Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Egyptologist unravels ancient mystery

It is one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all times: the disappearance of a Persian army of 50,000 men in the Egyptian desert around 524 BC. Leiden University Professor Olaf Kaper unearthed a cover-up affair and solved the riddle.


It must have been a sand storm, writes the Greek historian Herodotus. He tells the story of the Persian King Cambyses, who entered the Egyptian desert near Luxor (then Thebes) with 50,000 men. The troops supposedly never returned; they were swallowed by a sand dune. A fantastic tale that was long the subject of many debates.

Long quest

Egyptologist Olaf Kaper never believed it: 'Since the 19th century, people have been looking for this army: amateurs, but also professional archaeologists. Some expect to find somewhere under the ground an entire army, fully equipped. However, experience has long shown that you cannot die from a sand storm, let alone have an entire army disappear.'

Petubastis III

Kaper is now putting forward an entirely different explanation. He argues that the army did not disappear, but was defeated. 'My research shows that the army was not simply passing through the desert; its final destination was the Dachla Oasis. This was the location of the troops of the Egyptian rebel leader Petubastis III. He ultimately ambushed the army of Cambyses, and in this way managed from his base in the oasis to reconquer a large part of Egypt, after which he let himself be crowned Pharaoh in the capital, Memphis.'

Spin doctor

The fact that the fate of the army of Cambyses remained unclear for such a long time is probably due to the Persian King Darius I, who ended the Egyptian revolt with much bloodshed two years after Cambyses' defeat. Like a true spin doctor, he attributed the shameful defeat of his predecessor to natural elements. Thanks to this effective manipulation, 75 years after the events, all Herodotus could do was take note of the sand storm story.

Pieces of the puzzle

Kaper made this discovery accidentally; he was not looking for it actively. In collaboration with New York University and the University of Lecce, he was involved for the last ten years in excavations in Amheida, in the Dachla Oasis. Earlier this year, he deciphered the full list of titles of Petubastis III on ancient temple blocks. 'That's when the puzzle pieces fell into place', says the Egyptologist. 'The temple blocks indicate that this must have been a stronghold at the start of the Persian period. Once we combined this with the limited information we had about Petubastis III, the excavation site and the story of Herodotus, we were able to reconstruct what happened.'

The discovery will be announced on Thursday at an international conference.

Science Daily. 2014. “Egyptologist unravels ancient mystery”. Science Daily. Posted: June 19, 2014. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140619095824.htm

Monday, July 28, 2014

Anthropocene 1000 BC: Mother Nature Not To Blame For Flooding Along The Yellow River

Nature gets a bad rap, according to a new paper. For thousands of years, fickle weather has been blamed for tremendous suffering caused by massive flooding along the Yellow River, long known in China as the "River of Sorrow" and "Scourge of the Sons of Han."

Not so, according to a new paper in the Journal of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. Instead, the Anthropocene Epoch didn't start 150 years ago, or even in 2000 A.D. when it was coined and became the buzzword for environmentalists worldwide - it started 3,000 years ago.

The authors blame the river's increasingly deadly floods to a long-term and widespread pattern of human-caused environmental degradation and related flood-mitigation efforts that began changing the river's natural flow that began with ancient construction of large-scale levees and other flood-control systems in China.

"Human intervention in the Chinese environment is relatively massive, remarkably early and nowhere more keenly witnessed than in attempts to harness the Yellow River," said T.R. Kidder, PhD, lead author of the study and an archaeologist at Washington University. "In some ways, these findings offer a new benchmark for the beginning of the Anthropocene, the epoch in which humans became the most dominant global force in nature."

A catastrophic flood

It also suggests that the Chinese government's long-running efforts to tame the Yellow River with levees, dikes and drainage ditches actually made periodic flooding much worse, setting the stage for a catastrophic flood circa A.D. 14-17, which likely killed millions and triggered the collapse of the Western Han Dynasty.

"New evidence from China and elsewhere show us that past societies changed environments far more than we've ever suspected," said Kidder, the Edward S. and Tedi Macias Professor in Arts&Sciences and chair of anthropology at WUSTL. "By 2,000 years ago, people were controlling the Yellow River, or at least thought they were controlling it, and that's the problem."

Kidder's research, co-authored with Liu Haiwang, senior researcher at China's Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, relies on a sophisticated analysis of sedimentary soils deposited along the Yellow River over thousands of years.

It includes data from the team's ongoing excavations at the sites of two ancient communities in the lower Yellow River flood plain of China's Henan province.

The Sanyangzhuang site, known today as "China's Pompeii," was slowly buried beneath five meters of sediment during a massive flood circa A.D. 14

Science 20. 2014. “Anthropocene 1000 BC: Mother Nature Not To Blame For Flooding Along The Yellow River”. Science 20. Posted: June 19, 2014. Available online: http://www.science20.com/news_articles/anthropocene_1000_bc_mother_nature_not_to_blame_for_flooding_along_the_yellow_river-138944

Sunday, July 27, 2014

New method to identify inks could help preserve historical documents

The inks on historical documents can hold many secrets. Its ingredients can help trace trade routes and help understand a work's historical significance. And knowing how the ink breaks down can help cultural heritage scientists preserve valuable treasures. In a study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers report the development of a new, non-destructive method that can identify many types of inks on various papers and other surfaces.

Richard Van Duyne, Nilam Shah and colleagues explain that the challenge for analyzing inks on historical documents is that there's often very little of it to study. Another complication is that plant- or insect-based inks, as well as some synthetic ones, are composed of organic molecules, which break down easily when exposed to light. Current methods are not very specific or sensitive or can leave a residue on a document. To address these issues, the research team set out to develop a different way to analyze and identify historical inks.

They used the novel method, called tip-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (TERS), to analyze indigo and iron gall inks on freshly dyed rice papers. They also studied ink on a letter written in the 19th century. "This proof-of-concept work confirms the analytical potential of TERS as a new spectroscopic tool for cultural heritage applications that can identify organic colorants in artworks with high sensitivity, high spatial resolution, and minimal invasiveness," say the researchers.

The authors acknowledge funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Grainger Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Science Daily. 2014. “New method to identify inks could help preserve historical documents”. Science Daily. Posted: June 18, 2014. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140618122257.htm

Saturday, July 26, 2014

When it comes to numbers, culture counts

American children learn the meanings of number words gradually: First they understand "one," then they add "two, "three," and "four," in sequence. At that point, however, a dramatic shift in understanding takes place, and children grasp the meanings of not only "five" and "six," but all of the number words they know.

Scientists have also seen this pattern in children raised speaking other languages, including Japanese and Russian. In all of these industrialized nations, number learning begins around age 2, and children fully understand numbers and counting by the age of 4 or 5.

A new study from MIT cognitive scientists finds the same developmental trajectory in children from a farming and foraging society in the Bolivian rainforest. But there, it occurs much later -- beginning around age 5, and finishing around age 8.

The findings suggest that number learning is a fundamental process that follows a universal pathway, says Edward Gibson, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. However, the timing of the process depends on a child's environment -- specifically, how much exposure he or she has to numbers and counting.

"We were interested in exploring this in a language culture where numbers are not really a dominant component of that culture," Gibson says. "It appears they do go through exactly the same stages of learning number words, it's just way later."

Gibson is the senior author of a paper describing the findings in the journal Developmental Science. The paper's lead author is former MIT graduate student Steven Piantadosi, now an assistant professor at the University of Rochester. Julian Jara-Ettinger, an MIT graduate student, also contributed to the paper.

Less exposure to numbers

In the United States, most parents start teaching their children numbers as soon as they are able to talk. However, that is not true of the Tsimane', a society of about 13,000 people in the Amazon River basin, nor do Tsimane' children have exposure to toys or television shows that emphasize number learning. "Numbers are just not a big deal in their culture," Gibson says.

Most Tsimane' children start going to school around age 5, but education levels among adults vary widely, from zero to 12 years of schooling. Although the Tsimane' live in a fairly remote area, they do have some contact with Spanish speakers living nearby. The Tsimane' language has words for numbers up to 15, but their words for numbers larger than that are borrowed from Spanish, Piantadosi says.

During a 2012 trip to Bolivia, the researchers tested the counting ability of 92 Tsimane' children by giving each child eight pennies, then asking the children to hand them a certain number of pennies.

Based on each child's success rate with numbers one through eight, the researchers could classify them into different stages of number learning. Children were classified as knowing how to count if they performed perfectly or made only one mistake. Most of the remaining children fell into groups that knew only the number one, the numbers one and two, the numbers one through three, and a few that knew one through four -- the same breakdown seen in children in industrialized countries.

The results suggest that those counting stages are universal in child development, the researchers say.

"It easily could have been the case that stages that you see in U.S. kids are just some artifact of education or 'Sesame Street' or how parents talk to their kids here," Piantadosi says. "The more exciting possibility is that those stages are really fundamental to learning numbers. There's something about trying to acquire that conceptual linguistic system that pushes you through those different stages of knowledge."

The only difference seen in the Tsimane' children was that counting abilities developed much later. The researchers found true counting ability in Tsimane' children ranging from ages 5 to 11, but most 5- and 6-year-olds, as well as some children as old as 8, had not yet learned it.

The findings suggest that these stages of number-learning are a necessary part of the process of building number concepts, says Barbara Sarnecka, an associate professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California at Irvine who was not part of the research team.

"Basically, everyone seems to follow the same path to number knowledge, whether they are a preschooler in a highly industrialized, numerate society or a 12-year-old in a farming and foraging society in Bolivia. That tells us a lot about how number concepts are built in the mind," she says.

"Data-driven development"

Last year, Piantadosi, Josh Tenenbaum, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and former MIT postdoc Noah Goodman developed a computational model of how this number-learning process could work.

The model takes as its input a number word, such as "two," and contextual information, such as how many objects are present when the word "two" is heard. The model accumulates evidence and tries out different algorithms for counting objects and assigning a number to a set of objects. Those algorithms build on simple operations that can be performed on sets of objects, such as removing one object or combining two sets.

"It turns out the naturalistic data that parents would provide to kids should be enough to figure out how counting works without having to build in a lot of innate knowledge about counting," Piantadosi says. "You can construct a counting algorithm out of simpler set operations."

This suggests that data input is critical to learning to count, Piantadosi says. "Our explanation of what's going on with the Tsimane' kids is that it just takes them longer to get data. They go through the exact same stages, but it takes them two or three times as long to get an equivalent amount of data as a U.S. kid," he says. "It's a data-driven developmental process."

If they obtain permission from the Tsimane', the researchers are interested in studying whether educational strategies such as teaching preschool Tsimane' children to recite the numbers one through 10, as American parents often do with their young children, would enable them to learn to count earlier.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Science Daily. 2014. “When it comes to numbers, culture counts”. Science Daily. Posted: June 18, 2014. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/06/140618132009.htm

Friday, July 25, 2014

New archaeology survey maps Iraqi Kurdistan

Until recently the Kurdish region of Iraq was one of the most neglected area of the Near East. A guerilla war of Kurds against the central Iraqi government precluded any archaeological activities for several decades. After 2003 only three northeastern provinces of Iraq, controlled by former Kurdish guerillas, offered any semblance of safety and conditions that could allow fieldwork to take place. These opportunities have only really been exploited since 2010.

The Upper Greater Zab Archaeological Reconnaissance (UGZAR) project, launched in 2012, is one of several projects aimed at creating an archaeological map of the region as a pilot programme for archaeological exploration and heritage management of Kurdistan.


The Kurdish region of Iraq is now controlled by former peshmerga (Kurdish guerillas) after the region gained autonomy, and in contrast to the remaining part of Iraq, offers safe conditions for fieldwork.

An international conference held at Athens. Greece, in November 2013, demonstrated that there are presently more than 30 international archaeological projects under way in Iraqi Kurdistan. The survey coverage of the entire region in now an objective of primary importance.

Old Iraqi archaeological maps list only about 20% of actual sites, and provide information that is far from accurate. Many of those sites are now either damaged or lost to the rapid development of Iraqi Kurdistan; for example the area of the city of Erbil has increased 30-fold since 1970s, and is still rapidly expanding. Without an archaeological map of the country no reasonable heritage management is possible.

The UGZAR project, carried out by a team from the Institute of Prehistory, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, is one of several projects focusing on preparation of a precise and up-to-date archaeological map.

3000 square kilometres of survey

The work permit covers an area of c. 3000 km2 located on both banks of the Greater Zab river. It encompasses various landscapes: deforested mountain ranges up to 2000 m a.s.l. high, and adjacent highland areas, mountain oases around springs hidden in deep valleys, rolling plains cut by numerous seasonal and a few perennial streams, the eastern part of the alluvial plain of Navkur, and the valley of the Greater Zab with recent and ancient river terraces. Historical remains in the region  consist of settlement mounds up to 30 m high, with settlement record covering several millennia, urban sites reaching 30 ha in area, as well as small prehistoric tells and flat settlement sites, castles, churches, monasteries and rock art.

The first phase of the work on the project scrutinised variable sources for information on already identified archaeological sites, and to enhancing this list by sites visible on the available satellite imagery.

Very little research has been previously done in the UGZAR area. The rock art at Gunduk was visited and copied by Austen Henry Layard in 1853, Walter Bachmann in 1914, Mahmud al-Amin in 1947 and, most recently, by Julian Reade and Julie Anderson in 2011.

Beside that, two caves and two flat sites in the area were visited by Robert Braidwood’s prehistoric mission in 1954 and 1955. The main source of information was “Atlas of Archaeological Sites in Iraq” published in Baghdad in 1976, providing archaeological maps covering nearly the entire area of Iraq. However, a study of the imagery of the CORONA spy satellite program (of 1967, kindly provided by Dr. Jason Ur, Harvard University, and of 1968, available at the web site of the CORONA Atlas of the Middle East, a project by the University of Arkansas) allowed to increase the number of likely sites more than twofold.

Provisional listing of sites

Having a provisional listing of archaeological sites at hand, the team embarked on the first field season in Kurdistan, but it soon become obvious that while the information from the “Atlas of Archaeological Sites” was in most cases accurate, quite a number of provisional identifications made on the basis of CORONA imagery was wrong. This was mainly because the monochrome imagery of the CORONA program proved to be more problematic on rolling plains and heights typical for the UGZAR area. Some of the topographic shadow signals turned out to indicate natural heights, while most of signals of the soil colour marked the presence of pebbles of eroded conglomerate rock, and not, as expected, layers of decomposed clay of dried bricks from ancient structures.

In this situation, the survey team had to rely on more traditional methods in the field, as interviews with local population, and field walking. Both turned out to be extremely efficient and led to the discovery of a number of sites, especially flat ones. As a result the number of known sites in the area surveyed in 2012 increased from 12 to 37, and in 2013, to 63 (in the area surveyed in 2013, which partly covered the alluvial Navkur plain, satellite imagery was considerably more efficient than other ways of identifying sites).

During two seasons of fieldwork about one third of the work permit area was surveyed, revealing more than 100 archaeological sites, 99 of which were fully recorded. The sites cover a wide range of periods from pre-Hassuna and Hassuna to pre-Modern (19th – early 20th century AD), providing an overarching timespan of approximately ten thousand years of the settlement history of the area.

Rock art of Gunduk

Some of the surveyed sites proved to be of much interest and potential for further research. The first among them is the site of rock art at Gunduk. Three panels were carved on the rock face on the left of a large rock shelter/cave opening in the side of the mountain range above the village. On the stylistic grounds they are dated to Early Dynastic III period (c. 2600-2350 BC – according to conventional Middle Chronology), being thus the most ancient example of this kind of monument in Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, two out of three relief panels fell victim to looters in 1996, who blew up the rock face, seriously damaging one of the representations, and entirely destroying the other.

The UGZAR team discovered two fragments of the completely shattered panel. On the basis of the recovered fragments and the drawings executed by earlier scholars, it was possible to reconstruct the whole scene, as well as to verify the accuracy of the drawings , allowing to disregard two of them as being far from precise. The destroyed scene depicted was probably the creation of human kind by gods Enki, Nintu and Ninmah.

It is all the more pity that the rock art has been destroyed as illustrations of mythological subjects are extremely rare in Mesopotamian iconography. The partly destroyed relief shows a person, possibly a ruler responsible for the execution of the work, hunting an ibex. The third panel depicts a seating deity and animals: a lion, an ibex, the Anzu bird, and an unidentified mammal feeding. It seems likely that the seating deity is Sumuqan/Šakkan, the lord of the mountain, protector of wild animals. The scene is unusual, though its elements are typical of the Mesopotamian art of the mid- 3rd millennium BC.

One of aims of the project was the evaluation of damage to heritage monuments in the UGZAR area and possible further threats. In contrast to other parts of Iraq, Kurdistan avoided disastrous looting which affected most of the large sites in the south of the country. Pits dug by looters were encountered on a few of the 99 surveyed sites, and appeared to be several years old.

Development threat

Very few sites suffered from installations of military character. However, a greater threat is posed by human activity to the sites located in the villages. These are usually cut or levelled to provide more space for new structures raised in the vicinity. In the most extreme case of site S055 (Girdi Keleke 3) the entire site, reputedly 3 m high, was levelled to make space for building three houses. Some higher sites in the vicinity of Daratu, on the western bank of the Greater Zab, which are located at a distance from settlements have suffered as a result of digging for clay. There is no doubt that the Kurdish authorities should increase efforts to monitor archaeological sites, and especially to raise the awareness among the local societies about the importance for preserving those places for the future.

The Project

Two out of three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan are presently surveyed by four teams cooperating in the framework of the Assyrian Landscape Working Group: the UGZAR project (Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań); Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey, directed by Dr. Jason Ur (Harvard University); Eastern Habur Archaeological Survey, directed by Professor Peter Pfälzner (Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen); and Land of Niniveh Regional Project, directed by Professor Daniele Morandi Bonacossi (the University of Udine). The group share similar research methodology, chronological determinations and reference collection of sherds used for identifying cultural periods in the aim to obtain easily comparable results.

Kolinski, Rafal. 2014. “New archaeology survey maps Iraqi Kurdistan”. Past Horizons. Posted: June 16, 2014. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/06/2014/new-archaeology-survey-maps-iraqi-kurdistan

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Study examines religious affiliation and social class

Younger evangelical Protestants closing social-class gap with mainline Protestants; younger working-class increasingly unchurched

Younger generations are closing the social class gap between evangelical Protestants and mainline denominations, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist of religion has found.

And in what appears to be an important shift in the U.S. religious landscape, a growing number of younger-generation working-class Americans are not affiliated with any particular religious denomination.

"When lower-class Americans aren't choosing to be evangelical, they're increasingly choosing to be nothing," said Philip Schwadel, associate professor of sociology.

Schwadel's findings, published in the July edition of Social Science Research, could hold implications for the future role of conservative Christian groups in U.S. society and politics. Since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, evangelical Protestant groups have been significant players in the Republican Party.

"The results . . . show considerable change in the social-class hierarchy of religious traditions in the United States," he wrote. "In younger cohorts, differences between evangelical and liberal Protestants are greatly reduced, and evangelical Protestants no longer have lower levels of education and income than do affiliates of 'other' religions and the unaffiliated."

The underpinnings of Schwadel's study date to 1929, when theologian H. Richard Niebuhr identified what he called "Churches of the Disinherited" -- sects whose theology and worship style appeal to people of lower means and prestige. Based upon the history of other Christian denominations, Niebuhr theorized that such sects would evolve into mainstream denominations as their members became upwardly mobile, gaining more education, more income and more prestigious occupations.

Yet empirical research conducted since the 1970s has not found much change in social class differences across denominations in the United States.

"One major lack of finding is that evangelicals in most empirical research did not really change relative to other Americans," Schwadel said. "They didn't become more middle-class."

The difficulty researchers faced, Schwadel said, was measuring change by generation and not merely over time. Niebuhr's theory predicted generational change -- that the denominations would evolve as the original members' children and grandchildren gained more education, better jobs and more income.

Previous studies looked at change over time -- but the generational effect was masked by the large size of the Baby Boom generation as well as by the influence of age on religious attitudes. Those in their 70s often have a different perspective on religion than those in their 20s, Schwadel said.

Using a technique developed by other sociologists to measure changes over generations, Schwadel separated the responses of more than 31,000 white participants in the General Social Survey from 1973 to 2010 into five-year birth cohorts from 1900-1904 to 1975-79. He examined the correlations by cohort between religious affiliation and three measures of social class: income, education and occupational prestige.

He said he limited his study to white respondents because the relationship between religious affiliation and social class may vary by race.

Schwadel is among the first to apply the birth cohort approach to the sociological study of religion. He examined those identified as evangelical Protestant, liberal Protestant (Presbyterian, Episcopal and United Church of Christ), moderate Protestant, Pentecostal, nondenominational Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, other religions (such as Mormon, Hindu and Muslim) and the unaffiliated.

On the aggregate, evangelical Protestants continue to have lower education, income and occupational prestige levels than those in most other religious affiliations, he found. Yet the differences in occupation and income narrow considerably among younger generations of Protestants.

Schwadel said he found the result to be a combination of younger evangelical Protestants gaining social class status while the other affiliations lost status. The most significant reduction in social class difference occurred between evangelical Protestants and those who are unaffiliated.

Some of Schwadel's specific findings:

  • Only Pentecostals have lower levels of social class than white evangelical Protestants.
  • In younger cohorts, differences between evangelical and liberal Protestants are greatly reduced.
  • Differences between evangelicals and Catholics increase moderately across cohorts, with younger Catholic cohorts gaining social status.
  • Catholics are the "glaring exception" to the pattern of cohort-based declines in social class differences between evangelical Protestants and other white Americans. Catholics gained in income and education levels compared to evangelical Protestants.
  • Evangelicals also continue to be disproportionately lower class compared to moderate Protestants and Jews.
  • Those unaffiliated with a specific religion are no longer a small, elite social group, with relatively high levels of education, income and occupational prestige. Among younger generations, the education, income and occupations of the unaffiliated are comparable to those of evangelical Protestants.
"As Niebuhr's model predicts, white evangelical Protestants have become more similar to affiliates of some other religious traditions in terms of both education and family income, and this change occurs predominantly across birth cohorts," Schwadel wrote.

"In other words, evangelical Protestants no longer are necessarily the churches of the disinherited."

EurekAlert. 2014. “Study examines religious affiliation and social class”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 12, 2014. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-06/uon-ser061214.php

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

First atlas of Inuit Arctic trails launched

For centuries, indigenous peoples in the Arctic navigated the land, sea, and ice, using knowledge of trails that was passed down through the generations.

Now, researchers have mapped these ancient routes using archival and published accounts of encounters with Inuit stretching back through the 19th and 20th centuries, and have released it online for the public as an interactive atlas – bringing together hundreds of years of accrued cultural knowledge for the first time.

The atlas, found at paninuittrails.org, is constructed from historical records, maps, trails and place names, and allows the first overview of the "pan-Inuit" world that is being fragmented as the annual sea ice diminishes and commercial mining and oil drilling encroaches.

Researchers say the atlas is important not just for cultural preservation but to show the geographical extent and connectedness of Inuit occupancy – illustrating their historic sovereignty and mobility over a resource-rich area with important trade routes that are opening up due to climate change.

"To the untutored eye, these trails may seem arbitrary and indistinguishable from surrounding landscapes. But for Inuit, the subtle features and contours are etched into their narratives and story-telling traditions with extraordinary precision," said Dr Michael Bravo from Cambridge University's Scott Polar Research Institute, who co-directed the research with colleagues Claudio Aporta from Dalhousie University, and Fraser Taylor from Carleton University in Canada.

"This atlas is a first step in making visible some of the most important tracks and trails spanning the North American continent from one end to the other."

Over the course of centuries, Arctic peoples established a network of trails – routes across the sea ice in the winter, and across open water in the summer, that stretched for hundreds of kilometres, allowing them to follow the seasonal movements of sea and land mammals on which their lives depended.

The intricate network of trails also connected Inuit groups with each other. The atlas shows that, when brought together, these connections span the continent from Greenland to Alaska. Understanding the trails is essential to appreciating Inuit history and occupancy of the Arctic, say the researchers, for which the new atlas is a vital step. v "Essentially the trails and the atlas reduce the topology of the Arctic, revealing it to be a smaller, richer, and more intimate world," Bravo said. "For all that the 19th century explorers had military equipment and scientific instruments, they lacked the very precise indigenous knowledge about the routes, patterns, and timing of animal movements. That mattered in a place where the margins of survival could be extremely narrow."

The documents that form the foundation of the new atlas consist of accounts – both published and unpublished – of encounters with Inuit by explorers, scientists, ethnographers and other visitors seeking access to the traditional indigenous knowledge to unlock the geographical secrets of the Arctic.

The material has been digitised and organised geo-spatially, with trails mapped out over satellite imagery using global positioning systems. It constitutes the first attempt to map the ancient hubs and networks that have long-existed in a part of the world frequently and wrongly depicted as 'empty': as though an unclaimed stretch of vacant space.

This notion of emptiness is one that benefits those governments and corporations whose investments in shipping routes into the northern archipelago conveniently downplay the presence of the people that have lived there for centuries.

The atlas provides evidence of the use and occupancy patterns of coastal and marine areas that intersect and overlap with significant parts of the Northwest Passage – the focus of recent mineral exploration and potentially a major shipping route. Historical printed sources like those found in the atlas are important for understanding the spatial extent of Inuit sovereignty, say the team, as these records reflect well-established Inuit networks.

In fact, because the maps are the product of encounters between Inuit and outsiders, the new resource also shows patterns of non-Inuit exploration – Western desires and ambitions to map and, at times, possess the Arctic.

"Most of the Inuit trails and place names recorded by explorers and other Arctic visitors are still used by Inuit today. They passed this knowledge on for hundreds of years, indicating intensive and extensive use of land and marine areas across the North American Arctic," said co-director Claudio Aporta.

While much of the Arctic appears 'featureless' to outsiders, it's not – and the Inuit learned how to read the fine-grained details of this landscape. Knowledge of the trails was attained by remembering specific journeys they themselves had taken, or learning in detail instructions in the oral narratives passed on by others.

The Inuit were able to read the snow, the prevailing wind, the thickness of the ice, and the landscape as a whole. Over hundreds of years, their culture and way of life was, therefore, written into the landscape. The region became an intimate part of who they are.

"The trails are lived, remembered, and celebrated through the connections that ultimately reflect the Inuit traditions of sharing life while travelling," said Bravo.

"The geographical range of the atlas is a testimony to the legacy of the Inuit people, their remarkable collective memory built on practices of detailed observation, and motivated by an enduring sense of curiosity, as well as a set of ethical obligations to the living world they inhabit," he said.

EurekAlert. 2014. “First atlas of Inuit Arctic trails launched”. EurekAlert. Posted: Une 9, 2014. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-06/uoc-fao060914.php