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Polly Wiessner received her bachelor’s degree in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College in 1969 and her doctorate at the University of Michigan in 1977. She was a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Ethology between 1981 and 1996 and a professor at the University of Utah from 1998 until 2016. Her research focuses on social networks to reduce risk and responses of societies to the breakdown of traditional cultural institutions with modern resources and technology. She has conducted 40 years of research among the Kalahari San and 30 years among the Enga of Papua New Guinea. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
Polly Wiessner established a non-profit, the Tradition and Transition Fund, that addresses the current needs of the populations she studies: food security for the Kalahari Bushmen and constructing a museum/research center in Enga, the Enga Take Anda or ‘house of traditional knowledge’. The Enga Take Anda is currently integrating cultural education into all the schools of Enga Province with educational materials produced by Wiessner.
My research among the Kalahari (Ju/hoansi) Bushmen since 1973 has focused on the role of hxaro exchange in establishing networks of long-term interpersonal relationships crucial to survival in habitats with high spatial and temporal variation in resources. I have tracked the flow of hxaro gifts and explored how social information contained in artifacts provides information about social units. Recently I have initiated studies of the night, documenting how fireside stories keep networks alive and transmit information about cultural institutions. Currently I am expanding the work on stories to understand moral values of the past among the Ju/hoansi compared to changing values of today.
My work among the Enga of Papua New Guinea addresses the question: How do new resources and technological innovations, adopted from the outside world, such as new crops, cell phones, high powered weapons and modern transport, disrupt traditional institutions, values and morals, and how new institutions for cooperation are established to put order to chaos.