Thursday, February 26, 2015

Evidence for ancient bone surgery found at Kuelap Fortress

What could possibly be the first ever evidence of bone surgery has experts investigating all possible answers at Kuelap.

A study by the University of Florida published in the International Journal of Paleopathology claims to have discovered the first ever evidence for ancient bone surgery found in Peru.

Dr. J Maria Toyne details that two skeletons (dated 800-1535 CE) from the pre-Colombian site of Kuelap demonstrate pathology similar to trepanation. Trepanation is the surgical practice of drilling holes into bones and is the oldest example of surgical intervention.

The two moderately healthy male skeletons, one an adolescent and the other an adult of 30-34 years of age, were found to have drilled holes in the bones of their legs.

The placement and depth suggest to the bioarchaeologists that the holes are not random but were perhaps done to relieve pressure from a physical injury and or severe infection. The holes would have been administered to cure build-up of fluid in the leg.

From their evidence thus far it is unclear whether the skeletons were of individuals that were living patients who died during surgery or if they were experimental skeletons of recently deceased used for training purposes. However, the skill of healers in the region was emphasized by Dr. Toyne and in this period advanced medical practices were known and performed among those living in the Chachapoya region.
Ojeda, Hillary. 2015. “Evidence for ancient bone surgery found at Kuelap Fortress”. Peru This Week. Posted: January 20, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Linguistics of Tragedy

Will Charlie Hebdo, the magazine, reclaim its name from Charlie Hebdo, the terrorist attack?

At their core, words are codes. They aren't things, but representations of things. The word “bottle” is not a cylindrical object made of glass. It's code a speaker/writer uses to let a listener/reader know they're talking about a cylindrical object of glass. This key difference between thing and representation allows for a certain malleability.

Some words can have completely different meanings depending on the context in which they're used. (A writer doesn't use “story” the same way an architect does.) In other cases, the representation they're attached to can shift. This usually occurs over a period of time. (The term “awful” began in the 1300s as meaning something “inspiring wonder,” and now means the complete opposite.) But now and then, the shift occurs almost immediately.

“Charlie Hebdo,” for example.

Most tragedy-associated metonyms take on the location of the event as opposed to the time, possibly because our minds like to place horrific events in the past.

If you said this phrase before January 7, the person on the other side of the conversation might have thought you were referring to the satirical French periodical, if they knew it at all. Say it today, and the phrase is shorthand for the terrorist attack that took place at the magazine's headquarters.

This rapid shift is nothing new, particularly when it comes to tragic events. On December 6, 1941, “Pearl Harbor” meant the naval base located at the harbor in Honolulu; now it means the attack that took place. It makes sense that tragedies lead to sudden shifts in meaning, seeing as the key component of these events is usually the speed in which the situation changes from relative calm to chaotic violence. But just what's happening in the realm of linguistics when these changes take place?

THE KEY CONCEPT IS “metonymy.” This is the act of a word or phrase associated with a concept coming to represent the entirety of said concept. Generally, this means an extension of the original meaning. For example, “city hall” no longer means just the structure, but also the lawmakers who inhabit that structure. In the same way, “dish” started as the physical plate a meal is served on, before people started using it to represent the meal itself. In almost all cases, metonymic phrases focus on two questions: when and where?

“Times and locations are salient parts of the basic event frame,” says Dr. Eve Sweetser, a linguistics professor at University of California-Berkeley. “Hence labels can refer to the salient events that took place on that date and in that location.”

In other words, we remember an event taking place during a time or place, so it makes sense why we choose to refer to an event with those factors. Where it gets strange is when an event occurs that overwhelms the meaning of the original location name. Few use “Watergate” anymore to mean the actual hotel; in the cases of “Columbine” or “Sandy Hook,” the terms have almost lost their previous meaning.

As you can tell, most tragedy-associated metonyms take on the location of the event as opposed to the time, possibly because our minds like to place horrific events in the past. We want to forget troubling events, so we reserve date metonyms for things like weddings, anniversaries, or celebratory events like the Fourth of July (celebratory, at least, if you're on the right side of history). But there is one huge exception: “9/11.”

THERE ARE PLENTY OF theories why this phrase focuses on a date rather than location. The most obvious is that, rather than the attack taking place at a single location, it was spread across four different places. Using a metonym like “New York City” or “Manhattan” rings hollow as to the geography. A date doesn't have to deal with that issue.

Another has to do with a kind of poetics, specifically the date's similarity to America's emergency telephone number. 9-1-1 is a phone number everyone knows growing up; its mention is associated with fear and disaster. If you're dialing 9-1-1, something's wrong. Using it in conjunction with another terrible event, then, isn't a huge leap. If the events took place on March 11 (like the public information phone number 3-1-1), perhaps the metonym wouldn't be “3/11,” since it isn't similarly visceral. (It's worth noting that the Madrid train bombings, which took place on March 11, are known in Spain as “11-M” due to the country's use of the date-before-month method of date formatting.)

(This connection between “9/11” and 9-1-1 is made evident in the story of its initial usage. Last year at Medium, Adrienne LaFrance tracked the first use of the metonym to the New York Times' Bill Keller, who exploited the similarities for a column title. Not to say it wouldn't have surfaced without Keller's help. “The dual meaning of 9/11 was so obvious and inevitable that I’d never presume to take credit for it,” Keller told LaFrance.)

There's also the way “9/11” works visually. A pair of “one” digits, positioned side-by-side, look an awful lot like the two towers destroyed during that attack. It's no surprise that most of the “9/11 collectibles” on eBay utilize this similarity in their design. Branding-wise, there's power in the aesthetics of 9/11.

And there's the fact that, intended or not, a date lends itself a certain ominous quality. In a 2010 paper on the linguistics of 9/11, co-authors Adan Martin and Juani Guerra explored the metonym. “The use of such a tag as 9/11 makes us think about a possible return to a same date, an idea is reinforced by the lexical items which collocate with 9/11,” they write. Using the tag not only locked in a yearly memorial, but allowed the threat of a terrorist attack to become a question of when, not necessarily where.

We want to forget troubling events, so we reserve date metonyms for things like weddings, anniversaries, or celebratory events like the Fourth of July. But there is one huge exception: "9/11."

“9/11” also allowed the subjects of the attack to expand. In the weeks and months after, rhetoric associated with the attacks focused less on the fact that they took place in a specific location (New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania), and more that they took place in “America.” This was due somewhat to the dictated aim of the attackers—al-Qaeda made countless public mentions of attacking “America” as opposed to specific cities—but mostly because the country's leaders used the murky location as galvanizing terminology. Rather than calling on citizens to support a specific locale away from them (putting them on the outside), by expanding the attack's location, politicians made every citizen feel as if they were “under attack.” The end result was a nationalism (albeit short-lived and with troubling consequences) that has rarely been seen in the country.

All of which is why, 13 years later, the phrase “9/11” is the only newly created phrase to remain in use since the attack. (Adios “Ground Zero” and “weapons of mass destruction.”) Linguistically, it's a metonymic beast that shows no sign of discontinuation.

SO, WHAT DOES ALL this mean for “Charlie Hebdo?” There hasn't been a whole lot of literature in the realm of “tragedy linguistics," but we can extrapolate.

Currently, it's one of the top news stories, so the use of a shortcut is possible. Rather than typing out or saying the entire event that took place (at the very least, the accurate description is “Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack”), people are removing the extensions because it's possible. Metonymy, after all, is all about shortcuts. This will definitely continue, then, until news of the attack is shifted into the tertiary because of other stories. The week after the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway, all you needed to do was say the word “Oslo,” and people knew what you were talking about. Now, you need that explanatory addenda to get the other person on the same page. Tragedy plus time may not always equal comedy, but sometimes it equals a return to linguistic normalcy.

At the same time, the city Oslo was founded in 1000 C.E. and has a rich enough history that no single event will ever monopolize—or metonymize, if you want—the name. “Charlie Hebdo,” meanwhile, has been around since 1970, and wasn't exactly a household name to begin with. So, the question is, will “Charlie Hebdo” ever be known for something bigger? Its latest cover, once again, depicts a cartoon version of the prophet Muhammed, this time with the words "All is forgiven" written above. Perhaps this is the first bold move toward reasserting itself strongly enough to reclaim its name from the terror-inspired metonym. That might be the truest form of defiance.
Paulas, Rick. 2015. “The Linguistics of Tragedy”. Pacific Standard Magazine. Posted: January 16, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Antiquity of dairying on Emerald Isle revealed

As dairy farmers across Europe anxiously await the lifting of EU milk quotas in April this year, new research from the University of Bristol, UK has revealed the antiquity of dairy farming in a region famous for its dairy exports: Ireland.

Research published today in the Journal of Environmental Archaeology shows that dairying on the island goes back approximately 6,000 years, revealed through traces of ancient dairy fats found in pots dating to around 4,000 to 2,500 BC.

Dr Jessica Smyth of Bristol's School of Chemistry analysed nearly 500 pots from the Neolithic, the period when people switched from hunting and gathering to farming. In Britain and Ireland, this change occurred around 4,000 BC, more than 1,000 years later than on the Continent. The Bristol team use a combination of fat or lipid 'fingerprinting' and compound-specific carbon isotope techniques to identify the origin of fats preserved in the walls of prehistoric cooking pots.

Dr Smyth, who led the study, said: "We know from previous research that dairying was an important part of many early farming economies, but what was a big surprise was the prevalence of dairy residues in Irish pots. It looks to have been a very important food source."

Ninety per cent of the residues tested for fat origin were found to be dairy fats, with ten per cent found to be meat fats (beef or mutton) or a mixture of milk and meat.

Dr Smyth added: "People can obviously cook meat in other ways than boiling it in pots, and there is plenty of evidence for cereal processing at this time, but the Irish dairy signal remains very striking, particularly when you compare it with the continental European data sets. Ireland really does seem to go mad for milk in the Neolithic."

Milk is still a traditional and valuable food in Europe today, produced by over 30 million dairy cows and representing 14 per cent of the value of European agricultural production [2011 figures]. Six thousand years ago, dairying in Ireland looked very different.

Dr Smyth said: "We know that settlements were small in the Irish Neolithic, usually one or two houses, so it's likely that early farming groups had just one or two animals supporting the household with their products, which were perhaps part of a wider community herd."

Such results are even more significant given the fact that domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep and goats had to be physically shipped to Ireland as part of the process, as these animals were not native to the island.

"These are a very determined group of pioneer farmers. They are setting up everything from scratch, and taking a significant gamble with their livelihoods and those of their dependants," Dr Smyth said.

It would appear that the Irish love of dairy products is very ancient, and the suitability of the island for dairy farming was recognised early in prehistory.
EurekAlert. 2015. “Antiquity of dairying on Emerald Isle revealed”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 16, 2015. Available online:

Monday, February 23, 2015

Map that changed the world has its 200th birthday

Two hundred years ago, the geology of an entire country came to life for the first time. The map shown above gave an unprecedented view of the UK by showing the distribution of rock types in vivid colour.

Created solely by English surveyor William Smith, it is based on his discovery that sedimentary rock across southern Britain contains layers that are arranged in a set sequence, from oldest rocks to youngest. What's more, even if sheets of rock from different time periods are of a similar colour, each contains distinctive fossils that can be used to identify the layer.

Smith used an innovative shading technique for his map. Painting with watercolours, he chose darker tones for bottom layers of rock, which gave the impression of three dimensions when surrounded by the paler colours of more recently-deposited rock.

The map was intended as a reference tool for mineral exploration, land drainage and agriculture. It was of interest to land owners at the time because it helped determine whether their property was likely to contain deposits of coal, which was in high demand.

Today, the oil industry still uses Smith's fossil correlating method to distinguish between rock layers. The technique has even proved useful on other planets – it was recently used to build up a new geological map of Mars.
Ceurstemont, Sandrine. 2015. “Map that changed the world has its 200th birthday”. New Scientist. Posted: January 15, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Five bizarre rituals – and why people perform them

Rituals can be found in every human group and society, yet they are remarkably difficult to define. One thing they all have in common is being outside the everyday – they do not make sense in terms of cause and effect. Another is that they serve as a badge of belonging and a kind of social glue to unite the people that perform them. This helps explain some strange characteristics associated with the most powerful rituals.


On Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, men perform a terrifying ritual akin to bungee jumping. "Land diving" entails jumping head-first from a platform up to 30 metres tall, with just two tree vines wrapped around their ankles and no safety net.

Such highly rousing rituals are known as rites of terror and are extremely effective at binding groups together. One reason is that people tend to be more committed to a group, and tolerate its shortcomings, when they have paid a high price for entry. Another is that rites of terror are highly memorable, creating vivid and shocking "flashbulb" memoriesthat remain with participants for a lifetime.

Such rituals are usually infrequent, often once in a lifetime, but land diving was originally performed annually and now occurs weekly from April to June as a tourist spectacle. It remains a rite of passage to manhood for the boys of Pentecost Island. 


Eunoto, the coming-of-age ceremony for Masai men, consists of several days of rituals including adumu, the jumping dance. The young men form a circle and take it in turns to jump as high and straight as they can, while the others chant. As the dancing continues, they often become entranced, partly under the influence of an intoxicating drink made from a bark infusion, and partly due to the rhythmic nature of the activity.

Such rhythmic repetition is characteristic of many rituals because it creates focus and a sense of bonding among group members. Repetition is especially common in the rituals of world religions, such as the Catholic mass and Muslim prayer, known as salat, which is preceded by ritual ablution and usually performed five times a day.

This reflects another benefit of repetition – it reinforces the beliefs of the group by fixing them firmly in the memory of those who participate in its rituals. 


Made famous by New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team, the haka is a traditional Maori dance that includes vigorous movements, facial contortions and chanting. Today, haka are used in various events, from welcoming visiting dignitaries to funerals, but they were originally performed by warriors before battle. 

The war haka (peruperu) was designed to intimidate the opposition, and synchrony was important: performing it out of unison was considered a bad omen for the coming fight. 

Synchrony is key to many rituals because it increases social cohesion, one of the main purposes of ritualistic behaviour. Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford has found thatrhythmic activities such as dancing and chanting stimulate the release of endorphins, neuropeptides that promote a sense of connection and trust. 


A Japanese tea ceremony can last up to 4 hours. Strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, centuries of history have resulted in many variations of this practice, each with its own elaborate procedures that vary with the time of year and day, venue and other things. 

Such complexity is the hallmark of a good ritual. In fact, the more steps a ritual has, and the more precise these are, the more highly people rate it. That, at least, is what André Souza at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Cristine Legare from the University of Texas at Austin found when they asked people to rate rituals. For the purposes of their study the researchers had invented practices based on Brazilian simpatias – which are bought like recipes over-the-counter and designed to help people achieve goals such as finding a new job or romantic partner. 


If rituals help groups bond, it is hardly surprising that many aspects of military life are ritualistic – from how members of a unit make their beds to the precise details of their drill. 

Like many rituals, these practices often appear nonsensical. For example, the way the Greek soldiers known as Evzones march when changing the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens doesn't seem to achieve a specific purpose. Intriguing new research suggests that when we observe such "causal opacity" our minds switch from their normal way of thinking into a ritual stance. This happens even in infants and seems to prompt children to copy nonsensical actions even more faithfully than actions with obvious goals. 
Douglas, Kate. 2015. “Five bizarre rituals – and why people perform them”. New Scientist. Posted: January 15, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ancient golden artefacts found in Almaty

Excavations of a burial mound in Alatau district of Almaty have uncovered unique golden artifacts, Tengrinews reports citing the City Department of Culture.

Archaeological research was conducted by an expedition from the museum of history of Almaty in the burial mound of Kok Kainar. Three historical artefacts were found. One of them is a golden figurine of a feline predator.

"It is made of two pressed embossed plates connected into a single sculptural figurine. It can be refereed to as a "playing kitten" for its pose. Dated back to the 4th century BC, the figure probably represented an element of a magical composition of a headwear. The artifact was found in the mound number 2 of Kok Kainar burial," the Department said.

The second finding is a golden plate with a picture of a bird. "The plate depicts a bird of prey, its head turned to the left, with a large beak, and wings unfolded. The bird is depicted against the background of strawberries. This image is treated as a heraldic symbol," the Department explained.

The last finding was a bronze mirror with a handle and a round bronze disc with a protrusion. The disk of the mirror and the ring are soldered together. This artifact was found in the burial mound number 1 and dates back to period from the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD. 

All of these artefacts are kept in the Museum of History.
Urazova, Dinara. 2015. “Ancient golden artefacts found in Almaty”. Tengri News. Posted: January 15, 2015. Available online:

Friday, February 20, 2015

Rome's military women have been hiding in plain sight

TALK about hiding in plain sight. Women are thought to have had no official role in Roman army activities. But now a monument that's been sitting in the centre of Rome for almost 2000 years is adding to the evidence that soldiers ignored a ban on marriage, and that the wives or daughters of commanders might have taken part in triumphal ceremonies.

Archaeologist Elizabeth Greene told the 8-11 January annual meeting of theArchaeological Institute of America in New Orleans about six females depicted on the iconic Trajan's column in Rome, Italy, a triumphal monument to a military victory.

The figures on the column are attendants holding sacrificial offerings at a military religious ceremony, a role usually carried out by boys. But six of them are clearly recognisable as women or girls, says Greene, of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. She thinks the six females may have been wives or daughters of senior officers.

Scholars have studied the column since the 18th century, so how has no one noticed these women before? For starters, it's more than 30 metres tall, so much of it is hard to examine close up. Plus, you see what you look for, saysLindsay Allason-Jones of the University of Newcastle, UK: "Trajan's column tends to be studied by military historians, looking for details of how things were built and machinery."

Only men could join the Roman army, and during his reign from 27 BC to AD 14, the emperor Augustus forbade rank and file soldiers from marrying, a ban that lasted nearly two centuries. Classical texts on the Roman army have little to say about women. So, for many years, most archaeologists believed no women were attached to the army, says Allason-Jones.

This started to change in the late 1980s, when Allason-Jones started finding evidence that the wives and children of centurions – officers who commanded units of 80 soldiers – lived with them at border and provincial forts.

And in the early 1990s, Allason-Jones and Carol van Driel-Murray of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands found shoes in women's and children's sizes at Vindolanda, the site of a Roman fort along Hadrian's wall in northern England. They also found bronze plaques called diplomas, which were given to provincial soldiers who earned Roman citizenship by 25 years of service, that mention their wives and children.

Now, Greene has reassessed that evidence. She says about 40 per cent of the thousands of shoes found at the site clearly belonged to women or children rather than men. And of some 1000 diplomas catalogued, 43 per cent mention a wife, children or both. At Vindolanda, Greene says, the non-legal, de facto wife of a foot soldier probably lived outside the fort with their children, and had to work because the average soldier wasn't paid enough to support a family. Van Driel-Murray thinks some women may have worked within the fort as cooks, seamstresses or washerwomen.

Penelope Allison of the University of Leicester, UK, says that shoes and brooches from a site in Germany from the same period indicate that womenthere may have lived inside forts. "They just lived in the barracks with everybody else," she says, "engaging with the military community."

But it might be some time until everyone believes this happened. "I'm still trying to convince the older generation, mostly classical scholars and historians, who have problems with these forts being mixed communities," says van Driel-Murray. Whether the women Greene found on Trajan's column will tip the scales remains to be seen.
Hecht, Jeff. 2015. “Rome's military women have been hiding in plain sight”. New Scientist. Posted: January 14, 2015. Available online: