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Dr Thomas Grisaffi – University of Reading

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  • Only Human?

    Dr Thomas Grisaffi explores questions at the core of humanity

Dr Thomas Grisaffi

What does it mean to be human? What binds, divides and spurs diversity in us? What can we learn from human society through the millennia?

Dr Thomas Grisaffi suggests that in combining archaeology and anthropology we gain "deep-time perspective on human development."

Together, archaeology and anthropology examine humanity from our evolutionary origins to the crowded 21st century. They unravel complexities of past and present, how we evolved and why we developed such differences and commonalities. Thomas points to the intriguing connectivity of anthropology and how exploring humanity's present draws us inescapably into its past.

"Anthropologists study human societies in all places in the world, from global cities to nomadic camps. However - and this is key -anthropologists are always interested in what societies and individuals have in common. Because, despite the incredible cultural diversity of today's world, all human beings share the same evolutionary history, and all human infants demonstrate the same cognitive and social capacities."

As an anthropologist, Thomas explores questions at the core of humanity that can shed light on our present, while complementing our study of the past.

"Anthropology is cross-cultural and de-centring, so it brings a different perspective. We study areas like politics, kinship and exchange, where the context denationalises and draws attention to the fact that everything, however complex and different across the world's societies, is social construct."

Having completed a PhD in anthropology and taught at the London School of Economics, Thomas travelled through Peru and Bolivia, conducting research on drugs and democracy. His three years of embedded ethnographic fieldwork with coca union leaders, peasant farmers, drug traffickers and politicians gave him an exceptional insight that illuminates the connections between archaeology and anthropology.

"While anthropology studies contemporary cultures, the knowledge that students of the BA Archaeology and Anthropology gain is indispensable in making sense of their studies of the material culture of the past. By adopting a global, cross-cultural perspective, anthropology is able to engage with the big questions that concern us all: what it means to be human and to live in society."

Thomas's students analyse real-life case studies, discuss his ongoing projects and engage with the most current research and debates in social anthropology:

"My academic research has been concerned with indigenous social movements, democracy, and the cocaine trade in Bolivia, one of the world's largest coca-producing nations. Much of the crop is processed into cocaine, which enters the international drug trade through illicit and often very dangerous flows."

Thomas's book 'Coca Yes, Cocaine No: How Bolivia's Coca Growers Reshaped Democracy' is published by Duke University Press. His research has had impact. The New York Times cited his work in an editorial on global drug policy (How Bolivia Fights the Drugs Scourge), and he has presented his research to policy makers, including at the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Thomas is starting a new project on drug trafficking in Peru, Bolivia and Brazil.

Thomas's breadth of research and personal connections feeds into his teaching, while also providing an intuitive fit with archaeology. Linking the two offers a profound understanding of human development, allowing students to interpret material culture from different epochs, generating that deep-time human perspective.  

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