Malu Is Like A Golden Ticket (Pt. 4)

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We were scheduled to start data collection with Chilo and the malu at 11AM in Pago Pago, with Joe at Off Da Rock in Nu’uuli at 1PM, and with Su’a Wilson in Leone at 3PM. In theory, we could have been stretched much further. The island is not that big, and there is only one road, but the speed limit is only 25 mph, and we’d have been truly screwed to have collecting even two sets of data if they were at complete opposite ends of the island. As it was, we never went past Pago Pago or Leone this trip, but it would take at least 30 minutes to make this trip, so we needed to time things right. Things would inevitably change. And they did.American Samoa road map

First, we called Chilo to confirm the time of the malu and got no answer. Chilo had given his wife’s number on Monday when his battery had been dying, and I had kept it, so I called her. I asked if he was available, and she said, no, he is at work. At work? Isn’t he supposed to be starting a malu. So we drove to Family Mart, and I looked for but could not find him. I asked the clerk at the register, and she said he was butchering meat. I wandered around till I found him, butcher’s apron on, putting cuts of fish in the store freezers for sale. He greeted me and told me that the malu was delayed until 1PM. He did not get my calls because reception was poor in the freezers. I asked how he would get there, and he said he would either take an aiga bus (what they call the rickety private buses used for public transportation) or the family would get him on their way to his house from Leone. The whole family of the girl getting the malu, of course, would be accompanying her and, in fact, had arranged things with him. First, I thought to volunteer to pick him up and drive him, but then I knew this might make coordinating the other two tattoos difficult, so I promised to call him at 12:30 to make arrangements. I left somewhat aggravated but accustomed to such changes and delays.

Off Da Rock was delayed as well, though not as much. Joe was building a shop for his wife in the house next door and was frequently running around picking up materials before an appointment. When he arrived for an appointment, he would still need to go back and forth to manage workers in the house while also tattooing and managing his business. He is the only tattooist in his shop and managing many affairs. He and his wife also run a morning workout for the community that starts at 5AM every morning, are officers with the National Guard, are financial advisers, and design and sell clothes on the internet and out of his shop until hers is finished. Plus they have two young daughters and, like all good Samoans, attend church regularly and are active members of their villages. Joe handles all the fa’alavelave obligations for his family rather than send to his parents in the mainland for remittances. Fa’alavelave are the obligations that interfere with normal life and call for special activities or celebrations, such as funerals, weddings, granting of matai titles, births, birthdays, and so on. Joe’s uncle a few homes over is the village high chief.

We had collected enough data at Off Da Rock that we were able to get the first sample and anthropometrics from Joe’s client, then drive to Pago Pago to meet Chilo. We had to leave Joe and the client with the post-test saliva collection tube and instructions on how to collect the saliva. Apparently, we neglected to tell them how to take the collection straw off the tube and screw the cap on, as we recovered the sample the next day lying on its side, wrapped in a paper towel, with some of the sample dribbling out. There was enough still in the tube to use, but the devil of data collection, like so much, is in the details.

We drove to Pago Pago, and I had to drop Michaela off with materials for collecting demographic info and saliva, along with good cameras we had borrowed from the American Samoa Historic Preservation Office. A malu would take more than one day, so we planned for me to take the hand dynamometer and bioimpedance analyzer to collect data at Su’a Wilson’s tap-tap session and collect body density and handgrip strength from Chilo’s client later today when I returned for the balance of the session or tomorrow when we returned for the inevitable second session. I drove to Leone and asked Michaela to text me when she got picked up and their session started. The session in Leone started almost immediately. I barely had time to get set up and collect anthropometric data. Su’a’s stretcher, his son Mark, had them ready to go. I sat behind Su’a’s wife Reggie and watched as she fanned everyone, comforted the client, and chatted with everyone.

The hours went by, no text. Finally, “still waiting.” That was both a relief and distressing. Su’a took 2 ½-3 hours to complete a tauvae or band around a girl’s ankle. It was her first tattoo, and her mother, who had grown up in American Samoa, had brought her to get it as part of her heritage. As I drove back to Pago, I texted Michaela. She was still waiting for Chilo but had tracked down his wife and was sitting with her. When I arrived, Michaela and Chilo’s wife and their baby were sitting at the picnic table where we had talked to him and where I had left Michaela waiting 4 hours earlier. There was a half-eaten package of Tim Tams. I introduced myself then Michaela asked me to give them a few more minutes to talk alone. I wandered around for about 30 minutes until Chilo’s wife left. Then Michaela told me to drive to a nearby Japanese place for dinner. Chilo was not doing a malu today after all, but he had another tattoo job and would be calling us.

Does anyone at this point believe that he will be calling us or that he will doing any sort of tattoo? Neither did we, but we did eat nearby, if only to be able to process what was going on and get some food in us.

After several hours of calling Chilo and having him say he was on the way, Michaela called his wife. The Samoan islands are very traditional and very gender stratified. One of Michaela’s cardinal rules of research there is that she will not form friendships with males. It is too fraught with gender disparities and opens everyone up to accusations of impropriety. If she must work with a male in some capacity, she goes to lengths to get to know the wife as well. So Michaela called Chilo’s wife to forge a relationship, since she was allegedly going to be working in Chilo’s studio without his wife present. Michaela’s instincts in this regard have been as accurate as her sense that she should bring a male researcher on—me—to be able to talk with high chiefs and other males in her primary research, the impacts of social inequalities on unwed mothers and their babies.

American Samoa and Samoa still retain their traditional, male-dominated, village-based political structures for the most part and to varying degrees. They share the same culture and language but, for the past 100 years, slightly different colonial histories. In the early 19th century, missionaries took firm root on all the Samoan islands. It was just before and during this period that several paramount of high chiefs sought to extend their power over multiple islands, using European trade goods acquired by converting to Christianity toward these ends. It was through these political and economic pursuits that Samoan and colonial interests became entwined. It was the son of the first successful missionary who established copra as a trade item, which is dried coconut from which oil can be extracted. Flourishing copra plantations were established across the islands, especially the bigger and more agriculturally accessible Upolu. A German trading company moved in and monopolized this industry and was so successful that when the business failed in Europe, the German government bailed it out to retain the income coming from Samoa. However, German treatment of natives was poor and exploitative, and, in an effort to retain control of their own lands, chiefs in Tutuila sought protection from the U.S. government against German incursion by offering sole use of its prized deep sea harbor at Pago Pago.

The U.S. resisted for some time but ultimately became embroiled in Samoan affairs and recognized the need to prevent German colonial expansion throughout the Pacific. A naval standoff between U.S., German, and British ships that nearly came to head was prevented by a sudden hurricane that scuttled nearly all the ships at anchor and killed hundreds of men, forcing a quick negotiation that resulted in the Germans holding Western Samoa and the U.S. Eastern Samoa, later named American Samoa. Western ended up in the hands of New Zealand after World War I, and then became independent in 1962. It changed its name from Western to Samoa in 1997, much to the consternation of American Samoans. American Samoa was managed by the U.S. Navy beginning in 1901. After several failed efforts to install kings of Samoa during the earlier colonial trade period, the U.S. opted to follow the German governing style of allowing Samoans to govern themselves at the village level as they have always done, through a hierarchy of selected matai and a government-selected mayor or pulenu’u. A gathering of representative chiefs or the fono met regularly to discuss issues with the governor, who for the first 50 years as a U.S. territory was a U.S. Navy officer, then an appointed U.S. politician sent to American Samoa, then, beginning in 1978, a native Samoan elected by Samoans.

“The relationship never had made any sense. It was just one of those uncorrected accidents of history, the result of a tactical move in 19th century gunboat diplomacy that had remained so far removed from the great power’s attention and so unimportant as to never get set back right again. For 50 years, the place had been run by the U.S. Navy as if it were a ship with an unfortunate cargo of natives. Then the distant territory’s administration had been ironically transferred to the Department of the Interior, the folks who already oversaw the rest of America’s reservations. Traditionally, the governorship had been bestowed upon Naval commanders who couldn’t be trusted with a real sinkable ship. And later, to hack redneck politicians who had been voted out of office back in Arkansas or East Texas. The result was 80 years of short-term appointed white male governors of varying degrees of racist assurance and administrative acumen. They were rarely stellar. Only in the last generation had American Samoans been enfranchised to elect their own governor and legislature, though the Secretary of the Interior still held veto power over everything. Technically, the islands were an unincorporated and unorganized territory of the greater USA.” (John Enright, Fire Knife Dancing)

pillbox on Tutuila, American SamoaMany many countries and polities around the world have been and remain patriarchal in nature, while the U.S., Europe, and other industrialized countries have ostensibly moved and pushed toward greater degrees of equity among genders. American Samoa is uniquely positioned as an American territory because it is one that was largely unwanted by the U.S., though it served a very strategic purpose during WWII with a lasting impact on its culture and landscape, and continues to be mostly ignored by the U.S. government.

Most people in the U.S. are likely unfamiliar with American Samoa and even the most educated would struggle to find it on a map. American Samoa is the southernmost U.S. territory and is closer to New Zealand and Australia than it is to the U.S. Its strategic purpose relative to, say, Hawai’i has always been limited and, thus, it is in many ways unsullied by modernization. On the other hand, American Samoa is as sullied a territory as there is in other ways.

American Samoans having the ignominious distinction of being among the most obese peoples in the world. Samoans have been studied to death by scientists because of their interesting Polynesian ancestry and large phenotype. Aside from the high rate of obesity, Polynesians in general and Samoans in particular are a large-bodied people. Samoans are much sought after as American football players and New Zealand rugby players. Yet because of modernization and a switch, especially in the less agricultural islands of American Samoa, to reliance on trade and, more to the point, U.S. subsidies and aid, American Samoans have transitioned to diets of commodity foods high in calories and low in nutrients and suffer high rates of the diseases of civilization, including obesity, as well as type II diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

When we dig down a little deeper then, we come back around to John Enright’s noir depiction of the American Samoa Michaela invited me to help study last summer. When a society is highly patriarchal, highly Christianized, and is almost completely reliant on U.S. aid, NGOs, and family remittances, what social group is at the bottom of society suffering the most? Poor women, women with little family support, women with little family support and no husbands, women with children and little family support and no husbands. Of course, this is a synergistic type of situation, one created by the structure of the society as it has developed. Poor women are women without titles in their family. They have no access to village-level resources unless chiefs allot it to them.

There are so many political and ritual obligations to become titled and among titled families that resources do not generally circulate much beyond them. Except when a fa’alavelave is held, and there are a lot of them. For each fa’alavelave, chiefs might demand that everyone in the community contribute, especially the family at the center of the celebration. So if a low-rank woman and man want to get married, their families are expected to pay lots toward the celebration. Of course they are also paying, like everyone, toward everyone’s celebrations, so it will take them a long time to have enough money to be able to get married. In the meantime—whoops—they have a baby. American Samoa has the worst condom education of any tribe, territory, or state in the U.S. Sex education is verboten because of their strong, conservative Christian identity and values. Which is a double-edged sword, since this young woman is now pregnant. So she gets in trouble with her village and her church and is literally ostracized from both. This is how she becomes the lowest echelon of society with the most suffering. Often, to save the family from shame, the woman will be taken to Samoa or the U.S. mainland to have her baby, which is then raised by a family member. Secrets are kept. Shame is hidden.

Fight the Bite American Samoa Department of Health campaignWhen Michaela was conducting her dissertation fieldwork in American Samoa, she was following women through their pregnancies to see the effects of these structural inequalities on their babies. She found that these unwed women were having smaller babies. We know small birth weight can have negative life consequences. Michaela has not yet put her finger on the exact mechanism that causes this smaller size, but it seems wrapped up in this social system. In 2016, Michaela brought me to the island to talk to men, to learn more about how resources were being distributed, what might be happening to these women that was so much different than married women that would result in smaller babies. But then Zika happened, adding another layer to the risk for pregnant women and, in particular, unwed pregnant women and their babies in American Samoa. We spent that summer trying to understand what people know about Zika, how it’s transmitted, and what that means for this focusing of risk for the babies of unwed women, phenomenon anthropologists Morgan Hoke and Tom McDade call “biosocial inheritance.” One thing we learned is that both men and women think that married women are more deserving of prenatal care than unwed mothers. This was not a statistically significant indicator, as both men and women think all women should receive prenatal care. But still.risk focusing model

Which brings us back to Chilo’s wife. She was mystified as to why he had told us he was doing a malu. He had never done a malu before. He didn’t do hand tap tattoos. He hadn’t done any tattooing in months. He worked so many hours a week at the Family Mart, he could not afford to take off the two days he told us he’d taken off to do the tattooing. He hadn’t told her anything of his plans to meet with us that day and never told her about his extracurricular activities, though he had told her of meeting with us previously and of our interest in his tattooing. He did seem to do tattoos occasionally, but they did not bring in much money and he needed to put in as many hours at Family Mart and ensure his job there. They were barely hanging on. She’d had two children by another man before him, a man now in prison. She couldn’t afford food for those children, so she tried to breastfeed them both and suffered maternal depletion syndrome. She liked how it made her so skinny and attractive, but it was not enough food for the children. They were starving, and her family told her she should take them to an aunt who could care for them. She used to visit them there more, but her aunt chastised them for showing the kids too much affection, as if she wanted them back. She had to pretend she was not their mother, so the aunt would continue to care for them.

And now she and Chilo had this child to care for. She did not know why he had told us his studio was right across the way from Pago Plaza. He did not have a studio that she knew of, and they lived far up the mountain off the road.

He called a few times throughout this conversation. No, the malu was not happening today. But another person had made an appointment with him. Stay there. He would be tattooing later tonight. We could come to the studio and see that tattoo, take photos. We had explained the entire study to him in words we thought he understand, had given him copies of the consent forms in English and Samoan. We had asked him if he understood and he’d said yes. But to his wife he said he didn’t know we wanted to collect saliva samples. He wanted us to take photos. He thought we were taking photos. He thought we were writing articles and would bring attention to his business. His wife explained to him and said his English was not all that good. She was not sure how much he could read or understand.

But we should stick around. He would call us.

This narrative derives from field notes from the Inking of Immunity and Pepe, Aiga, and Tina Health Study (PATHS) in American Samoa.

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Malu is Like a Golden Ticket (Pt. 3)

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We had worried when the study started that we would have difficulty juggling multiple tattoo sessions with only two researchers because we only took along one bioimpedance analyzer (BIA). The study protocol is ultimately rather simple. It involves a short questionnaire about tattoo experience and some basic demographic information, then we collect hand-grip strength using a hand dynamometer, body density using a BIA, and a saliva sample right before the tattoo starts, noting the time, and another as soon as the tattoo concludes.

From the saliva samples, we extract immunoglobulin A and cortisol. Immunoglobulin A is an antibody that lines the respiratory and gastrointestinal tract and is a frontline defense against common infections like colds and flus. Cortisol is a stress hormone that increases when the body or mind are responding to a stressor, like getting a tattoo. Part of the classic stress response involves turning off non-essential functions to deal with the source of the stress until the body can return to homeostasis, and the production of IgA is one of the things usually suppressed during stress response. But as we point out as part of our induction protocol, the body can become habituated to certain types of stressors and have mediated responses. Take exercise, for instance, which stresses the body and results in immunosuppression when a person is new to it. With regular exercise, the body actually becomes healthier and is better able to deal with the stress of it, as well as daily potential insults of other types. Unless one overdoes it. Studies of elite athletes find they catch upper respiratory tract infections more often than most and suggest it is due to fatiguing this system. There is a growing body of research that finds overtaxed stress response systems result in deterioration in the body, including cognitive deficits results from apoptosis in the hippocampus.

We collect body density as an indicator of fitness and handgrip strength as indicator of underlying neurocompetence. By controlling for these—essentially equalizing people for these variables—we can compare tattoo experience to the changes in cortisol and IgA from the beginning to the end of the tattoo. In our previous research, we found that people with little to no tattoo experience responded to being tattooed with the predicted spike in cortisol and immunosuppression of IgA but that people with lots of tattoo experience did not have immunosuppression.

In American Samoa, the logistic catch was that we had one dynanomometer and one BIA between us. Ironically, for much of the study, because there are so few tattooists in American Samoa, there were two of us hanging out for the entirety of a tattoo session when only one of us was necessary, and not even for the whole session. We really only needed to be there for the beginning and end, except for the need and want to collect ethnographic data. As it happened, the same day Chilo said he was doing a malu was the day Joe at Off Da Rock Tattoos had a client and Su’a Wilson was doing the first hand tap tattoo we’d been invited to collect data at. Finally, we had the luxury problem of having come all the way to American Samoa to collect as much tattoo data as we could in 6 weeks and had to juggle three at once.

But why did we come to American Samoa? If there are so few tattooists, why not conduct this retest back in the mainland U.S., where there are more tattoo studios in any given town than there are McDonald’s and Starbucks combined (American Samoa doesn’t even have Starbucks, though they do have Starstruck—however, they have two McDonald’s, one of which has been the highest grossing McDonald’s in the world several years running). We came to American Samoa to retest the model because you can’t generalize a scientific finding from 29 mostly women in Alabama to much of anyone else, despite the elementary nature of the finding (this finding, though compelling to media, is consistent with basic stress response and allostasis theory but cooler when applied to culture and especially to tattooing). And we came because the Samoan Islands have the longest continuous history of tattooing.

Sometimes we would appeal to Samoans by saying that we are repeating the study in the Samoans because it’s where tattooing began, which is not exactly true. No one knows where tattooing began. The words tatau comes from the region, which is where we get the word “tattoo.” And Samoans never really stopped tattooing, even during the height of missionization, though it was somewhat suppressed. It depends on what source you read, but some speak of Samoans in the 18th and early 19th century as having essentially using conversion to Christianity as a ploy to get cloth, metal, and other things they recognized the value of and that they wanted. One early missionary complained that they had done less to rid the Samoans of their primitive native, ungodly ways than the Samoans had assimilated the parts of Christianity convenient to them into their tradition. Even among the Mormons, who do not generally get tattooed today, this still seems largely true. Informants we spoke to seemed almost utilitarian in describing their experiences balancing religious dictates with the things in life they want, from experiences with drugs like ice (crystal methamphetamine) addiction to wearing traditional tattoo designs on clothes and stickers as a way around getting these signs of Samoanness on their bodies to show their allegiance to fa’asamoa (tradition) and aiga (family).

The myth of the twin sisters who brought tattooing to Samoa is a story everyone knows, though there are different versions of the story. The most common version is known because of “The Samoan Tattoo Song,” which one can hear regularly on Samoan radio.

This is the known origin
of the permitted Tatau in Samoa
The journey of two sisters
Who swam in the ocean from Fiji

They brought with them a basket of the tatau tools
and the song they repeated
it said only the women receive the tatau
and the men do not

The reason why the men receive the tatau
is the sisters sang their song incorrectly
When they arrived at the coastal waters of Falealupo
They saw a huge clam
They dived for it
and when they came up they sang
It said only the men receive the tatau
and the women do not

Look at the young man lying down
as the tufuga begins his work
Pity the crying of the young man
The stinging bite of the autapula teeth

Young man be brave
it is a game of the men
Although it is very painful
Yet afterwards you will be proud of it

Of all of the Islands in the Pacific
Samoa is well known for its tatau
The young men with his tatau walking by
As the decorations of the tatau shine

As the song indicates, women brought the tattoo tools because tattooing was originally the realm of females, but they made some mistake and ended up switching things around. The longer myth deals with the families who were given the tools, which relates to the guilds that are allowed to teach and apply hand tapping now. Ausage also believes the story originally referred to Fiti, not Fiji, which is short for the village of Fitiuta, but that it has been distorted and confused with time. When the first explorers recorded to have sited Samoa landed, they thought the Samoans wore silk knickers because of their pe’a, which are the male tattoos extending from midriff to below the knees.

To be continued…

This narrative derives from field notes from the Inking of Immunity and Pepe, Aiga, and Tina Health Study (PATHS) in American Samoa.

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Malu is Like a Golden Ticket (Pt. 2)

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Full sleeve by Joe at Off Da Rock Tattoo.

Full sleeve by Joe at Off Da Rock Tattoo.

Michaela and I were despondent from cancellations and because we were collecting data on day two of multiple sleeves (a full arm tattoo) at one studio. Meaning, we were collecting additional saliva samples from individuals we’d already got them from because they were getting big tats that took multiple sessions, so we were collecting pre- and post-tattoo data from day two and didn’t have anyone else we could collect new data from. We hadn’t really worked out what to do with additional data like that. In my previous study, I’d averaged additional samples in and found the additional data didn’t make much difference. We were likely wasting our time, in other words. So I volunteered to drive to the village of Ottoville, out past the Cost U Less, and pick up a family in town for a family reunion who wanted to get their afakasi son (half-Samoan—a distinction I make because Samoans make it, though it both does and does not seem to matter) tattooed and that needed a ride to get there. On the way, I stopped at the Family Mart to find this supposed Tongan.

Cargo boxes at shipping yard of Fagatago, American Samoa.

Cargo boxes at shipping yard of Fagatago, American Samoa.

He supposedly worked in the cargo boxes, which are the shipping boxes that goods come in. Every Chinese and Korean grocer has them lined up in front of their stores. I’m not really sure why. Do they simply have stuff dropped off in them and trade them out, keeping them there for additional storage? I’ve never thought to ask. I also didn’t know people worked in them. But I stopped at Family Mart, didn’t see anyone around the boxes or any doors to knock on, walked around inside first, didn’t see any likely candidates, then went back outside to the car and saw a guy who could have been my Tongan coming out of the box. He had hair clipped short, looked Polynesian possibly but not necessarily Samoan (wasn’t big enough), and his arms were covered with tattoos (though not Samoan tattoos). He was coming out of one of the boxes carrying goods to restock shelves inside.

He had a dour appearance when I approached him. I asked if he was Tomesi or Ollie (names changed for confidentiality) and he said no. I asked him if he knew Tomesi or Ollie, and he shook his head no. I told him I am a researcher studying tattooing and referenced an article in the Samoa News and radio and TV interviews we had just done about our research to give my story credibility. So far, everyone we had encountered had heard or read one of these, because there are limited media outlets on island. Puzzled, I asked him if he was a tattoo artist, and he said yes. So I gave him my phone number, got his name and phone number, and asked if I could call him to talk to him about our study. He said yes, we arranged a time, and I left to finish my errand, elated by my success in the face of our flagging sampling. I had found the Tongan tattoo artist Niko had told me about, but his name was Chilo, not Ollie or Tomesi, and he had no Polynesian tattoos that I could see. However, even the tattoo experts often have tattoos they’ve collected elsewhere in their youths. I saw so many eagles, for instance. Granted, an eagle is on the American Samoa flag carrying a Samoan war club and fly-whisk, but there are no eagles in American Samoa. It represents the U.S. And Pago Pago. Though this is no different than U.S. teams being represented by Tigers. Fagaitua are the Vikings, for instance.

