Friday, September 30, 2016

Are you a nice person? Brain scans can tell how generous you are

Are you a giver or a taker? Brain scans have identified a region of the cerebral cortex responsible for generosity – and some of us are kinder than others.

The area was identified using a computer game that linked different symbols to cash prizes that either went to the player, or one of the study’s other participants. The volunteers readily learned to score prizes that helped other people, but they tended to learn how to benefit themselves more quickly.

MRI scanning revealed that one particular brain area – the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex – seemed to be active when participants chose to be generous, prioritising benefits for someone else over getting rewards for themselves.

But Patricia Lockwood, at the University of Oxford, and her team found that this brain area was not equally active in every volunteer. People who rated themselves as having higher levels of empathy learned to benefit others faster, and these people had more activity in this particular brain area, says Lockwood.

This finding may lead to new ways to identify and understand anti-social and psychopathic behaviour.

New Scientist. 2016. “Are you a nice person? Brain scans can tell how generous you are”. New Scientist. Posted: August 15, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Genes shape our social ideological attitudes

Genes influence our ideological orientation towards topics such as border controls and attitudes towards religious extremism, but not on economics, shows new research.

A new Danish study has discovered that genes are at least partly responsible for shaping our opinions and may explain the wide array of political views expressed across society.

“My research shows that genes are an important part of individual opinion formation. In particular the results show that genes influence individual differences in social ideological orientation,” says Ph.D. student Camilla Nexøe, from the Department of Political Science and Public Management at the University of Southern Denmark.

Social ideology includes attitudes towards social issues, such as the approach towards border control, gay rights, or notions of free speech.

“Genes explain up to 30 per cent of individual differences in social ideological orientation, such as our perception of minorities,” says Nexøe. And she stresses while genes predispose us to a particular opinion, that does not necessarily mean that we will go on to hold those opinions.

“Most of the variation in political opinion formation is not due to genetics, but some is,” she says.

The results are part of Nexøe’s Ph.D. thesis, which she will defend later this year.

No influence on our views of the economy

Previous research has found a link between genetics and ideological orientation, but Nexøe’s research narrows that down, specifically to social ideology.

“Many previous studies have shown that genes have an impact on ideological orientation, but my research shows that it’s not always the case. For example, genes affect our tolerance of diversity, but not our views on economic issues,” she says.

The new results should help researchers to understand why people hold the political views they do, says Nexøe.

“Even if you grew up in the same environment or have the same level of education, political opinions sometimes differ between individuals. Genetic influences may partly explain why individuals hold different world views,” she says.

Not surprising that we inherit ideological views

A genetic influence on your opinions may sound alarming, but Nexøe disagrees.

“I think it's reassuring that you cannot force everyone to agree. People can differ on which environmental influences they are exposed to, but part of our ideological orientation cannot be swayed.”

And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that political perceptions are at least partially inherited.

“Human personality is affected by both genetic and environmental components, just like the propensity to smoke or drink,” says Nexøe.

“We accept that personality and types of diseases are heritable. We should also accept that political views are under some genetic influence.”

Twins under the microscope

Nexøe studied 646 sets of twins in Denmark, who answered a questionnaire about their attitudes and political engagement.

Identical twins grow up in the same environment and have the same genes, while fraternal (non-identical) twins experience the same environment but only share about half of their genes.

If fraternal twins differ more in their politics than identical twins, then this difference is probably due to genetics.

This method is based more on statistics than biology, and Nexøe herself stresses that she is not a geneticist.

“I can’t say anything about which types of genes are at play, or why they affect individual opinion formation,” says Nexøe. But based on the twin-survey data, she identified the overall proportion of genetic influence on individual ideological orientation.

A step forward in genetics

The new study is ground breaking, as it specifically identifies the type of opinions that are, and are not influenced by genetics, says Troels Bøggild, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University, Denmark.

“Nexøe’s results are new and interesting, because she examines which attitudes are influenced by genes. A number of other studies have established a genetic effect, but Nexøe’s results offer a more nuanced picture,” says Bøggild.

Previous studies focused on a one-dimensional understanding of ideology or either left- or right-wing political leanings. But the new study specifically isolates social vs. economic points of view, which is “quite obvious and a very relevant contribution to genetics research,” says Bøggild.

Kerrn-Jespersen, Rasmus. 2016. “Genes shape our social ideological attitudes”. Science Nordic. Posted: August 10, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

New method reveals the secrets of bog bodies

Protein analyses on Denmark’s large collection of bog bodies gives archaeologists deeper insights into Iron Age culture and society.

Archaeologists have learned a lot about the lives of Iron Age Europeans from the mummified remains preserved in bogs--including how they dressed.

But not even the best-preserved bog can withstand the ravages of time. And archaeologists could not identify the exact origin of fibres from hair, wool, or skin in such old, degraded garments.

But this is all about to change, thanks to a new method, which analyses proteins in the fibres to determine exactly what type of animal they came from.

“With proteins, we could make a completely accurate species identification in 11 out of 12 samples and show that species identification that was carried out by microscopy on half of the samples was incorrect,” says lead-author Luise Brandt, who completed the research during her Ph.D. at the University of Copenhagen, but is now based at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

The new technique can for the first time help archaeologists to differentiate between goats or sheeps wool, for example, which would otherwise be difficult to do when studying hairs that had spent 2000 years in a bog, says Brandt.

Skins provides insight into Iron Age culture

Karin Frei, from the National Museum, Denmark, sees great potential in the new method, which should help archaeologists to learn more about how the prehistoric societies produced clothing from animals.

Frei was not involved in the new research, but she has also studied wool garments preserved in peat bogs.

“The method is very exciting because it allows us to clarify several archaeological issues, which have often been difficult to study with any certainty. This new method allows us to form a much more accurate picture,” says Frei.

According to Brandt, her method should help to identify how people selected the material from which to make their clothes, which may give an insight into the resources available at the time in that society.

"It’s important to know what kind of material you have chosen for what [purpose], and there were various skins that were particularly useful for different functions. It tells us whether they kept or hunted the animals at that time, and beyond the practical aspects, the choice of material also reflects their tastes, or a desire to send a certain signal through what they wore,” says Brandt.

For example, clothes are typically an indicator of a person’s position in society.

Hair breaks down in acidic bog environment

Even 2,000 years ago, Iron Age people in Northern Europe cared about what their clothes were made of and how they were made.

Archaeological findings have revealed, that people had a deep knowledge of the different animal skins and their characteristics, which influenced the cuts and appearance of the materials they used.

But there was a lot of confusion about which type of animal skins were actually used.

In 2011, Brandt tried to extract DNA from various materials found on bog bodies in Denmark. But she hit a dead end.

The DNA was too degraded to work out what type of material the clothes were made out of. So she switched her attention to proteins.

“I found out that proteins are preserved, ten times longer than DNA,” says Brandt.

The protein analyses showed that the composition of amino acids--the building blocks of proteins--in the various material changes according to animal species. They can therefore act as a fingerprint for the type of animal that the material came from.

Cloaks sewn with great care

Brandt analysed 12 samples from ten cloaks and a tunic from the Danish National Museum’s collection of leather suits that were preserved at a number of archaeological sites in Jutland, West Denmark. All of the garments are around 2000 years old.

She successfully identified the animal species in 11 out of 12 samples. Two samples came from cattle, three from goat, and six from sheep. The twelfth sample is from either a sheep or a goat, but this test was inconclusive as the protein that distinguishes between sheep and goat was not preserved.

The results suggest that Iron Age garments were made exclusively from the skins of domesticated animals, and not wild animals as popular mythology often suggests.

Tunic made from a young calf

More sensational is the discovery that that one of the garments, a tunic buried in Møgel bog in Jutland, west Denmark, was made from calf leather. It contained a protein found in blood—haemoglobin.

This particular type of haemoglobin is only produced during the last months of pregnancy and in the first three months after birth in the young calves, after which it is replaced by another type of haemoglobin.

“This extraordinary result told us that it was not only made from leather from a cow, but on top of that, it came from a calf,” says Brandt.

This discovery, along with the ability to extract proteins from 2000 year-old animal skin, gives archaeologists a greater understanding of Iron Age textile production.

Perhaps leather was just as important as meat

Brandt speculates that the skins may even have been just as important as the meat to local Iron Age people of the time.

“I think that the smoking gun was the haemoglobin. We can see that they went to great lengths to make the garments and choose the right skin,” says Brandt.

“But now we can see that they used calfskin for the tunic, which could suggest that the skin was a really important part of why they slaughtered young animals and that it was an important product,” says Bradt.

Livestock in the Iron Age were well-developed, but our perception is usually that they were bred primarily for food. But the new results suggest that the animals served a larger purpose.

Frei agrees.

“This is very important for how we view these Iron Age people and the society that they lived in,” says Frei.

“Because they chose calfskin, which is softer and more flexible than skin from older animals, we immediately get the feeling that these people didn’t just wear anything. It suggests a society that made clear decisions about what they found to be comfortable to wear, which is also what we do today,” she says.

Persson, Charlotte Price. 2016. “New method reveals the secrets of bog bodies”. Science Nordic. Posted: August 12, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The archaeology of the domestic cat

mousers and men

When did cats graduate from convenient pest-control to one of the world’s most popular pets, and how can you tell the difference in the archaeological record? The answer, John Buglass and Jennifer West suggest, may lie in Roman Yorkshire.

Today, the image of a pet cat purring on its owner’s lap is the epitome of cosy domesticity – but this was not always the case. While the archaeological record suggests that dogs staked their claim to being man’s best friend as long as 15,000 years ago (CA 301), felines were much slower in joining our households. But how far can we trace the evolution of this relationship, and how far is it possible to distinguish between cats that coexisted with humans for their own advantage (scavenging our settlements) or for ours (as resident pest control) and those cats that had taken the next step to achieve the status of a beloved pet? Again, archaeology may hold the key.

Pussycat went to sea

Excavations have uncovered cat remains all over the world, but genetic studies suggest that the domestic cat (Felis catus) first emerged as a distinct species from their ancestors, African wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica), in the Near East around 10,000 years ago. Since then they have spread around the world, being transported by humans (knowingly or otherwise) as we explored, traded, and settled. By 7000 BC, we can see evidence of cats cohabiting with humans in China, while some 5,300 years ago they had reached Cyprus – almost certainly introduced by humans, as the island had no indigenous cat population.

The first hints of actual integration with humans came later still, however, from Egypt around 4,000 years ago. This was a culture that revered cats as sacred, but felines also seem to have forged more worldly relationships with humans: an increased cooperation vividly illustrated in 18th Dynasty era (c.1350 BC) murals adorning the tomb chapel of a wealthy official, Nebamun, in Thebes (now on display in the British Museum). Here, a small striped cat is shown helping a hunter to catch or retrieve wild birds, much as we might employ a gundog today. But this is still clearly a working animal, rather than evidence of cats attaining a more sentimental status.

Moving into Europe, cats first appear in ancient Greek art in the 5th and 4th centuries BC – though never as an unambiguous pet – but in the Roman world they are shown in more clearly domestic scenes, including a mischievous moggy helping itself to the contents of a larder, captured in a 1st century AD mosaic from Pompeii’s ‘House of the Faun’. Feline figures feature far less frequently in Roman art than dogs, however, which might suggest that if they were regarded as pets by now, they had not yet attained the heights of popularity that they enjoy today. Once again, few of these depictions allow us to distinguish between resident mousers and members of the family.

Perhaps the most convincing image of a potential pet from this period comes from the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, which houses the gravestone of a Gallo-Roman child who died in the 2nd century AD. The stele bears an appealingly lifelike image of a little girl cuddling a cat to her chest. With a childish lack of concern for the animal’s comfort, she grips it under its front legs, leaving its lower body to dangle (and allowing an opportunistic cockerel, perhaps another pet, to seize the tip of its tail in its beak), all the while gazing out at the viewer as if posing for her portrait. An incomplete inscription identifies the girl only as the daughter of a man called Laetus, but it is tempting to fill in the gaps ourselves: might this be a loving depiction of a lost child, shown clutching a pet that she had played with in life?

Cats (and Romans) conquer Britain

Closer to home, our earliest clues to domestic cats in Britain also come mostly from the Roman period (again, much later than dogs, whose remains are known from sites as early as the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer camp at Star Carr, near Scarborough). Although their bones have also been found at a small number of Iron Age sites – notably seven 3rd-century BC skeletons excavated at Gussage All Saints hillfort in Dorset – our best evidence for their being adopted as household animals is found at villa sites like Bishopstone, Lullingstone, and Rudston, as well as in York.

In most of these cases, it once more remains unclear whether these animals were pest control or pets – but one site in the Mid Tees Valley seems more promising. This is a Romano-British villa at Dalton-on-Tees, North Yorkshire, which was first excavated by Teesside Archaeological Society in 1997. Their investigation revealed not only the remains of a substantial villa located beyond what was then accepted as the northern limit of such residences, but also a large and varied assemblage of over 3,700 well-preserved animal bones representing 28 different species. Almost 70% of these remains came from a well that had been backfilled sometime between the 2nd and 4th century AD, and among them were the remains of a small domestic cat.

Even a preliminary examination of its bones could tell that this was one unlucky feline: it had suffered devastating injuries to both the hind- and forelimb on its left side, with the entire head of the left femur missing, and the left elbow showing signs of having been badly broken. The fact that these wounds occur on the same side and – as we will discuss shortly – show similar signs of healing, suggests that they may have been inflicted at the same time, perhaps as a result of being kicked by a larger animal like a horse while hunting for food in a stable, or being hit by the wheel of a cart.

Whatever their cause, there is no doubt that they would have been disabling, potentially fatal injuries – and yet the cat had not died. Extensive new bone growth on both limbs shows clear signs of healing, while ‘polished’ wear patterns on the affected joint surfaces indicate that the limbs had eventually returned to use, albeit with a drastically reduced range of movement. In other words, it appears that a friendly human may have, if not nursed the stricken feline back to health, at least tended it with food and water while its bones knitted back together – a level of care above and beyond what you might expect to be accorded to ‘pest control’ or an opportunistic cohabiter.

Further analysis of the cat’s remains suggests that even after its fractures had healed the animal would no longer have been an effective hunter – one elbow was left partially fused, while its rear limb shows signs of an infection and healed break. Both injuries may (without all of the bones present to compare, we cannot be sure) have left the affected legs shorter than their counterparts.

If this stiff-legged, limping cat, which would certainly not have been able to earn its keep as a working mouser, had been allowed to continue living at the villa rather than being euthanised and replaced, might this suggest that its owner had felt a deeper emotional connection with the animal? If so, this could be our earliest evidence yet in Britain for a cat that was not just a household tool, but a cherished pet.

2016. “The archaeology of the domestic cat”. Current Archaeology. Posted: August 5, 2016. Available online:

Monday, September 26, 2016

Canadian anthropologist in a tight squeeze

In order to do her exciting excavation of fossils in South Africa’s Rising Star cave complex, Marina Elliottmust squeeze into some very narrow passages. Researchers have already uncovered am astounding 1,800 fragments of bones and teeth from 15 individuals of Homo naledi, somehow related to our own species.

A cranial capacity the size of a large orange

Although they share many features with us, they are also very different, says Elliott: “They are quite a bit smaller than modern humans and they had a very, very tiny head. They had a cranial capacity about a third the size of a modern human, so about the size of a large orange.

“And the body below this little head is quite slim, very long limbs, quite a short trunk, but a real combination of features that we haven’t seen in any other early hominid species.”

A ‘treasure trove’ of fossils

The site is highly significant as a “veritable treasure trove” of material that is not encased in hard rock, but preserved in relatively soft material which means it can be relatively easily unearthed, relatively intact.

Cousins or more?

Beyond that, Elliott says finding these 15 individuals of all ages may change our understanding of human evolution. “We don’t know yet whether Homo naledi is on the human line or just a distant cousin, but what it does tell us is that the picture that we’ve been painting for many years is a bit more complicated than we thought at first.”

Marina Elliott got her PhD in biological anthropology at Simon Fraser University in western Canada. She was named one of the National Geographic Society’s 2016 Emerging Explorers. She is now South Africa’s Witwatersrand University. Results of her work were published in the current edition of theJournal of Human Evolution.

Desjardins, Lynn. 2016. “Canadian anthropologist in a tight squeeze”. Radio Canada International Net. Posted: August 5, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, September 25, 2016

First evidence of legendary flood reveals China’s origin story

Legend has it that a great flood engulfed China 4000 years ago. Lasting for more than 20 years, it was finally tamed by the heroic efforts of Emperor Yu, whose Xia dynasty marked the birth of Chinese civilisation and its transition into the Bronze Age.

“This was the first stage in the founding of Chinese civilisation,” says Wu Qinglong of Nanjing Normal University. “But no scientific evidence had been discovered until now.”

This lack of evidence for such a flood had prompted some to challenge the truth of the story.

But we now have the first compelling evidence that the flood did actually happen at the time and place chronicled in the legend.

In the Jishi Gorge, along the Yellow river, his team discovered rocks and sedimentary formations that could only have existed as a result of a cataclysmic flood.

They also found evidence of an earthquake and analysed the skeletons of three children (see picture below), which helped them recreate the timeline of what happened.

“The first thing was the earthquake, and this triggered a huge landslide that blocked the river,” says Darryl Granger of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. The dammed water became a lake 200 metres deep.

“The lake built up behind and took six to nine months to fill up before the water overtopped, causing the dam to fail catastrophically,” he says.

This released a huge volume of water, estimated at between 12 and 17 cubic kilometres, two to three times as much as contained by Loch Ness in Scotland.

The floods engulfed Lajia, the archaeological site 25 kilometres downstream where the bodies of the three children killed by the earthquake months earlier lay buried, and where the world’s oldest noodles were found.

Rocks and debris deposited by the floodwaters around the children’s home show the earthquake and flood must have happened within a year of each other. The clinching evidence for this was that cracks in Lajia created by the quake were filled with flood-related sediment, not the fine silt sediment deposited by annual rainwater runoff at the same site each year, showing that the flood sediment got there first, and so must have arrived within a year of the quake.

And radiocarbon dating of the skeletons showed the children died around 1920 BC, roughly in accordance with the time of the legend.

“It corresponds so closely in time with the legends of the flood and the beginning of the Bronze Age in China,” says David Cohen, an anthropologist at National Taiwan University.

Cohen says that according to the historical accounts, it took Emperor Yu 22 years to bring the floodwaters under control through massive dredging operations, after which he established the dynasty marking China’s transition to modernisation.

“In the accounts, the hero Yu was able to control the flood through dredging, bringing order from chaos,” says Cohen. “It’s very much about the establishment of a new political order and the principles of rulership that went with it.”

“The flood they document is in the right place and time to explain the origin of Yu’s flood,” says David Montgomery of the University of Washington in Seattle. “The case they’ve put together is quite compelling, but it doesn’t settle whether the flood reported was indeed the origin of this ancient flood story.”

“It’s probably beyond the reach of science to ‘prove’ the origin of an oral tradition handed down generation to generation for a thousand years before the first written records,” he says. “But it supports the historicity of events central to the early history of Chinese civilisation, and provides another example of how some of humanity’s oldest stories — tales often taken as mythology or folklore — may be rooted in natural disasters that really happened.”

Coghlan, Andy. 2016. “First evidence of legendary flood reveals China’s origin story”. New Scientist. Posted: August 4, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Bones on Coast Could Be 1847 Shipwreck Victims

The Carricks of Whitehaven was en route to Quebec City when it went down

In late July, human remains were found near Cap-des-Rosiers, Quebec—and archaeologists believe they may belong to people who died at sea in 1847. The story of the Carricks of Whitehaven layers tragedy upon tragedy: Passengers on the Irish ship were trying to escape the potato famine that was killing their countrymen, only to see their ship go down in a storm while en route to Quebec City. Of the nearly 200 people on the Carricks, at least 80 are believed to have died off the Gaspe coast. Parks Canada archaeologist Martin Perron says the remains, which look to belong to five adults and three kids, appear to have been quickly deposited in what theCanadian Press calls a "shallow trench"—and could potentially be a mass grave.

Bones have been found in the same area before. The Globe and Mail's report on the initial May 2011 find there noted that historical accounts describe victims as being laid out on the beach before burial, but no specific location of the grave was reported. It quotes some historical writings: a magazine article from the time noting the ship "went to pieces in the course of two hours," and a 1919 book on Gaspe that stated, "For a whole day two oxcarts carried the dead to deep trenches near the scene of the disaster." A 2014 Mail article reported that the bones found in 2011 were determined to be those of three European children who experienced malnutrition—suggesting they were very likely Carricks victims. Parks Canada will be using ground-penetrating radar in a search for additional remains.

Seamons, Kate. 2016. “Bones on Coast Could Be 1847 Shipwreck Victims”. Newser. Posted: August 4, 2016. Available online: