ASU religious studies graduate dives background of Gulf War, Saudi Arabia

April 13, 2023

Editor's note: The story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2023 graduates.

Skyler Bean was born on an U.S. Air Force base in Saudi Arabia not too long before the Gulf War began. He was evacuated from the kingdom along with his mother and sister, while his father stayed to carry out Operation Desert Shield, and eventually, Operation Desert Storm. A portrait of a man with short dark hair wearing a blue button-down shirt posing in front of trees. Skyler Bean Download Full Image

“My research interests are a result of my desire to understand the confluence of multivalent, transnational causes which precipitated my parents’ presence, and by extension, my presence, in the kingdom,” Bean said.

Bean is graduating this spring with a master’s degree in religious studies and a concentration in Islamic studies. His research and thesis have been driven by his curiosity about U.S. troops’ presence in the Arabian Peninsula and the ways in which their presence was involved in the sociopolitical inflection experienced by the kingdom after the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

He focused on the relationship between the religious establishment and the political authority in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia during and after the 1991 Gulf War.

“I translated and analyzed a document produced by the elite religious establishment in 1991, as well as another document produced by the ruling royal family in Saudi Arabia in 1992 that can be thought of as the ‘constitution’ of the kingdom,” Bean said. “The second document, I argue, demonstrates how the royal family expanded their political authority and rendered themselves as the ultimate arbiters of legality. By expanding their political authority, they reformulated the historical narrative of the kingdom to redefine the orthodoxy governing their relationship with the religious establishment.”

Prior to enrolling in his master’s program, Bean attended ASU as an undergraduate and earned concurrent bachelor’s degrees in history and English along with certificates in classical studies and professional writing. 

Bean worked as the program coordinator of the Center for Maghrib Studies while he earned his master’s, earned a travel grant from ASU and was the recipient of the CDR Eldon L. Guhl, USN and Bertha V. Guhl Designated Scholarship from the Military Officers Association of America.

We caught up with him to ask him about his time at ASU, his plans for the future and his advice to current students. 

Question: What was your “aha” moment when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

Answer: My “aha” moment occurred in a historical methods class that I took as an undergraduate at ASU. Professor Yasmin Saikia led our class through foundational texts in postcolonial thought, which impacted me tremendously. Edward Said opened my eyes to the epistemic violence that girded and sustained the genocidal colonial project incepted in 15th century Western Europe. Frantz Fanon helped me understand the ways in which that project shaped and continues to affect the contemporary world order. 

When I enrolled in the class, I was interested in studying the instrumentalization of literature by political elites in the Greco-Roman world. After Professor Saikia’s class, I moved away from my interests in Greco-Roman cultural forms and became interested in the ways culture is wielded to serve the agenda of elite socio-political actors. 

I connected my intellectual interests to questions about my biography and was compelled to pursue a graduate degree. My goals for graduate study were to learn more about the ways historical narratives are instrumentalized to further the interests of political elites and to train in Islamic studies.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: All three members of my thesis committee have been vital in shaping my thinking as a graduate student and consequently my identity as a scholar. Under Professor Shahla Talebi’s supervision, I explored recent work in the anthropology of religion, which became the foundation for my understanding of the anthropology of Islam. Professor Han Hsien Liew trained me in Islamic legal history and gave shape to my understanding of Islamic political thought by introducing me to pre-modern Arabic sources. Professor Shamara Wyllie Alhassan opened me up to critical methodologies and decolonial praxis and has been a valuable guide for thinking through the ways historical narratives are co-opted by political powers to serve a multi-faceted agenda. All three members of my thesis committee, as well as Professor Gaymon Bennett, helped me better understand and identify the effects of European colonialism throughout history and into the present day.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: One, slow down, take your time, take care of yourself, and take advantage of all the resources available at ASU. ASU offers mental-health services, career coaching, employment opportunities, even specialty software access, as well as a host of other services. 

Two, don’t be afraid to reach out for help early and often. Being a squeaky but respectful wheel will be not only helpful, but necessary — especially in graduate school. 

Three, if you’re an undergrad, do a study abroad. I did a semester in London as an undergraduate, and it was one of the best parts of my college experience. If you’re a graduate student, get funding to go to conferences. ASU has many pots of funding available to help students travel and build their professional network beyond ASU.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot on campus is outside of Charlie’s Café in Hayden Library. However, I’ve had many meals while enjoying the weather from the shade of the Memorial Union.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I am considering PhD programs in history and anthropology as well as Fulbright Awards. Alternatively, I am interested in working for a non-governmental organization in the international relations space.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Overturn “Citizens United.” Then, I hope, U.S. politicians will undertake devising necessary solutions to other problems in the U.S. and around the world, problems that will cost much more than $40 million to solve. Globally, those problems include climate change, food scarcity and predatory lending to governments in the Global South. In the U.S., they include systemic income and wealth inequality, reparations to descendants of enslaved African-Americans and comprehensive reform of the health care, education, immigration and law enforcement systems.

Rachel Bunning

Communications program coordinator, School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies

New study changes perception of early apes and their environments

ASU researcher among team that found 'new model for ape origins'

April 13, 2023

Anthropologists have long thought that our ape ancestors evolved an upright torso to pick fruit in forests, but new research published this week in the journal Science suggests a life in open woodlands and a diet that included leaves drove apes' upright stature.

The finding sheds light on ape origins and pushes back the origin of grassy woodlands from between 7 million and 10 million years ago to 21 million years ago, during the Early Miocene. Artist-drawn image of prehistoric apes climbing a tree. Artistic rendering of the open woodland habitat reconstruction at Moroto II, with Morotopithecus bishopi with an infant on their back vertically climbing and a juvenile below. Rendering courtesy Corbin Rainbolt Download Full Image

The new research is centered around a 21-million-year-old fossil site called Moroto in eastern Uganda. There, the international research team, which includes Arizona State University researcher Rutger Jansma, examined fossils found in a single stratigraphic layer, including fossils of the oldest, clearly documented ape, Morotopithecus.

Also within this layer were fossils of other mammals, ancient soils called paleosols and tiny silica particles from plants called phytoliths. The researchers used these lines of evidence to recreate the ancient environment of Morotopithecus.

Previous research has supported the idea that apes with an upright back must be living in forests and eating fruit. Observations of modern-day apes show the primates reach out to fruit that grows on the spindly peripheries of trees. Large apes need to distribute their weight on branches stemming from the trunk, then reach out with their hands toward their prize. This is much easier if an ape is upright because it can more easily grab onto different branches with its hands and feet.

But as more research results from Morotopithecus became available, the first surprising thing researchers found was that the ape was eating leaves. The second surprise was that it was living in woodlands.

The first clue that these ancient apes were eating leaves was in the apes' molars. The molars were very “cresty and craggy,” with peaks and valleys. Molars like this are used for tearing fibrous leaves apart, while molars used for eating fruit are typically more rounded.

ASU researcher Jansma identified another primate from the Moroto assemblage — Rangwapithecus, a smaller, siamang-sized early ape that lived alongside the larger Morotopithecus.

“Its cheek teeth are long and narrow, with sharp crests that help to break down fibrous leaves, just like Morotopithecus,” said Jansma, a faculty associate with the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. “It is not usual to find several different apes together in the Miocene, but what is strange is that at least two of them were eating leaves. Today, there are only a handful of ape species left and most of them eat fruit. This study emphasizes the importance of fossil evidence to piece together ape evolution instead of only looking at their living descendants.”

The researchers also examined the apes' dental enamel, as well as the dental enamel of other mammals found in the same stratigraphic layer. They found that isotopic ratios — the abundance of two isotopes of the same element — in their dental enamel showed that the apes and other mammals had been eating water-stressed C3 plants that are more common in open woodland or grassy woodland environments today. C3 plants are primarily woody shrubs and trees, while C4 plants are arid-adapted grasses.

The research team also discovered that the plants living in this 21-million-year-old landscape were water stressed, meaning they lived through seasonal periods of rain and of aridity. This also indicates that, at least for part of the year, apes had to rely on something other than fruit to survive.

Together, these findings reveal that Morotopithecus lived in open woodlands punctuated by broken canopy forests composed of trees and shrubs.

Therefore, the research team suggests, early apes ate leaves and lived in a seasonal woodland with a broken canopy and open, grassy areas, which drove apes' upright stature, instead of fruit in closed canopy forests.

Ape habitats

Their results are bolstered by a companion paper published in the same issue of the journal examining the paleo grassy woodland habitats. These findings used a set of environmental proxies to reconstruct the vegetation structure from nine fossil ape sites across Africa, including the Moroto site, during the Early Miocene. These proxies revealed that C4 grasses were widespread, and the general context of open seasonal woodland ecosystems were integral in shaping the evolution of different mammalian lineages, including and especially in this research, how different ape lineages evolved.

The two papers grew out of a U.S. National Science Foundation-funded collaboration of international paleontologists, collectively known as the Research on Eastern African Catarrhine and Hominoid Evolution project, or REACHE, each of whom focus on different aspects of early ape paleoenvironments.

“These open environments have been invoked to explain human origins, and it was thought that there was a more open, seasonal environment between 10 and 7 million years ago,” said lead researcher Laura MacLatchy, from the University of Michigan.

“Such an environmental shift is thought to have been selected for terrestrial bipedalism — our ancestors started striding around on the ground because the trees were further apart. Now that we've shown that such environments were present at least 10 million years before bipedalism evolved, we need to really rethink human origins, too,” MacLatchy said. “Putting together the locomotion, the diet and the environment, we basically discovered a new model for ape origins. In anthropology, we care a lot about ape evolution because humans are closely related to apes and features like lower-back stability represent an arboreal adaptation that may have ultimately given rise to bipedal humans."

"The findings have transformed what we thought we knew about early apes and the origin for where, when and why they navigate through the trees and on the ground in multiple different ways," said Robin Bernstein, program director for biological anthropology at the National Science Foundation.

Research article: The evolution of hominoid locomotor versatility: Evidence from Moroto, a 21 Ma site in Uganda, Laura M. MacLatchy et al, Science. Companion article: Oldest evidence of abundant C4 grasses and habitat heterogeneity in eastern Africa, Laura M. MacLatchy et al, Science.

Julie Russ

Assistant director, Institute of Human Origins