Friday, June 24, 2016

Ancient Irish musical history found in modern India

An archaeologist studying musical horns from iron-age Ireland has found musical traditions, thought to be long dead, are alive and well in south India.

The realisation that modern Indian horns are almost identical to many iron-age European artefacts reveals a rich cultural link between the two regions 2,000 years ago, said PhD student Billy Ó Foghlú, from The Australian National University (ANU).

"Archaeology is usually silent. I was astonished to find what I thought to be dead soundscapes alive and living in Kerala today," said the ANU College of Asia-Pacific student.

"The musical traditions of south India, with horns such as the kompu, are a great insight into musical cultures in Europe's prehistory.

"And, because Indian instruments are usually recycled and not laid down as offerings, the artefacts in Europe are also an important insight into the soundscapes of India's past."

The findings help show that Europe and India had a lively cultural exchange with musicians from the different cultures sharing independently developed technology and musical styles.

One example of this musical mixing is depicted in a carving of a celebration in Sanchi dating from c300 BC that shows a group of musicians taking part, playing two European carnyces, a horn with an animal's head.

The musical style of Kerala explains some of the mysteries surrounding the horns that have been unearthed in European iron-age excavations and suggest a very different musical soundscape to current western music said Mr Ó Foghlú.

"Some almost identical instruments have been unearthed together, but they are slightly out of tune with each other to western ears," Mr Ó Foghlú said.

"This was previously assumed to be evidence of shoddy workmanship. But in Indian music this kind of dissonance is deliberate and beautiful.

"Horns are used more as a rhythm instrument, not for melody or harmony in a western sense."

The research is published in the Journal of Indian Ocean Archaeology.

Science Daily. 2016. “Ancient Irish musical history found in modern India”. Science Daily. Posted: May 13, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, June 23, 2016

tudy finds nationality is not a good indicator of work-related cultural values

Researchers and businesses have often operated under the idea that work-related cultural values are defined by country - just think of stereotypes about countries that are known to have hard workers or are team-oriented. A new study finds that nationality is actually a bad proxy for work-related cultural values, and points to other groupings - such as occupation - as more reliable indicators.

"I study work-related values - how culture informs our beliefs and behaviors related to work," says Bradley Kirkman, co-author of a paper on the work. "This field has long defined and measured culture based on national borders. We wanted to know if nationality is really the best way to delineate cultural values and boundaries. And we learned that it's not a very good marker." Kirkman is the General (Ret.) H. Hugh Shelton Distinguished Professor of Leadership and head of the Department of Management, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at North Carolina State University. The paper was co-authored by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the University of Calgary.

To examine the issue, the researchers looked at data from 558 studies on work-related values. The studies covered 32 countries from around the world, including the United States, Brazil, France, South Africa and China.

Specifically, the researchers evaluated variation, both within each country and between countries, on four work-related cultural values:

  • Individualism, which measures the extent to which a society places emphasis on individuals as opposed to groups;
  • Power distance, which measures the importance of status and hierarchy in work settings;
  • Uncertainty avoidance, which measures the extent to which cultures are willing to accept ambiguity or the unknown; and
  • Quantity versus quality of life, which measures emphasis on competition and material wealth versus emphasis on societal welfare and well-being.

The researchers found that approximately 80 percent of variation in these values was within countries. For example, at the low end, only 16.6 percent of the variation on individualism was between countries - 83.4 percent of the variability was within countries. At the high end, 20.8 percent of variation on power distance was between countries - which still left 79.2 percent of the variability within countries.

"This told us that country does not equal culture on work-related values," Kirkman says.

Researchers then evaluated other demographic and economic indicators to see if they could find a better proxy for work-related values - and they did.

For example, occupation and socioeconomic status both significantly outperformed country as indicators on power distance. For example, only 20.8 percent of variation was between countries. But differences between occupations accounted for 50.1 percent, while differences between socioeconomic status accounted for 32.2 percent.

Occupation and socioeconomic status also significantly outperformed country on individualism, but fared worse than nationality as indicators on uncertainty avoidance and quantity versus quality of life.

"This work highlights the illusion of national homogeneity and shows that there is a real danger in equating country and culture in a work context," Kirkman says. "Making generalizations based on country can lead people to draw very inaccurate conclusions that may influence both individual and organizational business and management relationships.

"For example, if a U.S. manager is transferred to a foreign office and makes decisions based on national stereotypes about workplace culture, it could blow up in his or her face," Kirkman says.

The paper, "Does Country Equate with Culture? Beyond Geography in the Search for Cultural Boundaries," is published online in the journal Management International Review. Lead author of the paper is Vas Taras of UNC-Greensboro. The paper was co-authored by Piers Steel of the University of Calgary.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Study finds nationality is not a good indicator of work-related cultural values”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 13, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Ancient Australia: world’s first nation of innovators

For the first couple of centuries of European occupation of Australia the history of its Indigenous people, as written by white fellas, drew heavily on adjectives like ‘primitive’.

As both a white fella and an anthropologist devoting much of my time to writing about human origins, I can only try to imagine the devastating effects this has had on people’s lives.

Without doubt it has played a role in the long battle Indigenous communities have had for acceptance by the wider community; being central to issues like land rights, and today, constitutional change and calls for a treaty.

To many anthropologists and archaeologists, based especially in the northern hemisphere, Australia was seen as an uninteresting backwater. The continent being settled very late in prehistory - they thought - and well after humanity’s major cultural achievements had already occurred.

This view slowly began to change with the discovery that Australia had in fact been occupied for tens of thousands of years. The unearthing of the Mungo Lady and Mungo Man at the Willandra Lakes in southwest New South Wales during the 1970s showed that people had been here for close to 40 thousand years.

But this was just the first in a series of discoveries and rethinks that would come to show the continent’s Indigenous people were truly pioneers in the global (collective) journey of humankind.

The ‘Innovation Nation’, the Prime Minister hopes we will become, began with these ancient Australians, and they racked up a large number of cultural world ‘firsts’, which we should all recognise and celebrate.

Here are just a four examples that show Australia was the world’s first Innovation Nation.

A long and perilous journey

Just getting to Australia was a remarkable feat in itself. Hundreds of kilometres of open sea to be crossed, and to a continent no one knew existed for certain.

But get here they did, and flourish they did. Australia saw the world’s first cross-horizon maritime journey by a people who would go on to discover an entire continent.

A continent of strange plants and animals; more than its fair share of deadly creatures; and landscapes varying from snow capped mountains to hot deserts, rainforests, chains of seasonal lakes and crocodile infested estuaries.

The first people settled Australia at least 50 thousand years ago, and by at least 30 thousand years ago, had settled most or all of the continent.

For some archaeologists, the settlement of the island continent marks no less than the emergence of the human mind itself!

Sense of the afterlife

The earliest Australians had a rich spiritual and symbol filled culture, with a strong sense of the afterlife. Around 40 thousand years ago the Mungo Lady was cremated, the world’s first cremation. At about the same time the Mungo Man’s body was sprinkled or painted in red pigment (ochre), the first time we saw such an elaborate burial anywhere in the world.

Early innovators in tools

Australia now lays claim to the oldest edge-ground axe, following a new report by a team of Australian archaeologists led by Peter Hiscock of the University of Sydney and published in the journal Australian Archaeology.

The tool, dated between 49 and 44 thousand years old, is the oldest example of the kind of axe that we might expect to see in our local hardware store (if they were still made from stone that is!): a ground cutting edge, mounted on a balanced handle.

It’s the kind of tool that takes careful planning and high skill to make, has multiple stages in production and multiple elements, and would be ideal for the kinds of tasks we would use an axe for today.

The discovery tells us that the first settlers of Australia stepped up to the challenges the continent posed to them and invented new and sophisticated tools to make a success of the place.

It also marks a very ancient cultural connection between these early pioneers and Indigenous people today, with edge-ground tools still being made until very recently.

Earliest cosmetic physicians

Just like today, where people tattoo or pierce their skin with items of jewellery, or even put themselves through cosmetic surgery, traditional cultures across the world turned to artificial means to enhance or alter their appearance.

In the past people filed or knocked-out (‘evulsed’) their teeth, scarified their skin, performed circumcisions or manipulated the skulls of their babies so they would grow up with distinctively shaped heads.

Some ancient skulls from the Willandra Lakes, Kow Swamp and various other places in Australia have rather unusual shapes. And when anthropologists have compared them to skulls from other cultures, such as in New Guinea or South America, where infant heads were manipulated by their mothers for cultural reasons, they look remarkably similar.

So, Australia has the oldest evidence for deliberately shaping the bones of the skull to produce a distinctive head shape. It’s the earliest known example of cosmetic treatment!

Each year tourists flock to our nation from around the world to experience the richness of Indigenous culture and the remarkably ancient sites and landscapes the country has.

Yet, so many of us at home place too little value on the history and heritage of our nation, as well as the central place Indigenous Australians hold in the common evolutionary story of our species.

At the core of this choice is the value we place as a predominantly Anglocentric nation on the heritage and history of ‘others’. In this case, our fellow (Indigenous) Australians.

We continue to put more value on the places of pilgrimage of our Anglo and Western heritage – places like Stonehenge, the Roman Colosseum or the Greek Parthenon – than we do those of cultural and even evolutionary significance in our own backyard.

By doing so, we are the poorer for it as a nation, and miss the chance celebrate key milestones in the origin of humankind that played out right here, in Australia.

Curnoe, Darren. 2016. “Ancient Australia: world’s first nation of innovators”. The Conversation. Posted: May 11, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Why rice growers in China are more sexually liberal than wheat growers

Recent years have seen claims that a “national sex revolution” is well underway in China and that it has “has reached a point of no return”. But according to my new research looking at the views of people across China on sex, this is going too far.

In 1989, only 15% of people in China had sex before marriage. This rocketed to 40% in 1994 and 71% in 2012 with 4.5% of married women and 16.5% of men admitting to having had sex with someone other than their spouse. Estimates indicate that about 3-5% of the Chinese population are homosexual, and that around 11% of unmarried men and 5.8% of married men have had sex with another man.

But while sexual behaviour is one thing, sexual attitudes are quite another. In my new research, I analysed data from the 2010 China General Social Survey with responses from more than 11,000 people across 30 Chinese provinces on whether they think it is morally right or wrong for somebody to have sex before marriage, outside wedlock and with another adult of the same sex.

What I found suggests that rather than traditional theories about the influence of Western values and economic development influencing sexual attitudes in China, it could come down to what kind of crops are grown in each province – rice or wheat.

No national sexual revolution

As the graph below shows, I found that attitudes across China were not very accepting towards premarital sex, extramarital sex and homosexuality.

What people in China think about sex
[A chart in the article shows that 29% of the people are accepting of premarital sex, 12% accept homosexuality and 8% accept extramarital sex. ]

And far from there being a “national sex revolution”, there are still significant regional differences in sexual attitudes. For example, in Xinjiang province only 7% of people approve of premarital sex and 2% of homosexuality. In contrast, in Guangdong, 54% consider premarital sex morally acceptable and 24% considered homosexuality acceptable. Considerable geographic variation is also noted in attitudes to extramarital sex.

Some researchers have argued that improved nutrition due to socioeconomic development lowers the age of puberty and sexual maturity, and so leads to more liberal sexual attitudes. This is called the modernisation theory. But I found that people from provinces such as Jilin that have relatively high levels of GDP per capita, family income and urbanisation in China do not hold more liberal sexual attitudes than people from less modernised provinces such as Guizhou and Sichuan.

Others argue that China’s sex liberation is caused by Western cultural influences – known as the westernisation theory. They believe that China’s 1978 open-door policy exposed people to Western ideals of individualism and freedom that may have facilitated sex liberation.

But this is only partly true. I found that people from provinces such as Sichuan that have lower levels of trade and cultural exchanges with Western countries have more liberal views on extramarital sex and homosexuality than people from more “westernised” provinces such as Fujian and Jiangsu. But people from more westernised provinces did have more liberal views on premarital sex.

Others have looked to the role played by China’s economic reform in 1978 in liberating sexual attitudes, and the dissolution of state-owned industries and collective working units was accompanied by a notable ideological shift from collectivism to individualism.

At the same time, the mass de-industrialisation gave rise to the service sector – including the provision of sex-related services. In provinces and municipal areas such as Jiangsu and Shanghai that are more de-collectivised and de-industrialised, I found that people are more tolerant of extramarital sex, but not premarital sex or homosexuality.

The ‘rice theory’

China spans over 2.4 billion acres of land, so it is not credible to assume that distinct regions are different only because they have been influenced by social trends such as modernisation and westernisation in different ways. This led me to look into more long-lasting differences between Chinese provinces.

One obvious difference is the food people eat and grow. For centuries, rice plantation has been prevalent in some provinces, while wheat agriculture has dominated others. The “rice theory” suggests that in China people who grow rice and those who grow wheat may think differently.

I found that people from rice-growing provinces such as Guizhou, Fujian and Sichuan, where a large proportion of farmland is devoted to rice paddies, are significantly more accepting of premarital sex, extramarital sex and homosexuality, when compared with those from wheat-growing provinces such as Jilin and Shaanxi.

A major difference between rice and wheat plantations is the different levels of irrigation required. Rice paddies require a high level of irrigation, while wheat plantations require a substantially lower level. For centuries before the prevalence of modern machines, rice plantations relied heavily on close cooperation between farmers for the provision of irrigation, while wheat tended to be managed by people working alone.

The need of cooperation for the production of food – a necessity for survival – in rice-growing regions may have helped to cultivate a higher level of interpersonal dependence, mutual understanding and tolerance, which makes social marginalisation less likely. In contrast, the same senses of interdependence and mutual understanding may be less valued in wheat-growing regions because people do not have to rely on each other for subsistence.

My research suggests that the tolerance of non-conventional sexual behaviours borne out by this need of interdependence in rice-growing areas is key to the liberalisation of sexual attitudes. Recent social changes might have led to a “sex revolution” in China, but it seems that the long-standing distinction between rice and wheat agriculture persists and plays an important role in shaping the landscape of sexual attitudes in today’s China. Finding out what is driving different levels of tolerance to certain sexual practices will affect how sex is taught in schools across distinct regions and the way in which an individual feels it is acceptable to behave.

[The article has some good charts that you should check out.

Hu, Yang. 2016. “Why rice growers in China are more sexually liberal than wheat growers”. The Conversation. Posted: May 12, 2016. Available online:

Monday, June 20, 2016

Humans in Southern Arabia 10,000 years earlier than first thought

The last Ice Age made much of the globe uninhabitable, but there were oases – or refugia – where people 20,000 years ago were able to cluster and survive. Researchers at the University of Huddersfield, who specialise in the analysis of human DNA, have found new evidence that there was one or more of these shelters in what is now Southern Arabia.

Once the Ice Age receded – with the onset of the Late Glacial period about 15,000 years ago – the people of this refugium then dispersed and populated Arabia and the Horn of Africa, and might also have migrated further afield.

Study bolsters archaeological theory

The view used to be that people did not settle in large numbers in Arabia until the development of agriculture, around 10-11,000 years ago. Now, the findings by members of the University of Huddersfield’s Archaeogenetics Research Group demonstrate that modern humans have dwelt in this territory for far longer than previously thought. The new genetic data and analysis bolsters a theory that has long been held by archaeologists, although they had little evidence to support it until now.

The new argument for an Ice Age refugium in Arabia – perhaps on the Red Sea plains – is put forward in an article published in the journal Scientific Reports(open access). Its principal author is Dr Francesca Gandini, who was based at the University of Pavia in Italy before relocating in early 2015 to the University of Huddersfield, where she is a Research Fellow in Archaeogenetics and a member of the group headed by Professor Martin Richards.

Dr Gandini is currently playing a central role in the development of an Ancient DNA lab at the University of Huddersfield, which is home to a Centre for Evolutionary Genomics. It has been awarded £1 million by the Leverhulme Trust in order to provide doctoral training to the next generations of specialists in a field that uses the latest DNA science to delve into evolutionary history.

Study of rare mitochondrial DNA lineage

The new discoveries about an Ice Age refugium in Arabia and the subsequent outward migration are based on a study of a rare mitochondrial DNA lineage named ROa, which, uniquely, is most frequent in Arabia and the Horn of Africa. Dr Gandini and her co-researchers have reached the conclusion that this lineage is more ancient than previously thought and that it has a deeper presence in Arabia than was earlier believed. This makes the case for at least one glacial refugium during the Pleistocene period, which spanned the Ice Age. The article also describes the dispersals during the postglacial period, around 11,000 years ago, of people from Arabia into eastern Africa. Moreover, there is evidence for the movement of people in the R0a haplogroup through the Middle East and into Europe and there might also have been a trading network and a “gene flow” from Arabia into the territories that are now Iran, Pakistan and India.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Humans in Southern Arabia 10,000 years earlier than first thought”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 12, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Five Things to Know About the Diamond Sutra, the World’s Oldest Dated Printed Book

No one is sure who Wang Jie was or why he had The Diamond Sutra printed. But we do know that on this day in 868 A.D.—or the 13th of the 4th moon of the 9th year of Xiantong in Jie’s time—he commissioned a block printer to create a 17-and-a-half-foot-long scroll of the sacred Buddhist text, including an inscription on the lower right hand side reading, “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents.” Today, that scroll is housed at the British Library and is acknowledged as the oldest dated printed book in existence.

Chances are you know a little something about the Gutenberg Bible, the first book made with moveable type, which came along almost 600 years later. Bibliophiles might also have a working knowledge of other famous manuscripts like the Book of Kells, The Domesday Book, and Shakespeare’s First Folio. Well, The Diamond Sutra should be in that pantheon of revered books, as well. Here’s why:


The text was originally discovered in 1900 by a monk in Dunhuang, China, an old outpost of the Silk Road on the edge of the Gobi Desert. The Diamond Sutra, a Sanskrit text translated into Chinese, was one of 40,000 scrolls and documents hidden in “The Cave of a Thousand Buddhas,” a secret library sealed up around the year 1,000 when the area was threatened by a neighboring kingdom.

In 1907, British-Hungarian archaeologist Marc Aurel Stein was on an expedition mapping the ancient Silk Road when he heard about the secret library. He bribed the abbot of the monastic group in charge of the cave and smuggled away thousands of documents, including The Diamond Sutra. The International Dunhuang Project is now digitizing those documents and 100,000 others found on the eastern Silk Road.


The Diamond Sutra is relatively short, only 6,000 words and is part of a larger canon of “sutras” or sacred texts in Mahayana Buddhism, the branch of Buddhism most common in China, Japan, Korea and southeast Asia. Many practitioners believe that the Mahayana Sutras were dictated directly by the Buddha, and The Diamond Sutra takes the form of a conversation between the Buddha’s pupil Subhati and his master.

Why is it Diamond?

A full translation of the document's title is The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. As Susan Whitfield, director of the Dunhuang Project explains, the sutra helps cut through our perceptions of the world and its illusion. "[W]e just think we exist as individuals but we don’t, in fact, we’re in a state of complete non-duality: there are no individuals, no sentient beings,” Whitfield writes. 

Why did Wang Jie commission it?

According to Whitfield, in Buddhist belief, copying images or the words of the Buddha was a good deed and way of gaining merit in Jie’s culture. It’s likely that monks would have unrolled the scroll and chanted the sutra out loud on a regular basis. That’s one reason printing developed early on in China, Whitfield explains. “[If] you can print multiple copies, and the more copies you’re sending out, the more you’re disseminating the word of Buddha, and so the more merit you are sending out into the world,” she writes. “And so the Buddhists were very quick to recognize the use of the new technology of printing.”

What is one quote I should know from The Diamond Sutra?

It’s difficult to translate the sutra word for word and still catch its meaning. But this passage about life, which Bill Porter, who goes by the alias "Red Pine," adapted to English, is one of the most popular:

So you should view this fleeting world— A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream, A flash of lightening in a summer cloud, A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.


Daley, Jason. 2016. “Five Things to Know About the Diamond Sutra, the World’s Oldest Dated Printed Book”. Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: May 11, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Social objects in the brain

A new study from IMC researchers Kristian Tylén, Riccardo Fusaroli, and Andreas Roepstorff, published in the scientific journal NeuroImage, used LEGO bricks to investigate the neurocognitive underpinnings of our engagements with symbolic objects. The study suggests that we experience symbolic objects as social entities.

Sometimes objects are just objects, that is, static, material things. But some objects are relevant to us due to their particular role or value in our social lives. Symbolic artifacts such as road signs, national flags, wedding rings, and artworks are imbued with social significance as they are developed, negotiated and engaged in a variety of everyday cultural practices. More than mere physical objects, we thus experience them as vehicles of social meaning: although a red traffic light does not present any physical impediment to movement, it still (most often) stops us from crossing the street.

LEGO Bricks to illustrate

A new study conducted by IMC researchers Kristian Tylén, Riccardo Fusaroli and Andreas Roepstorff, and just published in the high-ranking scientific journal NeuroImage, investigates the neurocognitive underpinnings of our engagements with such symbolic artifacts. In a two-day experimental study, participants in groups first built collective models of LEGO bricks to illustrate their understanding of abstract concepts such as 'justice', 'safety' and 'collaboration'. Later they went into an fMRI brain scanner where they would be presented with pictures of their own and others' LEGO models. Interestingly, when participants attended to the meaning of the models, brain areas associated with social cognition and language were activated. These areas are often found in studies where participants watch social stimuli or are instructed to think about other people's mental states. Lead researcher Kristian Tylén explains:

"It is really interesting that brain areas associated with social interaction and reasoning are also active when our participants look at static, dead objects. It tells us that these objects have gained symbolic meaning through social interaction in the preceding group interventions".

Furthermore, special activation patterns in brain areas related to social empathy were found when participants saw LEGO models that they had built with their own group in contrast to models made by other groups. Riccardo Fusaroli continues:

"Activation in these areas were found to depend on how closely the participants felt related to their fellow group members after the LEGO construction sessions."

Together these finding shed new light on the special status of symbolic objects in human cognition. More than simple material structures these objects are experienced as an extension of our social engagements with each other, as trails of social and cultural interactions.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Social objects in the brain”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 11, 2016. Available online: