24 Jan. 2023

A contributor to a special series on decolonizing anthropology argues that true decolonization would require the complete dismantling of existing global power structures, including academic disciplines.

This contribution is part of the special forum Can Anthropology Be Decolonized? Read the introduction to the series here.

Colonization was—and is—not an innocent “encounter” between European explorers and the rest of the world. It was a violent genocidal enterprise.

In the “Congo Free State,” the monstrous actions of King Leopold II of Belgium, who ruled the territory as his private property, led to the slaughter of between 10 and 20 million Congolese. In present-day Namibia, Germans decimated 80 percent of the Herero community and 50 percent of the Namaqua population and forced the survivors into labor camps. The Portuguese were known for forced labor in Mozambique and the use of the chicote, a long whip, for corporal punishment. The British held Kenyans in concentration camps and were sadistic with their punishments, especially against the Kenya Land and Freedom Army. The French actions in Algeria are inconceivable. Martinican writer and politician Aimé Césaire quotes Colonel de Montagnac, a conqueror of Algeria, who said, “In order to banish the thoughts that sometimes besiege me, I have some heads cut off, not the heads of artichokes but the heads of men.”

This was violence upon an earlier violence: Colonization occurred during and after the start of the vicious capture, transport, and enslavement of Africans to the Americas.

Violent, also, was the justification of enslavement and colonization through racist science—the emergence of evolutionary anthropology. This ideological apparatus codified domination and dehumanization, and structured the modern world within a hierarchy of races, nations, and cultures.

To recall the violence, the “hideous butcheries,” of colonialism, is to revoke the imperial amnesia around the reality that, as Césaire reminded us, “colonial activity, colonial enterprise, colonial conquest … is based on contempt for the native and justified by the contempt.” It is a violence—the deaths, the destruction, the lies—with lasting scars. These scars do not heal.

And this violent system has not been eradicated.

Indeed, decolonization of the African continent occurred through the very structures of a liberal modernity based on colonialism: the imposition of national borders of the Berlin Act and the acceptance of the world as ordered and racialized by the conquerors. As international law scholar James Gathii describes, a Eurocentric, Christian, imperialist order remains the order of the day, well after decolonization. Western nations and institutions continue to coercively run the world: NATO, the G20, the United Nations Security Council, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and The Hague.

To speak of decolonizing anthropology is to first reckon with the colonial. To reckon with the colonial is to concede its continuation in the present. That means reckoning with the reality of dehumanizing conquest and the ensuing unequal power structures that continue to dictate the terms for what many anthropologists continue to do: research, write about, and ultimately make a career out of studying “the non-European Other.”

For it is precisely the violence of conquest and colonization that first made the discipline possible. It is what gave anthropology its raison d’être, its dehumanizing need to better “know” the conquered, non-European societies that its people had progressively dominated.

We must rethink the fundamental dynamics at work in the discipline of anthropology: What are the working assumptions that determine a significant site of analysis or a popular theoretical model? What intellectual products can come out of working under and within white supremacist, unequal power structures?

My own research has focused on excavating the racial foundations of the discipline. Specifically, I trace the relationships of anthropology, race, and Africa to demonstrate that the terms through which African societies are studied actually conceal the upheaval caused by conquest. And I demonstrate the ways that most, if not all, anthropological theory depends on Africa as an original “scientific” laboratory for the making of “tribes” and “races.”

Admittedly, this work can only go so far in decolonizing a discipline so deeply ensconced in the hierarchies of the current world order.

Philosopher Frantz Fanon argued that decolonization requires the “complete calling in question of the colonial situation.” Decolonization is the complete dismantling of the current global order that is structured by Eurocentric legal, political, social, and disciplinary formations.

Decolonization, when it comes, would have to mean the end of the world as is and, with it, the end of disciplines.

The post To Decolonize, We Must End the World as We Know It appeared first on SAPIENS.

24 Jan. 2023

Three contributors to a special series reflect on why slowing down and building trust between community partners is fundamental to decolonizing anthropology—and our shared future.

This contribution is part of the special forum Can Anthropology Be Decolonized? Read the introduction to the series here.

“I’ve thought about things,” Brother Eric wrote to Nicole and Anand one afternoon. “We need to discuss a few concerns. We should pause and reconnect.”

The two professors found the message unnerving. Anthropologists at Johns Hopkins University, they’d been working with Brother Eric and the Black Yield Institute (BYI), a nonprofit organization in Baltimore, Maryland, in a community-based practicum in sustainable design. They were scheduled to pursue a collaborative design exercise, with the university class and the community organization “ideating” together on project ideas related to the organization’s work in cultivating Black land and food sovereignty.

The three of us talked the next day. “I don’t want to call it haste,” Brother Eric said to the anthropologists, “but this is moving at a pace that isn’t working for us.”

The request illuminated the privilege and inequality structuring the partnership. The professors had led with the academic calendar, rather than the rhythm of a genuine relationship. Brother Eric made clear that more work had to be done on the partnership itself, on the trust that made it possible.

An imperialist spirit permeates the culture of elite academic institutions, quietly shaping even well-meaning endeavors like community collaboration. The heritage of white supremacy contradicts the ways that academics in such places often define themselves—as anti-racist, anti-colonial progressives. For a Pan-African power building and social movement organization like BYI, this contradiction represents a kind of apartheid: between thought and action, between the politics invoked and what is actually practiced.

Imperialism’s main objective is extraction, and extraction often happens in haste. Slowing down helps dismantle this tendency toward urgency in university-community relationships. Taking deep pauses to listen, pay attention, and communicate is necessary to deconstruct and shift power in such collaborations. For BYI, relationships are the building blocks of any social movement. These relationships must be molded and developed over time.

The professors and students in the class had imagined the outcome as a product of some kind, something designed to support the work of the organization. They learned, over time, that the process itself and the relationships built along the way were the products.

It takes time to build relations founded on dignity, respect, and humanity. We have to absorb, in a tangible way, the ethos of a partner, their flow of being, what movement in a process means for them. This is an ethical practice that elite institutions seldom make time for or incentivize.

As a collaborative team, we’re still working this out together. We’ve been developing an exploratory project for community-based aquaculture on the Baltimore shoreline as a new strategy for Black food sovereignty and environmental stewardship. We rely on our training but also a shared commitment to Black political education. Lately, we’ve been talking about the work of Dr. Amos Wilson, the Pan-African theorist and psychologist.

“Culture is instilled in our bodies and in our minds,” Wilson says. “Our history dwells in us,” he suggests, like “… a possessing spirit.” The essential task of decolonizing culture therefore takes us far beyond an academic discipline like anthropology. What would it take for this field to contribute more effectively to the wider struggle for cultural liberation?

Anthropology must be from the bodies and minds of people; this is the only way to transform the discipline—and the world. This can only come, however, with time given to pause, to listen, and to question the momentum that keeps unequal relations fixed in place. Movement has to happen at the pace of the natural flow of relationship and community. The espousal of ethics means little without the embodiment of this ethos in practice; pause and flow can take us there.

We’ve been experimenting with what is possible, trying to imagine together what we haven’t been able to imagine on our own. We still don’t know where this will go. But we do know that abiding with the uncertainty will be fundamental.

Seeds go down before they come up, down into the abyss of inheritance: all the depths of time that the soil quietly carries, the underlying violence that remains with us still. So much turns on whether we can give these seeds the time they need, the chance to yield a more ethical future.

The post Planting Seeds for a More Ethical Future appeared first on SAPIENS.

24 Jan. 2023

A contributor to a special series on decolonizing anthropology reckons with bioarchaeology’s racist past by focusing on Black women’s creativity and everyday lives in her work.

This contribution is part of the special forum Can Anthropology Be Decolonized? Read the introduction to the series here.

As a Black woman and biological anthropologist, I’m positioned as an “outsider within” the academic field of anthropology. This position compels me to think seriously about how anthropologists might decolonize our field and contend with its difficult past. Those of us who study history often insist that we must understand our past to deal with contemporary challenges and plan for the future. But are we effecting change with our work, or reproducing the same power dynamics?

I specialize in bioarchaeology, or the study of human remains from archaeological contexts, to research African American history and the concept of race. Early biological anthropologists worked to categorize humans, using science to rationalize the unjust treatment of certain racialized groups. These studies relied upon the bodies of both the living and the dead to emphasize differences in traits such as skin color, hair length and texture, and cranial form. In the United States, BIPOC bodies were of particular interest, resulting in collections made of our various parts, including bones.

I work with such collections. My dissertation project focused on the lives and deaths of some 79 Black women who died in Progressive Era New York City and whose skeletal remains are currently housed by the Smithsonian. But I have come to question whether my research continues to inflict violence upon the very people I hope to liberate. While skeletal remains can be used to illuminate the Black past in unique ways, does my work reinforce the notion that our bodies are objects suitable for study and normalize Black death?

The summer of 2020 nearly pushed me to my breaking point as I witnessed Black people disproportionately suffering the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic along with ever constant police brutality. As a graduate student, I was fortunate to have already finished my data collection and secured funding for dissertation completion. My job was simply to write. But how was I to analyze and write about Black women who died over a century ago while I was surrounded by the pain of my living community?

Gender studies scholar Katherine McKittrick recently called for researchers to stop accepting Black death and degradation as legitimate scholarly findings. McKittrick challenges us to ask questions about Black life and imagine the Black body outside of violation while still acknowledging how scientific racism has shaped our ideas of Blackness.

But how do I, as a bioarchaeologist whose work is dependent upon dead bodies, rise to this occasion?

I turn to the creative works of Black women.

Viewing the art of Adrian Piper and reading poetry and essays by Claudia Rankine has encouraged me to rethink the research I do, and to ask new questions about the experience of Black life. I’ve moved beyond skeletal remains to consider the everyday lives of the women I study, the spaces they moved through, and who they interacted with. I likely share some similar experiences and emotions with them based on our common intersections.

Most often, my research uncovers experiences related to incarceration, illness, and death. But every time I locate a census record, court transcript, or death certificate, I am able to reveal how for so long our society has perpetuated a cycle that normalizes premature Black death.

When that happens, I think about the benefits of slow science. According to philosopher Isabelle Stengers, slow science is about paying attention to the quality of research and its relevance for today’s issues.

If anthropologists genuinely want to decolonize the field, they must slow down and truly consider what cultural narratives their research supports or challenges. An effort must also be made to diversify the field and to engage with the contributions of people of color, whether or not they are seen to be what is traditionally considered “scholarly.”

If such steps are taken, I believe anthropology can survive and thrive in the 21st century.

The post Centering Black Lives in the Study of Human Remains appeared first on SAPIENS.

24 Jan. 2023

A contributor to a special series on decolonizing anthropology rejects the discipline’s colonial and racist roots and instead pursues ways of doing science that center human liberation and possibility.

This contribution is part of the special forum Can Anthropology Be Decolonized? Read the introduction to the series here.

We cannot decolonize the discipline of Anthropology with a capital “A.”

It is, in the words of anthropologists Frédérique Apffel-Marglin and Margaret Bruchac, a “handmaiden of empire and colonialism.” Though lauded for making the familiar strange and the strange familiar, the discipline began with the transformation of biological facts into cultural fictions by making a hierarchy out of human difference. Skin, hair, nails, and more were all used to reduce physical features to racial damnation under the guise of scientific evidence.

Early American ethnologists in the mid-19th century used such race science to defend the institution of slavery, drawing criticism from one of the European forefathers of this science. American Anthropology eventually became synonymous with progress and equality under Franz Boas’ four-field approach, which combined archaeology, linguistics, physical anthropology, and cultural anthropology into one field in the early 20th century. But even Boas’ most progressive approaches were bested by the ruse of race science.

As anthropologist Lee Baker has noted, Boas’ understanding of race was contradictory. His breakthrough study of immigrant bodies refuted the reality of race as a marker of human difference. But in other writings, Boas revealed that he saw the assimilation of human difference into the white U.S. majority as the way forward for social progress. Through this vision of assimilation, Boas painted a portrait of a Black future with only shades of white in hand.

As an anthropologist whose work incorporates biological science, at times it can be difficult to fully reckon with these legacies. These were imperial sciences, ways of knowing that acted as tools of domination. The anthropological collections held at many natural history museums were part of an Enlightenment-era project of state-sanctioned human capture.

Doctors and curators alike took human bodies out of their social, cultural, and political contexts—sometimes by force or by theft—then used particular measurements and values as “proof” of white racial superiority. Anthropologists produced power and maintained control over knowledge through the classification, categorization, and collection of these captive human bodies. These same carceral schemes continue to define detention, imprisonment, and other punitive structures that plague the U.S. landscape.

What can be saved from the squall of Anthropology when wave after wave of its imperial aftermath continues to crash, remains and residues in tow?

My investments lie in alternate genres of human science and study. I look to the possibilities and potentials of anthropology as a practice—a way of research as life-work for myself and others that both precedes and exceeds, in the words of anthropologist Aimee Meredith-Cox, “Anthropology with a capital A as we now understand it as an academic discipline.”

I strive to embed this intention into the very fabric of my work, from the recovery of unmarked burials beneath multimillion dollar homes in the nation’s capital to demands for change in the treatment of human remains. Whether in the ground, in the lab, in the archive, or not yet known, I tend to ancestral bodies as a caring and careful form of repair. Though trained within an academic discipline, my practice is an Aanthropology guided by the descendant communities on whose behalf I work.

These are practices that disrupt the colonial origins of the field through the legacies of what African American studies scholar Britt Russert calls fugitive sciences: practices that revise and revamp theories and methods to incite a science resounding of liberation and possibility.

These are practices, undisciplined in form and function, that give us a feel for something like a decolonial science—one that foregoes empirical concepts of human being and embraces the poetry of being human.

The post Embracing the Poetry of Being Human appeared first on SAPIENS.

24 Jan. 2023

In recent years, anthropology has increasingly reckoned with its colonial and racist roots. In a special forum, scholars weigh in on what “decolonizing” means—and share their visions for the future of the field.

The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the Black Lives Matter movement, have exposed the deep inequities and inadequacies of our social systems at a massive scale in the United States and elsewhere. These global upheavals have made many people rethink their priorities and values across nearly every aspect of life, from work to interpersonal relationships to politics.

These wider changes have also compelled many scholars and researchers who devote their careers to studying human society—including anthropologists—to think critically about the academic institutions they are a part of and about their own research and why it matters.

Over the last few years, anthropology’s theoretical and philosophical foundations, knowledge claims, and methods have all been deeply challenged. In the U.S., the discovery of human remains still in the possession of the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology raised questions about anthropology’s deeply troubling legacies of promoting scientific racism and justifying colonialism. Various sexual harassment cases against high-profile anthropologists have provoked a reckoning with how elite patronage networks within academia allow systemic abuse to continue.

Many anthropologists have been energized by renewed calls to decolonize the discipline. But others have dug in their heels, maintaining their investments in the ways the discipline has historically been practiced and institutionalized. (See, for example, the controversy generated around the 2021 address on “Decolonizing U.S. Anthropology” by Akhil Gupta, the outgoing president of the American Anthropological Association, at an annual meeting of fellow anthropologists in Baltimore, Maryland.)

In response to these ongoing controversies and conversations, we have organized this special series to explore how anthropologists are attempting to reconceptualize the discipline so that it might generate more radically inclusive and just possibilities for human life. This series is part of a broader effort, partially funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation (SAPIENS’ publisher), to develop a concept we call “radical humanism.”

By asking about the foundational tenets of humanism, we are ultimately asking: Who is “the human” at the heart of anthropology?


To explain why we call for a radical humanism, we’ll start by unpacking what humanism, as a Western philosophy, claims about what it means to be human.

Humanism is commonly thought of as a secular worldview that prioritizes human freedom, democracy, and reason over religious devotion and rule. The American Humanist Association defines it as a “progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good.” Humanism is foundational to modern legal and political ideas of the liberal subject, or the idea that human beings are individuals entitled to specific rights and liberties.

While that definition may seem innocuous, the roots of philosophical humanism are far more fraught. Humanism emerged alongside the Copernican Revolution and the European Renaissance of the 14th to 17th centuries. Its European proponents wanted to dislodge the role of religious institutions and thought, particularly theological conceptualizations of causality, in favor of reason and rationality. They saw freedom of thought as key to developing a new idea of “Man” as a secular political subject. But in doing so, they also claimed White, masculine, European views of the world as universally true and superior to all other possible views.

Who is “the human” at the heart of anthropology?

This view of humanity coincided with European expansionism to the Americas starting in the 15th century. Haitian American anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot argued this expansion created another category of humanity that remains fundamental to modern Western thinking: the “savage.” (Trouillot originally published the essay “Anthropology and the Savage Slot” in an edited volume in 1991, then later revised it.)

This imagined “Other”—whether feared, pitied, or romanticized—served as a consistent foil for Europeans’ conceptions of their own humanity. This oppositional thinking of self versus Other was evident in the evangelizing mission of the Christian church, the imperializing mission of the state, and the extracting mission of emergent capitalism and plantation-based agriculture. The primary mechanism of this Othering was race: a secular tool of domination that structured global inequalities, disregarded Indigenous forms of knowledge, and justified slavery.

Jamaican writer and cultural theorist Sylvia Wynter refers to the myriad processes justified by humanism as “coloniality.” This term, for Wynter, describes not only the physical takeover of one group by another by colonizing a land and people, but also a whole system of creating knowledge: notions of value, politics, hierarchy, and universalism, among others. For Wynter, like Trouillot, the universalism of humanism requires an externally oriented framework for thinking about the self in contrast to an Other.

European humanism ultimately laid the groundwork for the central contradictions that we see in the U.S. and other liberal democracies today: the valuing and protection of freedom and human rights alongside a violent history of enslavement and other forms of unjust labor, imperialism, and environmental exploitation through the separation of nature and culture. The core of humanism, therefore, is not the noble protection of human freedom from religion but a secular imperialism grounded in white supremacy.


By drawing attention to the diverse practices of people around the world, anthropology—and its foundational principle of cultural relativism—has offered one way to destabilize European universalisms. However, the discipline has nevertheless perpetuated the idea that a comparative, scientific approach will produce generalizable knowledge about humans that could become legible to Western audiences.

In theory and in practice, anthropology has often devalued ways of knowing, being, and claiming humanity that do not fit into a European humanist model. To offer two concrete examples: Academic gatekeepers—such as tenured professors and administrators at universities, journal editors, and museum curators, among others—have often ensured the success of White, male fieldworkers, while ignoring the contributions of local and/or amateur researchers. They have also placed a primacy on English language scholarship and on written texts as opposed to oral, visual, or other modes of communicating and storytelling. This limits whose voices are valued and uplifted in the field and fails to recognize other ways people around the world express themselves and create knowledge.

Today, as scholars, we remain unsettled with anthropology’s place in the world and the work needed to reckon with its past. When we invited scholars to write for this special series for SAPIENS, we were envisioning the collection as a call for anthropology to adopt radically humanist practices and conventions as a way to be accountable to a past and present in which the field has enabled—and in many cases, solidified—processes of dispossession, racism, and other forms of exclusion and harm.

To consider these legacies and processes, we wanted to center the work of critical scholars of color who engage in anti/decolonial efforts within and outside of academic institutions. We asked the contributors to respond to the questions: Can anthropology be decolonized? And, if so, what should a 21st-century anthropology look like?

We are pleased to present this collection of reflections that together tease out and confront these questions.


Embracing the Poetry of Being Human

In his reflection, biological and bioarchaeological anthropologist Delande Justinvil argues that anthropology, in fact, cannot be decolonized. As a handmaiden of empire, the discipline is inextricably entangled with scientific racism and its insistence on a view of progress founded in civilizational hierarchies. He sees the way forward in undisciplined practices of care and repair, guided by the needs of communities and moving toward liberation and alternative possibilities.

Centering Black Lives in the Study of Human Remains

Aja Lans, a biological anthropologist, aligns with many of Justinvil’s points to consider how bioarchaeologists might re-theorize already existing collections of human remains. Working with the skeletal remains of Black women who died in New York City during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lans struggles with how her research, meant to shed new light on the past life conditions for people of African descent, might also continue to inflict forms of violence and harm. She looks toward more creative, experimental ways of telling stories about Black life.

Planting Seeds for a More Ethical Future

Anthropologists Nicole Labruto and Anand Pandian, in a piece co-written with their collaborator Eric Jackson—an organizer, educator, filmmaker, and the co-founder of the Black Yield Institute (BYI) in Baltimore, Maryland—also advocate for the importance of experimental practices to address what decolonizing might look like. The three authors discuss their community-based collaborative research with BYI on issues related to food sovereignty and environmental stewardship. They locate anthropology’s imperial legacies not only in the scope of the questions academics ask, but also in the relentless pace of research and publishing.

To Decolonize, We Must End the World as We Know It

Finally, Jemima Pierre asks readers to understand colonialism as genocide, and to understand anthropology and its historic, pseudoscientific evolutionary theories as part and parcel of the violence of global conquest, imperialism, and slavery. Pierre argues that anthropology must more comprehensively reckon with the enduring legacies of colonialism within the field. “Decolonization,” would have to mean the “end of the world as it is,” within and beyond the academy.


We share our colleagues’ challenges to the discipline of anthropology and call for rebuilding the field anew.

One key part of this effort is realizing that reconsidering humanism is not just about decolonizing anthropology for the sake of the discipline. It means reshaping the problematic foundational ideas at the heart of most of our existing social and political structures: ideas of what it means to be human and who counts as a liberal subject.

We all must consider who is included or excluded from the narrow individualistic, rights-based version of humanity that humanism supports—and lay the foundation for ways of thinking and acting that put justice and equity at the center.

The post Can Anthropology Be Decolonized? appeared first on SAPIENS.

19 Jan. 2023

A Nigerian poet-anthropologist witnesses the powerful rising up of ancestors through the revival of a tree in the Igbo village of Ogbodu.

“A Tree’s Tongue” is part of the collection Indigenizing What It Means to Be Human. Read the introduction to the collection here.

Chorus of our forebears
In the ground
Speaking with one voice through the Ogbodu tree ( Ogbodu is a village in the Eha-Alumona clan of the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria. In October 2020, there was the news that a tree that had previously fallen and a large portion of its trunk sawed off rose again without any human effort. The tree is a short drive from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, where I work. One of the graduate students in the sociology and anthropology department who hails from the town took me to the site of the event. I interviewed the oldest man in the community who, in this gerontocratic system, is at once the priest and leader in customary matters. I also interviewed eyewitnesses and took photographs. At a later date, when the community held a feast on the event, they invited me, and I went with some of my graduate students. The tree is of the populous Ficus genus and is called ọjẹ [ɔ̀dʒɛ̀] in the dialect of Igbo language spoken in Ogbodu. I sought the help of botanists at the university, but they have not been able to identify this particular species that can grow to an impressive size.)
Using a writing coded in action nem. con. (Nem. con. is short for nemine contradicente, a Latin fixed phrase meaning “no one contradicting.”)
Bidding those who are literate
In their sacred song: “Tell them,
‘We sure shall rise again;
As Mzee spake,
We shall rise again.’”( Mzee is Swahili for the “old man,” but Kenyans use the term to reverently refer to their former president, Jomo Kenyatta. Kenyatta, also a social anthropologist, had in his magnum opus on his Native Gikuyu (or Kikuyu) written, in anticipation of the African traditional religious rebound, “[T]he dead, the living, and the unborn will unite to rebuild the destroyed shrines.”)

The post A Tree’s Tongue appeared first on SAPIENS.

19 Jan. 2023

SAPIENS offers a curated collection of poems and stories that center Indigenous values, worldviews, and insights, creatively reimagining anthropology and the human experience.

Anthropology’s fraught history of relating to Indigenous peoples around the world has caused much harm. Both the field’s theories and individual biases have shaped popular knowledge about these communities and even understandings about what it means to be a human.

White supremacist ideologies, in particular, place people who are not of European descent below White people in faulty, hierarchical evolutionary models to support global colonial domination through enslavement, genocide, land theft, environmental destruction, and cultural appropriation. These racist constructs often erase the depth and breadth of people’s histories and cultures. Moreover, they deny people their humanity.

As a result, some contemporary anthropologists call for “letting anthropology burn.” They urge an unsettling of the discipline through political projects that focus on “repatriation, repair, and abolition” of unjust institutions and their legacies, as Ryan Cecil Jobson writes. These efforts reckon with and help heal this past. Many within the field are doing just that.

Our editorial team felt an urgency to align with this effort by gathering creative pieces that center Indigeneity in stories and poems about being human. We put out a call for submissions in the spring of 2022, and we were thrilled to receive more than 40 submissions.

The 19 poems and stories we’ve curated for publication in this collection, from many continents and languages, speak of a cycle familiar across the globe: continuity tempered by change. Practices, songs, oral histories, and stories are held in place by memory and transformed into poetry, preserving understanding and wisdom about what it means to be human in specific contexts and communities through time.

The poets and storytellers you will meet in coming weeks invite readers to consider ancient truths and how we can accept change as one form of resilience and cultural sustainability. As Tohono O’odham poet and linguist Ofelia Zepeda writes in “Rock Drawings”: “We will remember the songs, prayers, and language we were given. / Over time they too will change.”

In many of the poems, the oldest form of truth is found in stories of long-ago ancestors or more recent parents and grandparents. Nigerian poet-anthropologist Peter-Jazzy Ezeh evokes such ancestors of the Eha-Alumona clan of the Igbo. In “A Tree’s Tongue,” he writes the powerful lines: “Chorus of our forebears / In the ground / Speaking with one voice through the Ogbodu tree … / ‘We sure shall rise again.’”

Hope lives and breathes through ancestral practices, songs, stories, and poems protected and enlivened by those who, across millennia, have brought healing and vitality to their people. In “A Love Letter to the Munay-Ki,” Azuka Nzegwu writes about an ancient body of knowledge gifted to the Q’ero people of the Andes in Peru: “Grandmothers, grandmothers / you speak into our occipital, / whispering healing into our bones / teaching us how to fuse our wishes and desires / to the reality we are creating / and to the being we are becoming.”

But in addition to hope and wisdom, many people have inherited ancestral trauma from colonialism. AJ Kluck, a sqilxʷ poet and artist in Canada, addresses both their grandmother and water in “a love letter to my qáqnaʔ.” The poet asks what has been passed down from generation to generation: Breath? Blood? Shame? Pain? Medicine? Kluck says their practice “is rooted in building slow and gentle relationships with the land and community, and healing intergenerational trauma.”

Also evoking ancestors and water, Abigail Chabitnoy writes in “Born of ‘All That Good’” that elders pray children can survive the real and metaphorical seas of life. She pushes back against the “good” arguments behind colonialism and government-sanctioned, genocidal acts that removed her great-grandfather from the Woody Island Baptist Mission in Alaska, bringing him to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

As a new mother, she reimagines “what qualities will empower [her] daughter to survive—and thrive—against such violent odds.” Chabitnoy wonders how, through her poems, “might I leave a lifeline for my angyaqciq to pick up and shape as she has need? How will I truss her to solid ground even as I send her to chart her own waters?” She brings these questions to bear in two additional poems in the collection: “In the Event of Flooding” and “Post-.”

Most of the poems are written in English, which in some regions is the first language of many Indigenous people today. But many of the featured writers show the importance of preserving Indigenous languages, whether with full translations or by integrating community language terms and worldviews. Some of the poets emphasize the importance of naming things—and who has the power to name—while recognizing the limits of naming. Poetry and storytelling, then, offer ways to both name and not name.

In “To Know Who We Are,” Delmar Ulises Méndez-Gómez writes in Tseltal (a Mayan language) and Spanish, with a translation in English by Whitney DeVos. His prose poem presents this unapologetically biased affirmation: “I am not Indigenous, / I am Tseltal / I am the language of my people. / By naming myself, I feel. / I am the language I speak. / By naming myself, I exist. / By speaking my language, my lineages emerge.”

We need to remember the ancestors were scientists and that anthropology can be sacred.

By contrast, Ezeh’s second poem, “T,” affirms a truth by not naming it. In the poem, he highlights that the Orring people in southeastern Nigeria conceive of the origins of the cosmos as a secret held by Ọvọṅ o tiṅẹ lokpata gbẹẹ lose (“the thing that created the sky and the earth”). He writes: “You are she too deep to be named / To name you is to demote you.”

Landscapes—both physical and relational—are also difficult to capture in language for outsiders. Abrona Aden says her poems emerged as she thought about her identity and heritage as a Christian Lepcha and a professor who reads and writes in English at a university in India. In “Mayel Lyang,” a poem about the “mythical nucleus” of her community, she writes, “How can I draw / Maps of the mind / Maps of the heart / Maps of the soul? / To show you / My heartland.”

In another poem, “Looking for the Lepchas,” Aden wrestles with the legacy of anthropological and historical writings that speak “about” her community. She visits a museum and library, trying to find herself in the words and objects that supposedly encapsulate her culture. But she cannot.

Anthropologists of the past often looked for one kind of truth as they studied communities, and they sometimes forgot to read the “writing coded in action,” as Ezeh evokes in “A Tree’s Tongue.” More concerned with how to place a practice or a people on a grid of their own making, outsiders can sometimes miss the meaning in stories or actions.

The “objectivity” of Western sciences such as anthropology often caused dissonance for Indigenous communities whose ethics, intuition, and spirituality were—and are—inseparable from observation and knowledge production. At times, traditional people watched traditional knowledge, misunderstood by outsiders, become a “yoke that bound us to misfortune,” as an older Noni woman from Cameroon voices in “The Path” by Kefen I. Budji.

Such harm is not an isolated experience, notes Quechua poet and linguist Elvia Andía Grageda in “Seeker of Life/Kawsay Thawiq.” Writing about what happened when non-Native paleoarchaeologists and others extracted human remains from her community, she describes the difference between “ancient bones” and “the heart of the earth.” Thomas Pecore Weso also speaks of clashing understandings in his story “A Free Man: The Story of a Menominee Elder.” Through this nuanced narrative, written with a beautiful bias from within the Menominee community, Weso discusses the right to live as someone non-Native anthropologists pejoratively labeled “a pagan.”

Indigenizing What It Means to Be Human

A Tree’s Tongue” by Peter-Jazzy Ezeh
“Rock Drawings” by Ofelia Zepeda
“Mayel Lyang” by Abrona Lee Pandi Aden
“The Path” by Kefen I. Budji
“Born of ‘All That Good’” by Abigail Chabitnoy
“Seeker of Life/Kawsay Thawiq” by Elvia Andía Grageda
“A Free Man: The Story of a Menominee Elder” by Thomas Pecore Weso
“Looking for the Lepchas” by Abrona Lee Pandi Aden
“a love letter to my qáqnaʔ” by AJ Kluck
“How Do We Heal?” by Natalie Dana Lolar
“In the Event of Flooding” by Abigail Chabitnoy
“A Birth and a Death—a Haunting of Igbo Landing” by Hannah Odoom
“Apparition in Sugarland” by Vincen Gregory Yu
“T” by Peter-Jazzy Ezeh
“What It Means to Be Human in an Asylum” by Tehreem Anwar
“Post-” by Abigail Chabitnoy
“When I See Spring in Your Eyes” by Toiba Naseema
“A Love Letter to the Munay-Ki” by Azuka Nzegwu
“Feeling What We Are/A’yel jtaleltik/Sentir lo que somos” by Delmar Ulises Méndez-Gómez

Other anthropologist writers in this collection also retell stories from an insider’s perspective. In “A Birth and a Death—a Haunting of Igbo Landing,” Ghanian American poet-anthropologist Hannah Odoom weaves her African diasporic and Indigenous identity into a famous story centered on death and rebirth—the action of resistance and of survivance. She writes, “under turmoil that made way for / me, and 500 years that prayed for me to be in this place, this space as I am.” 

Poet-anthropologist Vincen Gregory Yu similarly enlivens a popular myth from the Philippines in “Apparition in Sugarland.” He gives poetic voice to a famous queer Filipino American artist who acts as both witness and critic in returning home in the wake of U.S. colonialism.

These writings show that perhaps the “subjective” truth of elders can exist in tandem with the “objective” nature of anthropology. We need to remember the ancestors were scientists and that anthropology can be sacred.

Considering the chasm of differences to overcome, Natalie Dana Lolar asks, “How Do We Heal?” She suggests collaboration, co-teaching, and interconnected communities are one answer. Speaking as an Indigenous archaeologist, she writes: “We bridge two worlds, collaborating, teaching, and defining community. / We are healing.”

Looking to the seasons as our teachers, Kashmiri poet-anthropologist Toiba Naseema reminds us we know how to let healing happen, to “let the chasm of spring and the chants of water soothe our mind.” For her, memories are a critical element: They are “asset(s) of an occupied territory, an occupied culture, and of occupied identities,” she says. Like the wisdom of the red chinar tree in bloom, these memories “tell us how our cultures with millennia of resilience give us hope to live further and see the brightest of our dreams that belong to us.”

In dreams, Tehreem Anwar finds hope for healing in the unlikeliest of places: asylums in Pakistan where women are unfairly trapped by a patriarchal culture. In reflecting on her short essays in “What It Means to Be Human in an Asylum,” Anwar eloquently notes: “To be human in an asylum is to be in a constant battle between your reality and your lost dreams, but it is also these dreams that give survivors hope that tomorrow will be better.”

It is time for a thaw in the way we understand one another. We invite you to read these poems and stories as seeds of understanding and “hope to live further,” as Naseema envisions. Join us in awaiting and cultivating the season of growth.

The editors offer their heartfelt thanks to each of the writers for their vital contributions to this powerful collection.

The post Indigenizing What It Means to Be Human appeared first on SAPIENS.

18 Jan. 2023

An anthropologist considers how different the world might be if Neanderthals—and hence, their ways of navigating relationships with the environment and one another—had survived the gauntlet of evolution.

This article was originally published at The Conversation and has been republished with Creative Commons.

IN EVOLUTIONARY TERMS, the human population has rocketed in seconds. The news that it has now reached 8 billion seems inexplicable when you think about our history.

For 99 percent of the last million years of our existence, people rarely came across other humans. There were only around 10,000 Neanderthals living at any one time. Today there are around 800,000 people in the same space that was occupied by one Neanderthal. What’s more, since humans live in social groups, the next nearest Neanderthal group was probably well over 100 kilometers away. Finding a mate outside your own family was a challenge.

Neanderthals were more inclined to stay in their family groups and were warier of new people. If they had outcompeted our own species (Homo sapiens), the density of population would likely be far lower. It’s hard to imagine them building cities, for example, given that they were genetically disposed to being less friendly to those beyond their immediate family.

The reasons for our dramatic population growth may lie in the early days of H. sapiens more than 100,000 years ago. Genetic and anatomical differences between us and extinct species such as Neanderthals made us more similar to domesticated animal species. Large herds of cows, for example, can better tolerate the stress of living in a small space together than their wild ancestors who lived in small groups, spaced apart. These genetic differences changed our attitudes to people outside our own group. We became more tolerant.

A photograph features a line graph with the header “The size of the world population over the last 12,000 years” and smaller text below that reads, “Demographers expect rapid population growth to end by the end of the 21st century. The U.N. demographers expect a population of about 11 billion in 2100.” The graph has time periods along the x-axis (from the years 10,000 B.C. on the left to A.D. 2000 on the right) and population numbers in the billions along the y-axis. A red line is generally flat (under 1 billion) for most of the graph but spikes on the right side, going from “600 million in 1700” to “7.9 billion in 2022.”
The graph shows estimates calculated by the History Database of the Global Environment and the U.N.

As H. sapiens were more likely to interact with groups outside their family, they created a more diverse genetic pool, which reduced health problems. Neanderthals at El Sidrón in Spain showed 17 genetic deformities in only 13 people, for example. Such mutations were virtually nonexistent in later populations of our own species.

But larger populations also increase the spread of disease. Neanderthals might have typically lived shorter lives than modern humans, but their relative isolation will have protected them from the infectious diseases that sometimes wiped out whole populations of H. sapiens.


Our species may also have had 10–20 percent faster rates of reproduction than earlier species of human. But having more babies only increases the population if there is enough food for them to eat.

Our genetic inclination for friendliness took shape around 200,000 years ago. From this time onward, there is archaeological evidence of the raw materials to make tools being moved around the landscape more widely.

From 100,000 years ago, we created networks along which new types of hunting weapons and jewelry such as shell beads could spread. Ideas were shared widely, and there were seasonal aggregations where H. sapiens got together for rituals and socializing. People had friends to depend on in different groups when they were short of food.

And we may have also needed more emotional contact and new types of relationship outside our human social worlds. In an alternative world where Neanderthals thrived, it may be less likely that humans would have nurtured relationships with animals through domestication.


Things might also have been different had environments not generated so many sudden shortfalls, such as steep declines in plants and animals, on many occasions. If it wasn’t for these chance changes, Neanderthals may have survived.

An illustrated graphic depicts two pairs of skulls looking at each other, the top two resembling hominins and the bottom two looking much flatter and wider. The top two skulls are joined by blue lines intercepted by blue bubbles that align with different parts of the skull. White text reads, “Braincase shape and size,” “Browridge,” “Nasal bone projection,” “Tooth size,” and “Jaw projection prognathism.” The bottom two skulls are similarly joined by blue lines and interceding blue bubbles with white text that reads, “Braincase shape and size,” “Muzzle projection,” Tooth size,” and “Thickness of jaw.”
The illustrations highlight differences between modern humans (upper left) and archaic humans (here, a Neanderthal; upper right) and domesticated dogs (lower left) and wild wolves (lower right).

Sharing resources and ideas between groups allowed people to live more efficiently off the land by distributing more effective technologies and giving one another food at times of crisis. This was probably one of the main reasons why our species thrived when the climate changed while others died. H. sapiens were better adapted to weather variable and risky conditions. This is partly because our species could depend on networks in times of crisis.

During the height of the last ice age around 20,000 years ago, temperatures across Europe were 8–10 degrees Celsius lower than today, with those in Germany being more like northern Siberia is now. Most of Northern Europe was covered in ice for six-to-nine months of the year.

Social connections provided the means by which inventions could spread between groups to help us adapt. These included spear throwers to make hunting more efficient, fine needles to make fitted clothing and keep people warmer, food storage, and hunting with domesticated wolves. As a result, more people survived nature’s wheel of fortune.

H. sapiens were generally careful not to overconsume resources like deer or fish, and were likely more aware of their life cycles than much earlier species of human might have been. For example, people in what is today British Columbia, Canada, only took males when they fished for salmon.

In some cases, however, these life cycles were hard to see. During the last ice age, animals such as mammoths, which roamed over huge territories invisible to human groups, went extinct. There are more than 100 depictions of mammoths at Rouffignac in France dating to the time of their disappearance, which suggests people grieved this loss. But it is more likely mammoths would have survived if it wasn’t for the rise of H. sapiens because there would have been fewer Neanderthals to hunt them.

A photograph features rock art with etching of animals—a mammoth and several horned antelopes—painted across the expanse of a large, yellowed cave wall.
Rouffignac Cave in France features many ancient drawings of mammoths.


Our liking for one another’s company and the way spending time together fosters our creativity was the making of our species. But it came at a price.

The more technology humankind develops, the more our use of it harms the planet. Intensive farming is draining our soils of nutrients, overfishing is wrecking the seas, and the greenhouse gases we release when we produce the products we now rely on are driving extreme weather. Overexploitation wasn’t inevitable, but our species was the first to do it.

We can hope that visual evidence of the destruction in our natural world will change our attitudes in time. We have changed quickly when we needed to throughout our history. There is, after all, no planet B. But if Neanderthals had survived instead of us, we would never have needed one.

The post What If Neanderthals Had Outlived <em>Homo Sapiens</em>? appeared first on SAPIENS.

17 Jan. 2023

An anthropologist delves into the rarefied ritualistic world of specialty coffee, where highly trained brewers and judges compete to determine which beans reign supreme.

Excerpted from Making Better Coffee: How Maya Farmers and Third Wave Tastemakers Create Value. University of California Press, 2022. All rights reserved.

One Saturday morning in mid-January 2020, Elika Liftee was getting ready to make a special cup of coffee. He was backstage behind a row of blue, trade-show curtains that had transformed a former factory in Nashville, Tennessee, into the site of a qualifying round for the United States Coffee Championship. Conversations were hushed as the more than 40 competitors consulted with their teams and rehearsed presentations. On the other side of the divide, audience members found their seats while technicians double-checked the equipment. The winners of this qualifying event would advance to the national championships.

Born in Japan to an Air Force mother and a Hawaiian father, Liftee grew up in Oklahoma—a typical Midwestern childhood, as he describes it, but with a kitchen stocked full of papaya, guava, and other tropical foods. He attended college for a few semesters, then worked several odd jobs before finally landing a position at Onyx Coffee Lab in Rogers, Arkansas. In a progression characteristic of many coffee professionals, he first visited Onyx as a customer—he was a regular in his college days—and when they brought him on as an employee, he started as a barista and moved up through the ranks before becoming a trainer. He tells me that in his early days at Onyx, his interest in coffee became an obsession: After soaking up as much as he could on the job, he would go home and watch YouTube videos and read research reports from the UC Davis Coffee Center.

The Nashville event was Liftee’s third attempt at the U.S. Brewer’s Cup competition. Preparing, he explains, always starts with a story, and this time he decided to tell his own story. For the coffee, he chose a naturally processed Gesha—a prized varietal of the Coffea arabica species—grown on the La Palma y El Tucán farm in Colombia. Onyx paid a hefty US$212 a pound for the specialty beans at a time when average commodity coffee, by contrast, was trading for US$1.04 per pound on the New York exchange. But Liftee was enchanted by its range of flavors, from pineapple nectar and stewed strawberries to plum and black tea. Natural processing, in which the fruit is allowed to partially rot off the beans, imparts a fruity acidity, and Liftee wanted to use those notes to reflect his heritage.

A close-up photograph features a hand holding a card with a green header along its top. Around a sketch of a fruit on a branch, the card’s text reads, “Guatemala Finca Semillero. Tasting Notes: Tangerine, Brown Sugar, Lime. Finca Semillero, Luis Pedro Zelaya’s farm, sites on the slopes of the Fuego Volcano which has already erupted multiple times this year.”
Packaging from Stumptown Coffee Roasters, a leader in the craft coffee world, includes tasting notes and stories about producers.

Brewer’s Cup contestants train for months, sometimes years, to prepare, investing time and money to hire coaches, search out obscure coffees with unusual tastes, and practice their skills. With detailed protocols covering everything from water quality to grinder specifications, this is no casual contest. Entrants each have 10 minutes to brew and present their coffee to a panel of three judges. The coffee will be tasted at three temperatures—70 degrees Celsius, 40 degrees Celsius, and 30 degrees Celsius—and rated on a scale from zero to 10 in seven areas (aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, and overall taste). Points are added up, along with an evaluation of service and presentation, to produce an overall numerical score. Taste may seem particularly subjective, but the judges have been trained in sensory evaluation techniques, and there is surprisingly little variation in scores.

The organizers go to great lengths to make these competitions as objective as possible. But a lot still rests on the hard-to-quantify art of storytelling—the narrative brewers tell to situate their coffees and justify their choices.

When he takes the stage, Liftee tells the story of La Palma y El Tucán. While he heats the water and grinds the beans, he talks about the couple who run the farm and their dedication to cultivating unusual varietals. As he pours hot water over 10 grams of ground coffee nestled in Kalita Wave drippers, Liftee explains his quick pour technique (two minutes rather than the usual four) and the ways flavors evocative of Hawaii and Japan emerge as the coffee cools.

With individual cups presented to them, the judges pull out their tasting spoons, dip into the brew, and slurp loudly, rolling the liquid around in their mouths before spitting it out and contemplating their scores. In the final tally, Liftee earns 162.83 out of a possible 200 points and claims the top spot. He went on to win the national championships the following month with the same coffee and presentation.

From an anthropological perspective, such competitions can tell us a lot about underlying cultural values and power dynamics.

When I first started exploring the world of high-end (or Third Wave) coffees, it felt at once familiar and exotic. I considered myself a pretty serious coffee drinker, spent a lot of time in coffee shops, and was conversant with trends in artisanal foodstuffs. Still, I felt like an interloper at competitions and trade shows, out of my league among all the professionals and aficionados committed to the craft and science of coffee, with their own specialized language, customs, and opaque points of reference.

Over time, I came to see how the high-end coffee world, as a cultural community, orients itself around certain values that transcend the beverage itself: a dedication to craft, a quest for quality, a veneration of authenticity, and a commitment to building social relationships through the commercial trade. There is certainly competition and discord, bad actors and better ones, and contradictions between ideals and practice, but the most frequent refrain in my many conversations with coffee professionals was around the common project of finding and producing better coffee—better tasting and better for the farmers who grow it.

A photograph shows a person wearing a cardigan bent over smelling a frothy dark liquid in a glass cup, to which they are holding a silver spoon.
Kokako Organic Coffee Roasters hosted an event in New Zealand with Yelp Auckland on “demystifying Third Wave coffee” in 2014.

But this raises a number of questions: What makes a coffee “better”? What goes into a coffee like the La Palma y El Tucán Gesha to make it worth US$212 a pound? How can we measure a sensory experience down to two decimal points? At a coffee shop, customers are asked to pay more for quality, but who decides what constitutes “quality”? For most customers, high-end coffee selection is akin to looking at a restaurant’s list of unfamiliar wines: A higher price indicates better quality, rather than the other way around.

Coffee merchants, roasters, and tastemakers talk about “discovering” quality, as if it were independently out there in the world. The specialty coffee industry has built up elaborate scientific protocols to ground their definitions of quality in empirical terms, creating new metrics, standards, and lexicons for taste. Not coincidentally, the language used to talk about high-end coffee borrows heavily from fine wine by invoking ideas of craft production and terroir, a French term for the growing conditions of soil, rainfall, altitude, and other elements that affect taste and smell.

There are certainly noticeable, objective differences in flavor between high-end coffees and a typical cup of joe, some of them stark, that can be traced to the combinations of a multitude of chemical compounds. But what those taste differences mean is learned, and what is considered quality has changed over time.

Until recently, coffee taste-testing—or “cupping”—descriptors were mostly limited to broad attributes, such as “bold,” “balanced,” “bitter,” or perhaps “elegant.” With the rise of specialty coffees, and the formation of the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA), cupping was transformed from a quirky talent into a formal skill, grounded in scientific replicability, that could be taught. Ted Lingle, a pioneer in this area, integrated chemistry and sensory science into new cupping protocols designed, as he put it, “to make as objective an evaluation of the coffee’s quality attributes as humanly possible.”

Lingle’s protocols provide the basis for the SCA’s 100-point scale, which is built from rating 10 quality attributes: “fragrance/aroma, flavor, aftertaste, acidity, body, balance, uniformity, clean cup, sweetness, and overall.” The first five are based on the physical chemistry of coffee while the last five are grounded in sensory perceptions; the “overall” attribute allows for a cupper’s more subjective appraisal. While there are a few different cupping protocols, the SCA’s 100-point scale is the industry standard.

An illustration features a circle divided into many multicolored concentric circles below a header in black text that reads, “SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel.” Each concentric circle has slices that are assigned a descriptor. For example, slices in the innermost circle feature labels such as “Fruity,” “Roasted,” “Spices,” “Sweet,” and “Floral.” As circles trend outward, words get more specific. For example, the “Sweet” slice leads to smaller slices labeled “Vanilla,” “Sweet Aromatics,” and “Brown Sugar,” which lead to even smaller slices labeled “Honey,” “Maple Syrup,” and “Molasses.”
The Specialty Coffee Association’s flavor wheel, originally published in 1995 and updated in 2016 in collaboration with World Coffee Research, brings lively descriptors to coffee tasting in a blend of poetry and science.

Similarly, in the wine world, sensory descriptions were revolutionized in the 1980s by the adoption of wine researcher Ann C. Noble’s “aroma wheel,” establishing a common vocabulary. Based on that example, the SCA worked with researchers at the University of California, Davis, and Kansas State University to develop the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. Ranging from Chamomile, Rose, and Jasmine to Petroleum, Skunk, and Pipe Tobacco, the flavor wheel is a remarkable study in the art and science of taste: trying to classify and categorize an ultimately subjective sensory experience, mixing poetry and botany.

Based on the SCA protocols, the Coffee Quality Institute developed and administers the Q Grader certification program. Being certified as a Q Grader is a badge of honor in the Third Wave coffee world. It often takes years to pass the various tests of knowledge and skill, and some aspirants hire a coach to help them train. Successful applicants have to pass five “triangulation cuppings” to differentiate more than 90 coffees as well as complete other tests, such as identifying the addition of a specific acid (acidic, citric, malic, lactic, or phenol) to identical cups of coffee. It is a grueling and rigorous process, converting subjective impressions into replicable objective measures.

Even with a common vocabulary, there can be idiosyncratic differences and variability in judging intensity. In order to calibrate the flavor wheel categories on a 0–15 scale of intensity, World Coffee Research published the first-ever Sensory Lexicon for coffee in 2016. The lexicon provides a categorization of tastes that is descriptive, quantifiable, and, for those trained in its use, replicable: Two trained tasters anywhere in the world should give the same score for any attribute based on a standard protocol.

Still, many coffee cuppers say that, in practice, they use the flavor wheel as a reference to help think about flavors, but not as a strict categorization framework. Many will work by first identifying a broad flavor (perhaps something malty). Then they will systematically think through specific examples, comparing them with a recent sensory memory: beer (no), malted milk (no), these are too malty … something more subtle … gingerbread, perhaps.

When it comes down to it, cupping is an art of improvisational practice. One must creatively engage an existing framework in a way that others can understand and invoke among as many people as possible sensory connotations.

A photograph shows one person looking at another who holds a white cup in one hand and gestures with a spoon in the other. They stand at a table that holds more than a dozen white cups filled with dark liquid.
A “master cupper” (right) leads a demonstration of triangulated tasting at the Guatemala City headquarters of Anacafé, the National Coffee Association of Guatemala.

The value placed on certain flavors is always changing, especially in the high-end market where the richest rewards come from selling something singular, unusual, and unique. Not that long ago, the fruity and floral flavors Liftee was highlighting in his winning presentation were considered defects, aberrations from the nutty, chocolatey flavors typically associated with the taste of coffee. Now, the fruity, “juicy” acidity of natural processed coffees is highly valued; I heard one coffee described recently as like “angel cake with strawberry jam.”

Through conversations and competitions, coffee professionals and enthusiasts work out among themselves conventional understandings about which traits should be valued and which should be discounted, the flavors that are in and those that are out, what commands a price premium this season and what does not. Often, these value judgments tap into a bourgeoisie consumer pursuit of excellence and authenticity. This is a trend toward differentiation, with marketing narratives emphasizing distinctions between geographic origins, subtle flavor profiles, and relations with producers. Such stories give unique context and meaning to what might otherwise be just another undifferentiated mass commodity.

In this system, the real power derives from the ability to define what quality is—and not everyone has access to this power.


This excerpt has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

The post When Coffee Is Like Angel Cake With Strawberry Jam appeared first on SAPIENS.

13 Jan. 2023

In this Q&A, SAPIENS 2022 Poet-in-Residence Jason Vasser-Elong celebrated the end of his residency with a discussion of poetry as a dialogue across the ages.

View the video to enjoy a conversation with Jason Vasser-Elong, poet, cultural anthropologist, and interdisciplinary scholar in African American Studies and Education. Jason was the 2022 SAPIENS poet-in-residence and is earning his Ed.D. in educational practice from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, with a focus on how art influences student retention and persistence.

In this Q&A, Jason discussed how anthropology informs his craft and how his poetics shape dialogue across the ages with past and present writers such as Frantz Fanon, Zora Neale Hurston, Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Baldwin, and others. These writers and so many more speak to identity and social and cultural issues that impact people of African descent around the globe. As part of the discussion, Jason shared excerpts from his poetic contributions to SAPIENS and responded to audience questions.

Check out all of Jason’s SAPIENS poems here.

The post Rhyme & Reason: Poetry as a Cultural and Communal Bridge appeared first on SAPIENS.