Alien Reflections: Response to Extraterrestrial Anthropology

By Rayna Elizabeth

Emma’s piece on extraterrestrial anthropology brings up several important points to consider when thinking about how we view potentially intelligent life in the universe. The idea that intelligent life may exist in the universe is an idea that has led to several science fiction creations in pop culture. She highlights that the popularity of the hit show Ancient Aliens has brought about contentious issues between untrained Ancient Astronaut theorists and academically trained anthropologists and archaeologists. I would add that there is a problematic consequence to the dissemination of false information from a network such as The History Channel. The persistent belief that aliens aided humans contributes to a detrimental judgment of people from the past.  Academics used to perpetuate the idea that “primitive” people were subhuman and less intelligent, however we know that is not the case today (White 2007:4). Believing that ancient people were not capable of amazing feats is not only inaccurate, but also completely negates their capabilities and ingenuity.

Pop culture has also shown that the alien other evokes feelings in us, ranging from fear and dread as in the movie Aliens (1986), to a more empathetic response as in E.T. (1982). The uncertainty of not knowing who or what is out there in the cosmos sparks the human imagination. We wonder if those potential alien life forms will be like us and we can project our own fears and desires onto them. At this point in time, there is no evidence to suggest that there is intelligent life outside of Earth; everything else is speculative.

With recent space technology, planetary scientists such as MIT Professor Dr.Sara Seagar have been collecting data on exoplanets. The data shows that there is an abundance of “earth-like” planets in the universe, which are planets that have conditions and planetary properties similar to Earth, therefore have a greater potential of harboring life. These recent discoveries have made headlines and have brought about discussions in academia as well.  Emma mentioned that anthropologists also research those who are in alien cults and people who believe that they were abducted. These two points create an interesting dichotomy. On the one hand, we imagine difference in space: strange worlds and creatures, while on the other hand we seek other worlds that are like our own. We seem to yearn for both the exotic and the familiar.

Historian Steven J. Dick suggests, “It would seem that the social sciences, and anthropology in particular, have the potential to illuminate a subject  whose central concerns are, after all, societies and cultural evolution, even if the setting happens to be extraterrestrial” (2006:3). Social psychologist Albert Harrison explains further, “Anthropology is replete with stories about the frustrations and difficulties that people, who have different languages, cultures, and ways of viewing and evaluating the world, have had understanding and communicating with one another” (Harrison 2011:68). Anthropologists can offer a unique perspective in regards to how humans on earth perceive potential life in the cosmos. Additionally, some have the knowledge of linguistics fused with cultural awareness. Those abilities can lend a hand when decision makers are contemplating whether or not we should or shouldn’t be trying to contact or detect other life forms.

Another book that deals with anthropology and space, accompanied by the NPR Series Cosmos & Culture: Image via

Another book that deals with anthropology and space, accompanied by the NPR Series Cosmos & Culture: Image via

If intelligent life did exist and aliens wanted to visit Earth (a highly anthropocentric point of view), what would we say to potential visitors to our planet? How should we try to contact them? Should we contact them? What would an encounter be like? In the Star Trek: First Contact (1996), there is a stereotypical scene of a small group of people aghast at the arrival of an alien with one “chosen one” who speaks to them. This scene also occurs in The Last Starfighter (1984).  Yet, is that how the first encounter with aliens would play out? Anthropologists play a crucial role in this discussion, which is why NASA has recently released a massive e-book titled “Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication.” This publication examines topics such as encountering alien cultures, SETI, radio transmission, messages and cultural values. Recently, “anthropologists and archaeologists have worked on SETI-related topics through assessment of the possible evolutionary paths to intelligence; review of historical precedents for contact between civilizations; simulations of contact; and…consideration of the challenges of interstellar message decipherment and composition” (Denning 2014:97). Investigating potential contact scenarios is no easy feat.  The idea is to establish some commentary for preparations, if the day does come when we make contact with extraterrestrial life. Understanding our own mirrored images of what it means to be alien will benefit not only humanity, but also those visitors from space that we may meet along the way.

Works Cited

Denning, Kathryn (2014). “Learning to Read Interstellar Message Decipherment from Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives.” Archaeology, Anthropology, and Interstellar Communication. Eds. Douglas A. Vakoch Washington, D.C: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Office of Communications, History Program Office.

Dick, Steven J. (2006). “Anthropology and the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” Anthropology Today. 22. pp. 3–7.

Harrison, Albert A. (2011). “The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence: Astrosociology and Cultural Aspects.” Astropolitics. 9(1). pp. 63-83.

White, Leslie (2007). “Man and Culture.” The Evolution of Culture: The Development of Civilization to the Fall of Rome. Left Coast Press: Walnut Creek, California.

Conrad, 1982

Aliens Among Us: Extraterrestrial Anthropology

By Emma Louise Backe

I’ve always been something of a science fiction geek, but it wasn’t until my senior year at college that I realized the synergy between the science fiction genre and anthropology. Part of the reason why science fiction has been such a boon for anthropology, and why so many anthropological science fiction stories are written, lies in the fact that science fiction is a useful tool to think about culture from an outsider’s perspective. Quite apart from the world building aspects of the genre, the presence of aliens provides readers and audience members with figures, indeed, whole populations, with which to think through alternative notions of humanity. As Slusser and Rabkin write, “The alien is the creation of a need—man’s need to designate something that is genuinely outside himself, something that is truly noman, that has no initial relation to man except for the fact that it has no relation” (1987, vii). Even though the word anthropology comes from the root “anthropos,” meaning men, aliens have a rich history within the anthropological world, and are increasingly figuring into future anthropological considerations.

Perhaps the most well-known and fantastical connection between aliens and anthropology are the “academics” known as Ancient Astronaut theorists, often featured on the History Channel show Ancient Aliens. The basic premise of the show, founded upon the fantastical theories of Erich von Däniken, is that human civilization developed and progressed with the assistance of extraterrestrials. Examining a variety of archaeological sites, artifacts, and objects of material culture from around the world and across the history of human habitation, Ancient Astronaut theorists postulate that monuments, technological innovations and artistic traditions were all informed and supplemented by alien contact. Incapable of explaining how the rocks used at the temple complex of Pumapunku, Bolivia were cut so precisely by “primitive” peoples, the immediate conclusion that always seems to be reached is that aliens swooped in and ushered our human ancestors into the practices of modernity.



Futurama, via The Musical Archaeologist

Futurama, via The Musical Archaeologist

While a highly entertaining show, the “experts” featured lack credible historical, linguistic, anthropological or archaeological training to substantiate their claims or their cultural assessments. In fact, many of the arguments employed by regulars like Giorgio A. Tsoukalos commit and espouse ethnocentric ideals and problematic theories about cultural evolution debunked and discarded decades ago. Much maligned for their theories, rhetorical and investigative strategies amongst academics, Ancient Aliens has nonetheless generated renewed interest in archaeology and provided a platform for practicing anthropologist to explain the true mysteries underlying the Aztec Empire or ancient Medieval illustrations of orbs hanging in the sky. Archaeologist Kenneth Feder at Central Connecticut State University has written several books, articles and conference papers on the subject of Ancient Astronaut theory, utilizing the fallacious tenants as a pedagogical tool for his students and the wider public. The show has opened up an opportunity for anthropologists to talk critically, yet inventively, about what it truly means to study cultures, both past and present. (more…)


The Weekly Geekout: Heroes Need to Woman Up

By Emma Louise Backe

Although women have become increasingly present and vocal protagonists, as well as antagonists, of comics, there is still a dearth of female superheroines in comic book television shows and movies. Thankfully, Agent Carter (2015) emerged from the clandestine bunkers of WWII to usher in what I hope will be a new era of strong, relatable sheroes. Agent Carter manages to blend feminism into an action series without being heavy-handed or essentialist about its politics. As Katie Kilkenny has written, despite Peggy Carter’s leadership and expertise during the war, the return of veterans and the resurgence of men into the professional employment sphere relegated women once more into stereotypical gender roles. Carter chafes under the dogged patronizing of her SSR colleagues, finding solidarity amongst other women who cleave to larger aspirations than housework, such as Angie Martinelli. The show provides some important historical context, reminding us that it wasn’t long ago when women were pigeon-holed as waitresses and telephone operators, after having filled the vacuum left by men waging war overseas.  Yet she does not allow anger or cynicism to taint her professional relationships, but rather puts her multifarious skills to use by investigating the abduction of Howard Stark’s technology. In fact, she is steadfastly patient with the misogyny of peers like fellow SSR agent Jack Thompson. Her physical prowess is only matched by her wit and rhetorical skills, pushing against simplistic notions of female power.

Ariana Lange's 63 Gloriously Feminist Moments From “Agent Carter” via

Ariana Lange’s 63 Gloriously Feminist Moments From “Agent Carter” via

Indeed, Peggy’s greatest adversary is Dottie Underwood, a product of intense military training and subterfuge from adolescence. Dottie even uses Howard Stark’s womanizing against him, subverting the power dynamics of seduction and desire. In the penultimate episode, when Peggy is being questioned and framed as Stark’s lover, Peggy confronts the problematic gender ideals her partners have foisted upon her: “’To you, I’m a stray kitten left on your doorstep to be protected. The secretary turned damsel in distress. The girl on the pedestal, transformed into some daft whore’” (2015), making their sexism visible. Throughout the entire first season, she is torn between her enduring love for Captain Steve Rogers, while being forced to emotionally and professionally separate herself from him in order to maintain her credibility as an agent. She is easily the most complex and sympathetic character in the show, ultimately averting disaster in New York City through a combination of combat and rhetoric. The men around her suffer insecurity and vulnerability, yet, as she assures Agent Daniel Sousa, “’I don’t need a congressional honor. I don’t need Agent Thompson’s approval or the President’s. I know my value, anyone else’s opinion doesn’t really matter’” (2015), highlighting that women during the mid-twentieth century were forced to cultivate a sense of self-worth within a larger social system that devalued women. The show is important not only for its departure from male-centric comic book shows, but also because it elevates the story of the working woman to highlight the innumerable quotidian battle of sexism women face.

And yet, despite the excellent writing, action sequences and kick-ass feminism of Agent Carter, the show may not return for a second season. I connected with Peggy Carter in a way that I have never connected with Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow (2012), who seems to be the only other option for an empowered woman in the comic book world. One could argue that Black Widow is a relatable character because she overcame a harsh upbringing and possesses no superpowers to speak of, yet is able to hold her own alongside men imbued with strength, magical hammers and super serum (read: privilege). She earned her place on The Avengers, despite a lifetime of obstacles. Black Widow has amassed a massive following, yet I’ve always felt like she was a fairly leaden female prop to placate the women, like myself, who want to see more female superheroes. But here’s the thing: I shouldn’t have to choose between only two women who ostensibly represent my gender. The women in Cartoon Network’s Batman Beyond (1999-2001), Justice League (2001), Justice League Unlimited (2004-2006), Teen Titans (2003-2006) and Young Justice (2010-2013) showed me that women can be written well, represent a diversity of opinions and walks of life, and often deliver the best lines and stories in the series. I am sick of settling for poorly conceived, one-dimensional female characters suffering from Trinity Syndrome (2014). Despite my hopes for Evangeline Lily’s character Tauriel in The Hobbit (2014), The Battle of Five Armies completely undermined any hopes of an empowered female character when the Captain of the Guard of Mirkwood Forest was transformed into a damsel in distress before divesting her of the power to avenge Kili’s death. It was a truly disgraceful handling of one of the few female characters in the cinematic version of Middle Earth. Agent Carter surprised and inspired me in a way few contemporary shows or movies have accomplished.

It bodes well to see the recent fomentation of feminist spirit within the comic book community. Spider-Gwen is already weaving a web of captivated readers and G. Willow Wilson is in the process of penning The A-Force, an all-female Avengers team led by She-Hulk. Considering that She-Hulk’s alter-ego Jennifer Walters daylights as a lawyer, I think that the decision to place She-Hulk in a leadership position was quite germane to the ultimate purpose of superheroes: justice. As Tammy Oler comments, “She-Hulk was a thoughtful look at women’s agency and the ways that women can wield power at a time when most comic book creators thought that simply including a bad-ass woman somewhere in the lineup was good enough” (2015). Abraham Riesman at Vulture recently wrote a piece about “The Hidden Story of Harley Quinn and How She Became the Superhero World’s Most Successful Woman” (2014), a character who transformed from a derivation of Joker into a chaotic force all her own. Her homosocial relationship with Poison Ivy throughout Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) has also spawned its own cult following. And while Big Hero 6’s (2014) Go Go Tomago was still imperfect, she makes a good point: perhaps it is time for the superheroes, and the comic book community at large, to woman up.


Works Cited

All Things Considered (2015). “The Woman Behind Marvel’s Newest Team of Heroines.” NPR.

Hall, Don & Chris Williams (2014). Big Hero 6. Walt Disney Pictures.

Jackson, Peter (2014). The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies. Warner Bros. Pictures.

Kilkenny, Katie (2015). “Agent Carter, Super Riveter.” The Atlantic.

Markus, Christopher & Stephen McFeely (2015). Agent Carter. ABC Studios & Marvel Television.

Narcisse, Evan (2015). “Spider-Man’s Dead Girlfriend Is A Kick-Ass Superhero Now.” Kotaku.

Oler, Tammy (2015). “She-Hulk, Attorney At Law.” Bitch Media.

Riesman, Abraham (2015). “The Hidden Story of Harley Quinn and How She Became the Superhero World’s Most Successful Woman.” Vulture.

Robinson, Tasha (2014). “We’re Losing All Our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.” The Dissolve.

Slack, David (2003-2006). Teen Titans. Warner Bros. Animation.

Timm, Bruce & Eric Radomski (1993-1995). Batman: The Animated Series. Warner Bros. Animation.

Timm, Bruce et al. (1999-2001). Batman Beyond. Warner Bros Animation.

Timm, Bruce & Paul Dini (2001-2004). Justice League. Warner Bros. Animation.

Timm, Bruce (2004-2006). Justice League Unlimited. Warner Bros. Animation.

Vietti, Brandon & Greg Weisman (2010-2013). Young Justice. Warner Bros. Animation.

Whedon, Joss (2012). The Avengers. Marvel


2015 Goals and Plans of The Geek Anthropologist

By Marie-Pierre Renaud

Dear amazing readers!

As I look back on the last few years, I am immensely proud of what has been accomplished here at The Geek Anthropologist. It went from a simple messy blog I wrote without much of a sense of direction to a community-run blog with over 5000 followers!

Ever since we made the transition from TGA being strictly my own to being a community project, we have seen some great changes: while we had about 20 000 views in 2013, we had over 46 000 thousand in 2014! We also published over three times more pieces, several of which were written by guest bloggers.

We have recently held a reader survey and giveaway to obtain feedback from our readers about TGA. We wanted to know what we were doing right and what we needed to improve. After seeing the results of the survey and closely examining statistical data from 2014, the editorial team behind TGA brainstormed about our aspirations and goals for 2015.

Here are some of the changes we are proposing for 2015!

TGA is Getting Beautified!

We changed the layout of the site last May when we officially turned TGA into a community venture. But shortly after, we found a few things were bothering us with the current layout. According to our reader survey, 53% of participants think our blog looks great and is well-organized. That means about 45% of participants think it could be organized more clearly and 2% think it’s just ok or a little boring. So we are going ahead and changing our layout again to make it easier for you to navigate through our content.

Reaching Out: Publishing in Various Languages!

Understandably, as our blog is written in English, we received most of our views in 2014 from English-speaking countries. Over 25 000 views were from readers in the United States of America. This represents more than half the views we received! Views from Canada followed at a little over 4 000 views. Predictably, a majority of participants in our survey (73%) wish to read TGA in English.

I am grateful to all our readers in the USA for their kind support to our work. But you see, my goal is to conquer the world! Ok, let’s be serious: I am a French-Canadian anthropologist and I want TGA to break away from USA-centrism. I want our blog to publish pieces by anthropologists from around the world, and to reflect the different forms that anthropology takes in countries other than the USA. I myself will do my part to make this a reality: I will write about Canadian anthropology and I will publish in french. This is something I have been considering for a several years and 2015 is the time to get it done.

Some of our readers agree: 11% of participants in our survey would like to read TGA in French and 10% would prefer Spanish. Other languages mentioned by participants include German, Swedish and… Klingon. So I guess our blog is reaching further than we thought (beyond Earth space!).

While I can’t promise our Klingon readers we can honor their wishes, we will try to publish posts in different languages this year. What we will be able to publish will depend on the material guest bloggers send our way, so if you know a geeky anthropologist, tell that person to contact us and contribute to our blog

You can already read a great interview with the Executive producer of the game Chariot in both French and English!

Podcasts or Video Series

A clear majority of participants in our survey are interested in TGA podcasts or videos. So we’ll go ahead and brew something for our wonderful community. We’ve been thinking about creating a TGA video series for a while now, and 2015 will be it!

In the meantime, have a look at editor Nicholas Mizer’s series Spot Check about gaming!

Increased Activity on Social Media

We are bringing the TGA Pinterest account back to life! Several of our readers headed over to Pinterest while reading our blog in 2013 and 2014, but sadly we let our boards wither away in the last several months. Editors Marie-Pierre Renaud and Emma Louise Backe will now once again keep them alive and well. We welcome our readers to follow our Pinterest boards and to contact us if they wish to pin with us!

In addition, we are planning to host hangouts or Q&A sessions on Reddit or other social media. Anything to reach out to our community and give them a hand!

Our goals for 2015 in a nutshell

  • Making TGA all pretty and easier to navigate;
  • Reaching a more international audience and better representing anthropology from around the world;
  • Engaging more actively in dialogue with our community and creating various types of contents.

Like Yoda says, ”Do or do not. There is no try”. We will implement theses changes. You can let us know if we succeed or fail!

I am taking this opportunity to invite anthropologists and other social scientists interested in publishing on TGA to reach out to us and consult our Contribute page. If you are looking to gain experience in blogging, research, graphic design and social media management, please check out our Join Our Team! page for more information.

It’s your turn to let us know what you think! What do you like about TGA? Do you have any requests or suggestions? Tell us in the comments below!

We are truly appreciative of your continued support and we look forward to hearing your thoughts about the coming changes on TGA this year! Let’s make 2015 a great year!

Notes From the Field: Go Home to a Starship

By Marie-Pierre Renaud

From October 12th to November 22nd 2014, I had the pleasure and the great opportunity to spend time in Nunavik, the northern area of the province of Quebec. I visited six communities, Kuujjuaraapik, Ivujivik, Salluit, Kangiqsujuaq, Quaqtaaq and Puvirnituq in the context of a research project I was hired for.

Map of Nunavik by Kativik School Board. Most of it is above the tree line.

Map of Nunavik by Kativik School Board. Most of it is above the tree line.

While every day brought new experiences and encounters with wonderful people, it also brought difficulties and, most importantly, lots of hard work. Anyone who has conducted fieldwork knows how much one’s physical, mental and emotional energy, creativity, skills, capacity to learn and knowledge are constantly active in this context. Each field brings its own set of obstacles to overcome, and each anthropologist faces their own challenges: a change in the weather, lack of sunlight, missing one’s family or friends, lack of free time, and an Internet connection too slow to watch the latest Doctor Who episode, are only some of the problems one might face.

As I found myself, at times, a little lost and tired, I took several steps to ensure that my mental health and well-being would remain at good levels. I drank plenty of water, ate food I liked, communicated with friends and family whenever possible, took time to meditate and relax and the end of the day and stretched in the morning. Yet one of the most helpful things I did was visit a familiar place…The starship Voyager.

Having recently rewatched all Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9) episodes, I chose to rewatch Star Trek: Voyager (VOY), which turned 20 years old on January 16th ( During my high school years, I would get home in time at the end of the day to watch DS9 and VOY on the Space Channel ( Like all Star Trek series, it provides me with a clear sense of familiarity, safety and comfort. As I watched VOY in a hotel room thousands of kilometres from home, I saw faces and places I knew. I know this starship. I know these people who inhabit it. I identify with their problems, know their personalities.

I feel at home on this starship.