Nicolas Ellwanger on Primatology as Anthropology

The Essence of Primates: An Opposable Thumb. Cover of Anthropologies, Issue 5. Photo: Ryan Anderson, 2011

It’s a great pleasure to be reading a cogent piece of online Anthropology and find it was written by a recent UVic Anthropology graduate.  This was the case when looking in the archives of the fairly new, excellent website Anthropologies.  The piece by Nicolas Ellwanger (M.A. 2007) is titled Primatology as Anthropology, and in it he makes a clear and compelling statement about how the study of non-human primates enhances the Anthropological project – indeed is integral to the project as a whole.  As Ellwanger says,

Primatologist Linda Fedigan (2000) stresses the “four Cs” that unite all anthropologists: complexity, comparison, cross-discipline, and conservation. Highlighting the comparative evolutionary patterns of primate behavior, we stand to gain an enlightened sense of appreciation for the human condition. We may become stronger as a discipline for engaging each other in such comparisons. There are certainly tremendous differences between humans and our non-human primate ancestors, but placing greater significance on primate complexity and evolutionary relevance promotes the comparative drive that has historically stimulated anthropological thought.

Anthropology has long thrived on the comparative approach.  Ethnologists compare traits and practices cross-culturally, and engage with archaeologists to add a deep temporal dimension.  The dialogue with primatologists is no less essential to slowly unpack nature and culture as essential threads in the tapestry of the human condition.  It’s a sharp piece, worth reading in the whole, that highlights the holistic approach to Anthropology UVic’s department has long espoused, an approach clearly still very relevant even in the world of ever-narrowing subdisciplinary specialties.

In fact, the entire Issue 5 of Anthropologies addresses the broader question of the role of Biological Anthropology in the modern discipline, and is equally worth a read.  The website is put together mainly by graduate students and certainly manages to make a fine balance between rigorous thought and plain, readable language.  It’s a good site that serves as a monthly magazine of general Anthropology.

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