Anthropology—More Than Just Bones: The Torch Podcast

An Interview with Professor Scott Lacy, Ph.D.

On this episode of the Torch, we discuss the field of Anthropology, examining the many aspects of what it means to be Human: our physical makeup, evolutionary history, cultures, languages, and more, to give us a deeper appreciation for humanity as a whole.

Here to discuss that and more is Scott Lacy Ph.D. Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Fairfield University in Connecticut

Image of hands on a cave wall

Anthropology—A Four-Field Discipline

The Great Courses:  A lot of us tend to think of anthropology as looking for skulls and bones, and maybe primate history. It’s a lot more than that. Talk about the sub-disciplines you have in anthropology.

Scott Lacy: In American anthropology, for about a century now, we’ve been a four-field discipline. You’re right, we talk about skulls, we look at skulls, but that’s just a small part.

To break it down in a simple way:

  • biological anthropology – genetics, evolution
  • archeology – what people leave behind
  • linguistics – the spoken word
  • and cultural anthropology – human society and culture

The Great Courses: Got it. By the way, how far back does the record go?

Scott Lacy: Well, the Big Bang. We don’t know why the Big Bang happened, but since then, we can actually go back and trace. I mean we’re earthlings, right? So if we want to understand who we are as humans, in a way, we kind of have to start with earth and the creation of the earth.

The Great Courses: Right, I guess I’m getting at where do we show up? Where do we join the party?

Scott Lacy: I’ll put it this way. As upright walking apes, we’re about seven million years into this history, and the history of the universe. Right? So the past seven million years there have been upright walking apes on the planet.

Learn More: Paleoanthropology and the Homonin Family

The Great Courses: The discipline is so vast, what is your main entry point? Where’s the one where you’re most comfortable in approaching the story of humanity.

Scott Lacy: I am trained in all four sub-fields because it’s the only way to make sense of the seven million years, but my own specialization is in cultural anthropology, and I work in Mali. I’ve been working in Mali for some twenty-three years. Specifically, with a village of eight hundred, nine hundred farmers, depending on which census you look at.

The Great Courses: You work in Mali. Explain that.

Image of map of AfricaScott Lacy: Mali, West Africa. This is one of the poorest countries of the world. Yet, for me it’s one of the most instructive countries in the world. I’ve been living and working with family farmers. These are subsistence level farmers. They’re not out making a million dollars here.

I’ve been living and working with them for about twenty-two, going on twenty-three years. My job is to live the daily experience of this Malian village so that I can learn, not from what people just say, but I’m looking at what they do.

The Great Courses: That’s one of the themes in the course, right? What ancient cultures can teach us. What have you learned from these people?

Scott Lacy: So, so much. I can boil it down into one proverb that I learned on the very first day. One of the elders gave it to me, and it’s … “One finger can’t lift a stone.” Right? It’s a great proverb because it reflects back on anthropology … Cultural anthropology alone can’t explain this history of human kind.

One Finger Can't Lift a Stone. -Mali Proverb Click To Tweet

Neither can biology. One finger can’t lift a stone. That also transcends into one’s daily life because what I’ve found, the older I get, is that really anything good that I’ve done, one finger can’t lift a stone. We need everybody. It’s all of us that are required to actually do something great.

When Did Culture Develop

The Great Courses: That’s a great point. Did culture develop right away? Can we trace that back?

Scott Lacy: Yeah, we can see cultures or cultural things. As an anthropologist, I infuriate people because I get so general with my definitions, but …

Culture is basically the way people do things together. Primates do things together. Wolves, right? They communicate, they have sort of a language in which they can orchestrate some very, very sophisticated hunting techniques.

We’ve had culture as long as we’ve been biological entities, since we started walking upright.  But, it was about two and a half, three million years ago, when humans actually started making tools, stone tools. That’s where it takes off.

The Great Courses: Why was that so critical?

Scott Lacy: Because all along, we’ve been trying to survive. That’s what biological organisms do. We try to keep alive. What we’ve found is that being foragers, hunter/gatherers, and things like that, that can keep us alive.

The Great Courses: It’s not that efficient.

Scott Lacy: Right, it’s not efficient. If we use our brains and our experience to make technologies, we can actually sort of facilitate that survival mode.

Apocalyptic Anthropology

The Great Courses: In the course you bring up a concept called “apocalyptic anthropology.” What is that?

Image of skeletonScott Lacy:  Apocalyptic anthropology … Eschatology, we’re talking about the end of human kind. Ironically, what we find is that all along, we’ve been envisioning this.

Today we talk about the zombie apocalypse, but all along, whether it’s religious traditions or even right now with technologists worried about the singularity, and the rise of homoroboticus. Right? We’re always thinking forward about, “oh my gosh, this is kind of permanent.” We always have that in the back of our mind.

The Great Courses: So you’re saying that even early cultures dealt with this.

Scott Lacy: They did, because just like you and me, and even just like some of our ape ancestors, when one of us falls down on the floor and doesn’t move anymore ever again … The first thought is “Oh, that could be me.” Whether it’s our personal demise or whether we start thinking more in a bigger picture, we’re always wondering … What’s this end going to be?

The Great Courses: Based on your proverb, I guess, you could make the connection that even the earliest cultures have a semblance to modern day New York City.

Scott Lacy: They certainly do. We see that with the first cities, which we talk about in the course. We go to Mesopotamia to see those rise, but while they’re building these cities in Mesopotamia, human kind was spreading out all throughout the world … Getting ready to build other great cities.

The Great Courses: Has the study of anthropology changed over time? The way you experts study it?

Scott Lacy: It really has. To be honest, that’s why it works. That’s why we’re going to be around for a while. Unlike other ways of knowing, we’re a science and that means we test and correct what we know.

You’ll be shocked to hear that if you go back into early anthropology, you’re going to find that it was actually quite racialized and that when we looked at people that were different from us, we called them “primitive” and we didn’t think that they were primitive just because they lived in igloos. We actually talked about and taught that they were primitive because their biology was less evolved than, say, ours. Over time, we tested and corrected that because that’s our job.

Within the course of about fifty years, that completely switched over. Now we completely understand the diversity of human kind in a way that’s not rank-able. We don’t say that they’re primitive and we’re civilized. We’re just different.

Marriage Customs

The Great Courses: You mentioned survival. You spend some time in the course talking about marriage customs. Because they reflect a survival strategy in different environments. What do you mean by that?

Scott Lacy: What we really talk about is the fact that, when you think about family or marriage, we kind of have this singular idea. We might expand it to, say plural marriage, but actually there’s all kind of patterns of marriage and making family in the world.

One of the ones we talk about in the course … We’ll go to Tibet. In Tibet brothers actually marry a single woman. So if you’re a female in this society, you’re going to get married. But when you marry your husband, you’re marrying every single one of his brothers. It’s not because they’re some twisted people that just kind of like this style. It’s because that makes sense.

The Great Courses: This is in the past?.

Scott Lacy: Well, it happens now. In the current century. They have limited land. If, for example, you and I were brothers, and you got married and I got married. When it comes time for our land, our family land to get passed down to our generation. We have to split it up.

There’s so little arable land in this area, that means that you and I are both going to starve, and our families. Instead over time, they’ve developed this pattern of marriage in which, you get married and I just come along with you. We keep the land intact and we keep population down, and that’s what makes our community live and survive into the twenty first century.

The Great Courses: Wow. As an anthropologist, can you make those same leaps for modern marriage? What is marriage now?

Scott Lacy: Certainly. I think … Especially right now in this country and elsewhere. We’re clumsily trying to come to grips with the fact that marriage isn’t a singular thing, and it’s reassuring to me that when we look at cultural change and we see how things are changing in our world today, that we are sort of opening up our idea of what is marriage. Maybe it could be more than just two people raising a kid.

Learn More: Kinship, Family, and Marriage

Importance of Language

The Great Courses: Talk about language and the importance of that.

Scott Lacy: Language is important. It is a game changer. It’s one of the things that allows us, homo sapiens, to be the sole remaining hominids, the sole remaining upright apes on the planet. That said, as I mentioned before with wolves and other animals, they do have their own languages, but there’s something very unique about our sophisticated language as humans.

 Image of early humans talkingWe’ve tried to teach human language to primates and while they can sign and get it cognitively, they just don’t have the larynx. They don’t have the tongue control to actually do what we do. When we want to really differentiate, what makes us different from those other primates, right?

Why are we here and making great courses and such … It really has a lot to do with this language and this complex language that we see nowhere else in the animal kingdom.

Learn More: Anthropological Perspectives on Language

The Great Courses: Did the other hominids that you mentioned, that did not survive, did they not have as sophisticated language as homo sapiens?

Scott Lacy: This is a unique experience that we’re seeing right here in the two hundred thousand years of homo sapiens. We are a unique and funky breed.

The Great Courses: Speaking of funky, you’ve mentioned you’ve done some study into happiness.

Scott Lacy: Yes!

What Anthropology Can Teach Us About Happiness

The Great Courses: What can anthropology teach us about happiness?

Scott Lacy: Well, I’m an anthropologist, so I’m going to tell you everything. We can teach you everything, right? The deal is, again, going back to our four-field discipline. When we take a topic, we’re not going to look at it to try to understand it, say, from a psychological point of view or a biological point of view, or even a cultural point of view.

Because, what makes people happy in this culture doesn’t make people happy in others. In Mali, for example, when I go to my host family. Right, we live in this community, it’s all together. When I come home, they’re worried about me. Because they know when I go home …

The Great Courses: You’re going to be in your private home.

Scott Lacy: Exactly!  In a private home by myself. I cook for myself. I wash my own clothes. I do everything. I don’t have all these cool kids and all these elders around. They think I’ve got the most depraved life around.

They wonder how could you be happy over there? You should come here. Really, what I’m trying to do with this anthropology of happiness is to take a new topic, that really has been understudied in anthropology. A topic that we need. We need this bad in our world today.

By taking biology, archeology, to see what is happiness in the past, because it wasn’t what it is today.  Even linguistics, what does happiness mean, down to the cultural differences. If we understand happiness in this broader sense, I think we can be able to drive it a little bit better.

Image of two happy girls

Learn More: The Anthropology of Happiness

The Great Courses: Right. Real quick, the work that you do in Mali, it’s under an organization, right? It’s called African Sky. That’s your organization?

Scott Lacy: I do my academic research and such, but really the thing that brought me to the game was this village. I partner with this village called Dissan in Mali. You can check it on Google maps.

It’s a very small organization where we’ve been building some small schools in rural locations, first through sixth grade, that had never had them before. Literacy centers for women who, because they’re so important to their family household, at twelve years old they can’t go to school. So we build literacy centers to try to help catch them up with literacy and numeracy afterwords.

Really, it’s a self-help organization and it’s a friendship organization. We don’t call it a charity because what we do is we connect lives in the US and in Mali to enrich all of us, on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Great Courses: Fantastic. You mentioned the word connection. In the course, you refer to anthropologists as “bridge builders.”

Scott Lacy: Oh, that’s the number one metaphor.

The Great Courses: Explain that, and I think that’s a great way for us to conclude. Why bridge builders?

Scott Lacy: We’re bridge builders because we speak many languages. I’m not talking about the fact that I speak Bamanankan and English and French. I’m talking about, I can speak to plant breeders in a way most people can’t because I’ve lived with them and studied them. I can also talk to these farmers in ways that most people can’t because I’ve lived and studied with them for twenty years, twenty plus years. The same thing goes with architects, engineers, and even you in media. I’ve been with you people enough to understand your tribe. As the person that’s in the middle … I live in the middle of the Venn diagrams. You give me a Venn diagram. This and that, and I’m the one in the middle. Really, I love this job. It’s my responsibility. It’s my moral obligation as a brain in this universe to actually connect two different knowledge systems.

From the Lecture Series: Anthropology and the Study of Humanity
Taught by Professor Scott Lacy, Ph.D.