Monday, November 30, 2009

Lake Laberge gives up a secret

Wreck of fabled sternwheeler from Klondike gold rush era found in 'pristine condition';

A team of marine archeologists has discovered a "perfectly preserved" 19th-century sternwheeler that went down in a storm more than a century ago in the Klondike setting made famous by the Robert Service poem The Cremation of Sam McGee.

The A.J. Goddard, a long-lost shipwreck in the depths of Yukon's legendary Lake Laberge, is being hailed as a "national treasure" and a "time capsule" from the Klondike.

The ship was named for an intrepid U.S. shipping merchant who pioneered Yukon River transport during the wild race for Canadian gold in the 1890s.

In Service's ghoulish 1907 rhyme, a Tennessee gold-seeker's frozen corpse finds blissful relief from the fatal Yukon cold in the fiery boiler of a sternwheeler stranded in ice on Lake Laberge.

The lake, a widening of the Yukon River north of Whitehorse, was a key leg in the treacherous, five-day journey by steamboat for tens of thousands of "stampeders," who came from across the U.S., Canada and elsewhere to search for gold in the Yukon's Klondike region in the late 1890s and early 1900s.

Most of the miners trudged from Skagway, Alaska--which could be reached by Pacific steamers--across dangerous mountain passes to the Yukon River headwaters in northern British Columbia.

Goddard took the same arduous route with the materials used to build his sternwheeler, was assembled on the shores of B.C.'s Lake Bennett and in June 1898 became the first steamboat to reach Dawson, which at the time was only a tent city filled with fortune hunters.

Goddard's historic arrival at Dawson in his self-named boat--to the thunderous cheers of miners -- has become part of Klondike lore, recounted by author Pierre Berton and other Gold Rush chroniclers.

The steamer sank in October 1901, drowning three of the five crewmen on board at the time.

Doug Davidge, president of the Yukon Transportation Museum, and B.C. archeologist John Pollack, a research associate with the Texasbased, international Institute of Nautical Archaeology, had led several searches for Klondike-era wrecks before discovering the sternwheeler in 2008 and positively identifying the 15-metre wreck this year.

"She is, indeed, a Gold Rush time capsule," said INA president James Delgado, former director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum.

"The boiler door is hanging open with the firewood they'd thrown in," he said.

"There are bags of tools and somebody's coat lying there on the deck, and the boots that the engineer probably kicked off as he was drowning lie close to his station."

In a statement announcing the find, the researchers also describe how a trapper camping on the shore of Lake Laberge in 1901 "saw Goddard's tiny pilothouse, torn off the sinking steamboat, with two survivors, half frozen, clinging to it. He saved them . . . Diving on A.J. Goddard, it is as if these events happened yesterday."

They also said "an axe used to chop the tow line for a small barge loaded with supplies still rests on the deck where a crew member dropped it."

The discovery, backed by funding from INA, National Geographic, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Yukon government and others, is to be followed next summer with further dives documenting the wreck site and its debris field.

"As this discovery now shows," the team notes, the steamboat also operated as a small floating repair shop, forge and kitchen--a self-sufficient depot on the Gold Rush frontier."

For additional stories see:
Los Angeles Times.
National Geographic News. This site has beautiful pictures and a video.
CBC News.


Boswell, Randy. 2009. "Lake Laberge gives up a secret". Edmonton Journal. Posted: November 24, 2009. Available online:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Darwin debate rages on 150 years after "Origin"

Even 150 years after it first appeared in print, Charles Darwin's "On The Origin of Species" still fuels clashes between scientists convinced of its truth and critics who reject its view of life without a creator.

This "Darwin Year" -- so named because February 12 was the 200th anniversary of the British naturalist's birth and November 24 the 150th anniversary of his book -- has seen a flood of books, articles and conferences debating his theory of evolution.

While many covered well-trodden ground, some have taken new paths. But no consensus is in sight, probably because Darwinian evolution is both a powerful scientific theory describing how life forms develop through natural selection and a basis for philosophies and social views that often include atheism.

"People are encountering and rejecting evolution not so much as a science but as a philosophy," Nick Spencer, director of studies at the public theology think-tank Theos in London, told Reuters.

"Today's most eloquent Darwinians often associate evolution with atheism ... amorality (and) the idea there is no design or purpose in the universe."

He said many people had embraced anti-evolution views in the United States and Britain in recent decades "not so much because they are rejecting evolution as a science, although that is often how that sentiment is articulated, but because they're rejecting it as a philosophy about life."

"It's quite possible to be an evolutionist and not to hold that philosophy about life, to be an evolutionist and still believe in God and purpose and design," he said.


Creationism, the idea God made the world as described in the Bible, and the "intelligent design" view positing an unnamed creator are usually linked to conservative U.S. Protestant groups in the United States.

A conference last week in Alexandria, Egypt, focused on how widespread anti-evolution views also are in the Muslim world, where believers cite the Koran's account of creation -- somewhat similar to the Bible's -- to reject Darwinism as atheist.

Nidhal Guessoum, an Algerian astrophysicist at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates, said 62 percent of the Muslim students and professors on his campus said in a recent survey that evolution was "just an unproven theory."

Only 10 percent of non-Muslim professors agreed. He also cited a poll saying 80 percent of Pakistani students doubted evolution and many teachers misunderstood the scientific theory.

"It will take a long, sustained effort, and a compassionate approach" to convince such Muslims that evolution need not negate faith, he said. "'More biology' does not improve the situation much (and) 'more science' does not work."


In Paris on Monday, a conference at UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) heard several scientists who accept evolution argue Darwin could not explain underlying order and patterns found in nature.

"We have to differentiate between evolution and Darwinism," said French philosopher of science Jean Staune, author of the new book "Au-dela de Darwin" (Beyond Darwin). "Of course there is adaptation. But like physics and chemistry, biology is also subject to its own laws."

Michael Denton, a geneticist with New Zealand's University of Otago, said Darwinian "functionalists" believed life forms adapted to the outside world while his "structuralist" view also saw an internal logic driving this evolution down certain paths.

His view, which he called "extraordinarily foreign to modern biology," explained why many animals developed eyes like human ones and why proteins, one of the building blocks of life, fold into structures unchanged for three billion years.

Denton said he was a religious agnostic seeking answers to unresolved scientific questions.

"Our knowledge of biology is actually very limited," he said. "I have no axe to grind -- I'll leave it to science to find this out."

(Editing by Jon Boyle)


Heneghan, Tom and Mollins, Julie. 2009. "Darwin debate rages on 150 years after "Origin"". Reuters. Posted: November 24, 2009. Available online:

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Dell Hymes, Linguist With a Wide Net, Dies at 82

Dell H. Hymes, a prominent anthropologist, linguist and folklorist whose work mined the rich, often overlooked territory where language and culture intersect, died on Nov. 13 in Charlottesville, Va. He was 82 and lived in Charlottesville.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his son Robert said.

At his death, Professor Hymes was the Commonwealth professor of anthropology emeritus at the University of Virginia, where he had taught from 1987 till his retirement in 1998.

Professor Hymes’s academic net was so wide that a single name for his field is hard to come by: he has been described variously as a sociolinguist, an anthropological linguist and a linguistic anthropologist. He himself came to call his vast, ecumenical discipline “the ethnography of communication.”

“He was an anthropologist through and through and a linguist through and through, and he didn’t see an enormous barrier between the two,” Joel F. Sherzer, emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Texas, said in a telephone interview on Friday.

As an anthropologist, Professor Hymes pressed his colleagues not to lose sight of language.

“You’ve got the anthropologists who are archaeologists and the ones who are looking at cultural phenomena through kinship systems or through artifacts,” Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguist and the author of popular books about communication, said on Thursday. “They might study a phenomenon like potlatch without looking at, How do people talk when they’re at the potlatch?”

As a linguist, Professor Hymes pressed those colleagues not to lose sight of culture. This was a contrarian position in the late 1950s, when he began his career, but that, by all accounts, suited him just fine.

In 1957, with the ascent of a young linguist named Noam Chomsky, the direction of linguistics changed drastically. Suddenly, the field had little interest in language as a form of social behavior, its focus for decades. Now it was about biology — about language as a window onto the workings of the mind.

The aim of linguists, Professor Chomsky argued, should be to describe an idealized speaker’s inborn predisposition for language — also known as “linguistic competence” — by means of abstract, quasi-mathematical algorithms.

Professor Hymes preferred speakers of flesh and blood. To him and like-minded scholars, the Chomskyan approach disregarded the question of how people actually use language in everyday life. With his colleague John J. Gumperz, he developed the notion of “communicative competence” as a bigger, alternative quarry for scholars of language.

“ ‘Communicative competence’ embraces the larger context of society and culture — the language the way it’s used, not just the language itself,” Roger W. Shuy, an emeritus professor of linguistics at Georgetown, said by telephone on Thursday.

Professor Hymes encouraged his disciples to study every living, breathing form of discourse they could lay their hands on, things like table talk; myths, legends and riddles; courtroom testimony, political oratory, funeral laments and leave-taking conversations. Part of his aim was to discover the ways in which these differ across cultures.

“They’re not universal,” Professor Sherzer said. “The way you take leave among the Kuna” — an indigenous people of Panama and Colombia — “is not the same as in middle-class Anglo-Saxon society.”

Dell Hathaway Hymes was born on June 7, 1927, in Portland, Ore.; by the time he was a young man, he was already deeply interested in Northwest American Indian languages. He earned a bachelor’s degree in literature and anthropology from Reed College in 1950 and a Ph.D. in linguistics from Indiana University in 1955.

Before joining the Virginia faculty, Professor Hymes taught at Harvard; the University of California, Berkeley; and the University of Pennsylvania, where he became dean of the Graduate School of Education. He was a past president of the American Anthropological Association, the Linguistic Society of America and the American Folklore Society and the inaugural editor of the journal Language in Society.

After a brief early marriage that ended in divorce, Professor Hymes married Virginia Dosch Wolff in 1954. He is survived by his wife, now known as Virginia Dosch Hymes; four children, Vicky Unruh and Robert, Alison and Kenneth Hymes; a brother, Corwin; five grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

His books include “Foundations in Sociolinguistics: An Ethnographic Approach” (University of Pennsylvania, 1974) and “Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice” (Taylor & Francis, 1996). He edited many anthologies, among them “Reinventing Anthropology” (Pantheon, 1972) and, with Professor Gumperz, “Directions in Sociolinguistics: the Ethnography of Communication” (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972).

Professor Hymes was also known for his work in ethnopoetics, which studies the traditional literature, much of it oral, of indigenous peoples. Where Western scholarship had long dismissed this literature as the formless burblings of primitive peoples, Professor Hymes helped demonstrate that much of it — including American Indian stories and African legends — has sophisticated internal structure in its own right.

In the introduction to his book “‘In Vain I Tried to Tell You’: Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics” (University of Pennsylvania, 1981), Professor Hymes summarized his approach to the study of traditional texts. It could as readily describe his approach to language as a whole:

“As with ‘Beowulf’ and ‘The Tale of Genji,’ the material requires some understanding of a way of life,” he wrote. “The joy, the language, the understanding are all of a piece. They come together, because they were put together by the people who made the texts.”

Fox, Margalit. 2009. "Dell Hymes, Linguist with a wide net, dies at 82". New York Times. Posted: November 23, 2009. Available online:

Friday, November 27, 2009

Cochlear Implants Reduce Delay Suffered By Deaf Children In Language Acquisition, Study Shows

ScienceDaily (Oct. 19, 2009) — A multidisciplinary group at Malaga University, headed by Ignacio Moreno-Torres, is collecting information on the milestones that mark the development of deaf children fitted with a Cochlear Implant (CI) and studying to what extent the social and family environment affects this development. This research is funded with 101,000 euro by the Andalusian Regional Ministry of Innovation.

The researchers have observed in this first year of the study that, three months after receiving the implant all the children showed improvement in their perception and ability to detect sounds around them. Children quickly learn that the CI is a device that allows them to hear and if it is deactivated they protest or make gestures asking that it be switched back on.

The first effect of the CI is an increase in the intensity of the sounds made by the children, which gives way to the production of sounds close to vowels. "Later, at between four and six months, sounds similar to syllables appear, such as bababa, mamama, etc. One of the children appeared not to following this sequence of development, as this child already produced abundant syllables before receiving the CI. This could be related to the type of stimulation received (Cued Speech, a system that makes it possible to perceive cued speech by sight through the simultaneous use of lip reading and a limited series of manual cues) although we will have to wait a few months before verifying if this initial progress is long-lasting and if the cause of the phenomenon is Cued Speech," explains Moreno-Torres.

Although there are differences between children, in general the first words usually appear six months following activation. "The only child on whom the study has been completed produced 50 different words in the final session," explained the professor. This datum is encouraging as it indicates that in only twelve months of the auditory experience it is possible to achieve what hearing children usually achieve in 18 months, which means that the initial difference compared to hearing children is being reduced.

Linguistic and cognitive development

Today there are means that enable the deaf to acquire verbal language, among which the Cochlear Implant is key. The Cochlear Implant, which has been in use since 1957, carries out the function of the human ear, transforming acoustic signals into electrical signals that stimulate the auditory nerve. Despite the marked achievements, the implant does not always guarantee linguistic progress equivalent to that observed in hearing people. For this reason, since 2007 this research group at Malaga University have been studying the linguistic and cognitive development of a group of children who received the implant before they were two years old.

Up to now, eleven children (of the planned total of twelve) have taken part or are in the process of being included in the project. Of these, seven received the implant at San Cecilio University Clinical Hospital (Granada) and four at Las Palmas University Hospital. A total of nine data collections are made with respect to each child; the first prior to implantation and the others beginning a month and a half following the date of activation.

In the future and maintaining the same initial hypothesis (critical role of the social and family environment), another study will be carried out that will provide valuable data on the subsequent development stages. Specifically, the aim to study linguistic progress in medium term (phonology, lexis and grammar) after three or four years of use of the Cochlear Implant. Furthermore, they hope to be able to assess to what extent these children are ready to access primary schools in equal conditions to hearing children.

Anonymous. 2009. "Cochlear Implants Reduce Delay Suffered By Deaf Children In Language Acquisition, Study Shows". Science Daily. Posted: October 19, 2009. Available online:

Thursday, November 26, 2009

You Say Po-TAY-To, And I Say Pot-AAH-To! Language Evolves Through Our Own Use Of It

Change in language can be compared with evolution in the world of animals and plants. According to Dutch researcher Frank Landsbergen, an individual user of language can spark off an evolution of his or her language. His new approach, comparing linguistic change with evolution, offers a number of advantages for the study of linguistic change.

Language is an evolutionary system. It is based on the same mechanisms that appear in the world of plants and animals. For instance, language incorporates variations in the choice of words, meanings or pronunciation. Consciously or unconsciously, we opt to use a particular word. If that word spreads throughout a group, the language will change. Linguistic change is therefore based on the people using the language.

In his research, Frank Landsbergen combined a philological approach with a biological approach to investigate some cases of linguistic change, such as the meaning of a word like the Dutch 'krijgen'. In 1300, it meant 'to grasp', whereas nowadays it means 'to receive'. The results show that reasonably simple trends in the way language users behave can explain this type of change.

Evolutionary computer models Landsbergen developed his own computer models for the research. These consisted of groups of individuals, with a defined knowledge of language and a defined way of communicating. The model allowed Landsbergen to imitate language use and study the effect of an individual at the level of the group. This method therefore allows a complex process such as language change to be better understood. It also facilitates an accurate study of how the process might be influenced by a range of possible factors.

Collaborative project

Landsbergen's research formed part of the project 'Modelling cultural evolution. A parallel investigation of changes in bird song and human language'. The object was to gain an understanding of underlying evolutionary processes of language change and changes in birdsong. The project was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

Anonymous. 2009. "You Say Po-TAY-To, And I Say Pot-AAH-To! Language Evolves Through Our Own Use Of It". . Posted:November 20, 2009. Available online:

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Ancient Weapons Dug Up by Archaeologists in England

Staff at the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) have been excited by the results from a recently excavated major Prehistoric site at Asfordby, near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire. The Mesolithic site may date from as early as 9000 BC, by which time hunter-gatherers had reoccupied the region after the last ice age. These hunters crossed the land bridge from the continental mainland -- 'Britain' was only to become an island several thousand years later.

The site was excavated during 2009 by ULAS in advance of a residential development for Jelson Homes Ltd. Initial trenching work identified several worked flint blades of characteristic Mesolithic type, and clearly in an unworn and undisturbed state. Further work confirmed that these rare flint finds were preserved in a Mesolithic soil, buried by a much later ploughsoil. Because this early soil had survived intact, it was thought possible that original features such as hearths and structures might still remain, and activities linked to the flint scatter could also be found.

Excavation targeted an area just ten metres square, where the limits of the flint scatter had been identified from test results. Within this small area, a charcoal rich former hearth was found, and also several postholes and arcs of stones that may show the position of tent-like structures. Burnt animal bone and further charcoal chips were also found indicating cooking activities. The site is probably located where it is at least partly because the local soils have natural flint chunks or 'nodules' that could have been used for flintworking. Also, the site would have been a shallow valley in Mesolithic times, and sheltered from the elements.

As important as this evidence was however, the worked flint from site was what really made the excavations significant. Over 5000 worked flints came from this small area, including flint cores used for tool creation, blades, flakes and 'debitage' (small chips from tool-working), and scrapers, piercers and microlith tools with the latter being used in composite arrowheads. The Mesolithic people were occupying this site making and repairing broken flint weapons and tools on a large scale. Some of the microlith projectile points have impact fractures indicating that they had been used in arrowheads which had then been collected and reused. These tasks would have been carried out as part of a range of activities associated with their hunting expeditions.

Further work on the finds from this regionally unique site is still to be carried out at the University of Leicester. The finds -- worked flint, animal bone and charcoal, will allow archaeologists to identify the flintworking processes and other tasks carried out, the different animals that were hunted, and the environment at the time of the Mesolithic hunters.


2009. "Ancient Weapons Dug Up by Archaeologists in England". Science Daily. Posted:November 17, 2009. Available online:

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Shangri-La" Caves Yield Treasures, Skeletons

A treasure trove of Tibetan art and manuscripts uncovered in "sky high" Himalayan caves could be linked to the storybook paradise of Shangri-La, says the team that made the discovery.

The 15th-century religious texts and wall paintings were found in caves carved into sheer cliffs in the ancient kingdom of Mustang—today part of Nepal. (See pictures of the "Shangri-La" caves and their treasures.)

Few have been able to explore the mysterious caves, since Upper Mustang is a restricted area of Nepal that was long closed to outsiders. Today only a thousand foreigners a year are allowed into the region.

In 2007 a team co-led by U.S. researcher and Himalaya expert Broughton Coburn and veteran mountaineer Pete Athans scaled the crumbling cliffs on a mission to explore the human-made caves.

(Get Coburn's impressions of the challenges of reaching the Shangri-La caves in the December/January issue of National Geographic Adventure magazine.)

Inside the caves, the team found ancient Tibetan Buddhist shrines decorated with exquisitely painted murals, including a 55-panel depiction of Buddha's life. (See a picture of one of the Buddhist murals.)

A second expedition in 2008 discovered several 600-year-old human skeletons and recovered reams of precious manuscripts, some with small paintings known as illuminations.

The sacred hoard seems to match descriptions of treasures to be found in Buddhist "hidden valleys," which served as the basis for Shangri-La in British writer James Hilton's popular 1930s novel Lost Horizon.

Hidden Texts Show Religious Mix

Looters have raided the caves over the centuries, cutting valuable artwork from the ancient texts. In addition, religious pilgrims have damaged the cave walls to collect souvenirs.

Still, the researchers were able to collect and document manuscripts from about 30 volumes, which were then moved for safekeeping to Mustang's central monastery.

Preserved by the mountain region's cool, arid climate, the ancient manuscripts contain a mix of writings from Buddhism and Bön, an earlier, native Tibetan faith, Coburn said.

This combination suggests that Bön beliefs survived for at least a century or two in this region after the Tibetan conversion to Buddhism, which began in the eighth century, Coburn said.

The team suspects the kings of Mustang abandoned the Bön sacred texts in the caves as a respectful alternative to destroying them.

Mark Turin, of the Digital Himalaya Project at the University of Cambridge in the U.K., also thinks this was a possibility.

But it's also possible the finds tie in with the Tibetan tradition of deliberately hiding religious texts, said Turin, who wasn't involved in the National Geographic Society-funded expedition. (The National Geographic Society owns National Geographic News.)

"There's a real sense of discovery in Tibetan tradition," he said. "People discover hidden texts, or they discover hidden cultural knowledge that is lost or secreted away."

Today Mustang is depicted as "the end of the world" and is culturally isolated from Chinese-occupied Tibet, Turin added. (Explore how Tibetan traditions have endured under Chinese rule.)

The new discoveries now show that Mustang was "for many, many hundreds of years absolutely central—a vibrant, dynamic, culturally rich, and religiously diverse settlement."

Paradise Found?

The unusual treasures have led Coburn and his team to suggest that the Mustang caves could be linked to "hidden valleys" thought to represent the Buddhist spiritual paradise known as Shambhala.

"Shambhala is also believed by many scholars to have a geographical parallel that may exist in several or many Himalayan valleys," Coburn said.

"These hidden valleys were created at times of strife and when Buddhist practice and principals were threatened," Coburn said. "The valleys contained so-called hidden treasure texts."

Elaine Brook, author of Search for Shambhala, said the hidden valleys of Mustang indeed "have some of the characteristics of the mythical land of Shambhala."

For his 1933 novel, Hilton used the concept of Shambhala as the basis for his "lost" valley of Shangri-La, an isolated mountain community that was a storehouse of cultural wisdom.

But Brook, like the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people, thinks that "nowadays, no one knows where Shambhala is." Shangri-La or not, the Mustang caves are in dire need of preservation, according to Coburn, Athans, and their colleagues.

Besides looters, Coburn said, the 6,000-year-old caves face threats from souvenir collectors, erosion, earthquakes, and infrequent but torrential rains.

Owen,James. 2009. ""Shangri-La" Caves Yield Treasures, Skeletons". National Geographic News. Posted: November 17, 2009. Available online:

Monday, November 23, 2009

Ritual as Maori bones return home

An ancient ritual was performed during a ceremony in a museum before the skeletal remains of 12 Maoris began their return from Wales to New Zealand.

The skeleton of a female and bones of 11 other people were part of the Welsh national collection at National Museum Cardiff.

But they are being repatriated after recent research showed features consistent with Polynesian ancestry.

Before the remains were packed, a call and chant of acknowledgement was made.

The remains - known as koiwi tangata - were greeted during the hour-long ceremony, attended by workers from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, which has helped arrange the repatriation.

The ceremony at the Cardiff museum took place between 1200 BST and 1400 GMT.

Following a closing prayer, all participants of the ceremony pressed noses as part of the completion process and sprinkled water over their heads and bodies.

Research has shown that the remains were originally obtained from Ahuahu, or Great Mercury Island, which is the largest in the Mercury Islands group, located off the north-east coast of New Zealand's North Island.

Te Herekiekie Herewini, Te Papa's repatriation manager, said it was important to return the ancestors to their original community in New Zealand: "This is significant for Maori as it is believed that through the ancestors' return to their homeland, the dead and their living descendants will retrieve their dignity, and also close the hurt and misdeeds of the past," he said.

Richard Brewer, keeper of archaeology, National Museum Wales, said: "After studying the remains and realising their significance to the Maori community, Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales) felt it was appropriate to offer them back to their country of origin to lay their souls to rest."

The return of the bones forms part of Karanga Aotearoa, which is the New Zealand government-mandated authority that negotiates the repatriation of ancestral remains on behalf of Maori.

Since May 2004, it has repatriated ancestral remains from eight countries, bringing home 149 koiwi tangata (skeletal remains) and Toi moko (mummified tattooed heads).

Anonymous. 2009. "Ritual as Maori bones return home". BBC News. Posted: November 16, 2009. Available online:

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Eating Christmas in the Kalahari

The !kung Bushmen's knowledge of Christmas is thirdhand. The London Missionary Society brought the holiday to the southern Tswana tribes in the early nineteenth century. Later, native catechists spread the idea far and wide among the Bantu-speaking pastoralists, even in the remotest corners of the children.jpegKalahari Desert. The Bushmen's idea of the Christmas story, stripped to its essentials, is "praise the birth of white man's god-chief": what keeps their interest in the holiday high is the Tswana-Herero custom of slaughtering an ox for his Bushmen neighbors as an annual goodwill gesture. Since the 1930s, part of the Bushmen's annual round of activities has included a December congregation at the cattle posts for trading, marriage brokering, and several days of trance dance feasting at which the local Tswana headman is host.

As a social anthropologist working with !Kung Bushmen, I found that the Christmas ox custom suited my purposes. I had come to the Kalahari to study the hunting and gathering subsistence economy of the !Kung, and to accomplish this it was essential not to provide them with food, share my own food, or interfere in any way with their food- gathering activities. While liberal handouts of tobacco and medical supplies were appreciated, they were scarcely adequate to erase the glaring disparity in wealth between the anthropologist, who maintained a two month inventory of canned goods, and the Bushmen, who rarely had a day's supply of food on hand. My approach, while paying off in terms of data, left me open to frequent accusations of stinginess and hardheartedness. By their lights, I was a miser.

The Christmas ox was to be my way of saying thank you for the cooperation of the past year; and since it was to be our last Christmas in the field, I determined to slaughter the largest, meatiest ox that money could buy, insuring that the feast and trance dance would be a success.

Through December I kept my eyes open at the wells as the cattle were brought down for watering. Several animals were offered, but none had quite the music_sm.jpeggrossness that I had in mind. Then, ten days before the holiday, a Herero friend led an ox of astonishing size and mass up to our camp. It was solid black, stood five feet high at the shoulder, had a five-foot span of horns, and must have weighed 1,200 pounds on the hoof. Food consumption calculations are my specialty, and I quickly figured that bones and viscera aside, there was enough meat-at least four pounds-for every man, woman, and child of the 150 Bushmen in the vicinity of lailai who were expected at the feast.

Having found the right animal at last, I paid the Herero £20 ($56) and asked him to keep the beast with his herd until Christmas day. The next morning word spread among the people that the big solid black one was the ox chosen by /ontah (my Bushman name; it means, roughly, "whitey") for the Christmas feast. That afternoon I received the first delegation. Ben!a, an outspoken sixty-year-old mother of five, came to the point slowly.

"Where were you planning to eat Christmas?"

"Right here at /ai/ai I replied.

"Alone or with others?"

"I expect to invite all the people to eat Christmas with me."

"Eat what?

"I have purchased Yehave's black ox, and am going to slaughter and cook it."

"That's what we were told at the well but refused to believe it until we heard it from yourself."

"Well, it's the black one," I replied expansively, although wondering what she was driving at. "|

"Oh, no!. Ben!a groaned, turning to her group. "They were right." Turning back to me she asked, "Do you expect us to eat that bag of bones?"

"Bag of bones! It's the biggest ox at /ai/ai."

"Big, yes, but old. And thin. Everybody knows there's no meat on that old ox. What did you expect to eat off of it, the horns?"

Everybody chuckled at Ben!a's one-liner as they walked away, but all I could manage was a weak grin.

That evening it was the turn of the young men. They came to sit at our evening fire. /gaugo, about my age, spoke to me man-to-man.

"/ontah, you have always been square with us," he lied. "What has happened to change your heart? That sack of guts and bones of Yehave's will hardly feed one camp, let alone all the Bushmen around /ai/ai." And he proceeded to enumerate the seven camps in the /ai/ai vicinity, family by family. "Perhaps you have forgotten that we are not few, but many. Or are you too blind to tell the difference between a proper cow and an old wreck? That ox is thin to the group.jpegpoint of death."

"Look, you guys," I retorted, "that is a beautiful animal, and I'm sure you will eat it with pleasure at Christmas."

"Of course we will eat it: it's food. But it won't fill us up to the point where we will have enough strength to dance. We will eat and go home to bed with stomachs rumbling."

That night as we turned in, I asked my wife, Nancy, "What did you think of the black ox?"

"It looked enormous to me. Why?"

"Well, about eight different people have told me I got gypped; that the ox is nothing but bones."

"What's the angle?" Nancy asked. "Did they have a better one to sell?"

"No, they just said that it was going to be a grim Christmas because there won't be enough meat to go around. Maybe I'll get an independent judge to look at the beast in the morning."

Bright and early, Halingisi a Tswana cattle owrner appeared at our camp. But before I could ask him to give me his opinion on Yehave's black ox, he gave me the eye signal that indicated a confidential chat. We left the camp and sat down.

"/ontah, I'm surprised at you; you've lived here for three years and still haven't learned anything about cattle."

"But what else can a person do but choose the biggest, strongest animal one can find?" I retorted.

"Look, just because an animal is big doesn't mean that it has plenty of meat on it. The black one was a beauty when it was younger, but now it is thin to the point of death."

"Well I've already bought it. What can I do at this stage?"

"Bought it already? I thought you were just considering it. Well, you'll have to kill it and serve it, I suppose. But don't expect much of a dance to follow."

My spirits dropped rapidly. I could believe that Ben!a and /gaugo just might be putting me on about the black ox, but Halingisi seemed to be an impartial critic. I went around that day feeling as though I had bought a lemon of a used car.

In the afternoon it was Tomazo's turn. Tomazo is a fine hunter, a top trance performer. . . and one of my most reliable informants. He approached the subject of the Christmas cow as part of my continuing Bushman education.

"My friend, the way it is with us Bushmen," he began,"is that we love meat. And even more than that, we love fat. When we hunt we always search for the fat ones, the ones dripping with layers of white fat: fat that turns into a clear, thick oil in the cooking pot, fat that slides down your gullet, fills your stomach and gives you a roaring diarrhea," he rhapsodized.

"So, feeling as we do," he continued, "it gives us pain to be served such a scrawny thing as Yehave's black ox. It is big, yes, and no doubt its giant bones are good for soup, but fat is what we really crave and so we will eat Christmas this year with a heavy heart."

The prospect of a gloomy Christmas now had me worried, so I asked Tomazo what I could do about it.

"Look for a fat one, a young one . . . smaller, but fat. Fat enough to make us //gom (evacuate the bowels), then we will be happy."

My suspicions were aroused when Tomazo said that he happened to know a young, fat, barren cow that the owner was willing to part with. Was Tomazo working on commission, I wondered? But I dispelled this unworthy thought when we approached the Herero owner of the cow in question and found that he had decided not to sell.

The scrawny wreck of a Christmas ox now became the talk of the /ai/ai water hole and was the first news told to the outlying groups as they began to come in from the bush for the feast. What finally convinced me that real trouble might be brewing was the visit from u!au, an old conservative with a reputation for fierceness. His nickname meant spear and referred to an incident thirty years ago in which he had speared a man to death. He had an intense manner; fixing me with his eyes, he said in clipped tones:

"I have only just heard about the black ox today, or else I would have come earlier /ontah, do you honestly think you can serve meat like that to people and avoid a fight?" He paused, letting the implications sink in. "I don't mean fight you, /ontah; you are a white man. I mean a fight between Bushmen. There are many fierce ones here, and with such a small quantity of meat to distribute, how can you give everybody a fair share? Someone is sure to accuse another of taking too much or hogging all the choice pieces. Then you will see what happens when some go hungry while others eat."

The possibility of at least a serious argument struck me as all too real. I had witnessed the tension that surrounds the distribution of meat from a kudu or gemsbok kill, and had documented many arguments that sprang up from a real or imagined slight in meat distribution. The owners of a kill may spend up to two hours arranging and rearranging the piles of meat under the gaze of a circle of recipients before handing them out. And I knew that the Christmas feast at /ai/ai would be bringing together groups that had feuded in the past.

Convinced now of the gravity of the situation, I went in earnest to search for a second cow; but all my inquiries failed to turn one up.

The Christmas feast was evidently going to be a disaster, and the incessant complaints about the meagerness of the ox had already taken the fun out of it for me. Moreover, I was getting bored with the wisecracks, and after losing my temper a few times, I resolved to serve the beast anyway. If the meat fell short, the hell with it. In the Bushmen idiom, I announced to all who would listen:

"I am a poor man and blind. If I have chosen one that is too old and too thin, we will eat it anyway and see if there is enough meat there to quiet the rumbling of our stomachs."

On hearing this speech, Ben!a offered me a rare word of comfort. "It's thin," she said philosophically, "but the bones will make a good soup."

At dawn Christmas morning, instinct told me to turn over the butchering and cooking to a friend and take off with Nancy to spend Christmas alone in the bush. But curiosity kept me from retreating. I wanted to see what such a scrawny ox looked like on butchering, and if there was going to be a fight, I wanted to catch every word of it. Anthropologists are incurable that way.

The great beast was driven up to our dancing ground, and a shot in the forehead dropped it in its tracks. Then, freshly cut branches were heaped around the fallen carcass to receive the meat. Ten men volunteered to help with the cutting, I asked /gaugo to make the breast bone cut. This cut, which begins the butchering process for most large game, offers easy access for removal of the viscera. But it allows the hunter to spot-check the amount of fat on an animal. A fat game animal carries a white layer up to an inch thick on the chest, while in a thin one, the knife will quickly cut to the bone. All eyes fixed on his hand as /gaugo, dwarfed by the great carcass, knelt to the breast. The first cut opened a pool of solid white in the black skin. The second and third cut widened and deepened the creamy white. Still no bone. It was pure fat; it must have been two inches thick.


"Hey /gau," I burst out, Hthat ox is loaded with fat. What's this about the ox being too thin to bother eating? Are you out of your mind?"

"Fat?" /gau shot back. "You call that fat? This wreck is thin, sick, dead!. And he broke out laughing. So did everyone else. They rolled on the ground, paralyzed with laughter. Everybody laughed except me; I was thinking.

I ran back to the tent and burst in just as Nancy was getting up. "Hey, the black ox. It's fat as hell! They were kidding about it being too thin to eat. It was a joke or something. A put-on. Everyone is really delighted with it."

"Some joke," my wife replied. "It was so funny that you were ready to pack up and leave /ai/ai."

If it had indeed been a joke, it had been an extraordinarily convincing one, and tinged, I thought, with more than a touch of malice as many jokes are. Nevertheless, that it was a joke lifted my spirits considerably, and I returned to the butchering site where the shape of the ox was rapidly disappearing under the axes and knives of the butchers. The atmosphere had become festive. Grinning broadly, their arms covered with blood well past the elbow, men packed chunks of meat into the big cast-iron cooking pots, fifty pounds to the load, and muttered and chuckled all the while about the thinness and worthlessness of the animal and /ontah's poor judgment.

We danced and ate that ox two days and two nights; we cooked and distributed fourteen potfuls of meat and no one went home hungry and no fights broke out.

But the "joke" stayed in my mind. I had a growing feeling that something important had happened in my relationship with the Bushmen and that the clue lay in the meaning of the joke. Several days later, when most of the people had dispersed back to the bush camps, I raised the question with Hakekgose, a Tswana man who had grown up among the !Kung, married a !Kung girl, and who probably knows the culture better than any other

"With us whites,. I began, HChristmas is supposed to be the day of friendship and brotherly love. What I can't figure out is why the Bushmen went to such lengths to criticize and belittle the ox I had bought for the feast. The animal was perfectly good and their jokes and wisecracks practically ruined the holiday for me."

"So it really did bother you," said Hakekgose. "Well, that's the way they always talk. When I take my rifle and go hunting with them, if I miss, they laugh at me for the rest of the day. But even if I hit and bring one down, it's no better. To them, the kill is always too small or too old or too thin; and as we sit down on the kill site to cook and eat the liver, they keep grumbling, even with their mouths full of meat. They say things like, 'Oh, this is awful! What a worthless animal! Whatever made me think that this Tswana rascal could hunt!'"

"Is this the way outsiders are treated?" I asked.

"No, it is their custom; they talk that way to each other too. Go and ask them."

/gaugo had been one of the most enthusiastic in making me feel bad about the merit of the Christmas ox. I sought him out first.

"Why did you tell me the black ox was worthless, when you could see that it was loaded with fat and meat?"

"It is our way," he said smiling. "We always like to fool people about that. Say there is a Bushman who has been hunting. He must not come home and announce like a braggart, 'I have killed a big one in the bush!' He must first sit down in silence until I or someone else comes up to his fire and asks, 'What did you see today?' He replies quietly, 'Ah, I'm no good for hunting. I saw nothing at all (pause) just a little tiny one.' Then I smile to myself," /gaugo continued, "Because I know he has killed something big.

"In the morning we make up a party of four or five people to cut up and carry the meat back to the camp. When we arrive at the kill we examine it and cry out, 'You mean to say you have dragged us all the way out here in order to make us cart home your pile of bones? Oh, if I had known it was this thin I wouldn't have comet' another one pipes up, 'People, to think I gave up a nice day in the shade for this. At home we may be hungry but at least we have nice cool water to drink.'If the horns are big, someone says, 'Did you think that somehow you were going to boil down the horns for soup?'

"To all this you must respond in kind. 'I agree,'you say, 'this one is not worth the effort; let's just cook the liver for strength and leave the rest for the hyenas. It is not too late to hunt today and even a duiker or steenbok would be better than this mess.'

"Then you set to work nevertheless; butcher the animal, carry the meat back to the camp and everyone eats," /gaugo concluded.

Things were beginning to make sense. Next, I went to Tomazo. He corroborated /gaugo's story of the obligatory insults over a kill and added a few details of his own.

"But," I asked, "why insult a man after he has gone to all that trouble to track and kill an animal and when he is going to share the meat with you so that your children will have something to eat?"

"Arrogance," was his cryptic answer.


"Yes, when a young man kills much meat he comes to think of himself as a chief or a big man, and he thinks of the rest of us as his servants or inferiors. We can't accept this. We refuse one who boasts, for someday his pride will make him kill somebody. So we always speak of his meat as worthless. This way we cool his heart and make him gentle."

"But why didn't you tell me this before?" I asked Tomazo with some heat.

"Because you never asked me,. said Tomazo, echoing the refrain that has come to haunt every field ethnographer.

The pieces now fell into place. I had known for a long time that in situations of social conflict with Bushmen I held all the cards. I was the only source of tobacco in a thousand square miles, and I was not incapable of cutting an individual off for noncooperation. Though my boycott never lasted longer than a few days, it was an indication of my strength. People resented my presence at the water hole, yet simultaneously dreaded my leaving. In short I was a perfect target for the charge of arrogance and for the Bushmen tactic of enforcing humility.

I had been taught an object lesson by the Bushmen; it had come from an unexpected corner and had hurt me in a vulnerable area. For the big black ox was to be the one totally generous, unstinting act of my year at lailai and I was quite unprepared for the reaction I received.

As I read it, their message was this: There are no totally generous acts. All Hacts" have an element of calculation. One black ox slaughtered at Christmas does not wipe out a year of careful manipulation of gifts given to serve your own ends. After all, to kill an animal and share the meat with people is really no more than the Bushmen do for each other every day and with far less fanfare.

In the end, I had to admire how the Bushmen had played out the farce-collectively straight-faced to the end. Curiously, the episode reminded me of the Good Soldier Schweik and his marvelous encounters with authority. Like Schweik, the Bushmen had retained a thoroughgoing skepticism of good intentions. Was it this independence of spirit, I wondered, that had kept them culturally viable in the face of generations of contact with more powerful societies, both black and white? The thought that the Bushmen were alive and well in the Kalahari was strangely comforting. Perhaps, armed with that independence and with their superb knowledge of their environment, they might yet survive the future.

Lee, Richard B. 1969. "Eating Christmas in the Kalahari". Natural History Magazine, vol 78, no. 10 in 1969.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Language driven by culture, not biology

Language in humans has evolved culturally rather than genetically, according to a study by UCL (University College London) and US researchers. By modelling the ways in which genes for language might have evolved alongside language itself, the study showed that genetic adaptation to language would be highly unlikely, as cultural conventions change much more rapidly than genes. Thus, the biological machinery upon which human language is built appears to predate the emergence of language.

According to a phenomenon known as the Baldwin effect, characteristics that are learned or developed over a lifespan may become gradually encoded in the genome over many generations, because organisms with a stronger predisposition to acquire a trait have a selective advantage. Over generations, the amount of environmental exposure required to develop the trait decreases, and eventually no environmental exposure may be needed - the trait is genetically encoded.

An example of the Baldwin effect is the development of calluses on the keels and sterna of ostriches. The calluses may initially have developed in response to abrasion where the keel and sterna touch the ground during sitting. Natural selection then favored individuals that could develop calluses more rapidly, until callus development became triggered within the embryo and could occur without environmental stimulation. The PNAS paper explored circumstances under which a similar evolutionary mechanism could genetically assimilate properties of language - a theory that has been widely favoured by those arguing for the existence of ‘language genes’.

The study modelled ways in which genes encoding language-specific properties could have coevolved with language itself. The key finding was that genes for language could have coevolved only in a highly stable linguistic environment; a rapidly changing linguistic environment would not provide a stable target for natural selection. Thus, a biological endowment could not coevolve with properties of language that began as learned cultural conventions, because cultural conventions change much more rapidly than genes.

The authors conclude that it is unlikely that humans possess a genetic ‘language module’ which has evolved by natural selection. The genetic basis of human language appears to primarily predate the emergence of language.

The conclusion is reinforced by the observation that had such adaptation occurred in the human lineage, these processes would have operated independently on modern human populations as they spread throughout Africa and the rest of the world over the last 100,000 years. If this were so, genetic populations should have coevolved with their own language groups, leading to divergent and mutually incompatible language modules. Linguists have found no evidence of this, however; for example, native Australasian populations have been largely isolated for 50,000 years but learn European languages readily.

Professor Nick Chater, UCL Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Sciences, says: “Language is uniquely human. But does this uniqueness stem from biology or culture? This question is central to our understanding of what it is to be human, and has fundamental implications for the relationship between genes and culture. Our paper uncovers a paradox at the heart of theories about the evolutionary origin and genetic basis of human language - although we have appear to have a genetic predisposition towards language, human language has evolved far more quickly than our genes could keep up with, suggesting that language is shaped and driven by culture rather than biology.

“The linguistic environment is continually changing; indeed, linguistic change is vastly more rapid than genetic change. For example, the entire Indo-European language group has diverged in less than 10,000 years. Our simulations show the evolutionary impact of such rapid linguistic change: genes cannot evolve fast enough to keep up with this ‘moving target’.

“Of course, co-evolution between genes and culture can occur. For example, lactose tolerance appears to have co-evolved with dairying. But dairying involves a stable change to the nutritional environment, positively selecting the gene for lactose tolerance, unlike the fast-changing linguistic environment. Our simulations show that this kind of co-evolution can only occur when language change is offset by very strong genetic pressure. Under these conditions of extreme pressure, language rapidly evolves to reflect pre-existing biases, whether the genes are subject to natural selection or not. Thus, co-evolution only occurs when the language is already almost entirely genetically encoded. We conclude that slow-changing genes can drive the structure of a fast-changing language, but not the reverse.

“But if universal grammar did not evolve by natural selection, how could it have arisen? Our findings suggest that language must be a culturally evolved system, not a product of biological adaption. This is consistent with current theories that language arose from the unique human capacity for social intelligence.”

Anonymous. 2009. "Language driven by culture, not biology". PhysOrg. Posted: January 20, 2009. Available online:

Chater, Nick; Reali, Florencia and Christiansen, Morten. "Restrictions on biological adaptation in language evolution" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Friday, November 20, 2009

What's the semantic organization of human language?

A Chinese semantic network with semantic (argument structure) annotation was built and investigated for finding its global statistical properties. The results show that semantic network is also small-world and scale-free but it is different from syntactic network in hierarchical structure and correlation between the degree of a node and that of its neighbors.

Language networks are small-world and scale-free, although they are built based on different principles. Similar global statistical properties shown by language networks are independent of linguistic structure and typology. So, do linguistic structures really influence the statistical properties of a language network? More concretely, does semantic or conceptual network have the same properties as a syntactic one?

Institute of Applied Linguistics at Communication University of China has shown that dynamic semantic network of human language is also small-world and scale-free but it is different from syntactic network in hierarchical structure and node's degree correlation. The study is reported in Volume 54, Issue 16 (August 2008) of the Chinese Science Bulletin because of its significant scientific value.

"Semantic networks, in particular, dynamic semantic networks based on real language usage, are useful to explore the organization of human semantic (or conceptual) knowledge and human performance in semantic or knowledge processing, helpful to develop better natural language processing system," noted principal investigator Haitao Liu, professor and director of Institute of Applied Linguistics at Communication University of China. "This research is the first paper to observe the dynamic semantic networks of human language."

The research built Chinese semantic network with semantic role annotation and explored its global statistical properties. The method in this research can also be applied to other languages.

The study shows that the semantic network tends to create a longer path length between two nodes and a greater diameter than syntactic networks. That makes semantic network a poorer hierarchy. There is a weaker correlation between the degree of a node and that of its neighbors in a semantic network than that in a syntactic network. The disassortative property of a syntactic network can reflect the relation between content and functional words. As a result, the absence of functional words makes a flatter curve in semantic network. It is perhaps interesting to notice the similarity between syntactic and biological networks, which is demonstrating the biological foundations of language as claimed in biolinguistics. However, it needs much more explanations on why semantic network is less biological than syntactic network in the future.

Structurally, semantic network is more similar to conceptual network in the brain. Therefore the study is helpful for finding better statistical patterns to describe linguistic and cognitive universals from the viewpoint of complex networks.

Anonymous.2009. "What's the semantic organization of human language?" Posted: August 11, 2009. Available online:

Liu H T. "Statistical properties of Chinese semantic networks". Chinese Sci Bull, 2009, 54: 2781―2785, doi: 10.1007/s11434-009-0467-x

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Researchers examine use of native southern African plants in veterinary medicine

When animals in southern Africa are sick, often the first place their caretakers look for help is from native plants.

That's what makes understanding and conserving these plants so important, according to a group of Kansas State University researchers who are learning more about the uses of such plants in veterinary medicine.

"Our idea is to bridge the disciplines of anthropology, veterinary medicine and ecological conservation," said Ronette Gehring, assistant professor of clinical sciences at K-State's College of Veterinary Medicine.

She is working with fellow veterinarian Deon van der Merwe, K-State assistant professor of diagnostic medicine and pathobiology, to better understand how farmers and other people in southern Africa use native plants for animal health.

Southern Africa is rich in botanical and cultural diversity, which makes it an ideal environment to study plants as a component of ethno-veterinary medicine. Van der Merwe and Gehring are working with K-State's David Hartnett, university distinguished professor of biology, to understand the conservation needs for these important plants, and with Tiffany Kershner, assistant professor of anthropology at K-State, to understand the cultural and linguistic aspects.

Gehring will present the group's research at K-State's African Issues Symposium: Food Security, Environmental Sustainability and Human Health, which is March 30 to April 1.

Gehring said people in southern Africa rely on native plants for the health of food animals like cattle, goats, sheep and chickens, as well as for dogs, which are popular as pets.

"In the United States, medicinal plants aren't used as much for animals, except as alternative health care for pets and other companion animals," Gehring said. "In developing countries, they are very much being used as primary care. Native plants are what people have access to."

The K-State research so far has relied on the few attempts by other researchers to document the use of native plants for veterinary medicine in southern Africa, including van der Merwe's previous research, which he said established a baseline that will make it easier to do comparative research in different regions.

"With just 21 references, we have barely scratched the surface," Gehring said. "Few groups are interested in studying this. The data haven't been pulled together before, so this is an important starting point. Now we have a database to use."

The researchers found 18 areas in southern Africa where native plants are documented being used for animal health. This includes 506 herbal remedies, although these don't come from 506 unique plants. These remedies are documented being used for 81 symptoms, including intestinal parasites, wounds, diarrhea and helping cows that are calving.

"The vast majority of these 506 remedies use roots, leaves and bark, if not the whole plant," Gehring said. "This is potentially destructive to the plant, which is a concern from a conservation standpoint."

Gehring said it's also important for the researchers to understand more about the context in which these remedies are used.

"These remedies are often used by farmers rather than healers and other health care providers for whom the treatment may be more secretive," Gehring said. "Farmers may be more open about their knowledge."

Kershner, a linguistic anthropologist, said that one of the many challenges the researchers face is that for many of the smaller indigenous African languages, there is no written record.

"For some of these smaller groups, there is little documentation of linguistic and cultural practices involved in ethno-veterinary plant harvesting and treatment, yet we know they exist," she said.

As these languages become threatened by outside influences, Kershner said knowledge about native plants used in veterinary medicine might also disappear. Understanding the cultural aspects of plant use also will help anthropologists better understand how different cultures perceive and talk about their natural world, she said.

Learn more

Anonymous. 2009. "Researchers examine use of native southern African plants in veterinary medicine". PhysOrg. Posted: March 30, 2009 Available online:

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Study: Russian readers learn more quickly

Israeli scientists say knowing how to read and write Russian early in life can give children a linguistic advantage.

The University of Haifa researchers, led by Mila Schwartz, discovered children whose mother tongue is Russian and who acquired literacy in their home language before entering first grade receive higher grades on reading skills tests than their peers who speak only Hebrew or those who speak Russian, but have not learned how to read it.

Schwartz theorizes because of the linguistic complexity of the Russian language, knowing how to read and write Russian gives children an advantage when learning to read other languages.

Schwartz said the research, conducted with Mark Leikin and Professor David Share, supports existing theories that bilingualism alone does not enhance development of reading skills, but that reading skill acquisition is easier when a child already knows how to read another language.

The researchers also found even those who learn how to read Russian, but rarely use it, demonstrate increased abilities in reading acquisition.

Anonymous. 2007. "Study: Russian readers learn more quickly". PhysOrg. Posted: May 15, 2007 Available online:

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Blogging the love of language

The following is from PRI's The World in Words program. The featured blog,37 Languages is still going strong. The about page also includes a video of Keith explaining his raison d'être.

"The World's" Patrick Cox talks to Keith Brooks -- he's 24, he works in web design, lives in Louisville, Kentucky, and he's looking for the perfect foreign language to commit to.

As a kid, Brooks was an unusually quick learner -- he was also just plain unusual. At the age of nine he would devour language text books from the library: "Like for example if I got a Russian book, I would just go through cyrillic and memorize the alphabet, and then hey I'd be done ... and then I'd go to Arabic, and then French ... it was a really interesting childhood I had."

Spanish was Brook's first love, but he's just not that into it now: "I really loved speaking it, it was probably the first thing I really devoted my time studying; but I just feel like there's not a draw there anymore."

At college Brooks studied linguistics, but try as he might -- with French, German, Russian, what have you -- he couldn't settle on a language.

Now though, he has a new plan: He's trying out a new language every week -- studying its history, its culture, its writing system, its grammar, and of course the richness of its vocabulary. Then he writes it up in his blog called 37 languages. Since December, he's done this with 13 languages. And this is just part one of his process -- the "speed-dating" part. After he "speed-dates" 37 languages, he'll drop all but ten of them.

The ten will get a real "date" with Brooks: "Those ten languages, they'll get a call-back, and I will do a more extensive review of those languages. I'll use the writing system, I'll speak in the tongue of those languages -- and that will probably be at least a week per language."

Brooks illustrates his blog with embedded videos -- of songs sung in each of the languages he's checking out.

He hopes to spend quality time with all ten of his finalists this Spring, then will come what he calls the hardest part -- leaving nine of those languages behind and committing to a single tongue: "I am ... worried that I may make the wrong choice and pick the wrong language, but if it happens then I'll just go to another language that I probably like just as much as the one that I selected."

There are after all, plenty of fish in the linguistic sea. An early favorite for Brooks is Norwegian: "I love the way it sounds, I love the vocabulary, I love little features like the retroflex that's kind of trilled."
The languages he has looked at:

1. Romanian
2. Macedonian
3. Spanish*
4. Vietnamese
5. Norwegian
6. Bulgarian
7. Slovenian
8. Malagasy
9. Japanese*
10. Moldavian
11. Hindi
12. Finnish

13. Azeri
14. Arabic
15. Czech
16. Albanian
17. Cambodian
18. Serbian
19. Chinese
20. Xhosa
21. Portuguese
22. Armenian
23. Korean
24. Croatian

25. Afrikaans
26. Greek
27. Swedish
28. French*
29. Thai
30. Turkish
31. Dutch
32. Hebrew
33. Danish
34. Filipino
35. Polish
36. Lao
37. Catalan

Anonymous. 2009. "Blogging the love of language". PRI's The World. Posted: February 11, 2009. Available online:

Brooks, Keith. 2009. "37 Languages" Keith Brooks at Wordpress. Available online:

Monday, November 16, 2009

Navajo Code Talker Veterans Break Silence

The Navajo Code Talkers saved countless American lives by developing a code so complex even fellow Navajo Marines couldn't decipher it.

The famed Navajo Code Talkers, the elite Marine unit whose unbreakable code stymied the Japanese in World War II, fear their legacy will die with them.

Only about 50 of the 400 Code Talkers are believed to be still alive, most living in the Navajo Nation reservation that spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Many are frail or ill, with little time left to tell the world about their wartime contribution.

But on Tuesday, 13 of the Code Talkers, some using canes, a few in wheelchairs, arrived in New York City to participate for the first time in the nation's largest Veterans Day parade, set for Wednesday.

The young Navajo Marines, using secret Navajo language-encrypted military terms, helped the U.S. prevail at Iwo Jima and other World War II Pacific battles, serving in every Marine assault in the South Pacific between 1942 and 1945. Military commanders said the code, transmitted verbally by radio, helped save countless American lives and bring a speedier end to the war in the Pacific theater.

They were sworn to secrecy about their code, so complex that even other Navajo Marines couldn't decipher it. Used to transmit secret tactical messages via radio or telephone, the code remained unbroken and classified for decades because of its potential postwar use.

"We were never told that our code was never decoded" or given identities of the original 29 Navajos who created it, said Keith Little, 85, who joined the Marines at 17 and remembers crouching in a bomb crater amid heavy fire on Iwo Jima.

"It was all covered by secrecy. We were constantly told not to talk about it," Little said. The Code Talkers felt compelled to honor their secrecy orders, even after the code was declassified in 1968.

The oldest of the 13 living Code Talkers is 92, and the group includes one of the original 29. Many Code Talkers who served in the war were young farmers and sheepherders who had never been away from home.

"The code did a lot of damage to the enemy," said Samuel Tom Holiday, 85, of Kayenta, Ariz., who also is joining the parade. He was a 20-year-old Code Talker when he and two other Marines went behind enemy lines on Iwo Jima to locate a Japanese artillery unit advancing on American forces.

Once the unit was located, Holiday transmitted a coded message to Marine artillery, which fired a big shell at the Japanese. After the Marine rifleman proclaimed it "right on target," Holiday messaged "Right on Target" to a Navajo Code Talker in Marine artillery.

Though the Code Talkers transmitted information on tactics and troop movements, orders and other vital battlefield communications, they did not know at the time how those messages figured in the greater battle strategy.

Today "there's a certain elation about" knowing how much their work affected the outcome of the war, said Little, who runs a family ranch in Crystal, N.M., on the Navajo Nation.

Before the code, the Japanese intercepted and sabotaged U.S. military communications at an alarming rate because they had expert English translators. American forces then devised ever more complicated codes, but that increased the time -- sometimes hours -- for sending and decoding them.

The code, based on the ancient Navajo language, changed that. In the first 48 hours of the battle of Iwo Jima, six Code Talkers worked nonstop, transmitting and receiving more than 800 messages about troop movement and enemy fire -- none deciphered by the Japanese. What confounded the enemy most was that Code Talkers could use distinctly different words for exactly the same message.

Recognition from the U.S. government and awareness of the Code Talkers -- even within the Navajo community -- has been slow to come. It wasn't until 2000 that the Congressional Gold Medal was bestowed on the survivors of the original 29 Code Talkers and silver medals on the rest.

The 2002 film "Windtalkers," starring Nicolas Cage and Christian Slater as two Marines assigned to protect Code Talkers in Saipan, helped shed further light on the group.

At least five of the Code Talkers died just this year, creating an urgency for the Navajo Code Talkers Foundation to create a museum in their honor in New Mexico, near the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Ariz. It is slated to open sometime in 2012.

Yvonne Murphy, a foundation board member and daughter of Code Talker Raymond R. Smith Sr., who died seven years ago, did not hear of the Code Talkers until she was 16.

"I saw this outfit lying on the bed ... a Marine gold-colored shirt," she said, the uniform of the Code Talkers, laid out with some Navajo jewelry. But it wasn't until she was in her 30s "that I was able to grasp the whole concept," added Murphy, 45.

The Code Talkers in New York this week hope to highlight their efforts and financial needs for the museum.

On Tuesday, they attended a ceremony aboard the USS Intrepid, a World War II warship, to commemorate the 234th anniversary of the Marine Corps. They planned to visit ground zero later in the day.

"Our language was used to help win the war," Holiday said.

"After we're all gone, there will be no one to tell the story."


Ilnytsky, Ula. 2009. "Navajo Code Talker Vererans Break Silence". Discovery. Posted: November 11, 2009. Available online:

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Range Creek Canyon

The following is a transcript from Scientific American Frontiers about the discovery of a canyon in Utah that remained perfectly preserved and when discovered revealed a lot about the first people who lived there. I recommend going to the website to see the video and follow other links.

ALAN ALDA Hello and welcome to Scientific American Frontiers. I'm Alan Alda. This week -- a rare treat. And I mean so rare that it's simply unique. We're going back in time to a place where Native Americans lived a thousand years ago, and which has remained almost untouched right up until the present day. Who'd have thought, in a country containing nearly 300 million people, that there would be even a square inch of land that wasn't thoroughly examined?

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) But in a remote corner of Utah, it seems there's an entire canyon that contains the remains of ancient settlements that have never been explored.

ALAN ALDA So in this program, we're doing the exploring. In television's first detailed look at the site, we'll go into the canyon with the archeologists as they begin to assess what they're dealing with. We'll see the priceless finds they've already stumbled across -- sometimes literally. And we'll try to work out who these ancient people were. That's all coming up in tonight's episode, The Secret Canyon.


ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Native Americans called this plateau Tavaputs -- "sunrise". Our crew is cautiously picking its way down a cattle trail from the Tavaputs plateau, into a deep canyon. It'll take about an hour to drop down the thousand feet into the valley below. We've come to a remote corner of eastern Utah, to a rugged country of high plateaus and deep canyons. Our destination — Range Creek canyon. Our guide in the canyon will be Duncan Metcalfe, an archaeologist from the University of Utah. In 2002 Range Creek was bought from a cattle rancher by the federal government and the state of Utah, but that doesn't mean the public has free access. As we'll see, figuring out how to preserve and protect what's inside the gate is going to be a major challenge. It's fair to say that, for the number and state of preservation of its archaeological sites, Range Creek may be unique in North America.

DUNCAN METCALFE This is our third year of work in Range Creek. The first year we only spent 7 days in here and recorded 77 sites. That's a phenomenal rate. I've been working in archeology for about 25 years, and I've seen perhaps half a dozen sites that I knew were absolutely undisturbed -- half a dozen. Here so far we've seen over 200. You can stop anyplace inside this ranch and point to archeological sites. So down at the end of this sort of view there's this large rock ridge coming down. If you look up about half way you'll see a stick pointing up, and it's actually got some adobe around it. That's an eroded granary. If you look over at this ridge line, which is the north confluence of Bear Creek, and what's called Waldo's Rock or Locomotive Rock, there's 8 sites on the south side of it, and right at the back, on the other side, there's one of these remote granaries.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Archaeologists call the people who lived here in the canyon the Fremont. Of all the ancient peoples of America, the Fremont are among the most enigmatic. Why did they build houses in such inconvenient places? This circular space is the remains of a pit house on the summit of a rock pinnacle. Why did they put their granaries, used for storing food, in such inaccessible sites? Why did they paint, and draw and carve on rock faces everywhere? And why did they suddenly stop doing all these things around 1300 A.D.? With the canyon's treasure trove of undisturbed sites, archaeologists might finally get to answer those questions.

DUNCAN METCALFE There aren't holes in the pit houses, we don't find beer cans on them, there's no bullet holes on the rock art panels, they haven't been chalked, there's not historic graffiti on them. They're absolutely pristine.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The water of Range Creek itself would have been the first attraction of the canyon. The Fremont, who lived throughout what's now Utah, depended on a combination of hunting and gathering, and agriculture. Corn was their most important crop. First domesticated in Mexico 5,000 years ago, it had gradually spread north. We know the Fremont started growing corn in a big way about 1500 years ago, when village settlements began to appear. In Range Creek, it seems the storage of corn became a major preoccupation.

DUNCAN METCALFE If you look up at that large block of stone, that sort of monolith by itself, about center and half way up it, on a small shelf, you'll see the remains of, looks like a 2-bin -- I actually think it's a 3-bin -- granary. This is one of the easiest ones. It's not real far up and it's not real far down from the top. You can just imagine the amount of work that went into constructing them. They're made out of mud and stone. All the mud had to have come out of Range Creek, which is on the other side of the valley floor from here -- it may have been a little bit different a thousand years ago. All the stone, all the mud, had to be carried up to that location to build that, as well as the timbers that are used in its construction.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) So far the archaeologists have identified 38 granaries, many completely inaccessible, but some not so hard to reach. Take "Lost Cow" granary — so called because the rancher ran across it while checking a side canyon for a missing cow.

RENEE BARLOW It's right down here.

KEVIN JONES Oh I see it.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Lost Cow granary is a puzzle. It's not completely hidden, and not very inaccessible. So it's not the best protection for your corn while you're away hunting, for example. But it is high enough up to avoid flash floods, and built solidly enough to be rat-proof.

RENEE BARLOW This structure is made of adobe and undressed stone in layers, so they've got different courses coming all the way up with adobe pressed in between. And then at the top there's a series of timbers that come -- we've got at least six in this one -- they come across, and then across the other way to form a rectangle, and then there are stone slabs underneath, and adobe pressed, and then a rectangular opening, with a lid.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It's still about half full — of what we won't know until it's excavated. And they're going to radiocarbon date its timbers, because the leading theory is that the high, inaccessible granaries were built when times were hard, towards the end of the Fremont occupation here. So lower granaries would date from earlier, easier days. This theory of "higher-later" could apply not just to granaries, but whole villages.

KEVIN JONES There are some villages way up high, 900 to 1,000 feet above the valley floor, on precipices, on cliff edges, clearly a place where it would be difficult to live -- you're 1,000 feet above your water and your fields -- and also a difficult place to get to, but also dangerous. Not a great place to raise children, probably, not a good place to have grandma scrambling around and risking her life. So clearly when people are moving into a situation like that, the thing that worries them, I think, is greater than their fear of falling off the cliff, or having to climb up and down these cliffs. And what we're interested in is finding out what that might be.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In our next story, we're going to hike up the canyon sides, to see what one of the high level Fremont villages can show us. LIVING IN THE SKY

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) A nine hundred-foot climb is usually the kind of mission that graduate students get assigned, and sure enough Joel Boomgarden and Shannon Arnold are students from Duncan Metcalfe's lab at the University of Utah. They stop first just below the top, to revisit a cave the rancher pointed out on their first survey. It was typical of the Fremont to be flexible. They were hunters and farmers, they used deep caves and shallow rock shelters, they built houses. This cave contains what archaeologists call a cyst, and it used to contain other things too.

JOEL BOOMGARDEN This is the remains of a storage cyst. This box right here comes around the back. There's another one of the vertical slabs. You can actually see the mud, packed in the crack over here still -- keep the varmints out. When we first came up here in 2002, there was a pretty big chunk of pottery up here. It was the neck of a vessel and part of the body. It's since disappeared.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Whoever took the pottery missed this block of sandstone, used for shaping wooden shafts, and fortunately did not vandalize the mysterious lines cut into the wall. The cave is a good candidate for excavation. A couple of feet of sand has flaked down from the roof over the last thousand years, covering what undoubtedly was a floor -- with whatever may be sitting on it. Joel and Shannon continue their climb to the top. It's not the canyon rim, but a thin, knife-edge of rock within the canyon, that contains a cave the archaeologists refer to as the "deluxe apartment in the sky." The cave was not a casual or temporary shelter. The Fremont put a lot of work into it — a wall in front, a floor inside.

JOEL BOOMGARDEN There's different colors of mud packed in here. I can see at least 5 different colors of mud, so either they couldn't get all the mud in at once, or it looks like they're just patching up, making repairs to it at different times, and they're just using different colors of mud. This site looks definitely defensive. There's no other reason to haul stuff way up here.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Defensive -- perhaps. Inside there's a beautifully preserved storage bin, now empty. You can see the maker's finger marks in the adobe. As with all the sites in the canyon, the cave has not yet been excavated, or even systematically surveyed. The Fremont really did live up here — there's a corn grinding-stone outside, and corn cobs everywhere.

JOEL BOOMGARDEN There's actually more corn right here.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In fact there was a whole village up on this rock pinnacle, probably including grandma and the kids. There are the remains of half a dozen houses — like this circle of stones from a pit house, perched right next to a thousand-foot drop. It was clearly very important to be here, but whether it was to fight off invaders or maybe to be closer to the gods, right now we don't know. Back in the lab in Salt Lake City, Joel and Shannon are beginning what will be the endless task of sorting and cataloging the Range Creek materials. Eventually there are going to be millions of pieces. They've literally not yet scratched the surface, but they've stumbled across some great finds. These corn cobs are very healthy looking, so when they're dated we'll know times were good then. A corn cob still on its drying stick. A beautifully preserved cedar digging stick, used for planting. Rope made with as yet unidentified fibers. The base of a basket, made with the characteristic Fremont technique. A raw material cache — dried grass and cedar bark. All this is around a thousand years or more old. Pottery — the red ware probably came from the Anasazi people to the south; plain gray, painted and incised styles are Fremont. A beautiful and unique spade, made of cottonwood. It's too soft to dig with, but maybe it was a trowel for adobe. Many stone blades and arrowheads, some showing expert work. And a priceless set of arrows, made from reeds, carefully bound with sinew to prevent splitting, with detachable greasewood foreshafts that remained stuck in the victim — animal or human. So far the archaeologists have spent three short summer seasons in the canyon. Winter always gets below freezing — one reason the Fremont's stocks of corn in their granaries must have been so vital. Today, Joel and Shannon are working in a village that had about a dozen pit houses, like this. The village is just 30 feet above the valley floor — safe from flash floods, but certainly not as defensible as the apartment in the sky. The site is simply littered with artifacts — broken pottery, arrowheads, personal jewelry perhaps. Who knows what treasures -- and what insights into the Fremont people -- lie underground? So far they've surveyed only 5% of the canyon's area, and have about 300 significant sites — granaries, pit houses, caves, rock art panels. At that rate there'll be a staggering and unprecedented 6,000 sites here. So how are they going to handle it? Slowly, says Duncan Metcalfe. In Range Creek, as well as deluxe apartments, we have the luxury of time.

DUNCAN METCALFE There are lots of things that have to be excavated today, because if we don't, they'll be bulldozed tomorrow. This isn't one of those cases. This is a case where we can literally say, let's think about this, let's think about excavating over the next 20 years -- 10 sites, very, very carefully. At the end of 10 years, someone else might come in and say, gee, you know, I've got a couple of research questions I think I could address by doing some further excavation. Good -- maybe another 5 sites. But preserve the vast majority of them for when we have... There'll be techniques that archeologists will have to employ that I can't even imagine, you know. It's not changing as fast as genetics research, but it is changing, and we need to preserve the basic library for the folks in the future.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) One of the most tantalizing things about the Fremont is their rock art. They created it everywhere they lived, and the canyon is no exception, with 50 sites discovered so far. In some cases it's obvious what the artist was showing — animals, like snakes, or bighorn sheep from the hunt. There are symbols we understand — like the sun — and symbols we don't. They showed themselves often, sometimes richly dressed -- in ceremonial ways, perhaps -- with deer antler headdresses, or elaborate necklaces, belts and sashes. It's possible these pictures show leaders or shamans, from the time when corn growing was at its peak. Evidence from Fremont sites elsewhere shows that high-ranking men consumed the most corn, probably from ritual drinking of corn beer. Whatever the art depicts, it all came to a crashing halt 700 years ago.

DUNCAN METCALFE At about 1300 A.D. there's a change. People stop building relatively substantial structures, they stop making very fine pottery, there's a change in basketry. It looks like a pretty firm break. So is that a group of people coming in and displacing the Fremont, replacing them? Or is it farming becomes absolutely untenable in this region, and people stopped farming, and returned to hunting and gathering, which they'd been doing 1300 years earlier? Which of those two things happened at 1300?

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) What happened at 1300 is one of the biggest questions in American archaeology. Sudden change was widespread, societies collapsed — including most famously the pueblo-building Anasazi people. The promise of Range Creek canyon is that, with its thousands of undisturbed sites, we can come to understand those momentous events.


ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Range Creek canyon widens out a little at its southern end. This is where the buildings are for the ranch that the Wilcox family ran here. Waldo Wilcox left in 2001, when he sold the canyon to the government. The family had lived here since1951...

WALDO WILCOX C'mon, Sarah.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) ...when Waldo's dad, Budge, moved down from the neighboring Tavaputs plateau. Here's Budge Wilcox with his pack mules. Here's Don, Waldo's brother, at Lost Cow granary. Although there's been ranching in the canyon since the 1880s, there was no road access until just before the Wilcoxes arrived. That's what preserved the canyon's historic remains — that and the respectful attitude of the Wilcox family, especially towards the many burials in the canyon.

WALDO WILCOX I believe in treating people the way I want to be treated, and when I die I don't want somebody digging me up and picking the gold out of my teeth. And my dad told me, when we come here, that we own the land, but we don't own the dead people that's there. Leave them where you find them.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) We invited Waldo to take a ride and point out some of his discoveries. After 50 years of hunting, and chasing lost cows, he knows the historic sites better than anyone.

WALDO WILCOX We're going to go up the little canyon here, and out on top up by the Fortress. I want to go right up over the top there.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Waldo climbed onto this spectacular rock pinnacle one day when he was out hunting. His dogs had chased a mountain lion all the way up to the top.

WALDO WILCOX Right there's the way you get up. There's that pile of rocks.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) The lion got the better of the dogs, but Waldo made a discovery — rocks piled up at the access points, seemingly either as barriers or as missiles to bombard invaders with. That's why he calls it the Fortress. There was a village perched up here — maybe the most precariously sited in the canyon. You can see the telltale stone circles of collapsed pit houses.

WALDO WILCOX That's a big old pit house right there. Probably the governor lived there. Stay just underneath, and there's some granaries right here somewhere. OK, there's one of the granaries right there.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Was this complex defensive, built to protect precious corn supplies as agriculture began to fail? Was it to fight off foreign invaders? Or was it perhaps a religious colony? One day archaeologists may be able to tell us. Next we head across to an enormous rock painting that Waldo had seen only from below.

WALDO WILCOX See that yellow and white shield? And a man of some kind, just to the right of it.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) There's also a suicidally positioned house.

WALDO WILCOX Down below there's some poles from a house. That'd be a pit house right there. I didn't know that house was there, where they lived. That's the first time I've seen that.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Next, an apparently unreachable granary, again with what's probably house remains.

WALDO WILCOX See the granary? That's a good one there. Nobody's ever been in there. I'll bet on that.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) It's really only from this vantage point that you can appreciate how precarious and dangerous the Fremont houses and villages were. Whatever drove these people up the cliffs and onto the rock pinnacles must have been a powerful force. Waldo's been fascinated for 50 years.

WALDO WILCOX I don't know if you enjoyed it, but I sure as hell did.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) In his time in the canyon, Waldo got to know a lot of Fremont rock art. He's taking us to one of his favorite examples.

WALDO WILCOX Some of them's hunting scenes, and other ones are probably something to do with their religion. I think they was a religious people -- very religious. It's right over in them rocks right there.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Here, close to the creek, the Fremont used a rock overhang as a shelter, and it's now a sad site. A second road connected into the canyon in 1961, and it soon had consequences that Waldo regrets.

WALDO WILCOX This is what's left of a pit house. They piled these rocks up to protect themselves from the wind. But it's been all dug out. People's been looking for pottery and stuff here. And it's so close to the gate that it's been destroyed. I seen it for the first time in 1941, and the bottom was all smooth, and that's one way you can tell if they've... anybody's been there looting it, because they leave it uneven.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) On the overhang above the looted house, ghostly figures of the people who lived here — not vandalized, but slowly fading into the rock face.

WALDO WILCOX What they painted it for I don't know, and I don't know that anybody'll ever know, but they left it for us to look at anyway. And I hope it can be protected.

ALAN ALDA (NARRATION) Preserve it, and solve its mysteries — the twin challenges that lie ahead for Range Creek canyon.

To watch the related videos go to this site.

To learn more about the Fremont people go to this links page at Scientific American Frontiers.


Anonymous. 2005. "The Secret Canyon". Scientific American Frontiers. Program #1508. Airdate: March 30, 2005. Available online:

Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Look Inside A Mummy

Medical physicists used computed tomography to compose a picture of the body within an ancient mummy. The scan provided more detail in both bone and tissue than a conventional x-ray. The three dimensional image can offer much more information to determine the age and cause of death of the person inside a mummy.

It's a high-tech medical tool doctors use to find tumors, or to map out surgery. A computed tomography scan -- or a CT scan -- gives doctors a precise look at what's going on inside, without surgery. But the technology is also allowing radiologists to unveil some amazing secrets from the past.

Science knew little about the story behind a two thousand year old mummy -- until now. "We had a number of questions because a doctor had x-rayed it in 1986 and had thought he was a bit older than he has actually proven to be," says Sandra Olsen, Ph.D. and Anthropologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Archaeologists unearthed the three-foot tall Egyptian child mummy in 1912, but could offer very few other facts about the boy's past. Two decades ago, researchers thought the child might have had an enlarged head -- and possibly died from a genetic disease -- but removing any wrapping to investigate would damage the priceless artifact.

"What's so exciting about CT scanning -- the reason why we turned to that medical technique -- is that it is non-invasive and non-destructive," Olsen explains.

The CT scan takes hundreds of images and uses a computer to join them together in three dimensional views. Bone and tissue are seen with more clarity than a traditional x-ray. Anthropologists were able to better determine the age of the mummy after they found a missing tooth at the base of the child's skull. Had it fallen out naturally, this child would have been closer to eight when he died.

"In the end we found out he was only about three years old and his head is probably normal in relationship to his body," Olsen says.

Researchers are hoping to have an artist build a cast of his face, like investigators do in forensics, to see what the mummy looked like as a living little boy.

"The tools that we have at our disposal are fortunately ideally suited to uncovering mysteries that are in archeology-in addition to anybody with an ailment who comes our way," says Jeffrey Towers, MD, Chief of Muscular-Skeletal Radiation at the University of Pittsburgh.

Further information:


Anonymous. 2007. "A Look inside a mummy". Science Daily. Posted: July 1, 2007. Available online: