Saturday, August 31, 2013

Give them a hand: Gesturing children perform well on cognitive tasks

In the first study of its kind, SF State researchers have shown that younger children who use gestures outperform their peers in a problem-solving task.

The task itself is relatively simple -- sorting cards printed with colored shapes first by color, and then by shape. But the switch from color to shape can be tricky for children younger than 5, says Professor of Psychology Patricia Miller.

In a new study due to be published in the August, 2013 issue of Developmental Psychology, Miller and SF State graduate student Gina O'Neill found that young children who gesture are more likely to make the mental switch and group the shapes accurately.

In fact, gesturing seemed to trump age when it came to the sorting performance of the children, who ranged from 2 and a half years old to 5 years old. In the color versus shape task, as well as one that asked children to sort pictures based on size and spatial orientation, younger children who gestured often were more accurate in their choices than older children who gestured less. The children's gestures included rotating their hands to show the orientation of a card or using their hands to illustrate the image on the card, for example gesturing the shape of rabbits' ears for a card depicting a rabbit.

"Gina and I were surprised by the strength of the effect. Still, the findings are consistent with a growing body of research showing that mind and body work closely together in early cognitive development," Miller said.

"The findings are a reminder of how strong individual differences are among children of a particular age," she added. "Certain 3-year-olds look like typical 4-year-olds. This likely reflects an interaction of natural talent and particular experiences -- both nature and nurture, as usual."

There is a growing body of research that suggests gesturing may play a significant role in the processes that people use to solve a problem or achieve a goal. These processes include holding information in memory, keeping the brain from choosing a course too quickly and being flexible in adding new or different information to handle a task.

Studies have shown that gesturing can help older children learn new math concepts, for example. "Really, though, there is evidence that gesturing helps with difficult cognitive tasks at any age," Miller said. "Even we adults sometimes gesture when we're trying to organize our tax receipts or our closets. When our minds are overflowing we let our hands take on some of the cognitive load."

O'Neill and Miller observed the children's spontaneous gestures as they performed the tasks, as well as gestures they were encouraged to make to explain their sorting choices. Both kinds of gestures were counted in comparing high and low gesturing children.

Children who did a lot of gesturing did better at the sorting task than those who didn't gesture as much -- even when they did not use gesturing during the task itself, the researchers found. This makes it difficult to determine whether it's the gesturing itself that helps the children perform the task, or whether children who use a lot of gestures are simply at a more advanced cognitive level than their peers. It is a question that Miller hopes to answer in further studies.

Miller said there is "quite a bit of evidence now that gestures can help children think," perhaps by helping the brain keep track of relevant information or by helping the brain reflect on the possibilities contained within a task. "In my opinion, children shouldn't be discouraged from gesturing when they want to gesture during learning," she said. "Adults sometimes -- appropriately -- say to children, 'use your words,' but some children may think this applies to all situations."

The study, "A Show of Hands: Relations between Young Children's Gesturing and Executive Function," will be published in the August, 2013 issue of the journal Developmental Psychology.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Give them a hand: Gesturing children perform well on cognitive tasks”. EurekAlert. Posted: July 26, 2013. Available online:

Friday, August 30, 2013

Archaeological finds reveal prehistoric civilization along Silk Road

Archaeologists have unearthed relics that suggest prehistoric humans lived along the Silk Road long before it was created about 2,000 years ago as a pivotal Eurasian trade network.

An excavation project that started in 2010 on ruins in northwest China's Gansu Province has yielded evidence that people who lived on the west bank of the Heihe River 4,100 to 3,600 years ago were able to grow crops and smelt copper, the researchers said.

The site is believed to date back to the Han Dynasty (202 BC - AD 220).

Over the past three years, archaeologists have discovered a variety of copper items, as well as equipment used to smelt metal, said Chen Guoke, a researcher with the Gansu Provincial Institute of Archaeology.

"People back then mainly dealt with red metal. They also began to make alloys," said Chen, who is in charge of the excavation project.

Chen added that a rare copper-smelting mill was also found in the ruins.

"The mill is the earliest of its kind that has been unearthed. It will be of great help for studies of the history of Chinese craftmanship," said Zhang Liangren, a professor at Northwest University in Xi'an, capital of Shaanxi Province.

The researchers also discovered carbonized barley and wheat seeds, as well as stone hoes and knives used for farming, said Zhang, adding that some adobe houses were also found this year.

The finds indicate that east-west exchanges started prior to the Han Dynasty, as adobe architecture, barley and wheat originated in central and west Asia, according to Zhang.

A series of previous discoveries during the past decade have also provided evidence of the existence of prehistoric civilization along the Silk Road.

From 2003 to 2005, archaeologists excavated the Xihetan ruins in Gansu's city of Jiuquan.

"We were surprised to find a pen for cattle and sheep preserved in the ruins. The find was unprecedented," said Zhao Congcang, another professor at Northwest University.

Footprints of the livestock and their skeletons were also found at the site.

In 2005, researchers from China and Japan completed a three-year excavation project at the Mozuizi ruins in Gansu's city of Wuwei, finding traces of a primitive tribe that lived about 4,500 years ago.

Starting from the ancient city of Chang'an, now known as Xi'an, the ancient Silk Road extends to the Mediterranean region in the west and the Indian subcontinent in the south. Its total length is over 10,000 km, with 4,000 km located within China.

In January, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan jointly submitted an application to the UNESCO for adding the Silk Road to the World Heritage List for 2014.

People's Daily Online. 2013. “Archaeological finds reveal prehistoric civilization along Silk Road”. People's Daily Online. Posted: July 26, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Walrus Bones Found in Old London Burial Ground

During a recent excavation beneath the streets of London, archaeologists found a total of 1,500 human bodies, many buried hastily in a wave of epidemics that struck the quickly expanding city more than 150 years ago.

In one coffin, archaeologists came across a grisly mix of bones from at least eight human bodies, many of them cut up and showing evidence of autopsy. But nine of the bone fragments were decidedly not human. They were walrus.

"It came as something of a shock," said Phil Emery, an archaeologist with a company called Ramboll UK, who led the excavation. The nine bone fragments came from a Pacific walrus that was likely 13 feet long, Emery told LiveScience.

Behold the walrus

The bodies came from the old burial ground of St Pancras Church, and were interred there between 1822 and 1854, Emery said. During this time, London cemeteries were overwhelmed by the dead from a series of cholera, typhus and smallpox epidemics; the church and its burial ground, once outside greater London, have recently been engulfed by the burgeoning metropolis, he added.

Before 1822, the cemetery was characterized by small plots, as seen in most ordinary burial grounds, Emery said. But thereafter, ceremony fell to the wayside as the cemetery was overwhelmed — plots were replaced with mass graves, he said.

From 1822 to 1854, a total of 44,000 burials took place there, Emery said. "Under such conditions, one can understand that standards of decency and hygiene were difficult to maintain, to put it lightly," he explained.

Blame the med students

But how did a tusked beast the weight of a small car make its way from the North Pacific to a cemetery in foggy London? Emery and his team can only guess how the walrus was brought there from its native lands, but they suspect the animal was dissected by curious medical students.

That hunch comes from the fact that several of the bones within the coffin showed signs of dissection, such as skull fragments with holes drilled in them, he said. In 1832, within the range of dates when the bones would have been laid to rest there, a law was passed that allowed medical students to legally dissect cadavers, Emery said. Before that, cadavers were obtained from the gallows, or illegally snatched via grave robbery, he added.

The walrus limbs were likely dissected as a matter of curiosity, Emery said, perhaps as an exercise in comparative anatomy.

'Sea monster'

At the time, "very few Londoners would have seen one of these alive," Emery said. "It was the archetypal sea monster, often depicted on early sea maps as a sort of exotic beast. The animal would have captured peoples' imaginations."

The bones were first unearthed in 2003 by Emery and his team, during construction of the St Pancras International railway station. It was funded by High Speed 1 (also known as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link), Emery said. But the findings haven't been released to the popular press until now.

This isn't the only case of strange beasts being found in London graves. A more recent excavation at the Royal London Hospital turned up numerous cases of buried human remains from dissection found along with animal parts, including the remains of a tortoise, rabbit, cat, dog, horse and two monkeys, Emery said.

Main, Douglas. 2013. “Walrus Bones Found in Old London Burial Ground”. Discovery News. Posted: July 28, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Parsing the Body Language That Leads to a Fight

Oddly enough, it seems no one in academe has really looked at the subtle non-verbal cues that indicate we’re going to exchange blows. Until now.

For the sake of argument, say you’ve gotten into a pretty heated exchange with someone you know when that person takes a deliberate look around the vicinity. Prepare for an altercation.

Turning the head is one of the two strongest non-verbal cues of an impending fight, according to a new study by two criminologists, Richard Johnson and Jasmine Aaron, at the University of Toledo. Struck, as it were, by the relative paucity of research into what cues could predict a fight between adults, the two surveyed 178 undergraduates about what behaviors suggested to them that trouble was brewing.

There’s a lot of folk wisdom about what to look for before somebody up and slugs you, presumably offered as a way to avoid said slugging, and the researchers found plenty of it on the Web in discussions about body language. (A lot of those stated they came from “scientific research,” but the Toledo duo could never track down any of that alleged research.) This being the Web, a lot of the advice contradicted other advice; staring at you is a warning sign—as is avoiding eye contact. Maybe that’s why movie tough guys always wear sunglasses, since merely having eyes apparently is an incitement.

Writing in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior, the researchers explained that they presented a written description of a tense scenario to their subjects, leaving the age, race, gender, and social status of their putative assailant (an “adult acquaintance”) as a cipher. They were then given 23 actions that person might take next, and were asked to rate how concerned they would be about impending doom as a result.

The two top choices were intuitively the most obvious concerns—invading your personal space and taking a boxer’s stance. While anyone who wants to be Max Schmeling would be a concern, getting in your face could easily vary across cultural definitions of where your face begins and whether close talking, or perhaps in this case close yelling, is OK.

Three other behaviors signaled potential violence—the aforementioned glancing around, clenching hands (making a fist?), and the verbal cue of making a threat.

After those, a range of actions generated some concerns—a tense jaw, hands in pocket, pacing, neck stretches, rapid breathing, sweating, taking off clothing (how Marquess of Queensbury!), and yelling among them. Wanna ratchet things back? Placing hands on your hips or avoiding eye contact were seen as the least threatening of the 23 options.

The study participants, of course, were only a subsection of Midwestern undergrads under age 30 (median age 20). But they were split among men (56 percent) and women, and somewhat diverse. Seventy percent identified as white, 20 percent as black, and seven percent as Latino. There were some differences between those subsets, but not much. Men were more concerned about putting your hands in your pockets, while women feared the boxer’s stance more (to blatantly stereotype, getting into the stance isn’t how I’ve seen girls’ fights devolve, so I have no doubt it’s a scarier signal to them). In general, the researchers suggest, while there’s a documented difference in how the sexes perceive non-verbal cues, “cues related to human aggression may be so primal that they transcend sex differences.”

There were also some smallish differences among ethnicities. Caucasians and African Americans shared a greater concern for looking around as a predictor than did Latinos, while Latinos were more worried about tensed jaw muscles.

The researchers didn’t ask about their subjects’ history of violence, whether they were brawlers or crawlers, and were quick to note that their results point to “cognitive perceptions” which might, or might not, hold true in a real or even simulated confrontation. Past experience certainly could color response: I’m fine if you put your hand in your pocket, but maybe somebody who’s stared down the barrel of a Glock has a different take on that.

The study, which is apparently the first word on this subject, will no means be the last. It’s an important issue to examine. Consider the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, which was likely fueled by stereotypes—a punk in a hoodie versus a puffed-up cracker—then ignited by non-verbal cues. Recognizing their potential might have been a good first step toward avoiding the lethal result.

Todd, Michael. 2013. “Parsing the Body Language That Leads to a Fight”. Pacific Standard Magazine. Posted: July 25, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

University archaeologists unearth well-kept secrets

Archaeologists from the University of York say a virtually intact Late Roman well discovered near Heslington, on the outskirts of the city, may have had significance in contemporary local agricultural cycles and fertility practices.

The well, which is thought to have been in use for several decades in the late 4th and early 5th centuries, was unearthed during archaeological excavations on the site of the University’s campus expansion at Heslington East.

From at least the Early Bronze Age, a range of methods were used here to access natural springs, including watering holes and primitive wells. In contrast, this Late Roman feature was carefully engineered, positioned high on a hillside and used newly acquired, good-quality masonry.

The research published in the latest issue of Internet Archaeology says that the well’s main structure featured facing stones of newly quarried, roughly squared, oolitic limestone blocks, probably from a  source near Malton, 30km to the north-east. Curved on their outer surface, the stones were set in carefully defined, regular courses.

The base of the well was dish-shaped and composed of triangular limestone slabs set directly on natural clay. The engineering employed suggests an intimate understanding of the subsoil. The masonry lining did however incorporate a former roof finial, the only element from any earlier structure to be reused. The excavation team from the Department of Archaeology at York say its recycling is best interpreted as symbolic rather than opportunistic.

The well contained more than a 1000 pieces of Romano-British pottery, including two almost complete Huntcliff-type jars, and a similar number of animal bone fragments. These featured sheep, cattle, horse, deer and even a young dog. A high proportion of the bones showed signs of being butchered but were not highly fragmented, in contrast to the domestic waste encountered on the rest of the site.

Steve Roskams, Senior Lecturer, said: “It is striking that all of the material found in our well would have been familiar to those inhabiting this landscape. Its construction incorporates a finial which, we argue, probably came from the dismantling of a nearby, good-quality structure. The jars circulated here widely, the Huntcliff-type probably being connected directly to water usage.  The other pottery and the animal bones also comprise well-understood ‘mundane’ elements that were available locally.”

“At the same time, there is sufficient evidence to indicate that some of this fairly ordinary material was deliberately placed in the well as symbolic performance. When interpreting such practices, archaeologists often concern themselves with whether they belong to ‘Roman’ or ‘Iron Age’ traditions. However, if we are to understand these forms of routine ritual fully, we would do better to look to local agricultural cycles and fertility practices, whether annual, generational or longer-term transitions. The economic pressures and social tensions, which came to fore at such points, were of far greater significance to these communities as they sought to establish and reinforce their own, immediate identities.”

Heritage Daily. 2013. “University archaeologists unearth well-kept secrets”. Heritage Daily. Posted: July 25, 2013. Available online:

Monday, August 26, 2013

Oldest European fort in the inland US discovered in Appalachians

The remains of the earliest European fort in the interior of what is now the United States have been discovered by a team of archaeologists, providing new insight into the start of the U.S. colonial era and the all-too-human reasons spoiling Spanish dreams of gold and glory.

Spanish Captain Juan Pardo and his men built Fort San Juan in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in 1567, nearly 20 years before Sir Walter Raleigh's "lost colony" at Roanoke and 40 years before the Jamestown settlement established England's presence in the region.

"Fort San Juan and six others that together stretched from coastal South Carolina into eastern Tennessee were occupied for less than 18 months before the Native Americans destroyed them, killing all but one of the Spanish soldiers who manned the garrisons," said University of Michigan archaeologist Robin Beck.

Beck, an assistant professor in the U-M Department of Anthropology and assistant curator at the U-M Museum of Anthropology, is working with archaeologists Christopher Rodning of Tulane University and David Moore of Warren Wilson College to excavate the site near the city of Morganton in western North Carolina, nearly 300 miles from the Atlantic Coast.

The Berry site, named in honor of the stewardship of landowners James and the late Pat Berry, is located along a tributary of the Catawba River and was the location of the Native American town of Joara, part of the mound-building Mississippian culture that flourished in the southeastern U.S. between 800 and about 1500 CE.

In 2004, with support from the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation, Beck and his colleagues began excavating several of the houses occupied by Spanish soldiers at Joara, where Pardo built Fort San Juan. Pardo named this small colony of Spanish houses Cuenca, after his own hometown in Spain. Yet the remains of the fort itself eluded discovery until last month.

"We have known for more than a decade where the Spanish soldiers were living," Rodning said. "This summer we were trying to learn more about the Mississippian mound at Berry, one that was built by the people of Joara, and instead we discovered part of the fort. For all of us, it was an incredible moment."

Using a combination of large-scale excavations and geophysical techniques like magnetometry, which provides x-ray-like images of what lies below the surface, the archaeologists have now been able to identify sections of the fort's defensive moat or ditch, a likely corner bastion and a graveled surface that formed an entryway to the garrison.

Excavations in the moat conducted in late June reveal it to have been a large V-shaped feature measuring 5.5 feet deep and 15 feet across. Spanish artifacts recovered this summer include iron nails and tacks, Spanish majolica pottery, and an iron clothing hook of the sort used for fastening doublets and attaching sword scabbards to belts.

Fort San Juan was the first and largest of the garrisons that Pardo founded as part of an ambitious effort to colonize the American South. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, who had established the Spanish colonies of St. Augustine and Santa Elena in 1565 and 1566, respectively, spearheaded this effort. Of the six garrisons that Pardo built, Fort San Juan is the only one to have been discovered by archaeologists.

During the brief time the Spaniards were at Joara, Beck says, they were actively prospecting for gold but never found it. Yet the gold was there: in the early 1800s, American settlers found so much just lying on the surface near rivers that a 17-pound gold nugget was used as a doorstop and a U.S. mint was established in Charlotte, triggering the first gold rush in U.S. history.

Had the people of Joara given Pardo's soldiers more time to discover this gold, Spain would probably have launched a full-scale colonial invasion of the area, England would have had difficulty establishing its foothold at Jamestown, and the entire southeastern part of what is now the U.S. might instead have become part of Latin America.

Why did the Mississipians wipe the Spaniards out so quickly? Beck and colleagues argue that originally, the Spanish bartered with the natives for food.

"The soldiers believed that when their gifts were accepted, it meant that the native people were their subjects," Beck said. "But to the natives, it was simply an exchange. When the soldiers ran out of gifts, they expected the natives to keep on feeding them. By that time, they had also committed what Spanish documents refer to as "indiscretions" with native women, which may have been another reason that native men decided they had to go. So food and sex were probably two of the main reasons for destroying Spanish settlements and forts."

Moore said the significance of Fort San Juan extends far beyond the Carolina Piedmont.

"The events at Fort San Juan represent a microcosm of the colonial experience across the continent," he said. "Spain's failure created an opening that England exploited at Jamestown in 1607, when America's familiar frontier narrative begins. For Native Americans, though, this was the beginning of a long-term and often tragic reshaping of their precolonial world."

EurekAlert. 2013. “Oldest European fort in the inland US discovered in Appalachians”. EurekAlert. Posted: July 23, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Learning a language depends on good connection between regions of the left hemisphere of the brain

The ability to learn new words is based on efficient communication between brain areas that control movement and hearing

Language is a uniquely human ability. The average person's vocabulary consists of about thirty thousand words, although there are individual differences in the ability to learn a new language. It has long been believed that language acquisition depends on the integration of the information between motor and auditory representation of words in the brain, but the neural mechanisms that lie behind learning new words remained unclear.

Now, a study made by researchers from the group of Cognition and Brain Plasticity at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) and the University of Barcelona, with the collaboration of researchers from the King's College of London, provides information on neural pathways involved in word learning among humans. The key is in the arcuate fasciculus, a bundle of nerve fibers that connects auditory regions at the temporal lobe with the motor area located at the frontal lobe, in the left hemisphere of the brain. Individual differences in the development of connections in this bundle condition the ability to learn new words. The results of the study are published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Artificial words

The study involved 27 healthy volunteers. Researchers made them listen nine artificial trisyllabic words with no meaning associated and with structures similar to the words of the Spanish language. Between each word there was a 25 millisecond pause, imperceptible but enough to help the learning of words in fluent speech. The nine words were randomly repeated 42 times.

In order to acquire additional information on the brain structure and function two noninvasive MRI techniques were used.

Before carrying out the task of word learning, researchers registered structural brain images using a technique called diffusion tensor imaging. This technique, very innovative, allows to reconstruct a posteriori the white matter fibers that connect the different brain regions. In addition, while participants listened to the words, the researchers recorded their brain activity using functional MRI, which can detect very accurately, in real-time, the brain activity and, therefore, the regions that are most active when the individual performs a given task.

After this phase of language learning, participants heard a series of words and asked to identify those who had heard during the learning phase.

The researchers found a strong relationship between the ability to remember words and the structure of arcuate fasciculus, which connects two brain areas: the territory of Wernicke, related to auditory language decoding, and Broca's area, which coordinates the movements associated with speech and the language processing.

The participants who were able to learn words better, had the arcuate fasciculus more myelinated, according to a correlation analysis with an indirect index of the content of myelin in nerve fibers. Furthermore, the synchronization between the activity of the regions connected by this fasciculus was higher in these participants.

Different connection models

The first author of the article, Diana López-Barroso stresses that the research sheds new light on the unique ability of humans to learn a language, since there are different connection models between these brain regions in other species.

In addition, Lopez-Barroso, explains that the study may be useful in the rehabilitation of people with injuries at the arcuate fasciculus. "In this case, we can find another way to get to the same place", says the researcher. This other way could be the ventral pathway, another bundle of nerve fibers that also connects Broca's and Wernicke's territories but that passes through lower brain areas. "The ventral pathway, which is more related to the processing of the meaning of words, would give a semantic support to word learning in people with injuries", says the first author of the article.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Learning a language depends on good connection between regions of the left hemisphere of the brain”. EurekAlert. Posted: July 22, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Worldviews shape personality

Ways we view the world strongly influence what sort of people we are. A worldview reflects personality and behavioural patterns, according to a Swedish researcher.

A personal worldview is comprised of the basic assumptions or concepts we have of the world.

Our worldviews provide structure to our thoughts and actions. They might give an answer to key issues like the meaning of life, whether we perceive humans as good or evil or whether we believe in a higher power or deity.

“By charting an individual’s personal worldview we could account for 40 percent of  people’s political identities in Sweden – how far to the right or left they stood. By comparison, this figure is only 25 percent when using behaviour patterns,” explains Artur Nilsson of Sweden’s Lund University.

“This is compelling, given that psychology traditionally focuses on behavioural patterns when describing a personality,” says Nilsson.

Holistic understanding

Some 1,800 persons in Sweden and the USA participated in the study, which aimed at charting their worldviews.

“They were asked to grade, on a scale of one to seven, how much they agreed or disagreed with statements in a questionnaire,” says Nilsson.

He says the results show that persons who assign inherent values to all other people have a tendency to accentuate the importance of imagination and innovation in science, as well as equality and care in moral and political issues.

Those who believe humans achieve values in relation to external norms have a tendency to stress objectivity, discipline and tradition.

“Little research has been done on the subject of how worldview forms personality. This is because empiricism, which says that ultimately all knowledge stems from sensory perception, has historically been the dominant view in psychology.”

He says that psychology has thus focused on things that are readily observable, what can be measured and touched. Behaviour or behavioural patterns have been the focus of personality research.

“Worldview is also a sweeping concept but I think it is just what is needed to help unite a fragmented discipline and provide a comprehensive understanding of the various pieces of a person’s totality,” says Nilsson.

Utilising worldviews

Nilsson explains that our worldview is dependent upon our culture and is comprised of much more than basic assumptions or concepts.

“People in India have a different worldview than people in Sweden. Things such as personal experiences, genes and environment, personal reflections, the kinds of cultural influences we are subjected to and a lot of other aspects play roles and affect our worldview.”

“But in my research I see individual differences within a given cultural context. Even though individuals share the same cultural background, we observe definite differences in personality in their worldviews,” says the doctor.

How can we make use of the fact that worldviews have a key role in personalities?

“Like I said, psychology has traditionally been good at splitting the individual into various parts, but to understand the whole individual you have to also understand his or her worldview. By increasing our knowledge of worldviews we getter a better understanding of how they shapes our lives.”

“There are many types of worldviews. Which processes govern these? How can they coexist in a multicultural society and how can one modify one’s worldview when it meets resistance in the course of our lives?” queries Nilsson.

Within clinical psychiatry

When we encounter serious problems in life our wordview can be challenged and this can be experienced as very traumatic.

Nilsson says a classic example is if the world ceases to be experienced as fair and just. Meaning and context are central in our worldview and when it collapses we have to modify our picture to avoid emptiness, loss of motivation, etc.

“Greater insight regarding how we challenge and modify our own worldview to cope with adversity can also be used within clinical psychology,” he explains.

Are we conscious of our own worldview?

“That depends somewhat on how deeply we delve into ourselves, but generally in everyday life we trod along rather unaware of our worldview.”

“Worldview permeates what we do and think and is often something we ordinarily take for granted, rather than question,” says Nilsson.

Bendiksen, Ingunn Karin. 2013. “Worldviews shape personality”. Science Nordic. Posted: July 21, 2013. Available online:

Friday, August 23, 2013

Singing Helps Students Tune Into a Foreign Language

Singing in a foreign language can significantly improve learning how to speak it, according to a new study published in Springer's journal Memory & Cognition. Adults who listened to short Hungarian phrases and then sang them back performed better than those who spoke the phrases, researchers at the University of Edinburgh's Reid School of Music found. People who sang the phrases back also fared better than those who repeated the phrases by speaking them rhythmically.

Three randomly assigned groups of twenty adults took part in a series of five tests. The singing group performed the best in four of the five tests.

In one test, participants who learned through singing performed twice as well as participants who learned by speaking the phrases. Those who learned by singing were also able to recall the Hungarian phrases with greater accuracy in the longer term.

Hungarian was chosen because it is unfamiliar to most English speakers and a difficult language to master, with a completely different structure and sound system to the Germanic or Romance languages, such as Spanish and French.

Dr Karen M. Ludke, who conducted the research as part of her PhD at the University of Edinburgh's Institute for Music in Human and Social Development, said: "This study provides the first experimental evidence that a listen-and-repeat singing method can support foreign language learning, and opens the door for future research in this area. One question is whether melody could provide an extra cue to jog people's memory, helping them recall foreign words and phrases more easily."

Science Daily. 2013. “Singing Helps Students Tune Into a Foreign Language”. Science Daily. Posted: July 18, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Old Arabic texts describe dirty Vikings

Arabs who encountered Scandinavians who had journeyed eastward depicted them as handsome people but filthy and barbaric.

They are the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures: they do not purify themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity after coitus and do not even wash their hands after food.

The Arab writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan noted the above after meeting Viking travellers around a thousand years ago.

The Icelandic historian Thorir Jonsson Hraundal has studied comments about what we call Vikings in original texts by Arab historians and geographers. The texts described Arab encounters with Scandinavians in areas around the Caspian Sea and the Volga River.

Their depictions differ radically from images of fearsome Viking conquerors handed down from the British Isles and France in the same era.

Resilient Scandinavians

“A major difference between the Scandinavians who travelled eastwards and those who sailed west was that in the East they were far more subordinated in societies they came to,” says Jonsson Hraundal.

He recently presented his doctoral dissertation at the University of Bergen about the so-called Rus ― Scandinavian merchants and warriors who travelled to Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East.

“The Scandinavians appear to have been versatile people who were really good at adapting to diverse regions and participating in various power structures,” he says.

From the Nordic region to Baghdad

From the mid-800s until the ca. 1000 AD Scandinavians underwent something of a travel boom. The Vikings journeyed out into the world to explore, trade and battle. Norwegians are best acquainted with the raids in Western Europe and the voyages to Iceland, Greenland and North America.

According to Jonsson Hraundal it might have been nearly as common to head eastwards, using the major European rivers.

“Far more Scandinavian artefacts have been found in Eastern Europe than in the West, covering a much larger geographic area,” says the researcher.

The excursions in the direction of the sunrise were also extensive. A source studied by Jonsson Hraundal tells of Vikings who followed the European rivers down to the Caspian Sea and then crossed by boat and continuing to Bagdad on camel caravans.

It’s a distance of over 5,000 kilometres.

Visiting Turkish-ruled countries

Scandinavians were encountered in the eastern regions of the Continent for centuries. They were warriors, merchants and common labourers.

Some sources mention Vikings working as caravan guards – mercenary soldiers.

“Archaeological sources placed Vikings further west, but Arabs mainly confronted them closer to the Caspian Sea. This was a completely different cultural setting, one governed by Turks,” explains Jonsson Hraundal.

Turks are an ethnic group who include the people of modern Turkey, but many other peoples as well. Like Mongolians they descend from the Ural Altaic ethnic group.

“The Turks, and especially the Khazars and Bulgars, were the dominant powers in the region when the Rus arrived. The texts mainly show how powerful the Turks were. The Rus couldn’t just come in swinging their swords and take over,” says the historian.

Good looking, filthy and crazy

The aforementioned writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan was not fully repulsed by the Scandinavians he met:

I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs – they are like palm trees, are fair and reddish, and do not wear the tunic or the caftan.

Ahmad ibn Fadlan describes funeral rites which generally conform to the Norse rituals of Scandinavia, but were very exotic for an Islamic intellectual:

In the case of a rich man, they gather together his possessions and divide them into three portions, one third for his household, one third with which to cut funeral garments for him, and one third with which they ferment alcohol which they drink on the day when his slave-girl kills herself and is burned together with her master.

Contemporary Arabic descriptions

It’s no news that the Vikings travelled eastwards. But archaeologists and historians have few sources detailing the travels. In Norway, for instance, written material about the journeys dates from long after the trips ended. This undermines the validity of the texts as historical source material.

The archaeologists have thus concentrated on artefacts from Byzantium, in present-day Turkey, and from Slavic areas such as Hungary.

“However, Muslim authors also travelled and met Scandinavian merchants. They made note of these episodes at the time they occurred,” says the historian Jonsson Hraundal.

This makes them excellent first-hand sources regarding the kind of people the Rus were.

Silver coins testify to contacts

For a number of reasons, the East-bound Vikings have been neglected by scholars in comparison to those who headed west. Political problems hampered Western archaeologists for decades. During much of the 20th century it was hard for West European researchers to access artefacts collected behind the Iron Curtain.

“We have a lot more source information from the West because of the linguistic and writing culture that dominated there,” adds Archaeology Professor Jan Bill of the University of Oslo.

“This doesn’t mean that the contact in the East was unimportant, but perhaps we haven’t had as much opportunity to study it.”

There are exceptions and Bill mentions that Arab silver coins and other artefacts from Kazakhstan and neighbouring areas have been found at Heimdalsjordet, a former marketplace not far from the Gokstad Viking Ship Mound in Sandefjord, southwest of Oslo.

“They come from the Silk Road and show that the Vikings definitely had contact with Islamic areas,” he says.

Deserving more emphasis

Another barrier is that the Arabic texts lack names for the Scandinavians they described, unlike many of the Western sources. The Arabs have evidently viewed them as a homogenous group, and haven’t considered the name of any incidental northern “infidel” relevant to the travel journals they wrote.

This makes the protagonists anonymous and for historians perhaps a little less enticing to study.

Jonsson Hraundal hopes his doctoral thesis can help open up more studies of what the Vikings did in the East.

“The Scandinavians who travelled eastwards are generally mentioned briefly in passing by textbooks and in school. I think this part of our history should be given much more attention,” he says.

Jakobsen, Hanne. 2013. “Old Arabic texts describe dirty Vikings”. Science Nordic. Posted: July 17, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Inner Speech Speaks Volumes About the Brain

Whether you're reading the paper or thinking through your schedule for the day, chances are that you're hearing yourself speak even if you're not saying words out loud. This internal speech -- the monologue you "hear" inside your head -- is a ubiquitous but largely unexamined phenomenon. A new study looks at a possible brain mechanism that could explain how we hear this inner voice in the absence of actual sound.

In two experiments, researcher Mark Scott of the University of British Columbia found evidence that a brain signal called corollary discharge -- a signal that helps us distinguish the sensory experiences we produce ourselves from those produced by external stimuli -- plays an important role in our experiences of internal speech.

The findings from the two experiments are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Corollary discharge is a kind of predictive signal generated by the brain that helps to explain, for example, why other people can tickle us but we can't tickle ourselves. The signal predicts our own movements and effectively cancels out the tickle sensation.

And the same mechanism plays a role in how our auditory system processes speech. When we speak, an internal copy of the sound of our voice is generated in parallel with the external sound we hear.

"We spend a lot of time speaking and that can swamp our auditory system, making it difficult for us to hear other sounds when we are speaking," Scott explains. "By attenuating the impact our own voice has on our hearing -- using the 'corollary discharge' prediction -- our hearing can remain sensitive to other sounds."

Scott speculated that the internal copy of our voice produced by corollary discharge can be generated even when there isn't any external sound, meaning that the sound we hear when we talk inside our heads is actually the internal prediction of the sound of our own voice.

If corollary discharge does in fact underlie our experiences of inner speech, he hypothesized, then the sensory information coming from the outside world should be cancelled out by the internal copy produced by our brains if the two sets of information match, just like when we try to tickle ourselves.

And this is precisely what the data showed. The impact of an external sound was significantly reduced when participants said a syllable in their heads that matched the external sound. Their performance was not significantly affected, however, when the syllable they said in their head didn't match the one they heard.

These findings provide evidence that internal speech makes use of a system that is primarily involved in processing external speech, and may help shed light on certain pathological conditions.

"This work is important because this theory of internal speech is closely related to theories of the auditory hallucinations associated with schizophrenia," Scott concludes.

This research was supported by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to Bryan Gick, Janet F. Werker and Eric Vatikiotis-Bateson.

Science Daily. 2013. “Inner Speech Speaks Volumes About the Brain”. Science Daily. Posted: July 16, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Long-Lost Pyramids Found?

Mysterious, pyramid-like structures spotted in the Egyptian desert by an amateur satellite archaeologist might be long-lost pyramids after all, according to a new investigation into the enigmatic mounds.

Angela Micol, who last year found the structures using Google Earth 5,000 miles away in North Carolina, says puzzling features have been uncovered during a preliminary ground proofing expedition, revealing cavities and shafts.

"Moreover, it has emerged these formations are labeled as pyramids on several old and rare maps," Micol told Discovery News.

Located about 90 miles apart, the two possible pyramid complexes appeared as groupings of mounds in curious positions.

One site in Upper Egypt, just 12 miles from the city of Abu Sidhum along the Nile, featured four mounds with an unusual footprint.

Some 90 miles north near the Fayum oasis, the second possible pyramid complex revealed a four-sided, truncated mound approximately 150 feet wide and three smaller mounds in a diagonal alignment.

"The images speak for themselves," Micol said when she first announced her findings. "It's very obvious what the sites may contain, but field research is needed to verify they are, in fact, pyramids,"

First reported by Discovery News, her claim gained widespread media attention and much criticism. Authoritative geologists and geo-archaeologists were largely skeptical and dismissed what Micol called "Google Earth anomalies" as windswept natural rock formations -- buttes quite common in the Egyptian desert.

"After the buzz simmered down, I was contacted by an Egyptian couple who claimed to have important historical references for both sites," Micol said.

The couple, Medhat Kamal El-Kady, former ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, and his wife Haidy Farouk Abdel-Hamid, a lawyer, former counselor at the Egyptian presidency and adviser of border issues and international issues of sovereignty, are top collectors of maps, old documents, books and rare political and historical manuscripts.

El-Kady and Farouk have made important donations to the Egyptian state and the U.S. Library of Congress. Their various gifts to the Library of Alexandria include Al-Sharif Al-Idrissi's map of the Earth drawn for King Roger II of Sicily in 1154.

According to the couple, the formations spotted by Micol in the Fayum and near Abu Sidhum were both labeled as pyramid complex sites in several old maps and documents.

"For this case only, we have more than 34 maps and 12 old documents, mostly by scientists and senior officials of irrigation," El-Kady and Farouk told Discovery News.

For the site near the Fayum, they cited three maps in particular -- a map by Robert de Vaugoudy, dating from 1753, a rare map by the engineers of Napoleon Bonaparte, and a map and documents by Major Brown, general of irrigation for Lower Egypt in the late 1880s.

The documents would point to the existence of two buried pyramids which add to the known Fayum pyramids of Lahoun and Hawara.

"They would be the greatest pyramids known to mankind," the couple said. "We would not exaggerate if we said the finding can overshadow the Pyramids of Giza."

Their sources would indicate the pyramids at the Fayum site were intentionally buried in a "damnatio memoriae" -- an attempt to intentionally strike them from memory.

While the site in the Fayum has not been investigated yet, a preliminary on-the-ground expedition has already occurred at the site near Abu Sidhum, providing intriguing data to compare with El-Kady and Farouk’s maps and documents.

"Those mounds are definitely hiding an ancient site below them," Mohamed Aly Soliman, who led the preliminary expedition near Abu Sidhum, told Discovery News.

"First of all, the land around them is just a normal flat land. It is just desert -- sand and stones," he said.

"The mounds are different: You will find pottery everywhere, seashells and transported layers. These are different layers, not belonging to the place, and were used by the Egyptians to hide and protect their buried sites," he said.

"Describing himself as "one of the many Egyptians obsessed with the pharaohs’ civilization," Aly has a background as a private investigator and has been studying to identify archaeological sites in Egypt.

"If we look back in history we will find that pharaohs were using seashells in building their tombs and pyramids for ventilation purpose," Aly said.

"Even the rocks used in building pyramids contained up to 40 percent seashells."

He cited the work of Ioannis Liritzis, a professor of archaeometry at the University of the Aegean and colleagues at the University of Athens.

According to the amateur geo-archaeologist, the local people living near the mounds had long suspected the formations were ancient in origin. They had tried to dig on one of the small mounds years ago, but the excavation failed due to striking very hard stone that Aly and Micol believe may be granite.

"What made us sure those mounds are hiding pyramids was a special cavity and metal detector we used over the mounds," Aly Soliman said. "The detector we used showed an underground tunnel heading north on both the big mounds."

"It also signaled metal was present in the mounds," he said. "Most Egyptian pyramids have north facing entrance tunnels, so this is another promising piece of evidence we have found."

According to Micol, the Egyptian team believes they have identified a temple or habitation site near the site and a row of what may be mastaba tombs adjacent to the mounds.

So, has a bunch of amateur archaeologists made a discovery that will dwarf the Pyramids of Giza? Or are their pyramids just naturally occurring rock outcrops filled with wishful thinking and vivid imagination?

"Whether they prove to be anything more than nature must be verified on the ground, but this location seems promising and is the result of research beyond simply pointing out the first sand dune noticed on Google Earth," archaeologist Patrick Rohrer told Discovery News.

To further research the pyramid puzzle and examine other sites, Micol's set up the Satellite Archaeology Foundation, Inc. a pending non-profit -- and launched a crowdfunding campaign.

"Due to unrest and economic distress in Egypt, life is not easy for archaeologists" Micol said. "We found no one from the Egyptian academic community who is interested in finding out about these sites at this time."

"Now that we have ground proof and historical evidence," she added, "my goal is to go to Egypt with a team of U.S. scientists and videographers to help validate the evidence found by the expedition team and to prove if these sites are lost pyramid complexes."

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2013. “Long-Lost Pyramids Found?”. Discovery News. Posted: July 16, 2013. Available online:

Monday, August 19, 2013

hat is Qigong?

Qigong (pronounced chee-gong) is an exercise and healing technique developed in China more than 4,000 years ago. Certain slow movements seen in qigong look similar to t'ai chi. One could argue that t'ai chi developed from qigong. Yet the practices are very different.

T'ai chi originated as a form of exercise and martial arts only a few hundred years ago. Qigong has little in the form of such movement based on self-defense. In contrast, qigong has a far deeper spiritual or paranormal base that many today would describe as pseudoscience, with various characteristics — touch healing, distance healing, levitation — that clearly violate known laws of physics.

Similarly, whereas numerous studies have shown the health benefits of t'ai chi for balance, flexibility, stamina, mental health, pain management, Parkinson's disease and certain chronic diseases, qigong has not produced similarly strong and positive results.

Qigong is not without merit in terms of improving health, however. At a very basic level, it does have aspects of exercise. Many people in China and in the Western world find qigong exercises to be rejuvenating, not unlike transcendental meditation.

Qigong also is seen to be more useful and legitimate than falun gong, an adulteration of t'ai chi and qigong largely considered utterly useless yet nonetheless practiced by many Westerners.

Qigong vs. t'ai chi

There's no competition between practitioners of qigong and t'ai chi. They are simply two different things. The first difference is in the name; the word "chi," which can be confusing.

The "qi" in qigong is indeed the "chi" or energy flow often discussed in Chinese medicine. Qigong means energy cultivation, or harvesting the chi to your benefit, revealing its healing arts roots. The "chi" in t'ai chi sounds similar to qi to Western ears, but it means "extreme." The full name, t'ai chi ch'uan, means something similar to "grand, extreme fist," revealing its martial arts roots.

Most t'ai chi movements, as slow as they may seem, are associated with fast and powerful martial arts movements. The qigong movements are instead associated with cultivating the chi energy flow.

At the risk of generalizing, qigong movements tend to be circular and, in a distant way, correspond to acupuncture and its intent to release and move chi. Yet quite similar to t'ai chi, qigong movements also entail focused breathing and concentration.

One of the most basic forms of qigong is Baduanjin qigong with eight movements, often called the Eight Pieces of Brocade, or Fabric. Translations vary. The movements are: Pressing the Heavens With Two Hands, Drawing the Bowstring and Letting the Arrows Fly, Separating Heaven and Earth, Wise Owl Gazes Backward, Punching With Angry Gaze, Bouncing on the Toes, Big Bear Turns From Side to Side, and Touching the Toes Then Bending Backwards.

Exercise vs. healing

A Westerner's experience with qigong may be these eight movements only, and thus one may think that qigong is a poetic form of t'ai chi, often accompanied by New Age music. But the river runs deeper. Unlike t'ai chi, the world of qigong includes masters who view themselves as healers. Some of these healers not only teach the movements and meditative properties of qigong to their patients, but they also attempt to transmit their energy to the recipient.

Qi or chi, as stated, is the unquantifiable energy or life force within all living things, according to certain Chinese philosophy. In this view, all disease emanates from an imbalance of this energy. The role of the qigong healer is to adjust or unblock the chi and enable the healing process. This is not entirely unlike the role of an acupuncturist.

A qigong healer may go about adjusting a patient's chi by placing his hands on or over the patient, which is also called touch healing (or reiki) and distance healing, respectively. The Internet is full of anecdotes of healing all sorts of ailments in this fashion, including doing so over the telephone with a patient. Qigong healers have claimed to cure cancer and quadriplegia paralysis.

Scientific support of qigong

Unlike with t'ai chi, there is a dearth of high-quality studies showing the healing benefits of qigong, either as an exercise or as a paranormal force. There is less controversy about the exercise aspect, however, when limited to gentle movements and relaxation.

One of the largest studies involving qigong — a review of 66 studies totaling 6,410 participants — was published in 2010 in the American Journal of Health Promotion, but the researchers unfortunately combined qigong and t'ai chi. Nevertheless, the researchers found various positive results from these exercises when lumped together in improving bone health and balance.

Perhaps as expected for a meditative exercise, a 2007 study published in Journal of Hypertension found that qigong exercise had a mildly positive effect in lowering blood pressure. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that qigong exercise as a mildly positive effect in controlling diabetes. And a 2010 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that qigong exercise helped in improving sleeping patterns.

A 2007 study published in Acta Oncologica, however, found that qigong exercise wasn't effective in prolonging the life of cancer patients.

Of course, there is no evidence that qigong healers can indeed heal by touch or via a distant, paranormal force, as practitioners of falun gong claim.

Wanjek, Chris. 2013. “What is Qigong?”. Live Science. Posted: July 16, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Mummy Teeth Tell of Ancient Egypt's Drought

The link between drought and the rise and fall of Egypt's ancient cultures, including the pyramid builders, has long fascinated scientists and historians. Now, they're looking into an unexpected source to find connections: mummy teeth.

A chemical analysis of teeth enamel from Egyptian mummies reveals the Nile Valley grew increasingly arid from 5,500 to 1,500 B.C., the period including the growth and flourishing of ancient Egyptian civilization.

"Egyptian civilization was remarkable in its long-term stability despite a strong environmental pressure — increasing aridity — that most likely put constraints on the development of resources linked to agriculture and cattle breeding," said senior study author Christophe Lecuyer, a geochemist at the University of Lyon in France.

Many studies have linked dramatic droughts to crises near the end of the Old Kingdom (the Age of the Pyramids) in the third millennium B.C. But Lecuyer and his colleagues also found a jump in aridity before the downfall of Egypt in the 6th century B.C. during the Late Period, when it was conquered by Alexander the Great.

However, the new study can't resolve the occasional drops in annual Nile River floods or short-term droughts that often caused widespread famine and upsets in Egyptian history.

"Our database cannot identify short-term events, only long-term trends, and there is [only] one obvious major event of increasing aridity that took place before the Late Period," Lecuyer said.

The climate data comes from the teeth of Egyptian mummies from various dynasties at the Musée des Confluences de Lyon in France. Led by graduate student Alexandra Touzeau,the researchers drilled small amounts of enamel off some of the teeth and tested it for oxygen and strontium isotopes.

The mummy's teeth record the ratio of two oxygen isotopes (oxygen atoms with different numbers of neutrons) in their diet and their drinking water, which in this case is Nile River water, Lecuyer said. Shifts in the ratio of the isotopes indicate changing precipitation patterns in the region.

The isotopes can also indicate what people were eating, and the research team plans to publish additional studies of Egyptian diets through time, Lecuyer said. "The general drying trend had no negative impact on the Egyptian civilization in terms of cereal production or population," he said. "One of the studies we plan to publish soon reveals there was no diet change over this long period of about four millennia."

The Nile Valley wasn't the only part of North Africa to experience drying after 5,500 B.C. The Sahara Desert was once covered in lakes and grasslands, but switched to a drier regime between about 7,000 to 5,000 years ago, studies have shown.

The mummy teeth findings were published June 2 in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Oskin, Becky. 2013. “Mummy Teeth Tell of Ancient Egypt's Drought”. Live Science. Posted: July 16, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Discovery of stone monument at El Perú-Waka' adds new chapter to ancient Maya history

New World 'Cleopatra story' waits 1,000 years to be retold

Archaeologists tunneling beneath the main temple of the ancient Maya city of El Perú-Waka' in northern Guatemala have discovered an intricately carved stone monument with hieroglyphic text detailing the exploits of a little-known sixth-century princess whose progeny prevailed in a bloody, back-and-forth struggle between two of the civilization's most powerful royal dynasties, Guatemalan cultural officials announced July 16.

"Great rulers took pleasure in describing adversity as a prelude to ultimate success," said research director David Freidel, PhD, a professor of anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. "Here the Snake queen, Lady Ikoom, prevailed in the end."

Freidel, who is studying in Paris this summer, said the stone monument, known officially as El Perú Stela 44, offers a wealth of new information about a "dark period" in Maya history, including the names of two previously unknown Maya rulers and the political realities that shaped their legacies.

"The narrative of Stela 44 is full of twists and turns of the kind that are usually found in time of war but rarely detected in Precolumbian archaeology," Freidel said.

"The information in the text provides a new chapter in the history of the ancient kingdom of Waka' and its political relations with the most powerful kingdoms in the Classic period lowland Maya world."

Carved stone monuments, such as Stela 44, have been unearthed in dozens of other important Maya ruins and each has made a critical contribution to the understanding of Maya culture.

Freidel says that his epigrapher, Stanley Guenter, who deciphered the text, believes that Stela 44 was originally dedicated about 1450 years ago in the calendar period ending in 564 AD by the Wak dynasty King Wa'oom Uch'ab Tzi'kin, a title that translates roughly as "He Who Stands Up the Offering of the Eagle."

After standing exposed to the elements for more than 100 years, Stela 44 was moved by order of a later king and buried as an offering inside new construction that took place at the main El Perú-Waka' temple about 700 AD, probably as part of funeral rituals for a great queen entombed in the building at this time, the research team suggests.

El Perú-Waka' is about 40 miles west of the famous Maya site of Tikal near the San Pedro Martir River in Laguna del Tigre National Park. In the Classic period this royal city commanded major trade routes running north to south and east to west.

Freidel has directed research at this site in collaboration with Guatemalan and foreign archaeologists since 2003. At present, Lic. Juan Carlos Pérez Calderon is co-director of the project and Olivia Navarro Farr, an assistant professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio, is co-principal investigator and long term supervisor of work in the temple, known as Structure M13-1. Gautemalan archaeologist Griselda Perez discovered Stela 44 in this temple.

The project carries out research under the auspices of the Ministry of Culture and Sports of Guatemala and its Directorate for Cultural and Natural Patrimony, the Council for Protected Areas, and it is sponsored by the Foundation for the Cultural and Natural Patrimony (PACUNAM) and the US Department of the Interior.

Early in March 2013, Pérez was excavating a short tunnel along the centerline of the stairway of the temple in order to give access to other tunnels leading to a royal tomb discovered in 2012 when her excavators encountered Stela 44.

Once the texts along the side of the monument were cleared, archaeologist Francisco Castaneda took detailed photographs and sent these to Guenter for decipherment.

Guenter's glyph analysis suggests that Stela 44 was commissioned by Wak dynasty King Wa'oom Uch'ab Tzi'kin to honor his father, King Chak Took Ich'aak (Red Spark Claw), who had died in 556 AD. Stela 44's description of this royal father-son duo marks the first time their names have been known to modern history.

A new queen, Lady Ikoom, also is featured in the text and she was important to the king who recovered this worn stela and used it again.

Researchers believe that Lady Ikoom was one of two Snake dynasty princesses sent into arranged marriages with the rulers of El Perú-Waka' and another nearby Maya city as a means of cementing Snake control over this region of Northern Guatemala.

Lady Ikoom was a predecessor to one of the greatest queens of Classic Maya civilization, the seventh-century Maya Holy Snake Lord known as Lady K'abel who ruled El Perú-Waka' for more than 20 years with her husband, King K'inich Bahlam II. She was the military governor of the Wak kingdom for her family, the imperial house of the Snake King, and she carried the title "Kaloomte," translated as "Supreme Warrior," higher in authority than her husband, the king.

Around 700 AD, Stela 44 was brought to the main city temple by command of King K'inich Bahlam II to be buried as an offering, probably as part of the funeral rituals for his wife, queen Kaloomte' K'abel.

Last year, the project discovered fragments of another stela built into the final terrace walls of the city temple, Stela 43, dedicated by this king in 702 AD. Lady Ikoom is given pride of place on the front of that monument celebrating an event in 574. She was likely an ancestor of the king.

Freidel and colleagues discovered Lady K'abel's tomb at the temple in 2012. Located near K'abel's tomb, Stela 44 was set in a cut through the plaster floor of the plaza in front of the old temple and then buried underneath the treads of the stairway of the new temple.

Stela 44 was originally raised in a period when no stelae were erected at Tikal, a period of more than a century called The Hiatus from 557 until 692 AD. This was a turbulent era in Maya history during which there were many wars and conquests. Tikal's hiatus started when it was defeated in battle by King Yajawte' K'inich of Caracol in Belize, probably under the auspices of the Snake King Sky Witness. The kingdom of Waka' also experienced a hiatus that was likely associated with changing political fortunes but one of briefer duration from 554 to 657 AD. That period is now shortened by the discovery of Stela 44.

The front of the stela is much eroded, no doubt from more than a century of exposure, but it features a king standing face forward cradling a sacred bundle in his arms. There are two other stelae at the site with this pose, Stela 23 dated to 524 and Stela 22 dated to 554, and they were probably raised by King Chak Took Ich'aak. The name Chak Took Ich'aak is that of two powerful kings of Tikal and it is likely that this king of Waka' was named after them and that his dynasty was a Tikal vassal at the time he came to the throne, the research team suggests.

The text describes the accession of the son of Chak Took Ich'aak, Wa'oom Uch'ab Tzi'kin, in 556 AD as witnessed by a royal woman Lady Ikoom who was probably his mother. She carries the titles Sak Wayis, White Spirit, and K'uhul Chatan Winik, Holy Chatan Person. These titles are strongly associated with the powerful Snake or Kan kings who commanded territories to the north of El Perú-Waka', which makes it very likely that Lady Ikoom was a Snake princess, Guenter argues.

"We infer that sometime in the course of his reign King Chak Took Ich'aak changed sides and became a Snake dynasty vassal," Freidel said. "But then, when he died and his son and heir came to power, he did so under the auspices of a foreign king, which Guenter argues from details is the reigning king of Tikal. So Tikal had reasserted command of Waka' and somehow Queen Ikoom survived this imposition.

"Then in a dramatic shift in the tides of war that same Tikal King, Wak Chan K'awiil, was defeated and sacrificed by the Snake king in 562 AD. Finally, two years after that major reversal, the new king and his mother raised Stela 44, giving the whole story as outlined above."

Stela 44's tales of political intrigue and bloodshed are just a few of the many dramatic stories of Classic Maya history that have been recovered through the decipherment of Maya glyphs, a science that has made great strides in the last 30 years, Freidel said.

Freidel and his project staff will continue to study Stela 44 for more clues about the nuances of Maya history. While the text on Stela 44 is only partially preserved, it clearly reveals an important moment in the history of Waka', he concludes.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Discovery of stone monument at El Perú-Waka' adds new chapter to ancient Maya history”. EurekAlert. Posted: July 17, 2013. Available online:

Friday, August 16, 2013

Bilingual Children Have a Two-Tracked Mind

Adults learning a foreign language often need flash cards, tapes, and practice, practice, practice. Children, on the other hand, seem to pick up their native language out of thin air. The learning process is even more remarkable when two languages are involved.

In a study examining how bilingual children learn the two different sound systems of languages they are acquiring simultaneously, Ithaca College faculty member Skott Freedman has discovered insights that indicate children can learn two native languages as easily as they can learn one.

"At first glance, the process of learning a language can seem incredibly daunting," said Freedman, an assistant professor of speech language and pathology and audiology. "Environmental input presented at a fairly rapid rate must be mapped onto detailed representations in the brain. A word's meaning, sounds, and grammatical function all must be extracted from the incoming speech stream. Yet this potentially arduous task is typically executed with little effort by children barely a year old. In fact, studies show that children can learn a word in as little as one exposure."

But how complex is the process when a child grows up learning two languages?

"It has commonly been debated whether a bilingual child has one large set of sounds from both languages or, conversely, two separate sound systems," Freedman said. "A way of testing this theory is to measure a child's language productions in both languages using some measure of complexity and then comparing the two languages."

Freedman's study measured complexity in terms of the word shape, such as the presence of word-final consonants and consonant clusters. He also measured the degree to which the children could approximate their languages. For example, if a child said "tar" for the word "star," he or she produced three of four possible sounds, therefore approximating the word with 75 percent accuracy.

"A hypothesis proposed several years ago predicts that, though bilingual children may differ in their productions between languages, they will nevertheless maintain a similar level of overall approximation," Freedman said. "The hypothesis was confirmed in a study using an English-Hungarian bilingual child, but no study to date has tested the hypothesis in Spanish, the fastest-growing language in the United States."

Freedman's study compared the language productions of five English-Spanish bilingual children during a picture-naming task to the productions of five English-only and five Spanish-only speaking children. The results confirmed the hypothesis, with some added insights.

"While bilingual children produced more complex forms in Spanish than in English, they nonetheless approximated English and Spanish to the same degree. Perhaps while learning a language, some inner algorithm determines how much one needs to articulate in order to be understood regardless of the different kinds of sounds between languages. Otherwise, children should have been more easily understood in Spanish."

In addition, Freedman found that no production differences emerged between the bilingual children and their monolingual counterparts in English or Spanish, indicating a sufficient amount of independence between a bilingual child's two sound systems.

"Bilingual children manage not only to learn two sets of words at one time and keep these two systems separate, they even keep the two sound systems separate," Freedman said. "This result makes a case against not exposing children to more than one language at birth because they might be confused or overwhelmed."

The results of Freedman's study were published in the December 2012 issue of the "International Journal of Bilingualism."

Science Daily. 2013. “Bilingual Children Have a Two-Tracked Mind”. Science Daily. Posted: July 15, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A Village Invents a Language All Its Own

There are many dying languages in the world. But at least one has recently been born, created by children living in a remote village in northern Australia.

Carmel O’Shannessy, a linguist at the University of Michigan, has been studying the young people’s speech for more than a decade and has concluded that they speak neither a dialect nor the mixture of languages called a creole, but a new language with unique grammatical rules.

The language, called Warlpiri rampaku, or Light Warlpiri, is spoken only by people under 35 in Lajamanu, an isolated village of about 700 people in Australia’s Northern Territory. In all, about 350 people speak the language as their native tongue. Dr. O’Shannessy has published several studies of Light Warlpiri, the most recent in the June issue of Language.

“Many of the first speakers of this language are still alive,” said Mary Laughren, a research fellow in linguistics at the University of Queensland in Australia, who was not involved in the studies. One reason Dr. O’Shannessy’s research is so significant, she said, “is that she has been able to record and document a ‘new’ language in the very early period of its existence.”

Everyone in Lajamanu also speaks “strong” Warlpiri, an aboriginal language unrelated to English and shared with about 4,000 people in several Australian villages. Many also speak Kriol, an English-based creole developed in the late 19th century and widely spoken in northern Australia among aboriginal people of many different native languages.

Lajamanu parents are happy to have their children learn English for use in the wider world, but eager to preserve Warlpiri as the language of their culture.

Lajamanu’s isolation may have something to do with the creation of a new way of speaking. The village is about 550 miles south of Darwin, and the nearest commercial center is Katherine, about 340 miles north. There are no completely paved roads.

An airplane, one of seven owned by Lajamanu Air, a community-managed airline, lands on the village’s dirt airstrip twice a week carrying mail from Katherine, and once a week a truck brings food and supplies sold in the village’s only store. A diesel generator and a solar energy plant supply electricity.

The village was established by the Australian government in 1948, without the consent of the people who would inhabit it. The native affairs branch of the federal government, concerned about overcrowding and drought in Yuendumu, forcibly removed 550 people from there to what would become Lajamanu. At least twice, the group walked all the way back to Yuendumu, only to be retransported when they arrived.

Contact with English is quite recent. “These people were hunters and gatherers, roaming over a territory,” said Dr. O’Shannessy. “But then along came white people, cattle stations, mines, and so on. People were kind of forced to stop hunting and gathering.”

By the 1970s, villagers had resigned themselves to their new home, and the Lajamanu Council had been set up as a self-governing community authority, the first in the Northern Territory. In the 2006 census, almost half the population was under 20, and the Australian government estimates that by 2026 the number of indigenous people 15 to 64 will increase to 650 from about 440 today.

Dr. O’Shannessy, who started investigating the language in 2002, spends three to eight weeks a year in Lajamanu. She speaks and understands both Warlpiri and Light Warlpiri, but is not fluent.

People in Lajamanu often engage in what linguists call code-switching, mixing languages together or changing from one to another as they speak. And many words in Light Warlpiri are derived from English or Kriol.

But Light Warlpiri is not simply a combination of words from different languages. Peter Bakker, an associate professor of linguistics at Aarhus University in Denmark who has published widely on language development, says Light Warlpiri cannot be a pidgin, because a pidgin has no native speakers. Nor can it be a creole, because a creole is a new language that combines two separate tongues.

“These young people have developed something entirely new,” he said. “Light Warlpiri is clearly a mother tongue.”

Dr. O’Shannessy offers this example, spoken by a 4-year-old: Nganimpa-ng gen wi-m si-m worm mai aus-ria. (We also saw worms at my house.)

It is easy enough to see several nouns derived from English. But the -ria ending on “aus” (house) means “in” or “at,” and it comes from Warlpiri. The -m ending on the verb “si” (see) indicates that the event is either happening now or has already happened, a “present or past but not future” tense that does not exist in English or Warlpiri. This is a way of talking so different from either Warlpiri or Kriol that it constitutes a new language.

The development of the language, Dr. O’Shannessy says, was a two-step process. It began with parents using baby talk with their children in a combination of the three languages. But then the children took that language as their native tongue by adding radical innovations to the syntax, especially in the use of verb structures, that are not present in any of the source languages.

Why a new language developed at this time and in this place is not entirely clear. It was not a case of people needing to communicate when they have no common language, a situation that can give rise to pidgin or creole.

Dr. Bakker says that new languages are discovered from time to time, but until now no one has been there at the beginning to see a language develop from children’s speech.

Dr. O’Shannessy suggests that subtle forces may be at work. “I think that identity plays a role,” she said. “After children created the new system, it has since become a marker of their identity as being young Warlpiri from the Lajamanu Community.”

The language is now so well established among young people that there is some question about the survival of strong Warlpiri. “How long the kids will keep multilingualism, I don’t know,” Dr. O’Shannessy said. “The elders would like to preserve Warlpiri, but I’m not sure it will be. Light Warlpiri seems quite robust.”

Bakalar, Nicholas. 2013. “A Village Invents a Language All Its Own”. The New York Times. Posted: July 14, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

'World's oldest calendar' discovered in Scottish field

Archaeologists believe they have discovered the world's oldest lunar "calendar" in an Aberdeenshire field.

Excavations of a field at Crathes Castle found a series of 12 pits which appear to mimic the phases of the moon and track lunar months.

A team led by the University of Birmingham suggests the ancient monument was created by hunter-gatherers about 10,000 years ago.

The pit alignment, at Warren Field, was first excavated in 2004.

The experts who analysed the pits said they may have contained a wooden post.

The Mesolithic "calendar" is thousands of years older than previous known formal time-measuring monuments created in Mesopotamia.

The analysis has been published in the journal, Internet Archaeology.

The pit alignment also aligns on the Midwinter sunrise to provided the hunter-gatherers with an annual "astronomic correction" in order to better follow the passage of time and changing seasons.

Vince Gaffney, Professor of Landscape Archaeology at Birmingham, led the analysis project.

He said: "The evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer societies in Scotland had both the need and sophistication to track time across the years, to correct for seasonal drift of the lunar year and that this occurred nearly 5,000 years before the first formal calendars known in the Near East.

"In doing so, this illustrates one important step towards the formal construction of time and therefore history itself."

The universities of St Andrews, Leicester and Bradford were also involved.

Dr Richard Bates, of the University of St Andrews, said the discovery provided "exciting new evidence" of the early Mesolithic Scotland.

He added: "This is the earliest example of such a structure and there is no known comparable site in Britain or Europe for several thousands of years after the monument at Warren Field was constructed."

The Warren Field site was first discovered as unusual crop marks spotted from the air by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS).

Dave Cowley, aerial survey projects manager at RCAHMS, said: "We have been taking photographs of the Scottish landscape for nearly 40 years, recording thousands of archaeological sites that would never have been detected from the ground.

"Warren Field stands out as something special, however. It is remarkable to think that our aerial survey may have helped to find the place where time itself was invented."

Crathes Castle and its estate is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS).

From 2004 to 2006, trust staff and Murray Archaeological Services excavated the site.

NTS archaeologist Dr Shannon Fraser said: "This is a remarkable monument, which is so far unique in Britain.

"Our excavations revealed a fascinating glimpse into the cultural lives of people some 10,000 years ago - and now this latest discovery further enriches our understanding of their relationship with time and the heavens."

BBC News. 2013. “'World's oldest calendar' discovered in Scottish field”. BBC News. Posted: July 14, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Anthropology prof praises 'Lone Ranger'

The Lone Ranger and his trusty Native American sidekick Tonto are racing across film screens.

It stars Johnny Depp in the movie adaptation of the old TV and radio shows. But does the film accurately portray American Indians?

Actually, yes. Several details in the movie realistically captured Native American customs, traditions and dress, according to University of Cincinnati’s Native American expert Kenneth Tankersley, a Piqua Shawnee and an anthropology professor for the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences.

After watching the film during its opening week, he declared the movie to be a “quantum leap” over other many previous film and television depictions. “They did a really good job.”

Tankersley noted that, although not a “card carrying” member of a Native American tribe, Depp does have Native American ancestry. “He is from Kentucky and Melungeon by ancestry.

“Melungeons were Sephardic Jews and Muslims, escaping to religious freedom in the New World. When they arrived, they married into the Native American community.”

To prepare for the role, Depp immersed himself in the Native American culture. He listened to stories from descendants of Quanah Parker, a dominant figure in the Comanche tribe, and was adopted into the tribe by LA Donna Harris, a Comanche social activist. The actor’s portrayal elevates Tonto from the sidekick role he had in the TV and radio versions of the story to the lead role in the movie.

With the exception of Tonto speaking pidgin English, the film employed authentic Native American details, many of which could be missed by the casual viewer, Tankersley said. Below are some he noticed. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)

• Tonto drops corn on the ground and appears to feed it to the dead raven he uses as a headdress. Tankersley said this is actually a blessing, because corn is sacred.
• The raven is a symbolic messenger in both Native American culture and the film to signify impending events. Tonto’s raven headdress comes from a painting Depp saw that depicted a warrior.
• Tonto frequently calls the Lone Ranger “kemo sabe.” The word is from the Potowatomi language and means “friend,” according to Tankersley.
• The Spirit Horse (which the Lone Ranger rides) is white, symbolic of the Spirit of the North Wind, which provides guidance and wisdom of the ancestors.
• Typically, Native Americans donned face paint only during ceremonies. But because Tonto felt threatened by evil spirits through much of the movie, it served as a mask to protect him from them. The paint does not appear in scenes after the threat was eliminated.
• Tonto’s costume includes a typical Comanche breastplate. Filmmakers took artistic license with its color and composition (they typically were white bone or shell, but Tonto’s is black water buffalo horn).
• Tankersley noted that Comanche actors wore real eagle feathers, while non-Native American characters donned painted turkey feathers, since only Native Americans are permitted to have eagle feathers.

Stigler, Allison. 2013. “Anthropology prof praises 'Lone Ranger'”. Posted: July 14, 2013. Available online:

Monday, August 12, 2013

Laois ‘bog body’ said to be world’s oldest

4,000-year-old remains were discovered on Bord na Móna land in Co Laois in 2011

The mummified remains of a body found in a Laois bog two years ago have been found to date back to 2,000BC, making it the oldest “bog body” discovered anywhere in the world.

The 4,000-year-old remains, which predate the famed Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun by nearly 700 years, are those of a young adult male.

He is believed to have met a violent death in some sort of ritual sacrifice.

The body was unearthed in the Cúl na Móna bog in Cashel in 2011 by a Bord na Móna worker operating a milling machine.

Initially, experts thought it dated from the Iron Age period (500BC-400AD), placing it on a par with similar finds in other Irish bogs.

However, radiocarbon tests on the body; the peat on which the body was lying; and a wooden stake found with the body, date the body to the early Bronze Age, around 2,000BC.

The discovery promises to open a new chapter in the archaeological record of Bronze Age burial in Ireland.

Eamonn Kelly, keeper of Irish antiquities at the National Museum of Ireland, said previously the earliest bog body discovered in Ireland dated to around 1,300BC but “Cashel man” substantially predates this period, making one of the most significant finds in recent times.

He said the remains are those of a young adult male which were placed in a crouched position and covered by peat, probably on the surface of the bog.

The man’s arm was broken by a blow and there were deep cuts to his back which appear to have been inflicted by a blade, which indicate a violent death, Mr Kelly said.

Unfortunately, the areas that would typically be targeted in a violent assault, namely the head, neck and chest, were damaged by the milling machine when the body was discovered, making it impossible to determine the exact cause of death.

Nonetheless, Mr Kelly believes the wounds on the body, combined with the fact that it was marked by wooden stakes and placed in proximity to an inauguration site, point to the individual being the victim of a ritual sacrifice.

“It seems to be same type of ritual that we’ve observed in later Iron Age finds. What’s surprising here is that it’s so much earlier.”

Because of the lack of calluses on the hands and the well-groomed fingernails observed in other finds, though not this one as the hands were not recoverable, Mr Kelly suggests the victims were most likely “high-born”.

“We believe that the victims of these ritual killings are kings that have failed in their kingship and have been sacrificed as a consequence.”

The museum is awaiting further test results on samples taken from the man’s bowel which should reveal the contents of the meal he was likely to have consumed before he died.

The chemical composition of bogs can preserve human bodies for thousands of years.

Archaelogists have discovered more than 100 ancient bodies in Irish bogs but few as well-preserved as “Cashel man”.

Burke-Kennedy, Eoin. 2013. "Laois ‘bog body’ said to be world’s oldest".Irish Times. Posted: August 2, 2013. Available online:

'Anthropocene' Period Would Recognize Humanity's Impact on Earth

The Anthropocene is the name of a proposed new geological time period (probably an epoch) that may soon enter the official Geologic Time Scale. The Anthropocene is defined by the human influence on Earth, where we have become a geological force shaping the global landscape and evolution of our planet.

According to this idea, the present epoch — still known as the Holocene, which started 11,000 years ago — would have ended somewhere between the end of 18th century and the 1950s (when the Anthropocene began). The earlier time limit considers the increasing amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere that is mostly due to the burning of fossil fuels for energy to power our growing industrial technology.

We may consider this process to have started in 1784, with the invention of the steam engine by James Watt. The present high levels of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are probably causing global warming. The later time period takes into account the increasing background radiation from the nuclear tests by the United States and the Soviet Union during the beginning of the Cold War.

This new frontier in the geological timeline is potentially more precisely defined than any was before due to its recent occurrence. The Antrhopocene is also supported by increasing evidence of human influence on natural global processes, such as the sediment transport being supplanted by our construction processes; land occupation and transformation; water course deviation and water reserve appropriation; massive extinction and introduction of invasive species; development and widespread use of previously non-existent chemical substances (eg. plastics and persistent organic pollutants); and even the creation of new elements (the last 20 in the periodic table).

In this interview, Dr. David Grinspoon, Baruch S. Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress and Curator of Astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, talks about a book he is writing on the Anthropocene from an astrobiology point of view.

Q: The Anthropocene concept has been slowly emerging in science due to comments from Antonio Stoppani in 1873 (Anthropozoic era), LeConte in 1879 (Psychozoic), Pavlov in 1922 (Anthropogene) and Vernadsky in 1962 (Noosphere). Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen formally addressed the concept and introduced the Anthropocene term in the title of a paper for the Global Change Newsletter in 2000. Could you tell us when and how you got involved with the topic?

David Grinspoon: It’s a topic I’ve long been interested in. Even as a kid enthralled with science fiction, I wondered about the role of people in the long-term evolution of the Earth, the far future and the fate of humanity. And thinking about advanced life elsewhere in the universe also leads us back to wonder about how long a civilization can last, which raises the same questions.

In my PhD thesis, written in 1989, I discussed the fact that when a civilization develops the technology to prevent catastrophic asteroid impacts, it marks a significant moment in the evolution of the planet. And the book I’m writing now I actually started even before I finished my last book in 2003. It’s a natural sequel because in the end of that book I speculate about what the coming of "intelligence" and "civilization" mean for Earth and other planets.

So even though "Anthropocene" is a recently popular term for this concept, I’ve been thinking and writing about it for over 20 years. I’m so happy that it’s becoming such a central topic of discussion in the worlds of science, policy and environmental activism. It’s about time!

Q: What should be considered the geological marks of the Anthropocene?

DG: There are a number of reasonable suggestions for this, but my favorite is the signature of the first atomic bomb tests. This produces a signature, both isotopic and in terms of new geological structures, that cannot be interpreted in any other way. And the symbolism is so potent — the moment we grasped that terrible promethean fire that, uncontrolled, could consume the world.

Now, it’s true that humans were altering the Earth before this time, as several scientists have pointed out — for example, land use, agriculture, urbanization and atmospheric carbon dioxide. But, you know, other species have come along and changed the world before and we don’t name a geological epoch after each of them.

What is really different now is that we are aware of our world changing role. Or potentially aware — some of us are at least. So for me, regardless of how you define the Anthropocene, this is when it gets interesting — when the mass of humanity starts to wake up to our world-changing role. And after the Bomb, certainly after Hiroshima, we could not see ourselves, with our world-changing technology, the same again.

Q: How likely is the possibility that we are now living through the planet's sixth mass extinction event? Is it already big enough to be detected in a future paleontology effort using our present methods and capabilities of investigation?

DG: I have heard differing opinions on whether or not the sixth great extinction is assured at this point, but either way it is obvious we are having a significant impact on the evolution of life on this planet and many species have not, will not, survive our presence here. Our impact will be detectable for the rest of time on this planet.

For example, it is clear that the existing coral reefs on the planet will not survive our impact. We are going to lose them. This is inevitable now because of ocean acidification even in the best-case scenario.

It is slightly comforting that the reefs have disappeared before, due to past episodes of acidification, and they have returned. So they may be back in the future, but there will be a time of no coral reefs in Earth history that will forever be traceable to the actions we are taking now.

Q: Do you believe the Anthropocene should be classified as a new geological epoch within the Quaternary period, or does it stand for a larger time scale? Might the establishment of the Anthropocene geological time period include the presently known Holocene epoch?

DG: One interesting question about the Anthropocene is how long it might last. Geologically, will it be an event like the K/T boundary [which marks the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago], an epoch like the Paleocene or a transition like the origin of life?

I think it will either be a brief event recording the failed experiment of our so-called civilization, or it will be a transition to an entirely new planet in which intelligent life has a permanent role in managing the planet. But if we call it an epoch it represents an ambition for our species that is somewhere between these two extremes, and maybe that is OK for now.

Q: How do you rate the chances that the Anthropocene Study Group — established in June of 2009 — can convince the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) in its 2016 meeting to add the Anthropocene epoch to the Geologic Time Scale?

DG: I don’t know. To be honest, I haven’t been following this too closely. It’s really not that interesting to me whether or not it becomes formally adopted as part of the geological time scale. What I’m interested in is the conversations going on about the Anthropocene and what it means to view ourselves as a part of Earth’s geological history. These conversations will continue regardless of what this Commission decides.

Q: We can now observe the role of exotic species in many habitats around the world, usually disrupting the local ecology where they were introduced by man. Do you see the growth of development and usage of transgenic organisms, nano-robots and even artificial (synthetic) life as possible key factors that will influence Earth’s biota in the near future?

DG: Yes, certainly. As you’ve pointed out we have already become an unprecedented kind of disruptive force in biological evolution, through our purposeful and inadvertent transport of species around the planet. With these new technologies we will have the capacity to much more dramatically affect the mechanics of evolution.

Q: If humanity became extinct (or reduced to nearly that point) today, would the lack of maintenance of our nuclear facilities, biological warfare and disease-control laboratories have a large effect on the biosphere?

DG: The breakdown of the nuclear facilities would lead to some local disturbances for a long time, but I don’t believe there would be any large global effects from this. I think the biggest signature would be the perturbation to the carbon cycle, which will take tens of thousands of years to repair itself.

The ocean will be acidified for a similar timescale with massive effects on reefs and other biomes. The hydrological cycle will gradually return to normal as dams break down.

Q: How do you see the possibility of the Anthropocene marking a period when humankind not only became a geological force on Earth, but also began to reach the other bodies in the solar system as a first step to largely expand its zone of influence?

DG: I don’t see it as coincidence that the great acceleration of the Anthropocene influences on Earth came during the same decades as our first exploration of the other planets. All this represents a certain phase in our technological development; I almost said "maturation" but I don’t think we can make this claim yet.

It is the same wave of technological advances that allowed us to make nuclear missiles, truly span the globe with telecommunications, commerce and rapid industrial expansion, develop the capacity to monitor our own planet from orbit and also launch spacecraft to the other planets.

Hopefully the perspective and wisdom gained from exploring the planets and seeing our own planet whole, from a distance, will facilitate the changes in behavior and outlook we will need to survive this precarious transition we are experiencing — the transition to being a self-aware, technological species with the capacity to either destroy our own civilization or ensure our long term survival.

I think it will be one or the other; I don’t think it will be anything in between. I don’t think we will muddle through. We are facing a choice where we will either become a new kind of entity on this Earth, or die trying.

Martini, Bruno. 2013. “'Anthropocene' Period Would Recognize Humanity's Impact on Earth”. Live Science. Posted: July 11, 2013. Available online: