Sickness is not just biological­­ — it’s social. That’s why social science should be central to controlling and preventing diseases.

Scientists working in a medical tent.
Scientists working in a medical tent.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

By Robert A. Hahn

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as the primary agency in the United States that monitors, predicts, and responds to chronic disease, injury, outbreaks, and pandemics, should have social science at its heart. It does not. Despite decades of trying to get the agency to take the social sciences more seriously, and some movement on its part, insights from anthropology, along with other social sciences, have yet to penetrate the soul of the CDC.

I am a medical anthropologist and epidemiologist. I first started working with the CDC back in 1986 and stayed with the agency until my retirement at the end of June 2020. In 1993, I led the founding of the Behavioral and Social Sciences Working Group (BSSWG). This group has worked with CDC leadership to strengthen the employment of social and behavioral scientists at the CDC, sponsor speaker series, and assist CDC staff in addressing social and behavioral science issues, such as ethnographic methods and questionnaire design. …

The SAPIENS editors review the year’s events with anthropology in mind.

A crowd of overlapping people of different skin tones wearing N-95-style face masks. Illustration.
A crowd of overlapping people of different skin tones wearing N-95-style face masks. Illustration.
Credit: Ada daSilva/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images

By Nicola Jones

The Coronavirus Pandemic

2020 will be remembered as the year that COVID-19 swept the globe. This highly contagious virus moves from person to person, so its spread depends on human behavior. When and why we gather, and how often we wash our hands or wear masks can all make a difference. Social scientists have created virtual networks to apply their knowledge of human behavior to aid public health efforts.

The virus has clearly affected some groups more than others; tracking these outcomes has illuminated disparities in suffering. Anthropologists have helped untangle how racism — not race — is a factor in the severity of COVID-19. They have also thrown a spotlight on how the pandemic has impacted older people, Indigenous peoples, migrants, refugees, undocumented essential workers, and pregnant women. Anthropologists are asking tough questions about whether the current attention given to inequality will prompt corrective action and whether this global challenge will help bind or further divide humanity. …

Written rules about how to govern only work if they are backed up by unwritten values shared across the political spectrum. Over the past four years, Donald Trump’s relentless attacks on U.S. democratic norms have taken a toll.

The Constitution of the United States with “We the People” written in a large, ornate font.
The Constitution of the United States with “We the People” written in a large, ornate font.
Does a written constitution ensure a more democratic society? Photo: LPETTET/E+/Getty Images

By Hugh Gusterson

Originally published at on December 16, 2020.

From time to time, I meet an American who likes to tell me that the United Kingdom, the country of my birth, has a weaker democracy than the United States because it has no written constitution.

A written constitution, they tell me, spells out in black and white the terms of the social contract and imposes clear limits on political leaders who would take liberties with the liberties of their citizens. They worry that a nation such as the U.K., …

Scientists are partnering with brewers to taste test ancient recipes and sip a long-lost past.

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Ancient artwork, such as this model depicting men making beer in ancient Egypt, offers clues to past beer production. Photo: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

By Sara Toth Stub

One morning in May 2019, a crowd of journalists gathered around the Biratenu bar in Jerusalem, snapping photos as a bartender poured golden, frothy beer into plastic cups. The story of the beer was both new and very old: The yeast that fermented it came from a 3,000-year-old jug found at a nearby archaeological site.

“It’s actually a pretty good beer,” says Aren Maeir, an archaeology professor at Bar-Ilan University in Israel and the director of excavations at the site of Tell es-Safi. …

A new study demonstrates a method for deciphering the timing of a deceased person’s death using a lock of hair

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A lock of hair from Edith Cook, a girl who died in 1876, offers a window into her death. Photos: Jelmer Eerkens

By Max G. Levy

Each wave of Edith Howard Cook’s reddish-blonde hair tells a story. One segment may chronicle an unusually damp San Francisco summer; another may recall a dry December. But read in their entirety, the strands reveal the season in 1876 when 2-year-old Edith passed away.

Archaeologist Jelmer Eerkens helped identify Edith after a construction crew discovered her remains in a backyard in 2016. “I have kids myself,” says Eerkens, an archaeologist at the University of California, Davis. “So, I oftentimes think about living in the 1800s. And children dying was just a common thing.”

By 1900, for example, children under the age of 5 accounted for 30 percent of all deaths in the U.S. — often from tuberculosis and flu, which fluctuate with the seasons. “Your kid gets sick: Are they going to die? Are they going to live? It must have been heart-wrenching,” Eerkens notes. …

After trying conventional treatments for PTSD, an anthropologist who is also a veteran stepped into the first of many Native American ceremonies for vets and emerged ­­­­with much more than he initially expected.

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Heated, dome-shaped sacred structures called sweat lodges (the architecture of one shown here) have been used for generations by Indigenous peoples in North America to support healing, revitalization, and community. Photo: Kevin Schafer/Photodisc/Getty Images

By Christopher Webb

When I arrived for my first Native American Sweat Lodge Ceremony in 2016, I was greeted and warmly embraced by Marty, a person of mixed tribal ancestry. He had long black hair and wore a T-shirt that read “Veteran’s Sweat Lodge.” When, earlier, I had contacted him and asked about attending a ceremony, I worried that I might not be welcome as a White man. I also had concerns that my status as an anthropologist, with the field’s long and problematic history with Indigenous people, might make some uncomfortable. …

Dogs on Native American reservations can be dangerous, but they have a long history and traditional role in many Indigenous communities. Remembering that is key to avoiding future violence.

A dog lying down, its hind legs splayed to the side, looking attentively to the left, on an orange background.
A dog lying down, its hind legs splayed to the side, looking attentively to the left, on an orange background.
Painting by Lakota artist Keith Braveheart from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota.

By Richard Meyers and Ernest Weston Jr.

A tragic event occurred on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota, where we live, a few years ago: the death of an 8-year-old girl. She was viciously attacked and killed by a pack of dogs while sledding a few steps away from her home. In response, Lakota tribal officials rounded up stray dogs from the communities and killed them.

Sadly, a similar incident took place in 2015 on the neighboring Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, where a 49-year-old woman was also attacked and killed by a pack of dogs. …

Experimental archaeologist Bill Schindler’s globe-trotting research has led him to champion a diet based on humanity’s long history of inventive food preparation techniques, from nose-to-tail butchery to sourdough bread.

A person sits on the ground in a grassy area near a small moss-covered hut, butchering fish.
A person sits on the ground in a grassy area near a small moss-covered hut, butchering fish.
Anthropologist Bill Schindler uses techniques developed thousands of years ago to prepare fresh-caught salmon during the filming of National Geographic’s The Great Human Race. Photo: Luke Cormack

By Keridwen Cornelius

As archaeologist Bill Schindler lay on animal skins in a re-created Mesolithic campsite in Lejre, Denmark, a Viking tattoo artist poked a stone blade into his leg. Schindler had fashioned the flint blade himself, and the artist was using it to apply ink made from pulverized charcoal and Schindler’s wife’s spit.

The tattoo design was based on one found on a 9,600-year-old bone artifact inscribed with figures depicting a man, a woman, two girls, and a boy — the exact makeup of Schindler’s own family.

To make the tattoo more affordable, Schindler had traded it for deerskins that had been scraped with a stone ax and tanned with animal brains. Indeed, the entire Schindler clan was clad in brain-tanned buckskin clothing, sewed with sinew. …

Scientists are trying to create artificial intelligence that can think about others’ thoughts. What might this reveal about perspective-taking in AI, humans, and animals?

A gorilla standing among leaves, touching its thumb to its lips.
A gorilla standing among leaves, touching its thumb to its lips.
Photo: Jonathan Brody via Unsplash

By Matthew Gwynfryn Thomas and Djuke Veldhuis

What on earth are you thinking? Other people think they know, and many could make a pretty decent guess, simply from observing your behavior for a short while.

We do this almost automatically, following convoluted cognitive trails with relative ease, like understanding that Zoe is convinced Yvonne believes Xavier ate the last avocado, although he didn’t. Or how Wendy is pretending to ignore Victoria because she thinks Ursula intends to tell Terry about their affair.

Thinking about what other people are thinking — also known as “mentalizing,” “theory of mind,” or “folk psychology” — allows us to navigate complex social worlds and conceive of others’ feelings, desires, beliefs, motivations, and knowledge. …

Even as online meetings become more common, they can’t always capture the nuances of nonverbal communication and in-person interactions.

A person with long hair sitting at a laptop next to a window, smiling and awkwardly giving a thumbs-up to the camera.
A person with long hair sitting at a laptop next to a window, smiling and awkwardly giving a thumbs-up to the camera.
Photo: hsyncoban/E+/Getty Images

By Elizabeth Keating

It’s morning in Houston, Texas, for Jeremy* and his team of engineers, and nearly evening in a small town north of Bucharest, Romania, for Costa and his team when they all sit down for a phone meeting in 2011.

They’ve gotten to the fourth item on their meeting agenda when Jeremy realizes the team in Houston has been operating with the wrong assumption about the number of pumps in the petroleum plant design they are working on.

“Who else knows about this?” Jeremy asks Steve, who sits beside him.

“Good question,” Steve says.

As an anthropologist observing them, I realize it’s a big, amorphous question. There’s way too much ambiguity about who knows what and what information is located where. The gaps have led to at least one serious misunderstanding. …



SAPIENS is a digital magazine about the human world.

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