Sunday, January 22, 2017

Mapping the elephant ivory trade: New evidence revealed

Archaeologists from the University of York have conducted pioneering analysis on historic ivory, revealing where East African elephants roamed and where they were hunted in the 19th century.

Eastern Africa has been a major source of elephant ivory for millennia, with a sharp increase in trade witnessed during the 19thcentury fuelled by escalating demand from Europe and North America.

Desirable objects such as cutlery-handles, piano keys and billiard balls drove the extension of global trade networks and the industrialisation of the ivory-working industry. However, little was previously known about the precise origins of the hunted elephants and the trade-routes of primary suppliers at the time.

Conducting isotope analysis on historic East African ivory and skeletal remains, providing information about an elephant's diet and therefore likely habitat, scientists were able to determine the origin of previously un-localised ivory and map elephant geography in the region.

They found that ivory samples traded after 1890 match values of elephants living in forested interior regions of East Africa.

This supports previous evidence suggesting that an increase in hunting resulted in the eradication of elephants from along the coast of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania by the mid-19thcentury, driving trade inland.

Dr Ashley Coutu, lead researcher on the study and a Marie Curie Outgoing Global Fellow between York's Department of Archaeology and the University of Cape Town, South Africa, said: "Our results shed light on the significant historic ecological and socio-economic impact of the ivory trade, in addition to informing contemporary elephant conservation strategies.

"Today, elephants live in national parks and game reserves in these same landscapes, but are more restricted in terms of their movement than they would have been in the 19th century. Our database provides information on the historical ecology of these animals before there were regulations on their protection. By understanding elephant movement in the past, our research could potentially provide data to improve wildlife corridors for the movement of elephants between national parks and game reserves, which can often cause human-elephant conflict in these regions."

Professor Matthew Collins, Founder of BioArCh at York's Department of Archaeology and co-author of the paper, added: "Our findings help us to understand the interactions between humans and elephants during a time when there was an exponential demand for ivory from this region of Africa.

"Isotope and DNA analysis is often used to track the source of illegal ivory today. Our database of isotope values for both modern and historic East African elephants will add to the body of growing data to help us understand and track elephant populations on the African continent."

Science Daily. Past Horizons. 2016. “Mapping the elephant ivory trade: New evidence revealed”. Science Daily. Posted: October 19, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The fight against deforestation: Why are Congolese farmers clearing forest?

Only a small share of Congolese villagers is the driving force behind most of the deforestation. They're not felling trees to feed their families, but to increase their quality of life. These findings are based on fieldwork by bioscience engineer Pieter Moonen from KU Leuven (University of Leuven), Belgium. They indicate that international programmes aiming to slow down tropical deforestation are not sufficiently taking local farmers into account.

Forests, and especially centuries-old primeval forests such as in the Congo Basin in Africa, are huge CO2 reservoirs. When trees are cut down, large amounts of greenhouse gases are released. This contributes to climate change - both regional and global.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is in the world's top five in terms of amount of deforested land per year. According to the government, this is mostly due to subsistence farming and population growth. The argument is that small farmers grow crops to feed their own families. As there is a rise in population, farmers have to keep on clearing forest to increase the area under cultivation.

Bioscience engineer Pieter Moonen is preparing a PhD on land use and climate change in the DRC. He examined whether subsistence farming really is the main culprit for deforestation. For a year, he did fieldwork in 27 Congolese villages and questioned 270 households in a survey about agriculture and deforestation.

"Most of the people surveyed are farmers, and only half of them deforest. A very small group is behind most of the deforestation. Their motive is not self-sufficiency, but earning money. After all, selling crops on the market is one of the few ways to get cash. They need this money to cover the increasing cost of education and health care or to buy western consumer goods. The image of the poor farmer felling trees to feed his family is therefore incorrect. The slightly richer farmers are the ones deforesting to sell their agricultural produce on the market- although 'rich' is very relative in this case." A second important motive for deforestation is the possibility to claim the land that has become available as your property.

These findings are important for the implementation of the United Nations REDD+ programme. REDD+ stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. This initiative aims to slow down or end deforestation in developing countries by means of financial incentives.

"Now that the Paris Agreement on climate change is about to take effect, REDD+ is receiving a lot of attention. The Democratic Republic of Congo is interested in taking part: they want to fight deforestation in exchange for financial compensation. But their response to deforestation focuses too much on intensifying agriculture - increasing the amount of produce per hectare. The reasoning is that felling trees is no longer necessary if existing fields yield more produce. This is an effective strategy when dealing with subsistence farming, but it may have a perverse effect when applied to commercial agriculture. After all, it may stimulate the wealthier farmers to deforest more land, so that they have even more produce to sell. Therefore, without local support for forest preservation, the outcome of such interventions is very uncertain. In that case, we risk wasting money and valuable time with REDD+."

This study once again shows that a simple government approach to deforestation is not effective, Moonen continues. "A more effective and fair approach requires that you and the local communities reach a consensus on a sustainable system. This means that you have to agree on which areas are protected forest. You also have to set aside the necessary resources to support development: provide basic facilities and create opportunities to increase revenues, in the agricultural system and beyond."

EurekAlert. 2016. “The fight against deforestation: Why are Congolese farmers clearing forest?”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 21, 2016. Available online:

Friday, January 20, 2017

Recommendations for secure and sustainable European cultural landscapes

Following its final conference that took place in Brussels on 4 October 2016, the EU HERCULES consortium has provided stakeholders with a detailed set of policy recommendations that will preserve Europe's diverse heritage in cultural landscapes.

Over millennia, we have created and maintained cultural landscapes. They provide us with a variety of values and services that are essential for human societies to function and grow. These include cultural and recreational facilities, tourism opportunities, ecological and environmental knowledge, the ability to grow food, use medicinal resources, and extract raw materials. Cultural landscapes adapt over time, though with the dawn of the modern age, many have changed rapidly through factors such as deforestation and urbanisation. This has impacted their sustainability and raised concerns over the need to effectively preserve cultural heritage.

The three-year HERCULES project was formed to empower public and private actors to protect, manage, and plan for sustainable landscapes of significant cultural, historical, and archaeological value at local, national, and pan-European scales. But what exactly is a cultural landscape? The HERCULES project utilised the definition of landscape within the Council of Europe's European Landscape Convention (ELC): 'An area as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors.' At the heart of the ELC therefore is the premise that all places – be they natural, rural, urban and marine – are 'cultural landscapes', and are inherently dynamic.

A landscape approach to governance

Through their research, the HERCULES project team found that Europeans tend to feel that their landscapes are threatened, culturally, economically and environmentally. In Europe there tends to be a natural sense of conservatism with regards to the landscape and how it changes. Even in cases where landscapes were/are more or less stable, the team found that people still tended to believe that their landscape was threatened.

This is one of the key reasons as to why the project recommends a 'landscape approach' to environmental governance, an approach which is participative and transdisciplinary. This avoids the pitfalls of single-sector or single-discipline approaches and encourages the active participation of local citizens in finding the best means to not only protect and preserve their environment but also to help them embrace positive change to their landscapes.

Specifically from a policy perspective, the project recommends that EU policies impacting all land (urban, rural and marine) should be harmonised to avoid the ineffectiveness of policies that concentrate too narrowly on single sectors of economic land use, or that impact on sections of society that are too narrowly defined.

HERCULES also advocates that the landscape approach should be considered at every stage of the policy and decision-making process. This includes the development of policy areas and tools that have a direct or indirect bearing on the natural and/or human factors of the landscape.

A HERCULES Knowledge Hub to inform policymaking

The project team arrived at these recommendations by setting up nine 'study landscapes' that were located across Europe. They were selected to ensure a balanced representation of environmental and land use gradients within Europe and to encompass diverse European cultural landscapes. The data collected was also fed into the HERCULES 'Knowledge Hub', an online two-component system that allows users to view, explore, extrapolate and interact with the data collected from the nine sites.

The Hub also contains a wealth of further information that will be of great benefit to policymakers and other stakeholders, including examples of best practices for cultural landscape management, the lessons learnt from the 'Cultural Landscape Days' organised in five of the study landscapes, and evaluations of the potential threats to European cultural landscapes on a European scale.

With the project due to end in November 2016, HERCULES has been successful in bringing back landscapes to the forefront of the political agenda, arguing that an interdisciplinary and inclusive landscape approach is the best means to preserve Europe's vast cultural heritage and diverse environments.

Indeed the project has acted as a trailblazer, with further calls within the Horizon 2020 programme due in the near future for large demonstration projecting linking heritage and landscape preservation.
Reference: 2016. “Recommendations for secure and sustainable European cultural landscapes”. Posted: October 11, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Piecing together bits of Norway’s medieval history

The National Archives of Norway’s stores some of its property three stories underground, beneath 25 metres of granite bedrock. Walls are thick around the seemingly endless shelves of books and documents. Pipes full of cables and wiring feed into holes in the walls.  Before these perforations were made for electronics and power, the walls were capable of withstanding a nuclear attack.

A shower head protrudes incongruously from a white wall.  You would not like to see it drenching all this valuable paper and parchment. But of course it was designed for washing off radioactive fallout on any survivors if the Cold War got hot. The thick walls and the unused shower tell the story of an earlier era.

Much older stories are found down here. The shelves are packed with state documents that have been in the hands of the National Archives since the institution was founded in 1817. Here are protocols from the Fredrikshald [now Halden] Toll Station on the border with Sweden, for instance. Of course census figures and statistics are dominant, just as even the most ancient notations on clay tablets are often linked to taxation and book-keeping.

Fragments of history

Tor Weidling and Espen Karlsen are employed respectively by the National Archives of Norway and the National Library of Norway. Their assignment is to hunt for bits and pieces of documents.

They page through old ledger books, trying to find even older fragments of manuscripts and documents used to bind them. The ledgers were sent from Norway to Copenhagen in the 16th and 17th centuries, when Norwegians were under Danish rule.

The books full of accounting figures were made of animal skin, or parchment. When making a book, the pages of parchment were sewn together with strong thread. Sometimes these threads ripped the parchment. So pieces of older parchment were added as patches to prevent the books from coming apart at the spine.

It is these recycled fragments that Weidling and Karlsen spend their time fitting together. Some of them contain texts and comprise parts of older manuscripts.

Specifically, the project involves identifying remnants of a book collection from the old Halsnøy Abbey on the Hardangerfjord in Hordaland County. This abbey on the spectacular Norwegian west coast was founded in 1163 and was dissolved with the Reformation in 1536. To date the researchers have found documents comprising nearly 40 books.

“All we have from Halsnøy are these fragments that we have found,” says Karlsen.

Their discoveries are contributing to knowledge about the Middle Ages and Norway’s cultural history.

Made in Norway

Karlsen’s curiosity was roused when he noticed the difference in sizes among the fragments of parchment. While most of the fragments used to strengthen ledgers were little bits, the ones from Halsnøy were fortunately quite large.

Weidling and Karlsen are sure these fragments are from Norway, even though the ledgers were sent to Denmark and spent centuries there. One indication is the discovery of such fragments on Norwegian accounts that had never been shipped south to Denmark. This means the fragments were added to the ledgers in Norway. 

“We have not come across a single fragment which with any certitude was added in Copenhagen. But there are lots that undoubtedly were fitted to the books in Norway,” says Karlsen.

Weidling offers material from Norway’s Akershus County as an example. Feudal overlords, lensherrer in Norwegian, distributed various goods and materials to bailiffs, men in their employ who among other services acted as tax collectors. Each of these had their own way of binding these parchments together and different parts of the country had their disparate methods too. Documents from Akershus are thus physically discernible from documents originating in Bergen or Trondheim.

Weidling doubts that the Danes would have done things this way – using different methods of bookbinding for the different parts of Norway, especially as all of these are unlike the way Danes did these tasks in Denmark. 

The bits of documents from Akershus could come from different churches. There were numerous churches in the county, which covers extensive countryside and towns around Oslo. It is difficult to determine which churches the fragments come from.

It is easier in smaller and more isolated locations, which is why documents from Halsnøy Abbey stand out. It was rather distant and isolated from Bergen and other towns and communities, making it easier to determine exactly where the pieces come from. 

After the Reformation, the administration of the Halsnøy district housed itself in what had formerly been the Abbey, so it is easy to imagine that when old parchments were needed, administrators just took those left by the medieval men who had formed a monastic community living under the rule of St. Augustine.


The documents from Halsnøy Abbey were written in Latin, as were all the other bits and pieces that Weidling and Karlsen hunt down. Similar projects have run earlier with fragments of old Norse documents.

The recycled abbey documents were sometimes liturgical, mostly linked to church services. Song books are among them. Fortunately for posterity, as society and religion changed, things that were no longer of any use were not always discarded.

“This is definitely an example of recycling,” says Weidling.

Parchment came in a limited supply and even the elite in Norway who worked for the government centuries ago had to use it sparingly. It is a durable material but expensive, made from an inner layer of hides of calves or sheep. If large parchments were demanded the skin of a whole sheep was needed to make just one page. 

“The most extravagant I have heard of was a book made from 500 sheep,” says Karlsen.

So books were expensive. Of course the meat from the livestock did not go to waste, but plenty of skilled work went into making good parchment. To draw a comparison, the production of a book could represent a cost amounting to tens of thousands of dollars in today’s currency.

A century or two

The practice of recycling parchment was most common in the 16th and 17th centuries. From the mid-1600s it started to decline. 

“Some of the latest documents we have found using remnants from Halsnøy Abbey are from 1647,” says Karlsen.

As the 1700s approached, new parchment was used more often than old here on the Hardangerfjord. Weidling and Karlsen are not entirely sure why, but one explanation comes readily to mind.

“Perhaps the supply of medieval parchment manuscripts was depleted. Even at Halsnøy there had to be a limited number of them,” says Karlsen.

Einarsdóttir, Silja Björklund. 2016. “Piecing together bits of Norway’s medieval history”. Science Nordic. Posted: November 14, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Caribbean heritage under threat

Loss of cultural heritage first brings to mind the destruction in the Middle East. But in the Caribbean it is mainly natural processes such as coastal erosion and human interventions driven by economics that are damaging the local natural and cultural heritage. A conference is taking place on Bonaire on this issue.

Coastal erosion and climate change

In her work, Professor of the Archaeology of the Caribbean Region Corinne Hofman regularly comes into contact with threatened archaeological sites. As a result of climate change, natural disasters such as tropical storms and hurricanes are becoming more and more common in the Caribbean region, and coastal destruction and erosion are increasing. These phenomena pose a threat to archaeological sites in coastal areas. There are also threats motivated by economic considerations such as the construction of bungalow parks, golf courses and airports for tourists, as well as large-scale sand excavation.

Geopolitical diversity

Parts of the islands in the Caribbean fall under French, American or Dutch rule. But there are also a number of independent island states where Hofman and others are currently carrying out archaeological research. These include the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia, Grenada and St. Vincent. Hofman knows well those areas that are under threat. The photo at the top shows that the coastline at Morel has receded 30 t0 40 metres in the course of the past 45 years, and is coming very close to an archaeological site.

Netherlands should do more

The diverse types of government make it difficult to create a clear picture of all the threats. 'The French do a lot,' Hofmann commented from the Caribbean, 'and the Netherlands should do more.' She pointed out that Aruba, Curaçao and St Maarten are independent countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Saba, St Eustatius and Bonaire are municipalities with a special status. One problem is that these islands do not have the financial means to take action themselves.

Multidisciplinary conference

From 18 to 21 October a major conference is taking place on Bonaire, organised by TNO in collaboration with the non-profit Planet Earth Foundation -- via the Earth Dynamics programme -- and the ERC-Synergy project NEXUS1492. The conference is an opportunity for marine biologists, geologists, ecologists and archaeologists from all parts of the world to come together with representatives from the Netherlands and the local authorities. 'This is the first time that the Netherlands has organised this kind of conference on the islands,' says Hofman. 'It's crucial that it's being held here so that the participants can see for themselves what is going on in the region. My aim from the viewpoint of NEXUS1492 is to highlight what man's influence on the environment in the Caribben has been from the first settlement by Indian communities in around 6,000 BC until the arrival of the Europeans. We're also focusing on the current threat to the cultural heritage from natural disasters and human intervention.'

You can't understand the past if you don't preserve and manage your heritage

'In our project,' Hofman explains, 'we're using archaeology to map the way the original Indian people lived. This conference is also a means of focusing attention on the need to preserve heritage sites, particularly those close to the coast. From the start of my career as an archaeologist, in parallel with my scientific research I've always worked to preserve and protect the cultural-archaeological heritage. You need access to that heritage to be able to reconstruct the past so that you can tell present and future generations about it.'

Science Daily. 2016. “Caribbean heritage under threat”. Science Daily. Posted: October 19, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Water sources key to Australia’s colonisation

Researchers from James Cook University assessed the position and permanency of water bodies to investigate early human migration across the continent.

“Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth and there is debate over when and which route it was colonised by its earliest people,” said Professor Michael Bird.

Aboriginal people initially arrived in Australia by 47,000 years ago, but it may have been as early as 50,000 to 55,000 years ago. From an initial entry point in the north-west or north people quickly made their way to south-east Australia with occupation of the Willandra Lakes region by 41,000 to 45,000 years ago. This suggests that people rapidly filled the continent within 5,000 to 10,000 years of initial arrival.

“We thought the distribution of water sources, particularly in the dry interior, may have played an important role in the rapid human colonisation of the continent.”

High degrees of connectivity

The scientists mapped 112,786 permanent water bodies. They found high degrees of connectivity during wet periods and a high density of water sources stretching from northern Australia, through semi-arid and arid regions, to south-eastern Australia and into the continent’s arid centre.

Results have been reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access).

“Our analysis placed 84% of archaeological sites older than 30,000 years within 20 km of permanent water sources. The findings suggest that a series of well-watered routes across Australia, particularly through the Channel Country in western Queensland, could have made possible the rapid human occupation of the continent’s arid interior,” said Professor Sean Ulm.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Water sources key to Australia’s colonisation”. Past Horizons. Posted: September 27, 2016. Available online:

Monday, January 16, 2017

Adverse events affect children's development, physical health and biology

It's known that adverse childhood experiences carry over into adult life, but a new study is focusing on the effect of these experiences in the childhood years.

For an abstract to be presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2016 National Conference & Exhibition in San Francisco, researchers conducted a systematic literature review to identify some of the clinical signs that can be used to recognize children at risk after experiencing trauma. They examined 39 cohort studies to determine the effect adverse childhood experiences has on health and biological outcomes in children.

The authors found that household dysfunction affects children's weight early in childhood, and abuse and neglect affect children's weight later in childhood. Children exposed to early adversity also have increased risk for asthma, infection, somatic complaints, and sleep disruption. Maternal mental health issues are associated with elevated cortisol levels, and maltreatment is associated with a lower cortisol profile.

"The majority of research on early adversity has looked at long-term adult outcomes," said Debby Oh, PhD, research associate at the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, California. "While this research has helped identify the problem, we must also deepen our understanding of what is happening in the brains and bodies of our children as they experience adversity."

Dr. Oh said that with appropriate intervention, children are able to recover from some of these negative health effects, making early detection a powerful tool to protect the health and well-being of children before long-term adult outcomes occur.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Adverse events affect children's development, physical health and biology”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 21, 2016. Available online: