Thursday, January 31, 2013

Archaeologists unearth more than 300 prehistoric clay figurines in Greece

Archaeologists from the University of Southampton studying a Neolithic archaeological site in central Greece have helped unearth over 300 clay figurines, one of the highest density for such finds in south-eastern Europe.

The Southampton team, working in collaboration with the Greek Archaeological Service and the British School at Athens, is studying the site of Koutroulou Magoula near the Greek village of Neo Monastiri, around 160 miles from Athens.

Koutroulou Magoula was occupied during the Middle Neolithic period (c. 5800 – 5300 BC) by a community of a few hundred people who made architecturally sophisticated houses from stone and mud-bricks. The figurines were found all over the site, with some located on wall foundations. It's believed the purpose of figurines was not only as aesthetic art, but also to convey and reflect ideas about a community's culture, society and identity.

"Figurines were thought to typically depict the female form, but our find is not only extraordinary in terms of quantity, but also quite diverse – male, female and non-gender specific ones have been found and several depict a hybrid human-bird figure," says Professor Yannis Hamilakis, Co-Director of the Koutroulou Magoula Archaeology and Archaeological Ethnography project.

He continues, "We still have a lot of work to do studying the figurines, but they should be able to give us an enormous amount of information about how Neolithic people interpreted the human body, their own gender and social identity and experience." Excavations at Koutroulou Magoula were started in 2001 by Dr Nina Kyparissi (formerly Greek Archaeological Service) and this latest project began in 2010. The site is roughly four times the area of a football pitch and consists of a mound up to 18 feet high featuring at least three terraces surrounded by ditches. The people who lived in the settlement appear to have rebuilt their homes on the same building footprint generation after generation, and there is also evidence that some of the houses were unusual in their construction.

Professor Hamilakis comments, "This type of home would normally have stone foundations with mud-bricks on top, but our investigations at Koutroulou Magoula have found some preserved with stone walls up to a metre in height, suggesting that the walls may have been built entirely of stone, something not typical of the period.

"The people would have been farmers who kept domestic animals, used flint or obsidian tools and had connections with settlements in the nearby area. The construction of parts of the settlement suggests they worked communally, for example, to construct the concentric ditches surrounding their homes.

"There is no evidence of a central authority to date, yet large numbers of people were able to come together and carry out large communal and possibly socially beneficial projects."

In later centuries, the settlement mount became an important memory place. For example, at the end of the Bronze Age, a 'tholos' or beehive-shaped tomb was constructed at the top and in Medieval times (12-13th c. AD) at least one person (a young woman) was buried amongst the Neolithic houses.

In addition to excavation, the project has conducted ethnography amongst the local communities, exploring their customs and culture and their relationship to the site. It has engaged in a series of community and public archaeology events, including the production and staging of site-specific theatrical performances, which turn into communal celebrations with food, drink and dance. In part, this aims to examine the importance of Koutroulou Magoula to contemporary communities and make the site an important feature in the social and cultural life of the area.

The project team will carry out two study seasons in 2013 and 2014.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Archaeologists unearth more than 300 prehistoric clay figurines in Greece”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 7, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Jared Diamond: what we can learn from tribal life

The west's dwindling connection with the natural world puts it in increasing peril, says the distinguished biologist in his new book. Many of the practices of tribal cultures can help us to rediscover our way, he argues – from respecting the environment to letting toddlers play with knives

The Kaulong people of New Britain used to have an extreme way of dealing with families in mourning. Until the 1950s, newly widowed women on the island off New Guinea were strangled by their husband's brothers or, in their absence, by one of their own sons. Custom dictated no other course of action. Failure to comply meant dishonour, and widows would make a point of demanding strangulation as soon as their husbands had expired.

The impact on families was emotionally shattering, as Jared Diamond makes clear in his latest book, The World Until Yesterday. "In one case, a widow – whose brothers-in-law were absent – ordered her own son to strangle her," he says. "But he could not bring himself to do it. It was too horrible. So, in order to shame him into killing her, the widow marched through her village shouting that her son did not want to strangle her because he wanted to have sex with her instead." Humiliated, the son eventually killed his mother.

Widow-strangling occurred because the Kaulong believed male spirits needed the company of females to survive the after-life. It is a grotesque notion but certainly not the only fantastic idea to have gripped traditional societies, says Diamond. Other habits have included infanticide and outbreaks of war between neighbours, though these are balanced with many cases of care and compassion, particularly for the elderly, and a concern for the environment that shames the west.

"We have virtually abandoned living in traditional societies," explains Diamond when we meet. "But this was the only way of life that humans knew for their first 6m years on the planet. In giving it up over the past few thousand years, we have lost our vulnerability to disease and cold and wild animals, but we have also lost good ways to bring up children, look after old people, stave off diabetes and heart disease and understand the real dangers of everyday life."

Diamond is wearing a bright red jacket, checked trousers, a carefully ironed shirt and a tie. With his moustache-less beard, he looks more like a renegade Amish preacher than a distinguished biologist. His book, subtitled "What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?", is a form of rescue anthropology, he explains, a bid to save the last useful nuggets of tribal life before it is finally destroyed by the spread of nations and states. The World Until Yesterday is Diamond's latest foray into a field that he has virtually made his own – the biological analysis of human history – and will be eagerly awaited by a global army of loyal readers. While traditional historians concentrate on treaties and successions, Diamond has concerned himself with the ecological constraints that influence the fate of a particular nation or state.

Consider Diamond's astonishingly successful Guns, Germs and Steel, which has sold more than 1.5m copies since its publication in 1998. It was written to provide an answer to a basic question: why did Spain conquer the Incas and not the other way round? Or to put it in more general terms, why did the nations of the west prosper at the expense of the rest of the world?

Historians have tended to avoid this question or have alluded to the innate intellectual vigour and genetic strength which, they have suggested, are possessed by western people. Diamond has no truck with that thesis. Europe became a power base because its nations grew out of the first farming societies, which arose in the Middle East 8,000 years ago, he says. And agriculture first appeared there because the world's most easily domesticable animals, including sheep, cattle and horses, were found there. With this head start, Europe was able to maintain a level of food production that allowed the first political states and military power bases to materialise. Guns and steel were invented there and were then used to conquer the rest of the world. Lacking these technologies, the Incas had little chance against the Spanish. Germs – "Europe's sinister gift to other continents" – followed in our wake. The book's message is simple but politically charged: there is nothing special or innately superior about western people. They are not the master race. They are simply geographically privileged.

Guns, Germs and Steel has been praised for its erudition, clear prose and elegant syntheses of multiple sources, from archaeology to zoology. One US reviewer hailed it for being "Darwinian in its authority" while in the Observer we described it as "a book of extraordinary vision and confidence". The book won a Pulitzer prize; was misquoted by Mitt Romney during last year's US presidential campaigns; and spawned a number of sound-a-like works, including Peter Nowak's history of modern America: Sex, Bombs and Burgers.

Diamond today seems fit and self-confident, and, although he is now 75, he assures me he still takes field study trips every year or two to New Guinea. For several decades, he has camped in its forests with local tribes, studied their habits and watched as they have embarked on endless raids and bouts of conciliation.

"It has been an utterly fascinating experience, " he says, "and the initial motivation for writing The World Until Yesterday was to share my times in New Guinea over the past 50 years and to show what the people have taught me."

Diamond came to his field from an odd angle. His father, Louis, was a distinguished paediatrician and expert on blood diseases, while his mother, Flora Kaplan, was a concert pianist and linguist. Both parents came from east European Jewish families who escaped the pogroms of the early 20th century and who settled in Boston where Diamond grew up, leaving him with a husky, mellifluous New England drawl in which his vowels seem stretched near to bursting point.

Jared followed his father into medicine and studied physiology at Harvard and later Cambridge before becoming an expert in salt transfer processes in the human gall bladder. In his 20s, Diamond swapped subjects to take up ornithology, which took him to New Guinea. (He is the author of several academic works on the island's birds.) There he became fascinated by its various native societies, and he turned finally to the field of cultural anthropology and sociology. He is currently a professor of geography at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Since moving to LA, Diamond has produced a series of books that have propelled him to fame. The first, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, appeared in 1992, its title referring to Homo sapiens, who are depicted by Diamond as a species of chimpanzee that is increasingly out of kilter with the natural world, particularly since the invention of agriculture, "a catastrophe from which we have never recovered". With the arrival of farming, Diamond argues, women were subjected to domestic drudgery; people started to hoard resources and wealth; and our proximity to animals triggered disease epidemics that still threaten to overwhelm us. "With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence," he states. The Third Chimpanzee won the Royal Society prize for science books that year.

Guns, Germs and Steel came next, with Diamond adding a new sin to those introduced by the first farmers: colonialism, including – as we have already mentioned – the enslaving of the Inca people by the conquistadors of Spain. Then, in 2005, came Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. Here he attempted to answer another basic question about the human species: why do some cultures implode and disintegrate because their members destroy their own habitats while other cultures maintain a careful ecological balance? Why did the Vikings perish in 16th-century Greenland while the Inuit flourished? Why did the ancient Mayans wreck their own ecology by stripping their lands of forests, thus triggering the soil erosion and starvation that caused the collapse of their civilisation? And, most poignantly of all, why did the people of Easter Island chop down every tree on their remote island and so maroon themselves in the middle of the Pacific, where they eventually descended into civil war and cannibalism?

In tackling this question, Diamond identifies several factors which help to explain why societies collapse: political intransigence, climatic change, loss of trade, attacks by neighbours and self-imposed environmental degradation. Crucially, these factors are now operating at a global scale, he says. Painted on a larger canvas, the fate of the people of Easter Island could therefore be repeated for the whole planet unless we take action.

There are no great heroes or leaders according to the narratives of Jared Diamond. The pages of The Third Chimpanze, Guns, Germs and Steel, and Collapse contain no Churchills, no Hitlers and no Genghis Khans. This is history stripped of its personalities, its nameless human protagonists hovering at the edge of extinction in an environmentally unfriendly world. Some anthropologists resent Diamond's assumption that individuals play no real role in the grand sweep of historical affairs. These critics claim that men and women are depicted not as conscious agents but as helpless pawns of their environment by Diamond, that he underplays the importance of human initiative.

Other critics make more particular accusations. Several challenge Diamond's claim that the fate suffered by the Easter Islanders was self-inflicted, for example. Slave raids and diseases introduced by Europeans were the real causes of depopulation, not civil war, while feral animals were the reason for the island's environmental collapse, they state.

Most reviews – for all Diamond's books – have generally been favourable, however. Writing in the New Yorker (about Collapse), Malcolm Gladwell praised the importance that Diamond places on biological issues when it comes to studying cultures and societies. Praising ourselves for being civilised is no guarantee of survival, says Gladwell. "We can be law-abiding and peace-loving and tolerant and inventive and committed to freedom and true to our own values and still behave in ways that are biologically suicidal."

The same vexed issue lurks at the back of Diamond's writing: humanity's increasing dissonance with the natural world. He describes how small groups of humans – ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred hunter-gatherers – survived several ice ages, kept close to nature and still managed to conquer the world. "I believe the few remaining tribes and nomad groups left on the planet have a great deal to teach us," he says and it is this belief that inspired The World Until Yesterday.

Some tribal customs, such as widow-strangling, will not be missed, of course. "We should not romanticise traditional societies," he says. "There are horrible things that we want to avoid, but there wonderful things that we should emulate."

Take the example of child rearing. Far from being harsh towards children, many tribes and groups adopt highly permissive attitudes. "I mean permissive in that it is an absolute no-no to punish a child. If a mother or father among African pygmies hits a child, that would be grounds for divorce. There is no physical punishment allowed at all in these societies. If a child plays with a sharp knife and waves it around, so be it. They will cut themselves on some occasions, but society figures it is better for the child to learn the hard way early in life. They are allowed to make their own choices and follow their own interests."

Diamond has twin sons, Max and Joshua. Both were treated as honorary pygmies by their parents. "We let them do what they wanted as much as possible and never spanked or hit them," says Diamond. Giving free rein to his children's interests had unexpected consequences, however. Aged three, Max developed a passion for snakes and the Diamond household ended up as repository of more than 150 reptiles and amphibians. For his part, Joshua transferred his first love of butterflies to rocks and finally to second world war and civil war battlefields. "I took him to Guam one time," Diamond recalls fondly. Today Joshua is training as a lawyer. Max is a gourmet cook. "The crucial point is that they were allowed to follow their own paths. I learnt that from the people of New Guinea."

Diamond has studied traditional societies in Africa, Asia, South and North America and the Arctic, but most of his analysis comes from his observations of his old scientific stamping grounds in New Guinea, a process that has not been without its tribulations.

Several years ago, Diamond says he met a tribesman called Daniel Wemp who said he had organised a clan war in New Guinea to avenge the death of an uncle. According to Diamond, after three years, and 30 deaths, Wemp's target – a man called Isum Mandingo – was left paralysed in an attack. Diamond wrote up the story for the New Yorker in 2008 - and found himself at the receiving end of a $10m libel lawsuit from Wemp and Mandingo.

An investigation by Rhonda Roland Shearer – the widow of the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould and publisher of iMediaEthics, a not-for-profit news website – alleged that the New Yorker article was riddled with errors, that Wemp had not organised the clan war and that Mandingo was injured in an unrelated attack when he was protecting his land. It was also claimed that Wemp was now living in fear of his life because of Diamond's article. Hence the lawsuit. For their part, both Diamond and David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, vigorously denied the allegations. Their story was backed by careful notes that had been taken at the time by Diamond, while his text had been carefully scrutinised by one of the magazine's best fact checkers, Remnick added.

Nevertheless, Shearer maintains: "Neither Diamond nor New Yorker fact checkers verified maps or political districts, contacted missionaries working in the area, checked local government, police, court or hospital records, or contacted the leading anthropology expert in the area, Paul Sillitoe, to verify Diamond's single-source story. Our report revealed Diamond named and accused people he never met of killing. He now writes that he removes or changes names as is required in anthropological practice to protect informants."

The case caused a flurry among science journals but has since fizzled out. Diamond blinks and looks pained when I mention the name Rhonda Shearer. "A distinctive person about whom I shall refrain from commenting," he mutters. Wemp and Mandigo's case was withdrawn by mutual consent after the sudden death of their lawyer but it's now understood that a new lawsuit is pending. There is no mention of the Wemp tale, although highly relevant to Diamond's thesis, in The World Until Yesterday. Caution appears to have won the day.

The issue of vengeance is central to Diamond's book. In the west, when a person is robbed or injured in an attack, the state – in the form of the police – take responsibility for tracking and punishing the culprit. Traditional societies take a very different approach. Minor offences are normally settled by payment of compensation – the pig is the traditional currency in New Guinea – or by holding a feast to signal the re-establishment of friendly relations. For more serious offences, including murder, a family will seek to make alliances with others to help track down and kill their relative's murderer. This usually triggers an identical response from the murdered murderer's family and the process is repeated. The west's depersonalised system of justice looks a lot better from this perspective.

But there is a cost, says Diamond, pointing to an example provided by his wife Marie's family. Her father, Jozef Nabel, was Jewish and born in Klaj, near Krakow, in Poland. During the second world war, he was captured by the Russians, imprisoned and later recruited into the Red Army. He survived, became an officer and in 1945 took a platoon to Klaj to find his family. He discovered that his father had been transported to a concentration camp when the Nazis arrived. However, his mother, sister and a niece had survived, in hiding, for a further two years until a local gang had killed them, believing that, because they were Jews, they must possess gold.

Jozef found the gang leader and with a loaded gun faced the killer of his mother, sister and niece – but could not shoot. He had had enough of people behaving like animals, he told himself. The killer was handed to local police but was released a year later. For the rest of his life, Jozef was tormented by grief, that he had not saved his family, and regret that he had not properly avenged them. Every night, just before sleep, he thought of his mother and sister and how he had let their murderer go, a fact that he admitted to his family only when he was in his late 80s, says Diamond. "He kept his torment to himself until near his death."

Jozef's fate is a consequence, albeit an extreme one, of life in modern states. Here robberies and murders are dealt with by police because this is the most efficient way of dealing with crime. As a result, vengeance is viewed as being socially unacceptable and is strictly outlawed. "But it is a basic emotion along with hate, love, anger and jealousy, and if one is told to sit on this feeling the result is – like my father-in-law – something that can get bottled up for the rest of one's life. It is an unfortunate consequence of state justice and we need to help those caught up in it. We don't give enough consideration to the feelings of those who have been robbed of their loved ones."

Or consider the issue of old age. "Most traditional societies give their older folk much more satisfying existences than we do and let them live out their last years surrounded by their children, relatives and grandchildren," says Diamond. "Old people are useful – as sources of knowledge because these societies do not have books. If you want to survive a cyclone, an old person's past experiences might well determine whether that group lives or dies. And they are often the best makers of tools and pots and baskets and weapons. In the west today – with our cult of youth – we seem to have lost how to get value from our older people."

There are exceptions. Nomad tribes, particularly those in the Arctic or deserts, faced with insufficient food will often kill old people or abandon them – or encourage them to commit suicide, a grim policy taken to extremes not just by the Kaulong but by people of the Banks Islands in the Pacific, whose old and sick would beg their friends to bury them alive to end their suffering, and the Chukchi, who live in the northeastern corner of Asia, who used to encourage their old folk to let themselves be strangled on the promise they would get preferential treatment in the next world. Yes, it sounds grim, admits Diamond, but it has a cruel logic: food supplies are limited and what else should they do when resources dry up? Let their children starve?

Finally, there is the issue of everyday risks, a topic that modern western men and women have got absurdly out of context, Diamond argues. "We worry about dangers from events that kill lots of people at once: plane crashes, nuclear-plant explosions, terrorist attacks. But the chances that we will be killed in one of these events is utterly negligible."

By contrast, people in traditional societies worry about small-scale local risks. "On one trip in New Guinea, I wanted to pitch a tent under a dead tree. My guides thought I was mad. It could fall and kill me in the night, they told me. I argued the risk was low but later realised, if you spend a long time in forests, these will accumulate. It is the same with western life. The risks from little events mount up, and don't forget, if you slip in the shower or on the sidewalk, you can break a hip. For someone of my age that could end my life or at least my walking life. Similarly, car accidents pose genuine dangers.

"So we should take a leaf out of the New Guineans' book and worry about showers, sidewalks and cars and not fret about plane crashes or terrorist attacks. Of course, most of my American friends think I am paranoid, but, as I point out, I am still here."

McKie, Robin. 2013. “Jared Diamond: what we can learn from tribal life”. The Guardian. Posted: January 6, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Pronunciation of 's' sounds impacts perception of gender, CU-Boulder researcher finds

A person's style of speech — not just the pitch of his or her voice — may help determine whether the listener perceives the speaker to be male or female, according to a University of Colorado Boulder researcher who studied transgender people transitioning from female to male.

The way people pronounce their "s" sounds and the amount of resonance they use when speaking contributes to the perception of gender, according to Lal Zimman, whose findings are based on research he completed while earning his doctoral degree from CU-Boulder's linguistics department.

Zimman, who graduated in August, is presenting his research Jan. 5 at the annual meeting of the Linguistic Society of America in Boston.

"In the past, gender differences in the voice have been understood, primarily, as a biological difference," Zimman said. "I really wanted to look at the potential for other factors, other than how testosterone lowers the voice, to affect how a person's voice is perceived."

As part of the process of transitioning from female to male, participants in Zimman's study were treated with the hormone testosterone, which causes a number of physical changes including the lowering of a person's voice. Zimman was interested in whether the style of a person's speech had any impact on how low a voice needed to drop before it was perceived as male.

What he found was that a voice could have a higher pitch and still be perceived as male if the speaker pronounced "s" sounds in a lower frequency, which is achieved by moving the tongue farther away from the teeth.

"A high-frequency 's' has long been stereotypically associated with women's speech, as well as gay men's speech, yet there is no biological correlate to this association," said CU-Boulder linguistics and anthropology Associate Professor Kira Hall, who served as Zimman's doctoral adviser. "The project illustrates the socio-biological complexity of pitch: the designation of a voice as more masculine or more feminine is importantly influenced by other ideologically charged speech traits that are socially, not biologically, driven."

Vocal resonance also affected the perception of gender in Zimman's study. A deeper resonance — which can be thought of as a voice that seems to be emanating from the chest instead of from the head — is the result of both biology and practice. Resonance is lower for people whose larynx is deeper in their throats, but people learn to manipulate the position of their larynx when they're young, with male children pulling their larynxes down a little bit and female children pushing them up, Zimman said.

For his study, Zimman recorded the voices of 15 transgender men, all of whom live in the San Francisco Bay area. To determine the frequency of the "s" sounds each participant made, Zimman used software developed by fellow linguists. Then, to see how the "s" sounds affected perception, Zimman digitally manipulated the recording of each participant's voice, sliding the pitch from higher to lower, and asked a group of 10 listeners to identify the gender of the speaker. Using the recordings, Zimman was able to pinpoint how low each individual's voice had to drop before the majority of the group perceived the speaker to be male.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Pronunciation of 's' sounds impacts perception of gender, CU-Boulder researcher finds”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 4, 2013. Available online:

Monday, January 28, 2013

'Universal' personality traits may not be universal after al

For decades, consensus among psychologists has held that a group of five personality traits –– or slight variations of these five –– are a universal feature of human psychology. However, a study by anthropologists at UC Santa Barbara raises doubt about the veracity of that five-factor model (FFM) of personality structure as it relates to indigenous populations. Their findings appear in the current issue of the American Psychological Association's Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Studying the Tsimane, an isolated indigenous group in central Bolivia, Michael Gurven, a professor of anthropology at UCSB and lead author of the paper, found they did not necessarily exhibit the five broad dimensions of personality –– openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. While previous research has found strong support for what experts refer to as the "Big Five" in more developed countries and across some cultures, Gurven and his team, which includes Christopher Von Rueden, a postdoctoral scholar in anthropology at UCSB and co-author of the paper, discovered more evidence of a Tsimane "Big Two" –– prosociality and industriousness. These combine elements of the traditional Big Five, and may represent unique aspects of highly social, subsistence societies.

"Similar to the conscientiousness portion of the Big Five, several traits that bundle together among the Tsimane included efficiency, perseverance, and thoroughness," said Gurven, who is also co-director of the Tsimane Health and Life History Project, a collaboration between UCSB and the University of New Mexico, with co-director and co-author Hillard Kaplan. "These traits reflect the industriousness of a society of subsistence farmers.

"However," Gurven continued, "other industrious traits included being energetic, relaxed, and helpful. In small-scale societies, individuals have fewer choices for social or sexual partners, and limited domains of opportunity for cultural success and proficiency. This may require abilities that link aspects of different traits, resulting in a trait structure other than the Big Five."

The Tsimane live in communities ranging from 30 to 500 people dispersed among approximately 90 villages. Since the mid-20th century, they have come into greater contact with the modern world, although fertility and mortality rates remain high, the study noted. With formal education available to few Tsimane, the literacy rate is below 25 percent. Some 40 percent speak Spanish in addition to their native language. They live in extended family clusters that share food and labor, and they usually limit contact with outsiders unless absolutely necessary, the authors said.

The researchers translated into the Tsimane language a standard questionnaire that assesses the Big Five personality traits, and interviewed 632 adults from 28 villages. Women comprised 48 percent of the sample, with an average age of 47 and little more than a year of formal education.

In addition, the researchers conducted a separate study to gauge the reliability of the self-report interviews by instead focusing on reports by peers. For that study, they asked 430 Tsimane adults, including 66 people from the first study, to evaluate their spouse's personality. The second study revealed that the subject's personality as reported by his or her spouse also did not fit into a Big Five framework.

The researchers controlled for education level, Spanish fluency, gender, and age. Previous research has suggested that formal schooling and greater interaction with others, such as when villagers venture to markets in other towns, can lead to more abstract reflection and may be one reason why the Big Five replicates in most places, according to the authors. However, there were no significant differences between the less educated, Tsimane-only speakers and the more educated bilingual participants.

While recent research on personality variation has demonstrated that the Big Five personality traits may be lacking in some developing cultures –– particularly in Asia and Africa –– Gurven noted that theirs is the first study of a large sample of an exclusively indigenous population completed with rigorous methodological controls. He suggested that personality researchers expand beyond the limited scope of more Western, industrialized, and educated populations.

"The lifestyle and ecology typical of hunter–gatherers and horticulturalists are the crucible that shaped much of human psychology and behavior," he said. "Despite its popularity, there is no good theory that explains why the Big Five takes the form it does, or why it is so commonly observed. Rather than just point out a case study where the Big Five fails, our goal should be to better understand the factors that shape personality more generally."

EurekAlert. 2013. “'Universal' personality traits may not be universal after all”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 8, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Research reveals how single women shaped the religious culture of colonial Latin America

University of Cincinnati research is revealing how gender and civil status shaped devotional networks in 18th century colonial Latin America, and how economically independent, single women played a key role in shaping the spiritual economy of their communities. Brianna Leavitt-Alcántara, a UC assistant professor of history, will present her research on Sunday, Jan. 6, at the annual meeting of the Conference on Latin American History (CLAH), in New Orleans. The conference is held in conjunction with the 127th annual meeting of the American Historical Association.

Leavitt-Alcántara's presentation, "Devotional Networks and Spiritual Geographies: Single Women in a Spanish American City," focused on a sample of 100 legal will documents from Guatemala City over a 20-year period, from 1750-1770 – when Latin America was undergoing a dramatic transformation in politics and religion.

The wills revealed how single and widowed women from diverse social backgrounds positioned themselves as pious benefactors bestowing patronage on priests, while at the same time invoking the assistance and support of those same priests to settle their spiritual and worldly affairs.

Leavitt-Alcántara explains that most research on women and religion in colonial Latin America has focused on nuns, holy women and those accused of religious "deviance."

"We know far less about ordinary women, in large part because they are much harder to locate in available sources." However, Leavitt-Alcántara points out colonial Latin-American cities were often populated by more women than men, because cities privileged women's work in domestic service and petty commerce. This demographic situation, in conjunction with other social and cultural factors, resulted in relatively high numbers of single women, widows and female-headed households.

Although it was socially acceptable for women to be unmarried in colonial Latin America, Leavitt-Alcántara says it was also a difficult position for women economically, socially and culturally, as a result of the patriarchal society.

"Single and widowed women faced greater social concerns about their sexuality. Furthermore, women who were born illegitimate, poor and multiracial could face additional questions about morality, religious orthodoxy or criminality," says Leavitt-Alcántara. "Women who did not live with a natural patriarch – a father or husband – might look to form bonds with other patriarchal figures, so what I'm seeing here is that women may have cultivated priests to serve in that role to help them survive socially and appear to be honorable, pious women."

The wills revealed how single and widowed female benefactors often named priests as beneficiaries of their pious foundations, while at the same time naming those priests as executors of their estates – essentially placing these priests in charge of both spiritual and worldly matters.

Leavitt-Alcántara says that furthermore, "Women were forming relationships with priests who were not their parish priests, even though the Catholic Church envisioned the primary confessional relationship as one between parish priests and parishioners. So, I believe that women did strategize and exercise some choice in forming these relationships. I think this also highlights the competition among priests and monastic orders to form religious affiliations with these women, and it appears women were active participants in this competitive market," says Leavitt-Alcántara.

"I think that by developing these networks with churches outside their neighborhood or parish, ordinary women helped to create a common urban identity in a region that had strong division in race, ethnicity and class. Religion played a role in connecting the city and these diverse populations."

EurekAlert. 2013. “Research reveals how single women shaped the religious culture of colonial Latin America”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 3, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Ancient Carving Shows Stylishly Plump African Princess

A 2,000-year-old relief carved with an image of what appears to be a, stylishly overweight, princess has been discovered in an "extremely fragile" palace in the ancient city of Meroë, in Sudan, archaeologists say.

At the time the relief was made, Meroë was the center of a kingdom named Kush, its borders stretching as far north as the southern edge of Egypt. It wasn't unusual for queens (sometimes referred to as "Candaces") to rule, facing down the armies of an expanding Rome.

The sandstone relief shows a woman smiling, her hair carefully dressed and an earring on her left ear. She appears to have a second chin and a bit of fat on her neck, something considered stylish, at the time, among royal women from Kush.

Team leader Krzysztof Grzymski presented the relief, among other finds from the palace at Meroë, at an Egyptology symposium held recently at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Researchers don't know the identity of the woman being depicted, but based on the artistic style the relief appears to date back around 2,000 years and show someone royal. "It's similar to other images of princesses," Grzymski told LiveScience in an interview. He said that the headdress hasn't survived and it cannot be ruled out that it actually depicts a queen. [Image Gallery: Amazing Egyptian Discoveries] Why royal women in Kush preferred to be depicted overweight is a long-standing mystery. "There is a distinct possibility that the large size of the Candaces represented fertility and maternity," wrote the late Miriam Ma'at-Ka-Re Monges, who was a professor at California State University, Chico, and an expert on Kush, in an article published in The Encyclopedia of Black Studies (Sage Publications, 2005).

An ancient palace

The discovery occurred in 2007 as Grzymski's team was exploring a royal palace in the city, trying to determine its date. The sandstone blocks that made up its foundation were "extremely fragile," according to Grzymski, and the team found that the palace dated to late in the life of Kush's existence. The blocks were re-used in antiquity by the palace's builders and were originally from buildings that stood in earlier times.

When they found the relief it "was loose and falling apart so we just took it out," Grzymski said. It was brought to a museum in Khartoum, Sudan's modern capital, for safekeeping. "There's always a danger of robbers coming and taking [them] out, so many of those decorated blocks were in danger."

They found many other decorated blocks as well, Grzymski said. Because they had been re-used in antiquity the blocks were out of order and presented researchers with a giant jigsaw puzzle.

"Ideally, I would like to dismantle this whole wall, this foundation wall, and take out the decorated blocks and see if we would be able reconstruct some other structures from which the blocks came," Grzymski told the Toronto audience.

It's one of many, many, tasks that need to be done in the ancient city. "It's considered one of the largest archaeological sites in Africa," Grzymski said of Meroë. "This site will be worked on for a hundred years perhaps before it's fully explored."

Grzymski is a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum and the symposium was organized by the Society for the Study of Egyptian Antiquities and the museum's Friends of Ancient Egypt group.

Jarus, Owen. 2013. “Ancient Carving Shows Stylishly Plump African Princess”. Live Science. Posted: January 3, 2013. Available online:

Friday, January 25, 2013

Ancient religious texts among the 25,000 new images online

Launched in December 2011, the Cambridge Digital Library has already attracted tens of millions of hits on its website. Among the 25,000 new images being made freely available are a 2,000-year old copy of The Ten Commandments on the famous Nash Papyrus and also one of the most remarkable ancient copies of the New Testament; the Codex Bezae.

Latest documents concentrates on faith

While the latest release focuses on faith traditions – including important texts from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism – many of the manuscripts being made available are also of great political, cultural and historical importance.

One, the tenth-century Book of Deer, is widely believed to be the oldest surviving document from Scotland, and it contains the earliest known examples of written Gaelic.

A thirteenth-century Life of Edward the Confessor provides an account of the early English saint and king, produced by a later king for political purposes, and boasts masterpieces of English illumination, including a very graphic portrayal of the Battle of Hastings.

The extensive Cairo Genizah collections, which are being gradually released through the digital library, provide fascinating glimpses into the everyday life of a Jewish community in Egypt over a period of a thousand years. Based at the crossroads of trade and intellectual exchange, the archive of this community represents one of the most important sources for understanding the wider medieval world.

The Library is also beginning to release digital versions of its Islamic and Sanskrit collections, which include both secular and religious texts. The Islamic manuscripts collection includes some of the earliest surviving Qur’ans, while the Library’s Sanskrit manuscripts cover all the major religious traditions of South Asia and include some of the oldest known manuscripts of key religious texts.

A generous gift

A £1.5m lead gift from the Polonsky Foundation in June 2010 made possible the sophisticated technical infrastructure underpinning the digital library. This gift was one of the earliest and largest that the Foundation has given as part of its International Digitisation Project, which aims to make the world’s intellectual treasures freely accessible to a global audience. The Polonsky Foundation has also funded the digitisation of much of the content included within this latest release.

Dr Leonard Polonsky said: “I am delighted to see such important materials being made freely available to the world, and I look forward to the many other exciting collections the Library is preparing.”

Dr Polonsky’s landmark benefaction provides a strong basis for attracting further support for this ambitious and important initiative at Cambridge and has already been successful in generating funding for further digitisation.

University Librarian Anne Jarvis said: “Cambridge University Library preserves works of great importance to faith traditions and communities around the world. Because of their age and delicacy these manuscripts are seldom able to be viewed – and when they are displayed, we can only show one or two pages. Now, through the generosity of the Polonsky Foundation, anyone with a connection to the Internet can select a work of interest, turn to any page of the manuscript, and explore it in extraordinary detail.”

Among the religious treasures and collections viewable within the Cambridge Digital Library are:

The Nash Papyrus

Named after the Egyptologist who purchased it at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Nash papyrus is a very fragile second-century BCE manuscript. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, it was by far the oldest manuscript containing text from the Hebrew Bible, and even now it remains among the most ancient.

View at:

The Codex Bezae

The Codex Bezae is one of the most important New Testament manuscripts. Containing the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles in Greek and Latin, it is thought to date from the late fourth or early fifth century. Codex Bezae is striking in containing many unique forms of the text, including, a saying attributed to Jesus found in no other sources, a longer ending that was added to Mark’s Gospel and a strikingly different version of Acts. In addition to the high-quality digital facsimile of the Codex, the Cambridge Digital Library includes a new edition of the manuscript with full Greek and Latin transcriptions, including information about its many corrections, prepared by the International Greek New Testament Project (

View at

The Book of Deer

The Book of Deer is a tiny pocket gospel book, about 16cm tall and 11cm wide. Usually dated to the first half of the tenth century, the manuscript is of particular importance to Scotland. It is widely regarded as the earliest surviving manuscript produced in Scotland and also contains the earliest examples of written Scots Gaelic, added to the manuscript in the twelfth century at the monastery of Deer in Aberdeenshire.

View at:

The Life of St Edward the Confessor

The Life of St Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris celebrates the life of this important English saint and king. Sponsored by Henry III and possibly owned by Queen Eleanor of Castille, it is a masterpiece of thirteenth-century English illumination and political propaganda.

View at:

Fragments of the Qur’an

Several very early fragments of the Qur’an, from the eighth or ninth centuries CE (second or third centuries AH), many written in elaborate script with geometrical ornamentation.


The Cairo Genizah Collection (selection). The Taylor-Schechter Cairo Genizah Collection is the world’s largest and most important single collection of medieval Jewish manuscripts. Obtained from a synagogue storeroom (genizah) in Egypt in the late 1890s, the collection contains 193,000 manuscript fragments, obtained by a Cambridge professor, covering all aspects of life in the Jewish community at Fustat, near Cairo, over a period of a thousand years. The digital library currently contains several thousand items from the collection. This will expand over the next few years to include the entire collection, along with a further 7,000 fragments from the long hidden Jacques Mosseri Genizah Collection. The digitisation of the Genizah collections has been sponsored by the Jewish Manuscript Preservation Society, the Friedberg Genizah Project, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

More information and examples at:

Cambridge’s important collection of Sanskrit manuscripts comprises over 1,600 works written over a thousand year period on different materials, including paper, palm leaf and birch bark. The collection covers many of South Asia’s religious traditions – from the Vedic religion to devotional Hinduism and Tantrism, Theravada to Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism, and Jainism. The digitisation of the Library’s Sanskrit collection is being undertaken as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)-funded research project to study and catalogue the collection. The digital library currently presents a small initial selection, which will grow significantly in 2013-14.

More information and examples at:

Past Horizons. 2013. “Ancient religious texts among the 25,000 new images online”. Past Horizons. Posted: January 3, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Our student son is angry – he thinks we've deprived him of his culture

Annalisa Barbieri advises a mother who can't understand her son's attitude

We have lived in the UK for 15 years and have one child – a son who is bright, funny, kind and caring. We sent him to a school of academic acclaim, but he didn't make use of the various opportunities, despite his father and me prodding him to do so. And while he is at university and doing well, he could have made it to one of the top five universities had he put in the effort. While that saddened us, we were happy that he settled in and was doing well.

As he grew up, we visited our families back home annually. He enjoyed those holidays. However, on return he didn't bother to keep in touch with his cousins, however much I asked him to, or reminded him. Similarly, I attempted to teach him our mother tongue several times, but he was not interested.

University life has turned him into a mature, loving and caring young man – he helps me with household chores when he visits in the holidays, chats to me and appreciates what we have done for him as parents.

At the beginning of last year, I mentioned internships in the motherland, as he hadn't managed to get one here (although he hadn't tried very hard). He applied for and secured one. Off he went, a well-balanced, confident young man. He lived with my sister and did well; it helped him decide on his career path. He also bonded well with everyone in the family.

But my son noticed that the other cousins had a strong bond, a shared history and a language he didn't speak, although he understood it well. He conveniently forgot all our attempts to teach him about our culture. He returned full of rage, all broken and shaken up. He raved and ranted at us, so we reminded him about our attempts to teach him our language etc. He grudgingly accepted this and declared he was going back after graduation to settle there. We gave him our full support (as usual) and he began to learn the language, with me as a teacher. Sessions have been very painful – a lot of it involved him spewing hateful words and accusations. He is back at university now, full of rage and anger against us.
Barbieri, Annalisa. 2013. "Our student son is angry – he thinks we've deprived him of his culture". The Guardian. Posted: January 12, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

How Some Medieval Cultures Adapted to Rise of Islam

Medieval Afghanistan, Iran and the one-time Soviet Central Asian states were frontiers in flux as the Islamic Caliphate spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh through 10th centuries.

As such, different groups, such as the new Arab ruling class, the native landed gentry and local farmers, jockeyed for power, position and economic advantage over an approximately 300-year period as the Sasanian Empire collapsed and the Caliphate took its place.

University of Cincinnati historian Robert Haug, assistant professor, will present his research on how social, cultural and political changes were manifested in these border areas that serve almost as a "perpetual frontier." He does so Jan. 3, 2013, at the American Historical Association, in a presentation titled "Between the Limits and the Gaps: Conceptualizing Frontiers in Medieval Arabic and Persian Geographies."

While many in the West might perceive these Middle Eastern and Asian countries as Islamic religious monoliths, their populations in the Middle Ages were only about 50 percent Muslim in the 10th century, even after 300 years of Arab rule, according to Haug.

"Some may see these areas as homogenous today, but as the fringes of empire in the Middle Ages, there were economic, cultural, political and religious tensions that were negotiated and re-negotiated," he explained.

For instance, conversion of native populations to Islam was initially discouraged by the new Arab elite. "The incoming Arab elite seeking to solidify power in these frontier border areas wanted to maintain a distinction between themselves and the long-term resident populations. The new elites wanted to be able to collect taxes and fulfill military levies, and there were more strictures on how you went about doing so with co-religionists vs. those who were not Muslim," explained Haug, adding that radical transformation and conversions did not generally take place except at the very top tier of native societies.

In studying records of the era, he also finds how subject populations maneuvered in order to maintain position, economic security or cultural identity in a shifting social climate. For instance, in comparing early ninth century records and texts to those from the late 10th centuries, Haug notes that as the number of mosques in an area increased, the vocabulary for referring to fortified farms also changed.

These were border areas on the edge of the steppes where raiders were a perpetual problem, so farmers and landed gentry wanted to keep their fortified grain silos and farms. However, these fortified enclosures were also seen as a threat by the Caliphate. After all, they could serve to harbor enemies of the Islamic empire. To negotiate this tightrope, village headmen, farmers and the landed gentry began to refer to these defensive enclosures as "ribats," which was not the former local word used, but an Arab term referencing a defensive jihad. So, now, the fortified farms and food storage could be viewed as a means for defending Islam, making them more politically and militarily acceptable to the Arab elites.

Adoption of the term doesn't mean that those using it had necessarily converted to Islam, said Haug, adding, "This had become a mixed culture with overlapping identities. Political and economic necessity likely drove such changes in the vocabulary and culture. It's not unlike how Michigan residents or Minnesotans tend to watch hockey, thus aligning themselves culturally with Canada in this regard; however, they're still U.S. Citizens."

The coins minted and used in the frontier areas also speak of the struggle of local elites to retain or expand their power under the Caliphate. "The coins give you information as to who was in charge. I also like to say, 'The coin doesn't lie.' As power shifted back and forth, the names on the coins change," said Haug.

For instance, coins minted and used in Baghdad might have three names on them, that of the Caliph, his heir and the area's governor perhaps. Coins in the frontier areas could have a half dozen or so names inscribed. "On the frontier, the coin minters were hedging their bets. Power could change hands along the border, and the coins represent how often and easily that happened. In fact, names on coins minted in frontier areas changed with much greater frequency than did those on coins minted in Baghdad or other centrally located mints," stated Haug.

Science Daily. 2013. “How Some Medieval Cultures Adapted to Rise of Islam”. Science Daily. Posted: January 2, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Stone-Age cinema: Cave art conceals first animations

Think the first movies were screened in a cinema? According to an analysis of cave art, our prehistoric ancestors may have invented the concept while drawing on their walls.

In this video, researcher and film-maker Marc Azéma from the University of Toulouse Le Mirail in France reveals how several frames of an animation are superimposed in many animal sketches. A horse painting from the Lascaux caves in France, for example, is made up of many versions of the animal representing different positions of movement. In this video, Azema extracts the individual images and displays them in succession, demonstrating how they play back like a cartoon.

In other examples, motion is represented by juxtaposing drawings of a body in motion. Azéma creates another sequence by picking out motion frames to produce an animation of a running animal. Apart from layered paintings, ancient humans may have used light tricks to evoke motion on cave walls. Engraved discs of bone have also been found which produce galloping animations when spun on a string, reminiscent of flipbooks. For more on prehistoric cinema, read our feature article, "Prehistoric cinema: A silver screen on the cave wall".

Ceurstemont, Sandrine. 2013. “Stone-Age cinema: Cave art conceals first animations”. New Scientist. Posted: January 2, 2013. Available online:

Monday, January 21, 2013

Don’t underestimate Viking women

The status of Viking women may be underestimated due to the way we interpret burial findings.

“To assume that Viking men were ranked above women is to impose modern values on the past, which would be misleading,” cautions Marianne Moen. She has been studying how women’s status and power is expressed through Viking burial findings. Her master’s thesis The Gendered Landscape argues that viking gender roles may have been more complex than we assume.

Exploring new perspectives of Viking society is a theme which also will be the focus of the forthcoming Viking Worlds conference in March 2013, where Moen is a member of the organising committee.

Skewed interpretation

Our assumptions of gender roles in viking society could skew the way we interpret burial findings, Moen points out. She uses the 1904 excavation of the Oseberg long boat to illustrate the point. Rather than the skeleton of a powerful king or chieftain, the ship surprisingly contained two female skeletons.

“The first theories suggested that this must be the grave of queen Åsa mentioned in Snorri’s Ynglinga saga, and that the other skeleton was her slave servant,” says Moen. Åsa Haraldsdottir was the mother of Viking king Halfdan the Black.

However, later carbon dating revealed that the buried ship was from around 834 AD - a date which made this theory unfeasible. But the idea of a queen mother and her servant became persistent amongst archaeologists.

Powerful Oseberg women

”Since the Oseberg mound contained two women, the burial site has been analysed as a unique find, without reference to similar sites. The finding is very similar to the Gokstadskipet long boat, which is regarded as the grave of a powerful and influential king. So why isn’t Osebergskipet regarded in the same way?” asks Moen.

“There are several indicators that these women were powerful in their own right – but by defining one of them as a queen it is implied that her significance was due to who she was married to or had mothered.”

Using literary sources

And although we accept that some Viking women may have had a role as religious figures (as a ‘volve’) performing rites, we do not accord them the corresponding power they would have had in a society where religious and political power was intertwined, Moen argues.

“Our perception of religion’s influence in the society is based on texts written hundreds of years afterwards, by men from a different and more misogynistic religion.”

Moen feels many archaeologists have put too much emphasis on historical texts, such as Snorri Sturluson’s sagas.

“As archaeologists we have to base our analyses on archaeological material. Historical material do have some value, but only as secondary sources.”

Identifying male graves

The fact that far more graves of men than women have been found from this era has also been seen as an indication that men were more powerful. But it might not be that straightforward to identify a grave as male or female, Moen suggests.

Usually archaeologists have to rely on artefacts to gender identify a grave, due to a lack of human remains. But the presence of male objects (such as swords, shields or spears) or female objects (jewellery, fabric and weaving artefacts) does not conclusively prove the gender.

“There have also been cases of male graves with pearls and woven cloths, and women were sometimes buried with smaller weapons, for instance arrowheads. Generally it is fairly obvious what constitutes male or female objects, but the lines were sometimes blurred.”

Prominent female graves

Added to this, the larger metal objects usually found in male graves are more likely to be discovered after hundreds of years - while smaller female objects such as brooches (and hence, female graves) can remain undetected.

“If it is the case that women belonged to the private sphere of the home and men were in the public sphere of society, this should be reflected in the burial landscape,” Moen points out. But in the Kaupang area she has studied, female graves are side by side with male graves – and just as prominent.

Victorian ideals of domestic women

“Since the Viking era became an important part of building Norwegian national identity in the 19th century, early archaeology was influenced by Victorian ideals. The contemporary ideals of women belonging to the home and men being out in the public was imposed on Viking society,” says Moen.

“The domestic role of Viking women may have been less limited to the private sphere than it is today. The large estates were contemporary seats of power, and the woman of the house had the keys. How private or public this role was should be interpreted outside our own cultural context.”

Foss, Arild S. 2013. “Don’t underestimate Viking women”. Science Nordic. Posted: January 2, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, January 20, 2013

While in womb, babies begin learning language from their mothers

Babies only hours old are able to differentiate between sounds from their native language and a foreign language, scientists have discovered. The study indicates that babies begin absorbing language while still in the womb, earlier than previously thought.

Sensory and brain mechanisms for hearing are developed at 30 weeks of gestational age, and the new study shows that unborn babies are listening to their mothers talk during the last 10 weeks of pregnancy and at birth can demonstrate what they've heard.

"The mother has first dibs on influencing the child's brain," said Patricia Kuhl, co-author and co-director of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington. "The vowel sounds in her speech are the loudest units and the fetus locks onto them."

Previously, researchers had shown that newborns are born ready to learn and begin to discriminate between language sounds within the first months of life, but there was no evidence that language learning had occurred in utero.

"This is the first study that shows fetuses learn prenatally about the particular speech sounds of a mother's language," said Christine Moon, lead author and a professor of psychology at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash. "This study moves the measurable result of experience with speech sounds from six months of age to before birth."

The results will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Acta Paediatrica.

Forty infants, about 30 hours old and an even mix of girls and boys, were studied in Tacoma and Stockholm, Sweden. While still in the nursery, the babies listened to vowel sounds in their native tongue and in foreign languages.

Their interest in the sounds was captured by how long they sucked on a pacifier that was wired into a computer measuring the babies' reaction to the sounds. Longer or shorter sucking for unfamiliar or familiar sounds is evidence for learning, because it indicates that infants can differentiate between the sounds heard in utero.

In both countries, the babies at birth sucked longer for the foreign language than they did for their native tongue.

The researchers say that infants are the best learners, and discovering how they soak up information could give insights on lifelong learning. "We want to know what magic they put to work in early childhood that adults cannot," Kuhl said. "We can't waste that early curiosity."

EurekAlert. 2013. “While in womb, babies begin learning language from their mothers”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 2, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Research unearths terrace farming at ancient desert city of Petra

A team of international archaeologists including Christian Cloke of the University of Cincinnati is providing new insights into successful and extensive water management and agricultural production in and around the ancient desert city of Petra, located in present-day Jordan. Ongoing investigations, of which Cloke is a part, are led by Professor Susan Alcock of the Brown University Petra Archaeological Project (BUPAP).

Using a variety of tools and techniques, including high-resolution satellite imagery and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating of soils, Cloke, a doctoral student in the Department of Classics at UC, and Cecelia Feldman, classics lecturer at UMass-Amherst, have suggested that extensive terrace farming and dam construction in the region north of the city began around the first century, some 2,000 years ago, not during the Iron Age (c. 1200-300 BC) as had been previously hypothesized. This striking development, it seems, was due to the ingenuity and enterprise of the ancient Nabataeans, whose prosperous kingdom had its capital at Petra until the beginning of the second century.

The successful terrace farming of wheat, grapes and possibly olives, resulted in a vast, green, agricultural "suburb" to Petra in an otherwise inhospitable, arid landscape. This terrace farming remained extensive and robust through the third century. Based on surface finds and comparative data collected by other researchers in the area, however, it is clear that this type of farming continued to some extent for many centuries, until the end of the first millennium (between A.D. 800 and 1000). That ancient Petra was under extensive cultivation is a testament to past strategies of land management, and is all the more striking in light of the area's dry and dusty environment today.

Cloke and Feldman will present their findings Jan. 4 at the Archaeological Institute of America Annual Meeting in Seattle, in a paper titled "On the Rocks: Landscape Modification and Archaeological Features in Petra's Hinterland." Their research efforts are contributing to a growing understanding of the city, its road networks, and life in the surrounding area.


Dating the start of extensive terrace farming at Petra to the beginning of the common era has important historical implications, according to Cloke, because this date coincides closely with the Roman annexation of the Nabataean Kingdom in A.D. 106.

He explained, "No doubt the explosion of agricultural activity in the first century and the increased wealth that resulted from the wine and oil production made Petra an exceptionally attractive prize for Rome. The region around Petra not only grew enough food to meet its own needs, but also would have been able to provide olives, olive oil, grapes and wine for trade. This robust agricultural production would have made the region a valuable asset for supplying Roman forces on the empire's eastern frontier."

In other words, said Feldman, successful terrace farming and water management when Petra was at its zenith as a trading center added not only to the city's economic importance but to its strategic military value as well, because there were limited options in the region for supplying troops with essential supplies.


On large stretches of land north of Petra, inhabitants built complex and extensive systems to dam wadis (riverbeds) and redirect winter rainwater to hillside terraces used for farming.

Rainfall in the region occurs only between October and March, often in brief, torrential downpours, so it was important for Petra's inhabitants to capture and store all available water for later use during the dry season. Over the centuries, the Nabataeans of Petra became experts at doing so. The broad watershed of sandstone hills naturally directed water flow to the city center, and a complex system of pipes and channels directed it to underground cisterns where it was stored for later use.

"Perhaps most significantly," said Cloke, "it's clear that they had considerable knowledge of their surrounding topography and climate. The Nabataeans differentiated watersheds and the zones of use for water: water collected and stored in the city itself was not cannibalized for agricultural uses. The city's administrators clearly distinguished water serving the city's needs from water to be redirected and accumulated for nurturing crops. Thus, extensive farming activity was almost entirely outside the bounds of the city's natural catchment area and utilized separate watersheds and systems of runoff."

These initial conclusions from the first three seasons of BUPAP fieldwork promise more exciting discoveries about how the inhabitants of Petra cultivated the outlying landscape and supported the city's population. The presence of highly developed systems of landscape modification and water management at Petra take on broader significance as they offer insight into geopolitical changes and Roman imperialism.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Research unearths terrace farming at ancient desert city of Petra”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 2, 2013. Available online:

Friday, January 18, 2013

Privacy hedges date back to the Iron Age

The hedge that separates you from your neighbour wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for the fences and embankments built by Iron Age Northern Europeans.

The hedge around your house is much more than just a random shrub with green leaves. It’s a symbol of private property and marks the boundary between what’s mine and what’s yours.

The idea to enclose and define with straight lines is actually an ancient one.

Some of the first archaeological evidence of landscape boundaries dates back to England around 1,500 BC, but 500 years later it also appears in the rest of Northwestern Europe.

“From being a predominantly open landscape with large commons with scattered trees and bushes, the landscape became dominated by linear demarcation lines. People started to enclose their fields and suddenly started building embankments and trenches around their houses and villages,” says PhD student Mette Løvschal, who works at Aarhus University’s Department of Culture and Society – Section for Prehistoric Archaeology, where she is using archaeological finds and anthropological theories to try and solve the riddle of when, how and why we suddenly started enclosing what was ours.

“The chessboard-like landscape that we see today from aeroplanes hasn’t always looked the way it does today,” she says.

Boundaries spread across Europe

The first man-made lines of demarcation are found in the south of England and date back to around 1,500 BC.

Around the year 1,000 BC, this tendency to enclose fields started to spread to the rest of Northern Europe – Belgium, Holland, Northern France to Northern Germany, Denmark, Scania and all the way to the Baltic countries.

In the Iron Age, around 500 BC, people also started to fence in their houses and gather in small villages, which were protected from enemies with party hedges and embankments.

“The next couple of centuries saw a massive boom of fences,” says Løvschal. “Suddenly, people had all sorts of fences, for instance fences made out of large poles and palisades, embankments, moats, large ditch systems and Caesar’s lilies. They experimented with all these forms of demarcation."

Fences start to indicate power and property rights

The archaeologists can also see that around 300 BC, the hedges not only provided functional protection by keeping enemies and animals away from homes; the hedges also became symbols of power:

”At the fenced farms we see that some farms have a significantly larger and stronger fence than others,” she explains. “For instance, in Hodde in Western Jutland (150 BC), one of the farms stands out by being placed highest up in the terrain, but also by being the farm with the longest stables, the finest ceramics and the largest fence.”

All farms become fenced

The archaeologist explains that one generation would build large palisades and fortifications, and then the next generation would tear them down. This shows that the power structures were rather inconstant.

The findings of fences from 300 BC to around year 0 testify not only to changing and unstable power structures; the demarcated sites also played an important role in our understanding of property rights.

Whereas the fences used to mean that the owner claimed the right to use an area, from around year 0, the demarcation started becoming a sign of ownership of the land or the fenced house.

In other words, the delineation went from signifying that somebody was using the land or was simply keeping animals in this area to showing who owned the land, regardless of whether or not they used it.

”The fences were thus given a new meaning and a standardised shape and size. The hedges were no longer just scattered about the place to fence in cattle. The fences took on a detached form and their main purpose was no longer to keep animals away,” she explains.

“Whereas at one point only a few farms were fenced, eventually all farms became fenced. This shows that to claim ownership of one’s house, you had to mark it with a fence.”

Violent times made Northern Europeans flock together

The reason why these fences emerged in the first place is probably because Western Europeans had good reason to entrench themselves: the period between 500 BC and year 0 was marked by heavy conflict and looting.

“The population density had probably increased and the climate had worsened. This resulted in an increased pressure on the resources in the Celtic society,” explains Løvschal.

Before 1,500 BC, people just moved to a new location if the local area became drained of food. But now weren’t all that many new places to move to.

“A lifestyle emerged in which people remained in the same place, fertilising and cultivating the land, which left them feeling more closely tied to specific locations,” says the archaeologist.

So Iron Age people invested their time and effort in getting the best out of the land they had already seized. It was therefore profitable for them to build a fence or an embankment that could protect against robbers and wild animals and separate the property from the neighbour’s land.

Theories about modern man tell us about the past

The researcher’s project represents a new trend which involves using new methods for extracting more information from archaeological finds.

Løvschal’s study covers classical archaeological excavation plans, aerial photos and scans of soil surfaces from all of Northwestern Europe.

On the theoretical level, she uses cognitive theory and anthropological studies of various cultures’ and societies’ relationship to demarcation, which is slightly different to the way that archaeology is normally conducted.

“I look at how people and communities use boundaries today and then I try to transfer it to the past. This is, however, something that needs to be done with care,” says the researcher, pointing out that although anthropology can provide lots of answers, it’s rarely possible to draw a perfectly straight line from modern cultures to those of ancient people.

Line of discretion dates back to ancient times

“Today, we take borders and fences for granted. We all know that we are supposed to stop at the line of discretion at the bank, and that there’s a hedge between you and your neighbour. This hedge includes some common rules that should be respected on both sides,” explains Løvschal.

“In many ways, these kinds of demarcation lines are inextricably linked to our identity, which is exemplified in conflicts about municipal and national borders. One of the things I want to show with my research is that it hasn’t always been this way.”

She argues that a better understanding of why and how demarcation lines came into being could teach us more about ourselves:

“We can use our modern society to gain more knowledge about the past, but the past can also tell us something about why we think the way we do today,” says Mette Løvschal, who expects to complete her PhD project in the autumn of 2014.

Sørensen, Irene Berg, 2013. “Privacy hedges date back to the Iron Age”. Science Nordic. Posted: January 2, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Dried Squash Holds Headless King's Blood

Two centuries after the French people beheaded Louis XVI and dipped their handkerchiefs in his blood, scientists believe they have authenticated the remains of one such rag kept as a revolutionary souvenir.

Researchers have been trying for years to verify a claim imprinted on an ornately decorated calabash that it contains a sample of the blood of the French king guillotined in Paris on January 21, 1793.

The dried, hollowed squash is adorned with portraits of revolutionary heroes and the text: "On January 21, Maximilien Bourdaloue dipped his handkerchief in the blood of Louis XVI after his decapitation".

He is then believed to have placed the fabric in the gourd, and had it embellished.

The sinister souvenir has been in the private hands of an Italian family for more than a century, said the team of experts from Spain and France which published its findings in the journal Forensic Science International.

Two years ago, analysis of DNA taken from blood traces found inside the ornate vegetable revealed a likely match for someone of Louis' description, including his blue eyes.

But not having the DNA of any kingly relation, researchers could not prove beyond doubt that the blood belonged to Louis.

Until now.

Using the genetic material, the team managed to draw a link to another gruesome artifact -- a mummified head believed to belong to Louis' 16th century predecessor, Henri IV.

In so doing, they provided evidence for authenticating both sets of remains -- uncovering a rare genetic signature shared by two men separated by seven generations.

"This study shows that (the owners of the remains) share a genetic heritage passed on through the paternal line. They have a direct link to one another through their fathers," French forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier said.

The revolution in which Louis and queen Marie-Antoinette lost their heads in public executions also saw mobs ransack the royal chapel at Saint-Denis, north of Paris -- hauling ancient monarchs like Henri from their tombs and mutilating the remains which they tossed into pits.

An individual was recorded to have rescued a severed head from the chaos.

Long thought to belong to Henri, assassinated at the age of 57 by a Catholic fanatic in 1610, the head changed hands several times over the next two centuries, bought and sold at auction or kept in secretive private collections.

Scientists in 2010 said they found proof that the head was indeed Henri's, citing physical features that matched 16th century portraits of the king, as well as radiocarbon dating, 3D scanning and X-rays.

The 2010 study, however, found no DNA and its findings have been contested by some.

With the new evidence, "it is about 250 times more likely that the (owners of the) head and the blood are paternally related, than unrelated," co-author Carles Lalueza Fox of the Institut de Biologia Evolutiva in Barcelona said by email.

Taken together with all the physical and forensic evidence, historical records and folklore, it would be "extremely surprising" if the remains did not belong to the two assassinated monarchs, he added.

"One can say that there is absolutely no doubt anymore," about the authenticity of the mummified head, added Charlier.

The DNA data obtained from Louis XVI could now be used to decipher the genetic code of France's last absolute monarch and his living relatives.

Discovery News. 2013. “Dried Squash Holds Headless King's Blood”. Discovery News. Posted: January 1, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Have a break … the secrets of chocolate

Originally much prized by the Aztecs in the form of a bitter drink, chocolate has a long history of giving pleasure, achievable only by sophisticated processing of an irritatingly variable raw product

Had a good Christmas? And now have you got your New Year's Resolution(s) at the ready? It's that moment when we all (briefly) focus on the bad habits we'd like to shed and the good ones we'd like to be able to lay claim to. Quite often they resolve around our eating or exercise habits. So, before you renounce chocolate and internally promise that you will consume your five-a-day of fruit and veg and exercise regularly for at least half an hour a day, let me regale you with some chocolate science and stories.

The origins of chocolate can be traced to (modern) Mexico and neighbouring countries, where Aztec myth has it that Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god, brought cacoa beans from Paradise and taught the Aztecs how to make the bitter drink chocolatl. (A similar story can be found in Mayan mythology.) For this deed he was punished and exiled by the other gods, who thought the drink too good for humans. Initially, only royalty and priests were allowed to consume the drink created by roasting and then grinding the beans which were added to water and whipped up to make a frothy liquid. Allegedly it was a favourite of Montezuma's, as well as the subsequent Spanish conquistadors.

This myth is enshrined in the name of the cocoa tree Theobroma cacao, which literally means 'food of the gods'. These days the tree grows not only in its original territory but has been introduced to many wet tropical regions around the equatorial belt for commercial production – countries such as Brazil, Ghana, Malaysia and Colombia. However, as with any natural crop, different countries of origin and different local environments lead to substantial variations in the chemical make-up of the bean – specifically in the triglyceride composition – rendering it a challenge to process optimally in a reliable fashion.

Triglycerides are a kind of fat, and are esters of glycerol with (three) fatty acids. The glycerol means these molecules have a hydrophilic head group with three pendant hydrocarbon tails based on fatty acids. These chains may be all identical but typically are not in this case. In the cocoa butter obtained from cocoa beans, the fatty acids involved are palmitic acid (P, with 16 carbon atoms), stearic acid (S, consisting of 18 carbon atoms strung together with all the carbon-carbon bonds saturated), and oleic acid (O, which also has 18 carbons but one of the bonds is unsaturated, meaning there is a double bond joining two of the carbons in the middle of the chain). Cocoa butter contains a mixture of SOS, POP and POS triglycerides, where the letters identify the individual chains on the triglycerides, and the relative amounts depend on the source of the beans. That is the beginning of the complexity of chocolate.

One of the attributes that makes chocolate particularly appealing to our senses is the fact that it melts so close to room temperature; in other words it deliciously melts on our tongue when we pop a bit into our mouths. But unlike a material like ice, which melts at a well-defined temperature, because there is a mixture of triglycerides present in chocolate, each with a slightly different melting point, it actually melts over a range of temperatures. Older readers may remember the advertisement that referred to "chocolate that melts in the mouth not in the hand". This is a case of having exactly the right composition of cocoa butter, as well as exactly the right processing conditions, to make sure the chocolate melts only when in the slightly warmer environment of one's mouth, without leaving a nasty molten mess embarrassingly on one's fingers.

Furthermore, and also unlike many simple materials such as (table) salt, the different triglycerides can actually exist in a variety of crystal forms – so-called polymorphs, which literally means 'many forms' – and these also have different properties (including melting point). So when I say "exactly the right processing conditions", what I actually mean is a complicated series of thermal operations, heating to and then holding at different temperatures, to make sure the right kind of triglyceride crystals form. This process is known as tempering. It isn't exactly a black art by now, but it certainly started off as one in the confectioner's recipe book.

A familiar manifestation of when things go wrong – usually after purchase – is the unattractive whitish 'bloom' that forms on the surface of a chocolate bar, typically after it's got a bit too hot but before it's actually melted. This bloom is attributed to a particular (and very stable) polymorph forming, and may be associated with the previous thermal history being inadequate to transform all the crystals into the right polymorph in the first place.

So far I've leaped over a few key stages, including getting the prized cocoa butter with all its constituent fatty triglycerides out of the cocoa bean, as well as what else goes into chocolate to transform it from the bitter product the Aztecs drank to the chunks of stuff we know and love to our waistline's detriment. Extraction of the cocoa butter is another multi-stage process, perfected over centuries, but it is a crucial set of actions involving fermentation, drying, roasting, breaking up, grinding, alkalisation (also known as Dutching after its invention by van Houten, a Dutch chocolatier in the 19th century) and finally pressing to separate the cocoa butter from the cocoa solids.

Some of the cocoa solids are then added back in when regular chocolate is made – as opposed to white chocolate which omits this ingredient – along with sugar, plus milk solids and some butter fat in the case of milk chocolate. Typical chocolate contains around 30% fat, but for inexpensive chocolate often the proportion of cocoa butter is rather lower, with cheaper vegetable fats being added instead. There is no escaping the fact, chocolate is a high-fat food.

Various attempts have been made to make chocolate lookalikes from alternatives to the cacoa tree. The most successful of these uses the immature fruit and flowers from the linden tree (the lime family, Tiliaceae) in a method originally developed by a French chemist, Missa, in the 18th century. Although it was claimed (and you can still find recipes on the web if you want to test this out) that this had an aroma very similar to normal chocolate, it transpired it did not keep at all well and various attempts at commercialisation failed.

So, as you bite into that last piece of chocolate, consider just how much art and science has gone into its production. Sinful luxury though it may seem, in England its production has largely been in the hands of Quaker families since the Civil War until the very recent past: Fry, Rowntree and Cadbury were all significant Quaker families. Chocolate is no trivial piece of confectionery; much skill is required to mould Easter eggs or fill liqueur chocolates successfully. Production of the myriad forms in which we consume it has been perfected over the centuries, starting off as an art with the science coming rather later. Its production is an astonishingly complex and time-consuming series of operations. Our own consumption of it is, on the other hand, all too rapid.

Donald, Athene. 2013. “Have a break … the secrets of chocolate”. The Guardian. Posted: December 31, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Did Lucy walk, climb, or both?

Australopithecine ancestors -- arboreal versus terrestrial habitat and locomotion

Much has been made of our ancestors "coming down out of the trees," and many researchers view terrestrial bipedalism as the hallmark of "humanness." After all, most of our living primate relatives—the great apes, specifically—still spend their time in the trees. Humans are the only member of the family devoted to the ground, living terrestrial rather than arboreal lives, but that wasn't always the case.

The fossil record shows that our predecessors were arboreal habitués, that is, until Lucy arrived on the scene. About 3.5 million years ago in Africa, this new creature, Australopithecus afarensis, appeared; Lucy was the first specimen discovered. Anthropologists agree that A. afarensis was bipedal, but had Lucy and her legions totally forsaken the trees? The question is at the root of a controversy that still rages.

"Australopithecus afarensis possessed a rigid ankle and an arched, nongrasping foot," write Nathaniel Dominy and his co-authors in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). "These traits are widely interpreted as being functionally incompatible with climbing and thus definitive markers of terrestriality," says Dominy, an associate professor of anthropology at Dartmouth.

But not so fast; this interpretation may be a rush to judgment in light of new evidence brought to light by Dominy and his colleagues. They did what anthropologists do. They went out and looked at modern humans who, like Lucy, have feet adapted to terrestrial bipedalism, and found these people can still function as effective treeclimbers.

Co-authors Vivek Venkataraman and Thomas Kraft collaborated with Dominy on field studies in the Philippines and Africa that inform their PNAS paper. Venkataraman and Kraft are Dartmouth graduate students in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology PhD program in the Department of Biological Sciences, and are supported by National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships.

The studies in Uganda compared Twa hunter-gatherers to their agriculturalist neighbors, the Bakiga. In the Philippines, the researchers studied Agta hunter-gatherers and Manobo agriculturalists. Both the Twa and the Agta habitually climb trees in pursuit of honey, a highly nutritious component of their diets. They climb in a fashion that has been described as "walking" up small-diameter trees. The climbers apply the soles of their feet directly to the trunk and "walk" upward, with their arms and legs advancing alternately.

Among the climbers, Dominy and his team documented extreme dorsiflexion—bending the foot upward toward the shin to an extraordinary degree— beyond the range of modern "industrialized" humans. Assuming their leg bones and ankle joints were normal, "we hypothesized that a soft-tissue mechanism might enable such extreme dorsiflexion," the authors write.

They tested their hypothesis using ultrasound imaging to measure and compare the lengths of gastrocnemius muscle fibers—the large calf muscles—in all four groups—the Agta, Manobo, Twa and Bakiga. The climbing Agta and Twa were found to have significantly longer muscle fibers.

"These results suggest that habitual climbing by Twa and Agta men changes the muscle architecture associated with ankle dorsiflexion," write the scientists, demonstrating that a terrestrially adapted foot and ankle do not exclude climbing from the behavioral repertoire of human hunter- gatherers, or Lucy.

In their conclusions, the Dartmouth team highlights the value of modern humans as models for studying the anatomical correlates of behavior, both in the present and in the dim past of our fossil ancestors.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Did Lucy walk, climb, or both?”. EurekAlert. Posted: December 31, 2012. Available online:

Monday, January 14, 2013

Alcohol: Social Lubricant for 10,000 Years

As people ring in the New Year with dancing and a bit of bubbly, they can consider themselves part of an ancient human tradition.

Several new archaeological finds suggest that alcohol has been a social glue in parties, from work festivals to cultic feasts, since the dawn of civilization.

In the December issue of the journal Antiquity, archaeologists describe evidence of nearly 11,000-year-old beer brewing troughs at a cultic feasting site in Turkey called Göbekli Tepe. And archaeologists in Cyprus have unearthed the 3,500-year-old ruins of what may have been a primitive beer brewery and feasting hall at a site called Kissonerga-Skalia. The excavation, described in the November issue of the journal Levant, revealed several kilns that may have been used to dry malt before fermentation.

The findings suggest that alcohol has been a social lubricant for ages, said Lindy Crewe, an archaeologist at the University of Manchester, who co-authored the Levant paper.

For bread or beer?

While the cultivation of grain clearly transformed humanity, why it first happened has been hotly contested.

"This debate has been going on since the 1950's: Is the first cultivation of grain about making beer or is it about making bread?" Crewe said.

Some researchers suggest that beer arose 11,500 years ago and drove the cultivation of grains. Because grains require so much hard work to produce (collecting tiny, mostly inedible parts, separating grain from chaff, and grinding into flour), beer brewing would have been reserved for feasts with important cultural purposes.

Those feasts -- and alcohol-induced friendliness -- may have enabled hunter-gatherers to bond with larger groups of people in newly emerging villages, fueling the rise of civilization. At work parties, beer may have motivated people to put a little elbow grease into bigger-scale projects such as building ancient monuments.

"Production and consumption of alcoholic beverages is an important factor in feasts facilitating the cohesion of social groups, and in the case of Göbekli Tepe, in organizing collective work," wrote Antiquity paper co-author Oliver Dietrich in an email. Dietrich is an archaeologist for the German Archaeological Institute.

Ancient party sites

The site in Cyprus includes a courtyard and hall, along with jugs, mortars and grinding tools, and crucially, several kilns that Crewe and her colleagues believe were used to toast barley for a primitive beer. To test their hypothesis the team replicated the kilns to produce malted barley and used it in a cloudy and slightly weird-tasting beer, Crewe told LiveScience.

The Göbekli Tepe site in southwestern Turkey, meanwhile, dates to nearly 11,000 years ago. Neolithic hunter-gatherers worshipped ancient deities through dancing and feasting at the temple site, which is filled with t-shaped pillars carved with animal shapes and other ancient designs. The site also had what appears to be a primitive kitchen with large limestone troughs that held up to 42 gallons (160 liters) of liquid. The troughs held traces of oxalates, which are produced during the fermentation of grain into alcohol.

At both sites, the idea of a beer-soaked party must have been a real treat, Crewe said.

"There must have been a real sense of anticipation within the community when you knew a big beer event was coming up," she said.

Ghose, Tia. 2013. “Alcohol: Social Lubricant for 10,000 Years”. Discovery News. Posted: December 31, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, January 13, 2013

'Peking Man' Was a Fashion Plate

"Peking Man," a human ancestor who lived in China between roughly 200,000 and 750,000 years ago, was a wood-working, fire-using, spear-hafting hominid who, mysteriously, liked to drill holes into objects for unknown reasons.

And, yes, these hominids, a form of Homo erectus, appear to have been quite meticulous about their clothing, using stone tools to soften and depress animal hides.

The new discoveries paint a picture of a human ancestor who was more sophisticated than previously believed.

Peking Man was first discovered in 1923 in a cave near the village of Zhoukoudian, close to Beijing (at that time called Peking). During 1941, at the height of World War II, fossils of Peking Man went missing, depriving scientists of valuable information.

Recently, researchers have embarked on a re-excavation of the cave site searching for artifacts and answers as to how the Peking Man lived. Just as importantly, they engaged in new lab work that includes using powerful microscopes to look at artifacts made by Peking Man to determine how they were used, a process archaeologists called "use-wear" analysis.

On Dec. 15, four of these scientists gathered at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum to give an update on their most recent findings. Three of the scientists, Xing Gao, Yue Zhang and Shuangquan Zhang are with the Chinese Academy of Science's Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology. The fourth, Chen Shen, is a curator at the Toronto museum and a special member of the academy.

Among their archaeological findings is a 300,000-year-old "activity floor" (as the scientists call it) containing what may be a hearth and fireplace, akin to a prehistoric living room. Analysis is ongoing and Yue Zhang noted that 3D scanners are being used to map it. If the results hold up, it may prove once and for all that Peking Man was able to control fire, an important skill given the chilly weather at times in northern China.

Spear discovery

The use-wear analysis of Peking Man's tools yielded several interesting finds. Chen Shen said that analysis of the base of Peking Man's stone tools reveal that the hominid "likely" attached stone points to sticks creating a sort of spear. It's an important step in human development as it involves putting two materials, the stone tip and stick, together to form a composite tool.

Scientists are still trying to determine the details. For instance, Shen said it is possible that Peking Man was making spears with short sticks. While not as useful for hunting, the short stick would act as "an extension of the tool," and "you can hold it while you are scrapping or engraving," Shen said in an interview with LiveScience. Researchers are also trying to determine whether Peking Man used some form of sticky organic material to aid in the process of hafting a spear.

Another question is how this fits, chronologically, with other recent prehistoric findings. Just last month, scientists working in South Africa reported in the journal Science that another hominid named Homo heidelbergensis was making spears500,000 years ago (in its case likely to hunt animals). This leaves researchers with the question whether Peking Man, a different hominid, started making spears at around the same time.

More mysteries

The team also found evidence through the use-wear analysis that Peking Man was working wood (which didn't preserve in the cave) with their stone tools, possibly to turn it into wooden tools.

Perhaps the strangest finding was evidence for "drilling." Shen explained they don't know what the hominids were drilling into, or why, but they were certainly engaging in it with their stone tools. There is no evidence so far that Peking Man made ornaments or what we would consider art.

Finally, the analysis shows that Peking Man had an interest in clothes. "A certain proportion of tools were being used for the working and scraping of hides," Shen said in the interview..

"If they are depressing the hides, if they are softening hides, they can use the hides for their clothes," something no sophisticated hominids would dare live without.

Jarus, Owen. 2013. “'Peking Man' Was a Fashion Plate”. Live Science. Posted: December 31, 2012. Available online: