Monday, May 31, 2010

A stone says more than a thousand runes

It was not necessary to be literate to be able to access rune carvings in the 11th century. At the same time those who could read were able to glean much more information from a rune stone than merely what was written in runes. This is shown in new research from Uppsala University in Sweden.

Rune stones are an important part of the Swedish cultural environment. Many of them are still standing in their original places and still bear witness about the inhabitants of the area from a thousand years ago. They thereby represent a unique source of knowledge about the Viking Age, providing us with glimpses of a period we otherwise would have known very little about. Among other themes, they tell us about family relations, travels, or matters of faith, and all of it in a language that scholars can understand fairly readily.

"The language and factual information of runic inscriptions are fairly well researched, but we know little about how Viking Age people read a rune stone," says Marco Bianchi at the Department of Scandinavian Languages, whose dissertation investigates Viking Age written culture in the provinces of Uppland and Södermanland.

There are a number of inscriptions with runes that do not convey any linguistic meaning. In Uppland they are found both in areas that are rich in rune stones and in those that have very few.

"But the fewer rune stones there were in the vicinity, the poorer writers the carvers of these non-verbal inscriptions were. What was important was thus not to convey a linguistic message, but to create a rune carving that was perceived by the local people as credible," claims Marco Bianchi.

However, rune stones entirely lacking in linguistic content are rather rare. On most rune stones you can read a little narrative in the form of a memorial inscription that often winds back and forth across a large stone surface. At first glance these runic inscriptions seem chaotic, but they are in fact very well structured. Usually they are meant to be read starting in the lower left-hand corner. Another observation Marco Bianchi makes is that many rune stones do not have any given reading order. Different parts of the inscription are in such cases visually separated from each other and can be read in any order the reader wishes.

"You can compare a rune stone text with a newspaper spread or a Web page, where the reader is attracted by headings and pictures," says Marco Bianchi.

The visual design not only structures the linguistic message but complements and nuances it as well.

"On many rune stones the interplay between ornamentation and the runes is striking. To people of the Viking Age, the actual runes were only part of the message of the rune stone," he says.

Bianchi, Marco. 2010. "A stone says more than a thousand runes". EurekAlert. Posted: May 27, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Researchers Fear 'Incalculable' Loss From Reburial Rule

The debate rages on. It is ethically wrong to repatriate skeletons of individuals who are scientifically proven to not related to current Native peoples. There is an ancient culture that resided in the Americas over 10,000 years ago that is being obliterated by political shenanigans.

Leading lights of anthropology have submitted a plea to the Department of the Interior to change a rule concerning how museums and universities are to dispose of "culturally unaffiliated remains"—ancient bones and objects that cannot be linked to a particular tribe or group. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990, remains culturally affiliated with certain tribes must be returned to those tribes, who may then rebury them. But the new rule goes further in requiring unaffiliated remains to be given to organizations whose tribal lands are nearby if they request it, or even to be given to other groups.

In a 17 May letter of protest to Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, researchers say that the rule as written will cause "an incalculable loss to science" by permanently making such remains unavailable, and that the rule is "contrary to both the letter and the spirit of the law." The letter is signed by a who's who of 41 prominent archeaologists and anthropologists, all members of the National Academy of Sciences.

The original NAGPRA statute strove to balance the interests of science and Native Americans, and has spurred cooperation between them, says lead author Bruce Smith of the Smithsonian Institution. NAGPRA requires that museums and other repositories repatriate culturally affiliated remains and draw up a list of unaffiliated remains, but it is silent on what to do with the unaffiliated remains. The new rule requiring their disposal is "very bad news for science," Smith says. He adds that "the potential for overlapping and conflicting requests [for remains] is enormous."

Other groups have also written to protest the rule, with many comments submitted during the 3-year comment period and the most recent this month. But the scientific concerns were not addressed, says Smith, and the rule went into effect last Friday, 14 May. Smith says that the next steps for scientists may be to get Congress to look at the rule "to see if they think, as we do, that these regulations go far beyond what Congress intended and what Interior has a right to do as a regulatory agency." Or, they could go to court.

Culotta, Elizabeth. 2010. "Researchers Fear 'Incalculable' Loss From Reburial Rule". Science Magazine. Posted: May 20, 2010. Available online:

Saturday, May 29, 2010

2,000-Year-Old Shipwreck Creates Deep Sea Mystery

Although the 2,000-year-old shipwreck under the Gran Sasso mountain in central Italy may be a godsend for nuclear physicists, the “Ship of the Thousand Ingots” has been one big mystery for archaeologists.

Was the ship, which carried the largest lead shipment ever found, deliberately sunk on the orders of the captain? Was the vessel knocked over by a wave?

In this audio slide show, Donatella Salvi, director of the National Archaeological Museum in Cagliari, tells Discovery News what her team found when they recovered the ship's cargo.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2010. "2,000-Year-Old Shipwreck Creates Deep Sea Mystery". Discovery News. Posted: May 24, 2010. Available online:


This is an earlier story on the shipwreck.
Ancient Shipwreck to Aid Ghostly Neutrino Search

You wouldn't think a sunken ship from 2000 years ago could hold the key to the success of a neutrino detection experiment, except perhaps in a Hollywood movie, or a NOVA special on Jacques Cousteau. But sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Scientists with the Cryogenic Underground Observatory for Rare Events (CUORE), a neutrino observatory buried under the Gran Sasso mountain in Italy, hit the motherlode when archaeologists discovered a Spanish ship off the coast of Sardinia, filled with lead that dates back two millennia.

Yes, lead. Really, really old lead. That might not seem very exciting to you, but for CUORE scientists, it's a godsend. They use lead (also copper) as a shielding material for their neutrino detection materials. See, neutrinos -- dubbed "ghost particles" because they so rarely interact with everything (billions course through you every second) -- are extremely difficult to detect, in part because their signals can be obscured by things like cosmic rays, and the natural radioactivity in rocks, for example.

CUORE is looking for an even rarer event, known as neutrinoless double-beta decay. Among other things, such an observation would provide a handy means of directly calculating the mass of a neutrino (which is very, very small -- so small that for decades physicists believed neutrinos had no mass).

Alas, there are also trace amounts of radioactivity in the very materials that are supposed to shield the experiments from interference -- the radioactive isotope lead-210, in the case of contemporary lead ingots. But if you have lead that is 2000 years old, that radioactive isotope has pretty much disappeared. Unfortunately, lead that old is quite a rare find. US scientists working on the IGEX experiment lucked out a few years ago when they snagged from 450-year-old lead from a sunken Spanish galleon.

That's why the discovery of this new sunken ship is so exciting to nuclear physicist Ettore Fiorini, who finessed some key financing from the Italian National Institute of Nuclear Physics so that archaeologists could salvage the vessel -- in return for for a bunch of that ancient lead. And there's rather a lot of it, apparently. While most such ships were merely lined with lead, this particular vessel was actually carrying lead as its cargo, so the find "multiplies by many times the quantity of ancient lead available in the world," according to Fiorini.

The CUORE scientists have received a couple of batches of the precious ancient lead so far, which will be cleaned and melted down to make a shield for the experiment. CUORE should be fully operational in two to three years. And if they succeed in observing neutrinoless double-beta decay, and applying that knowledge to determine the "ghost particle's" mass, it will be partly thanks to that very old lead -- and the archaeologists who shared the bounty of their find.

Ouellette, Jennifer. 2010. "Ancient Shipwreck to Aid Ghostly Neutrino Search". Discovery News. Posted: May 10, 2010. Available online:

Friday, May 28, 2010

Revealing China's Ancient Past

An archeologist at Washington University in St. Louis is helping to reveal for the first time a snapshot of rural life in China during the Han Dynasty.

The rural farming village of Sanyangzhuang was flooded by silt-heavy water from the Yellow River around 2,000 year ago.

Working with Chinese colleagues, T.R. Kidder, PhD, professor and chair of anthropology in Arts & Sciences, is working to excavate the site, which offers a exceptionally well-preserved view of daily life in Western China more than 2,000 years ago.

The research was presented at the Society for American Archeology meeting in St. Louis is April and highlighted last month in Science, the journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"It's an amazing find," says Kidder of the site, which was discovered in 2003. "We are literally sitting on a gold mine of archeology that is untapped."

What researchers find fascinating and surprising, says Kidder, is that the town, though located in a remote section of the Han Dynasty kingdom, appears quite well off.

Exploration has revealed tiled roofs, compounds with brick foundations, eight-meter deep wells lined with bricks, toilets, cart and human foot tracks, roads and trees.

There is an abundance of metal tools, including plow shares, as well as grinding stones and coins. Also found have been fossilized impressions of mulberry leaves, which researchers see as a sign of silk cultivation.

"One could make the argument that this is where the Silk Road began," Kidder says.

He thinks the site could be substantially larger than is currently known. The flood of sediment that buried the town also covered an area of more than 1,800 square kilometers.

Excavation has revealed two more buried communities beneath Sanyangzhuang. "This sedimentary archive goes to all the way back to the Pleistocene era," says Kidder, who has experience digging in silt-laden sites near the Mississippi River.

"We have a text written in dirt of environmental change through time that's associated with the flooding of the Yellow River and it's environmental relationships. We have an opportunity to examine an entire landscape dating from the Han and periods before," he says.

Excavated remains of a wall near the site could reveal a walled town, which is still buried in the silt.


Science Daily. 2010. "Revealing China's Ancient Past". Science Daily. Posted: May 25, 2010. Available online:

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Divers Explore Sunken Ruins Of Cleopatra's Palace

Plunging into the waters off Alexandria Tuesday, divers explored the submerged ruins of a palace and temple complex from which Cleopatra ruled, swimming over heaps of limestone blocks hammered into the sea by earthquakes and tsunamis more than 1,600 years ago.

The international team is painstakingly excavating one of the richest underwater archaeological sites in the world and retrieving stunning artifacts from the last dynasty to rule over ancient Egypt before the Roman Empire annexed it in 30 B.C.

Using advanced technology, the team is surveying ancient Alexandria's Royal Quarters, encased deep below the harbor sediment, and confirming the accuracy of descriptions of the city left by Greek geographers and historians more than 2,000 years ago.

Since the early 1990s, the topographical surveys have allowed the team, led by French underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio, to conquer the harbor's extremely poor visibility and excavate below the seabed. They are discovering everything from coins and everyday objects to colossal granite statues of Egypt's rulers and sunken temples dedicated to their gods.

"It's a unique site in the world," said Goddio, who has spent two decades searching for shipwrecks and lost cities below the seas.

The finds from along the Egyptian coast will go on display at Philadelphia's Franklin Institute from June 5 to Jan. 2 in an exhibition titled "Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt." The exhibition will tour several other North American cities.

Many archaeological sites have been destroyed by man, with statues cut or smashed to pieces. Alexandria's Royal Quarters — ports, a cape and islands full of temples, palaces and military outposts — simply slid into the sea after cataclysmic earthquakes in the fourth and eighth centuries. Goddio's team found it in 1996. Many of its treasures are completely intact, wrapped in sediment protecting them from the saltwater.

"It's as it was when it sank," said Ashraf Abdel-Raouf of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, who is part of the team.

Tuesday's dive explored the sprawling palace and temple complex where Cleopatra, the last of Egypt's Greek-speaking Ptolemaic rulers, seduced the Roman general Mark Antony before they committed suicide upon their defeat by Octavian, the future Roman Emperor Augustus.

Dives have taken Goddio and his team to some of the key scenes in the dramatic lives of the couple, including the Timonium, commissioned by Antony after his defeat as a place where he could retreat from the world, though he killed himself before it was completed.

They also found a colossal stone head believed to be of Caesarion, son of Cleopatra and previous lover Julius Caesar, and two sphinxes, one of them probably representing Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XII.

Divers photographed a section of the seabed cleared of sediment with a powerful suction device. Their flashlights glowing in the green murk, the divers photographed ruins from a temple to Isis near Cleopatra's palace on the submerged island of Antirhodos.

Among the massive limestone blocks toppled in the fourth century was a huge quartzite block with an engraving of a pharaoh. An inscription indicates it depicts Seti I, father of Ramses II.

"We've found many pharaonic objects that were brought from Heliopolis, in what is now Cairo," said Abdel-Raouf. "So, the Ptolemaic rulers re-used pharonic objects to construct their buildings."

On the boat's deck, researchers displayed some small recent finds: imported ceramics and local copies, a statuette of a pharaoh, bronze ritual vessels, amulets barely bigger than a fingernail, and small lead vessels tossed by the poor into the water or buried in the ground as devotions to gods.

Alexandria's Eastern Harbor was abandoned after another earthquake, in the eighth century, and was left untouched as an open bay — apart from two 20th century breakwaters — while modern port construction went ahead in the Western Harbor. That has left the ancient Portus Magnus undisturbed below.

"We have this as an open field for archaeology," Goddio said.

For pictures of the find to date visit the site.

Associated Press. 2010. "Divers Explore Sunken Ruins of Cleopatra's Palace". NPR. Posted: Available online:


The Franck Goddio Society

The Franklin Institute

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years

It is now growing season across the Corn Belt of the United States. Seeds that have just been sown will, with the right mixture of sunshine and rain, be knee-high plants by the Fourth of July and tall stalks with ears ripe for picking by late August.

Corn is much more than great summer picnic food, however. Civilization owes much to this plant, and to the early people who first cultivated it.

For most of human history, our ancestors relied entirely on hunting animals and gathering seeds, fruits, nuts, tubers and other plant parts from the wild for food. It was only about 10,000 years ago that humans in many parts of the world began raising livestock and growing food through deliberate planting. These advances provided more reliable sources of food and allowed for larger, more permanent settlements. Native Americans alone domesticated nine of the most important food crops in the world, including corn, more properly called maize (Zea mays), which now provides about 21 percent of human nutrition across the globe.

But despite its abundance and importance, the biological origin of maize has been a long-running mystery. The bright yellow, mouth-watering treat we know so well does not grow in the wild anywhere on the planet, so its ancestry was not at all obvious. Recently, however, the combined detective work of botanists, geneticists and archeologists has been able to identify the wild ancestor of maize, to pinpoint where the plant originated, and to determine when early people were cultivating it and using it in their diets.

The greatest surprise, and the source of much past controversy in corn archeology, was the identification of the ancestor of maize. Many botanists did not see any connection between maize and other living plants. Some concluded that the crop plant arose through the domestication by early agriculturalists of a wild maize that was now extinct, or at least undiscovered.

However, a few scientists working during the first part of the 20th century uncovered evidence that they believed linked maize to what, at first glance, would seem to be a very unlikely parent, a Mexican grass called teosinte. Looking at the skinny ears of teosinte, with just a dozen kernels wrapped inside a stone-hard casing, it is hard to see how they could be the forerunners of corn cobs with their many rows of juicy, naked kernels. Indeed, teosinte was at first classified as a closer relative of rice than of maize.

But George W. Beadle, while a graduate student at Cornell University in the early 1930s, found that maize and teosinte had very similar chromosomes. Moreover, he made fertile hybrids between maize and teosinte that looked like intermediates between the two plants. He even reported that he could get teosinte kernels to pop. Dr. Beadle concluded that the two plants were members of the same species, with maize being the domesticated form of teosinte. Dr. Beadle went on to make other, more fundamental discoveries in genetics for which he shared the Nobel Prize in 1958. He later became chancellor and president of the University of Chicago.

Despite Dr. Beadle’s illustrious reputation, his theory still remained in doubt three decades after he proposed it. The differences between the two plants appeared to many scientists to be too great to have evolved in just a few thousand years of domestication. So, after he formally retired, Dr. Beadle returned to the issue and sought ways to gather more evidence. As a great geneticist, he knew that one way to examine the parentage of two individuals was to cross them and then to cross their offspring and see how often the parental forms appeared. He crossed maize and teosinte, then crossed the hybrids, and grew 50,000 plants. He obtained plants that resembled teosinte and maize at a frequency that indicated that just four or five genes controlled the major differences between the two plants.

Dr. Beadle’s results showed that maize and teosinte were without any doubt remarkably and closely related. But to pinpoint the geographic origins of maize, more definitive forensic techniques were needed. This was DNA typing, exactly the same technology used by the courts to determine paternity.

In order to trace maize’s paternity, botanists led by my colleague John Doebley of the University of Wisconsin rounded up more than 60 samples of teosinte from across its entire geographic range in the Western Hemisphere and compared their DNA profile with all varieties of maize. They discovered that all maize was genetically most similar to a teosinte type from the tropical Central Balsas River Valley of southern Mexico, suggesting that this region was the “cradle” of maize evolution. Furthermore, by calculating the genetic distance between modern maize and Balsas teosinte, they estimated that domestication occurred about 9,000 years ago.

These genetic discoveries inspired recent archeological excavations of the Balsas region that sought evidence of maize use and to better understand the lifestyles of the people who were planting and harvesting it. Researchers led by Anthony Ranere of Temple University and Dolores Piperno of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History excavated caves and rock shelters in the region, searching for tools used by their inhabitants, maize starch grains and other microscopic evidence of maize.

In the Xihuatoxtla shelter, they discovered an array of stone milling tools with maize residue on them. The oldest tools were found in a layer of deposits that were 8,700 years old. This is the earliest physical evidence of maize use obtained to date, and it coincides very nicely with the time frame of maize domestication estimated from DNA analysis.

The most impressive aspect of the maize story is what it tells us about the capabilities of agriculturalists 9,000 years ago. These people were living in small groups and shifting their settlements seasonally. Yet they were able to transform a grass with many inconvenient, unwanted features into a high-yielding, easily harvested food crop. The domestication process must have occurred in many stages over a considerable length of time as many different, independent characteristics of the plant were modified.

The most crucial step was freeing the teosinte kernels from their stony cases. Another step was developing plants where the kernels remained intact on the cobs, unlike the teosinte ears, which shatter into individual kernels. Early cultivators had to notice among their stands of plants variants in which the nutritious kernels were at least partially exposed, or whose ears held together better, or that had more rows of kernels, and they had to selectively breed them. It is estimated that the initial domestication process that produced the basic maize form required at least several hundred to perhaps a few thousand years.

Every August, I thank these pioneer geneticists for their skill and patience.

Carroll, Sean B. 2010. "Tracking the Ancestry of Corn Back 9,000 Years". New York Times. Posted: May 24, 2010. Available online:

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Charting the Development of Human Populations in the North and South of the Mediterranean Region

The Mediterranean is the birthplace of ancient peoples and cultures, but has it acted as a bridge or a barrier in the genetic history of northern and southern populations? Gene flow and population structure on the north and south shores of the Mediterranean form the basis of the work published recently by the Human Population Genetics research group, directed by Pedro Moral of the Department of Animal Biology at the University of Barcelona.

The research, published in two separate articles in BMC Evolutionary Biology and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, covers one of the widest geographical areas and most diverse population samples studied to date in the Mediterranean region and reveals differences in the genetic structure of the populations inhabiting the north and south shores.

"The genetic history of populations will only be fully understood when we have a more complete understanding of the architecture and variation of the human genome. The Mediterranean, in particular, is a highly complex area, and studying the genetic variability of its populations is a major scientific challenge," explains Pedro Moral, director of the project. The first article, published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, reveals new data about the genetic structure of human populations on both Mediterranean shores and gene flow across the Sahara desert. In this study, the group tracked the genetic footprint of a set of polymorphisms located in and around the genomic regions of the coagulation factors FVII and FXII, which are associated with the prediction of risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. The population sample consisted of 687 individuals from countries in the Mediterranean Basin (Spain, France, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) and from non-Mediterranean groups (Ivory Coast and Bolivia).

North and South: reconstructing a shared history

What role has the Mediterranean played in the genetic evolution of human populations? There are still many mysteries to be unravelled, and the north and south shores, originally populated in Palaeolithic times, show different genetic histories. "Every genetic marker tells us a different story about human populations, and the choice of marker is often the subject of scientific debate. From an experimental perspective, the Mediterranean region is a good scenario in which to validate the application of new methodologies in population studies," explains Georgios Athanasiadis, first author of the article. This new study confirms the results of previous research with other genetic markers and suggests a scenario with discrete but significant differences between the genetic structures of northern and southern Mediterranean populations. Sub-Saharan gene flow could account for some of this divergence between the two shores, since it is more intense in North Africa than in southern Europe. Surprisingly, the group also found that the functional mutations considered in the study do not appear to have a clear selective influence on the broader Mediterranean population. According to Pedro Moral, "It would seem that selection is not responsible for the current variation of these markers in the populations of the Mediterranean region."

Reconstructing the shared history of the shores of the Mare Nostrum and the gene flow between populations in the Mediterranean region is also the focus of the second article, published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology. The study, which focuses on a larger sample from a wider geographical area, analyzes the genetic footprint of different populations through the study of genetic markers corresponding to different mutations (Alu, STR and Alu/STR combinations) in a sample of 1,831 individuals from Mediterranean countries (Spain, France, Greece, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria and Egypt) and other countries used as reference populations (Germany and Ivory Coast).

For Emili González-Pérez, first author of the article, "in the Mediterranean area, each episode has left an imprint on the genome that we can read through different types of genetic markers." As reference markers to determine the degree of genetic differentiation, the team used Alu elements -- neutral, stable inserts capable of detecting historical signals in lines of evolution -- and microsatellites or short tandem repeats (STRs), whose greater mutation rates make them indicators of more recent signals in the complex scenario of the Mediterranean region. The combined Alu/STR systems (haplotypes) are an innovative and crucial element in the detection of specific genetic combinations characteristic of Mediterranean human populations that could create new opportunities for population studies in the region.

According to González-Pérez, "the results confirm the genetic differentiation between the two shores but they also suggest that the differential features of the Mediterranean region form part of a population group with a unique shared history. Through the combined use of markers we have been able to date certain gene combinations to between thirty and forty thousand years ago, which matches the period of settlement across the entire Mediterranean region of Palaeolithic populations. This was followed by a series of complex episodes of gene flow including at least one Neolithic wave and multiple interactions in more recent times. All of this confirms that the Mediterranean region has a long and complex history and that its patterns of human settlement are certain to be equally complex."

Universidad de Barcelona. 2010. "Charting the Development of Human Populations in the North and South of the Mediterranean Region". Science Daily. Posted: May 17, 2010. Available online:

Journal References:

1. Athanasiadis et al. The Mediterranean Sea as a barrier to gene flow: evidence from variation in and around the F7 and F12 genomic regions. BMC Evolutionary Biology, 2010; 10 (1): 84 DOI: 10.1186/1471-2148-10-84
2. González-Pérez et al. Population relationships in the Mediterranean revealed by autosomal genetic data (Alu and Alu/STR compound systems). American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 2009; DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.21161

Monday, May 24, 2010

May 17, 1902: Ancient Antikythera Calculating Mechanism Discovered

1902: A diver exploring a shipwreck off the coast of Antikythera, an island between the Greek mainland and Crete, brings up a heavily encrusted mechanism that turns out to be the world’s first known scientific instrument.

The Antikythera mechanism plotted the positions of celestial bodies 19 years into the future — and as an added bonus, it kept track of upcoming Olympics.

"The maker took information about astronomical theories, and made a machine that could predict the future," said Tony Freeth, co-author of a study published in Nature in July 2008. "And it would tell you, as a bit of an add-on, what Olympic games would be in progress at the time."

A dictionary-size assemblage of 37 interlocking dials crafted with the precision and complexity of a 19th-century Swiss clock, the machine has been dated to approximately 150 B.C. The wreck was first discovered in 1900, but its most famous artifact was not brought to the surface until May 17, 1902.

The device captured the world’s imagination. Such craftsmanship wouldn’t be seen for a thousand years after the Greeks — but its purpose was a mystery to 20th-century archaeologists.

Many different researchers took turns investigating the machine and its possible uses. Scientists painstakingly reverse-engineered the mechanism, deciphered the script etched on its housing — the world’s first instruction manual — and pieced the fragments into physical and later digital models, and most recently a working replica.

They determined that the mechanism predicted future positions of the moon and sun, and perhaps other planets. But that’s not all: Freeth and his Antikythera Mechanism Research Project colleagues found a tiny dial labeled with the locations of Olympic competitions.

The feature was probably not integral to its function, said Freeth, but a stylish
demonstration of the machine’s power, not unlike a watch that displays stock prices or an iPhone-enabled speedometer.

"It’s slightly opportunistic in terms of how it’s powered through the gearing. If you wanted to do a dial that turns every four years, it’s easy, but this is at the end of a more complicated gear train. It’s an add-on," said Freeth.

Of course, the mechanism itself was much more significant than a watch or an iPhone: It’s the forerunner of all scientific instrumentation. The Olympics were also of paramount importance to ancient Greeks, who labeled years in relation to ongoing Olympiads and suspended wars for the games’ duration.

Perhaps the mechanism was used to foretell the celestial auspices of competitions, said Freeth, but he’s not convinced.

"We haven’t found anything on the instrument that suggests it was used for astrology, which was suggested in the past," he said. "I think the maker was showing off a huge amount of knowledge and skill. They demonstrated that you could take these theories about how astronomical bodies move, and make a machine that would calculate them. That was a completely revolutionary idea."

Though its functions are understood, said Freeth, its application remains unknown.
"We don’t have any insights into the mind of the designer," he said. "We can only look at the result — and the result is dazzling. You can only admire the person who made it. But I’m not quite sure why they put the Olympics there."

Keim, Brandon. 2010. "May 17, 1902: Ancient Antikythera Calculating Mechanism Discovered". Wired. Posted: May 17, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Foreign honey oozes in

The last decade has really stung U.S. beekeepers.

There’s been the widely reported Colony Collapse Disorder, in which some keepers have reported the loss of 30 to 90 percent of their hives, the underlying cause of which remains mysterious.

Less well known but just as significant for their economic vitality, U.S. beekeepers have also had to deal with tens of thousands of tons of Chinese honey being illegally dumped onto the market.

These combined natural and economic forces have dampened honey production by large American producers from 221 million pounds in 1998 to 144 million pounds last year.

Last year’s levels were the lowest since the 1970s.

“It’s been a real struggle for many to survive,” said John Talbert, owner of the Sabine Creek Honey Farm in Josephine, and executive secretary of the Texas Beekeepers Association.

While scientists continue to study the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, there is hope that the economic issues stemming from illegal Chinese honey flowing into the United States may be addressed. Vaughn Bryant would welcome the help.

An anthropologist at Texas A&M University, Bryant has honed a unique honey sleuthing talent since 1975, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture asked him if he could test a sample of honey and determine its origin.

At the time Bryant studied pollen at archaeological sites in order to tease out historical details.

As it turns out, pollen in bee honey — traces of the many, variable nectar sources bees use — can be used to geographically pin down where the honey was made.

“Holy Moses, I had no idea what I was getting into,” Bryant recalled.

He knows his pollen

After decades of experience, Bryant can look at samples of honey under a microscope in his lab and identify hundreds of types of pollen on sight. That’s no small feat considering each looks like a roundish, nondescript speck of dust.

By linking pollen to plants, and knowing the geographical range of plants, he almost always can pin down the location of the bees that produced a certain sample.

To help him, along one wall of Bryant’s lab stand several large cabinets in which he houses a multimillion-dollar collection of 20,000 pollen samples. Two-thirds of the collection, he says, was donated by BP and Exxon Mobil Corp., which use pollen in oil exploration activities to determine the relative ages of rock strata.

In addition to pinpointing a honey’s country of origin by glancing in a microscope, Bryant has a second talent: storytelling.

There’s the anecdote about Greek armies that catapulted beehives into enemy cities. Or the one about “mad honey,” produced by bees that use nectar from certain plants that produce a toxin. The Persians, in 67 B.C., apparently left jars of mad honey along the roadside. Honey-loving Roman soldiers came along and ate it, got sick, and then the Persians fell upon them, Bryant said.

Today, in some Turkish nightclubs, he said, mad honey is taken as a drug.

Since becoming involved in honey in the 1970s, Bryant has closely followed the fortunes of the industry.

The U.S. honey habit

To meet its needs, the United States imports about one-third of the honey it uses.

While consumers may be most familiar with jars of honey on grocery shelves, industry uses most of the honey as a flavoring in foods such as cereals, breads and barbecue sauce.

The tobacco industry uses a lot of honey, too, as it enhances the body’s ability to absorb nicotine, Bryant said.

“If you put sugar into tobacco, you get a bigger charge out,” he said. The domestic honey market itself isn’t that large, about $200 million a year.

The real economic concern, Bryant said, is the loss of pollination. Fewer bees will mean less pollination of crops.

The Department of Agriculture estimates that pollination is worth about $15 billion in America, particularly for crops such as almonds and other nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables. About one mouthful in three in the diet directly or indirectly benefits from honeybee pollination, according to the government.

So in 2001, when it determined that lower-priced Chinese honey was flooding the market and driving beekeepers out of business, the U.S. government imposed 200 percent and higher tariffs on honey from China.

But since then, Bryant said, there’s been a dramatic rise in honey exports from countries near China, at very low prices. Bryant’s analysis of this honey reveals that it has either been transshipped from China, or even cut with high-fructose corn syrup to increase its volume.

“At the rate the Chinese are dumping this honey, it could devastate the U.S. honey industry,” he said.

Enforcement efforts

The government has undertaken recent enforcement efforts.

Last month U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested a Taiwanese executive, Hung Ta Fan, 41, in Los Angeles for allegedly conspiring to illegally import honey that was falsely identified to avoid U.S. tariffs.

“ICE will not tolerate products being illegally imported into the U.S. marketplace,” John Morton, Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary for ICE, said in a statement.

And in May 2009, Yong Xiang Yan, the president of a honey manufacturer in China, was arrested and later pled guilty to conspiring to illegally import Chinese honey that was falsely identified as coming from the Philippines. Yan is cooperating in the ongoing investigation while awaiting sentencing, according to the affidavit against Fan.

Big flow of cheap honey

Earlier this month, five U.S. honey producers launched the Honest Honey campaign to raise consumer awareness of this illegally imported honey. They estimate the United States loses about $100 million annually in uncollected duties because of illegal honey imports.

“We’re encouraged by the activity we’ve seen from the Department of Homeland Security on this issue,” said Jill Clark, an official with Lancaster, Pa.-based Dutch Gold Honey, one of the companies sponsoring the campaign.

Bryant, who studies about 150 samples a year to determine their origin, is more skeptical about the U.S. fight to stop Chinese dumping of honey.

Many importers, he said, are happy just to get the honey at a good price. So it will take a lot of enforcement to solve the problem.

“Essentially,” he said, “what we’ve got is a big leak in the dike with the government sticking a few fingers into it, trying to plug small holes.”

Berger, Eric. 2010. "Foreign honey oozes in". Chron. Posted: May 16, 2010. Available online:

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Folk medicine poses global threat to wild dog species

Half of all wild canine species such as dogs, foxes and wolves are harvested for traditional folk medicines, conservationists warn.

According to a scientific survey, 19 out of 35 known species of wild canid are still used in traditional medicine worldwide.

For example, wolf parts are eaten to treat chicken pox, while jackals are used to treat epilepsy and asthma.

Such trade may place added pressure on some dwindling canid populations.

Details of the survey are published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.

The report is produced by the same researchers who earlier this year published a review showing that more than 100 species of primate are still used in traditional medicines and religious rituals.

To conduct the latest review, Professor Romulo Alves of the State University of Paraiba in Brazil and colleagues searched the scientific literature and other sources for references to folk remedies using canine parts.

Using only those sources they considered authoritative, they then created a database containing the details of which species are used to treat certain conditions in different countries.

A fox for flu

Of 35 known canine species, the evidence suggests that 19 are still used in traditional medicines, the researchers report.

Of those, five species belong to the genus Canis, including the wolf Canis lupus, the side-striped jackal (C. adustus), golden jackal (C. aureus), coyote (C. latrans) and the black or silver-backed jackal (C. mesomelas).

Three species belong to the genus Vulpes which includes true foxes. These are the red fox (Vulpes vulpes), Cape fox (V. chama) and Pale fox (V. pallida).

Three species that live in South America belong to the genus Lycalopex, including the Culpeo or Andean fox (L. culpaeus), Pampas fox (L. gymnocerus) and Sechuran fox (L. sechurae).

Prof Alves team found evidence that canids are used in the treatment of at least 28 medical conditions, including asthma, arthritis, back ache, bronchial illnesses, chicken pox, eczema, epilepsy, flu, kidney diseases, measles and mumps, as well as the treatment of stomach complaints, snake bites and warts.

The parts of some wild dogs are even used in social, rather than medical contexts: in Bolivia, for example, the researchers say that cowboys believe that sitting on the pelt of a maned wolf will protect against bad luck.

A wolf for luck

Humans have a long association with wild dogs, the researchers note, both in harnessing their talents and seeing them as adversaries to be hunted or killed.

Canids have also been used in traditional medicines since ancient times.

Medieval manuscripts from Azerbaijan, for example, reveal that wolves, fox and jackals were used medicinally at the time, while there are records of red foxes being used to treat ear complaints dating from the 10th Century onwards.

However, today many canine species are under threat as their ranges are restricted and habitat destroyed.

Of the 19 species of wild dog cited in the review, two are classified as endangered and three as near threatened.

The trade in at least 10 of the 19 species is supposed to be restricted by CITES legislation.

Wild dogs are sometimes better able to bounce back from population crashes, say the researchers, due to their relatively high reproductive rate, bolstered by large litters born to young adults.

But the continuing trade in body parts for traditional medicines will add to the pressure faced by many species, the researchers warn.

Walker, Matt. 2010. "Folk medicine poses global threat to wild dog species". BBC News. Posted: May 14, 2010. Available online:

Friday, May 21, 2010

New Forensics Research Will Help Identify Remains of Children

New research from North Carolina State University is now giving forensic scientists a tool that can be used to help identify the remains of children, and may contribute to resolving missing-persons cases, among other uses. Identifying skeletal remains can be a key step in solving crimes, but traditionally it has been exceptionally difficult to identify the skeletal remains of children.

"The key finding in our research is that children's faces attain the shapes they will have in adulthood much earlier than previously thought," says Dr. Ann Ross, an associate professor of anthropology at NC State and lead author of the new study. This finding is important because physical anthropologists use the shape of the skull to examine similarities and differences between populations, such as between Eastern Europeans and Mediterranean populations. This means that forensic experts can help identify the ancestry of skeletal remains in much younger individuals than is currently the case.

For example, Ross was able to use these findings to examine the remains of an unidentified 10-year-old boy, whose body was found in 1998, and determine that he was of Mesoamerican origin. That finding gives investigators additional information on the cold case, which can be used for facial reconstruction, among other things.

Until now, anthropologists relied solely on the remains of people who were at least 18 years old when studying the craniofacial (i.e. skull) characteristics of different populations. Similarly, forensic analysts did not attempt to assess the ancestry of remains belonging to people under the age of 18.

But the researchers have found that the population-specific traits that can be measured in the skull are actually present -- and can be measured -- at least as early as the age of 14. "These findings can likely be applied to much younger remains as well," Ross says, "but we did not have a large enough sample size to include younger kids in this paper."

One of the things that made this work possible was the use of shape analysis, relying on "geometric morphometrics" -- which is a field of study that characterizes and assesses biological forms. Geometric morphometrics has led to the development of software, statistical tools and research methods that enabled the researchers to examine shape differences in the skulls of children and adults.

"In the past," Ross says, "this was impossible because traditional techniques for measuring craniofacial characteristics relied on calipers -- which introduced size as a confounding variable." In other words, it was impossible to compare the small skulls of children to the larger skulls of adults.

The researchers collected craniofacial measurements from the remains of children between the ages of 14 and 16. The researchers then ran the data through modeling software and additional statistical analyses to determine whether children differ significantly from adults in terms of the craniofacial markers that identify a given population.

In addition to forensic applications, the findings also represent a breakthrough for physical anthropologists studying past civilizations. Because craniofacial characteristics are used to examine differences between populations, these findings can help anthropologists advance our understanding of how populations have moved or changed over time. The study shows that anthropologists can now use the remains of children to help get a snapshot of what the population looked like in a specific area -- they are no longer limited to using the craniofacial remains of adults.

The paper describing the research, "Craniofacial Growth, Maturation, and Change: Teens to Midadulthood," was co-authored by Dr. Shanna Williams of the University of Florida and was funded, in part, by the National Institute of Justice. The paper was published earlier this month by The Journal of Craniofacial Surgery.

NC State's Department of Sociology and Anthropology is a joint department under the university's College of Humanities and Social Sciences and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

North Carolina State. 2010. "New Forensics Research Will Help Identify Remains of Children". Science Daily. Posted: May 14, 2010. Available online:

Ann H. Ross, Shanna E. Williams. Craniofacial Growth, Maturation, and Change: Teens to Midadulthood. Journal of Craniofacial Surgery, 2010; 21 (2): 458 DOI: 10.1097/SCS.0b013e3181cfea34

Thursday, May 20, 2010

A new science project on the historical and natural heritage of the Pyrenees

'The Origins Route' will help to make scientific knowledge generated in the area contribute to its economic development

Six Spanish and French institutions are working jointly to put into action "The Origins Route", a scientific dissemination project to develop a quality sustainable model for tourism in the Pyrenees. Participating is also the Centre for the Studies of Archaeological and Prehistoric Heritage (CEPAP) of Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB). The initiative comprises a set of activities to inform society about the origins of the Pyrenees in fields related to astronomy, geology, palaeontology and human evolution.

In the next three years, the project will be promoting an innovative and experimental model of tourism, respectful with the environment and at the same time valuing the natural and historical heritage and related scientific knowledge.

To do so participating institutions will create permanent science-tourism cooperation structures. In addition to UAB, taking part in the project are two institutions from La Noguera County, the Montsec Consortium and La Noguera Historical Heritage Research and Dissemination Association, and three from the French Midi-Pyrénées region: the astronomy and space centres Cité de l'Espace (Toulouse) and À Ciel Ouvert (Fleurance), and the Museum of Natural History of Toulouse.

"The Origins Route" proposes to create the basic elements needed for routes through the Pyrenees Mountains, offering visitors different itineraries to help them discover and understand many of the questions formulated today by scientists concerning both the universe and the first inhabitants of the region. Each stage of the itinerary will focus on a specific period. Thus the full route will offer a global vision of its origins, from the Big Bang to the birth of humanity. Proposed activities will allow participants to experience different situations such as palaentological or archaeological digs, skywatching or studying the mountain's biodiversity.

The project will also include an itinerant exhibition coordinated by la Cité de l'Space which will last approximately ten years and will be on display at each of the participating institution headquarters and in different cities and towns of the region. A website will also be created to disseminate and promote information and activities carried out under the project. Users will also be able to view an online exhibition of the full itinerary.

Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona not only is taking part in these joint initiatives. It will also be in charge of the museumification of the prehistoric archaeological site Roca dels Bous, located near the town of Sant Llorenç de Montgai (La Noguera), where CEPAP researchers have been studying the origins and evolution of Neanderthals in the eastern Pyrenees. Known as ArkeoTic, this project will be the first to use innovative museographies based on information and communication technologies (ICT) to display the archaeological findings uncovered. The site and its surroundings will be prepared for visiting school groups and the public in general and will include wireless connections to complement on-site visits and interactive itineraries. The facilities will be completed by the end of this summer.

CEPAP-UAB researchers participating in the project are Rafael Mora, director of the Centre, Paloma González, Jorge Martínez, Antoni Bardavio and Mònica López. According to Rafael Mora, "we intend to show the construction of science and at the same time bring it closer to the public. By being able to see how researchers work and establishing direct contact with them we aim to foster young people's interest in science".

The total cost of the project is €2,606,897. Almost two-thirds of the funding (65%) came from the Operational Programme Spain-France-Andorra 2007-2013 (POCTEFA) belonging to the European Regional Development Fund. All other funding came from participating institutions.

The POCTEFA programme, coordinated by the Pyrenees Work Community (CTP), with headquarters in Jaca, Huesca, aims to strengthen the economic and social integration of the cross-border area between Spain, Andorra and France.

EurekAlert. 2010. "A new science project on the historical and natural heritage of the Pyrenees". EurekAlert. Posted: May 10, 2010. Available online:

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Uncovering Nottingham's hidden medieval sandstone caves

The very latest laser technology combined with old fashioned pedal power is being used to provide a unique insight into the layout of Nottingham's sandstone caves — where the city's renowned medieval ale was brewed and, where legend has it, the country's most famous outlaw Robin Hood was imprisoned.

The Nottingham Caves Survey, being carried out by archaeologists from Trent & Peak Archaeology at The University of Nottingham, has already produced extraordinary, three dimensional, fly through, colour animation of caves that have been hidden from view for centuries.

Below the grounds of Nottingham Castle and across the city there is a labyrinth of medieval tunnels, dungeons, maltings and cellars — people even carved primitive living quarters out of Nottingham's sandstone cliffs.

The man-made caves, cut into the strata of rock known as Sherwood Sandstone, are being recorded by laser scanners, which produce up to 500,000 survey points a second, enabling us to see these excavations as never before.

Archaeologists already know of around 450 caves — some are well documented and currently scheduled monuments of local and national importance. With funding of £250,000 from the Greater Nottingham Partnership, emda, English Heritage, The University of Nottingham and Nottingham City Council it is hoped that over the next two and a half years these and many more can be recorded and mapped.

Dr David Walker, of Trent & Peak Archaeology, said: "This remarkable new technology will create a full measured record of the caves in three dimensions. This gives us two really important things — a highly detailed archaeological record of the historic caves, and a new way for people to view caves they may never have seen before. For the first time visitors will be able to explore Nottingham's unique caves with a laptop or smartphone over the web. However, there have to be many more caves that we don't even know about and we want to hear from anyone who might have a sandstone tunnel at the back of their house, office or garden."

The survey will build on the work of the British Geological Survey carried out in the 1980s.

Archaeologists are using environmentally-friendly trailer-pulling bicycles to get themselves and their research equipment about the city. And if you have a cave hidden away in your back garden or at the back of your office block or home they will be more than happy to pop by.

Although many caves and tunnels are blocked up some are still accessible to tourists or used as pub cellars. The project goals are to assess the archaeological importance of Nottingham's caves, to present the caves in a new and exciting way and to preserve Nottingham's unique and fragile resource for future generations.

You can read and see more about the Nottingham Caves Survey at:

EurekAlert. 2010. "Uncovering Nottingham's hidden medieval sandstone caves". EurekAlert. Posted: May 13, 2010. Available online:

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Duties to human remains in universities and museums

Human remains are stored in universities and museums all over the world. A recent example of genetic testing on old human remains is the results from Tutankhamon and his family. On May 29, Malin Masterton will defend her doctoral thesis on the moral status of past people and protection for historical persons. The thesis also discusses our duties towards the dead.

We only need tiny amounts of DNA to test for disease or confirm identity, even from people who have been dead for a very long time. In the case of Tutankhamon and his family, researchers could reveal identities of up till now unknown mummies and show probable cause of death for the young king. The fact that such tests can be performed on historical persons raised enough questions for a PhD thesis.

"At least in Sweden, the living are protected by laws on genetic integrity. We have no legal obligations to King Tut or other historical persons, but there is perhaps still integrity worth protecting," says Malin Masterton at the Centre for Research Ethics & Bioethics (CRB).

But whose integrity and interests is it when the person is dead? According to Malin Masterton, parts of a person's identity remains after death. One way of looking at identity is as a narrative – the story of one's life – that both stands alone and is interwoven with other people's stories. Seen like this, the dead too have a name and a reputation worth protecting.

If the dead, to some degree like the living, have integrity and reputation, they also have moral status and we can wrong them. According to Malin Masterton, we have three duties to the dead. We have a duty of truthfulness in our description of a persons' reputation. We also have a duty to respect the personal integrity of the dead in research contexts. Finally, we have a duty to admit wrongs we have committed to the dead, like illegal archaeological digs.

"I propose that the dead should be given moral status based on our respect for human life," says Malin Masterton.

The thesis is relevant both for the handling of remains of known historical persons and for the debate on all the anonymous human remains stored in universities, institutions and museums around the world. It is mainly indigenous peoples' who have reacted to the handling of their ancestors' remains. Demands on repatriation and reburial need to be met, both by archaeologists and museums.

In her thesis, Malin Masterton discusses ethical guidelines for the handling of human remains and makes suggestions for revisions. The basis for these revisions is that also the dead have an identity in the form of a narrative.

"Perhaps we need to consider how we deal with human remains of indigenous people, like the Sami skeletons that are stored in Swedish museums, as well as with human remains where there are no living representatives who can argue their case," says Malin Masterton.

To read Ms. Masterton's thesis follow this link.

Masterson, Malin. 2010. "Duties to human remains in universities and museums". EurekAlert. Posted: May 12, 2010. Available online:

Monday, May 17, 2010

Gestures Can Mislead Children

A simple gesture can be incorporated into a child's memory so quickly that it will cause the child to give a false answer to a question accompanied by that gesture. This new finding suggests that parents, social workers, psychologists, lawyers and investigators should be careful with their hands as well as their words when trying to extract the truth from a child.

Gestures can be as informative (and misleading) as speech, but hand motions are so ubiquitous we rarely notice when we are using them, researchers say. The new study suggests we should pay more attention, especially when talking to a child.

While the recollections of both adults and children are susceptible to suggestion, the memories of children are known to be particularly malleable, said lead researcher Sara Broaders of Northwestern University. Kids are used to looking to adults to interpret and recount events for them and can be misled even if unintentionally.

Previous research, for example, has shown that detail-loaded questions often prompt false answers; when asked, say, "Did you drink juice at the picnic?," the child is likely to say "yes," even if no juice had been available.

It's not that the child is consciously lying. Rather, the detail is quickly incorporated into his or her memory.

To circumvent this problem, social workers, investigators and lawyers have long been advised to ask children only open-ended questions, such as "What did you have at the picnic?" But the new study, published last month in the journal Psychological Science, found that an open-ended question paired with a gesture (briefly miming a juice box) is treated like a detailed question. That is, children become likely to answer falsely.

And it isn't just a few kids: 77 percent of children gave at least one piece of false information when a detail was suggested by a commonplace gesture.

If this seems obvious in hindsight, consider this: Much of our legal system depends on written transcripts that record only vocalized conversation, and do not capture silent forms of communication.

Mimicking child witness testimony

Thirty-nine children, aged 5 and 6, witnessed identical performances by a musician. They were then questioned about the performance through an interview process that approximated the experience of a child trial witness. Specifically, five one-on-one interviews were conducted over a 10- to 12-week period. The kids were asked detailed and open-ended questions, some of which were paired with gestures.

The researchers found that the kids were just as likely to give false answers to specific questions, like "did he wear a hat," as they were to open-ended questions that included gestures, such as "what else was he wearing" asked as the interviewer patted his head. (The musician did not wear a hat.)

"And pieces of information they had only gotten in gesture, they were repeating (unprompted) in the third and fourth interview," Broaders told LiveScience.

Early questioning practices may have a dramatic impact not only on the child's eventual testimony, but also on his or her actual memory of the event. And in real-life legal matters, children are usually first questioned by parents or other untrained individuals ¾ who may unwittingly use detailed questions or gestures ¾ long before they are interviewed by psychologists or members of the legal system, the researchers say.

Erroneous details suggested in a first interview can be "remembered" by a child even months later, said senior study researcher Susan Goldin-Meadow of the University of Chicago.

Silent speech

Even trained interviewers trying particularly hard not to lead their witness may end up doing just that.

Trying not to mention something one suspects is true makes unconscious gestures more likely, other studies have shown. "It is a means of leaking information they are trying not to convey," Broaders said.

Gestures may also become more prevalent when "talking with non-fluent language users (such as little kids)," Broaders said, as hand movements can impart meaning to unfamiliar words and phrases. "It certainly seems reasonable that adults would gesture more with children, especially really little children. "

"And if they are gesturing, they may be leading the child in ways they don't realize," she added.

While many jurisdictions videotape child interviews, they often focus solely on the child's face. Gestures made by the questioner can therefore go missed. Videotaping both conversation partners, head-to-foot, may help prevent misleading testimony, Broaders said.

In general, Broaders advises parents and other adults to "try to be aware of your hands when questioning a child about an event. Otherwise, you might be getting answers that don't reflect what actually happened."

Gestures, even unintended ones, she emphasized, "can lead to answers that are very specific but not true."

Nixon, Robin. 2010. "Gestures Can Mislead Children". Live Science. Posted: May 12, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Easter Island discovery sends archaeologists back to drawing board

Archaeologists have disproved the 50-year-old theory underpinning our understanding of how the famous stone statues were moved around Easter Island

Archaeologists have disproved the fifty-year-old theory underpinning our understanding of how the famous stone statues were moved around Easter Island.

Fieldwork led by researchers at University College London and The University of Manchester, has shown the remote Pacific island's ancient road system was primarily ceremonial and not solely built for transportation of the figures.

A complex network of roads up to 800-years-old crisscross the Island between the hat and statue quarries and the coastal areas.

Laying alongside the roads are dozens of the statues- or moai.

The find will create controversy among the many archaeologists who have dedicated years to finding out exactly how the moai were moved, ever since Norwegian adventurer Thor Heyerdahl first published his theory in 1958.

Heyerdahl and subsequent researchers believed that statues he found lying on their backs and faces near the roads were abandoned during transportation by the ancient Polynesians.

But his theory has been completely rejected by the team led by Manchester's Dr Colin Richards and UCL's Dr Sue Hamilton.

Instead, their discovery of stone platforms associated with each fallen moai - using specialist 'geophysical survey' equipment – finally confirms a little known 1914 theory of British archaeologist Katherine Routledge that the routes were primarily ceremonial avenues.

The statues, say the Manchester and UCL team just back from the island, merely toppled from the platforms with the passage of time.

"The truth of the matter is, we will never know how the statues were moved," said Dr Richards.

"Ever since Heyerdahl, archeologists have come up with all manner of theories – based on an underlying assumption that the roads were used for transportation of the moai, from the quarry at the volcanic cone Rano Raraku.

"What we do now know is that the roads had a ceremonial function to underline their religious and cultural importance.

"They lead – from different parts of the island – to the Rano Raraku volcano where the Moai were quarried.

"Volcano cones were considered as points of entry to the underworld and mythical origin land Hawaiki.

"Hence, Rano Ranaku was not just a quarry but a sacred centre of the island."

The previous excavation found that the roads are concave in shape –making it difficult to move heavy objects along them

And as the roads approach Rano Raraku, the statues become more frequent – which the team say, indicated an increasing grades of holiness.

"All the evidence strongly shows that these roads were ceremonial - which backs the work of Katherine Routledge from almost 100 years ago, " said Dr Sue Hamilton.

"It all makes sense: the moai face the people walking towards the volcano.

"The statues are more frequent the closer they are to the volcano – which has to be way of signifying the increasing levels of importance."

She added: "What is shocking is that Heyerdahl actually found some evidence to suggest there were indeed platforms.

"But like many other archaeologists, he was so swayed by his cast iron belief that the roads were for transportation – he completely ignored them."

EurekAlert. 2010. "Easter Island discovery sends archaeologists back to drawing board". EurekAlert. Posted: May 12, 2010. Available online:

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Forensic science for human rights

Science is helping to bring a former Argentine dictator to justice with expertise that will haunt perpetrators of state violence

There's an office in this grandiose and sprawling city of Buenos Aires that holds a somewhat macabre collection: over 700 human skeletons. They are presumed to be but a small fraction of the unidentified remains of the over 30,000 supposed "subversives" who the rightwing military government of the late 70s and early 80s tried to make disappear from the face of the earth.

"In our profession, we always arrive late in a way. We use whatever documentation was left by the military to find the bodies." Luis Fondebrider tells me, co-founder of the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF). "The most complicated part is getting DNA information from bones, but the latest advances in genetic testing has helped. Some of our more recent identifications are of skeletons we've had for 15 years."

For years the nonprofit team of bone hunters and forensic investigators, with offices in Buenos Aires, the western Argentine city of Córdoba, and New York, have been working with human rights activists and judicial authorities in Argentina and around the world on a project that should give war criminals everywhere pause – they help undisappear the disappeared. The team has identified victims of state terrorism in Argentina and elsewhere, providing key evidence that has led to convictions of a number of assassins who might have gotten away with it, if not for advances in modern forensic science.

Earlier this week their work was once again vindicated when a very big fish was caught and charged with almost 50 cases of kidnapping, torture and murder. Thanks to the tireless work of human rights groups in Argentina over the years, justice had already caught up with former Argentine dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, who ruled from 1976 to 1981. He is due to stand trial in September for his role in a particularly twisted racket during the dictatorship – the kidnapping of babies of assassinated political opponents, which were then "gifted" to families sympathetic to the regime. The new murder charges, filed by federal judge Daniel Rafecas, are drawn directly from positive identifications that EAAF investigators made in the last two years, from skeletons exhumed from unmarked graves in 10 cemeteries in or around Buenos Aires.

"For us it means – I can't say happiness – but satisfaction," Fondebrider told me the day after the new charges were announced against Videla. The ex-dictator will now appear in court at the end of the month, for the first time in 25 years. (Videla was sentenced to life in prison in 1985, but was pardoned along with other military leaders in 1990). "In our part of the world perpetrators of state terrorism often aren't charged, or often there's not enough information to bring them to justice. So it's one of the few times that our work helps to break through that impunity."

There's an undeniable poetic justice at play. For years it was up to family members and human rights groups such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and HIJOS to keep the memories alive of those who disappeared, against an official culture of impunity that pushed people to "stop dredging up the past". But the brutal charnel house that was Argentina in the late 70s and early 80s also led to the development of an organisation with a particularly sophisticated expertise in digging through mass graves – and using continued advances in forensics to reclaim the identities of those who were so meticulously extinguished during those years of blood and fire.

Some victims will likely never be found – one common form of disappearing kidnapped victims at the time was by drugging them and throwing them live in to the ocean. Luckily for forensic investigators, though, some of the perpetrators in the armed forces maintained at least some semblance of propriety.

"Many of the military men were Catholics," Mercedes Doretti tells me, an EAAF co-founder who works out of the New York office. "They believed that even subversives should receive a Christian sepulture."

The team's expertise is now increasingly in demand around the world as its members consult with human rights activists, prosecutors, and family members in countries where human rights crimes, disappearances and other forms of state terrorism are also finally being investigated (South Africa, Colombia, El Salvador, East Timor).

Doretti is working with investigators from the US and Mexico to study the cases of unidentified murder victims along the vast border. Excavations continue apace in the Argentine provinces of Córdoba, Tucuman and Mendoza. And the organisation continues to grow a massive genetic database containing DNA information of family members of the disappeared to help identify future remains, or to confirm the identities of kidnapped and misappropriated children. And at least one dictator will have to stand trial and account for the lives extinguished under his rule.

Political violence is nothing new, of course, and sadly we'll still likely be in need of the EAAF's specialised expertise well in to the future. But it's heartening to know that at least the science continues to catch up with the human heart's demands for justice.

Huff-Hannon, Joseph. 2010. "Forensic science for human rights". Guardian. Posted: May 13, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Maya Plumbing: First Pressurized Water Feature Found in New World

A water feature found in the Maya city of Palenque, Mexico, is the earliest known example of engineered water pressure in the new world, according to a collaboration between two Penn State researchers, an archaeologist and a hydrologist. How the Maya used the pressurized water is, however, still unknown.

"Water pressure systems were previously thought to have entered the New World with the arrival of the Spanish," the researchers said in a recent issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science. "Yet, archaeological data, seasonal climate conditions, geomorphic setting and simple hydraulic theory clearly show that the Maya of Palenque in Chiapas, Mexico, had empirical knowledge of closed channel water pressure predating the arrival of Europeans."

The feature, first identified in 1999 during a mapping survey of the area, while similar to the aqueducts that flow beneath the plazas of the city, was also unlike them. In 2006, an archaeologist returned to Palenque with a hydrologist to examine the unusual water feature. The area of Palenque was first occupied about the year 100 but grew to its largest during the Classic Maya period 250 to 600. The city was abandoned around 800.

"Under natural conditions it would have been difficult for the Maya to see examples of water pressure in their world," said Christopher Duffy, professor of civil and environmental engineering. "They were apparently using engineering without knowing the tools around it. This does look like a feature that controls nature."

Underground water features such as aqueducts are not unusual at Palenque. Because the Maya built the city in a constricted area in a break in an escarpment, inhabitants were unable to spread out. To make as much land available for living, the Maya at Palenque routed streams beneath plazas via aqueducts.

"They were creating urban space," said Kirk French, lecturer in anthropology. "There are streams in the area every 300 feet or so across the whole escarpment. There is very little land to build on."

These spring-fed streams combined with approximately 10 feet of rain that falls during the six-month rainy season also presented a flooding hazard that the aqueducts would have at least partially controlled.

The feature the researchers examined, Piedras Bolas Aqueduct, is a spring-fed conduit located on steep terrain. The elevation drops about 20 feet from the entrance of the tunnel to the outlet about 200 feet downhill. The cross section of the feature decreases from about 10 square feet near the spring to about a half square foot where water emerges form a small opening. The combination of gravity on water flowing through the feature and the sudden restriction of the conduit causes the water to flow out of the opening forcefully, under pressure.

"The conduit could have reached a theoretical hydraulic head limit of 6 meters (about 20 feet)," said Duffy.

At the outlet, the pressure exerted could have moved the water upwards of 20 feet.

"The experience the Maya at Palenque had in constructing aqueducts for diversion of water and preservation of urban space may have led to the creation of useful water pressure," said French.

The Piedras Bolas Aqueduct is partially collapsed so very little water currently flows from the outlet. French and Duffy used simple hydraulic models to determine the potential water pressure achievable from the Aqueduct. They also found that Aqueduct would hold about 18,000 gallons of water if the outlet were controlled to store the water. One potential use for the artificially engineered water pressure would have been a fountain. The researchers modeled the aqueduct with a fountain as the outlet and found that even during flood conditions, water would flow in the aqueduct, supplying the fountain, and above ground in the channel running off the slope. Another possibility could be to use the pressure to lift water onto the adjacent residential area for use as wastewater disposal.

"The palace has features that suggest something similar," said French.

Penn State. 2010. "Maya Plumbing: First Pressurized Water Feature Found in New World". Science Daily. Posted: Available online:

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Medieval African Found Buried in England

How did this man manage to journey from Tunisia to Ipswich, England, during the 13th century?

A 13th century skeleton unearthed on the grounds of a friary may be the earliest physical evidence that Africans lived in England in medieval times, a team of researchers said Sunday.

Forensics experts at the University of Dundee Scotland say that the bones most likely belonged to a man from modern-day Tunisia who spent about a decade living in England before he died.

"I believe that this is the first physical evidence of Africans in medieval England," said Jim Bolton, a historian at Queen Mary, University of London who wasn't involved in the discovery.

"Finding a skeleton like this is of major interest," he said.

The man -- who appears to have died of a spinal abscess -- was identified as African by studying his skeleton and the historical record of the friary where he was buried.

"It's not just the skin tone; it's a question of bone structure," said Xanthe Mallett, an expert at the Center for Anatomy and Human Identification in Dundee. She said the size of the nasal bone or the shape of the orbits differed depending on whether skeletons were European or African.

"You can have an idea of where somebody is from by looking at their skeletal features," she said.

Researchers were able to pin the man to Tunisia using isotope analysis, a technique which looks at the mix of elements that build up in a person's teeth, bones or other tissues. Since people from different areas tend to accumulate such elements in different ways, analysis of their remains can sometimes pinpoint where they grew up, where they lived or even their diet.

"Each area has a different isotopic signature," she said.

It's not clear how the man would have made his way from Tunisia to Ipswich, the southeast England town where his skeleton was unearthed in the 1990s. The BBC's "History Cold Case" program, which is publicizing the finding, suggested that he may have been brought back during the Crusades, although Mallett and Bolton both hypothesized he could have conceivably come through Spain, parts of which were then under Muslim rule.

His burial on consecrated ground suggests that not only must he have converted to Christianity, he may have gone on to become a respected member of society.

"He would have had to been of some note to be buried in the friary," Mallett said.

Bolton said it was extremely difficult to find evidence of any Africans in England between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Age of Exploration. He added that the find illustrated that there was still a lot to learn about how often or widely people traveled -- either within England, Europe, or the wider world -- during that period.

"We don't know much about the migration of ordinary people," he said.

Satter, Raphael G. 2010. "Medieval African Found Buried in England". Discovery News. Posted: May 3, 2010. Available online:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Aboriginal Hunting and Burning Increase Australia's Desert Biodiversity, Researchers Find

In Australia, Martu hunter-gatherers light fires to expose the hiding places of their prey: monitor lizards called goanna that can grow up to 6 feet long. These generations-old hunting practices, part of the Martu day-to-day routine, have reshaped Australia's Western Desert habitats, according to Stanford University anthropologists Douglas and Rebecca Bird.

"Martu" refers to a group of about 800 indigenous Australians from eight dialect-groups that inhabit the Western Desert. For 10 years, the Birds have been investigating Martu hunting strategies and their lasting environmental impacts. With support from the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford, the researchers have begun to explore what makes aboriginal hunting grounds molded by fire more biologically diverse than lands untouched by humans.

"The results of our work will be used to assist conservation efforts and joint indigenous land management policy in the Western Desert," said Douglas Bird, an assistant professor (research) of anthropology and principal investigator on the Woods Institute Environmental Venture Projects grant.

In many cases, humans aren't the wrench in nature's gears but an important piece of the clockwork, he added. And because so much of Australia's Western Desert, from lizards to shrubs, revolves around Martu practices, conservation efforts will succeed only if they incorporate traditional goanna-hunting practices, he said.

"We're trying to demonstrate what would happen if you did pull people off the landscape," he said. "What happens when you break all of these co-evolutionary links between people who've lived on the landscape for thousands of years and the diversity of the faunal and floral community?"

Martu life

Martu life revolves around hunting and fire, Douglas Bird explained. Martu inherit ritual duties that correspond to certain tracts of desert called "estates." An important part of this inheritance is the knowledge of when and where to light smoldering brush fires. Martu never start blazes without knowing every nook and cranny of a territory and often forgo campfires when traveling through foreign estates, he said.

"You never burn unless you're with someone who has all of that knowledge about that estate," he added. "If your fire were to threaten one of those totemic spots where they keep all their religious paraphernalia associated with these rituals, it's technically punishable by death."

The middle-aged and elderly women who typically hunt for goanna can spot the animal's burrows and tracks better in burn scars than in thick spinifex grass, explained Rebecca Bird, an associate professor of anthropology. Burning desert in about 55-acre chunks, the hunters make their grounds a patchwork quilt of recently burnt earth and recovering vegetation. These scars are much smaller than those left by lightning wildfires, which char an average of 2,000 acres.

Burning back grasses and other fire-prone plants encourages the growth of a diverse range of annual vegetation, she said. The variable turf of Martu hunting grounds allows small mammals to find plenty of places to hide from predators, she added, while areas free of human burning lack this patchwork quality and are home to fewer plants and animals.

"The thing that anthropogenic fire does is rearrange the landscape variation into smaller and smaller bits," said project collaborator James Holland Jones, an assistant professor of anthropology and a Woods Institute center fellow. "It happens to be the scale that animals, plants and people work at."

While Martu families believe strongly in preserving their lands and know all the animals and plants that benefit from burning, their fires are, first and foremost, tools for nabbing goanna meat.

"Martu don't think of it as, 'We apply fire in order to promote the future long-term biodiversity,'" Douglas Bird said. "They can talk about all those effects, but that's not what maintains the system."

To determine the impact of Martu hunting practices over time, the research team is searching the geologic record for evidence of burning thousands of years into the past. The researchers also will recreate the diversity of historic plant communities using molecular clues hidden in animal remains.

Conserving Australia's deserts

Despite growing awareness of the role that fire plays in wild space, many Australians have been slow to accept Martu burning practices, Rebecca Bird said. "They see it as a destructive force. It's in line with the thinking of most ecologists who view humans as a disturbance of the natural equilibrium," she said. "The Martu perspective is much more that humans are part of it all."

Most Australian conservationists have only paid lip service to Martu hunters, Douglas Bird noted. But desert conservation programs won't work unless they include an understanding of Aboriginal fire, he said. And because hunting is so central their culture, Martu men and women will only accept land-management practices that are compatible with their day-to-day subsistence.

"When you're drafting a fire-management program for a national park, if it's not done with respect to the actual practice of folks and the tradeoffs people face on a daily basis, then those prescriptions are disregarded," he said.

To bring Aboriginal representatives into a true dialogue on land management, a delegation from the Western Desert will meet with researchers on the Stanford campus in 2011 or 2012. The Birds and Martu leaders also will host an international conference for anthropologists and ecologists in Australia in 2011 on the role of fire in hunter-gatherer communities and ecosystems. A goal of the conference is to communicate that "indigenous knowledge is not different from scientific knowledge," Rebecca Bird said.

"Through generations of hunting for goanna, Martu appreciate fire for what it can be: a tool for shaping human communities as well as the natural world," she said. "They see the burned areas as beautiful. They say, 'It's safe. There are no snakes, no nasty things living here now that we've cleaned it up.'"

Other Stanford collaborators on the Woods Institute Environmental Venture Projects grant are Page Chamberlain, professor of environmental Earth system science; Tadashi Fukami, assistant professor of biology; and Katherine Maher, assistant professor of geological and environmental sciences.

Stanford University. "Aboriginal Hunting and Burning Increase Australia's Desert Biodiversity, Researchers Find." ScienceDaily. Posted: May 3, 2010. Available online:­ /releases/2010/05/100503174030.htm.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Can old wives' tales tell me my baby's sex?

This article is taken from a series of articles titled bumpology. The article states:"Bumpology is our weekly column on the science behind pregnancy, written by our reporter whose own bump is growing larger by the day".

Deciding whether or not to find out the sex of our unborn child was a dilemma that plagued us for weeks. Would it spoil the surprise? Even without getting a definitive ultrasound examination to tell us the sex, there are any number of folklore prediction methods – but is there any science behind them?

Old wives' tale 1: Bad morning sickness means you're having a boy

I didn't suffer morning sickness, so according to this rule, I should be expecting a girl.

The opposite is true, in fact: mothers with severe pregnancy sickness are more likely to have a girl. In 1999, researchers analysed records of 8186 women admitted to hospital in Sweden with pregnancy sickness and found that 44.3 per cent of them gave birth to boys, versus 51.4 per cent of the general population (The Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/s0140-6736(99)04239-7). They blame higher levels of the pregnancy hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) in women carrying girls.

Curiously, Henrik Toft Sørensen of Aarhus and Aalborg University Hospitals in Denmark wrote to The Lancet the following month claiming that the sex ratio also seemed to be influenced by marital status, with fewer boys born to single mothers.

In a separate study, he also found that women with severe pregnancy sickness were more likely to give birth to girls; the correlation was even stronger in single mothers. Among women with severe sickness, 46.5 per cent gave birth to boys, compared with 51 per cent of other women. Within the pregnancy sickness group, 40 per cent of women who lived alone had boys, against 45 per cent of women who lived with their partner (The Lancet, DOI: 10.1016/s0140-6736(05)74029-0).

Old wives' tale 2: Fetal heart rate predicts the baby's sex

According to this rule – it's been around for 30 years, so I class it as an old wives' tale – if your fetus's heart rate is above 140 beats per minute (bpm) you're expecting a girl, and if it's below you're expecting a boy. I've had the pleasure of listening to my baby's heart rate twice in the past fortnight, and the last time it was 130 bpm – so I should be expecting a boy.

However, fetal heart rate tends to decrease as pregnancy progresses, from 170 to 200 bpm at 8 to 10 weeks down to 120 to 160 bpm by mid-pregnancy. And according to published studies there seems to be little difference between boys and girls, at least during early pregnancy.

In one study, researchers used ultrasound to measure fetal heart rate in 477 fetuses before 14 weeks of pregnancy. The average heart rate of girls was 151.7 bpm, while for boys it was 154.9 bpm – not a large enough difference to be statistically significant (Fetal Diagnosis and Therapy, DOI: 10.1159/000089065).

The only time when a difference has been detected is during labour itself, when female babies seem to have faster heart rates than males; the reason is unknown.

Old wives' tale 3: Weird food cravings = a boy

One friend told me that my aversion to lettuce means I'm going to have a boy. I couldn't find any science to support this, but there is some evidence from a Boston hospital study that found expectant mothers have bigger appetites on average if they are carrying a boy rather than a girl.

I'm definitely hungry all the time, but that might just be because of pregnancy in general. The problem is: how do you know what constitutes a big increase in appetite? Indeed, the authors of the Boston study admit that the difference in appetite is not striking enough to predict the sex of a baby with accuracy.

Old wives' tale 4: Women "just know"

That mysterious thing called "female intuition" claims power over many things, including being able to predict the sex of unborn children. Personally, I suspect it's a cunning tactic for dismissing ridiculous baby names suggested by the male partner. Having said that, I have been convinced I'm having a girl for some weeks.

In 1998, researchers at the University of Tucson in Arizona asked 108 pregnant women to predict the sex of their baby. Seventy-five of these women claimed to have an intuition about it – as either a gut feeling or a dream – and of these women, 60 per cent guessed correctly. When women who had a preference for one sex over the other were removed from this sample, however, the 48 women that remained guessed correctly 71 per cent of the time. Unfortunately, the study was never published, making it hard to scrutinise the details.

As well as all the tales above, of particular interest to Bumpology is the folklore surrounding the shape of the bump and its relation to the baby's sex (Birth, DOI: 10.1046/j.1523-536x.1999.00172.x). But predictions from the bump are no clearer than the other tales, and we decided to plump for a method of sex prediction that's 95 per cent certain. We asked the sonographer to tell us if our baby was going to be a boy or a girl during our 21-week scan last week.

All the old wives' tales got it wrong, bar one: female intuition. I'm happy to say that we're expecting a little girl.

Geddes, Linda. 2010. "Can old wives' tales tell me my baby's sex?". New Scientist. Posted: April 27, 2010. Available online: