Barbara J. King

Friday Animal Blog

Why I Love Anthropology

February 18, 2011

Rex (Alex Golub) over at Savage Minds asked anthropology bloggers to consider posting this week about “Why I Love Anthropology.” Challenge accepted, though what I have space to say here is only the merest (and clichéd) iceberg-tip.

Twenty-six years ago, I arrived in Amboseli National Park, Kenya, a doctoral candidate in Anthropology and as green as green could be. Oh, I knew my way around a testable hypothesis, and I had NSF funds banked towards my research. But I’d never been much of an outdoorsy type—had never even camped out—and there I was, tracking baboons day after day, through the bush, to record the behaviors of infants in two groups as they learned what items to eat from a smorgasbord of choices and how to process them skillfully.

At the outset, I had to concentrate fiercely to distinguish one monkey from another, one type of grass species from another, one flowering plant from another. Because of this, some non-baboon events happening around me never made it past peripheral vision into the brain’s proper notice.

I wondered one day why the Baboon Project’s Kenyan assistant, Raphael Mututua, was waving at me from across a wide open area, where he too was collecting data. I waved back, only to learn later that he’d been trying to alert me to the fact that a rhinoceros was lumbering right towards me. The poorly-sighted rhino veered out of my path by random luck, but I soon enough suffered other blunders involving near-misses with lions and mamba snakes.

Gradually my greenness faded; I began to thrive at Amboseli. I could distinguish one baboon from another by glimpsing a single body-segment at a distance. I gained many hours of data and knew how to stay safe.

Various veils of mystery began to slip from my eyes. Animal-behavior-wise, things began to make sense. But the human world was a different story. I’d taken Swahili lessons and could properly greet people and engage them in minor chit-chat, but understood perhaps 25% of the fast-clip conversing going on around me. Living amongst Kikuyu and Maasai families, I was keen to grasp what people were up to, what the world was like for them compared to what it was like for my family back home in New Jersey. I listened a lot, and sometimes thought I’d grasp something that mattered, but most often (even when my multi-lingual hosts switched to English for my sake) felt that I was missing the key aspects.

This whole description amounts, I think, to an apt if crude metaphor for doing anthropology, a practice which destabilizes a person and upends lots of assumptions. Even as you gain a modicum of wisdom in one area, you flail in ignorance in others, sometimes to the extent that you can’t even figure out the right questions to ask.

And oh—those questions! Excellent questions are at the heart of Anthropology (maybe of all disciplines). In the years since Amboseli, I’ve learned a lot about how to tolerate the attendant disorientation that comes with creating them, and asking them: of people I hang out with, of the video tapes I analyze about ape communication, of the books I read in biological anthropology, archaeology, and sociocultural anthropology. It’s a process of lingering over a conversation, an image, a passage, letting it loll around in the brain and then spitting out a query based on something not understood or a connection I may wish to make.

In this regard, books are among the best tutors. Standing at my bookshelf, I can pick up Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972) and arm myself against the common-sense view that thoughts arise in each of our heads then transfer to someone else’s head as we communicate. Bateson wrote instead about systems, systems of jointly distributed thoughts and feelings that thrive across bodies and minds.

Shuffling along a few feet, I can grab an issue of American Ethnologist and admire Eduardo Kohn’s call (2007) for not just an anthropology of human life but an anthropology of all life—an expanded system that takes into account how humans and animals together dynamically create meaning.

Questions bump and crash around in my head: How can we discover whether African apes (my primates of choice at present) create meaning across minds within their groups? The great apes do think, and my work (and that of many others) shows they create meaning together. How can we “think systems” in new ways about ape sociality? Equally interesting to me, in my newer work, are the ways in which humans and animals have interacted throughout prehistory. Can an evolutionary view contribute to Kohn’s call for “new spaces of possibility” in an anthropology of life?

When I do anthropology, it always starts with agitated questions. No matter how modest my contribution, as I work, I feel connected to anthropologists past and present, people who, in Papua New Guinea or Paris, in Berlin or Boston, trained themselves to see the rhino lumbering in their path. To capture from our peripheral vision something strange and exciting about human meaning-making or its evolution, to move it front and center into our minds and join those minds up with others, is a challenge and a joy. It’s why I love being an anthropologist.


  1. February 18, 2011 7:36 AM EST
    "To capture from our peripheral vision something strange and exciting about human meaning-making or its evolution, to move it front and center into our minds and join those minds up with others, is a challenge and a joy--" and that's why I'm a poet! Thanks so much for this.
    - Mary Pratt
  2. February 18, 2011 8:39 AM EST
    Beautiful, Barbara. I share your love of the 'agitated questions.' Thanks for doing this.
    - Molly Mullin
  3. February 18, 2011 9:15 AM EST
    Amazing! You just wrote about why I love writing. :)
    - Marian Allen
  4. February 18, 2011 12:19 PM EST
    I think you've more than stepped up to the challenge. What a wonderful post. I'm glad you didn't get trampled all those years ago.
    - Colleen
  5. February 18, 2011 12:41 PM EST
    I love Anthropology because dear Ms. Barbara J. King made me love the discipline through her very informative and colorful lectures. I've had my masters degree in English Lit. from Sorbonne in Paris and had made up my mind to get my PhD in the same department (where I've already been a PhD student for 2 years). Maybe Ms. King will not believe it but I decided to give it up and take up Anthropology from the start :) So at 29, I am venturing on a new trip. Thanks Barbara, I'll be following your blog with great enthusiasm and try to find the right questions always.
    - Bihter Sabanoglu
  6. February 18, 2011 2:11 PM EST
    Wow! I have to say how gratified I am by these comments, and by the attention this post is getting over at twitter and from AAA (which will run excerpts at its own blog on Monday). A special shout out to Bihter whose words have made my day!
    - Barbara J. King
  7. February 18, 2011 4:27 PM EST
    Bateson is very important to me as well! Beautifully written, Barbara. I guess I had better get crackin' on mine.
    - Krystal D'Costa
  8. February 18, 2011 6:15 PM EST
    I love anthropology because it is so broad reaching. You never have everything wrapped up into a neat little package of answers, and yet you can bring together things that other disciplines would never consider, such as poetry and medicine to discover great insights about the poetry of medicine. And, as you noted, Barbara, anthropologists are breaking down the artificial barriers between our species and others, and long ago broke down the idea that an idea originates in the mind of one individual and is transmitted to the mind of another individual. We find encompassing unities and we are bold enough to state them and show empirically that they are real.
    - Margaret Trawick
  9. February 18, 2011 7:22 PM EST
    Krystal, I'll eagerly read your version of 'I Love Anthro,' if you decide to write one. And, yes, I'm astonished by how much richness there is in Bateson and how I discover more every time I reread his work. Peggy, your paragraph is a gem. How beautifully you write! Well, I knew that.
    - Barbara J. King
  10. February 18, 2011 7:23 PM EST
    And so in the middle of all this mutual admiration, isn't anyone going to push back? Contest? Disagree with SOMEthing? Where is the anthropology I know and love!
    - Barbara J. King
  11. February 20, 2011 7:22 AM EST
    No argument, here--lovely post; terrific homage to Gregory Bateson, nice metaphor.
    - Dave Leavens
  12. March 30, 2011 11:04 AM EDT
    I'm impressed by what I've heard(read) about you and from you.I'm presently involved in your course "Biological Anthropology: An Evolutionary Perspective" and am amazed by the breath and depth of your knowledge. Hopefully I'll have a chance to touch base with you again. Thanks
    - Walter Preau
  13. March 30, 2011 5:12 PM EDT
    Walter, many thanks! I enjoyed making that Teaching Co. course a great deal. Best wishes to you, Barbara
    - Barbara J. King

Selected Works

Why are animals so irresistible to us? Why do we live with and care so deeply about them? From the famous "art caves" of ice-age Europe, to the ancient villages where animals were first domesticated, to stories of apes, whales, dogs, and cats doing fascinating things today, King weaves together a scenario about the animal-human bond that encompasses our past, present and future.
Can scientists discover a prehistory of religion just as they have traced the evolution of technology, language, and art? What does compassion in chimpanzees, or burial patterns in our human ancestors and Neanderthals, tell us about the origins of religion? In Evolving God, named a Top Ten Religion Book for 2007 by the American Library Association, Barbara King explores these questions.
How do chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas-- the African apes -- communicate using body postures and gestures? Using her many years of experience studying these apes, Barbara King answers this question in a book that offers a new perspective on the evolution of language.