Tuesday, August 31, 2010

American Lives: The 'Strange' Tale Of Clarence King

Ada Copeland, an African-American woman born in Georgia just months before that state seceded from the Union, moved to New York City in the mid-1880s. There, she met a man named James Todd. He was light-skinned, handsome, had a good job for an African-American man in that time — a Pullman porter.

They hit it off, and eventually married. They had five children and a house in Brooklyn. Their story would be unremarkable if not for one detail: Nothing James had told his future wife was true.

"James Todd was really not black, he was not a Pullman porter, and he was not even James Todd," author Martha Sandweiss tells NPR's Steve Inskeep. "He was in fact Clarence King, a very well-educated white explorer who was truly a famous man in late 19th century America."

Famously connected, too: "Two of his closest friends were Henry Adams — the grandson and great-grandson of presidents — and John Hay, who had been Abraham Lincoln's private secretary and would become the secretary of state."

Sandweiss' book, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line, examines why King chose to live a double life — and how his experience reflects and represents how Americans, both past and present, have thought about race. In the aftermath of the Civil War, particularly, the U.S. had to recast some of the ways it thought about questions of race and identity.

"Once enslaved people became free people, many Southerners became very anxious about how they could keep black people in their place, so to speak," Sandweiss explains. "How could you recognize a black person if they were no longer an enslaved person?"

Some Southern states came up with various "solutions." Among other things, Sandweiss notes, they passed race laws — laws that said, effectively, "If one of your eight great-grandparents is black, you are black, no matter what your skin looks like."

Paradoxically, Sandweiss says, "those laws meant to 'fix race' made racial designations extremely fluid. And they made it possible for a light-complexioned, blue-eyed, blond-haired man like Clarence King to claim African ancestry when he actually had none at all."

King's "passing" as African-American was extremely unusual. In 19th century America, those assuming a different racial identity were usually looking to move "towards greater social or legal privileges," Sandweiss notes. In other words, they were far more likely to be people of African descent passing as white.

King's case is also remarkable because he didn't inhabit his assumed identity all the time. When he was away from his family, says Sandweiss, King went by his real name and moved easily through white society. In essence, he lived two lives.

"In the city of Manhattan, he was the wittiest after-dinner speaker at the Century Club," Sandweiss says. "He was a leading scientist. But he had a secret life. He would move across the Brooklyn Bridge, perhaps shedding his Century Club suit for his Pullman porter's coat, and go home to his wife Ada. ... And when he moved into Brooklyn and into her house, he became the black man known as James Todd."

Incredibly enough, Sandweiss believes that Ada Todd had no idea her husband was living a double life.

"Marriage to a white man would have been very difficult," she explains. "She would have been ostracized — by other black people, as well as white people." Conversely, given the assumptions and prejudices of the age, "marriage to a very light-skinned African-American would have seemed to her a step up in the world."

And Ada didn't seem to have been concerned about concealing the relationship.

"In 1900, we know from a newspaper account, she gave a party at her house. And this party was covered by the black press," Sandweiss says. "I simply don't believe that if she thought herself married to a white man, she would have allowed that kind of scrutiny of her private life."

Ironically enough, Ada's party was a masquerade.

"If her husband was there, he was absolutely wearing a mask," Sandweiss says, laughing. "And, you know, that's the kind of detail — I'm not a novelist. I couldn't make that up."

Across The Decades, Changing Labels For The Same Lives

The Clarence King/James Todd story "teaches us something about the fluidity of race," Sandweiss says. "Pinning down just what race is has always been difficult."

It was difficult, to be sure, for Ada and Clarence's children. Their two daughters both married white men — and, what's more, each daughter bore witness on official forms that her sister was white as well.

Later, as World War I began, their brothers registered for the draft — and were assigned to all-black Jim Crow regiments. Not long after that, they were living in Brooklyn with their mother and legally classified as mulatto.

"The designations were always shifting," Sandweiss says. Which means a survey of the official boxes available for checking across the decades can be eye-opening.

"In 1880, at the height of the Jim Crow laws and [the] obsession with defining what black people were, the federal government allowed you on your census form to be white, black, mulatto, quadroon or octoroon" — meaning one-quarter or one-eighth black. But just 10 years later, the census' racial designations got a lot narrower.

"You were white, or you were black," says Sandweiss.

The "mulatto" option made a brief reappearance in the early 20th century, but it disappeared again in 1930. From that year until 2000, in fact, the census would not allow respondents to identify themselves as mixed-race.

This back and forth proves that while contemporary Americans may think of changing racial consciousness as being a recent development, debates about what makes a person black, white or something else altogether have been going on for a long time.

For his time — and really for ours — Clarence King was "a racial radical," says Sandweiss. In the 1880s, he imagined and wrote about an American future in which "the composite elements of American populations are melted down into one race alloy — when there are no more Irish or Germans, Negroes and English, but only Americans, belonging to one defined American race."

"His friends never believed him when he said this, but he truly believed that miscegenation, or mixed race, was the hope of America," Sandweiss says. "Very few people believed that in the 1880s."

Visit the site to hear the NPR broadcast of this story. There is also an excerpt from Sandweiss's book at the bottom of the page.

NPR. 2010. "American Lives: The 'Strange' Tale Of Clarence King". NPR. Posted: August 18, 2010. Available online: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129250977&sc=fb&cc=fp

The Book:

Sandweiss, Martha A. 2009. Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. Penguin Press, Penguin Group:USA.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Signing, Singing, Speaking: How Language Evolved

These words you are reading are really just a collection of arbitrary symbols. Yet, after some decoding by your brain, these symbols convey meaning. That's because humans have evolved a brain with an extraordinary knack for language. And language has given us a major advantage over other species.

Yet scientists still don't know when and how we began using language.

"The Earth would not be the way it is if humankind didn't have the ability to communicate, to organize itself, to pass knowledge down from generation to generation," says Jeff Elman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego. "We'd be living in troops of very smart baboons," he says.

Instead, language has allowed us to cooperate in groups of millions instead of dozens, he says. It also lets us share the complex ideas produced by our brains, and it's flexible in ways you don't find in the communication systems of other species.

Bees, for example, use an elaborate communication system to tell one another precisely how to get from the hive to a source of pollen, Elman says. "But that's all it does," he says. "They can't talk about politics. They can't talk about who's having an affair with what other bee — and these are things that we can do."

The Ingredients For Language

There's no single module in our brain that produces language. Instead, language seems to come from lots of different circuits. And many of those circuits also exist in other species.

For example, some birds can imitate human speech. Some monkeys use specific calls to tell one another whether a predator is a leopard, a snake or an eagle. And dogs are very good at reading our gestures and tone of voice. Take all of those bits and you get "exactly the right ingredients for making language possible," Elman says.

But language is a behavior, not a physical attribute. So there is no fossil record of when it first appeared, says David Armstrong, who spent decades studying the origin of language before retiring from Gallaudet University, a university for the deaf and hard of hearing in Washington, D.C.

"We have no way of knowing exactly when or how people began to speak, or in the case of sign language, when they began to sign or to gesture in a way that was complex enough for us to consider it to have been language," Armstrong says.

Language means more than just having a label for an ax — it means being able to convey a message like, "The ax works better if you hold it this way."

There are several competing hypotheses about how that ability emerged.

Signing Before Speaking?

Armstrong says he thinks gestures involving the hands may well have been the earliest form of complex human communication.

Evidence from fossils supports that idea, Armstrong says. It shows that a modern hand capable of sign language evolved not long after our ape-like ancestors stopped walking on their knuckles a few million years ago.

In contrast, the modern vocal tract seems to have arrived much later, Armstrong says.

And the modern version of a gene called FOXP2, which is important for speech and language, didn't appear until perhaps 100,000 years ago, he says

So early human ancestors probably used gestures to communicate, Armstrong says, because "articulate speech of the sort that we employ would have been probably difficult."

Also, sign language would have suited the early human lifestyle, Armstrong says. Groups of hunters could have used visual signs to communicate during a hunt without alerting their prey. It's possible that gestures eventually became associated with sounds, which got more sophisticated as the human vocal tract evolved, Armstrong says.

Even now, there are close links between the brain centers involved in speech and those involved in sign language. Of course, once spoken language appeared, Armstrong says, it would have given our ancestors a huge advantage when they weren't hunting. They would have been able to communicate in the dark and while using hand tools.

Melodic Minds

Another idea about the origin of language is that it came from song. Ani Patel of The Neurosciences Institute in San Diego says this idea just feels right to a lot of people.

"We feel music just taps into this kind of pre-cognitive archaic part of ourselves," he says. So it seems to make sense that music came "before we had this complicated articulate language that we use to do abstract thinking."

Even Charles Darwin "talked about our ancestors singing love songs to each other before we could speak articulate language," Patel says.

And musical ability is similar to language in that you can see aspects of it in other species. Some monkeys can recognize dissonant tones, songbirds use complicated patterns of pitch and rhythm, and a few parrots can even dance to a beat.

And modern humans still combine music and speech in ways that seem innate, Patel says.

When a parent speaks to a baby, "it's this kind of lilting intonation," he says. "There is a lot of rhythm, a lot of exaggerated pitch contours, and people have speculated that this way of communicating with infants may have been one of the important roots to language in our species."

Moreover, our brains process music and language in a similar fashion. But just finding a connection between music and language doesn't prove that music came first, Patel says.

He says it's possible that language emerged without help from either gestures or music. It might have come from a behavior you see in another smart mammal with a long life span: the killer whale.

Scientists have shown that calls from whales in the same pod share a distinctive dialect, which seems to help them identify one another.

Our ancestors also lived in small groups "where affiliation and identity was important," Patel says. So perhaps they began making distinctive sounds for the same reason whales did, he says, and these sounds eventually led to language.

Hamilton, John. "Signing, Singing, Speaking: How Language Evolved". NPR. Posted: August 16, 2010. Available online: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129155123

Sunday, August 29, 2010

High in the Andes, Keeping an Incan Mystery Alive

The route to this village 13,000 feet above sea level runs from the desert coast up hairpin bends, delivering the mix of exhilaration and terror that Andean roads often provide. Condors soar above mist-shrouded crags. Quechua-speaking herders squint at strangers who arrive gasping in the thin air.

Rapaz’s isolation has allowed it to guard an enduring archaeological mystery: a collection of khipus, the cryptic woven knots that may explain how the Incas — in contrast to contemporaries in the Ottoman Empire and China’s Ming dynasty — ruled a vast, administratively complex empire without a written language.

Archaeologists say the Incas, brought down by the Spanish conquest, used khipus — strands of woolen cords made from the hair of animals like llamas or alpacas — as an alternative to writing. The practice may have allowed them to share information from what is now southern Colombia to northern Chile.

Few of the world’s so-called lost writings have proved as daunting to decipher as khipus, scholars say, with chroniclers from the outset of colonial rule bewildered by their inability to crack the code. Researchers at Harvard have been using databases and mathematical models in recent efforts to understand the khipu (pronounced KEE-poo), which means knot in Quechua, the Inca language still spoken by millions in the Andes.

Only about 600 khipus are thought to survive. Collectors spirited many away from Peru decades ago, including a mother lode of about 300 held at Berlin’s Ethnological Museum. Most were thought to have been destroyed after Spanish officials decreed them to be idolatrous in 1583.

But Rapaz, home to about 500 people who subsist by herding llamas and cattle and farming crops like rye, offers a rare glimpse into the role of khipus during the Inca Empire and long afterward. The village houses one of the last known khipu collections still in ritual use.

“I feel my ancestors talking to me when I look at our khipu,” said Marcelina Gallardo, 48, a herder who lives with her children here in the puna, the Andean region above the tree line where temperatures drop below freezing at night and carnivores like the puma prey on herds.

Outside her stone hut one recent morning, Ms. Gallardo nodded toward the stomach lining and skull of a newly butchered llama drying in the sun. She shared a shred of llama charqui, or jerky. “The khipu is a jewel of our life in this place,” she said.

Even here, no one claims to understand the knowledge encoded in the village’s khipus, which are guarded in a ceremonial house called a Kaha Wayi. The khipus’ intricate braids are decorated with knots and tiny figurines, some of which hold even tinier bags filled with coca leaves.

The ability of Rapacinos, as the villagers are called, to decipher their khipus seems to have faded with elders who died long ago, though scholars say the village’s use of khipus may have continued into the 19th century. Testing tends to show dates for Rapaz’s khipus that are well beyond the vanquishing of the Incas, and experts say they differ greatly from Inca-designed khipus.

Even now, Rapacinos conduct rituals in the Kaha Wayi beside their khipus, as described by Frank Salomon, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin who led a recent project to help Rapaz protect its khipus in an earthquake-resistant casing.

One tradition requires the villagers to murmur invocations during the bone-chilling night to the deified mountains surrounding Rapaz, asking for the clouds to let forth rain. Then they peer into burning llama fat and read how its sparks fly, before sacrificing a guinea pig and nestling it in a hole with flowers and coca.

The survival of such rituals, and of Rapaz’s khipus, testifies to the village’s resilience after centuries of hardship. Fading murals on the walls of Rapaz’s colonial church depict devils pulling Indians into the flames of hell for their sins. Feudal landholding families forced the ancestors of many here into coerced labor.

Rapacinos have also faced more recent challenges. A government of leftist military officers in the 1970s created economic havoc with nationalization, sowing chaos exploited by the Maoist guerrillas of the Shining Path who terrorized Rapaz into the 1990s, effectively shutting it off from significant contact with the rest of Peru.

But throughout it all, perhaps because of the village’s high level of cohesion and communal ownership of land and herds, Rapacinos somehow preserved their khipus in their Kaha Wayi.

“They feel that they must protect the khipu collection for the same reason we feel that we have to defend the physical original of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,” Professor Salomon said. “I’ve heard people say, ‘It’s our Constitution, it’s our Magna Carta.’ ”

Despite Rapaz’s forbidding geography, changes in the rhythm of village life here are emerging that may alter the way Rapacinos relate to their khipus.

About a year ago, villagers say, a loudspeaker replaced the town crier. And a new cellphone tower enables Rapacinos to communicate more easily with the outside world. Those changes are largely welcome. More menacing are the rustlers in pickup trucks who steal llamas, cattle and vicuñas — Andean members of the camel family prized for their wool.

The most immediate threat to the khipus may be from Rapaz’s tilt toward Protestantism, a trend witnessed in communities large and small throughout Latin America. About 20 percent of Rapacino families already belong to new Protestant congregations, which view rituals near the khipus as pagan sacrilege.

Far from Rapaz, the pursuit to decipher khipus faces its own challenges, even as new discoveries suggest that they were used in Andean societies long before the Inca Empire emerged as a power in the 15th century.

Scholars say they lack the equivalent for khipus of a Rosetta Stone, the granite slab whose engravings in Greek were used to decipher ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Jesuit manuscripts discovered in Naples, Italy, had seemed to achieve something similar for khipus, but are now thought to be forgeries.

In Rapaz, villagers still guard their khipus the way descendants of those in the West might someday protect shreds of the Bible or other documents if today’s civilizations were to crumble.

“They must remain here, because they belong to our people,” said Fidencio Alejo Falcón, 42. “We will never surrender them.”

[Andrea Zárate contributed reporting from Lima, Peru.]

Romero, Simon. 2010. "High in the Andes, Keeping an Incan Mystery Alive". New York Times. Posted: August 16, 2010. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/17/world/americas/17peru.html?_r=1

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Language teaching: Entre nous, the idea we need only English is totally passé

Without a commitment to language teaching we condemn our children to a tongue-tied future

It is a curiously English arrogance to expect the world to understand what we say, but to feel little obligation to reciprocate. Our stumbling efforts at languages other than our own have long been a national embarrassment; they threaten to become a national disgrace. We upbraid the English football manager for his difficulties with phrasing, while never stopping to think that in much of the world we are considered a nation of Capellos.

The ineffectiveness of language teaching in schools, which has left several generations hardly able to mumble a sentence of French or German, has been compounded by the removal of compulsory language classes in the curriculum beyond the age of 14. The promise to embed languages in primary schools has been neither funded nor fulfilled, so our largely monoglot island retreats further from the nuance of other nations.

The reductionist arguments are well-rehearsed: that English has become a universal tongue; that Google will soon perfect touch-of-a-button translation; that grammar and syntax are going the way of text and Twitter. What chance of trying to get young heads round diphthongs and datives?

Those arguments ignore what languages are: discrete and rooted codes of thought and feeling, subtly different ways of describing experience. To have only one, as Michael Hofmann eloquently argues on these pages, is to betray not just a failure of comprehension, but of imagination. "Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own," Goethe wrote.

There is much talk of subjects that should make their way on to the GCSE syllabus: parenting, civic understanding and the rest. Such concerns are predicated on an anxiety that, despite new technologies, young people are ceasing to engage with the world or build communities. All those connections begin and end in language; without a commitment to its possibilities, we condemn our children to a tongue-tied future, in which a large part of the global conversation will end up passing them by.
Article Number Two.
To speak another language isn't just cultured, it's a blow against stupidity

A leading translator argues that if we rely solely on English we'll lose the curiosity that drove Milton and Orwell

n 2004, the Labour government removed modern languages from the "core curriculum". That must be "core" as in "apple core". For it meant the study of a foreign language is no longer compulsory at schools past age 14. Theoretically, primary schools are supposed to introduce languages instead, but that's like the road sign with the big black arrow pointing one way and the skinny little red arrow going the other. A classic "mixed message", with a brute practical impact and a feeble sign of wouldn't-it-be-nice idealism-on-the-cheap.

So what happened? Schools and schoolchildren ditch languages like there's no tomorrow. Just as we've become adept at finding the shortest and the quickest and the most economical, so we can sniff out anything that's not a doss. "Grammar? Pronunciation? Different alphabet? Spelling? Accents? Umlauts? Ooh, no thanks – don't fancy that." The "fascination of what's difficult" may be Yeats, but it's a long time since it's had much pull as an idea. Modern languages have become, in the awful semi-euphemism "twilight subjects" – you study them on your own, after school's out.

Auf Wiedersehen, Dept, as the witticism goes. (German suffers especially badly. Numbers taking it have halved in seven years.) At 60% of state schools, three-quarters of 14-year-olds are not taking a modern language. Meanwhile, the take-up in primary schools is mysteriously delayed. Language teachers are not so easy to find and, indeed, where would they come from, given that no one's studying languages any more? Employers are becoming unhappy; their science and business and IT agenda has been overplayed.

It turns out that these "redundant" languages can be jolly useful after all; only now it's much easier to find foreign nationals with English than Brits with another language. EU jobs earmarked for Britons are left unfilled because the entrance exams – another "French plot" – are supposed to be taken in a second language; the new foreign secretary duly harrumphs across to Brussels to level the playing field (ie, remove these irritating goalposts) with that mixture of put-upon and self-righteous that we get from our politicians when they ought to be feeling and expressing straightforward shame.

It looks like an education problem, but it's not an education problem. Education is just where things get shunted that society doesn't want to deal with or can't deal with. A dangerous dearth of respect in society? Let them teach it at school (don't ask me how, call it civics). That drearily prevalent, invertedly snobbish contempt for articulacy? More, better English lessons. An insufficiently integrated immigrant population? History. No sense of other people, other cultures, other languages? Go back to teaching the languages.

Education is a field hospital, where the little troops are patched up and turned round and sent back to fight in the great economic war that seems to be all that's left of life. Respect, articulateness and awareness of others are all related and what greater disrespect can there be than not speaking to others in their languages? Not even thinking of it? Not even being embarrassed about not thinking it? Junking the requirement to learn, at 14, just past the age of crayons. How much respect does that bespeak? How much respect does that even allow? How can you hope to understand others while requiring them to speak to you in their English?

On the global political level, think of the blundering, insular, peremptory and oddly irrelevant posture of the Anglo-American powers, how spooked and baffled and disliked they are over so much of the world. Think of the harping on about the "special relationship" – not so much special, as the only one possible for two such done-up wallflowers. Surely, apart from anything else, with more language-learning, there would have been fewer wars over the past decades?

On the individual level, think of the loss of possibility, the preordained narrowness of a life encased in one language, as if you were only ever allowed one, as if it were your skin in which you were born. Or your cage. That's your lot. When the great Australian poet Les Murray said: "We are a language species", he didn't mean English. We think and are and have our being in, and in and out of languages – and where's the joy and the richness, if you don't even have two to rub together? If you don't have another language, you are condemned to occupy the same positions, the same phrases, all your life. It's harder to outwit yourself, harder to doubt yourself, in just one language. It's harder to play.

There is this strange cluelessness of the English. The country is so rooted, so settled, one thinks it has survived everything others can throw at it, but it won't survive its own wildly irresponsible experiments on itself. The language, so comfortable, so free of rules, so smashed and contracted and knocked into a cocked hat. Who any longer knows the difference between "its" and "it's" or "may" and "might"? Who can spell "potatoes"? Not a greengrocer, that's for sure. Or a vice-president. Let's not even talk about vocabulary. English will become deformed and opaque if those using it haven't studied other languages. Already Browne, Milton, Gibbon, Ruskin, perhaps soon the much-invoked Orwell, are unreachably foreign. It's only the study of other languages that brought them within reach.

The case for learning another language, or having another language, though, is not that you need it to use and understand your own. Nor is it the banal, utilitarian one that it's good to be able to order a beer or a room in another country. It's not the vulgar economic one that it's good to be able to schmooze your takeover target or your foreign boss. It's that you're not making enough of your individual (or collective) human potential if you allow yourself to be enclosed by one language.

The so-called "world language", English, is spoken as a first language by just 7% of the world's inhabitants; 75% of people speak no English. Languages are some of the oldest, deepest, uncanniest, most thoughtful human inventions. A disdain for, or a lack of interest in, all the others does not seem to me to be a civilised or even a tolerable state of affairs.

Foreigners will go on learning English, regardless. The British have an obligation, it seems to me, to reciprocate. Call it what you like – mutuality, courtesy, fair exchange, good practice. Not to do so is in every sense hateful. A self-exemption. A trusting in force and market, where – for once – force and market do not apply. A departure from international polity. A terminal and blazingly wrong conceit.

The Guardian. 2010. "Language teaching: Entre nous, the idea we need only English is totally passé". The Guardian. Posted: August 15, 2010. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/15/observer-editorial-language-teaching-schools

Hofman, Michael. 2010. "To speak another language isn't just cultured, it's a blow against stupidity". The Guardian. Posted: August 15, 2010. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/aug/15/michael-hofmann-learn-another-language

Friday, August 27, 2010

Linguist on mission to save Inuit 'fossil language' disappearing with the ice

Cambridge researcher will live in Arctic and document Inughuit culture and language threatened by climate change

Stephen Pax Leonard will soon swap the lawns, libraries and high tables of Cambridge University for three months of darkness, temperatures as low as -40C and hunting seals for food with a spear.

But the academic researcher, who leaves Britain this weekend, has a mission: to take the last chance to document the language and traditions of an entire culture.

"I'm extremely excited but, yes, also apprehensive," Leonard said as he made the final preparations for what is, by anyone's standards, the trip of a lifetime.

Leonard, an anthropological linguist, is to spend a year living with the Inughuit people of north-west Greenland, a tiny community whose members manage to live a similar hunting and gathering life to their ancestors. They speak a language – the dialect is called Inuktun – that has never fully been written down, and they pass down their stories and traditions orally.

"Climate change means they have around 10 or 15 years left," said Leonard. "Then they'll have to move south and in all probability move in to modern flats." If that happens, an entire language and culture is likely to disappear.

There is no Inughuit written literature but a very strong and "distinctive, intangible cultural heritage", according to Leonard. "If their language dies, their heritage and identity will die with it. The aim of this project is to record and describe it and then give it back to the communities themselves in a form that future generations can use and understands."

The Inughuits thought they were the world's only inhabitants until an expedition led by the Scottish explorer John Ross came across them in 1818.

Unlike other Inuit communities they were not significantly influenced by the arrival of Christianity in Greenland – so they retain elements of a much older, shamanic culture – and their life is not very different now to how it always has been. Many of the men spend weeks away from home hunting seals, narwhal, walruses, whales and other mammals. And while they have tents, they still build igloos when conditions get really bad.

Their language is regarded as something of a linguistic "fossil" and one of the oldest and most "pure" Inuit dialects.

Leonard was yesterday saying goodbye to family and friends in Eastbourne. On Sunday he flies to Copenhagen – "it's the only place you can buy a Greenlandic-Danish dictionary" – and then it's off to Greenland, taking two internal flights to get to the main Inughuit settlement in Qaanaaq on the north-west coast of Greenland, north of Baffin Bay.

There, Leonard expects to hone his linguistic skills and build contacts for seven or eight months before moving to the most traditional Inughuit outpost in Siorapaluk, the most northern permanently inhabited settlement in the world, where about 70 Inughuit live. It will he here that Leonard hopes to hear the storytelling that lies at the heart of the culture.

Leonard's interest in the Inughuits began 10 years ago when he read Marie Herbert's book The Snow People, an account of life with the Inughuits, but it is only recently that he learned how imminent the threat is to their way of life and their culture.

"I just hadn't realised how endangered the community was and this whole culture could simply die, disappear. Normally languages die out because it is parents deciding they don't want their children to speak it."

Leonard, who is 36, will have to adapt to many things, not least the extreme temperatures. Although the average temperature is-25C, it can plummet to -40 or soar to zero in the summer. Then there is the arctic darkness, with the sun expected to go down on 24 October and not rise again until 8 March. It is this time of year that elders talk and pass on their stories and poetry.

Nevertheless, Leonard admitted: "I don't really know how I'm going to deal with it, to be honest."

There appears to be a certain inevitability to the Inughuits being soon forced from their ancient homeland to southern Greenland, making Leonard's mission all the more pressing. Climate change is already leading to a noticeable reduction in seal numbers and the ice will soon become so thin that it will be impossible to use dog sleds.

Leonard intends to record the Inughuits and, rather than writing a grammar or dictionary, produce an "ethnography of speaking" to show how their language and culture are interconnected. The recordings will be digitised and archived and returned to the community in their own language.

"These communities, which could be just years from fragmentation, want their cultural plight to be known to the rest of the world," he said.

Although the climate change catastrophe facing the Arctic is well documented and the Inughuits are visited frequently, Leonard hopes his visit will be more meaningful than others.

"One thing I have been told is that they are tired of journalists popping in and reporting how awful it is that the icebergs are melting and then that's it, so they are keen that someone comes and lives with them and reports back."

At the bottom of the article there is a nice collection of factoids about endangered languages. Check it out.

Brown, Mark. 2010. "Linguist on mission to save Inuit 'fossil language' disappearing with the ice". The Guardian. Posted: August 13, 2010. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/aug/13/inuit-language-culture-threatened

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mysteries Abound in WTC Ship Remains

On July 12 the remains of an 18th-century ship were found buried 20 feet below street level at the site of the World Trade Center in New York City. The question is -- how did they get there?

Nobody knows for sure -- yet. And even though there are timbers from the front half of the ship, nobody can identify what kind of ship it is because, among other mysteries, it’s not a design we’ve seen before.

This is an honest-to-goodness historical mystery and we're going to follow it until the end.

Yesterday I spoke with Patricia Samford, Director of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab, where the wood is now being prepared for scientific study. She said at the moment they’re cleaning and prepping the ship's partial skeleton (partial, because the back half of the ship is missing) ahead of a slew of scientific analysis.

They're no stranger to this kind of work. They've worked with the USS Monitor, the CSS Alabama, Blackbeard's Queen Anne's Revenge and they'll probably help with anything found in the USS Scorpion dig site in Maryland's Patuxent River.

We’ll likely pay the lab a visit -- with video camera in tow -- once the heavy lifting gets underway. In the meantime, I’ll report back with any further developments as Patricia and her crew try to learn the back story of this ship. I’ll also be reaching out to *you* though various social media means to see if we can answer any questions you might have directly.

And while dead men may tell no tales, here's just a taste of what long-forgotten ship timbers can tell us:
  • *Where the Trees Came From: Since the wood itself can be identified by geography, they can tell where in the U.S. the wood was grown.

  • *When The Tree Was Cut Down: Once they know where the wood came from, they can compare tree rings from other wood samples from that area and identify what year the tree was cut down.

  • *Where The Ship Sailed: Specific species of woodworms live in specific areas of the ocean. Ships can pick them up like passport stamps as they enter various ports. By looking at what types of woodworms left traces in the ship timbers, one can figure out which ports the ship visited long ago.

  • See this related news story at the Washington Post.

    Williams, James. 2010. "Mysteries Abound in WTC Ship Remains". Discovery News. Posted: August 12, 2010. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/history/mysteries-abound-in-wtc-ship-remains.html

    Wednesday, August 25, 2010

    Culture matters in suicidal behavior patterns and prevention, psychologist says

    People adopt self-destructive behaviors expected within cultures

    Women and girls in the United States consider and engage in suicidal behavior more often than men and boys, but die of suicide at lower rate – a gender paradox enabled by U.S. cultural norms of gender and suicidal behavior, according to a psychologist who spoke Thursday at the 118th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.

    "Everywhere, suicidal behavior is culturally scripted," said Silvia S. Canetto, PhD, of Colorado State University. "Women and men adopt the self-destructive behaviors that are expected of them within their cultures."

    While the gender paradox of suicidal behavior is common, particularly in industrialized countries, it is not universal, she said. In China, for example, women die of suicide at higher rates than men. In Finland and Ireland, men and women engage in nonfatal suicidal behavior at similar rates. There are more exceptions to the gender paradox of suicidal behavior when one examines female/male patterns of suicidality by age or culture, she said.

    In some cultures, particularly in industrialized countries, such as the United States and Canada, suicide is considered a masculine act and an "unnatural" behavior for women, Canetto said at a symposium entitled "New Perspectives on Suicide Theory, Research and Prevention."

    "In these countries, the dominant view is that `successful, completed' suicide is the masculine way to do suicide. In the U.S., women who kill themselves are considered more deviant than men. By contrast, in other cultures, killing oneself is considered feminine behavior (and is more common in women)," she said, citing, among others, the Aguaruna people of Peru, who view suicide as an indication of a feminine inability to control strong emotions. Yet in other cultures, men's and women's suicidal behavior is similar. For example, in Sri Lanka, the same types of issues (problems with spouses, parents or in-laws) are typically associated with both women's and men's suicides.

    "A broad cultural perspective shows that women and men do not consistently differ in terms of the kinds of suicidal behavior they engage in, or with regard to the circumstances or the motives of their suicidal behavior," she said. "When women and men differ with regard to some dimensions of suicidal behavior, the meaning and salience of these differences vary from one social group to another, one culture to another, one historical period to another, depending on local scripts of gender and suicidal behavior." The cultural variability in patterns and scripts of women's and men's suicidal behavior calls for "culturally situated suicidality research and prevention," Canetto said.

    At the same symposium, James L. Werth Jr., PhD, of Radford University, discussed reasons why the suicide rate in rural America is consistently higher than it is in urban areas. In addition to general suicide risk factors, such as mental illness, a family history of suicide and feelings of hopelessness, rural residents may be more isolated, be less willing to ask for help and have increased access to lethal means such as guns and pesticides, he said.

    "County by county or state by state, the top areas in terms of suicide are rural," Werth said. "The top five states are Alaska, Montana, New Mexico, Wyoming and Nevada, whereas D.C., New Jersey, New York Connecticut and Massachusetts have the lowest rates."

    Some of the possible contributing factors to the higher rates in rural America are more poverty, higher unemployment and lack of access to treatment resources, Werth said. "People are not going to drive five hours to visit a counselor," he said.

    In suggesting possible solutions to the rural suicide rate, Werth said greater access to broadband would help by increasing access to resources, as will integration of mental health practitioners into primary care.

    "Even though people live farther apart, there may be stronger connections – they need to rely on one another," he said. "There may be longstanding relationships among families and more religiosity …. we need to build on those existing qualities and strengths and beliefs."

    EurekAlert. 2010. "Culture matters in suicidal behavior patterns and prevention, psychologist says". EurekAlert. Posted: August 12, 2010. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-08/apa-cmi080510.php

    Symposium: "New Perspectives on Suicide Theory, Research, and Prevention"
    Session: 1219, 2:00 – 3:50 PM, Thursday, Aug. 12, San Diego Convention Center, Mezzanine Level, Room 16A
    Presentation: "Suicidal Behavior Around the World: Why Gender Matters,"
    Silvia Sara Canetto, PhD, Colorado State University, USA
    Presentation: "Suicide in Rural Areas," James L. Werth, PhD, Radford University

    Tuesday, August 24, 2010

    From Grunting To Gabbing: Why Humans Can Talk

    Listen to the story.

    Most of us do it every day without even thinking about it, yet talking is a uniquely human ability. Not only do humans have evolved brains that process and produce language and syntax, but we also can make a range of sounds and tones that we use to form hundreds of thousands of words.

    To make these sounds — and talk — humans use the same basic apparatus that chimps have: lungs, throat, voice box, tongue and lips. But we're the ones singing opera and talking on the phone. That is because over thousands of years, humans have evolved a longer throat and smaller mouth better suited for shaping sound.

    Vocal Acrobatics

    Humans have flexibility in the mouth, tongue and lips that lets us form a wide range of precise sounds that chimps simply can't produce, and some have developed this complex voice instrument more than others. Take opera tenor Gran Wilson. He has toured the world singing and now teaches at the University of Maryland at College Park and at Towson University. In a split second, Wilson can go from his talking voice to full vibrato, enunciating each sound with graceful clarity as his voice fills the room.

    He can do that because of his exceptional control of the Rube Goldberg-like apparatus that makes speech — from lungs to larynx to lips. It works like this: When we talk or sing, we release controlled puffs of air from our lungs through our larynx, or voice box. The larynx is about the size of a walnut. In men, you can see it — it's the Adam's apple. It's mostly made up of cartilage and muscle.

    Stretched across the top are the vocal chords, which are two folds of mucous membrane. When we expel air from the lungs and push it through the larynx, the vocal chords vibrate, making the sound.

    "The surface area of the chords that's actually vibrating is probably half of your smallest fingernail — a very small amount of flesh buzzing," Wilson says.

    The frequency of this buzzing is what gives sound the pitch. We change the pitch by tightening the vocal chords to make our voice higher and loosening them to make a lower sound.

    "If you take a balloon and blow it up, you can manipulate the pitch by pulling the neck," Wilson says. The same principle applies to our vocal chords.

    The vibrating air gets made into a specific sound — like an ee or ah or tuh or puh — by how we shape our throat, mouth, tongue and lips. Fusing these sounds together to form words and sentences is a complex dance. It requires an enormous amount of fine motor control.

    "Speech, by the way, is the most complex motor activity that any person acquires — except [for] maybe violinists or acrobats. It takes about 10 years for children to get to the adult levels," says Dr. Philip Lieberman, a professor of cognitive and linguistic science at Brown University who has studied the evolution of speech for more than five decades.

    How We Got Here

    Lieberman says that, looking back at human evolution, it's evident that after humans diverged from an early ape ancestor, the shape of the vocal tract changed. Over 100,000 years ago, the human mouth started getting smaller and protruding less. We developed a more flexible tongue that could be controlled more precisely, and a longer neck.

    The reason the neck started getting longer, Lieberman says, is that the tongue moved down, pulling the larynx lower, requiring more room for it all in the neck. "The first time we see human skulls — fossils — that have everything in place is about 50,000 years ago where the neck is long enough, the mouth is short enough, that they could have had a vocal tract like us," he says.

    But with these important changes came a new risk.

    "The downside of this was that because you're pulling the larynx all the way down, when you eat, all the food has to go past the larynx — and miss it — and get into the esophagus," Lieberman says. "That's why people choke to death."

    So we evolved this crazy airway that allows us to choke to death more efficiently — all to further our ability to make more sounds and speak.

    Controlled Breath

    "[Humans] have a number of vowels, a number of consonants. A monkey will just say 'uh, uh, uh,' " says Lieberman, mimicking a monkey's breathy vocalizations.

    Not only can humans make more sounds, but we also can control how we string them together. And that is because of our amazing and precise breath control. Monkeys can't control their inhale and exhale the way we can — they can only make short sounds a few seconds long before they have to take another breath.

    But we humans can control our breath to an astonishing degree, Lieberman says.

    "One of the interesting things about speech — and singing — is we go through a very complicated process so that we have an even air pressure in our lungs," Lieberman says. Our lungs are like a set of balloons, he says. Except, unlike a balloon, which gets very low pressure when it's nearly deflated, we can control how quickly — or slowly — our lungs release air.

    "When we talk, we first guess the length of the sentence we are going to produce," Lieberman says. "This is quite amazing — and we hold back on the lungs with the muscles. And they have this complicated function where as the lungs deflate, you hold back less and less and less. So you end up with a more or less even air pressure."

    If we didn't do that, the pitch would rapidly descend as we got to the end of the lung balloon, and we'd blow our vocal chords apart with high pressure.

    These changes didn't evolve overnight, but it's hard to pinpoint when we moved beyond primitive grunts and started talking. Fossils can only tell us so much about the shape of the vocal tract because much of it is soft tissue. But we can see what the human vocal tract shape has allowed us to do that our primate relatives can't.

    Masterson, Kathleen. 2010. "From Grunting To Gabbing: Why Humans Can Talk". NPR. Posted: August 11, 2010. Available online: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129083762

    Monday, August 23, 2010

    Stone Age remains are Britain's earliest house

    Archaeologists working on Stone Age remains at a site in North Yorkshire say it contains Britain's earliest surviving house

    Archaeologists working on Stone Age remains at a site in North Yorkshire say it contains Britain's earliest surviving house.

    A team from the Universities of Manchester and York reveal today that the home dates to at least 8,500 BC - when Britain was part of continental Europe.

    The research has been made possible by a grant from the Natural Environment Research Council, early excavation funding from the British Academy, and from English Heritage who are about to schedule the site as a National Monument . The Vale of Pickering Research Trust has also provided support for the excavation works.

    The research team unearthed the 3.5 metres circular structure next to an ancient lake at Star Carr, near Scarborough, a site comparable in archaeological importance to Stonehenge.

    The team are currently excavating a large wooden platform next to the lake, made of up timbers which have been split and hewn. The platform is the earliest evidence of carpentry in Europe.

    A large tree trunk has also been uncovered by the team. Despite being 11,000 years old it is well preserved with its bark still intact.

    The house predates what was previously Britain's oldest known dwelling at Howick, Northumberland, by at least 500 years.

    Dr Chantal Conneller and Barry Taylor from The University of Manchester with Dr Nicky Milner from the University of York have been working at Star Carr since 2004.

    The house, which was first excavated by the team two years ago, had post holes around a central hollow which would have been filled with organic matter such as reeds, and possibly a fireplace.

    Universities and Science Minister, David Willetts, said: "This exciting discovery marries world-class research with the lives of our ancestors. It brings out the similarities and differences between modern life and the ancient past in a fascinating way, and will change our perceptions for ever. I congratulate the research team and look forward to their future discoveries."

    The site was inhabited by hunter gatherers from just after the last ice age, for a period of between 200 and 500 years.

    According to the team, they migrated from an area now under the North Sea, hunting animals including deer, wild boar, elk and enormous wild cattle known as auroch.

    Though they did not cultivate the land, the inhabitants did burn part of the landscape to encourage animals to eat shoots and they also kept domesticated dogs.

    Dr Milner said: "This is a sensational discovery and tells us so much about the people who lived at this time.

    "From this excavation, we gain a vivid picture of how these people lived. For example, it looks like the house may have been rebuilt at various stages.

    "It is also likely there was more than one house and lots of people lived here.

    "The platform is made of hewn and split timbers; the earliest evidence of this type of carpentry in Europe. And the artefacts of antler, particularly the antler head-dresses, are intriguing as they suggest ritual activities."

    Dr Conneller said: "This changes our ideas of the lives of the first settlers to move back into Britain after the end of the last Ice Age.

    "We used to think they moved around a lot and left little evidence. Now we know they built large structures and were very attached to particular places in the landscape."

    Barry Taylor added: "The ancient lake is a hugely important archaeological landscape many miles across.

    "To an inexperienced eye, the area looks unremarkable - just a series of little rises in the landscape.

    "But using special techniques I have been able to reconstruct the landscape as it was then.

    "The peaty nature of the landscape has enabled the preservation of many treasures including the paddle of a boat, the tips of arrows and red deer skull tops which were worn as masks.

    "But the peat is drying out, so it's a race against time to continue the work before the archaeological finds decay."

    English Heritage recently entered into a management agreement with the farmers who own the land at Star Carr to help protect the archaeological remains.

    Keith Emerick, English Heritage Inspector of Ancient Monuments, explained:

    "We are grateful to the landowners for entering into this far reaching agreement.

    "Star Carr is internationally important, but the precious remains are very fragile.

    "A new excavation currently underway will tell us more about their state of preservation and will help us decide whether a larger scale dig is necessary to recover information before it is lost for ever."

    EurekAlert. 2010. "Stone Age remains are Britain's earliest house". EurekAlert. Posted: August 10, 2010. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-08/uom-sar081010.php

    Sunday, August 22, 2010

    "Thor's Hammer" Found in Viking Graves

    Long dismissed as accidental additions to Viking graves, prehistoric "thunderstones"—fist-size stone tools resembling the Norse god Thor's hammerhead—were actually purposely placed as good-luck talismans, archaeologists say.

    Using fire-starting rock such as flint, Stone Age people originally created the stones to serve as axes. But the Vikings, whose Iron Age heyday lasted from about A.D. 800 to 1050, saw the primitive tools as lightning repellent.

    Because the axes predate the Viking age by thousands of years, archaeologists have long seen the stones as random artifacts, perhaps stirred up from earlier, lower burials or dropped in centuries after the Viking era.

    But now "we have made enough discoveries of Stone Age artifacts in younger graves to say that they make a clear pattern," archaeologist Eva Thäte, of the University of Chester in the U.K., said in a statement.

    Vikings Superstitious?

    To solve the thunderstone mystery, Thäte and fellow archaeologist Olle Hemdorff excavated Viking graves in Scandinavia and trawled through catalogs of grave goods from hundreds of Viking burials—all dating to the Iron Age (about 600 A.D. to 1000 A.D.).

    For example, in Scandinavia the researchers found about ten Viking burials that held thunderstones up to 5,000 years older than the graves themselves—including a thunderstone in a previously untouched, fifth-century A.D. stone coffin.

    In addition, what might be called miniature thunderstones—small, rounded-off flint "eggs"—have been found in Viking graves in Iceland, where flint doesn't occur naturally.

    "These people must have gone to all the effort of bringing these goods over from Norway, on an exceedingly dangerous boat journey," Hemdorff, of the University of Stavanger in Norway, told National Geographic News.

    "There is no rational explanation as to why they should appear in the graves—the pebbles were far too small to be useful in any way," Hemdorff said. "It shows that these stones had very special significance and suggests that these people were highly superstitious."

    Mighty Thor Connection

    The prehistoric stones' "special significance" to Vikings may have derived from legends of Thor, the Norse thunder god said to create lightning with his battle hammer, Mjöllnir.

    To the Vikings, "three things seem to be important when choosing thunderstones," Hemdorff said.

    "The form had to be similar to an ax or a hammer—that is, a ground stone or flint. The stone had to have 'flaming' properties, which flint and quartz have. And all the stones were damaged with the edge chipped off—'proof' that they fell from the sky," he added.

    "Thor's mission was to protect gods and people against evil and chaos," he said in a statement. "It was therefore believed that Thor's rocks protected houses and people."

    Now the new grave survey suggests the rocks were believed to protect souls too, the archaeologists say.

    Far-Flung Phenomenon?

    Similar discoveries in United Kingdom graves suggest that Vikings weren't the only ancient Europeans who saw millennia-old tools as accoutrements for the afterlife.

    "In southeast Britain the Lexden Tumulus—a wealthy late Iron Age burial dating to just before the Roman conquest—included within it not only rich contemporary imports from the classical world but also a Bronze [ax] dating to the Bronze age," said John Creighton, an Iron Age expert from the University of Reading in the U.K.

    When such out-of-date artifacts are found randomly at archaeological sites, "it is easy to explain them away as residual objects," Creighton said. But when they're found "sealed in graves, as they occasionally are, they are clearly treasured objects."

    Archaeologist Tim Champion thinks Iron Age people ritually buried prehistoric tools to commemorate more than just deaths.

    In southern England grinding stones and Stone Age stone axes have been found in Iron Age ritual pits that aren't associated with burial but instead may have been used, for example, to mark the end of an occupation of a site, said Champion, of the University of Southampton in the U.K.

    "They are a real oddity and were certainly placed there deliberately, but we're not sure why," he said. "I suspect that these people were not so very different from us, and they would have had superstitious folk beliefs."

    Ravilious, Kate. 2010. ""Thor's Hammer" Found in Viking Graves". National Geographic Daily News. Posted: August 10, 2010. Available online:

    Saturday, August 21, 2010

    Ancient Human-Bone Sculptors Turned Relatives Into Tools?

    Members of a pre-Aztec civilization used human bones—likely from their freshly dead relatives—to make buttons, combs, needles, spatulas, and dozens of other everyday utensils, Mexican archeologists say.

    The discovery comes from a new analysis of 5,000 bone fragments found in the ancient city of Teotihuacan, a large archaeological site about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Mexico City (see map).

    Femurs (thigh bones), tibias (shinbones), and human skulls were transformed into household items shortly after death, noted team leader Abigail Meza Peñaloza of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

    "The Teotihuacanos used different stones as knives to finely remove the flesh and muscles from the bones," Meza Peñaloza said. The bodies had to be as fresh as possible, she added, because after a person dies, his or her bone quickly becomes too fragile to sculpt.

    Rebecca Storey, a Teotihuacan expert at the University of Houston, said that making utensils out of human bone fits with the ancient culture.

    "They were not particularly afraid of death," said Storey, who was not involved in the discovery. "They buried the members of their family under and around their houses and manipulated their bones."

    "Bone Factory" Used Only Adult Remains

    The Teotihuacan metropolis in Mexico, also known as the City of the Gods, is one of the largest ancient urban centers in the Americas. The city thrived between about 100 B.C. and A.D. 650. (See "New Digs Decoding Mexico's 'Pyramids of Fire.'")

    The pre-Hispanic culture is known to have practiced human and animal sacrifices, as evidenced by bones buried in the city's temples that are thought to have been offerings to the gods. (See pictures of sacrificial victims unearthed in Teotihuacan.)

    The newly analyzed bones were found across a neighborhood of the city called Ventilla. The fragments, which date to the Classic period—the city's heyday, between A.D. 200 and 400—show only marks left by the defleshing process and no signs of ritual sacrifice, the UNAM researchers found.

    What's more, the bones used to make the artifacts appear to be from locals, who were traditionally buried under the floors of their family homes.

    "When I compared frontal sinuses—a bone so distinctive and unique that it works like a fingerprint—used in the artifacts with those from buried skeletons, they were identical," Meza Peñaloza said.

    The bone shapes didn't match samples from skeletons of sacrificed foreigners, indicating that the bone artifacts were made from fellow Teotihuacanos.

    The archaeologists also found that artifacts were made only from the bones of adults in their prime, perhaps because childrens' bones were too fragile, while the bones of the elderly might carry diseases such as osteoporosis.

    "They preferred the bones of healthy adults who appear to have died of natural causes. But life expectancy at the time was short—people would die in their 30s," Meza Peñaloza said.

    Keeping Relatives' Gifts Alive?

    For now the UNAM archaeologists don't know who was working at the "bone factory" or what was done with the removed flesh.

    And Meza Peñaloza said it's not yet possible to link individual bone artifacts with particular households. But her team does plan to run an isotope analysis to figure out where the people whose bones became utensils likely lived.

    By looking at the types of strontium and oxygen atoms found in adult teeth, for example, the researchers can tell where a person drank water, and thus whether they lived most of their lives in Teotihuacan or had moved there from coastal communities.

    Meza Peñaloza's team also hopes the find will eventually help archaeologists better understand the symbolism of using bone to make housewares.

    "Let's say that an arm bone from someone who was a good tailor was made into a needle to keep the gift alive in a certain way, or that someone used a button from a grandmother to remember her," she said.

    "It's possible, but we cannot be sure of it at this moment."

    There are some excellent links to this article on its homepage.

    Valle, Sabrina. 2010. "Ancient Human-Bone Sculptors Turned Relatives Into Tools?". National Geographic Daily News. Posted: August 10, 2010. Available online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/08/100810-science-archaeology-ancient-mexico-human-bones-teotihuacan/

    Friday, August 20, 2010

    Ancient language mystery deepens

    A linguistic mystery has arisen surrounding symbol-inscribed stones in Scotland that predate the formation of the country itself.

    The stones are believed to have been carved by members of an ancient people known as the Picts, who thrived in what is now Scotland from the 4th to the 9th Centuries.

    These symbols, researchers say, are probably "words" rather than images.

    But their conclusions have raised criticism from some linguists.

    The research team, led by Professor Rob Lee from Exeter University in the UK, examined symbols on more than 200 carved stones.

    They used a mathematical method to quantify patterns contained within the symbols, in an effort to find out if they conveyed meaning.

    Professor Lee described the basis of this method.

    "If I told you the first letter of a word in English was 'Q' and asked you to predict the next letter, you would probably say 'U' and you would probably be right," he explained.

    Pictish stone Many of the stones are believed to have been carved during the 6th Century

    A linguistic mystery has arisen surrounding symbol-inscribed stones in Scotland that predate the formation of the country itself.

    The stones are believed to have been carved by members of an ancient people known as the Picts, who thrived in what is now Scotland from the 4th to the 9th Centuries.

    These symbols, researchers say, are probably "words" rather than images.

    But their conclusions have raised criticism from some linguists.

    The research team, led by Professor Rob Lee from Exeter University in the UK, examined symbols on more than 200 carved stones.

    They used a mathematical method to quantify patterns contained within the symbols, in an effort to find out if they conveyed meaning.

    Professor Lee described the basis of this method.

    "If I told you the first letter of a word in English was 'Q' and asked you to predict the next letter, you would probably say 'U' and you would probably be right," he explained.

    "But if I told you the first letter was 'T' you would probably take many more guesses to get it right - that's a measure of uncertainty."

    Using the symbols, or characters, from the stones, Prof Lee and his colleagues measured this feature of so-called "character to character uncertainty".

    They concluded that the Pictish carvings were "symbolic markings that communicated information" - that these were words rather than pictures.

    Prof Lee first published these conclusions in April of this year. But a recent article by French linguist Arnaud Fournet opened up the mystery once again.

    Mr Fournet said that, by examining Pictish carvings as if they were "linear symbols", and by applying the rules of written language to them, the scientists could have produced biased results.

    He told BBC News: "It looks like their method is transforming two-dimensional glyphs into a one-dimensional string of symbols.

    "The carvings must have some kind of purpose - some kind of meanings, but... it's very difficult to determine if their conclusion is contained in the raw data or if it's an artefact of their method."

    Mr Fournet also suggested that the researchers' methods should be tested and verified for other ancient symbols.

    "The line between writing and drawing is not as clear cut as categorised in the paper," Mr Fournet wrote in his article. "On the whole the conclusion remains pending."

    But Prof Lee says that his most recent analysis of the symbols, which has yet to be published, has reinforced his original conclusions.

    He also stressed he did not claim that the carvings were a full and detailed record of the Pictish language.

    "The symbols themselves are a very constrained vocabulary," he said. "But that doesn't mean that Pictish had such a constrained vocabulary."

    He said the carvings might convey the same sort of meaning as a list, perhaps of significant names, which would explain the limited number of words used.

    "It's like finding a menu for a restaurant [written in English], and that being your sole repository of the English language."

    Gill, Victoria. 2010. "Ancient language mystery deepens". BBC News. Posted: August 10, 2010. Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-10924743

    Thursday, August 19, 2010

    Humans imitate aspects of speech we see

    UC Riverside study finds that we sound like the people we talk with, even when we can't hear them

    Humans are incessant imitators. We unintentionally imitate subtle aspects of each other's mannerisms, postures and facial expressions. We also imitate each other's speech patterns, including inflections, talking speed and speaking style. Sometimes, we even take on the foreign accent of the person to whom we're talking, leading to embarrassing consequences.

    New research by the University of California, Riverside, published in the August issue of the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, shows that unintentional speech imitation can even make us sound like people whose voices we never hear. The journal is published by The Psychonomic Society, which promotes scientific research in psychology and allied sciences.

    UCR psychology professor Lawrence D. Rosenblum and graduate students Rachel M. Miller and Kauyumari Sanchez found that when people lipread from a talker and say aloud what they've lipread, their speech sounds like that of the talker.

    The researchers asked hearing individuals with no formal lipreading experience to watch a silent face articulate 80 simple words, such as tennis and cabbage. Those individuals were asked to identify the words by saying them out loud clearly and quickly. To make the lipreading task easier, the test subjects were given a choice of two words: e.g., tennis or table). They were never asked to imitate or repeat the talker.

    Even so, the researchers found that words spoken by the test subjects sounded more like the words of the talker they lipread than did words they spoke when simply reading from a list. That finding is evidence that unintentional speech imitation extends to lipreading, even for normal hearing individuals with no formal lipreading experience, they wrote in a paper titled "Alignment to Visual Speech Information."

    "Whether we are hearing or lipreading speech articulations, a talker's speaking style has subtle influences on our own manner of speaking," Rosenblum says. "This unintentional imitation could serve as a social glue, helping us to affiliate and empathize with each other. But it also might reflect deep aspects of the language function. Specifically, it adds to evidence that the speech brain is sensitive to – and primed by – speech articulation, whether heard or seen. It also adds to the evidence that a familiar talker's speaking style can help us recognize words."

    EurekAlert. 2010. "Humans imitate aspects of speech we see". EurekAlert. Posted: August 5, 2010. Available online:http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-08/uoc--hia080410.php

    Wednesday, August 18, 2010

    Reading Zip Codes of 3,500-Year-Old Letters: Non-Destructive X-Ray Scanning of Archaeological Finds

    Unfortunately, when ancient kings sent letters to each other, their post offices didn't record the sender' return address. It takes quite a bit of super-sleuthing by today's archaeologists to determine the geographical origin of this correspondence -- which can reveal a great deal about ancient rulers and civilizations.

    Now, by adapting an off-the-shelf portable x-ray lab tool that analyzes the composition of chemicals, Prof. Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University's Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations can reveal hidden information about a tablet's composition without damaging the precious ancient find itself. These x-rays reveal the soil and clay composition of a tablet or artefact, to help determine its precise origin.

    But Prof. Goren's process, based on x-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry, can go much further. Over the years, he has collected extensive data through physical "destructive" sampling of artefacts. By comparing this data to readouts produced by the XRF device, he's built a table of results so that he can now scan a tablet -- touching the surface of it gently with the machine -- and immediately assess its clay type and the geographical origin of its minerals.

    The tool, he says, can also be applied to coins, ancient plasters, and glass, and can be used on site or in a lab. He plans to make this information widely available to other archaeological researchers.

    Preserving artefacts for the future

    Prof. Goren's field intersects the worlds of geology, mineralogy and ancient technology as he tries to understand where ancient tablets and pots are made, based on the crystals and minerals found in the materials of these artefacts.

    Traditionally archaeological scientists have had to take small samples of an artefact -- a chip or a slice -- in order to analyze its soil and clay composition. But as more and more museums and archaeology sites ban these destructive means of investigating archaeological finds, Prof. Goren's new tool may help save archaeological structures while solving some of its deepest mysteries.

    "It's become a big ethical question," says Prof. Goren. "Many museums will not allow any more physical sampling of artefacts, and it's especially problematic for small tablet fragments and stamps which cannot be broken in the process. I had to find another way to know what these artefacts were made of."

    Records from a Jesubite King

    In his recent study published in the Israel Exploration Journal, Prof. Goren and his colleagues investigated a Late Bronze Age letter written in the Akkadian language and found among the Ophel excavations in Jerusalem.

    Its style suggests that it is a rough and contemporary tablet of the Amarna letters -- letters written from officials throughout the Middle East to the Pharaohs in Egypt around 3,500 years ago, pre-biblical times. Using his device, Prof. Goren was able to determine that the letter is made from raw material typical to the Terra Rossa soils of the Central Hill Country around Jerusalem. This determination helped to confirm both the origin of the letter and possibly its sender.

    "We believe this is a local product written by Jerusalem scribes, made of locally available soil. Found close to an acropolis, it is also likely that the letter fragment does in fact come from a king of Jerusalem," the researchers reported, adding that it may well be an archival copy of a letter from King Abdi-Heba, a Jesubite king in Jerusalem, to the Pharaoh in nearby Egypt.

    Prof. Goren is also an expert at uncovering archaeological forgeries and has worked on the alleged ossuary, or bone box, of Jesus' brother James.

    Science Daily. 2010. "Reading Zip Codes of 3,500-Year-Old Letters: Non-Destructive X-Ray Scanning of Archaeological Finds". Science Daily. Posted: August 6, 2010. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100805143059.htm

    Tuesday, August 17, 2010

    Social ecology: Lost and found in psychological science

    Various aspects of our environment—including political systems, economic systems, and even climate and geography—can affect our thinking and behavior, a field of study known as socioecological psychology. In a report in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientists Shigehiro Oishi and Jesse Graham from the University of Virginia examine the impact of social and physical environments on human thought and behavior.

    A society's economic system may have long-reaching effects on its citizens' behaviors, beyond how much money they can make. Research suggests that willingness to cooperate with others depends on the economic system in which individuals live in: In an economic game, participants from a whale-hunting society (in which cooperation is important for survival) were more likely to exhibit cooperative responses than were participants from a horticultural society (one in which cooperation is not critical).

    However, the relationship between economic systems and behavior goes in the other direction as well—the mind and behavior can influence economic systems. For example, nations high in general trust have more subsequent capital investment and economic growth that nations that are low in general trust.

    Climate can also have an influence over the mind and behavior. Studies have shown that violent-crime rates are higher during warmer months compared to colder months. Research has also suggested that prosocial behaviors are affected by the weather: In one study, pedestrians were more willing to help a survey interviewer on sunny days (in both summer and winter) than they were on cloudy days.

    In the history of psychological science, there have been several waves of socioecological research, each having a distinct focus. "However," write Oishi and Graham, "sustained attention to current and chronic macroenvironments has not been widely recognized in psychological science." In recent years, the rise of cultural psychology has emphasized cultural factors in basic psychological processes—investigating culture-specific meanings and practices—but less attention has been paid specifically to socioecological factors.

    The authors note that taking socioecological perspective on psychology research could be extremely useful to the field and can present a complimentary perspective to cultural psychology and evolutionary psychology. They observe that the "socioecological approach to psychology offers testable hypotheses not only concerning cultural differences but also concerning individual and regional differences in the phenomenon under study."

    Oishi and Graham conclude by suggesting some ways that researchers can begin adopting a socioecological approach to their work, for example, by considering distal factors (e.g., weather, population density) that may impact proximal factors such as mood and beginning with informed curiosity to generate hypotheses about cultural or regional differences and looking to features of the environment to identify the origin of those differences.

    EurekAlert. 2010. "Social ecology: Lost and found in psychological science". EurekAlert. Posted: August 5, 2010. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-08/afps-sel080510.php

    Monday, August 16, 2010

    Excavation of sites such as Timbuctoo, N.J., is helping to rewrite African American history

    In Timbuctoo lies a hill. Underneath that hill lies a house, or what archaeologists think might have been a house once upon a time. The silver clasp of a woman's handbag, piles of Mason jars, chips of dinner plates and an empty jar of Dixie Peach Pomade lie among the bricks that have broken away from the foundation.

    These are crushed fragments of a past life when free black people lived in this New Jersey community almost 200 years ago -- free even then, 45 years before Emancipation. "Most of the history of this country is in that house," says David Orr, a classical archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Temple University. Orr is standing at the site down a gray road in Timbuctoo. A hot wind is blowing.

    Orr said that the buried community has the potential to be a very important find in African American history. "Timbuctoo is great in a larger context because it lasted, some of it, into the 20th century," he said. "It also has a very large descendant community, so ethnographically it is important."

    Timbuctoo was founded by freed blacks and escaped slaves in the 1820s. It was probably named after Timbuktu, the town in Mali near the Niger River, although researchers are still trying to find out how and why it got its name. The neighborhood still exists in the township of Westampton, N.J., about a 45-minute drive northeast of Philadelphia, an enclave of many acres, so tiny and tucked away that when you ask someone at the store two miles away, he tells you he has no idea where it is.

    Timbuctoo has always been a secret kind of a place. Had to be, because it was part of the Underground Railroad. There are newer houses here now where some descendants of original settlers still live. But much of the physical history of Timbuctoo is buried underground. Based on a geophysical survey, archaeologists believe that foundations of a whole village of perhaps 18 houses and a church dating back to the 1820s lies beneath layers of dirt.

    In June, those archaeologists from Temple University in Philadelphia began unraveling Timbuctoo's secrets, excavating the hill next to a Civil War cemetery where African American troops are buried. The discoveries are fragile and ordinary artifacts of everyday life -- jars for medicines and cosmetics, pieces of shoes, dinner plates -- but to the people unearthing them, they are invaluable.

    Read the rest of the article at the site.

    Brown, DeNeen. 2010. "Excavation of sites such as Timbuctoo, N.J., is helping to rewrite African American history". Washington Post. Posted: August 3, 2010. Available online: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/08/02/AR2010080205217.html

    Sunday, August 15, 2010

    Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective

    Where you grow up can have a big impact on the food you eat, the clothes you wear, and even how your brain works. In a report in a special section on Culture and Psychology in Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientists Denise C. Park from the University of Texas at Dallas and Chih-Mao Huang from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign discuss ways in which brain structure and function may be influenced by culture.

    There is evidence that the collectivist nature of East Asian cultures versus individualistic Western cultures affects both brain and behavior. East Asians tend to process information in a global manner whereas Westerners tend to focus on individual objects. There are differences between East Asians and Westerners with respect to attention, categorization, and reasoning. For example, in one study, after viewing pictures of fish swimming, Japanese volunteers were more likely to remember contextual details of the image than were American volunteers. Experiments tracking participants' eye movements revealed that Westerners spend more time looking at focal objects while Chinese volunteers look more at the background. In addition, our culture may play a role in the way we process facial information. Research has indicated that when viewing faces, East Asians focus on the central region of faces while Westerners look more broadly, focusing on both the eyes and mouth.

    Examining changes in cognitive processes—how we think—over time can provide information about the aging process as well as any culture-related changes that may occur. When it comes to free recall, working memory, and processing speed, aging has a greater impact than does culture—the decline in these functions is a result of aging and not cultural experience. Park and Huang note that, "with age, both cultures would move towards a more balanced representation of self and others, leading Westerners to become less oriented to self and East Asians to conceivably become more self-focused."

    While numerous studies suggest that culture may affect neural function, there is also limited evidence for the effect of cultural experiences on brain structure. A recent study conducted by Park and Michael Chee of Duke/National University of Singapore showed evidence for thicker frontal cortex (areas involved in reasoning) in Westerners compared to East Asians, whereas East Asians had thicker cortex in perceptual areas. Park and Huang observe that using neuroimaging to study the impact of culture on neuroanatomy faces many challenges. They write, "The data are collected from two groups of participants who typically differ in many systematic ways besides their cultural values, rendering interpretation of any differences found quite difficult." In addition, for each study, it is important that the MRI machines use identical imaging hardware and software.

    The authors conclude, "This research is an important domain for understanding the malleability of the human brain and how differences in values and social milieus sculpt the brain's structure and function."

    EurekAlert. 2010. "Culture wires the brain: A cognitive neuroscience perspective". EurekAlert. Posted: August 3, 2010. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-08/afps-cwt080310.php

    Saturday, August 14, 2010

    Easter Islanders lived in harmony with nature until Westerners arrived

    The serene faces of Easter Island have always jarred with the preception of their creators who were said to have caused their own downfall through infighting and over exploitation of natural resources.

    Now one researcher believes the artworks of the island paint a different picture of the islanders - a peace loving race in harmony with nature and each other.

    Dr Karina Croucher from The University of Manchester believes that looking at the artwork as a whole shows a self-sufficient population at peace with itself and nature.

    The archaeologist's research backs a growing body of opinion which casts new light on the people living on the island of Rapa Nui, named "Easter Island" by its discoverers in 1722.

    “Easter Islanders’ ancestors have been unfairly accused by Westerners of being primitive and warlike, for toppling statues - or moai - and for over-exploiting the island’s natural resources,” she said.

    But the art which adorns Easter Island’s landscape, volcanoes and statues, body tattoos and carved wooden figurines, when examined together, show a different picture of what the islanders were like, according to Dr Croucher.

    “The carved designs - including birds, sea creatures, canoes and human figures - mimic natural features already visible in the landscape and show their complex relationship to the natural environment,” she said.

    “They were a people who saw themselves as connected to the landscape, which they carved and marked as they did their own bodies and the moai statues.

    “These people must have had a sophisticated and successful culture – until the Westerners arrived - and it is time we recognise that.

    “Early expedition accounts repeatedly show the islanders produced a trading surplus – they were successful and self sufficient.

    “It must have been quite a place to live: I imagine the sounds of the carvers dominating the soundscape as they worked on the rock.”

    Dr Croucher believes that it was westerners bringing disease, exploitation and slavery which put paid to the ancient civilisation.

    “Rather than a story of self-inflicted deprivation, I agree with the view that substantial blame has to rest with Western contact, ever since Easter Island’s first sighting by Jacob Roggeveen in 1722.

    “Visitors brought disease, pests and slavery, resulting in the tragic demise of the local population and culture.

    “There is little archaeological evidence to support the history of internal warfare and collapse before contact with the outside world.”

    Easter Island’s 19th Century history is a sad one: slave raids in 1862 reduced the Island’s population A few islanders survived slavery and were returned home, bringing with them small pox and other diseases.

    The missionaries converted the remaining population to Christianity, encouraging them to abandon their traditional beliefs.

    Even then, several hundred inhabitants were driven off the island to work on sugar plantations in Tahiti. By 1877, a population of just 110 people was recorded.

    “The statues and rock art, although difficult to date with certainty, are the result of a population which flourished on the island until outside contact set the tragic course for the Island’s demise," she said.

    Alleyne, Richard. 2010. "Easter Islanders lived in harmony with nature until Westerners arrived". Telegraph. Posted: August 2, 2010. Available online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/7922498/Easter-Islanders-lived-in-harmony-with-nature-until-Westerners-arrived.html

    Friday, August 13, 2010

    Gene Map to Give Insight into 5,200-year-old Iceman

    Iceman, the Neolithic mummy found accidentally in the Eastern Alps by German hikers in 1991, has offered researchers all sorts of clues to life 5,200 years ago, from his goat-hide coat to the meat and unleavened bread in his stomach to the arrow wound in his shoulder.

    Now, scientists stand poised to find out a whole lot more about Iceman, who also goes by Ötzi, Frozen Fritz and Similaun Man.

    They recently finished sequencing the Iceman's genome, which took about three months – a feat made possible by whole genome sequencing technology. With that map of his genes in hand, researchers are moving onto to a whole new array of questions, according to Albert Zink, head of the European Institute for Mummies and the Iceman at the European Academy of Bozen/Bolzano (EURAC) in Italy.

    "Some are very simple, like so 'What was really the eye color of the Iceman? What was really his hair color?'" Zink said. There are more complicated questions, too. Zink and others are curious about any genetic evidence of disease in the Iceman and the composition of his immune system.

    Parry, Wynne. 2010. "Gene Map to Give Insight into 5,200-year-old Iceman". Live Science. Posted: August 5, 2010. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/history/ice-man-genome-sequenced-100804.html

    Thursday, August 12, 2010

    Neanderthal's Cozy Bedroom Unearthed

    Anthropologists have unearthed the remains of an apparent Neanderthal cave sleeping chamber, complete with a hearth and nearby grass beds that might have once been covered with animal fur.

    Neanderthals inhabited the cozy Late Pleistocene room, located within Esquilleu Cave in Cantabria, Spain, anywhere between 53,000 to 39,000 years ago, according to a Journal of Archaeological Science paper concerning the discovery.

    Living the ultimate clean and literally green lifestyle, the Neanderthals appear to have constructed new beds out of grass every so often, using the old bedding material to help fuel the hearth.

    "It is possible that the Neanderthals renewed the bedding each time they visited the cave," lead author Dan Cabanes told Discovery News.

    Cabanes, a researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science's Kimmel Center for Archaeological Research, added that these hearth-side beds also likely served as sitting areas during waking hours for the Neanderthals.

    "In some way, they were used to make the area near the hearths more comfortable," he said, mentioning that artifacts collected from various other Neanderthal sites suggest the inhabitants prepared stone tools, cooked, ate and snoozed near warming fires.

    For this study, Cabanes and his team collected sediment samples from the Spanish cave. Detailed analysis of the samples allowed the scientists to reconstruct what materials were once present in certain parts of the cave at particular times.

    The bedding material was identified based on the presence and arrangement of multiple phytoliths from grasses near the hearth area. Phytoliths are tiny fossilized particles formed of mineral matter by a once-living plant.

    There was no evidence of plants growing, soil developing or animal transport of phytoliths via dung, so the scientists believe the only plausible explanation is that Neanderthals gathered the grass and placed it in this room of the cave.

    While the hearth contained some grass phytoliths, most belonged to wood and bark, "indicating that this material was the main type of fuel used," according to the researchers. Some animal bones were also tossed into the hearth, perhaps to dispose of them after dinner and/or for use as extra fire fuel.

    Evidence is building that Neanderthals in other locations constructed such functional living spaces within caves and rock shelters.

    Earlier this year, Josep Vallverdu of the Catalan Institute of Human Paleoecology and Social Evolution and his team identified a "sleeping activity area" at Spain's Abric Romani rock shelter.

    Similar to the Esquilleu Cave finds, Vallverdu and his colleagues discovered the remains of hearths spaced enough for seating and sleeping areas.

    "This set of combustion activity areas suggests analogy with sleeping and resting activity areas of modern foragers," Vallverdu and his team wrote. They added that such information can allow anthropologists to estimate the size of Neanderthal populations, in addition to learning more about how they lived.

    The big question, according to Cabanes, is how such a resourceful species went extinct.

    "In my opinion, Neanderthal extinction may have been caused by several factors working at the same time," he said. "Environmental changes, a slightly different social organization, a different rate of reproduction, spread of diseases, direct competition for resources and many other factors may have played an important role in the fate of Neanderthals."

    He and other researchers have also not ruled out that Neanderthals were simply absorbed into the modern human population.

    Cabanes is hopeful that future analysis of phytoliths, as well as other less obvious clues that have often been overlooked by scientists in the past, may shed additional light on the still-mysterious Neanderthals.

    Viegas, Jennifer. 2010. "Neanderthal's Cozy Bedroom Unearthed". Discovery News. Posted: August 6, 2010. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/archaeology/neanderthal-bedroom-house.html

    Wednesday, August 11, 2010

    Lincoln Castle dig uncovers Saxon homes

    Evidence of ruthless land clearance by Norman knights has been found in Lincoln.

    Archaeologists working in the castle grounds have discovered remains of Anglo-Saxon houses.

    When William the Conqueror decided to build a castle inside the old Roman fort, he swept away 166 homes - more than 10% of the existing town.

    Now the first of a series of digs has uncovered a fireplace, pottery and the marks of structural timbers.

    Lincoln was one of the first castles built by William, following his victory at Hastings in 1066, to help secure the country.

    'Laid waste'

    The Domesday Book, a survey of his new kingdom, records how many houses were knocked down to make room but this is the first time their physical remains have been studied.

    Cecily Spall, from Field Archaeology Specialists (FAS), said the discoveries, made in the north lawn area, give a glimpse of a revolution in the country.

    "The Saxons would not have been able to do anything about this. The Norman Conquest remodelled Anglo Saxon England.

    "New landlords were appointed and they laid waste to houses and they reassigned the ownership of property and land rights."

    The dig is happening ahead of the construction of a £2.1m Heritage Skills Centre, the first new building inside the castle for 150 years.

    BBC News. 2010. "Lincoln Castle dig uncovers Saxon homes". BBC News. Posted: August 8, 2010. Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lincolnshire-10908481

    Tuesday, August 10, 2010

    Maya's kingdom goes back to 4000 BC

    The BSP chief presides over Jajmau, associated with Yayati Nagari, a city founded by legendary king Yayati perhaps 6,000 years ago

    As one travels from Lucknow to Kanpur, two huge mounds on both sides of the Ganga bridge leave one awestruck. These were no more than encroached barren lands till our Indiana Joneses discovered it for the world. Nearly five decades after the 'civilisation' of Jajmau — dating back to circa 1200-1300 BC — was first explored, it continues to throw up new surprises. Archaeologists have now found traces of an era that could go back to, hold your breath, 4000 BC. Not more than 25 km from this site, there is Sanchan Kot in Unnao district, rich with remains of the Mauryan and Kushan periods. And moving eastwards, if Sarnath needs no introduction, there are new sites discovered not very long ago — Anai in Varanasi and Agiabir in Mirzapur district. And a new light is all set to be thrown on Ghoshitarama, discovered with a giant monastery, in Kaushambi district.

    In a stupendous feat of excavation, archaeologists of the UP State Archaelogical Department (UPSAD) dug out the Jajmau tila, calculated to be more than three millennia old, going back to the pre-Mauryan and pre-Northern Black Polished (Pre-NBP ) era. What is most startling is that this site had in one place the heritage of five periods — ancient India, the pre-Mauryan, Mauryan, Sunga and Kushana eras. And all within a radius of 20 metres.

    Jajmau has been associated with Yayati Nagari, the city founded by legendary king Yayati. It was unearthed by chance during the construction of National Highway 25 in 1956. Excavations that began in 1956-58 started again in 1973 and went on till 1978. More recently, a salvage operation was launched in 2006 to protect the discoveries. Considering its significance, UP declared it a state-protected site.

    "The complexes that were dug out clearly indicate the systematic and well-defined rural settlement of that period," says Rakesh Tewari, director, UPSAD.

    It's fascinating what the discoveries add up to in terms of advances made in engineering in India so far back in history. A large portion of the earliest settlement in Jajmau was located towards the riverside, most of which is now covered by the Ganga. The structures here, built around the beginning of the 4th century BC, were made with wood and wattleand-daub. The ruins show how people used water channels to separate the river from their settlements.

    Just two years ago, Ancient Indian History (AIH) archaeologists discovered a 2,000-year-old Shiva temple at Sanchan Kot, 80 km from present-day Lucknow. It is believed to be one of the earliest brick temples in India. Spread across 600 acres, the complex gives reason to believe that Shiva was popular as a deity even then. There are 17,000-odd archaic figurines, pointing to a large number of worshippers thronging the place. These are star shaped, about 2-2.5 inches in size and are in male, female and animal shapes.

    Then there are the sites of Ghositarama in Kaushambi district (where Gautam Buddha is believed to have stayed in one of the monasteries), Anai (900 BC), Agiabir and the famous Sarnath, where Buddha is believed to have preached his first sermon after attaining enlightenment.

    Kumar, Ravin. 2010. "Maya's kingdom goes back to 4000 BC". Times of India. Posted: August 7, 2010. Available online: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Mayas-kingdom-goes-back-to-4000-BC/articleshow/6270299.cms