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October 10, 2023 3 mins

This special SAPIENS podcast season tells the story of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead’s epic life and controversial research to explore key quandaries about the human experience: sex and adolescence, nature versus nurture, and the question of whether it’s ever possible to fully understand cultures different from your own. In addition, we hear from Samoans themselves about their views on the matter and their lives today.

In 1928, when she was just 27 years old, Mead published Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization, which investigated the sexual lives of young women on the Pacific Islands. The book was an instant bestseller, challenging people in the U.S. to rethink much of what they had assumed to be true about sex, human biology, and growing up. Mead became the most influential anthropologist in history and one of TIME magazine’s most powerful 25 women of the 20th century. She received a U.S. presidential medal of freedom, and a U.S. postal stamp was made with her picture on it.

But what if Mead’s findings about Samoans were wrong?

Five years after Mead’s death, anthropologist Derek Freeman rebutted the central claims Mead made in her career-launching work, sparking a media sensation and challenging the field of anthropology. The controversy that followed sparked questions about the science of intercultural understanding and why Samoans weren’t empowered to speak for themselves.

SAPIENS is an editorially independent podcast funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation and is part of the American Anthropological Association Podcast Library.

Season 6 of the SAPIENS podcast was co-produced by PRX and SAPIENS, and made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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