Monday, September 30, 2013

The Vikings Were Not the First Colonizers of the Faroe Islands

The Faroe Islands were colonised much earlier than previously believed, and it wasn't by the Vikings, according to new research.

New archaeological evidence places human colonisation in the 4th to 6th centuries AD, at least 300-500 years earlier than previously demonstrated.

The research, directed by Dr Mike J Church from Durham University and Símun V Arge from the National Museum of the Faroe Islands as part of the multidisciplinary project "Heart of the Atlantic," is published in the Quaternary Science Reviews.

The research challenges the nature, scale and timing of human settlement of the wider North Atlantic region and has implications for the colonisation of similar island groups across the world.

The Faroes were the first stepping stone beyond Shetland for the dispersal of European people across the North Atlantic that culminated on the shores of continental North America in the 11th century AD, about 500 years before Columbus made his famous voyage.

The research was carried out on an archaeological site at Á Sondum on the island of Sandoy.

Analysis showed an extensive windblown sand deposit containing patches of burnt peat ash from human activity, dating human settlement to pre-Viking phases. These ash spreads contained barley grains which were accidentally burnt in domestic hearths and were then spread by humans onto the windblown sand surface during the 4th-6th centuries and 6th-8th centuries, a common practice identified in the North Atlantic during this period to control wind erosion.

Lead author Dr Mike Church, from Durham University's Department of Archaeology, said: "There is now firm archaeological evidence for the human colonisation of the Faroes by people some 300-500 years before the large scale Viking colonisation of the 9th century AD, although we don't yet know who these people were or where they came from.

"The majority of archaeological evidence for this early colonisation is likely to have been destroyed by the major Viking invasion, explaining the lack of proof found in the Faroes for the earlier settlement. This also raises questions about the timing of human activity on other islands systems where similarly evidence may have been destroyed."

Co-author, Símun V Arge from the National Museum of the Faroe Islands, said: "Although we don't know who the people were that settled here and where they came from, it is clear that they did prepare peat for use, by cutting, drying and burning it which indicates they must have stayed here for some time.

"We now have to digest these dates of this early evidence in relation to other sources and consider whether there may be other similar sites, elsewhere on the islands, which may be able to provide us with further structural archaeological evidence."

The study was led by Durham University and the National Museum of the Faroe Islands, with the Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Bradford, Stirling and Glasgow, the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre and the City University of New York.

It was funded by the Faroese Research Council, Leverhulme Trust, US National Science Foundation, Anadarko Faroes Company and BP Amoco Explorations.

Science Daily. 2013. “The Vikings Were Not the First Colonizers of the Faroe Islands”. Science Daily. Posted: August 20, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Far Out: Ancient Egyptian Jewelry Came from Outer Space

Ancient Egyptian beads found in a 5,000-year-old tomb were made from iron meteorites that fell to Earth from space, according to a new study. The beads, which are the oldest known iron artifacts in the world, were crafted roughly 2,000 years before Egypt's Iron Age.

In 1911, nine tube-shaped beads were excavated from an ancient cemetery near the village of el-Gerzeh, which is located south of Cairo, said study lead author Thilo Rehren, a professor at UCL Qatar, a Western Asian outpost of the University College London's Institute of Archaeology. The tomb dates back to approximately 3200 B.C., the researchers said.

Inside the tomb, which belonged to a teenage boy, the iron beads were strung together into a necklace alongside other exotic materials, including gold and gemstones. Early tests of the beads' composition revealed curiously high concentrations of nickel, a telltale signature of iron meteorites.

"Even 100 years ago, [the beads] attracted attention as being something strange," Rehren told LiveScience.

But without definitive proof of the beads' cosmic origins, questions persisted over whether similar amounts of nickel could be present in human-made iron. By scanning the iron beads with beams of neutrons and gamma rays, the researchers found high concentrations of cobalt, phosphorous and germanium; these elements were present at levels that only occur in iron meteorites.

"It's really exciting, because we were able to detect sufficient cobalt and germanium in these beads to confirm they're meteoritic," Rehren said. "We had assumed this was the case for 100 years, but it's nice to be able to put an exclamation mark on the label, rather than a question mark."

The X-ray technology also revealed that the beads had been hammered into thin sheets before being meticulously rolled into tubes.

"This meteoritic iron, it's very hard material that you find in lumps, and yet here we see it in thin beads," Rehren said. "The real question is, how were they made?"

Unlike softer and more pliable metals like gold and copper, working with solid iron required the invention of blacksmithing, which involves repeatedly heating metals to red-hot temperatures and hammering them into shape.

"It's a much more elaborate operation and one that we assumed was only invented and developed in the Iron Age, which started maybe 3,000 years ago — not 5,000 years ago," Rehren said.

The researchers suggest the iron meteorites were heated and hammered into thin sheets, and then woven around wooden sticks to create 0.8-inch-long (2 centimeters), tube-shaped beads. Other stones found in the same tomb displayed more traditional stone-working techniques, such as carving and drilling.

"This shows that these people, at this early age, were capable of blacksmithing," Rehren said. "It shows a pretty advanced skill with this difficult material. It might not have been on large scales, but by the time of the Iron Age, they had about 2,000 years of experience working with meteoritic iron."

This is not the first time beads from this Egyptian tomb have been linked to the cosmos. Earlier this year, in May, researchers at the Open University and University of Manchester published a paper in the journal Meteoritics and Planetary Science about the celestial origins of the ancient beads.

Other researchers have identified different artifacts that also have space origins. Last year, German scientists discovered a Buddha statue that was carved from a meteorite between the eighth and 10th centuries.

The detailed findings of the new study were published online today (Aug. 19) in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Chow, Denise. 2013. “Far Out: Ancient Egyptian Jewelry Came from Outer Space”. Live Science. Posted: August 19, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Aboriginal story of Burke and Wills

Few episodes in Australian history have received as much attention as the expedition of explorers Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills.

Forty books, hundreds of paintings, several films, poems, music and sculptures have all marked the exploits and fate of Burke and Wills, yet there has been a crucial element missing from this epic Australian story – the central role that Aboriginal people played in the exploration of Australia. A new book from CSIRO Publishing, The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills: Forgotten Narratives, examines the cross-cultural differences and perspectives of the European explorers and the Indigenous inhabitants, and exposes the fundamental failure of Burke and Wills – not to profit from Aboriginal knowledge.

"We believe we have created a book which offers new perspectives on the story of Burke and Wills, and more importantly the Aboriginal contribution to the expedition," note co-authors Professor Ian D. Clark and Dr Fred Cahir, from the University of Ballarat.

As the authors establish, the Aboriginal skills in communication, in tracking and in navigation (which were utilised by other explorers) were not recognised or appreciated by Burke. In the end, a fatal error of judgement.

The book profiles the members of the Victorian Exploring Expedition of 1860-61 and examines the different cross-cultural perspectives, including the Germanic experience.

It also includes an introduction by Aaron Paterson – a Yandruwandha descendant. The Yandruwandha people were responsible for the care and protection of the sole surviving member of the expedition, John King.

The book examines fascinating ambiguities, like how did Burke really die? And John King's "secret" daughter with a Yandruwandha woman.

The Aboriginal Story of Burke and Wills acknowledges the Aboriginal contribution, and offers a reassessment of this great Australian story.

EurekAlert. 2013. “The Aboriginal story of Burke and Wills”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 20, 2013. Available online:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Early Humans Lived in China 1.7 Million Years Ago

An extinct species of tool-making humans apparently occupied a vast area in China as early as 1.7 million years ago, researchers say.

The human lineage evolved in Africa, with now-extinct species of humans dispersing away from their origin continent more than a million years before modern humans did. Scientists would like to learn more about when and where humans went to better understand what drove human evolution.

Researchers investigated the Nihewan Basin, which lies in a mountainous region about 90 miles (150 kilometers) west of Beijing. It holds more than 60 sites from the Stone Age, with thousands of stone tools found there since 1972 — relatively simple types, such as stone flakes altogether known as the Oldowan. Researchers suspect these artifacts belonged to Homo erectus, "thought to be ancestral to Homo sapiens," Hong Ao, a paleomagnetist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Xi'an, told LiveScience.

The exact age of these sites was long uncertain. To find out, Ao and his colleagues analyzed the earth above, below and in which stone tools at the Shangshazui site in the Nihewan Basin were found. The tools in question were stone blades potentially used for cutting or scraping.

The scientists analyzed the way in which the samples of earth were magnetized — since the Earth's magnetic field has regularly flipped numerous times over millions of years, looking at the manner in which the magnetic fields of minerals are oriented can shed light on how old they are. The researchers discovered this site in northern China might be about 1.6 million to 1.7 million years old, making it 600,000 or 700,000 years older than previously thought.

Horse, elephant and other fossils suggest the area back when the stone tools were made was mainly grassland interspersed with patches of woodland. A lake between the mountains there was probably a major attraction for hominid explorers, providing water and a range of other food sources, while the mountains could have represented an important material source for making stone tools. The researchers suggest hominid migrations to East Asia during the early Stone Age were a consequence of increasing cooling and aridity in Africa and Eurasia.

Given that slightly older artifacts and bones belonging to Homo erectus were previously discovered in southern China more than 1,500 miles (2,500 km) away, these new findings suggest early and now-extinct human species may potentially have occupied a huge territory in China.

"Homo erectus occupied a vast area in China by 1.7 million to 1.6 million years ago," Ao said.

The scientists detailed their findings online Aug. 15 in the journal Scientific Reports.

Choi, Charles. 2013. “Early Humans Lived in China 1.7 Million Years Ago”. Live Science. Posted: August 15, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Human occupation of Madagascar pushed back 2500 years

Past research concludes that human occupation of Madagascar was established around 500 C.E. in village communities by people of both Indonesian and East African heritage. Evidence for earlier visits is scattered and contentious, but recent archaeological excavations in northern Madagascar reveals a site containing microlithic stone technologies related to foraging for forest and coastal resources.

A flawed chronology

The evidence for human occupation prior to 500 C.E. does exist but is mainly circumstantial. Pollen and charcoal from fires suggest vegetation change linked to human activity around 2000 years ago, while cut-marks on animal bones push the date back to 400 BCE and possibly as far back as 2200 BCE. But until now there were few artefacts that could be used to establish the presence of humans on Madagascar.

The new study examined a rock shelter where the researchers – led by the late Robert E. Dewar of Yale University -  unearthed scores of flaked stone items made from materials brought from some distance away.

“Flaked stone items recovered primarily from washing and sorting are very small, a majority from a range of crypto-crystalline silicates, which we term ‘chert,’ and a minority of a volcanic glass which we term ‘obsidian’,” the authors write, noting that there are no known sources of obsidian in northern Madagascar. “Some of the fragments and flakes have pot-lid scars attributable to either deliberate heating, which improves flaking, or accidental burning.”

Using carbon dating techniques, the researchers were able to place an age on the stone tools of 3,500 to 4,400 years, corresponding to approximately 1460-2370 BCE. They also bear a striking resemblance to artefacts from this period found in Africa, the Middle East, and South-east Asia.

Intermittent occupation

The researchers say the results provide evidence of “intermittent occupation by small groups engaged in foraging” at the site.

This foraging occupation of one site effectively doubles and confirms the length of Madagascar’s known occupational history and thus the time during which people exploited its environments.

The rock shelter yielded a stratified assemblage with small flakes, microblades, and retouched crescentic and trapezoidal tools, probably projectile elements, made from cherts and obsidian, some brought more that 200 km.

The assemblage from the top layers of the site is well dated to 1050–1350 A.D. This was achieved using carbon dating and optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), as well as ceramic typology imported from the Near East and China.

Below this layer is a series of stratified assemblages with carbon dating and OSL indicating occupation from at least 2000 B.C.

Faunal remains reveal a foraging pattern of hunting parties active in Madagascar long before the arrival of farmers and herders and before many Late Holocene faunal extinctions.

A biodiversity hotspot

Madagascar split from India around 88 million years ago, allowing native plants and animals to evolve in relative isolation. Consequently, Madagascar became a biodiversity hotspot with over 90 percent of its wildlife found nowhere else on Earth. The island’s diverse ecosystems and unique wildlife are threatened by the encroachment of the rapidly growing human population.

The unique evidence collected by the researchers regarding extinction of mega fauna, such as gorilla sized Lemurs, shows that this occurred long after initial human arrival on the island and although later activities were clearly involved, the specific causes and pattern remain to be fully understood.

More generally, the view that Madagascar’s history can be sharply divided by the arrival of humans between an undisturbed Eden and anthropogenic disaster is no longer tenable.

The researchers conclude that more archaeological research is required to locate and excavate more of these forager sites and to understand “the chronology, origins, geographic spread, and environmental impacts of the human occupation of Madagascar”.

Past Horizons. 2013. “Human occupation of Madagascar pushed back 2500 years”. Past Horizons. Posted: August 14, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Shinmei-zukuri Architecture of Japan

The architecture, Shinmei-zukuri (神明造), of this Japanese temple is 1,300 years old. The temple is the oldest existing timber frame structure in the world. It has been rebuilt every 20 years throughout its history as a part of the Shinto belief of the death and renewal of nature and the impermanence of all things (wabi-sabi). This cycle of renewal has preserved the traditional building techniques from one generation to the next. The shikinen sengu, (shrine hall) is rebuilt in exactly the same way using the same techniques. The old material replaced during rebuilding is sent to other shrines all over Japan for recycling, so there is no waste.


Natural Homes. 2013. “The Shinmei-zukuri Architecture of Japan”. Natural Homes. Posted: August 24, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

A Mosque of Their Own

Women have led Muslim congregations in China for generations, but their tradition’s success may be its own undoing

The women of Sangpo know well they are the guardians of a 300-year-old custom that sets them apart in Islam and they are increasingly mindful that economic development could be that tradition’s undoing.

Sangpo, a dusty hamlet about two hours from the capital of China’s landlocked Henan province, is home to about 5,000 people, some 95 percent of whom are Hui Muslims. The Hui, China’s third-largest ethnic minority, number nearly 10 million followers of Islam in China. Many are direct descendants of Arab traders on the Silk Road who married local Chinese women, but the Hui today are mainly identified through their religion rather than by ethnic characteristics.

Packed into this town are six mosques run by women, whose congregants are all female, and only five headed by men—an imbalance the women point out with pride, and a rarity among Muslim communities in China, let alone the rest of the world.

This is the heart of a Hui Islamic practice that has been studied, derided, picked apart, and admired by scholars of Islam and of China. There are a few female imams elsewhere in the world, including in Spain, Turkey, and the United States, but for the Hui of Henan, the practice is not an oddity. Rather, it is a widely accepted part of religious life among women that is tolerated by men.

Guo Dongping, a female imam in Sangpo, describes her role as a combination of community organizer and language and religion instructor. In addition to leading prayers and teaching Arabic, Guo often serves as a counselor to the women in her flock.

“If someone is unhappy with her situation at home, especially when there are problems between a woman and her mother-in-law, she will come to the imam, who will console her,” she says. “Imams often deal with these issues. Some people don’t like to come to imams with these problems, but if the imams find out they will initiate heart-to-heart chats with these people and guide them.”

Guo, who is now 43, left Sangpo at 19 for Kaifeng, where she undertook the intensive studies needed to become an imam. Then, the journey took her a day by bicycle and boat. Today, the trip is less than two hours by car.

In Kaifeng, another center of Hui Islam in Henan, the older women who taught Guo speak about the need for separate spaces for women in the practice of religion. They joke about how women better understand than men the need be flexible about prayer times during the day, because women have more to do. Their mosque is tiny, a hidden shadow compared with the stunning piece of architecture up the road reserved for men. They don’t seem bothered by that, but pleased to have their own space.

“Women have take care of the children, they have to cook the meals, and we understand this,” said Yao Baoxia, the imam who heads the Wangjia Hutong female mosque in Kaifeng. “We consider and understand these things.”

While their precise numbers are unknown, China has dozens of female imams—more than anywhere else in the world, according to leading scholars. Most are in Henan province. They first appeared in the 17th century, in a doctrinal adaptation likely born of necessity. According to Shui Jingjun of the Henan Academy of Social Sciences, this owes to the land-locked province’s geography and history. “In the past, Muslims living in the central plains lived in scattered settlements, and therefore felt more sense of crisis because they were prone to outside influences,” Shui explains. “They had difficulty passing down their religion, so they thought men and women should work together.”

Maria Jaschok, director of the International Gender Studies Center at Oxford University, who has studied the female imams of China since the mid-1990s and who co-authored a book on the subject with Shui, says the lack of reliable statistics on the imams’ numbers owes to the fluid conditions under which they operate.

“They’re not registered separately, some are not registered at all and in many cases these are highly contested titles,” Jaschok explains. “Often the men, their counterparts, don’t see them as full imams.” The opacity of their ranks also, “reflects, in part, authorities’ own ambivalence about giving them recognition,” she says.

In Henan, along with a few Hui Muslim enclaves in northwestern China, women-run mosques are counterparts to the houses of worship for men; female mosques serve as community centers for women. Within them, female imams do nearly everything their male equivalents do, apart from officiating over weddings and funerals. Technically, they’re not allowed to stand at the front of the mosque to lead prayers, a symbolic gesture. Instead, the women lead prayers facing in the same direction as their flock, rather than facing out toward them as would the leader of a mosque for men.

The women have far more modest mosques, less funding, and smaller spaces, but their communities are strong and often at the core of familiar relationships.

Scholars say this unique approach to women in Islam has helped the Hui tradition thrive and led to stronger family ties. Women are not isolated or left home to pray on their own, or relegated to separate rooms inside the male mosque.

Female imams have survived periods of persecution throughout China’s turbulent history, including the Cultural Revolution, but today they face a different kind of threat. Many Hui girls now see office jobs and translation work as a better career path. Shui says historical research indicates religious reform during the late Ming dynasty helped raise the profile of women in Islam in this region. The reform movement called for greater emphasis on education, in which women played a critical role. Elevating women within Hui-style Islam proved productive and useful for the community, and the practice flourished.

Education clearly remains the central job of female religious leaders in Hui Henan today. In addition to leading prayers, Guo dutifully teaches Arabic to women who hope to learn enough to travel to Mecca. But recent economic growth has given her students new opportunities to use their education for non-religious purposes.

Sangpo, along with the rest of China, is speeding along the highway toward prosperity. A lucrative leather-tanning industry has subsumed the town, polluting the groundwater and leaving a lingering acrid smell of chemicals in the air, but making townspeople rich enough that dozens have been able to pay several thousand dollars each for pilgrimages to Mecca in recent years. Similar circumstances in other Hui enclaves are allowing female students to consider career paths that lead away from their local mosques.

Shui, who is herself a Hui Muslim, says the tradition is seriously threatened, as teenagers undertake difficult programs in learning Arabic and other training, when only a few will actually go on to lead religious communities. For the rest, the opportunity to earn more money and to take advantage of the new freedoms afforded by China’s rapid development steers most girls off the path that leads to becoming an imam.

“After much studying, if one cannot become an imam, he or she still needs another way to make a living,” says Shui. “Therefore, especially in recent years, both male and female mosques have experienced great difficulties recruiting students.”

That pressure could push the Hui toward a more globally accepted tradition of Islam, with a single person—a man—in charge of consolidated religious communities. The female imams of China are working on training and recruiting girls to try to make sure women keep a place of their own.

McLaughlin, Kathleen. 2013. “A Mosque of Their Own”. China File. Posted: September 18, 2012. Available online:

Monday, September 23, 2013

Excavating One of the Nazis' First Concentration Camps

A nearly forgotten camp, built right after Hitler took power, served as a place to develop new torture methods and train people who later ran camps all around Europe.

Berlin's Tempelhof airport is remembered today as the site of the Air Lift, the effort by Britain and the United States to fly in food and supplies to West Berlin during a year-long Soviet blockade starting in 1948. But a decade earlier, it was the site of unspeakable atrocities at one of the Nazis' earliest concentration camps -- and a husband-and-wife archeologist team has begun an excavation at the site to shed light on its troubled past.

Susan Pollock and Reinhard Bernbeck began their dig at the Columbia Concentration Camp earlier this year. Though most of their previous work had brought them to the Middle East and Turkey, they decided to explore the Tempelhof site two years ago after taking up professorships at Berlin's Free University.

"We learned about this 'history' that Tempelhof had at a conference," Pollock told me. "The consensus was that excavations should be done some time soon, since a lot of development of the site is planned over the coming decade."

The Nazis created Columbia in 1933 from what had been a military jail. The site came to house political prisoners and forced laborers for the airline Lufthansa and plane builder Weserflug -- one of the companies that eventually became European aerospace giant EADS.

Columbia served as a training center to teach and perfect new torture methods that would later be employed to run Germany's huge network of concentration camps around Europe.

"This was not just a place where people were terrorized and tortured, but a school of torture," Bernbeck added. "The people who had been commanders of Columbia later turned into commanders of other concentration camps - at Buchenwald, at Sachenhausen, at Majdanek, in Auschwitz, so once you had gone through concentration camp Columbia, apparently this was this perverse career step in order to stay in the SS and become a commander elsewhere."

The Nazis used the camp until 1936, when it was deemed too small. They sent here anyone whom Hitler considered an enemy: opposition politicians, Communists, union members, Jewish people, intellectuals, and homosexuals.

Bernbeck and Pollock said people who were not murdered here were kept for short stays of two or three weeks, and then released. Inmates were bussed every day from Columbia to the SS Headquarters (known today as the Topography of Terror museum, where they were interrogated.)

"The Nazis let people out purposefully after short periods of time so that word of how they were treated would spread." Bernbeck said. "It was a way to terrorize opposition groups, to shut them up."

The Columbia Concentration camp is also where the Germans perfected a system of classifying the people whom they enslaved.

"This is where they began to 'categorize' people. People from Poland had to wear a P; anyone from the Soviet Union wore 'O' for Ost, or east. There were Jewish forced laborers, then they were all deported from Berlin. There were French, Czech, Bulgarian forced laborers. People from Italy, Belgium, Netherlands -- from all over Europe, basically. We know that they lived in different barracks. But to what extent archeology can reveal the conditions -- which are to some extent known from documents -- we need to find out," Bernbeck explained.

An estimated 10,000 inmates passed through Columbia during its three-year lifespan. It was just one of around 3,000 forced laborer camps in Berlin alone. Bernbeck and Pollock maintain that Germans and others living in Berlin were well aware of these camps' existence. They point to rare stories of compassion -- borne out by evidence found during excavations -- of Berliners passing shoes and supplies to the inmates through Columbia's fences.

In addition, underground groups distributed leaflets about the camp during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

"Obviously, we don't know who found and read the leaflets," Bernbeck said. "But when you think about it, such news spreads very quickly. People were fearful of being tortured in these places. Even people who were not in the opposition knew about these places too. That cannot be denied."

One inmate in the camp fled to Austria after his release and warned others of the Nazis' new detention methods.

"Surely, the place was known," Pollock added. "Exactly to whom and in exactly what ways, I certainly don't know. But it's clear that it was a known place of terror."

When the camp closed in 1936, the remaining inmates were brought to a huge new concentration camp outside of Berlin called Sachsenhausen. The Columbia site was then demolished in 1938 to make space for Tempelhof airport, which at the time was the largest building in the world.

Pollock and Bernbeck said the city of Berlin has provided financial support for the dig -- though that support has been a long time coming, since the site was actually discovered 30 years ago by two German scholars who wrote a book about it.

Local residents have also been supportive, and in some cases they even helped connect the researchers to survivors, three of whom are still living.

But Pollock said that these survivors' memories of events have faded over the years. Though some of their recollections have provided the team with clues, it is the dig itself that is helping help fill in the gaps in survivors' memories.

"Archeology can make a contribution here," Pollock explained. "There are very specific or negative events that stick in the memory. But lots of the everyday things one simply doesn't remember."

Scaturro, Michael. 2013. “Excavating One of the Nazis' First Concentration Camps”. The Atlantic. Posted: August 21, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Portraits of Albanian Women Who Have Lived Their Lives As Men

Visit the website to see the amazing photos of the Burneshas. For her project Sworn Virgins of Albania, photographer Jill Peters visited to the mountain villages of northern Albania to capture portraits of “burneshas,” or females who have lived their lives as men for reasons related to their culture and society.

Many of the women assumed their male identities from an early age as a way to avoid the old codes that governed the tribal clans, which stated that women were the property of their husbands. Peters explains,

The freedom to vote, drive, conduct business, earn money, drink, smoke, swear, own a gun or wear pants was traditionally the exclusive province of men. Young girls were commonly forced into arranged marriages, often with much older men in distant villages. As an alternative, becoming a Sworn Virgin, or ‘burnesha” elevated a woman to the status of a man and granted her all the rights and privileges of the male population. In order to manifest the transition such a woman cut her hair, donned male clothing and sometimes even changed her name. Male gestures and swaggers were practiced until they became second nature. Most importantly of all, she took a vow of celibacy to remain chaste for life. She became a “he”. This practice continues today but as modernization inches toward the small villages nestled in the Alps, this archaic tradition is increasingly seen as obsolete. Only a few aging Sworn Virgins remain.

Thus, Peters wanted to capture this fading tradition before it disappeared forever. She also writes that she learned a great deal from her interactions with her subjects and their communities:

I learned that the Burrnesha are well respected within their communities. They possess an indescribable amount of strength and pride, and value their family honor above all else. Their absolute transition is wholly accepted, posited and taken without question by the people among whom they live. But most surprising, is they have very few regrets for the great deal they have sacrificed.


Zhang, Michael. 2013. “Portraits of Albanian Women Who Have Lived Their Lives As Men”. Peta Pixel. Posted: December 26, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Genetic Study Reveals Origin of India's Caste System

The caste system in South Asia — which rigidly separates people into high, middle and lower classes — may have been firmly entrenched by about 2,000 years ago, a new genetic analysis suggests.

Researchers found that people from different genetic populations in India began mixing about 4,200 years ago, but the mingling stopped around 1,900 years ago, according to the analysis published today (Aug. 8) in the American Journal of Human Genetics.

Combining this new genetic information with ancient texts, the results suggest that class distinctions emerged 3,000 to 3,500 years ago, and caste divisions became strict roughly two millennia ago.

Though relationships between people of different social groups was once common, there was a "transformation where most groups now practice endogamy," or marry within their group, said study co-author Priya Moorjani, a geneticist at Harvard University.

Ancestral populations

Hindus in India have historically been born into one of four major castes, with myriad subdivisions within each caste. Even today, in some parts of the country, marriage outside of one's caste is forbidden and those in the outcast, or "untouchable" group are discriminated against and prohibited from participating in religious rituals. (The Indian government has outlawed certain types of discrimination against the lowest classes.)

But when and why this system evolved has always been a bit murky, said Michael Witzel, a South Asian studies researcher at Harvard University, who was not involved in the work.

Moorjani's past research revealed that all people in India trace their heritage to two genetic groups: An ancestral North Indian group originally from the Near East and the Caucasus region, and another South Indian group that was more closely related to people on the Andaman Islands.

Today, everyone in India has DNA from both groups. "It's just the proportion of ancestry that you have that varies across India," Moorjani told LiveScience.

To determine exactly when these ancient groups mixed, the team analyzed DNA from 371 people who were members of 73 groups throughout the subcontinent.

Aside from finding when the mixing started and stopped, the researchers also found the mixing was thorough, with even the most isolated tribes showing ancestry from both groups.

Period of transition

Researchers aren't sure which groups of ancient people lived in India prior to 4,200 years ago, but Moorjani suspects the two groups lived side-by-side for centuries without intermarrying.

Archaeological evidence indicates that the groups began intermarrying during a time of great upheaval. The Indus Valley civilization, which spanned much of modern-day North India and Pakistan, was waning, and huge migrations were occurring across North India.

Ancient texts also reveal clues about the period.

The Rigveda, a nearly 3,500-year-old collection of hymns written in Sanskrit, a North Indian language, mentions chieftains with South Indian names.

"So there is some sort of mixture or intermarriage," Witzel told LiveScience.

Early on, there were distinct classes of people — the priests, the nobility and the common people — but no mention of segregation or occupational restrictions. By about 3,000 years ago, the texts mention a fourth, lowest class: the Sudras. But it wasn't until about 100 B.C. that a holy text called the Manusmruti explicitly forbade intermarriage across castes.

The study doesn't suggest that either the ancestral North or South Indian group formed the bulk of the upper or lower castes, Witzel said.

Rather, when caste divisions hardened, any type of intermarriage was sharply curtailed, leading to much less mixing overall.

Ghose, Tia. 2013. “Genetic Study Reveals Origin of India's Caste System”. Live Science. Posted: August 8, 2013. Available online:

Friday, September 20, 2013

Latino genomes point way to hidden DNA

20 million missing base pairs of DNA mapped to previously uncharted regions of the human genome

Hidden in the tangled, repetitious folds of DNA structures called centromeres, researchers from Harvard Medical School and the Broad Institute have discovered the hiding place of 20 million base pairs of genetic sequence, finding a home for 10 percent of the DNA that is thought to be missing from the standard reference map of the human genome.

Mathematician Giulio Genovese, a computational biologist in genetics at HMS and at the Broad Institute, working in the lab of geneticist Steven McCarroll, HMS assistant professor of genetics and director of genetics for the Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research at the Broad Institute, found a way to use the genomes of Latinos to interpolate the locations of these missing pieces. Their findings will be published in The American Journal of Human Genetics on August 8.

"In nature, polymerase, the molecular machinery that copies DNA within living cells, can sequence hundreds of millions of base pairs of DNA. The techniques we've developed to sequence DNA in the lab can only do relatively short segments, and we need to stitch those pieces together after the fact," Genovese said. "So while we wait for sequencing technology to catch up with nature, we wanted to see if we could use mathematical patterns to find a place for some of the missing pieces."

By using the genomes of admixed populations—populations, such as Latinos and African Americans that derive ancestry from more than one continent—the team developed a sophisticated mathematical method to help fill in the uncharted regions on the human genome map. The map is a key tool that geneticists rely on to find disease genes and identify the functional genetic variations at the core of human diversity. The unmapped DNA also sometimes resembles known, mapped genes, which can interfere in attempts to study similar sequences.

Best known as the molecular hinges that help chromosomes divide, centromeres have been widely considered structural elements that were unlikely to harbor protein-coding genes, the researchers said. For this reason, their finding—that nearly half of the unmapped sequences contained in available genomic reference libraries, including many protein-coding genes, were located in the centromeres—was unexpected.

Insight from a diverse population

Surprisingly, the study also found that the genomes of Latino individuals are a uniquely powerful resource for assembling maps of the human genome. The study searched 242 Latino genomes from the 1000 Genomes Project Phase 1 for DNA sequences that have not yet been located on the reference human genome map.

"Throughout the history of genomic research, different populations have given unique gifts to genetic inquiry because of the history or structure of that population," said McCarroll.

The power of the Latino genome for Genovese's approach came from the contribution of the African ancestors that many Latino individuals have. Because of the long history of human evolution on the continent, the African genome is rich in genetic diversity. Other human populations evolved from subsets of that diverse population, as small groups migrated around the globe just a few tens of thousands of years ago. (Sometimes, however, the lack of diversity in a population can be an asset for researchers. There are island populations that have allowed the discovery of recessive mutations that are rare in most of the world, but happen to be more common on a given island.)

"Latino populations have a relatively distinctive gift to give. Having some recent African ancestry, but just a little, can yield especially powerful information about what the structure of the human genome is in all populations," McCarroll said.

When chromosomes recombine with each other in each generation, they do so in relatively large segments or chunks. In the genomes of Latinos— many of whom trace ancestry to European, Native American and African populations—the mixed European, Native American and African sequences form a mosaic of large segments.

Imagined as separate colors, an admixed genome would look like a mosaic with large red, green and blue tiles, rather than a video screen with tiny, mixed-color pixels.

Genovese developed an algorithm that could use a missing sequence's proximity to known genetic markers to pinpoint where on the chromosome the missing pieces fit—a technique first reported in a related paper in February, which localized a smaller sample of genes.

The technique works best when individuals have some African DNA because the diversity among African genomes provides a high number of genetic markers. But Genovese discovered that his technique is most powerful when individuals have only a little African ancestry— because this genetic "signal" is then most localized to a small number of regions in their genomes. Because the sampled Latino genomes had low levels of African ancestry (on average, just a few percent, compared to around 80 percent in African Americans), it was more powerful for pinpointing where on the map the marker was.

The blank spots on the map that the researchers identified were the centromeres, the only places where the missing DNA could be hidden.

A new approach to mapping

Until this work, scientists have tended to assume that mapping the remaining patches of terra incognita in the human genome would require future improvements in sequencing technology.

"I think people have tended to assume that someone will invent some sequencing technology that can magically read chromosomes in sequence from end to end," McCarroll said. "Giulio approaches the problem as a mathematician, and his favorite genome technology is his own mind—he saw a way to answer this question using data that was already in front of us, looking for patterns and relationships in the data instead of trying to sequence everything."

The highly repetitive DNA that makes up much of the centromeres is especially challenging to sequence with current technology. Instead of trying to sequence all the way through the unknown regions, the researchers used known information on both sides of the gaps to show what fits in the middle.

The millions of base pairs of sequence that Genovese and McCarroll's team have located will be added to the next release of the reference human genome assembly—the "Google maps" of the human genome that geneticists use every day—providing a more comprehensive view of the genome and how the pieces all fit together.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Latino genomes point way to hidden DNA”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 8, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, September 19, 2013

‘Like’ This Article Online? Your Friends Will Probably Approve, Too, Scientists Say

If you “like” this article on a site like Facebook, somebody who reads it is more likely to approve of it, even if the reporting and writing are not all that great.

But surprisingly, an unfair negative reaction will not spur others to dislike the article. Instead, a thumbs-down view will soon be counteracted by thumbs up from other readers.

Those are the implications of new research looking at the behavior of thousands of people reading online comments, scientists reported Friday in the journal Science. A positive nudge, they said, can set off a bandwagon of approval.

“Hype can work,” said one of the researchers, Sinan K. Aral, a professor of information technology and marketing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “and feed on itself as well.”

If people tend to herd together on popular opinions, that could call into question the reliability of “wisdom of the crowd” ratings on Web sites like Yelp or Amazon and perhaps provide marketers with hints on how to bring positive attention to their products.

“This is certainly a provocative study,” said Matthew O. Jackson, a professor of economics at Stanford who was not involved with the research. “It raises a lot of questions we need to answer.”

Besides Dr. Aral (who is also a scholar in residence at The New York Times research and development laboratory, working on unrelated projects), the researchers are from Hebrew University in Jerusalem and New York University.

They were interested in answering a question that long predates the iPhone and Justin Bieber: Is something popular because it is actually good, or is it popular just because it is popular?

To help answer that question, the researchers devised an experiment in which they could manipulate a small corner of the Internet: reader comments.

They collaborated with an unnamed Web site, the company did not want its involvement disclosed, on which users submit links to news articles. Readers can then comment on the articles, and they can also give up or down votes on individual comments. Each comment receives a rating calculated by subtracting negative votes from positive ones.

The experiment performed a subtle, random change on the ratings of comments submitted on the site over five months: right after each comment was made, it was given an arbitrary up or down vote, or — for a control group — left alone. Reflecting a tendency among the site’s users to provide positive feedback, about twice as many of these arbitrary initial votes were positive: 4,049 to 1,942.

The first person reading the comment was 32 percent more likely to give it an up vote if it had been already given a fake positive score. There was no change in the likelihood of subsequent negative votes. Over time, the comments with the artificial initial up vote ended with scores 25 percent higher than those in the control group.

“That is a significant change,” Dr. Aral said. “We saw how these very small signals of social influence snowballed into behaviors like herding.”

Meanwhile, comments that received an initial negative vote ended up with scores indistinguishable from those in the control group.

The Web site allows users to say whether they like or dislike other users, and the researchers found that a commenter’s friends were likely to correct the negative score while enemies did not find it worth their time to knock down a fake up vote.

The distortion of ratings through herding is not a novel concern. Reddit, a social news site that said it was not the one that participated in the study, similarly allows readers to vote comments up or down, but it also allows its moderators to hide those ratings for a certain amount of time. “Now a comment will more likely be voted on based on its merit and appeal to each user, rather than having its public perception influence its votes,” it explained when it unveiled the feature in April.

Duncan J. Watts, a scientist at Microsoft Research, said the overall findings fit with “cumulative advantage,” the idea that something that starts slightly more popular will build upon that popularity until it is far ahead of its competitors — and conversely, something that does not catch on will usually fade away whether or not it is good.

He cited the new crime novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” by Robert Galbraith, which received good reviews but tiny sales when it was released in April. When it was revealed that Galbraith was a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling, the book suddenly had the cumulative advantage conferred by the Harry Potter series and jumped to the top of best-seller lists.

“The biggest obstacle to success is just being noticed,” Dr. Watts said.

But opinions do not invariably follow popularity. In an earlier experiment by Dr. Watts, people listened to a list of songs ranked by popularity and were asked to rate them. But for some, the list was inverted — what they were told was the most popular song was actually the least popular.

The incorrect list did affect how listeners rated the songs — the good songs never achieved the same popularity as among listeners who were given the correct list, and the bad songs did better than they would have otherwise.

“But we also found, in a result that was somewhat consistent with the result here, that sometimes the songs were able to recover their sort of real ranking in spite of the manipulation,” Dr. Watts said. The listeners, he said, “in effect noticed that the song was better or worse than we had made it seem.”

Chang, Kenneth. 2013. “‘Like’ This Article Online? Your Friends Will Probably Approve, Too, Scientists Say”. The New York Times. Posted: August 8, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Language in books shows how we have grown more selfish

Language used in modern books reveals how society has become more materialistic and selfish in the past 200 years, according to a new study.

Analysis of words used in more than 1.5 million American and British books published between 1800 and 2000 has revealed how cultural values have changed in that time.

Researchers found an increase in the use of words like “choose” and “get” in the past two centuries while words like “obliged” and “give” decreased.

There was also an indication that people in modern society are more in touch with their emotions than they once were – the use of “feel” increased while “act” decreased.

The psychologists behind the study claim the shifts in language indicate how US and British society has grown more selfish as it has grown wealthier and more urban.

Professor Patricia Greenfield, a psychologist at the University of California Los Angeles who conducted the study, said: "This research shows that there has been a two century long historical shift toward individualistic psychological functioning.

"The currently discussed rise in individualism is not something recent but has been going on for centuries as we moved from a predominantly rural, low-tech society to a predominantly urban, high-tech society."

Professor Greenfield, whose work is published in the journal Psychological Science, used Google’s Ngram Viewer to count word frequencies in 1,160,000 books by US authors.

The software allows users to rapidly count the numbers of words in books.

These included novels, non-fiction titles and textbooks.

She then did the same with 350,000 books published in the UK before repeating the tests with synonyms for each target word.

“These replications indicate that the underlying concepts, not just word frequency, have been changing in importance over historical time,” said Professor Greenfield.

She found words that indicate a growing focus on the self, such as “child”, “unique”, “individual”, and “self”, all increased in use.

The use of words like “get” declined between 1940 and the 1960s before rising in the 1970s, perhaps reflected that cooperative feel and lower levels of self-interest during World War II and post war declined.

The importance of religion, obedience and social relationships also seemed to decline over the 200 year period, with words like "authority," "belong" and "pray” becoming less common.

Professor Greenfield is now hoping to replicate the work with books in Spanish, French, Russian and Chinese to look for global patterns in culture shift reflected in literature.

Gray, Richard. 2013. “Language in books shows how we have grown more selfish”. The Telegraph. Posted: August 7, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Belief in Precognition Rises When People Feel Helpless

Predicting the future may be impossible, but that doesn't stop many people from believing that some have the power to do so.

In fact, a new study finds people are more prone to believe in prognostication when they feel their lives are out of their own control, suggesting that faith in paranormal forecasting provides a kind of coping mechanism for humans.

"It can be unpleasant to think that we aren't really in control of our lives, and people go to great lengths psychologically to "trick" themselves into feeling more in control," said study researcher Katharine Greenway, a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia. "One way they can do this is by enhancing the feeling that the future is predictable, so that they know what is going to happen."

One in four Americans believes that precognitive abilities exist, and thousands of dollars are spent on psychics every year, despite any scientific proof that our futures can be predicted, according to the study.

Greenway said the new study stemmed from wanting to test her theory that a sense of control is vital to why many people cling to the myth that the future is knowable.

In the study, the researchers divided the 85 college undergraduate student participants into two groups. One group wrote a description about a time they felt in control (the high-control group), and another group wrote about a time they felt out of control (the low-control group). Then, each group answered questions about their beliefs in the paranormal.

The results showed that those in the low-control group showed stronger beliefs in future foretelling.

The findings suggest that not only do people turn to superstitious beliefs as a coping technique when feeling out of control, but also that this belief also helps them to feel that they're once again in charge of their fate, the researchers said.

Study participants who read a short paragraph stating that precognition was scientifically proven, reported feeling more control over their futures compared with those who had read a short paragraph saying the phenomenon was a myth.

Interestingly, people only put faith in foresight when they felt out of control. When the researchers told a high-control group that precognition was real, the participants didn't report feeling any more control over their lives.

"These findings point towards the malleability of the human psychological system," Greenway said. "If we feel as though we lack control, we perform 'psychological gymnastics' to help us feel in control once more. This all happens largely outside conscious awareness. We are a biased and sometimes irrational species, but adaptively so."

Other experts had mixed views on the findings.

Bastiaan Rutjens, a psychologist at the University of Amsterdam, said, "This is one of the first studies that shows that such 'compensation' for lack of control actually helps, and as such has functional value."

The results show that when people feel that life is out of control, they "basically just go out of their way to restore the notion that the world is orderly and under control," Rutjens said.

However, Kristin Laurin, who studies organizational behavior at Stanford University, questioned the finding. "For precognition to give me that added control, I need to be the one who has precognition — it doesn't necessarily help me that there may be other people who can predict the future," she said.

Laurinalso said that if a person were to know in advance what was going to happen to them, they could actually feel that they have no control over the event. "If it's possible, for example, to predict accurately at what age I will die, or what kind of person I will marry, then nothing I can do will change that," she said.

Jennifer Whitson, a psychologistat the University of Texas at Austin, disagreed. "It seems that we like there to be some control in the world, but it doesn't necessarily have to be us," that can foresee our own futures, Whitson said.

Roberts, Lauren Cahoon. 2013. “Belief in Precognition Rises When People Feel Helpless”. Live Science. Posted: August 7, 2013. Available online:

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination

One of the world’s oldest religions, Zoroastrianism originated amongst Iranian tribes in Central Asia during the second millennium BCE and spread to Iran where it became the principal faith until the advent of Islam. Central to the religion is the belief in a sole creator god, Ahura Mazda, his agent Zarathustra (Zoroaster) and the dichotomy between good and evil.

The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination to be held at the Brunei Gallery, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, is the first exhibition of it’s kind to provide a visual narrative of the history of Zoroastrianism, its rich cultural heritage and the influence it has had on the major world religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

A journey

The exhibition takes you on a journey from the earliest days to its emergence as the foremost religion of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sasanian empires of imperial Iran.

Prof. Paul Webley, director of SOAS says “is very proud indeed both of the distinguished researchers and teachers of Zoroastrianism who have been members of the school in the past and of its continuing commitment to the study of Zoroastrianism. We have an endowed chair in Zoroastrianism and a lectureship in Zoroastrianism, which represents a wonderful pool of expertise.

We are also very grateful for the generous support we have received from the Zoroastrian community to continue this work. So it is a real pleasure that we will be hosting at our Brunei Gallery an exhibition on the history of Zoroastrianism – there is no better location for this and I am looking forward greatly to the opening of the exhibition.”


Ten stories within the overall historical narrative explore the fascinating ways in which Zoroastrianism has been imagined through the art, iconography and literature of non-Zoroastrians down the ages. Artefacts, coins and silverware introduce the ancient and imperial periods of Iranian Zoroastrian history.

Illustrated texts and manuscripts written in Avestan, Pahlavi, Persian and Gujarati languages show how the oral tradition was committed to writing during the Sasanian and later periods. . From Iran to India the textiles, paintings, jewellery and furnishings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bear witness to the role of Parsis in the China trade that included opium, silk and tea.

A collection of photographs and maps illustrate the wider diaspora in Hong Kong, Singapore, Britain and the United States.

Key Installations

The exhibition transforms areas of the gallery with spectacular installations. A walk- in fire temple, consisting of a prayer room, inner sanctum and ritual precinct offers a unique opportunity for visitors who are not permitted to enter the fire temples of India and Pakistan. Other signature pieces include a reproduction engraved in glass of the British Museum’s 10 metre cast of the western staircase from the palace of Darius at Persepolis, complete with the magnificent lion and bull motif. Finally, verses from the Gathas of Zarathustra will be presented as a series of large calligraphic panels and combined with voice recordings of the text to be presented as an audio-visual experience.


A two day conference titled “Looking Back: The Formation of Zoroastrian Identity Through Rediscovery of the Past” and organised by the Centre for Iranian Studies at SOAS will take place at the Brunei Gallery Lecture Theatre on the 11th and 12th October 2013.


The exhibition is accompanied by a major publication published by IB Tauris including essays by leading academics in the field of Zoroastrian Studies.

Past Horizons. 2013. “The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination”. Past Horizons. Posted: August 6, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The actual standing of speakers within a society's power structure determines how their statements are perceived. This is the conclusion reached in a joint study undertaken by neurolinguist Professor Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky of the University of Marburg and linguist Professor Matthias Schlesewsky of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) with the support of Sylvia Krauspsenhaar, who participated in the study as a member of the Neurotypology research group at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig.

The results were recently published in an article entitled "Yes, you can? A speaker's potency to act upon his words orchestrates early neural responses to message-level meaning" in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

For the purposes of the study, the team of researchers exposed their trial group to video recordings of a politically influential decision-maker, an eminent news anchor, and a person completely unknown to the test subjects expressing both plausible and implausible statements. The first speaker was Peer Steinbrück, the then Federal Minister of Finance, and the second was Ulrich Wickert, a former TV newscaster. They spoke from a script produced especially for the study; all the statements made were classifiable either in the categories "general knowledge" or "politics."

While obviously false statements relating to the real world (such as "Fidel Castro is a pop singer.") triggered similar reactions in the test subjects' brains in the case of all three speakers, the reactions to implausible political statements (such as "The federal government has announced that it will be leaving NATO.") differed depending on the speaker. The EEG recordings made while subjects were listening to politician Steinbrück diverged from those made when the other, non-political speakers made the same statements.

"We believe that the observed variations in listeners' reactions to political statements represent the immediate influence of the speaker's perceived ability to transform their words into actions on the way the listener interprets the message," explained Professor Matthias Schlesewsky of the Department of English and Linguistics at JGU. "The decisive factor is whether the listener assumes that the speaker has the power to transform what he or she says into reality." Professor Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky added: "Clearly political decision-makers are considered to have significantly more influence than simple citizens or other prominent persons." It had been previously assumed that it was only factors such as listeners' general knowledge and their current mood, among numerous other aspects, that determined the reactions in the brain to spoken statements.

Science Daily. 2013. “Social Status and Power of Action of Speakers Determine the Way Their Statements Are Perceived”. Science Daily. Posted: August 4, 2013. Available online:

Social Status and Power of Action of Speakers Determine the Way Their Statements Are Perceived

The actual standing of speakers within a society's power structure determines how their statements are perceived. This is the conclusion reached in a joint study undertaken by neurolinguist Professor Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky of the University of Marburg and linguist Professor Matthias Schlesewsky of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) with the support of Sylvia Krauspsenhaar, who participated in the study as a member of the Neurotypology research group at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig.

The results were recently published in an article entitled "Yes, you can? A speaker's potency to act upon his words orchestrates early neural responses to message-level meaning" in the open-access journal PLOS ONE.

For the purposes of the study, the team of researchers exposed their trial group to video recordings of a politically influential decision-maker, an eminent news anchor, and a person completely unknown to the test subjects expressing both plausible and implausible statements. The first speaker was Peer Steinbrück, the then Federal Minister of Finance, and the second was Ulrich Wickert, a former TV newscaster. They spoke from a script produced especially for the study; all the statements made were classifiable either in the categories "general knowledge" or "politics."

While obviously false statements relating to the real world (such as "Fidel Castro is a pop singer.") triggered similar reactions in the test subjects' brains in the case of all three speakers, the reactions to implausible political statements (such as "The federal government has announced that it will be leaving NATO.") differed depending on the speaker. The EEG recordings made while subjects were listening to politician Steinbrück diverged from those made when the other, non-political speakers made the same statements.

"We believe that the observed variations in listeners' reactions to political statements represent the immediate influence of the speaker's perceived ability to transform their words into actions on the way the listener interprets the message," explained Professor Matthias Schlesewsky of the Department of English and Linguistics at JGU. "The decisive factor is whether the listener assumes that the speaker has the power to transform what he or she says into reality." Professor Ina Bornkessel-Schlesewsky added: "Clearly political decision-makers are considered to have significantly more influence than simple citizens or other prominent persons." It had been previously assumed that it was only factors such as listeners' general knowledge and their current mood, among numerous other aspects, that determined the reactions in the brain to spoken statements.

Science Daily. 2013. “Social Status and Power of Action of Speakers Determine the Way Their Statements Are Perceived”. Science Daily. Posted: August 4, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Navigational Cells Located in Human Brains

Scientists’ discovery that rodents, bats and nonhuman primates have a system in the brain for what amounts to dead reckoning navigation is one of the most important brain research developments of the past few decades.

The system is built on what are called grid cells, neurons that emit pulses of electricity in a regular pattern that maps the animal’s movement.

Scientists predicted they would find grid cells in humans, and now they have. Joshua Jacobs of Drexel University in Philadelphia and a team of scientists including Michael J. Kahana at the University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Itzhak Fried at U.C.L.A. and Tel-Aviv University, reported in Nature Neuroscience on Sunday that signals from electrodes implanted in human patients with severe epilepsy proved the presence of grid cells that function in the same way as those found in other mammals.

“It completes the picture,” said Edvard I. Moser of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, one of the discoverers of grid cells. “It’s a significant contribution.”

Dr. Jacobs said the research was important to do because, although it had seemed likely that grid cells existed in human beings, it was far from certain.

“It’s not at all clear that humans and rodents behave in the same manner,” he said.

An area of the brain where grid cells are found in rats, and now in humans, the entorhinal cortex, is often damaged in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, so knowing how the navigation system works is important, Dr. Jacobs said. The scientists also located grid cells in another brain area in humans, the cingulate cortex, where, Dr. Jacobs said, they have not been found in rats.

The research involved the collaboration of neurosurgeons, research neuroscientists, and 14 patients with drug-resistant epilepsy, who had electrodes implanted in their brains to locate the source of the seizures before surgery. The patients volunteered to play a video game in which they navigated a virtual environment; analysis of brain cell activity recorded during the game-playing provided the data for analysis.

The same patterns characteristic of rodent grid cells were found in humans as they navigated, Dr. Jacobs said, showing that humans are using the “same neural mechanism.”

Gorman, James. 2013. “Navigational Cells Located in Human Brains”. The New York Times. Posted: August 4, 2013. Available online:

Friday, September 13, 2013

Archaeology | Bow and arrow forever changed ancient cultures

The invention of the bow and arrow allowed users to shoot projectiles more rapidly and more accurately than with the traditional spear.

A new theory argues that this innovation resulted in more than just a technological revolution. It also had profound social consequences wherever the bow was adopted.

Stony Brook University biologists Paul Bingham and Joanne Souza developed the “social-coercion hypothesis” as an explanation for the rise of social complexity. They recently outlined their work in the journal Evolutionary Anthropology.

According to this idea, the introduction of a more-effective weapon system gave social groups a safer, more-reliable way to coerce uncooperative individuals to support the efforts of the group or to seek another one somewhere else.

This, in turn, allowed social groups to grow larger without the previously inevitable splintering into rival groups based largely on family loyalties. In violent conflicts, members of larger groups would have an evolutionary advantage over members of smaller groups. As a result, larger groups requiring increased levels of social complexity would proliferate.

It’s an intriguing idea, but is there evidence to support it?

John Blitz, an archaeologist at the University of Alabama, and Erik Porth, a grad student there, reviewed the data for eastern North America and say there is. They report the results of their study in the same issue of Evolutionary Anthropology.

According to Blitz and Porth, the bow and arrow were adopted in the Ohio Valley between A.D. 300 and 400. During this period, large spear points were replaced by smaller arrowheads. The result, however, was not an increase in social complexity. Far from it.

This period marks the collapse of the Hopewell culture, a far-flung network of cooperating communities that gathered periodically at monumental ceremonial centers, such as Newark’s sprawling earthworks.

You might think that means the social-coercion theory bites the dust.

Not so, according to Blitz and Porth. They argue that the introduction of the bow increased the efficiency of individual hunters so much that they no longer needed to cooperate in large-scale game drives. With one big reason for large gatherings eliminated, the precocious social complexity of the Hopewell disintegrated.

But that’s not the end of the story. In the wake of the Hopewell collapse, the population actually increased, and villages began to pop up across the Ohio valley. In time, these communities began to compete with one another.

Around A.D. 600, a more-sophisticated arrowhead appeared in eastern North America and rapidly replaced the older version. This was followed by an even bigger boost in population, which increasingly became concentrated in large villages.

These villages often were surrounded by a palisade or a ditch, and bodies buried at these sites frequently have arrowheads lodged in their bones, indicating that the bow and arrow were used as military weapons.

Blitz and Porth conclude that the new social roles that arose out of the need for community defense laid the foundations for the rise of social complexity culminating in the elite chiefs who ruled the Mississippian metropolises, such as Cahokia in Illinois.

These data suggest that Bingham and Souza are right about the far-reaching effects such an important technological innovation could have on all aspects of a society.

Lepper, Bradley T. 2013. “Archaeology | Bow and arrow forever changed ancient cultures”. Columbus Dispatch. Posted: August 4, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Bahrain history slowly rises from sands

More than 4,000 years ago, Dilmun merchants traveled from Mesopotamia to the Indus River, titans of trade and culture before rise of the empires of the Persians or the Ottomans.

Over a millennia, the civilization that Dilmun created on the back of trading in pearls, copper and dates as far as South Asia faded into the encroaching sands. It wasn't until an excavation by Danish archaeologists in the 1950s that its past was rediscovered.

Now, with Bahrain in a deepening political crisis between its Sunni rulers and majority Shiite population, the connection to ancient Dilmun is one of the few unifying symbols on the island. It also is a rare and vivid look at pre-Islamic life in a region with few sites celebrating cultures before the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

A distinguishing feature of Dilmun civilization was extensive burial mounds, which are still visible today — but under threat.

In the ancient settlement of Saar, about 10 kilometers (six miles) southwest of Bahrain's capital, Manama, archaeologist and researcher Abdul Aziz Suwalih worries about modern developments that have chipped away at the honeycomb-patterned burial mounds. The mounds have been proposed as a UNESCO World Heritage site to join Bahrain's ancient Dilmun harbor on the list.

"Bahrain was famous for holding the largest cemetery in the world by having more than 100,000 burial mounds. Now we have around 60,000 burial mounds. There are threats," Suwalih told The Associated Press. "Protecting the archaeological sites in Bahrain is a big issue."

In May, Bahrain hosted a conference by UNESCO — the U.N.'s educational, scientific and cultural body — that included discussions about preserving the burial mounds and other remnants of Dilmun civilization, as well as prospects for future digs and explorations.

The Saar settlement was excavated between 1990 and 1999 by the London-Bahrain Archaeological Expedition, though more work remains.

"It is the only Dilmun settlement that has been extensively investigated by archaeologists," Suwalih said.

There are more than 70 buildings in the settlement, some of which were extraordinarily well-preserved and showcases domestic life and worship in a society that followed the rhythms of the moon. Here's a gallery of images from archeological sites in the ancient settlement of Saar in modern-day Bahrain.

Khalifa, Reem. 2013. “Bahrain history slowly rises from sands”. Yahoo News. Posted: August 3, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Mexican Culture: Customs & Traditions

The culture of Mexico has undergone a tremendous transformation over the past few decades and it varies widely throughout the country. Nearly half of the population (112.3 million) lives in cities, but smaller rural communities still play a strong role in defining the country’s collective vibrant community.

Language of Mexico

While the overwhelming majority of Mexicans today speak Spanish — making it the largest Spanish-speaking population in the world — there is no single official national language of Mexico. The colonizers of Mexico forced the Spanish language on the natives, but in the 1990s the government recognized 62 indigenous Amerindian languages, including Aztec, or Nahuatl, and the Mayan family of languages, as national languages. About 6 percent of the population is non-Spanish speaking, and some indigenous Mexican words have even become common in other languages, including English. For example, chocolate, coyote, tomato and avocado all originated in Nahuatl.

Religions of Mexico

Close to 90 percent of Mexicans identify themselves as Catholic, although many have incorporated pre-Hispanic Mayan elements as part of their faith. About 6 percent identify as Protestant. Christian denominations represented include Presbyterians, Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists and Anglicans. There are also small communities of Muslims, Jews and Buddhists.

Values of the Mexican people

Mexicans put a high value on hierarchy and structure in business and family matters. Especially outside of cities, families are typically large and Mexicans are very conscious of their responsibilities to immediate family members and extended family such as cousins and even close friends.

Hosting parties at their homes plays a large part of Mexican life and making visitors feel comfortable is a large part of the values and customs of the country.

Most Mexican families are highly traditional, with the father as the authority figure. While more women are working outside of the home in the past several decades, there are still a large number of women who work exclusively in the home. The country remains a male-centric society, and machismo, a word derived from Mexican and Portuguese meaning male supremacy, is prevalent.

Mexicans revere people in authority, including educators and medical professionals.

Mexican clothing

In the cities, fashion in Mexico is influenced by international trends, so the typical urban Mexican dresses similar to people in Europe and the United States.

In more rural areas, a typical woman’s wardrobe includes skirts, sleeveless tunics called huipils, capes known as quechquémitls and shawls called rebozos.

One distinguishing article of traditional men’s clothing is a large blanket cape called a sarape. Boots are also a wardrobe staple.

Some traditional clothing, now typically worn for celebrations and special occasions, include sombreros and the charro suits worn by Mariachi bands that are popular costumes during Carnival.

Mexican food

Mexican culinary norms vary widely based on income level and social class. The diet of working class Mexicans includes staples such as corn or wheat tortillas, along with beans, rice, tomatoes, chili peppers and chorizo, a type of pork sausage. Empanadas, which are handheld pasty pockets that can contain savory or sweet fillings, are popular.

The diets of middle- and upper-income Mexicans are more closely aligned with diets of Americans and Europeans and include a wide variety of food items prepared in wide range of culinary styles.

Mexico is known for its tequila, which is made from agave cactus that is well suited to the climate of central Mexico. Soda is a very popular drink in Mexico, as the country has a well-developed beverage industry.

Mexican art and literature

Clay pottery, embroidered cotton garments, wool shawls and outer garments with angular designs and colorful baskets and rugs are some of the common items associated with Mexican folk art.

The country is closely associated with the Mariachi style of folk music. Originated in the southern part of the state of Jalisco sometime in the 19th century, it involves a group of musicians playing violins, guitars, basses, vihuelas (a five-string guitar) and trumpets wearing silver-studded charro suits and elaborate hats. "La Cucaracha" is a well-known Mariachi staple.

Holidays and celebrations

The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is celebrated on Dec. 12, is a major Mexican holiday celebrating of the appearance of the Virgin Mary to an Indian man in the first years of Spanish rule. She is the patron saint of the country.

The Day of the Dead, which is actually celebrated over two days (Nov. 1 and 2) combines Catholic and indigenous rituals to honor the deceased and is a national holiday.

Carnival is also celebrated in many communities throughout Mexico to mark the period before Lent.

Independence Day, marking the country’s separation from Spain in 1810, is celebrated on Sept. 16. Cinco de Mayo, which marks Mexican military victory over the French in 1862, is more widely celebrated in the U.S. than it is in Mexico.

Zimmermann, Kim Ann. 2013. “Mexican Culture: Customs & Traditions”. Live Science. Posted: August 2, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The when and where of the Y: Research on Y chromosomes finds new clues about human ancestry

First full-chromosome sequencing effort shows most recent male & female common ancestors lived around the same time

More than 7 billion people live on this planet – members of a single species that originated in one place and migrated all over the Earth over tens of thousands of years.

But even though we all trace our family lineage to a few common ancestors, scientists still don't know exactly when and how those few ancestors started to give rise to the incredible diversity of today's population.

A brand-new finding, made using advanced analysis of DNA from all over the world, sheds new light on this mystery. By studying the DNA sequence of Y chromosomes of men from many different populations, scientists have determined that their male most recent common ancestor (MRCA) lived sometime between 120,000 and 156,000 years ago.

It's the first time the human ancestry has been traced back through the male line by sequencing the DNA of many entire Y chromosomes.

And, it agrees reasonably well with previous findings about our female most recent common ancestor, made by studying DNA carried down through the human race's female line. Such studies used DNA from mitochrondria -- structures inside cells – and placed that time of the most recent common ancestor between 99,000 and 148,000 years ago. That agreement makes the new finding especially significant:

The research was done by a team of scientists from Stanford University, the University of Michigan Medical School, Stony Brook University, and their colleagues, and is published in the journal Science.

The team hopes their work will lead to further research on Y chromosomes as vehicles for studying human history – and tracing male lineages back to the common "Adam" ancestors.

Jeffrey Kidd, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Human Genetics and Computational Medicine & Bioinformatics who worked on the new study, notes that only recently has it become possible to sequence Y chromosomes, because of technical limitations of previous approaches.

The new paper details how the team was able to make reliable measurements of the sequence variation along the Y chromosome – which is handed down only from father to son without exchanging, or recombining, genetic material with other chromosomes.

Kidd notes that this initial paper on Y chromosome sequence diversity provides important first evidence that the male most recent common ancestor did not live more recently than the female most recent common ancestor.

"We're interested in understanding the historical relationships between many different human populations, and the migration patterns that have led to the peopling of the world," he says. "We hope that others will make use of this approach and sequence additional chromosomes of interest that are related to the peopling of specific places."

The study involved Y chromosomes obtained through the Human Genome Diversity Project, and from other sources. It included chromosomes from 69 men in several populations in sub-Saharan Africa, and from Siberia, Cambodia, Pakistan, Algeria and Mexico.

The great migrations of our ancestors out of Africa, across Asian and Europe and into the Americas all helped shape today's populations – as did more recent forces related to colonialism and ever-growing global mobility.

Genetic studies such as this one may help anthropologists understand those migrations – and their timing – even better by giving them a genetic "clock" to use when studying today's humans, or potentially DNA extracted from ancient bones. It may also help scientists understand the great genetic diversity seen across Africa, and the evolution process that led to modern humans.

The reconciliation of the timing of "Adam" and "Eve", however, may be this study's most important immediate implication.

"This has been a conundrum in human genetics for a long time," said Carlos D. Bustamante, PhD, a professor of genetics at Stanford and senior author of the study. "Previous research has indicated that the male MRCA lived much more recently than the female MRCA. But now our research shows that there's no discrepancy. In fact, if anything, the Y chromosome may be a bit older."

EurekAlert. 2013. “The when and where of the Y: Research on Y chromosomes finds new clues about human ancestry”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 1, 2013. Available online:

Monday, September 9, 2013

Dig reveals full extent of convicts' mass grave on Spike Island

Archaeologists have identified for the first time the full extent of a convicts’ mass grave on what was once a notorious concentration camp-style prison in Cork harbour.

The Spike Island Archaeological Project team, led by UCC archaeologist, Dr Barra Ó Donnabháin, has identified up to 250 previously unmarked burial plots, all dating from Famine times, within a walled cemetery area on Spike Island in Cork Harbour.

“We have always known that this area contained graves but we never knew how many,” Dr Ó Donnabháin said.

“There were about 11 headstones in this area, all dating from 1862, but which are not now in their original locations.

“Following geophysical analysis, we identified four or five rows with about 50 individual graves in each.”

Excavation of six graves confirmed what the geophysical investigations suggested. Dr Ó Donnabháin said: “We now know that there are between 200 and 250 individual burials plots in this area — all were in a regimented, regular layout.

“But our findings begs the bigger question — what happened to the others who died on Spike?”

Records indicate that some 1,100 convicts died on the island during its 36 years as a prison. Further archaeological work will be needed to outline the full extent of the other burial sites where an estimated 900 or so convicts are buried.

These areas are identified on historical maps, but today, the areas are overgrown and unprotected.

“This project aims to give a voice to the men and boys who were incarcerated and died in the prison during the Victorian era, broadening our understanding of the role of the convict prison as one of the mechanisms by which the empire was established and maintained,” Dr Ó Donnabháin said.

“I have no doubt that our work here will be of interest internationally and will attract many more international research projects and visitors to the region.”

It is hoped the work will result in the development of a fitting memorial to those who died on Spike before it is developed as a tourist and heritage attraction.

Spike Island, Ireland’s Alcatraz at the mouth of the harbour, was originally built as a Napoleonic-era fortress.

But following an upsurge in crime during the Great Famine (1845-1852), it was converted to a prison in 1847 as part of the British colonial government’s response to the rise in public disorder.

In its early years, it was an important holding centre for convicts transported to Australia and Bermuda.

Political prisoners such as the Young Irelander, John Mitchel (after whom the fort is now named) and Fenians were also incarcerated on Spike.

Originally devised as a temporary solution, it went to operate as a prison for 36 years, holding up to 2,300 people at any one time in appalling, overcrowded conditions.

By contrast, the modern Spike Island prison which held joyriders during the 1980s, accommodated 102 prisoners.

The Famine-era prisoners were put to work doing hard labour, building many of the extensive naval docks and basins on nearby Haulbowline Island.

Disease and malnutrition were rampant, with a mortality rate as high as 10%.

Dr Ó Donnabháin said while conditions were harsh, the prison regime was not designed to kill. Nevertheless, a convict was dying on Spike almost every day.

A royal commission appointed around 1853 recommended reducing prison numbers to 1,000, which resulted in a significant reduction in the death rate.

However, records show that more than 1,000 convicts died and were buried in mass graves on the island by 1883, with most dying in the first decade of its operation.

The archaeological project investigated the relationships between the 19th century convicts, their keepers and the institution.

A survey of modern-era graffiti in the remaining buildings was also carried out to assess convicts’ attitudes to their incarceration.

Cork County Council took over management of Spike Island in 2011 with a view to developing its tourism and heritage potential. The entire island is a national monument.

Rebel passports for honorary Corkonians

The Spike Island research team have been made honorary Corkonians.

County Mayor Noel O’Connor presented all 30 team members, who lived in the former prison buildings for the duration of the four-week project, with personalised ‘Rebel passports’ to thank them for their work shedding light on the former prison’s past.

Some of the students travelled from the US, Canada, France and Poland to be part of the research project.

Several even volunteered to sample the Famine-era prison diet for a day — a breakfast of porridge made from oatmeal and rice, three quarters of a pint of milk and a pound of bread at midday, and a dinner of half a pound of bread washed down by half a pint of milk.

“We hope that all of you will go home with very special memories of your time in Cork and that you will all spread the word about what a special part of the world the Cork region is,” Mr O’Connor said.

The rebel passport initiative is linked to the Cork Rebel Week festival in October — one of the flagship Gathering events.

English, Eoin. 2013. “Dig reveals full extent of convicts' mass grave on Spike Island”. Irish Examiner. Posted: August 1, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Ancient Feathered Shield Found in Peru Temple

Researchers have discovered a feathered shield, dating back around 1,300 years, in a sealed portion of an ancient temple in Peru. Originally, the shield may have held more than 100 feathers arranged in concentric circles.

Hidden in a sealed part of an ancient Peruvian temple, archaeologists have discovered a feathered shield dating back around 1,300 years.

Made by the Moche people, the rare artifact was found face down on a sloped surface that had been turned into a bench or altar at the site of Pañamarca. Located near two ancient murals, one of which depicts a supernatural monster, the shield measures about 10 inches (25 centimeters) in diameter and has a base made of carefully woven basketry with a handle.

Its surface is covered with red-and-brown textiles along with about a dozen yellow feathers that were sewn on and appear to be from the body of a macaw. The shield would have served a ritualistic rather than a practical use, and the placement of the shield on the bench or altar appears to have been the last act carried out before this space was sealed and a new, larger, temple built on top of it.

The discovery of this small shield, combined with the discovery of other small Moche shields and depictions of them in art, may also shed light on Moche combat. Their shields may have been used in ceremonial performances or ritualized battles similar to gladiatorial combat, Lisa Trever, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, told LiveScience.

Trever and her colleagues, Jorge Gamboa, Ricardo Toribio and Flannery Surette, describe the shield in the most recent edition of Ñawpa Pacha: Journal of Andean Archaeology.

Though only about a dozen feathers now remain on the shield, in ancient times it may have had a more feathered appearance. "I suspect that originally it had at least 100 feathers sewn on the surface" in two or more concentric circles, Trever said.

The Moche people, who lived on the desert coasts and irrigated valleys of the Pacific side of the Andes Mountains, likely had to import the feathers, as macaws resided on the eastern side of the Andes, closer to the Amazon.

What symbolic meaning the macaw had for the Moche is a mystery. "We know that the Moche used many animal metaphors in their art and visual culture," Trever said. "They may have had a specific symbolic meaning to the macaw, but because the Moche didn't leave us any written records we don't know precisely what they thought."

The shield was found close to two ancient murals, one of which depicts a "Strombus Monster," a supernatural beast with both snail and feline characteristics, and the other an iguanalike creature. The researchers note in their paper that the monster is often shown in Moche art battling a fanged humanlike character called "Wrinkle Face" by some scholars. The iguana in turn is often shown as an attendant accompanying Wrinkle Face on his journeys.

Although a depiction of Wrinkle Face has yet to be found in the sealed area where the shield is located he may yet turn up in future excavations. "What the exact relationship is between the deposition of the shield and the adjacent pictorial narrative is an active question," Trever said.

It appears as if the Moche liked to keep their shields small, bringing up the question of whether they were meant for something like gladiatorial combat or some other type of fighting.

Whereas the newly discovered shield was meant for ritual and not for combat, the researchers note that another small Moche shield, this one found at the site of Huaca de la Luna, was likely meant for combat, being made of woven cane and leather, but measuring only 17 inches (43 cm) in diameter. In addition, depictions of Moche shields in ceramic art show people wearing small circular or square shields on their forearm.

It's "more like a small shield that's used to protect the forearm and maybe held over the face in hand-to-hand combat with clubs," she said of the Moche shields. "They apparently didn't need, or didn't use, large shields to protect themselves from volleys of arrows or spears that were thrown."

We "have to think about the style of hand-to-hand combat" they were used for, she added. "Is it something that is more ritual in nature, more of a ritual combat, gladiatorial combat," Trever said.

Jeffrey Quilter, director of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, has proposed another idea as to why Moche shields were so small. He points out that the Moche used a two-handed club that gave them great reach and could land a lethal blow.

"The power of such weapons may have been so great as to render shields effectively useless, perhaps resulting in their diminished size over time, becoming more useful as arm guards or to ward off the occasional sling stone or dart than as true shields for body protection," he writes in a paper published in the book "The Art and Archaeology of the Moche" (University of Texas Press, 2008). He notes that the Moche do appear to have used some long-range weapons in combat such as sling stones and darts.

Regardless of why the Moche preferred small shields, their repeated depiction indicates the shields served their purpose well. They "did seem to use very small shields compared to what we know of from other parts of the world, but they seemed to have served for the style of battle that they performed," Trever said.

Jarus, Owen. 2013. “Ancient Feathered Shield Found in Peru Temple”. Discovery News. Posted: August 2, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Words and actions

The cerebral connection between language and movements

According to some neuroscientists the linguistic and the motor systems are strictly "tied up". That is to say, for instance, that to understand the word "drinking" our brain sets in motion the same cerebral structures used to perform the action of drinking. This assumption is connected to the theories of embodied cognition, according to which the nature of the human mind in the final analysis is modeled upon the body, its shape, the way it interacts with the world, and so on. Some studies, however, have called into question the dependence of the linguistic system on the motor one, actually uncovering a dissociation between the two domains. Paola Mengotti, of SISSA, and other colleagues have put to the test a theoretical model to account for such inconsistencies. The model was developed by Raffaella Rumiati, a neuroscientist of SISSA who has coordinated the research just published in the journal Brain.

"A connection between linguistic and motor functions has been observed, but only under certain circumstances," explained Mengotti. The observations have been carried out on 57 patients with left brain damage ("a very large sample group for this type of studies" pinpoints Mengotti). The patients with left brain damage are often affected by language disorders (aphasias) and, concurrently, by motor disorders, that is to say, apraxias.

In the study (that also features Corrado Corradi-Dell'Acqua and Gioia Negri, who at the time were students at SISSA) Mengotti and Rumiati observed that the involvement of the motor system depends upon the "type" of gesture: meaningful gestures activate the structures connected to semantic processing (that is, to meaning), while meaningless gestures are mainly based on motor decoding. "This way we have clarified the inconsistencies shown by previous studies, which did not distinguish between the categories of gestures." explains Mengotti.

Basically, meaningful gestures activate the semantic structures and are apparently disconnected from the motor system, unlike meaningless gestures whose decoding, it appears, essentially involves the motor system.

"The truly interesting aspect of our study is the new analysis we have employed", concludes Mengotti. The voxel based lesion symptom mapping, is a cerebral visualization technique that enables to connect in an extremely accurate manner a cerebral lesion to the patient's performance on specific tests. "With the help of this technique we were able to establish that damage to the angular gyrus, a region of the brain in the parietal cortex, is connected to a drop in performance in the imitation of meaningless gestures, without affecting performance on linguistic tests, while damage to supramarginal gyrus is associated with a drop in performance both regarding meaningful gestures and on some linguistic tests."

EurekAlert. 2013. “Words and actions”. EurekAlert. Posted: July 31, 2013. Available online: