Thursday, February 28, 2013

Greenland ice cores provide vision of the future

Ice cores drilled in the Greenland ice sheet, recounting the history of the last great warming period more than 120,000 years ago, are giving scientists their clearest insight to a world that was warmer than today.

In a paper published today in the journal Nature, scientists have used a 2,540 metre long Greenland ice core to reach back to the Eemian period 115-130 thousand years ago and reconstruct the Greenland temperature and ice sheet extent back through the last interglacial. This period is likely to be comparable in several ways to climatic conditions in the future, especially the mean global surface temperature, but without anthropogenic or human influence on the atmospheric composition.

The Eemian period is referred to as the last interglacial, when warm temperatures continued for several thousand years due mainly to the earth's orbit allowing more energy to be received from the sun. The world today is considered to be in an interglacial period and that has lasted 11,000 years, and called the Holocene.

"The ice is an archive of past climate and analysis of the core is giving us pointers to the future when the world is likely to be warmer," says CSIRO's Dr Mauro Rubino, the Australian scientist working with the North Greenland Eemian ice core research project.

Dr Rubino says the Greenland ice sheet is presently losing mass more quickly than the Antarctic ice sheet. Of particular interest is the extent of the Greenland continental ice sheet at the time of the last interglacial and its contribution to global sea level.

Deciphering the ice core archive proved especially difficult for ice layers formed during the last interglacial because, being close to bedrock, the pressure and friction due to ice movement impacted and re-arranged the ice layering. These deep layers were "re-assembled" in their original formation using careful analysis, particularly of concentrations of trace gases that tie the dating to the more reliable Antarctic ice core records.

Using dating techniques and analysing the water stable isotopes, the scientists estimated the warmest Greenland surface temperatures during the interglacial period about 130,000 years ago were 8±4oC degrees warmer than the average of the last 1,000 years.

At the same time, the thickness of the Greenland ice sheet decreased by 400±250 metres.

"The findings show a modest response of the Greenland ice sheet to the significant warming in the early Eemian and lead to the deduction that Antarctica must have contributed significantly to the 6 metre higher Eemian sea levels".

Additionally, ice core data at the drilling site reveal frequent melt of the ice sheet surface during the Eemian period. "During the exceptional heat over Greenland in July 2012 melt layers formed at the site. With additional warming, surface melt might become more common in the future," the authors said.

The paper is the culmination of several years work by organisations across more than 14 nations.

Dr Rubino said the research results provide new benchmarks for climate and ice sheet scenarios used by scientists in projecting future climate influences.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Greenland ice cores provide vision of the future”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 23, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Religion does not make you love your neighbour - study

It may promote messages such as “love thy neighbour” but religion does not make people more kind or trusting, a study has concluded.

Being religious only appears to make people more co-operative or unselfish when they are dealing with other people of the same faith, it suggested.

The findings, likely to prove controversial, emerge from a study carried out by Nottingham University Business School as part of government-funded research into the role of religion in public life.

A team of behaviour experts asked a group of Malaysian people with different religious backgrounds to take part in a series of tasks involving sharing money with other participants.

In one task people were given an imaginary sum of money and given the option of sending some to another participant.

They were told that whatever they did not send they would be able to keep but also that the participant could chose to send some of it back – which would then be tripled.

They had to judge how “generous” to be.

Participants included Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist and non-religious volunteers

The team noticed that there was little difference between levels of co-operation and generosity when people knew nothing of the other person’s beliefs and when they knew that they were of different persuasions.

But when told that the other person shared their religion they were markedly more trusting and generous with the money.

Dr Robert Hoffmann, an Associate Professor of Economics at Nottingham University Business School and co-author of the report, said: “One would imagine the charity inherent in many well-known articles of faith might have some impact on everyday behaviour.

“But we discovered no evidence of that when we examined what happens when people who are religious knowingly interact with those of a different or no faith.

“When we looked at how religious people knowingly interact with those of the same faith, on the other hand, suddenly their religion started to explain their actions.

“This leads us to the sobering conclusion that religion doesn’t affect people’s behaviour in general terms. Rather, it affects how they relate to different individuals.”

Bingham, John. 2013. “Religion does not make you love your neighbour - study”. The Telegraph. Posted: January 22, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Science Daily. 2013. “From Dark Hearts Comes the Kindness of Humankind

The kindness of humankind most likely developed from our more sinister and self-serving tendencies, according to Princeton University and University of Arizona research that suggests society's rules against selfishness are rooted in the very exploitation they condemn.

The report in the journal Evolution proposes that altruism -- society's protection of resources and the collective good by punishing "cheaters" -- did not develop as a reaction to avarice. Instead, communal disavowal of greed originated when competing selfish individuals sought to control and cancel out one another. Over time, the direct efforts of the dominant fat cats to contain a few competitors evolved into a community-wide desire to guard its own well-being.

The study authors propose that a system of greed dominating greed was simply easier for our human ancestors to manage. In this way, the work challenges dominant theories that selfish and altruistic social arrangements formed independently -- instead the two structures stand as evolutionary phases of group interaction, the researchers write.

Second author Andrew Gallup, a former Princeton postdoctoral researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology now a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Bard College, worked with first author Omar Eldakar, a former Arizona postdoctoral fellow now a visiting assistant professor of biology at Oberlin College, and William Driscoll, an ecology and evolutionary biology doctoral student at Arizona.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers constructed a simulation model that gauged how a community withstands a system built on altruistic punishment, or selfish-on-selfish punishment. The authors found that altruism demands a lot of initial expenditure for the group -- in terms of communal time, resources and risk of reprisal from the punished -- as well as advanced levels of cognition and cooperation.

On the other hand, a construct in which a few profligate players keep like-minded individuals in check involves only those members of the community -- everyone else can passively enjoy the benefits of fewer people taking more than their share. At the same time, the reigning individuals enjoy uncontested spoils and, in some cases, reverence.

Social orders maintained by those who bend the rules play out in nature and human history, the authors note: Tree wasps that police hives to make sure that no member other than the queen lays eggs will often lay illicit eggs themselves. Cancer cells will prevent other tumors from forming. Medieval knights would pillage the same civilians they readily defended from invaders, while neighborhoods ruled by the Italian Mafia traditionally had the lowest levels of crime.

What comes from these arrangements, the researchers conclude, is a sense of order and equality that the group eventually takes upon itself to enforce, thus giving rise to altruism.

Science Daily. 2013. “From Dark Hearts Comes the Kindness of Humankind”. Science Daily. Posted: January 22, 2013. Available online:

Monday, February 25, 2013

Did Rise of Ancient Human Ancestor Lead to New Stone Tools?

Scientists have unearthed and dated some of the oldest stone hand axes on Earth. The ancient tools, unearthed in Ethiopia in the last two decades, date to 1.75 million years ago.

The tools roughly coincided with the emergence of an ancient human ancestor called Homo erectus, and fossilized H. erectus remains were also found at the same site, said study author Yonas Beyene, an archaeologist at the Association for Research and Conservation of Culture in Ethiopia. Collectively, the finding suggests an ancient tool-making technique may have arisen with the evolution of the new species.

"This discovery shows that the technology began with the appearance of Homo erectus," Beyene told LiveScience. "We think it might be related to the change of species."

The findings were described today (Jan. 28) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ancient tools

Human ancestors used primitive tools as far back as 2.6 million years ago, when Homo habilis roamed the Earth. But those tools, called Oldowan tools, weren't much more than rock flakes knapped in a slapdash manner to have a sharp edge.

But nearly a million years later, more sophisticated two-sided hand axes or cleavers emerged. These Aucheulean tools could be up to 7.8 inches (20 centimeters) long and were probably used to butcher meat. Scientists recently discovered tools of this type a few hundred miles away near Lake Turkana in Kenya, dating to 1.76 million years ago.

Because of its coincidence with the appearance of Homo erectus, scientists believed the sophisticated tools were made by the newer species of Homo, but proving that was tricky, because the dating of fossils and tools wasn't precise enough, said study co-author Paul Renne, a geochronologist and director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center in Berkeley, Calif.

Creating a timeline

Beyene, Renne and their colleagues, however, have found Aucheulean tools that are indistinguishable in age from those found in Kenya, suggesting the symmetric hand axes were widespread in the region by that time. And the Konso, Ethiopia, site also harbors Homo erectus fossils, increasing the likelihood that this species was responsible for making the new tools.

What's more, they have unearthed more than 350 of these two-faced stone tools in Konso, in different geologic layers that span about a million years of human evolution. The tool-making techniques stayed similar until 800,000 years ago, when the edges on the tools became more refined, the researchers found.

That the timing of this tool-making emerges at the same time as Homo erectus is intriguing, and allows for the possibility that the tools were made by this ancient lineage, said Leah Morgan, a geochronologist at the University of Glasgow, who was not involved in the study.

But while the new study is suggestive that Homo erectus made these tools, it's not a smoking gun.

"It's tempting to say, 'Well, Homo erectus was making these tools at Konso,' and that's very difficult to prove," Morgan said.

Ghose, Tia. 2013. “Did Rise of Ancient Human Ancestor Lead to New Stone Tools?”. Live Science. Posted: January 28, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Famed Warrior Medici Died From Gangrene

The legendary Renaissance warrior Giovanni de’ Medici did not die from an improperly amputated leg, as widely believed, but an infection.

Also known as “Giovanni dalle Bande Nere” for the black bands of mourning he wore after the death of Pope Leo X, the 16th century army commander was exhumed last November from his tomb in the Medici Chapels in Florence. Researchers also exhumed the bones of his wife, Maria Salviati.

The couple married in 1516, when she was 17 and he was 18. The marriage produced only one child: Cosimo I, who reigned as the first Grand Duke of Tuscany, creating the Uffizi and the magnificent Boboli Gardens as well as finishing the Pitti Palace.

Led by Gino Fornaciari, professor of forensic anthropology and director of the pathology Museum at the University of Pisa, the exhumation aimed at establishing whether the surgery carried on the celebrated condottiero (mercenary soldier) was improperly performed.

Although he had acquired a reputation for invincibility, Giovanni of the Black Bands (1498-1526) died at only 28 after being hit by a cannon ball, in a battle in Lombardy on Nov. 25, 1526. He was fighting the Imperialist troops marching to the sack of Rome.

As the ball crashed the right leg above the knee, the condottiero was taken to the palace of marquis Luigi Alessandro Gonzaga in Mantua. Gangrene soon set in, and Gonzaga’s surgeon Maestro Abram decided to intervene by amputating the leg.

“It was believed that the amputation was not carried above the wound, but slighly above the ankle. This would have meant a death sentence for Giovanni, ” Fornaciari told Discovery News.

The surgeon was unfairly accused, Fornaciari explained. Giovanni’s tibia and fibula were sawed off, but the researchers found no signs of lesions above the amputation. Neither they noticed any damage at the knee and the femur (thigh bone).

“The leg was already partially amputated by the cannon ball, so the surgeon simply completed the amputation by cleaning the wound and smoothing the stump,” Fornaciari said.

According to a report by the poet Pietro Aretino, Giovanni’s close friend and eyewitness to the surgery, 10 men were summoned to hold down the warrior during the procedure.

“‘Not even 20,’ Giovanni said smiling, ‘could hold me,’ and he took a candle in his hand, so that he could make light onto himself,” Aretino wrote.

Despite his stoic behaviour during the agonizing procedure, Giovanni died five days later, on Nov. 30, 1526.

“Maestro Abram did all he could, but the gangrene infection was at a too advanced stage,” Fornaciari said.

Anthropological investigations also established that the warrior was about 5 feet, 8 inches tall and very sturdy.

“We found many vertebral hernias, a consequence of wearing heavy armors,” Fornaciari said.

The researchers also discovered that Maria Salviati, Giovanni’s wife, suffered from a serious parodontal disease, an abscess and 10 cavities.

But the cause of her death was probably a tertiary syphilis of the bone as shown from cranial lesions.

“At that time it was a very common disease. Most likely she contracted the disease from her husband,” Fornaciari said.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2013. “Famed Warrior Medici Died From Gangrene”. Discovery News. Posted: January 16, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Storms Reveal Iron Age Skeleton

A series of storms that hit Scotland's Shetland Islands over the holidays revealed what archaeologists believe could be 2,000-year-old human remains.

Police were initially called to the scene when storms eroded a cliff at Channerwick and exposed the skeleton, but officials soon determined that they wouldn't have to open a homicide investigation.

Local archaeologist Chris Dyer said the ancient skeleton looked as if it were contemporary with the remains of Iron Age structures revealed nearby. Researchers then identified evidence of one or possibly two more burials at the site, but another storm caused a further chunk of the cliff to crumble, covering up the discovery.

"The original burial now lies under several tons of fallen bank, and the Iron Age structures have also disappeared from view," Dyer said in a statement from the Shetland Amenity Trust.

Nature is known to reveal human history. For instance, remains of hominids — a juvenile male and adult female who lived nearly 2 million years ago — were discovered in the far reaches of a limestone cave system that had eroded over time. "We are looking at very eroded and denuded portions of this cave system, where nature has exposed what had once been the deep reaches," said researcher Daniel Farber, an earth scientist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, in 2011 at the time the discovery was announced.

In addition, melting patches of ice that had been in place for thousands of years in the mountains of the Canadian High Arctic revealed a treasure trove of ancient hunting tools.

Regarding the new finding, officials have not planned further archaeological work at the site, but said a small piece of bone was recovered and will be analyzed using radiocarbon dating to confirm the skeleton's age. (This method relies on the level of radioactive carbon, which is naturally occurring and decays at a predictable rate into nonradioactive carbon, to estimate the age of organic materials.)

LiveScience Staff. 2013. “Storms Reveal Iron Age Skeleton”. Live Science. Posted: January 16, 2013. Available online:

Friday, February 22, 2013

Growing up bilingual

A dual-language upbringing reflected in young children's vocabulary, Concordia study shows

Language mixing – using elements from two languages in the same sentence – is frequent among bilingual parents and could pose a challenge for vocabulary acquisition by one- and two-year-old children, according to a new study by Concordia University psychology professor Krista Byers-Heinlein. Those results are likely temporary, however, and are often counterbalanced by cognitive advantages afforded to children raised in a bilingual environment.

With immigration and international mobility on the rise, early exposure to two languages has become the norm for many children across Canada, particularly those raised by parents who themselves are bilingual.

How do these bilingual parents use their two languages when interacting with their young children? Until recently, little has been known about how often parents switch between languages when interacting with their toddlers, and whether such exposure to language mixing influences vocabulary size.

To find the answers, Byers-Heinlein, who is also director of the Concordia Infant Research Laboratory and a member of the Centre for Research in Human Development, collaborated with Dr. Janet Werker's Infant Studies Centre in Vancouver. She recruited 181 bilingual parents who spoke English as well as another language, and examined how often and in what situations they mixed languages while speaking with their children. Each parent had a one- or two-year-old child being raised bilingually or trilingually, having heard English and one or two other languages regularly since birth.

Rather than being a rare phenomenon, the results showed that language mixing is common in interactions between bilingual parents and their children. Indeed, 90 per cent of parents reported mixing their languages in interactions with their children. Parents did not mix their languages haphazardly, however, but instead reported principled reasons for mixing. For example, they borrowed words from the other language when there was no adequate translation, when they were not sure of a word, and when the word was hard to pronounce. Parents also reported frequently borrowing words from one language when teaching new words to their children in the other. Thus, bilingual parents might use language mixing as a strategy to make sure their children learn words equally in both languages.

Byers-Heinlein then examined the vocabulary size of 168 children of parents who had responded to the study. All of the children were learning English, but their non-English language varied widely – from German to Japanese, French to Farsi. As such, she focused on children's English vocabulary size, while statistically controlling for the words that children likely knew in their non-English language.

She found that exposure to parental language mixing predicted significantly smaller comprehension vocabularies (words understood) in the younger children, and marginally smaller production vocabularies (words spoken) in the older children.

Why is that? Byers-Heinlein explains that, "high rates of language mixing make it harder for children to categorize words they hear. That could lead to slower word learning and smaller vocabularies. It also seems that it's more difficult to learn a word from a mixed-language sentence than from a single-language sentence."

But that in no way means that children raised in a bilingual environment are at a disadvantage. Byers-Heinlein cautions that, "even if exposure to language mixing is initially challenging for vocabulary acquisition, it likely has benefits over the long term."

"Studies comparing monolingual and bilingual infants have shown that bilinguals are more adept at switching between strategies and are more able to learn two rules at the same time," she explains. "Infants exposed to frequent language mixing could develop specific strategies for coping with this type of input. That could lead to cognitive advantages that would outweigh any initial difficulties brought about by language mixing."

Byers-Heinlein is now undertaking new research with French-English bilinguals in Montreal to examine whether these findings hold in other bilingual communities, and when children's vocabularies are assessed in both of their languages.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Growing up bilingual”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 16, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Shorter woman, taller man: Preferences for partner height translate into actual partner choice

People's preferences for the height of a partner persist despite other factors important in choosing a mate

Finding Mr. or Ms. Right is a complicated process, and choosing a mate may involve compromising on less important factors like their height. However, research published January 16 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Gert Stulp and colleagues from the University of Groningen, Netherlands suggests that despite the many other factors involved, people's preferences for a partner's height are reflected in real couples in the UK.

Given the average heights of men and women in typical Western populations, two out of every hundred couples should comprise a woman who is taller than her male companion. However, such couples are seen much less frequently than this. Previous studies show that men generally prefer to pair with women shorter than themselves, and women prefer men who are taller than they are. However, short women and tall men appear to prefer larger height differences with their partner, whereas tall women and short men prefer smaller differences in height.

These trends have previously been studied only in terms of preferences or expectations. In the current study, the authors analyze to what extent these preferences translate into actual partner choices. Their results suggest that all of these trends do exist in a sample of over 10,000 couples in the UK, and the difference in height between a man and woman in a couple tends to be less than 8 inches. However, the patterns observed in actual couples were not seen as frequently as would be expected based on people's preferences from previous studies.

According to the authors, their results suggest that "while preferences for partner height generally translate into actual pairing, they do so only modestly."

EurekAlert. 2013. “Shorter woman, taller man: Preferences for partner height translate into actual partner choices”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 16, 2013. Available online:


Stulp G, Buunk AP, Pollet TV, Nettle D, Verhulst S (2013) Are Human Mating Preferences with Respect to Height Reflected in Actual Pairings? PLoS ONE 8(1): e54186. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0054186

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Knowledge of History May Change How You View Racism

Ignorance about the extent of racism in history might explain why some people perceive less racism today than others, researchers say.

To examine possible reasons why different groups see the reality of racism differently, the researchers recruited college students — 199 of European descent and 74 of African descent — to complete a true or false black history test. Some statements in the test covered well-documented, factual incidents, while other items discussed made-up but plausible events. The student participants also completed assessments their self-esteem regarding their racial identity as well as surveys to measure their view of systemic racism and isolated incidents of racism.

