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Anthropologist wins recognition

By : Rachel Coker

Michael Little, distinguished professor of anthropology, will receive a lifetime achievement award from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
Michael A. Little, distinguished professor of anthropology, will receive the Charles R. Darwin Award for Lifetime Achievement in Physical Anthropology from the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in April.

“It’s called the lifetime achievement award, and so it’s not given to young people,” said Little, a spry 69-year-old with a full head of hair and no plans to retire. “I have somewhat mixed feelings about being in the age category where I’m getting this award.”

Little, a Philadelphia native, started out in geology and developed an interest in evolution and anthropology while an undergraduate at Pennsylvania State University. He stayed on to do graduate work and received his doctorate in 1968.

While studying under Paul Baker, Little did his first field work.

“I went to the Andes in 1962 and got hooked on anthropological studies,” Little recalled.

They lived in Cuzco, a small Peruvian city some 11,500 feet above sea level that was the capital of the old Incan empire. With others, Little studied the way residents in the jungle and in the Andes adapted to the cold.

His dissertation focused on that research, as did a 1976 synthesis volume he edited with Baker, titled Man in the Andes. “I remember arguing with him saying, ‘Man is sexist. Shouldn’t we call it People in the Andes?’ And he insisted, and so it came out as Man in the Andes,” Little remembered.

Little, who taught briefly at Ohio State University, joined the Binghamton faculty in 1971. Here, he developed a collaboration with Neville Dyson-Hudson, now an emeritus professor of anthropology, on a major project in Kenya.

Their 15-year initiative in the Turkana region, which incorporated social, biological, biomedical and ecological elements, remains the most significant study of pastoral nomads ever completed. Little modestly gives much of the credit for the idea to his colleague.

Although the researchers eventually won support from the National Science Foundation, they had trouble getting funded because the multi-disciplinary nature of the work meant many specialists didn’t know what to make of it.

“Now everybody uses the term ‘multi-disciplinary,’?” Little said. “But then it was very difficult.”

Still, that collaborative element made the work more enjoyable to Little than his more laboratory-oriented time in Peru. “I think I enjoyed the East African studies better, partly because there were social anthropologists involved and we got closer to the people,” he said.

The Kenyan study led to another synthesis volume, titled Turkana Herders of the Dry Savannah, published in 1999 by Oxford University Press.

Fifteen doctoral students were also trained during the course of the study, Little noted. Some continue to work on related projects with different pastoral populations in Africa.

“In a project such as this, the significance is not only the research findings but that it serves as a training vehicle for continuing the work with graduate students,” he said. “I’m committed, and I always have been, to training like what I received. I received very close and affectionate mentoring from my adviser and others on the faculty, and it has instilled in me a sense of the need to work closely with students.”

Looking back, Little can only imagine how his work would have been different if he had had such modern technology as laptop computers and global positioning system devices during his three- to six-month forays into the field.

“If we had only had cell phones,” he said wistfully, remembering the long drives he would make to call his wife from the post office of a Kenyan city that still reminds him of Tatooine in the Star Wars films. It cost $30 or $40 to make such a call.

Today, Little’s research focuses on the history of his profession. He felt it would be a good project to lead into his retirement, one easier than living in the bush.

Though he speaks fondly of his time in Peru and Kenya, Little also recalls the inconveniences of such trips. “You don’t have a regular food supply, there are lots of bugs around, mosquitoes, malaria, outhouses — not very nice outhouses, poisonous snakes, even hyenas that will bite your face off — so it was claimed by the people we worked with,” he said. “Working under these conditions is for relatively young people.”

He said he knew his years of field work were coming to a close when he saw a colleague scramble up on top of a Land Rover much more easily than he could. “I thought, well, maybe I’m not going to be doing this much longer.”
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Last Updated: 10/14/08