By | Shasta Webb ’13

Editor’s Note: Anthropology Major Shasta Webb was awarded a William S. Pollitzer Student Travel award to attend the annual conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Knoxville, Tenn. this April. The prize is awarded to students who submit outstanding essays of no more than 750 words in answer to a question related to Biological Anthropology. This year’s question was:

“On a visit to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, you happen to find yourself standing in an elevator next to the president and congressional leaders taking a tour of the facility. As secret service agents check the elevator for security risks, the president comments on your sporty tote bag from the last AAPA meetings. With that opening, lay out your best four minute ‘elevator speech’ as to why the next federal budget should include additional funding for physical anthropology.”

At the conference Shasta will be presenting a poster based on the work that she did while on study abroad in Costa Rica entitled “Behavioral effects of human activity on wild white-faced capuchins (Cebus capucinus) at Curu Wildlife Refuge and Hacienda in Puntarenas, Costa Rica.

Below is her award-winning essay:

Shasta WebbMr. President, there is critical need for funding for the field of Physical Anthropology today. There are too many non-human primates in threatened states, too many cases of auto-immune disorders, too many students in public schools across the nations that don’t understand human origins, and too many unanswered questions about humans and their complex culture to diminish funding for current and future researchers.

You might find it surprising, but the issues stated above are in fact unified in one neat field: physical anthropology. The term broadly means ‘the study of what it means to be human from a biological perspective.’ It’s a field not often mentioned by the general public, but one that plays a central role in many peoples lives across the world whether they know it or not. My personal connection to physical anthropology lies in the non-human primate sector, and specifically focuses on the relationships between humans and non-human primates. On your visit to New Delhi in 2010, do you recall the vast number of monkeys tromping through the parks, streets, and buildings? Doesn’t it seem strange that thousands of so-called wild animals live alongside humans? What happens when humans and monkeys live in such close quarters?

These are questions that must be answered and can only be answered by physical anthropologists. Sadly, humans are responsible for much of the habitat fragmentation that has led to endangerment of over 300 species of primates. Mr. President, you are the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world and international development and conservation must be near the surface of your thoughts. We citizens of the US take so much of the resources the world has to offer—timber, oil, mined goods to name a few—and we should not be able to live with ourselves without giving back to the animals and humans we impact along the way. It sounds radical, it sounds threatening, but I’m afraid we don’t have enough time to see whether or not primates and humans can peacefully coexist.

For me to corner you about primate conservation is selfish. Perhaps the connection between monkeys and the federal budget is too tenuous for you to consider. How about examining the current pandemic of autoimmune disorders plaguing the United States? How many children these days can’t be in the same room as a peanut? You’re own daughter suffers from allergies to a protein in pet dander that is harmless to most humans. Well, physical anthropology, as unlikely as it sounds, can contribute to the growing field of evolutionary medicine. Medical doctors who are easily some of the most admired individuals in our society, are now turning to human evolution for answers to some of the most pressing medical problems of today’s world. Understanding human evolutionary history is critical to understanding how humans change in response to new environments. Why are people allergic to so many substances in this day and age? Is there any hope for the massive discomfort allergies cause on a daily basis? The work of physical anthropologists, especially those who focus intently on the evolution of the human immune system, will be critical in the coming years, which brings me to the issue of the depressing state of science education in the nation today.

Physical anthropology seeks to explain what humans are relative to the rest of life on earth. Without understanding our origins, it is immensely difficult to understand why we do some of the things that we do. Humans are rich and complex and fascinating, but the curiosity that I possess regarding the science behind Homo sapiens is not necessarily paralleled by the upcoming generation. We need more educators in physical anthropology who can draw out curiosity from a younger audience. Physical anthropology needs more financial support in order for the momentum its created in the past decades to continue. Like any field of science, physical anthropology depends on curiosity, questioning, and enthusiasm. Without funding, so much work completed by pioneers in the field will go to waste.

The interconnected nature of physical anthropology, as well as the fact that physical anthropologists are experts at squeezing every possible nugget of knowledge out of each research project they carry out, makes it possible for only a small investment to go a long way. Mr. President, you have an amazing opportunity to make an investment in the future of your American people and the future of primates—both human and non-human—across the globe.

February 21 2013

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