentially making religious groups particularly good at collectively solving problems. Sosisís research has shown that among 19th century U.S. communes, as well as among current Israeli communes known as kibbutzim, religious communes are more cooperative than secular ones.
Sosis has conducted research on religion with his fellow Anthropology colleagues, James Boster and Penn Handwerker, and he is currently working with Peter Turchin of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology department. The cross-disciplinary nature of this work helps to create partnerships among the different departments that are interested in similar questions, he says.
"Working with Peter has really complemented this work," he says. "A major debate in our field is the impact of culture on evolutionary processes, and the challenge is understanding that impact."
Archaeology: a history of firsts
For many people, archaeology is the most glamorous kind of anthropology that exists. Traveling to exotic locales, digging far into the earth and finding traces of ancient civilizations Ė whatís not to love?
Assistant professor Daniel Adler admits that studying archaeology can be very exciting. But he points out that the field isnít just about digging things out of the ground Ė itís much more.
"We study stone tools and animal bones and dirt," he says. "But itís not about finding interesting things -- itís about telling the stories of the past."
UConnís Old World Archaeology program is one of the only ones of its kind in the country, Adler says, because there are so many archaeologists dedicated to the prehistory of the Old World. From Kenya to Israel to Armenia, Greece, Turkey and Syria, the five archaeology faculty study prehistory across Africa and Eurasia.
"We cover a large geographic area and a broad temporal scope," Adler says. "We span a time frame of 500,000 years ago to 6,000 years ago Ė itís a lot of expertise in a lot of different areas."
Adlerís work focuses on Neanderthals in the Caucasus Mountains on the border between Europe and Asia. He studies the differences between Neanderthals and modern humans, from the perspective of the Neanderthals. His work complements that of professor and department head Sally McBrearty, who studies the origin of modern humans in Africa.
"Together weíre interested in what happened when modern humans and Neanderthals met," he says.
In recent years, the department has gained international recognition for discoveries that give insight into the evolution of human society. In 2009, McBrearty and post-doctoral researcher Cara Roure Johnson discovered the oldest known human-made blades, pushing the capability to fashion them back roughly 150,000 years to about 500,000 years ago. Natalie Munro also gained fame in 2010 for discovering the oldest known human feast in an ancient burial site in Israel.
Since 2009, Adler has been working with UConnís Armenian Studies program to take a group of undergraduates on a study abroad trip to Armenia, where they participate in active Neanderthal excavations. The trips have fostered relationships between UConn and Armenia and allowed several Armenian-Americans to visit the country for the first time.
Whether or not they continue to study archaeology after college, students in the program are challenged to become critical consumers of anthropological and archaeological information, Adler says.
"The underlying issue is the appreciation of differences in people, and these differences existed in the past like the do today," he says. "Itís ultimately all about the people."