NY Times Obit
NY Times Obit
Thomas Sebeok, 81, Debunker of Ape-Human Speech Theory, Is Dead
By ANAHAD O'CONNOR
Dr. Thomas A. Sebeok, a pioneer in the science of signs and symbols, noted for challenging the theory that apes and chimpanzees could learn language to communicate with humans, died on Dec. 21 at his home in Bloomington, Ind. He was 81.
The cause was leukemia, said his wife, Dr. Jean Umiker-Sebeok.
Dr. Sebeok, a professor emeritus at Indiana University, published more than 60 books in his field, known as semiotics, including the classic "Speaking of Apes" (1979), which he edited with his wife.
He argued that apes could not learn language because they lacked the body parts for language, like a larynx or vocal cords, and that they were unable to pass language on to their offspring.
"Dr. Sebeok (pronounced see-bee- AWK) showed that nonhuman animals need both the anatomy and nature for learning language," said Dr. Marcel Danesi, a professor of semiotics at the University of Toronto, who has also written extensively in the field. "His work demonstrated that if language were a genetic endowment in apes, then we could just teach them and they would pass it on."
The Sebeoks also argued that language experiments with the animals were unsuccessful because the researchers had not taken into account signals or cues from the trainers, like facial expressions. They also argued that animals did not have the intellect to pick up the human sign language and were instead taught a signal system less complex than human language.
When Dr. Sebeok began his career, his field was limited to the study of language. But with the publication of his "Approaches to Semiotics" (1964), he revolutionized that field, expanding it beyond human language to nonverbal communication in all organisms.
In 1981, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission turned to Dr. Sebeok for help in developing "keep away" signs that could be understood by people in 10,000 years, the duration that nuclear waste may be dangerous to humans.
Dr. Sebeok suggested signs with words, pictures, cartoons and stick figures to indicate danger. The signs, he said, should also include a "veiled threat that to ignore the mandate would be to invite some sort of supernatural retribution."
Thomas Albert Sebeok was born in Budapest but left to study at Cambridge and then immigrated to the United States, receiving a bachelor's degree at the University of Chicago and a doctorate at Princeton. He next went to Indiana, where he created its department of Uralic and Altaic studies, covering languages of Eastern Europe, Russia and Asia.
There, he was chairman of its Research Center for Language and Semiotic Studies, retiring in 1991.
Dr. Sebeok held visiting appointments at 33 universities in 17 countries and received the Distinguished Service Award of the American Anthropological Association.
Besides his wife, he is survived by three daughters, Veronica Sebeok Wald of Chicago, Jessica Sebeok of New Haven and Erica Sebeok of Brooklyn.
NY Times Obit
I wouldn't call him an anthropologist, but....
April 19, 2002
Thor Heyerdahl, Anthropologist and Adventurer, Dies at 87
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian anthropologist and adventurer whose imagination and vigor brought him acclaim navigating the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans to advance his controversial theories of ancient seafaring migrations, died yesterday. He was 87.
Mr. Heyerdahl died of cancer in Italy, where he had been vacationing, his family said. He had lived in recent years in Güímar, Tenerife, in the Canary Islands.
Fame came to Mr. Heyerdahl in 1947, at the age of 32. A tall, lean man in an appropriately Viking mold, he and five others crossed a broad stretch of the Pacific in the balsa-log raft Kon-Tiki, seeking to prove that the Polynesian islands could have been settled by prehistoric South American people.
The 101-day, 4,300-mile drifting voyage on the 40-square-foot raft, a replica of pre-Inca vessels, took them safely from Peru to Raroia, a coral island near Tahiti. This demonstrated to Mr. Heyerdahl's satisfaction that his theory could be fact. He was convinced that Polynesia's first settlers had come from South America, and not from Asia by way of the western Pacific islands, as nearly all scholars thought.
Mr. Heyerdahl was an ardent exponent of the "diffusionist" school of cultural anthropology, which holds that cultural similarities between geographically separated societies are not necessarily spontaneous coincidence but sometimes are the result of contacts in antiquity. Diffusionism has largely fallen out of favor among most anthropologists and historians.
Few scholars at the time - and almost none today - endorsed the idea that American Indians peopled Polynesia. They discount the Heyerdahl hypothesis largely on linguistic, genetic and cultural grounds, all of which point to the settlers having come from the west, not the east.
The epic voyage, nonetheless, caught the imagination of the world. Mr. Heyerdahl was an instant popular hero. And his storytelling skill turned the book "Kon-Tiki" into an international best seller that was translated into 65 languages. A documentary movie of the exploits won an Oscar.
That was only a beginning. Mr. Heyerdahl invested much of his book royalties in further expeditions. The most important was a 1970 voyage across the Atlantic in a papyrus boat to show that ancient Egyptians could have introduced pyramid-building technologies to pre-Columbian Americans. In 1977 he set out in a reed boat of ancient design to discover how Mesopotamian mariners of 5,000 years ago might have navigated the Indian Ocean.
Two years later, Mr. Heyerdahl, well into his 60's, said in an interview that he was retiring from such seagoing adventures.
"There are no other oceans to cope with, and also I know of no other kind of early boat that hasn't been tried by others," he said. "I have challenged a lot of old dogma, and this has stimulated a lot of discussion. And in science you need discussion."
But he continued writing books, traveling far and wide and defending his theories. Earlier this year he went to Samoa, in the Pacific, to inspect archaeological excavations of what could be an ancient pyramid. His son Thor Heyerdahl Jr. told Reuters that his father, until his death, held firm to his belief that intercontinental sea migrations helped spread human culture.
Nor did he let age discourage him from new quests. In recent months, he was writing a new book contending that Odin, the god of Norse mythology, might have been a real king.
Thor Heyerdahl was born Oct. 6, 1914, in Larvik, in southern Norway. He once noted that he did not share from birth the affinity for the sea that his Norwegian heritage and lifelong work might have suggested.
"All my ancestors came from inland," he said in 1979. "I was dead scared of the water as a young man. If I had been a sailor, I would have believed that you couldn't cross the ocean in the Kon-Tiki. My ignorance was very lucky."
Young Thor's father owned a brewery and his mother was head of the local museum. It was her influence that led him to the study of nature and zoology. At the University of Oslo, he specialized in zoology, as well as geography, but before graduating left on his first expedition to Polynesia, in 1937-38.
He went with his bride, Liv Coucheron Torp Heyerdahl, "to spend a year living as Adam and Eve," as he wrote, on Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands. They lived there under primitive conditions, conducting research on the flora and fauna. (They were later divorced.)
There he also began to contemplate the question of how the Pacific inhabitants reached these widely scattered islands. He came to believe that human settlers had arrived with the ocean currents from the east, just as much of the vegetation and animal life had done.
The time on Fatu Hiva - described in his 1974 book, "Fatu Hiva: Back to Nature," and recalled again in a 1996 book, "Green Was the Earth on the Seventh Day" - turned him to the study of anthropology. He pursued his research in Peru, which made firmer his conviction that a group of tall, fair pre-Inca people, under the leadership of the legendary Kon-Tiki, sailed westward across the ocean to Polynesia.
During World War II, Mr. Heyerdahl served in the Free Norwegian armed forces, mostly as a parachutist. After the war, he tried to interest publishers and scientists in his Polynesian theory, but came to realize that prevailing opinion was so strongly against it that a practical demonstration of its feasibility was the only answer.
He raised the money, overcame innumerable practical obstacles right down to the cutting of the long balsa logs he needed, recruited five friends to go with him and set off on the Kon-Tiki.
Mr. Heyerdahl's book "Kon-Tiki" was praised by Lewis Gannett in The New York Herald Tribune as "a superb adventure story." Harry Gilroy, in The New York Times, wrote: "Their saga, told by the expedition's organizer, is a revelation of how exciting science can become when it inspires a man with the heart of a Leif Ericsson and the merry story-telling gift of an Ernie Pyle."
The book was less successful with the scientific community. In 1958, for example, Dr. Alan S. C. Ross, a linguist at the University of Birmingham in England said language studies provided "an absolutely decisive disproof" of Mr. Heyerdahl's theory. There was, Dr. Ross wrote, no relationship between Polynesian and any American language family.
Mr. Heyerdahl insisted, however, that in his mind he had proved his thesis - not that the crossing had been done, but that it could have been done.
Next, Mr. Heyerdahl led an archaeological expedition in 1953 to the Galápagos Islands, 700 miles off the coast of Ecuador. He found evidence that convinced him that predecessors of the Incas had visited the islands, and that they had had the nautical sophistication to be able to return home against the wind.
In 1955 and 1956, Mr. Heyerdahl tackled the mystery of remote Easter Island. He experimented with the techniques that might have been used in creating and placing upright the enormous stone figures for which the island is famous. "Aku-Aku," published in 1958, was a vivid account of the expedition. He later published scholarly accounts of this and the Kon-Tiki voyages.
Mr. Heyerdahl argued that Easter Island was also colonized by South Americans, which led one critic, the British archaeologist Paul G. Bahn, to write, "It is unfortunate that he has allowed his obsession with a South American connection to overshadow the far more interesting and important subjects of the islanders' cultural history, way of life and destruction of their environment."
Mr. Heyerdahl then turned his attention to the possibility of a migration from Egypt to America, because of what he felt were striking cultural parallels, notably pyramid building. Most scholars doubted that the Egyptians had ships capable of so long a voyage. So Mr. Heyerdahl decided on a practical demonstration. Using ancient representations of Egyptian reed boats as his guide, he had a reed ship built and named it Ra, after the Egyptian Sun god.
The first attempt, in 1969, fell short. The waterlogged ship had to be abandoned 600 miles from its destination in Barbados. Undaunted, Mr. Heyerdahl tried again the next year. He said it was on this successful 57-day journey, on Ra II, that he first noted the "alarming" pollution of the ocean, a subject he continued to raise forcefully.
Political strife shortened his 1977-78 voyage with another reed boat in the Indian Ocean and Red Sea. Reaching the coast of Ethiopia, he was refused permission to land because of warfare. He then abandoned the voyage, setting fire to the boat "to protest against the inhuman elements of the world of 1978."
With these expeditions, Mr. Heyerdahl said: "I have proved that all the ancient pre-European civilizations could have intercommunicated across oceans with the primitive vessels they had at their disposal. I feel that the burden of proof now rests with those who claim the oceans were necessarily a factor in isolating civilizations."
Most anthropologists think otherwise.
Mr. Heyerdahl's first wife, whom he divorced in 1949, died in 1969. He was also divorced from his second wife, Yvonne Dedekam-Simonsen Heyerdahl, who survives. In 1996, he married Jacqueline Beer Heyerdahl, a French-born Hollywood actress, who also survives.
Other survivors, besides his son Thor, of Lillehammer, Norway, are another son, Bjorn, who lives near Allassio, Italy; two daughters, Marian and Helene Elisabeth, both of Oslo; seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
In recent years, Mr. Heyerdahl received many honors, including the distinction, according to a public opinion poll, of being "Norwegian of the Century." And in recent months, he visited Cuba and Norway, as well as Samoa. He sponsored excavations in southern Russia in search of artifacts to support his last obsession, that Odin was a historical personage from what is now Russia who began a Scandinavian royal line in the first century A.D.
As with his theory on the peopling of the Pacific, his case for Odin has been largely dismissed by establishment academics, but as always, he seemed to thrive in the limelight of controversy and the telling of a good story.
- May 22, 2007
Dame Mary Douglas, 86, a Wide-Ranging Anthropologist, Is Dead
By DOUGLAS MARTIN
Dame Mary Douglas, an anthropologist whose influence ranged beyond the
traditional questions of her field to examine areas as diverse as kosher
diets, consumer behavior, environmentalism and humor as she described
how humans work together to find shared meaning, died Wednesday in
She was 86, and on May 8 she was made a dame commander of the British
Empire. She was thrilled that Prince Charles took part in the ceremony,
because he studied anthropology at Cambridge, her friend Alida Brill
The cause of death was complications of cancer, Ms. Brill said.
Dame Mary marshaled a vivid, pugnacious writing style in more than 15
books to describe the relationship between culture and social action,
leading to her conclusion that knowledge is built by people
communicating and responding to one another.
"The colonization of each other's minds is the price we pay for
thought," she wrote.
Drawing on her field experience in Africa and expansive reading, she saw
little difference between "modern" and "primitive" societies, and
sometimes drew startling conclusions. In the provocative 1982 book "Risk
and Culture: An Essay on the Selection of Technical and Environmental
Dangers," she and Aaron Wildavsky argued that environmentalists'
complaints reflected an antipathy toward dominant social hierarchies.
The authors compared environmentalists to religious cults and
superstitious groups of the past.
This train of thought reflects that of one of Dame Mary's most discussed
books, "Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and
Taboo" (1966). She explored the relationships between dirt and holiness,
impurity and hygiene, as means of defining one's own group as distinct
from other groups. She said foods were banned as unkosher because they
did not fit into any definite category: pigs seemed ambiguous because
they shared the cloven hoof of ungulates but did not chew cud.
Once made, such choices were a way to define Jews as different, she
Rituals in the Roman Catholic Church
an_catholic_church/index.html?inline=nyt-org> , of which she was a
lifelong member, similarly bind people together, she wrote. Therefore,
she regarded the abolition of Friday abstinence from meat as a threat to
people's sense of solidarity with God and fellow Catholics. She found
proof for her belief that collective interaction defined and governed
personal behavior in the fact that people use a knife and fork even when
Among many intriguing theories was her contention in a book written with
Baron Isherwood, an economist, that buying things is a way people create
meaning in their lives. She attracted admiration from biblical scholars
for discovering a new way to interpret the literary structure of
She pointed out advantages of hierarchical social forms and rejected the
notion that magic was necessarily inferior to the ethical approaches
that emerged from the Enlightenment. She said comedy was "the victorious
tilting of uncontrol against control."
Mary Tew was born March 25, 1921, in San Remo, Italy. Her parents had
stopped off on their way home from Burma, where her father was in the
Indian civil service. She was educated at the Sacred Heart Convent in
southwest London. She studied philosophy, politics and economics at
Oxford, then worked in the British Colonial Office during World War II.
She was intrigued by anthropologists she had met in the colonial office
and returned to Oxford to study anthropology. Her teacher, mentor and
role model was E. E. Evans-Pritchard, whose work on witchcraft in East
Africa was groundbreaking. Dame Mary wrote a biography of him in 1980.
She did her own fieldwork in what was then the Belgian Congo, studying
the Lele, a matrilineal tribe . In 1951, after a brief appointment at
Oxford, she married James Douglas, who soon became a researcher for the
Mr. Douglas, who went on to teaching and other jobs, died in 2004. Dame
Mary is survived by her sons James, of London, and Philip, of Sydney,
Australia; her daughter, Janet, of Surrey, England; and six
In 1951, she began teaching at University College of the University of
London and in 1966 published her most celebrated work, the "Purity and
Danger" book. One of the book's more famous lines: "Dirt is matter out
From 1977 to 1981, she worked at the Russell Sage Foundation in New
York, then taught at Northwestern University
thwestern_university/index.html?inline=nyt-org> until 1985. She was a
visiting professor at Yale
e_university/index.html?inline=nyt-org> and Princeton.
Her last book will be a posthumous compilation of essays by her father,
many of them about fly-fishing. Her most recently published book,
"Thinking in Circles: An Essay on Ring Composition," came out this year;
it offers interpretations of texts structured in circular patterns like
the Book of Numbers, Chinese novels and Zoroastrian poetry.
"Writings that used to baffle and dismay unprepared readers, when read
correctly, turn out to be marvelously controlled and complex
compositions," she wrote.
Dame Mary remained active almost until her death. On April 28, The
Spectator published an interview in which she used her own cultural
theory to discuss Al Qaeda
qaeda/index.html?inline=nyt-org> . She urged the United States to let
the group express its views.
"If these people hate America anyway, and America attacks them, it
increases the hostility of the enclave," she said.
Ann Popplestone AAB, BA, MA
CCC Metro TLC
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