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Wenner-Gren Symposium held in Brazil

April 2, 2010

The Biological Anthropology of Modern Human Populations: World Histories, National Styles and International Networks 

March 5-12, 2010
Hotel Rosa dos Ventos
Teresópolis, Brazil
Organizers: Susan Lindee (University of Pennsylvania),  Ricardo Ventura Santos (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and Fundação Oswaldo Cruz).

The Symposium Organizers' Summary Statement:

Today biological anthropology involves the use of sophisticated genetic and genomic technologies and careful attention to the relationships between researchers and research participants and to the ethical collection, storage, and use of collected DNA.   The field has advanced far beyond its early origins in race studies, anatomy, and blood group analysis.   Yet the historical and contextual questions that have long shaped the history of physical and biological anthropology still matter, as reflected in contemporary negotiations around race, ethnicity, and nationalism; the ownership of biological materials; the scientific meanings of populations; field work in the global south; and complex, evolving ethical debates that are  deeply inflected by history.

In this symposium, we explored these questions as part of a critical consideration of the present status and future of biological anthropology.  It was our consensus that human diversity has been a core problem in physical anthropology throughout its history, and that its centrality makes it a useful window for understanding the broader enterprise and charting its possible futures. 

While the term “anthropology” appeared in various texts to describe studies of anatomy in the 16th and 17th centuries, the mathematical and technical study of human populations and their physical characteristics — as a guide to their origins, racial identity, or relationships to other groups — originally developed in Europe at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. The development of a coherent and unified discipline to be known as physical anthropology, which was how biological anthropology was known for much of its history, involved a mid-nineteenth century efflorescence of associations, periodicals, academic chairs, and specialist meetings centered especially in France and Germany.  In the second half of the nineteenth century, in close association with colonial projects and concerns, with their interest in the characteristics of the native peoples in the colonies and in colonists’ adjustment to the newly occupied spaces, groups of physical anthropologists, in general educated doctors with training in anatomy, set themselves up in natural history museums and schools of medicine in many diverse regions in the world.

We hoped that our symposium could provide critical comparative perspectives on this enterprise, with deep attention to the sociopolitical contexts that have long shaped scientific practice.  In our far-ranging discussions, we were attentive to the roles of national politics in the differing development of physical anthropology in Japan, South Africa, Portugal, France, Germany, Brazil, Iceland, and the United States, and also to the ways that social and political contexts influenced the kinds of questions asked and the kinds of answers that seemed compelling and acceptable.   We were particularly interested in how and why some groups, such as the Ainu in Japan, Native Americans in the United States, or Sami in Norway, functioned as markers of nationalist identities.  We looked at the historical consistencies in scientific thinking about populations—the long threads of “isolation” and “hybridity” in two centuries of biological thought.  We also considered in some depth the meanings and management of collections, of blood, bones, skin, and other biological materials central to the scientific and political work of biological anthropology.  Human difference, however it is defined or characterized, has clearly been both a scientific and a social and political problem in many different contexts.  Our discussions helped us think critically about this biosocial phenomenon and its historical importance.

We also addressed in our discussions the transition from a typological and essentialist physical anthropology, which predominated until the first decades of the twentieth century, to a biological anthropology informed by evolutionism, which was initially labeled “new physical anthropology.” This process took on more specific contours in the 1940s and 1950s, being intimately associated with the end of World War II, the so-called “evolutionary synthesis,” and with debates about race, its existence or its irrelevance. If the unfolding of this transition has been well described in the cases of North Am