Sunday, February 28, 2010

Teaching a foreign language?

Perception of second language speech is easier when it is spoken in the accent of the listener and not in the ‘original’ accent of that language, shows a new study from the University of Haifa. The study was published in the prestigious Journal of Psycholinguistic Research.

Many adult schools teaching second languages insist on exposing their students to the languages in their ‘original’ accents. However, this new study, carried out by Dr. Raphiq Ibrahim and Dr. Mark Leikin of the University of Haifa’s Edmond J. Safra Brain Research Center for the Study of Learning Disabilities, Prof. Zohar Eviatar of the Department of Psychology and Prof. Shimon Sapir of the Department of Learning Disabilities, found that this system is not necessarily the best and certainly not the most expeditious.

The present study set out to reveal the level of phonological information that the adult learner requires in order to identify words in a second language that had been learned at a later age, and whether the level of phonological information that they require varies when the words are pronounced in different accents.

The researchers recorded four Hebrew sentences in which the last word was a noun pronounced in a different accent: Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English. These sentences were electronically encoded on a computer system and applied to the “gating” paradigm, in which participants are exposed to increasing amounts of a speech stimulus (40 milliseconds), and at each ‘gate’, are asked to identify the stimulus. This procedure allows the identification of the point at which a word is recognized.

The sentences were played to 60 participants aged 18-26; 20 of the participants were native Hebrew speakers; 20 were new adult immigrants to Israel from the Former Soviet Union who had learned Hebrew only after moving to Israel; 20 were Israeli Arabic speakers who began learning Hebrew at age 7-8.

The findings show that there is no difference in the amount of phonological information that the native Hebrew speakers need in order to decipher the words, regardless of accent. With the Russian and Arabic speakers, on the other hand, less phonological information was needed in order to recognize the Hebrew word when it was pronounced in the accent of their native language than when they heard it in the accent of another language.

“This research lays emphasis on the importance of continuing investigation into the cognitive perspectives of accent in order to gain a better understanding of how we learn languages other than our native tongue. In Israel and in other countries where the population is made up of many different language groups, this understanding holds great significance,” the researchers conclude.


Feldman, Rachel. 2010. "Teaching a foreign language?". Newmedia. Posted: February 14, 2010. Available online:

Saturday, February 27, 2010

How Do People Value Life?

This is an interesting look at how our culture prioritizes human life.


Who should be saved when health resources are limited? Although bioethicists and policymakers continue to debate which metric should be used to evaluate health interventions, public policy is also subject to public opinion. We investigated how the public values life when evaluating vaccine-allocation policies during a flu epidemic. We found that people’s ratings of the acceptability of policies were dramatically influenced by question framing. When policies were described in terms of lives saved, people judged them on the basis of the number of life years gained. In contrast, when the policies were described in terms of lives lost, people considered the age of the policy’s beneficiaries, taking into account the number of years lived to prioritize young targets for the health intervention. In addition, young targets were judged as more valuable in general, but young participants valued young targets even more than older participants did.

Imagine having to choose between saving the life of a young person or an old person. Although painful, such decisions are inherent in the appropriation of scarce resources for public- health initiatives. For example, in the event of pandemic flu, who should receive the limited supply of vaccines and antiviral medication (Emanuel & Wertheimer, 2006)? These decisions entail, even if only implicitly, the prioritization of certain individuals’ lives over others. Are all lives equally valuable, and if not, whose lives are more valuable?

In the current article, we put aside the important issues of risk (who is at highest risk of dying?) and efficacy (for whom is the intervention most effective?; Galvani, Medlock, & Chapman, 2006) and instead focus on how people quantify the outcome of health interventions—the metric for valuing life. Potential metrics include the number of lives saved, the number of life years gained, and the number of quality-adjusted life years (QALYs) gained (Pliskin, Shepard, & Weinstein, 1980). These metrics imply different optimal policies. The number-of-lives metric requires that the optimal policy maximize the number of individuals being saved, assuming no priority in saving certain individuals over others. Under a life-years-saved metric, however, one would prioritize younger individuals, to the extent that they have a greater number of years left to live. Some government agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, use life years saved to quantify benefits (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2006). The QALYs metric is similar but assigns greater value to lives of healthy compared with ill individuals, given the same life expectancy, and greater value to interventions that improve quality of life.

Bioethicists and public-health policymakers have extensively debated which metric to adopt (Evans, 1997; Williams, 1997a, 1997b). The controversy reflects the inherently moral nature of placing a value on life. Aside from these debates, if we accept that public-health policies should reflect the moral values of the public, it is critical to understand how the public thinks life should be valued and the underlying mechanisms that give rise to these value judgments. Such an understanding is also relevant to the debate on what kinds of inequities constitute ageism in health care (Kane & Kane, 2005).

Previous studies indicate that the public values the lives of young people more than those of older people (Busschbach, Hessing, & de Charro, 1993; Cropper, Aydede, & Portney, 1994; Johannesson & Johansson, 1997; Lewis & Chamy, 1989; Ratcliffe, 2000; Rodriguez & Pinto, 2000; Tsuchiya, Dolan, & Shaw, 2000). People may value young people more than older people for a number of reasons (Rodriguez & Pinto, 2000). Not only do young people have more years left to live, and thus receive more benefit from a lifesaving intervention, they also have fewer years lived so far and thus deserve their “fair innings” (Williams, 1997a). For example, a 20-year-old has about 3 times as many years left as a 60-year-old (assuming an average life expectancy of 80 years); however, saving one 20-year-old is viewed as equivalent to saving seven 60-year-olds (Cropper et al., 1994), which indicates greater value for younger individuals even beyond what the life-years-saved metric would predict. This response pattern may stem from a sentiment that the death of a younger person is perceived as more tragic and unjust than the death of an older person (Chasteen & Madey, 2003). A similar message is conveyed in the Chinese saying, “Nothing is sadder than for the gray-haired to see the dark-haired go.”

Do people use a years-left metric, a years-lived metric, or a combination of both, to value life? Under normal circumstances, years left (equivalent to remaining life expectancy) is almost perfectly correlated with years lived (equivalent to age), making it impossible to separate these two bases of evaluating life. In our study, we disentangled years left from years lived by manipulating the life expectancy of individuals in a hypothetical scenario, where individuals of various ages were described as either having a normal life expectancy or having only 2 years left due to a preexisting health condition.

If a years-left metric is adopted, value of life should be a negative linear function of age for individuals with normal life expectancy (because years left depends on age) but should not vary by age for individuals with a fixed 2 more years to live (because years left is independent of age). However, if a years-lived metric is adopted, value of life should be a negative linear function of age (years lived is age), regardless of whether the individuals are expected to live to a normal life expectancy or only 2 more years.

We explored whether the metric people use to evaluate life is influenced by how the question is asked. Past research on decision making has demonstrated the powerful influence of question framing (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981)—two equivalent descriptions can lead to very different preferences. Framing can even influence moral behavior (Kern & Chugh, 2009). We hypothesized that “lives saved” and “lives lost” frames would not merely alter preference between options, as shown in previous studies, but would actually invoke different psychological processes or strategies for evaluating lifesaving interventions.

Specifically, we expect the “lives saved” frame to prompt people to evaluate the benefits of the lifesaving interventions and focus on what the victims stand to gain: the number of life years they are expected to gain from the intervention. In contrast, the “lives lost” frame is expected to prompt people to consider what the victims stand to lose: the loss of life. Consequently, we hypothesize that in the “lives saved” frame, people will use a years-left metric, judging younger victims as more valuable only when they have more years left to live; and those in the “lives lost” frame will adopt a years-lived metric, judging younger victims as more valuable regardless of number of years left, because the death of a young person feels more tragic than the death of an older person (Chasteen & Madey, 2003).

The rest of this article is available online

Lil, Meng; Vietril, Jeffrey; Galvani, Alison and Chapman, Gretchen B. 2009. "How Do People Value Life?". Psychological Science. Posted: December 22, 2009. Available online:

Friday, February 26, 2010

Bilingual Babies: The Roots of Bilingualism in Newborns

It may not be obvious, but hearing two languages regularly during pregnancy puts infants on the road to bilingualism by birth. According to new findings in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, infants born to bilingual mothers (who spoke both languages regularly during pregnancy) exhibit different language preferences than infants born to mothers speaking only one language.

Psychological scientists Krista Byers-Heinlein and Janet F. Werker from the University of British Columbia along with Tracey Burns of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in France wanted to investigate language preference and discrimination in newborns. Two groups of newborns were tested in these experiments: English monolinguals (whose mothers spoke only English during pregnancy) and Tagalog-English bilinguals (whose mothers spoke both Tagalog, a language spoken in the Philippines, and English regularly during pregnancy). The researchers employed a method known as “high-amplitude sucking-preference procedure” to study the infants’ language preferences. This method capitalizes on the newborns’ sucking reflex — increased sucking indicates interest in a stimulus. In the first experiment, infants heard 10 minutes of speech, with every minute alternating between English and Tagalog.

Results showed that English monolingual infants were more interested in English than Tagalog — they exhibited increased sucking behavior when they heard English than when they heard Tagalog being spoken. However, bilingual infants had an equal preference for both English and Tagalog. These results suggest that prenatal bilingual exposure may affect infants’ language preferences, preparing bilingual infants to listen to and learn about both of their native languages.

To learn two languages, bilingual newborns must also be able to keep their languages apart. To test if bilingual infants are able to discriminate between their two languages, infants listened to sentences being spoken in one of the languages until they lost interest. Then, they either heard sentences in the other language or heard sentences in the same language, but spoken by a different person. Infants exhibited increased sucking when they heard the other language being spoken. Their sucking did not increase if they heard additional sentences in the same language. These results suggest that bilingual infants, along with monolingual infants, are able to discriminate between the two languages, providing a mechanism from the first moments of life that helps ensure bilingual infants do not confuse their two languages.

The researchers observe that, “Monolingual newborns’ preference for their single native language directs listening attention to that language” and that, “Bilingual newborns’ interest in both languages helps ensure attention to, and hence further learning about, each of their languages.” Discrimination of the two languages helps prevent confusion. The results of these studies demonstrate that the roots of bilingualism run deeper than previously imagined, extending even to the prenatal period.

Werker, Janet F. 2010. "Bilingual Babies: The Roots of Bilingualism in Newborns". EurekAlert. Posted: February 16, 2010. Available online:

Byers-Heinlein, Krista; Burns, Tracey C.; and Werker, Janet F. 2010. "The Roots of Bilingualism in Newborns". Psychological Science. Posted: January 29, 2010. Available online:

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Reading to kids a crucial tool in English language development

Poring over the works of Dr. Seuss, the adventures of the Bernstain Bears or exploring the worlds of Hans Christian Andersen with a child has always been a great parent-child bonding exercise.

But, according to George Georgiou, a University of Alberta professor in educational psychology, it is instrumental for English-speaking children if they are to acquire the language skills, particularly comprehension, essential to their future reading ability.

Georgiou and his colleagues recently published a study in Learning and Instruction examining the cognitive and non-cognitive factors that may predict future reading ability in English and Greek. Since the study was published, Georgiou has expanded his research to Finland and China, with the same outcomes.

He says the home literacy environment-what parents do at home in terms of literacy-and motivation predict children's various initial literacy skills, such as letter knowledge and vocabulary, differently across languages. These skills, in turn, ultimately predict future reading ability.

Studying language for success

Orthography is the part of the study of language dealing with letters and spelling. Georgiou points out that English is an orthographically inconsistent language; in other words, letters can have more than one sound each. Because of this, he says, children learning English "need someone to show them the letters, teach them the letter sounds, play with letter magnets on the fridge.

"We have found that in English, you need a rich home literacy environment. It's absolutely necessary," he says.

But that's not the case in other languages. Georgiou notes that students are able to learn to read faster in languages such as Greek and Finnish, because there is one-to-one correspondence between a letter and its sounds. This difference with English, he says, implies that Greek or Finnish parents do not need to read as frequently to their children to give them an edge on learning the language. Simply put, Greek or Finnish children will eventually learn to read regardless of how rich the home literacy environment may be.

"In Greece, parents intuitively know that as soon as a child goes to school, within three months, unless there are some severe situations that may interfere with learning, that child will be able to learn to read," said Georgiou. "Alternatively, in English, having someone read to you frequently as a child-explaining what the meaning of words are and playing around with the letters-makes a big difference as to whether you will become a good reader."

English-languages challenges for students

Without that learning support and because of the inconsistencies of English orthography, English-speaking children run the risk of falling behind at least two years in terms of their reading skill when compared to children learning to read in languages with a direct relationship between letters and sounds, he said. But, if mom and dad don't have the time to invest in reading to their children and still want them to succeed with language development, then educational programs, such as Sesame Street, and multimedia tools, such as spelling programs or games, may be an alternative.

Georgiou also lauds the efforts of communities in getting behind literacy programs and encouraging the development of literacy skills through initiatives such as "raise a reader" and "read-in week." He says that these types of programs pay dividends because they are a key component in motivating children to appreciate and embrace reading as a worthwhile activity.

There are key elements Canadian parents should focus on to promote the success of their children as active readers, he says. Foremost, reading to your children is vital, as is specific exercises and games to teach them letter names and sounds. Finally, having role models as a motivation to read, whether it be an NHL player reading to a classroom full of kids or a parent at bedtime, is also highly important, says Georgiou.

"Build their motivation. If your child sees you reading at home, that sends a message to that child that you value reading."

Hanlon, Jaimie. 2010. "Reading to kids a crucial tool in English language development". EurekAlert. Posted: February 16, 2010. Available online:

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

DNA evidence tells 'global story' of human history

In recent years, DNA evidence has added important new tools for scientists studying the human past. Now, a collection of reviews published by Cell Press in a special issue of Current Biology published online on February 22nd offers a timely update on how new genetic evidence, together with archaeological and linguistic evidence, has enriched our understanding of human history on earth.

"To understand what it is to be human, it is essential to understand the human past," says Colin Renfrew of the University of Cambridge, who first coined the term "archaeogenetics" and is the author of a guest editorial in the special issue. "Nearly all civilizations have their own origin or creation myth. Now we can use archaeogenetics to tell a global story that is robust and applicable to all human communities everywhere."

The journey started around 60 to 70 thousand years ago in Africa, where modern humans evolved more than 150 thousand years ago, and where human diversity is still the highest among all continents in terms of genetic variation and languages. From there, humans settled Europe and South Asia and reached Oceania. The Americas (apart from the remote Oceanian islands) were settled last.

The course and the extent of these first migrations remains evident in the genetic makeup of humans living today, but later migrations and the cultural practices that people carried with them—farming in particular—have also left their legacy. That legacy looks remarkably similar wherever farming spread, in Europe, Africa, and East Asia. Natural selection also left its mark: A review by Jonathan Pritchard of the University of Chicago examines evidence for the genetic basis of human adaptations and the extent to which differences among human populations in characteristics such as lactose tolerance have been selected for over evolutionary time.

Each of the reviews is packed with fascinating insights. For instance, a review by Mark Stoneking and Frederick Delfin at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology tells of an early migration of modern humans from Africa along a southern route to East Asia. Europe is perhaps the best-studied continent in terms of archaeogenetics, writes Martin Richards of the University of Leeds and his colleagues, and includes what Richards refers to as five major episodes, including the repopulation of Northern Europe after the Late Glacial Maximum. In the case of the Americas, DNA evidence has confirmed the Asian origin of indigenous Americans and more precise estimates of when Native Americans emerged. Dennis O'Rourke and Jennifer Raff of the University of Utah note, however, that many questions about the date of the initial colonization of the Americas remain.

Overall, the reviews show just how clear it has become that all of us trace our evolutionary roots to Africa, Renfrew says. For most of history, humans were not evolving in isolation on separate continents. When it comes to our more recent history, stay tuned: Many surprising discoveries are likely in store over the next 20 years.

Of course, there are many things about our ancient ancestors we will never be able to know with any certainty, Partha Majumder of the Indian Statistical Institute reminds us in his review of human genetic history in South Asia.

"About a thousand years ago, a small group of anatomically modern humans migrated out of Africa," he writes. "We will never know for sure which causes initiated this migration… The process continued for thousands of years; today humans occupy the entire world."

Renfrew, Colin. 2010. "DNA Evidence tells 'global story' of human history". EurekAlert. Posted: February 22, 2010. Available online:

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Listen to the natives for better environmental monitoring

Any Anthropologist or any one in general who has studied Native ethnobiological

Modern methods can answer a multitude of questions, but sometimes traditional techniques are superior. Authorities in northern Quebec, Canada, found this to their cost, when they relied upon statistical data to monitor moose populations.

For many centuries the Cree, an indigenous group of people living in the James Bay region of northern Quebec (around 800km north of Montreal), have lived in harmony with their environment. They hunt a variety of animals including beaver, bear, and moose, killing just enough to feed and clothe themselves. By rotating the territories over which they hunt, and only killing adult animals, they ensure that the animal populations always remain stable.

Until the mid 1980s the James Bay region, at the southern end of Hudson Bay in Canada, was inaccessible to most, and the Cree were the only people who hunted in the region. However, in the mid 1980s, following pressure from sport-hunting and fishing groups, the Canadian authorities granted access to the region (via a previously locked road, known as the James Bay highway, which had been constructed for a hydro-electric project).

Sport hunters travelled from far and wide, hoping to bag a few moose. “At the time wildlife managers were eager to open up access to this region, as they believed it would relieve the pressure on hunting grounds further south,” said Colin Scott from McGill University, who led the team documenting these changes.
To ensure that moose populations remained stable the Canadian authorities relied on aerial surveys to monitor moose numbers in hunting territories. In addition records were kept of the number of moose caught by each hunter, and the time it had taken to catch them.

By the late 1980s the Cree people became concerned about the moose numbers, particularly in ‘Zone 17’, one of the hunting territories in the James Bay region, covering an area of several thousand square kilometres. Using their system of monitoring moose populations (based on moose sightings, tracking and faeces) they detected a significant decline in numbers.

The Cree people alerted wildlife managers, but they were not taken seriously. Instead the authorities insisted that the moose population must be stable because the ‘catch per unit effort’ (average number of moose caught by hunters in a particular time period) had remained the same over the years.

But by the early 1990s the authorities were forced to concede that there was a problem in zone 17, as it became clear that a severe crash in population had occurred, with a drop of more than 50%. “Opening the road had opened up opportunities for the forestry sector as well, enabling them to clear cut the forest and leaving the moose with less cover to hide in,” said Scott. The moose became easy targets and sport hunters became much more efficient. However, because the moose population was declining, their ‘catch per unit effort’ remained stable, lulling the authorities into a false sense of security.

In this instance the traditional methods of monitoring and managing moose, used by the Cree hunters, was a better measure of moose population. “Their methods rely on more variables and have a greater complexity,” said Scott, who presented his findings to the ESF BOREAS conference, which took place at the Arctic Centre in Rovaniemi, Finland.

Today the Canadian wildlife authorities have learned their lesson, and work closely with the Cree, listening to what they have to say, and respecting their intimate knowledge of the environment.

This study was part of a broad network of 38 individual research teams from Europe, Russia, Canada and the USA forming the European Science Foundation EUROCORES programme ‘Histories from the North – environments, movements, narratives’ (BOREAS). This highly interdisciplinary initiative brought together scientists from a wide range of disciplines including humanities, social, medical, environmental and climate sciences.

2010. "Listen to the natives for better environmental monitoring". . Posted: February 17, 2010. Available online:

Monday, February 22, 2010

Singing 'rewires' damaged brain

Teaching stroke patients to sing "rewires" their brains, helping them recover their speech, say scientists.

By singing, patients use a different area of the brain from the area involved in speech.

If a person's "speech centre" is damaged by a stroke, they can learn to use their "singing centre" instead.

Researchers presented these findings at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in San Diego.

An ongoing clinical trial, they said, has shown how the brain responds to this "melodic intonation therapy".

Gottfried Schlaug, a neurology professor at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston, US, led the trial.

The therapy is already established as a medical technique. Researchers first used it when it was discovered that stroke patients with brain damage that left them unable to speak were still able to sing.

Professor Schlaug explained that his was the first study to combine this therapy with brain imaging - "to show what is actually going on in the brain" as patients learn to sing their words.

Making connections

Most of the connections between brain areas that control movement and those that control hearing are on the left side of the brain.

"But there's a sort of corresponding hole on the right side," said Professor Schlaug.

“ Music engages huge swathes of the brain - it's not just lighting up a spot in the auditory cortex ”
Dr Aniruddh Patel, neuroscientist

"For some reason, it's not as endowed with these connections, so the left side is used much more in speech.

"If you damage the left side, the right side has trouble [fulfilling that role]."

But as patients learn to put their words to melodies, the crucial connections form on the right side of their brains.

Previous brain imaging studies have shown that this "singing centre" is overdeveloped in the brains of professional singers.

During the therapy sessions, patients are taught to put their words to simple melodies.

Professor Schlaug said that after a single session, a stroke patients who was are not able to form any intelligible words learned to say the phrase "I am thirsty" by combining each syllable with the note of a melody.

The patients are also encouraged to tap out each syllable with their hands. Professor Schlaug said that this seemed to act as an "internal pace-maker" which made the therapy even more effective.

"Music might be an alternative medium to engage parts of the brain that are otherwise not engaged," he said.

Brain sounds

Dr Aniruddh Patel from the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, said the study was an example of the "explosion in research into music and the brain" over the last decade.

"People sometimes ask where in the brain music is processed and the answer is everywhere above the neck," said Dr Patel.

"Music engages huge swathes of the brain - it's not just lighting up a spot in the auditory cortex."

Dr Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist from Northwestern University in Chicago, also studies the effects of music on the brain.

In her research, she records the brain's response to music using electrodes on the scalp.

This work has enabled her to "play back" electrical activity from brain cells as they pick up sounds.

"Neurons work with electricity - so if you record the electricity from the brain you can play that back through speakers and hear how the brain deals with sounds," she explained.

Dr Kraus has also discovered that musical training seems to enhance the ability to perform other tasks, such as reading.

She said that the insights into how the brain responds to music provided evidence that musical training was an important part of children's education.


Gill, Victoria. 2010. "Singing 'rewires' damaged brain". BBC News. Posted:February 21, 2010. Available online:

Friday, February 19, 2010

Facebook Data Reveal Secrets of American Culture

Facebook users in the American West appear to move around a lot, and often have friends throughout the country, while users from Minnesota to Manhattan have connections much closer to home.

And in areas in and around Texas, on the edge of what’s generally thought of as the Bible Belt, the Dallas Cowboys rank higher overall on users’ fan pages than God.

These are just some of the interesting findings about Facebook users recently discovered by Pete Warden, a Colorado-based, British-born ex-Apple engineer who has spent the last six months gathering and analyzing data from more than 215 million public Facebook profile pages.

What he’s discovered just might shed more light on the culture of connected America than the 2010 census.

"If you actually look at [Facebook user data] in the aggregate, it's like a painting," Warden told TechNewsDaily. "Each individual data point isn't interesting, but when you step back and look at the trends in millions of profiles, you start to see some pretty interesting pictures emerging."

Warden says he's been overwhelmed by the response he’s gotten from this project, after working on similar projects in obscurity for years.

Among Warden's less surprising findings: Fox News host Glen Beck gets the number one spot on Facebook fan pages from users in Eastern Idaho. And the "Twilight" books, penned by Mormon author Stephenie Meyer, rank high in the heavily Mormon communities in and around Utah.

Facebook mining

These and other observations that Warden mined from the massive amount of Facebook data were posted on his blog last week, along with maps that break down the U.S. into seven regions based on Facebook user trends.

Now, after gathering the data from Facebook’s site using software he designed and honed in the process, and making a first round of enticing observations, he wants to turn the raw data he’s culled over to academia for further analysis. But he also hopes to steer investors and customers to his own software and services for further data gathering and aggregation.

"I'm much better at building the pipeline for processing the data than I am at doing really rigorous stuff with the results that come out at the end," Warden said in a telephone interview. "The patterns that I've blogged about in the U.S. data are very qualitative."

Indeed, much of the conclusions that Warden has drawn are open to interpretation, and his given names for America’s regional social connection groups – "Stayathomia" (the Northeast), "Socalistan" (Souther California), and "Mormonia" (the predominantly Mormon towns in Utah and Eastern Idaho) among them – are playfully clever, but not very scientific.

Serious about privacy

But Warden is serious when it comes to people’s privacy concerns, even though all the data being gathered is publicly available on Facebook’s site, and can be found via Google. He says he wants to make the data useful for large-scale data analysis, but not for tracking down individuals.

"We want to make sure we don't help scammers, we don't help spammers, and we respect people's privacy," Warden said, "but also allow some sort of new insight to come out of this."

To that end, Warden has delayed releasing the data for the time being (he initially intended to release it yesterday, Feb. 9), after someone from Facebook contacted him, asking for some time to check the privacy implications.

Once Facebook clears the data for release to the academic world, Warden says he’s ready to pass the task of interpreting all this data on to others and feature their conclusions on his blog more often than his own.

Meanwhile, Warden has some problems to patch in his data pipe, problems that have been helpfully pointed out by readers of his blog.

"One of the great things about getting this out there is having thousands of pairs of eyes to look over this stuff, like the fact that [the data shows] the top name in Alexandria, Louisiana is Mohamed," Warden said.

"When somebody pointed out that some of the profiles seemed to be coming from Alexandria, Egypt, that was a head-slapping moment."


Safford, Matt. 2010. "Facebook Data Reveal Secrets of American Culture". Live Science. Posted: February 11, 2010. Available online:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ancient Arabic inscription found in Jerusalem

1,100-year-old plaque offers insight into city's history under Muslim rule.

JERUSALEM - A home renovation in Jerusalem's Old City has yielded a rare Arabic inscription offering insight into the city's history under Muslim rule, Israeli archaeologists said Wednesday.

The fragment of a 1,100-year-old plaque is thought to have been made by an army veteran to express his thanks for a land grant from the Caliph al-Muqtadir, whom the inscription calls "Emir of the Faithful."

Dating from a time when Jerusalem was ruled from Baghdad by the Abbasid empire, the plaque shows how rulers rewarded their troops and ensured their loyalty, archaeologists said.

The Abbasids conquered Jerusalem after numerous wars with the Fatimid empire in Egypt. The Abbasid caliphs valued Jerusalem as an Islamic holy site.

"The caliph probably granted estates as part of his effort to strengthen his hold over the territories within his control, including Jerusalem, just as other rulers did in different periods," said excavation director Annette Nagar.

The white marble plaque measures four inches by four inches and was found approximately 5 feet beneath the floor of a home in the Old City's Jewish Quarter.

The house's owner planned a renovation and — as required by law — brought archaeologists to carry out a salvage dig meant to prevent harm to valuable antiquities. The plaque has been removed from the site and is now in the hands of Israel's Antiquities Authority.

The writing was deciphered by Hebrew University professor Moshe Sharon, who traced it to 910, during the early part of al-Muqtadir's 24-year rule.

The finding will help scholars better understand 10th-century Jerusalem, populated by Muslims, Christians and Jews, and the methods used by Muslim rulers to solidify their control.

Rubin, Shira. 2010. "Ancient Arabic Inscription found in Jerusalem." MSNBC. Posted: February 17, 2010. Available online:

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Culture of Tokelau


Culture and Name: Tokelauan


Identification. "Tokelau" means "north-northeast." Its people also identify themselves by their atoll villages: Atafu, Fakaofo, and Nukunonu.

Location and Geography. Three unbroken rings of coral with a combined land area of somewhat over four square miles (ten square kilometers) lie along a 93 mile (150 kilometers) northwest– southeast axis, separated from each other by 37 to 56 miles (60 to 90 kilometers) of open sea.

Demography. The population is about 1,700. An additional estimated five thousand reside overseas, mainly in New Zealand.

Linguistic Affiliation. Tokelauan is a Polynesian language. Older people are bilingual in Samoan, which was introduced with Christianity in the 1860s; younger people are more apt to be bilingual in English through their schooling.

Symbolism. Homeland atolls are the preeminent symbols, denoting both place and ancestry.

History and Ethnic Relations:

Emergence of the Nation and National Identity. As a culturally distinctive dependency of New Zealand, Tokelau is a nation. After sixty years as a British protectorate and then a colony ruled with "benign neglect," in 1948 Tokelau became "a part of New Zealand" and its people became New Zealand citizens. Most people want to retain that status, which combines considerable local political autonomy with substantial external support.

Ethnic Relations. Virtually all residents are of Tokelauan ancestry. In New Zealand, Tokelauans are a minority population among other Pacific Islanders, Maori, and persons of Asian and European ancestry. Many conscientiously maintain aspects of their culture.

Food and Economy:

Food in Daily Life. Fish and coconuts are abundant; other local foods are seasonal or scarce. Stores stock imported food, mainly rice, flour, and sugar.

Basic Economy. Traditional economic activities center on the land, reef, lagoon, and sea. Fishing is strictly a subsistence activity, pursued with ingenuity backed by extensive knowledge. Coconuts rarely are harvested for uses other than subsistence since public service employment became the main source of cash. Handicrafts are more often produced as gifts than for cash.

Land Tenure and Property. Aside from a small portion of land used for communal purposes, all land is held by cognatic kin groups and managed by persons with recognized positions within those groups. Village houses are occupied and managed by kin group women; men manage and harvest plantation lands. Virtually everyone has rights to land and to a share of the produce from the land. Most people are members of more than one kin group and many receive produce from four or more.

Commercial Activities. All entrepreneurial activities are closely scrutinized by the Councils in each village.

Division of Labor. A major division exists between salaried public service employees who have job qualifications and wage-earning public service employees who do not. The distinction between paid and unpaid work has been partially eroded by village management of aid projects, for which all village workers are paid. Age determines who does what, who directs, and who labors.

Social Stratification:

Classes and Castes. An egalitarian ethic overrides differentials in wealth among a growing elite whose education and experience qualify them for better-paid employment or positions. They contribute generously to village and family enterprises and avoid ostentatious displays of affluence.

Gender Roles and Statuses:

Division of Labor by Gender. The adage that men "go"—fishing and harvesting—and women "stay"—managing the family—has been compromised by widespread public service employment. Both men and women work in skilled jobs; most unskilled workers are men.

Relative Status of Women and Men. Complementary equity predicated on sister-brother relationships has been compromised by Christian ideology and money.

Marriage, Family and Kinship:

Marriage. Virtually all residents enter into sanctified, lifelong monogamous unions. Individual choice is constrained by kin group exogamy.

Domestic Unit. The pattern is an uxorilocal, often expanded nuclear family, in line with the adage that women "stay" and men "go."

Inheritance. All offspring inherit rights from both parents.

Kin Groups. Members of each cognatic kin group reside throughout the village and interact regularly.


Child Rearing and Education. Infant care is indulgent. Children are closely disciplined and precisely instructed in increasingly complex tasks.

Higher Education. All children attend village primary and secondary schools; many continue their schooling abroad.


Deference and obedience to one's elders and restraint between cross-sex siblings is expected. Physical aggression is abhorred.


Religious Beliefs. Protestant and Catholic congregations practice a fundamentalist, puritanical form of Christianity.

Religious Practitioners. Protestant pastors, deacons, and lay preachers and Catholic priests, catechists, and elders direct their respective congregations.

Rituals and Holy Places. Churches are cherished sites with frequent masses and services.

Death and the Afterlife. A short wake, church service, and burial are followed by evenings of mourning and ended by a feast. Unusual events and encounters may be attributed to ghost spirits. The dead are fondly remembered.

To read more about: Urbanism, Architecture, and the Use of Space; Political Life; Social Welfare and Change Programs; Nongovernmental Organizations and Other Associations; Medicine and Health Care; Secular Celebrations; and The Arts and Humanities visit the site.

"Culture of Tokelau". Every Culture. Posted: Available online:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Etymology of Anthropology

Today we're going to have a little fun. I thought I'd put up some history of the word anthropology and those terms related to it. Basically I've focused on the traditional four fields of American anthropology. I recognize that there are many, many fields out there. Thanks to the Online Etymology Dictionary for providing the roots of today's discussion.

Anthropology: "science of the natural history of man," 1590s, coined from Gk. anthropo- + -logia "study of." In Aristotle, anthropologos is used literally, as "speaking of man." Related: Anthropological (1825); anthropologist (1798).

Archaeology: c.1600, "ancient history," from Fr. archéologie, from Gk. arkhaiologia "the study of ancient things," from arkhaios "ancient," from arkhe "beginning" (see archon). Meaning "scientific study of ancient peoples" first recorded 1837. Related: Archaeologist (1824).

Physical: (as in Physical Anthropology) mid-15c., "of or pertaining to material nature," from M.L. physicalis "of nature, natural," from L. physica "study of nature" (see physic). Meaning "of the body, corporeal" is attested from 1780. Meaning "characterized by bodily attributes or activities" is attested from 1970. Physical education first recorded 1838; abbreviated form phys ed is from 1955.

Social: 1505 (implied in socially), "characterized by friendliness or geniality," also "allied, associated," from M.Fr. social (14c.), from L. socialis "united, living with others," from socius "companion," probably originally "follower," and related to sequi "to follow" (cf. O.E. secg, O.N. seggr "companion," which seem to have been formed on the same notion; see sequel). Meaning "living or liking to live with others, disposed to friendly intercourse" is attested from 1729. Meaning "pertaining to society as a natural condition of human life" first attested 1695, in Locke. Social climber is from 1926; social work is 1890; social worker 1904. Social drink(ing) first attested 1976. Social studies as an inclusive term for history, geography, economics, etc., is attested from 1938. Social security "system of state support for needy citizens" is attested from 1908.

Cultural: 1868, in ref. to the raising of plants or animals, from L. cultura "tillage" (see culture) + -al (1). In reference to the cultivation of the mind, from 1875; hence, "relating to civilization or a civilization." A fertile word among anthropologists and sociologists: e.g. Cultural diffusion, in use by 1912; cultural diversity by 1935; cultural imperialism by 1937; cultural pluralism by 1932; cultural relativism by 1948. Related: Culturalization (by 1929); culturally (1889).

Linguistic: 1856; The use of linguistic to mean "of or pertaining to language or languages" is "hardly justifiable etymologically," according to OED, but "has arisen because lingual suggests irrelevant associations."

Linguist:1580s, "a master of language, one who uses his tongue freely," from L. lingua "language, tongue" (see lingual). Meaning "a student of language" first attested 1640s.

Ethnology: 1842, from ethno- + -logy. Related: Ethnologist. Ethno- : comb. form of Gk. ethnos "people, nation, class" (see ethnic), used to form modern compounds in the social sciences.

Monday, February 15, 2010

English, The Global Language?

For a business site, I have to say, I really love the extra information they provide. It gives you a better appreciation for language learning. The following article is just one of many. I do recommend that you visit the site and read their other articles.

English, the global language as many would say, is the most widely spoken language by non-natives in the world. There are 71 countries across the globe that have English as their official language, equating to a staggering 400 million native speakers of it.

What is more, there are an estimated 600 million people who speak English as their second language. Then there are all of the others, million of people who learn it at school, pick it up from movies, know a few words.

English is one of the official languages of the United Nations. It is the language of aviation. It is also the predominant language for science, entertainment and diplomacy.

The spread of the British Empire and the increasing dominance of the United States of America has led us to this situation we have today where the concept of English – the global language – is one that many people hold in high regard.

This perceived dominance of the language of English is not helped by the fact that so many British people simply refuse to learn another language, because they are confident that wherever they may travel they will meet someone who can converse in their own language.

These facts add up to suggest that English, the global language, is more than a mere concept. But there are factors, which are stopping the march of English and preventing it from being as widespread as many would like, and just as many would not.

The Fight Back

Even within the UK there is a fight back happening, against the dominance of English. The fight has been well and truly started in Wales, where Welsh, once an almost extinct language, is being taught again in huge numbers, and, moreover, used in towns and villages across the country.

This is happening too with Gaelic. Although not to the same extent as Welsh, people are learning it and using it – putting it before English as their language of choice.


In the USA, Spanish is quickly becoming as widely spoken as English because of the numbers of people of Hispanic origin who chose to use it. English, the global language, is actually being marginalised there, in a country that wields enormous power. Although English remains the official language and the language in which most business is conducted in, Spanish is gaining more and more ground.

In the UK itself, immigrants do not always speak English. In some areas with high numbers of Polish immigrants, local newspapers have even started producing special editions in Polish for them – a sure sign that the way language is used is changing.

New Powers

But perhaps the biggest threat to the idea of English, a global language, is new superpowers. Chinese is the world’s most spoken language due to the sheer numbers of people who live there and speak one of its native forms.

Together with India, China is emerging as one of the crucial players on the world scene for the future. With these populous countries gaining so much power, their languages are set to gain in importance and see a rise in people who speak them outside of their borders.

There are too many factors at work for the idea of English, a Global Language, to ever become a true reality. But for now, it would certainly seem that English is the closet thing to a global language we have.

It is still the language people choose to use if their native languages are not common to each other and as the international language of business, it is vital.

Things may change in the future and shake up the world stage, but for now, English is here to stay, global language or not, its importance undisputed.

Anonymous. Nd."English, The Global Language?".Language Tutoring. Available online:

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Scientists Identify a Language Gene

Researchers in England have identified the first gene to be linked to language and speech, suggesting that our human urge to babble and chat is innate, and that our linguistic abilities are at least partially hardwired.

"It is important to realize that this is a gene associated with language, not the gene," said Anthony Monaco of the University of Oxford, England, who led the genetic aspects of the study.

The gene is required during early embryonic development for formation of brain regions associated with speech and language.

The gene, called FOXP2, was identified through studies of a severe speech and language disorder that affects almost half the members of a large family, identified only as "KE." Individuals with the disorder are unable to select and produce the fine movements with the tongue and lips that are necessary to speak clearly.

"The most obvious feature is that they are unintelligible both to naive listeners and to other KE family members without the disorder," said neurologist Faraneh Vargha-Khadem of London's Institute for Child Health, who studied the family. The members of the family also have dyslexic tendencies, difficulty processing sentences, and poor spelling and grammar.

FOXP2 is responsible for the rare disorder seen in the KE family that is a unique mixture of motor and language impediments, said Monaco.

But, Monaco cautioned, "FOXP2 is unlikely to be the cause of less severe language deficits that affect approximately 4 percent of schoolchildren. FOXP2 will not be the major gene involved in most of these cases."

Their findings are published in the October 4 issue of the journal Nature.

Using data from the KE family, researchers narrowed the location of the FOXP2 gene to a region of chromosome 7 that contained about 70 genes. Analyzing these genes one by one is a task that could easily have taken more than a year. But Monaco's team made a breakthrough when researcher Jane Hurst of Oxford Radcliffe Hospital identified a British boy, unrelated to the KE family, who had an almost identical language deficit.

The boy, known as "CS," had a visible defect in chromosome 7 that specifically affected the FOXP2 gene. "The defect was like a signpost, precisely highlighting the gene responsible for the speech disorder," said Monaco.

The FOXP2 gene produces a protein called a transcription factor, which attaches itself to other regions of DNA and switches genes on and off.

In the KE family, one of 2,500 units of DNA that make up the FOXP2 gene is mutated. Monaco suggested that this mutation prevents FOXP2 from activating the normal sequence of genes required for early brain development.

"It is extraordinary that such a minute change in the gene is sufficient to disrupt a faculty as vital as language," he said.

Although humans have two copies of every gene, just one mutated copy of FOXP2—as in the case of both CS and the KE family—can have devastating effects on brain development, said Vargha-Khadem.

Brain imaging studies of the KE family revealed that affected members have abnormal basal ganglia—a region in the brain involved with movement—which could explain difficulty in moving the lips and tongue. Regions of the cortex involved in speech and language also appear aberrant.

The discovery of FOXP2 offers Monaco and other geneticists a probe to fish for other genes involved in development—specifically those directly controlled by FOXP2.

Also in progress is a collaborative project to study the evolution of the human FOXP2 gene by comparing it with versions in chimps and other primates. Monaco speculates that differences between the FOXP2 gene in humans and chimps may reveal a genetic basis for differing abilities to communicate.

Trivedi Bijal P. 2001. "Scientists Identify a Language Gene". National Geographic. Posted: October 4, 2001. Available online:

Friday, February 12, 2010

Lingua Ex Machina

On this summer evening, the house is alive with people. In the main room, the owner of the house, a stocky man in a plaid shirt, has set a long plastic banquet table on the earthen floor, with a dozen plastic patio chairs around it. Children materialize with platters of nuts, sunflower seeds, and miniature fruit. At the head of the table, the owner is joined by a group of men in their thirties and forties. Down one side of the table is a row of boys, from toddlers to teenagers. At the foot of the table sits a knot of six visitors: four linguistics scholars, a video camera operator, and me.

“Nobody sat down and invented the sign languages of the deaf. These languages arise spontaneously."

The man and his family are Bedouins, and the house is at the edge of their village, Al-Sayyid. Though they live in the desert, the Bedouins of Al-Sayyid are not nomads. Their people have inhabited this village, tucked into an obscure corner of what is now Israel, miles from the nearest town, for nearly 200 years. They are rooted, even middle class. Men and boys are bareheaded and dressed in Western clothing, mostly T-shirts and jeans. They own automobiles, computers, and VCRs. But there is something even more remarkable about the Al-Sayyid Bedouins—an unusual language, never documented until now.

The house is a Babel tonight. Around the table, six languages are flowing. There are snatches of English, mostly for my benefit. There is Hebrew: two of the linguists are from an Israeli university, and many men in Al-Sayyid speak Hebrew as well. There is a great deal of Arabic, the language of the home for Bedouins throughout the Middle East. But in the illuminated room, it is the other languages that catch the eye. They are signed languages, the languages of the deaf. As night engulfs the desert and the cameraman’s lights throw up huge, signing shadows, it looks as though language itself has become animate, as conversations play out in silhouette on the whitewashed walls.

There are three signed languages going. There is American Sign Language, used by one of the visitors, a deaf linguist from California. There is Israeli Sign Language (ISL), the language of the deaf in that country, whose structure the two Israeli scholars have devoted years to analyzing. And there is a third language, the one the linguists have journeyed here to see: Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL), which is spoken in this village and nowhere else in the world.

In Al-Sayyid, the four linguists have encountered a veritable island of the deaf. In this isolated traditional community, where marriage to outsiders is rare, a form of inherited deafness has been passed down from one generation to the next for the last 70 years. Of the 3,500 residents of the village today, nearly 150 are deaf, an incidence forty times that of the general population. As a result, an indigenous signed language has sprung up, evolving among the deaf villagers as a means of communication. But what is so striking about the sign language of Al-Sayyid is that many hearing villagers can also speak it. It permeates every aspect of community life, used between parents and children, husbands and wives, from sibling to sibling and neighbor to neighbor.

The team plans to observe the language, to record it, and to produce an illustrated dictionary, the first-ever documentary record of the villagers’ signed communication system. But the linguists are after something even larger. Because Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language has arisen entirely on its own, it offers a living demonstration of the “language instinct,” man’s inborn capacity to create language from thin air. If the linguists can decode this language—if they can isolate the formal elements that make Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language a language—they will be in possession of compelling new evidence in the search for the ingredients essential to all language. And in so doing, they will have helped illuminate one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human.

When Wendy Sandler, a linguist at the University of Haifa, first heard about Al-Sayyid in the late 1990s, she knew at once that she had to investigate. Over the next few years, she and Irit Meir, a colleague at Haifa, made cautious forays into Al-Sayyid, setting in motion the diplomacy that is a critical part of linguistic fieldwork: explaining their intentions, hosting a day of activities at the village school, over time earning the trust of a number of the villagers.

Their work has a sense of urgency. Although the sign language of Al-Sayyid arose in a linguistic vacuum, the social realities of modern life, even in a remote desert community, make it impossible for it to remain that way. Over the years, many of Al-Sayyid’s deaf children have been bused to special classes for the deaf in nearby towns, where they are taught all day in spoken language—Hebrew or Arabic—accompanied by signs from Israeli Sign Language, a language utterly different from their own. In just one generation, when the older Bedouin signers die, the unique signed language of the village, at least in its present form, may be significantly altered.

Omar, the owner of the home in which we gathered for the first recording session, greeted us in Hebrew. Although he is hearing, Omar has deaf siblings and knows the village sign language. Carol Padden, a linguist from the University of California, San Diego, who is deaf, starts to sign to him, using gestures international enough that they can be readily understood. Omar replies expansively in Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign: the seeds of a simple contact pidgin have been sown. When signers of different languages come together, communication is achieved partly through the use of the most transparent gestures possible, partly through a shared understanding of the particular devices that signed languages use to convey meaning. (Just such a contact language, called International Sign Pidgin, has developed over the years at places like sign-linguistics meetings, where deaf people from many countries converge.)

The sign language of a particular country is rarely contingent on the spoken language that surrounds it. American and British Sign Languages are mutually unintelligible. A deaf American will have an easier time understanding a deaf Frenchman: ASL is historically descended from French Sign Language. Even the manual alphabet used by deaf signers can differ from one country to another. The letters of the American manual alphabet are signed using one hand; those of the British manual alphabet are made with two hands.

In her lab’s mission statement, Wendy sums up how studying sign languages can illuminate how the mind works: “It usually comes as a surprise to the layman to learn that nobody sat down and invented the sign languages of the deaf. These languages arise spontaneously, wherever deaf people have an opportunity to congregate. That shows that they are the natural product of the human brain, just like spoken languages. But because these languages exist in a different physical modality, researchers believe that they offer a unique window into the kind of mental system that all human language belongs to.”

Linguists have long believed that the ideal language to analyze would be one in its infancy. They even dream of the following experiment: simply grab a couple of babies, lock them in a room for a few years and record the utterances they produce. The scenario came to be known as the Forbidden Experiment.

We’re able to see, given the fully developed human brain, what happens when it has to make a language out of nothing.

It’s been tried. The historian Herodotus, writing in the fifth century B.C., told of the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus, who, in an attempt to discover what the oldest civilization was, took two infants from their mothers and dispatched them to an isolated hut under the care of a mute shepherd. Eventually, one of the babies uttered the word bekos, which turned out to be the Phrygian word for “bread,” bringing the experiment to a happy conclusion.

But near the end of the twentieth century, linguists began to realize that their sought-after virgin language existed in the sign language of the deaf. Signed languages spring from the same mental machinery that spoken languages do, but they are linguistic saplings.

The conditions that create an Al-Sayyid—a place where hundreds of people are habitual signers—are extremely particular. First, you need a gene for a form of inherited deafness. Second, you need huge families to pass the gene along, yielding an unusually large deaf population in a short span of time. Of Al-Sayyid’s 3,500 residents, about one in 25 is deaf—4 percent of the population. For deafness, a rate of 4 percent is a staggering figure: in the United States, the incidence of deafness in the general population is about one in 1,000. The presence of so many deaf signers in their midst also encourages widespread signing among the hearing. This helps keep the indigenous signed language alive for the village as a whole.

Wendy and her colleagues aren’t claiming that Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language (ABSL) mirrors the evolutionary development of language in Homo sapiens. Rather, as Wendy explained, “we’re able to see, given the fully developed human brain, what happens when it has to make a language out of nothing.”

The first deaf children were born in Al-Sayyid 70 years ago, about ten of them in a single generation. By the time of our visit, only one member of the first deaf generation was still alive, an elderly woman too infirm to be interviewed. Today, the 150 or so deaf people of Al-Sayyid include the second generation, men and women in their thirties and forties; and the third generation, their children.

When they were small, the first-generation signers had developed systems of gestures, called homesigns, to communicate with their families. With so many homesigners in close proximity, a functional pidgin could develop quickly. And in just one generation, the children of these signers, like children of pidgin speakers everywhere, took their parents’ signed pidgin and gave it grammar, spontaneously transforming it into the signed language of Al-Sayyid.

Over time, the language developed complexity. “People can talk about things that are not in the here-and-now,” says Wendy. “They can talk about the traditional folklore of the tribe and say, ‘People used to do it this way and now they don’t.’ They’re able to transmit a lot of information—and things that are quite abstract.” For example, “A signer told us about the traditional method of making babies immune to scorpion bites. It takes a high degree of sophistication about their culture, and it also takes a high degree of abstraction to be able to convey it.”

Another villager, Anwar, is a particularly fine signer. On the linguists’ previous visit, they recorded him telling a story nearly half an hour long, of how he was lost in Egypt for several years as a child. When Anwar was about eight, he somehow found his way onto a bus bound for Egypt. Because he couldn’t communicate with anyone, he had no idea where he was supposed to be going, or where to get off. He left the bus somewhere in Egypt, where he knew no one. He was taken in by a local family and lived with them for three years. One day, someone from Al-Sayyid passed through and heard the story of the mysterious deaf boy. He recognized Anwar and brought him home. Anwar recounted this for the linguists entirely in the village sign language.

In all human languages, the task of showing who did what to whom is one of the principal functions of grammar. Many languages do this through verb agreement. But as a young, relatively bare language, ABSL displayed little of the elaborate verb agreement—made by altering the path of a verb’s movement through space—that is the hallmark of established sign languages. Yet in the sentences they signed every day, the people of Al-Sayyid conveyed, clearly and without ambiguity, who did what to whom. Identifying the way in which they did so was the team’s first important discovery.

In most spoken languages, there is a trade-off between verb agreement and rigid word order when it comes to expressing who did what to whom. And rigid word order the sign language of Al-Sayyid had with a vengeance. The second-generation signers of ABSL, the team discovered, routinely rely on word order to encode the who-did-what-to-whom of discourse. As the linguists wrote in their first major paper on the village, “In the space of one generation from its inception, systematic grammatical structure has emerged in the language.”

As the team analyzed sentence after sentence of ABSL, they saw signers use the same word order again and again: subject-object-verb, or SOV. In some sentences, subject or object might be absent (as in MONEY COLLECT, “I saved money,” which has no overt subject). But in almost all of them, the verb appeared at the very end of the sentence or clause.

It was noteworthy that this very young language already had word order of any kind, especially given that ABSL, like any signed language, could just as easily do without it. This was truly astonishing: the emerging language of Al-Sayyid makes vigorous use of word order even though it doesn’t have to.

As long as the grant money holds out, and as long as the people of Al-Sayyid will have them, the linguists will come back to the village at least twice a year. It is too soon to tell whether the village sign language in the pure, isolated form will endure much beyond this generation. The signing of the deaf children, Al-Sayyid’s third generation, is already permeated with ISL. Most parents in Al-Sayyid believe that for their deaf children to make their way in Israeli society, they will need to know the national signed language, and no one disputes their point. “We don’t know how the language will change, and for us, that’s where the drama is,” Wendy wrote me in an e-mail message a few years after our trip. “And that’s why we have to keep studying it very carefully across the generations.”

Ms. Fox also wrote the book Talking Hands. It is a more comprehensive look at this phenomenon in Al-Sayyid. There is also a website for the book.

Fox, Margalit. 2007. "Lingua Ex Machina". Discover. Posted: July 3, 2007. Available online:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

In Texas, A Living Lab For Studying The Dead

An hour south of Austin, the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility sits on ranch land covered with oak, juniper, knee-high grass and limestone. The land looks like pretty typical Texas hill country, except for one thing — it's populated with cows and corpses.

Only a handful of universities in the world offer space to study the decomposition of human remains. Texas State University's facility in central Texas is the newest. Students here learn how to study human bones to identify the dead and discover clues about what caused their deaths.

A 5-acre fenced-in plot of land functions as an outdoor decomposition research facility, explains Michelle Hamilton, an assistant professor at Texas State and the director of the school's Forensic Anthropology Center.

"These remains have been here since February," Hamilton says as she stands at the edge of a 4-by-12-foot trench.

In the bottom of the trench are human remains — sort of rust-colored, about the color of the soil. Hamilton continues, "This individual was brought out completely fleshed. We wanted to look at what the Texas sun and aridity and also the periods of rain would do to a skeleton here in Texas. As of right now, they're faster. They mummify faster; they skeletonize faster; they decompose faster."

Four graduate students are in the pit with the partially buried skeleton. They're clearing away compacted earth with trowels and brushes. As they dig deeper into the red soil, the putrid odor of decomposition wafts up. A slim, tattooed 30-year-old from New Orleans is holding the skull, cleaning dirt from the eye orbits.

Teresa Gotay Nugent says she was born in Connecticut and plans to go to South America to work on human rights cases. "Even though we're working with the dead, we actually help the living, the families of people that are missing and feared dead," Nugent says. "It's not all just macabre. You can actually make a difference doing this."

Another graduate student, Laura Ayers, is from Houston. She's in her second year of studying forensic anthropology. "Right now I'm trying to get the pelvic girdle out, the hip bones," she says while scraping. "I don't want to pull anything because it might break it." Ayers says she wants to be a professor and consult with local law enforcement.

Two students gingerly lift out the bones and place them on a sheet of plastic in the crude form of a complete skeleton; the other pair continues to dig with shovels. One of them has been searching fruitlessly for the kneecaps for a half-hour.

The bones are then placed inside a big red plastic bag, to be taken to the lab.

Hamilton watches approvingly. "OK, it looks like at the end of the recovery for this particular body, we have the majority of all bones recovered with exception of two kneecaps and some of the phalanges — parts of the hands and feet," Hamilton says. "So they did really good."

They will have to return later, screen the spaded dirt and look for the missing bones. It's a meticulous process. Nothing gets left behind.

"What should we do with the fingernails?" someone asks. "You can put them in a bag, and we'll dispose of them when we get to the lab," comes the answer.

The recovery of the skeleton is handled with dignity. He was, after all, a man, in his 30s. He died suddenly, and his family gave his body to the decomposition research facility with the understanding that he would further the knowledge of human osteology.

In its first year, the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State has received seven donated bodies. In comparison, a much older facility at the University of Tennessee has more than 650 individuals.

They need more donors at the Texas center. Asking for them is a delicate matter, but it must be done, to understand the story of the bones.

The idea of a "body farm" was mentioned in Patricia Cornwell's book of the same name referring to the pioneering work of Bill Bass. His farm researches decomposition rates in bodies under certain conditions to help law enforcement understand this forensic issue. To learn more about Bill Bass and his work:

  • Wikipedia article.

  • National Geographic Video

  • A simple explanation of what a body farm is.

  • CNN.

  • __________________________

    Burnett, John. 2009. "In Texas, A Living Lab For Studying The Dead". NPR. Posted: June 30, 2009. Available online:

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010

    Waking the dead: Ancient genome of extinct human being reconstructed

    For the first time, scientists have reconstructed the nuclear genome of an extinct human being. The innovative technique can help reconstruct human phenotypic traits of extinct cultures. It also allows for finding those contemporary populations most closely related to extinct cultures revealing ancient human expansions and migrations. Finally, the discovery improves our understanding of heredity and the disease risk passed down from our ancestors. The spectacular findings are being published in Nature.

    Professor Eske Willerslev and his PhD student Morten Rasmussen, from Centre of Excellence in GeoGenetics, The Natural History Museum at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, led the international team of scientists responsible for the findings.

    Professor Willerslev,38 , and his team grabbed international attention last year when they reconstructed the complete mitochondrial genomes of a woolly mammoth and an ancient human. However, the current discovery is the first time scientists have been able to reconstruct the 80% of the nuclear genome that is possible to retrieve from fossil remains. From the genomic sequences, the team has managed to construct a picture of a male individual who lived in Greenland 4,000 years ago and belonged to the first culture to settle in the New World Arctic.

    The discovery was made by analysing a tuft of hair that belonged to a man from the Saqqaq culture from north-western Greenland 4,000 years ago. The scientists have named the ancient human "Inuk", which means "man" or "human" in Greenlandic. Although Inuk is more closely related to contemporary north-eastern Siberian tribes than to modern Inuits of the present day New World Arctic, the scientists wants to acknowledge that the discovery was made in Greenland.

    Professor Willerslev discovered the existence of the hair tuft by coincidence after several unsuccessful attempts to find early human remains in Greenland

    "I was speaking with the Director of the Natural History Museum in Denmark, Dr. Morten Meldgaard, when we started discussing the early peopling of the Arctic," Willerslev recalls. "Meldgaard who had participated in several excavations in Greenland told me about a large tuft of hair, which was found during an excavation in north-western Greenland in the 1980's and now stored at the National Museum in Denmark.

    "After the Greenland National Museum and Archives granted permission, we analysed the hair for DNA using various techniques and found it to be from a human male. For several months, we were uncertain as to whether our efforts would be fruitful. However, through the hard work of a large international team, we finally managed to sequence the first complete genome of an extinct human.", Willerslev says.

    Willerslev adds: "It was crucial that a private person, Fredrik Paulsen, chairman of the medical company Ferring, became interested in the project and provided the necessary funding to run some pilot tests, and that The Lundbeck Foundation of Denmark, quickly followed up providing substantial economic support to complete the project".

    "It shows how crucial private funding is to basic science these days. Without these private donors it would have taken us a lot longer to sequence the first ancient human genome".

    The reconstruction serves as blueprint that scientists can use to give a description of how the pre-historic Greenlander, Inuk, looked - including his tendency to baldness, dry earwax, brown eyes, dark skin, the blood type A+, shovel-shaped front teeth, and that he was genetically adapted to cold temperatures, and to what extend he was predisposed to certain illnesses. This is important as besides four small pieces of bone and hair, no human remains have been found of the first people that settled the New World Arctic. Willerslev's team can also reveal that Inuk's ancestors crossed into the New World from north-eastern Siberia between 4,400 and 6,400 years ago in a migration wave that was independent of those of Native Americans and Inuit ancestors. Thus, Inuk and his people left no dependence behind among contemporary indigenous people of the New World.

    "Previous efforts to reconstruct the mammoth nuclear genome resulted in a sequence filled with gaps and errors due to DNA damage because the technology was in its infancy. The genome of Inuk is comparable in quality to that of a modern human ", Willerslev tells and continues:

    "Our findings can be of significant help to archaeologists and others as they seek to determine what happened to people from extinct cultures. Doing so requires organic material - bones or hair kept as museum pieces or found at archaeological sites. Previously, the DNA needed to have been frozen or buried in a layer of permafrost. But with the new methods developed here at the Centre, that is not a premise anymore".

    Much of the hands-on work analysing and joining the DNA sequences and the chemical analyses of what little was left of the damaged genetic material together to form a complete profile of Inuk was done by Morten Rasmussen. The work was carried out in close collaboration with other scientists at the University of Copenhagen and in China, where they have far more sequencing machines than in Denmark.

    "Not so long ago, reconstructing an entire modern human genome took years," Rasmussen says. But the new methods and the abundance of sequencing machines allow us to do it in just a few months - and that includes the time-consuming task of analysing the results. The interesting thing about compiling a human genome is that we can look at the genes to see traits like why Scandinavians are blonde, why some are predisposed to certain illnesses and why others more easily become addicted to alcohol or tobacco. But the genome we've reconstructed is no Frankenstein's Monster; it's more like we've got the blueprints for a house, but we don't know how to build it."

    References: 2010. "Waking the dead: Ancient genome of extinct human being reconstructed". University of Copenhagen. Posted: February 10, 2010. Available online:

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010

    Colourful language

    I'm always interested in finding unusual words, some archaic, some lost, some invented. So I was quite happy when I stumbled across The Phrontistery. Here is a taste of what they offer. Today's topic is colour


    shining bronze colour
    whitish; becoming white
    light creamy white-brown
    bluish or greyish green
    deep scarlet red colour
    pale green colour
    of or like ivory; ivory-coloured
    of the colour of rust; impregnated with iron
    dead-leaf colour; dull brown
    reddish-yellow colour
    sea-green; greyish-blue
    purplish hue; purplish-flowered plant; ancient sundial; signalling mirror
    large stork-like bird; a pale apricot colour
    orange colour
    yellow like a jasmine
    white or pale-coloured

    Monday, February 8, 2010

    Stonehenge's secret: archaeologist uncovers evidence of encircling hedges

    Survey of landscape suggests prehistoric monument was surrounded by two circular hedges

    The Monty Python knights who craved a shrubbery were not so far off the historical mark: archaeologists have uncovered startling evidence of The Great Stonehenge Hedge.

    Inevitably dubbed Stonehedge, the evidence from a new survey of the Stonehenge landscape suggests that 4,000 years ago the world's most famous prehistoric monument was surrounded by two circular hedges, planted on low concentric

    banks. The best guess of the archaeologists from English Heritage, who carried out the first detailed survey of the landscape of the monument since the Ordnance Survey maps of 1919, is that the hedges could have served as screens keeping even more secret from the crowd the ceremonies carried out by the elite allowed inside the stone circle.

    Their findings are revealed tomorrow in British Archaeology magazine, whose editor, Mike Pitts, an archaeologist and expert on Stonehenge himself, said: "It is utterly surprising that this is the first survey for such a long time, but the results are fascinating. Stonehenge never fails to reveal more surprises."

    "The time these two concentric hedges around the monument were planted is a matter of speculation, but it may well have been during the Bronze Age. The reason for planting them is enigmatic."

    Pitts wonders if the hedges might have been to shelter the watchers from the power of the stones, as much as to ward off their impious gaze.

    If the early Bronze Age date is correct, when the hedges were planted the Stonehenge monument already had the formation now familiar to millions of tourists, after centuries when the small bluestones from west Wales and the gigantic sarsens from the Stonehenge plain were continually rearranged.

    The survey also found puzzling evidence that there may once have been a shallow mound among the stones, inside the circle. It was flattened long ago, but is shown in some 18th century watercolours though it was written off as artistic licence by artists trying to make the site look even more picturesque. The archaeologists wonder if the circle originally incorporated a mound which could have been a natural geological feature, or an even earlier monument.


    Kennedy, Maev. 2010. "Stonehenge's secret: archaeologist uncovers evidence of encircling hedges". Guardian. Posted: February 4, 2010. Available online:

    Sunday, February 7, 2010

    Ancient Mongolian Tomb Holds Skeleton of Western Man

    Dead men can indeed tell tales, but they speak in a whispered double helix.

    Consider an older gentleman whose skeleton lay in one of more than 200 tombs recently excavated at a 2,000-year-old cemetery in eastern Mongolia, near China's northern border. DNA extracted from this man's bones pegs him as a descendant of Europeans or western Asians. Yet he still assumed a prominent position in ancient Mongolia's Xiongnu Empire, say geneticist Kyung-Yong Kim of Chung-Ang University in Seoul, South Korea, and his colleagues.

    On the basis of previous excavations and descriptions in ancient Chinese texts, researchers suspect that the Xiongnu Empire -- which ruled a vast territory in and around Mongolia from 209 B.C. to A.D. 93 -- included ethnically and linguistically diverse nomadic tribes. The Xiongnu Empire once ruled the major trading route known as the Asian Silk Road, opening it to both Western and Chinese influences.

    Researchers have yet to pin down the language spoken by Xiongnu rulers and political elites, says archaeologist David Anthony of Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. But the new genetic evidence shows that the 2,000-year-old man "was multi-ethnic, like the Xiongnu polity itself," Anthony remarks.

    This long-dead individual possessed a set of genetic mutations on his Y chromosome, which is inherited from paternal ancestors, that commonly appears today among male speakers of Indo-European languages in eastern Europe, central Asia and northern India, Kim's team reports in an upcoming American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The same man displayed a pattern of mitochondrial DNA mutations, inherited from maternal ancestors, characteristic of speakers of modern Indo-European languages in central Asia, the researchers say.

    "We don't know if this 60- to 70-year-old man reached Mongolia on his own or if his family had already lived there for many generations," says study co-author Charles Brenner, a DNA analyst based in Oakland, Calif.

    Two other skeletons from the Xiongnu cemetery in Duurlig Nars show genetic links to people who live in northeastern Asia, according to Kim's team. Other team members include Kijeong Kim of Chung-Ang University, Eregzen Gelegdorj of the National Museum of Mongolia in Ulaanbaatar and Eun-Jeong Chang of the National Museum of Korea in Seoul.

    The Duurlig Nars man's genetic signature supports the idea that Indo-European migrations to northeastern Asia started before 2,000 years ago. This notion is plausible, but not confirmed, says geneticist Peter Underhill of Stanford University. Further investigations of Y chromosome mutation frequencies in modern populations will allow for a more precise tracing of the Duurlig Nars man's geographic roots, Underhill predicts.

    Scholars have long sought to trace the origin and spread of related languages now found in Europe, India and other parts of Asia. One hypothesis holds that Indo-European languages proliferated via several waves of expansion and conquest by nomads known as Kurgans who had domesticated horses and thus could travel long distances. In this scenario, Kurgans left a homeland north of the Black Sea, in what's now Russia, around 6,400 years ago.

    Another view holds that farmers from ancient Turkey spread Indo-European tongues as they swallowed up one parcel of land after another, beginning around 9,000 years ago.

    Since 1978, discoveries of 2,400- to 4,000-year-old mummified corpses with European features in northwestern China, not far from Mongolia, have fueled the Kurgan hypothesis (SN: 2/25/95, p. 120). Remains of large wheels found with these blond-haired individuals raise the controversial possibility that these foreigners introduced carts and chariots to the Chinese.

    Add to those discoveries a report in the September 2009 Human Genetics. Geneticist Christine Keyser of the University of Strasbourg in France and her colleagues found that nine of 26 skeletons previously excavated at 11 Kurgan sites in northeastern Russia possess a Y chromosome mutation pattern thought to mark the eastward expansion of early Indo-Europeans. That same genetic signature characterizes the Duurlig Nars man.

    By 2,000 years ago, the easternmost Indo-European languages were probably spoken in northwestern China, Anthony holds. So an Indo-European speaker could have aligned himself with Xiongnu political big shots and earned an eternal resting place in an elite Xiongnu cemetery, in his opinion.

    Kim agrees. The Duurlig Nars man's tomb lies close to the tomb of an especially high-ranking Xiongnu man whom he may have served in some way, he suggests.

    Kim's group plans to extract and study DNA from additional Duurlig Nars skeletons. For now, Anthony remarks, "this new study from Mongolia is important because it adds one more point of light to a largely dark prehistoric sky."

    It seems that Europeans living in China is not uncommon. Refer to this post from August 12, 2009 is about a collection of distinctly Caucasian mummies.

    Bower, Bruce. 2010. "Ancient Mongolian Tomb Holds Skeleton of Western Man". Discovery News. Posted: February 3, 2010. Available online:

    Saturday, February 6, 2010

    Last speaker of ancient language of Bo dies in India

    The last speaker of an ancient language in India's Andaman Islands has died at the age of about 85, a leading linguist has told the BBC.

    Andamanese (13)
    Great Andamanese (10)

    Central (6)

  • Aka-Bea [abj] (India)

  • Aka-Kede [akx] (India)

  • Aka-Kol [aky] (India)

  • Akar-Bale [acl] (India)

  • A-Pucikwar [apq] (India)

  • Oko-Juwoi [okj] (India)

  • Northern (4)

  • Aka-Bo [akm] (India)

  • Aka-Cari [aci] (India)

  • Aka-Jeru [akj] (India)

  • Aka-Kora [ack] (India)

  • South Andamanese (3)

  • Jarawa [anq] (India)

  • Öñge [oon] (India)

  • Sentinel [std] (India)

  • Source: Ethnologue

    Professor Anvita Abbi said that the death of Boa Sr was highly significant because one of the world's oldest languages - Bo - had come to an end.

    She said that India had lost an irreplaceable part of its heritage.

    Languages in the Andamans are thought to originate from Africa. Some may be 70,000 years old.

    The islands are often called an "anthropologist's dream" and are one of the most linguistically diverse areas of the world.


    Professor Abbi - who runs the Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese (Voga) website - explained: "After the death of her parents, Boa was the last Bo speaker for 30 to 40 years.

    "She was often very lonely and had to learn an Adamanese version of Hindi in order to communicate with people.

    "But throughout her life she had a very good sense of humour and her smile and full-throated laughter were infectious."

    She said that Boa Sr's death was a loss for intellectuals wanting to study more about the origins of ancient languages, because they had lost "a vital piece of the jigsaw".

    "It is generally believed that all Andamanese languages might be the last representatives of those languages which go back to pre-Neolithic times," Professor Abbi said.

    "The Andamanese are believed to be among our earliest ancestors."

    Boa Sr's case has also been highlighted by the Survival International (SI) campaign group.

    "The extinction of the Bo language means that a unique part of human society is now just a memory," SI Director Stephen Corry said.

    'Imported illnesses'

    She said that two languages in the Andamans had now died out over the last three months and that this was a major cause for concern.

    Academics have divided Andamanese tribes into four major groups, the Great Andamanese, the Jarawa, the Onge and the Sentinelese.

    Professor Abbi says that all apart from the Sentinelese have come into contact with "mainlanders" from India and have suffered from "imported illnesses".

    She says that the Great Andamanese are about 50 in number - mostly children - and live in Strait Island, near the capital Port Blair.

    Boa Sr was part of this community, which is made up of 10 "sub-tribes" speaking at least four different languages.

    The Jarawa have about 250 members and live in the thick forests of the Middle Andaman. The Onge community is also believed to number only a few hundred.

    "No human contact has been established with the Sentinelese and so far they resist all outside intervention," Professor Abbi said.

    It is the fate of the Great Andamanese which most worries academics, because they depend largely on the Indian government for food and shelter - and abuse of alcohol is rife.

    For another post on the Andaman Islanders refer to this story I posted September 30, 2008. I have discovered two more posts that make references to the Andaman Islanders,
    here, and here.


    Abbi, Anvita. "Vanishing Voices of the Great Andamanese". Available online:

    Lewis, M. Paul (ed.), 2009. Ethnologue: Languages of the World, Sixteenth edition. Dallas, Tex.: SIL International. Online version:

    Lawson, Alastair. 2010. "Last speaker of ancient language of Bo dies in India". BBC News. Posted: February 4, 2010. Available online:

    Friday, February 5, 2010

    25 Most Influential People in Forensic Science

    For those of you like me who enjoy reading forensic things, check out this blog. It's a fascinating collection of forensic-related posts. Given that its also a shameless promotion for forensic schools, it does contain fascinating information.

    Also check out It too promotes forensic science schools, but also discusses forensic science topics and specialties.

    Great forensic scientists over the years have been compared to Sherlock Holmes. But, Holmes was a work of fiction, whereas the following individuals are real — and, they’ve solved real crimes. Their contributions to forensic science, both past and current, continue to expand the world of forensics while shrinking that world for criminals.

    The following list of the twenty-five most influential people in forensic science is listed in alphabetical order by surname. The links lead to more information about each individual.

    1. Michael Baden: Dr. Michael M. Baden: Dr. Baden is a medical doctor and a board-certified forensic pathologist known as a host of HBO’s Autopsy. He also is known for his work as an investigator into high-profile death cases including John Kennedy, O.J. Simpson, Sid Vicious, John Balushi and more. His latest case involved the investigation into the cause of David Carradine’s death. Baden concluded that Carradine’s death was not the result of suicide. Dr. Baden wrote Unnatural Death, Confessions of a Medical Examiner and Dead Reckoning, the New Science of Catching Killers.

    2. Bill Bass: Dr. William Bass: If you’ve heard of the Body Farm, a book penned by Patricia Cornwell, then you may have heard of Bill Bass. This man was responsible for the resolution of many high-profile cases as well as the education of some of the most high-profile forensic scientists in this country through the University of Tennessee’s Forensic Anthropology Center, which he started in 1971. His specialties include research into human osteology, human decomposition and the roles they play in answering questions about a person’s death. He writes forensic fiction with journalist Jon Jefferson under the pen name, Jefferson Bass.

    3. Joseph Bell: Dr. Joseph Bell: This link takes you to the Joseph Bell Centre for Forensic Statistics and Legal Reasoning at the University of Edinburgh, established in 2001. This center was named for Dr. Bell (1837-1911), who inspired Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Homes. Conan-Doyle met Dr. Bell in 1877 at the University’s medical school, where he observed Bell’s keen attention to detail. The Joseph Bell Centre offers training courses to enhance and expand the skills of lawyers, forensic scientists, law enforcement officials, law students, IT security staff, and the judiciary.

    4. Frank Bender: Frank Bender: Currently, Frank Bender is one of the best known and forensic facial reconstruction artists. He calls himself a “recomposer of the decomposed” as he shapes likenesses from clay. His work over the years has led to over twenty-five positive identifications for places such as the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, the FBI, the Mexican Government and Interpol. One of his most recent works is a pencil sketch of a homeless man that Philadelphia police killed in July.

    5. Mark Benecke: Dr. Mark Benecke: Born in Germany in 1970, Benecke (known as “maggot man”) received his Ph.D. at Cologne University and worked in the Manhattan Chief Medical Examiner’s office until 1999. Currently, he works internationally as a freelance expert witness and teaches at various police academies and acts as a visiting professor to various universities. His latest claim to fame is his attempt to explain alleged signs of vampirism.

    6. Sara Bisel: Dr. Sara C. Bisel: Dr. Bisel (1932 – 1996) was a physical anthropologist and archaeologist who pioneered work in the chemical and physical analysis of skeletons. Her work, especially in Herculaneum, a town destroyed by the 79 CE Mount Vesuvius eruption, helped advance the field of forensic archaeology. Her work at Herculaneum also established her reputation internationally as an authority on ancient health and nutrition.

    7. Francis Camps: Francis Edward Camps: Almost any pathologist could tell you about Camps’ (1905-1972) 88,000 postmortems performed during his career as a chief pathologist at London Hospital. Although his nervous temperament played havoc in court, this attribute also endeared him to television audiences. He was fascinated with the Jack the Ripper case and, after pursuing evidence, determined that “Jack” was Montague John Drewitt. Camps helped to develop the British Association of Forensic Medicine and he donated his papers to the hospital’s Forensic Medicine Department.

    8. Marcella Fierro: Dr. Marcella Farinelli Fierro: Perhaps you know Dr. Fierro best as “Kay Scarpetta,” a fictional character in a series of crime novels penned by Patricia Cornwell. Fierro, former Chief Medical Examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia and Professor Emerita, oversees all violent, suspicious and unnatural deaths throughout the State of Virginia. She also teaches forensic pathology and serves as a consultant to the FIB on the National Crime Information Center. Dr. Fierro advised Cornwell on all her Scarpetta books.

    9. Alec Jeffreys: Sir Alec John Jeffreys: Considered the “father of DNA evidence,” Alec Jeffreys’ discovery of the first DNA fingerprint was accidental. But, this British geneticist’s discovery revolutionized forensic science and also helped to resolve paternity and immigration disputes. Most recently, Sir Jeffreys has called for a drastic reduction in the DNA database, stating Britain has disregarded rights and privacy of innocent people in collecting database information.

    10. Ellis KerleyEllis R. Kerley: Kerley (1924-1998) was an American anthropologist and pioneer in forensic anthropology. In research, he is best known for pioneering the microscopic approach to the estimation of age at death from human bone. A university professor for 22 years, Kerley also served as Scientific Director of the Army identification laboratory in Hawaii and worked on many forensic cases — most notably the identification of remains belonging to repatriated American soldiers from Korean and Vietnam Wars. The Ellis R. Kerley Forensic Sciences Foundation was founded in 2000 in his memory.

    11. Clea KoffClea Koff: After studying prehistoric skeletons in Berkeley, California, Cloa Koff (also known as the “Bone Woman” based upon the title of her book) was sent to Rwanda in 1996. What occurred over the following four years changed her life and shocked the world as she exhumed bodies and studied their bones for the UN War Crimes Tribunal. Her answers to questions about the victims may help bring the guilty to justice in Rwanda, Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo.

    12. Wilton KrogmanWilton Marion Krogman: Krogman (1903-1987) was an American anthropologist and teacher who taught some of the world’s leading forensic anthropologists. He published his first work in 1941, The Growth of Man, while at Chicago. In 1972, he published Child Growth based on his studies while a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He published one of his most famous works in 1986, entitled The Human Skeleton in Forensic Medicine. His work remains standards for anatomical measurements throughout the world. University of Pennsylvania named a building for Krogman, and also bestows an award for distinguished achievement in biological anthropology in his name.

    13. Frances LeeFrances Glessner Lee: A socialite and heiress, Frances Lee (1878-1962) revolutionized crime scene investigation through building miniatures, or tiny dioramas, that detailed how a crime scene was developed and how it possibly evolved. These Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” originally donated to Harvard in 1945 for use in her seminars, eventually went to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office. Frances also became a captain in the new Hampshire State Police, obtaining a great deal of technical knowledge about crime scene forensics.

    14. Dr. Henry C. Lee: Possibly one of the world’s most well-known forensic scientists, Henry Lee currently serves as the Chief Emeritus for Scientific Services for the State of Connecticut and an occasional lecture professor of forensic science at the University of New Haven, where he has helped to set up the Henry C. Lee Forensic Institute. Lee has worked on so many high-profile cases that it’s difficult to name them all; but, some cases include O.J. Simpson, Laci Peterson, JonBenet Ramsey, the DC sniper shootings, and was involved in the early stages of investigation for the missing Orlando toddler, Caylee Anthony.

    15. Edmond Locard: Locard (1877–1966) pioneered the development of criminalistics, the practice of gathering evidence for scientific examination and crime solving. Locard developed the first official crime laboratory in the world. His most important contribution is the principe de l’échange (principle of exchange). Locard stated “Toute action de l’homme, et a fortiori, l’action violent qu’est un crime, ne peut pas se dérouler sans laisser quelque marque.” Translated, “Any action of an individual, and obviously the violent action constituting a crime, cannot occur without leaving a trace.”

    16. William Maples: Maples (1937-1997) was a renowned forensic anthropologist at the University of Florida. He is known for his work in human identification and trauma analysis and for his book, Dead Men Do Tell Tales. Throughout his career, he assisted in the identification of the human remains of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro, Czar Nicholas II, and Joseph Merrick, “The Elephant Man.” Maples also assisted medical examiners in Dade County identifying victims of the ValuJet airline disaster in the Everglades. The University of Florida named their center for forensic medicine after Maples, a man who “brought compassion and scientific rigor to the more than 1,200 cases with which he was involved during his twenty-eight year career.”

    17. Porntip Rojanasunan: Known as Dr. Death, this Thai forensic pathologist also is an author, a human rights activist and a cancer survivor. She currently is the Director of the Central Institute of Forensic Science, Ministry of Justice in Bangkok. She also introduced DNA evidence to Thailand and altered how autopsies were carried out in this country. She dyes her hair punk-rock hair red, wears eccentric clothing and makeup; but, while her appearance may belie her professionalism, it reflects her candor. Most recently, Porntip took charge of the effort to identify victims of the tsunami in the Phang Nga region.

    18. Keith Simpson: Professor Cedric Keith Simpson: Simpson (1907-1985), an English pathologist, was a professor of forensic medicine at the University of London at Guy’s Hospital and a lecturer at the University of Oxford. He was considered the leading forensic pathologist in Great Britain after Sir Bernard Spilsbury (see below). His most notable case involved the first use of forensic odontology, or the identification of an individual through teeth and bite marks, in a murder conviction against Robert Gorringe for the murder of his wife, Phyllis.

    19. Sydney Smith: Born in New Zealand, Smith became Chair of Forensic Medicine at the University of Edinburgh until 1953. His first big case involved the discovery of the bodies of two children in the Hopetoun quarry near Edinburgh. Although the bodies had been in water for eighteen months, Smith provided enough vital information to lead to the arrest of the father and to Scotland’s first execution of the century. Sir Smith described this event in his autobiography, Mostly Murder. Smith’s work on an attempt on the life of Sir Lee Stack Pasha, the Sirdar of the Egyptian Army and Governor General of Sudan marked the beginning of scientific examination of firearms and projectiles.

    20. Robert Spalding: Spalding joined the FBI in 1971 as an investigative agent and, in 1975, began to teach forensic serology at the Forensic Science Research and Training Center (FSRTC), FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. During this time, he developed expertise in bloodstain pattern analysis and was assigned to the newly formed Evidence Response Team Unit, where he taught crime scene investigation to FBI field office evidence response teams throughout the U.S. He is the owner of Spalding Forensics, LLC, and contributes to many books on the topic of serology.

    21. Bernard Spilsbury: Noted as Britain’s first forensic scientist, Sir Spilsbury (1877-1947) worked on cases including the Seddon case and Major Armstrong poisoning. Spilsbury single-handedly transformed forensic pathology from a widely discredited science to one that was both “ghoulish and glamorous.” A media hero based upon his almost supernatural gifts in solving murder mysteries, Spilsbury took his own life in 1947 after a series of personal disasters. The Wellcome Library plans to digitize Siplsbury’s note cards this upcoming year.

    22. Richard Walter: This American forensic psychologist developed psychological classifications for violent crime after interviewing more than 20,000 convicted felons. He also co-founded the Vidocq Society, an organization for forensic professionals dedicated to solving cold cases. Walter’s most spectacular case involved John List, a man who had been in hiding for eighteen years. With the help of artist Frank Bender (see above), List was captured the day after the profile and image were displayed on the television show, America’s Most Wanted. On the infamous side, Walter may face perjury charges [PDF] in a 1982 case.

    23. Cyril Wecht: Dr. Wecht has served as a forensic pathologist consultant in numerous high-profile cases and is noted for his controversial theories on cases for Elvis Presley, O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey. His most notable case, however, is his outspoken criticism of the Warren Commission’s findings concerning John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Dr. Wecht currently serves as a clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh Schools of Medicine, Dental Medicine, and Graduate School of Public Health, and holds positions as an Adjunct Professor at the Duquesne University School of Law, School of Pharmacy, and School of Health Sciences.

    24. Michael Welner: This link takes readers to The Forensic Panel and its peer reviewed protocols, the first of its kind in the U.S., pioneered by Dr. Welner. Dr. Welner has defined the application of the cutting edge of science to forensic practice through his work as principle forensic psychiatrist in some of America’s most sensitive litigation. he has pioneered the effort toward establishing a clinical and forensic standardization of the worst of crimes, through tools such as The Depravity Scale, a history- and evidence-driven forensic instrument that helps experts to define legal words for purposes of fair and consistent application to criminal sentencing.

    25. Frederick Whitehurst: Dr. Whitehurst was employed by the FBI crime lab, which rated Whitehurst as the leading national and international expert in explosive and explosive residue sciences. Despite this rating, Dr. Whitehurst was forced to defend himself against the FBI when he blew the whistle on scientific fraud within the FBI lab during the case of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. After winning the first successful whistle blower cases against the FBI, Whitehurst started the Forensic Justice Project (FJP), a non-profit forensic watch dog group that functions as a project of the National Whistleblowers Center (NWC).


    Best Forensic Science Schools. 2009. "25 Most Influential People in Forensic Science". The Forensic Files. Posted: December 8, 2009. Available online: