Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets - Day 2

Day Two. You can learn more about Doug Owsley at Wikipedia.

To get to Owsley’s office at the National Museum of Natural History, you must negotiate a warren of narrow corridors illuminated by fluorescent strip lighting and lined with specimen cases. When his door opens, you are greeted by Kennewick Man. The reconstruction of his head is striking—rugged, handsome and weather-beaten, with long hair and a thick beard. A small scar puckers his left forehead. His determined gaze is powerful enough to stop you as you enter. This is a man with a history.

Kennewick Man is surrounded on all sides by tables laid out with human skeletons. Some are articulated on padded counters, while others rest in metal trays, the bones arranged as precisely as surgeon’s tools before an operation. These bones represent the forensic cases Owsley is currently working on.

“This is a woman,” he said, pointing to the skeleton to the left of Kennewick Man. “She’s young. She was a suicide, not found for a long time.” He gestured to the right. “And this is a homicide. I know there was physical violence. She has a fractured nose, indicating a blow to the face. The detective working the case thinks that if we can get a positive ID, the guy they have will talk. And we have a positive ID.” A third skeleton belonged to a man killed while riding an ATV, his body not found for six months. Owsley was able to assure the man’s relatives that he died instantly and didn’t suffer. “In doing this work,” he said, “I hope to speak for the person who can no longer speak.”

Owsley is a robust man, of medium height, 63 years old, graying hair, glasses; curiously, he has the same purposeful look in his eyes as Kennewick Man. He is not into chitchat. He grew up in Lusk, Wyoming, and he still radiates a frontier sense of determination; he is the kind of person who will not respond well to being told what he can’t do. He met Susan on the playground when he was 7 years old and remains happily married. He lives in the country, on a farm where he grows berries, has an orchard and raises bees. He freely admits he is “obsessive” and “will work like a dog” until he finishes a project. “I thought this was normal,” he said, “until it was pointed out to me it wasn’t.” I asked if he was stubborn, as evidenced by the lawsuit, but he countered: “I would say I’m driven—by curiosity.” He added, “Sometimes you come to a skeleton that wants to talk to you, that whispers to you, I want to tell my story. And that was Kennewick Man.”

A vast amount of data was collected in the 16 days Owsley and colleagues spent with the bones. Twenty-two scientists scrutinized the almost 300 bones and fragments. Led by Kari Bruwelheide, a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian, they first reassembled the fragile skeleton so they could see it as a whole. They built a shallow box, added a layer of fine sand, and covered that with black velvet; then Bruwelheide laid out the skeleton, bone by bone, shaping the sand underneath to cradle each piece. Now the researchers could address such questions as Kennewick Man’s age, height, weight, body build, general health and fitness, and injuries. They could also tell whether he was deliberately buried, and if so, the position of his body in the grave.

Next the skeleton was taken apart, and certain key bones studied intensively. The limb bones and ribs were CT-scanned at the University of Washington Medical Center. These scans used far more radiation than would be safe for living tissue, and as a result they produced detailed, three-dimensional images that allowed the bones to be digitally sliced up any which way. With additional CT scans, the team members built resin models of the skull and other important bones. They made a replica from a scan of the spearpoint in the hip.

As work progressed, a portrait of Kennewick Man emerged. He does not belong to any living human population. Who, then, are his closest living relatives? Judging from the shape of his skull and bones, his closest living relatives appear to be the Moriori people of the Chatham Islands, a remote archipelago 420 miles southeast of New Zealand, as well as the mysterious Ainu people of Japan.

“Just think of Polynesians,” said Owsley.

Not that Kennewick Man himself was Polynesian. This is not Kon-Tiki in reverse; humans had not reached the Pacific Islands in his time period. Rather, he was descended from the same group of people who would later spread out over the Pacific and give rise to modern-day Polynesians. These people were maritime hunter-gatherers of the north Pacific coast; among them were the ancient Jōmon, the original inhabitants of the Japanese Islands. The present-day Ainu people of Japan are thought to be descendants of the Jōmon. Nineteenth-century photographs of the Ainu show individuals with light skin, heavy beards and sometimes light-colored eyes.

Jōmon culture first arose in Japan at least 12,000 years ago and perhaps as early as 16,000 years ago, when the landmasses were still connected to the mainland. These seafarers built boats out of sewn planks of wood. Outstanding mariners and deep-water fishermen, they were among the first people to make fired pottery.

The discovery of Kennewick Man adds a major piece of evidence to an alternative view of the peopling of North America. It, along with other evidence, suggests that the Jōmon or related peoples were the original settlers of the New World. If correct, the conclusion upends the traditional view that the first Americans came through central Asia and walked across the Bering Land Bridge and down through an ice-free corridor into North America.

Sometime around 15,000 years ago, the new theory goes, coastal Asian groups began working their way along the shoreline of ancient Beringia—the sea was much lower then—from Japan and Kamchatka Peninsula to Alaska and beyond. This is not as crazy a journey as it sounds. As long as the voyagers were hugging the coast, they would have plenty of fresh water and food. Cold-climate coasts furnish a variety of animals, from seals and birds to fish and shellfish, as well as driftwood, to make fires. The thousands of islands and their inlets would have provided security and shelter. To show that such a sea journey was possible, in 1999 and 2000 an American named Jon Turk paddled a kayak from Japan to Alaska following the route of the presumed Jōmon migration. Anthropologists have nicknamed this route the “Kelp Highway.”

“I believe these Asian coastal migrations were the first,” said Owsley. “Then you’ve got a later wave of the people who give rise to Indians as we know them today.”

What became of those pioneers, Kennewick Man’s ancestors and companions? They were genetically swamped by much larger—and later—waves of travelers from Asia and disappeared as a physically distinct people, Owsley says. These later waves may have interbred with the first settlers, diluting their genetic legacy. A trace of their DNA still can be detected in some Native American groups, though the signal is too weak to label the Native Americans “descendants.”

Whether this new account of the peopling of North America will stand up as more evidence comes in is not yet known. The bones of a 13,000-year-old teenage girl recently discovered in an underwater cave in Mexico, for example, are adding to the discussion. James Chatters, the first archaeologist to study Kennewick and a participant in the full analysis, reported earlier this year, along with colleagues, that the girl’s skull appears to have features in common with that of Kennewick Man and other Paleo-Americans, but she also possesses specific DNA signatures suggesting she shares female ancestry with Native Americans.

Kennewick Man may still hold a key. The first effort to extract DNA from fragments of his bone failed, and the corps so far hasn’t allowed a better sample to be taken. A second effort to plumb the old fragments is underway at a laboratory in Denmark.
________________
References:

Preston, Douglas. 2014. “The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets" Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: August 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/kennewick-man-finally-freed-share-his-secrets-180952462/

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets - Day 1

The following article is divided over the next four days. A good read. You can learn more about Doug Owsley at Wikipedia.

In the summer of 1996, two college students in Kennewick, Washington, stumbled on a human skull while wading in the shallows along the Columbia River. They called the police. The police brought in the Benton County coroner, Floyd Johnson, who was puzzled by the skull, and he in turn contacted James Chatters, a local archaeologist. Chatters and the coroner returned to the site and, in the dying light of evening, plucked almost an entire skeleton from the mud and sand. They carried the bones back to Chatters’ lab and spread them out on a table.

The skull, while clearly old, did not look Native American. At first glance, Chatters thought it might belong to an early pioneer or trapper. But the teeth were cavity-free (signaling a diet low in sugar and starch) and worn down to the roots—a combination characteristic of prehistoric teeth. Chatters then noted something embedded in the hipbone. It proved to be a stone spearpoint, which seemed to clinch that the remains were prehistoric. He sent a bone sample off for carbon dating. The results: It was more than 9,000 years old.

Thus began the saga of Kennewick Man, one of the oldest skeletons ever found in the Americas and an object of deep fascination from the moment it was discovered. It is among the most contested set of remains on the continents as well. Now, though, after two decades, the dappled, pale brown bones are at last about to come into sharp focus, thanks to a long-awaited, monumental scientific publication next month co-edited by the physical anthropologist Douglas Owsley, of the Smithsonian Institution. No fewer than 48 authors and another 17 researchers, photographers and editors contributed to the 680-page Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton (Texas A&M University Press), the most complete analysis of a Paleo-American skeleton ever done.

The book recounts the history of discovery, presents a complete inventory of the bones and explores every angle of what they may reveal. Three chapters are devoted to the teeth alone, and another to green stains thought to be left by algae. Together, the findings illuminate this mysterious man’s life and support an astounding new theory of the peopling of the Americas. If it weren’t for a harrowing round of panicky last-minute maneuvering worthy of a legal thriller, the remains might have been buried and lost to science forever.

The storm of controversy erupted when the Army Corps of Engineers, which managed the land where the bones had been found, learned of the radiocarbon date. The corps immediately claimed authority—officials there would make all decisions related to handling and access—and demanded that all scientific study cease. Floyd Johnson protested, saying that as county coroner he believed he had legal jurisdiction. The dispute escalated, and the bones were sealed in an evidence locker at the sheriff’s office pending a resolution.

“At that point,” Chatters recalled to me in a recent interview, “I knew trouble was coming.” It was then that he called Owsley, a curator at the National Museum of Natural History and a legend in the community of physical anthropologists. He has examined well over 10,000 sets of human remains during his long career. He had helped identify human remains for the CIA, the FBI, the State Department and various police departments, and he had worked on mass graves in Croatia and elsewhere. He helped reassemble and identify the dismembered and burned bodies from the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. Later, he did the same with the Pentagon victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack. Owsley is also a specialist in ancient American remains.

“You can count on your fingers the number of ancient, well-preserved skeletons there are” in North America, he told me, remembering his excitement at first hearing from Chatters. Owsley and Dennis Stanford, at that time chairman of the Smithsonian’s anthropology department, decided to pull together a team to study the bones. But corps attorneys showed that federal law did, in fact, give them jurisdiction over the remains. So the corps seized the bones and locked them up at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, often called Battelle for the organization that operates the lab.

At the same time, a coalition of Columbia River Basin Indian tribes and bands claimed the skeleton under a 1990 law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. The tribes demanded the bones for reburial. “Scientists have dug up and studied Native Americans for decades,” a spokesman for the Umatilla tribe, Armand Minthorn, wrote in 1996. “We view this practice as desecration of the body and a violation of our most deeply-held religious beliefs.” The remains, the tribe said, were those of a direct tribal ancestor. “From our oral histories, we know that our people have been part of this land since the beginning of time. We do not believe that our people migrated here from another continent, as the scientists do.” The coalition announced that as soon as the corps turned the skeleton over to them, they would bury it in a secret location where it would never be available to science. The corps made it clear that, after a monthlong public comment period, the tribal coalition would receive the bones.

The tribes had good reason to be sensitive. The early history of museum collecting of Native American remains is replete with horror stories. In the 19th century, anthropologists and collectors looted fresh Native American graves and burial platforms, dug up corpses and even decapitated dead Indians lying on the field of battle and shipped the heads to Washington for study. Until NAGPRA, museums were filled with American Indian remains acquired without regard for the feelings and religious beliefs of native people. NAGPRA was passed to redress this history and allow tribes to reclaim their ancestors’ remains and some artifacts. The Smithsonian, under the National Museum of the American Indian Act, and other museums under NAGPRA, have returned (and continue to return) many thousands of remains to tribes. This is being done with the crucial help of anthropologists and archaeologists—including Owsley, who has been instrumental in repatriating remains from the Smithsonian’s collection. But in the case of Kennewick, Owsley argued, there was no evidence of a relationship with any existing tribes. The skeleton lacked physical features characteristic of Native Americans.

In the weeks after the Army engineers announced they would return Kennewick Man to the tribes, Owsley went to work. “I called and others called the corps. They would never return a phone call. I kept expressing an interest in the skeleton to study it—at our expense. All we needed was an afternoon.” Others contacted the corps, including members of Congress, saying the remains should be studied, if only briefly, before reburial. This was what NAGPRA in fact required: The remains had to be studied to determine affiliation. If the bones showed no affiliation with a present-day tribe, NAGPRA didn’t apply.

But the corps indicated it had made up its mind. Owsley began telephoning his colleagues. “I think they’re going to rebury this,” he said, “and if that happens, there’s no going back. It’s gone."

So Owsley and several of his colleagues found an attorney, Alan Schneider. Schneider contacted the corps and was also rebuffed. Owsley suggested they file a lawsuit and get an injunction. Schneider warned him: “If you’re going to sue the government, you better be in it for the long haul.”

Owsley assembled a group of eight plaintiffs, prominent physical anthropologists and archaeologists connected to leading universities and museums. But no institution wanted anything to do with the lawsuit, which promised to attract negative attention and be hugely expensive. They would have to litigate as private citizens. “These were people,” Schneider said to me later, “who had to be strong enough to stand the heat, knowing that efforts might be made to destroy their careers. And efforts were made.”

When Owsley told his wife, Susan, that he was going to sue the government of the United States, her first response was: “Are we going to lose our home?” He said he didn’t know. “I just felt,” Owsley told me in a recent interview, “this was one of those extremely rare and important discoveries that come once in a lifetime. If we lost it”—he paused. “Unthinkable.”

Working like mad, Schneider and litigating partner Paula Barran filed a lawsuit. With literally hours to go, a judge ordered the corps to hold the bones until the case was resolved.

When word got out that the eight scientists had sued the government, criticism poured in, even from colleagues. The head of the Society for American Archaeology tried to get them to drop the lawsuit. Some felt it would interfere with the relationships they had built with Native American tribes. But the biggest threat came from the Justice Department itself. Its lawyers contacted the Smithsonian Institution warning that Owsley and Stanford might be violating “criminal conflict of interest statutes which prohibit employees of the United States” from making claims against the government.

“I operate on a philosophy,” Owsley told me, “that if they don’t like it, I’m sorry: I’m going to do what I believe in.” He had wrestled in high school and, even though he often lost, he earned the nickname “Scrapper” because he never quit. Stanford, a husky man with a full beard and suspenders, had roped in rodeos in New Mexico and put himself through graduate school by farming alfalfa. They were no pushovers. “The Justice Department squeezed us really, really hard,” Owsley recalled. But both anthropologists refused to withdraw, and the director of the National Museum of Natural History at the time, Robert W. Fri, strongly supported them even over the objections of the Smithsonian’s general counsel. The Justice Department backed off.

Owsley and his group were eventually forced to litigate not just against the corps, but also the Department of the Army, the Department of the Interior and a number of individual government officials. As scientists on modest salaries, they could not begin to afford the astronomical legal bills. Schneider and Barran agreed to work for free, with the faint hope that they might, someday, recover their fees. In order to do that they would have to win the case and prove the government had acted in “bad faith”—a nearly impossible hurdle. The lawsuit dragged on for years. “We never expected them to fight so hard,” Owsley says. Schneider says he once counted 93 government attorneys directly involved in the case or cc’ed on documents.

Meanwhile, the skeleton, which was being held in trust by the corps, first at Battelle and later at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture at the University of Washington in Seattle, was badly mishandled and stored in “substandard, unsafe conditions,” according to the scientists. In the storage area where the bones were (and are) being kept at the Burke Museum, records show there have been wide swings in temperature and humidity that, the scientists say, have damaged the specimen. When Smithsonian asked about the scientists’ concerns, the corps disputed that the environment is unstable, pointing out that expert conservators and museum personnel say that “gradual changes are to be expected through the seasons and do not adversely affect the collection.”

Somewhere in the move to Battelle, large portions of both femurs disappeared. The FBI launched an investigation, focusing on James Chatters and Floyd Johnson. It even went so far as to give Johnson a lie detector test; after several hours of accusatory questioning, Johnson, disgusted, pulled off the wires and walked out. Years later, the femur bones were found in the county coroner’s office. The mystery of how they got there has never been solved.

The scientists asked the corps for permission to examine the stratigraphy of the site where the skeleton had been found and to look for grave goods. Even as Congress was readying a bill to require the corps to preserve the site, the corps dumped a million pounds of rock and fill over the area for erosion control, ending any chance of research.

I asked Schneider why the corps so adamantly resisted the scientists. He speculated that the corps was involved in tense negotiations with the tribes over a number of thorny issues, including salmon fishing rights along the Columbia River, the tribes’ demand that the corps remove dams and the ongoing, hundred-billion-dollar cleanup of the vastly polluted Hanford nuclear site. Schneider says that a corps archaeologist told him “they weren’t going to let a bag of old bones get in the way of resolving other issues with the tribes.”

Asked about its actions in the Kennewick Man case, the corps told Smithsonian: “The United States acted in accordance with its interpretation of NAGPRA and its concerns about the safety and security of the fragile, ancient human remains.”

Ultimately, the scientists won the lawsuit. The court ruled in 2002 that the bones were not related to any living tribe: thus NAGPRA did not apply. The judge ordered the corps to make the specimen available to the plaintiffs for study. The government appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which in 2004 again ruled resoundingly in favor of the scientists, writing:

because Kennewick Man’s remains are so old and the information about his era is so limited, the record does not permit the Secretary [of the Interior] to conclude reasonably that Kennewick Man shares special and significant genetic or cultural features with presently existing indigenous tribes, people, or cultures.
During the trial, the presiding magistrate judge, John Jelderks, had noted for the record that the corps on multiple occasions misled or deceived the court. He found that the government had indeed acted in “bad faith” and awarded attorney’s fees of $2,379,000 to Schneider and his team.

“At the bare minimum,” Schneider told me, “this lawsuit cost the taxpayers $5 million.”

Owsley and the collaborating scientists presented a plan of study to the corps, which was approved after several years. And so, almost ten years after the skeleton was found, the scientists were given 16 days to examine it. They did so in July of 2005 and February of 2006.

From these studies, presented in superabundant detail in the new book, we now have an idea who Kennewick Man was, how he lived, what he did and where he traveled. We know how he was buried and then came to light. Kennewick Man, Owsley believes, belongs to an ancient population of seafarers who were America’s original settlers. They did not look like Native Americans. The few remains we have of these early people show they had longer, narrower skulls with smaller faces. These mysterious people have long since disappeared.
________________
References:

Preston, Douglas. 2014. “The Kennewick Man Finally Freed to Share His Secrets" Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: August 26, 2014. Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/kennewick-man-finally-freed-share-his-secrets-180952462/

Friday, September 19, 2014

Half The World's Languages May Be Endangered

What happens when the last person to speak a language dies?

Sometime in the 1970s, a linguist named James Rementer, moved into the house of an elderly woman in Oklahoma. That woman, Nora Thompson Dean, was one of the last persons to speak Unami, a dialect of the Delaware (Lenni Lenape) language. When she died in 1984, the language spoken by the Native Americans who left their place names all over New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and signed the famous peace treaty with William Penn in 1683, went silent.

Thousands of languages have gone extinct in the last few centuries, and an economist at Case Western Reserve University thinks the language of any people whose total population is fewer than 35,000, is possibly endangered.

That does not mean they will disappear, said David Clingingsmith.

“I think that’s what the data says on average.”

There are approximately 7,000 languages in the world, and 95 percent of the world’s population speak 300 of them. Half the world speaks the largest 16. According to the Endangered Languages Project, some 40 percent of the world's languages are threatened.

It depends on circumstances. For instance, scientists still encounter tribes in places like the Amazon that have been totally isolated from the rest of the world with their own languages. Despite having populations numbering in the hundreds, their languages only are in danger if they have too much contact with the outside world, Clingingsmith said. Without that contact, there is not much pressure to change.

There still are places in Europe, where a relatively small population speaks minority languages descended from Vulgar Latin that are mutually unintelligible from each other.  Examples include Picard and Walloon, both spoken in parts of France and Belgium. Even in Great Britain, there is a small population that still speaks Cornish, and Welsh never disappeared, he said.

But, when a language does disappear, a unique view of the world goes with it.

Once one is gone it is almost impossible to resurrect — Hebrew being a rare exception.

Possibly 4,000 years old, it stopped being a spoken language sometime during the Roman Empire and existed only as a language of prayer — written, not spoken since that time. (Jesus probably spoke Aramaic at home.) But with the rise of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century, some thought a Jewish nation could only succeed if it had its own language and Hebrew was the logical choice. So, one man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, invented modern Hebrew.

When his son, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, was born in 1882, Ben-Yehuda and his wife spoke to him only in Hebrew and protected him from hearing other languages for years, making up words and syntax as they went along. Ben-Zion became the first person to have Hebrew as a native tongue in 1,800 years. Other families followed. Ben-Yehuda also helped create a Hebrew dictionary and form an Academy of the Hebrew Language, inventing words that did not exist in classical liturgical Hebrew.

Sometimes it worked: The Hebrew word for "computer," the academy decided, was maschev. Sometimes it didn’t: The Hebrew word for "television" is televiztia.

Today, 9 million people speak Hebrew, almost 8 million in Israel as a first language, and Hebrew has a thriving literature, including a Nobel laureate, Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

Other attempts weren't so successful, including the attempt to recreate Gaelic as the spoken language of Ireland. Some speak it, but mostly as a second language. While all government business in Israel is in Hebrew, the government of the Irish Republic still communicates in English and almost all of Ireland’s great literature is in English.

Sometimes governments act to protect a minority language against the majority. The efforts of the government in Quebec to protect French are a good example. Clingingsmith didn’t think that intervention necessary. As long as generations pass the language on it is not threatened. Dutch speakers, for example, do not feel threatened even though most people in the Netherlands also speak English.

The rise of English as a lingua franca – or a world-wide common language – does not pose a major threat to other languages, said Salikoko Mufwene, a linguist at the University of Chicago. In many places only the elites speak it and in some, China for example, you are more likely to find someone speaking English at a tourist market than in the government. Adoption of English is not uniform, and a large portion of the population has no reason to change, he said.

But dead languages often leave whispers. Delaware, for example, is carved into American geography. Manhattan, Passaic, Shenandoah, Ohio, all are Delaware names.

After Nora Thompson Dean died, all that remained of her language was Rementer’s recordings and a 12,000-word dictionary. The only other person she could speak to was her brother, Edward. And even if other Delawares indicated they would like to learn the language, that would not bring it back. They would have to use it regularly and make it part of their lives.

The difference between economists like Clingingsmith and linguists like himself, Mufwene said, is that economists look at census numbers; linguists look at the “vitality” of a language, whether it is alive, spoken by one generation to another.

When Dean died, Delaware died. Dean’s brother, Edward, who died in 2002, had no one to talk to. He was the end. Wekwihéle.*

*The Delaware word for gone. 
________________
References:

Shurkin, Joel N. 2014. “Half The World's Languages May Be Endangered”. Inside Science. Posted: August 20, 2014. Available online: http://www.insidescience.org/content/half-worlds-languages-may-be-endangered/1931

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hand gestures improve learning in both signers and speakers

Spontaneous gesture can help children learn, whether they use a spoken language or sign language, according to a new report.

Previous research by Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Psychology, has found that gesture helps children develop their language, learning and cognitive skills. As one of the nation's leading authorities on language learning and gesture, she has also studied how using gesture helps older children improve their mathematical skills.

Goldin-Meadow's new study examines how gesturing contributes to language learning in hearing and in deaf children. She concludes that gesture is a flexible way of communicating, one that can work with language to communicate or, if necessary, can itself become language. The article is published online by Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B and will appear in the Sept. 19 print issue of the journal, which is a theme issue on "Language as a Multimodal Phenomenon."

"Children who can hear use gesture along with speech to communicate as they acquire spoken language, "Goldin-Meadow said. "Those gesture-plus-word combinations precede and predict the acquisition of word combinations that convey the same notions. The findings make it clear that children have an understanding of these notions before they are able to express them in speech."

In addition to children who learned spoken languages, Goldin-Meadow studied children who learned sign language from their parents. She found that they too use gestures as they use American Sign Language. These gestures predict learning, just like the gestures that accompany speech.

Finally, Goldin-Meadow looked at deaf children whose hearing losses prevented them from learning spoken language, and whose hearing parents had not presented them with conventional sign language. These children use homemade gesture systems, called homesign, to communicate. Homesign shares properties in common with natural languages but is not a full-blown language, perhaps because the children lack "a community of communication partners," Goldin-Meadow writes. Nevertheless, homesign can be the "first step toward an established sign language." In Nicaragua, individual gesture systems blossomed into a more complex, shared system when homesigners were brought together for the first time.

These findings provide insight into gesture's contribution to learning. Gesture plays a role in learning for signers even though it is in the same modality as sign. As a result, gesture cannot aid learners simply by providing a second modality. Rather, gesture adds imagery to the categorical distinctions that form the core of both spoken and sign languages.

Goldin-Meadow concludes that gesture can be the basis for a self-made language, assuming linguistic forms and functions when other vehicles are not available. But when a conventional spoken or sign language is present, gesture works along with language, helping to promote learning.
________________
References:

EurekAlert. 2014. “Hand gestures improve learning in both signers and speakers”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 18, 2014. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2014-08/uoc-hgi081814.php

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Ancient Maya Cities Found in Jungle

A monster mouth doorway, ruined pyramid temples and palace remains emerged from the Mexican jungle as archaeologists unearthed two ancient Mayan cities.

Found in the southeastern part of the Mexican state of Campeche, in the heart of the Yucatan peninsula, the cities were hidden in thick vegetation and hardly accessible.

"Aerial photographs helped us in locating the sites," expedition leader Ivan Sprajc, of the Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU), said.

Sprajc and his team found the massive remains as they further explored the area around Chactun, a large Maya city discovered by the Slovenian archaeologist in 2013.

No other site has so far been located in this area, which extends over some 1800 square miles, between the so-called Rio Bec and Chenes regions, both known for their characteristic architectural styles fashioned during the Late and Terminal Classic periods, around 600 - 1000 A.D.

One of the cities featured an extraordinary facade with an entrance representing the open jaws of an earth monster.

The site was actually visited in the 1970s by the American archaeologist Eric Von Euw, who documented the facade and other stone monuments with yet unpublished drawings.

However, the exact location of the city, referred to as Lagunita by Von Euw, remained lost. All the attempts at relocating it failed.

"The information about Lagunita were vague and totally useless," Sprajc told Discovery News.

"In the jungle you can be as little as 600 feet from a large site and do not even suspect it might be there; small mounds are all over the place, but they give you no idea about where an urban center might be," he added.

Laguinita was identified only after the archaeologists compared the newly found facade and monuments with Von Euw's drawings.

The monster-mouth facade turned to be one of the best preserved examples of this type of doorways, which are common in the Late-Terminal Classic Rio Bec architectural style, in the nearby region to the south.

"It represents a Maya earth deity related with fertility. These doorways symbolize the entrance to a cave and, in general, to the watery underworld, place of mythological origin of maize and abode of ancestors," Sprajc said.

He also found remains of a number of massive palace-like buildings arranged around four major plazas. A ball court and a temple pyramid almost 65 ft high also stood in the city, while 10 stelae (tall sculpted stone shafts) and three altars (low circular stones) featured well-preserved reliefs and hieroglyphic inscriptions.

According to preliminary reading by epigrapher Octavio Esparza Olguin from the National Autonomous University of Mexico, one of the stelae was engraved on November 29, A.D. 711 by a "lord of 4 k'atuns (20-year periods)."

Unfortunately, the remaining text, which included the name of the ruler and possibly of his wife, is heavily eroded.

"To judge by both architectural volumes and monuments with inscriptions, Lagunita must have been the seat of a relatively powerful polity, though the nature of its relationship with the larger Chactun, lying some 10 km to the north, remains unclear," Esparza Olguin said.

Similar imposing was the other city unearthed by Sprajc. Previously unknown, the city was named Tamchen, which means "deep well" in Yucatec Maya.

Indeed, more than 30 chultuns were found at the site. These are bottle-shaped underground chambers, largely intended for collecting rainwater.

"Several chultuns were unusually deep, going down as far as 13 meters," Sprajc said.

Like in Laguinita, plazas were surrounded by large buildings. These include the remains of an acropolis supporting a courtyard with three temples on its sides. A pyramid temple with a rather well preserved sanctuary on top and a stela and an altar at its base was also unearthed.

Tamchen appears to have been contemporaneous with Lagunita, although there is evidence for its settlement history going back to the Late Preclassic, between300 B.C. and 250 A.D.

"Both cities open new questions about the diversity of Maya culture, the role of that largely unexplored area in the lowland Maya history, and its relations with other polities," Sprajc said.

The work is a follow-up to the study of Archaeological Reconnaissance in Southeastern Campeche, Mexico. Directed by Sprajc since 1996, the 2014 campaign was supported by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), Mexico. Lead funding was provided by Ken and Julie Jones from their KJJ Charitable Foundation (USA); additional financial support was granted by private companies Villas (Austria), Hotel Río Bec Dreams (Mexico) and Ars longa and Adria Kombi (Slovenia), as well as by Martin Hobel and Aleš Obreza.

In June 2014, the southern part of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve, where Sprajc discovered most of the currently known archaeological sites, was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list as a mixed natural and cultural property.
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References:

Loreni, Rossella. 2014. “Ancient Maya Cities Found in Jungle”. Discovery News. Posted: August 15, 2014. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/three-ancient-maya-cities-found-in-jungle-140815.htm

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

How arbitrary is language? English words structured to help kids learn

Words in the English language are structured to help children learn according to research led by Lancaster University

Words like "woof" accurately represent the sound of a dog while sounds with similar meanings may have a similar structure, such as the "sl" sound at the beginning of a word often has negative properties as in "slime, slur, slum, slug."

An international team led by Professor Padraic Monaghan from the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University provides for the first time a comprehensive analysis of sound meaning structure using statistical techniques from biology and genetics.

The research, published in the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B, shows that the structure of the vocabulary in English helps both children and adults.

He said: "Sounds relate to meaning for the words that children first encounter, addressing a critical question about how language is structured to aid learning.

"However, the later adult vocabulary is arbitrary, consistent with computational models of efficient language production and accurate language comprehension."

The debate about whether the sound of words contains information about meaning has continued for over 2,300 years.

This issue lies at the foundation of modern linguistics and psychology of language, which has been brought into stark relief by recent studies of sound symbolism where words actually sound like their meaning.

Sound symbolism has been suggested to be prevalent in language and necessary for language acquisition by children.
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References:

Science Daily. 2014. “How arbitrary is language? English words structured to help kids learn”. Science Daily. Posted: August 13, 2014. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/08/140813103503.htm

Monday, September 15, 2014

Who Are the Yazidis, the Ancient, Persecuted Religious Minority Struggling to Survive in Iraq?

The U.S. contemplates sending military aircraft and possible ground troops to rescue the Yazidis, as more American military advisers arrive in Iraq to help plan an evacuation of the displaced people.

For their beliefs, they have been the target of hatred for centuries. Considered heretical devil worshippers by many Muslims—including the advancing militants overrunning Iraq—the Yazidis have faced the possibility of genocide many times over. Now, with the capture of Sinjar and northward thrust of extremists calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), Iraq's estimated 500,000 Yazidis fear the end of their people and their religion. In less than two weeks, nearly all the Yazidis of Sinjar have fled north, seeking refuge in Kurdish territory, while thousands remained trapped in the rugged Sinjar mountains, awaiting rescue. "Sinjar is (hopefully not was) home to the oldest, biggest, and most compact Yazidi community," says Khanna Omarkhali, a Yazidi scholar at the University of Göttingen.

"Extermination, emigration, and settlement of this community will bring tragic transformations to the Yazidi religion," she adds.

The Yazidis have inhabited the mountains of northwestern Iraq for centuries, and the region is home to their holy places, shrines, and ancestral villages.  Outside of Sinjar, the Yazidis are concentrated in areas north of Mosul, and in the Kurdish-controlled province of Dohuk. For Yazidis, the land holds deep religious significance; adherents from all over the world—remnant communities exist in Turkey, Germany, and elsewhere—make pilgrimages to the holy Iraqi city of Lalesh. The city is now less than 40 miles from the Islamic State front lines.

As the Islamic State continues to swallow up more Yazidi territory, the Yazidis are being forced to convert, face execution, or flee. "Our entire religion is being wiped off the face of the earth," warned Yazidi leader Vian Dakhil.

While the advance of the militants constitutes a grave threat to Yazidis, persecution has been a painful historical constant for the small religious community almost since its formation.  "This dilemma to convert or die is not new," says Christine Allison, an expert on Yazidism at Exeter University.

A Misunderstood Religion

The Yazidi religion is often misunderstood, as it does not fit neatly into Iraq's sectarian mosaic. Most Yazidis are Kurdish speakers, and while the majority consider themselves ethnically Kurdish, Yazidis are religiously distinct from Iraq's predominantly Sunni Kurdish population. Yazidism is an ancient faith, with a rich oral tradition that integrates some Islamic beliefs with elements of Zoroastrianism, the ancient Persian religion, and Mithraism, a mystery religion originating in the Eastern Mediterranean.

This combining of various belief systems, known religiously as syncretism, was what part of what branded them as heretics among Muslims. While some Yazidi practices resemble those of Islam—refraining from eating pork, for example—many Yazidi practices appear to be unique in the region. Yazidi society is organized into a rigid religious caste system, and many Yazidis believe that the soul is reincarnated after death. While its exact origins are a matter of dispute, some scholars believe that Yazidism was formed when the Sufi leader Adi ibn Musafir settled in Kurdistan in the 12th century and founded a community that mixed elements of Islam with local pre-Islamic beliefs.

Yazidis began to face accusations of devil worship from Muslims beginning in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. While the Yazidis believe in one god, a central figure in their faith is Tawusî Melek, an angel who defies God and serves as an intermediary between man and the divine. To Muslims, the Yazidi account of Tawusî Melek often sounds like the Quranic rendering of Shaytan—the devil—even though Tawusî Melek is a force for good in the Yazidi religion.

"To this day, many Muslims consider them to be  devil worshipers," says Thomas Schmidinger, an expert on Kurdish politics the University of Vienna. "So in the face of religious persecution, Yazidis have concentrated in strongholds located in remote mountain regions," he adds.

The Yazidis are not the only religious minority threatened by the Islamic State. Thousands of Christians have fled Mosul since the extremists captured the city in early June. For now, religious minorities are finding refuge in Kurdish territory in the north. But the Islamic State is capturing villages just a few miles from the Kurdish capital of Erbil. With the security of Kurdish territory in doubt, the U.S. launched air strikes on Islamic State positions late last week.

Organized anti-Yazidi violence dates back to the Ottoman Empire. In the second half of the 19th century, Yazidis were targeted by both Ottoman and local Kurdish leaders, and subjected to brutal campaigns of religious violence. "Yazidis often say they have been the victim of 72 previous genocides, or attempts at annihilation," says Matthew Barber, a scholar of Yazidi history at the University of Chicago who is in Dohuk interviewing Yazidi refugees.  "Memory of persecution is a core component of their identity," he says.

Isolated geographically, and accustomed to discrimination, the Yazidis forged an insular culture. Iraq's Yazidis rarely intermarry with other Kurds, and they do not accept religious converts. "They became a closed community," explains Khanna Omarkhali, of the University of  Göettingen.

Victims of Hussein's Regime

Yet, as Kurdish speakers, Yazidis often share the same political fate as Iraq's other Kurds. In the late 1970s, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein launched brutal Arabization campaigns against the Kurds in the north. He razed traditional Yazidi villages, and forced the Yazidis to settle in urban centers, disrupting their rural way of life. Hussein constructed the town of Sinjar, and forced the Yazidis to abandon their mountain villages and relocate in the city.

After the United States toppled Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurds were given an autonomous region in northern Iraq known as the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). But Sinjar, along with many border regions at the edge of the KRG, remains an area of dispute between the Kurds and the government in Baghdad. The KRG claims Sinjar as Kurdish, while Baghdad still considers the area under its control.

As ISIL sweeps through the Yazidi homeland, Kurds throughout the region are rallying to defend the embattled religious minority. This week, Kurdish fighters from Syria and Turkey crossed into Iraq and joined with the KRG to push back ISIL and secure a safe passage for the Yazidis out of Sinjar. Some Yazidis are even fleeing into war-torn Syria, seeking the protection of Syrian Kurds in the north.

For now, these Kurdish fighters are the only thing standing between the Yazidis and the Islamic State. As he has continued his work with Yazadi refugees, Matthew Barber says that a general panic has set in as hundreds of thousands of new arrivals from western Iraq flood Yazidi villages outside Dohuk, seeking shelter behind Iraqi Kurdish lines. "The Yazidis are terrorized," he says. Refugees are now calling the mass exodus from Sinjar the 73rd attempt at genocide.

With the help of U.S. air support, the Kurds vowed to retake Sinjar in the coming days. For the Yazidis the stakes are especially high. "It's difficult to see how Yazidism could exist if they all left northern Iraq," says Allison. "The struggle is truly existential."
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References:

Asher-Schapiro, Avi. 2014. “Who Are the Yazidis, the Ancient, Persecuted Religious Minority Struggling to Survive in Iraq?”. National Geographic News. Posted: August 9, 2014. Available online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/08/140809-iraq-yazidis-minority-isil-religion-history/