Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Cracking the code: the decipherment of Linear B 60 years on

A conference in Cambridge, southeast England, will mark the 60th anniversary of the decipherment by Michael Ventris of Linear B, a script used for an early form of ancient Greek. His stunning achievement pushed back the frontiers of knowledge about the ancient world.

When during the early 20th century archaeologists excavated some of the most famous sites of Ancient Greece – notably Knossos on the island of Crete and Mycenae and Pylos on the mainland – they found large numbers of clay tablets inscribed with a type of script that baffled them.

It was significantly different to any other script known at the time. Moreover, it was immediately clear that there were at least two variants of this type of writing.

These scripts – characterised by about 90 different characters, and on the clay tablets interspersed with signs for numerals as well as the depiction of every-day objects and commodities such as pots, cloth and grain – acquired the name ‘Linear’. Linear because they were more abstract and characterised by a more linear style than the earlier hieroglyphic type of writing, also found on Crete.

The two variants were given the names Linear A and B. It was clear that Linear A was the earlier type, much rarer and restricted to the island of Crete. The younger type B was found in significantly larger numbers and found at Knossos, Mycenae and Pylos. Since the original excavations evidence for the same type of writing has come to light at other places, including Thebes and Tiryns on the Greek mainland and Chania on Crete.

Brilliant minds

Today scholars are gathering at Cambridge University for a conference marking the extraordinary story of the decipherment of Linear B, a narrative that brings together some of the 20th century’s most brilliant minds in the fields of not only classical archaeology but also specialist areas ranging from philology and epigraphy to experts on Greek religion and economy.  While celebrating what is often seen as the greatest advances in classical scholarship in the last 100 years, the scholars taking part are also looking at the challenges that remain in piecing together the story of the Mycenaean world, a civilisation known for its stunning art and complex and highly developed economy.

Discovery at Knossos

In the wake of some of the most famous excavations in history, the classicists who put their minds to the tantalising puzzle of deciphering Linear B included the best-known names in the field. After the German scholar Heinrich Schliemann had excavated Troy (or a site compatible with Homer’s famous city) and Mycenae and thereby opened the door to Greek archaeology of the second millennium BC, the British archaeologist Arthur Evans discovered these inscribed tablets in large numbers at Knossos in the year 1900. Evans and other scholars knew that the tablets held the key to a fuller understanding of the Mycenaean civilisation. But deciphering what was inscribed on them seemed an impossible task, given that both the script and the language behind it were unknown.

Unlocking the secrets

After many unsuccessful attempts by would-be decipherers from all over the world, it was a brilliant British amateur called Michael Ventris who was to prove pivotal in the unlocking of the secrets of Linear B.  Ventris was an extraordinary scholar, largely self-taught, with a phenomenal talent for languages. His first encounter with the script occurred when as a schoolboy he was shown some of the clay tablets found at Knossos by Arthur Evans.

This chance meeting prompted a fascination that lasted right up until Ventris’s tragic death in a car crash in 1956. He set himself the task of working out the nature of the writing system and deciphering it. He worked largely alone on making sense of the script but circulated all his thoughts to the greatest scholars in the field in a series of “Work Notes on Minoan Language Research” while pursuing a career as an architect.  Then, on 1 June 1952, he sent around his Work Note 20 entitled, with typical modesty, “Are the Knossos and Pylos tablets written in Greek?”. Building on earlier work, notably by the American scholar Alice Kober, he had – through a combination of sober considerations, the development of a rigorous methodology, the ingenious integration of clues of very different kinds, brilliant assumptions and patient experimentation – single-handedly deciphered the script.

A difficult and archaic Greek

Much against his own original assumptions, Ventris was able to show, ever more clearly over the months that ensued, that the language behind the script was Greek – in his own words “a difficult and archaic Greek, but Greek nevertheless”. Lacking the necessary background in Greek philology and linguistics, in July 1952 he turned to John Chadwick, a newly-appointed lecturer in classics at the University of Cambridge, for professional support. Chadwick was an outstanding classical scholar who had worked on code-cracking in the Second World War. He helped to develop Ventris’s original decipherment and was able to elucidate the historical linguistic background and provided many interpretations of individual tablets.

In this way, Cambridge soon became established as one of the world’s leading centres for Mycenaean studies and Dr Chadwick continued to work on Linear B right up to his death in 1998.

“The decipherment of Linear B opened up, and indeed created, a whole new branch of scholarship. It added about 500 years to our knowledge of Greek, catapulting our understanding of early Greek history and society back into the second millennium BC, to the end of the Bronze Age at about 1200BC,” said Dr Torsten Meissner, organiser of today’s conference. “Suddenly the places of the figures of Greek mythology – like the legendary King Minos of Knossos or Homeric heroes like Nestor, king of Pylos, or Agamemnon, king of Mycenae – could be placed in a real setting through the clay tablets that record their administrative and political organisation.”

Many parts of the jigsaw that is the Mycenaean world are still missing – for example the relationships of the various sites with one another. However, the ways in which Ventris and Chadwick worked across disciplines and specialisms laid the foundations for scholarship that is seeing the pieces come together, one by one.

Past Horizons. 2012. “Cracking the code: the decipherment of Linear B 60 years on”. Past Horizons. Posted: October 15, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Language is shaped by brain's desire for clarity and ease

Cognitive scientists have good news for linguistic purists terrified about the corruption of their mother tongue.

Using an artificial language in a carefully controlled laboratory experiment, a team from the University of Rochester and Georgetown University has found that many changes to language are simply the brain's way of ensuring that communication is as precise and concise as possible.

"Our research shows that humans choose to reshape language when the structure is either overly redundant or confusing," says T. Florian Jaeger, the Wilmot Assistant Professor of the Sciences at Rochester and co-author of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Oct. 15. "This study suggests that we prefer languages that on average convey information efficiently, striking a balance between effort and clarity."

The brain's tendency toward efficient communication may also be an underlying reason that many human languages are structurally similar, says lead author Maryia Fedzechkina, a doctoral candidate at Rochester. Over and over, linguists have identified nearly identical grammatical conventions in seemingly unrelated languages scattered throughout the globe. For decades, linguists have debated the meaning of such similarities: are recurrent structures artifacts of distant common origins, are they simply random accidents, or do they reflect fundamental aspects of human cognition?

This study supports the latter, says co-author Elissa L. Newport, professor of neurology and director of the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery at Georgetown, and the former George Eastman Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at Rochester. "The bias language learners have toward efficiency and clarity acts as a filter as languages are transmitted from one generation of learners to another," she says. Alterations to language are introduced through many avenues, including the influence of other languages and changes in accents or pronunciation. "But this research finds that learners shift the language in ways that make it better – easier to use and more suitable for communication," says Newport. That process also leads to the recurrent patterns across languages.

To observe the language acquisition process, the team created two miniature artificial languages that use suffixes on nouns to indicate subject or object. These "case markers" are common to Spanish, Russian, and other languages, but not English. In two experiments, 40 undergraduates, whose only language was English, learned the eight verbs, 15 nouns, and grammatical structure of the artificial languages. The training was spaced over four 45-minute sessions and consisted of computer images, short animated clips, and audio recordings. Then participants were asked to describe a novel action clip using their newly learned language.

When faced with sentence constructions that could be confusing or ambiguous, the language learners in both experiments chose to alter the rules of the language they were taught in order to make their meaning clearer. They used case markers more often when the meaning of the subject and object might otherwise have caused unintended interpretations. So for example, a sentence like "Man hits wall," is typical because the subject is a person and the object is a thing. But the sentence "Wall hits man," as when a wall falls on top of a man, is atypical and confusing since the subject is a thing and the object is a person.

The results, write the authors, provide evidence that humans seek a balance between clarity and ease. Participants could have chosen to be maximally clear by always providing the case markers. Alternatively, they could have chosen to be maximally succinct by never providing the case markers. They did neither. Instead, they provided case-markers more often for those sentences that would otherwise have been more likely to be confused.

The findings also support the idea that language learners introduce common patterns, also known as linguistic universals, conclude the authors. The optional case marking that participants introduced in this experiment closely mirrors naturally occurring patterns in Japanese and Korean—when animate objects and inanimate subjects are more likely to receive case markings.

The history of English itself might reflect these deep principles of how we learn language, says Jaeger. Old English had cases and relatively free word order, as is still true for German. But at some point pronunciation changes began to obscure the case endings, creating ambiguity. In contemporary English, word order has become the primary signal by which speakers could decode the meaning, he says.

"Language acquisition can repair changes in languages to insure they don't undermine communication," says Fedzechkina. In light of these findings, new generations can perhaps be seen as renewing language, rather than corrupting it, she adds.

By the same token, says Jaeger, many elements of informal speech can be interpreted as rising from the brain's bias toward efficiency. "When people turn 'automobile' into 'auto,' use informal contractions, swallow syllables, or take other linguistic shortcuts, the same principles are at work," he says. Recent research has shown that these types of shortcuts appear only when their meaning is easily inferable from the context, he adds.

EurekAlert. 2012. “Language is shaped by brain's desire for clarity and ease”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 15, 2012. Available online:

Monday, October 29, 2012

The Assyrian city of Tushhan: a race against time

The ancient mound at Ziyaret Tepe in Diyarbakir province of southeastern Turkey, comprises two distinct areas: a high citadel and an extensive lower town. Since 1997 an international team of archaeologists have been excavating a site that was occupied nearly continuously for 2400 years from the Early Bronze Age (c. 3000 BCE).

Over most of this time Ziyaret Tepe was a modest village situated on the fertile Tigris floodplain. However, Professor Timothy Matney of the University of Akron, (the project director) in collaboration with Professor McGinnis of  the University of Cambridge discovered that during the Middle Iron Age (c. 882 – 610BCE) Ziyaret Tepe acted as an important urban centre situated on the northern periphery of the Assyrian Empire  and was known as the city of Tushhan.

Mapping a city

The citadel mound rises over 22 metres above the surrounding modern agricultural fields and covers an area of some 3 hectares. The lower town is larger and covers an area of 29 hectares surrounded by a fortification wall.

The site’s location on the Tigris river means that it is now threatened with destruction by the rising flood-waters of the Ilisu dam and the team has been working hard to save as much of this heritage before it disappears.

“One of the goals of the Ziyaret Tepe project was to map as much of the ancient city as possible” Matney explains, “in fact, I selected the site precisely because the large lower town appeared to have only a single period of occupation.”

Matney had previously worked on an Early Bronze Age city site (Titris Hoyuk) and managed to create a map using geophysical survey techniques. Following this success he wanted to further extend the survey work to look at Iron Age sites. At Ziyaret Tepe, he used a combination of two shallow subsurface geophysical technologies – electrical resistivity and magnetic field gradiometry – to map the major architectural elements of the lower town.

Magnetic gradiometry has been carried out over the entire lower town, while electrical resistivity which is much slower and more difficult to use provided coverage in areas where gradiometry was particularly successful.

Mud-brick walls tend to retain moisture better than the surrounding soil, so they appear as linear low-resistance features.

To overcome the problem of topsoil which has no moisture whatsoever, the team had to add water in order to overcome the issue of contact resistance. This meant each probe hole was pre-drilled, filled with water, and allowed to soak for a few minutes before the  mobile resistance metre could be used. This herculean effort was required to collect good data.

The project team combined these technologies with selected large-scale excavation and a few smaller soundings. The result was a full record for the route of the fortification wall which enclosed the entire city. The wall contained small projecting towers at regular intervals and two large gateways, one of which has now been excavated.

“We recovered the location of two major public buildings: an elite residence and an administrative structure, possibly a treasury linked to the temple of Ishtar,” Matney stated, “and across the lower town, we have documented about a dozen large buildings and a street system which may have been connected with private houses. ”

Excavation of an Assyrian palace

On the citadel mound, geophysical survey was unsuccessful and they relied upon two large areas of excavation. On the eastern edge of the high mound was situated a palace containing extensive material remains from the Assyrian period including five cremation burials in the courtyard. Elsewhere, a number of rooms of a large Assyrian building were investigated, however, they were poorly preserved and of uncertain function.

The finds to date have been impressive, with the discovery of the palace, temple complex and monumental fortifications. They have also included an archive of ancient Assyrian cuneiform tablets dating to the very end of the Assyrian empire – between the sack of Nineveh in 612 BC and the final collapse of the empire. One special text elicited worldwide interest as it suggested the existence of a language previously unknown.

Other finds from 2012 include a burial under the earlier of two floors of a large building. The individual found here has been tentatively identified as a tallish 40-50 year old male with very robust bones. Curiously, his body was extended lying face down with his grave goods placed underneath him – highly unusual for an Assyrian burial. The finds included two ceramic vessels – one in each hand – containing dozens of beads, a bronze fibula and a frit cylinder seal. He was wearing a white stone pendant and what appears to be an iron pendant or possibly a blade or tool around his neck and a bronze ornament was found near his right elbow.

The grave contained quite a few stone beads, including a banded black and white stone, as well as carnelian – perhaps decoration for his clothing. Also found loose in the grave was a stone pendant and a second cylinder seal with bronze caps.

Mosaic pavement reveals a surprise

A mosaic pavement that was first discovered in 2004 provided another surprise during the 2012 season. An unusual feature of flat stones inserted into the mosaic of black and white pebbles was seen as another potential grave, given that Assyrian burials are often found beneath the floors of buildings. The stones were carefully lifted and the excavation continued down until the archaeologists found not a grave but another mosaic floor surface – representing an earlier phase of the Late Assyrian building.

The above image shows the lower pavement beneath the cobbled surface. So, while there was no grave, the team learned that this part of the building did have a substantial earlier occupational phase. This important discovery has led them to open up a further area of the same building to see if more evidence of the earlier phase can be found.

Governing an empire

The Assyrians founded three major settlements on the Tigris in order to protect their northern frontier and to aid in the transshipment of materials from the Taurus region and elsewhere in the empire.

Although the region provided an important source of timber, stone, copper and tin ore, the geography of the Taurus mountains is such that the Assyrian army was unable to control the region militarily for any length of time.

Out of the three Assyrian cities that are known only two have been investigated to date – Tushhan (Ziyaret Tepe) and Tidu (Uctepe). The third one, Sinabu (Pornak), still remains untouched and Uctepe although excavated by a Turkish team a few decades ago, produced no city plan as only the citadel was investigated.

In addition to the major urban centres, the area south of the Tigris river (which runs east-west at this location) had numerous small settlements, several of which have now been excavated such as Kavusan Tepe and Hakeme Use. These smaller settlements were agricultural production areas which clearly fed into the network of places shipping supplies to Ziyaret Tepe and the other large urban centres.

In terms of administration, there is considerable documentation in the form of a cuneiform archive which records the dispersements and collecting of grain.   Ziyaret Tepe is located in prime agricultural land and, from the archive as well as the excavations in the temple treasury it is known that the Assyrians were producing vast quantities of grain necessary for imperial activities.

Included in the many recovered artefacts are a number that were used in accounting including a one talent duck weight and clay tokens as well as the accounts themselves, carefully recorded on clay tablets.

It is written that the king came to Ziyaret Tepe on at least one occasion and there was a strong military garrison at the site. This is evidenced by the fortification walls and gates and the substantial number of artefacts such as spears, knives, arrowheads and armour.

A network of spies

The Assyrians maintained a network of spies to keep track of events occurring north of the river and occasional raids into the hills were designed to secure interests.

Texts from elsewhere tell of large populations of deportees being moved into this region to serve as labourers for the state. The recently published tablet from this site (in an unknown language), listed the names of women and may represent the administration of one of these deported populations.

Time running out

Now though for Ziyaret Tepe time is running out. 2013 will be the last season on- site and Professor Matney will need to decide what are the most important areas to survey and excavate.

These decisions will be critical if the team is to collect the maximum information possible before Ziyaret Tepe finally disappears under the flood waters of the dam.

Past Horizons. 2012. “The Assyrian city of Tushhan: a race against time”. Past Horizons. Posted: October 13, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Rare obsidian mirrors found in the ancient settlement of Çatalhöyük

Excavations at Çatalhöyük unearth funerary gift mirrors, a very rare finding in the ancient settlement. A technique called georadar is being used in the excavations and suggests the city was an egalitarian society

Two rare funerary gift mirrors have been discovered in a tomb in the ancient settlement of Çatalhöyük in the Central Anatolian province of Konya, where a new “georadar” technique is being used.

The settlement, which has been undergoing excavations for 50 years, is considered the first city established in the Near East. The assistant director of the Çatalhöyük excavations, Serap Özdöl of Aegean University, said that when many societies in the world had not adopted settled life, 8,000 people in Çatalhöyük had established themselves in “urban life.”

Özdöl said the very rare funerary gift mirrors, made of obsidian, a volcanic rock, were the most important artifacts unearthed this year.

Georadar results

Another significant development, she added, was a special technique called “georadar,” which the excavation team used to take a rough x-ray of ruins up to four meters beneath the surface.

“The results of the georadar revealed that the architecture in the areas that have not yet been excavated does not differ greatly from the structures we have already excavated.”

The egalitarian social structure of the ancient settlement is very interesting for the hundreds of scientists working in the area.“ This is the most exciting and mysterious aspect of the settlement for us.”

She said that in Çatalhöyük, artifacts suggesting hierarchical order or a governing class, typical features of ancient cities, had not been found. “The most persistent question about Çatalhöyük is how the people managed to live in peace and equality for 1,400 years.”

She said the georadar results supported this premise. “Even though there are some small differences in wall shape and motifs, all the houses are almost the same. We have not seen a structure owned by a governor or a privileged group of people. We have also not seen any traces of a special field where people held ceremonies or of brutal mass killings. The findings so far show us that the people here lived in peace and harmony. Now the most important thing that we are curious about is how they managed it.”

“Every year 15,000 to 16,000 people visit Çatalhöyük. This year, now that it has been included on UNESCO’s list of World Cultural Heritage, we expect the number of visitors will increase fourfold or fivefold.” She said the listing would attract a specific type of visitor that tours World Cultural Heritage sites.

Özdül said excavation work had been carried out under an archaeology professor from Stanford University, Ian Hodder, for 20 years and would continue for more five years. The team had focused more on preparing publications about the settlement than actual excavations for two years, she said. Özdöl said artifacts unearthed at Çatalhöyük were always sent to labs abroad for detailed analysis, adding that they had signed an agreement with Middle East Technical University for restoration and conservation.

Hurriyet Daily News. 2012. “Rare obsidian mirrors found in the ancient settlement of Çatalhöyük”. The Hurriyet Daily News. Posted: October 21, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Kennewick Man from coast, anthropologist says

Kennewick Man apparently was just a visitor to the area of present-day Kennewick, the latest results of the study of his skeleton indicate.

Douglas Owsley, a Smithsonian Institute anthropologist, gave an update of scientific findings Wednesday at Archaeology Days at Grant County Public Utility District in Beverly. He led the court battle to study the 9,300-year-old skeleton found along the Columbia River in 1996.

An isotopic analysis of Kennewick Man's bones shows he most likely was eating a coastal diet based on marine proteins, such as seals, Owsley said.

"It's very confusing and very unexpected," he said.

The study determined a nitrogen isotope value for his bones, which would be low if he were eating animals that grazed, but high if he were eating a diet of meat higher up the food chain.

Grazers such as deer and elk "were just not in his world," Owsley said.

If Kennewick Man had been eating large quantities of salmon, he still would not have had the nitrogen isotopes detected, Owsley said. Neither would small marine life, such as clams, give such a high reading, he said.

Other isotopic results also contributed to indications of a coastal home for Kennewick Man.

The carbon isotopes detected are a signal that he had a marine-based diet. And oxygen isotopes, which usually are tied to the water a person drinks, are not what would be expected from drinking Columbia River water, Owsley said.

Results are being compiled from studies that began with about two weeks of inspections and testing by more than a dozen scientists in 2005 and 2006 at the University of Washington's Burke Museum in Seattle.

A court battle that lasted almost a decade, progressing to the U.S. 9th District Court of Appeals, cleared the way for the studies when the court agreed the bones could not be considered culturally affiliated with modern Northwest tribes.

The tribes disagree, maintaining that their ancestors, including Kennewick Man, were the original inhabitants of North America. They believe they should have possession of the remains.

Owsley and other scientists say they believe Kennewick Man is related to a different people than Native Americans, finding his skull features more similar to the ancient coastal people of Asia. He has similarities to Polynesians, indicating not that he is Polynesian, but that they share ancestors, he said.

"I have extremely high regard for the remains," he said. "We can learn from the skeleton who he was and what his life was like."

Full ancient skeletons, rather than bone fragments, are rare, he said.

"He was a really tough guy," standing about 5-foot-7 or -8 inches tall and weighing about 160 pounds, Owsley said.

His skeleton showed a fractured, but healed, skull and broken ribs, that also had healed but not perfectly. He likely had to continue moving to find food, rather than resting while the ribs were healing, he said.

A projectile point in his hip could have been an injury suffered at the same time his ribs were broken in a crushing blow to the chest, but there's no way to know, Owsley said. The hip had healed around the bone before his death.

Scientists don't know how he died, finding nothing worse in his skeleton at the time of his death than indications of an abscessed tooth.

Kennewick Man was strong, so strong that the bone in his right arm was curved, and he likely was an accomplished atlatl, or spear thrower, Owsley said. He had a right shoulder injury seen in people who throw javelins, he said. The force of throwing had left a piece of bone floating in the joint.

That would have been a big problem for a right-handed hunter, he said.

His teeth had so much wear that initially there was some thought that he might be 50 years old. But further studies have shown marks on his teeth consistent with contaminants, such as fine silt, that wore them down.

Owsley believes Kennewick Man's age may be about 39 or 40, given the near absence of arthritis, although more testing would be needed to confirm that, he said.

Scientists continue to believe he was buried near where his bones were found on the Columbia River in Kennewick.

In fact, they are certain he was buried face up with his chin tucked down and his hands at his sides with the palms down based on where calcium carbonate deposits were found on his bones.

High water the summer of 1996 apparently undercut the bank of the Columbia River, and his bones washed out of the soil, possibly just a week before they were found during Water Follies. Another high-water period could have washed his bones away, Owsley said.

What initially were thought to be animal marks on the bones, Owsley believes were pocking from debris in the water hitting them. His left side, which would have had more wave action, is not as well preserved as the right, Owsley said.

Owsley has just released a book co-written by Sally Walker called Their Skeletons Speak -- Kennewick Man and the Paleoamerican World. It's intended to provide research findings for a general audience or students of about high school level.

He continues to edit an in-depth scientific book with chapters written by different scientists called Kennewick Man: Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton that is expected to be published in about 14 months.

He's continuing to work for more access to Kennewick Man, pressing the Army Corps of Engineers to allow scientists to conduct a nondestructive X-ray test on the projectile point embedded in the hip. The test could determine what it is made of, an indication of where it was made and where Kennewick Man might have been when he was injured.

More studies also are needed to determine how long Kennewick Man lived, and taking a small sample of a tooth could yield information about where he grew up, Owsley said.

Cary, Annette. 2012. “Kennewick Man from coast, anthropologist says”. The Bellingham Herald. Posted: October 11, 2012. Available online:

Friday, October 26, 2012

'Uncanny Valley' Unease May Start in Infancy

Something "uncanny" seems familiar yet alien at the same time, often stirring a feeling of fear or revulsion. For example, we tend to feel creeped out around lifelike robots and animatronics that fall in the "uncanny valley," the divide between the fully human and the not-exactly-human. New research suggests this type of reaction might start in infancy.

Scientists in Japan studied how 57 babies reacted to pictures of faces. The infants were shown real photographs — either of the child's mother or a complete stranger — and natural-looking morphed images that combined either the mother's face and a stranger's face or two strangers' faces.

In previous studies, researchers showed that infants tend to stare at pictures of both mothers and strangers for about the same amount of time, but measures of their neural responses suggest they process the two faces differently.

"Infants like both familiarity and novelty in objects," Yoshi-Taka Matsuda of Tokyo's Riken Brain Science Institute said in a statement. "We wondered how their preference might change when they encountered objects that are intermediate between familiarity and novelty."

Using an eye-tracking system, the researchers found the infants looked at the photos of their mothers longer than the "half-mother" hybrid faces. This effect strengthened with the infant's age, the team said. There was no significant difference in the infants' preference between the real and morphed photos of strangers.

Matsuda said it is possible that the infants felt disinterest looking at an uncanny "half-mother" picture, because the face was not totally new, like a stranger's, and did not rouse the affection associated with a mother's face.

"However, most adults also reported uneasiness related to morphed faces of their mothers, so we interpreted that infants might be having the same reaction," Matsuda explained.

In their study, published in the journal Biology Letters, the researchers said their findings show that there is another type of the uncanny valley between the face of the mother and the face of a stranger for infants, and this phenomenon appears during development. The team plans to repeat the experiments with fathers' faces.

Gannon, Megan. 2012. “'Uncanny Valley' Unease May Start in Infancy”. Live Science. Posted: October 12, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, October 25, 2012

DNA's half-life identified using fossil bones

We are used to radioactive substances having a half-life, but DNA? Now a study of bones from extinct birds suggests the double helix too has a measurable half-life – and that we have underestimated its ability to survive in the fossil record.

"DNA degrades at a certain rate, and it therefore makes sense to talk about a half-life," says Morten Allentoft at Copenhagen University, Denmark, who together with Mike Bunce at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, and colleagues, extracted DNA from the leg bones of 158 extinct flightless birds called moas.

Part of the reason a DNA half-life has been so elusive is that it is hard to find a large enough cache of samples that have been exposed to similar conditions. The moa bones were all between 600 and 8000 years old, and came from a 5-kilometre-wide area of New Zealand's South Island, key factors for helping identify a regular pattern of decay.

With an estimated burial temperature of 13 ºC, the DNA's half-life was 521 years – almost 400 times longer than expected from lab experiments at similar temperatures, says Allentoft.

Half-life of 158,000 years

The oldest DNA to date belongs to insects and plants and was found in 450,000 to 800,000-year-old ice. Under subzero conditions, Allentoft and Bunce estimate that DNA's half-life can be up to 158,000 years, meaning the last remnants would disappear around the 6.8-million-year mark. Allentoft does say that is an optimistic assessment, and doesn't imply that samples of DNA large enough to measure could be extracted from such old bones.

Eva-Maria Geigl at the Jacques Monod institute in Paris, France, is still to be convinced by the half-life claims, which she says rest on statistically weak evidence. She points out, for example, that the correlation relies heavily on the moa bones older than 6000 years – when fewer than 10 of the 158 bones are this ancient.

"Old fossils are rare and hence there will be less data in this part of the analysis," says Bunce. "There is nothing we can do about it other than present what we have at hand – and clearly, the signal is present. The correlation is highly significant."

If DNA decays in a predictable way, can we calculate the chances of finding it at key sites? Ever since the Indonesian island of Flores yielded remains of the "hobbit", Homo floresiensis in 2004, speculation has been rife that some specimens might contain DNA that would help pin down its position in the human family tree. This notion has been spurred by evidence that the hobbits may have survived until as recently as 18,000 years ago.

Unfortunately, Bunce thinks the new calculations will be difficult to apply to specific sites. "A host of other factors come into play," he says, including the season the organism died. In fact, although the moa bones in the analysis had been buried in a similar environment, the age of the specimens could account for only about 40 per cent of the variation in DNA preservation – in other words, the half-life signal is noisy.

Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, South Australia, agrees. "The rotting process after death is very seasonal and context dependent, and has a major impact on DNA survival."

Cooper has attempted to extract DNA from Homo floresiensis remains, but is beginning to think that none will ever be found. He says that recent unpublished dating estimates indicate that "the hobbit material may be considerably older than currently suggested".

Barras, Colin. 2012. “DNA's half-life identified using fossil bones”. New Scientist. Posted: October 10, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Applying information theory to linguistics

Researchers believe that information theory -- the discipline that gave us digital communication -- can explain differences between human languages

The majority of languages — roughly 85 percent of them — can be sorted into two categories: those, like English, in which the basic sentence form is subject-verb-object ("the girl kicks the ball"), and those, like Japanese, in which the basic sentence form is subject-object-verb ("the girl the ball kicks").

The reason for the difference has remained somewhat mysterious, but researchers from MIT's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences now believe that they can account for it using concepts borrowed from information theory, the discipline, invented almost singlehandedly by longtime MIT professor Claude Shannon, that led to the digital revolution in communications. The researchers will present their hypothesis in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Shannon was largely concerned with faithful communication in the presence of "noise" — any external influence that can corrupt a message on its way from sender to receiver. Ted Gibson, a professor of cognitive sciences at MIT and corresponding author on the new paper, argues that human speech is an example of what Shannon called a "noisy channel."

"If I'm getting an idea across to you, there's noise in what I'm saying," Gibson says. "I may not say what I mean — I pick up the wrong word, or whatever. Even if I say something right, you may hear the wrong thing. And then there's ambient stuff in between on the signal, which can screw us up. It's a real problem." In their paper, the MIT researchers argue that languages develop the word order rules they do in order to minimize the risk of miscommunication across a noisy channel.

Gibson is joined on the paper by Rebecca Saxe, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience; Steven Piantadosi, a postdoc at the University of Rochester who did his doctoral work with Gibson; Leon Bergen, a graduate student in Gibson's group; research affiliate Eunice Lim; and Kimberly Brink, who graduated from MIT in 2010.

Mixed signals

The researchers' hypothesis was born of an attempt to explain the peculiar results of an experiment reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2008; Brink reproduced the experiment as a class project for a course taught by Saxe. In the experiment, native English speakers were shown crude digital animations of simple events and asked to describe them using only gestures. Oddly, when presented with events in which a human acts on an inanimate object, such as a girl kicking a ball, volunteers usually attempted to convey the object of the sentence before trying to convey the verb — even though, in English, verbs generally precede objects. With events in which a human acts on another human, such as a girl kicking a boy, however, the volunteers would generally mime the verb before the object.

"It's not subtle at all," Gibson says. "It's about 70 percent each way, so it's a shift of about 40 percent."

The tendency even of speakers of a subject-verb-object (SVO) language like English to gesture subject-object-verb (SOV), Gibson says, may be an example of an innate human preference for linguistically recapitulating old information before introducing new information. The "old before new" theory — which, according to the University of Pennsylvania linguist Ellen Price, is also known as the given-new, known-new, and presupposition-focus theory — has a rich history in the linguistic literature, dating back to at least the work of the German philosopher Hermann Paul, in 1880.

Imagine, for instance, the circumstances in which someone would actually say, in ordinary conversation, "the girl kicked the ball." Chances are, the speaker would already have introduced both the girl and the ball — say, in telling a story about a soccer game. The sole new piece of information would be the fact of the kick.

Assuming a natural preference for the SOV word order, then — at least in cases where the verb is the new piece of information — why would the volunteers in the PNAS experiments mime SVO when both the subject and the object were people? The MIT researchers' explanation is that the SVO ordering has a better chance of preserving information if the communications channel is noisy.

Suppose that the sentence is "the girl kicked the boy," and that one of the nouns in the sentence — either the subject or the object — will be lost in transmission. If the word order is SOV, then the listener will receive one of two messages: either "the girl kicked" or "the boy kicked." If the word order is SVO, however, the two possible messages on the receiving end are "the girl kicked" and "kicked the boy": More information will have made it through the noisy channel.

Down to cases

That is the MIT researchers' explanation for the experimental findings reported in the 2008 PNAS paper. But how about the differences in word order across languages? A preliminary investigation, Gibson says, suggests that there is a very strong correlation between word order and the strength of a language's "case markings." Case marking means that words change depending on their syntactic function: In English, for instance, the pronoun "she" changes to "her" if the kicker becomes the kicked. But case marking is rare in English, and English is an SVO language. Japanese, a strongly case-marked language, is SOV. That is, in Japanese, there are other cues as to which noun is subject and which is object, so Japanese speakers can default to their natural preference for old before new.

Gibson adds that, in fact, some languages have case markings only for animate objects — an observation that accords particularly well with the MIT researchers' theory.

In order to make their information-theoretical model of word order more rigorous, Gibson says, he and his colleagues need to better characterize the "noise characteristics" of spoken conversation — what types of errors typically arise, and how frequent they are. That's the topic of ongoing experiments, in which the researchers gauge people's interpretations of sentences in which words have been deleted or inserted.

EurekAlert. 2012. “Applying information theory to linguistics”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 10, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Zombies: The Real Story of the Undead

From "World War Z" to "The Walking Dead" to "Shaun of the Dead" to "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" and countless brain-dead rip-offs, zombies — re-animated corpses with an unstoppable craving for human flesh, especially brains — have invaded pop culture like never before. For staggering, slow-moving monsters, zombies have become quite a force in the entertainment industry over the past decade.

Though George Romero's 1968 film "Night of the Living Dead" is often considered to be the original modern zombie film, the first actually appeared nearly 40 years earlier in "White Zombie," starring Béla Lugosi as an evil voodoo priest in Haiti who zombifies a beautiful young woman. In the years since, only a handful of zombie films have returned to their Haitian origins — most notably "The Serpent and the Rainbow."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "zombie" first appeared in English around 1810 when historian Robert Southey mentioned it in his book "History of Brazil." But this "Zombi" was not the familiar brain-eating manlike monstrosity but instead a West African deity. The word later came to suggest the vital, human force leaving the shell of a body, and ultimately a creature human in form but lacking the self-awareness, intelligence, and a soul. It was imported to Haiti and elsewhere from Africa through the slave trade.

Voodoo or science?

Everyone knows the fictional zombies, but fewer know the facts about zombies. To many people, both in Haiti and elsewhere, zombies are very real. They are not a joke; they are something to be taken seriously. Belief in magic and witchcraft is widespread throughout Haiti and the Caribbean, often in the form of religions such as voodoo and santeria.

Haitian zombies were said to be people brought back from the dead (and sometimes controlled) through magical means by voodoo priests called bokors or houngan. Sometimes the zombification was done as punishment (striking fear in those who believed that they could be abused even after death), but often the zombies were said to have been used as slave labor on farms and sugarcane plantations. In 1980, one mentally ill man even claimed to have been held captive as a zombie worker for two decades, though he could not lead investigators to where he had worked, and his story was never verified.

For decades Westerners considered zombies little more than fictional movie monsters, but that assumption was questioned in the 1980s when a scientist named Wade Davis claimed to have found a powder that could create zombies, thus providing a scientific basis for zombie stories. Davis didn't believe in voodoo magic. But he did believe that he had found something that could poison victims into a zombie-like state: a powerful neurotoxin called tetrodotoxin, which can be found in several animals including pufferfish. He claimed to have infiltrated secret societies of bokors and obtained several samples of the zombie-making powder, which were later chemically analyzed.

Davis wrote a book on the topic, "The Serpent and the Rainbow," which was later made into a horror film. For a while Davis was widely touted as the man who had scientifically solved the mystery of zombies. However Davis's claims were later challenged by skeptical scientists who regarded his methods as unscientific, pointing out that the samples of the zombie powder he provided were inconsistent, and that the amounts of neurotoxin contained in those samples were not high enough to create zombies. Furthermore, the dosages used by the bokors would need to be exact, since too much of the toxin could easily kill a person. Others pointed out nobody had ever found any of the many supposed plantations filled with zombie laborers on the small island country.

In a second book, "Passage of Darkness: The Ethnobiology of the Haitian Zombie," Davis acknowledged problems with his theories and refuted some of the more sensational claims attributed to him. Still, he insisted, the Haitian belief in zombies could be based on the (admittedly rare) cases where a person was poisoned by tetrodotoxin and later revived inside the coffin and taken from the grave. Furthermore, he added, there was much more to the zombie phenomenon than simply the powder; it was only one part of a deep-rooted sociocultural belief in the power of witchcraft. In Haitian culture, voodoo priests do much more than create zombies; they are said to bring both blessings and curses through magic.

Thus the stories of the real-life Haitian zombies arose like a corpse from the grave, and eventually fell like a zombie shot in the head. Though zombies remain a myth in real life, there are more than enough of the fictional ones to satisfy the gorehounds and zombie fans for ages to come.

Radford, Benjamin. 2012. “Zombies: The Real Story of the Undead”. Live Science. Posted: October 10, 2012. Available online:

Monday, October 22, 2012

How Vikings navigated the world

With no access to modern navigation instruments, Vikings relied on birds, whales, celestial bodies, chants and rhymes to navigate the seas and discover new land.

Today it seems like a bit of a mystery how our savage forefathers managed to navigate their way across the Atlantic centuries before Columbus discovered America.

Maybe it’s because they weren’t as dumb as some of us think. They understood how to link their travel stories and sensory impressions with observations of wind, weather, wildlife and solar time. This enabled them to figure out which way to go.

Experience helped Vikings understand nature

In order to understand the Vikings’ way of travelling, we need to rid ourselves of our current conception of nature and navigation:

“Back then, there were of course no compasses, echo sounders, satellite navigation or radio communication,” says Anton Englert, a PhD in archaeology who researches into Viking Age seafaring at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark.

“The Vikings had an understanding of nature, since they lived in the wild. But their observations didn’t lead to any scientific data that they could use to construct precision tools.”

They knew of the concepts of east, west, south and north. But to them, navigation was more based on where on the horizon the sun rose and how high it was during the day, rather than Earth’s magnetism, which underlies the modern compass.

Vikings used landmarks and mental charts

The sun, the moon and the stars provided the Vikings with a decent understanding of which direction to travel.

But in fog and cloudy weather these celestial bodies are not visible, and on long stretches, a deviation of only a few degrees from the planned route can mean that you end up completely missing your intended destination.

For this reason, the Vikings also kept an eye on objects on land when they sailed along the coasts. A rock with a particular shape, for instance, or a hilltop, could provide some clues to where they were.

Chants and rhymes showed the way

Since there were neither nautical charts nor any written descriptions back then, the Vikings’ travelogues consisted of narratives and rhymes.

An example of these travelogues can be found the medieval Norse manuscript ’Hauksbók’:

"From Hernam [present-day Hennø near Bergen] in Norway, head due west towards Hvarf in Greenland, and you will have sailed north of Hjaltland [the Shetland Islands}, so that you just glimpse it in clear weather, but south of the Faroe Islands, so that the sea [the horizon] is right in between the distant mountains, and thus also south of Iceland.”

In other words: they sailed from Hennø in Norway, heading due west towards Greenland, between Shetland and the Faroes and south of Iceland.

Birds and whales served as navigation marks

When out sailing, the Vikings used wildlife as landmarks. Birds were particularly helpful, since some birds only flew a certain distance away from land.

If for instance they had long since passed the Faroes and saw a particular terrestrial bird, this could be a sign that they were near Iceland.

Whales usually stay close to currents where fish can be found. The Vikings knew where whales typically resided, and this knowledge helped them figure out where they were in relation to e.g. Iceland.

Vikings navigated with their senses

A common hypothesis in research circles is that Vikings used their senses to navigate. In addition to the obvious one – sight – they also made use of:

  • Hearing: The Vikings could hear how close they were to land when it was too foggy to see. They kept an ear out for the screeching of birds and the sound of waves breaking on the shore.
  • Touch: The sense of touch in our faces can be used to register changes in the speed and direction of the wind. This sensation can reveal differences between wind swells from various directions. And since nearby coasts can reflect swells back, a seasoned Viking could extract a lot of information just from a sea breeze.

    Taste: One of the few navigation instruments the Vikings had at their disposal was a plumb bob, which they used for assessing the depth of the water. The plumb bob also collected a tiny sample of the seabed, which the men could then taste and touch. An experienced sailor could link the taste to other characteristics. It’s likely that the Vikings have been able to determine, using only their taste buds, if fresh water flowed from land into the sea water.

  • Smell: A seasoned mariner can smell whether or not he’s close to land. In humid conditions, the human nose is capable of detecting trees, plants and fire some distance from land.

    Weather: an aid and an obstacle

    Being the great seafarers that they were, the Vikings were probably great at observing weather patterns – for instance how a low pressure passed on a particular route. This helped them determine which direction to go.

    Englert mentions an example of this:

    “Your sails are filled with southern wind and rain, so that you’re sailing with the wind abeam from the board side towards the west. Your experience tells you that the rainy wind usually flows clockwise. To maintain the course on the high seas, the Vikings could then gradually trim the sails to keep them from luffing in periods when the sky was cloudy and neither the sun nor the stars were visible.”

    Courage and poor soil lured Vikings across the Atlantic

    Morten Ravn, who researches into Viking ships at Copenhagen University, mentions three possible explanations to what compelled the Vikings to go looking for new land as far out to sea as they did.

    1.Coincidence: The Vikings’ navigation was far from accurate, which also explains why so many of their ships ended up on the bottom of the sea. But some of them found land and named it – for instance Iceland and Greenland.
    2.Recognition and respect: It took courage to sail out and look for new land, and this gave prestige.
    3.Lack of inheritance: A lack of inheritable land among the sons of farmers and magnates may have motivated them to find new land to conquer.

    Anton Englert adds another possible explanation: banishment. He says that some of the sagas mention Norwegians who had become unpopular with the establishment at home. They went looking for places to settle down and enjoy their freedom.

    The cold climate in the Faroes, Iceland and Greenland didn’t scare off the Vikings because it wasn’t much different from the Norwegian climate.

    “Their familiarity with the North Atlantic climate and poor soil in Norway turned the Vikings into maritime people who looked for a better life on the other side of the ocean.”

    America was discovered by chance

    According to one historical source, Grænlendinga saga (The saga of the Greenlanders) America was discovered by accident in the autumn of 996 AD.

    The saga tells the tale of Bjarni Herjólfsson, who is believed to be the first European to see North America when he set sail for Greenland to meet his father.

    “Bjarni Herjólfsson had learnt how to sail to Greenland from Norway, but his ship encountered several days of strong northerly wind and fog,” explains Englert. “His ardent efforts to keep the ship afloat resulted in his ship being blown off course.”

    The discoverer of America was mocked

    In his efforts to get back on course, Bjarni Herjólfsson tried to sail due west again. He eventually saw a piece of land [North America], but this land was more fertile than the Greenland he had heard about.

    His crew wanted to go ashore, but Herjólfsson insisted on reaching Greenland before the end of the sailing season. So he headed north and there he noticed that the land was becoming less fertile and rockier.

    After a while he saw land that resembled what he had been told about Greenland and eventually he landed near the place where his father lived.

    “Bjarni Herjólfsson was not credited for having found new land. Rather, he was mocked for not having gone ashore {in America],” says Englert.

    Although he passed on his findings in Greenland, there was little interest in his reports until, after his father's death, he returned to Norway.

    Here, Herjólfsson’s travel tales inspired Leif Ericsson to mount his own expedition to Greenland. He bought Herjólfssons ship and manned it with 35 crew members.

    In the year 1002, Ericsson discovered North America. Here, he found grapes and berries, which is why he decided to call it Wineland. The rest we’ll have to leave for another time.

    Sørensen, Irene Berg. 2012. “How Vikings navigated the world”. ScienceNordic. Posted: October 9, 2012. Available online:

  • Sunday, October 21, 2012

    Ancient Buddha Carved From Meteorite

    Photo Information and Credits: The 'Space Buddha' statue. Credit: Elmar Buchner.

    German scientists have discovered an ancient Buddhist statue with extraterrestrial origin.

    Depicting Vaisravana, the Buddhist god of wealth or war, the sculpture was carved from an ataxite, a rare class of iron meteorite with high contents of nickel.

    "The statue was chiseled from an iron meteorite, from a fragment of the Chinga meteorite which crashed into the border areas between Mongolia and Siberia about 15.000 years ago," said Elmar Buchner of the University of Stuttgart.

    In a paper published in Metoritics and Planetary Science, Buchner and colleagues reported their geochemical analysis and the story of the "Buddha from Space," which almost reads like an Indiana Jones movie.

    Known as the Iron Man, the 9.5-inch-high statue was discovered in 1938 by an expedition backed by SS chief Heinrich Himmler and led by zoologist Ernst Schäfer. The expedition roamed Tibet to search for the roots of Aryanism.

    t is unknown how the sculpture was unearthed, but it is believed that a large swastika carved into the center of the figure may have encouraged the team to take it back to Germany.

    Once it arrived in Germany, the Iron Man became part of a private collection and it wasn't until 2009 that cientists could study it, following an auction.

    Weighting about 23 pounds, the statue wasn't exactly carved from the most appropriate material. Buchner and colleagues noted that the artist who created it from the extremely hard meteorite may have known that the material was special.

    "The fall of meteorites has been interpreted as divine messages by multitudinous cultures since prehistoric times," they wrote.

    According to Buchner, the statue was likely carved about 1,000 years ago by the pre-Buddhist Bon culture of the 11th century. However, the exact origin and age of the statue remains unknown.

    "While the first debris was officially discovered in 1913 by gold prospectors, we believe that this individual meteorite fragment was collected many centuries before," Buchner said.

    Although other meteorites are known to have inspired worship from many ancient cultures, the Iron Man statue is pretty unique.

    "It is the only known illustration of a human figure to be carved into a meteorite, which means we have nothing to compare it to when assessing value," said Buchner.

    "Its origins alone may value it at $20,000. However, if our estimation of its age is correct and it is nearly a thousand years old it could be invaluable."

    Lorenzi, Rossella. 2012. “Ancient Buddha Carved From Meteorite”. Discovery News. Posted: Available online:

    Saturday, October 20, 2012

    Historic collection of naturalist Alfred Wallace goes online for the first time

    Treasure-trove of writings and images by the co-discoverer of natural selection; Project directed by researcher from the National University of Singapore

    27 September 2012, Singapore – The complete works of the great naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace will be made freely available online today on the Wallace Online website. This project was directed by historian Dr John van Wyhe from the National University of Singapore (NUS).

    Among the thousands of pages of writings, it includes the first announcement of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The Wallace Online project was made possible by an anonymous grant from an American donor.

    Wallace and Darwin

    Since the scientist's death 99 years ago, Wallace's complete publications have never been gathered together. The new website is unveiled in time for the centenary celebrations in 2013 that mark the anniversary of Wallace's death in 1913.

    Back in the 1850s, Wallace independently formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection during a fit of tropical fever. He later sent an outline of the theory – in one of the greatest ironies in history – to Charles Darwin. To avoid a priority dispute, papers by both men were read together at a London scientific meeting in July 1858. The event unleashed the Darwinian revolution whose shockwaves continue to this day.

    Wallace has long been in the shadow of his more famous contemporary Charles Darwin. The compilation of this new website is timely and long overdue. It provides 28,000 pages of searchable historical documents and 22,000 images. They can now be seen free of charge by anyone around the globe at Wallace Online.

    Wallace's contributions to biodiversity

    Wallace spent four years as a collector in Brazil (1848-1853) and eight years in Southeast Asia (1854-1862). In addition to collecting an astonishing 125,000 specimens of insects and birds, Wallace proposed a sharp dividing line between the Asian and Australian animals in the archipelago. This line still bears his name today and is called The Wallace Line.

    Dr van Wyhe, said: "Wallace was one of the most influential scientists in history. But until now, it has been impossible to see all of his writings. For the first time, this collection allows anyone to search through his writings about Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, and see many of the birds and insects that he collected."

    Dr van Wyhe holds a joint appointment as Senior Lecturer at NUS' Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of History, under Faculty of Science and Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, respectively. He is also the founder and director of the award-winning Darwin Onlineat the University of Cambridge, UK.

    EurekAlert. 2012. “Historic collection of naturalist Alfred Wallace goes online for the first time”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 27, 2012. Available online:

    Friday, October 19, 2012

    Language use is simpler than previously thought, finds Cornell study

    For more than 50 years, language scientists have assumed that sentence structure is fundamentally hierarchical, made up of small parts in turn made of smaller parts, like Russian nesting dolls. But a new Cornell University study suggests language use is simpler than they had thought.

    Co-author Morten Christiansen, Cornell professor of psychology and co-director of the Cornell Cognitive Science Program, and his colleagues say that language is actually based on simpler sequential structures, like clusters of beads on a string.

    "What we're suggesting is that the language system deals with words by grouping them into little clumps that are then associated with meaning," he said.

    Sentences are made up of such word clumps, or "constructions," that are understood when arranged in a particular order. For example, the word sequence "bread and butter" might be represented as a construction, whereas the reverse sequence of words "butter and bread" would likely not.

    The sequence concept has simplicity on its side; language is naturally sequential, given the temporal cues that help us understand and be understood as we use language. Moreover, the hierarchy concept doesn't take into account the many other cues that help convey meaning, such as the setting and knowing what was said before and the speaker's intention.

    The researchers drew on evidence in language-related fields from psycholinguistics to cognitive neuroscience. For example, research in evolutionary biology indicates that humans acquired language (and animals did not) because we have evolved abilities in a number of areas, such as being able to correctly guess others' intentions and learn a large number of sounds that we then relate to meaning to create words. In contrast, the hierarchy concept suggests humans have language thanks only to highly specialized "hardware" in the brain, which neuroscientists have yet to find.

    Research in cognitive neuroscience shows that the same set of brain regions seem to be involved in both sequential learning and language, suggesting that language is processed sequentially. And several recent psycholinguistic studies have shown that how well adults and children perform on a sequence learning task strongly predicts how well they can process the deluge of words that come at us in rapid succession when we're listening to someone speak. "The better you are at dealing with sequences, the easier it is for you to comprehend language," Christiansen said.

    The study by Christiansen and his colleagues has important implications for several language-related fields. From an evolutionary perspective, it could help close what has been seen as a large gap between the communications systems of humans and other nonhuman primates. "This research allows us a better understanding of our place in nature, in that we can tie our language ability, our communication abilities, more closely to what we can see in other species. It could have a big impact in terms of allowing us to think in more humble terms about the origin of language in humans," Christiansen said.

    The research could also affect natural language processing, the area of computer science that deals with human language, by encouraging scholars to focus on sequential structure when trying to create humanlike speech and other types of language processing, Christiansen said. He pointed out that machines already successfully perform such tasks as translation and speech recognition thanks to algorithms based on sequential structures.

    EurekAlert. 2012. “Language use is simpler than previously thought, finds Cornell study”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 25, 2012. Available online:

    Thursday, October 18, 2012

    'Cult Fiction' Traced to Ancient Egypt Priest

    A recently deciphered Egyptian papyrus from around 1,900 years ago tells a fictional story that includes drinking, singing, feasting and ritual sex, all in the name of the goddess Mut.

    Researchers believe that a priest wrote the blush-worthy tale, as a way to discuss controversial ritual sex acts with other priests.

    "Our text may represent a new and hitherto unrecognized Egyptian literary genre: 'cult' fiction, the purpose of which was to allow controversial or contentious matters pertaining to the divine cult to be scrutinized in this way," wrote professors Richard Jasnow and Mark Smith, who published their translation and analysis of the papyrus in the most recent edition of the journal Enchoria.

    Jasnow, from Johns Hopkins University, and Smith, from Oxford, write that evidence of ritual sex is  rare in ancient Egypt and the act probably would have been controversial. "There is surprisingly little unequivocal Egyptian evidence for the performance of the sex act as such in ritual contexts," Jasnow and Smith wrote.

    They added that the Egyptians were known to discuss other controversial matters using fictional stories.

    Writing about sex

    Containing writing in a form of ancient Egyptian known as Demotic, the papyrus is likely to have originated in the Fayum village of Tebtunis at a time when the Romans controlled Egypt. It is currently in Florence, Italy, in the Istituto Papirologico "G. Vitelli."

    The newly deciphered tale refers several times to having sex. At one point a speaker implores a person to "drink truly. Eat truly. Sing" and to "don clothing, anoint (yourself), adorn the eyes, and enjoy sexual bliss." The speaker adds that Mut will not let you "be distant from drunkenness on any day. She will not allow you to be lacking in any (manner)."

    The speaker defends his views by saying, "As for those who have called me evil, Mut will 'call' them evil."

    Researchers know the story is fictional because it employs an Egyptian noun used only in fiction to mark separate sections of a story.

    The full story

    Reconstructing the overall plot narrative of the papyrus is tricky. The text is fragmentary, and researchers cannot be certain how the full story unfolded.

    "Conceivably, we have here the remains of an account of how an adherent of the goddess Mut persuaded another individual to devote himself to her worship or join in her rites," the researchers write.

    This "cult fiction" interpretation of the papyrus is backed up by the Greek writer Herodotus, who lived more than 2,400 years ago. He wrote that "it was the Egyptians who first made it a matter of religious observance not to have intercourse with women in temples, nor enter a temple after such intercourse without washing." (That translation is from "Herodotus Volume 1," Harvard University Press, 1990.)

    For some ancient Egyptians, the idea of mixing sex and religion may have been extreme, a problem priests discussed by way of a fictional story.

    Smith declined an interview request, telling LiveScience that everything the researchers wanted to say is in the journal article. He did add that new fragments of the papyrus recently were discovered, and they may allow for more of the story to be deciphered.

    Jarus, Owen. 2012. “'Cult Fiction' Traced to Ancient Egypt Priest”. Live Science. Posted: September 24, 2012. Available online:

    Wednesday, October 17, 2012

    Weatherwatch: Climate helped Genghis Khan create the Mongol empire

    The Mongol empire in the 13th century conquered great swaths of Asia, the Middle East and even parts of Europe at staggering speed, but how did Genghis Khan and his armies manage to conquer so much and so fast? The answer may lie in some ancient dead trees found recently in an old volcanic lava flow in Mongolia. The trees were so well preserved that their annual growth rings were still visible and gave an astonishing insight into the climate of the 1200s. The wood rings were spaced wide apart showing that the trees grew well, thanks to plenty of rain. And because the trees did well, the chances are that the grasslands of the vast Mongolian plains also grew lush in the wet climate. Those rich grasslands would have fuelled the Mongol armies, giving plenty of grazing land for the thousands of horses that the troops relied on, and livestock to feed the soldiers.

    But the tree rings also showed a sudden lurch into much colder, drier conditions around 1258, when the trees hardly grew. This was around the time the Mongol empire began to fall apart and the Mongols moved their capital into what is now Beijing. It was part of a global climate event, and a recent archaeological dig in London revealed that a catastrophic famine struck England at the same time, leading to thousands of deaths. The downturn in climate was caused by a massive volcanic eruption that blanketed the globe in ash and cut down sunlight across the world.

    Plester, Jeremy. 2012. “Weatherwatch: Climate helped Genghis Khan create the Mongol empire”. The Guardian. Posted: September 23, 2012. Available online:

    Tuesday, October 16, 2012

    Nunavut's Mysterious Ancient Life Could Return by 2100 as Arctic Warms

    Global climate change means that recently discovered ancient forests in Canada's extreme north could one day return, according to Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier of the University of Montreal's Department of Geography, who is presenting his findings at the Canadian Paleontology Conference in Toronto today.

    “According to the data model, climate conditions on Bylot Island will be able to support the kinds of trees we find in the fossilized forest that currently exist there, such as willow, pine and spruce. I've also found evidence of a possible growth of oak and hickory near the study site during this period," Guertin-Pasquier said. "Although it would of course take time for a whole forest to regrow, the findings show that our grandchildren should be able to plant a tree and watch it grow."

    The fossilized forest found on Bylot Island in Nunavut is between 2.6 and 3 million years old according to estimations based on the presence of extinct species and on paleomagnetic analyses. Paleomagentic analysis involves looking at how Earth's magnetic field has affected the magnetic sediment in rocks -- like a compass, they turn to follow the magnetic poles. Scientists can use this information to date rocks as the history of the movement of the magnetic poles is relatively well known.

    Wood samples in the ancient forest have been preserved throughout the eons in peat and by permafrost. "We studied the sediments in the forest and discovered pollen that are usually found in climates where the annual average temperature is around 0 degrees Celsius or 32 Fahrenheit," Guertin-Pasquier said. By comparison, current average conditions on Bylot Island are around -15°C ( 5°F). The samples were taken from few drill holes 10 cm in diameter of one to two metres deep. The harshness of the Arctic winter and the remoteness of the forest mean that scientists have very little opportunity to delve into its secrets.

    Even during the summer, the Guertin-Pasquier and his colleagues had to endure extreme conditions such as 80 km/h winds. "There is so much mystery that surrounds this forest -- for example, how these trees managed to survive the relentless dark of the Arctic winter," he said, adding that the next steps for this line of research could include looking more closely at other plant remains in order to get a better understanding of what the local flora was.

    This research was financed in part by the Polar Continental Shelf Program, Fonds de recherche du Québec -- Nature et technologies, and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada programs.

    Science Daily. 2012. “Nunavut's Mysterious Ancient Life Could Return by 2100 as Arctic Warms”. Science Daily. Posted: September 21, 2012. Available online:

    Monday, October 15, 2012

    Tailgate Parties Are a ‘Powerful Impulse’ and a Microcosm of Society

    Photo Caption and Credits: Green Bay Packers fans watch Super Bowl XXXII from the parking lot of Lambeau Field in this photo from 1998. A Notre Dame anthropologist likens tailgate parties to ancient harvest festivals and calls them “orchestrated effort in community building.” Photo: Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    Think football, and odds are you think tailgate party. And with good reason — the tailgate party is among the most time-honored and revered American sporting traditions, what with the festivities, the food and the fans. And the beer. Don’t forget the beer.

    To the untrained eye, these game-day rituals appear to be little more than a wild party, a hedonistic excuse to get loaded and eat barbecue. Not at all. They are, according to Notre Dame anthropologist John Sherry, bustling microcosms of society where self-regulatory neighborhoods foster inter-generational community, nurture tradition and build the team’s brand.

    Sherry didn’t always feel this way. There was a time when he considered tailgating a boisterous nuisance, little more than a gauntlet of unrelated and unruly celebrations to be run if he were to reach his seat in Notre Dame Stadium. But then he had an epiphany: What if there was meaning to the madness?

    “One day I slowed down and paid attention to things that were going on that weren’t individual celebrations,” he said of research presented in A Cultural Analysis of Tailgating. “It was much more nuanced that I had thought before.”

    Sherry consulted the existing literature on the subject and found bupkis. Most studies on tailgating come to Onion-esque conclusions like “tailgating leads to drunkenness” or examine the environmental impact (.pdf) of all that trash. Sherry looked deeper into tailgating and saw a whole lot of consumption akin to that of, say, ancient harvest festivals. He recruited colleague Tonya Bradford, trained a few research assistants and started attending tailgate parties and interviewing fans to learn more.

    Notre Dame was a convenient place to start, given its rich football tradition. But Sherry and Co. hit the road too, attending Irish away games and checking the scene at Big Ten Conference schools. They talked to fans of every stripe, from alumni with six-figure RVs to students. And they discovered what every true football fan eventually discovers.

    “What we really found was a real active and orchestrated effort in community building,” said Sherry. “People have tailgated in the same place for years, they have tailgated through generations, they have encountered strangers who have passed through and adopted them to their families and became fast friends. They have created neighborhoods.”

    This much was obvious Saturday at the University of Utah-Brigham Young University game I attended. The parking lot around Eccles Stadium was thick with trucks and trailers and RVs, the air was thick with the smell of cooking meat. The lot was divided into “streets” and “neighborhoods” populated by fans who have in many cases known each other for years.

    University of Utah football fan Jacque Jackman has been tailgating outside Eccles Stadium for 15 years with Gus, a fully decked-out trailer. Gus is as much a part of the scene as the barbecue and beer, and passersby join in the family tradition of “kissing Gus’ ass,” smooching the back of the trailer as if it were the Blarney Stone. Lipstick imprints are left until the next season.

    Across the “street” sat Brad Shephard and his family. They’ve been tailgating since the 1970s, and people they met at the parking lot parties threw a wedding shower for her and his wife, Mary. When his father died, those same tailgating compatriots attended his funeral. Tailgating, they said, is about being part of something larger than yourself, of joining in a shared experience.

    “If they’re wearing a Utah shirt, you’ll give them anything,” Mary Shephard said, serving a hungry fan, whom she just met, a heaping helping of sausage with a side of potato salad.

    In that way, is about creating a sense of community — of belonging. The stadium parking lot is where people of all backgrounds come together in a common ritual. Many people go to great lengths organizing and staging their parties, creating what are, in effect, miniature kitchens and living rooms, complete with memorabilia and even photos. These fans aren’t attending something, they’re building something — so much so that Sherry met fans who bring dirt from their hometown to maintain a geographical connection.

    This does more than build community. It builds a brand. Fans contribute to the creation of the culture and branding of their school as individual traditions are incorporated into the university traditions.

    “They feel pride and ownership,” he said. “They are the embodiment of the brand.”

    This is not to say that tailgating isn’t occasionally marred by fights and boorish behavior. Mix several thousand people, copious amounts of liquor and the charged emotions of a heated rivalry and you’ll have a few jerks and idiots. But tailgating — which has proven exceedingly difficult for schools to regulate — is in many ways self-policing, Sherry found.

    “They try to avoid it being like a European soccer match,” he said. “In many cases tailgaters go out of their way to regulate each other and are conscious of over-serving. They have a lot of informal power, too.”

    Although Sherry didn’t attend any pro games, he’s pretty sure he’d find the same thing there. Fans are fans whether the team plays in the NCAA or NFL, and the loyalties and rivalries are no less intense. “It’s visceral,” Sherry said. “Celebration around football is a powerful impulse.”

    The American football game tailgate party combines the attributes of a carnival, the air of a festival and the tradition of a ritual to create something utterly unique in sports. Sherry and his colleagues call it a “vestaval,” after Vesta, the Roman goddess of hearth and home.

    “You’re turning your house inside out so people can see your domestic life and participate in your family,” Sherry said. “That doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

    Carter, Beth. 2012. “Tailgate Parties Are a ‘Powerful Impulse’ and a Microcosm of Society”. Wired. Posted: September 21, 2012. Available online:

    Sunday, October 14, 2012

    Khoe-San peoples are unique, special -- largest genomic study finds

    Some 220 individuals from different regions in southern Africa participated in the research that led to the analysis of around 2.3 million DNA variants per individual – the biggest ever

    Genetically, culturally and ethically the Khoe-San have something special to add to this world. The importance of this study is to put the Khoe and San heritage in the right place in history and this research will provide a genetic backdrop for future studies - Mattias Jakobsson.

    The largest genomic study ever conducted among Khoe and San groups reveals that these groups from southern Africa are descendants of the earliest diversification event in the history of all humans - some 100 000 years ago, well before the 'out-of-Africa' migration of modern humans.

    Some 220 individuals from different regions in southern Africa participated in the research that led to the analysis of around 2.3 million DNA variants per individual – the biggest ever.

    The research was conducted by a group of international scientists, including Professor Himla Soodyall from the Human Genomic Diversity and Disease Research Unit in the Health Faculty at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.

    Entitled Genomic variation in seven Khoe-San groups reveals adaptation and complex African history, the study has been selected for early online publishing in the renowned scientific journal, Science, on Thursday, 20 September 2012 at 20:00 SATS (14:00 U.S. EST).

    "The deepest divergence of all living people occurred some 100 000 years ago, well before modern humans migrated out of Africa and about twice as old as the divergences of central African Pygmies and East African hunter-gatherers and from other African groups," says lead author Dr Carina Schlebusch, a Wits University PhD-graduate now conducting post-doctoral research at Uppsala University in Sweden.

    Soodyall, from National Health Laboratory Services in South Africa, has a long standing relationship with Khoe and San communities and said that the findings are a "phenomenal tribute to the indigenous Khoe and San people of southern Africa, and through this magnificent collaboration, we have given the peoples of Africa an opportunity to reclaim their place in the history of the world".

    Besides the publication of the study, the authors will also be visiting the San groups in the Kalahari, in the Askam area in South Africa on the 24th of September 2012 for the country's Heritage Day celebrations. "We are excited that together with some of our colleagues from Uppsala University, we will be able to join in the celebrations with the San groups in the Kalahari who participated in our research and to acknowledge their contribution in making our research possible".

    The researchers are now making the genome-wide data freely available: "Genetic information is getting more and more important for medical purposes. In addition to illuminating their history, we hope that this study is a step towards Khoe and San groups also being a part of that revolution," says Schlebusch. Another author, Professor Mike de Jongh from University of South Africa adds, "It is important for us to communicate with the participants prior to the genetic studies, to inform individuals about the nature of our research, and to also go back to not only to share the results with them, but also to explain the significance of the data for recapturing their heritage, to them."

    About the Research:

    According to Assistant-Professor Mattias Jakobsson from Uppsala University, these deep divergences among African populations have important implications and consequences when the history of all humankind is deciphered.

    The deep structure and patterns of genetic variation suggest a complex population history of the peoples of Africa. "The human population has been structured for a long time," says Jakobsson, "and it is possible that modern humans emerged from a non-homogeneous group."

    The study also found surprising stratification among Khoe-San groups. For example, the researchers estimate that the San populations from northern Namibia and Angola separated from the Khoe and San populations living in South Africa as early as 25,000 – 40,000 years ago.

    "There is astonishing ethnic diversity among the Khoe-San group, and we were able to see many aspects of the colorful history that gave rise to this diversity in their DNA", said Schlebusch.

    The study further indicates how pastoralism first spread to southern Africa in combination with the Khoe culture. From archaeological and ethnographic studies it has been suggested that pastoralism was introduced to the Khoe in southern Africa before the arrival of Bantu-speaking farmers, but it has been unclear if this event had any genetic impact.

    The Nama, a pastoralist Khoe group from Namibia showed great similarity to 'southern' San groups. "However, we found a small but very distinct genetic component that is shared with East Africans in this group, which may be the result of shared ancestry associated with pastoral communities from East Africa," says Schlebusch.

    With the genetic data the researchers could see that the Khoe pastoralists originate from a Southern San group that adopted pastoralism with genetic contributions from an East African group – a group that would have been the first to bring pastoralist practices to southern Africa.

    The study also revealed evidence of local adaptation in different Khoe and San groups. For example, the researchers found that there was evidence for selection in genes involved in muscle function, immune response, and UV-light protection in local Khoe and San groups. These could be traits linked with adaptations to the challenging environments in which the ancestors of present-day San and Khoe were exposed to that have been retained in the gene pool of local groups.

    The researchers also looked for signals across the genome of ancient adaptations that happened before the historical separation of the Khoe-San lineage from other humans. "Although all humans today carry similar variants in these genes, the early divergence between Khoe-San and other human groups allowed us to zoom-in on genes that have been fast-evolving in the ancestors of all of us living on the planet today," said Pontus Skoglund from Uppsala University.

    Among the strongest candidates were genes involved in skeletal development that may have been crucial in determining the characteristics of anatomically modern humans.

    EurekAlert. 2012. “Khoe-San peoples are unique, special -- largest genomic study finds”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 19, 2012. Available online:

    Saturday, October 13, 2012

    Instinctively, People Are Generous

    Contrary to popular and pessimistic thought, our gut instincts may lead us to be more helpful than selfish.

    Without thinking, people act with more generosity than if they take some time to weigh the logic of their behavior.

    Contrary to popular and pessimistic thought, the discovery suggests that, by default, our gut instincts lead us to be more helpful than selfish. That may explain why door-knocking and phone solicitations, which demand immediate responses, tend to bring in bigger donations than statistics-laden e-mail messages or direct mail, which puts people in a rational frame of mind and allows them to think for a while before deciding whether to give.

    Likewise, people who commit heroic acts -- like the man who jumped onto New York City subway tracks in front of an oncoming train to save a young man having a seizure five years ago -- often make split-second decisions to do the altruistic thing.

    "If you look at testimony of a lot of people like that describing their decisions, you can see they are heavily weighted towards intuitive thinking," said David Rand, a behavior scientist at Yale who conducted the new study while at Harvard. "People say, 'I didn't think about it. I just did it.'"

    In a 2011 best-selling book called "Thinking, Fast and Slow," Nobel-Prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman argued that a lot of decision-making comes out of a tension between two types of brain processes. On the one hand, we have quick and intuitive thoughts, which are often emotional. The other mode is slower, allowing for more controlled and calculated thinking.

    Until now, Rand said, researchers had yet to combine the two kinds of thought processes in a way that explained how people actually behaved.

    "You could imagine either that people are intuitively selfish, that our default is to be nasty and that the way to get ourselves to do the right thing is through willpower and restraining selfish impulses," Rand said. "On the other hand, our automatic response might be to be predisposed toward cooperation, then to stop and think and realize that it's in my selfish interest to be a jerk."

    To find out which scenario best explains how our minds work, Rand and colleagues conducted a series of 10 experiments that compared how people behaved when they made decisions either instantly or after a pause.

    In the first experiment, people were put into groups of four and given 40 cents. Participants could choose how much of it they wanted to contribute to a common pot, which would be doubled and divided evenly among all four people. No one learned how much the others gave until the donations were completed.

    In this scenario, the most lucrative strategy is to be as selfish as possible. But if everyone is generous, the group as a whole can do better.

    People who made the quickest decisions about how much to give, the team reports today in the journal Nature, contributed the most cash to the common good. Those who acted in less than 10 seconds gave nearly 70 percent of their money, while those who took longer put in just over half of their original sum.

    In follow-up experiments, people who were asked to recall memories that put them in an intuitive frame of mind contributed more than people who were primed to think reflectively.

    And people who were randomly assigned to make their decisions more quickly gave more than people who were told to wait 10 seconds before putting in their money.

    For decades, many experts have assumed that people are naturally and automatically selfish, said Simon Gächter, an experimental economist at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. The new findings may offer a kinder view of humanity.

    "Many decisions we have to make every day are intuitive and many people don't think through everything," Gächter said. "Apparently our gut instinct is to support cooperative behavior rather than selfishness. That's important information."

    Despite the temptation to make conclusions about human nature, the new findings don't necessarily mean that people are naturally good and cooperative, Rand pointed out. He compared the automatic instinct to be generous with an impulse to eat a box of donuts.

    "If you think about yourself in situations where you have a first impulse and then stop to think about it, it's not at all clear that the first impulse is the real you," he said. "You want to eat the doughnut and then you're like, 'Well no, the doughnut is not good for me.' It's not like the real you is the doughnut-eater."

    Instead, we may simply learn and internalize cooperative habits that help society run more smoothly.

    Either way, his study reinforces what fund-raisers already know -- that showing people a picture of a starving orphan is more likely to pull at their intuitive and emotional heartstrings. Lists of facts more often push potential donors away.

    For people who strive to be better versions of themselves, the take-home message might be that sometimes, it's best to resist rationalizing and instead let your gut feelings lead the way.

    Sohn, Emily. 2012. “Instinctively, People Are Generous”. Discovery News. Posted: September 19, 2012. Available online:

    Friday, October 12, 2012

    Ancient Tooth May Provide Evidence of Early Human Dentistry

    Researchers may have uncovered new evidence of ancient dentistry in the form of a 6,500-year-old human jaw bone with a tooth showing traces of beeswax filling, as reported Sept. 19 in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

    The researchers, led by Federico Bernardini and Claudio Tuniz of the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy in cooperation with Sincrotrone Trieste and other institutions, write that the beeswax was applied around the time of the individual's death, but cannot confirm whether it was shortly before or after. If it was before death, however, they write that it was likely intended to reduce pain and sensitivity from a vertical crack in the enamel and dentin layers of the tooth.

    According to Tuniz, the severe wear of the tooth "is probably also due to its use in non-alimentary activities, possibly such as weaving, generally performed by Neolithic females."

    Evidence of prehistoric dentistry is sparse, so this new specimen, found in Slovenia near Trieste, may help provide insight into early dental practices.

    "This finding is perhaps the most ancient evidence of pre-historic dentistry in Europe and the earliest known direct example of therapeutic-palliative dental filling so far," says Bernardini.

    Science Daily. 2012. “Ancient Tooth May Provide Evidence of Early Human Dentistry”. Science Daily. Posted: September 19, 2012. Available online:

    Journal Reference:

    Federico Bernardini, Claudio Tuniz, Alfredo Coppa, Lucia Mancini, Diego Dreossi, Diane Eichert, Gianluca Turco, Matteo Biasotto, Filippo Terrasi, Nicola De Cesare, Quan Hua, Vladimir Levchenko. Beeswax as Dental Filling on a Neolithic Human Tooth. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (9): e44904 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0044904

    Thursday, October 11, 2012

    Opinions Easily Flip-Flop, Researchers Find

    People can quickly and completely switch moral views without realizing it, researchers say after conducting an experiment that tricked volunteers into arguing against their previously stated opinions.

    "Many participants had a sense of self-discovery, that they actually were perfectly capable of entertaining and arguing for the issues in a different manner than they originally had expressed," said researcher Lars Hall, a cognitive scientist at Lund University in Sweden.

    Hall and other scientists had 160 volunteers fill out a two-page questionnaire about moral issues. This survey asked the volunteers how much they agreed or disagreed with ethical positions such as, "It is more important for a society to promote the welfare of the citizens than to protect their personal integrity," and how the volunteers felt about current hot topics such as whether the violence Israel used in the conflict with the Palestinian group Hamas was morally defensible despite civilian Palestinian casualties.

    The researchers then carried out a bit of sleight-of-hand. Each questionnaire came on a clipboard, and completing it required flipping over the first page of questions. The back of the clipboard had a bit of glue, so the flipped-over sheet stuck to it. When volunteers tried flipping that page back over to discuss their answers, a different sheet was revealed instead, containing opposite versions of two of the original questions. (What the volunteers put down remained unchanged.)

    For instance, volunteers might have been asked to rate on a 9-point scale how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement, "Large-scale governmental surveillance of email and Internet traffic ought to be forbidden as a means to combat international crime and terrorism." The altered statement now read, "Large-scale governmental surveillance of email and Internet traffic ought to be permitted as a means to combat international crime and terrorism."

    If the volunteers had originally replied that they strongly disagreed with government surveillance of email, the altered questionnaires suggested the volunteers strongly agreed with it.

    As the participants read and discussed their ratings with the researchers, most of them remained blind to the switch — 69 percent of the volunteers failed to detect at least one of the two changed questions. And many volunteers endorsed the revised opinions, even though those views were the exact opposite to what they had originally declared.

    Often the volunteers developed coherent and unwavering arguments supporting these switched views.

    "I want to emphasize that our goal was not to try to fool people or to expose flaws in their opinions," Hall told LiveScience. "Depending on the standard you set for how strong attitudes people ought to have for the issues in our study, one might of course lament that many of our participants were not engaged or knowledgeable enough to detect the switches, particularly if you are a policymaker or activist or otherwise involved in the issues yourself. But this is not primarily our view."

    The findings suggest people might be more flexible and open-minded in their moral attitudes than they realize, Hall said.

    These findings also suggest that polls, surveys and other questionnaires capture only what people say and not what they really do or the entirety of how they feel.

    "I think the most important implication of our findings is that it challenges the very conception of what an attitude amounts to and how you can measure it," Hall said.

    See the paper at PlosONE

    Choi, Charles. 2012. “Opinions Easily Flip-Flop, Researchers Find”. Live Science. Posted: September 19, 2012. Available online: