Saturday, March 31, 2012

'World's Oldest Temple' May Have Been Cosmopolitan Center

Ancient blades made of volcanic rock that were discovered at what may be the world's oldest temple suggest that the site in Turkey was the hub of a pilgrimage that attracted a cosmopolitan group of people some 11,000 years ago.

The researchers matched up about 130 of the blades, which would have been used as tools, with their source volcanoes, finding people would have come from far and wide to congregate at the ancient temple site, Göbekli Tepe, in southern Turkey. The blades are made of obsidian, a volcanic glass rich with silica, which forms when lava cools quickly.

The research was presented in February at the 7th International Conference on the Chipped and Ground Stone Industries of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic in Barcelona, Spain.

Jarus, Owen. 2012. "'World's Oldest Temple' May Have Been Cosmopolitan Center
". Live Science. Posted: March 15, 2012. Available online:

Friday, March 30, 2012

Norway tries to reclaim explorer Amundsen's ship Maud

A hearing on Thursday will decide the fate of a ship once captained by Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian explorer first to reach the south pole.

The Maud is partially sunk in Cambridge Bay in Nunavut, northern Canada.

A permit to return the ship to Norway was denied in December and Canadian officials have argued the ship is crucial to the nation's heritage.

Campaigner Jan Wanggaard is spearheading a project to overturn the decision.

Called Maud Returns Home, the project would see the wreck towed back to Norway to become a museum near Oslo.

Amundsen was using the ship to sail through the Northeast Passage between 1918 and 1920 but was unable to launch an expedition to the north pole from there.

The ship was sold to the Hudson's Bay Company and became a warehouse and radio station before sinking in 1930.

Asker Council in Norway bought the ship back for $1 in 1990, securing a permit to repatriate it - but the permit has since expired.

In December, the Canadian Border Services Agency rejected a renewed request to export the wreck.

Mr Wanggaard will appear before the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board in Ottawa on Thursday to overturn that decision.

The board may roundly reject the proposal or impose a delay of up to six months on the decision, during which time it is believed a Canadian buyer may be sought.

BBC News. 2012. "Norway tries to reclaim explorer Amundsen's ship Maud". BBC News. Posted: March 15, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Past in monsoon changes linked to major shifts in Indian civilizations

A fundamental shift in the Indian monsoon has occurred over the last few millennia, from a steady humid monsoon that favored lush vegetation to extended periods of drought, reports a new study led by researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). The study has implications for our understanding of the monsoon's response to climate change.

The Indian peninsula sustains over a billion people, yet it lies at the same latitude as the Sahara Desert. Without a monsoon, most of India would be dry and uninhabitable. The ability to predict the timing and amount of the next year's monsoon is a vital, yet even our knowledge of the monsoon's past variability remains incomplete.

One key to this understanding lies in the core monsoon zone (CMZ) – a region in the central part of India that is a very sensitive indicator of the monsoon throughout the India peninsula.

"If you know what's happening there, you know more or less what's happening in the rest of India," said Camilo Ponton, a student in the MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography and lead author of the study recently published in Geophysical Research Letters, Holocene Aridification of India. "Our biggest problem has been a lack of evidence from this region to extend the short, existing records."

The study was designed by WHOI geologist Liviu Giosan and geochemist Tim Eglinton, now at ETH in Zurich, and makes use of a sediment core collected by the National Gas Hydrate Program of India in 2006. Sailing around India aboard the drilling vessel JOIDES Resolution for several months, Giosan enlisted several colleagues from India and US to help with the project. Extracted from a "sweet spot" in the Bay of Bengal where the Godavari River drains the central Indian peninsula and over which monsoon winds carry most of the precipitation, the core has provided the basis for a 10,000-year reconstruction of climate in the Indian peninsula's CMZ .

"We are fortunate to have this core from close to the river mouth, where it accumulates sediment very fast," said Ponton. "Every centimeter of sediment contains 10 to 20 years' worth of information. So it gives us the advantage of high temporal resolution to address the problems."

When put together, the research tells the story of growing aridity in India, enables valuable insights into the impact of the monsoon on past cultures, and points scientists toward a way to model future monsoons.

To assemble the 10,000-year record, the team looked to both what the land and the ocean could tell them. Contained within the sediment core's layers are microscopic compounds from the trees, grasses, and shrubs that lived in the region and remnants of plankton fossils from the ocean.

"The geochemical analyses of the leaf waxes tell a simple story," said Giosan. "About 10,000 years ago to about 4500 ago, the Godavari River drained mostly terrain that had humidity loving plants. Stepwise changes starting at around 4000 years ago and again after 1700 years ago changed the flora toward aridity-adapted plants. That tells us that central India – the core monsoon zone – became drier."

Over the last 1700 years, analyses of the plankton fossils support the story reconstructed from plant remains and reveal a record of unprecedented spikes and troughs in the Bay of Bengal's salinity – becoming saltier during drought periods and fresher when water from the monsoon filled the river and rained into the Bay. Similar drought periods have been documented in shorter records from tree rings and cave stalagmites within India lending further support to this interpretation.

With a picture emerging of changes in the ancient flora of India, Giosan tapped archaeobotanist Dorian Fuller's interest.

"What the new paleo-climatic information makes clear is that the shift towards more arid conditions around 4000 years ago corresponds to the time when agricultural populations expanded and settled village life began," says Fuller of the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. "Arid-adapted food production is an old cultural tradition in the region, with cultivation of drought-tolerant millets and soil-restoring bean species. There may be lessons to learn here, as these drought-tolerant agricultural traditions have eroded over the past century, with shift towards more water and chemical intensive forms of modern agriculture."

Together, the geological record and the archaeological evidence tell a possible story of the fate of India's earliest civilizations. Cultural changes occurred across the Indian subcontinent as the climate became more arid after ~4,000 years. In the already dry Indus basin, the urban Harappan civilization failed to adapt to even harsher conditions and slowly collapsed. But aridity favored an increase in sophistication in the central and south India where tropical forest decreased in extent and people began to settle and do more agriculture. Human resourcefulness proved again crucial in the rapid proliferation of rain-collecting water tanks across the Indian peninsula, just as the long series of droughts settled in over the last 1700 years.

What can this record tell us about future Indian monsoons? According to Ponton, "How the monsoon will behave in the future is highly controversial. Our research provides clues for modeling and that could help determine whether the monsoon will increase or decrease with global warming."

The study found that the type of monsoon and its droughts are a function of the Northern Hemisphere's incoming solar radiation – or "insolation." Every year, the band of heavy rain known as the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone, or ITCZ, moves north over India.

"We found that when the Asian continent is least heated by the sun, the northward movement of the rain appears to hesitate between the Equator and Asia, bringing less rain to the north," said Giosan. "The fact that long droughts have not occurred over the last 100 years or so, as humans started to heat up the planet, but did occur earlier, suggest that we changed the entire monsoon game, and may have inadvertently made it more stable!"


EurekAlert. 2012. "Past in monsoon changes linked to major shifts in Indian civilizations". EurekAlert. Posted: March 16, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Mystery human fossils put spotlight on China

Youngest of their kind ever found in mainland East Asia

Fossils from two caves in south-west China have revealed a previously unknown Stone Age people and give a rare glimpse of a recent stage of human evolution with startling implications for the early peopling of Asia.

The fossils are of a people with a highly unusual mix of archaic and modern anatomical features and are the youngest of their kind ever found in mainland East Asia.

Dated to just 14,500 to 11,500 years old, these people would have shared the landscape with modern-looking people at a time when China's earliest farming cultures were beginning, says an international team of scientists led by Associate Professor Darren Curnoe, of the University of New South Wales, and Professor Ji Xueping of the Yunnan Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology.

Details of the discovery are published in the journal PLoS One. The team has been cautious about classifying the fossils because of their unusual mosaic of features.

"These new fossils might be of a previously unknown species, one that survived until the very end of the Ice Age around 11,000 years ago," says Professor Curnoe.

"Alternatively, they might represent a very early and previously unknown migration of modern humans out of Africa, a population who may not have contributed genetically to living people."

The remains of at least three individuals were found by Chinese archaeologists at Maludong (or Red Deer Cave), near the city of Mengzi in Yunnan Province during 1989. They remained unstudied until research began in 2008, involving scientists from six Chinese and five Australian institutions.

A Chinese geologist found a fourth partial skeleton in 1979 in a cave near the village of Longlin, in neighbouring Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. It stayed encased in a block of rock until 2009 when the international team removed and reconstructed the fossils.

The skulls and teeth from Maludong and Longlin are very similar to each other and show an unusual mixture of archaic and modern anatomical features, as well as some previously unseen characters.

While Asia today contains more than half of the world's population, scientists still know little about how modern humans evolved there after our ancestors settled Eurasia some 70,000 years ago, notes Professor Curnoe.

The scientists are calling them the "red-deer people" because they hunted extinct red deer and cooked them in the cave at Maludong.

The Asian landmass is vast and scientific attention on human origins has focussed largely on Europe and Africa: research efforts have been hampered by a lack of fossils in Asia and a poor understanding of the age of those already found.

Until now, no fossils younger than 100,000 years old have been found in mainland East Asia resembling any species other than our own (Homo sapiens). This indicated the region had been empty of our evolutionary cousins when the first modern humans appeared. The new discovery suggests this might not have been the case after all and throws the spotlight once more on Asia.

"Because of the geographical diversity caused by the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, south-west China is well known as a biodiversity hotspot and for its great cultural diversity. That diversity extends well back in time" says Professor Ji.

In the last decade, Asia has produced the 17,000-year-old and highly enigmatic Indonesian Homo floresiensis ("The Hobbit") and evidence for modern human interbreeding with the ancient Denisovans from Siberia.

"The discovery of the red-deer people opens the next chapter in the human evolutionary story – the Asian chapter – and it's a story that's just beginning to be told," says Professor Curnoe.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Mystery human fossils put spotlight on China". EurekAlert. Posted: Available online:

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hieroglyphics turn prisoner away from a life of crime

The letter to the editor of a prestigious archaeology magazine came from inmate No. J81961 at Tehachapi State Prison.

Prisoner Timothy Fenstermacher, a high school dropout, wrote to disagree with an article by an archaeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Archaeologist Orly Goldwasser had based her story on the birth of the alphabet in part on the appearance of the rare "Sinai hieroglyph," which she said was used in the Sinai during Egypt's Middle Kingdom.

Fenstermacher thought otherwise. "I believe the rarity of this hieroglyph has been overstated," he wrote to Biblical Archaeology Review.

Drawing on expertise gleaned from books sent to him in prison, improvised flashcard drills and correspondence with scholars, Fenstermacher gave examples of the hieroglyph's appearance outside the Sinai.

The magazine published the letter, just as it has others from prisoner J81961.

"The extent of this guy's self-taught scholarship is mind-boggling," said the review's editor, Hershel Shanks, adding that his staff had grown "quite fond" of Fenstermacher. "I wonder how a man could come from such difficulty and achieve such heights of scholarship."

Many prisoners pass time building up their bodies, studying law or writing bitter letters. Inspired by a chance reading of the Biblical Archaeology Review in a prison waiting room, Fenstermacher focused on learning. He began studying Egyptian history and language and writing letters to scholars.

His knowledge doesn't approach that of archaeologists who have spent years in formal training, but those he writes to say he's special.

"He is a natural for linguistics, working out on his own the mechanics of grammar, etc.," said retired Egyptologist Joyce Bartels of Lombard, Ill. Bartels has sent Fenstermacher books from her library and printouts from the Web and elsewhere, explaining that "Tim is a very likable person."

Goldwasser also stays in touch. She sends him copies of her recent papers and books on Egyptian grammar and other research topics.

Few would have predicted two decades ago that Fenstermacher's life would go this way.

He was a wild young man who was running with the wrong group, say people who know him. His escapades got him in trouble twice, then culminated with his stabbing a man during a fight in the San Diego County community of Lakeside.

In 1996, Fenstermacher, then 24, was sentenced to 16 years for felony assault, a period extended by three years after an altercation with a guard in prison.

The prison confrontation landed him in solitary confinement, where he thrived because he could focus on Egyptology. When time came to return to the general prison population, he sought and won permission to remain in solitary.

Using the cartons from his allotment of morning milk, Fenstermacher would make flashcards, each bearing a single hieroglyph — four a day for a decade. He read the cards while he worked out, forcing himself to get five right before switching exercises.

"Fortunately, I've been blessed with a phenomenal memory," he said. He now has what he calls "a small dictionary in my head."

He asked the couple who once had been his legal guardians, Mary and Richard Dinnen of El Cajon, to buy him a subscription to Biblical Archaeology Review. Mary responded that "I was wasting my time," Fenstermacher said. But they still got him the subscription.

Relatives and friends began buying him books: "The History and Geography of Human Genes," Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs and Steel" and others.

David Sweet, a cousin in Minneapolis, sent him several books. Fenstermacher has no access to a telephone or the Web, so Sweet also prints out and sends scientific articles.

"He has not let the situation defeat him and make him bitter or hopeless or angry," said Sweet, who has traveled to California twice to visit Fenstermacher in prison. "I am very proud of him."

Fenstermacher has also been writing for several years to the Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology at the University of Memphis, where graduate students answer his questions, said department chair Lorelei Corcoran.

The department has heard from other prisoners, "but none for such a length of time, with such consistent inquiries," Corcoran said. She recalls Fenstermacher asking for a copy of the Pyramid Text spells, essentially magic spells, on the west wall of the pyramid of Pepi I's burial chamber.

"He would translate these texts himself and then compare his translations to those of other Egyptologists," she said. "He would then send us his translations. I have to say that they weren't at all bad."

Fenstermacher's path to prison was similar to that of many inmates, said his sister Julia Simonson, who lives in Seattle. The pair's biological father abandoned the family when both children were very young. Their mother remarried, but their stepfather "was physically abusive to mom and verbally and physically abusive to Tim," she said.

When her brother was 4, their mother developed cancer "and couldn't really protect us," Simonson said. "When we lost her, Tim was lost. He never replaced that love."

The mother had arranged for her cousins, the Dinnens, to become her children's guardians upon her death.

Mary Dinnen recalled how Fenstermacher suffered from attention deficit disorder and struggled in school. If he found something that interested him, however, he could focus.

He once took a strong interest in bugs and other critters. "Every day, he was catching frogs, crawdads, spiders, snakes, lizards and frogs," she said. "He knew every fact about every insect."

On Simonson's 15th birthday, the Dinnens sent the children to live with their biological father, a man they didn't know well.

Mary Dinnen regrets that decision. After six months, their father put them out on the street. Fenstermacher became a ward of the court. He was sent to foster homes and continually ran away.

His grandmother ultimately took him in, but she lived in a poor, high-crime neighborhood and he fell in with the wrong crowd, Simonson said.

Fenstermacher had a couple of minor run-ins with the law. Then in 1995, court records in San Diego show, he went to Lindo Lake Park in Lakeside to retaliate against Latinos for an earlier fight. Fenstermacher, who is white, stabbed a Latino in the back, the records show.

The man survived but the attack was considered a hate crime, which pushed Fenstermacher's sentence higher.

Fenstermacher, now 40, said prison life is what finally set him straight. "I had a potential for life in prison," he said.

His turning point came in 2000.

That's when he started reading extensively about the early history of humans — agriculture, animal husbandry, civilization building. He started writing down hieroglyphics and accumulating transliterations, and asked Richard Dinnen to find more material on the Internet.

"It took a year before I could start to understand two rows of hieroglyphics," he said. "I was recognizing words, but I couldn't put together sentences."

As his knowledge grew, he began to explore writings about the language, such as those of early 20th century Egyptologist Sir Ernest A. Wallis Budge. In a letter to a friend, Fenstermacher wrote that he occasionally questioned the master's work. "At times, I disagree with part of his translation, yet I always find that vein of reason to answer 'why' he chose to infer a certain meaning into a text."

Recently, he sent letters to family and friends containing an elegant translation of the 14th century BC "Hymn to Amen and Aten," written originally by Suty and Hor, "overseers of the works at Thebes in the reign of Amenhotep III." The work included his own rendition of the original hieroglyphics and copious notes about how he translated certain phrases.

Fenstermacher can now count his remaining prison time in months instead of years. He is scheduled for release in March 2013, two years early because of good behavior.

He has no firm plans for life after prison, he says, other than: "I'm not coming back. This is done."

He's thought about driving a truck after he gets out. He's thought about writing a book, "perhaps about the biological diversity of the Nile, or paintings from tombs.…"

He's even thought about teaching a class in hieroglyphics.

"I would love to go to school," he said. "I would jump on it in a heartbeat."

Maugh II, Thomas H.2012. "Hieroglyphics turn prisoner away from a life of crime". LA Times. Posted: Available online:,0,553203.story

Monday, March 26, 2012

Indian language is new to science

Researchers have identified a language new to science in a remote region of India.

Known as Koro, it appears to be distinct from other languages in the family to which it belongs; but it is also under threat.

Koro was discovered by a team of linguists on an expedition to Arunachal Pradesh, in north-eastern India.

The team was part of National Geographic's "Enduring Voices" project on threatened indigenous languages.

The researchers were searching for two other little-known languages spoken only in one small area.

As they heard and recorded these, they found a third which was completely new to them and had never before been listed.

"We didn't have to get far on our word list to realise it was extremely different in every possible way," said Dr David Harrison, one of the expedition leaders.

The linguists recorded thousands of words- and found Koro was distinct from other languages in the area.

It belongs to the Tibeto-Burman family, which includes around 150 languages spoken in India. But scientists were unable to find any others closely related to Koro within this group.

It is thought that around half of the world's 6,909 known languages are endangered and Koro itself is vulnerable. It has never been written down and is only spoken by between 800 and 1,200 people.

"We were finding something that was making its exit, was on its way out," said National Geographic Fellow Gregory Anderson.

"And if we had waited 10 years to make the trip, we might not have come across close to the number of speakers we found."

The team will be returning to India next month to continue their research on Koro.

They want to find out more about where it came from and how it was able to remain hidden until now.

Boettcher, Daniel. 2012. "Indian language is new to science". BBC News. Posted: October 5, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Peter Loizos obituary

Peter Loizos obituary

The distinguished anthropologist and documentary film-maker Peter Loizos has died aged 74. Peter established his international reputation with his accessible and deeply moving book The Heart Grown Bitter: A Chronicle of Cypriot War Refugees (1981), which anticipated the personal turn in anthropological writing.

He was born Peter Papaloizou in London. His English mother and Cypriot father separated when he was two. An only child of a single mother, he grew up in England with a Greek surname yet not knowing a word of Greek. Peter won a scholarship to Dulwich College, graduated with a first in English literature from Cambridge University and then simplified his surname to Loizos.

The death of his mother impelled him to seek out his father, whom he had only met on two occasions before adulthood. That encounter precipitated a journey, in 1966, to his father's village of Argaki, where he discovered scores of relatives waiting to meet him, causing him to realise the truth of the Cypriot proverb "Whoever has a tree, has shade."

He returned to Argaki to conduct doctoral field research and was then appointed to a lectureship in anthropology at the London School of Economics, where he spent his entire career. No sooner did Peter publish his first book about Argaki than a war between Turkey and Cyprus led to the partition of the island, making the villagers refugees. His film Sophia and Her People (1985) captured Sophia kneading the dough for her bakery while singing wistfully about the verandah of her lost home.

Peter married Gill Shepherd in 1975 and his involvement in development work increased. They spent six months together in Sudan in 1982, laying the groundwork for the opening of an Oxfam office in Khartoum.

After retiring, Peter was attached to the department of international development at the LSE; the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he taught film; and the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford. He also held a part-time professorship at Intercollege in Nicosia.

He conducted a study of how forced migration affects long-term health, and his last book, Iron in the Soul (2008), was a study of life expectancy. It returned to the theme of his first ethnographic film, Life Chances (1974), which explored the fate of four different strands of his Argaki family before the 1974 war.

Peter is survived by Gill; his children, Helena, Daniel and Hannah; and his granddaughter Margaret.

Stewart, Charles. 2012. "Peter Loizos obituary". The Guardian. Posted: March 20, 2012. Available online:

The Darwin-Wallace Mystery Solved: Darwin Vindicated from Accusations of Deceit

A National University of Singapore. study has traced historical shipping records and vindicated Darwin from accusations of deceit.

For the past four decades, Charles Darwin had been accused of keeping the essay of fellow naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace for a fortnight, thereby enabling him to revise elements of his theory of evolution, before jointly announcing the theory of evolution by natural selection in July 1858. Just recently, two researchers from the National University of Singapore (NUS), supported by a private donation, reconstructed the route taken by Wallace's letter to Darwin from Ternate and provided evidence that Wallace sent the letter a month later than historians had always assumed, thus clearing Darwin of the accusations against him.

Dr John van Wyhe, a historian of science and Senior Lecturer in the Departments of Biological Sciences & History at NUS and his collaborator Dr Kees Rookmaaker, published their study, titled "A new theory to explain the receipt of Wallace's Ternate Essay by Darwin in 1848," in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society in December 2011.

The controversy

Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist who spent eight years in Singapore and South East Asia between 1854 and 1862, discovered evolution by natural selection independently of Charles Darwin. Wallace had a dramatic eureka moment while living on the island of Ternate in the Moluccas (now Indonesia). He wrote up his ideas in an essay which he sent in 1858, to Charles Darwin, for him to pass on to noted geologist Charles Lyell. Darwin's accusers claim that he waited two weeks to do so, lying about the date of receipt to give himself time to revise his own ideas in the light of Wallace's.

Wallace's essay was published together with an essay by Darwin in 1858 and marks the first publication of the theory of evolution which then resulted in one of the greatest revolutions in the history of science.

How the mystery began

In 1972 a researcher found another letter from Wallace to a friend named Bates that was sent on the March 1858 steamer from the island of Ternate in modern Indonesia. The letter still bore postmarks from Singapore and London which showed that it arrived in London on 3 June 1858 -- two weeks before Darwin said he received the essay from Wallace. Thus began the mystery -- how could two letters from Wallace leave Ternate on the same steamer and travel along the same mail route back to London but Darwin received his two weeks later than Bates did? This mystery has led to numerous conspiracy theories. For example, several writers have claimed that Darwin stole ideas from Wallace's essay during the time he kept the letter secret. But most other evidence suggests that Darwin received the letter when he said he did.

So did Darwin receive the letter when he said he did, or not?

"I initially assumed that it was impossible to solve since so many historians had examined it before. But it occurred to me that we really have no contemporary evidence of when Wallace sent the essay to Darwin, only his much later recollection that he sent it by the next post after writing it in February. That suggested that the essay was sent in March 1858. But this recollection from years later seemed to me not very reliable as evidence of what really happened at the time. The other evidence that Darwin received it on 18 June 1858 seemed more likely. All of his correspondence changed dramatically after that date for example. Since that side of the correspondence was all one really had to go on, it occurred to me to trace the letter from Darwin's end, rather than Wallace's," said Dr van Wyhe.

If Darwin really received it on 18 June- how could it get there? It had come to his house in the countryside from London the day before, the 17th.

Dr van Wyhe then found that a steamer arrived in England the day before, the 16th with mail from India and South East Asia. This was surely not a coincidence -- Wallace's letter must have been on that ship. Dr van Wyhe then had to trace back the remainder of the 9,240 miles of the journey from England, through the Mediterranean, across Egypt, to Sri Lanka, Penang, Singapore, Jakarta and so on. His assistant on the Wallace Online project, Dr Kees Rookmaaker, who speaks Dutch, was an invaluable help as he was able to check the ship arrival and departure times in the Dutch newspapers and sources for the Dutch East Indies, while Dr van Wyhe went through the English newspapers. It was an exciting detective story tracing the connections that mail batch took from London to South East Asia.

"Eventually our mail itinerary was completed all the way back to Ternate and we were astonished to find that there was an unbroken series of mail connections to Ternate -- not in March as all other writers before had assumed, but in April 1858! My further research has clarified why Wallace mailed it later than we assumed and many other parts of this famous, but misunderstood chapter in the history of science," added Dr van Wyhe.

"First of all, we now know that Wallace was replying to an early letter from Darwin- and that letter from Darwin arrived in Ternate on the March steamer. We have assembled the first complete collection of all the surviving Wallace correspondence from Ternate and nearby islands. These reveal that he never replied to a letter on the same steamer which delivered it. Apparently the turn over time was too short. Therefore this is an additional reason to doubt that Wallace could have sent the famous letter to Darwin in March as so long assumed," said Dr van Wyhe.

Dr van Wyhe is currently completing a major new book on Wallace in South East Asia which aims to radically revise the traditional story of Wallace and his famous independent discovery of evolution.

Dr van Wyhe is the Director of the research project in Singapore -- Wallace Online, a website which aims to be the definitive and reliable source of Wallace's work. It will contain all of Wallace's books and article, as well as a complete collection of his specimens collected from South-east Asia, and much more, such as a revised itinerary of his whereabouts during these years and his notebooks edited for the first time to modern scholarly standards. The website will be launched in 2013, the centenary of the death of Wallace.

This study was supported by a generous private donation to the Darwin Online-Wallace Online projects.

2012. "The Darwin-Wallace Mystery Solved: Darwin Vindicated from Accusations of Deceit". Science Daily. Posted: March 8, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, March 24, 2012

University of Bristol archaeologists unearth slave burial ground on St. Helena

The tiny island of St Helena, 1,000 miles off the coast of south-west Africa, acted as the landing place for many of the slaves, captured by the Royal Navy during the suppression of the slave trade between 1840 and 1872. During this period a total of around 26,000 freed slaves were brought to the island, most of whom were landed at a depot in Rupert's Bay. The appalling conditions aboard the slave ships meant that many did not survive their journey, whilst Rupert's Valley – arid, shadeless, and always windy – was poorly suited to act as a hospital and refugee camp for such large numbers. At least 5,000 people are likely to have been buried there.

Part of the cemetery was investigated between 2006 and 2008 in advance of a new road that had to pass through Rupert's Valley to provide access to the proposed airport project. Some 325 bodies in a combination of individual, multiple and mass graves were discovered. Only five individuals were buried in coffins: one adolescent and four still- or newborn babies. The remainder had been placed (or thrown) directly into shallow graves, before being hastily covered. In some cases mothers were buried with their presumed children, or sometimes the bodies were so close that there might have been a familial relationship.

Now archaeologists, led by Dr Andrew Pearson of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol, are publishing for the first time the results of their discoveries and the subsequent scientific investigations of the human remains and associated grave goods buried with them.

Osteological analysis shows that 83 per cent of the bodies were those of children, teenagers or young adults – prime material for the slave traders who sought victims with a long potential working life. In most cases the actual cause of death is not clear, but this is unsurprising because the main killers aboard a slave ship (such as dehydration, dysentery and smallpox) leave no pathological trace. Nevertheless, scurvy was widespread on the skeletons; several showed indications of violence and two older children appear to have been shot.

Despite its horrific nature, the archaeology showed those buried within the graveyard as more than simply victims. These were people from a rich culture, with a strong sense of ethnic and personal identity. This is best evidenced by numerous examples of dental modifications, achieved by chipping or carving of the front teeth. A few had also managed to retain items of jewellery (beads and bracelets), despite the physical 'stripping process' that would have taken place after their capture, prior to embarkation on the slave ships.

In addition to the large number of beads, burial conditions allowed for the survival of textiles, including ribbons. A number of metal tags were also found on the bodies that would have identified the slaves by name or number.

Dr Andrew Pearson, director of the project, commented: "Studies of slavery usually deal with unimaginable numbers, work on an impersonal level, and, in so doing, overlook the individual victims. In Rupert's Valley, however, the archaeology brings us (quite literally) face-to-face with the human consequences of the slave trade."

Professor Mark Horton said: "Here we have the victims of the Middle Passage – one of the greatest crimes against humanity – not just as numbers, but as human beings. These remains are certainly some of the most moving that I have ever seen in my archaeological career."

The artefacts from the excavations are currently at the University of Bristol and will be transferred to Liverpool for an exhibition at the International Slavery Museum in 2013 before returning to St Helena. The human remains will shortly be re-interred on St Helena.

EurekAlert. 2012. "University of Bristol archaeologists unearth slave burial ground on St. Helena". EurekAlert. Posted: March 7, 2012. Available online:

Friday, March 23, 2012

All Hail The New King

A new king has been added to the long list of ancient pharaohs, the Egyptian Minister of State for Antiquities, Mohamed Ibrahim, announced this week.

The king's name, Senakht-en-Re, emerged from the engraved remains of a limestone door found by a French-Egyptian team‭ ‬in the Temple of Karnak complex on Luxor’s east bank.

The archaeologists, led by French Egyptologist Christophe Thiers, of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), unearthed a fragmented lintel and an imposing door jamb during routine excavation at the temple of Ptah.

Belonging to an administrative structure dating to the enigmatic 17th Dynasty (about 1634-1543 BC) the limestone remains featured hieroglyphics which indicated that the door was dedicated to Amun-Re.‭

"They also revealed who ordered the construction of this structure. It was the pharaoh Senakht-en-Re," said a CNRS statement.

Mentioned in only three documents written one or two centuries after his reign, ‬Senakht-en-Re is regarded as one of the most obscure kings of the 17th dynasty.

No objects or monuments had ever been found bearing his name, and his tomb has yet to be discovered.

"We knew nothing‭ of this pharaoh - ‬until now. These remains are the first contemporary document of this king ever discovered in Egypt," the CNRS said.

According to the hieroglyphics, Senakht-en-Re had the monumental gateway built from limestone blocks transported from Tora (the modern Helwan, south of Cairo).

At that time, the town was under the rule of the Hyksos. Known as the "rulers of foreign countries" (probably of Asiatic roots), they infiltrated Egypt and came to dominate the Nile valley for over a century during the Second Intermediate Period (1664-1569 B.C.).

They were expelled from Egypt by Kamose, the last king of the 17th dynasty and his brother Amhose, the first king of the 18th dynasty.

According to the Minister of State for Antiquities, the finding is "a groundbreaking discovery" for the history of the 17th dynasty. Indeed, the succession of kings of this dynasty and the lenght of their rule remain uncertain.

Ibrahim told the Egyptian daily Ahram Online that the excavation will continue.

"The Temple of Karnak, which has not yet been fully excavated, no doubt still contains many secrets," he said.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2012. "All Hail The New King". Discovery News. Posted: March 7, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Why Can't Germans Say 'Squirrel'?

"Squrrrrr … skraaaawl … squirruh … SQUOOW!"

As YouTube videos all but prove, Germans have a really hard time pronouncing "squirrel." After nailing the "squ-," chaos ensues.

In an episode of the British TV show "Top Gear," host Jeremy Clarkson jokingly suggested that asking people to pronounce the word would be a surefire way to identify undercover German spies. "No German, no matter how well they speak English, can say 'squirrel,'" Clarkson asserted.

Exceptions to the rule notwithstanding, why is the name of small, bushy tailed rodents so difficult for the Deutsche?

Carlos Gussenhoven, a phonologist — a linguist who studies the sounds used in different languages — at Radboud University in the Netherlands, believes the challenge lies in squirrel's syllable structure.

Linguists break words into clusters — groups of consonants that have no intervening vowels. In German, "-rl" is an end cluster, Gussenhoven explained. It comes at the end of a syllable, as in the common German name Karl, rather than forming a syllable of its own. Thus German speakers try to translate the two-syllable English word "squirrel" into the monosyllabic German sound "skwörl " in the same way that "squirm" becomes "skwörm."

But that doesn't sound quite right, and Germans know it. "Dissatisfied with this result, the German speaker tries to produce a real 'R,' of the sort you get in (Rock 'n) Roll, in the end cluster, wreaking havoc," Gussenhoven told Life's Little Mysteries.

He outlined the steps a German should take to pronounce "squirrel," and boy, does it sound like no fun.

"The solution is to say skwö first and then Roll. If the speaker then also manages to avoid saying (1) sh for [s] and (2) [v] for [w], and uses the vowel in the first syllable of getan [German for 'done'] instead of (3)ö in the first syllable and instead of (4) o in the second syllable, and (5) makes the r like the English r and (6) the l like the 'dark' l of English, the result will be quite acceptable," he wrote in an email.

No wonder it's so difficult for Germans to nail the English name. Gussenhoven said "squirrel" is a shibboleth, a word notorious for the way its pronunciation identifies its speaker as a foreigner.

Jessica Williams, a linguist at the University of Illinois in Chicago who studies second language acquisition, said that, based on YouTube, the issue may not be confined to Germans. "I notice that there are plenty of other videos that say the same thing about Arabic and Farsi speakers," she said.

Go on, then, native English speakers: Say "squirrel" and be proud.


Wolchover, Natalie. 2012. "Why Can't Germans Say 'Squirrel'?" Live Science. Posted: March 8, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The right type of words

New study identifies the QWERTY effect, or how typing shapes the meaning of words

Words spelled with more letters on the right of the keyboard are associated with more positive emotions than words spelled with more letters on the left, according to new research by cognitive scientists Kyle Jasmin of University College London and Daniel Casasanto of The New School for Social Research, New York. Their work shows, for the first time, that there is a link between the meaning of words and the way they are typed - a relationship they call the QWERTY* effect. Their study is published online in Springer's journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.

In the past, language was only spoken and therefore, only subject to the constraints on hearing and speaking. Now that language is frequently produced by the fingers – typing and texting – it is filtered through the keyboard i.e. through QWERTY. As people develop new technologies for producing language, these technologies shape the language they are designed to produce. What Jasmin and Casasanto's work shows is that widespread typing introduces a new mechanism by which changes in the meaning of words can arise.

Some words are spelled with more letters on the right side of the keyboard, others with more letters on the left. In a series of three experiments, the researchers investigated whether differences in the way words are typed correspond to differences in their meanings.

They found that the meanings of words in English, Dutch and Spanish were related to the way people typed them on the QWERTY keyboard. Overall, words with more right-side letters were rated more positive in meaning than words with more left-side letters. This effect was visible in all three languages and was not affected by either word length, letter frequency or handedness.

The QWERTY effect was also found when people judged the meanings of fictitious words like "pleek," and was strongest in new words and abbreviations like "greenwash" and "LOL" coined after the invention of QWERTY.

Why should the positions of the keys matter? The authors suggest that because there are more letters on the left of the keyboard midline than on the right, letters on the right might be easier to type, which could lead to positive feelings. In other words, when people type words composed of more right-side letters, they have more positive feelings, and when they type words composed of more left-side letters, they have more negative feelings.

Linguists have long believed that the meanings of words are independent of their forms, an idea known as the "arbitrariness of the sign." But the QWERTY effect suggests the written forms of words can influence their meanings, challenging this traditional view.

Should parents stick to the positive side of their keyboards when picking baby names – Molly instead of Sara? Jimmy instead of Fred? According to the authors, "People responsible for naming new products, brands, and companies might do well to consider the potential advantages of consulting their keyboards and choosing the 'right' name."


EurekAlert. 2012. "The right type of words". EurekAlert. Posted: March 7, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ancient 'graffiti' unlock the life of the common man

Comprehensive new collection from Tel Aviv University illuminates popular history from Alexander the Great to the rise of Islam

History is often shaped by the stories of kings and religious and military leaders, and much of what we know about the past derives from official sources like military records and governmental decrees. Now an international project is gaining invaluable insights into the history of ancient Israel through the collection and analysis of inscriptions — pieces of common writing that include anything from a single word to a love poem, epitaph, declaration, or question about faith, and everything in between that does not appear in a book or on a coin.

Such writing on the walls — or column, stone, tomb, floor, or mosaic — is essential to a scholar's toolbox, explains Prof. Jonathan Price of Tel Aviv University's Department of Classics. Along with his colleague Prof. Benjamin Isaac, Prof. Hannah Cotton of Hebrew University and Prof. Werner Eck of the University of Cologne, he is a contributing editor to a series of volumes that presents the written remains of the lives of common individuals in Israel, as well as adding important information about provincial administration and religious institutions, during the period between Alexander the Great and the rise of Islam (the fourth century B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E.).

These are the tweets of antiquity.

There has never been such a large-scale effort to recover inscriptions in a multi-lingual publication. Previous collections have been limited to the viewpoints of single cultures, topics, or languages. This innovative series seeks to uncover the whole story of a given site by incorporating inscriptions of every subject, length, and language, publishing them side by side. In antiquity, the part of the world that is now modern Israel was intensely multilingual, multicultural, and highly literate, says Prof. Price, who has presented the project at several conferences, and will present it again this fall in San Francisco and Philadelphia. When the volumes are complete, they will include an analysis of about 12,000 inscriptions in more than ten languages.

History's "scrap paper"

The project represents countless hours spent in museum storerooms, church basements, caves and archaeological sites, says Prof. Price, who notes that all the researchers involved have been dedicated to analyzing inscriptions straight from the physical objects on which they are written whenever possible, instead of drawings, photos or reproductions. The team has already discovered a great amount of material that has never been published before.

Each text is analyzed, translated, and published with commentary by top scholars. Researchers work to overcome the challenges of incomplete inscriptions, often eroded from their "canvas" with time, and sometimes poor use of grammar and spelling, which represent different levels in education and reading and writing capabilities — or simply the informal nature of the text. Scholars thousands of years in the future might face similar difficulties when trying to decipher the language of our own text messages or emails.

Most of these inscriptions, especially the thousands of epitaphs, are written by average people, their names not recorded in any other source. This makes them indispensable for social, cultural, and religious history, suggests Prof. Price. "They give us information about what people believed, the languages they spoke, relationships between families, their occupations — daily life," he says. "We don't have this from any other source."

The first volume, edited by Prof. Price, Prof. Isaac, and others and focusing on Jerusalem up to and through the first century C.E., has already been published. New volumes will be published regularly until the project comes to a close in 2017, resulting in approximately nine volumes.

"I was here"

Graffiti, which comprise a significant amount of the collected inscriptions, are a common phenomenon throughout the ancient world. Famously, the walls of the city of Pompeii were covered with graffiti, including advertisements, poetry, and lewd sketches. In ancient Israel, people also left behind small traces of their lives — although discussion of belief systems, personal appeals to God, and hopes for the future are more prevalent than the sexual innuendo that adorns the walls of Pompeii.

"These are the only remains of real people. Thousands whose voices have disappeared into the oblivion of history," notes Prof. Price. These writings are, and have always been, a way for people to perpetuate their memory and mark their existence.

Of course, our world has its graffiti too. It's not hard to find, from subway doors and bathroom stalls to protected archaeological sites. Although it may be considered bothersome and disrespectful now, "in two thousand years, it'll be interesting to scholars," Prof. Price says with a smile.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Ancient 'graffiti' unlock the life of the common man". EurekAlert. Posted: March 6, 2012. Available online:

Monday, March 19, 2012

Race and Life Expectancy: Winners and Losers

In the United States, whites outlive blacks, but this varies by state, according to new research.

The researchers looked at death certificate data from 1997 through 2004, covering more than 17 million people from all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. The researchers noted race/ethnicity, sex, the age at death and the state where each subject was born, lived and died.

or both men and women, the racial disparity in life expectancy was the smallest in New Mexico (a gap of 3.76 years between white and black men, and 2.45 years for women) and largest for D.C. (13.77 years for men 8.55 years for women).

See where your state fits in below.

States with the Smallest Racial Disparity

The nine states with the smallest gap in the racial disparity in life expectancy for men (<6 years) are New Mexico (disparity 3.76 years), Kentucky (4.37 years), West Virginia (4.42 years), Nevada (4.72 years), Oklahoma (5.10 years), Washington (5.10 years), Colorado (5.23 years), New York (5.32 years), and Arizona (5.60 years). In KY, WV, NV and OK, the racial disparity is small because white men have lower-than-average life expectancy, while black men have life expectancy close to their national average. In contrast, five states with a small disparity (NM, WA, CO, NY, AZ) have both black and white populations with higher-than-average life expectancy, and black men live substantially longer than the national average for blacks. States with the Largest Racial Disparity

The largest gaps in racial life expectancy for men (those larger than eight years) are New Jersey, N.E., Wisc., Mich., Penn., Ill., and D.C. The gap is large because black men live fewer years than expected, whereas white men live longer than expected relative to the national average. The states with the largest racial disparity in life expectancy for women are Ill., R.I., Kan., MI, N.J., Wis., Minn., Ind., Fla., N.E., and D.C.(more than six years).

States with the Largest Black Populations

Because of its large African American population, Florida has the largest impact on national disparity. The national disparity would fall from 7.13 to 6.63 years for men and from 5.20 to 4.74 years for women if Florida had no disparity in life expectancy. Florida has a racial disparity in life expectancy similar to the national average for men (7.42 years) and greater than the national average for women (6.92 years).

Improving conditions in six other states (Calif.,Texas, Ga., N.C., Md., and La.) with large black populations would also have large impacts on the national disparity.

Other states that contribute substantially to the national disparity for both men and women are Ill., Calif., N.Y., Texas, and Ga. Among these states, Illinois has a large gap in racial disparity, where as Calif., Texas, and Ga., had average gaps for men and women.

In contrast, New York has a smaller gap than other states, but elimination of these relatively small disparities would make a comparatively big impact: For men, disparity would change from 7.13 to 6.70 years and women would decrease from 5.20 to 4.91 years.

The study was published in the February 2012 issue of the journal Health Services Research.


Welsh, Jennifer. 2012. "Race and Life Expectancy: Winners and Losers". Live Science. Posted: March 5, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Forget fittest, it's survival of the most cultured

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel enters tricky terrain to argue that social structures are key to human evolution in Wired for Culture

FOR decades, proponents of the power of culture in human development have been tribal enemies of those who champion the power of evolution. The former have been vilified for portraying humans as blank slates; the latter scorned for embracing genetic determinism. The middle ground was no-man's-land.

Now, at last, the war might be over. A consensus is emerging that humans have an impressive capacity for open-ended change, much as culturalists have claimed, but that this is a result of genetic evolution - and is itself an evolutionary process. Culture can now be approached from an evolutionary perspective, while evolutionists have much to learn from the "natural historians" of cultures.

Mark Pagel, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Reading, UK, is well placed to write on these recent developments. In Wired for Culture he frames cultural development in the language of Richard Dawkins's selfish gene theory, in which genes are replicators that build individual bodies as vehicles for their own survival. Dawkins famously coined the term "meme" as the cultural analogue of a gene. Pagel's argument goes one step further.

Memes, he says, have built vehicles around themselves made up of groups of people. We live inside "cultural survival vehicles" that allow us to collectively survive and reproduce in any given environment. Pagel argues that there are thousands of such vehicles, each adapted to different environments, exemplified by humanity's wealth of languages. Genetically we remain a single species, but culturally we are worlds apart, comparable to dinosaurs, birds and mammals.

Wired for Culture explores the implications of the emerging consensus across the breadth of human experience, from religion, the arts and economics, through consciousness, deception, conflict and the very idea of truth.

Pagel writes well, and the ideas within the book are engagingly expressed. But in a book which overcomes the traditional separation between evolutionists and culturalists, Pagel has difficulty surmounting tribal boundaries within his own field.

Evolutionary biologists are divided on the subject of group selection - the view that adaptations can evolve "for the good of the group". Acceptance of group selection in the context of selfish gene theory hinges on the question of whether groups can be vehicles of selection. Dawkins and other selfish gene theorists such as Daniel Dennett are sceptical about this possibility, and their scepticism extends to ideas about culture and religion. Indeed, both have famously argued that religious memes are like parasites that are detrimental to their human "hosts".

Pagel departs from Dawkins and Dennett by portraying cultures as group-level survival vehicles, correctly in my opinion, but seems to think that in employing the language of selfish gene theory he is rejecting group selection. This is a failure of translation. When he makes statements such as: "Any group that failed to acquire these cultural forms could find themselves in competition with others that had", he is invoking group selection, pure and simple.

This is an issue for everyone: books like The Selfish Gene had a huge impact because they brought issues like group selection into the public realm. Much of the work Pagel cites openly acknowledges the role of group selection in the evolution of human society, and to deny its importance is a disservice to public understanding. It is a pity that Pagel, whose speciality is the evolution of languages, cannot seem to translate among the languages spoken within his own discipline.


Wilson, David Sloan. 2012. "Forget fittest, it's survival of the most cultured". New Scientist. Posted: March 5, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Foot bones allow researchers to determine sex of skeletal remains

Law enforcement officials who are tasked with identifying a body based on partial skeletal remains have a new tool at their disposal. A new paper from North Carolina State University researchers details how to determine the biological sex of skeletal remains based solely on measurements of the seven tarsal bones in the feet.

"Tarsals are fairly dense bones, and can be more durable than other bones – such as the pelvis – that are used to determine biological sex," says Dr. Troy Case, an associate professor of anthropology at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the research. "Also, the tarsal bones are often enclosed in shoes, which further protects them from damage. That's particularly useful in a forensic context." The tarsals are the seven bones that make up the ankle, heel and rear part of the arch in a human foot.

Researchers looked at the tarsal bones of 160 men and women of modern European-American descent, taking length, breadth and height measurements for each bone, with the exception of the calcaneus. For the calcaneus, or heel bone, researchers measured only its length.

Previous studies had shown that the talus – or ankle bone – and calcaneus can be fairly good indicators of biological sex. However, little research had been done on the other tarsal bones, which are significantly smaller.

The researchers found that the tarsal bones of the right foot are generally more reliable indicators for determining biological sex. For example, the length of the talus on the right foot correctly determined biological sex 90 percent of the time.

However, a single measurement can be misleading. For example, a woman may be particularly tall, or a man particularly short. So the researchers looked at combinations of measurements from multiple bones, which allow them to measure the relative size of the bones to each other.

For example, researchers found that looking at the height of the talus along with the length of the third cuneiform bone – in the center of the foot – allowed them to determine the biological sex of a skeleton with 93.6 percent accuracy.

While the research has clear forensic science applications, it may also help researchers studying ancient populations. "We evaluated remains of modern European-Americans, so our findings are not directly applicable to ancient populations," Case says. "However, it does tell us which tarsal bones are most indicative of biological sex. So, if you have a large number of skeletons, and some of them can be sexed based on skull or pelvis measurements, you could use the information we've provided on tarsals to create equations for sexing the other skeletal remains in that group based solely on tarsal measurements."

EurekAlert. 2012. "Foot bones allow researchers to determine sex of skeletal remains". EurekAlert. Posted: February 29, 2012. Available online:

Friday, March 16, 2012

Research re-examines role of Maya Women

UCR graduate student's discoveries in the British Museum and on the Yucatan Peninsula prompt reinterpretation of women's roles in pre-colonial Mexico

Contrary to popular belief, women played a central role in Maya society before the arrival of Spanish explorers in the early 16th century, a University of California, Riverside graduate student has discovered. That finding is significant for modern Mayan women, whose status in society rapidly diminished under Spanish colonial rule and remains so today, according to Shankari Patel, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology.

Patel's groundbreaking research, which included extensive fieldwork in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and an examination of previously uncatalogued artifacts in the British Museum, has won her the 2011 Dissertation Award from the American Anthropological Association's American Feminist Association (AFA) and the AAA Minority Dissertation Fellowship. Patel expects to complete her dissertation, "Journey to the East: Pilgrimage, Politics, and Gender at Postclassic Yucatan," and graduate in June.

The AFA described her reinterpretation of the archaeology and history of the Maya as "compelling."

Patel, a native of Hawaii who grew up in Echo Park, Calif., said she became interested in the role of Maya women while touring the Yucatan Peninsula.

"Maya culture has been described by scholars as male-dominated. But I found many towns named for women, and female deities on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula," she explained. "I started asking how women came to be removed from religious institutions and activities, and from the history of the region."

Patel discovered that thousands of religious and other artifacts of Maya society were removed from the region, beginning with Spanish explorers who arrived in 1512, and later by British sailors. More than 2,000 objects from Isla Sacrificios, a small island off the coast of Vera Cruz that she contends was part of a female deity pilgrimage network in use from about 1100 A.D. to 1500 A.D., were delivered to the British Museum in 1844 and remained in crates. Fewer than a dozen of those items had been published or displayed in the museum. "We excavate so much, but not all of it gets analyzed," she said.

After receiving permission from museum administrators and with research funding from UC MEXUS (University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States), Patel began a methodical examination of mountains of crates in a scene she likened to "Raiders of the Lost Ark." She found hundreds of spindle whorls — ceramic disks typically used for spinning and weaving, but in this case used in religious rituals — as well as female icons and figurines used in funerary rituals.

Artifacts at the British Museum and elsewhere in Europe provide evidence of the central role women played in Maya society before colonialization, Patel said, including priestess oracles along the Yucatan Peninsula's east coast.

"Women lost their status and authority with the advent of colonialism," she said. "The Spaniards didn't understand female leaders and they squashed pagan religions. They branded women healers and diviners as witches. They talked about them as improper women who spoke for their men.

"Our society is so patriarchal, and archaeologists often don't realize how that affects the way they look at the past. What we say about the past is important to the people who live there today. It's political how you talk about people in the past. If you say women are subjugated today because they always have been, that's a way of justifying what's happening today. If you can show that was not true, that it happened because of colonialism, there is opportunity for new interpretations of history and for change to occur."

Patel received her bachelor's degree in anthropology and an interdisciplinary master's degree in anthropology, geography and religious studies from California State University, Los Angeles. She said she chose UC Riverside for her Ph.D. studies because of the anthropology department's Maya scholars, who are known internationally for their research.

Thomas C. Patterson, distinguished professor and chair of the UCR Department of Anthropology, said Patel is a skilled archaeologist whose research will contribute to a richer understanding of the position of women in the religious and sociopolitical institutions of Postclassic (900-1500 AD) Maya society.

Her research makes use of ethnohistoric, archaeological, and iconographic information from archaeological sites in eastern Mesoamerica and from Mexican codices, and illustrates linkages between the Mixtec and eastern Maya societies, Patterson said. "It focuses on understanding pilgrimages to oracular shrines that linked the two peoples from the two regions and how these journeys provided elite women with political resources that they wielded in everyday life," he added. "Her investigations will add significant textures to our understanding of Mexican society in late Precolumbian times. The reason for this is her articulation of gender and the participation of women in religious pilgrimages to the oracular shrines of female deities in the region."

EurekAlert. 2012. "Research re-examines role of Maya Women". EurekAlert. Posted: Available online:

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ice Age mariners from Europe were among America's first people

Some of the earliest humans to inhabit America came from Europe according to a new book. Across Atlantic Ice puts forward a compelling case for people from northern Spain travelling to America by boat, following the edge of a sea ice shelf that connected Europe and America during the last Ice Age, 14,000 to 25,000 years ago.

Across Atlantic Ice is the result of more than a decade's research by leading archaeologists Professor Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter (UK) and Dr Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution (USA). Through archaeological evidence, they turn the long-held theory of the origins of New World populations on its head.

For more than 400 years, it has been claimed that people first entered America from Asia, via a land bridge that spanned the Bering Sea. We now know that some people did arrive via this route nearly 15,000 years ago, probably by both land and sea.

Eighty years ago, stone tools long believed to have been left by the first New World inhabitants were discovered in New Mexico and named Clovis. These distinctive Clovis stone tools are now dated around 12,000 years ago leading to the recognition that people preceded Clovis into the Americas.

No Clovis tools have been found in Alaska or Northeast Asia, but are concentrated in the south eastern United States. Groundbreaking discoveries from the east coast of North America are demonstrating that people who are believed to be Clovis ancestors arrived in this area no later than 18,450 years ago and possibly as early as 23,000 years ago, probably in boats from Europe. These early inhabitants made stone tools that differ in significant ways from the earliest stone tools known in Alaska. It now appears that people entering the New World arrived from more than one direction.

In their new book, the authors trace the origins of Clovis culture from the Solutrean people, who occupied northern Spain and France more than 20,000 years ago. They believe that these people went on to populate America's east coast, eventually spreading at least as far as Venezuela in South America.

The link between Clovis and contemporary Native Americans is not yet clear. The authors do not suggest that the people from Europe were the only ancestors of modern Native Americans. They argue that it is evident that early inhabitants also arrived from Asia, into Alaska, populating America's western coast. Their ongoing research suggests that the early history of the continent is far more intriguing than we formerly believed.

Some of the archaeological evidence analysed in the book was recovered from deep in the ocean. When the first people arrived in America, sea levels were nearly 130 metres lower than today. The shore lines of 20,000 years ago, which hold much of the evidence left by these early people, are now under the ocean. This is also the case in Europe.

Professor Bruce Bradley of the University of Exeter said: "We now have really solid evidence that people came from Europe to the New World around 20,000 years ago. Our findings represent a paradigm shift in the way we think about America's early history. We are challenging a very deep-seated belief in how the New World was populated. The story is more intriguing and more complicated than we ever have imagined."

Dr Dennis Stanford of the Smithsonian Institution agrees: "There are more alternatives than we think in archaeology and we need to have imagination and an open mind when we examine evidence to avoid being stuck in orthodoxy. This book is the result of more than a decade's work, but it is just the beginning of our journey."

Across Atlantic Ice is published by University California Press, Berkeley. It will be officially launched at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, on 29 February 2012.

"Across Atlantic Ice is brilliant and ground-breaking. As fascinating as it is controversial, this book brings together decades of research from diverse areas into a single volume that is well argued, factually rich, elegantly written¬—and absolutely riveting. I could not put it down." Douglas Preston, author of Cities of Gold, Thunderhead, and former archaeology correspondent for The New Yorker magazine

"In their well-written and well-reasoned exploration of the first inhabitants of the Americas, Dennis Stanford and Bruce Bradley have provided a viable alternative scenario. I am not a trained professional, but I have been reading the archaeological literature for thirty-five years. Their argument is logical and should be given an open-minded hearing." Jean M. Auel, author of The Land of Painted Caves and The Clan of the Cave Bear

"This carefully crafted, well-researched book aims to change our thinking of who the first Americans were and where they came from. Stanford and Bradley have produced an ambitious, interdisciplinary study of a neglected route of early entry into the Americas that will affect the way the larger narrative of the first chapter of human history in the New World is written." Tom D. Dillehay, author of The Settlement of the Americas: A New Prehistory


EurekAlert. 2012. "Ice Age mariners from Europe were among America's first people". EurekAlert. Posted: February 29, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Understanding the brain on dance

How does the brain perceive and interpret beautiful movement?

This is one of the key questions being asked by scientists at Bangor University who have enlisted the help of a professional dancer in their quest to better understand how our brains process movement and how we learn by observation.

Dr Emily Cross' research focuses on the relatively new field of science called neuroaesthetics which looks at how the brain perceives artistic endeavours.

Contemporary dancer Riley Watts spent a day at the university being poked and prodded by the school's researchers.

First he was filmed dancing in a variety of settings, including a 3D motion-capture studio. He then underwent a functional MRI brain scan while simultaneously watching videos of himself dancing.

Dr Cross hopes the pilot experiment will provide a window into what Mr Watts' brain is doing as he watches the videos of himself dancing.

"The fMRI data we've gathered will hopefully show what the professional dancer actually perceives when he sees himself moving in very complex ways; whether he is happy with that movement or not, and how his brain differentiates between the various different contexts in which we had Riley dancing."

Structural differences in brains

Given Mr Watts' lifelong focus on dance, Dr Cross also thinks the scans of his brain may reveal slight structural variations compared to average people.

This would be similar to London's black cab drivers, whose extensive geographical knowledge actually enlarges the brain's hippocampus, the area where memories are formed.

For Mr Watts, working with scientists for the first time has been a welcome change from his usual artistic endeavours with the Forsythe dance company.

"This collaboration, creating a bridge between dance and science is one of the coolest things that I've ever done," he said.

"I'm thrilled that my skills as a dancer can be put to use in a scientific context to further everyone's understanding of what is actually going on in our brains."

Over the next few months Dr Cross plans to carry out further brain scans of amateur dancers and non-dancers while they watch the video footage she recorded of Mr Watts.

Although this is just the very beginning of her efforts, Dr Cross is optimistic about the future.

"The material Riley and I develop will lead to experiments that advance our understanding of how the brain learns complex movement. In particular, our results will inform how therapists can best teach new motor skills to healthy people as well as those suffering from neurological or physical injury."


BBC News. 2012. "Understanding the brain on dance". BBC News. Posted: February 27, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Cemetery science: Gravestones aplenty, and few dead-ends

Project studies markers to see how elements such as acid rain weather rocks worldwide

To a geologist, a gravestone can offer information other rocks can't. One project is using gravestones to better understand how the elements, particularly acid rain, are weathering rocks around the world, and how that's changed over time.

"It is a great place for us to collect scientific data because gravestones have got dates on them, it is not that we have a morbid fascination," said Gary Lewis, director of education and outreach for the Geological Society of America, which is in charge of the Gravestone Project.

That date of death gives a good estimate of when the stone went into the ground above the grave and began to face elements.

The wear and tear on the stone that follows can be caused by freezing and thawing temperatures, lawn care machinery and rain made acidic by pollutants it has picked up in its course through the atmosphere.

"What we are trying to do is not just look at damage by acid rain, but we are trying to see how acid rain has changed over time," Lewis said.

The Gravestone Project recruits volunteers around the world to head into cemeteries where they use calipers to measure the width of a stone at five points along its sides and at its top. If a stone has lead letters on it, volunteers measure how much the stone has worn away from the lettering. Volunteers are asked to do this work respectfully.

Lewis and colleague Deirdre Dragovich of the University of Sydney have begun working through two years' worth of data collected so far, and they are still looking for more.

With the data they have so far, the researchers are looking at weathering rates over time and at potential links with atmospheric changes. Specifically, Lewis is interested in seeing if periods of increased rain in particular areas accelerated weathering rates, and if the arrival of the Industrial Revolution — and the increase in pollution that accompanied it — are reflected in increased gravestone weathering, and how the weathering rate has changed since the Industrial Revolution.

So far, they've seen that cemeteries in big cities seem to be weathering most rapidly, he said. This isn't a surprise since more acid rain-causing pollutants, particularly sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, are released over urban areas.

Laura Guertin, an associate professor of earth science at Pennsylvania State University, already frequented the Cumberland Cemetery across the street from the Brandywine campus with her introductory geosciences students, when she began participating in the project in 2011.

At that cemetery and another in central Pennsylvania, Boalsburg Cemetery, she and her students have undertaken a wide range of projections, including comparing weathering rates of different types of stones (nearly all are granite or marble), and gleaning information about the history of the local community, such as how long people lived.

"At first they are a little creeped out," Guertin said. "I tell them, 'Don't worry, I will bring you all back with me.'"

Her students found a weathering pattern they didn't expect in certain areas within Cumberland Cemetery, where they found stones with the most wear on the sides of the top of the stone, rather than at the middle point.

"This is something I want my students to look into," she said.

Parry, Wynne. 2012. "Cemetery science: Gravestones aplenty, and few dead-ends". MSNBC. Posted: February 27, 2012. Available online:

Monday, March 12, 2012

They’re, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrrve

From Valley Girls to the Kardashians, young women have long been mocked for the way they talk.

Whether it be uptalk (pronouncing statements as if they were questions? Like this?), creating slang words like “bitchin’ ” and “ridic,” or the incessant use of “like” as a conversation filler, vocal trends associated with young women are often seen as markers of immaturity or even stupidity.


But linguists — many of whom once promoted theories consistent with that attitude — now say such thinking is outmoded. Girls and women in their teens and 20s deserve credit for pioneering vocal trends and popular slang, they say, adding that young women use these embellishments in much more sophisticated ways than people tend to realize.

“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute,” said Penny Eckert, a professor of linguistics at Stanford University. “But they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.”

The latest linguistic curiosity to emerge from the petri dish of girl culture gained a burst of public recognition in December, when researchers from Long Island University published a paper about it in The Journal of Voice. Working with what they acknowledged was a very small sample — recorded speech from 34 women ages 18 to 25 — the professors said they had found evidence of a new trend among female college students: a guttural fluttering of the vocal cords they called “vocal fry.”

A classic example of vocal fry, best described as a raspy or croaking sound injected (usually) at the end of a sentence, can be heard when Mae West says, “Why don’t you come up sometime and see me,” or, more recently on television, when Maya Rudolph mimics Maya Angelou on “Saturday Night Live.”

Not surprisingly, gadflies in cyberspace were quick to pounce on the study — or, more specifically, on the girls and women who are frying their words. “Are they trying to sound like Kesha or Britney Spears?” teased The Huffington Post, naming two pop stars who employ vocal fry while singing, although the study made no mention of them. “Very interesteeeaaaaaaaaang,” said, mocking the lazy, drawn-out affect.

Do not scoff, says Nassima Abdelli-Beruh, a speech scientist at Long Island University and an author of the study. “They use this as a tool to convey something,” she said. “You quickly realize that for them, it is as a cue.”

Other linguists not involved in the research also cautioned against forming negative judgments.

“If women do something like uptalk or vocal fry, it’s immediately interpreted as insecure, emotional or even stupid,” said Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont, Calif. “The truth is this: Young women take linguistic features and use them as power tools for building relationships.”

The idea that young women serve as incubators of vocal trends for the culture at large has longstanding roots in linguistics. As Paris is to fashion, the thinking goes, so are young women to linguistic innovation.

“It’s generally pretty well known that if you identify a sound change in progress, then young people will be leading old people,” said Mark Liberman, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, “and women tend to be maybe half a generation ahead of males on average.”

Less clear is why. Some linguists suggest that women are more sensitive to social interactions and hence more likely to adopt subtle vocal cues. Others say women use language to assert their power in a culture that, at least in days gone by, asked them to be sedate and decorous. Another theory is that young women are simply given more leeway by society to speak flamboyantly.

But the idea that vocal fads initiated by young women eventually make their way into the general vernacular is well established. Witness, for example, the spread of uptalk, or “high-rising terminal.”

Starting in America with the Valley Girls of the 1980s (after immigrating from Australia, evidently), uptalk became common among young women across the country by the 1990s.

In the past 20 years, uptalk has traveled “up the age range and across the gender boundary,” said David Crystal, a longtime professor of linguistics who teaches at Bangor University in Wales. “I’ve heard grandfathers and grandmothers use it,” he said. “I occasionally use it myself.”

Even an American president has been known to uptalk. “George W. Bush used to do it from time to time,” said Dr. Liberman, “and nobody ever said, ‘Oh, that G.W.B. is so insecure, just like a young girl.’ ”

The same can be said for the word “like,” when used in a grammatically superfluous way or to add cadence to a sentence. (Because, like, people tend to talk this way when impersonating, like, teenage girls?) But in 2011, Dr. Liberman conducted an analysis of nearly 12,000 phone conversations recorded in 2003, and found that while young people tended to use “like” more often than older people, men used it more frequently than women.

And, actually? The use of “like” in a sentence, “apparently without meaning or syntactic function, but possibly as emphasis,” has made its way into the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition — this newspaper’s reference Bible — where the example given is: “It’s, like, hot.” Anyone who has seen a television show featuring the Kardashian sisters will be more than familiar with this usage.

“Like” and uptalk often go hand in hand. Several studies have shown that uptalk can be used for any number of purposes, even to dominate a listener. In 1991, Cynthia McLemore, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania, found that senior members of a Texas sorority used uptalk to make junior members feel obligated to carry out new tasks. (“We have a rush event this Thursday? And everyone needs to be there?”)

Dr. Eckert of Stanford recalled a study by one of her students, a woman who worked at a Jamba Juice and tracked instances of uptalking customers. She found that by far the most common uptalkers were fathers of young women. For them, it was “a way of showing themselves to be friendly and not asserting power in the situation,” she said.

Vocal fry, also known as creaky voice, has a long history with English speakers. Dr. Crystal, the British linguist, cited it as far back as 1964 as a way for British men to denote their superior social standing. In the United States, it has seemingly been gaining popularity among women since at least 2003, when Dr. Fought, the Pitzer College linguist, detected it among the female speakers of a Chicano dialect in California.

A 2005 study by Barry Pennock-Speck, a linguist at the University of Valencia in Spain, noted that actresses like Gwyneth Paltrow and Reese Witherspoon used creaky voice when portraying contemporary American characters (Ms. Paltrow used it in the movie “Shallow Hal,” Ms. Witherspoon in “Legally Blonde”), but not British ones in period films (Ms. Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love,” Ms. Witherspoon in “The Importance of Being Earnest”).

So what does the use of vocal fry denote? Like uptalk, women use it for a variety of purposes. Ikuko Patricia Yuasa, a lecturer in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, called it a natural result of women’s lowering their voices to sound more authoritative.

It can also be used to communicate disinterest, something teenage girls are notoriously fond of doing.

“It’s a mode of vibration that happens when the vocal cords are relatively lax, when sublevel pressure is low,” said Dr. Liberman. “So maybe some people use it when they’re relaxed and even bored, not especially aroused or invested in what they’re saying.”

But “language changes very fast,” said Dr. Eckert of Stanford, and most people — particularly adults — who try to divine the meaning of new forms used by young women are “almost sure to get it wrong.”

“What may sound excessively ‘girly’ to me may sound smart, authoritative and strong to my students,” she said.

Quencha, Douglas. 2012. "They’re, Like, Way Ahead of the Linguistic Currrrve". New York Times. Posted: February 27, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, March 11, 2012

In the genes, but which ones?

Earlier studies that linked specific genes to intelligence were largely wrong, Harvard researchers find

For decades, scientists have understood that there is a genetic component to intelligence, but a new Harvard study has found both that most of the genes thought to be linked to intelligence are probably not in fact related to it, and identifying intelligence's specific genetic roots may still be a long way off.

Led by David I. Laibson '88, the Robert I. Goldman Professor of Economics, and Christopher F. Chabris '88, PhD '99, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Union College, a team of researchers examined a dozen genes using large data sets that included both intelligence testing and genetic data. As reported in a forthcoming article in the journal Psychological Science, they found that, in nearly every case, the hypothesized genetic pathway failed to replicate. In other words, intelligence could not be linked to the specific genes that were tested.

"It is only in the past 10 or 15 years that we have had the technology for people to do studies that involved picking a particular genetic variant and investigating whether people who score higher on intelligence tests tend to have that genetic variant," said Chabris. "In all of our tests we only found one gene that appeared to be associated with intelligence, and it was a very small effect. This does not mean intelligence does not have a genetic component, it means it's a lot harder to find the particular genes, or the particular genetic variants, that influence the differences in intelligence."

To get at the question of how genes influence intelligence, however, researchers first needed data, and plenty of it.

Though it had long been understood, based on studies of twins, that intelligence was a heritable trait, it wasn't until relatively recently that the technology emerged to allow scientists to directly probe DNA in a search for genes that affected intelligence.

The problem, Chabris said, was that early technology for assaying genes was wildly expensive, meaning that such studies were typically limited to, at most, several hundred subjects, who would take IQ tests and provide DNA samples for testing.

As part of their study, Chabris and colleagues relied on several pre-existing data sets – a massive study of Wisconsin high school graduates that began in the 1950s, the Framingham Heart Study, and an ongoing survey of all twins born in Sweden – to expand that subject pool from a few hundred to many thousands.

"What we want to emphasize is that we are not saying the people who did earlier research in this area were foolish or wrong," Chabris said. "They were using the best technology they had available. At the time it was believed that individual genes would have a much larger effect – they were expecting to find genes that might each account for several IQ points."

To identify genes that might play a role in intelligence, previous researchers used the "candidate gene approach," which required identifying a gene that was already linked with a known biological function – such as Alzheimer's disease or the production of a specific neurotransmitter. If people who scored high on intelligence tests shared a particular variant of that gene, it was believed, that demonstrated the gene's role in intelligence.

"These were reasonable hypotheses," said study co-author Daniel J. Benjamin '99, PhD '06, Assistant Professor of Economics at Cornell University. "But in retrospect, either the findings were false positives or the effects of the genes are much, much smaller than anyone had anticipated."

Chabris, however, emphasized that the results don't point to the idea that the dozen genes examined in the study play no role in intelligence, but rather suggest that intelligence may be tied to many genes, and the ways in which they interact.

"As is the case with other traits, like height, there are probably thousands of genes and their variants that are associated with intelligence," he said. "And there may be other genetic effects beyond the single gene effects – there could be interactions between genes, there could be interactions between genes and the environment. What our results show is that the way researchers have been looking for genes that may be related to intelligence – the candidate gene method – is fairly likely to result in false positives, so other methods should be used."


EurekAlert. 2012. "In the genes, but which ones?". EurekAlert. Posted: February 24, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Stunning Art of Ancient Calendars

You must absolutely go to the this website to see the collection of stunning pictures. I don't want to replicate them all here. The text below is taken from the website, but is more tied into the pictures there.

Egyptian & Mayan-Aztec Calendars: Incredibly Sophisticated Earliest Works of Art

We are continuing our historical art overview (see for example, our "Mysterious Non-Egyptian Pyramids"), this time going all the way back to the beginning of the recorded history. Around 5,000 BC first calendars made their appearance, and set the standard by which we measure our months and days today.

Regardless of what you think about Mayan Calendar concerning 2012, you have to admit their representation of time flow was simply stunning:

Time Out of Time

One of our readers writes "I have a little replica, it's fantastic. Every year has a "no time" period - days "outside the calendar", to freely celebrate life." Well, actually, there are in total five "Nameless Days" (more info) at the end of every Mayan solar year - so called Wayeb' "Time Out of Time", a period for transition and preparation for the next year. Beside the obvious "free time" aspect, these days were considered sacred and quite mysterious "Days of Awe":

"During Wayeb, portals between the mortal realm and the Underworld dissolved. No boundaries prevented the ill-intending deities from causing disasters." For those interested, in 2012 the Wayeb period falls on March 28 - April 1 (source).

Ancient Egyptian Astronomical Calendar: Into the Wide Blue Yonder

The calendar system itself is one of the oldest, dated around 5,000 BC. This is also a truly spectacular presentation, full of pictoglyphs on paper made from the papyrus plant:

2012. "Stunning Art of Ancient Calendars ". Dark Roasted Blend. Posted: February 26, 2012. Available online:

Friday, March 9, 2012

Ancient Arabic writings help scientists piece together past climate

Iraqi sources from 9th and 10th centuries give new meteorological insights

Ancient manuscripts written by Arabic scholars can provide valuable meteorological information to help modern scientists reconstruct the climate of the past, a new study has revealed. The research, published in Weather, analyses the writings of scholars, historians and diarists in Iraq during the Islamic Golden Age between 816-1009 AD for evidence of abnormal weather patterns.

Reconstructing climates from the past provides historical comparison to modern weather events and valuable context for climate change. In the natural world trees, ice cores and coral provide evidence of past weather, but from human sources scientists are limited by the historical information available. Until now researchers have relied on official records detailing weather patterns including air force reports during WW2 and 18th century ship's logs.

Now a team of Spanish scientists from the Universidad de Extremadura have turned to Arabic documentary sources from the 9th and 10th centuries (3rd and 4th in the Islamic calendar). The sources, from historians and political commentators of the era, focus on the social and religious events of the time, but do refer to abnormal weather events.

"Climate information recovered from these ancient sources mainly refers to extreme events which impacted wider society such as droughts and floods," said lead author Dr Fernando Domínguez-Castro. "However, they also document conditions which were rarely experienced in ancient Baghdad such as hailstorms, the freezing of rivers or even cases of snow."

Baghdad was a centre for trade, commerce and science in the ancient Islamic world. In 891 AD Berber geographer al-Ya'qubi wrote that the city had no rival in the world, with hot summers and cold winters, climatic conditions which favored strong agriculture.

While Baghdad was a cultural and scientific hub many ancient documents have been lost to a history of invasions and civil strife. However, from the surviving works of writers including al-Tabari (913 AD), Ibn al-Athir (1233 AD) and al-Suyuti (1505 AD) some meteorological information can be rescued.

When collated and analysed the manuscripts revealed an increase of cold events in the first half of the 10th century. This included a significant drop of temperatures during July 920 AD and three separate recordings of snowfall in 908, 944 and 1007. In comparison the only record of snow in modern Baghdad was in 2008, a unique experience in the living memories of Iraqis.

"These signs of a sudden cold period confirm suggestions of a temperature drop during the tenth century, immediately before the Medieval Warm Period," said Domínguez-Castro. "We believe the drop in July 920 AD may have been linked to a great volcanic eruption but more work would be necessary to confirm this idea."

The team believes the sources show Iraq to have experienced a greater frequency of significant climate events and severe cold weather than today. While this study focused on Iraq it demonstrates the wider potential for reconstructing the climate from an era before meteorological instruments and formal records.

"Ancient Arabic documentary sources are a very useful tool for finding eye witness descriptions which support the theories made by climate models," said Domínguez-Castro. "The ability to reconstruct past climates provides us with useful historical context for understanding our own climate. We hope this potential will encourage Arabic historians and climatologists to work together to increase the climate data rescued from across the Islamic world."


EurekAlert. 2012. "Ancient Arabic writings help scientists piece together past climate". EurekAlert. Posted: Available online: