Thursday, May 5, 2016

Colonists' religious architecture influenced by Maya traditions

The Mayas influenced the Spanish colonists' religious architecture. This is concluded in a new doctoral thesis in archaeology that compares Spanish colonial churches and Maya dwellings on the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico and Belize.

Religion played an important role in the Spanish colonisation of the Yucatán Peninsula, once home to the Maya civilisation. Together with the Spanish monarchy, religion was a powerful and influential force in society.

'Colonial churches and chapels represented authority in the form of buildings and architecture that was used to control Maya society. Converting the Mayas to Christianity was an important part of the Spanish strategy and guidelines for the colonisation of Mexico,' says Teobaldo Ramirez Barbosa, author of the thesis.

He has conducted a comparative analysis of early colonial churches and Maya dwellings on the Yucatán Peninsula and in Belize. Colonialism has usually been interpreted as a unilateral relationship in which the colonist and the colonist culture are not affected. Barbosa's analysis of Spanish churches and Maya dwellings reveals that the colonised people indeed had a clear influence on the colonists' architecture.

'The Mayas have used the same building materials since pre-Hispanic times. My results show that their tradition of using masonry, wattle and daub, stucco and ramada roofs, as well as semi-circular, circular and squared shapes of buildings, can be discerned in some types of Spanish churches,' he says.

One of Barbosa's conclusions is that this can be interpreted as hybridity, or a combination of two different traditions that yields something new.

In addition to the analysis of the religious architecture and Maya dwellings, he carried out three archaeological surveys in the area of Espiritu Santo Bay in Mexico. The purpose of the surveys was to identify the location of the colonial site Kachambay and its church Nuestra Señora de la Limpia Concepción, founded in 1621, as well as previously undiscovered rancherias, or small indigenous settlements that appeared in response to the congregation system established by the Spanish.

Two small settlements were found in the northern part of the bay, providing evidence of human activity in a region that has historically been considered uninhabited. One of the settlements can be directly connected to Kachambay.

'These finds opens up for new surveys and excavations in the area and how the Mayas adapted to the new situation by fleeing from the congregation regime,' says Barbosa.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Colonists' religious architecture influenced by Maya traditions”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 31, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Text in lost language may reveal god or goddess worshipped by Etruscans at ancient temple

Rare religious artifact found at ancient temple site in Italy is from lost culture fundamental to western traditions

Archaeologists in Italy have discovered what may be a rare sacred text in the Etruscan language that is likely to yield rich details about Etruscan worship of a god or goddess.

The lengthy text is inscribed on a large 6th century BCE sandstone slab that was uncovered from an Etruscan temple.

A new religious artifact is rare. Most Etruscan discoveries typically have been grave and funeral objects.

"This is probably going to be a sacred text, and will be remarkable for telling us about the early belief system of a lost culture that is fundamental to western traditions," said archaeologist Gregory Warden, co-director and principal investigator of the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, which made the discovery.

The slab, weighing about 500 pounds and nearly four feet tall by more than two feet wide, has at least 70 legible letters and punctuation marks, said Warden, professor emeritus at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, main sponsor of the project.

Scholars in the field predict the stele (STEE-lee), as such slabs are called, will yield a wealth of new knowledge about the lost culture of the Etruscans. The Etruscan civilization once ruled Rome and influenced Romans on everything from religion to government to art to architecture.

Considered one of the most religious people of the ancient world, Etruscan life was permeated by religion, and ruling magistrates also exercised religious authority.

The slab was discovered embedded in the foundations of a monumental temple where it had been buried for more than 2,500 years. At one time it would have been displayed as an imposing and monumental symbol of authority, Warden said.

The Mugello Valley dig, specifically the Poggio Colla site, is northeast of Florence, Italy. The slab would have been connected to the early sacred life of the sanctuary there. The architecture then was characterized by timber-framed oval structures pre-dating a large temple with an imposing stone podium and large stone column bases of the Tuscan Doric type, five of which have been found at the site, Warden said.

"We hope to make inroads into the Etruscan language," said Warden, president and professor of archaeology at Franklin University Switzerland. "Long inscriptions are rare, especially one this long, so there will be new words that we have never seen before, since it is not a funerary text."

Conservation and study of the stele, with full photogrammetry and laser scanning to document all aspects of the conservation process and all details of the inscribed surfaces, is underway in the next few months at the conservation laboratories of the Tuscan Archaeological Superintendency in Florence by experts from the architecture department of the University of Florence. The sandstone, likely from a local source, is heavily abraded and chipped, with one side reddened, possibly from undergoing burning in antiquity. Cleaning will allow scholars to read the inscription.

"We know how Etruscan grammar works, what's a verb, what's an object, some of the words," Warden said. "But we hope this will reveal the name of the god or goddess that is worshiped at this site." The text will be studied and published by a noted expert on the Etruscan language, Rex Wallace, Professor of Classics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

In two decades of digging, Mugello Valley Archaeological Project has unearthed objects about Etruscan worship, beliefs, gifts to divinities, and discoveries related to the daily lives of elites and non-elites, including workshops, kilns, pottery and homes. This wealth of material helps document the ritual activity from the 7th century to the 2nd century BCE, including gold jewelry, coins, the earliest scene of childbirth in western European art, and in the past two seasons, four 6th-century bronze statuettes.

Etruscan scholar Jean MacIntosh Turfa with the University of Pennsylvania Museum, Philadelphia, said the stele discovery will advance knowledge of Etruscan history, literacy and religious practices.

"Inscriptions of more than a few words, on permanent materials, are rare for the Etruscans, who tended to use perishable media like linen cloth books or wax tablets," Turfa said. "This stone stele is evidence of a permanent religious cult with monumental dedications, at least as early as the Late Archaic Period, from about 525 to 480 BCE. Its re-use in the foundations of a slightly later sanctuary structure points to deep changes in the town and its social structure."

It would be a rare discovery to identify the Etruscan god or goddess to which the sanctuary was dedicated.

"Apart from the famous seaside shrine at Pyrgi, with its inscribed gold plaques, very few Etruscan sanctuaries can be so conclusively identified," Turfa said. "A study of the names of the dedicants will yield rich data on a powerful society where the nobility, commoners and even freed slaves could offer public vows and gifts."

Etruscans were a highly cultured people, but very little of their writing has been preserved, mostly just short funerary inscriptions with names and titles, said archaeologist Ingrid Edlund-Berry, professor emerita, The University of Texas at Austin.

"So any text, especially a longer one, is an exciting addition to our knowledge," said Edlund-Berry, an expert in Etruscan civilization. "It is very interesting that the stele was found within the walls of the buildings at the site, thus suggesting that it was re-used, and that it represents an early phase at the site."

The Poggio Colla site is in northern Etruria. Most inscriptions have come from centers further south, Edlund-Berry said.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Text in lost language may reveal god or goddess worshipped by Etruscans at ancient temple”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 29, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Hidden King Tut Chambers? Not So Fast, Officials Caution

Egypt's new antiquities minister, Khaled El Anany, sounded caution this morning at a press conference in Luxor over the claim that Tutankhamun's tomb holds two hidden chambers.

Egyptologist Nicholas Reeves, of the Amarna Royal Tombs Project, had proposed that two hidden chambers were lurking in the tomb of Tutankhamun and that the hidden rooms may hold the tomb of Queen Nefertiti, the stepmom of King Tutankhamun.

Radar scans conducted last year by Japanese radar technologist Hirokatsu Watanabe supposedly supported this idea. On March 17, Egypt's ministry of antiquities, led at the time by Mamdouh ‪El-Damaty, stated that Watanabe's scans "suggest the presence of two empty spaces or cavities beyond the decorated north and west walls of the burial chamber," as well as the "presence of metallic and organic substances."

The radar scans also showed what could be door lintels that indicate the presence of doorways, the antiquities minster said at the time in a statement to media.

However, radar experts not affiliated with the project disputed the results of those scans. These experts noted that the sediment layers at the Valley of the Kings, where King Tut's tomb is located, contain natural voids and rock inclusions that make it difficult for radar to distinguish between archaeological remains and natural phenomena.

Over the past two weeks, the antiquities minister at the time, ‪El-Damaty, along with Egypt's minister of

However, radar experts not affiliated with the project disputed the results of those scans. These experts noted that the sediment layers at the Valley of the Kings, where King Tut's tomb is located, contain natural voids and rock inclusions that make it difficult for radar to distinguish between archaeological remains and natural phenomena.

Over the past two weeks, the antiquities minister at the time, ‪El-Damaty, along with Egypt's minister of tourism, Hisham Zazou, were replaced in a cabinet shuffle. Yesterday, a team supported by the National Geographic Society conducted new radar scans. Those scans are being processed and analyzed; however, the new antiquities minister — El Anany — sounded a note of caution at today's press conference.

"We are not looking for hidden chambers but for the reality of the truth," El-Anany said. "We are very keen to follow the scientific procedures," he said, adding that more radar work would be performed in late April, followed by an international conference in May in which experts would review the results. Egypt's former antiquities minister, El-Damaty, was also at today's press conference and said that while the two cavities could exist, "we have to be sure 100 percent."

Even so, the Egypt's antiquities ministry said in a statement that "the preliminary results [of yesterday's scans] reached so far do not contradict with the results of the previous radar scans."

Reeves also said that the two cavities, possibly holding a tomb, could still exist.

No new radar images were released to media.

Third set of scans

For the next scan, scheduled for the end of April, another team of scientists will use a different radar-scanning method on King Tut's tomb. In the previous two scans, scientists tried to peer behind the walls of the Tutankhamun burial chamber. The new scans will take place in the hills above Tutankhamun's tomb, using radar equipment that can peer 40 meters (130 feet) below the ground to see if hidden chambers exist.

The international conference to review the results will be held in the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo, El Anany said. There, experts will discuss whether the two chambers exist, and if so, what could be in them and what would be the best way to access them. Scientists will not use any methods that could damage the artwork in Tutankhamun's tomb,

Jarus, Owen. 2016. “Hidden King Tut Chambers? Not So Fast, Officials Caution”. Live Science. Posted: April 1, 2016. Available online:

Monday, May 2, 2016

Right or Wrong? How You Judge Others Depends on Your Culture

If someone were to walk off with your shopping bag in a crowded marketplace, would you judge the petty thief less harshly if he or she grabbed your bag by mistake?

The answer to that question may depend on your culture, finds a study led by University of California, Los Angeles, anthropologist Clark Barrett.

The researchers tested the degree to which intentions influence the way people judge the actions of others in societies across the globe. The result? The extent that intentions affect people's moral judgments varied across cultures.

Moral intent hypothesis

According to most philosophical and anthropological research, and according to the law in many societies, intentions affect moral judgments, Barrett told Live Science. Take, for example, the distinction between first- and second-degree murder. The difference has to do not with the actual act itself, but rather with the state of mind of the perpetrator when committing the act, Barrett said. (A first-degree murder is premeditated; a second-degree murder is not.)

More generally, "there are many cases where how harshly you might blame someone for doing something or failing to do something might depend on your judgments about whether they did it on purpose or not," he added.

In fact, the scientific literature suggested that weighing intentions when making moral judgments was a universal human trait, an idea Barrett and colleagues termed "the moral-intent hypothesis." Most of the studies supporting this conjecture, however, took place in Western, industrialized countries. Barrett said he and his colleagues wondered if the hypothesis held true in small-scale societies in other parts of the world.

Intent versus accident

The study involved 322 participants in 10 populations on six continents. These populations included two Western societies, one urban (Los Angeles) and one rural (the Ukrainian village of Storozhnitsa), as well as eight smaller-scale communities from other parts of the world.

To determine how study participants made moral judgments, researchers presented individuals with several stories in which a person, the actor, committed a harmful act of some kind; participants were then asked to rate the "badness" of the action, on a 5-point scale ranging from "very bad" to "very good." The scenarios included theft (of a shopping bag in a marketplace), physical harm (hitting someone), poisoning (a community water supply) and committing a food taboo(eating a culturally frowned-upon food). Importantly, the scenarios also varied by whether the wrongdoings were accidental or intentional.

"The strong version of the moral-intent hypothesis would be that doing any of those things would be judged more wrong when one does it on purpose than when one does it by accident," Barrett said.

Pardonable or not?

Pooling data from all of the societies studied, the hypothesis held up: Overall, people regarded intentional actions about five times as severely as accidental ones.

However, among the 10 societies, the extent to which intent affected moral judgments varied. In the Western societies, Los Angeles and Storozhnitsa, intent seemed to influence people's moral judgments the most. Whether an act was purposeful or inadvertent mattered much less to participants on the Fijian island of Yasawa, and to the Hadza and the Himba, two populations in Africa, than it did in other populations, Barrett said.

For example, poisoning a water supply "was judged, essentially, maximally bad by the Hadza and the Himba regardless of whether you did it on purpose or by accident," Barrett said.

"People said things like, 'Well, even if you do it by accident, you should not be so careless,'" Barrett added.

In other societies, in contrast, while people still judged the accidental poisoning as bad, they viewed it less harshly than they did the malicious one.

The researchers also examined the way other "mitigating" factors — such as whether the agent acted in self-defense, acted based on misinformation or was insane — might soften participants' moral judgments. Across the board, people viewed acting out of necessity — the example of necessity given was knocking another person down to reach a water bucket to put out a fire — and acting in self-defense as factors that would mitigate a moral judgment. There were also some cross-cultural variations in the factors that people regarded as mitigating: the factors of insanity or acting on mistaken information were seen as mitigating in L.A. and Sorozhnitsa, but not on Yasawa.

"We in the West and people who have been educated in a Western scholarly tradition … think that intentions are quite relevant to moral judgments, so one of the surprises of the paper was that there were more contexts and places than we might have expected when they [the intentions] were less relevant than we thought," Barrett concluded. "That might mean that there are many other examples of moral variation that we have yet to discover."

The research was published online March 28 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Taylor, Ashley P. 2016. “Right or Wrong? How You Judge Others Depends on Your Culture”. Live Science. Posted: March 29, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Breeding humans: Utopias from the early modern period

The idea to improve humans and to optimise procreation emerged long before genetic engineering. As far back as the 18th century, concepts did exist that appear unthinkable from the modern perspective.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, medical sciences rose to power, and economists and administrative scientists recognised the population to be an economic resource, which they wished to multiply. Prof Dr Maren Lorenz who holds the Chair of Early Modern History and Gender History at Ruhr-Universität Bochum reconstructs utopias of the physical "improvement of mankind" from that period.

Strategic procreation policy

To date, studies had focused on the purely economic theories or eugenic approaches of the late 19th century and later years. The historian from Bochum has now inspected earlier sources, where doctors discuss a strategic procreation policy. It aimed at producing a strong, healthy population, for efficient agricultural production and powerful armies.

The authors, for example, suggested probationary marriage and compulsory divorce, if a couple didn't have any offspring. Some even demanded the abolition of celibacy, because traditionally only physically and mentally fit men were permitted to join the Catholic Church -- a waste of procreation resources. "Their thinking was relatively revolutionary in ethical terms; yet in an era of severe censorship," says Maren Lorenz.

Ideas from France

Many ideas that caught on in Germany had originated in France. In the mid-18th century, for example, French doctors developed specific concepts for "human stud farms." Those farms were supposed to be public city houses where single women over the age of 25 would be committed. Married and unmarried healthy men should visit them for the purpose of procreation -- against payment of a fee to the city treasury. The children would belong to the state.

Science Daily. 2016. “Breeding humans: Utopias from the early modern period”. Science Daily. Posted: March 29, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, April 30, 2016

OU anthropologists reconstruct mitogenomes from prehistoric dental calculus

Using advanced sequencing technologies, University of Oklahoma anthropologists demonstrate that human DNA can be significantly enriched from dental calculus (calcified dental plaque) enabling the reconstruction of whole mitochondrial genomes for maternal ancestry analysis--an alternative to skeletal remains in ancient DNA investigations of human ancestry.

Christina Warinner and Cecil M. Lewis, Jr., professors in the Department of Anthropology, OU College of Arts and Sciences, collaborated with researchers from Arizona State University and Pennsylvania State University on the capture, enrichment and high-throughput sequencing of DNA extracted from six individuals at the 700-year-old Oneota cemetery, Norris Farms #36.

"We can now obtain meaningful human, pathogen and dietary DNA from a single sample, which minimizes the amount of ancient material required for analysis," said Warinner.

In recent years, dental calculus has emerged as an unexpected, but valuable, long-term reservoir of ancient DNA from dietary and microbial sources. This study demonstrates that dental calculus is also an important source of ancient human DNA. Very little dental calculus was required for analysis--fewer than 25 milligrams per individual. This makes it possible to obtain high quality genetic ancestry information from very little starting material, an important consideration for archaeological remains.

The results of this study provided high-resolution, whole mitochondrial genome information for the Oneota, a Native American archaeological culture that rose to prominence ca. AD 1000-1650, but declined sharply following European contact. "The analysis of mitochondrial DNA allows us to better understand the population history of ancient peoples," said Anne Stone, professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University.

Although dental calculus preserves alongside skeletal remains, it is not actually a human tissue. Dental calculus, also known as tartar, is a calcified form of dental plaque that acquires human DNA and proteins passively, primarily through the saliva and other host secretions. Once mineralized within dental calculus, however, human DNA and proteins can preserve for thousands of years. Dental calculus thus serves as an important non-skeletal reservoir of ancient human DNA.

Conventional techniques for recovering ancient human DNA typically require the destruction of bone or tooth tissue during analysis, and this has been a cause of concern for many Native and indigenous communities. Dental calculus represents an important alternative source of ancient DNA that does not damage or disturb the integrity of skeletal remains. In addition, because dental calculus is the richest known source of DNA in the archaeological record, it presents unique opportunities for investigating archaeological sites with preservation challenges.

"Dental calculus may enable researchers to retrieve ancient DNA from samples where bone or other biological tissues are too degraded for analysis. This is particularly exciting to those of us who work in tropical or extremely old contexts, where traditional sources of DNA may be poorly preserved or even non-existent," according to Maria Nieves Colón, Ph.D. candidate, Arizona State University.

The demonstration that whole mitochondrial genomes can be reconstructed from small samples of dental calculus represents an important technological advancement for paleogenomic investigations in prehistoric North America and other regions where destructive analysis of skeletal remains is difficult or controversial.

"We hope that this research on dental calculus from the Norris Farms site acts as the first step toward future paleogenomic investigations of prehistoric North American remains in a respectful and non-destructive way that interests and benefits both descendent communities and anthropologists," said Andrew Ozga, OU doctoral graduate, and currently postdoctoral candidate at Arizona State University.

EurekAlert. 2016. “OU anthropologists reconstruct mitogenomes from prehistoric dental calculus”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 28, 2016. Available online:

Friday, April 29, 2016

Novel collagen fingerprinting identifies a Neanderthal bone among 2,000 fragments

Scientists from the universities of Oxford and Manchester have used a new molecular fingerprinting technique to identify one Neanderthal bone from around 2,000 tiny bone fragments. 

All the tiny pieces of bone were recovered from a key archaeological site, Denisova Cave in Russia, with the remaining fragments found to be from animal species like mammoths, woolly rhino, wolf and reindeer. It is the first time that researchers have identified traces of an extinct human from an archaeological site using a technique called 'Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry' or ZooMS. From just a microscopic sample of bone, their analysis revealed the collagen peptide sequences in the bone that mark out one species from another. Their paper, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that ZooMS has huge potential to increase our understanding of human evolution, including the amount of interbreeding that went on between our closely related cousins and modern humans.

The international research team was led by Professor Thomas Higham and his student Sam Brown of the University of Oxford, with the developer of the ZooMS method, Dr Michael Buckley from the University of Manchester; the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig; Cranfield University; and the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Russia. The sequences of collagen peptides in bone differ in tiny ways between different animal species. The team profiled the sequences using microscopic samples from 2,300 unidentified bone fragments from the site. They then compared the sequences obtained against a reference library of peptides from known animal species.

On discovering that one 2.5 cm-long piece of bone had a clear human fingerprint, Sam Brown said: 'When the ZooMS results showed that there was a human fingerprint among the bones I was extremely excited. After a lot of hard work, finding this tiny bone which yields so much information about our human past was just fantastic. The bone itself is not exceptional in any way and would otherwise be missed by anyone looking for possible human bones amongst the dozens of fragments that we have from the site.'

Study co-author Professor Svante Pääbo and his group from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig found that the bone belonged to a Neanderthal on the basis of its mitochrondrial genome. The results suggest that this Neanderthal was most closely related to other Neanderthals in the Altai region and more distantly related to those further to the west. The Neanderthal bone was also radiocarbon dated and shown to be more than 50,000 years old, as expected based on its deep position in the site. Acid etching on the surface of the bone also shows that it probably passed through the stomach of a hyaena for a short time before it was deposited in the cave sediments, says the paper.

Denisova Cave in the Russian Altai region is a key site for archaeologists wanting to understand the nature of evolution over the last 100,000 years. Its cold climate means that bones from the cave are often exceptionally well-preserved in their DNA and collagen, which is ideal for genetics and radiocarbon dating. In 2010, Pääbo and his team discovered a new species of human, the so-called 'Denisovans' at the site, using state-of-the-art genetic methods. His team have also found that Denisovans, Neanderthals and modern humans interbred periodically with one another in Eurasia and Europe.

During the Ice Age, there were periods when the cave was also occupied by carnivores such as hyaenas and wolves that crunched the bones into tiny pieces. This is why more than 95% of the bone fragments excavated were difficult to identify.

Professor Thomas Higham said: 'This is a real breakthrough, showing that we can now use bioarchaeological methods like ZooMS to search the archaeological record and find even tiny fossil remains, where there are proteins that survive. In the Palaeolithic period, where we have Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans, this is potentially very important because if the fragments that we recover are big enough then we can date and analyse the DNA from the same bone. One of the big challenges is in understanding what happened when modern humans and Neanderthals met. We want to know over what period of time and where this happened. Fossils are the key, but for modern humans they are extremely rare in archaeological sites. We hope that more work like this will yield more human bone remains.'
Reference: 2016. “Novel collagen fingerprinting identifies a Neanderthal bone among 2,000 fragments”. Posted: March 29, 2016. Available online: