Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Lava bread, anyone? Pompeii snack bar rises from ashes after 2,000 years

HE LAST patrons who stood at the L-shaped counter of Pompeii's best-known snack bar eating the house-speciality – baked cheese smothered in honey – had to leave in a hurry owing to violent volcanic activity. But after an unforeseen break in business of 1,921 years, the former holiday hotspot of ancient Rome's in-crowd will finally re-open for business this weekend. Visitors will be taken on a guided tour of the thermopolium (snack bar), once owned by Vetutius Placidus, and taste some of the food that was popular before the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79 that buried the city under 60 feet of ash and pumice. As with many high-profile launches, this weekend sees an advance opening ceremony for 300 special guests, chosen at random. The full opening will take place later. When Vesuvius erupted for two days, most of its citizens died as an enormous wave of scalding gas and dust tore down the volcano's flanks and enveloped the city. The thermopolium, one of the best preserved sites in Pompeii, has been closed to the public for years in order to protect it from further damage. But following months of detailed excavation and preservation work, all visitors will soon be able to go inside and get an idea of a typical ancient Roman lunch establishment.

2010. "Lava bread, anyone? Pompeii snack bar rises from ashes after 2,000 years". La Boite Archaeologique / The Archaeological Box. Posted: March 23, 2010. Available online:

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Modern medicine conquers witchcraft

More than 1/3 of Ghana's population believe that AIDS is caused by witchcraft, but large-scale intervention programs for improving health standards have convinced people to trust medical explanations of the disease.

Seen through western eyes, beliefs in supernatural forces are common in Ghana and other African countries. Death, suffering and diseases are often attributed to witchcraft. Over thirty per cent of its inhabitants believe such evil forces could be responsible for the spread of HIV/AIDS.

When meeting Ghanian colleagues, professor and sociologist Knud Knudsen at the University of Stavanger was confronted with intellectually challenging issues.

"The spread of AIDS is usually larger in less well-off areas. With lower income, little education and a higher share of illiteracy, Ghana's Northern regions are traditionally poorer that the Southern ones. Still, people in the Upper East Region seem to have a better grasp of the actual infection mechanism behind this terrible epidemic," Knudsen says.

Mapping people's perceptions

Together with Ghanian PhD-student Phyllis Antwi, Knud Knudsen has written an article due to be published in the international journal Global Health Promotion later this year. The authors examined data from the Ghana Demographic and Health Survey from 2003, involving 10,000 respondents of both sexes between the ages of 15-49.

The survey was quite expensive, and in part internationally funded. And it provides a unique starting point for trying to understand Ghanians' attitudes and practices in relation to AIDS, Knudsen explains.

In addition to fertility and family planning in Ghana, the survey charted people's awareness and conduct towards AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. Respondents were asked questions about alternative transmittance models, thereby enabling the researchers to compare their perceptions with modern medical knowledge.

Traditional beliefs are underestimated

Knudsen thinks the belief in witchcraft as a cause of AIDS, is an underestimated factor when developing relevant health programmes. Implementing standard programmes is difficult if people do not understand how the disease is transmitted.

"To Ghanians in general, witchcraft is a fact of life. Women who have been declared witches are often expelled, and forced to live in special villages. People may feel sorry for them, but this does not seem to alter their belief in witchcraft as a brutal reality," Knudsen says.

People seem to be able to live in both the traditional and the modern world. They may be Christians or Muslims, while still holding on to their ancient beliefs.

"They may listen to the priest, but they also listen to the local witch doctor. If people fall ill, consulting a physician is not necessarily their first choice."

Seeing is believing

People living in the poorer Northern regions have benefited from previous medical initiatives. This may explain their readiness to trust medical expertise. Long-term health programmes were implemented in the Upper East Region, years before the area was affected by the AIDS epidemic.

In 1987, a well-known project for monitoring the effects of vitamin A distribution was initiated in the Kassena-Nankana district. Health conditions among children suffering from diarrhoea, bronchial diseases and measles, were significantly improved by the programme. Furthermore, the strain on health services was eased. Initiatives supporting nurses in health care services contributed to a 60 per cent reduction in child mortality rates, compared with similar regions.

"Support among local chiefs and village elders is crucial when launching new initiatives," professor Knudsen points out.

"When people have experienced that the science-based medical model works, they tend to accept it."

A big strain on society

Although Ghana is not among the African nations most severely affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the problems there are still serious. Around three per cent of the population is infected, which is relatively low compared to other countries sub-Saharan countries, Knudsen explains.

However, people in Africa are more likely to die from the disease, which again worsens its negative effect. AIDS is rarely contracted by children and the elderly, rather by men and women between 24 and 40 years of age. As a result, there are villages where children are brought up by the old, and the local economy has stagnated.

HIV/AIDS also implies additional strains on health workers. Rather than putting up with difficult working conditions in Africa, well-qualified physicians go to London and New York, where they are likely to get better jobs and higher pay. Furthermore, modern medical aid is expensive. There are ongoing discussions in Ghana about how patients should be treated, and how to cover the costs.

Examples to be followed

There is no consensus among international scientists and health organisations on how HIV/AIDS in Africa should best be combated, professor Knudsen observes. Still, together with his co-author Phyllis Antwi, who is an experienced health administrator and teacher at the School of Public Health, he can see that successful efforts are being made.

Ms Antwi holds up Navrongo and Upper East Region as evidence of the success of long-term, goal-oriented efforts.

"These examples can teach us how to develop better health education," says Knudsen.

In his opinion, health education in Africa has often been characterized by a top-down, Western approach. A number of campaigns have demonstrated international organisations' limited understanding of the African mindset, he asserts.

As an example of a better approach, he refers to local dance groups, like those seen in Ghana. According to Knudsen, they have proven themselves to be very effective, especially in addressing young people.

"Being a country with high illiteracy rates, Ghana has a strong oral tradition. Combining this with traditional dancing, these groups are successfully promoting health education in rural areas," Knudsen says.

"If one understands people's mindset, one is more likely to connect with them," he concludes.

Hollund, Janet Molde. Astri Sivertsen trans. 2010. "Modern medicine conquers witchcraft". EurekAlert. Posted: March 22, 2010. Available online:

Text: Janet Molde Hollund
Translation: Astri Sivertsen

Monday, March 29, 2010

Talk to your babies

Words influence infants' cognition from first months of life.

Northwestern University researchers have found that even before infants begin to speak, words play an important role in their cognition. For 3-month-old infants, words influence performance in a cognitive task in a way that goes beyond the influence of other kinds of sounds, including musical tones.

The research by Alissa Ferry, Susan Hespos and Sandra Waxman in the psychology department in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, will appear in the March/April edition of the journal Child Development. In the study, infants who heard words provided evidence of categorization, while infants who heard tone sequences did not.

Three-month-old infants were shown a series of pictures of fish that were paired with words or beeps. Infants in the word group were told, for example, "Look at the toma!" –-- a made-up word for fish, as they viewed each picture. Other infants heard a series of beeps carefully matched to the labeling phrases for tone and duration. Then infants were shown a picture of a new fish and a dinosaur side-by-side as the researchers measured how long they looked at each picture. If the infants formed the category, they would look longer at one picture than the other.

The results, say the authors, were striking. The researchers found that although infants who heard in the word and tone groups saw exactly the same pictures for exactly the same amount of time, those who heard words formed the category fish; those who heard tones did not.

"For infants as young as three months of age, words exert a special influence that supports the ability to form a category," said Hespos, associate professor of psychology and one of the authors of the study. These findings offer the earliest evidence to date for a link between words and object categories."

Participants included 46 healthy, full-term infants, from 2 to 4 months of age. Half of the infants within each age bracket were randomly assigned to the word group. All infants in the language group were from families where English was the predominant language spoken in the home. The remaining infants were in the tone group.

"We suspect that human speech, and perhaps especially infant-directed speech, engenders in young infants a kind of attention to the surrounding objects that promotes categorization," said Waxman, a co-author and professor of psychology. "We proposed that over time, this general attentional effect would become more refined, as infants begin to cull individual words from fluent speech, to distinguish among individual words and kinds of words, and to map those words to meaning."


2010. "Talk to your babies". EurekAlert. Posted: March 25, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Fossil finger points to new human species

In the summer of 2008, Russian researchers dug up a sliver of human finger bone from an isolated Siberian cave. The team stored it away for later testing, assuming that the nondescript fragment came from one of the Neanderthals who left a welter of tools in the cave between 30,000 and 48,000 years ago. Nothing about the bone shard seemed extraordinary.

Its genetic material told another story. When German researchers extracted and sequenced DNA from the fossil, they found that it did not match that of Neanderthals — or of modern humans, which were also living nearby at the time. The genetic data, published online in Nature1, reveal that the bone may belong to a previously unrecognized, extinct human species that migrated out of Africa long before our known relatives.

"This really surpassed our hopes," says Svante Pääbo, senior author on the international study and director of evolutionary genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. "I almost could not believe it. It sounded too fantastic to be true."

Researchers not involved in the work applauded the findings but cautioned against drawing too many conclusions from a single study. "With the data in hand, you cannot claim the discovery of a new species," says Eske Willerslev, an evolutionary biologist and director of the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen.

If further work does support the initial conclusions, the discovery would mark the first time that an extinct human relative had been identified by DNA analysis. It would also suggest that ice-age humans were more diverse than had been thought. Since the late nineteenth century, researchers have known that two species of Homo — Neanderthals and modern humans — coexisted during the later part of the last ice age. In 2003, a third species, Homo floresiensis, was discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia, but there has been no sign of this tiny 'hobbit' elsewhere. The relative identified in Siberia, however, raises the possibility that several Homo species ranged across Europe and Asia, overlapping with the direct ancestors of modern people.

The Siberian site in the Altai Mountains, called Denisova Cave, was already known as a rich source of Mousterian and Levallois artefacts, two styles of tool attributed to Neanderthals. For more than a decade, Russian scientists from the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology in Novosibirsk have been searching for the toolmakers' bones. They discovered several bone specimens, handling each potentially important new find with gloves to prevent contamination with modern human DNA. The bones' own DNA could then be extracted and analysed.

When the finger bone was discovered, "we didn't pay special attention to it", says archaeologist Michael Shunkov of the Novosibirsk institute. But Pääbo had established a relationship with the Russian team years before to gather material for genetic testing from ice-age humans. After obtaining the bone, the German team extracted the bone's genetic material and sequenced its mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) — the most abundant kind of DNA and the best bet for getting an undegraded sequence from ancient tissue.

After re-reading the mtDNA sequences an average of 156 times each to ensure accuracy, the researchers compared them with the mtDNA genomes of 54 modern humans, a 30,000-year-old modern human found in Russia and six Neanderthals. The Denisova Cave DNA fell into a class of its own. Although a Neanderthal mtDNA genome differs from that of Homo sapiens at 202 nucleotide positions on average, the Denisova Cave sample differed at an average of 385 positions.

The differences imply that the Siberian ancestor branched off from the human family tree a million years ago, well before the split between modern humans and Neanderthals. If so, the proposed species must have left Africa in a previously unknown migration, between that of Homo erectus 1.9 million years ago and that of the Neanderthal ancestor Homo heidelbergensis, 300,000 to 500,000 years ago.

Study author Johannes Krause, also at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, says that the researchers are now generating nuclear DNA sequences from the bone with the hope of sequencing its entire genome. If they are successful, it would be the oldest human genome sequenced, eclipsing that of the 4,000-year-old Eskimo from Greenland that Willerslev and his colleagues reported last month2.

A complete genome might also enable the researchers to give the proposed new species a formal name. They had originally planned to do so on the basis of the mtDNA genome. But they opted to wait until more bones are found — or until the DNA gives a clearer picture of its relationship to modern humans and Neanderthals.

Willerslev emphasizes that, on its own, the mtDNA evidence does not verify that the Siberian find represents a new species because mtDNA is inherited only from the mother. It is possible that some modern humans or Neanderthals living in Siberia 40,000 years ago had unusual mtDNA, which may have come from earlier interbreeding among H. erectus, Neanderthals, archaic modern humans or another, unknown species of Homo. Only probes of the nuclear DNA will properly define the position of the Siberian relative in the human family tree.

Anthropologists also want to see more-refined dating of the sediments and a better description of the finger bone itself. "I haven't seen a picture of the bone, and would like to," says Owen Lovejoy, an anthropologist at Kent State University in Ohio. "The stratigraphic age for the bone is 30,000 to 48,000 years old, but the mtDNA age could be as old as H. erectus," says Lovejoy. "That doesn't tell us much about human evolution unless it truly represents a surviving ancient species."

The cave has yielded few clues about the culture of the Siberian hominin, although a fragment of a polished bracelet with a drilled hole was found earlier in the same layer that yielded the bone3.

Pääbo suspects that other human ancestors — and new mysteries — may emerge as geneticists grind up more ancient bones for sequencing. "It is fascinating that molecular studies make a contribution in palaeontology where there is little or no morphology preserved," he says. "It is clear we stand just in the beginning of many fascinating developments."


Dalton, Rex. 2010. "Fossil finger points to new human species". NatureNews. Posted: March 24, 2010. Available online:

Article References:

1. Krause, J. et al. Nature doi:10.1038/nature08976 (2010).
2. Rasmussen, M. et al. Nature 463, 757-762 (2010). | Article | PubMed | ChemPort |
3. Derevianko, A., Shunkov, M. & Volkov, P. Archaeol. Ethnol. Anthropol. Eurasia 34, 13-25 (2008).

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The largest Last Supper

Portion distortion throughout the millennium

Were the twelve apostles guilty of overeating at the Last Supper? Two brothers—an eating behavior expert and a religious studies scholar—are publishing findings that might make you think twice at your Easter dinner.

Brian and Craig Wansink teamed up to analyze the amount of food depicted in 52 of the best-known paintings of the Last Supper. After indexing the sizes of the foods by the sizes of the average disciple's head, they found that portion size, plate size, and bread size increased dramatically over the last one thousand years. Overall, the main courses depicted in the paintings grew by 69%, plate size by 66%, and bread size by 23%.

The study's findings will be published in the April 2010 issue of the International Journal of Obesity and released in the online version of the journal on Tuesday, March 23.

"I think people assume that increased serving sizes, or 'portion distortion,' is a recent phenomenon," said Brian Wansink, professor and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. "But this research indicates that it's a general trend for at least the last millennium."

"As the most famously depicted dinner of all time, the Last Supper is ideally suited for review," said Craig Wansink, professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College.

"The method we used created a natural crossroads between our two divergent fields and a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with my brother," he added.

Portion size and spatial relationships are familiar topics in Brian Wansink's work in food and eating behavior. In his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, he explores the hidden cues that determine what, when, and how much we eat.


Wansink, Craig. 2010. "The largest Last Supper". EurekAlert. Posted: March 23, 2010. Available online:

For more information, contact Craig Wansink at 757-412-7467 or the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Additional information and photos can also be found at

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Archaeologists Amend Written History of China's First Emperor

The exploits of China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, are richly documented in 2,000-year-old records of his conquests across eastern China. His reign was indeed noteworthy -- he is responsible for initiating construction of the Great Wall, and the discovery of life-size terracotta soldiers that guard his tomb in central China has generated worldwide attention.

But as the saying goes, history is written by the winners. Ancient texts can contain inaccuracies favorable to a strong ruler's legacy. That's why two Field Museum scientists and their Chinese collaborator have integrated textual information with archaeological research in order to further understand the impact of Shihauangdi's reign.

The scientists are Gary Feinman and Linda Nicholas -- husband and wife anthropologists who, since 1996, have spent four to six weeks each year walking across fields in rural China looking for pottery sherds and other artifacts with colleagues including Fang Hui of the School of History and Culture at Shandong University. They compared ancient written records to archaeological evidence and the result of their work is a more holistic view of China's first emperor and his influence on the eastern province of Shandong.

A report of their research will be published in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences during the week of March 1, 2010.

Shihuangdi first unified China in 221 BC but scholars have few details of his distant conquests or how they changed the path of local histories. Records show that in 219 BC the emperor visited Langya Mountain on the southeastern Shandong coast. Written accounts from that time say the area "delighted" him and he stayed for three months. Afterwards, he ordered 30,000 households (about 150,000 people) to colonize the area with the promise that new immigrants would be free from tax and labor obligations for 12 years. He began construction of a network of roads in this region far distant from his capital in order to facilitate the movement of officials, troops, and commerce. Proximity to resources such as salt and iron made the Langya Mountain area attractive for economic activities.

"His order to colonize the area was not just a whim resulting from his 'delight.' He probably wanted to move people loyal to him into a somewhat hostile region on the edge of the empire. He had a unification strategy in mind -- he was consolidating his empire and laying a foundation for today's modern Chinese nation," explained Feinman.

Little had been written about the coastal area of Shandong, China, prior to Shihuangdi's order to move people there, and it was thought by some historians to have been sparsely populated before the arrival of the colonists. However, the Field Museum scientists and their Chinese colleagues found pottery sherds, stone tools and other traces of past settlements that showed the area's first significant occupation happened between 2600-2400 BC (the Longshan period).

"Shihuangdi didn't just move people in to fill up the area. We now know there were already people living there -- pottery sherds don't lie. The area had its own independent history and development. But historians write about kings and emperors, they seldom write about common people," said Feinman.

The changes brought about by the influx of colonists generated political changes that affected the size of settlements across the region. However, not until the scientists surveyed the area around the modern town of Langya in 2008 did they recognize the immense size of the first emperor's footprint. As they surveyed around Langya, they encountered continuously dense scatters of ancient pottery over an area of 24 square kilometers. The settlement dating to the Shihuangdi reign spreads across the lands of more than 25 modern towns and villages. The scientists' findings support the written accounts that 150,000 people were moved into the area.

"Our research provides a holistic context for this imperialistic episode and the changes that followed in coastal Shandong. By comparing written records with recent archaeological research, we now know that the area was well populated prior to Shihuanghi's order to colonize it and that the emperor's footprint on this coastal zone far from his capital was significant and lasting. The archaeology amplifies the textual records and fills in the blanks with new details about this important period in China's history," said Feinman.

Field Museum. 2010. "Archaeologists Amend Written History of China's First Emperor" Science Daily. Posted: March 8, 2010. Available online:

Gary M. Feinman, Linda M. Nicholas, and Fang Hui. The imprint of China's first emperor on the distant realm of eastern Shandong. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2010; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0914961107

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The life and death of online communities

The more heterogeneous the community of an online chat channel, the more chances the channel has to survive over time. This has been concluded in a new joint study carried out by researchers of the University of Haifa and the New Jersey Institute of Technology. "This study has shown that an essentially social characteristic significantly influences the survival chances of an online community," says Dr. Daphne Raban of the University of Haifa who took part in the study.

The study, headed by Dr. Quentin Jones of the New Jersey Institute of Technology with Dr. Mihai Moldovan of NJIT and Dr. Raban, aimed to examine what factors could best predict the chances of an online community to survive over time. Researchers have previously claimed that there are too many variables influencing the survival or demise of such channels and that there is therefore no way of testing it, and earlier studies have primarily focused on group size and activity.

The current study included an analysis of social characteristics, such as the group's homogeneity and heterogeneity. A group is considered homogeneous when its member turnover is small - namely, when the members who established the group are still the main members after some time. A group is considered heterogeneous when it has turnover and new members are continuously joining it.

A sample 282 chat channels all "born" on the same month was used for survival analysis which explored the relationship between the overall user activity in each channel at its inception and the channel's life expectancy. The researchers carried out the survival analysis over the course of six months after "birth". A chat channel was considered "born" when at least three members had exchanged at least four messages in 20 minutes. It was considered "dead" when it had zero activity for four weeks.

The researchers observed the influences of variables at four points of time: two hours after "birth"; on the channel's first day of activity; over its first week of activity; and over its first two weeks of activity.

Results show that the variable that best predicts the chances of a community to survive is its level of heterogeneity: the greater the member turnover, the higher the chances that the group will sustain itself over time. On the other hand, the number of members and the number of actual message posters do not predict the chances of survival.

According to the current study, another reliable predictor is the number of messages that are posted between members of an online community. This number does not have much significance over the first two hours of the group's existence, but the higher the number of messages between members over the following three time phases, the higher the chances of the community's survival over time. The study also revealed that if the ratio between the number of messages and the number of members in a group remains the same after two weeks of the community's activity, the chances of "death" are higher, while an irregular ratio predicts survival. It should be noted that neither an increasing ratio of messages between members nor a decreasing ratio were found to influence the chances of survival.

"The present study shows that prediction of an online community's survival chances cannot be based on quantitative data relating to the size of the group or even to its growth rate alone. A social predictor, on the other hand, can much better predict its chances," concludes Dr. Raban.

University of Haifa. 2010. "The life and death of online communities" PhysOrg. Posted: March 8, 2010. Available online:

Monday, March 22, 2010

The CSIC presents the Archive of Mourning concerning the terrorist attacks in Madrid

The project, directed by CSIC researcher Cristina Sánchez Carretero was completed through close collaboration with associations for victims and those affected.

On Thursday March 11, the project will end with its transfer to the Spanish Railway Foundation and the digitized catalog will be available for study with prior approval.

The main focus of the investigation explores the social mechanisms that occur in response to collective trauma, although the items have been analyzed from multiple perspectives. This first study, led by CSIC researcher in collaboration with fellow CSIC researcher Carmen Ortiz, reveals the performative nature of the makeshift altars as "an individual form of political participation and social action."

According to Sánchez-Carretero, this performative connotation allows for the description of these altars as a grassroots movement. Anthropologists use this term to define institutional associative movements whose mechanisms differ from the events provoked by power structures. "This is very evident when comparing the memorials for 3/11 or 9/11 with memorials or tributes to unknown soldiers," she added.

For the researchers, this type of social response is one of the more direct forms of democratic process and as a general rule exhibits two objectives: not to forget what happened and a call for action that takes place in the streets thus demanding a particular response from those who govern. "Hence the strong political component in these type of events," added Sánchez-Carretero.

Collectively, these events are a reflection of a society deeply impacted by the attacks. "A clear example is the presence of the media in all of the makeshift altars due to the pervasiveness of today's media coverage. On March 11, candles, posters, cards, flowers... all of the items were designed to be viewed and therefore captured by journalists' cameras," said Ortiz.

A comparative analysis dealing with this type of event can be traced back for centuries, although it is difficult to establish an exact chronology. The public reaction following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, could be one of the first documented cases.

The Differences between March 11 and September 11 The local nature of the response, according to the authors, is one of the most distinguishing elements of the reaction to the attacks. This attribute is particularly visible in a comparative study with the reaction to the related case of September 11.

Sánchez Carretero explains: "Studies on the response in New York, show a strong presence of patriotic messages and unity based around the fear of terrorism and the common enemy. In contrast, in Madrid, there were mainly positive messages, asking for peace and the building of a better world. The idea of mourning was built around the city and mainly the trains.

Not surprisingly, one of the most repeated slogan was, we were all on that train.

The literature of the messages and religious iconography CSIC researcher Paloma Díaz Mas has worked on the literary character of the texts found on the altars. Her analysis catalogues the diversity of the genres and types of support which were often intertwined: original poems, some very elaborate pieces by popular authors or rock lyrics mixed with slogans, Bible quotations or excerpts from speeches by Martin Luther King. Many letters to the victims and chronicles about their lived experiences were also written as a type of catharsis.

The texts as a whole make up a collective moral agreement which, as indicated by her peers' findings, proscribes the minority of negative elements. The most repeated words were: remember, peace and expressions that are synthesized in the slogan we were all on that train. Not only have the texts been analyzed but CSIC researcher Antonio Cea has also studied the remarkable presence of objects with religious iconography on the altars, some Catholic, Buddhist and others Muslim.

An emergency anthropological project As Sánchez-Carretero explains, the project started at the same time as the public response began in the days following the attacks: "Like other professional organizations, we felt like we had to do something. The spontaneous reaction in Madrid led us to question what is behind the creation of public space as a place for ceremonial mourning.

Initially, researchers used their own photographs that were taken where the altars were located. Later on, the group received new snapshots from collaborating volunteer photographers. "However, the project took a completely different direction after the CSIC and RENFE (Spanish National Railway Network) signed a temporary release agreement for the objects and documents left at the train stations," she explains.

The team then took the archive and catalogued it in a variety of formats and the result is a unique collection of 2,097 photographs, 550 articles, 5,991 pieces of paper and more than 58,000 digital items, including e-mails collected from designated machines in the stations.

The coordinator of this part of the project, CSIC researcher Pilar Martinez, stated that the main difficulty was to personalize and clean the collection of objects. "Each of the items required special care: the banners and paper had sometimes wax candles burning near them and some were stuck with tape. It was necessary to individually work on each piece because the objects' preservation was compromised".


Spanish National Research Council, The. 2010. "The CSIC presents the Archive of Mourning concerning the terrorist attacks in Madrid." EurekAlert. Posted: March 9, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A Host of Mummies, a Forest of Secrets

In the middle of a terrifying desert north of Tibet, Chinese archaeologists have excavated an extraordinary cemetery. Its inhabitants died almost 4,000 years ago, yet their bodies have been well preserved by the dry air.

The cemetery lies in what is now China’s northwest autonomous region of Xinjiang, yet the people have European features, with brown hair and long noses. Their remains, though lying in one of the world’s largest deserts, are buried in upside-down boats. And where tombstones might stand, declaring pious hope for some god’s mercy in the afterlife, their cemetery sports instead a vigorous forest of phallic symbols, signaling an intense interest in the pleasures or utility of procreation.

The long-vanished people have no name, because their origin and identity are still unknown. But many clues are now emerging about their ancestry, their way of life and even the language they spoke.

Their graveyard, known as Small River Cemetery No. 5, lies near a dried-up riverbed in the Tarim Basin, a region encircled by forbidding mountain ranges. Most of the basin is occupied by the Taklimakan Desert, a wilderness so inhospitable that later travelers along the Silk Road would edge along its northern or southern borders.

In modern times the region has been occupied by Turkish-speaking Uighurs, joined in the last 50 years by Han settlers from China. Ethnic tensions have recently arisen between the two groups, with riots in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. A large number of ancient mummies, really desiccated corpses, have emerged from the sands, only to become pawns between the Uighurs and the Han.

The 200 or so mummies have a distinctively Western appearance, and the Uighurs, even though they did not arrive in the region until the 10th century, have cited them to claim that the autonomous region was always theirs. Some of the mummies, including a well-preserved woman known as the Beauty of Loulan, were analyzed by Li Jin, a well-known geneticist at Fudan University, who said in 2007 that their DNA contained markers indicating an East Asian and even South Asian origin.

The mummies in the Small River Cemetery are, so far, the oldest discovered in the Tarim Basin. Carbon tests done at Beijing University show that the oldest part dates to 3,980 years ago. A team of Chinese geneticists has analyzed the mummies’ DNA.

Despite the political tensions over the mummies’ origin, the Chinese said in a report published last month in the journal BMC Biology that the people were of mixed ancestry, having both European and some Siberian genetic markers, and probably came from outside China. The team was led by Hui Zhou of Jilin University in Changchun, with Dr. Jin as a co-author.

All the men who were analyzed had a Y chromosome that is now mostly found in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Siberia, but rarely in China. The mitochondrial DNA, which passes down the female line, consisted of a lineage from Siberia and two that are common in Europe. Since both the Y chromosome and the mitochondrial DNA lineages are ancient, Dr. Zhou and his team conclude the European and Siberian populations probably intermarried before entering the Tarim Basin some 4,000 years ago.

The Small River Cemetery was rediscovered in 1934 by the Swedish archaeologist Folke Bergman and then forgotten for 66 years until relocated through GPS navigation by a Chinese expedition. Archaeologists began excavating it from 2003 to 2005. Their reports have been translated and summarized by Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert in the prehistory of the Tarim Basin.

As the Chinese archaeologists dug through the five layers of burials, Dr. Mair recounted, they came across almost 200 poles, each 13 feet tall. Many had flat blades, painted black and red, like the oars from some great galley that had foundered beneath the waves of sand.

At the foot of each pole there were indeed boats, laid upside down and covered with cowhide. The bodies inside the boats were still wearing the clothes they had been buried in. They had felt caps with feathers tucked in the brim, uncannily resembling Tyrolean mountain hats. They wore large woolen capes with tassels and leather boots. A Bronze Age salesclerk from Victoria’s Secret seems to have supplied the clothes beneath — barely adequate woolen loin cloths for the men, and skirts made of string strands for the women.

Within each boat coffin were grave goods, including beautifully woven grass baskets, skillfully carved masks and bundles of ephedra, an herb that may have been used in rituals or as a medicine.

In the women’s coffins, the Chinese archaeologists encountered one or more life-size wooden phalluses laid on the body or by its side. Looking again at the shaping of the 13-foot poles that rise from the prow of each woman’s boat, the archaeologists concluded that the poles were in fact gigantic phallic symbols.

The men’s boats, on the other hand, all lay beneath the poles with bladelike tops. These were not the oars they had seemed at first sight, the Chinese archaeologists concluded, but rather symbolic vulvas that matched the opposite sex symbols above the women’s boats. “The whole of the cemetery was blanketed with blatant sexual symbolism,” Dr. Mair wrote. In his view, the “obsession with procreation” reflected the importance the community attached to fertility.

Arthur Wolf, an anthropologist at Stanford University and an expert on fertility in East Asia, said that the poles perhaps mark social status, a common theme of tombs and grave goods. “It seems that what most people want to take with them is their status, if it is anything to brag about,” he said.

Dr. Mair said the Chinese archaeologists’ interpretation of the poles as phallic symbols was “a believable analysis.” The buried people’s evident veneration of procreation could mean they were interested in both the pleasure of sex and its utility, given that it is difficult to separate the two. But they seem to have had particular respect for fertility, Dr. Mair said, because several women were buried in double-layered coffins with special grave goods.

Living in harsh surroundings, “infant mortality must have been high, so the need for procreation, particularly in light of their isolated situation, would have been great,” Dr. Mair said. Another possible risk to fertility could have arisen if the population had become in-bred. “Those women who were able to produce and rear children to adulthood would have been particularly revered,” Dr. Mair said.

Several items in the Small River Cemetery burials resemble artifacts or customs familiar in Europe, Dr. Mair noted. Boat burials were common among the Vikings. String skirts and phallic symbols have been found in Bronze Age burials of Northern Europe.

There are no known settlements near the cemetery, so the people probably lived elsewhere and reached the cemetery by boat. No woodworking tools have been found at the site, supporting the idea that the poles were carved off site.

The Tarim Basin was already quite dry when the Small River people entered it 4,000 years ago. They probably lived at the edge of survival until the lakes and rivers on which they depended finally dried up around A.D. 400. Burials with felt hats and woven baskets were common in the region until some 2,000 years ago.

The language spoken by the people of the Small River Cemetery is unknown, but Dr. Mair believes it could have been Tokharian, an ancient member of the Indo-European family of languages. Manuscripts written in Tokharian have been discovered in the Tarim Basin, where the language was spoken from about A.D. 500 to 900. Despite its presence in the east, Tokharian seems more closely related to the “centum” languages of Europe than to the “satem” languages of India and Iran. The division is based on the words for hundred in Latin (centum) and in Sanskrit (satam).

The Small River Cemetery people lived more than 2,000 years before the earliest evidence for Tokharian, but there is “a clear continuity of culture,” Dr. Mair said, in the form of people being buried with felt hats, a tradition that continued until the first few centuries A.D.

An exhibition of the Tarim Basin mummies opens March 27 at the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, Calif. — the first time that the mummies will be seen outside Asia.


Wade, Nicholas. 2010. "A Host of Mummies, a Forest of Secrets". New York Times. Posted: March 15, 2010. Available online:

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Should Social Scientists Help the U.S. Fight Terror?

This subject is huge, particularly in the Anthropology community. I've addressed it before, but it needs to be addressed again. The first article in 2008 discussed ethics of the practice according to the American Anthropologist Association. The second article, published in 2009 talks more about the use of Anthropologists in Human Terrain Systems.

Among the military brass giving testimony about global terrorism at a Senate hearing yesterday was a single academic: Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Why invite an academic to speak to the Senate Armed Services Emerging Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee?

Because while the U.S. government has spent hundreds of millions on terrorism research, including the creation of terrorism research institutions at the University of Maryland and elsewhere, the U.S. strategy against terrorism “is focused on technology, not understanding who violent extremists are and where the are coming from,” Atran told ScienceInsider by e-mail. In fact, he said, the only reason they invited him to the hearing is “because they were spooked by the [attempted] Christmas bombing and aware that their over-reliance on widgets isn't doing the job. ... They know I'm one of the only people around who works in the field with jihadis and wannabes and want to find out what makes them tick.”

Atran leveled criticism at the U.S. military’s Human Terrain System, a program that has embedded social scientists in military units in Iraq and Afghanistan. “It is the infantry units themselves that should be trained before they go in theater to be culturally sensitive,” Atran told the senators. “Such efforts as these, small as they are, are potentially quite counterproductive. ... The military and cultural reality of the terrain may favor having embedded social scientists be uniformed and armed, ... but the possibility that social scientists themselves would have to fire their weapons and perhaps kill local people ... is guaranteed to engender academia's deep hostility.”

While giving his testimony, Atran called on the U.S. government to engage social scientists more directly in open, peer-reviewed studies of terrorism, rather than relying on clandestine intelligence and antiterrorism technology. “Involve social scientists but not in [the military] theater,” Atran said.

But persuading more anthropologists to collaborate with the U.S. military “is not going to be easy, and it’s not going to happen today,” says Karaleah Reichart, an anthropologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. She notes that the ethics code of the American Anthropological Association prohibits researchers from doing clandestine work for any government as well as any research that leads to the harm of their subjects. “How can the military convince us of that?”

Reichart says that the distrust between academic anthropologists and the U.S. military is a recent phenomenon. “Historically, anthropologists have worked closely with the government, and many were in the armed services,” she says, for example, studying the culture and ideology of the Germans and Japanese during World War II. “It’s the ‘know your enemy’ strategy.” But sentiment among academics about the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has turned sour, she says, especially in the wake of scandals involving social scientists' role in government-sanctioned torture.


Bohannon, John. 2010. "Should Social Scientists Help the U.S. Fight Terror?" Science Insider. Posted: March 11, 2010. Available online:

Friday, March 19, 2010

Accent Speaks Louder Than Race for Finding Friends

Children prefer to make friends with those whose speech patterns -- rather than skin color -- mimic their own.

Children choose friends based more on whether they speak alike rather than look alike, according to a Harvard University study.

Social psychologists have long recognized that both kids and adults form and organize relationship networks largely based on the race, gender and age of others.

While previous research has shown that white children in the United States tend to pick same-race friends, new findings published in the journal Social Cognition suggest that race takes a back seat when foreign or non-native accents come into play.

"I find that (verbal accent) is something we attend to incredibly early in development," said Katherine Kinzler, lead researcher in the Harvard study and developmental psychologist at the University of Chicago. "Other research shows even newborn babies like the sound of the language they heard in the womb."

Offered the choice between making friends with either a white or black child who spoke French, English with a French accent or native English, the group of white, 5-year-old study participants overwhelmingly opted for the native speakers, regardless of their race.

Kinzler's related research has found that 5-month-old infants also exhibit similar inclinations toward a native accent, which emphasizes its powerful role as a critical marker of social identity and group membership.

"Given how difficult languages are to learn into adulthood, how someone speaks is a really good marker of where someone's from, who they are and where they've been," Kinzler told Discovery News.

From an evolutionary standpoint, Kinlzer thinks this seemingly inborn accent preference allowed early humans to distinguish between social groups before long-distance migration spurred interracial encounters.

But in today's society, it can often have negative impacts on the non-native speaker.

"Fluent speakers who have non-native accents often experience discrimination in housing, the courts, schools and employment," said Agata Gluszek, a doctoral student at Yale University who has studied accent-based stigmatization.

While non-native accents can make speech harder to understand, native listeners also tend to perceive communication problems even when hearing accented language spoken fluently.

Since people immediately associate an accent with outsider status, Gluszek says foreigners who speak English very well still expect to be stigmatized and misunderstood by American listeners.

Kinzler's study, however, controlled for language comprehension issues, and she's now looking more deeply into which specific social cues children inherently detect in accents and how that instinct evolves over time.

"Young children might have a theory of language that seems to be somewhat different from adults, in that they think you get your native language at birth and that it stays stable over your lifespan," Kinzler said. "We're testing now whether they might see language as being biological and inherited, rather than environmental."

Conger, Cristen. 2010. "Accent Speaks Louder Than Race for Finding Friends". Discovery News. Posted: March 16, 2010. Available online:

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Jennifer's Language Page

I love the concept of her site.

At this site you can learn how to say several words and phrases in hundreds of different languages. My goal is to include every language, so that people will be able to say at least a few words to anyone they meet, anywhere in the world.

She explains more on her frequently asked questions page.

Sources for the translations

Many translations have come from my own research in libraries and online, from dictionaries, phrase books, travel books and Internet language resources. Other translations have come from people who have seen these pages and sent me comments, suggestions, additions, and corrections by e-mail from all over the world, as well as people I have met whom I have asked for translations. Many people have also have verified (or corrected) translations I have found from other sources.

Why do some languages have so many ways to say the same thing?

Most languages have several ways to say the phrases listed here. The same is true for English: we sometimes say "hi" (in the United States), "good morning" (in the morning), "g'day" (in Australia), etc., depending on the time of day, the place, and how well we know the person we are greeting. Many languages have greetings that should only be used during certain parts of the day, like English; others have words that are only used when speaking to children, to relatives, to women, or to elders. Words that should only be used in certain situations are indicated with an explanation in square brackets.

Additionally, many languages don't have a direct translation for the words presented at this site. For example, some of the translations for words listed on my "goodbye" page mean "go in peace", "until I see you", and "I will return". Although they each have different meanings, these words are listed as translations for "goodbye" because all these words are used when people are leaving.

She invites contributions to her site, although it doesn't appear to have been updated since 2008. I have enjoyed perusing her lists and invite you to do the same. If you can contribute any new terms, or have corrections for others, please contact her and let her know.

Jennifer's Language Page

Gadda ge [Afar], I ni ce [Bambara], Uan tabuan [Cham], Tak [Danish], Abui ngan [Ewondo], Ogiwadong [Ga], Toda [Hebrew], Barkal [Ingush], Kesuwun [Javanese], Da blu [Karen], Jule [Ladakhi], Chjóonte [Mam]... THANK YOU!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Alhambra close to reading all its writing on the wall

One of Spain's most enduring historical mysteries is close to being solved as experts decipher and translate more than 10,000 Arabic inscriptions adorning the walls of the Alhambra palace in Granada.

The intricate Arabic inscriptions carved into the ceilings, columns and walls inside the imposing hill-top fortress have long fascinated visitors. They contain everything from snatches of poetry and verses from the Qur'an to clever aphorisms, pious wishes and boastful slogans.

There are so many of them, however, that nobody has ever managed to study each and every one. Now a team of researchers armed with 3D laser scanners and digital imaging software is slowly working its way around the complex recording, transcribing and translating every inscription.

"There is probably no other place in the world where studying walls, columns and fountains is so similar to turning the pages of a book," said Juan Castilla, of Spain's Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), who heads the team.

"The Arabic script was used not just to show obedience to Allah but also as a decorative element, effectively replacing the plastic arts," he explained.

Castilla's team, which has been working for the past seven years and is more than a third of the way through the project, aims to finish its work by 2011.

The elegant Arabic script contains a large amount of sloganeering, with praise for the Nasrid dynasty who ruled Granada for two and half centuries predominant. The Nasrid motto - "There is no victor but Allah" - is the most common inscription found so far.

"Many of the verses we have found praise the monarch responsible for the building work or point out the qualities of the architectural feature they are attached to," said Castilla.

The Nasrids ruled what became the last Moorish kingdom of Spain, finally handing over Granada and the Alhambra to a Christian army in 1492. The loss of Granada marked the end of seven centuries of Muslim rule in southern Spain. Researchers said that, contrary to what was previously believed, less than 10% of what they found were Qur'anic verses or poetry, although this would still account for up to 1,000 inscriptions across the sprawling complex.

Poet-designers were employed in a special secretariat of writing. There they composed the verses or chose the slogans and phrases from the Qur'an to be used on the buildings.

A spokesman for CSIC said: "These artists designed the spaces in which their words were to be inscribed, sometimes writing especially for the building in question and other times choosing from previously written compositions.

The Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, who captured Granada, were so impressed by the Alhambra that they immediately started renovation work and started their own catalogue of inscriptions, which was never finished.

"It seems incredible that there is no exhaustive catalogue [of the inscriptions] in the 21st century," said Castilla.

Pithy aphorisms offered snatches of wisdom and advice to visitors. "Be sparing with words and you will go in peace," reads one.

A DVD and book have been published containing the findings in the Alhambra's 14th-century Comares Palace.

Tremlett, Giles. 2009. "Alhambra close to reading all its writing on the wall". The Guardian. Posted: April 7, 2009. Available online:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Pottery Leads to Discovery of Peace-Seeking Women in American Southwest

From the time of the Crusades to the modern day, war refugees have struggled to integrate into their new communities. They are often economically impoverished and socially isolated, which results in increased conflict, systematic violence and warfare, within and between communities as the new immigrants interact with and compete with the previously established inhabitants. Now, University of Missouri researcher Todd VanPool believes pottery found throughout the North American Southwest comes from a religion of peace-seeking women in the violent, 13th-century American Southwest. These women sought to find a way to integrate newly immigrating refugees and prevent the spread of warfare that decimated communities to the north.

First discovered in 1930's Arizona, Salado pottery created a debate among archaeologists. According to VanPool, the Salado tradition is a grassroots movement against violence. The mystery of the pottery's origin and significance was known as "the Salado problem." This southwestern pottery was found among three major cultural areas of the ancient southwest: the ancestral Puebloan in northern Arizona and New Mexico, the Mogollon of southern New Mexico and the Hohokam of central and southern Arizona, all with different religious traditions. Even though the pottery was found in three different cultural areas, the pottery communicated the same, specific set of religious messages. It was buried with both the elite and non-elite and painted with complex, geometric motifs and animals, such as horned serpents. Instead of celebrating local elites, the symbols in Salado pottery emphasized fertility and cooperation.

"In my view, the fact that the new religion is reflected solely in pottery, a craft not usually practiced by men, suggests that it was a movement that helped bring women together and decreased competition among females," said VanPool, who is an assistant professor of anthropology in the MU College of Arts and Science. "Women across the region may have been ethnically diverse, but their participation in the same religious system would have helped decrease conflict and provided a means of connecting different ethnic groups."

Salado pottery dates from the 13th to 15th centuries in which there was major political and cultural conflict in the American Southwest. Brutal executions and possible cannibalism forced thousands of people to abandon their native regions and move to areas of Arizona and New Mexico. Another source of conflict appeared after the female refugees and their children arrived in their new homelands.

"Conflict was defused through the direct action of women who sought to decrease the tensions that threatened to destroy their communities," VanPool said. "The rise of the Salado tradition allowed threatened communities to stabilize over much of modern-day Arizona and new Mexico, altering the course of Southwestern prehistory. Given that the Salado system lasted from 1275 to around 1450, it was most certainly successful."

VanPool's research has been published in Archaeology magazine. A more extended version has been published as a chapter in Innovations in Cultural Systems: Contributions from Evolutionary Anthropology, published by MIT Press (2010).

University of Missouri-Columbia. "Pottery Leads to Discovery of Peace-Seeking Women in American Southwest." ScienceDaily. Posted: 10 March 2010. Available online:­ /releases/2010/03/100310101726.htm.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Click here to find out more! "Vampire of Venice" Unmasked: Plague Victim & Witch?

In September I posted an article about a suspected Vampire found in buried in Italy. The following is a follow-up on that article. In late February, National Geographic aired a documentary about Vampire Forensics (the documentary title) on its channel. Look for reshowings of the show.

A female "vampire" unearthed in a mass grave near Venice, Italy, may have been accused of wearing another evil hat: a witch's.

The 16th-century woman was discovered among medieval plague victims in 2006. Her jaw had been forced open by a brick—an exorcism technique used on suspected vampires in Europe at the time.

The discovery marked the first time archaeological remains had been interpreted as those of an alleged vampire, project leader Matteo Borrini, a forensic archaeologist at the University of Florence in Italy, said when the skull was first revealed in March 2009.

New investigations have now shed light on who this "vampire" was, why people may have suspected her of dabbling in the dark arts, and even what she looked like.

"There is a piece of history to rewrite, to see this individual again after 500 years and also try to understand why the myth of vampire started," Borrini says in a new National Geographic Channel documentary. (The National Geographic Channel is part-owned by the National Geographic Society, which owns National Geographic News.)

Vampire Myth Born of "Blood"

Borrini found the vampire skull while digging up mass graves on the Venetian island of Lazzaretto Nuovo. (See pictures of plague victims' mass graves on another island near Venice.)

Belief in vampires was rampant in the Middle Ages, mostly because the process of decomposition was not well understood, Borrini says.

For instance, as the human stomach decays, it releases a dark "purge fluid." This bloodlike liquid can flow freely from a corpse's nose and mouth.

Since tombs and mass burials were often reopened during plagues to add new bodies, Italian gravediggers saw these decomposing remains and may have confused purge fluid with traces of vampire victims' blood.

In addition, the fluid sometimes moistened the burial shroud near the corpse's mouth so that the cloth sagged into the jaw. This could create tears in the cloth that made it seem as if the corpse had been chewing on its shroud.

Vampires were thought by some to be the causes of plagues, and the superstition took root that shroud-chewing was the "magical way" that vampires infected people, Borrini said.

Inserting objects—such as bricks and stones—into the mouths of alleged vampires was thought to halt the spread of disease.

Surprisingly Elderly "Vampire"

To flesh out more details about the Venice vampire, Borrini assembled a team of scientists.

Paleonutritionists pulverized some of the woman's remains—discovered along with the skull—to look for certain elements in food that settle in the bones and endure after death.

The team found that the woman had eaten mostly vegetables and grains, suggesting a lower-class diet.

DNA analysis revealed that the woman was European, and a forensic odontologist ascertained the woman's age by examining the skull's long canine teeth with an advanced digital x-ray device.

The results showed that the woman was between 61 and 71 years old when she died. Borrini was "quite shocked" by this finding—most women didn't reach such advanced ages in the 16th century, he says in the documentary.

In medieval Europe, when fear of witches was widespread, many people believed the devil gave witches magical powers, including the ability to cheat death.

That means such a relatively old woman—suspected after death of being a vampire—may have been accused in life of being a witch, the researchers say.

Witches Were Child-Eaters?

But old age alone probably wouldn't spur an accusation of witchcraft, said Jason Coy, an expert in European witchcraft and superstition at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, who was not part of the new study.

Though average life expectancy in 16th-century Europe was low, around 40, that doesn't mean most people died at 40, he said via email. It means infant mortality was high, bringing down the average. If people lived past childhood, they stood a good chance of living into their 60s.

So the Venice vampire was old, but not "freakishly so," Coy said.

Rather, Europe's misogynistic society specifically linked old women with witchcraft, because people "assumed that old women—especially widows—were poor, lonely, weak, and unhappy, and thus could be lured by the devil's promises of wealth, sex, and power into forming a pact with him," Coy said.

At the height of the European witch-hunts, between A.D. 1550 and 1650, more than 100,000 people were tried as witches and 60,000 were executed—the vast majority of them old women.

Germany was the witch-hunt heartland, Coy said. Italy was relatively "mild" in its treatment of witches, although the country was also rife with superstitions and protective charms. (Related: "Halloween Shines Light on Witchcraft Today.")

In many historical references of the time, witches were said to eat children—possibly the origin of the Hansel and Gretel story, he added.

"So you could say that there is a tenuous link between flesh-eating zombies like your 'Venetian vampire' and witches: They were both feared for breaking the ultimate taboo—eating human flesh."

"Vampire of Venice" an Ordinary Woman

For the last step in forensic archaeologist Borrini's work, he called on 3-D imaging experts to produce a digital model of the skull.

He then put markers where muscle attachments would have existed to reconstruct and rebuild the Venice vampire's face. The result was the face of an "ordinary woman," which perhaps brings the accused some "historical justice" centuries after her death, he said.

"It's very strange to [leave] her now," he lamented, "because after this year it's sort of a friendship that's created between me and her."

Dell'Amore, Christine. 2010. ""Vampire of Venice" Unmasked: Plague Victim & Witch?." National Geographic Daily News. Posted: February 26, 2010. Available online:

Saturday, March 13, 2010

China, Kenya to search for ancient shipwrecks

In the "Didjaknow" file; there is so much Chinese porcelain in archaeological digs in eastern Africa that it is used to date the finds.

600-year-old wrecks believed to have been part of a Ming dynasty fleet.

China and Kenya plan to search for ancient Chinese ships wrecked almost 600 years ago off Africa's east coast.

An agreement was signed for a three-year project funded by China's Commerce Ministry to explore waters near the popular tourist towns of Malindi and Lamu, the official Xinhua News Agency reported Friday.

Exploration work will be conducted for up to three months each year, with the first group of Chinese archaeologists due to arrive as early as July, Xinhua said.

The sunken ships are believed to have been part of a massive fleet led by Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He that reached Malindi in 1418. Kenyan lore has long told of shipwrecked Chinese sailors settling in the region and marrying local women.

Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He — whose name is also spelled Cheng Ho — led armadas with scores of junks and thousands of sailors on voyages to promote trade and recognition of the new dynasty, which had taken power in 1368.

Zheng's seven voyages marked a high point in Chinese power. But imperial rulers soon lost interest in the outside world and canceled further exploration more than a half century before Columbus reached the New World.

Zheng's story has been heavily promoted by China's government in recent years as evidence of China's tradition of nonaggression abroad, although historical records show the treasure fleets carried significant firepower and participated in at least three major military actions.
AP. 2010. "China, Kenya to search for ancient shipwrecks." MSNBC. Posted: February 26, 2010. Available online:

Friday, March 12, 2010

Same Brain Spots Handle Sign Language and Speaking

Language is created in the same areas of the brain, regardless of whether a person speaks English or uses American Sign Language to communicate, new research found. The discovery suggests that something about language is universal and doesn't depend on whether people use their voices or their hands to talk.

Two centers in the brain – Broca's area, which is thought to be related to speech production, and Wernicke's area, which is associated with comprehending speech – have long been associated with verbal communication. But now scientists have found the brain areas might be tied to language, no matter whether it's spoken or signed.

Scientists suspected these areas might be particular to speaking, because they are located spatially near areas that are connected to moving the vocal chords, and to the auditory cortex, which is used to hear sounds. In that case, it stood to reason that deaf people who use American Sign Language (ASL) to communicate should use other brain areas to create language, such as parts located near the visual cortex, used for seeing.

But when researchers tested 29 deaf native ASL signers and 64 hearing native English speakers, they found no difference in the brain. They showed both groups pictures of objects, such as a cup or a parrot, and asked the subjects to either sign or speak the word, while a PET (Positron Emission Tomography) scanner measured changes in blood flow in the brain.

In both groups, Broca's and Wernicke's areas were equally active.

"It's the same whether the language is spoken or signed," said Karen Emmorey, a professor of speech language at San Diego State University. Emmorey described the work last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego, Calif. The research was also detailed in a 2007 issue of the journal Neuroimage.

In a more recent study, which has not yet been published in a scientific journal, the scientists tested whether sign language taps into the same parts of the brain as charades. They wanted to figure out whether the brain regards sign language as more similar to spoken language, or more similar to making pantomime gestures to mimic an action.

The scientists showed both deaf people and hearing people pictures of objects, such as a broom or a bottle of syrup, and asked the subjects to "show how you would use this object." The charade gestures for pouring syrup and for sweeping with a broom are different from the signs for syrup and sweep, so the researchers could be sure the deaf participants were pantomiming and not signing.

Then they asked the deaf subjects to sign the verbs associated with particular objects, such as syrup or broom. The researchers found that the signers activated different parts of their brains when pantomiming versus when signing. Even when the sign is basically indistinguishable from the pantomime – when similar hand gestures are used – the brain treats it like language.

"The brain doesn't make a distinction," Emmorey said. "The fact that many signs are iconic doesn't change the neural underpinnings of language."

And the scans showed that the brain areas signers used when pantomiming were similar to the brain areas hearing participants used when pantomiming – both groups activated the superior parietal cortex, which is associated with grasping, rather than brain areas connected to language.

"It suggests the brain is organized for language, not for speech," Emmorey said.
Moskowitz, Clara. 2010. "Same Brain Spots Handle Sign Language and Speaking." Live Science. Posted: February 26, 2010. Available online:

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Modern Man Found to Be Generally Monogamous, Moderately Polygamous

Did women and men contribute equally to the lineage of contemporary populations? Did our ancestors, Homo sapiens, lean more toward polygamy or monogamy? To answer these questions, Dr. Damian Labuda, an investigator at the Sainte-Justine University Hospital Research Center and a professor at the Department of Pediatrics of the Université de Montréal, headed a team that analyzed genomic data from three population samples of African, Asian and European origin. The study's findings are published in the most recent issue of the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Genetic Population History

In a strictly monogamous population, one would expect to have an equal number of breeding females and males and, therefore, a breeding sex ratio of one female to one male. In a population where males tend to have more than one female mate, more females than males contribute to reproduction; for this reason the breeding ratio exceeds one. The authors of this study estimate that the breeding ratio varies between 1.1 and 1.4 according to population: 1.1 in Asia, 1.3 in Europe and 1.4 in Africa.

Modern man or Homo sapiens would, therefore, usually have been monogamous while exhibiting tendencies toward polygamy over the course of evolutionary history. These findings are consistent with studies in evolutionary psychology and anthropology that depict contemporary human populations.

An innovative method of analysis

To estimate the breeding sex ratio based on genomic data, the authors developed a novel method to capitalize on how females carry two X chromosomes, whereas males carry only one. Consequently, during the recombination process, X chromosomes can only exchange their genetic information with females.

An excess of breeding women causes an excess of recombination signals in terms of quantifiable X chromosomes. This new method is more reliable than the previous approaches that quantified the breeding ratio using another method. It may be applied to any species for which data on genomic diversity are available.

"Our results allow better understanding of the genetic population structure and demonstrate once more the importance of population genomics in genetic epidemiology. Being able to analyze the female-male ratio in the history of humans provides new insights into the evolution of our species, which, in turn, leads to better understanding of ourselves through the knowledge of our past," says Dr. Labuda.

This study was supported by Génome Québec, Genome Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

2010. "Modern Man Found to Be Generally Monogamous, Moderately Polygamous". Science Digest. Posted: March 3, 2010. Available online:

Journal Reference:

Labuda et al. "Female to male breeding ratio in modern humans -- an analysis based on historical recombinations." The American Journal of Human Genetics, 2010

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Poll reveals sleep differences among ethnic groups

National Sleep Foundation's Annual Sleep in America poll explores sleep issues among Asians, African-Americans, Hispanics and whites

WASHINGTON, DC, March 8, 2010 – The 2010 Sleep in America poll released today by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) reveals significant differences in the sleep habits and attitudes of Asians, Blacks/African-Americans, Hispanics and Whites. It is the first poll to examine sleep among these four ethnic groups.

NSF's Sleep in America poll found that more than three-fourths of respondents from each ethnic group agree that poor sleep is associated with health problems (76-83%). These new findings echo lessons learned by former President Bill Clinton who recently admitted that he has adopted a new lifestyle regimen to sleep seven or more hours on the advice of his doctors.

The poll also shows that all groups report disturbingly similar experiences missing work or family functions because they were too sleepy (19-24%). Among married people or couples living together, all ethnic groups report being too tired for sex frequently (21- 26% of the time).

"As the leading voice of sleep health, we are committed to better understanding people's sleep needs," says David Cloud, CEO of the National Sleep Foundation. "By exploring ethnic and family sleep practices we have gained new insight into why we sleep the way we do."

Blacks/African-Americans report the busiest bedtime routines.

Blacks/African-Americans are the most likely to report performing activities in the hour before going to bed every night or almost every night, specifically watching TV (75%) and/or praying or doing another religious practice (71%). Whether on weekdays/workdays or non-workdays/weekends, Blacks/African-Americans spend much more time in bed without sleeping than the other ethnic groups (54 minutes on weekdays/workdays and 71 minutes on non-workdays/weekends).

* Blacks/African-Americans and Hispanics (10% each) are ten times more likely to report having sex every night than Asians (1%) and 2.5 times more likely than Whites (4%).

* Most Blacks/African-Americans report praying every night (71%); more than four times the reported frequency of Asians (18%), twice the rate of Whites (32%) and 1.5 times the rate of Hispanics (45%).

* Blacks/African-Americans (17%) and Asians (16%) are more likely than Whites (9%) and Hispanics (13%) to report doing job-related work in the hour before bed, among those employed.

* Blacks/African-Americans report losing sleep every night over personal financial concerns (12%) and employment concerns (10%) at a higher rate than Whites (6% and 7%) or Asians (1% and 4%). Hispanics are almost equally concerned each night about these two issues (11% and 9%, respectively).

"The hour before bed is an important time to relax and wind-down before going to sleep," says Thomas J. Balkin, Ph.D., Chairman of the National Sleep Foundation. "For those who are having problems sleeping, it's a good idea to consider whether your bedtime routines may be too alerting."

Asians report getting the best sleep, report the least amount of sleep problems and infrequent use of sleep aids.

Asians are the most likely ethnic group (84%) to say that they had a good night's sleep at least a few nights or more a week. In addition, Asians are about half as likely (14%) to discuss their sleep issues with a healthcare professional, and are half as likely (10%) to report having been diagnosed with a sleep disorder. Asians are the least likely to report using sleep medication at least a few nights a week (5% versus 13% Whites, 9% Blacks/African-Americans and 8% Hispanics).

* Asians are the least likely (9%) to say that they "rarely" or "never" have a good night's sleep, compared with 20% of Whites, 18% of Blacks/African-Americans and 14% of Hispanics.

* The poll shows that Asians are more than twice as likely to use the Internet every night in comparison to any other group (51% versus 22% Whites, 20% Blacks/African-Americans, 20% Hispanics). They are also the least likely to watch TV an hour before sleep (52% versus 64% Whites, 72% Hispanics and 75% Blacks/African-Americans).

* Asians report the use of herbal and alternative therapies at rates similar to Hispanics (2% each), but less than Whites (4%).

* Asians report the lowest rates of losing sleep due to personal financial concerns at least a few nights a week (9% versus 22% Hispanics, 20% Whites and 19% Blacks/African-Americans).

While Blacks/African-Americans report the least amount of sleep, they also say they need less sleep. Blacks/African-Americans report getting the least amount of sleep on workdays/weekdays (6 hours and 14 minutes). Interestingly, they also say that they need only 7 hours and 5 minutes of sleep each night to perform at their best during the day, which is significantly less sleep than Asians and Hispanics (7 hours and 29 minutes each).

* Blacks/African-Americans report getting an average of 34 minutes less sleep on a work night/weeknight than Asians and 38 minutes less than Whites.

"The finding that Blacks/African-Americans say they need less sleep and get less sleep is instructive for public health professionals," says Jose S. Loredo, MD, MPH, Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego. "Their total sleep time and attitudes regarding sleep may be associated with Blacks/African-Americans' higher rates of sleep apnea, hypertension and diabetes and provide sleep-related insight into how to improve awareness and education programs and, very importantly, how to improve therapy compliance rates."

Hispanics are the most likely to say they are kept awake by financial, employment, personal relationship and/or health-related concerns.

Overall, at least one-third of Hispanics (38%) and Blacks/African-Americans (33%) report that any of these concerns disturb their sleep at least a few nights a week, compared to about one-fourth of Whites (28%) and/or Asians (25%).

* Moreover, about two in ten Hispanics (19%) and Blacks/African-Americans (19%) say their sleep is disturbed every night or almost every night by at least one of these concerns.

* Hispanics (16%) are more likely than Blacks/African-Americans (12%), Asians (9%) and Whites (7%) to say that health-related concerns have disturbed their sleep at least a few nights a week.

"So many people are suffering because of economic uncertainty," says Martica Hall, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. "If you find yourself lying awake worrying, write a note to yourself to work on these issues the next day so you can dismiss those ideas at bed time. Consider using relaxation techniques and focus on calming activities and thoughts. If your problems persist, you may want to seek out a sleep professional."

Whites are the most likely to report sleeping with their pets and/or their significant other/spouse. Among those married or partnered, Whites are much more likely (14%) than the other ethnic groups (2% each) to say they usually sleep with a pet.

* Among those married or partnered, 90% of Whites report that they sleep with their significant other compared to 84% of Blacks/African-Americans, 76% of Hispanics and 67% of Asians.
* Interestingly, among all respondents, Whites are the least likely to say they sleep alone (21% versus 41% Blacks/African-Americans, 37% Asians and 31% Hispanics.)

Among those married or partnered respondents with children, Asians (28%) and Hispanics (22%) are the most likely to report that they sleep in the same room with their children (compared to 15% of Blacks/African-Americans and 8% of Whites).*

"Other studies support the findings that co-sleeping with children is prevalent with Asians," says Sonia Ancoli-Israel, Ph.D., chair of the National Sleep Foundation's Sleep in America Poll Task Force. "If you are having trouble sleeping, and you sleep with your spouse, your child, your pet or all three, remember that may be contributing to sleep disturbances that prevent you from getting a good night's sleep."

*Bed sharing/co-sleeping is a complex and controversial practice. This study did not specifically examine the issue of sleeping with infants, nor does the National Sleep Foundation wish to have these results misconstrued to suggest a position on the practice. Parental counseling about infant sleep environments is strongly suggested.

Sleep disorder diagnosis is uneven among the four ethnic groups.

The 2010 poll found that sleep disorders continue to be very common among the adults surveyed, with specific disorders occurring at different frequency among the four groups.

* Whites report the highest rate of diagnosis for insomnia (10%), and Blacks/African-Americans have the highest rate of diagnosed sleep apnea (14%) among the four groups.

* Among those experiencing sleep problems, Whites are the most likely to report using over-the-counter sleep aids at least a few nights a week (7%). Blacks/African-Americans are almost twice as likely to report taking medications prescribed by a doctor (7%) rather than over-the-counter sleep aids (3%). Asians are the least likely to report using any form of sleep medication (5%).

"If you are experiencing problems sleeping," says Balkin, "Take charge of your own sleep. You should critically examine your bedtime routines and pre-sleep activities and make time to ensure your bedroom is conducive to your sleep comfort. You will spend approximately a third of your life in bed, so it's worth it to take time to make sure your bed and bedtime routine are right for you. If you continue having problems sleeping for more than a few weeks, it's advisable to speak with your healthcare professional."

Ethnic groups seek help for sleep problems differently.

When experiencing a specific sleep problem, Blacks/African-Americans say they are more likely to speak with their doctor (16%) or research online (10%) than to get recommendations from friends or family (4%).

* Asians (15%) are the most likely to say they get advice from family and friends.

* Respondents were also asked if their healthcare professional or doctor had ever asked them about their sleep during a routine visit. At least four in ten Whites (48%), Blacks/African-Americans (42%) and Hispanics (40%) say yes; however, only 28% of Asians had been asked about sleep by their doctor.

"We are making progress with physicians and patients discussing sleep issues in regular office visits," says Cloud. "But we still have a lot of work to do to make sleep a routine part of every physician-patient interaction."

Adds David G. Davila, MD, Medical Director of the Baptist Health Sleep Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, "Sleep is a vital sign for overall health, therefore, discussing sleep problems should be an important part of health check ups for doctors and patients, especially since sleep disorders can affect many other medical conditions."

For the most comprehensive source of information on sleep health, visit the National Sleep Foundation's website, The website also provides a directory of sleep professionals and sleep centers in your community. You can also read the complete Summary of Findings and highlights from this year's Sleep in America poll and polls from prior years.

Healthy Sleep Advice

The National Sleep Foundation suggests the following to improve your sleep:

* Go to sleep and wake at the same time every day, and avoid spending more time in bed than needed.
* Use bright light to help manage your "body clock."Avoid bright light in the evening and expose yourself to sunlight in the morning.
* Use your bedroom only for sleep to strengthen the association between your bed and sleep. It may help to remove work materials, computers and televisions from your bedroom.
* Select a relaxing bedtime ritual, like a warm bath or listening to calming music.
* Create an environment that is conducive to sleep that is quiet, dark and cool with a comfortable mattress and pillows.
* Reduce or eliminate your intake of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.
* Save your worries for the daytime. If concerns come to mind, write them in a "worry book" so you can address those issues the next day.
* If you can't sleep, go into another room and do something relaxing until you feel tired.
* Exercise regularly, but avoid vigorous workouts close to bedtime.

Poll Methodology and Definitions

The National Sleep Foundation began surveying American sleep health and behaviors in 1991. The 2010 Sleep in America annual poll was conducted for the National Sleep Foundation by WB&A Market Research, using a random sample of 1,007 adults between the ages of 25-60 and identifying themselves as White, Black/African-American, Asian or Hispanic. This poll has adopted the group definition used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Census Bureau, and related public health groups; while NSF also acknowledges that this is an imperfect description of race and ethnic groups. No effort was made to verify the accuracy of the respondent's self-identification. Individuals from other ethnic groups were excluded from participating. The Sleep in America Poll Task Force did consider economic factors in analyzing the data. The margin of error is ±3.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
2010. "Poll reveals sleep differences among ethnic groups".EurekAlert. Posted: March 8, 2010. Available online:

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Incredible Human Journey - Out of Africa - 06

This is the final video in the series. I hope you enjoyed the journey.
There is much more to this series the Incredible Human Journey. These include Asia, Europe, Australia, etc. You can follow links from these videos I've posted or do a search under Incredible Human Journey.


Mr. UnScientific. 2009. "The Incredible Human Journey - Out of Africa - 06". You Tube. Posted: September 14, 2009. Available online:

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Incredible Human Journey - Out of Africa - 05


Mr. UnScientific. 2009. "The Incredible Human Journey - Out of Africa - 05". You Tube. Posted: September 14, 2009. Available online:

Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Incredible Human Journey - Out of Africa - 04


Mr. UnScientific. 2009. "The Incredible Human Journey - Out of Africa - 04". You Tube. Posted: September 14, 2009. Available online:

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Incredible Human Journey - Out of Africa - 03


Mr. UnScientific. 2009. "The Incredible Human Journey - Out of Africa - 03". You Tube. Posted: September 14, 2009. Available online:

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Incredible Human Journey - Out of Africa - 02

The journey continues. Part two.


Mr. UnScientific. 2009. "The Incredible Human Journey - Out of Africa - 02". You Tube. Posted: September 13, 2009. Available online:

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Incredible Human Journey - Out of Africa - 01

I found another interesting series on You Tube. Enjoy.

How did we get here? Following a trail of clues from the latest scientific research, Dr Alice Roberts re-traces the greatest ever journey taken by our ancestors. Thousands of years ago one small group of our species, Homo sapiens, crossed out of Africa and into the unknown. Their descendants faced baking deserts, sweat-soaked jungles and frozen wildernesses and risked everything on the vast empty ocean.

Within 60,000 years they colonised the whole world... How did they do it? Why do we, their descendants all look so different? And what did we have that meant we were the only human species to survive?

Using the evidence from genetics, fossils, archaeology and climatology, Dr Alice Roberts uncovers five epic routes our ancestors took across the globe and the obstacles and brutal challenges they encountered along the way. It reveals how our family tree grew and spread out across the world, producing all the variety we see in the human species today - but despite all that diversity, Alice reveals how astonishingly closely related we all are.

Out of Africa.

Alice travels to Africa in search of the birthplace of the first people. They were so few in number and so vulnerable that today they would probably be considered an endangered species. So what allowed them to survive at all? The Bushmen of the Kalahari have some answers - the unique design of the human body made them efficient hunters and the ancient click language of the Bushmen points to an early ability to organise and plan.
Humans survived there, but Africa was to all intents and purposes a sealed continent. So how and by what route did humans make it out of Africa? Astonishing genetic evidence reveals that everyone alive today who is not African descends from just one successful, tiny group which left the continent in a single crossing, an event that may have happened around 70 thousand years ago. But how did they do it? Alice goes searching for clues in the remote Arabian Desert.


Mr. UnScientific. 2009. "The Incredible Human Journey - Out of Africa - 01 HD". You Tube. Posted: September 13, 2009.Available online:

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Language Areas Of Brain Develop Without Hearing; Study of Deaf Yields Surprises

In most human beings, the capacity to understand, speak and read one's native language resides in specific regions of the left side of the brain. But what about deaf people who have grown up speaking sign language?

Researchers have wondered for years whether an infant's ability to hear sounds might play a role in determining which brain regions will assume responsibility for language functions. Are the classic "language areas" of the brain's left temporal, parietal and frontal lobes biologically hard-wired for the job? Or does sensory input from the ears program them for language tasks?

The findings of a study presented here last week at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience clearly show that the ability to hear sounds isn't necessary for the development of the brain's language areas. In a deaf person whose native language is American Sign Language ( ASL) , watching signed sentences activates nerve cells in the same left-sided brain regions that a hearing person uses while engaging in conversation.

But in addition to those left-brain regions, researchers found, to their surprise, that watching ASL also activated areas of the right side of the brain. The scientists speculated that this may occur because someone observing sign language must constantly use visual and spatial skills controlled by the right half of the brain to keep track of the position and direction of gestures. And the researchers found that when reading English, these deaf people used a different part of the brain than hearing people did.

"The processing needed to perceive a sign, with its movements of arms and hands, requires additional resources to those necessary in processing sound or the shapes of a letter," said David Corina, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington and one of the scientists on the study team. Researchers from the University of Oregon, Georgetown University, the National Institutes of Health and London's Institute of Neurology also participated.

The study compared brain activation patterns in three groups: eight hearing people, 16 people born deaf who had learned ASL as their native language (with English acquired later) and 13 hearing people born to deaf parents. The third group were bilingual: They had grown up using both ASL and English from early childhood. ( ASL is a formal, grammatical language that is distinct from both English and other sign languages.)

The deaf subjects were students at Gallaudet College in Washington. Corina said most of the hearing children of deaf parents were people working as sign language interpreters in the Washington area. The other hearing subjects were chosen from a pool of research volunteers.

All of the subjects underwent brain-imaging at the National Institutes of Health through functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). The technique detects differences in blood flow and oxygen supply to various regions of the cerebral cortex, the brain's outer layer. Thus it can show which regions are using the most energy during a mental task.

MRI imaging was performed while the subject watched a video showing a person alternately signing coherent ASL sentences and strings of nonsense signs.

In the hearing subjects who didn't know ASL, there was little activation. But in both the deaf subjects and the hearing children of deaf parents, watching the coherent ASL sentences activated the major language-processing regions of the left hemisphere, as well as portions of the right parietal and temporal lobes.

The researchers also tested the three groups' responses to reading English. MRI scans were performed while a subject read English sentences interspersed with strings of nonsense words.

In both groups of hearing subjects (for whom English was a "native language"), reading the sentences activated the same left-brain areas normally used in language processing. But in the deaf subjects who had acquired English late, "the pattern of activation is remarkably different," said Georgetown University neurologist Daphne Bavelier. "None of the classical [language] structures on the left" were activated. Instead, regions of the right parietal and temporal lobes lit up on the scans as the subjects read the English sentences.

The researchers aren't sure what that means. Corina said one possibility is that the deaf subjects were using their right-brain ASL skills to interpret written English words.

He said the team hopes to do additional studies comparing the subjects' responses to spoken language, as well as exploring further how the brains of bilingual or multilingual people handle different languages. "One wants to look at how much the established language areas [on the left side of the brain] participate in the acquisition of a new language," he said.

Okie, Susan. 1996. "Language Areas Of Brain Develop Without Hearing; Study of Deaf Yields Surprises". Washington Post. Posted: November 26, 1996. Available online: