Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Lizard fossil provides missing link in debate over snake origins

Until a recent discovery, theories about the origins and evolutionary relationships of snakes barely had a leg to stand on.

Genetic studies suggest that snakes are related to monitor lizards and iguanas, while their anatomy points to amphisbaenians ("worm lizards"), a group of burrowing lizards with snake-like bodies. The debate has been unresolved--until now. The recent discovery by researchers from the University of Toronto Mississauga and the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin, Germany of a tiny, 47 million-year-old fossil of a lizard called Cryptolacerta hassiaca provides the first anatomical evidence that the body shapes of snakes and limbless lizards evolved independently.

"This fossil refutes the theory that snakes and other burrowing reptiles share a common ancestry and reveals that their body shapes evolved independently," says lead author Professor Johannes Müller of Humboldt-Universität, Berlin.

The fossil reveals that amphisbaenians are not closely related to snakes, but instead are related to lacertids, a group of limbed lizards from Europe, Africa and Asia. "This is the sort of study that shows the unique contributions of fossils in understanding evolutionary relationships," says Professor Robert Reisz from the University of Toronto Mississauga, the senior author of the study. "It is particularly exciting to see that tiny fossil skeletons can answer some really important questions in vertebrate evolution".

The German research team, led by Müller and American graduate student Christy Hipsley, used X-ray computed tomography to reveal the detailed anatomy of the lizard's skull and combined the anatomy of Cryptolacerta and other lizards with DNA from living lizards and snakes to analyze relationships. Their results showed that Cryptolacerta shared a thickened, reinforced skull with worm lizards and that both were most closely related to lacertids, while snakes were related to monitor lizards like the living Komodo dragons.

Even though snakes and amphisbaeans separately evolved their elongate, limbless bodies, the discovery of Cryptolacerta reveals the early stages in the evolution of burrowing in lizards. By comparing Cryptolactera to living lizards with known lifestyles, co-author and U of T Mississauga paleontologist Jason Head determined that the animal likely inhabited leaf-litter environments and was an opportunistic burrower.

"Cryptolacerta shows us the early ecology of one of the most unique and specialized lizard groups, and also reveals the sequence of anatomical adaptations leading to amphisbaenians and their burrowing lifestyle," says Head. "Based on this discovery, it appears worm-lizards evolved head first."

EurekAlert. 2011. "Lizard fossil provides missing link in debate over snake origins". EurekAlert. Posted: May 18, 2011. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-05/uot-lfp051211.php

Monday, May 30, 2011

New power elite emerged in medieval Iceland as the island became Norwegian

As Iceland became part of the Norwegian kingship 1262, a new power structure in the shape of an Icelandic aristocracy appointed by the king of Norway was established. This development is discussed in a doctoral thesis in History from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, that sheds light on a period in the Icelandic history that previously has not received its due attention.

'The 14th century has never received a great deal of attention in Icelandic history writing. This is surprising since this period is at least as important as the considerably more frequently discussed so-called Free State period (around 930�/64) when Iceland was autonomous, especially considering the country's state formation process,' says the author of the thesis Sigríður Beck.

Before becoming Norwegian, the country consisted of a number of territories ruled by chiefs who were constantly competing for power. Sigríður Beck has studied how the Icelandic power elite changed as the island became part of Norway and new offices and a new administration were introduced. Beck shows how an aristocracy was established as the king appointed officers who were to ensure that the country was administered according to Norwegian law.

'Prior to the involvement of the Norwegian king, the island was ruled by chiefs and authority was based on individuals and territories, but then the chiefs were replaced with a different type of elite ¬– an aristocracy.

Sigríður Beck's research shows that the aristocracy was made up of two different groups: wealthy farmers who became part of the new service-based aristocracy as a result of their financial strength, and parts of the former elite who managed to transfer to the new elite by adapting to the new situation. Thus, the Icelandic aristocracy comprised a mix of the old and the new.

Iceland's historical development has typically been viewed in a narrow Icelandic perspective. Yet Sigríður Beck concludes that the establishment of an Icelandic aristocracy is essentially identical to what happened in the rest of Europe. However, the Icelandic aristocracy remained a local aristocracy without any significant opportunities or willingness to make ties with its Norwegian counterpart.

Besides the establishment of a new political structure, a new economic structure was introduced as well. The new economic structure was more based on freehold properties and the possibility to lease out land and generate wealth through fishing.

'This development contributed to accelerated differentiation in society – the wealthy became even wealthier at the expense of the rest of the population,' says Beck.

EurekAlert. 2011. "New power elite emerged in medieval Iceland as the island became Norwegian". EurekAlert. Posted: May 16, 2011. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-05/uog-npe051611.php

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Fiction dialogue differs from spoken conversation

Dialogue plays an important part in fiction – it brings characters to life and advances the plot; the dialogue must seem real in order to be credible, although it may be adjusted to be reader-friendly. A recent Ph.D. thesis from the University of Gothenburg now shows that the requirement that fiction should capture the readers' interest may also influence the use of linguistic constructions in fiction dialogue.

Karin Axelsson has studied tag questions in British English fiction dialogue and made comparisons to spoken conversation; her conclusion is that their use in fiction dialogue is influenced by a focus on problems, conflicts and confrontations and an avoidance of everyday conversations on trivial matters.

English tag questions usually consist of a statement followed by a tag, as in It's interesting, isn't it? and You can't afford that, can you? These are very common in real-life conversation and interesting to study, as they display large formal and functional variation. Axelsson has analysed over 2,500 tag questions for their formal features and over 600 of these also for their functions, using a large corpus of both written texts and transcribed speech: the British National Corpus.

The results show that tag questions are much less frequent in fiction dialogue than in spoken conversation. "In addition, they are in several ways different as to their formal features. The tag subject is, for example, mostly you in fiction dialogue, but it in spoken conversation," says Axelsson.

In order to understand the background to these differences, Axelsson has developed and applied a hierarchical model for the functional categorization of tag questions. An important distinction in the functional model is made between response-eliciting and rhetorical tag questions. Tag questions have traditionally often been described as seeking confirmation; "that's why it's surprising that most tag questions in my data have been found to be rhetorical, both in fiction dialogue and spoken conversation".

Among rhetorical tag questions, there are clear differences between those in fiction dialogue and those in spoken conversation: a majority of rhetorical tag questions in fiction dialogue are addressee-oriented, i.e. they concern the addressee, whereas most rhetorical tag questions in spoken conversation are speaker-centred, i.e. they present the opinion of the speaker.

Addressee-oriented tag questions in fiction dialogue often challenge the addressee; this seems due to the depiction of problems, conflicts and confrontations in fiction. Axelsson also finds that speaker-centred tag questions, which often deal with trivial matters in spoken conversation, are used much less in fiction dialogue, since they often do not bring the plot forward.

There are also functional differences among the response-eliciting tag questions: in spoken conversation, the speakers of such tag questions are usually uncertain and seek confirmation, whereas, in fiction dialogue, the characters also use confrontational tag questions in order to demand the confirmation of facts they are already quite certain of.

Tag questions may also consist of an imperative plus a tag, as in Come here, will you? These are relatively rare in spoken conversation, but, in fiction dialogue, they are used more often, in particular as commands; again, this might be due to the depiction of problems, conflicts and confrontations. However, it is also suggested that power relations may be more unequal between fictional characters than between real-life interactants.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Fiction dialogue differs from spoken conversation". EurekAlert. Posted: May 16, 2011. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-05/uog-fdd051611.php

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Lay-language summaries of latest research at Acoustical Society meeting now online

'Feeling' sounds, muffling explosions and car exhaust, and 'hearing' damage to spacecraft are just some of the approximately 50 lay-language versions of papers being presented at the 161st Acoustical Society of America's (ASA) meeting in Seattle, Wash., May 23-27. These summaries are posted online in the ASA's Worldwide Pressroom; many contain evocative sounds, images, and animations.

Reporters attending the meeting or covering the sessions remotely now have access to a wide array of easily approachable summaries covering all aspects of the science of sound. There are no embargoes on these presentations.

The following are excerpts of selected lay-language papers. The entire collection can be found here:


Lay-language Paper Highlights

1. Turning KA-BOOM! into ka-boom
2. Listening to the ocean and marine life using fiber-optic monitoring system
3. Biomedical ultrasound: Making a quantum leap in medicine
4. Using bubbles to reduce underwater noise
5. Silencing your car with a hybrid muffler
6. Feeling sounds
7. "How did she say that?": An examination of male-to-female transgender voice physiology
8. Spacecraft damage-detection system for human habitation modules
9. Demonstrating the effect of air temperature on wind instrument tuning
10. The sources and effects of motorcycle noise
11. Why is understanding foreign accents so hard?
12. Understanding casual speech: "Well he was like, 'what's wrong?!?'"

1. Turning KA-BOOM! into ka-boom

"When explosives are found unexpectedly, left over from mining or road-building, or before a planned terrorist attack, often the safest way to dispose of them is to detonate them in place. Even if the explosives were intended for civilian use, they might have become unstable over time so that moving or touching them could be very dangerous. To do this safely, airmen, soldiers, and others need extensive training, including hands-on use of real explosives. Recently, training like this has produced added noise around military facilities and increased noise complaints from neighbors. We studied some suggested methods to reduce this very loud noise to see if any would work." Paper 1aNS11 by Michelle E. Swearingen et al. will be presented Monday morning, May 23. http://www.aip.org/asa_laypapers2011/Swearingen.html

2. Listening to the ocean and marine life using fiber-optic monitoring system

"As our abilities to listen to the ocean in trying to better understand and manage it have evolved, the application of fiber-optic, high-bandwidth transmission technology is revolutionizing ocean observing. These advanced systems, stemming from developments in telecommunications, enable the simultaneous acquisition and transmission of high-density data streams, including acoustic measurements. A multi-disciplinary collaboration of geophysicists, acousticians, and biologists is working to merge acoustic observation systems into a cabled observing network that is being deployed off Washington and Oregon and will operate for the next 25 years." Paper 1aAO by Brandon Southall et al. will be presented Monday morning, May 23. http://www.aip.org/asa_laypapers2011/Southall.html

3. Biomedical ultrasound: Making a quantum leap in medicine

"Combining creativity and ingenuity, scientists are expanding the role of ultrasound in the clinical setting. Historically, ultrasound has been used for such applications as imaging fetal development or quantifying blood flow. In recent developments, researchers are fusing expertise in physics, biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, and nanotechnology to formulate solutions to tough clinical problems. The collaborative spirit has led to the production of specially engineered particles for novel imaging and therapeutic applications." Paper 1pID10 by Tyrone Porter will be presented Monday afternoon, May 23. http://www.aip.org/asa_laypapers2011/Porter.html

4. Using bubbles to reduce underwater noise

"Manmade, or anthropogenic, underwater noise is known to have the potential to disrupt marine life, including the possibility of affecting the migratory patterns of marine mammals." Researchers note that: "A traditional noise control approach is to erect a barrier around the noise source. To be effective in this low frequency range, such a barrier would have to be significantly larger that the noise source itself and more dense than the water, and hence is impractical in many cases. Research is underway at the University of Texas at Austin to develop practical and relatively inexpensive methods to significantly reduce the level of low-frequency sound emitted by underwater noise sources using either freely rising air bubbles, or tethered encapsulated air bubbles." Paper 2aUWb11 by Kevin M. Lee et al. will be presented Tuesday morning, May 24. http://www.aip.org/asa_laypapers2011/Lee.html

5. Silencing your car with a hybrid muffler

"Imagine that you drive a car without a muffler along Main Street in a town. The roar of the internal combustion engine of your car can lead to an extremely loud noise at the end of the exhaust pipe. Even installing a less efficient muffler than the original one can cause your car to violate noise regulations that may earn you a citation from a police officer. Installing a properly designed muffler can reduce the roaring noise of the engine into a quiet purr." Researchers looked for ways to improve this performance. "By choosing different sound absorbent materials, we demonstrate that a specific hybrid muffler can be designed for sound reduction at any desired frequency bands." Paper 2pPA12 by Rong Bi et al. will be presented Tuesday afternoon, May 24. http://www.aip.org/asa_laypapers2011/Rong.html

6. Feeling Sounds

"Most of us take for granted that our senses – hearing, touch, taste, smell, vision – are discrete. For people with a condition called synesthesia, however, the experience of these sensations is mixed. Some 'synesthetes' see colors when hearing musical notes, for example, or feel distinct shapes on the tongue when tasting certain foods – lemon is pointy, for example, or chocolate is round. Now, new research … might explain the origins of this phenomenon. [Researchers] find that synesthesia may result from a particular type of cross-wiring in the brain, and they show that a form of this kind of crossing of sensory information occurs even in the normal brain." Paper 3aPP5 by Tony Ro will be presented on Wednesday morning, May 25. http://www.aip.org/asa_laypapers2011/Ro.html

7. "How did she say that?": An examination of male-to-female transgender voice physiology

"Perceptual judgments about a person's gender are formed quickly and are strongly influenced by that person's voice and communication. Transgender (TG) individuals make considerable efforts to portray themselves in a way that ensures others perceive them as their desired gender. If they fail to do so, the social, occupational, and mental health ramifications can be dire. A speech-language pathologist has the expertise to provide voice and communication therapy to enable the TG individual to present a gender consistent with their personal gender identity." Paper 3aSC19 by Adrienne Hancock et al. will be presented on Wednesday morning, May 25. http://www.aip.org/asa_laypapers2011/Hancock.html

8. Spacecraft damage-detection system for human habitation modules

"Astronauts live in a shooting range. Just beyond their living space, tiny projectiles traveling twenty times faster than a speeding bullet are whizzing by." It was noted that: "... after every Space Shuttle flight, typically two windows must be replaced due to particle impact damage." The implications for this are important. "As NASA begins designing habitats for astronauts to live in space or on other bodies (Moon, Mars, asteroids), there is an obvious need for an instrument to alert the crew when and where a damaging impact occurs." Paper 4pEA2 by Robert Corsaro et al. will be presented on Thursday afternoon, May 26. http://www.aip.org/asa_laypapers2011/Corsaro.html

9. Demonstrating the effect of air temperature on wind instrument tuning

"Musicians who play wind instruments know that tuning is a problem when the air temperature is well above or below normal room temperature, as may occur during outdoor performances of concert bands in the summer and football marching bands in the fall. Instruments from both the brass and woodwind families tend to play sharp when the air is hot and flat when the air is cold." This presents an interesting teaching opportunity. "A simple and inexpensive demonstration of this air temperature effect has been developed that can be used in classes of various levels." Paper 4aED1 by Randy Worland will be presented on Thursday morning, May 26. http://www.aip.org/asa_laypapers2011/Worland.html

10. The sources and effects of motorcycle noise

"Motorcyclists ride for all sorts of reasons: the freedom of the open road, the excitement, the convenience and the reduced impact on the environment of their transport choice. Noise is important to biking and many riders love the rush they get from a throbbing exhaust or a screaming engine. The thrill has a price, however: noise can seriously damage hearing and stop you enjoying hard biker rock – quite a price to pay. In our work, we have studied the causes of this noise and, surprisingly, it's not the engine or the exhaust that are important, but the helmet. We have also looked at the effects of this noise on the road, in the laboratory and in our wind tunnel." Paper 5aNS12 by Michael Carley et al. will be presented Friday morning, May 27. http://www.aip.org/asa_laypapers2011/Carley.html

11. Why is understanding foreign accents so hard?

"Many people have at one time or another felt frustrated trying to understand a speaker with a foreign accent." But why is this so difficult? "In a series of studies, [researchers] examined listeners' ability to understand the speech of two different speakers: a native English speaker and a native Quebec French speaker, both speaking English." Their results were revealing. "These results tell us two important things about understanding accented speech: First, when talking with someone who has a foreign accent, it may be easier to adjust to the accent if the speaker says many similar-sounding words at first. Second, listeners are likely to have the most difficulty understanding foreign-accented words when the accent creates confusion between two real words in English, such as 'beet' and 'bit.'" Paper 5aSC22 by Alison Trude and Sarah Brown-Schmidt will be presented Friday morning, May 27. http://www.aip.org/asa_laypapers2011/Trude.html

12. Understanding casual speech: "Well he was like, 'what's wrong?!?'"

"This paper examines how listeners combine information about words, sentences, and sounds to understand very casual, even "sloppy" speech, in which sounds are not pronounced clearly." Researchers explore the information listeners use to do that. "To summarize, this work shows that listeners are very skilled at combining information from the acoustics of the sounds of a word itself, the rate of surrounding speech, and the meanings of other words in the sentence to determine the meaning of very reduced, casual speech. However, they do not do this by relying primarily on the meaning of the context, as people sometimes think. Rather, they favor the information in the sounds they actually hear, and make inferences about what sounds the speaker may have left out in fast speech." Paper 5pSC17 by Dan Brenner et al. will be presented Friday afternoon, May 27. http://www.aip.org/asa_laypapers2011/Brenner.html

EurekAlert. 2011. "Lay-language summaries of latest research at Acoustical Society meeting now online". EurekAlert. Posted: May 16, 2011. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-05/aiop-lso051611.php

Friday, May 27, 2011

Anthropologist discovers new fossil primate species in West Texas

Physical anthropologist Chris Kirk has announced the discovery of a previously unknown species of fossil primate, Mescalerolemur horneri, in the Devil's Graveyard badlands of West Texas.

Mescalerolemur lived during the Eocene Epoch about 43 million years ago, and would have most closely resembled a small present-day lemur. Mescalerolemur is a member of an extinct primate group – the adapiforms – that were found throughout the Northern Hemisphere in the Eocene. However, just like Mahgarita stevensi, a younger fossil primate found in the same area in 1973, Mescalerolemur is more closely related to Eurasian and African adapiforms than those from North America.

"These Texas primates are unlike any other Eocene primate community that has ever been found in terms of the species that are represented," says Kirk, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin. "The presence of both Mescalerolemur and Mahgarita, which are only found in the Big Bend region of Texas, comes after the more common adapiforms from the Eocene of North America had already become extinct. This is significant because it provides further evidence of faunal interchange between North America and East Asia during the Middle Eocene."

By the end of the Eocene, primates and other tropically adapted species had all but disappeared from North America due to climatic cooling, so Kirk is sampling the last burst of diversity in North American primates. With its lower latitudes and more equable climate, West Texas offered warm-adapted species a greater chance of survival after the cooling began.

Kirk says Marie Butcher, a then undergraduate who graduated with degrees in anthropology and biology from The University of Texas at Austin, found the first isolated tooth of Mescalerolemur in 2005. Since that time, many more primate fossils have been recovered by Kirk and more than 20 student volunteers at a locality called "Purple Bench." This fossil locality is three to four million years older than the Devil's Graveyard sediments that had previously produced Mahgarita stevensi.

"I initially thought that we had found a new, smaller species of Mahgarita," Kirk says.

However, as more specimens were prepared at the Texas Memorial Museum's Vertebrate Paleontology Lab, Kirk realized he had discovered not just a new species, but a new genus that was previously unknown to science.

Fossils of Mescalerolemur reveal it was a small primate, weighing only about 370 grams. This body weight is similar to that of the living greater dwarf lemur. Mescalerolemur's dental anatomy reveals a close evolutionary relationship with adapiform primates from Eurasia and Africa, including Darwinius masillae, a German fossil primate previously claimed to be a human ancestor. However, the discovery of Mescalerolemur provides further evidence that adapiform primates like Darwinius are more closely related to living lemurs and bush babies than they are to humans.

For example, the right and left halves of Mescalerolemur's lower jaws were two separate bones with a joint along the midline, a common trait for lemurs and bush babies. Mahgarita stevensi, the closest fossil relative of Mescalerolemur, had a completely fused jaw joint like that of humans.

"Because Mescalerolemur and Mahgarita are close relatives, fusion of the lower jaws in Mahgarita must have occurred independently from that observed in humans and their relatives, the monkeys and apes" Kirk says.

The new genus is named Mescalerolemur after the Mescalero Apache, who inhabited the Big Bend region of Texas from about 1700-1880. The species name, horneri, honors Norman Horner, an entomologist and professor emeritus at Midwestern State University (MSU) in Wichita Falls, Texas. Horner helped to establish MSU's Dalquest Desert Research Site, where the new primate fossils were found.

Kirk and his colleague Blythe Williams of Duke University will publish their findings in the Journal of Human Evolution article, "New adapiform primate of Old World affinities from the Devil's Graveyard Formation of Texas."

EurekAlert. 2011. "Anthropologist discovers new fossil primate species in West Texas". EurekAlert. Posted: May 16, 2011. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-05/uota-adn051611.php

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Patterns of Ancient Croplands Give Insight into Early Hawaiian Society, Research Shows

A pattern of earthen berms, spread across a northern peninsula of the big island of Hawaii, is providing archeologists with clues to exactly how residents farmed in paradise long before Europeans arrived at the islands.

The findings suggest that simple, practical decisions made by individual households were eventually adopted by the ruling class as a means to improve agricultural productivity.

The research was reported in the latest issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Archeologically, this kind of research is really hard to do in most places since there is rarely a ‘signature’ for the agricultural activity, or a strong connection between the remains of a house and a plot of farmland,” explained, Julie Field, an assistant professor of anthropology at Ohio State University.

Field, along with colleagues from California and New Zealand, has spent three field seasons unearthing the remnants of an agricultural gridwork that dates back nearly 600 years. The pattern was formed by a series of earthen walls, or berms, which served as windbreaks, protecting the crops.

“In this part of Hawaii, the trade winds blow all the time, so the berms are there to protect the crops from the winds,” she said. “The main crop was sweet potato which likes dry loose soil. The berms protect the soil from being blown away.”

The researchers are familiar with the challenges the winds posed. Field said that while they were excavating sites, the wind would “blow so hard, the skin would come off our ears if they weren’t covered. It just sandblasts your ears and you have to wear goggles to see.”
“It is an intense place to work,” she said.

Previous work by other researchers has radiocarbon dated organic material found in the berms, establishing a timeline for when the agricultural system was first built. Over time, more walls were built, subdividing the original agricultural plots into smaller and smaller parcels.

At the same time, other researchers were able to date materials from household sites of the early Hawaiians, and link those dates to the building of specific agricultural plots.

This showed that individual households that farmed the land expanded over time and then separated into new households as the population grew.

“Within a 300-year period, 1,400 AD to 1,700 AD, the data suggests that the population at least quadrupled, as did the number of houses,” Field said.

The researchers believe the data also provides insight into the structure of Hawaiian society at the time. “We know that there was a single chief for each district and a series of lesser chiefs below that,” she said.

Similar to the feudal system of Europe, a portion of the crop surplus was always designated for the chiefs.

“This suggests to us that the field system was originally put in place probably by individual households that produced crops for their own consumption.

“It was then appropriated by the chiefs and turned into more of a surplus production system, where they demanded that the land be put into production and more people would produce more surplus food,” she said.

“Our study is unique in that we can trace the activities of very, very small groups of people and, from that, try to glean the larger processes of society,” Field said.

“We want to look at parts of Hawaii and treat them as a model for the evolution of Hawaiian society.”

The researchers said that the next question is whether the field system was used seasonally, whether they modified it over the year and used different parts of it depending on the season.

“That’s what it looks like happened, but we need more dating of different features at the sites to be able to figure that out,” Field said.

The National Science Foundation provided support for the project. Along with Field, Patrick Kirch of the University of California, Berkeley, Thegn Ladefoged of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, Shripad Tuljapurkar and Peter Vitousek of Stanford University, and Oliver Chadwick of the University of California, Santa Barbara, worked on the project.

Holland, Earle. 2011. "Patterns of Ancient Croplands Give Insight into Early Hawaiian Society, Research Shows". Research News. Posted: May 16, 2011. Available online: http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/hawaiiag.htm

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Persuasive speech: The way we, um, talk sways our listeners

Want to convince someone to do something? A new University of Michigan study has some intriguing insights drawn from how we speak.

The study, presented May 14 at the annual meeting of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, examines how various speech characteristics influence people's decisions to participate in telephone surveys. But its findings have implications for many other situations, from closing sales to swaying voters and getting stubborn spouses to see things your way.

"Interviewers who spoke moderately fast, at a rate of about 3.5 words per second, were much more successful at getting people to agree than either interviewers who talked very fast or very slowly," said Jose Benki, a research investigator at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).

For the study, Benki and colleagues used recordings of 1,380 introductory calls made by 100 male and female telephone interviewers at the U-M ISR. They analyzed the interviewers' speech rates, fluency, and pitch, and correlated those variables with their success in convincing people to participate in the survey.

Since people who talk really fast are seen as, well, fast-talkers out to pull the wool over our eyes, and people who talk really slow are seen as not too bright or overly pedantic, the finding about speech rates makes sense. But another finding from the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, was counterintuitive.

"We assumed that interviewers who sounded animated and lively, with a lot of variation in the pitch of their voices, would be more successful," said Benki, a speech scientist with a special interest in psycholinguistics, the psychology of language.

"But in fact we found only a marginal effect of variation in pitch by interviewers on success rates. It could be that variation in pitch could be helpful for some interviewers but for others, too much pitch variation sounds artificial, like people are trying too hard. So it backfires and puts people off."

Pitch, the highness or lowness of a voice, is a highly gendered quality of speech, influenced largely by body size and the corresponding size of the larynx, or voice box, Benki says. Typically, males have low-pitched voices and females high-pitched voices. Stereotypically, think James Earl Jones and Julia Child.

Benki and colleagues Jessica Broome, Frederick Conrad, Robert Groves and Frauke Kreuter also examined whether pitch influenced survey participation decisions differently for male compared to female interviewers.

They found that males with higher-pitched voices had worse success than their deep-voiced colleagues. But they did not find any clear-cut evidence that pitch mattered for female interviewers.

The last speech characteristic the researchers examined for the study was the use of pauses. Here they found that interviewers who engaged in frequent short pauses were more successful than those who were perfectly fluent.

"When people are speaking, they naturally pause about 4 or 5 times a minute," Benki said. "These pauses might be silent, or filled, but that rate seems to sound the most natural in this context. If interviewers made no pauses at all, they had the lowest success rates getting people to agree to do the survey. We think that's because they sound too scripted.

"People who pause too much are seen as disfluent. But it was interesting that even the most disfluent interviewers had higher success rates than those who were perfectly fluent."

Benki and colleagues plan to continue their analyses, comparing the speech of the most and least successful interviewers to see how the content of conversations, as well as measures of speech quality, is related to their success rates.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Persuasive speech: The way we, um, talk sways our listeners". EurekAlert. Posted: May 14, 2011. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-05/uom-pst051111.php

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The ties that bind: Grandparents and their grandchildren

Close your eyes for a moment, open your treasure trove of memories and take a step back in time to your childhood. Do you remember your grandfather gently scooping you up into his warm and comforting embrace? Or sitting by your grandmother's side as she lovingly baked pies chock full of delicious, juicy warm apples sprinkled with crumbly cinnamon bits?

The bond between grandparents and their grandchildren seems to be a magical one, and now, a new article published in the April issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, sets out to discover why grandparents and their grandchildren share such strong connections across generations.

"Evolutionary perspectives on the post-reproductive years have highlighted grandparenthood as an unusual feature of the human lifespan that is only shared with one or two other species, such as some whale species," says David A. Coall of Edith Cowan University, who co wrote the article along with Ralph Hertwig of the University of Basel. According to the article, grandparents in industrialized societies invest a significant amount of time and money in their grandchildren. Taking care of the grandchildren when the parents are at work, providing financial resources and providing emotional support are just some of the many ways in which grandparents invest in their grandchildren.

Coall was interested in exploring the reason grandparents were motivated to invest in their grandchildren after examining a large body of evidence from traditional human societies. The evidence suggested that the presence of some grandparents can substantially increase the chances of a child surviving during the high risk period of infancy and childhood. "We felt if such as association existed in Western societies, where the fertility and childhood mortality rates are much lower, grandparents could make a substantial public health contribution to our society," says Coall, who believes that an integration of evolutionary, sociological, and economic accounts will be necessary to fully explain the impact grandparents have in their grandchildren's development.

Coall and Hertwig conducted structured literature searches to see if the grandparental investment effect that influenced the human life history could still be detected in modern, Western society. Surprisingly Coall and Hertwig soon discovered that few articles actually dealt with the effect of grandparental investment in Western society.

"Although important effects have been found in traditional societies, there was a paucity of research in Western Nations", says Coall who also states that while researchers from the fields of evolutionary biology, evolutionary psychology, economics and sociology were all examining the influence of grandparents on their grandchildren, they were working in isolation – demonstrating an almost complete separation of evolutionary and sociological literature.

What does this suggest when it comes to the role of a grandparent in their grandchild's life in the future? Well, according to Coall, "Grandparents have helped and supported their families in the past, they do now and no doubt, they will in the future. Now we need disciplines to work together and establish what it is that grandparents do which benefits the development of their grandchildren. It could be as simple as knowing that there is always someone there if you need them."

EurekAlert. 2011. "The ties that bind: Grandparents and their grandchildren". EurekAlert. Posted: May 13, 2011. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-05/afps-ttt051311.php

Monday, May 23, 2011

Artificial Grammar Reveals Inborn Language Sense, JHU Study Shows

Parents know the unparalleled joy and wonder of hearing a beloved child’s first words turn quickly into whole sentences and then babbling paragraphs. But how human children acquire language-which is so complex and has so many variations-remains largely a mystery. Fifty years ago, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky proposed an answer: Humans are able to learn language so quickly because some knowledge of grammar is hardwired into our brains. In other words, we know some of the most fundamental things about human language unconsciously at birth, without ever being taught.

Now, in a groundbreaking study, cognitive scientists at The Johns Hopkins University have confirmed a striking prediction of the controversial hypothesis that human beings are born with knowledge of certain syntactical rules that make learning human languages easier.

“This research shows clearly that learners are not blank slates; rather, their inherent biases, or preferences, influence what they will learn. Understanding how language is acquired is really the holy grail in linguistics,” said lead author Jennifer Culbertson, who worked as a doctoral student in Johns Hopkins’ Krieger School of Arts and Sciences under the guidance of Geraldine Legendre, a professor in the Department of Cognitive Science, and Paul Smolensky, a Krieger-Eisenhower Professor in the same department. (Culbertson is now a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Rochester.)

The study not only provides evidence remarkably consistent with Chomsky’s hypothesis but also introduces an interesting new approach to generating and testing other hypotheses aimed at answering some of the biggest questions concerning the language
learning process.

In the study, a small, green, cartoonish “alien informant” named Glermi taught participants, all of whom were English-speaking adults, an artificial nanolanguage named Verblog via a video game interface. In one experiment, for instance, Glermi displayed an unusual-looking blue alien object called a “slergena” on the screen and instructed the participants to say “geej slergena,” which in Verblog means “blue slergena.” Then participants saw three of those objects on the screen and were instructed to say “slergena glawb,” which means “slergenas three.”

Although the participants may not have consciously known this, many of the world’s languages use both of those word orders-that is, in many languages adjectives precede nouns, and in many nouns are followed by numerals. However, very rarely are both of these rules used together in the same human language, as they are in Verblog.

As a control, other groups were taught different made-up languages that matched Verblog in every way but used word order combinations that are commonly found in human languages.

Culbertson reasoned that if knowledge of certain properties of human grammars-such as where adjectives, nouns and numerals should occur-is hardwired into the human brain from birth, the participants tasked with learning alien Verblog would have a particularly difficult time, which is exactly what happened.

The adult learners who had had little to no exposure to languages with word orders different from those in English quite easily learned the artificial languages that had word orders commonly found in the world’s languages but failed to learn Verblog. It was clear that the learners’ brains “knew” in some sense that the Verblog word order was extremely unlikely, just as predicted by Chomsky a half-century ago.

The results are important for several reasons, according to Culbertson.

“Language is something that sets us apart from other species, and if we understand how children are able to quickly and efficiently learn language, despite its daunting complexity, then we will have gained fundamental knowledge about this unique faculty,” she said. “What this study suggests is that the problem of acquisition is made simpler by the fact that learners already know some important things about human languages-in this case, that certain words orders are likely to occur and others are not.”

This study was done with the support of a $3.2 million National Science Foundation grant called the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship grant, or IGERT, a unique initiative aimed at training doctoral students to tackle investigations from a multidisciplinary perspective.

According to Smolensky, the goal of the IGERT program in Johns Hopkins’ Cognitive Science Department is to overcome barriers that have long separated the way that different disciplines have tackled language research.

“Using this grant, we are training a generation of interdisciplinary language researchers who can bring together the now widely separated and often divergent bodies of research on language conducted from the perspectives of engineering, psychology and various types of linguistics,” said Smolensky, principal investigator for the department’s IGERT program.

Culbertson used tools from experimental psychology, cognitive science, linguistics and mathematics in designing and carrying out her study.

“The graduate training I received through the IGERT program at Johns Hopkins allowed me to synthesize ideas and approaches from a broad range of fields in order to develop a novel approach to a really classic question in the language sciences,” she said.

Johns Hopkins. 2011. "Artificial Grammar Reveals Inborn Language Sense, JHU Study Shows". Johns Hopkins Media Release. Posted: May 12, 2011. Available online: http://releases.jhu.edu/2011/05/12/artificial-grammar-reveals-inborn-language-sense-jhu-study-shows/

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Torres Strait skulls begin bone repatriation

London's Natural History Museum is to return the skulls of three indigenous people to Australia this weekend.

The body parts were collected in the Torres Strait Islands (TSI) off the northern coast of Queensland.

They are part of a wider group of remains from more than 100 individuals that will eventually go back.

Torres Strait Islanders campaigned for the repatriation of the material, which was acquired by explorers, missionaries and others in past centuries.

Local communities had regarded their removal as an affront to their culture and traditions - the souls of the dead had not been able to rest, the islanders said.

The skulls of the two adults and a child, acquired in the 1800s, will head in the first instance to the Australian National Museum in Canberra. Their release follows talks in the past few days between TSI community leaders and museum staff in London.

The repatriation is regarded as a "goodwill gesture" as the museum looks to build a long-term relationship with the TSI people that will allow scientific access to the remains to continue in the future.

"These items are recorded as having come from the Torres Strait but we don't know which island and we don't know who they are," Richard Lane, the director of science at the Natural History Museum (NHM), told BBC News.

"We said there would be a progressive transfer of authority and responsibility, and this is part of that."

The NHM has a huge collection of human specimens, some of them thousands of years old. While most of the material originates in the UK, a good deal of it has come into the possession of the museum down the years as a consequence of Britain's exploration and colonial past.

Whatever the circumstances of their acquisition, the remains are still deemed an important scientific resource. By applying modern analytical techniques to the bones, it is possible for researchers to discern patterns of migration in ancient human communities - who lived where, who mixed with whom and when.

It is even possible to say something about how people lived and what sort of diseases they carried. Such information is relevant even to modern populations.

"The Torres Strait people have an opportunity to contribute to global knowledge - about how their people fit into the bigger picture of how humans moved around the planet," said Dr Lane.

"This is something they have started to appreciate, and something I don't think they fully understood before we started this process."

The NHM's trustees agreed in February that the remains of 138 individuals known to have come from the TSI should go home.

The repatriated remains will include a range of material - everything from a single jaw bone up to a complete skeleton. There are even "trophy skulls". All of the material is over 100 years old; some of it almost 200 years old.

The trustees' decision followed 18 months of dialogue with TSI representatives in which both parties sought to understand the other's position and find a return policy that would meet each other's desires.

For the TSI communities, this has resulted in the progressive release of material over the next 12 months; for the museum, it means a route to continued access for research.

Ned David, a TSI representative, commented: "We are trying to find a way forward. It's paramount that there is a great deal of cultural respect for my people; we have some very strong beliefs about how we handle those who have passed on.

"At the same time, I don't think that means we have to close the door on having a relationship with the NHM. In this day and age, we are interested in what science can do for our people, and we are keen to build this relationship with the museum."

This is the second and largest release of material by the NHM. It has a number of other requests that its trustees are considering. And this situation is faced by other UK museums and scientific research centres as well.

Amos, Jonathan. 2011. "Torres Strait skulls begin bone repatriation". BBC News. Posted: May 6, 2011. Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-13308981

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Rice's Origins Point to China, Genome Researchers Conclude

Rice originated in China, a team of genome researchers has concluded in a study tracing back thousands of years of evolutionary history through large-scale gene re-sequencing. Their findings, which appear in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), indicate that domesticated rice may have first appeared as far back as approximately 9,000 years ago in the Yangtze Valley of China. Previous research suggested domesticated rice may have two points of origin -- India as well as China.

The study was conducted by researchers from New York University's Center for Genomics and Systems Biology and its Department of Biology, Washington University in St. Louis' Department of Biology, Stanford University's Department of Genetics, and Purdue University's Department of Agronomy.

Asian rice, Oryza sativa, is one of world's oldest crop species. It is also a very diverse crop, with tens of thousands of varieties known throughout the world. Two major subspecies of rice -- japonica and indica -- represent most of the world's varieties. Sushi rice, for example, is a type of japonica, while most of the long-grain rice in risottos are indica. Because rice is so diverse, its origins have been the subject of scientific debate. One theory -- a single-origin model -- suggests that indica and japonica were domesticated once from the wild rice O. rufipogon.

Another -- a multiple-origin model -- proposes that these two major rice types were domesticated separately and in different parts of Asia. The multiple-origin model has gained currency in recent years as biologists have observed significant genetic differences between indica and japonica, and several studies examining the evolutionary relationships among rice varieties supported more than domestication in both India and China.

In the PNAS study, the researchers re-assessed the evolutionary history, or phylogeny, of domesticated rice using previously published datasets, some of which have been used to argue that indica and japonica rice have separate origins. Using more modern computer algorithms, however, the researchers concluded these two species have the same origin because they have a closer genetic relationship to each other than to any wild rice species found in either India or China.

In addition, the study's authors examined the phylogeny of domesticated rice by re-sequencing 630 gene fragments on selected chromosomes from a diverse set of wild and domesticated rice varieties. Using new modeling techniques, which had previously been used to look at genomic data in human evolution, their results showed that the gene sequence data was more consistent with a single origin of rice.

In their PNAS study, the investigators also used a "molecular clock" of rice genes to see when rice evolved. Depending on how the researchers calibrated their clock, they pinpointed the origin of rice at possibly 8,200 years ago, while japonica and indica split apart from each other about 3,900 years ago. The study's authors pointed out that these molecular dates were consistent with archaeological studies. Archaeologists have uncovered evidence in the last decade for rice domestication in the Yangtze Valley beginning approximately 8,000 to 9,000 years ago while domestication of rice in the India's Ganges region was around about 4,000 years ago.

"As rice was brought in from China to India by traders and migrant farmers, it likely hybridized extensively with local wild rice," explained NYU biologist Michael Purugganan, one of the study's co-authors. "So domesticated rice that we may have once thought originated in India actually has its beginnings in China."

"This study is a good example of the new insights that can be gained from combining genomics, informatics and modeling," says Barbara A. Schaal, Mary-Dell Chilton Distinguished Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, who is also a co-author. "Rice has a complicated evolutionary history with humans and has accompanied them as they moved throughout Asia. This work begins to reveal the genetic consequences of that movement."

The research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Program.

Science Daily. 2011. "Rice's Origins Point to China, Genome Researchers Conclude". Science Daily. Posted: Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/05/110502151357.htm

Journal Reference:

Jeanmaire Molina, Martin Sikora, Nandita Garud, Jonathan M. Flowers, Samara Rubinstein, Andy Reynolds, Pu Huang, Scott Jackson, Barbara A. Schaal, Carlos D. Bustamante, Adam R. Boyko and Michael D. Purugganan. Molecular evidence for a single evolutionary origin of domesticated rice. PNAS, May 2, 2011 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1104686108

Friday, May 20, 2011

Princess sheds new light on early Celts

German experts are carefully taking apart a complete Celtic grave in the hope of finding out more about the Celts' way of life, 2,600 years ago, in their Danube heartland.

It wasn't the most glorious final journey for an aristocratic Celtic lady who, in life, clearly had a bit of style.

She died just over 2,600 years ago and rested in peace until a few months ago when her grave was dug up in its entirety - all 80 tonnes of it - and transported on the back of a truck through countless German towns.

In the grave, too, was a child, presumed to be hers. Their last inglorious journey ended in the back yard of the offices of the archaeological service of the state of Baden-Wuerttemberg.

When the truck arrived, the grave encased almost entirely in concrete, was unloaded and a tent constructed around it.

The archaeologists decided that removal of the whole grave would allow them to use the most modern resources of analysis, from computers to X-rays.

From the gantry above a pit, archaeologists leant down and scraped the earth from the bones and jewels speck-by-speck.

What emerged was the lady, the child and their ornaments.

Because of the amount of gold and amber jewellery, they are assumed to be important, a princess and the young prince or princess. It indicates that the early Celts had an aristocratic hierarchy, which has been a matter of dispute among archaeologists.

Accurate dating

"It is the oldest princely female grave yet from the Celtic world," said Dr Dirk Krausse, who is in charge of the dig.

"It is the only example of an early Celtic princely grave with a wooden chamber."

The archaeologists are excited because this grave was preserved by the water-sodden soil of the region so that the oak of the floor was intact, for example, and that puts an exact date on it. The oak trees were felled 2,620 years ago, so, assuming they were felled for the grave, our lady died in 609BC.

The grave had also not been robbed down those 26 centuries, unlike many others.

This means that the jewellery is still there, particularly beautiful brooches of ornate Celtic design in gold and in amber.

Celtic heartland

We usually think of the Celtic heartland as the western edges of Europe - Wales, Scotland and Ireland and Brittany in France.

But Dr Krausse says the real Celtic heartland was actually in the region in the upper reaches of the Danube, from where the Celts could trade.

"Celtic art and Celtic culture have their origins in south-western Germany, eastern France and Switzerland and spread from there to other parts of Europe," said Dr Krausse.

They were then squeezed by the tribes from the north and the Romans from the south, so that today they remain only on the western edges of the continent.

The lady in the grave reveals the Celts to have been a rather stylish people with a love of ornament, examples of which are coming out of the mud of the grave in the tent in Ludwigsburg near Stuttgart.

From the gantry above the grave, Nicole Ebenger-Rest has been doing much of the painstaking excavation.

As well as the rings and brooches, she uncovered the teeth of the Celtic princess. But what also excited her were specks of cloth or food or other organic matter which might reveal a way of life.

"It is a skeleton but it's still a human being so you have a natural respect," she said, looking her fellow human being in the face, across the divide of 26 centuries.

"It's a natural respect between two people."

Evans, Stephen. 2011. "Princess sheds new light on early Celts". BBC News. Posted: May 1, 2011. Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-13225829

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Girl 'murdered' by Roman soldiers in north Kent

The body of a girl thought to have been murdered by Roman soldiers has been discovered in north Kent.

Archaeologists working on the site of a Roman settlement near the A2 uncovered the girl who died almost 2,000 years ago.

"She was killed by a Roman sword stabbing her in the back of the head," said Dr Paul Wilkinson, director of the excavation.

"By the position of the entry wound she would have been kneeling at the time."

The Roman conquest of Britain began in AD43, and the construction of Watling Street started soon afterwards linking Canterbury to St Albans.

A small Roman town was built on the route, near present-day Faversham.

'Dumped' in a shallow grave

Dr Wilkinson is the director of SWAT Archaeology - a company which carries out digs before major building work takes place on sites which may hold historical interest.

He was in charge of a training dig excavating Roman ditches when they made the shocking find.

Dr Wilkinson said that she had been between 16 and 20 years old when she was killed, and her bones suggested that she had been in good health.

He also believes the body had then been dumped in what looked like a hastily dug grave.

"She was lying face down and her body was twisted with one arm underneath her body. One of her feet was even left outside the grave," he said.

The burial site was just outside the Roman town, with cemeteries close by.

Dr Wilkinson said the body was found with some fragments of iron age pottery which would date the grave to about AD50, and suggest that she was part of the indigenous population.

Another indication of her origin, according to Dr Wilkinson, is the orientation of the body.

Romans buried their bodies lying east-west, whereas this body was buried north-south, as was the custom for pagan graves.

'Local populations were killed'

Many people have a romantic view of the Roman invasion, Dr Wilkinson said.

"Now, for the first time, we have an indication of how the Roman armies treated people, and that large numbers of the local populations were killed.

"It shows how all invading armies act the same throughout history. One can only imagine what trauma this poor girl had to suffer before she was killed," he said.

She will be re-buried at the site.

BBC News. 2011. "Girl 'murdered' by Roman soldiers in north Kent". BBC News. Posted: April 28, 2011. Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-kent-13211331

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Amit Sood: Building a museum of museums on the web

Imagine being able to see artwork in the greatest museums around the world without leaving your chair. Driven by his passion for art, Amit Sood tells the story of how he developed Art Project to let people do just that.


TED. 2011. "Amit Sood: Building a museum of museums on the web". TED. Posted: May, 2011. Available online: http://www.ted.com/talks/amit_sood_building_a_museum_of_museums_on_the_web.html

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Ancient DNA: Curse of the Pharaoh's DNA

Some researchers claim to have analysed DNA from Egyptian mummies. Others say that's impossible. Could new sequencing methods bridge the divide?

Cameras roll as ancient-DNA experts Carsten Pusch and Albert Zink scrutinize a row of coloured peaks on their computer screen. There is a dramatic pause. "My god!" whispers Pusch, the words muffled by his surgical mask. Then the two hug and shake hands, accompanied by the laughter and applause of their Egyptian colleagues. They have every right to be pleased with themselves. After months of painstaking work, they have finally completed their analysis of 3,300-year-old DNA from the mummy of King Tutankhamun.

Featured in the Discovery Channel documentary King Tut Unwrapped last year and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)1, their analysis — of Tutankhamun and ten of his relatives — was the latest in a string of studies reporting the analysis of DNA from ancient Egyptian mummies. Apparently revealing the mummies' family relationships as well as their afflictions, such as tuberculosis and malaria, the work seems to be providing unprecedented insight into the lives and health of ancient Egyptians and is ushering in a new era of 'molecular Egyptology'. Except that half of the researchers in the field challenge every word of it.

Enter the world of ancient Egyptian DNA and you are asked to choose between two alternate realities: one in which DNA analysis is routine, and the other in which it is impossible. "The ancient-DNA field is split absolutely in half," says Tom Gilbert, who heads two research groups at the Center for GeoGenetics in Copenhagen, one of the world's foremost ancient-DNA labs.

Unable to resolve their differences, the two sides publish in different journals, attend different conferences and refer to each other as 'believers' and 'sceptics' — when, that is, they're not simply ignoring each other. The Tutankhamun study reignited long-standing tensions between the two camps, with sceptics claiming that in this study, as in most others, the results can be explained by contamination. Next-generation sequencing techniques, however, may soon be able to resolve the split once and for all by making it easier to sequence ancient, degraded DNA. But for now, Zink says, "It's like a religious thing. If our papers are reviewed by one of the other groups, you get revisions like 'I don't believe it's possible'. It's hard to argue with that."

Visit the site to read the rest of this article.
Or, you can download the entire article.


Marchant, Jo. 2011. "Ancient DNA: Curse of the Pharaoh's DNA". Nature. Posted: April 27, 2011. Available online: http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110427/full/472404a.html

Monday, May 16, 2011

Plants found in ancient pills offer medicinal insight

DNA extracted from 2,000-year-old plants recovered from an Italian shipwreck could offer scientists the key to new medicines.

Carrots, parsley and wild onions were among the samples preserved in clay pills on board the merchant trading vessel that sank around 120 BC. It's believed the plants were used by doctors to treat intestinal disorders among the ship's crew.

Such remedies are described in ancient Greek texts, but this is the first time the medicines themselves have been discovered.

"Medicinal plants have been identified before, but not a compound medicine, so this is really something new," says Alain Touwaide, director of the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions, which has the world's largest digital database of medical manuscripts.

Prof Touwaide is working with scientists at the Smithsonian's Natural History Museum, who carried out the DNA analysis. They discovered traces of carrot, parsley, alfalfa, celery, wild onion, radish, yarrow and hibiscus contained in the ancient pills.

The pills, which researchers believe were diluted with vinegar or water to make them easier to ingest, were preserved inside tin boxes and were the size of coins.

"I was always wondering if the texts were only theoretical notions without practical application," he says. "Now we know they were applied."

'Written evidence'

In May, Prof Touwaide's conclusions, based on the DNA findings and his own study of medicinal texts, will be formally presented to an international gathering of archaeologists, historians of medicines and other experts in Rome.

"What is remarkable is that we have written evidence [from the ancient Greeks] of what plants were used for which disorders," says Alisa Machalek, a science writer for the National Institutes of Health, one of the world's leading research centres.

"This research is interesting, especially for medical historians, because it confirms that what we eat affects our bodies."

Prof Touwaide hopes his research will help to develop modern treatments.

"We extract the information from these texts so that scientists can see if they can make shortcuts to pharmacological discoveries," he says.

"We re-purpose ancient medical information and jump from the past to the future."

For instance, the Roman statesman Cato recommended eating broccoli to stay healthy and Prof Touwaide has found references to the Greek physician Galen using it in the 2nd Century AD to treat intestinal cancer.

Prof Touwaide says modern research is now under way to isolate a compound found in broccoli that may be a source for the treatment of cancer today.

"This is a huge field in chemistry and pharmaceutical science," says Ms Machalek.

"Native Americans chewed on willow bark to relieve pain - now we pop open a bottle and chew on aspirin which contains similar compounds. Taxol, a cancer medicine, is derived from the bark of the Pacific Yew."

Early Greek writings

To understand the significance of the plants contained in the 2,000-year-old pills, Prof Touwaide studied a number of medical works, including the Hippocratic Collection.

The collection is one of the earliest sets of Greek writings still in existence and is attributed to Hippocrates, considered to be the founder of Western medicine.

He cross-referenced those findings with other works, such as the Encyclopaedia of Natural Substances, written in the 1st Century AD by Dioscorides.

Dioscorides noted that "the large onion is sharper than the round onion. All onions are pungent and apt to cause flatulence. They stimulate the appetite. They are thirst making. They cleanse the bowel."

"They are good for opening outlets for various secretions as well as haemorrhoids, and they are used as suppositories, pilled and dipped in olive oil," Dioscorides wrote.

A significant percentage of commercial medicines are derived from natural sources, but the active compound has been isolated, concentrated, standardised and packaged into measured doses.

The shift toward synthetic chemical medicines occurred in the 20th Century, but according to Mark Blumenthal, the founder and executive director of the American Botanical Council, there is renewed interest in the medicinal benefits of natural foods - including those found in the pills.

"A lot of ancient plants have modern functions," he says.

"There's a lot of marketing going on for so-called functional foods - foods with high levels of antioxidants, for improving the cardiovascular system or reducing the risk of cancer.

"Hibiscus tea is growing in popularity and research shows that it lowers blood pressure. Garlic and to some degree onions, continue to have cardiovascular benefits and reduce the build-up of plaque."

But Prof Touwaide says the traditional cures based on plants and minerals are in danger of being forgotten.

He says part of the problem is that too few people now study classical Greek, Latin or Arabic and there are not enough experts to interpret the original texts.

Prof Touwaide is proficient in 12 languages and has spent years collecting his library of 15,000 books on plants and their uses.

He believes such ancient knowledge should become protected by Unesco as part of the world's heritage.

O'Brien, Jane. 2011. "Plants found in ancient pills offer medicinal insight". BBC News. Posted: April 27, 2011. Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-13190376

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Lost City Revealed Under Centuries of Jungle Growth

A hundred ancient Maya buildings detected under Guatemala rain forest.

Hidden for centuries, the ancient Maya city of Holtun, or Head of Stone, is finally coming into focus.

Three-dimensional mapping has "erased" centuries of jungle growth, revealing the rough contours of nearly a hundred buildings, according to research presented earlier this month.

Though it's long been known to locals that something—something big—is buried in this patch of Guatemalan rain forest, it's only now that archaeologists are able to begin teasing out what exactly Head of Stone was.

Using GPS and electronic distance-measurement technology last year, the researchers plotted the locations and elevations of a seven-story-tall pyramid, an astronomical observatory, a ritual ball court, several stone residences, and other structures.

The Maya Denver?

Some of the stone houses, said study leader Brigitte Kovacevich, may have doubled as burial chambers for the city's early kings.

"Oftentimes archaeologists are looking at the biggest pyramids or temples to find the tombs of early kings, but during this Late-Middle Preclassic period"—roughly 600 B.C. to 300 B.C.—"the king is not the center of the universe yet, so he's probably still being buried in the household," said Kovacevich, an archaeologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"That may be why so many Preclassic kings have been missed" by archaeologists, who expected to find the rulers' burials at grand temples, she added.

The findings at Head of Stone—named for giant masks found at the site—could shed light on how "secondary" Maya centers were organized and what daily life was like for Maya living outside of the larger metropolitan areas such as Tikal, about 22 miles (35 kilometers) to the north, according to Kathryn Reese-Taylor, a Preclassic Maya specialist at Canada's University of Calgary.

Head of Stone, which has never been excavated, "was not a New York or Los Angeles, but it was definitely a Denver or Atlanta," said Reese-Taylor, who called the new mapping study "incredibly significant."

Buried Pyramid

From about 600 B.C. to A.D. 900, Head of Stone—which is about three-quarters of a mile (1 kilometer) long and a third of a mile (0.5 kilometer) wide—was a bustling midsize Maya center, home to about 2,000 permanent residents.

But today its structures are buried under several feet of earth and plant material and are nearly invisible to the untrained eyed.

Even Head of Stone's three-pointed pyramid—once one of the city's most impressive buildings—"just looks like a mountain enveloped in forest," said study leader Kovacevich, who presented the findings at a meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Sacramento, California.

Jungle Thick as Thieves

Head of Stone is so well hidden, in fact, that archaeologists didn't learn of it until the early 1990s, and only because they were following the trails of looters who had discovered the site first—perhaps after farmers had attempted to clear the area, according to Kovacevich.

For thieves, the main attractions were massive stucco masks measuring up to ten feet (three meters) tall. Uncovered as looters dug tunnels into the buried city, the heads once adorned some of Head of Stone's most important buildings.

The temple, Kovacevich said, "would have had these really fabulously, elaborately painted stucco masks flanking the two sides of the stairway that represented human figures, snarling jaguars," and other forms.

During the Preclassic period, Head of Stone's important public buildings would have been painted primarily in blood reds, bright whites, and mustard yellows, the University of Calgary's Reese-Taylor said. Murals of geometric patterns or scenes from myth or daily life would have covered some of the buildings, she added.

King of Stars

During special events at Head of Stone, such as the crowning of a king or the naming of a royal heir, "there would have been a lot of people—not only the 2,000 people living at the site itself but all the people from surrounding areas as well. So, several thousand people," Reese-Taylor said.

Thick gray smoke and the smell of burning incense would have filled the air. Gazing up at the temple top through this haze, a visitor might have seen "ritual practitioners" performing dances and sacred rituals while adorned with elaborate feathered costumes and jade jewelry.

During the solstices or equinoxes, the crowds would have moved farther south and higher up in the city, surrounding the buildings that made up the astronomical observatory.

"During the solstices, you would've been able to see the sun rising in line with the eastern structure, and the common people would have thought that the king was commanding the heavens," study leader Kovacevich said.

The researchers, though, are directing their gaze downward. This summer they hope to begin excavating residential structures and the observatory, as well as to possibly remove the undergrowth from the main temple.

And, by using ground-penetrating radar, they hope to bring Head of Stone into even sharper relief.

By seeing through soil the way the previous mapping project saw through trees and brush, radar should reveal not just the rounded shapes of the city but the hard outlines of the buildings themselves.


Than, Ker. 2011. "Lost City Revealed Under Centuries of Jungle Growth". National Geographic News. Posted: April 26,2011. Available online: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2011/04/110426-maya-lost-city-holtun-science-guatemala-ancient/

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The secrets of Paviland Cave

To learn more about the 34,000-year-old remains of the Red Lady, our writer spent the night in the cave where his, yes, his bones were discovered in 1823

It was probably more interesting 34,000 years ago. Then, from Paviland cave you would have seen mammoths, rhinos, oryx, vast herds of deer, even the odd sabre-toothed tiger, all roaming across the plain below. Now it's just water – the Bristol Channel swashing against the jagged rock beneath the cave, Lundy Island in the distance, the coast of south-west England beyond that.

Paviland is only accessible for a couple of hours a day – unless you fancy a tricky climb – so I've decided to stay here for 24 hours, sleeping in the cave, sunbathing on the rocks, and wishing I'd brought some board games to play with my companions, local survival expert Andrew Price and photographer Gareth Phillips.

Cave life can be a little on the dull side.

Paviland cave, on the Gower peninsula in South Wales, is a crucial site for tracing the origins of human life in Britain. It was in here, in 1823, that William Buckland, the first professor of geology at Oxford University, excavated the remains of a body that had been smeared with red ochre (naturally occurring iron oxide) and buried with a selection of periwinkle shells and ivory rods. Buckland initially thought the body was that of a customs officer, killed by smugglers. Then he decided it was a Roman prostitute – he wrongly believed the iron-age fort on the hilltop above the cave was Roman. This misidentification gave the headless skeleton its name – "the Red Lady of Paviland" – and it is still called the Red Lady, even though we now know two things Buckland didn't: the remains are those of a young man, probably in his late 20s, and they were buried 34,000 years ago. The Red Lady is the oldest anatomically modern human skeleton found in Britain, and Paviland is the site of the oldest ceremonial burial in western Europe.

To get in touch with this epic slice of pre-history I have chosen to sleep in the very spot where the Red Lady was discovered. I'm not sure what I expect to get out of this – a metaphysical connection with one of the first modern humans to come to these islands perhaps; the spiritual uplift pagans who visit this cave get when they come to pay homage to a figure they regard as a shaman. But in reality all I get is bitten on the hand by a spider. If Price had told me before the tide came in that there were spiders and bats in the cave, I probably wouldn't have stayed.

Price has known the cave (called Goat's Hole by locals) since he was a boy and is fascinated by the Red Lady. He likes to think spiritual significance was attached to the cave – larger than the others hereabouts, with an evocative, teardrop-shaped mouth – as a burial chamber. "I don't think the aesthetics would have been lost on people then," he muses. "And, even if you just look at it in practical terms, sitting up here gives you a great view of your hunting grounds." Then, with global temperatures colder and sea levels lower, the estuary was miles back from the cave, and the plain teemed with the animals on which the small hunter-gatherer groups depended. They tracked herds of deer across hundreds of miles, and Paviland is likely to have been a stopping-off point on their annual round.

Excavators who came after Buckland found thousands of flints on the floor of the cave, suggesting it was in regular use, even though a few thousand years after the Red Lady was buried temperatures fell further, the ice advanced and Britain was abandoned by early man, leaving the cave's occupant to lie alone for thousands of years.

As I struggle to get to sleep on the rocky, uneven floor of the cave, I try to dwell on his fate and conjure up the millennia, but all I can register is my tiredness and the constant boom of the sea as it penetrates the hollows in the cliffs.

Price believes the Red Lady was an important man. "Judging by the items that were found, I think he would have played a significant role. The ivory rods clearly had some ritualistic or artistic use. They weren't hunting tools or anything like that, and that leads me to believe that his role in their society was of either religious significance or as a leader of some sort. I lean towards the idea that he might have been a mystic of some kind, or someone with a spiritual connection."

What might be called the Welsh romantic view of the Red Lady is given academic backing by a monograph called Paviland Cave and the Red Lady: A Definitive Report, edited by archaeologist Stephen Aldhouse-Green and published in 2000. Aldhouse-Green argues that Paviland had been a "locus consecratus" – a sacred place – for more than 5,000 years. Unfortunately for the definitive report, the skeleton had been wrongly dated to 26,000 years ago, and the case for the symbolic importance of the cave and the possible shamanistic status of its occupant is now thought distinctly sketchy.

Marianne Sommer, in her book Bones and Ochre: The Curious Afterlife of the Red Lady of Paviland, makes the point that Welsh academics may have been seduced into making the Red Lady part of an indigenous cultural narrative. The fact that the Definitive Report opens with a poem called The Wind celebrating the "swift antiquarian/Who teaches me the antiquity of longing" and has a foreword by the then Welsh first minister Rhodri Morgan emphasises the significance accorded to the Red Lady in Wales and helps to explain why the remains have become, as Sommer is not afraid to pun, "bones of contention".

A few days after my stay in the cave, I go to meet the Red Lady – or at least his bones, in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. They are too fragile to be put on display, but in the office of museum director, Jim Kennedy, I am allowed to touch them, wearing gloves and terrified of dropping them. The bones, stained red, are laid out in boxes, but you have no sense of the body, which is reckoned to have been 6ft tall, narrow-hipped and gracile – more African than European in body type and typical of a man who had to cover huge distances on foot. The skeleton is missing the skull, the long bones of the right side and vertabrae, all of which were presumed lost, either because of human disturbance or the effects of the sea – the cave suffers occasional inundations.

Kennedy is not a romantic. He dismisses the notion that the Red Lady was a shaman and that the cave was a site for pilgrimage, seeing the burial as "a single event [of] a young man, for all we know a mammoth hunter, who got killed and was buried by his companions". The rest, he reckons, should be silence, though it won't be. "If people want to believe this is an important cultural site, they'll believe it," he says.

Kennedy's views may be coloured by the battle he has fought against Welsh pagans and other campaigners who argue that the bones should be at a museum in Wales. Cyt ap Nydden, a druid based in Swansea (though he was originally an engineer from Birmingham called Chris Warwick) and a leading figure in the lobby group Dead to Rights, tells me that the ideal solution would be for them to be returned to the cave, where they could be exhibited under glass. He calls the removal of the bones "grave-robbing", and says it would never have been permitted at the site of a Christian burial. Ap Nydden has also spent a night at Paviland, which he says was "warm and comforting" and exhibited none of the signs of spiritual disturbance he had expected.

He was clearly not bitten by a spider or bothered by bats.

At Oxford I also talk to Tom Higham, deputy director of the university's radiocarbon accelerator unit, which redated the Red Lady to 34,000 years ago. "We found that instead of sitting where he had been before, in a cold period, it was actually in a much warmer interstadial [a relatively warm period within the ice age]. We think that's why people were there. The pattern is emerging of people not really coming to the British isles unless it was warmer. You can imagine it being a peninsula [Britain was joined to the continent at that point] into which people didn't go unless conditions were right."

I ask Higham what we can deduce about the Red Lady. "This person probably had some kind of an accident. He's a healthy person, not very old, doesn't show any major signs of illness or disease. My guess is there was a hunting party, they were hunting in the environs of the site, there was an accident and the person was buried there." The cave, in Higham's view, was not a pagan cathedral but a convenient spot to leave a companion who had met an untimely end, and he says there is no evidence of subsequent pilgrimages, other perhaps than by doting druids and misguided journalists. His prosaic conclusion is unlikely to play well in the more poetic corners of Wales.


Moss, Stephan. 2011. "The secrets of Paviland Cave". Guardian. Posted: April 25, 2011. Available online: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2011/apr/25/paviland-cave-red-lady

Friday, May 13, 2011

Brains of Buddhist monks scanned in meditation study

In a laboratory tucked away off a noisy New York City street, a soft-spoken neuroscientist has been placing Tibetan Buddhist monks into a car-sized brain scanner to better understand the ancient practice of meditation.

But could this unusual research not only unravel the secrets of leading a harmonious life but also shed light on some of the world's more mysterious diseases?

Zoran Josipovic, a research scientist and adjunct professor at New York University, says he has been peering into the brains of monks while they meditate in an attempt to understand how their brains reorganise themselves during the exercise.

Since 2008, the researcher has been placing the minds and bodies of prominent Buddhist figures into a five-tonne (5,000kg) functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.

The scanner tracks blood flow within the monks' heads as they meditate inside its clunky walls, which echoes a musical rhythm when the machine is operating.

Dr Josipovic, who also moonlights as a Buddhist monk, says he is hoping to find how some meditators achieve a state of "nonduality" or "oneness" with the world, a unifying consciousness between a person and their environment.

"One thing that meditation does for those who practise it a lot is that it cultivates attentional skills," Dr Josipovic says, adding that those harnessed skills can help lead to a more tranquil and happier way of being.

"Meditation research, particularly in the last 10 years or so, has shown to be very promising because it points to an ability of the brain to change and optimise in a way we didn't know previously was possible."

When one relaxes into a state of oneness, the neural networks in experienced practitioners change as they lower the psychological wall between themselves and their environments, Dr Josipovic says.

And this reorganisation in the brain may lead to what some meditators claim to be a deep harmony between themselves and their surroundings.

Shifting attention

Dr Josipovic's research is part of a larger effort better to understand what scientists have dubbed the default network in the brain.

He says the brain appears to be organised into two networks: the extrinsic network and the intrinsic, or default, network.

The extrinsic portion of the brain becomes active when individuals are focused on external tasks, like playing sports or pouring a cup of coffee.

The default network churns when people reflect on matters that involve themselves and their emotions.

But the networks are rarely fully active at the same time. And like a seesaw, when one rises, the other one dips down.

This neural set-up allows individuals to concentrate more easily on one task at any given time, without being consumed by distractions like daydreaming.

"What we're trying to do is basically track the changes in the networks in the brain as the person shifts between these modes of attention," Dr Josipovic says.

Dr Josipovic has found that some Buddhist monks and other experienced meditators have the ability to keep both neural networks active at the same time during meditation - that is to say, they have found a way to lift both sides of the seesaw simultaneously.

And Dr Josipovic believes this ability to churn both the internal and external networks in the brain concurrently may lead the monks to experience a harmonious feeling of oneness with their environment.


Scientists previously believed the self-reflective, default network in the brain was simply one that was active when a person had no task on which to focus their attention.

But researchers have found in the past decade that this section of the brain swells with activity when the subject thinks about the self.

The default network came to light in 2001 when Dr Marcus Raichle, a neurologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in the US state of Missouri, began scanning the brains of individuals who were not given tasks to perform.

The patients quickly became bored, and Dr Raichle noticed a second network, that had previously gone unnoticed, danced with activity. But the researcher was unclear why this activity was occurring.

Other scientists were quick to suggest that Dr Raichle's subjects could have actually been thinking about themselves.

Soon other neuroscientists, who conducted studies using movies to stimulate the brain, found that when there was a lull of activity in a film, the default network began to flash - signalling that research subjects may have begun to think about themselves out of boredom.

But Dr Raichle says the default network is important for more than just thinking about what one had for dinner last night.

"Researchers have wrestled with this idea of how we know we are who we are. The default mode network says something about how that might have come to be," he says.

And Dr Raichle adds that those studying the default network may also help in uncovering the secrets surrounding some psychological disorders, like depression, autism and even Alzheimer's disease.

"If you look at Alzheimer's Disease, and you look at whether it attacks a particular part of the brain, what's amazing is that it actually attacks the default mode network," says Dr Raichle, adding that intrinsic network research, like Dr Josipovic's, could assist in explaining why that is.

Cindy Lustig, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Michigan, agrees.

"It's a major and understudied network in the brain that seems to be very involved in a lot of neurological disorders, including autism and Alzheimer's, and understanding how that network interacts with the task-oriented [extrinsic] network is important," she says. "It is sort of the other piece of the puzzle that's been ignored for too long."

Dr Josipovic has scanned the brains of more than 20 experienced meditators, both monks and nuns who primarily study the Tibetan Buddhist style of meditation, to better understand this mysterious network.

He says his research, which will soon be published, will for the moment continue to concentrate on explaining the neurological implications of oneness and tranquillity - though improving understanding of autism or Alzheimer's along the way would certainly be quite a bonus.

Danzico, Matt. 2011. "Brains of Buddhist monks scanned in meditation study". BBC News. Posted: April 23, 2011. Available online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-12661646

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Austrians hail a 'fairy-tale find' of medieval riches

A man turning dirt in his backyard stumbled onto buried treasure — hundreds of pieces of centuries-old jewelry and other precious objects that Austrian authorities described Friday as a fairy-tale find.

Austria's department in charge of national antiquities said the trove consists of more than 200 rings, brooches, ornate belt buckles, gold-plated silver plates and other pieces or fragments, many encrusted with pearls, fossilized coral and other ornaments. It said the objects are about 650 years old and are being evaluated for their provenance and worth.

While not assigning a monetary value to the buried bling, the enthusiastic language from the normally staid Federal Office for Memorials reflected the significance it attached to the discovery.

"Fairy tales still exist!" said its statement. "Private individual finds sensational treasure in garden."

It described the ornaments as "one of the qualitatively most significant discoveries of medieval treasure in Austria."

The statement gave no details and an automated telephone message said the office had closed early on Good Friday. But the Austria Press Agency cited memorials office employee Karin Derler as saying the man came across the "breathtaking" objects years ago while digging in his back yard to expand a small pond.

The weekly Profil magazine identified the man only as Andreas K. from Wiener Neustadt, south of Vienna, and said he asked not to be named.

While he found the ornaments in 2007, Andreas K. did not report it to the memorials office until after rediscovering the dirt-encrusted objects in a basement box while packing up after selling his house two years ago, said Profil. The soil had dried and some had fallen off, revealing precious metal and jewels underneath.

He initially posted photos on the Internet, where collectors alerted him to the potential value of the pieces, leading him to pack them in a plastic bag and lug them to the memorials office, the magazine said in its Friday edition.
Bettina Sidonie Neubauer-Pregl, BDA via AP
This photo provided by Austria's federal conservation authority shows a ring that was among hundreds of valuable pieces unearthed in a backyard.

Neither Profil nor the memorials office statement said when Andreas K. first alerted Austrian authorities and it was unclear why they waited until Friday to announce the discovery.

Memorials office president Barbara Neubauer told Profil the objects were a "sensational find."

The magazine said the finder was not interested in cashing in on the trove and was considering loaning the collection to one of Austria's museums.

Visit the website to see pictures of some of the ornaments.

Jahn, George. 2011. "Austrians hail a 'fairy-tale find' of medieval riches". Msnbc. Posted: April , 2011. Available online: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42718460/ns/technology_and_science-science/

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Oxford University mission to save a language spoken by three people

A team of academics from Oxford University have been sent to a remote area of Indonesia in order to save a language spoken by only three people.

The trio are the last people to speak Dusner, an ancient language spoken in a remote fishing village deep in the jungles of Papua, an Indonesian island.

The scientists were nearly too late as recent earthquakes and flooding nearly finished off the community – which still uses the language in ceremonies like marriage – for good.

Researchers from university’s Faculty of Linguistics, Philology and Phonetics uncovered the language, and Dr Suriel Mofu set off for Indonesia in October to record and document the language.

But days after he left, flooding hit Indonesia’s easternmost Papua province and the Oxford team could not determine whether or not the Dusner speakers – two woman aged 60, and a man in his 70s – had survived.

Now Dr Mofu has made contact with the Dusner speakers and the 14-month project to record the vocabulary and grammar of the speakers.

Professor Mary Dalrymple, the project’s leader, said: "The flood in Indonesia has been a real tragedy for the inhabitants of this wonderful island and it’s been a nervous few months waiting to hear whether or not our speakers survived.

"But this illustrates why our project is so important – we only found out that this language existed last year, and if we don’t document the language before it dies out, it will be lost forever."

The reason the language has dwindled is that many locals now teach their children Malay as they consider it more useful to get jobs.

But Dusner is still used in ceremonies.

"Our project to record and document this language of Dusner has an urgency about it, because one of its speakers died last year," said Prof Dalrymple.

"The language of Dusner has died out as parents realised that their children have a better chance of going to university or getting a job if they speak Malay, which is Indonesia’s main tongue.

"The remaining Dusner speakers have children of their own, but have not taught them Dusner and so the language will die with them.

"Our project is important to non-Dusner speaking inhabitants of Papua, who want to use Dusner in their sacred wedding and funerary rituals."

It is estimated that half of the 6,000 recorded languages spoken in the world will vanish in the next 50 years.

According to the academics the level of enthusiasm among the Dusner people and the head of the village of Dusner for preserving their language is very high.

The community still perform traditional activities - such as marriage proposals, dowry payment, marriage ceremonies - only the Dusner speakers can use the Dusner language for these occasions.

There is great fear in the community that the people will lose the language when these speakers die.

Since Dusner has never been written, traditional stories and experiences have been passed from one generation to another orally.

Alleyne, Richard. 2011. "Oxford University mission to save a language spoken by three people". Telegraph. Posted: April 21, 2011. Available online: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/8463840/Oxford-University-mission-to-save-a-language-spoken-by-three-people.html