Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Mysterious Missing Eruption of 1258 A.D.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen a number of high-profile studies come out looking at global climate that refer to a mystery. According to ice core and sediment core records from many places on the globe, there was a very large volcanic eruption in 1258 A.D. — so big that it injected somewhere between 190-270 megatonnes into the atmosphere (to put in another way, it produced between 300 and 600 megatonnes of sulfuric acid). This would make the 1258 eruption ~8 times larger than Krakatau in 1883 and two times larger than Tambora in 1815 (when comparing their sulfate injection mass; Emile-Geay et al., 2008). So, how does the geologic community (or historical community for that matter) not have any record of such an massive eruption that happened less than 800 years ago?

First, I should discuss a little bit of the evidence for the 1258 A.D. eruption. As mentioned above, there is a record of increased sulfur and ash particles in ice cores from both the North and South Poles, along with other places such as sediment from Lake Malawi (Emile-Geay et al., 2008). Now, many of these ice cores and sediment records have been dated, so we can correlate them across the globe (within error). The combined data points towards an eruption that occurred in 1258 (or possibly 1259) – in fact, based on some of the weather records from Europe, the date could be constrained to between January and mid-May 1258 (Stothers 2000). The fact that the record of the eruption is found in both poles in the same year (based on the ice chronology) means that the eruption was likely in the tropics as well. So, based on these proxy records (i.e., indirect evidence for the eruption), we can safely say that the tropical eruption was likely during 1258 A.D. – and the missing eruption produced pronounced global temperature anomaly associated with it.

Stothers (2000) does an excellent job listing all of the possible climatic effects from the 1258 eruption.. These include “dry fogs” (sulfur) over Europe during 1258 through possibly 1262 that reduced the optical depth of the atmosphere dramatically. In fact, based on historical records, the optical depth might have been as bad in Europe in 1258-1262 from this mystery tropical eruption was it was during the much-closer Laki eruption in 1783. There were also records of very cold winters and wet summers across Europe during this time period and based on modern tropical eruptions, the pattern of maximum cooling a few years after the eruption was also seen. Related to these climate fluctuations as the human consequences, such as famine and disease – Stothers (2000) mentions a number of famines and pestilence outbreaks across Europe and the Middle East during the window of the 1258 eruption. However, these events are mitigated by regional conflicts that might have also lead to famine and the spread of disease. Interestingly, Stothers (2000) and Emile-Geay et al. (2008) both discuss how the climatic effect of the 1258 eruption was less than expected for an eruption the size that the ice core record implies – they suggest that the climate effects might have been dampened by an El Niño in 1258 as well.

So, the evidence is there for an eruption in 1258 – but what are the potential options?

A few volcanoes have been implicated but not convicted for the source of the 1258 signal:

* El Chichón, Mexico: The Mexican volcano, famous for its eruption in 1982, had two significant eruptions in the general vicinity of 1258. The first was a VEI 4 in 1190 ± 150 years, the other was a VEI 5 in 1360 ± 100 years. Interestingly, Stothers (2000) mention that the ash found in the ice cores is a close match to ash collected near El Chichón, but he cautions “the match is not perfect and … glass chemistry is not a highly discriminatory diagnostic for volcanic eruptions“.
* Quilotoa, Ecuador: Another favorite suspect, Quilotoa had a VEI 6 eruption around 1280 A.D., although the date is not well-constrained. If you look at the compiled temperature curve from Mann et al. (2012), there are some dips after 1258 that could be the 1280 eruption of Quilotoa, so there is no compelling evidence to make this eruption ~20 years younger.
* Harrat Rahat and Harra es-Sawâd, Saudi Arabia: Somewhat dark horse candidates, these two volcanoes in the Saudi Arabian peninsula had eruptions in 1256 and 1250 ± 50 years, respectively. However, both were relatively small – VEI 3 – but if they were sufficiently sulfur-rich eruptions like Laki (Harrat Rahat was a basaltic fissure vent) you could produce significant aerosols. What works against these eruption is the idea is the size of the eruptions as it is difficult to envision getting the material high enough into the atmosphere to disperse, unlike larger plinian or ultraplinian eruptions.

What are some other options?

  • The unknown volcano or unknown eruption of a known volcano: This might be something like a submarine caldera in the South Pacific that has not been identified or a remote Andean caldera in the high Andes. Hard to prove and is the volcanologic equivalent to a “needle in a haystack” if you haystack spanned the globe.
  • Multiple, closely spaced events in each hemisphere: Again, hard to prove, but if two smaller eruptions occurred in each hemisphere in 1258, could this account for the anomaly? Most likely this isn’t feasible if the ash is similar on both poles (note: I’m not sure if it is or isn’t) or if the sulfur load estimated on both poles is the same (again, not sure about this).
  • Known eruption with a bad age and/or bad VEI estimate: Here we might look at eruptions around 1258 that were potentially significant (> VEI 4). Some candidate include Cayambe in Ecuador (VEI 4 around 1280), Fentale in Ethiopia (1250 ± 50 years with unknown VEI), Pico de Orizaba in Mexico (VEI 3 in 1260 ± 50 years). Possibly some were closer to 1258 and larger in size.

    (One interesting sidenote: although the evidence that the eruption was tropical appears to be compelling from the ice/sediment core record, we did have multiple VEI 4-5 eruptions from Katla in Iceland in 1245 and 1262. Not sure what to make of this information, but interesting to note.)

    Right now, it doesn’t seem as if there is an obvious answer to the missing eruption of 1258 A.D. This isn’t even the only missing large eruption in the ice/sediment core record. If you can believe it, there might have been a significant, possibly Pinatubo-scale eruption in 1809 that has not been identified. A quick look at the eruption record might finger VEI 4-5 eruptions at St. Helens in Washington, Soufriere St. Vincent in the West Indies and Awu in Indonesia but none seem to live up to the billing. It just shows how even for geologically recent eruptions, it can be difficult to pinpoint the source if all you have is the remote dusting of ash and aerosols that get trapped in ice possibly a hemisphere away from its source.


    * Emile-Geay, J., Seager, R., Cane, R.A., Cook, E.R. and Haug, G.H., 2008. Volcanoes and the ENSO over the Past Millennium. Journal of Climate, v. 21, pp. 3134-3147.
    * Mann, M.E., Fuentes, J.D. and Rutherford, S., 2012, Underestimation of volcanic cooling in tree-ring-based reconstructions of hemispheric temperatures. Nature Geoscience, doi:10.1038/ngeo1394.
    * Stothers, R.B., 2000. Climatic and Demographic Consequences of the Massive Volcanic Eruption of 1258. Climatic Change, v. 45, pp. 361-374.
    * Siebert, L., Simkin, T. and Kimberly, P., 2011. Volcanoes of the World, 3rd Edition. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA. 568 pp.

    Kiemetti, Erik. 2012. "The Mysterious Missing Eruption of 1258 A.D.". Wired. Posted: February , 2012. Available online:

    Image: Lithograph of the 1883 Krakatau eruption. Public domain.
  • Tuesday, February 28, 2012

    Female fertility affects men's linguistic choices

    The likelihood that a man will match his language to that of a female conversation partner depends on how fertile she is, according to a study published Feb. 8 in the open access journal PLoS ONE.

    Linguistic alignment between conversation partners is well documented, and is often interpreted to reflect affiliation between the speakers.

    This study, however, reports that higher female fertility levels were associated with lower levels of linguistic matching from male conversation partners. The authors, led by Jacqueline Coyle of at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, write that this result could be explained in the context of recent data suggesting that such non-conforming behavior may be a way for men to display their mating fitness.

    EurekAlert. 2012. "Female fertility affects men's linguistic choices". EurekAlert. Posted: February 8, 2012. Available online:

    Citation: Coyle JM, Kaschak MP (2012) Female Fertility Affects Men's Linguistic Choices. PLoS ONE 7(2): e27971. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0027971

    Monday, February 27, 2012

    Entire genome of extinct human decoded from fossil

    The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, has completed the genome sequence of a Denisovan, a representative of an Asian group of extinct humans related to Neanderthals

    In 2010, Dr. Svante Pääbo and his colleagues presented a draft version of the genome from a small fragment of a human finger bone discovered in Denisova Cave in southern Siberia. The DNA sequences showed that this individual came from a previously unknown group of extinct humans that have become known as Denisovans. Together with their sister group the Neandertals, Denisovans are the closest extinct relatives of currently living humans.

    The Leipzig team has now developed sensitive novel techniques which have allowed them to sequence every position in the Denisovan genome about 30 times over, using DNA extracted from less than 10 milligrams of the finger bone. In the previous draft version published in 2010, each position in the genome was determined, on average, only twice. This level of resolution was sufficient to establish the relationship of Denisovans to Neandertals and present-day humans, but often made it impossible for researchers to study the evolution of specific parts of the genome. The now-completed version of the genome allows even the small differences between the copies of genes that this individual inherited from its mother and father to be distinguished. This Wednesday the Leipzig group makes the entire Denisovan genome sequence available for the scientific community over the internet.

    "The genome is of very high quality", says Dr. Matthias Meyer, who developed the techniques that made this technical feat possible. "We cover all non-repetitive DNA sequences in the Denisovan genome so many times that it has fewer errors than most genomes from present-day humans that have been determined to date".

    The genome represents the first high-coverage, complete genome sequence of an archaic human group - a leap in the study of extinct forms of humans. "We hope that biologists will be able to use this genome to discover genetic changes that were important for the development of modern human culture and technology, and enabled modern humans to leave Africa and rapidly spread around the world, starting around 100,000 years ago" says Pääbo. The genome is also expected to reveal new aspects of the history of Denisovans and Neandertals.

    The group plans to present a paper describing the genome later this year. "But we want to make it freely available to everybody already now" says Pääbo. "We believe that many scientists will find it useful in their research".

    The project is made possible by financing from the Max Planck Society and is part of efforts since almost 30 years by Dr. Pääbo's group to study ancient DNA. The finger bone was discovered by Professor Anatoly Derevianko and Professor Michail Shunkov from the Russian Academy of Sciences in 2008 during their excavations at Denisova Cave, a unique archaeological site which contains cultural layers indicating that human occupation at the site started up to 280,000 years ago. The finger bone was found in a layer which has been dated to between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago.

    The genome is available at

    EurekAlert. 2012. "Entire genome of extinct human decoded from fossil".EurekAlert. Posted: February 7, 2012. Available online:

    Sunday, February 26, 2012

    Viking barley in Greenland

    The Vikings are both famous and notorious for their liking of beer and mead and archaeologists have discussed for years whether Eric the Red (ca 950-1010) and his followers had to make do without the golden drink when they settled in Greenland around the year 1,000: The climate was mild when they landed, but was it warm enough for growing barley?

    Researchers from the National Museum in Copenhagen say the answer to the question is ‘yes’. In a unique find, they uncovered tiny fragments of charred barley grains in a Viking midden on Greenland.

    The find is final proof that the first Vikings to live in Greenland did grow barley – the most important ingredient in making a form of porridge, baking bread and of course in brewing beer, traditionally seen as the staple foods in the Vikings’ diet.

    “Archaeologists have always believed that the Vikings tried to cultivate the soil on their farms in fertile southern Greenland,” says Peter Steen Henriksen, who holds an MSc in agriculture. “But this hasn’t been proved until now.”

    Settling in a harsh environment

    Henriksen, an archaeobotanist at the National Museum’s Environmental Archaeology and Archaeometry section (NNU) in Copenhagen, led an expedition to Greenland to study how the Vikings tackled the task of settling in a cold and harsh environment.

    “Now we can see that the Vikings could grow barley, and this was very important for their survival,” he says.

    The find also substantiates a well-known text from about 1250, ‘King’s mirror (Konungs skuggsjá)’, which mentions in passing that the Vikings attempted to grow grain on Greenland. It is the only report about cultivating barley that we have from that time and says: “As to whether any sort of grain can grow there, my belief is that the country draws but little profit from that source. And yet there are men among those who are counted the wealthiest and most prominent who have tried to sow grain as an experiment; but the great majority in that country do not know what bread is, having never seen it.”

    Researchers believe the Vikings probably grew barley in small quantities, and sowed grain in enclosures that were no bigger than their ability to irrigate the field and keep hungry animals out.

    Well-preserved Viking farms

    Henriksen and his colleagues were in Greenland in 2010 and 2011 to search for signs of agriculture at Viking farms at the island’s southernmost point.

    “We carried out several excavations at 12 different ruined Viking farms, even though they were abandoned 700 to 800 years ago,” says the researcher. “Many of the farms were well preserved. The peat and stone walls can still be seen, and in some places they’re a metre and a half high.”

    Midden heaps are a mine of knowledge

    The researchers had little chance of finding the remains they wanted in what was left of the stone buildings, and Greenland’s soil is too thin to preserve remnants of any Viking agriculture. Further traces that might have existed have been destroyed by the weather and not least by modern agricultural activities – today’s Greenland sheep farmers have settled in the same places as their Viking forebears.

    But the Vikings were just like the rest of us, and needed somewhere to get rid of their rubbish. The researchers found these rubbish heaps (known as middens) close to the Vikings’ farms.

    Barley at the bottom of the heap

    The middens – containing food remains, household rubbish and ashes from the fires – were quite large, which was not surprising as the Vikings had inhabited the farms for many decades. As the contents rotted, the heaps subsided, and are now only about a metre thick.

    “We excavated the middens down to the bottom layers, which date from the time the settlers arrived,” says Henriksen, whose team took 300 kg of samples for further analysis. “The sample we took from the bottom layer of a heap contained cereal grains. The grains had been close to a fire and were charred, which is what preserved them.”

    From their shape and size, the grains were positively identified as barley and they came from local agricultural production.

    Wild barley is not strong enough to grow in Greenland, says Henriksen, who also rules out imported barley, as even small quantities of grain would be too much for the cargo hold of the Vikings’ ships.

    “If the cereal grains had been imported, it would have already been threshed, so finding parts of grains of barley is a very strong indication that the Vikings grew their own,” he adds. The find also confirms researchers’ theory that they tried to continue the form of life they knew so well from their original homes.

    Little Ice Age stopped cultivation

    The Greenland climate was slightly warmer than it is today, and the southernmost tip of the great island looked fertile and green and no doubt tempted Eric the Red and his followers. This encouraged them to cultivate some of the seed they brought with them from Iceland.

    The Vikings also tried to grow other agricultural crops. Their attempts to grow these crops and barley did not last long, however, as the climate cooled over the next couple of centuries until the Little Ice Age started in the 13th century.

    “The Vikings couldn’t cultivate very much in the last decades they were in Greenland because the climate was too bad,” says Henriksen. “Barley needs a long growing season, and if that season is too short you can’t harvest seed for the next season.”

    At some point the Vikings were no longer able to maintain the seed production for their food and drink, and that made it more difficult for them to survive.

    The mysterious end of Greenland’s Viking era

    The cold climate may have finished off not only the barley but also the Vikings on Greenland themselves.

    When Eric the Red arrived in Greenland, the island’s original inhabitants, the Inuit, had already died out because of the harsh climate. Perhaps the Vikings suffered the same fate, or perhaps the cold caused them to abandon their life on Greenland and move on.

    According to written sources, the Vikings in Greenland were last heard of in 1408. After that they disappeared; no-one knows when, where or how.

    Hildebrandt,Sybille. 2012. "Viking barley in Greenland". Past Horizons. Posted: February , 2012. Available online:

    Saturday, February 25, 2012

    Did Easter Islanders Mix It Up With South Americans?

    The scattered islands of the vast Pacific Ocean were settled by seafarers who set out from the eastern coasts and islands of Asia and traveled thousands of kilometers by boat. Meanwhile pre-Columbian South America was populated by people who crossed a now-vanished land bridge far to the north. Did these two groups ever meet in the New World? There's a good chance of that, according to a new study, which finds evidence that Easter Islanders may have reached South America and mixed with the Native Americans already there.

    University of Oslo immunologist Erik Thorsby first began analyzing the people of Easter Island in 1971 to see if he and colleagues could detect traces of an early contribution of Native Americans to Polynesians. He believes that his recent finds may show that Native Americans may have accompanied Polynesians from the coast of South America to Easter Island before the arrival of Europeans.

    The island, also called Rapa Nui, is a remote and rocky place 3700 kilometers west of the coast of South America. The people were forcibly deported to Peru in the 1860s and enslaved; therefore, evidence of mixed Polynesian and Native American genes may stem from this time. But Thorsby was able to use blood samples from the islanders, collected since the 1970s, to examine their DNA for particular genetic markers.

    As expected, the majority of markers pointed to genes common in other Polynesians. But human leukocyte antigens—a group of genes that encode proteins essential to the human immune system—in the samples showed that a few individuals had a type, or allele, found among only Native Americans. The alleles in question were found on two different haplotypes—a set of alleles inherited by an individual from a single parent—in unrelated individuals. This and other circumstantial genetic evidence suggests that the alleles are older and were introduced centuries before the islanders were sent to Peru by Europeans, Thorsby reports today in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. "The results of our studies suggest that Polynesians visiting South America in the 1400s to 1500s may have taken some American Indians with them upon their return" back to Easter Island, he said in an e-mail from there, where he is conducting further research. That conclusion, he adds, is "speculative."

    Scholars have seen some other hints of contact between Polynesians and the people of the New World. Some plants, such as the sweet potato, originated in the Andes Mountains but apparently spread across the Pacific Ocean before the arrival of Columbus. Researchers have noted hints of linguistic and artistic similarities between the western South American and the Polynesian culture. But definitive archaeological evidence is lacking. Finding genetic proof of Native American and Polynesian mixing prior to Columbus's arrival in the New World in 1492 would demonstrate that Polynesians had the capacity to reach South America.

    Still, Thorsby's assertion is being greeted with polite skepticism from one scholar familiar with Easter Island's past. "It is good to see this kind of research, but a definitive answer isn't really possible given the lack of chronological control," says archaeologist Terry Hunt of the University of Hawaii, Manoa, who has worked extensively on the island. He says that Thorsby's data don't preclude the possibility that the mixing between these groups occurred later, after Europeans arrived. "Native American genes reaching Rapa Nui with European contact cannot be ruled out." He says what's needed to prove the theory are skeletons that predate the European arrival in 1722. But so far, most of the few remains seem to be later. "The odds are not great" of finding ancient human bones that might yield DNA, he adds. Thorsby acknowledges that more DNA studies of ancient material are needed but remains hopeful that he can clinch the case.

    Lawler, Andrew. 2012. "Did Easter Islanders Mix It Up With South Americans?". Science. Posted: February 6, 2012. Available online:

    Friday, February 24, 2012

    High language competence among young people

    The language that adolescents use is often described as sloppy, with an air of 'What's going to happen to all these kids who can't even talk properly?' Yet research from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, shows that young people indeed possess a high level of language competence, and also a good ability to adapt to different persons and situations. However, there are also features of their language that do not change according to the situation and that indicate that they have a specific identity style that also affects their communication.

    'Young people adjust their language depending on who they are talking to. This difference signals a high level of language competence rather than sloppiness,' says Elin Almér, who has explored differences and similarities in young women's stories depending on the situation in which they are told.

    She found that when the young women spoke in a group where the group members were same-age schoolmates, they mainly told anecdotes and stories that exemplify a standpoint. When interviewed by an adult they did not know, they instead tended to tell retellings and narratives. She also found that while the young people used a lot of small words such as 'du vet' and 'sån' (Eng. equivalents 'you know' and 'like') in the group situations, they used hardly any of these expressions when interviewed.

    'The differences imply that it is not correct to talk about one single adolescent language, since there are in fact several,' says Almér.

    Almér also analysed the young women's stories from the perspective that you can have different approaches depending on how you relate to yourself and others. The approach can also give a good idea about to what extent the individual has reflected on why she believes and thinks the way she does regarding issues that concern her. The way language users relate to and express themselves regarding these aspects can reflect different identity styles. Yet, within this framework, young people clearly use different varieties in different contexts.

    'The young women's language use indicated that they had different identity styles, meaning that their different language use had features that didn't change with the context. This is interesting since it implies that we already when starting a conversation have different abilities to position ourselves in relation to others,' says Almér.

    The thesis has been successfully defended.

    EurekAlert. 2012. "High language competence among young people". EurekAlert. Posted: February 6, 2012. Available online:

    Thursday, February 23, 2012

    Ancient Fortress Proof 'Hill of Jonah' Was Inhabited

    Remains of thick stone walls uncovered recently atop a hill in Israel — where tradition says the prophet Jonah was buried — indicate the site was occupied during the time of the prophet, almost 3,000 years ago.

    The Israeli Antiquities Authority announced the discovery, on Giv'at Yonah (the Hill of Jonah) above the modern city Ashdod, today (Feb. 6).

    Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures tell of the prophet Jonah, who at first fled God's instructions to preach against wickedness in Nineveh, an ancient city in Iraq. After spending three days and three nights inside the belly of a fish or whale Jonah was forgiven by God and released. According to the story, he then went to Nineveh and persuaded the inhabitants to repent.

    According to some traditions, including Muslim lore, Jonah was buried on Giv'at Yonah.

    This new discovery does not provide any archaeological evidence of Jonah's tomb. However, it, along with other evidence unearthed atop the hill, show Giv'at Yonah was occupied during the time of Jonah, the late seventh and early eighth centuries B.C., according to Sa'ar Ganor, an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority.

    The excavation also uncovered pottery shards, which could be easily dated. These allowed researchers to reasonably estimate an age for the walls, which measure more than 3.3 feet (1 meter) wide and were built using rocks from the beach below, Ganor told LiveScience.

    In the 1960s, an excavation carried out nearby before the construction of a lighthouse, uncovered similar remnants of walls as well as an "ostracon" — a piece of pottery bearing an inscription — indicating that someone named Ba'altzad gave money as a present to a holy place.

    Excavators believe the newly uncovered walls belonged to a strategically located fortress. The hill stands 164 feet (50 meters) above sea level, and overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and other nearby settlements. It is also the location of a modern lighthouse, Ganor said.

    It is possible the fortress was inhabited by the Assyrians who ruled the region during that time, or that it was occupied by Josiah, king of Judah, who conquered the territory from the Assyrians and controlled the area in seventh century B.C., according to the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

    Parry, Wynne. 2012. "Ancient Fortress Proof 'Hill of Jonah' Was Inhabited". Live Science. Posted: February 6, 2012. Available online:

    Wednesday, February 22, 2012

    Piltdown man: British archaeology's greatest hoax

    In a few weeks, a group of British researchers will enter the labyrinthine store of London’s Natural History Museum and remove several dark-coloured pieces of primate skull and jawbone from a small metal cabinet. After a brief inspection, the team will wrap the items in protective foam and transport them to a number of laboratories across England. There the bones and teeth, which have rested in the museum for most of the last century, will be put through a sequence of highly sensitive tests using infra-red scanners, lasers and powerful spectroscopes to reveal each relic’s precise chemical make-up.

    The aim of the study, which will take weeks to complete, is simple. It has been set up to solve a mystery that has baffled researchers for 100 years: the identities of the perpetrators of the world’s greatest scientific fraud, the Piltdown Hoax. Unearthed in a gravel pit at Piltdown in East Sussex and revealed to the outside world exactly a century ago, those shards of skull were part of a scientific scam that completely fooled leading palaeontologists. For decades they believed they were the remains of a million-year-old apeman, an individual who possessed a large brain but primitive jawbone and teeth.

    The news of the Piltdown find, first released in late 1912, caused a sensation. The first Englishman had been uncovered and not only was he brainy, he was sporty. A sculpted elephant bone, found near the skull pieces and interpreted by scientists as being a ceremonial artefact, was jokingly claimed by many commentators to be an early cricket bat. The first Englishman with his own cricket bat – if nothing else it was one in the eye for French and German archaeologists whose discoveries of Cro-Magnons, Neanderthals and other early humans had been making headlines for several decades. Now England had a real fossil rival.

    It was too good to be true. As decades passed, scientists in other countries uncovered more and more fossils of early apemen that differed markedly from Piltdown Man. “These had small skulls but relatively humanlike teeth – the opposite of Piltdown,” says Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, who is leading the new study. “But many British scientists did not take them seriously because of Piltdown. They dismissed these discoveries which we now know are genuine and important. It really damaged British science.”

    In the end, the Piltdown Man began to look so out of kilter with other fossil discoveries that a team led by geologist Kenneth Oakley, anatomist Wilfrid Le Gros Clark and anthropologist Joseph Weiner took a closer look and in 1953 announced that Piltdown’s big braincase belonged to a modern human being while the jawbone came from an orangutan or chimpanzee. Each piece had been stained to look as if they were from the same skull while the teeth had been flattened with a metal file and the “cricket bat” carved with a knife. As Bournemouth University archaeologist Miles Russell puts it: “The earliest Englishman was nothing more than a cheap fraud.” It had taken almost 40 years to find that out, however.

    Since then, more than 30 individuals have been accused of being Piltdown hoaxers. Charles Dawson, the archaeological enthusiast who found the first pieces, was almost certainly involved. But many scientists still suspect he had the backing of experts who were the true guilty parties. Candidates include Arthur Conan Doyle, who played golf at Piltdown and had a grievance against scientists because of his spiritual beliefs; the Jesuit philosopher, palaeontologist and alleged practical joker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who lived in Sussex at the time and who actually helped Dawson dig at Piltdown; Arthur Smith Woodward, the Natural History Museum scientist, who accepted Dawson’s finds as genuine and argued they belonged to a new species of early human; the anatomist Arthur Keith, who also passionately endorsed the discovery; and Martin Hinton, another museum scientist, whose initials were found, in the mid-70s, 10 years after his death, on an old canvas travelling trunk, hidden in a museum loft, that contained mammal teeth and bones stained and carved in the manner of the Piltdown fossils. When it comes to suspects, the Piltdown Hoax makes Midsomer Murders look restrained.

    “The trouble is that after 100 years we still do not know the identities or motives of those responsible,” says Justin Dix, the Southampton University geochemist who will carry out much of the chemical analysis. “It is time we did.” Hence the new project, which aims to uncover the identities of the hoaxers. And key to that will be the uncovering of the exact chemical make-up of the forged mat- erial – and the precise sequence of events that led to their discovery.

    On the morning of 15 February 1912, Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of geology at the Natural History Museum, sat down at his desk to open his mail, which included a letter from his friend Charles Dawson, a lawyer and amateur antiquarian. Dawson began with gossip about their mutual acquaintance Arthur Conan Doyle, who was completing his latest novel, the prehistoric adventure The Lost World. Then he dropped his bombshell. He had stumbled on a very old layer of gravel, near a village called Piltdown, where he had found some iron-stained flints and “a portion of a human skull”. This was the first mention, made to the outside world, of the fossil that was to be known as Piltdown Man.

    During subsequent correspondence, Dawson – known as the Wizard of Sussex because of his skill at finding archaeological treasures round the county – revealed that during a dinner at Barkham Manor in Piltdown he had gone for a stroll and noted flints strewn around the grounds, the leftovers from gravel excavations used for local road building. Dawson asked the labourers to bring him any interesting finds and was rewarded when one presented him with “a portion of human cranium… of immense thickness”. The lawyer then found another piece of skull – though no specific dates were provided by him. Nor was the labourer ever identified.

    In May, Smith Woodward took charge of the first pieces of Piltdown skull and concluded they belonged to a previously unknown early human named Eoanthropus dawsoni – Dawson’s dawn-man. Excavations continued at Barkham Manor and a series of flint tools were uncovered along with more bone pieces and animal remains, including the teeth of hippopotami that used to wallow around English waterholes in ancient times. On 21 November 1912 the Manchester Guardian broke the story. Under the headline “The Earliest Man: Remarkable Discovery in Sussex”, the paper revealed details of the skull, whose estimated age, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 years, made it “by far the earliest trace of mankind that has yet been found in England”.

    A few weeks later, at the Geological Society, Smith Woodward outlined further details to general scientific approval. Only one scientist, anatomist David Waterson, voiced doubts. The cranium looked human while the jawbone resembled that of a chimpanzee, he noted. No one else appears to have agreed – for a very straightforward reason. Palaeontology in Britain was going through a lean time and its practitioners desperately wanted to believe that fossil gold had been struck. Digs in France, at Cro-Magnon, and in Germany, at Neanderthal and Heidelberg, had produced startling finds of early humans. Britain had nothing. One French palaeontologist had even dismissed his English counterparts as mere chasseurs de cailloux – pebble hunters.

    The jibe hurt. Hence English researchers’ willingness to accept the Piltdown finds. They may have been crudely made but the finds gave scientists what they wanted: evidence that England had been an important crucible in the forging of our species. “No one did any scientific tests,” says Russell. “If they had, they would have noticed the chemical staining and filed-down teeth very quickly. This was clearly not a genuine artefact. The scientific establishment accepted it because they wanted it so much.”

    There was more to this uncritical acceptance than mere jingoism, however. Piltdown also seemed to support the theory, then firmly upheld by English palaeontologists, that growing brainpower had driven human evolution. Our intelligence, above all, separated us from the animal kingdom. Thus our brains would have expanded early in our evolution and evidence for that should be seen in fossil skulls – like the one at Piltdown. It had a huge braincase but primitive teeth, suggesting – wrongly – that our cranial enlargement had happened early in our evolution. In fact, brains came late to humanity (see box below).

    Excavations at Piltdown continued. In August 1913, Father Teilhard de Chardin, who went on to be one of the 20th century’s most influential Jesuit scholars and philosophers and who was then living in Sussex, joined in and found a canine tooth supposed to have come from the apeman – a discovery that has linked him ever since with Piltdown conspiracy theories. Finally came the discovery of the cricket bat. The Piltdown hoax was complete.

    By 1915, Dawson’s dawn-man had become established scientific fact. The painting, A Discussion of the Piltdown Skull, by John Cooke, presents its discoverers in an almost holy atmosphere. Keith is seated while Smith Woodward stands behind him in front of a table with pieces of skull on it. Also standing, with a picture of Charles Darwin behind him, is the benign figure of Charles Dawson. “The way the painting is structured suggests Darwin is passing on his mantle to Dawson,” says Russell. “The former had the theory, the latter had provided it, it is being suggested.”

    Certainly, the Wizard of Sussex had come far. He was now feted as one of the world’s greatest archaeologists and would have been knighted, as were Keith and Smith Woodward, had he not died of septicaemia in 1916. Kindly and rotund, the figure of Dawson looks the acme of Edwardian rectitude, a successful solicitor and expert antiquarian. But he had secrets that only came to light decades after his death. In fact most of his “wizard” finds turned out to be frauds, recent investigations have revealed. He was, quite simply, a serial forger, says Russell. “I have counted 38 hoaxes or dodgy finds made by him before Piltdown,” Russell states. He forged axes, statuettes, ancient hammers, Roman tiles and a host of other artefacts – trickery that earned fellowships of both the Geological Society and the Society of Antiquaries. “Piltdown was not a one-off. It was the culmination of a life’s work,” says Russell in his book Piltdown Man: The Secret Life of Charles Dawson.

    And that looks pretty conclusive. The man had more form than Professor Moriarty. There would be no need to look any further, were it not for some nagging doubts – including one of Chris Stringer’s. It’s the cricket bat that gets him. “It was huge but apparently everyone missed it until the end of the dig. Until then everything had been carefully engineered: the skull fragments and artefacts, all made to look alike. And then the cricket bat turns up. It is bizarre and only makes sense if you conclude someone wanted to alert the authorities that fraud was going on, but did not want to do so publicly, perhaps to avoid bringing disgrace to the museum. So they planted something so ridiculous that everyone would surely realise it was a fake, a laugh. Unfortunately, everyone took it seriously.”

    And the second hoaxer? Who better than Martin Hinton, the Natural History Museum scientist who possessed that bag, discovered after his death, containing incriminating dyes and chemicals, and who worked with Keith and Smith Woodward? Thus there may have been two hoaxers working independently: Dawson and Hinton.

    Or consider Teilhard de Chardin, a religious philosopher and expert on human evolution, who was involved in making finds at Piltdown. His guilt has been forcefully advocated by the late Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould and more recently by the South African palaeontologist Francis Thackeray. “I think Teilhard did it as a joke,” says Thackeray. “Just after Piltdown’s first announcement, he wrote to a colleague to say he thought palaeontology deserved to be the subject of jokes. He was also known to be a joker.” Teilhard probably expected the prank to be spotted straightaway, but was horrified to discover it had taken root in scientific thought. So he stayed silent.

    And then there is Conan Doyle. A former doctor and fossil collector, he had the expertise to create forged skull fragments. One of his characters, in The Lost World, published in 1912, even states: “If you are clever and know your business you can fake a bone as easily as you can a photograph.” He also had the opportunity. He played golf at Piltdown, after all. As to motive, his spiritual beliefs had brought him into conflict with science and he may have wanted to humiliate its practitioners. “But if that is the case,” says Stringer, “why didn’t he announce his triumph after so convincingly fooling the world of science? That doesn’t make sense.”

    As for Smith Woodward and Keith, both were keen advocates of the theory that humans had big brains early in their evolution and could have procured these bits of skull – using Dawson to deposit their handiwork – because they were convinced they represented the truth. But if Dawson was just a stooge in this business, why did the uncovering of finds at Piltdown stop immediately after his death? People went on looking for years, but never found a thing after 1916.

    It is a perplexing mix of suspects, which the new research hopes to unravel by studying and measuring the skull carefully and by analysing every chemical present in the stains and chemicals used in the different pieces. Do the dyes match those in Hinton’s trunk? Does the canine found by Teilhard contain chemicals not found in the other pieces? Or is its staining unique? “We are going to fingerprint all the material found at Piltdown and unravel how many patterns of interference have occurred – and how many individuals were involved,” says Stringer. “We might get our hoaxer or hoaxers that way.”

    As for Piltdown, there are few signs left around the village today to show this was once thought to be one of the most important sites in human evolutionary history. The Manor is locked and gated and the plinth that marked where the first find was uncovered is out of sight of passers-by. Even the local pub, which until last year revelled in the name of the Piltdown Man, has now changed its name to the Lamb. As Joseph Weiner, who helped reveal the hoax, once noted: “Piltdown Man has lost his place in polite society.”

    Brain versus brawn

    Three special features mark out Homo sapiens from the rest of the primate world. We walk upright; we make complex tools and we have big brains. And of these features, it was thought – for a long time – that big brains came first. They drove a need to free hands and arms in order to make tools – which our developing intellects subsequently invented. Hence the easy reception given to the finds at Piltdown. They accorded with the notion that human intellect has a deep-rooted evolutionary past. But we now know that this sequence is not the case. Upright stance came first, tools came later and big brains, measured in terms of modern human standards, arrived last. The Piltdown forgery was a bad guess.

    McKie, Robert. 2012. "Piltdown man: British archaeology's greatest hoax". . Posted: February 5, 2012. Available online:

    Tuesday, February 21, 2012

    Helping to conserve Albania's cultural heritage

    Heritage Without Borders (HWB), a newly established social enterprise founded at UCL (University College London) adopts an innovative approach to capacity building where communities require help and support to conserve their cultural heritage.

    Following the success of HWB’s recent international projects in Turkmenistan and Bosnia and Herzegovina it has now been awarded £25,000 by the Headley Trust to run a conservation summer school in Albania.

    HWB matches museum and conservation professionals with people who need help to conserve, interpret and use their heritage. Through HWB communities in countries lacking heritage resources can tap into specialist skills and practical training that would otherwise be impossible to obtain due to financial and geographical constraints. Meanwhile, qualified volunteers from the UK engage in an active collaboration with their hosts which leads to an exciting exchange of ideas. This experience gives HWB volunteers an experience that radically changes their outlook and transforms their future employment opportunities.

    Sarajevo summer school

    In September 2011, HWB ran a conservation summer school at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. There were 26 attendees from Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Serbia, including students from the local Institute of Archaeology. The course was run by three skilled HWB volunteers, including a professional conservator (Dominica D’Arcangelo) and two conservation students from the UCL Institute of Archaeology (Nicola Harrison and Carmen Vida).

    The week long course in Sarajevo gave participants the opportunity to learn about how preventive conservation is relevant to their daily work and provided practical solutions to their issues around collections care with funding and space shortages. Participants said they valued the experience of being able to meet and talk with other colleagues facing similar challenges. Likewise, HWB volunteers expressed how much they learned through their first-hand interaction with other museum professionals and university students from the participating countries.

    Funding from the Headley Trust

    The Headley Trust was so impressed with the success of the project in Sarajevo that they have agreed to give Heritage Without Borders funding to carry out a further summer school in Albania in 2012. This support will allow HWB to pay for accommodation, travel and subsistence for all local participants as well as for the HWB volunteer team. In addition, it is planned that additional follow-up projects will be run in regional museums. Long-term mentoring and support will also be provided through the programme.

    ‘Heritage Without Borders operates a unique model where collaborative problem solving, communication and cooperation provides the key to long-term sustainable solutions,” said Dominica D’Arcangelo, HWB Co-Director. “In Sarajevo we learned first-hand how building a professional network extends benefits beyond the immediate group of project participants. It has also become apparent in HWB’s first projects that students and heritage professionals who are early in their careers value the opportunity HWB gives them to build their confidence and skills.”

    Comments from summer school participants in Sarajevo Included:

    “On the first day I saw how this can help me in my work… The most fun thing during this school was packing [museum objects] and using some things that I didn’t know could be used…I will also try to organise collective education for my colleagues and I hope that my knowledge that I learned here can pass to my friends and colleagues from my museum…” Stevan Salatic, regional museum in Trebijne

    “It is nice now that we [participants from the course] are close. We can collaborate more – we can exchange ideas and help each other.” Tatjana Mijatovic, National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

    Past Horizons. 2012. "Helping to conserve Albania's cultural heritage". Past Horizons. Posted: February 4, 2012. Available online:

    Monday, February 20, 2012

    Jade mask found inside pyramid of the sun

    Archaeologists discovered a series of deposits in the interior of the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan in Mexico. The team of researchers announced their findings after exploring the 65-metre high pyramid from 2008 to 2011.

    Using the 116 metre long tunnel excavated in the 1930s by archaeologist Eduardo Noguera, the Pyramid of the Sun Project, directed by Alejandro Sarabia, stratigraphically excavated 59 trenches and created 3 short tunnels in order to reach the natural rock level and verify the presence of burials and offerings.

    “We knew that if the builders of Teotihuacan placed something inside the monument it would have been done at the base level, so we made a vertical shaft at the end of the tunnel and a short horizontal tunnel to reach the centre of the pyramid, since the original tunnel was cut approximately 6 metres to the west of the centre of the monument”, commented team member Perez Cortes.

    A tunnel into the heart of the pyramid

    Over the course of the exploration three architectural structures were discovered, constructed prior to the current Pyramid of the Sun. Seven human burials, including children, were also recorded as having been buried before the construction of the building. In addition, two votive deposits were recovered.

    One of the votive offerings was discovered inside the original foundation material, so it is certain it was deposited as part of a consecration ceremony of the structure, probably at the beginning of its construction more than 1900 years ago.

    The deposit, which contained an outstanding greenstone mask was part of several layers of artefacts.

    A considerable number of of obsidian artefacts including projectile heads and small knives were recovered, an anthropomorphic eccentric artefact and three anthropomorphic figurines with shell and pyrite eyes.

    Among the three greenstone sculptures found, the mask carved from a single stone is, according to studies conducted by Dr. Jose Luis Ruvalcaba, from the National University Physics Institute (IF UNAM), “the only greenstone mask discovered in the ritual context of Teotihuacan.”

    The small 11 cm high mask is different to other Teotihuacan types because of it’s size; it is possible that it was a portrait. A seashell was found next to the sculpture.

    The offering also contained eleven Tlaloc vessels, (dedicated to the God of Rain) most of them broken, placed in the middle of the whole deposit. Further objects include three pyrite discs, one with a 45 cm diameter and mounted on a slate slab – the largest ever recovered from Teotihuacan.

    A possible link to rain

    A substantial quantity of animal skeletons were also found. The skull of a feline was placed to the northeast; a canine to the south, and an eagle covered with volcanic rock, to the southeast. The bird had been fed before the sacrifice with two rabbits, analysis has revealed. This kind of faunal deposition is similar to those found as offerings in the Pyramid of the Moon.

    The archaeologists had long suggested the function of the pyramid was linked to the underworld because of the tunnel excavated by the inhabitants of Teotihuacan. However, the objects found in this recent investigation seem to be indicating that the Pyramid of the Sun was possibly connected to a rain deity, an early version of Tlaloc.

    Past Horizons. 2012. "Jade mask found inside pyramid of the sun". Past Horizons. Posted: February 3, 2012. Available online:

    Image src: INAH

    Sunday, February 19, 2012

    Museum and archaeological park for Abu Dhabi

    The Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture & Heritage (ADACH) has unveiled its plans for two key projects in Al Ain. The Al Ain National Museum and Hili Archaeological Park were both publicly announced by the Abu Dhabi Executive Council last week.

    The AANM forms part of the Al Ain Oasis Cultural Quarter Master Plan and is located within the centre of downtown Al Ain within an Eastern Cultural Campus that is a flagship cultural quarter for Al Ain. It will celebrate the heritage and culture of the city – at the point where the city and nature meet at the edge of the Al Ain Oasis.

    Hili Archaeological Park is an internationally significant archaeological site, comprising unique Bronze Age, Iron Age and Islamic remains. The project will protect and preserve the site and its archaeology, and create a centre of learning and discovery where visitors will engage with the history of the site, the early roots of the UAE, the lives of the people who inhabited this landscape, and how Hili’s rich history was uncovered.

    The Chairman of ADACH, His Excellency Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan stated:

    “These are two very significant projects, that are drawing on the resources of this country’s heritage and protecting them.The Al Ain National Museum will provide the intellectual foundation of a Cultural Quarter. Hili Archaeological Park will enclose some of the most important Bronze (Umm an Nar) and Iron Age tombs, settlements and falaj systems found in the United Arab Emirates.

    “The World Heritage Site status that was awarded to Al Ain recently is further testament to Abu Dhabi continuing to be developed as one of the main international centres of culture by embracing and valuing its cultural diversity and making it an attractive visitors destination.

    Dr Sami el Masri, Deputy Director-General for Arts, Culture and Heritage and Director of Strategic Planning and Development at ADACH, said:

    “The Al Ain National Museum project will revitalise this institution in ADACH’s Museum Department and be the anchor for the Eastern Cultural Campus. It will be an exemplary modern, urban, archaeology and cultural history museum. The museum will be the centre of the cultural life of the city – and a gateway to its many treasures and stories.

    “The strategy of ADACH is to protect and maintain Abu Dhabi’s resources and ensure and reinforce the role of culture and heritage as both an important educational and cultural tool. ADACH is as much about the present and the future as it is about the past.

    Past Horizons. 2012. "Museum and archaeological park for Abu Dhabi". Past Horizons. Posted: February 1, 2012. Available online:

    Saturday, February 18, 2012

    Forensic Team Studying Skeletons of Hunley Crew

    This is an older story, but related to yesterday's story about the Hunley.

    The skeletons of the crew members of the U.S. Civil War submarine Hunley are undergoing what senior archaeologist Maria Jacobsen calls "a full-blown forensics examination" 138 years after the Confederate sub sank in waters off South Carolina.

    The analysis is part of efforts to compile the personal histories of the men who died on the submarine, which sank for unknown reasons on February 17, 1864, shortly after it attacked and sank the Union blockader U.S.S. Housatonic.

    The full investigation may take more than a year to complete. Doug Owsley of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History and Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee are leading the forensics work.

    A major goal of the Hunley project is to distinguish eight soldiers and their remains using forensic and skeletal data and existing archaeological records, and to combine this with historical and genealogical information available about each crew member.

    Organizers of the Hunley project say that once the human remains of the soldiers have been analyzed, they will be buried with full military honors at Charleston's Magnolia Cemetery, expected to take place in the fall of 2003.

    Continuing Excavation

    The sunken Hunley lay undisturbed on the bottom of the sea until May 1995, when a team funded by author Clive Cussler discovered the intact 40-foot-long (12-meter-long) hull. The sub had been buried at a 45-degree angle under a layer of silt.

    The hull was raised in August 2000 and excavation of the sub, funded in part by the National Geographic Society, has been underway since January 2001.

    Before any forensic work could be done on human remains, Maria Jacobsen and her team had to figure out a way to safely remove them from the hull, which was filled with muddy sediment and a variety of textiles and artifacts.

    "There are no textbooks on how to raise a Civil War submarine intact from the bottom of the sea," said Jacobsen from the Hunley Project's South Carolina headquarters.

    Excavation of the very fragile contents from inside the cramped sub was complicated, so the team removed blocks of material, which were transferred to a scientific lab.

    Before carefully excavating the blocks, the team took x-rays and CT-scan images of them to compile three-dimensional data about the bones, artifacts, and other material.

    From this data, the researchers were able to develop a spatial image of where everything was in the submarine before its removal.

    Concerns arose about handling the bones, textiles, and other fragile material that were among the artifacts. "Nobody knew how to handle the textile remains," Jacobsen said, adding that the team consulted experts around the world.

    In the end, it was decided that the best approach was to remove the material in a controlled lab environment similar to the underwater conditions in which the objects lay for more than a century. The researchers created freshwater tanks outfitted with trays to hold the blocks of material.

    Suspended in water, the buoyant textiles, for example, could be safely removed from the sediment by dissolving the mud with gentle streams of water from a syringe, and removing it with a small suction pipe.

    The painstaking process enabled the team to separate the human remains and compile an inventory of them.

    Intriguing Artifacts

    The excavation has turned up a variety of interesting artifacts besides the human remains. Last year, excavators uncovered a gold coin carried by the sub's captain, Lt. George Dixon. Stories had long held that the captain carried such a coin as a good-luck piece after it had saved him from death by a bullet. More recently, Dixon's ornate, gold pocket watch was recovered from a block of sediment. Conservators have not yet opened it to examine the interior and find out whether the contents include an inscription or photo.

    "It is also possible that there is a pocket of ancient air trapped in a sealed interior compartment," Jacobsen speculated. "If that is the case, we will attempt to sample the air as well. A pristine sample of air from a secure 1864 date would provide important data to scientists studying atmospheric changes, she said.

    From the skeletal remains, the researchers are working to determine each crew member's age, sex, height, and body build. Besides aiding identification, the analysis will provide important clues to injuries, infections, or other conditions—such as wartime malnutrition—that may have affected the soldiers.

    In addition, the osteological experts will analyze the skeletal data for this group and compare their individual data with similar data from other Civil War era remains. The purpose is to understand how this group fits statistically with rest of the North American data assembly.

    Forensic expert Owsley has said the research might also yield information about the activities of the crew members while they were aboard the doomed vessel. He said he was able to determine from examining the bones, for example, that some of the crew members had been on the submarine longer than the others.

    Because the skulls of the soldiers were so well preserved, scientists can do facial reconstructions showing what the crew members might have looked like. That work is expected to be completed about nine months from now.

    As the investigations continue, specialists will conduct DNA analysis of the human remains. This data is of particular interest to project genealogist Linda Abrams, who is researching the personal histories and family lineages of each Hunley crew member. Eventually, the DNA materials may be able to link the crew members with their living descendants.

    Handwerk, Brian. 2002. "Forensic Team Studying Skeletons of Hunley Crew". National Geographic. Posted: June 13, 2002. Available online:

    Friday, February 17, 2012

    Pictures: Civil War Sub Finally Revealed

    For the first time since the U.S. Civil War, the Confederate vessel H.L. Hunley—the world's first submarine to sink an enemy ship—was revealed on January 12 after 11 years of conservation work.

    Shown in a South Carolina conservation facility, the Hunley sank the U.S.S. Housatonic off Charleston (map) in 1864. Within minutes the sub itself sank too-killing its eight-man crew and creating an enduring mystery.

    Five years after the Hunley wreck's discovery in 1995, conservators raised the sub using a special steel truss that was removed only weeks ago.

    "No one alive has ever seen the Hunley complete," said engineer John King on January 12 as a crane lifted the truss at Clemson University's Warren Lasch Conservation Center in North Charleston, Reuters reported on January 13.

    "We're going to see it today."

    Visit the site to see some more amazing pictures.

    Drye, Willie. 2012. "Pictures: Civil War Sub Finally Revealed". National Geographic News. Posted: February 1, 2012. Available online:

    Thursday, February 16, 2012

    Archaeologists and pagans alike glory in the Brodgar complex

    Let's not jump to conclusions about ritual significance, but this site is clearly immensely important to ancient British history

    Archaeologists are notoriously nervous of attributing ritual significance to anything (the old joke used to be that if you found an artefact and couldn't identify it, it had to have ritual significance), yet they still like to do so whenever possible. I used to work on a site in the mid-1980s – a hill fort in Gloucestershire – where items of potential religious note occasionally turned up (a horse skull buried at the entrance, for example) and this was always cause for some excitement, and also some gnashing of teeth at the prospect of other people who weren't archaeologists getting excited about it ("And now I suppose we'll have druids turning up").

    The Brodgar complex has, however, got everyone excited. It ticks all the boxes that make archaeologists, other academics, lay historians and pagans jump up and down. Its age is significant: it's around 800 years older than Stonehenge (although lately, having had to do some research into ancient Britain, I've been exercised by just how widely dates for sites vary, so perhaps some caution is called for). Pottery found at Stonehenge apparently originated in Orkney, or was modelled on pottery that did.

    The site at the Ness of Brodgar – a narrow strip of land between the existing Stone Age sites of Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar – is massive: the size of five football pitches and circled by a 10ft wall. Only a small percentage of it has been investigated; it is being called a "temple complex", and researchers seem to think that it is a passage complex – for instance, one in which bones are carried through and successively stripped (there is a firepit across one of the doors, and various entrances, plus alcoves like those in a passage grave, which are being regarded as evidence for this theory – but it's a bit tenuous at present). Obviously, at this relatively early stage, it's difficult for either professional archaeologists or their followers to formulate too many firm theories.

    When it comes to the pagan community, I don't think that its sounder members will be leaping to too many conclusions too soon; as discussed in a previous column, some of us would prefer to rely on the actual evidence rather than rushing off at a tangent. I cannot help wondering whether the relatively muted response across the pagan scene to the Brodgar findings has to do with the fact that the central artefact discovered so far – the "Brodgar Boy" – is apparently male rather than female. I am cynical enough to wonder whether, if it had been a northern Venus, there would be much more in the way of rash speculation about ancient matriarchies. Will we see the pagan community flocking to Orkney at the solstices? I doubt it. Orkney is a long way off and rather difficult to get to, whereas Stonehenge and Avebury are with a reasonably easy drive if you happen to live in the south of the country. In the days when the site was at its peak, most traffic would have been coastal, and remained so for hundreds of years to come. (And to be fair, many modern pagans aren't actually too keen on trampling over ancient sites, sacred or otherwise, due to awareness of their relative fragility).

    With regard to the "boy" himself, and other ancient representations of the human form, we simply don't know why people made them. Maybe they are gods, goddesses, spirits. Maybe they're toys, or lampoons of particular individuals, or just someone doing some carving in an idle moment. It's hardly a startling theory that, throughout history, people have made stuff for fun: I've always been very amused by Aztec pots made in the shape of comical animals, looking for all the world like the early precursor to Disney and somewhat at variance with the sombre bloodiness of other aspects of that culture.

    As soon as the Bronze Age arrived, Brodgar was completely abandoned. There was apparently a mass slaughter of cattle, which would have fed as many as 20,000 people on the site; this is being taken by some experts as evidence of a complete and sudden cultural replacement. But whether it has ritual significance or not, the sheer size, age and numbers involved with the Orkney site make it of immense importance to the history of ancient Britain.

    Williams, Liz. 2012. "Archaeologists and pagans alike glory in the Brodgar complex". . Posted: January 31, 2012. Available online:

    Wednesday, February 15, 2012

    Whoopensocker dictionary of American dialect completed after 50 years

    Collecting regional English from across the US, final volume of 60,000-entry dictionary will be published next month

    From whoopensocker to upscuddle, strubbly to swivet, 50 years after it was first conceived the Dictionary of American Regional English is finally about to reach the end of the alphabet.

    The fifth volume of the dictionary, covering "slab" to "zydeco", is out in March from Harvard University Press. It completes a project begun in 1962 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, when Fred Cassidy was appointed chief editor of a dictionary of American dialects. Cassidy spent several years crafting a 1,600-question survey covering all aspects of daily life, and in 1965, 80 fieldworkers set out in "word wagons" to 1,002 communities across the US, interviewing 2,777 people over six years. This information has been mapped by editors over the last 40 years with written materials dating from the colonial period to the present, creating a 60,000-entry dictionary that its chief editor says gives the lie to the popular myth that American English has become homogenised by the media and the mobility of America's population.

    "There is still a tremendous amount of regional variation," said Joan Houston Hall. "Yes, of course the language has changed: it's the nature of language to change. But it doesn't change in the same ways or at the same pace across the country. And although some local words get pushed out by nationwide commercial terms, new ones come into the language. They are the kinds of words we use with family and friends rather than those we learn at school, and often we're not aware that other people aren't familiar with them."

    Some of Hall's favourite terms from the fifth volume, which runs to over 1,200 pages, include whoopensocker (something extraordinary of its kind, especially a large or strong drink, chiefly used in Wisconsin), willywags (a New England term for an area with tangled underbrush), upscuddle (southern Appalachian term for a noisy quarrel), strubbly (Pennsylvania German term for untidy) and swivet (a term for a state of anxiety from the South). A slough pumper is the Minnesota term for a bittern, because it lives in sloughs or marshes and makes a noise like an old wooden pump, a tolo is the Washington State word for a dance to which women invite men, and to "tump over" is to knock something over in the South.

    The dictionary shows how different regions of the US refer to the same item in various ways: fluff under the bed is described as dust kitties in the Northeast, dust bunnies in the Midwest, house moss in the South and woolies in Pennsylvania, while a sandwich will be a po'boy in Louisiana, but a hoagie, sub, grinder, hero, or torpedo elsewhere. A description of a remote place, meanwhile, can range from the boondocks to the puckerbrush, the tules, or to Hall's favourite, the willywags.

    "A friend told me this weekend that when he starts browsing the pages of DARE, he gets seduced by the next entry, and the next, and pretty soon he looks up to discover that an hour has gone by. I find the same thing, and I've read all this many times over," said Hall. A digital edition of the dictionary will launch next year, allowing the team to update the text on a regular basis and add new entries.

    Flood, Alison. 2012. "Whoopensocker dictionary of American dialect completed after 50 years". The Guardian. Posted: January 31, 2012. Available online:

    Tuesday, February 14, 2012

    Humans Tamed Horses All Over the World

    The wide origins of domesticated horses offers insight on how our love affair with the animal has transformed humankind.

    The domestication of wild horses had a profound effect on human history -- offering nutrition, transportation and a leg up in warfare, among other advantages. But there are still many unanswered questions about when and where our species began its long love affair with horses.

    A new genetic study offers some clues. Through the first complete analysis of equestrian mitochondrial DNA -- a kind of genetic material that is passed directly from mother to offspring -- an international group of scientists was able to trace all modern horses to an ancestor that lived about 140,000 years ago.

    After horse domestication began about 10,000 years ago, the study also discovered, horses diverged into at least 18 distinct genetic lines. Those findings suggest that, unlike cows and other animals, horses may have been tamed independently in many different places around Europe and Asia.

    The new research could help scientists decode the genetic secrets of modern horse breeds and top racehorses.

    “Horse domestication had major cultural, socioeconomic, and even genetic implications for the numerous prehistoric and historic human populations that at different times adopted horse breeding,” said Alessandro Achilli, a geneticist at the University of Perugia in Italy. “Thus, our results will have a major impact in many areas of biological science, ranging from the field of animal and conservation genetics to zoology, veterinary science, paleontology, human genetics and anthropology.”

    Cows, sheep, and goats had simple beginnings as livestock, with evidence suggesting that a small number of animals of each species were domesticated in just a few places between about 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. Today, genetic diversity among these creatures remains low.

    Horse DNA tells a different story, according to a new paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. After analyzing mitochondrial DNA from a wide range of horse breeds across Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas, and then using the known mutation rate of this kind of DNA as a sort of clock, Achilli and colleagues were able to connect all modern horses to a common ancestor that lived between 130,000 and 160,000 years ago. By comparison, modern humans first evolved about 200,000 years ago.

    Previous research focused only on limited regions of mitochondrial DNA in horses. But by looking at the entire mitochondrial genome, the new study was able to categorize horses into at least 18 different groups that evolved independently.

    One possible explanation for those findings is that many different groups of people independently discovered the dramatic benefits of taming wild horses thousands of years ago.

    “The very fact that many wild mares have been independently domesticated in different places testifies to how significant horses have been to humankind,” Achilli said. “It means that the ability of taming these animals was badly needed by different groups of people in different regions of Eurasia, from the Asian steppes to Western Europe, since they could generate the food surplus necessary to support the growth of human populations and the capability to expand and adapt into new environments or facilitate transportation.”

    Results also showed that horses managed to survive in modern-day Spain and Portugal during a glacial period more than 13,000 years ago, when horses, humans and other mammals disappeared north of the Pyrenees. The area has shown to be an important refuge during that time for people, who later went on to repopulate Europe when conditions improved. The new study suggests that horses may have followed a similar pattern.

    The new findings offer another potential explanation for the origins of domesticated horses, said Alan Outram, an archaeologist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Horses may have been originally domesticated in one area, he said, such as the central Asian steppe. Then, people could have transported tamed stallions to other cultures in other places, where they were bred with local, wild mares. That scenario would also create multiple distinct female genetic lines.

    Either way, the new study adds important context to the puzzle of how horses infused themselves into people’s lives.

    “One thing that is clear is that the domestic horse revolutionized human life, making us much more mobile, changing our trade patterns and modes of warfare,” Outram said. “Such changes affected the whole way in which societies were organized and interacted with each other.”

    Sohn, Emily. 2012. "Humans Tamed Horses All Over the World". Discovery News. Posted: January 30, 2012. Available online:

    Monday, February 13, 2012

    Frenetic pace of Ethiopia's khat boomtown

    Drive along any road between Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia and you are likely to see pick-up trucks, piled high with bundles of fresh green leaves, hurtling past you at terrific speed, horns blaring, lights flashing.

    A bit like ambulances. Or fire engines.

    Land at any airport and you will see planes stuffed with the same green leaves, being unloaded at a frenzied pace.

    Whether there is war, drought or famine, the leaves get through. The khat industry booms.

    I used to wonder where all this khat was coming from. Now I know.

    The small town of Awaday is in between Ethiopia's most holy Muslim town of Harar and its big eastern city of Dire Dawa.

    I first arrived in Awaday late at night. Unlike the other towns I had passed through, it was not quiet, dark and asleep. It was wide awake and madly, crazily busy.

    Every scrap of pavement, every building, room and shack was devoted to the sorting, the weighing, the bundling and the selling of khat. There was a fresh, slightly bitter smell of vegetation.

    I stood on floors which were soft, smooth and silky with glossy discarded leaves. Man, woman and child sat on these floors, rapidly chopping stems, picking through the leaves to choose the most succulent and tender.

    There was something medieval about the process. Nothing was mechanised. Everything was done by hand.

    Delicate weighing of the highest quality leaves - which fetch tens of dollars a bunch - was done with tiny brass weights on metal scales.

    In each and every room, a man sat with a giant ledger, carefully noting down weights, prices and other figures.

    "This is the khat capital of the world," one man told me. "This whole town is a khat factory.

    "We harvest the leaves from the fields nearby, then we rush them to Awaday for sorting and pricing. This is our khat stock exchange.

    "We all work from late afternoon until three of four in the morning. Only then do we rest."

    In the middle of Awaday is a large five-storey building, the biggest I could see in the town.

    t is devoted entirely to khat and is divided into small rooms, where people prepare the leaves for transporting all over the world.

    The vehicles waiting on the road with their engines running reminded me of racehorses straining at the bit, before the starting bell. As soon as they are filled with khat, they race off into the night.

    "This one's for Djibouti, this for Somaliland, Dire Dawa, Addis Ababa, London, China."

    The reason for the speed is that khat has to be fresh.

    Wherever possible, it must be on the market before noon the next day. Otherwise, as one devoted chewer told me, "it loses its deadliness".

    Soaring spirits

    I spent time with some chewers the day after I visited Awaday.

    They were known by their Somali nicknames of "Black Hair', "Big Nose" and "Round Mouth".

    There is quite a ritual to chewing khat, which is usually done sprawled on the floor, preferably on a carpet or blanket, with cushions to lean on.

    Soft drinks, water and tea are placed before each chewer, together with a large bundle of khat, a bin for the stems and a cloth for wiping sweat from the brow.

    The session starts quite slowly.

    There is not much conversation as packing the leaves and stems into the mouth and chewing them are the priorities.

    After an hour or so, spirits lift, tongues fly and arms wave about. There is a lot of talking, planning, analysing, arguing and joking.

    Business deals are made. Political problems are solved or created.

    As the hours spin by, and the chewing subsides, the mood shifts downwards.

    Eyes take on a glazed expression. Irritability sets in, and sleep refuses to come.

    It is here that I see shades of what psychiatrists and others describe as the destructive side of khat, which they say can lead to serious mental health and other problems.

    The next time I visited Awaday, it was daytime.

    In this upside-down town, where people work through the night, there was hardly anyone on the streets.

    All the doors were closed. Everybody was asleep.

    There were a few goats trotting about, and a few dried khat leaves in the dust, the only reminder of the frenzied night-time activity.

    I could not help thinking that khat is being grown in an area affected by drought and shortages of food.

    It is being delivered fresh, with tremendous efficiency, to parts of Somalia affected by famine.

    I suppose it is a matter of priorities, or, should I say, of money.

    At the very least, perhaps the local authorities and the international aid agencies could learn something from the people of Awaday about how to deliver fresh supplies, perhaps of food and other essential items, to difficult and dangerous areas.


    Harper, Mary. 2012. "Frenetic pace of Ethiopia's khat boomtown". BBC News. Posted: January 28, 2012. Available online:

    Sunday, February 12, 2012

    Why are people friendly?

    Without selection between competing groups, the advantages of co-operation are not great enough to make it spread

    This week's Nature has a report on how hunter-gatherers co-operate, which shows the way in which the scientific study of altruism has moved on since The Selfish Gene. That book popularised two explanations for our unselfish instincts and behaviour. The first, and nowadays obvious, reason is that it causes genes associated with it to spread: if I am helpful to my relatives, my descendants will have more relatives. The second is Robert Trivers's model of "reciprocal altruism": over time, co-operation pays, and nice guys finish first – providing that they are also sufficiently nasty to the nasty guys.

    Both these explanations still hold, but they are not enough, by themselves or in combination, to explain all of the co-operation and friendliness that we actually see in humans. To do this, it is necessary to move up from purely individual attributes to consider the ways in which these attributes are shaped by the groups that we form.

    Without selection between competing groups, the advantages of co-operation are not great enough to make it spread, or maintain itself within a population. Our benevolent instincts are the products of our social nature, and to analyse human society as essentially an association of individuals is not just morally but scientifically wrong, since that kind of analysis doesn't predict our behaviour accurately.

    The researchers for the Nature report studied 205 members of the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer bushman group who "represent possibly one of the most extreme departures from life in industrialised societies, and they remain relatively isolated from modern cultural influences". But the essentials of what they found were also revealed by studies of modernised societies, suggesting that the way we form friendship networks is common across all humanity.

    The researchers measured and sampled an enormous amount of data among these subjects: not just age, weight, height, and sex, but hand-grip strength, muscle mass and body fat, as well as genetic relatedness. The most surprising conclusion was that height is a hugely attractive characteristic: tall people have more friends, and far more people who want to be their friends. No other single characteristic showed such a marked effect.

    Among the bushmen, though not among all societies, body fat was a predictor of popularity, and hand-grip strength – presumably a proxy for general muscularity – made you more likely to have friends.

    By studying not just how people form groups but how they would like to do so if they could choose, the researchers showed very clearly that friendship is a universal human quality.

    This is fascinating not just in itself, but also has a certain resonance in the world of religion. This is not because there is anything much in common between the myth systems of hunter-gatherers and those of modern believers. In the modern world it is myth systems rather than shared campfires that mark off different groups. Common stories go together with common interests.

    The dominant narrative of modern atheism is a story of liberation. You might argue that this is simply protestantism with a twist: the original protestant narrative was of liberation from the false doctrines of Rome and a return to the primal truths of the unadorned gospels. British and American atheism then turns this into liberation from all false doctrine and from religion itself.

    "Organised" religion is the particular villain in these liberation stories, because it can make people pretend to believe things they do not or force them to believe against their natural inclination. But it's difficult to imagine any social network that doesn't function on hypocrisy and that does not maintain itself by social pressure.

    And if these kind of accounts of the roots and evolutionary purpose of human friendship are right – which I believe they are – they are also a testimony to the reality of original sin. Friendship flourishes because it is limited, and because the friendless suffer. The great lesson of sociobiological theory is that complete and boundless altruism is impossible in any real world. I had been going to write "in any world that we can imagine" – but the extraordinary thing is that we find it quite easy to imagine such a world and quite hard to abandon the belief that it might exist.

    Brown, Andrew. 2012. "Why are people friendly?". Guardian. Posted: January 27, 2012. Available online:

    Saturday, February 11, 2012

    Prejudices? Quite normal!

    Psychologists of Jena University analyze the development of prejudices within children

    Jena (Germany) Girls are not as good at playing football as boys, and they do not have a clue about cars. Instead they know better how to dance and do not get into mischief as often as boys. Prejudices like these are cultivated from early childhood onwards by everyone. "Approximately at the age of three to four years children start to prefer children of the same sex, and later the same ethnic group or nationality," Prof. Dr. Andreas Beelmann of the Friedrich Schiller University Jena (Germany) states. This is part of an entirely normal personality development, the director of the Institute for Psychology explains. "It only gets problematic when the more positive evaluation of the own social group, which is adopted automatically in the course of identity formation, at some point reverts into bias and discrimination against others," Beelmann continues.

    To prevent this, the Jena psychologist and his team have been working on a prevention programme for children. It is designed to reduce prejudice and to encourage tolerance for others. But when is the right time to start? Jena psychologists Dr. Tobias Raabe and Prof. Dr. Andreas Beelmann systematically summarise scientific studies on that topic and published the results of their research in the science journal Child Development (DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01668.x.).

    According to this, the development of prejudice increases steadily at pre-school age and reaches its highest level between five and seven years of age. With increasing age this development is reversed and the prejudices decline. "This reflects normal cognitive development of children," Prof. Beelmann explains. "At first they adopt the social categories from their social environment, mainly the parents. Then they start to build up their own social identity according to social groups, before they finally learn to differentiate and individual evaluations of others will prevail over stereotypes." Therefore the psychologists reckon this age is the ideal time to start well-designed prevention programmes against prejudice. "Prevention starting at that age supports the normal course of development," Beelmann says. As the new study and the experience of the Jena psychologists with their prevention programme so far show, the prejudices are strongly diminished at primary school age, when children get in touch with members of so-called social out groups like, for instance children of a different nationality or skin colour. "This also works when they don't even get in touch with real people but learn it instead via books or told stories."

    But at the same time the primary school age is a critical time for prejudices to consolidate. "If there is no or only a few contact to members of social out groups, there is no personal experience to be made and generalising negative evaluations stick longer." In this, scientists see an explanation for the particularly strong xenophobia in regions with a very low percentage of foreigners or migrants.

    Moreover the Jena psychologists noticed that social ideas and prejudices are formed differently in children of social minorities. They do not have a negative attitude towards the majority to start with, more often it is even a positive one. The reason is the higher social status of the majority, which is being regarded as a role model. Only later, after having experienced discrimination, they develop prejudices, that then sticks with them much more persistently than with other children. "In this case prevention has to start earlier so it doesn't even get that far," Beelmann is convinced.

    Generally, the psychologist of the Jena University stresses, the results of the new study don't imply that the children's and youths attitudes towards different social groups can't be changed at a later age. But this would then less depend on the individual development and very much more on the social environment like for instance changing social norms in our society. Tolerance on the other hand could be encouraged at any age. The psychologists' "prescription": As many diverse contacts to individuals belonging to different social groups as possible. "People who can identify with many groups will be less inclined to make sweeping generalisations in the evaluation of individuals belonging to different social groups or even to discriminate against them," Prof. Beelmann says.

    EurekAlert. 2012. "Prejudices? Quite normal!". EurekAlert. Posted: January 27, 2012. Available online:

    Original Publication: Raabe T, Beelmann A.: Development of ethnic, racial, and national prejudice in childhood and adolescence: A multinational meta-analysis of age differences. Child Development. 2011; 82(6):1715-37. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01668.x.

    Friday, February 10, 2012

    Human Nature and the Neurobiology of Conflict

    Areas of inquiry once reserved for historians and social scientists are now studied by neuroscientists, and among the most fascinating is cultural conflict.

    Science alone won't provide the answers, but it can offer new insights into how social behavior reflects -- and perhaps even shapes -- basic human biology.

    An upcoming issue of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B features a collection of new studies on the biology of conflict. On the following pages, Wired looks at the findings.

    Research has already shown that, compared to liberals, conservatives display heightened responses to threatening images. Michael Dodd of the University of Nebraska wanted to explore this in finer detail: He showed 46 left- or right-leaning Nebraskans a series of images alternately disgusting (spiders on faces, open wounds) and appealing (smiling children, cute rabbits.) Dodd's team found that conservatives reacted most strongly to negative images, and liberals most strongly to positive photographs.

    Then he showed them pictures of well-known politicians. The same patterns held: Conservatives displayed more distaste than liberals for politicians they disliked, while liberals felt more positive than conservatives about politicians they liked. Given these and other findings, wrote Dodd's team, "those on the political right and those on the political left may simply experience the world differently."

    That sounds pessimistic, but it doesn't have to be. It can be a healthy reminder that people with whom we disagree aren't stupid or irrational; they just have different perspectives.

    Keim, Brandon. 2012. "Human Nature and the Neurobiology of Conflict". Wired. Posted: January 26, 2012. Available online:

    Thursday, February 9, 2012

    Shakespeare's skill 'more in grammar than in words'

    William Shakespeare's mastery of the English language is displayed more in the grammar he used than in his words, according to a researcher at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland.

    Dr Jonathan Hope, a Reader in English in the Faculty of Humanities & Social Sciences, has found that, while Shakespeare may appear to have used and coined more words than his contemporaries, this could be attributed to the fact that more of his writing survives and his rate of word coinage is actually similar to other writers.

    By contrast, he believes that, while Shakespeare's grammar and word ordering have largely fallen into disuse, they are what set him apart and have helped to ensure his continued prominence.

    In a chapter in a new book on the English language, Dr Hope assesses linguistic, grammatical and syntactical features in passages from Shakespeare. He finds that, while these may make some of the writing more difficult for modern audiences to understand, they are among the playwright's most distinctive features.

    Dr Hope said: "Although Shakespeare has had an enormous influence on literature, it's difficult to think of anyone else who has ever written like him.

    "He was writing at a time when the English language's vocabulary was expanding rapidly but, while he had a rich vocabulary himself, it was on a par with other writers from the same time. Originality in language was not necessarily seen as a good thing in Shakespeare's time and he did not always use elaborate words with Latin roots- when he did, he often tended to follow them with an explanation in more straightforward English.

    "However, his grammatical skill shows even more dexterity with language. He wrote during a transitional period for English grammar when there was a range of grammatical options open to writers- much of the grammar he chose now seems old-fashioned but it lends poetry to commonplace words and, significantly, while his spelling is often updated, his grammar is not."

    In the article, Dr Hope compares Shakespeare's rate of word use in relation to plays written with the goalscoring rate of three Newcastle United FC strikers- Malcolm Macdonald, Jackie Milburn and Alan Shearer. He shows that, while Macdonald played significantly fewer games and scored fewer goals (121 in 228 games) than either Milburn (200 goals in 397 games) or Shearer (206 goals in 395 games), the scoring rates of the three players- 0.531, 0.504 and 0.522 goals per game respectively- are broadly the same. Similarly, Shakespeare used more words than his contemporaries but wrote more plays, leading to a word rate close to theirs.

    PhysOrg. 2012. "Shakespeare's skill 'more in grammar than in words'". PhysOrg. Posted: January 30, 2012. Available online:

    Picture: *Very Clean* Funny Pics Available online:!/pages/Very-Clean-Funny-Pics/346950715316184?sk=photos

    Wednesday, February 8, 2012

    Study: Vast majority of EU citizens are marginalized by dominance of English language

    The European Union has 27 member countries and 23 official languages, but its official business is carried out primarily in one language — English. Yet the striking findings of a new study show that barely a third of the EU's 500 million citizens speak English.

    What about the other two-thirds? They are linguistically disenfranchised, say the study's authors.

    For the EU's non-English speakers, their native languages are of limited use in the EU's political, legal, communal and business spheres, conclude economists Shlomo Weber, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and Victor Ginsburgh, Free University of Brussels (ULB), the authors who conducted the study. As a result, people who are disenfranchised have limited access to EU laws, rules, regulations and debates in the governing body — all of which may violate the basic principles of EU society, the researchers say.

    "Language is the proxy for engagement. People identify strongly with their language, which is integral to culture and traditions," Weber says. "Language is so explosive; language is so close to how you feel."

    Weber and Ginsburgh base their findings on a methodology they developed to quantitatively evaluate both costs and benefits of government policies to either expand or reduce diversity. The methodology builds on a body of earlier published research by Weber, Ginsburgh and other economists.

    "Measuring language diversity's impact is an area of growing interest to scholars of economics and other social sciences," Weber says. "With globalization, people feel like they've been left on the side of the road. If your culture, your rights, your past haven't been respected, how can you feel like a full member of society? It is a delicate balance. People must decide if they want to trade their languages to increase by a few percentage points the rate of economic growth."

    Weber and Ginsburgh report their findings and the methodology in their new book, "How Many Languages Do We Need?" (Princeton University Press).

    "History provides many examples of political regimes that have mandated single languages for efficiency or social control reasons, many of which have proved unsustainable in the face of backlash from those disenfranchised linguistically," Weber says.

    At the other end of the spectrum, other countries have permitted, by default or design, linguistic anarchy in which dozens or even hundreds of languages exist — to the detriment of even basic efficiency, he says. "We knew there was a need for a quantitative methodology to evaluate both criteria for languages: efficiency and enfranchisement, which are indispensable for sustainable globalization in our fractionalized world," Weber says.

    Quantitative analysis finds English is the language spoken by largest percentage of EU citizens

    Previous researchers found that 90 percent of the EU's official documents are drafted in English and later translated to other languages, often French and sometimes German. Previous research also has documented frustration among EU officials with the political entity's multitude of languages, as members wonder whether they are being understood.

    Against that backdrop, the Weber-Ginsburgh analysis of the EU used official data from a routinely conducted EU survey of member states carried out in 2005 and later. The data came from answers to questions that included: What is your mother tongue? Which languages are you conversant in? How do you rate your fluency on a scale of very good, good or basic?

    Weber and Ginsburgh found that of all the languages, English embraces the most EU citizens, followed by German second and French third.

    English, German and French fall short

    Yet those languages fall far short of including all people. The economists found that many EU residents are excluded.

    Nearly two-thirds of EU citizens — 63 percent — don't speak or understand English, while 75 percent don't readily speak or understand German, and 80 percent don't speak or understand French.

    "English is spoken almost everywhere around the world," the authors write, "but it is still far from being spoken by almost everyone." At the same time, many non-native speakers of English feel the onslaught of that language's global domination, a phenomenon that wasn't generally foreseen and that evolved only within the last 60 years.

    Weber and Ginsburgh discovered one EU age group — youth ages 15 to 29 — that is less marginalized by English than other groups. Fewer than half those young people — 43 percent — are disenfranchised, the researchers found.

    The economists also introduce the concept of "proximity" — the degree to which languages are similar to one another. People who speak similar languages are less disenfranchised from one another, they say. Similarity is a factor of pronunciation, phonetics, syntax, grammar and vocabulary, although the authors caution that even words that seem alike aren't always related, but instead are merely similar by chance or because languages borrow words.

    Language represents identity and culture

    Among the world's 271 nations, more than 6,900 languages are spoken, Weber and Ginsburgh say.

    The economists say there is no optimal degree of language diversity for a society, but many examples throughout history demonstrate that too much linguistic diversity is expensive, detrimental and often divisive, they say.

    The story of post-colonial Africa, widely referred to as Africa's growth tragedy, offers a painful example of the heavy costs incurred by a multitude of linguistic and ethnic divisions.

    Language and cultural differences frequently have played a role in war, underdevelopment, brutal changes of power, poor administration, corruption and slacking economic growth, say the authors. Linguistic divides also impose friction on trade between countries, as well as influence migratory flows, literary translations or votes cast in various contests.

    For example, in Sri Lanka two linguistic groups fought a bloody civil war for 25 years, killing tens of thousands of people, note Weber and Ginsburgh.

    Designating an official language must weigh costs, benefits

    Can the EU ever mandate an official language that embraces its 500 million citizens? How can Nigeria manage 527 languages spoken by citizens of that country? Or Cameroon, with its 279? How does democracy function in India, where 30 languages thrive among more than 1 billion native speakers?

    About one-third of the world's nations have met these challenges by legislating official language provisions in their constitutions, the authors say. The official language typically applies to official documents, communication between institutions and citizens and debates in official bodies.

    But to scientifically determine an optimal set of core languages, the authors say, nations must weigh the costs of linguistic disenfranchisement against the benefits of standardization.

    "Our analysis offers a formal framework by which to address the merits and costs of the vast number of languages spoken in various countries," said Weber. "We formally measure linguistic similarities and subsequently the linguistic distances between groups who speak various languages."

    The methodology can also measure the impact of other kinds of diversity, whether animal and plant biodiversity or economic classes of people.

    France: An example of linguistic diversity handled well

    Over the course of human history, has any country handled their linguistic diversity well?

    "France," Weber says. "Two hundred years ago, France had a lot of dialects, and only 3 million of its 28 million people spoke French. That's only 10 percent of the people. In a bloodless transition the government imposed French as the official language but allowed dialects to flourish."

    PhysOrg. 2012. "Study: Vast majority of EU citizens are marginalized by dominance of English language". PhysOrg. Posted: January 31, 2012. Available online: