28 January 2014

Podcast/Interview with Marie-Lais Emond on the stone circles on Melville Kopjies, Johannesburg

Podcast/Interview with Marie-Lais Emond on the stone circles on Melville Kopjies, Johannesburg

Robert Thornton, Anthropology, University of the Witwatersrand

This is a podcast/radio interview that I did with Marie-Lais Emond, for a programme called “A place called Melville” on the South African community radio station Radio Today, 1485 AM.

I talk about my developing interpretation of these sites as ‘sacred sites’ and ritual places, that are probably more or less identical to the stone-demarcated ritual and sacred spaces that are used by the African Indigenous/Independent Churches (AICs ) as they are sometimes known, or African syncretic Christain sects.  These groups meet all over Johannesburg in parkland wetlands, and ‘wilderness’ areas, dressed in white, blue, & green ritual clothing. 

The interpretation I am offering here is similar to the transformation that David Lewis-Williams created in the field of rock art by seeing it as ritual spaces connected with what he calls ‘shamanic’ healing rituals of the San.  I am interpreting the archaeological landscape—what amounts to rock ‘landscape art’—in a similar way.

It is nice to reach a more popular audience, and I am grateful to the interviewer, Marie-Lais Emond, and her team for giving me the opportunity to speak in this forum.

If you happen to read this, please feel free to comment: Robert.thornton@wits.ac.za

The program can be found as follows:
A Place called Melville – 27 January 2014 Guests Robert Thornton
From the Website (above):

The stone circle on the Melville Koppies has the mystery and misinterpretations cleared up by anthropologist Robert Thornton.
Presented by Alastair Graham and Marie-Lais Emond 
Photo: Walking in the ruins of a lost world in Melville Koppies

 26° 10.209'S
 28° 0.088’E 

06 January 2014

Upcoming conferences for 2014

Well, I’m trying to get a schedule of conferences together for 2014, and have so far sent abstracts off to two of them

The proposal, or abstract is: 
A new archaeology of glass beads in southern Africa, 500-1200 CE
Robert Thornton (Anthropology, Wits University, South Africa)
Jonathan Thornton (Art Conservation, Buffalo State College, USA)
Our experimental reconstruction of glass bead technologies, OLM, SEM, EDS, and XRF studies of their internal structure, ethnographic evidence, and reanalysis of archaeological materials, provides a basis for a radical reinterpretation of the origin, trade, and production of glass beads in the archaeological record.  According to the current standard interpretation, glass beads were all traded into southern Africa from a few sources in the Indian Ocean (‘Trade Wind’ beads), Egypt, and/or the Middle East, and they were all either ‘wound’ (on a mandrel) or ‘drawn’ (as tubes from a molten mass of glass).  In addition, it has been argued that beads constituted ‘wealth’ for class-stratified, agro-pastoral societies. For instance, micro-structural evidence shows that some (many?) beads were made of sintered powdered glass, not ‘wound’ or ‘drawn’.  Experimental reconstruction of possible early pyrotechnologies shows that glass could have been manufactured from raw materials plentiful in the southern African areas where glass beads are found, and experimental reproduction of glass beads that strongly resemble archaeological beads at K2, Mapungubwe, etc., show that glass and glass beads could have been produced locally, possibly at many sites across southern Africa, and probably were.   Re-analysis of ethnographic and historical evidence shows that beads in African societies were primarily used in ritual and healing, rather than as wealth or currency.  This leads to new understandings of historical trade patterns and of social structures in first millennium African societies implying, for instance, that Indian Ocean trade in glass beads was multi-sited and reciprocal, involving societies structured around sacred sites with ritual-technological specialisation, rather than (or in addition to?) class stratification. 

The second paper-to-be is proposed for the Association for Social Anthropology in Edinburgh, in June.  

The proposal is: 
Human sexuality and human origins: The occlusion of sex and the exclusion of social anthropology from the human evolution debate

Robert Thornton, Anthropology, University of the Witwatersrand
We must include a distinctly human sexuality with tool-making, fire, language, etc., in the original human skill set that made the emergence of Homo sapiens sapiens possible.  The lack of an adequately anthropological theory of sex has excluded social anthropology from debates on human origins.
Long Abstract
The emergence of the ‘human’ from hominidae, and of ‘human nature’ from nature, must surely have involved the emergence of a human sexuality from a ‘natural’ sexuality.  Paradigms rooted in Christian theology and Darwinian evolution have precluded the conceptual separation of human sex/uality from reproduction, and have therefore prevented social anthropologists from engaging usefully with the human origins debate.    A distinctly human sexuality, however, can be clearly distinguished from the sex/uality of other mammals by re-envisioning sex as a distinct form of social action/agency, and by recognising that, for humans, sex and reproduction are different forms of (social) action, even as they are often culturally conflated. Many Enlightenment debates revolved around the utility and rationale for ‘marriage’ as a sort of proxy for human sexuality, even as they necessarily failed to grasp the significance of the sexual.  I argue that the emergence of a specifically human sexuality, together with tool-making, fire, language, etc., in the original human skill set, was one of the enabling conditions for the emergence of humanity per se.  If the emergence of a distinctly human, culturally-configured sexuality can be seen as part of the original human skill set, then sex (as social action) had already separated itself from reproduction (and therefore natural selection).  This perspective allows social anthropology to re-enter the discussion of human origins, and provides new perspectives on the relation between sex, religion, and human evolution.