Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Anglo-Saxon cemetery results question violent invasion theory

The early fifth century transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England is a poorly understood period in British history. Historical narratives describe a brutal conquest by Anglo-Saxon invaders with nearly complete replacement of the indigenous population, but aspects of the archaeological record contradict this interpretation leading to competing hypotheses.

A new study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, suggests a more peaceful process, according to Dr Andrew Millard, from Durham University, one of the paper’s lead authors.

‘The main controversy over the years has centred on how many Anglo-Saxons came across the North Sea,‘ he says, ‘Was it a mass invasion, where the existing population was wiped out completely or forced back into Wales, or was it a small band of elites whose ways were then adopted very quickly?’  The evidence the researchers have gathered favours the second option.

Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery

Much of the evidence comes from the early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Wally Corner, Berinsfield in the Upper Thames Valley, Oxfordshire. The site was first identified from cropmarks on aerial photographs taken by Major Allen in June 1934, although its true nature was unknown.

In 1960, Oxford University Archaeological Society carried out an excavation in the area and discovered Romano-British ditches dating from the first to fourth centuries. In 1974 and 1975, Oxford Archaeological Unit (now Oxford Archaeology) excavated the Wally Corner gravel pit at Berinsfield prior to gravel extraction and uncovered the Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

Most of the burials contained grave-goods including weapons, knives, jewellery, spindlewhorls, buckets and pottery which suggested the cemetery was in use for about 150 years from the early/mid 5th century to the early 7th century. This was exactly the right period to examine the the population origin of the interned individuals.

Locals or immigrants?

Were they local people who had adopted Saxon lifestyles and culture or were they immigrants from the continent?

From the skeletal remains, 30 male and 32 female adults were identified. The burials contained about 70 adults, 9 adolescents and 25 children, with most adults ranging between the ages of 20-45. Some of the graves were arranged in groups, suggesting families or households.

According to this newly evaluated evidence, rather than replacement of the local population, either a much smaller group of Germanic immigrants settled in England as part of the social, religious, and political turmoil happening in western Europe at this time; or a rapid acculturation took place in the vacuum of Roman abandonment, with little genetic contribution from Germanic immigrants.

As the number of Anglo-Saxon immigrants arriving in Britain is one of the focal issues of this debate, strontium and oxygen isotopic ratios, with their ability to identify immigrants in a burial population, offered a technique to test competing hypotheses. The researchers examined these ratios in the tooth enamel of 19 individuals from the cemetery at Berinsfield.

Background values from local fauna material and soil samples allowed the scientists to characterize the regional fingerprint for the oxygen and strontium isotopes. In addition, the diet of the burial community as a whole was analysed and cross related against the sex, age and grave goods of the individuals.

The balance of particular chemicals in our teeth can give clues about where most of our food and drink has come from. Scientists can then use this information to work out where people were born, and where they lived in childhood. Had there been a mass invasion, the graves would be expected to contain at least 20 per cent immigrant remains. But only five per cent of the buried individuals seem to have come from out-with the local area.

‘Oxfordshire is quite some distance from the landing point of any invasion, but it seems that there was not a mass invasion everywhere,’ says Millard.

It is true to say that the broader question is still open to debate, and evidence is being gathered, but at the moment it favours a scenario where there was no wholesale replacement of the population, but a strong cultural shift.


While dietary variability was found in all the sub-groups tested, it was still able to identify an apparent distinction between the average diets of individuals classified as “wealthy” and “intermediately wealthy” and those classified as “poor”.

A notable absence of a ‘dietary difference’ between males and females at Berinsfield, indicated that sex-based societal division did not significantly influence access to the various food sources. These additional conclusions drawn from  isotopic data are of use in adding to the picture of daily life and social structure in early Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Of course there is still much more study required to investigate if this was an isolated case or a more general picture of cultural change as opposed to population replacement, but this research forms the basis for these further investigations.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Anglo-Saxon cemetery results question violent invasion theory”. Past Horizons. Posted: February 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2014/anglo-saxon-cemetery-results-question-violent-invasion-theory

Monday, April 14, 2014

Impact on mummy skull suggests murder

Analysis of archived mummy reveals murdered young female with Chagas disease

Blunt force trauma to the skull of a mummy with signs of Chagas disease may support homicide as cause of death, which is similar to previously described South American mummies, according to a study published February 26, 2014 in PLOS ONE by Stephanie Panzer from Trauma Center Murau, Germany, and colleagues, a study that has been directed by the paleopathologist Andreas Nerlich from Munich University.

For over a hundred years, the unidentified mummy has been housed in the Bavarian State Archeological Collection in Germany. To better understand its origin and life history, scientists examined the skeleton, organs, and ancient DNA using a myriad of techniques: anthropological investigation, a complete body CT scan, isotope analysis, tissue histology, molecular identification of ancient parasitic DNA, and forensic injury reconstruction.

Radiocarbon dated to around 1450 - 1640 AD, skeletal examination indicated that the mummy was likely 20-25 years old at the time of her death, and her skull exhibits typical Incan-type skull formations. Fiber from her hair bands appear to originate from South American llama or alpaca. Isotope analysis of nitrogen and carbon in her hair reveal a diet likely comprising maize and seafood, which, along with other evidence suggest South American origin and a life spent in coastal Peru or Chile. The mummy also showed significant thickening of the heart, intestines, and the rectum, features typically associated with chronic Chagas disease, a tropical parasitic infection. DNA analysis of parasites found in rectum tissue samples also support chronic Chagas disease, a condition she probably had since early infancy. The skull structure where a massive skull and face trauma occurred, suggests the trauma was acquired prior to death, and indicates massive central blunt force. The young Incan may have been victim of a ritual homicide, as has been observed in other South American mummies.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Impact on mummy skull suggests murder”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-02/p-iom022514.php

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Humans have a poor memory for sound

Study finds truth to the old saying 'in one ear and out the other'

Remember that sound bite you heard on the radio this morning? The grocery items your spouse asked you to pick up? Chances are, you won't.

Researchers at the University of Iowa have found that when it comes to memory, we don't remember things we hear nearly as well as things we see or touch.

"As it turns out, there is merit to the Chinese proverb 'I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember," says lead author of the study and UI graduate student, James Bigelow.

"We tend to think that the parts of our brain wired for memory are integrated. But our findings indicate our brain may use separate pathways to process information. Even more, our study suggests the brain may process auditory information differently than visual and tactile information, and alternative strategies – such as increased mental repetition – may be needed when trying to improve memory," says Amy Poremba, associate professor in the UI Department of Psychology and corresponding author on the paper, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Bigelow and Poremba discovered that when more than 100 UI undergraduate students were exposed to a variety of sounds, visuals and things that could be felt, the students were least apt to remember the sounds they had heard.

In an experiment testing short term-memory, participants were asked to listen to pure tones they heard through headphones, look at various shades of red squares, and feel low-intensity vibrations by gripping an aluminum bar. Each set of tones, squares and vibrations was separated by time delays ranging from one to 32 seconds.

Although students' memory declined across the board when time delays grew longer, the decline was much greater for sounds, and began as early as four to eight seconds after being exposed to them.

While this seems like a short time span, it's akin to forgetting a phone number that wasn't written down, notes Poremba. "If someone gives you a number, and you dial it right away, you are usually fine. But do anything in between, and the odds are you will have forgotten it," she says.

In a second experiment, Bigelow and Poremba tested participants' memory using things they might encounter on an everyday basis. Students listened to audio recordings of dogs barking, watched silent videos of a basketball game, and, touched and held common objects blocked from view, such as a coffee mug. The researchers found that between an hour and a week later, students were worse at remembering the sounds they had heard, but their memory for visual scenes and tactile objects was about the same.

Both experiments suggest that the way your mind processes and stores sound may be different from the way it process and stores other types of memories. And that could have big implications for educators, design engineers and advertisers alike.

"As teachers, we want to assume students will remember everything we say. But if you really want something to be memorable you may need to include a visual or hands-on experience, in addition to auditory information," says Poremba.

Previous research has suggested that humans may have superior visual memory, and that hearing words associated with sounds – rather than hearing the sounds alone – may aid memory. Bigelow and Poremba's study builds upon those findings by confirming that, indeed, we remember less of what we hear, regardless of whether sounds are linked to words.

The study also is the first to show that our ability to remember what we touch is roughly equal to our ability to remember what we see. The finding is important, because experiments with non-human primates such as monkeys and chimpanzees have shown that they similarly excel at visual and tactile memory tasks, but struggle with auditory tasks. Based on these observations, the authors believe humans' weakness for remembering sounds likely has its roots in the evolution of the primate brain.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Humans have a poor memory for sound”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-02/uoi-hha022614.php

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Geologist who unearthed Mungo Man fights for 40,000-year-old remains

Forty years after his discovery in the sand dunes of western NSW, Jim Bowler wants repatriation of the remains speeded up

Forty years after Mungo Man was unearthed in the dunes of western New South Wales, the geologist who made the discovery is urging the NSW government to speed up repatriation of the remains.

Professor Jim Bowler said the process of returning the remains dated at more than 40,000 years old, whose 1974 discovery confirmed that Indigenous Australians belonged to the world’s oldest continuing culture, had “stalled”, and needed to be “dealt with quickly, and dealt with authoritatively by [NSW environment minister] Robyn Parker”.

Bowler said the World Heritage-listed Willandra Lakes region, where the remains where found, was being improperly managed and could soon “fall into a stage that we would regret, unless moves are made to put management into a better, more efficient level of operation”.

It had been hoped that the repatriation would take place on Wednesday, 40 years to the day since Bowler made his famous find. But obstacles meant it would still be “some weeks” before Mungo Man was returned to country, he said.

“We’re waiting on the protocols to be worked through. But we’re using the anniversary to highlight the relevance of Mungo Man, and to speed up his repatriation.”

Long-term plans to commemorate the discovery include building a mausoleum near the site, “as we have built for Australian soldiers in [the first world war battleground] Fromelles”, Bowler said. “The remains we hope will be put in a crypt with appropriate dignity, in a place that’s in keeping with their sacred nature and their national and international importance.”

Mungo Man is currently housed at the Australian National University in Canberra, where his remains have been intensely scrutinised. The ancient bones have been Cat-scanned and thoroughly documented at a local hospital. But the research has long since been exhausted, and Mungo Man now sits “incarcerated in a cardboard box in Canberra”, Bowler said. “The time has come now for the bones to come back to country.”

Bowler discovered Mungo Man (though some local Aboriginal elders insist it was the other way around) while conducting geological research in the dried-up lake basins of far-western NSW. The rich sands had, five years before, yielded the 20,000-year-old remains of a woman, dubbed Mungo Lady, whose bones showed signs of ritualistic cremation and burial, evidence she had belonged to a developed culture.

That afternoon, heavy rain had battered the dunes, forcing the geologist to take shelter. When he emerged, he spotted a patch of bone glinting in the shore of a then unnamed lake. He brushed away the sand to reveal an intact jawbone. Archaeologists would soon unearth Mungo Man, the oldest skeleton ever discovered in Australia. Dated at 41,000 years old, it more than doubled previous estimates of the length of human settlement in Australia.

Mungo Lady was returned to what is now called Lake Mungo national park in 1991, and is awaiting reburial.

Bowler said he hoped to forge an agreement with the local Aboriginal people to allow scientists future access to both her and Mungo Man. He was also working to “develop a forum with scientists, Aboriginal people and the community, to discuss the incredible significance of this turning point in Australian history”.

“There will be a national dialogue about the contribution of these remains. They are the iconic foundations for the World Heritage area. They have defined the almost sacred nature of Aboriginal connections with land,” he said.

“It puts the Australian cultural context right at the forefront of the international story of what it means to be human.”

Parker said in a statement: “The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and the Aboriginal community at Mungo are in discussion about how to best manage the repatriation of remains to Mungo national park, including those of Mungo Man.

“These discussions and associated planning is now occurring while the current keeping place at Mungo national park is being upgraded to improve its cultural appropriateness in readiness.

“While we are committed to the repatriation as soon as possible, the decision as to what will occur with the ancestral remains rests with the traditional owners – members of the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngiyampaa and Paakantji tribal groups, and those discussions are continuing.”

Safi, Michael. 2014. “Geologist who unearthed Mungo Man fights for 40,000-year-old remains”. The Guardian. Posted: February 25, 2014. Available online: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/25/geologist-fights-mungo-man-remains

Friday, April 11, 2014

Pointing is infants' first communicative gesture

Catalan researchers have studied the acquisition and development of language in babies on the basis of the temporary coordination of gestures and speech. The results are the first in showing how and when they acquire the pattern of coordination between the two elements which allows them to communicate very early on.

A new study carried out by two researchers from the Pompeu Fabra University of Barcelona analyses the temporary coordination between gestures and speech in babies during the very early stages of language development, from the babbling period until the production of their first words.

The results, published in the journal Speech Communication, are the first to show how and when babies acquire the coordination between gesture and speech.

"There are now more and more investigations that show that the study of language and human communication can not be carried out only with an analysis of speech," Núria Esteve Gibert, one of the authors, explained to SINC.

In fact, in communicative interactions meanings and emotions are transmitted through speech and non-verbal elements (hand gestures, facial expressions or body position).

"Our analysis indicates that it is during the transition between the babbling period and first words (that is to say, before the infant is capable of producing two joined words, one after the other), that the gestural system and system of speech are already closely linked," affirmed Esteve Gibert.

According to the authors, this study demonstrates the vision that speech and body language are two elements required for studying human communication, as there are more and more indications that both modes are developed at the same time and that they are closely coordinated, both semantically and temporarily.

The aim of this pioneering work was to investigate the process of acquisition and development of language in relation to the temporary coordination of gestures and speech.

In order to do so, the researchers filmed four babies, born into Catalan-speaking families, while they played with their parents at home, from when the children were aged 11 to when they reached 19 months old.

"These recordings were used to investigate when children started to combine gesture and speech in the same way as adults and if when they combine the two modes, the patterns of temporary coordination between gesture and speech are appropriate," Gibert continued.

In total, more than 4,500 communicative acts produced by the babies across the analysed months, through 24 hours of recordings, were obtained, which have been studied from the point of view of the gestures and of the acoustic properties of the vocalisations produced by the children.

"Special importance has been given to the analysis of the temporary coordination between speech and the act of pointing, because this gesture is crucial in the linguistic and cognitive development of language since it represents the first communicative gesture that babies are capable of understanding and producing," the expert pointed out.

Moreover, it is noted that the correct development of the coordination is closely linked with the future linguistic abilities of the child at a more advanced stage.

Combination of gesture and speech

During the babbling stage babies still produce many gestures without combining them with vocalisations. However, from the beginning of the period in which they start to produce their first words (four words during half an hour of recording), babies produce the majority of hand gestures in combination with vocalisations, the same as adults.

Furthermore, on analysing the combinations of gesture and vocalisation that the babies produce at this early age we see that most of the gestures that they combine with vocalisations are deictic gestures (pointing and reaching) with a declarative communicative intention (to inform) more than a commanding intention (to achieve that object).

"Already in the first combinations of gesture with vocalisation, the pattern of temporary coordination of both modes (which consists in synchronising the interval of time more prominent in the deictic gesture with the interval of time more prominent in the vocalisation) is very similar to that of adults," concluded Esteve Gibert.

Science Daily. 2014. “Pointing is infants' first communicative gesture”. Science Daily. Posted: February 24, 2014. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140224081117.htm

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Early Christians in Viking Denmark

Excavations at the Domskirke in Ribe, Denmark began in 2008 and analysis of the results lend new insight into early Christianity, where this may have been one of the first places in the country where a small enclave of Christians worshipped and died.

Studies have now shown that there may have been Christian Vikings in Ribe around AD865. Denmark officially became a Christian country around the year AD965 when Harald Bluetooth announced his deed on the Jelling stone (see below). It now seems possible that 100 years before this countrywide conversion, Christian Danish Vikings were living, dying and being buried in Ribe.

Early Christian burials

In the excavations conducted by the Southwest Jutland Museums between 2008-2012 around the Domskirke, the archaeologists found over 70 burials from the earliest period of activity. The tombs provide a unique insight into the early Christian burial customs, and have become be a major source of debate in Denmark.

Pagan Vikings were buried with grave goods such as weapons, food, animals, slaves, etc., and their social rank was often marked with pit construction. The burials found at the Cathedral site had no grave goods and were without any indication of social rank. In addition, the dead had been buried east-west and both children and adults were found in the graves surrounded by a cemetery ditch. All this evidence points to the graves being Christian.

Additional examination of the skeletal material using isotope analysis revealed that the vast majority of the buried were local Jutes or newcomers from Zealand/Skåne region. They were interred in this enclosed area during a period between AD 850 years to AD 1050 – making the earliest burials of great significance.

Jelling stone

The large Jelling stone is sometimes referred to as “The Birth Certificate of Denmark”. It has many Christian symbols contained in it such as a Christ figure and Harold Bluetooth erected it around 965 in memory of Gorm the Old, and Thyra Danebod. The figure of Christ on the stone shows that the new faith had finally come to Denmark. Up until then, the Church frequently sent envoys to the Danish kings, but not until Harold became King in 958 did the church see a major result. However, the Ribe excavations show that Christianity may have taken root in small enclaves earlier than previously thought.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Early Christians in Viking Denmark”. Past Horizons. Posted: February 23, 2014. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2014/early-christians-in-viking-ribe

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

11,000-Year-Old Settlement Found Under Baltic Sea

Evidence of a Stone-Age settlement that may have been swallowed whole by the Baltic Sea has resurfaced near Sweden, revealing a collection of well preserved artifacts left by nomads some 11,000 years ago.

Dubbed by the local press “Sweden's Atlantis” after the fabled island which according to Greek philosopher Plato sank around 9600 B.C. in the Atlantic Ocean, the newly discovered site was in fact some sort of a dump in which nomadic Swedes discarded objects, according to a report by the Swedish daily The Local.

Buried 52 feet below the surface at Hanö, a sandy bay off the coast of Skane County in Sweden, the items include wood pieces, flint tools, animal horns, ropes, a harpoon carving made from an animal bone and the bones of an aurochs and an ancient cattle which became extinct in the early 1600s.

There's wood and antlers and other implements that were thrown in there," project leader Björn Nilsson, archaeology professor at Södertörn University, told the Local.

Amazingly, the artifacts have been perfectly preserved because of the abundant oxygen-consuming“gyttja” -- a black, gel-like sediment which is formed when peat begins to decay.

"Around 11,000 years ago there was a build up in the area, a lagoon or sorts ... and all the tree and bone pieces are preserved in it. If the settlement was on dry land we would only have the stone-based things, nothing organic," Nilsson said.

Nilsson’s team is continuing to excavate the area, looking for a potential burial site.

“What we have here is maybe one of the oldest settlements from the first more permanent sites in Scania and in Sweden full stop," Nilsson said.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2014. “11,000-Year-Old Settlement Found Under Baltic Sea”. Discovery News. Posted: February 22, 2014. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/11000-year-old-settlement-found-under-baltic-sea-140221.htm