I had promised to call Chilo at a time that evening. The idea that one show up on time to a meeting is a Euroamerican convention or what you do for work and church, not necessarily other situations. So I had the best of intentions of calling him later, but we were spent after our day of resampling the same person and decided to treat ourselves and our foul moods to a movie and dinner out with our friend David to cheer ourselves up. I didn’t notice until the next day that I’d received a phone call during dinner from an unknown number. Now in the mainland, I’m so phone phobic, I’d never call someone back who called me that I didn’t know and who didn’t leave a message, but people can’t leave messages on my cheap American Samoa Telecommunications Authority flip-phone, and who would be calling me? Only someone interested in or related to the research. So I called back, and it was this guy I met in the cargo box. That never happens. Chilo actually called me. We couldn’t believe it. So I arranged for us to meet with him in Pago after he got off work Monday, where he would take us to his house to talk and so we could find it for collecting tattoo data later.

David Herdrich is more than just a friend; he is Director of American Samoa Historic Preservation Office and one of the most important people on our American Samoa research team.

David Herdrich is more than just a friend; he is Director of American Samoa Historic Preservation Office and one of the most important people on our American Samoa research team.

And here we were, sitting anxiously in our car, wondering if Chilo were some type of Tongan criminal, a killer preying on stupid palagi scientists who’d taken no safeguards. Since this is a true story that I am writing for an anthropology class and to describe fieldwork—and lest I reify any stereotypes, I’ll hazard a few spoilers—he was neither Tongan, I don’t think, nor, to my knowledge, had he any malevolent intent. This was all our imaginations, but stay tuned, because it was still weird.

We finally voiced our mutual discomfort at sitting in an isolated parking lot behind a building in the dark in Pago and moved the car to a spot in front on the main road. There we sat a while longer. We called Chilo to check on his progress, and he told us he was on the way, almost there. Half an hour later, we called him again, and he was just leaving work…I finally gave him 15 minutes before I was going to leave. When 15 minutes was up, Michaela told me I should call him to tell we were leaving, but I just wanted to bail. Reluctantly, I did call him, and he asked where we were, saying he was in the parking lot and couldn’t find us. This freaked me out. How did he get by? I didn’t want him coming to get in the car or to come to the car window, so I got out to find him. He had come through from the back, and I met him back at the gate, out of Michaela’s sight. But he was nowhere as threatening in person as he had become in my mind’s eye, so I brought him over to the car to introduce to her. Fortunately, he also no longer wanted us to go to his house. Their pastor and his family were there, he said. It might seem odd that a church event was going on at his house, and he was in a dark parking lot with us talking tattoo, but it makes perfect sense in Samoa. We sat at a picnic table in the back of the plaza to talk. This was in a well-lighted area, and as we sat there, some Coast Guard palagis we knew happened by in their uniforms and chatted with us, which gave us additional relief.

The story Chilo told us was exciting and incredible. He wasn’t Tongan at all, as I mentioned, but from Western Samoa. He had his own tattoo studio and business on the side, doing tattoos with electric gun and hand tap. He said he had been trained by a Sulu’ape. We explained our project in the slow manner that we do, because English is not the first language of many Samoans, using simple words, repeating certain things, focusing on the cultural elements, ensuring him that we were looking for partners in this study, not simply participants. We shared a copy of the informed consent, which outlined the study in simple terms, in English and Samoan. At one point, Chilo started crying, which was both surprising and touching. He said God had sent us to help him and his business, and he was grateful and happy to participate.

The Samoan Islands are 99% Christian. The missionaries did their work well there. Though sometimes being Christian is a means to a social end, the structure of Christianity mapped well onto the village-based authoritarian structure that included top-down morality, and it flourished there. American Samoa is emblematic of anthropologist Rich Sosis’ “3Bs” model of religious commitment signaling. You can observe religious commitment via behavior, badges, and bans. People go to church all the time, wear elaborate clothing, and observe a hefty load of religious taboos. But conspicuously missing among these Bs, Sosis notes, is belief. It’s not necessary to demonstrate commitment, though it often develops simply by following through other three signs, as a way to minimize cognitive dissonance. Many Samoans are cynical about religion, but they are still Christian. I don’t know Chilo’s religious values, but his statement that God had sent us to him came as no surprise.

What did surprise us is that he said he would be doing a malu this week. It was like we’d bought the Willy Wonka chocolate bar with the golden ticket. A malu is the female counterpart to the pe’a. These are the special midriff and thigh tattoos that only Samoans are supposed to get and symbolize one’s commitment to village, matai (chief), and aiga (family). Malu means to hold together, and the symbols that characterize the malu include crosshatches, like the ties that bind the house together. They represent the importance of the Samoan woman in binding the family and village together. But tattooing is primarily a male domain, so, though we had seen several men getting pe’a, which has similar significance, we had yet to see a woman getting a malu. And Chilo wanted us to part of this tattoo experience. He would have us wear gloves and a gown and be in the inner circle of the tattooing with his stretchers. And he wanted us to take photos. The family would be OK with it, he assured us, and we would not be in the way because the family would be in the room outside.

All of this was very exciting but also quite odd. First, all the tattoo artists on Tutuila know each other, as it is a small place. For that matter, most of the tattoo artists in the entire South Pacific seem to know each other, and no one knew this guy. Second, when we asked about hand tap artists, all the same names came up, regardless of who we talked to. Becoming a hand tap artist is no small thing, as it requires an intensive apprenticeship, and there are a limited number of people with whom one can apprentice, especially in the Samoas. If one is a Su’a and/or a Sulu’ape, one is known because one has started as a stretcher for years and been conferred a title with the tools and permission to tattoo. Sulu’ape is the family name and title granted by that family of master tattooists for completing a certain degree of apprenticeship, and Su’a is a higher title.

According to historian Telei’ai Fanaea Christian Ausage, author of Laei a Samoa, a book about Samoan tattooing, Sasu’a is one of the ancient tattooing guilds and once associated with a specific family. The title is now roughly passed down by or within families, with whom the Sulu’ape family are associated. There is some tension and controversy now about the legitimacy of Sulu’ape as a family name versus a title and what it means and the linkage of the Sulu’ape to the Su’a guild, but as outsiders, these appear to be largely political and economic distinctions. The Sulu’apes have clearly cornered the market on hand tapping, and someone in their family has trained absolutely everyone else conducting hand tapping who is working today. We met Peter Sulu’ape in Honolulu and Paul Sulu’ape in Samoa and interviewed Chris Ausage about the hand tap artists working today. No one mentioned Chilo, we couldn’t find his Facebook page, even though he wrote down the title of it for us, and he didn’t seem connected to any of these tattoo networks.

Furthermore, the idea that Chilo would be a trained Su’a and have his studio set up to keep family out seemed anathema to our experiences of the tap tap tatau experience in the open air fale (or house). At Soul Signature Tattoo in Honolulu, the Polynesian tattoo shop where we met Su’a Peter Sulu’ape, there were several Samoans who had come from Georgia, North Carolina, and Alaska to get pe’a, malu, and other tattoos. Su’a Peter and Sulu’ape Aisea Toetu’u conducted hand tapping in a back room, away from their standard U.S. tattoo parlor set up; but whereas families and friends sat at a distance in the waiting area while tattooing occurred up front, consistent with parlors around the country, family and friends were welcome and encouraged to gather round the person getting tattooed in the back, provided they wore an ie lavalava (the Samoan version of a sarong, worn regularly by females and males and expected in ritual and formal settings). And despite the distance, there were a few family members who seemed to have traveled just to be there while their family members received the pe’a and malu.

In Samoa and American Samoa, family participates as skin stretchers at the tattooing in the fale of the Samoa Cultural Center, where we met Paul Sulu’ape and saw him working. Su’a Wilson Fitaou’s sons worked as stretchers in his fale or when he travels to the homes of others for the hand tapping we saw in American Samoa. Family and friends gather around, hold the hands of the person being tattooing, console and fan them, and massage their muscles to prevent stiffness or break up the bruising caused by the hammering of the tap tap. In no case were family kept separate from those being tattooed in our experiences to that point.

To be continued…

This narrative derives from field notes from the Inking of Immunity and Pepe, Aiga, and Tina Health Study (PATHS) in American Samoa.