Historical knowledge predicted racism perception for both African Americans and European Americans, the researchers found, and overall, the African-American students were better at identifying historically true events. African-American students who reported greater relevance of racial identity also perceived more racism, while European-American students who placed greater importance on their racial identity saw less racism, especially on a systemic level, the researchers said.

The results suggest that knowledge of historically documented racism partially may help explain the relationship between someone's race and their perceptions of racism.

"Survey research consistently documents that, relative to white Americans, people from historically oppressed racial and ethnic minority groups tend to report less satisfaction with race relations, see social inequality as a greater problem, and see more racism in incidents, such as legislation targeting undocumented immigrants and 'stand your ground' laws," wrote the University of Kansas-led research team.

"Although popular and scientific understandings tend to portray ignorance as a lack of knowledge, this work emphasizes that ignorance itself is a form of knowledge that makes it possible to ignore or remain unaware of things that might otherwise be obvious," the researchers added.

The study was detailed online last month in the journal Psychological Science.

LiveScience Staff. 2013. “Knowledge of History May Change How You View Racism”. Live Science. Posted: January 15, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Don't read my lips! Body language trumps the face for conveying intense emotions

Be it triumph or crushing defeat, exhilaration or agony, body language more accurately conveys intense emotions, according to recent research that challenges the predominance of facial expressions as an indicator of how a person feels.

Princeton University researchers report in the journal Science that facial expressions can be ambiguous and subjective when viewed independently. The researchers asked study participants to determine from photographs if people were experiencing feelings such as loss, victory or pain from facial expressions or body language alone, or from both. In some cases, a facial expression associated with one emotion was paired with a body experiencing the opposite emotion.

In four separate experiments, participants more accurately guessed the pictured emotion based on body language — alone or combined with facial expressions — than on facial context alone. Senior researcher and Princeton Professor of Psychology Alexander Todorov said that these results challenge the clinical — and conventional — presumption that the face best communicates feeling. Indeed, despite the findings, a majority of the study's participants sided with the face when asked how they gauge feelings, a misconception the researchers referred to as "illusory facial affect."

"We find that extremely positive and extremely negative emotions are maximally indistinctive," said Todorov, who worked with first author Hillel Aviezer, a psychology professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem who conducted the work as a postdoctoral researcher under Todorov, and Yaacov Trope, a psychology professor at New York University.

"People can't tell the difference, although they think they can," Todorov said. "Subjectively people think they can tell the difference, but objectively they are totally at [random] chance of determining correctly. The message of this research is that there is a lot of information in body language people aren't necessarily aware of."

The paper in Science counters popular theories holding that facial expressions are universally consistent indicators of emotion. The most prominent, Todorov said, have been developed by psychologist and University of California-San Francisco professor emeritus Paul Ekman, whose work was fictionalized in the television series "Lie to Me."

Instead, facial movements may be "much blurrier" than those theories account for, Todorov said. In particular, he and his colleagues suggest that when emotions reach a certain intensity, the intricacies of facial expressions become lost, similar to "increasing the volume on stereo speakers to the point that it becomes completely distorted," he said.

"There's much more ambiguity in the face than we assume there is," Todorov said. "We assume that the face conveys whatever is in the person's mind, that we can recognize their emotions. But that's not necessarily true. If we remove all the other contextual clues, we might not be so good at picking out emotional cues."

Jamin Halberstadt, a psychology professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand, said that the work demonstrates in a new way that the physical cues of emotion are more varied and dependent on the emotion felt than predominating theories suggest. Halberstadt is familiar with the Princeton research but had no role it.

Based on theories of facial expression, one would intuit that intense emotions would be even easier to interpret from the face than subtle emotions, said Halberstadt, who studies cognitive-emotion interactions. Yet the research by Todorov, Aviezer and Trope demonstrates that facial movements at some point become secondary to the body.

"Before I read this paper, I would have thought that the body only provides contextual clues," Halberstadt said. "This is not saying that bodily context helps interpret an expression of emotion — it is saying that bodily context is the expression of emotion. And the face reveals a general intensity of feeling but doesn't communicate what the person is feeling exactly. The body is where the valid information comes from during intense feelings."

The Princeton research introduces an additional element to interpreting emotions that scientists "have to account for," Halberstadt said. In particular, interrogation and security-screening techniques — such as the U.S. Transportation Security Administration's Screening of Passengers by Observation Techniques (SPOT) program — have been developed based on facial expression research. The work by Todorov and his colleagues, however, suggests that a crucial bodily element may have been overlooked.

"This study really questions the primacy of the face in emotion," Halberstadt said. "Real emotional expressions are much more ambiguous, subtle and malleable than you would think from the research. Any application of emotion theory that relies on or assumes that emotional expressions reside primarily in the face should be under reconsideration from this kind of study."

For their study, the Princeton researchers used stock photos of people at six emotional "peaks": pain, pleasure, victory, defeat, grief and joy. In the first experiment, three groups of 15 people were shown only the facial expression, the body position or the face and body together, respectively. Participants who saw the face only had a 50-50 chance of being correct, whereas those who only saw a body or the face and body together were far more accurate.

Yet, these respondents also exhibited a high degree of illusory facial affect: 53 percent of people who saw the body-and-face photos said they relied on the face. Of a group for whom the pictures were described but not shown, 80 percent said they would rely solely on the face when determining the emotion pictured, while 20 percent they would look to the face and the body together. No one indicated they would judge by body language alone.

In the second experiment, photos were manipulated so that faces from one emotional peak such as victory were spliced onto a body from an opposing peak such as defeat. In those cases, participants more often determined the emotion to be that associated with the body.

For the third experiment, participants rated a variety of faces that fell with in the six emotional categories with ambiguous results. In fact, the authors report, respondents interpreted the positive faces as negative more than they did the negative faces. Those faces were then randomly put upon bodies in a situation of victory or pain, and victory or defeat. Again, study participants typically guessed the situation in accordance with what they gleaned from the body rather than the face.

The final experiment asked participants to mimic the facial expressions in the photos for victory and defeat. Those images were put onto corresponding or opposing body images of victory or defeat. A separate group of people then had to determine the feeling being shown in each image. As in the previous experiments, the body language more often influenced respondents, who labeled a feeling negative when a winning face was on a body of defeat, and vice versa.

If anything, Todorov said, the findings promote a more holistic view of understanding how people physically communicate feelings.

"This research involved very clear cases of positive and negative experiences, and yet people cannot tell them apart from the face," Todorov said.

"There are lots of cues that help us in the social environment, but we often think the face has this special status, that we can tell so much from it," he said. "In reality it tells us much less than we think."

EurekAlert. 2013. “Don't read my lips! Body language trumps the face for conveying intense emotions”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 15, 2013. Available online:

Monday, February 18, 2013

Born to lead? Leadership can be an inherited trait, study finds

Genetic differences are significantly associated with the likelihood that people take on managerial responsibilities, according to new research from UCL (University College London).

The study, published online in Leadership Quarterly, is the first to identify a specific DNA sequence associated with the tendency for individuals to occupy a leadership position. Using a large twin sample, the international research team, which included academics from Harvard, NYU, and the University of California, estimate that a quarter of the observed variation in leadership behaviour between individuals can be explained by genes passed down from their parents.

"We have identified a genotype, called rs4950, which appears to be associated with the passing of leadership ability down through generations," said lead author Dr Jan-Emmanuel De Neve (UCL School of Public Policy). "The conventional wisdom – that leadership is a skill – remains largely true, but we show it is also, in part, a genetic trait."

To find the genotype, Dr De Neve and his colleagues analysed data from two large-scale samples in the United States, available through the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) and the Framingham Heart Study.

They compared genetic samples of approximately 4,000 individuals with information about jobs and relationships, finding that in both surveys there was a significant association between rs4950 and leadership. Leadership behaviour was measured by determining whether or not individuals occupy supervisory roles in the workplace.

The team found that although acquiring a leadership position mostly depends on developing skills, inheriting the leadership trait can also play an important role.

Dr De Neve said: "As recent as last August, Professor John Antonakis, who is known for his work on leadership, posed the question: 'is there a specific leadership gene?'

"This study allows us to answer yes – to an extent. Although leadership should still be thought of predominantly as a skill to be developed, genetics - in particular the rs4950 genotype - can also play a significant role in predicting who is more likely to occupy leadership roles."

He added that more research was needed to understand the ways in which rs4950 interacted with other factors, such as a child's learning environment, in the emergence of leadership.

Dr De Neve noted: "Our work also draws attention to the ethical issues surrounding the use of genetic tests for leadership selection and assessment, and that we should seriously consider expanding current protections against genetic discrimination in the labour market. Our main suggestion for practice is that this research may help in the identification of specific environmental factors that can help in the development of leadership skills.

"If we really want to understand leadership and its effect on organizational, institutional, economic and political outcomes, we must study both nature and nurture," added Dr De Neve.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Born to lead? Leadership can be an inherited trait, study finds”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 15, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Gene Flow from India to Australia About 4,000 Years Ago

Australia is thought to have remained largely isolated between its initial colonisation around 40,000 years ago and the arrival of Europeans in the late 1800s. A study led by researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, now finds evidence of substantial gene flow between Indian populations and Australia about 4,000 years ago. In addition, the researchers found a common origin for Australian, New Guinean and the Philippine Mamanwa populations. These populations followed an early southern migration route out of Africa, while other populations settled in the region only at a later date.

Australia holds some of the earliest archaeological evidence for the presence of modern humans outside Africa, with the earliest sites dated to at least 45,000 years ago, making Australian aboriginals one of the oldest continuous populations outside Africa. It is commonly assumed that following the initial dispersal of people into Sahul (joint Australia-New Guinea landmass) and until the arrival of the Europeans late in the 18th Century, there was no contact between Australia and the rest of the world.

Researcher Irina Pugach and colleagues now analysed genetic variation from across the genome from aboriginal Australians, New Guineans, island Southeast Asians, and Indians. Their findings suggest substantial gene flow from India to Australia 4,230 years ago, i.e. during the Holocene and well before European contact. "Interestingly," says Pugach, "this date also coincides with many changes in the archaeological record of Australia, which include a sudden change in plant processing and stone tool technologies, with microliths appearing for the first time, and the first appearance of the dingo in the fossil record. Since we detect inflow of genes from India into Australia at around the same time, it is likely that these changes were related to this migration."

Their analyses also reveal a common origin for populations from Australia, New Guinea and the Mamanwa – a Negrito group from the Philippines – and they estimated that these groups split from each other about 36,000 years ago. Mark Stoneking says: "This finding supports the view that these populations represent the descendants of an early ‘southern route’ migration out of Africa, while other populations in the region arrived later by a separate dispersal." This also indicates that Australians and New Guineans diverged early in the history of Sahul, and not when the lands were separated by rising sea waters around 8,000 years ago.

Science Daily. 2013. “Gene Flow from India to Australia About 4,000 Years Ago”. Science Daily. Posted: January 14, 2013. Available online:

Journal Reference:
1.Irina Pugach, Frederick Delfin, Ellen Gunnarsdóttir, Manfred Kayser, and Mark Stoneking. “Genome-wide data substantiates Holocene gene flow from India to Australia”. PNAS, January 14, 2013 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1211927110

Saturday, February 16, 2013

4,000-year-old shaman's stones discovered near Boquete, Panama

Archaeologists working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama have discovered a cluster of 12 unusual stones in the back of a small, prehistoric rock-shelter near the town of Boquete. The cache represents the earliest material evidence of shamanistic practice in lower Central America.

Ruth Dickau, Leverhulme Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Exeter in England, unearthed the cache of stones in the Casita de Piedra rock-shelter in 2007. A piece of charcoal found directly underneath the cache was radiocarbon dated to 4,800 years ago. A second fragment of charcoal in a level above the cache was dated to 4,000 years ago.

"There was no evidence of a disturbance or pit feature to suggest someone had come along, dug a hole and buried the stones at a later date," Dickau said. "The fact that the stones were found in a tight pile suggests they were probably deposited inside a bag or basket, which subsequently decomposed."

Based on the placement and the unusual composition of the stones in the cache, Richard Cooke, STRI staff scientist, suggested they were used by a shaman or healer. Consulting geologist Stewart Redwood determined that the cache consists of a small dacite stone fashioned into a cylindrical tool; a small flake of white, translucent quartz; a bladed quartz and jarosite aggregate; a quartz crystal aggregate; several pyrite nodules that showed evidence of use; a small, worn and abraded piece of chalcedony; a magnetic andesite flake; a large chalcedony vein stone; and a small magnetic kaolinite stone naturally eroded into an unusual shape, similar to a flower.

"A fascinating aspect of this find is that these are not ordinary stones but are rocks and crystals commonly associated with gold deposits in the Central Cordillera of Panama and Central America," Redwood said. "However, there are no gold artifacts in the rock-shelter, and there's no evidence that the stones were collected in the course of gold prospecting as the age of the cache pre-dates the earliest known gold artifacts from Panama by more than 2,000 years. But the collector of the stones clearly had an eye for unusual stones and crystals with a special significance whose meaning is lost to us."

Indigenous groups who lived near this site include the Ngäbe, Buglé, Bribri, Cabécar and the now-extinct Dorasque peoples. Shamans or healers (curanderos) belonging to these and other present-day First Americans in Central and South America often include special stones among the objects they use for ritual practices. Stones containing crystal structures are linked to transformative experiences in many of their stories.

Anthony Ranere, from Temple University in Philadelphia, first identified and excavated Casita de Piedra in an archaeological survey of western Panama in the early 1970s. He found that the small rock-shelter had been repeatedly occupied over thousands of years and used for a variety of domestic activities such as food processing and cooking, stone-tool manufacture and retouch, and possibly woodworking. Dickau returned to the site to expand excavations from December 2006 to January 2007.

Dickau's group radiocarbon dated charcoal from the base levels of the shelter and discovered it was first occupied more than 9,000 years ago, much earlier than Ranere originally proposed. Her research also showed that the people who would have benefitted from the shaman's knowledge practiced small-scale farming of maize, manioc and arrowroot, and collected palm nuts, tree fruits and wild tubers. They also probably hunted and fished in the nearby hills and streams, but the humid soils in the shelter destroyed any evidence of animal bones. Other Preceramic peoples in Panama who lived in small, dispersed communities across the isthmus by 4,000 years ago commonly practiced these activities.

EurekAlert. 2013. “4,000-year-old shaman's stones discovered near Boquete, Panama”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 14, 2013. Available online:

Friday, February 15, 2013

There really are 50 Eskimo words for ‘snow’

Anthropologist Franz Boas didn’t mean to spark a century-long argument. Traveling through the icy wastes of Baffin Island in northern Canada during the 1880s, Boas simply wanted to study the life of the local Inuit people, joining their sleigh rides, trading caribou skins and learning their folklore. As he wrote proudly to his fiancee, “I am now truly like an Eskimo. . . . I scarcely eat any European foodstuffs any longer but am living entirely on seal meat.” He was particularly intrigued by their language, noting the elaborate terms used to describe the frozen landscape: “aqilokoq” for “softly falling snow” and “piegnartoq” for “the snow [that is] good for driving sled,” to name just two.

Mentioning his observations in the introduction to his 1911 book “Handbook of American Indian Languages,” he ignited the claim that Eskimos have dozens, or even hundreds, of words for snow. Although the idea continues to capture public imagination, most linguists considered it an urban legend, born of sloppy scholarship and journalistic exaggeration. Some have even gone as far as to name it the Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. The latest evidence, however, suggests that Boas was right all along.

This debate has rumbled on partly because of a grammatical peculiarity of the Eskimo family of languages. Boas studied Inuit, one of the two main branches; the other is Yupik. Each has spawned many dialects, but uniting the family is a feature known as polysynthesis, which allows speakers to encode a huge amount of information in one word by plugging various suffixes onto a base word.

For example, a single term might encompass a whole sentence in English: In Siberian Yupik, the base “angyagh” (boat) becomes “angyaghllangyugtuqlu” to mean “what’s more, he wants a bigger boat.” This makes compiling dictionaries particularly difficult: Do two terms that use the same base but a different ending really represent two common idioms within a language, or is the difference simply a speaker’s descriptive flourish? Both are possible, and vocabulary lists could quickly snowball if an outsider were to confuse the two — a criticism often leveled at Boas and his disciples.

Yet Igor Krupnik, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Washington, believes that Boas was careful to include only words representing meaningful distinctions. Taking the same care with their own work, Krupnik and others charted the vocabulary of about 10 Inuit and Yupik dialects and concluded that they indeed have many more words for snow than English does.

Central Siberian Yupik has 40 such terms, while the Inuit dialect spoken in Canada’s Nunavik region has at least 53, including “matsaaruti,” for wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners, and “pukak,” for the crystalline powder snow that looks like salt.

For many of these dialects, the vocabulary associated with sea ice is even richer. In the Inupiaq dialect of Wales, Alaska, Krupnik documented about 70 terms for ice that mark such distinctions as: “utuqaq,” ice that lasts year after year; “siguliaksraq,” the patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze; and “auniq,” ice that is filled with holes, like Swiss cheese.

It is not just the Eskimo languages that have colorful terms to describe their frosty surroundings: The Sami people, who live in the northern tips of Scandinavia and Russia, use at least 180 words related to snow and ice, according to Ole Henrik Magga, a linguist in Norway. (Unlike Inuit dialects, Sami ones are not polysynthetic, making it easier to distinguish words.)

Many words for reindeer, too

The Sami also have as many as 1,000 words for reindeer. These refer to such things as the reindeer’s fitness (“leami” means a short, fat female reindeer), personality (“njirru” is an unmanageable female) and the shape of its antlers (“snarri” is a reindeer whose antlers are short and branched). There is even a Sami word to describe a bull with a single, very large testicle: “busat.”

This kind of linguistic exuberance should come as no surprise, experts say, since languages evolve to suit the ideas and needs that are most crucial to the lives of their speakers. “These people need to know whether ice is fit to walk on or whether you will sink through it,” says linguist Willem de Reuse at the University of North Texas. “It’s a matter of life or death.”

“All languages find a way to say what they need to say,” says Matthew Sturm, a geophysicist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Alaska. For Sturm, it is the expertise these words contain that is of most interest, rather than the squabble about the number of terms. “These are real words that mean real things,” he says.

Sturm is particularly admiring of Inuit knowledge of the processes that lead to different snow and ice formations, mentioning one elder who “knew as much about snow as I knew after 30 years as a scientist.” In Sturm’s opinion, documenting this knowledge is far more important than finding out exactly how many words for snow there are.

Others also recognize the urgency of this work. As many indigenous people turn away from their traditional lifestyle, the expertise encapsulated in their vocabulary is fading. That is why researchers such as Krupnik are trying to compile and present their dictionaries to the local communities, as lasting records of their heritage.

“Boas only recorded a small fragment of the words available,” Krupnik says. In the intervening century, much has been lost. “At his time there would have been many more terms than there are today.”

Robson, David. 2013. “There really are 50 Eskimo words for ‘snow’”. The Washington Post. Posted: January 14, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Illuminating Jewish Life in a Muslim Empire

A batch of 1,000-year-old manuscripts from the mountainous northern reaches of war-torn Afghanistan, reportedly found in a cave inhabited by foxes, has revealed previously unknown details about the cultural, economic and religious life of a thriving but little understood Jewish society in a Persian part of the Muslim empire of the 11th century.

The 29 paper pages, now encased in clear plastic and unveiled here this month at the National Library of Israel, are part of a trove of hundreds of documents discovered in the cave whose existence had been known for several years, with photographs circulating among experts. Remarkably well preserved, apparently because of the dry conditions there, the majority of the documents are now said to be in the hands of private dealers in Britain, Switzerland, and possibly the United States and the Middle East.

“This is the first time that we have actual physical evidence of the Jewish life and culture within the Iranian culture of the 11th century,” said Prof. Haggai Ben-Shammai, the library’s academic director. While other historical sources have pointed to the existence of Jewish communities in that area in the early Middle Ages, he said, the documents offer “proof that they were there.”

The texts are known collectively as the Afghan Geniza, a Hebrew term for a repository of sacred texts and objects. They were written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic and Arabic, and some used the Babylonian system for vowels, a linguistic assortment that scholars said would have been nearly impossible to forge.

One text includes a discussion of Hebrew words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. Another is a letter between two brothers in which one denied rumors that he was no longer an observant Jew. There are legal and economic documents, some signed by witnesses, recording commercial transactions and debts between Jews and their Muslim neighbors, and other mundane yet illuminating details of daily life like travel plans.

One missive between two Jews, Sheik Abu Nasser Ahmed ibn Daniel and Musa ibn Ishak, dealing with family matters, was written in the Hebrew letters of Judeo-Persian, but had an address in Arabic script on the back, presumably for the benefit of the Muslim messenger. One document has a date from the Islamic calendar corresponding to the year 1006.

The most important religious text among those acquired by the National Library is a fragment of a Judeo-Persian version of a commentary on the Book of Isaiah originally written by the renowned Babylonian rabbinic scholar Saadia Gaon, a previously unknown text. A sliver of it has been sent to the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot for carbon dating.

The exact source of the documents is murky. The manuscripts are said to have come from a remote area near the borders of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, wild terrain largely controlled by warlords. Jews probably migrated there in the early Middle Ages to engage in commerce along the Silk Road, the important trade route linking China and Europe.

Scholars say the texts were probably found several years ago and have been sold and scattered around the globe. An Israeli antiquities dealer obtained 29 of the texts and, after a year of negotiation, sold them several weeks ago to the library for an undisclosed sum.

People involved in the purchase refused to give exact details, but they said the library ended up paying an affordable price of several thousand dollars per text. Professor Ben-Shammai said that despite the “very exaggerated prices” demanded by dealers abroad, the Jerusalem dealer did not want the documents to end up in private hands.

The National Library would like to gather the entire collection under one roof, but the current asking prices for the remaining texts add up to many millions of dollars.

Prof. Shaul Shaked, an expert in Iranian culture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said that dealers abroad had asked his opinion of the documents, and that he was one of the first who recognized their importance. “So in a way I am guilty of having driven up the prices,” he said.

Aviad Stollman, the curator of the library’s Judaica collection, said that the library was looking for a donor to buy the rest of the collection.

The acquisition comes as the National Library is in the midst of transformation, separating from a merger with Hebrew University, moving off campus and digitizing its vast collection. Founded in 1892 with the goal of gathering the intellectual heirlooms of a widely dispersed Jewish people, the library counts among its prized possessions two volumes of Maimonides’s Commentary on the Mishna, Isaac Newton’s manuscripts, a 15th-century Persian Koran illuminated in gold and lapis lazuli, and a notebook in which Franz Kafka practiced Hebrew vocabulary.

The 29 Afghan pages will join those texts and, once scanned, complete their journey from a dark cave to the glow of the world’s computer screens. The goal is to build a digital platform that would make the manuscripts widely accessible, with translations and explanations available online.

“This tells the story of the Jewish people,” Mr. Stollman said. “The technology is here. You can make it come alive.”

Kershner, Isabel. 2013. “Illuminating Jewish Life in a Muslim Empire”. The New York Times. Posted: January 15, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

India's Hindu Kumbh Mela festival begins in Allahabad

Several million people have been bathing at the confluence of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers at Allahabad in India, on the opening day of the Kumbh Mela festival.

At least 10 million pilgrims are set to do so by the end of the day.

The event, every 12 years, is billed as the biggest gathering on Earth. More than 100 million people are expected to attend the 55-day festival.

Hindus believe a festival dip will cleanse sins and help bring salvation.

In 2001, more than 40 million people gathered on the main bathing day of the festival, breaking a record for the biggest human gathering.

What is a Maha Kumbh Mela?
The Kumbh Mela is a mass pilgrimage in which Hindus gather in specific locations along the holy rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical river Saraswati.

There are three different kinds of kumbh: an ardh (or half) kumbh is held every six years at two set locations; a purna (full) kumbh is held every 12 years at four set locations.

The 2013 gathering is a Maha Kumbh and that only ever happens after 12 purna kumbhs every 144 years - and it is always held at Allahabad.

Astrology determines most aspects of the festival, including its exact date and length. Where the festival is held also depends on the position of Jupiter, the sun and earth.

Sprint to waters

The festival formally started at dawn on Monday. All roads leading to the Kumbh Mela grounds are packed with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

There was a chill in the air as holy men sprinted into the waters in Allahabad, but the day dawned warmer than in recent weeks when a cold snap hit northern India.

Police estimated that by the late afternoon about 7.5 million people had bathed.

For festival-goers, one of the most memorable spectacles of the day was when the Naga sadhus, or ascetics, sprinted into the river reciting religious chants, many clad only in marigold garlands.

The naked ash-smeared men arrived in a colourful procession and waded into the chilly waters of Sangam - the point at which the rivers converge.

The Kumbh Mela has its origins in Hindu mythology - many believe that when gods and demons fought over a pitcher of nectar, a few drops fell in the cities of Allahabad, Nasik, Ujjain and Haridwar - the four places where the Kumbh festival has been held for centuries.

Although the gathering is held every 12 years, this year's festival is what is known as a Maha Kumbh, which only occurs every 144 years and is always held at Allahabad. It will last for 55 days, a period of time determined by an astrological calculation.

There are six particularly auspicious days to bathe - the biggest bathing day will be on 10 February when approximately 35 million people are expected to take to the waters.

Teams are managing crowds on the river bank - as soon as pilgrims finishing bathing, they are encouraged to move away and make space for other bathers.

Shankari Devi from the Indian city of Udaipur arrived on Sunday and spent the night in the open but her conclusion this morning was that "we had a good bath so all the troubles were worth it".

"I have washed off my sins," Mandita Panna, a resident of Nepal and another early bather, said.

Ashok Kumar Singh also took to the waters but he expressed concerns about its cleanliness.

"Yes I had a good bath... but it is us who dirty the Ganges, we are responsible. Most of the pilgrims were throwing their marigold garlands into the water and that pollutes the water."

Health concerns

Allahabad has been preparing for the festival for months and a vast tented city has grown up around the river.

Fourteen temporary hospitals have been set up with 243 doctors deployed round-the-clock, and more than 40,000 toilets have been built for the pilgrims.

Police checkpoints have been set up on all roads leading to Allahabad and about 30,000 policemen and security officials have been deployed to provide security during the festival. At Sangam, some policemen on horseback have been posted.

Tens of thousands of men, women and children have set up camp on the white sands of the river front.

On Sunday night, smoke could be seen rising from hundreds of small fires which people had built to cook dinner or keep warm.

The sadhus have been leading processions accompanied by elephants, camels, horses, chariots and music bands in recent days.

The festival has prompted health concerns, however, with campaigners warning that the river waters are heavily polluted.

Most pilgrims drink a few drops of the Ganges water and many fill bottles to take home with them.

Authorities say they have taken steps to address the concerns.

Last week, companies along the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna were warned against discharging any pollutants into the waters.

Reservoirs upstream have been ordered to discharge fresh water into the rivers ahead of the six big bathing days, and the festival authorities have declared the Kumbh Mela area a plastic-free zone.

The Kumbh Mela, which is costing the authorities 11.5bn rupees ($210m; £130m) to organise, is expected to generate business worth at least 120bn rupees, according to a report by India's Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Assocham).

The report says that the festival is also expected to draw over a million foreign tourists.

Pandey, Geeta. 2013. “India's Hindu Kumbh Mela festival begins in Allahabad”. BBC News. Posted: January 14, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

What did our ancestors look like?

A new method of establishing hair and eye colour from modern forensic samples can also be used to identify details from ancient human remains, finds a new study published in BioMed Central's open access journal Investigative Genetics. The HIrisPlex DNA analysis system was able to reconstruct hair and eye colour from teeth up to 800 years old, including the Polish General Wladyslaw Sikorski (1881 to 1943) confirming his blue eyes and blond hair.

A team of researchers from Poland and the Netherlands, who recently developed the HIrisPlex system for forensic analysis, have now shown that this system is sufficiently robust to successfully work on older and more degraded samples from human remains such as teeth and bones. The system looks at 24 DNA polymorphisms (naturally occurring variations) which can be used to predict eye and hair colour.

Dr Wojciech Branicki, from the Institute of Forensic Research and Jagielonian University, Kraków, who led this study together with Prof Manfred Kayser, from the Erasmus University Rotterdam, explained, "This system can be used to solve historical controversies where colour photographs or other records are missing. HIrisPlex was able to confirm that General Wladyslaw Sikorski, who died in a plane crash in 1943, had the blue eyes and blond hair present in portraits painted years after his death. Some of our samples were from unknown inmates of a World War II prison. In these cases HIrisPlex helped to put physical features to the other DNA evidence."

For medieval samples, where DNA is even more degraded, this system was still able to predict eye and hair colour (for the most degraded DNA samples eye colour alone), identifying one mysterious woman buried in the crypt of the Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec near Kraków, sometime during the 12th-14th centuries, as having dark blond/brown hair and brown eyes.

EurekAlert. 2013. “What did our ancestors look like?”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 13, 2013. Available online:

Monday, February 11, 2013

Ancient Pompeians Could Go Upstairs to Pee

The residents of the ancient city of Pompeii weren't limited to street-level plumbing, a new study finds. In fact, many in the city may have headed upstairs when nature called.

Most second floors in the Roman city are gone, claimed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Pompeii in A.D. 79. But vertical pipes leading to lost second stories strongly suggest that there were once toilets up there, according to a new analysis by A. Kate Trusler, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Missouri.

"We have 23 toilets that are connected, that are second-story preserved, that are connected to these downpipes," Trusler told LiveScience on Friday (Jan. 4) at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle, where she presented her research.

Traces of toilets

Trusler became interested in Pompeii's latrines six years ago while doing fieldwork in the city. Previous researchers and works on Pompeii often stated that there was a toilet in almost every house. But Trusler found that statement confusing. Walking around the city, she said, it was clear that some spots were chock full of homes with private latrines, while other areas seemed to be toilet deserts. v "And," Trusler added, "there are all of these downpipes that are part of that picture that no one is really considering."

So Trusler decided to conduct a plumbing survey of sorts, mapping latrine and downpipe locations around the city. One residential district, known to archaeologists as Region 6, does indeed have toilets on the ground story of almost every home, she said. But other blocks have few toilets. In total, 43 percent of homes in the city had latrines on the ground floor, Trusler found.

Downpipes provide the other half of that picture. These vertical, usually terracotta pipes are concentrated in the oldest part of the city, where there were many workshops and small businesses crammed into close quarters. A total of 286 pipes run down the walls of these buildings, leading to the mostly lost second floors. In 23 cases, however, the second story remains, and the same types of pipes lead to latrines.

In addition, Trusler said, unpublished research on scrapings from the insides of the pipes revealed fecal material and traces of intestinal parasites, good signs of a toilet.

The plumbing of Pompeii

The upstairs plumbing offers a window into daily Pompeii life, Trusler said.

"The sanitation features can tell us a lot about what people are doing on upper floors and above these little shops," she said. "What they suggest is that people are living there."

Most of the downpipes were likely installed in the first century B.C. into the first century A.D., Trusler said, the same time that the city developed its pumped-water system. Residents of apartments above shops would have been able to get water from public fountains installed in the streets.

"You really have a picture of urban development going on in Pompeii," Trusler said.

Pappas, Stephanie. 2013. “Ancient Pompeians Could Go Upstairs to Pee”. Discovery News. Posted: January 12, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Restoring a Buddhist Monastery on the Trans-Himalaya Salt Route

Since 2004, a local Nepali community group, an American volunteer tourism NGO and an Anglo-Nepali architectural/engineering firm have been working together to restore the Chhairo Gompa, an historic Buddhist monastery located along the ancient salt trading route in the Lower Mustang region of Nepal’s Himalayas.

At an altitude of 2,680 metres, the Chhairo Gompa sits in a juniper grove on the eastern bank of the Kali Gandaki River near the tiny village of Chhairo. For at least 300 years through the middle of the 20th century, Chhairo Gompa flourished, serving as a monastic centre for Buddhist learning and art as well as the religious centre for the local ethnic Thakali community. Local belief holds that Chhairo Gompa, also known as Sanga Choling, was established in the 8th Century by the Tibetan Lama Sangye, but its origins are uncertain. Its existence in the early 1800s is confirmed by royal edicts issued by Bhimsen Thapa, Prime Minister of Nepal from 1806 to 1837.

Since 2004, a local Nepali community group, an American volunteer tourism NGO and an Anglo-Nepali architectural/engineering firm have been working together to restore the Chhairo Gompa, an historic Buddhist monastery located along the ancient salt trading route in the Lower Mustang region of Nepal’s Himalayas.

At an altitude of 2,680 metres, the Chhairo Gompa sits in a juniper grove on the eastern bank of the Kali Gandaki River near the tiny village of Chhairo. For at least 300 years through the middle of the 20th century, Chhairo Gompa flourished, serving as a monastic centre for Buddhist learning and art as well as the religious centre for the local ethnic Thakali community. Local belief holds that Chhairo Gompa, also known as Sanga Choling, was established in the 8th Century by the Tibetan Lama Sangye, but its origins are uncertain.  Its existence in the early 1800s is confirmed by royal edicts issued by Bhimsen Thapa, Prime Minister of Nepal from 1806 to 1837.

Wealthy patronage

For much of its history, Chhairo Gompa benefited from the patronage of wealthy Thakali clans, including the Bhattachans, from the nearby village of Tukuche, the administrative and commercial centre for the trans-Himalayan salt trade.  During the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the Thakali families accumulated substantial fortunes, having obtained customs contracts from the Nepali government that gave them control over the importation of salt from Tibet.

Although their monopoly on the salt trade was abolished in 1928, the Thakali families continued to prosper from the still-thriving trade with Tibet in salt, grain and other goods. In 1959, however, after the Tibetans’ unsuccessful rebellion against the Communist occupation, the Chinese closed the Nepal-Tibet border at the Mustang passes so that the traditional trade through Tukuche, the lifeline of the region, all but ceased. As economic conditions deteriorated, Thakalis began migrating to Kathmandu and beyond, leaving the once magnificent village of Tukuche a moribund collection of proud but derelict buildings. With its patronage gone, Chhairo Gompa too was gradually abandoned and left to the elements.

A lamentable state

By the 1990s, Chhairo was in a lamentable state of disrepair, and many of the roofs and walls had collapsed. Fortunately, around this time, a group of younger Thakalis, moved by stories of Tukuche’s past glory and encouraged by Lama Sashi Dhoj Tulachan, an internationally known thangka artist from a prominent Tukuche clan, instigated a movement to repair and re-establish Chhairo Gompa.

The Chhairo Gompa complex follows the traditional flat roof structures of the Mustang region with fortress-like stone walls and consists of (1) a temple compound, (2) the Tulkhu’s (head lama) quarters and kitchen and (3) the monks’ quarters and stables. The architects designed a three-phase restoration plan: Phase IA – emergency repairs and rehabilitation of the temple compound; Phase IB – recreate as near as possible the original layout and appearance of the Tulkhu’s quarters and kitchens while improving and upgrading the accommodations; and Phase II – rebuild the monks’ quarters and stables for development as a training centre for Buddhist arts.

Phase IA – The Temple Compound

The temple compound has two religious structures – the Lhakhang (temple) and the adjacent Padmasambhava Chapel – that look inward onto a stone-paved courtyard that was bounded on the other three sides by two-story verandas from where visiting guests could view dance rituals. Only the north side verandas are still standing. The Lhakhang rises above the remaining structures and is capped with a small central lantern providing the temple’s only source of light. The temple is dominated by an altar with a clay statue of the Buddha flanked by smaller images of his disciples and Chhairo Gompa’s past lamas and benefactors.

The interior walls were decorated with wall paintings, which date from the early 1800s, and the interior of the lantern was panelled with inscribed slates. The Padmasambhava Chapel is adjacent to the Lhakhang on its north side and is also capped by a small lantern. Its walls were most recently decorated with wall paintings attributed to Kamal Dhoj Tulachan, a famous painter of Mustang area monasteries and the father of Sashi Dhoj Tulachan. The wall paintings in both chapels are blackened with dirt and smoke from centuries of burning butter lamps and incense and have also suffered significant damage from water seepage.

The walls are on average one metre thick and are built of snapped random stone with almost a dry construction. A timber ring beam acts as a good tie about one metre beneath the roof structure. The walls of the Lhakhang and the Chapel facing the courtyard are mud plastered and coloured with reddish clay for the Lhakhang and white clay for the Chapel. Each structure has a flat roof construction with a central grid of four columns supporting the lantern. The joists are supported off simple timber beams and project beyond the wall, allowing rainwater to fall clear of the walls. The split timbers support the roof covering, which is made of a special clay found about two hours walk from Chhairo.

The windows and doors are modelled after the standard Newari style found in the Kathmandu Valley. They are all modestly carved but have been heavily over painted. The three upper windows to the Lhakhang incorporate standard Tibetan details creating the lintels to the openings. The Lhakhang’s main doors have embossed knobs and are decorated with Tibetan inscriptions. A pair of carved images fixed to the Lhakhang’s inner door jambs are said to be Dvarapala or guardians to the temple.

The main work of Phase IA, which involved replacing the roofs, rebuilding the lanterns, replacing floors, conserving and restoring the chapel interiors, repaving the courtyard and improving drainage, is largely completed, except for restoration or repainting of the wall paintings and rebuilding the southern verandas. Restoring the wall paintings will be a long and drawn out process but will not delay the rest of the project. Volunteers will be working on the wall paintings this year.

Phase IB – The Tulkhu’s Quarters and Kitchen

Structures housing the Tulkhu’s quarters and the gompa’s original kitchen enclose the courtyard opposite the Lhakhang. The cookery area, built on a section of higher ground off the northeastern corner of the courtyard, was composed of three rooms: a cooking/eating area, a storeroom and a room for washing. The adjacent Tulkhu’s quarters are on the same level but took advantage of a sloping site and were built as an upper floor above ground level stables. In the remaining space there were sleeping quarters for attendants.

Combined the kitchen and Tulkhu’s quarters measure approximately 12 by 26 metres and are of simple construction with a flat roof and walls of random split stone. The outer walls remained generally sound, but the Tulkhu’s quarters, which consisted of an apartment for the Tulkhu and a general sitting/waiting room for the monks, had completely collapsed, providing limited information of its former layout. Restoration work, therefore, drew heavily upon traditional building designs and techniques to determine the course of action.

Phase IB is nearly 90% completed, with the Tulkhu’s quarters completely rehabilitated so that Sashi Dhoj Tulachan is able to reside there for part of the year. The project received a substantial boost in 2012 with the completion of additional sleeping quarters, allowing the Gompa to admit seven young monks to study under Lama Sashi Dhoj.

Phase II – The Monks’ Quarters and Stables

The monks’ quarters and stables are to the east of the Tulkhu’s quarters and, for the most part, are in a state of total collapse, although the foundation walls are largely intact. This part of the complex originally consisted of two open courtyards divided by a central spine wall running east-west. The wall divides the space into two separate, approximately square courtyards measuring 20 by 20 metres The northern section is a single-story structure built on the high ground. An interior platform around the northern courtyard built of stone and earth created a place for the occupants to sit outside their quarters. The southern courtyard complex is built on lower ground and is generally two stories, allowing space for livestock to be housed in the lower floor and space for living quarters on the upper level.  Doors gave direct access from the courtyards to the exterior. The roofs and walls were built in the same manner as the rest of the complex. The floors were rammed earth with timber joists and planking laid over.

Although this section of the complex is the most dilapidated, it is the section that is most suitable for development and possible expansion. Plans call for converting the former ground level stables into habitable space, thereby having the monks’ living quarters surround the southern courtyard on both levels. It is anticipated that the structures around the northern courtyard will be used as classrooms and studios for an artists’ training centre although consideration is also being given to turning this section into a centre for Buddhist retreat or a crafts centre to help revitalize the local economy.

Chhairo Gompa is a unique architectural masterpiece of great historical significance that had almost reached a state of no return. Now, thanks to both local and international efforts, it is well on its way to again becoming a meaningful religious and cultural centre.

In addition to restoring an architectural and cultural treasure to its former glory, the on-going project also seeks to revive the monastery as a religious and community centre and revitalize the local economy. The key collaborators on this project are:  the community-based Chhairo Restoration Group, led by the Bhattachans, a prominent local family long associated with Chhairo Gompa; Restoration Works International (RWI), a California-based NGO that provides major funding for the project through the recruitment of volunteer/donors to travel to Nepal to assist in the restoration; and John Sanday Associates (JSA), a Kathmandu firm long involved with the conservation and repair of traditional and historic architecture in Nepal and elsewhere in Asia. RWI is also partnering with Adventures in Preservation to bring volunteers to the site to do hands-on conservation work.

Tine, Donald. 2013. “Restoring a Buddhist Monastery on the Trans-Himalaya Salt Route”. Past Horizons. Posted: January 11, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Down the Drain: Lost Items Reveal Roman Bath Activities

Ever go swimming with rings on your fingers or hoops in your ears only to find your jewelry had vanished after your dip?

If so, you've got something in common with ancient Romans.

A new study of objects lost down the drains in the bathhouses from the Roman Empire reveals that people got up to all sorts of things in these gathering places. They bathed, of course, but they also adorned themselves with trinkets, snacked on finger foods and even did needlework.

"For the Romans, the baths weren't just a place to get clean, but this larger social center where a variety of activities were taking place," said study researcher Alissa Whitmore, a doctoral candidate in archaeology at the University of Iowa.

Down the drain

In the Roman Empire era, baths proliferated all over Europe for both military and civilian use. Many were quite ornate, with huge colonnades, decorative mosaics and pools ranging in temperature from frigid to steamy.

Ancient texts give some clues as to the variety of activities that took place in bathhouses, Whitmore said, but the texts are maddeningly vague on some details. So Whitmore turned to the concrete evidence: objects found in the floor and pool drains of the ruins of baths.

This early plumbing offers good insights, Whitmore told LiveScience, because it fairly certainly contains items lost or thrown away during the era of bathing. The Romans eventually abandoned the majority of their baths, leaving the structures to crumble, she said. Squatters moved in, leaving behind objects on floors and in other spots that wouldn't represent the items used when the baths were still functioning.

Busy baths

Whitmore examined drain finds from 11 public and military baths in Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany and Britain, all dating between the first and fourth centuries. Unsurprisingly, she found strong evidence of objects related to bathing, such as perfume vials, nail cleaners, tweezers and flasks for holding oils and other pampering products.

On the less-relaxing side of things, evidence shows medical procedures may have occasionally occurred in the baths, Whitmore found. Researchers found a scalpel lodged in one drain. And in the Caerleon baths in what is now Wales, archaeologists uncovered three adolescent and two adult teeth, suggesting bathhouse visitors may have undergone some dentistry, too.

Visitors also took their meals in the baths, judging by the fragments of plates, bowls and cups found swept into drains. At Caerleon, bathers snacked on mussels and shellfish, Whitmore said, while baths in Silchester, in the United Kingdom, showed traces of poppy seeds. Bones left behind reveal that Roman bathers enjoyed small cuts of beef, mutton, goat, pork, fowl and wild deer.

"Ancient texts talk about finger food and sweets, but don't really talk about animals," Whitmore said. "That was interesting to see."

Archaeologists have also found signs of gaming and gambling, including dice and coins, in various bathhouses. Perhaps most surprising, Whitmore said, researchers found bone and bronze needles and portions of spindles, suggesting that people did textile work in the baths.

This work likely wouldn't have happened in the water, she said, but in dressing rooms or common areas that had seating. The needles may have belonged to bathers who brought needlework to pass the time, or employees may have brought the sewing equipment, offering tailoring or other services at the sites while bathers relaxed, Whitmore said.

Lost jewelry

Among the sparkliest finds in the drains were pieces of jewelry. Archaeologists have found hairpins, beads, brooches, pendants and intaglios, or engraved gems, in bathhouse drains. A number of these finds definitely come from pool areas, Whitmore said.

"It does seem that there's a fair amount of evidence for people actually wearing things into the water," she said.

Bathers may have held onto their jewelry in the pools to prevent the valuables from being stolen, Whitmore said.

Or perhaps vanity inspired them.

"It's really a place to see and be seen," Whitmore said. "It makes sense that even if you had to take off your fancy clothes, you would still show off your status through your fancy jewelry."

Unfortunately, dips into hot and cold water would have loosened jewelry adhesives and caused metal settings to expand and contract. As a result, a number of unlucky Romans emerged from the baths considerably less bedecked than when they entered.

Whitmore reported her results Saturday (Jan. 5) at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle. She plans to expand her analysis of bath artifacts to better compare changes in activities over time and in different regions. One constant she's already found, she said, is the presence of women, even at baths on military bases.

"It adds further evidence that Roman military forts aren't entirely these really masculine areas, but a much wider social atmosphere than we tend to give them credit for," Whitmore said.

Pappas, Stephanie. 2013. “Down the Drain: Lost Items Reveal Roman Bath Activities”. Live Science. Posted: January 11, 2013. Available online:

Friday, February 8, 2013

New research group at Mainz University to study how human beings are categorized

German Research Foundation approves research unit on 'Un/doing Differences. Practices in human differentiation'

The German Research Foundation (DFG) has approved the establishment of a new Research Unit at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz on the topic of "Un/doing Differences. Practices in human differentiation." Within the research network, which has been initially established for six years, the eight participating researchers from the fields of Sociology, Anthropology, American Studies, Theater Studies, and German Linguistics will look at the cultural differentiation of humans and investigate how differences between individuals and communities arise or are created, and how these change or are expunged. The coordinator of the new DFG Research Unit is Professor Dr. Stefan Hirschauer of the JGU Institute of Sociology. A Research Unit funded by the German Research Foundation takes the form of a close working alliance between several prominent scholars who plan to collaborate on an innovative research topic over a longer period of time. The general idea behind the establishment of such research groups is to open up new areas of inquiry.

Human differentiation involves the identification or attribution of individuals as members of specific communities and groups in terms of their ethnicity, nationality, language groups, religions, or other factors, as well as intrasocietal differentiations on the basis of characteristics such as age, gender, or performance in school, work, or sports. There is a bewildering array of research fields that already deal with the categorization of humans. The new DFG group will take the corresponding findings as its starting point, but will also transcend these. The group will be thus be studying the important fundamental distinctions that form major research areas such as ethnicity, 'race', nationality, religion, gender – presumably the oldest form of human differentiation from a cultural history standpoint – and performance groups.

These various characteristics used for differentiation are usually studied separately in individual research areas, such as Gender Studies and Race Studies, but also as isolated topics within various disciplines, including Social Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Sociology, Political Science, History, Literature, Linguistics, and Social Psychology. However, there are considerable differences in the approaches taken by the social sciences and the humanities while there is a general consensus that it is necessary to define those universal characteristics common to the practices of cultural categorization and demarcation. "It is our aim to investigate for the first time how the many different social memberships of individuals actually compete with each other in order to demonstrate that people are not merely 'different' but can be distinguished from each other in the social context in various ways – or are not distinguished from each other at all," explained Hirschauer.

Each of the group's eight sub-projects addresses various aspects of the broader issues and, at the same time, sets its own emphases. Two African ethnological and two American Studies projects will be primarily focusing on the factors that determine the cultural lines of demarcation between communities. Four Sociology, Linguistics, and Theater Studies projects will be considering the cultural aspects of the categorization of individuals. Once the project group has completed its work, we may at last understand what conditions obtain to the differentiation of humans and why we assign them to categories, why differences arise and disappear again, and what essentially lies behind our need to categorize humans as 'types'.

EurekAlert. 2013. “New research group at Mainz University to study how human beings are categorized”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 11, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pompeii 'Wall Posts' Reveal Ancient Social Networks

Think of it as the earliest version of the Facebook wall post: Ancient Pompeii residents revealed their social networks through graffiti on actual walls.

Now, a new analysis of some of these scribbled messages reveals the walls of the wealthy were highly sought after, especially for political candidates hoping to drum up votes. The findings suggest that Pompeii homeowners may have had some control over who got artistic on their walls, said study researcher Eeva-Maria Viitanen, an archaeologist at the University of Helsinki.

"The current view is that any candidate could have chosen any location and have their ad painted on the wall. After looking at the contexts, this would not seem very likely," Viitanen told LiveScience. "The facades of the private houses and even the streetwalks in front of them were controlled and maintained by the owner of the house, and in that respect, the idea that the wall space could be appropriated by anyone who wanted to do it seems unlikely."

Ancient graffiti

Pompeii, which was famously destroyed and frozen in time by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, was a city of "avid scribblers," Viitanen told LiveScience. People scratched messages into the city's stucco walls or wrote them in charcoal. They copied literary quotes, wrote greetings to friends and made notes of sums.

Amid all these amateur "wall posts" were political campaign ads, most of which were done by professional painters, Viitanen said. It was these posts that she and her colleagues focused on, mapping out each message and noting its context. The researchers wanted to know where candidates put their messages — near bars and other high-traffic areas, or on the walls of private houses? And where did certain candidates focus their campaigns?

Pompeii's political ads

To narrow down the enormous amount of graffiti, the researchers focused on three regions of the city: two residential areas on opposite sides of town and one business district. There were more than 1,000 electoral messages scrawled on the walls in these regions, most dating from the last three centuries of Pompeii's existence.

Most of the messages are simple, containing just a name and the office the person was running for, Viitanen said.

"Sometimes there are some simple attributes such as 'a good man,' 'worthy of public office,'" she said. One candidate even bragged about his bread-baking abilities on his campaign-wall post, Viitanen said.

Other ads were sponsored by groups supporting a particular candidate, including such unsavory fraternities as pickpockets, late-night drinkers and petty thieves.

"Makes you wonder whether their candidates were really worth voting for!" Viitanen said.

Campaigning in Pompeii

The first find was that politicians wanted an audience. The campaign ads were almost invariably on heavily trafficked streets, Viitanen reported Friday (Jan. 4) at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America in Seattle.

The second, more surprising, discovery, was that the most popular spots for ads were private houses rather than bars or shops that would see a lot of visitors.

"Bars were probably more populated, but could their customers read and would they vote?" Viitanen said.

Some 40 percent of the ads were on prestigious houses, she said, which is notable because there were only a third as many lavish homes as there were bars, shops and more modest residences. Clearly, candidates were vying for space on the homes of the wealthy.

That discovery makes Viitanen and her colleagues think the ads reveal early social networking. It seems likely that candidates would need permission from the homeowner to paint their ads, suggesting the graffiti is something of an endorsement.

The research is preliminary and not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, and Viitanen said there is much more work to do to map the social networks revealed on the ancient walls.

"So far, we have barely scratched the surface on this," she said. "There are hundreds of texts and locations, and it takes a lot of time to go through them all."

Pappas, Stephanie. 2013. “Pompeii 'Wall Posts' Reveal Ancient Social Networks”. Live Science. Posted: January 10, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Tribal Lessons

The following is a book review for Jared Diamond's book, “The World Until Yesterday”.

The custom among the Pirahã Indians of Brazil is that women give birth alone. The linguist Steve Sheldon once saw a Pirahã woman giving birth on a beach, while members of her tribe waited nearby. It was a breech birth, however, and the woman started crying in agony. “Help me, please! The baby will not come.” Sheldon went to help her, but the other Pirahã stopped him, saying that she didn’t want his help. The woman kept up her screams. The next morning both mother and baby were found dead.

The Pirahã believe that people have to endure hardships on their own.

The anthropologist Allan Holmberg was with a group of Siriono Indians of Bolivia when a middle-aged woman grew gravely ill. She lay in her hammock, too unwell to walk or speak. Her husband told Holmberg that the tribe had to move on and would leave her there to die. They left her a fire and some water and walked away without saying goodbye. Even her husband had no parting words for her.

Holmberg was also sick and went away to get treatment. When he returned three weeks later, he saw no trace of the woman. At the next camp, he found her remains picked clean by scavenging animals.

“She had tried her utmost to follow the fortunes of the band,” Holmberg wrote, “but had failed and had experienced the same fate that is accorded all Siriono whose days of utility are over.” Tribes at this subsistence level just don’t have the resources to care for people who can’t keep up.

Jared Diamond tells these and other stories in “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn From Traditional Societies?” Diamond is a geographer at U.C.L.A. whose earlier books “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and “Collapse” became best sellers, offering sweeping — and brilliant — descriptions of how geography and environment shape the destiny of nations.

In this book, he holds up tribal societies as a mirror for our own lives. Through the millenniums, different tribal groups have in effect conducted a series of experiments on how to solve essential human problems. What have they discovered and what might we learn from them?

The most obvious difference between us is that pre-state tribal societies are just a lot more violent. Especially in fertile areas where land is valuable, people often can’t wander beyond closely prescribed borders. The cycle of raids and revenge-driven counterraids goes on and on.

Diamond describes a 1961 war between two tribal alliances in New Guinea. The individual battles don’t seem ferocious. Groups of 400 or 500 warriors faced off at a distance of 65 feet. They threw spears and shot arrows at each other in uncoordinated fashion. Frequently there would be an ambush and, sometimes, a massacre of women and children.

The problem is that the warfare was constant, and over time the casualties added up. Between April and September 1961, 0.14 percent of the alliances’ total populations was killed in this war. As a share of total population, that’s a higher casualty rate than Europe, Japan, China or America suffered during the world wars.

Nation states occasionally engage in vast, hellacious wars, but these are rare. Most people in nation states feel qualms about killing another human being and have been taught to restrain their lust for revenge. People in many tribal societies, Diamond writes, do not share these attitudes. Without central governments, they have trouble bringing wars to an end. They live in peril. The highest war-related death rates for modern societies (Russia and Germany during the 20th century) are only a third of the average death rates of tribal societies. Modern societies average war-related death rates that are about one-tenth as high as tribal societies.

This is one way in which modern life is unequivocally better than traditional life. But in the arenas of child-rearing, the treatment of the elderly and dispute resolution, Diamond argues that traditional societies have much to teach us.

We live in codified, impersonal ­societies. They live in uncodified but more personal societies. When we have a dispute over a traffic accident, we settle it in court and the goal is to arrive at some “just” solution, based on the degree of fault and so on. When people in traditional societies have an accident there is a series of ritualistic face-to-face meetings. The goal is not so much to find fault, but to restore the relationship that has been marred by the accident.

We sit around subway cars lost in our thoughts and smartphones. But people in traditional societies converse constantly, learning from one another and sharing. Diamond writes that it was sometimes hard for him to sleep during his research trips because the New Guineans he was staying with would awake in the middle of the night and resume the conversation they had left off a few hours before.

Modern mothers tend to breast-feed children on a schedule. But mothers in traditional societies nurse on demand and spend almost all their time having skin-to-skin contact with their babies, often carrying them in a sling, with the child placed vertically and facing forward, which Diamond suggests might be why babies from certain tribal societies develop neuromotor skills faster than American infants.

“Loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies,” Diamond observes. “People spend their lives in or near the place where they were born, and they remain surrounded by relatives and childhood companions.” Identity isn’t a problem either. Neither is moral confusion. Or boredom. Diamond says life is more vivid in tribal societies. “Being in New Guinea is like seeing the world briefly in vivid colors, when by comparison the world elsewhere is gray.”

Diamond’s knowledge and insights are still awesome, but alas, that vividness rarely comes across on the page. There are many strange practices described in this book (in a discontinued practice of one tribe, widows insisted on being strangled just after their husbands passed away). But Diamond’s writing is curiously impersonal. We rarely get to hear the people in traditional societies speak for themselves. We don’t get to meet any in depth. We don’t get to know what their stories are, what the contents of their religions are, how they conceive of individual selfhood or what they think of us. In this book, geographic and environmental features play a much more important role in shaping life than anything an individual person thinks or feels.

The people Diamond describes seem immersed in the collective. We generally don’t see them exercising much individual agency. We generally don’t see them trying to improve their own lives, alter their destinies or become a more admirable people. It’s possible they do not conceive of life in this individualistic way. It’s possible they don’t see life as a journey, as we tend to, but as a cycle. It’s possible they don’t conceive of history as having direction, as we tend to, but just as an endless return.

Many books have been written comparing the hyper-individualism of today’s society with the more communal patterns that have been left behind. It is hard to learn from this one because the traditional people, at least as described here, feel so different from us.

They don’t seem like us, the day before yesterday. They seem like people separated from us by large chasms — by all the events of our written history, all the ideas of our thinkers, all the teachings of our religions.

This book reminds you how important geography is, but it also unwittingly reminds you how important history and culture are, and how certain core conceptions — our notions of individual agency, our assumptions about time and space, our moral intuitions about killing and individual dignity — have been shaped by our civilizations.

Has our society become too impersonal? Undoubtedly. Do traditional people serve as models for how we might alter our lives? It’s hard to know. They seem so distant.

Brooks, David. 2013. “Tribal Lessons”. The New York Times. Posted: January 10, 2013. Available online: