Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The story of how we got our alphabets

From intricate and beautiful Egyptian hieroglyphs, to wedge-shaped cuneiform imprints from ancient Mesopotamia - our ancestors developed many ways of recording their thoughts and information.

We might see them as primitive, but these early written languages were instrumental to shaping and forming the alphabets used across the world today.

Dr James Clackson, senior lecturer in Classics at the University of Cambridge, explains about some of the people and places where writing was born.

Dr Clackson is talking at the Cambridge University Festival of Ideas - Adventures of a Palaeolinguist on 24 October.

Go to the website to view the slide show.

2011. "The story of how we got our alphabets ". BBC News. Posted: August 18, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rescuing Endangered Languages Means Saving Ideas

While saving the world’s threatened languages may seem informed more by nostalgia than need, federally funded researchers say each tongue may include unique concepts with practical value.

Endangered languages don’t seem as self-evidently valuable as, say, endangered species essential to the functioning of a healthy ecosystem. If the world loses Chuj, a particularly endangered Mayan language of Central America, or Itelmen, a language with fewer than two dozen native speakers on an isolated peninsula in the far east of Russia, people will still be able to communicate. They’ll just do it in Spanish, or maybe Russian. And history will move on.

Human language, though, encapsulates more than just different ways to say to “hello.”

“The debate about the universality of language, that we all have the same ideas and therefore language is just a function of history, that we’re basically using verbs and nouns [to say the same thing] — that’s a hypothesis,” said Anna Kerttula, the program officer for Arctic Social Sciences at the National Science Foundation. “Or maybe it’s reached the level of theory. But that’s in no way been proven.”

As the famous example says, Eskimo have numerous words to describe what Americans would just call “snow” and “ice.” This suggests language systems don’t merely translate universal ideas into different spellings; they encode different concepts. And when we lose a language, we risk losing those concepts.

A lot of concepts are on the edge of oblivion — out of about 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, half are projected to disappear by the end of the century, if not sooner.

“That’s an amazing amount of knowledge,” Kerttula said.

She helps run a joint program of the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities that’s been trying for seven years to fund efforts at recording and documenting endangered languages before they disappear. (The program received an infusion of $3.9 million last week to pay for 10 fellowships and 24 grants.) The project may sound like a punch line for another anti-science tirade from a small-government politician, but its work touches on fundamental questions about how the brain works, how people express ideas, how societies adapt and how human history has evolved. And of how researchers benefit.

“We’re talking about neuroscientists, we’re talking about computer scientists, we’re definitely talking about historians, anthropologists and biologists in some cases” working on nearly extinct language, Kerttula said.

The National Science Foundation actually has physical scientists working with Inuit people to identify different aspects of ice that aren’t captured in the English language but could inform our understanding of the changing Arctic ecosystem.

“If you don’t understand and don’t have the language for what ice is, what ice should be, you’re not going to understand how it’s changing,” Kerttula said. “Language is critical in recognizing change in your environment.”

One researcher receiving the money allocated last week, Jürgen Bohnemeyer at SUNY Buffalo, wants to know: If people talk differently about objects in space, does that mean they also think differently about them? He’ll investigate how spatial concepts are represented in 25 languages on five continents.

Another researcher, Pedro Mateo Pedro, will study how children acquire Chuj, the endangered Mayan language. Other projects will document endangered native languages in Oklahoma and the construction of Cherokee grammar. Some will develop learning and training resources for communities to record their own language.

A few of the researchers will be working with languages spoken by fewer than 30 elderly people. But the designation “endangered,” Kerttula says, isn’t necessarily a measurement of the small number of people still speaking a language. Rather, she said, languages become endangered when children no longer speak them.

Out of 92 languages known to have been used in the Arctic, for example, she says 72 still have some speakers. All but one (Greenlandic) are endangered, the result of the steady encroachment of other dominant languages like English into the domains of public schools and legal systems, television and now the Internet.

“Pretty soon, all of the domains of your life are in English, and the only place where you get to speak your native language is to your grandmother,” Kerttula said. “So how long is that language going to last? It’s basically not.”

The government program’s efforts of course won’t save them all.

“With 7,000 languages, that means 3,500 languages are going to disappear, and we’re funding how many projects a year?” Kerttula asked rhetorically. The National Science Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities aren’t the only ones doing this work; some individual states, for example, have programs that include keeping native languages on life support. But the number of programs worldwide is small, and for each language that one of them targets, there are exponentially more elements to understand, from grammar to vocabulary to the cognitive processes of children.

Kerttula is effusive about the individual projects now trying to do this. But, she adds, “It’s a Sisyphean task.”

Badger, Emily. 2011. "Rescuing Endangered Languages Means Saving Ideas". Miller-McCune. Posted: August 19, 2011. Available online:

Monday, August 29, 2011

Online access to the earliest medieval map of Britain

The secrets embedded in one of the earliest maps to show Britain in its geographically recognised form have been uncovered, as Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funded researchers launch the newly digitised Gough Map.

The actual Gough Map was drawn on two pieces of sheepskin in the 14th century and is around 45 ins long. It shows Great Britain on its side, before the convention of maps pointing north, and details green rivers and red-roofed cathedrals.

The ‘Gough Map of Great Britain’ is named after one of its former antiquarian owners, Richard Gough (1735-1809).

The online Gough Map is accessible to all and was digitised through the Linguistic Geographies project, whose team members came from the Bodleian Library, the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London and from Queen’s University Belfast. Together they have created a fully interactive, digital, online version of the enigmatic Gough Map which uses fluid zooming, panning and pop-ups to deliver the Map image at an enormous size, giving a level of detail that is considerably better than could be seen with the naked eye.

This map is fully searchable and browse-able by place name (current and medieval), and also by geographical features. Once clicking on a chosen location, information regarding that location’s geographical appearance, etymology, appearance on earlier maps, and much, much more is revealed.

This fifteen-month research project provides some revealing insights into one of the most enigmatic cartographic pieces from the Bodleian collections. The findings are recorded on the newly-launched website

The project used an innovative approach that explores the map’s ‘linguistic geographies’, that is the writing used on the map by the scribes who created it, with the aim of offering a re-interpretation of the Gough Map’s origins, provenance, purpose and creation of which so little is known.

Although the identity of the map-maker is unknown, it is now possible to reveal that the text on this the work of at least two scribes: the original 14th-century scribe and a 15th-century reviser.

One of the key investigations based on historical reference and the handwriting on the map was to date the map more accurately. The project has discovered that the map was made closer to 1375, rather than in 1360 as was previously thought.

There are visible differences between recorded details in Scotland and England. For example: the text written by the original scribe is best preserved in Scotland and the area north of Hadrian’s Wall, whereas the text written by the reviser is found in south-eastern and central England. The buildings in Scotland do not have windows and doors, whereas in the revised part of the map, essentially everywhere south of Hadrian’s Wall, most buildings have both windows and doors.

Throughout, towns are shown in some detail, the lettering for London and York coloured gold, while other principal medieval settlements such as Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Lincoln, Norwich, Salisbury and Winchester are lavishly illustrated.
The website

The website also includes a series of scholarly essays discussing the map; latest news about the project and a blog.

The Gough Map’s origins have long remained uncertain, including who made it, how, where and why? To begin to address these questions the project used innovative approaches that explored the map’s ‘linguistic geographies’, looking at the writing used on the map by the (unknown) scribes who created it. This technique involves specialist palaeographic and linguistic skills that are normally applied to text manuscripts, but somewhat experimentally the aim with this project was to use them on a map manuscript with the aim of finding out more about the Gough Map’s making.

Paul Vetch, from the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s, said: ‘The Gough Map is a fascinating document from any number of different disciplinary perspectives – history, linguistics, palaeography, cartography, to name but a few – and our aim was to try and deliver it in a way which would make it available for as many modes of interrogation as possible.’

Nick Millea, Bodleian Map Librarian, said: ‘The project team was keen to ensure that our research findings reach the widest possible audiences, not least because maps are enduringly popular objects and always capture the imagination; medieval maps especially. To this end one of the main project outcomes is this web-resource through which the Gough Map is made more widely accessible. We hope this will help others to develop other lines of enquiry on medieval maps and mapmaking, whether in academic or non-academic sectors, as well as provide greater levels of access to the Gough Map, enhancing its world-wide significance in the history of cartography.’

Visit the site here

Past Horizons. 2011. "Online access to the earliest medieval map of Britain". Past Horizons. Posted: August 18, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, August 28, 2011

'Britain's first pre-Roman planned town' found near Reading

Archaeologists believe they have found the first pre-Roman planned town discovered in Britain.

It has been unearthed beneath the Roman town of Silchester or Calleva Atrebatum near modern Reading.

The Romans are often credited with bringing civilisation to Britain - including town planning.

But excavations have shown evidence of an Iron Age town built on a grid and signs inhabitants had access to imported wine and olive oil.

Prof Mike Fulford, an archaeologist at the University of Reading, said the people of Iron Age Silchester appear to have adopted an urbanised 'Roman' way of living, long before the Romans arrived.

"It is very remarkable to find this evidence of a planned Iron Age layout before the arrival of the Romans and the development of a planned, Roman town," he said.

"Indeed, it would be hard to see a significant difference between the lifestyles of the inhabitants of the Iron Age town and of its Roman successor in the 1st Century AD."

He said they seem to have been drinking wine and using olive oil and a fermented fish sauce called garum in their cooking, all imported from abroad.

Silchester is famous for the most complete Roman town walls in Britain.

After the Roman invasion, the town was used by its military, and there is evidence that Roman buildings were very swiftly built on top of Iron Age structures.

Prof Fulford believes that shortly before this, the town may have been taken over by the British Iron Age chieftain Caratacus - a leader of the Catuvellauni tribe - as his stronghold.

The evidence comes from coins minted by Caratacus in the area.

"Both their tight distribution in central southern England and their style point to Calleva as being the source of Caratacus' coins," he said.

Caratacus was a hero of the British resistance to Roman rule. He famously took on the invading Roman army at the Battle of Medway and after his capture was taken to Rome where he appeared so fearless that the Emperor Claudius was moved to spare his life.

As for the fate of the Roman town, a scorched layer within the archaeology suggests that it was actually burnt to the ground, and seems to have been abandoned for about 20 years.

It is possible that this destruction was carried out by the Queen of the Iceni tribe, Boudicca, or at least at the time of her anti-Roman rebellion in 60 - 61 AD.

It is known from the Annals of Tacitus that Boudicca and her army laid waste to the Roman towns of Colchester (Camulodunum), London (Londinium) and St Albans (Verulamium), but could Silchester have been a fourth, previously unknown Roman settlement to fall victim to Boudicca's rebellion?

If these theories are correct, then within a single generation Silchester went through a period of turbulent evolution from a prosperous and sophisticated Iron Age town, to being under direct Roman army control to being burned to the ground and deserted.

Prof Mike Fulford will be talking to Dr Alice Roberts in the latest series of Digging For Britain on BBC Two in September.

Ord, Louise. 2011. "'Britain's first pre-Roman planned town' found near Reading". BBC. Posted: August 17, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ancient Saharan head cases

Desert-society healers appear to have operated on skulls 2,000 years ago

Talk about getting inside others’ heads. Skulls of three men from North Africa’s ancient Garamantian civilization, which flourished in the Sahara Desert from 3,100 to 1,400 years ago, contain holes and indentations that were made intentionally to treat wounds or for other medical reasons, say anthropologist Efthymia Nikita of the University of Cambridge in England and her colleagues.

Signs of renewed bone growth around the rims of these cranial openings indicate that the men, who lived roughly 2,000 years ago, survived the surgical procedure, the researchers report in a paper published online August 9 in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

Given the evidence of widespread trade networks in North Africa several thousand years ago, “the knowledge of cranial surgical techniques must have been among the cultural traits that spread among populations,” Nikita says.

Previously excavated North African sites contain the earliest evidence of scraping, cutting or drilling pieces of bone out of people’s skulls, a practice known as trepanation. Skull surgery occurred as early as 13,000 years ago in what’s now Morocco. Ancient Egyptians performed the technique starting around 4,000 years ago, as did pre-Inca groups living in South America 1,000 years ago (SN Online: 4/25/08). Some modern North African populations have used trepanation to treat headaches following injuries or disease.

Nikita’s team examined skeletal remains excavated by other researchers since the 1950s at village sites near the ancient Garamantian capital of Garama in what’s now southwestern Libya. Three adult male skulls contained dime- to quarter-sized holes inside hollowed-out areas, as well as scraped-out depressions.

Analysis of this damage rules out disease, bone-chewing animals, accidental falls or intentional blows as causes, the scientists say. Careful placement of fracture-free holes away from sensitive cranial sutures argues against torture or violence as a cause. Reasons for performing trepanation in these ancient cultures remain unclear, although one Saharan skull contains fractures inflicted by a weapon of some kind that may have instigated such cranial surgery.

Bower, Bruce. 2011. "Ancient Saharan head cases ". Science News. Posted: August 17, 2011. Available online:

Friday, August 26, 2011

Why do people of other races all look alike?

People often say they find it difficult to distinguish between individuals of other races. Two recent neurophysiological studies point to the underlying brain mechanisms

I've seen The Departed twice, but I still don't understand it. The first time I watched it, I was utterly confused, and the plot still didn't make much sense on the second viewing. I know exactly why this is – it's because I find it very hard to tell the difference between Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon. I've been told that this might have something to do with the "other-race effect," which makes it difficult for us to identify people of other races or ethnic groups. But I'm not so sure – I can easily distinguish Robert DeNiro from Jack Nicholson, or Humphrey Bogart from Cary Grant.

Nevertheless, the other race effect is a well established phenomenon that we've known about for nearly a hundred years. "To the uninitiated American," wrote Gustave Feingold in 1914, "all Asiatics look alike, while to the Asiatics, all White men look alike."

But why does this happen? It could be because we have more experience of members of our own race and so find it easier remembering their faces. Or it could be because people of other races are generally perceived to have fewer unique personal attributes and, therefore, to have more in common with one another. These explanations aren't mutually exclusive, and two recent studies provide evidence for both.

In the first of these studies, Heather Lucas and her colleagues of the Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University recruited 18 white female undergraduates and showed them colour photographs of the faces of white, black, Hispanic and east and south Asian adult men, presented in random order on a computer screen. The participants were asked to pay close attention to the faces and try to remember them for a recognition test. Afterwards, they were shown some of the same faces again, as well as some new ones, and asked to indicate whether or not they had seen each one before.

Participants wore an elastic electroencephalography (EEG) cap containing 59 electrodes, so that the electrical activity of their brains could be recorded throughout the experiment. The researchers focused on two event-related potentials, or neural responses associated with particular events – the N200 potential, which is recorded from the frontal lobes and associated with encoding of novel visual stimuli, and the P2 potential in the junction of the occipital and parietal lobes, which is thought to be sensitive to the characteristic features of a stimulus and, in this case, may be associated with extraction of facial features.

As expected, the participants recognised same-race faces more accurately than other-race faces, and this corresponded with larger N200 and P2 responses during the first phase of the experiment. Similarly, other-race faces that were accurately recognised evoked larger N200 and P2 responses than those which were later forgotten. Moreover, the researchers could predict which faces would be accurately recognised during the recall phase from the brain responses alone.

Why were some of the other-race faces recognised more accurately than others? The researchers hypothesised that some might be more distinctive than others, leading to better encoding of unique facial features, and ran a second experiment to test the idea. This time, they showed the same photos to 96 different white females, and asked them to rate how distinctive, stereotypical and approachable each one was, on a scale of one to five. Afterwards, the participants performed the same face recognition test as in experiment one.

In general, other-race faces were rated as being more stereotypical than same-race faces, but those perceived to be more distinctive were rated as less stereotypical. Faces expressing a positive emotion were rated as more stereotypical and approachable, regardless of race. Not surprisingly, the researchers found a relationship between distinctiveness ratings and accuracy of recognition – the more distinctive a face, the more likely it was to be accurately recognised later on.

Analysis of the electrophysiological data revealed that the other-race faces rated as being less stereotypical or more distinctive evoked larger N200 and P2 responses, compared to other-race faces that were rated as less distinctive or undistinctive. By contrast, stereotypicality ratings of same-race faces were not reflected in the neural responses.

Lucas and her colleagues believe this is the first study to correlate electrophysiological recordings with memory performance for other-race faces. They interpret the results to mean that same-race faces are encoded elaborately, with an emphasis on the unique facial features that help us to distinguish one person from another. For other-race faces, however, this individuating information is encoded less robustly. Consequently, we have a poorer memory for other-race faces, and are therefore less likely to recognise them or to distinguish between them. Distinctive other-race faces appear to be an exception, however, and may be processed in a similar way to same-race faces.

The other study comes from Robert Caldara's lab at the University of Glasgow, and looks at how the brain's responses change with repeated exposure to same-race and other-race faces. The brain is well known to adapt to familiar stimuli, so that the neural activity evoked by them decreases with repeated exposure to them. Faces evoke a larger N170 response in the occipital and temporal lobes than other visual stimuli, but the size of this response decreases when the same face is seen again.

Caldara's group recruited 12 white and 12 east Asian participants, and used EEG to monitor the N170 response while they viewed sequences of two faces. In each sequence, the faces were either white or east Asian; some sequences consisted of the same face with a different expression, while others contained faces of two different people. The participants were simply asked to indicate whether or not the two faces in each sequence were the same.

Both groups of participants found it more difficult to identify the other-race faces. This was reflected in the neural activity, too – the N170 response was significantly decreased when participants viewed same-race faces a second time, but not when they saw other-race faces again. Interestingly, the neural responses obtained when the white participants saw the same east Asian face twice were no different from those obtained when they saw two different white faces.

The other-race effect has been consistently observed in whites, but these findings suggest that it may be a generalised response that occurs in people of all races. Caldara and his colleagues put forward an explanation for the "all look alike" phenomenon, based on their findings. The N170 is an early response to visual stimuli, which occurs in a time window associated with categorising objects. The researchers therefore suggest that the other-race effect may occur because the brain encodes other-race faces primarily according to the racial group they belong to, rather than by distinguishing features.

Another factor that is likely to contribute to the other-race effect is familiarity – or, rather, lack thereof. In a 2003 study, researchers showed black and white participants from South Africa and England photographs of black and white faces and then asked them if they had seen each of the faces before. Both groups identified same-race faces more accurately than other-race faces, but some of the black participants could accurately identify white faces.

This was directly related to the amount of inter-race contact – the black participants who were best at recognising other-race faces were students who came into regular contact with whites at university. Feingold had hit the nail on the head in his 1914 paper: "Individuals of a given race are distinguishable from each other in proportion to our familiarity, to our contact with the race as whole."

How, then, can my failure to tell the difference between Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio be explained? It's clearly not because I think all white people look alike – I've been surrounded by them for most of my life, having lived in London for over 30 years. A more likely explanation is that I haven't seen enough of their films to recognise the facial features that others use to tell them apart. Or perhaps they're just not very distinctive, and look very similar to one another.

Costandi, Mo. 2011. "Why do people of other races all look alike?". Guardian. Posted: August 15, 2011. Available online:

Article References:

Lucas, HD et al. (2011). Why some faces won't be remembered: brain potentials illuminate successful versus unsuccessful encoding for same-race and other-race faces. Frontiers of Human Neuroscience. DOI: 10.3389/fnhum.2011.00020

Vizioli, L et al. (2010). Neural repetition suppression to identity is abolished by other-race faces. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1005751107

Wright, DB et al. (2003). Inter-racial Contact and the Own-race Bias for Face Recognition in South Africa and England. Applied Cognitive Psychology. DOI: 10.1002/acp.898

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Faces and Artifacts at Old Zharu

Amanda Schmidt, an assistant professor of geology at Oberlin College, writes from Sichuan Province, China. She is studying the relative natural hazards of some places where people choose to live.

Monday, Aug. 8

The day’s work started with a brisk hike up to Old Zharu, a set of terraces and an abandoned village above the current Zharu Village. It took us about an hour to get from the new village to the terraces of the old village, where we collapsed in the shade to recover from the hike. Our plan for today was simple: to see if we could map offset in any terraces, get stuff to date and get more samples for grain size analysis. Since we were basically at the top of the terraces, we decided to work downhill over the course of the day and started in the abandoned village among the old houses.

At first we were quite confused by the stratigraphy we were seeing in the terraces. The first few terraces had almost no deposits in common — one would be all flow deposits and the next all loess. We were totally baffled by how we could have no flow on top of loess just below a terrace with all flow and no loess, but when I scrambled down to a little ledge to try to get an optically stimulated luminescence (O.S.L.) sample as high up as possible, we discovered some flow on top. Phew. Farther down in the terraces was a fabulous paleosol that we were able to use to measure offset between two terraces (about 12 meters, similar to what we found in Heye). Interestingly, in one of the lower terraces we found loess that looked like it had flowed a bit and was mixed with bands of crushed bedrock. Maybe the loess had moved as a block and the contact with the bedrock had mixed a bit. This was quite different from the other places where we find loess with rocks in it, as here the loess was still intact, just with little pockets of crushed bedrock.

Although we have previously found archaeological artifacts in Heye Valley (primarily bones and charcoal layers), Zharu surprised us. In part because no one has excavated here, we didn’t expect to find many artifacts or signs of prior occupation — some artifacts had previously been found only in lower terraces. But in one fabulous outcrop where we sampled for snails (they were huge!), charcoal and grain size, Xenna found half of a bead in a charcoal layer about two meters below the top surface and one meter above the ground. At another spot we found what looked like an old fire pit. It was about a meter thick, buried by a meter of flow and on top of at least a meter of loess.

The layers of charcoal looked almost laminated in the loess and were interbedded with loess. At a few spots there were red claylike layers that often are signs of past fire use. At another site, near where a donkey was hiding in the shade, Xenna found a paleosol with charcoal and huge numbers of bones. Possibly this was a site where people prepared animals. We also found a few suspected ceramics, but we don’t know enough to be certain that they aren’t thin pieces of sandstone. Since they are different from the rocks we normally see, we grabbed them to share with the archaeologists back in Chengdu.

Our work here is winding up — we leave for Chengdu on Saturday. With our large collection of samples, we were fortunate to find some expats from Chengdu who drove here and will help us carry everything back. But it will be a pain to carry the O.S.L. samples (they are in metal pipes and can’t be exposed to light) onto the airplane. Although it feels like we haven’t been here very long, Xenna and I are both quite tired and ready for a break; we have spent 15 full days and four half days in the field over the last 21 days. We’ve gotten a lot done, but I feel like we’re still scrambling to finish up the work we need to do. It’s a good thing my postdoc with the park is two years and I can come back next summer.

Schmidt, Amanda. 2011. "Faces and Artifacts at Old Zharu". New York Times. Posted: August 12, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Oxford Viking massacre revealed by skeleton find

Evidence of a brutal massacre of Vikings in Oxford 1100 years ago has been uncovered by archaeologists.

At least 35 skeletons, all males aged 16 to 25 were discovered in 2008 at St John's College, Oxford.

Analysis of wound marks on the bones now suggests they had been subjected to violence.

Archaeologists analysing the find believe it dates from 1002 AD when King Ethelred the Unready ordered a massacre of all Danes (Vikings) in England.

The surprise discovery of the skeletons was made by Thames Valley Archaeological Services under the quadrangle at St John's College at the University of Oxford, before building work started on the site.

The bodies had not received any type of formal burial and they had been dumped in a mass grave on the site of a 4,000-year-old Neolithic henge monument.

Ceri Falys, an osteologist (a scientist who studies the structure of bones) from Thames Valley Archaeological Services, has been examining the bones since they were excavated. She has found a host of gruesome injuries on each of the individuals.

It was obvious at the time of excavation that many of the skulls had been fractured or crushed, but after piecing these skulls back together, she found that many of them were covered in blade and puncture wounds mostly to the back of the head.

One of the victims had puncture wounds to his pelvis that seem to have come from behind him and from the side, as well as substantial blade wounds to his skull, suggesting that he had been attacked from all sides by at least two different people.

These injuries were almost certainly fatal in each case, slicing through flesh and arteries right to the bone.

"Usually when people have been involved in hand to hand combat or are attacked you get evidence of this on the bones," Ceri Falys explained.

"You get cut marks on the forearms as they raise their arms to defend themselves, but we have minimal evidence of this on these skeletons, it seems that whoever was attacking them, it is likely that they were just trying to run away."'

It is possible that the Oxford skeletons were victims of an event called the St Brice's Day Massacre, recorded in a number of historical sources.

In AD1002, the Saxon king Ethelred the Unready recorded in a charter that he ordered "a most just extermination" of all the Danes in England.

He made the decision after he was told of a Danish plot to assassinate him.

The charter also recorded how on that day, the Danes in Oxford fled to St Fridewides church expecting to find refuge, but instead were pursued by the townspeople, who then set the church on fire.

Radiocarbon dating of the bones indicated that the bodies were dumped between AD960 and AD1020. This is compelling evidence for the association with St Brice's Day, explained archaeologist Sean Wallis, who directed the dig.

"We found evidence of charring on some of the bones, but not in the soil surrounding them.

"This ties in nicely with the documentary sources that the bodies may have been partially burnt prior to burial," he said.

Isotope analysis of the bones has shown that the men were eating a diet that was high in seafood.

This is an unusual find considering that they lived in inland Britain and perhaps a further indication that they may have been first or second generation Vikings.

A similar mass grave was found last year by Oxford Archaeology during work to build the Weymouth relief road.

It was radiocarbon dated to a similar period and again containing only young male victims, indicating that Anglo Saxon violence towards Vikings at the time may have been nationwide.

Ceri Falys will be talking to Dr Alice Roberts about the bones in a new series of BBC Two's Digging For Britain in September.

Ord, Louise. 2011. "Oxford Viking massacre revealed by skeleton find". BBC. Posted: August 12, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Scotland's Festival of Archaeology

Scottish Archaeology Month is nearly upon us with an annual festival of free events taking place across the country throughout September.

Museums, local authorities, universities and commercial archaeologists as well as local heritage societies and individuals, run over 1500 events to introduce the public to Scotland’s fascinating past.

There will be tours of stone circles and World War 2 military sites, glimpses behind the scenes at museums and visits to castles, along with opportunities to view archaeological digs or even to get digging yourself. Scottish Archaeology Month presents a host of fun days, re-enactments, exhibitions and open days as well as a designated schools’ programme. There will be events suitable for all ages and abilities, and it is all free!

Co-ordinator Dr Mags McCartney says ‘SAM just keeps on growing. This year we’re delighted to announce a variety of exciting events throughout Scotland. Highlights include the opportunity to Meet Your Ancestors at Balmoral Castle on 10 September, join an excavation site tour at Loch Borralan Chambered Cairn in the Highlands between 29 August and 16 September and explore ancient farms and their settlers during a guided walk at Holyrood Park in Edinburgh on the 1st of October.’

find out more about Scottish Archaeology Month at

Past Horizons. 2011. "Scotland's Festival of Archaeology". Past Horizons. Posted: August 12, 2011. Available online:

Monday, August 22, 2011

Tomb of Jesus' Apostle Found In Turkey?

The tomb of Saint Philip, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ, might have been unearthed in southwestern Turkey, according to Italian archaeologists who have been excavating the area for decades.

Francesco D'Andria, director of the Institute of Archaeological Heritage, Monuments and Sites at Italy's National Research Council in Lecce, found the burial after intensive geophysical research at the World Heritage Site of Hierapolis, now called Pamukkale.

“It was believed that the tomb of St. Philip was on Martyrs’ Hill, but we found no traces of him in that area," D’Andria said. "The tomb emerged as we excavated a fifth century church 40 meters away from the church dedicated to the saint on Martyrs’ Hill.”

According to D'Andria, the grave was moved from its previous location in the St. Philip Church to the new church in the Bizantine era.

The alleged apostle's tomb, which has not yet been opened, is at the center of some controversy. The finding is mainly based on an apocryphal fourth-century text called the Acts of Philip, which is not recognized by the Catholic Church.

Not much is known about Philip. Born in Bethsaida on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, he is often confused with Philip the Evangelist.

Apart from his inclusion in the list of the twelve apostles, much information comes from the Gospel of John, where he is described as one of the first followers of Jesus.

The gospel mentions him in connection with the miraculous feeding of the five thousand and with Jesus' discourse at the Last Supper.

Outside of the New Testament, it’s the apocryphal Acts of Philip which traces the history of the saint.

According to the text, after Jesus’ resurrection, Philip preached in Greece, Syria and Asia Minor. He is said to have met a martyr's death in Hierapolis, in what is now Turkey, around 80 A.D.

Following a conflict with the snake worshippers of Hierapolis, a city famous at that time for its wealth and idolatry, he was allegedly executed by the Romans -- hung on a tree upside down with irons in his heels and ankles.

"In answer to Philip’s cry while hanging upside-down on the tree, an abyss suddenly opened and swallowed the proconsul and the viper temple where he was sitting, as well as the viper priests and 7,000 men, plus women and children," reads the apocryphal account.

D’Andria concedes that many of the details recounted in the Acts of Philip are uncertain.

"Elements of the story are richly imaginative, legendary and symbolic. But a Christian following centered on the sainted Philip the Apostle soon grew up at the site. And on his supposed grave was built one of the most remarkable structures in all of ancient Christendom — the martyrium of St. Philip," D’Andria writes in the current issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Indeed, D’Andria, who has been excavating Philip’s eight-sided martyrium since 2003, has been able to reconstruct the entire pilgrimage site.

"The octagon of Philip’s martyrium is enclosed in a rectangular portico, consisting of 28 small square rooms. Within the octagon are eight chapels, which end in four triangular courtyards in the corners of the outer rectangle," he wrote.

The relics of the saint were likely housed in the center of the octagonal structure.

D’Andria also unearthed a great processional road which led pilgrims to the hill northeast of the city on which the martyrium stood.

The researcher was able to reconstruct the pilgrim’s journey through the city, and even identified their stops at bathhouses where they purified before approaching the holy place.

"Indeed in the channels of the building, in addition to the usual glass ampules and jars for unguents, were numerous terra-cotta eulogiae (small Christian mementos thought to confer blessings and memories of a holy visit). They bore crosses and images of St. Philip," said D’Andria.

After ascending the final flight of steps, the pilgrims spent the night in the 28 small square rooms enclosed the octagonal martyrium. Finally, they entered the great octagon where the tomb of the apostle Philip was venerated.

A disastrous earthquake in the second half of the seventh century, accompanied by a fire, destroyed the entire complex.

D’Andria found a confirmation to the scenario highlighted by his excavations in a rare sixth-century bronze bread stamp, found at Hierapolis, and now on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

The round stamp, just 4 inches in diameter, was probably used to give pilgrims loaves of bread during the rites in honor of the saint.

It shows a full-length illustration of St. Philip, identified as Hagios Philippos (St. Philip) by a Greek inscription, standing on the monumental staircase between two churches.

"The building on the right is the martyrium, the other is the fifth century church we have just unearthed which was built around the saint’s tomb," D’Andria told Discovery News.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2011. "Tomb of Jesus' Apostle Found In Turkey?". Discovery News. Posted: August 1, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The root of inequality? It's down to whether you ploughed or hoed...

A group of US economists claims the role of women in many modern societies is shaped by their agricultural past

The invention of the plough allowed humanity to plant crops on hard and stony soil. But it has also helped enslave generations of women, a group of US economists has claimed. The roots of inequality have taken hold in soil of our own preparing, they argue.

In their research, the economists found a major difference between women's roles in societies that were descended from farming communities that used ploughs and those whose ancestors used hoes. These two different tilling techniques, although introduced long ago, have produced major divisions in modern society, say Alberto Alesina and Nathan Nunn of Harvard University, and Paola Giuliano of UCLA. Crucially, these divisions have survived immigration and persist even in cities and towns.

In those societies that relied on ploughs to prepare the ground, women are today less likely work outside the home, be elected to parliament or run businesses, the groups states. "The descendants of societies that traditionally practised plough agriculture, today have lower rates of female participation in the workplace, in politics, and in entrepreneurial activities, as well as a greater prevalence of attitudes favouring gender inequality," they state in a paper published by the US National Bureau of Economic Research.

Ploughs are used to prepare the ground when large tracts of land are needed for growing crops such as wheat, barley and rye. By contrast, hoes are used in communities that rely on sorghum, millet, root and tree crops. These require less land and can be cultivated – using hoes – on thin, sloped or rocky soils, state the authors.

Women often played a significant role in tending the land in the distant past. But when ploughs were introduced in various regions, men were placed at an advantage. Working with ploughs and the animals used to pull them required considerable strength. Women were sidelined and kept housebound. Typical plough-using societies include those found in Pakistan, India and Egypt.

By contrast, societies in which hoeing is common are found in African countries such as Burundi, Rwanda, and Kenya. Women here continue to have significant roles in working on the land because hoeing does not require the use of heavy force. In Burundi, women make up 90% of the country's agricultural workforce, for example. By contrast the figure in Pakistan is 16%.

Basing their analysis on studies of more than 1,200 different language groups from round the world, the authors found that societies and ethnic groups descended from plough-using peoples were significantly more likely to agree with statements that men should have first choice of jobs and that men make better political leaders. These attitudes persist even when the people have emigrated to western nations.

However, these beliefs are not necessarily fixed for ever. Many countries in the west were once populated by plough-using communities but do not insist on such divisions between the roles of the sexes, add the authors. Nevertheless, their message is clear: attitudes to the roles of women in the workplace have deep roots.

McKie, Robin. 2011. "The root of inequality? It's down to whether you ploughed or hoed...". Guardian. Posted: July 31, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Secret Language Code

Psychologist James Pennebaker​ reveals the hidden meaning of pronouns

Are there hidden messages in your emails? Yes, and in everything you write or say, according to James Pennebaker, chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. Pennebaker has been a leader in the computer analysis of texts for their psychological content. And in his new book, “The Secret Life of Pronouns,” he argues that how we use words like “I,” “she,” and “who” reveal secrets of our psychology. He spoke recently with Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

COOK: How did you become interested in pronouns?

PENNEBAKER: A complete and total accident. Until recently, I never thought about parts of speech. However, about ten years ago I stumbled on some findings that caught my attention. In the 1980s, my students and I discovered that if people were asked to write about emotional upheavals, their physical health improved. Apparently, putting emotional experiences into language changed the ways people thought about their upheavals. In an attempt to better understand the power of writing, we developed a computerized text analysis program to determine how language use might predict later health improvements. In other words, I wanted to find if there was a healthy way to write.

Much to my surprise, I soon discovered that the ways people used pronouns in their essays predicted whose health would improve the most. Specifically, those people who benefited the most from writing changed in their pronoun use from one essay to another. Pronouns were reflecting people’s abilities to change perspective.

As I pondered these findings, I started looking at how people used pronouns in other texts -- blogs, emails, speeches, class writing assignments, and natural conversation. Remarkably, how people used pronouns was correlated with almost everything I studied. For example, use of first-person singular pronouns (I, me, my) was consistently related to gender, age, social class, honesty, status, personality, and much more. Although the findings were often robust, people in daily life were unable to pick them up when reading or listening to others. It was almost as if there was a secret world of pronouns that existed outside our awareness.

COOK: What would make you think that the use of pronouns would be meaningful?

PENNEBAKER: Never in a million years would I have thought that pronouns would be a worthwhile research topic. I ran study after study and initially found large and unexpected differences between people in their pronoun use. In hindsight, I think I ignored the findings because they didn’’t make sense. One day, I lined up about 5 experiments that I had conducted and every one revealed the same effects. It was that day that I finally admitted to myself that pronouns must be meaningful.

COOK: What differences have you found between men and women?

PENNEBAKER: Almost everything you think you know is probably wrong. Take this little test. Who uses the following words more, women or men?

  • 1st person singular (I, me, my)
  • 1st person plural (we, us our)
  • articles (a, an, the)
  • emotion words (e.g., happy, sad, love, hate)
  • cognitive words (e.g., because, reason, think, believe)
  • social words (e.g., he, she, friend, cousin)

    Most people assume that men use I-words and cognitive words more than women and that women use we-words, emotions, and social words more than men. Bad news. You were right if you guessed that women use social words more. However, women use I-words and cognitive words at far higher rates than men. There are no reliable differences between men and women for use of we-words or emotion words (OK, those were trick questions). And men use articles more than women, when you might guess there’d be no difference.

    These differences hold up across written and spoken language and most other languages that we have studied. You can’t help but marvel at the fact that we are all bombarded by words from women and men every day of our lives and most of us have never “heard” these sex differences in language. Part of the problem is that our brains aren’t wired to listen to pronouns, articles, prepositions, and other “junk” words. When we listen to another person, we typically focus on what they are saying rather than how they are saying it.

    Men and women use language differently because they negotiate their worlds differently. Across dozens and dozens of studies, women tend to talk more about other human beings. Men, on the other hand, are more interested in concrete objects and things. To talk about human relationships requires social and cognitive words. To talk about concrete objects, you need concrete nouns which typically demand the use of articles.

    No matter what your sex, if you have to explain that Sally is leaving her husband because of her new lover, you have to make references to all the actors and you have to do some fairly complex cognitive analyses. If you have to explain why your carburetor in your car is broken, your causal analysis will likely be relatively pallid and will involve referring to concrete nouns.

    COOK: You write about using this to analyze historical documents. Do you think this tool might be of any use to historians or biographers?

    PENNEBAKER: Historians and biographers should jump on this new technology. The recent release of the Google Books Project should be required reading for everyone in the humanities. For the first time in the history of the world, there are methods by which to analyze tremendously large and complex written works by authors from all over the world going back centuries. We can begin to see how thinking, emotional expression, and social relations evolve as a function of world-wide events. The possibilities are breathtaking.

    In my own work, we have analyzed the collected works of poets, playwrights, and novelists going back to the 1500s to see how their writing changed as they got older. We’ve compared the pronoun use of suicidal versus non-suicidal poets. Basically, poets who eventually commit suicide use I-words more than non-suicidal poets.
    The analysis of language style can also serve as a psychological window into authors and their relationships. We have analyzed the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning and compared it with the history of their marriage. Same thing with Ted Hughes​ and Sylvia Plath. Using a method we call Language Style Matching, we can isolate changes in the couples’ relationships.

    COOK: What are some of the more unusual “texts” you have applied this technique to?

    PENNEBAKER: Some of the more unusual texts have been my own. There is something almost creepy about analyzing your own emails, letters of recommendation, web pages, and natural conversations.

    COOK: And what have you found?

    PENNEBAKER: One of the most interesting results was part of a study my students and I conducted dealing with status in email correspondence. Basically, we discovered that in any interaction, the person with the higher status uses I-words less (yes, less) than people who are low in status. The effects were quite robust and, naturally, I wanted to test this on myself. I always assumed that I was a warm, egalitarian kind of guy who treated people pretty much the same.

    I was the same as everyone else. When undergraduates wrote me, their emails were littered with I, me, and my. My response, although quite friendly, was remarkably detached -- hardly an I-word graced the page. And then I analyzed my emails to the dean of my college. My emails looked like an I-word salad; his emails back to me were practically I-word free.

    COOK: Does your work have any application in lie detection?

    PENNEBAKER: It does. Several labs, including ours, have now conducted studies to evaluate the prospect of building a linguistic lie detector. The preliminary findings are promising. In controlled studies, we can catch lying about 67% of the time where 50% is chance. Humans, reading the same transcripts, only catch lying 53% of the time. This is actually quite impressive unless you are a person in the judicial system. If you are waiting for a language-based system to catch real world lying at rates of 90 or 95 percent of the time, it won’t happen in your lifetime. It’s simply too complicated.

    COOK: What are you looking into now? Where do you see the field going in the future?

    PENNEBAKER: One of the most fascinating effects I’ve seen in quite awhile is that we can predict people’s college performance reasonably well by simply analyzing their college admissions essays. Across four years, we analyzed the admissions essays of 25,000 students and then tracked their grade point averages (GPAs). Higher GPAs were associated with admission essays that used high rates of nouns and low rates of verbs and pronouns. The effects were surprisingly strong and lasted across all years of college, no matter what the students’ major.

    To me, the use of nouns -- especially concrete nouns -- reflects people’s attempts to categorize and name objects, events, and ideas in their worlds. The use of verbs and pronouns typically occur when people tell stories. Universities clearly reward categorizers rather than story tellers. If true, can we train young students to categorize more? Alternatively, are we relying too much on categorization strategies in American education?

    I think one advantage I have had in my career is that I’ve got a short attention span. If something new and exciting bubbles up in our data, I will likely drop what I’m doing and try to understand it. It’s a wonderful time to be alive.

    Cook, Gareth. 2011. "The Secret Language Code". Scientific American. Posted: August 16, 2011. Available online:
  • Friday, August 19, 2011

    Understanding Islam and Science

    I sense a trend happening here. Following yesterday's post about Arabic science, I found this article and decided to post it too.

    Salman Hameed holds an endowed chair and is an assistant professor of integrated science and humanities at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts. He also serves as director ofthe Center for the Study of Science in Muslim Societies. The center focuses on investigating the roles and reception of science in Muslim societies, with the goal of understanding how social, political, historical and religious factors influence — and are influenced by — the methodologies and findings of science. It examines Muslim societies across the world, including diaspora or immigrant communities in the West. The center takes an interdisciplinary approach that includes the perspectives of history, sociology, philosophy, anthropology and science education. Hameed was interviewed at the annual meeting of the AAAS held in Washington, DC in February 2011, after he participated in a session entitled, "The Challenge of Teaching Evolution in the Islamic World." Check out his responses to the ScienceLives 10 Questions in the video below.


    Zgorski, Lisa-Joy. 2011. "Understanding Islam and Science". Live Science. Posted: July 28, 2011. Available online:

    Thursday, August 18, 2011

    From Arabick Roots to the Arab spring

    The Arabick Roots exhibition at the Royal Society helps to correct the 'clash of civilisations' view of the history of science

    Alkali, algebra, algorithm, alembic. Spotted the pattern? It's no coincidence that many scientific words in English contain the Arabic definite article. In recent years, historians and scientists such as Jim al-Khalili have done a fantastic job of shedding some light on the Arabic origins of modern science (Arabic here referring to all cultures that made use of the script, rather than just the Arab people).

    In particular it's the "golden age" of Arabic science, between the 8th and 13th centuries, that gets all the press. So while the Vikings were romping around northern Europe, the 8th century Persian mathematician al-Khwārizmī was developing solutions to quadratic equations. While Alfred the Great was busy fending off those Vikings, the Arab polymath al-Kindi was introducing Indian numerals into mathematics, and the Persian physician al-Razi was conducting a study into the differences between measles and smallpox.

    That's algebra, smallpox and numbers, all sorted by the end of the 9th century. The Arabic contribution to science is certainly impressive, but what happened next? Did the west's scientific revolution just kick in, allowing Europeans to pick up where Arabic science left off: a neat end to one scientific culture, and the beginning of another? After a public tour of the Royal Society's latest exhibition, Arabick Roots, I can report that the answer is a resounding "no".

    This was something our guide, curator Dr Rim Turkmani, was keen to get across. Arabic science did not abruptly stop. The exhibition gives us a flavour of how, just as we hit the 17th and 18th centuries, European and Arabic thought started to intermingle. There was certainly a good deal of translation, but in many cases the Royal Society had direct contact with Arabic scholars.

    Dr Turkmani showed us the Royal Society Charter Book, a great tome of vellum containing the signature of every Fellow, and there, signed in Arabic, were the names of the first three Arab Fellows of the Royal Society.

    Our guide led us down a grand marbled staircase to a cabinet entitled 'From inoculation to vaccination'. Ahh, vaccination. We know the story: noting that milkmaids rarely suffered from smallpox, Edward Jenner reasoned that cowpox could be used to vaccinate against the disease. For this he is championed as the 'Father of Immunology'. But almost 70 years earlier, one of the first Arab Fellows, Cassem Aga, was teaching the Royal Society about the inoculation techniques practised in Tripoli. Dr Turkmani explained how, in the letter on display, Aga expressed his bafflement: how could Europeans be unaware that a mild dose of the smallpox virus could prevent a healthy individual contracting the disease? "Cassem Aga couldn't remember a time before inoculation," said our guide. "It had been going on in the Arab world before anyone could remember."

    This was exactly what I had been hoping for: the chance to cut our heroic western scientists down to size. Forget Jenner, it was Arabic science that saved us from smallpox! But when I ventured this opinion Dr Turkmani corrected me: "I want to combat the idea of a clash of civilisations," she said. Which is a much more positive message than my attempt at point scoring. Jenner's contribution was extremely important, as cowpox is a much safer vaccine, she said, but it was Arabic scholars who set the ball rolling.

    As we continued, it became clear that neither Arabic nor European science acted in isolation. Dr Turkmani pointed out a sheet of paper covered in circles, right-angled triangles and parallel lines. We were looking at Alhazen's problem, a real trigonometric nightmare. Set by the 10th-century Iraqi polymath Ibn al-Haytham, the challenge is this: given points A and B exterior to a circle, find a point C on the circle such that the angle ACB is bisected by the diameter through C.

    Got it yet? Don't fret. An algebraic solution was only discovered in 1997 by Oxford mathematician Peter Neumann. al-Haytham had completed a geometric proof and in the 900 years between, various Arabic and European scholars contributed suggestions. The medley of points and planes you can see at the exhibition is Christiaan Huygens's 1673 attempt.

    As the tour wrapped up, I asked Dr Turkmani about Arabic science today. She was to the point: "The Arab Spring has demonstrated the people's desire to be free to pursue knowledge." She cited increased scientific activity in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak. Ultimately, she said, "there is one civilisation: we all contribute."

    And so it strikes me that, while Arabick Roots does not have an agenda, it does have a message. Arabic science isn't something alien, confined to a "golden age" in the past. From smallpox to Alhazen's problem, it has kept contributing: a continuous part of a global scientific culture that has never gone away.

    For more information on Arabic science check out this site:
    History Science Technology


    Poskett, James. 2011. "From Arabick Roots to the Arab spring". Guardian. Posted: July 25, 2011. Available online:

    Wednesday, August 17, 2011

    How language transformed humanity

    Language is very probably the one characteristic that separates us from the chimpanzees, our closest relatives. All other major differences between us likely stem from language.

    "[Language] allows you to implant a thought from your mind directly into someone else's mind and they can attempt to do the same to you without either of you performing surgery", says Mark Pagel, professor and head of the Evolution Laboratory in the biology department at the University of Reading.

    Humans use discrete pulses of sound -- their language -- to alter the internal settings inside someone else's brain to suit an individual's interests. Because language is not a solitary pursuit, language is a form of social learning.

    Social learning is visual theft: for example, if I can learn by watching you, I can steal (and benefit from) your best ideas, wisdom or skills without having to invest the time and energy to develop these myself.

    There are two options for dealing with this crisis: either retreat into small family groups so the benefits of each group's knowledge are shared only with one's relatives or expand one's group to include unrelated others. Unlike our relatives, the neanderthals, who retreated into small groups, humans chose the second option, and language was the result.

    "Language evolved to solve the crisis of visual theft and to exploit cooperation and exchange", says Professor Pagel.

    In fact, as Professor Pagel argues, language is a "social technology" that allows for cooperation between unrelated individuals and groups. According to the archaeological record, it was this cooperation and sharing of ideas that preceded human migration around the planet and the ensuing human population explosion.

    But almost inexplicably, thousands of languages evolved. So even as a shared language facilitates communication and cooperation between unrelated groups, different languages slow the flow of ideas, technologies -- and even genes.

    Can humans afford to have all these different languages, asks Professor Pagel. In a world where we want to promote cooperation, in a world that is more dependent than ever on cooperation to maintain and enhance humanity's levels of prosperity, multiple languages may not be practical.

    In fact, humanity's "destiny is to be one world with one language", concludes Professor Pagel.


    I enjoy languages, and I enjoy knowing that there are many thousands of languages spoken on Earth, even if I will never be able to speak nearly all of them. I think that languages reflect the myriad ways that the human mind perceives and responds to the world, and to lose any of them is to (slightly) diminish and limit the variety and expressive depth of human intellectual, creative and experiential capacity.

    It might be inevitable that humanity ends up speaking one language (for international commerce?), as Professor Pagel argues, but I argue that there are plenty of reasons why people should actively safeguard the continued existence of all languages, or as many as possible. Just as species need genetic diversity to remain viable, humans need language diversity to remain intellectually and creatively viable. One way to ensure that at least some languages survive is by making sure that everyone on the planet is at least bilingual.

    GrrlScientist. 2011. "How language transformed humanity". Guardian. Posted: August 4, 2011. Available online:

    Tuesday, August 16, 2011

    Chinese-English bilinguals are 'automatic' translators

    New research into how the bilingual brain processes two very different languages has revealed that bilinguals' native language directly influences their comprehension of their second language.

    The innovative study by researchers in The University of Nottingham's School of Psychology set out to explore whether Chinese-English bilinguals translate English words automatically into Chinese without being aware of this process.

    More than half of the world's population speaks more than one language but up to now it has not been clear how they interact if the two languages are very different, unlike some pairs of European languages which share the same alphabetical characters and even words.

    The research, to be published in the journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that Chinese people who are fluent in English translate English words into Chinese automatically and quickly, without thinking about it.

    Like her research volunteers, University of Nottingham PhD student Taoli Zhang is originally from China, but lives in the UK and is fluent in English. With co-authors Drs Walter van Heuven and Kathy Conklin, they set out to examine how Chinese knowledge influences English language processing in Chinese-English bilinguals.

    Taoli Zhang said: "Earlier research in European languages has found that both languages stayed active in the brain. But that work was in pairs of languages, like English and Dutch, which have a lot of similarities in spelling and vocabulary. That's not true for English and Chinese."

    The subjects in Zhang's experiments were all Chinese students at The University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. For the study, each person was shown pairs of English words. The first word flashed on the computer screen so quickly (for just 59 milliseconds) that the person didn't realise they had seen it. The second word appeared for longer; the person was supposed to hit a key indicating whether it was a real English word as quickly as possible. This was simply a test to see how quickly they were processing the word.

    But the test had a clever trick to it which would shed light on whether the bilingual volunteer accessed their Chinese words.

    Although everything in the test was in English, in some cases, the two words actually had a connection – but only if you know how they're written in Chinese. So, for example, the first word might be 'thing' which is written 东西 in Chinese, and the second might be 'west' which is written 西 in Chinese. The character for 'west' appears in the word 'thing' but these two words are totally unrelated in English.

    Zhang found that, when two words shared characters in Chinese, participants processed the second word faster – even though they had no conscious knowledge of having seen the first word in the pair. Even though these students are fluent in English, their brains still automatically translate what they see into Chinese. This suggests that knowledge of a first language automatically influences the processing of a second language, even when they are very different, unrelated languages.

    Dr Walter van Heuven added "This research shows that reading words in a second language is influenced by the native language through automatic and very fast word translation in the bilingual brain."

    EurekAlert. 2011. "Chinese-English bilinguals are 'automatic' translators". EurekAlert. Posted: August 2, 2011. Available online:

    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Traditional Canoes Cross the Pacific

    Today, seven traditional Polynesian ocean-going canoes are scheduled to arrive in San Francisco after traveling 15,000 nautical miles from the South Pacific.

    The 70-foot long boats, called vaka, have been navigating by the stars. Besides catching wind in their sails, the boats have also been drawing energy from solar-powered motors. A major goal of the trip is to draw attention to environmental and sustainability issues.

    But there is also something deeper driving the journey, explains the Pacific Voyagers website. Some three billion people live in 56 Pacific Island and Pacific Rim countries and territories. And those people have strong historical connections with the sea:

    “We're sailing across the Pacific to renew our ties to the sea and its life-sustaining strength. The ocean is the origin of life, and it continues to give us air to breathe, fish to eat, and nourishes our soul as well. As threatened as the ocean is now, however, it soon can no longer provide us with these essential life services.

    Sailing together, we seek the wisdom of our ancestors and the knowledge of scientists to keep the Pacific healthy and give our grandchildren a future.

    A documentary about the trip is in the works. In the meantime, you can track the journey with an interactive map.

    You can also meet up with the vaka as they work their way down the West Coast. Next stops: Monterey, Los Angeles and San Diego.

    Sohn, Emily. 2011. "Traditional Canoes Cross the Pacific". Discovery News. Posted: August 2, 2011. Available online:

    Sunday, August 14, 2011

    Mirroring Has Many Advantages -- But Beware

    Adjusting your behavior to better relate to others around you -- mirroring -- has many advantages. As a social species, we are attracted to people who seem similar to us. And when a job or potential romance is on the line, we find ourselves mirroring the mannerisms and speech patterns of those we wish to please.

    But research on a group of participants shows that mirroring has its downsides as well, especially when people go too far to mimic others' behaviors.

    The experiments involved 82 participants who each viewed a video with two people pretending to partake in a job interview (participants did not know the interactions were staged). There were two conditions in which the person being interviewed mirrored the behavior of the interviewer and two controls in which no mirroring took place. For each mirroring condition, the interviewer acted friendly or "condescending" to the person being interviewed.

    Mimicry of the condescending interviewer included actions such as leg-crossing and chin-touching, says Piotr Winkielman, a professor of psychology at UC-San Diego. These actions are relatively innocuous, but observers can see from them that the person interviewed is adapting the same body language as the condescending interviewer.

    Meanwhile, participants were asked to rate the trustworthiness, competence and likeability of the people being interviewed. Researchers found that actors who mimicked behaviors such as leg-crossing and chin-touching had lower ratings, meaning participants didn't take as great of a liking to their tactics.

    The same can't be said for conditions in which the participants were shown videos of job interviews in which the actor did not mimic the interviewer.

    To look at whether body behavior or language was linked to this trend, researchers conducted the same experiment, but cropped the person being interviewed out of the frame, leaving participants exposed to the person's audio alone. They found that mimicking the condescending interviewer didn't negatively affect participants' ratings of that person when the person wasn't visible.

    The results point to mirroring's role as a social tool, but the experiments cannot conclude how successful the mimic is in achieving his goal of obtaining a job.

    "Is it possible that that the interviewee who mimicked the obnoxious [interviewer] would still get the job?" asks Winkielman, who led the study. "Well, it depends. Not if the decision is made not only by the interviewer but also by the ‘observers’ who are on the search committee (i.e., the mimic wins the interviewer but loses the committee)."

    Winkielman told Discovery News the next step would be studying whether interviewers can detect brown nosers and are more impressed with candidates who are competent enough to notice condescending behaviors in others.

    English, Marianne. 2011. "Mirroring Has Many Advantages -- But Beware". Discovery News. Posted: August 1, 2011. Available online:

    Saturday, August 13, 2011

    4000-year-old banana roots in Southeast Asia

    Scientists have plucked clues from genetics, archaeology and linguistics to reconstruct a history of the domestication of bananas, showing that some of India's cultivated bananas have 4,000-year old genomic roots from Southeast Asia.

    Their studies suggest that the earliest cultivation of bananas was in the Kuk Swamp area of Papua New Guinea about 6,600 years ago, and that bananas were ferried by small groups of people from Southeast Asia moving westward into India and beyond.

    A Southeast Asian banana species known as Mlali, a short and yellow variety, was carried from the Indonesian islands into India around 4,000 years ago where its genome is still found in three varieties ' Pome, Nendra Padithi and Nadaan, their studies show.

    The findings appeared this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    "It probably arrived 4,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred years. We don't have enough archaeological data to narrow things down," said Mark Donohue, a linguist at the Australian National University who was involved in the study.

    The researchers combined genetic, archaeological and linguistic information to trace the domestication of the Musa family of bananas, which includes the standard yellow bananas sold around the world. The researchers assumed that any cultivated plant would travel with people along with its name, and when a plant is culturally new, its name would be retained in the places where it had been introduced.

    Linguistic data supports the long route of dispersal from Indonesia to India.

    Many present-day words for bananas appear to root from the word qarutay that researchers believe had its origins in the Philippines. As the bananas moved, so did their names, slightly tweaked at each new land where it was absorbed.

    "Agutay, arutay, kelutay, kalu and the Hindi term kela are all derived from qarutay," said Xavier Perrier, a systems biologist and research team member at the Centre for Agricultural Research and Development in Montpellier, France. "The word travelled from the Philippines across Vietnam, Thailand and Burma into India," Perrier told The Telegraph. "This is exactly the route that the Mlali variety took into India," he said.

    "This study confirms that the Indo-China region was the centre of origin of bananas," said M. Mohamed Mustaffa, the director of India's National Research Centre for Banana, Tiruchirapalli, who was not associated with the study.

    "India has wild bananas native to the northeastern region and some in the Western Ghats, but the bananas cultivated today are products of the crossing of species with part of the genomic makeup coming from Southeast Asian varieties," Mustaffa said.

    Archaeology also supports the westward flow of bananas into South Asia from Southeast Asian islands. Residues of Musa dating back to about 4,000 years have been observed at a site named Kot Diji in Pakistan.

    Donohue said the studies also provided clear evidence for movement of people from the east to the west. "We know that the inhabitants of Madagascar are at least in part the descendants of an east-to-west movement about 1,200 years ago," Donohue told The Telegraph.

    "We also have some records of people from Java and Malaysia trading with India about 2,000 years ago," he said. "It could have been a minor movement in terms of the number of people, but a big transformation in terms of culture."


    Mudur, G.S. 2011. "4000-year-old banana roots in Southeast Asia". Yahoo News. Posted: July 17, 2011. Available online:

    Friday, August 12, 2011

    Kyrgyz archaeologists unearth Buddha statue

    Archaeologists in Kyrgyzstan have unearthed a massive statue of Buddha in the hills outside the capital Bishkek.

    A team of archaeologists working in an excavation site at Krasnaya Rechka, 35km outside the capital, discovered a 1.5 metre high Buddha.

    Archaeologists from the Kyrgyz Academy of Sciences, working with colleagues from the Russian Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, were digging in a series of fields which they believe cover the remains of a Buddhist monastery complex.

    "This sculpture is as high as two humans. If we could straighten it out and put it vertically, its height would be about four metres. As it is sitting, it's about one and a half to two metres (high)," said Valery Kolchenko, an archaeologist from the Kyrgyz National Academy of Sciences.

    Archaeologists believe the statue dates back to a time between the 8th to 10th centuries, though further tests are needed to pinpoint its exact age.

    "The excavation of this sculpture is a very laborious task, that is why we cannot date this artefact to any particular time. First of all we need to excavate it and then we can say how old it is," said Asan Torgoyev from the Oriental Studies Department of the Hermitage.

    Finding Buddhist remains of this kind is rare in the mountainous regions of Kyrgyzstan. Pre-Islamic Buddhist culture is well documented further south in Tajikistan, but very unusual in its northern neighbour, Kyrgyzstan.

    Locals are accustomed to the excavations, knowing very well that their farm land is in a rich archaeological area.

    In earlier excavations at the same site near the village of Krasnaya Rechka, archaeologists discovered the remains of a Buddhist temple, a fortress, a Karakhanid palace complex and Buddhist as well as early Christian cemeteries.

    2011. "Kyrgyz archaeologists unearth Buddha statue". 3 News. Posted: July 18, 2011. Available online:

    Thursday, August 11, 2011

    Buddhist caves caretakers face contempt charges

    A petition has been filed in the Islamabad High Court (IHC) seeking an immediate end to construction activities near centuries-old Buddhist caves on the Margalla hills near Shah Alla Ditta and for initiation of contempt of court proceedings against the caretakers of the site.

    Citing Islamabad deputy commissioner, Capital Development Authority chairman, directors’ general of Pakistan Environmental Protection Agency (Pak-EPA) and Department of Archeology as respondents, the petitioner, Absarul Haq, filed the petition under Article 204 of the constitution and section 151 of CPC.

    The petitioner through his lawyer Saimul Haq Satti contended that the Lahore High Court (LHC) had issued a stay order on December 14, 2010 and directed the respondents to stop the construction activities near the heritage site.

    He said the court had directed the respondents to maintain status quo at the site but, unfortunately the court’s directive went unheeded.

    According to the petitioner, there are clear signs that a restaurant has been planned right above the Buddhist cave, as terracing work is in progress and heavy machinery is present near there.

    Due to the negligence of the respondents, the national heritage of esteemed value is being damaged and the respondents with ulterior motives are avoiding implementing the court orders in its true letter and spirit, the petitioner said.

    “The respondents have committed offences which are cognizable under Article 204 of the constitution as they have violated the order of the court,” the petitioner maintained.

    The Pak-EPA director general, Asif Shuja Khan, when contacted said he visited the site and found an under-construction restaurant near the Buddhist caves.

    He said that was illegal construction and CDA should demolish it and declare this site as protective area.

    The CDA spokesman, Ramzan Sajid, said the authority had sent zoning regulations for zone III to the Cabinet Division for approval.

    He said after approval of the regulations, CDA would be in a position to regulate the construction related matters of Shah Allah Ditta and other suburbs of the area.

    The CDA teams visit the area off and on to keep check on the illegal constructions and act against the violators, he added.

    Asad. Malik. 2011. "Buddhist caves caretakers face contempt charges". Dawn. Posted: July 23, 2011. Available online:

    Wednesday, August 10, 2011

    600-year-old artifact found in Hells Canyon

    A hiker stumbled upon a really old piece of Idaho history in Hells Canyon. Now, archaeologists know just how old it is. It dates back centuries.

    "We know that people have lived in Idaho for at least 130 centuries," said State Archaeologist Dr. Ken Reid.

    And those people left evidence of their lives. Their artwork in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs decorates the rocks and cliffs in Hells Canyon. Their house pits sit in neighborhoods along the banks of the Snake River.

    Hells Canyon is beautiful. It's also rich in history.

    "There's an intact outdoor museum really of Idaho's past that survives," said Dr. Reid.

    A hiker found part of that surviving past under a rock pile under a rock ledge made by a huge boulder.

    "It was a perfect place to get some shade on a hot hike down the Snake River Trail," Reid said.

    In March of 2008, the hiker found a cache of Nez Perce textiles made of cedar bark. Idaho State Archaeologist Dr. Ken Reid and a team of researchers excavated the site. Reid believes the materials would have been woven into a mat or basket. His theory is that a Nez Perce woman placed the bundle under the stones for safekeeping.

    "Presumably the woman who did it expected to come back and retrieve it at some point in the future," Reid said. "And for whatever reason, did not."

    The researchers did retrieve it and sent it off to find out how old it is. After a couple more years of fundraising, finding volunteer help and testing, they recently got their answer.

    "The basket was left there some time between A.D. 1395 and 1435," said Dr. Reid.

    Dr. Reid says two carbon dates put the bundle at nearly 600 years old. In other words, the Nez Perce woman placed it there at least 60 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

    Dr. Reid calls the discovery unprecedented. He said no textiles of any kind had ever been found in Hells Canyon before this.

    "It was exciting," said Dr. Reid. "You don't find things like this often enough."

    Researchers at Washington State University are studying the textiles now. Dr. Reid ultimately hopes the materials will be displayed at the Nez Perce Museum in Spalding in Northern Idaho, which he says has facilities to preserve the perishable, fragile fragment of the past. The bundle belongs to the Forest Service, but he believes it belongs in Idaho.

    Along with the bundle of textiles, Dr. Reid says they also found what they believe is a wooden weaving tool and a foot long stone pestle that would have been used to crush roots or other food.

    Petcash, Doug. 2011. "600-year-old artifact found in Hells Canyon". NWCN. Posted: July 22, 2011. Available online:

    Tuesday, August 9, 2011

    Found: Ancient Peruvian Executioner's Lost Head

    Archaeologists in Peru have discovered the tomb of a lord of the Lambayeque culture, believed to have been an executioner due to the three ceremonial knives found buried with him.

    Near the pre-Hispanic tomb were human remains, as well as ceremonial knives, ceramic pots, a dress made from native cotton and a series of rolled copper discs, said Carlos Wester, director of the Bruning Museum in Lambayeque and one of the tomb's discoverers.

    Wester told AFP the person buried there was most likely in charge of human sacrifice.

    "We found the perfectly preserved tomb of a sacrificer of the Lambayeque culture, with copper machetes and human offerings laid around them," Wester told the news agency.

    The tomb was found in a place called "ceremonial fertility and water," two weeks ago in the archaeological complex Chotuna Chornancap, a thousand-year-old temple complex discovered in January 2010.

    The 20 to 30 year old resident of the tomb "played an important role in the ceremonies of human sacrifice" for the ancient culture, which flourished from 700 to 1375 AD. Sicán or Lambayeque culture emerged around the eighth century, lasted until 1375 and peaked between 900 and 1100.

    This civilization worshiped the "Lord of Sican"; during the heyday of the culture, there were seven to eight such figures representing the heavenly power on earth.

    They were described as wearing masks with winged eyes and pointed ears, the archaeologist said.

    A skull and bones sit on a pre-hispanic tomb recently discovered in Lambayeque, northern Peru. According to Carlos Wester, chief of the team of archaeologists who discovered the tomb, it belongs to a top lord of the Lambayeque culture, believed to have been an executioner.

    2011. "Found: Ancient Peruvian Executioner's Lost Head". Fox News. Posted: July 20, 2011. Available online:

    Photo credit:

    AP Photo/Violeta Ayasta July 15, 2011.

    Monday, August 8, 2011

    Egypt's Iconic Antiquities Chief, Zahi Hawass, Fired; Replaced by Professor in Restoration

    Egypt's antiquities minister, whose trademark Indiana Jones hat made him one the country's best known figures around the world, was fired Sunday after months of pressure from critics who attacked his credibility and accused him of having been too close to the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.

    Zahi Hawass, long chided as publicity loving and short on scientific knowledge, lost his job along with about a dozen other ministers in a Cabinet reshuffle meant to ease pressure from protesters seeking to purge remnants of Mubarak's regime.

    "He was the Mubarak of antiquities," said Nora Shalaby, an activist and archaeologist. "He acted as if he owned Egypt's antiquities, and not that they belonged to the people of Egypt."

    Despite the criticism, he was credited with helping boost interest in archaeology in Egypt and tourism, a pillar of the country's economy.

    But after Mubarak's ouster on Feb. 11 in a popular uprising, pressure began to build for him to step down.

    Hawass was among a list of Cabinet ministers protesters wanted to see gone because they were associated with the former regime.

    And archaeology students and professors blasted him for what they saw as his lack of serious research.

    Shalaby said Hawass didn't tolerate criticism. She said most his finds were about self-promotion, with many "rediscoveries" in search of the limelight.

    Hawass prided himself in being the "keeper and guardian" of Egypt's heritage. He told an Egyptian lifestyle magazine, Enigma, in 2009 that George Lucas, the maker of the "Indian Jones" films, had come to visit him in Egypt "to meet the real Indiana Jones."

    Hawass, 64, started out as an inspector of antiquities in 1969 and rose to become one of the most recognizable names in Egyptology. He became the general director of antiquities at the Giza plateau in the late 1980s, before being named Egypt's top archaeologist in 2002.

    In one of Mubarak's final official acts as president, Hawass' position was elevated to that of a Cabinet minister. After Mubarak's ouster, Hawass submitted his resignation but he was reinstated before finally being removed Sunday.

    His name has been associated with most new archaeological digs in Egypt, with grand discoveries such as the excavation of the Valley of the Golden Mummies in Bahariya Oasis in 1999 and the discovery of the mummy of Egypt's Queen Hatshepsut almost a decade later.

    He was also a staple on the Discovery Channel, which accompanied him on the find of Hatshepsut's mummy. He started his own reality show on the History Channel called "Chasing the Mummies." The channel introduces him as "the man behind the mummies."

    Hawass has long campaigned to bring home ancient artifacts spirited out of the country during colonial times. He said since he became top archaeologist, he managed to recover 5,000 artifacts.

    In January, just before anti-government protests erupted, he formally requested the return of the 3,300-year-old bust of Queen Nefertiti that has been in a Berlin museum for decades.

    Hawass also had a fashion line, including his hat, for which he organized a photo-shoot in the Egyptian Museum, something that drew the ire of many archeologists.

    "He was a personality created by the media," said Abdel-Halim Abdel-Nour, the president of the Association of Egyptian Archeologists.

    He said many campaigned for Hawass's removal, including on Facebook and in Tahrir Square, the center of Egypt's protests.

    Just before news of his departure, Hawass was heckled near his office Sunday as he left on foot. Protesters tried to block his way, until he jumped into a taxi to get away from the melee, the taxi driver, Mohammed Abdu, said.

    Hawass was replaced by Abdel-Fattah el-Banna, an associate professor in restoration. He was frequently present in Tahrir Square during the protests.

    2011. "Egypt's Iconic Antiquities Chief, Zahi Hawass, Fired; Replaced by Professor in Restoration". Art Daily. Posted: July 24, 2011. Available online:

    Sunday, August 7, 2011

    Protecting Somaliland's endangered cave paintings

    Young archeologist works to save prehistoric rock paintings in war-torn Horn of Africa.

    Follow an unmarked dirt road to a dry riverbed in the scrubby, northwestern Somali plains and in the shadows, beneath the sandstone outcroppings, are remarkably well-preserved paintings. They date back between five and 11,000 years and cover the rock walls in streaks of white and black and barbeque sauce red.

    White stripes highlight a warrior's clothing, the point of his spear and the curve of an ancient cow’s udder.

    This is Somaliland's Laas Geel. Anywhere else in the world such cave paintings would undoubtedly be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but here — in the unstable Horn of Africa — it’s in danger of being swallowed up by decades of war, political unrest, drought, poverty and neglect in a region that most of the Western world has left for dead.

    And that’s where Sada Mire, a young London-educated Somali archeologist, enters the scene. As the only Somali archeologist working on the ground in greater Somalia, and one of only a handful of academics worldwide focusing on the region, she is trying to almost single-handedly identify and protect what’s left of Somali heritage. And she’s doing it without adequate funding, resources or a qualified staff.

    Although Mire is originally from Mogadishu, the young archeologist now heads up the Department of Antiquities for the unrecognized republic of Somaliland, a breakaway region in northern Somalia. While visitors to Somaliland are still required to travel with guards armed with AK-47s, the breakaway republic’s de facto government has been able to maintain a relative peace for nearly 17 years, creating a platform from which the preservation of Somali cultural heritage may begin — if it’s not too late.

    “A whole country’s history is almost gone already,” said Mire, who received her doctorate from the University College London last year. “So much has been destroyed already. Boxes of documents, Bibles, scrolls, coins, swords, knives, traditional art, jewelry, beads — all of it is gone forever.” The entirety of the former Somali National Museum in Mogadishu was looted in the period before 1979, and no museums or archival spaces exist today, she said.

    “We don’t even have complete records of what we once had,” Mire said. “The only thing we can do is try to protect what’s left.”

    Mire has been able to survey sites from the Ethiopian border to Berbera, a port on the Gulf of Aden — all of which is under the auspices of the de facto Somaliland government — but it’s still too dangerous, even for her, to work in Somalia itself.

    In the last half-century, troves of archeological artifacts have been removed from Somalia, first by the Italians and British who colonized the region in the first half of the twentieth century and then, after independence, by impoverished Somalis themselves, driven to sell artifacts for a handful of U.S. dollars to feed their families.

    When Somalia descended into civil war in 1991, the problem worsened as warlords began “systematically looting” archeological sites to fund the war, Mire said. In some places, historic buildings, like the Mogadishu Cathedral, were destroyed by mortars and bombs. In other places, buildings have been deconstructed, stone by stone, by locals to build corrals for their goats or houses for themselves.

    In Laas Geel, local herders, unaware of the historic significance of the rock paintings, used to take shelter in the rock outcroppings, lighting campfires that destroyed some of the ancient images.

    “The thing is to get there before it’s all destroyed, to preserve at least a record of what was there,” said Geoffrey King, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, who worked with Mire when she was a graduate student.

    Modern-day Somalia spans a region where first generation Muslims, traveling from Arabia by boat, would have landed in Africa in the seventh century, King said. “This time period has never been studied in much of this region, so protecting what we have is beyond important.”

    Mire’s work so far has focused on educating locals, and especially the respected elite — sheikhs, elders, community leaders — who live near important heritage sites and who can act as unofficial custodians and protectors. “It’s not an ideal solution, but it’s a start,” Mire said. The rock art at Laas Geel, the most well-known of the heritage sites in Somaliland, is the only archeological site in greater Somalia that employs guards, at the expense of the Somaliland government.

    Mire’s next priority is to establish antiquity laws in Somaliland that would prevent the sale of remaining artifacts to rich collectors abroad — a task that will require that she essentially write legislation for a country that does not yet exist. Unrecognized by the international community, the territory does not qualify for traditional avenues of funding or protection from institutions like UNESCO, and its laws are toothless in an international context, as it is still officially under the auspices of long failed Mogadishu in Somalia proper.

    Mire will face “incredible challenges from every direction” since most international institutions’ bureaucracies are not equipped to work with unrecognized or failed states, said Andrew Reid, an archeologist at the University College London’s Institute of Archeology, who is familiar with working in sub-Saharan Africa.

    But Somaliland’s former Minister of Tourism and Culture, Abdirisaq Wabre Roble, isn’t daunted. He says Mire’s work is vital, both culturally and for the economy of the semi-state.

    “Laas Geel is a national monument. People from all over come to see the paintings there,” he said in an interview last year. “Protecting them — and all the other sites around Somaliland — is very, very important to us. This is our history. It’s who we are.”

    And then, echoing Mire’s wildest dreams, he mused, “Maybe soon we’ll even have a museum.”

    Edwards, Haley Sweetland. 2011. "Protecting Somaliland's endangered cave paintings". Global Post. Posted: July 19, 2011. Available online: