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Professor Michael Little honored by National Academy of Sciences

The National Academy of Sciences has named Michael Little, distinguished professor of anthropology, a National Associate in honor of his past service to  the Academy. The distinction, which was established just last year, includes Little among several hundred members who have provided service to the Academies through committee activities.

The National Academy of Sciences brings together distinguished scholars engaged in scientific and engineering research for the good of humankind. Academy committees act as liaisons with international organizations and the American public and scientific communities. In 1984, the National Academy of Science appointed Little to their International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS). He chaired that committee during the last two years of that appointment.

Little’s career is peppered with service to professional organizations. He is a past president of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the Human Biology Association, and is the current chair of the U.S. National Committee / International Union of Anthropological Ethnological Sciences (USNC/IUAES).

His main area of interest is physical anthropology, the biological side of anthropology. “I prefer to think of it as bio-behavioral anthropology. We study the relationships between humans and biological organisms and humans as behaving and social organisms.” This unique interest did not keep him behind a desk writing papers. He traveled for several years to Kenya, studying East African nomadic pastoralists, a group of individuals who keep livestock.

“In many parts of the world, people don’t bring the food to their livestock; they bring their livestock to the food,” said Little, “These pastoralists, since they’re living in a relatively arid area, have to continually find vegetation for their livestock. So they’ll set up a settlement in one area, graze their livestock, and stay there for about a month. Then the whole settlement, between 20 and 40 people, will move to another area.”

Little’s work in Kenya culminated in 1999 with the publication of Turkana Herders of the Dry Savanna (Oxford University Press, 1999). Several Binghamton alumni are continuing his research. Kathleen Galvin, PhD `85, Ivy Pike, PhD `96, Sandra Gray M.A.`88, PhD `92, and Terry McCabe MA `76, PhD `84 are currently working at universities and on research projects in Africa.

Little, who has spent more than 30 years in the Anthropology Department at Binghamton University, has recently turned his attention to the history of his profession.  “I’ve been working with Kenneth Kennedy at Cornell University on a history of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists,” he said. He also continues to teach some of his old favorites, Human Growth and Development, Human Biological Variation, and a graduate seminar in biological variation.

In spite of considerable time in tents, traveling among Kenyan nomads, Little has published over 100 scientific works and more than 60 book reviews in several scholarly publications such as American Anthropologist, Human Biology, and Science.

Little is one of many bright lights in a department known worldwide for its expertise and depth of research. He remarked that his colleagues are doing diverse, groundbreaking work. For instance, Phillip Rightmire specializes in paleoanthropology, which is the study of preexisting populations and fossil hominids. He is currently writing a proposal to do research in the former soviet Georgia. Ralph Garruto studies living populations and the relationship between behavior and disease in different parts of the world. Virginia Vitzthum studies reproduction in high-altitude populations, such as those found in Bolivia and Peru. Dawnie Steadman is a forensic anthropologist and has helped with the identification of remains following the September 11th attacks at the World Trade Center.

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