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Malu is Like a Golden Ticket (Pt. 1)

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Instead of syllabus day, I read this story on the first day of my Fall 2017 Neuroanthropology class then launched right into the class. I’d never done this before, but I like to think of the course as interdisciplinary and experimental and that different ways of experiencing materials is important. I was inspired to do this by anthropologist Katie Hinde, who wrote a story to start her human evolution course at Arizona State and blogged about it. Katie is a friend and colleague of mine. She is a contemporary but probably a few years younger than me. Nonetheless, she is trailblazer and someone I admire and look to for inspiration in how to conduct an anthropological career-life. You can find her work at MammalsSuck…Milk, a clever play on words, as her research focus is about mammal milk.Tweet from Robin Nelson about Katie Hinde's story

This piece is about the fieldwork I’ve conducted the past two summers. I just wrote it the weekend before the first day of class, so, for better or worse, students heard an early draft of this story that may get published on its own somewhere or in a book some day in some form that will probably ultimately be very different than this. I wrote it because I think our work this summer epitomizes the nature of neuroanthropology as essentially biocultural, and because I think this story encapsulates much of our experience of fieldwork this summer. There may be less neuro than you’d expect here, given the course I read it to, but it’s the ethnographic prelude before we’ve finished collecting and analyzing the neuro data.

Malu is like a golden ticket

We were sitting in a parking lot behind Pago Pago Plaza as the sun went down. The parking lot is between the plaza and the water of the harbor, and a man came by to close the gates. He said the parking lot was open 24 hours, but this one gate would be closed. We sat chatting, both of us getting spooked. It’s not that Pago Pago is the bad part of town like some places in the world where you definitely don’t want to be after dark. I was recently in Antananarivo, Madagascar, where every tour book, every hotel clerk, every driver, every friend says, ‘don’t walk around at night. Take taxis.’

I was in Antananarivo to meet with our partners at Eagles Wings Montessori School for our Anthropology is Elemental project.

I was in Antananarivo to meet with our partners at Eagles Wings Montessori School for our Anthropology is Elemental project.

A good rule of thumb for anthropologists in the field is that when the people who live there don’t go out at night, we shouldn’t either.

But the village of Pago Pago is a dicier area of American Samoa, especially down by the waterfront. It is adjacent to where the tuna canneries are, the ships coming into the freight yards, and the Chinese and Korean and other prostitutes work the bars there.

Author and former American Samoa Historic Preservation Director John Enright paints an appropriately noir picture in his American Samoa detective series that in all others ways feels spot-on. In Pago Pago Tango, this is the area where the bodies of undocumented sex workers from neighboring Samoa, of all places, are found in the water.

American Samoa is not one of those places in the world where people are “disappeared”—government spooks aren’t showing up at people’s houses and whisking them away in the night—but it is a place where disenchanted palagis (non-Samoan, generally white people —pronounced puh-LONG-eez—Samoan ‘g’ always gets an ‘ng’ sound) often go to not be found. While running away from it all to a South Pacific island has an air of romance about it, anyone familiar with such stories beyond the first few pages—think of French post-impressionist artist Paul Gaugin in Tahiti for instance—knows such stories never end well.Gaugin in Tahiti

Palagis never blend seamlessly with natives. They are always outsiders. These islands are small. There is not much to do. People there to get away from it all seem sad, are often alcoholics or mentally ill. Enright nails this in his second book Fire Knife Dancing, when he mentions one palagi who locals don’t really know except that he is seen walking the main road every day, not talking to anyone, not looking anyone in the eye. He walks from his house to Pago and back. It’s not clear what he does. This guy is real, and you can see him daily. I walked past him once, and he glanced up from an averted gaze but was careful not to exchange pleasantries.

But as Michaela and I sat in the parking lot, frankly, my mind was on the serial murders that had just taken place in Pennsylvania, where two antisocial, psychopathic 20-somethings had lured others they knew into their cars or to their farm and butchered them. No one knew my research partner and I were there or that we were scheduled to meet a “Tongan” guy covered in jailhouse tattoos who was supposed to be taking us back to his house, a guy who I had met in a cargo box outside Family Mart. So both of us were getting paranoid as hell.2 Cousins Charges with Murder

The week before, Michaela and I were on the downward swing of our cycle of elation and despondency in the field. Field research is like that. It doesn’t matter where you are. You have deadlines. You have limited money. You have a project you proposed doing within a timeframe you knew was impossible when you proposed it, but in the current age of funding, you can’t get funding without purporting to be able to accomplish some deliverable in an unreasonable period of time. Our deliverable was to sample saliva from 100 people getting tattooed in American Samoa within a year. Michaela and I study cultural impacts on health, and this study is a follow-up to one we conducted in Alabama a few years earlier. Mind you, when I say we, I designed the study, all data were collected by students, salivary data were analyzed by my colleague Jason DeCaro, and I analyzed, wrote the paper, and reaped the glory of the media coverage.Tattooing to "Toughen up"

So, while Michaela and I have independently collected biocultural data like this before, we hadn’t run this actual protocol, and we hadn’t run it together. That didn’t turn out to be much of an issue. We had days of success and pride in our mastery of our craft. But the inexperience with this protocol in this setting—it’s a thing, a source of anxiety. As teachers and researchers, we need to stop ignoring the significance of anxiety and emotional disturbance engendered by and within our research. We need to stop pretending we’ll just get used to the structural impediments that affect psychological stability and the capacity to finish a project like this, such as having some kind of emotional support, either in the field itself or back home.

American Samoa map from Lonely PlanetNot to mention, American Samoa is small and has a small population. There are only 65,000 people who live in American Samoa. There is only one tattoo studio with a visible storefront on the entire island group, which includes the island of Tutuila, where most of the population lives and where we were, as well as the Manu’a Islands, Rose Atoll, and Swain’s Island. Aside from that tattoo studio, there is only one other tattooist with an actual studio. There are two Su’a or master hand tap artists in American Samoa. And then there are a handful of tattooists who work out of their homes or travel to other people’s homes, by word of mouth.

This so-called Tongan guy was one such artist who worked out of a home studio or his kitchen or something. We weren’t quite sure. As we went from artist to artist, we asked who else tattoos on the island.

My friend Niko rattled off a list and was calling people for us. I met Niko through Duffy, who we met through Tish. Niko tattooed by going to other people’s houses, and I hung out with him for a few days. He rode around with me one day while I was running errands and gave me a rundown on the tattoo community and his part in it, but he never actually did any tattooing while we were there. He told me a schedule going into two weeks that gave me a lot of hope for data collection, then he had family issues and caught the flu and session after session would be cancelled for one reason or another. So when he told me this Tongan tattoo artist worked at Family Mart, I thought, I know where that is. How hard can he be to find? And we were really curious about the Tongan tattoo artists working in American Samoa. Samoans and Tongans don’t generally speak highly of each other. Neither do Hawaiians and Samoans for that matter. There is a lot of ethnic tension within Polynesia, despite sharing a heritage.

Most Samoans place their origins and the ancestral home of the Polynesian god Tagaloa (pronounced TONGA-low-uh) in the Manu’a Islands, which are the easternmost of the populated Samoan Islands. For much of Samoan prehistory, the Manu’a Islands have been somewhat distant and independent from Tutuila, Upolu, and Savai’i, which are closer to each other. However, archaeological and genetic evidence suggest that movement across the Pacific from Near Oceania—New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and other islands associated with the former Sahul landmass—began around 3500 years ago and is associated with the Lapita culture. Within 500 years, they spread to Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga. It was roughly another 1000 years before migration moved on—possibly spreading from the Manu’a islands as the easternmost point—to the Cook Islands, Marquesas, Hawaii, Easter Island, and New Zealand. Throughout prehistory and history, there was continuous movement among the islands, especially those relatively close to each other, like Tonga and Samoa, and opportunity for fierce rivalry and warfare to occur. Tonga and Samoa experienced a period of extreme tension and warfare during a Tongan occupation from 950-1250 AD, where there was cruelty between the two sides that resulted in centuries of bitterness.fautasi

Lest you underestimate my point, and adding insult to this longstanding injury, in the 1970s the King of Tonga entered a boat fiberglass boat made in New Zealand in the annual Samoan fautasi race. Fautasi are the traditional Samoan longboats that made such an impression upon early European explorers that the Samoan Islands were first called the Navigator Islands for the speed and distance Samoans were able to travel in these boats. However, by the 20th century, these skills were all but lost and, in fact, banned for all but racing. Villages sponsor boats and race against each other, and the pride of villages is tied up in these races. So for a Tongan boat to win is a crushing blow. And, while it was initially blamed on the novel fiberglass construction, the Tongans switched boats with a Samoan crew to prove their worth and won again, handily. Despite this, fautasi boat-craft shifted precipitously from a native investment in culture to an economic investment in a New Zealand industry, another example of a globalizing process that results in loss of native skill and economic viability.2017 Flag Day Fautasi Fever

Thus, Tongans, Fijians, and other Polynesians are treated like second-class citizens in American Samoa, and I imagine the same is true of Samoans on other Polynesian Islands. Tongans supposedly eat dog, according to Samoans. And Tongan tattoo artists supposedly think nothing of tattooing kids, according to Samoan tattoo artists. And they all live in that area behind the elementary school in the village of Pavai’i. This was akin to living in a trailer park outside of town in the areas of the U.S. where I’ve grown up and lived. But, as it happened, Pavai’i was right down the mountain from Tafeta, where we were staying. We could walk through the trees to get there if we were inclined, which gave it an even more intrigue and appeal.

…To be continued

This narrative derives from field notes from the Inking of Immunity and Pepe, Aiga, and Tina Health Study (PATHS) in American Samoa.

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Is tattooing a costly honest signal of fitness?

Last year I published a book chapter synthesizing an evolutionary perspective on tattooing for our Evolution Education in the American South volume and concluded by wondering whether athletes, specifically football players, get tattoos more than the average person (Lynn & Medeiros 2017). Earlier research by Koziel and colleagues (2010) indicated that tattooing (but not piercing) is positively associated with bilateral symmetry—meaning more fit people may be getting tattooed to show off their fitness. In between these two papers, my colleagues and I found that tattooing may prime the immune system (Lynn et al. 2016). The idea was that the body gets used to tattooing, like it gets used to exercise or an inoculation effect, and that the immunosuppressant effects of stress (and cortisol) become lessened with time somehow, so the body does not become susceptible to infection every time it undergoes purposeful moderate stress.

Does this guy really need tattoos to show off how fit he is? (Photo by Taco Fleur [CC0])

Does this guy really need tattoos to show off how fit he is? (Photo by Taco Fleur [CC0])

In our book chapter, we pondered whether elite athletes would be more heavily tattooed to draw attention to their fitness or if they are merely over represented in the media (the media love to show us athlete ink). After all, why would an elite athlete need to do anything additional to look better? They are already clearly fit as elite athletes. But why not test it to be sure? So we rolled out a simple prevalence survey, following Mayers et al. (2002) and Mayers and Chiffriller (2008), using Facebook, email, etc. and collected over 600 usable responses from undergrads nationwide. Our proxy for “elite” athletes was to target varsity. We’re at the University of Alabama, which has a huge varsity program, and of course the winningest football program is the modern era. I only mention that because the tattoos of the football players sometimes get as much press as they do on their own. Current Seattle Seahawk Jesse Williams is a Pacific Islander was in the press for his tats all the time. They weren’t Pacific Island style, but still it was a spectacle, especially when he got “YOLO” on the side of his face. I used to see him in the grocery all the time and embarrass him by approaching him “for research.” A.J. McCarron, who I think was just picked up by the Buffalo Bills from the Bengals, had a garnish mess of Jesus and crosses on his chest. And Reuben Foster (now with the 49ers) thought he was going to Auburn and had their logo tattooed on his shoulder throughout his high profile tenure at Bama.

Pacific Islander Jesse Williams was a spectacle while at Alabama for his tattoos (Photo: Mike Morris, CC By-SA 2.0)

However, at first we found almost nothing useful. Getting varsity athletes to participate in the survey turned out to be really difficult. Of the 600 usable responses, only about 40 are varsity athletes, and there is no statistical differences in tattooing rates between varsity athletes and anyone else. The only thing that predicts tattooing is BMI, which is interesting—higher BMI is associated with being tatted. With piercing, the only predictor is gender. Females are more likely to get pierced—period. So it would seem like a wash until we examine tattoo- and piercing-related complications. Mind you, the rates of tattoo-related complications is really low. Tattoos are simply not that dangers to get. By contrast, the factor most predictive of getting a piercing-related complication is being pierced. Piercing is more risky than tattooing. The only factor predictive of tattooing-related complications is, again, BMI.

Take home: Larger BMI is predictive of more tattooing, but it’s also predictive of more tattoo-related complications. What’s that mean? People may enhance or emphasize their phenotypes with tattoos, but there’s an ultimate costliness if one’s health is poor (i.e., maybe they are overweight?). You can’t cover up poor health with a tattoo—you’re more likely to draw additional attention to it, like the peacock whose tail feathers are TOO big.

Poor Gertrude McFuzz crossed the tail feather rubicon that garnered her attention until it and she became a burden. (

Poor Gertrude McFuzz crossed the tail feather rubicon that garnered her attention until it and she became a burden. (

To retest this model, we surveyed all 30,000 undergrads at the University of Alabama and got over 6000 responses! But I will save those juicy insights for next time. They are even more cool, I promise you!

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Men May Be #Woking, But We Are Not Evolving

Journalists, please stop saying “evolve” when you mean “change,” “improve,” or “progress.” As anyone who studies evolution knows, the scientific meaning of evolve is not synonymous with progress. However, the continued use of the terms synonymous confuses people who do not study evolution and contribute to continued misunderstanding of processes that are already confusing enough.

My rant is precipitated by several well-meaning news podcasts I listen to discussing men who are #woke re the #metoo movement (I think it was the Daily Zeitgeist or maybe The Nod) and, most recently, The Monocle Daily discussing the introspection of National Geographic and New York Times in redressing obituaries of famous black women who were allowed to pass without comment or use of racist terminology in characterizing people in the recent past. As these movements and reflections take as their modus operandi, words matter. Meaning matters. Thus, I don’t think they are aware they are reifying scientific confusion about evolution science.

One of the problems with this is it is so difficult to get students to take classes that will ever address these misunderstandings (see article by Rissler et al. or chapter by Schrein for deets on this problem). It is the same problem we have with the unfortunate linear representation of evolution so often depicted by evolutionists themselves, which, taken at face value, suggests we are evolved directly from what appear to be living apes (see great article by Bruce MacFadden about how this misconception is reified in museum exhibits). By the time students get to college, to be like me who make it their daily bread to correct misconceptions and provide students the tools to be constructive cultural critics of the media and popularizations of science, students can already decide whether or not to take a class with someone like me. It’s an elective, one people avoid if they are already biased against it. And that’s just the people who go to college.

So, journalists, you have a lot of power. People repeat the erudite words you use. If you use them incorrectly, they are repeated incorrectly. People become confused about the meaning, or meanings become more broad. Sure, in the vernacular, “evolve” is broad. But that broad definition has negative consequences for science literacy.

#evolutionsciencerant #wokeevolutionist #improvenotevolve

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What All Good Psychotherapy Has In Common

Evolutionary approaches to human behavior often try to “carve nature at its joints.” This phrase, somehow evocative of Pinocchio, means that when we try to describe or classify psychological phenomena, we shouldn’t use just any old arbitrary organization scheme. Rather, we should base our thinking on underlying natural, evolutionarily informed, realities.

This principle is especially salient to evolutionary clinical psychologists, because psychotherapists are encouraged to each develop their own “orientation,” which is a particular way of thinking about where psychological distress comes from and informs how it can be treated. The orientation is unique to each psychologist but is typically created in part by assembling elements from a number of the most common established orientations, and usually (though not always) picking a primary allegiance: psychodynamic, humanistic, cognitive-behavioral, and family systems are among the most well-known orientations. Each of these orientations has its own distinct perspective on the nature of psychological distress, its own history, traditions, and associated therapies. While cognitive-behavioral is often considered to be the most scientific-minded of the orientations, the truth is that there is good science supporting the efficacy of therapy from each of the orientations (and plenty of bad science in each); and crucially, there’s very little evidence that any orientation is vastly more effective than any of the rest!*

Thus, the evolutionary clinical psychologist faces a paradox: How can we think about uncovering the “true” nature of psychological distress and mental disorders if any old way of thinking about psychotherapy is just as good as any of the others?

The resolution, in my view, is to focus on what elements all the orientations have in common. Looking past all the differences, what similarities do we see? If we get to the bottom of what these common factors are, we’ll have a better sense of the true mechanisms of psychotherapy, and thus a more satisfying and universal explanation for psychological distress and its treatment. Because, to me, for whatever reason, admitting that there’s a set of totally different points of view, all of which are equally valid, just doesn’t have that satisfying scientific ring to it. To me, it’s no kind of answer, but rather an invitation to ask further questions.

As it turns out, one thing that all effective treatments based on legitimate orientations do (intentionally or not) is get the client in touch with — and working WITH, not against — their naturally occurring emotions.

By this, I mean not just any old emotional reactions that people engage in, but the emotions that were naturally selected as appropriate responses to situations. For example, for a person with crippling self-doubts, fear is a situationally appropriate (although maybe exaggerated) emotional response to the possibility that others will judge you. Explosive anger towards your boss who asks you to give a presentation is not necessarily appropriate, if that anger is a way to avoid the real core fear of judgment. Treatments derived from each of the orientations go about this emotional approach in different ways.

Psychodynamic therapies do this by encouraging outward expression of unconscious, suppressed, repressed, or misdirected emotion (going back to Freud’s recognition of the power of “catharsis” — the sudden breaking-through of that true emotion). Humanistic therapies do it by fostering the therapist’s unconditional positive regard for the client, allowing him/her the space to guide him/herself through whatever emotions may arise on the journey to self-actualization. Cognitive-behavioral therapies teach skills to help the client examine and approach distressing thoughts and situations, which ends up resulting in the expression of long-avoided emotions (often, but certainly not always, fear or anxiety).**

Thus, a researcher seeking an evolutionarily informed understanding of why people encounter emotional disorders and adjustment issues (by this I mean clinically relevant depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, etc.) should focus, in large part, on this core mechanism of emotional avoidance, and how it so frequently pops up and gets in the way of our mental health in modern society.

If this perspective is true, it inevitably invites the question of why people seem to need so much help engaging in what evolutionists would consider to be a naturally selected adaptive function — something that should be a biologically primary ability! This is an important question, and whether the disciplines of evolution and clinical psychology can be reconciled depends on our ability to resolve this paradox. I’ll explore some thoughts on this in Part II of this entry (coming soon).

*If the therapist’s orientation isn’t the most important determinant of therapy outcome, then what is? It turns out, it’s the quality of the alliance between the therapist and the client.

**I’m not necessarily advocating here that all orientations are equally good for all clients/issues — or even equally good overall. Nor am I saying that a therapist’s orientation doesn’t make any difference at all. However, I view that matter as a somewhat orthogonal point to the one I’m discussing here.

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Alabama Beats Mississippi!

And not just in football. No, we whup their ass in football (69-3?). But I digress. A few years ago, Alabama scored a dismal 50 of 50 in teaching evolution at K-12 levels, earning an F-. And when I share the map with the grades my state, I literally hear people yell, “how did we lose to Mississippi?” I am not a native Alabamian, but that rivalry to not be the worst is a thing. Well, buck up, Alabamian, because we can now say we’re better than Mississippi in more than football. In a recent study by Bertha Vazquez in Evolution: Education and Outreach that graded states on teaching evolution in middle schools, Alabama beat Mississippi with…wait for it…a D! Right, so it’s not time to be too proud yet. We still have a lot of work ahead of us.


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Of “Toxic” Tattooed Lymph Nodes and Public Relations

I was heartened this week by conversations with visiting ALLELE lecturer Nina Jablonski, one of the world’s foremost experts on skin biology and evolution. I was glad to see that she discussed tattooing in her 2006 book Skin: A Natural History, though she did not go deep on the biology of tattooing. One reason is that there is not much out there about the biology of tattooing that is not essentially alarmist and negative. What heartened me is that she said she gets a lot of queries about tattooing that are beyond her expertise and interest and that she will start referring the (non-quack) queries to me. Which made me realize I’m something of a expert, having conducted one study on the biology of tattooing, read a lot about it, and currently conducting another in the South Pacific with my main collaborator Michaela Howells.

Interviewing Nina Jablonski for “Sausage of Science” and “Science of Race” podcasts with Jim Bindon, Erik Peterson, & Jo Weaver (taking the picture).

That recognition obliges me to speak up about the study just out in Scientific Reports (a Nature journal) that I have been sent press links about in the last several days. I heard one of the researchers speak about the study on a podcast I listen to regularly (I think BBC World Serivce but can’t relocate at moment) and was not impressed. The gist of the study is that tattooing has become extremely popular, but the inks are understudied as toxicants. I beg to differ. The potential dangers of tattoo inks is in fact among the most reported on and studied aspects of tattooing addressed in the biomedical literature, alongside the correlations between tattooing and risk behavior (which is a cultural phenomenon, with little to do with the biology of tattooing aside from the signaling function it serves).

Upon injection of tattoo inks, particles can be either passively transported via blood and lymph fluids or phagocytized by immune cells and subsequently deposited in regional lymph nodes. After healing, particles are present in the dermis and in the sinusoids of the draining lymph nodes. The picture was drawn by the authors (i.e., C.S.).1SCIentIFIC REPORTS | 7: 11395 | DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-11721-z

Translocation of tattoo particles from skin to lymph nodes. Upon injection of tattoo inks, particles can be either passively transported via blood and lymph fluids or phagocytized by immune cells and subsequently deposited in regional lymph nodes. After healing, particles are present in the dermis and in the sinusoids of the draining lymph nodes. The picture was drawn by the authors (i.e., C.S.).1SCIentIFIC REPORTS | 7: 11395 | DOI:10.1038/s41598-017-11721-z

The fetishism of tattooing in Euroamerican culture over the past few decades is reflected in the alarmist focus of the dermatological literature. Mind you, I don’t dispute the findings of the researchers this this Scientific Reports study at all. They find that nanoparticles from tattoo inks migrate to lymph nodes over time. OK. However, one has to dig to the end of the article to the methods section that comes AFTER the Discussion to discover that these findings are based on a sample of 4 corpses with tattoos and 2 corpses without tattoos. There is no indication of the age of the deceased or how long they had their tattoos. There is no indication of where on the body these tattoos are relative to the lymph nodes. And the word “toxic” is used throughout, which has strong cultural bias. The authors conclude:

Altogether we report strong evidence for both migration and long-term deposition of toxic elements and tattoo pigments as well as for conformational alterations of biomolecules that likely contribute to cutaneous inflammation and other adversities upon tattooing.

The piece that finally got me to sit down and write this is titled “Nanoparticle Scientists Warned Tattooed Folks.” The fact is that, because of hygiene and sanitation practices around professional tattooing in much of the world, infection is exceedingly rare. The exceptions get all the press. This title alone feeds into the mysticism of nanoscientists and people with doctoral degrees, huge biomedical grants, and big expensive toys as having access to a deeper insights on the human condition. Furthermore, the warning to “tattooed folks” plays into the cultural narrative that tattooed people are a monolithic group that need protection. I may be overreacting in the this latter evaluation somewhat, but the implication is there, at least in part.

I appreciated the podcast interviewer’s question to lead author Ines Schreiver, asking her if she actually has any tattoos (I will keep looking for this and provide a link). Whether or not she has them is immaterial, but the way she deflected the question and gave the impression that she does not have any was telling. It suggests to me that she is dismissing the cultural context and meaning tattoos have to make a case for an objective scientific study. There is no complete objectivity in science and even less when we try to disconnect it from context and avoid hidden but potential meaningful variables, like who these corpses were, where on their bodies their tattoos are, and how long they’ve had them—frankly, these are basic and shamefully overlooked demographic factors. So, I am more concerned with what is not discussed about the corpses than the researchers, but scientific agendas matter.

This study doesn’t yet tell us much, as this CBCNews piece points out. I’m glad that we are applying neuroscience approaches to cultural practices, but a neuroanthropological approach is warranted in studying tattooing. There is no link between tattooing and disease, disorder, or death in any of these corpses. There is limited evidence that tattoos can cause some reactions in some people. My lab has an as yet unpublished epidemiological study of tattooing, piercing, and adverse reactions in athletes, following up on two studies (2002 and 2008) at Pace University by the late Lester Mayers and colleagues. The rates of adverse reactions reported by respondents in all of these studies is extremely low, and our study sampled over 1000 people from around the US. Sometimes my tattoos raise up on my skin and itch. This experience is common among tattooed people I have talked to. But is it adverse? I have injuries from playing sports going back to when I was a child that act up. I am frequently sore from going to the gym, but I just need to be careful.

Skin response to pigments is worth investigating, but the framing of this scientific article and some of the media coverage leave much to be desired.  I have some experience with this. On the other end of the spectrum, my colleagues and I conducted a small study of the health benefits of tattooing a few years ago. We found that the stress of tattooing MAY prime the immune system. We framed our interpretation in evolutionary signaling and allostasis theory in that article and in a book chapter that makes hypotheses about the signaling functions of tattoos for athletes and fans. The press ate it up and widely reported that, essentially, tattoos are good for you. Except for Jezebel. Caroline Weinberg interviewed me about our study and wrote a measured piece titled “How One Study Produced a Bunch of Untrue Headlines About Tattoos Strengthening Your Immune System.”

It is no wonder the public does not know what to believe when it comes to scientific recommendations and health. It is hard to go into the weeds on these studies if one is not an expert. The devil is in the details, and they are exceedingly hard to discern. The public needs to trust us, but it is obvious why they don’t. I am saying tattoos can be beneficial. These scientists are saying tattoos can be toxic. Who is right? The truth is in the middle and linked to context. Let’s be honest and say that the benefits are probably negligible for the everyday and so are the detriments. These factoids are interesting for scientists but have few implications for everyday people the way they are reported. They are most likely additive benefits and detriments that may even cancel each other out within a contingent biocultural context that is a diverse as are humans.

That is not to say these studies are not important and should not be reported. I think that understanding the biology of tattooing can have implications for understanding the immune system better. I think there’s a link between the priming effect we think we see, autoimmune disease, and the hygiene hypothesis. But I don’t think this is related to tattooing alone. Tattooing is one cultural practice that may stimulate immune function, but there are others. We can examine these biocultural interactions to better understand human health in context. But without context, we are just in spin city.

Posted in Anthropology, Biological Anthropology, Christopher Lynn, Columnists, Evolution & Pop Culture, Evolution in Media | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Of “Toxic” Tattooed Lymph Nodes and Public Relations

AiE in Madagascar IV: Centre ValBio & Night Walking with Mouse Lemurs

See previous post III, and III in this series, or related posts to this month-long trip here and here.

Note in our previous episode that I wasn’t sure if I had meetings set up, with who, or about what when I arrived at Ranomafana. I received a message from Dustin that I had a 10AM appointment, but he had not been able to confirm, so I should just ask for Maya Moore or Pascal Rabeson. When I arrived at Centre ValBio (CVB), Maya had left for Tana and Pascal was in another village until later in the day. Nevertheless, I was able to get an appointment for later in the day with him.

In the meantime, I explored the village, taking photos. I came across one of the silk making coops. I couldn’t afford to buy a scarf but was given permission to take photos. However, I overstayed my welcome, taking so many photos of every corner of the room that the coop president (How do I know she was president? I took photos of all the photos and lists of offers and deduced who she was) asked me to pay them 5000 ari for the photos.

I went down to the bridge to the town’s thermal baths and took photos of the bridge they were replacing. It had been knocked out in a big cyclone that hit Madagascar 20 days earlier.

I’m glad I took so many photos. Later, when I was meeting with Pascal, it turned out he was lab mates at the University of Georgia with our close family friend Jon Benstead. Jon had done his dissertation research in Ranomafana when CVB was just a shack in the woods.

The shacks in the woods that used the be the Centre ValBio facilities are still there but unused.

The shacks in the woods that used the be the Centre ValBio facilities are still there but unused.

CVB had the best wifi in the village so I shot Jon an email while I was there, and he asked me to take lots of photos of the Centre and village for him, since he hadn’t been there in 18 years.

I ended up meeting with Lova Razafindravony and Pascal. Lova runs the My Rainforest My World project, and Pascal and Maya are co-directors of outreach.

But let me back up. Because I walked in here rather cold. CVB is a rather famous world class facility for conservation and education. It was started by primatologist Patricia Wright from Stony Brook University (SUNY). I have been meaning to invite Pat Wright for an ALLELE lecture ever since hearing what a great talk she gave at SUNY New Paltz. I have even more incentive now.

Dr. Wright discovered a new lemur species at Ranomafana, the golden bamboo lemur, and established the park to protect it. One of the amazing thing about bamboo lemurs is that they eat young bamboo, which contains toxic amounts of cyanide. So they process it somehow because they don’t die (at least not from cyanide—humans, on the other hand…). The current buildings of CVB were built later. They are a facility that hosts researchers, conducts study abroad, houses both, and provides lab and lecture facilities. They work with the local community to provide vocational training for Malagasy to work in or with the Centre and facilitate and develop cooperatives to promote economic and cultural sustainability, such as the aforementioned silk cooperative. My nature guide Rodan said, “Pat Wright is like a mother to us all, to the whole village of Ranomafana.”

Lova told me abut the MRMW project and the education efforts more generally. Those involve efforts to train teachers to provide conservation and science-related education in remote village and at “road” schools, or those reachable without too much difficulty by car and the main road.

By the next meeting with Pascal, I had a thought on how we could collaborate. I told them about our project and we arranged for them to send us their lessons which we will curate and share on our website. Their programs were developed in conjunction with American educators but are only being implemented in limited schools around the park. We will put them in a format that can be used by our teachers in the US, Greg’s class in Costa Rica (more on that later), and Eagles Wings in Tana, and other schools around Madagascar and the world (maybe yours?). We will link the material back to CVB to ensure credit but hopefully extend their reach of the material.

On the surface, these things don’t seem so complex they could not have been done by email. But it’s easy to send an email and just as easy to ignore. It’s equally easy to say yes in an email and not follow through. There are no stakes to an email. But taking the trip to Madagascar, to go to see how a partner is doing what they do means a lot, I hope. I intend it as a strong signal of commitment. It enables us all to vet each other using our senses and guts and to establish a rapport and trust.

Let me reiterate: There is nothing out there to give guidance for teaching 4-field anthropology at the primary school levels. There are things here and there, but what we are creating is a unique resource and testament to the value of and excitement for doing it.

Lova gave me a tour of CVB after my meetings. Then I rendezvoused with my guide for a night walk. I was pleased to be able to see and photograph several mouse lemurs and chameleons.

The chameleons were very very cooler—cooler than I expected—but LEMURS!

Anthropology is Elemental is currently funded by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation.

Repost from April 2017 on Bama Anthro Blog Network, where missing photos can be found:

Posted in Anthropology, Christopher Lynn, Education, Evolution in the Classroom, Evolution Outreach | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment