Friday, January 31, 2014

French or Chinese? Whichever you learn, it's cultural subtleties that count

Learning the tongue of the world's second largest economy may seem daunting but le français also has its challenges

French has been the first foreign language for the English since the Norman Conquest. Should the English now switch their attention to learning Chinese? It would certainly be wise for more English people to know the language of the world's second largest economy, but it would also be foolish for England to stop learning the language of our nearest continental neighbour with whom we share centuries of common history.

Many universities and some schools already offer Chinese for those who want to study it, and students already make their choices. In fact, spoken Chinese is less fearsome than its reputation. Students get used to the four tones – where rising, falling or level intonation can change the meaning of a word – and cope reasonably well with the different range of consonants.

There are not many similarities between Chinese and European vocabulary, but where it gets really difficult is the writing system. There is no alternative to learning hundreds of characters to read even a simple text. This is why Chinese authorities developed an alphabetical equivalent, pinyin.

French, by contrast, uses the same alphabet as English, give or take a few accents, and we share a lot of very similar words even if they can sometimes have different nuances. Spoken French has its difficulties for English learners, including the rolled R and the pinched U, although the French rather enjoy an English accent.

The problems come with grammar features such as the conjugations of verbs, genders and agreements. Chinese grammar appears more straightforward in structure.

Ultimately, the real challenge in learning another language is to understand the subtleties of meaning, the complex relationships and the cultural baggage it carries with it. This is the joy and the despair of learning a new language whether it begins with bonjour or nihao.

Kelly, Mike. 2014. “French or Chinese? Whichever you learn, it's cultural subtleties that count”. The Guardian. Posted: December 5, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, January 30, 2014

9000 year old music and alcohol – a powerful mix

Excavations in 1986 and 1987 at the early Neolithic site of Jiahu, located in Henan Province, Northern China, yielded six complete bone flutes as well as fragments of approximately 30 others.

Sounds from the past

Tonal analysis of the Neolithic flutes revealed that the seven holes they contain corresponded to a scale remarkably similar to the eight-note scale of  “do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do“. This carefully-selected tone scale suggested to the researchers that the musician of the seventh millennium BCE could play music and not just single notes.

The exquisitely-crafted flutes are all made from the ulnae or wing bones of the red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis Millen). The best-preserved flute has actually been played and this presented a rare opportunity to hear musical sounds from nine millennia ago. Two audio recordings of the flutes being played are available here: WAV file 1 (4.2 Mb), WAV file 2 (1.7 Mb).

9000 year old brew

Jiahu continued to provide scientists with insights into the early lives of Neolithic peoples in this region of China as archaeo-chemist Patrick McGovern of the University of Pennsylvania Museum sampled ceramics taken from dated layers and found traces of alcohol made from rice, honey and fruit.

Patrick McGovern on the world’s first alcoholic beverage made from grapes

Jiahu lies in the Central Yellow River Valley in mid-Henan Province and was inhabited from 7000 BCE to 5700 BCE. The site was discovered in 1962 by Zhu Zhi, late director of the Wuyang County Museum, but only in the past 15 years has significant excavation activity taken place. In addition to the musical instruments and evidence of fermentation, the site has yielded important information on the early foundations of Chinese society.

Early script

In 2003, the site was made famous when tortoise shells were discovered to have symbols carved onto them (now known as Jiahu Script). Radiocarbon dating suggests the tortoise shells found within human graves date from 6600-6200 BCE. According to some archaeologists the script bears certain similarities to the 2nd millennium BCE oracle shell script. A 2003 report interpreted the Jiahu Script “not as writing itself, but as features of a lengthy period of sign-use which led eventually to a fully-fledged system of writing.”

Insight into the origins of Chinese culture

To date, only five percent of Jiahu Neolithic village has been excavated, uncovering 45 house foundations, 370 cellars, nine pottery kilns and thousands of artefacts of bone, pottery, stone and other materials. The excavations are helping to provide an insight into the very early structures of Chinese society.

Past Horizons. 2014. “9000 year old music and alcohol – a powerful mix”. Past Horizons. Posted: December 3, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What the Language You Speak Says About You

What if you could blame some of your inability to save money on the fact that you speak English (or any other strong-future language that makes tomorrow feel so very far away)?

Bad at planning for the future? You might be able to blame your language. Differences in the way various languages talk about the present and future could help explain why Germans urge free-spending Greeks to adopt their fiscal discipline, and why Americans are baffled by China’s low consumption and high savings rates, according to research published in the American Economic Review in April

Keith Chen, a behavioral economist at the University of California-Los Angeles, researches intertemporal decision-making, or how people make choices when the consequences of those choices are spread out over time. Do you spend your money on a fancy sports car, or save up for retirement? Spend a spare hour working out, or relaxing in front of the television? He noticed that a group of countries whose thrifty behavior baffled economists had also attracted attention from linguists. “Every country economists thought of as an outlier in savings behavior was also an outlier in grammar,” Chen says.

Specifically, they had a way of talking about the future that would sound odd to English speakers. English is a “strong-future” language, which means it forces speakers to distinguish between the present—“It’s raining”—and future—“It will rain.”

But other, weak-future tongues treat present and future the same, relying on context instead. Economists have found that people typically need extra compensation to sacrifice present pleasure for future rewards—they’d rather have things now, not later, Chen wrote in his paper. Talking about the future as though it were the present might make it feel closer, he wrote, while being forced to make a linguistic distinction could make it feel farther away, making the speakers of strong-future languages less likely to wait for future payoffs.

Using data from the World-Values Survey, which asked individuals in 76 countries between 1994 and 2007 about culture and values, Chen tested whether people who speak strong-future languages, like English, Greek, Portuguese, Italian, and Spanish, were more or less likely to save than speakers of weak-future languages, like Japanese, German, and Mandarin. In a regression analysis holding individual and cultural characteristics constant, people who spoke strong-future languages were consistently about 45 percent less likely to report saving money in a given year.

In a smaller sample of countries where both language types are spoken, including Switzerland, Singapore, and Nigeria, Chen found similar correlation between language and likeliness to save among citizens of each country.

The relationship seemed to hold at the country level as well. Of the 16 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) with the lowest average total savings rate as a percentage of GDP between 1985 and 2010, just two spoke weak-future languages. Regression analysis found a strong correlation between national savings rates and languages’ treatment of the future as well, even after controlling for demographic characteristics.

Chen performed similar regression analysis on retired households’ net worth, using data from the Survey of Health, Ageing, and Retirement in Europe (SHARE), a panel survey measuring socioeconomic status and health among retirees in 13 European countries, and also found a strong correlation between how languages treat the future and how much households have saved up for retirement, divided by that country’s average disposable income, with strong-future speakers saving around 39 percent less.

Since the SHARE survey and MEASURE DHS project, which conducts surveys in developing countries on behalf of USAID, also ask about health quality and behaviors, Chen also tested whether speaking a language that makes the future feel closer is associated with taking time for healthy habits that might be costly in the present, but improve long-term health. Speaking a strong-future language was correlated with a nearly 30 percent lower probability of being physically active and a 13 percent greater risk of obesity among individuals in SHARE survey countries, and 20 percent and 17 percent respectively for individuals in countries in the DHS survey.

The results were dramatic, and according to several linguists, a little too dramatic (see a few responses here and here). Even Chen thought his findings—both the strength of the association between language and behavior and the magnitude of the average differences—were “disturbingly strong.”

But no matter how he restructured his experiments, Chen says, the results remained the same. When he compared speakers of different languages in the same country (so taxes and other economic policies affecting saving would be consistent, and culture would be similar) weak-future speakers still saved more. And while language didn’t appear to affect beliefs about the importance of saving, even among people who responded in a global survey that they thought it was important to teach their kids to save, strong-future speakers saved less.

“The data are most consistent with a world where it’s unconscious and every time you speak, there’s a subtle distinction that influences you,” Chen says. “There is nothing suggesting this isn’t the case.”

Surprising as it sounds, Chen’s findings fit nicely with a linguistics theory called Whorfianism, which argues that words don’t just describe our thoughts; they also shape them.

Members of an Aboriginal community in Australia who speak a language with no words for left and right, for example, are better at perceiving cardinal directions than English speakers. They think of timelines as moving not left to right, but east to west, according to a 2010 study in the journal Psychological Science.

And a 2007 study in the National Academy of Sciences journal found that Russian speakers, who have separate words for darker and lighter shades of blue, are better at distinguishing the colors than English speakers, who can use one word for all shades.

John McWhorter, a linguist and professor at Columbia University, said it’s an appealing idea, but one that has limited use outside of the lab. In the Russian study, for instance, the difference in the speed with which Russian and English speakers distinguished hues was measured in milliseconds—too small a difference to affect how people see the world, McWhorter says.

“There is a small effect, but the question is whether those small priming effects have the real-world effects they claimed,” McWhorter says. “The tiny differences are real, but what makes Germans and Russians different is not their grammar.”

But those arguments don’t apply so neatly to Chen’s work, which links language to the sort of decisions and long-term effects McWhorter argues are impossible.

In Chen’s case, McWhorter says the Russian language was wrongly classified as distinguishing between present and future when it doesn’t have tenses, as English does. Chen says he consulted with other linguists who said that while Russian may not use tenses, it does have other ways of distinguishing between present and future that have the same key effect: forcing speakers to separate the future from the present each time they speak.

McWhorter also questions why individuals who speak languages that share common roots and have the same grammar for talking about present and future, such as Slavic languages, can have such different savings rates. Chen says there are many factors that affect a country’s savings rate, and that his findings showed that, on average, countries with mostly strong-future speakers saved less than similar countries with weak-future speakers.

More concerning, Chen says, is the possibility that what affects savings and other future-oriented decisions isn’t language, but another, unknown factor closely tied to how an individual’s language deals with time.

The obvious candidate is culture. But even if it’s all about culture, not language, Chen says he finds the results equally fascinating. Since the language-saving correlation held even among speakers of different languages within a single country, whatever the cultural effect might be, it must be intimately connected to how languages developed tenses, and more fundamental than nationality. “Even if that were what’s driving this,” he says, “it would still be kind of amazing.”

In the months since the paper was published, Chen has begun working with other researchers investigating the topic. He’s also exploring other features of languages, such as whether speaking a language that forces you to step into someone else’s shoes when talking about what’s near and far helps you more easily look beyond your own perspective.

He says he’s excited his research hit a nerve and gave him the chance to dig deeper, and he’s as curious as anyone else to see where it takes him.

“In five years, this will either be deeply enshrined in how we think about savings behavior, or I’ll have to stick my head in the sand every time I go to a conference,” Chen says.

Zumbach, Lauren. 2014. “What the Language You Speak Says About You”. Pacific Standard. Posted: December 3, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Mapped: male and female brain connections

Women's and men's brains are wired differently, in ways that seem to match the stereotypes.

The finding comes from a method of visualising brain connections, although it doesn't give an idea of how the differences initially arose.

Ragini Verma at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and her colleagues scanned the brains of 949 males and females between the ages of 8 and 22. They focused on two regions: the cortex, involved in thought, perception and language; and the cerebellum, which coordinates movement. Their method tracks the motion of water molecules to show where nerves stop and start, revealing what is known as the connectome.

The left and right hemispheres of the cortex were much more connected with each other in females than males. But in males, each cerebellum had more links to the cortex on the opposite side of the brain than females. This favours connections that promote coordinated movement – something males generally do faster in tests.

The cortical link-up in females would promote communication between areas involved in analytical and verbal tasks and those for spatial and intuitive processing, the team says. Among other things, this could reflect a superior ability to process emotions and understand others' intentions.

The way the findings have been analysed so far, says Verma, shows how males and females as a whole differ. "We identified differences that survive rigorous mathematical and statistical analysis in a population."

Now, they want to find out whether individual male and female brains within those populations always differ along these lines, or whether there is a range of variations in which the sexes overlap. This should also show which networks men and women always share, and whether any are always sex-specific.

The same set of data includes measurements that reveal nerve function, so another goal is to see whether that follows the same pattern as the neural connections, says Verma. "As in any highway network, so in the brain: the roads, shown by the structural connectivity, and the traffic, shown by the functional connectivity, should jointly form a complete picture."

MacKenzie, Debora. 2014. “Mapped: male and female brain connections”. New Scientist. Posted: December 3, 2013. Available online:

Monday, January 27, 2014

Skulls found in mass grave in China reveal ancient female sacrifice

Archaeologists have uncovered more than 80 skulls of young women who may have been sacrificed 4,000 years ago in China.

The skulls were discovered in what is being called a mass grave at the Shimao Ruins at the site of a neolithic stone city in the northern province of Shaanxi.

"This collective burial might also have something to do with the founding ceremony of the city," Sun Zhouyong, deputy head of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, told state broadcaster CCTV.

The women's bodies were not found according to China's official news agency Xinhua. Archaeologists in China suspect that a mass outbreak of violence or ethnic conflict may be the cause for the death of the women.

Zhouyong told CCTV that the first 40 skulls found last year at the Shimao Ruins showed "signs of being hit and burned." Archaeologists have since found more than 100 remains of murals and jadeware at the site which dates back to 2,000 BC.

This is not the first time evidence of human sacrifice in early China has been found. Kings and emperors were often buried with their servants and concubines who were sometimes killed first or buried alive.

In 2005, archaeologists in the central province of Hunan found an alter used for human sacrifice along with the skeleton of one victim.

Fox News. 2014. “Skulls found in mass grave in China reveal ancient female sacrifice”. Fox News. Posted: December 2, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ancient Humans Had Sex with Mystery Relatives, Study Suggests

A new, improved sequencing of ancient human relative genomes reveals that Homo sapiens didn't only have sex with Neanderthals and a little-understood line of humans called Denisovans. A fourth, mystery lineage of humans was in the mix, too.

As reported by the news arm of the journal Nature, new genetic evidence suggests that several hominids — human relatives closer than humans' current living cousin, the chimpanzee — interbred more than 30,000 years ago. This group of kissing cousins included an unknown human ancestor not yet revealed by the ancient DNA record.

"It's implied it could be something like Homo erectus or similar," said Carles Lalueza-Fox, a paleogenomics researcher at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain, who was not involved in the research, but who was present at a talk on the findings given by lead author David Reich of Harvard Medical School at a meeting on ancient DNA sponsored by the Royal Society in London on Nov. 18. Homo erectus is an extinct species of human that originated in Africa and spread into Asia.

Ancient human lineages

Neanderthals are an extinct group of humans who lived between about 30,000 and 130,000 years ago. Despite their reputation as bone-headed dummies, Neanderthals were likely as advanced as modern humans in areas such as tool-making, though they were probably less socially adept.

Denisovans are a far more mysterious group. These early humans lived in Siberia and probably split off from the branch of the human family tree that would eventually give rise to Neanderthals about 300,000 years ago. Little is known about how Denisovans lived and what they looked like.

But genetic analyses of Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans suggest the three groups occasionally had sex and produced offspring. Denisovan genes show up in modern Pacific Islanders and in people from Southeast Asia and southern China. Neanderthal genes appear in 1 to 4 percent of modern Eurasian people, suggesting that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals interbred after modern humans trekked out of Africa.

For unknown reasons, Homo sapiens are the only human survivors, as all others in the Homo genus eventually went extinct.

New genomes, new discoveries

The new research has been submitted to a scientific journal for publication. Under the journal's rules, lead author Reich cannot speak to the news media about the study until the paper comes out.

A Nature News reporter who attended the Nov. 18 talk, however, reports that Reich and his colleagues have created much more complete sequences of the Denisovan and Neanderthal genomes than those used in previous research.

The sequences confirmed previous findings that Denisovans mated with the ancestors of Pacific Islanders and East Asians, but also revealed a surprise: Genetic traces of an unknown population of human ancestors were found in the Denisovan gene, suggesting even more interbreeding than previously expected. Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London, described the ancient environment to Nature as a "'Lord of the Rings'-type world" with many human populations living side-by-side.

Lalueza-Fox said the question of the mystery fourth ancestor is a "paleontological debate," but that the genetic work done by Reich and his colleagues opens the door to a deeper understanding of the individual diversity of ancient human ancestors. New techniques will enable researchers to tease out original DNA from later contaminants, he said.

"Some samples that were considered not suitable for genomic approaches are now going to be good samples," Lalueza-Fox said.

In the past, Lalueza-Fox said, geneticists were stuck trying to extrapolate details about human evolution from modern human DNA. Now, he said, they can go directly to the ancient DNA.

"We have been trying to understand human evolution from the study of modern human genomes, but clearly we missed part of the picture, which is now emerging from ancient hominin genomes," Lalueza-Fox said.

Pappas, Stephanie. 2014. “Ancient Humans Had Sex with Mystery Relatives, Study Suggests”. Live Science. Posted: December 2, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Archaeological Dig Near Stonehenge Uncovers Sink Hole of Evidence from Neolithic Period

An archaeology team led by an academic from London's Kingston University has delved back into a Neolithic site at Damerham, Hampshire, and uncovered a sink hole of material that may hold vital information about the plant species that thrived there 6,000 years ago.

Dr Helen Wickstead said the find was completely unexpected and had initially confused the team digging on the farmland. This is the sixth year of the project at Damerham, located about 15 miles from the iconic British monument Stonehenge, with four areas of a temple complex excavated during the summer. The surprise came in the largest of the openings, approximately 40 metres long, where careful extractions revealed a layer of uncharacteristic orange sand and clay. Typically the archaeological survey would involve mapping and cataloguing such finds as bone, pottery and tool-making waste fragments.

"The site at Damerham is on chalk land, so we don't often find materials like this that capture and preserve the plant remains -- pollen or phytoliths -- from a specific time period," Dr Wickstead explained. "The sink hole contained orange sand with a yellow and grey clay and we are very hopeful that, within this material, there will be evidence of plant life that will help us continue to piece together the puzzle of human habitation on this significant site."

It was evident that prehistoric people living in the area had also come across the sink hole and excavated the material during their own construction work, Dr Wickstead said. A pile of matching waste material was also seen at one of the other mounds. "We didn't expect to find this and suspect it would have surprised the original architects of the site too," she said. "Moments of unexpected discovery could have had cultural significance for prehistoric people. The henge itself was a focus for rituals, life and death, so questions about the impact such a discovery would have had on their activity will be interesting to consider."

The prehistoric temple complex at Damerham is unusual because of the number of structures that are focused in one area, Dr Wickstead added. "The diversity of burial architecture here is intriguing," she said. "What is special about this place that meant generation after generation returned to the site to live, hunt, build and commemorate life?"

Various scientific techniques, including geophysical imaging which uses electrical currents to test the density of materials below the surface, were employed during the project. Kingston University MA Heritage student Jack Bartley joined Dr Wickstead on site to take part in the field walking survey.

"Once the field was clear of crops, we were able to walk across sections in search of items that will have been turned over by the plough," Jack explained. "This is important because it helps researchers understand how people used the land by examining what they left behind. We've been using GPS satellite technology to measure the search zones systematically. It's been great to be out in the field experiencing a real archaeological dig, especially since my dissertation is examining communities of interest, such as those involved in archaeology," the 24 year old from Surbiton added.

Evidence of archaeological remains at Damerham was first detected in 2003 when English Heritage's senior aerial survey investigator Martyn Barber spotted crop marks in a photograph. The different colours visible in the crops indicated that there were historical earthworks just beneath the soil and Dr Wickstead teamed up with Mr Barber to begin the long process of trying to find out more about the site.

"During the six years since we first opened the site, we've not only involved the local community but also brought together expertise from a range of specialists from geochemical analysts to artists, to make sure we make the most of the opportunity while we can," Dr Wickstead explained. "Doing the dig is only a tiny portion of the work required to document these important sites, but it is the more urgent part because erosion by farming and other environmental factors will gradually diminish what's there."

Dr Wickstead, who is based in Kingston University's Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, suspects the Damerham site holds many more secrets about human life in the Neolithic period. Although excavations are expensive and rely on funding from a variety of organisations, she hopes her team has demonstrated how important it is to stage similar projects in the future.

"The clues to earlier human life are all around us in the landscape and I would love to return and undertake a larger-scale dig at Damerham," Dr Wickstead said. "For now, the team will be examining and compiling the data already gathered and, as well as analysing the soil samples, plotting the artefacts and mapping the earthworks, we may also be able to undertake some gene sequencing on the bone fragments we found. All of this will help tell us more about how the people of this period lived and died in Damerham more than 6,000 years ago."

Science Daily. 2014. “Archaeological Dig Near Stonehenge Uncovers Sink Hole of Evidence from Neolithic Period”. Science Daily. Posted: November 27, 2013. Available online:

Friday, January 24, 2014

Feral Children: Lore of the Wild Child

The feral child — a child raised by wild animals — is common in myth and folklore. Feral children are typically thought of as having been raised without human parental contact. A boy or girl raised by wolves — or bears or apes — is the original "wild child," often having little or no language ability or manners. Because feral children lack socialization, they are sometimes considered to represent a pure natural human state.

Stories of feral children date back at least to Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers of Roman mythology rescued from certain death and raised by a wolf. In modern times, the feral child image evokes a strong romanticism for many people. This was especially true at the turn of the last century. Rudyard Kipling made a hero of the feral child Mowgli — an Indian boy raised by wolves — in his classic and wildly popular 1894 collection of stories "The Jungle Book." Writer Edgar Rice Burroughs created Tarzan, a boy raised by African apes, in the early 1900s, and his character remains popular in books and film a century later.

These are, of course, fictional feral children, but what about real ones? A story recounted in the Reader's Digest book "Mysteries of the Unexplained" shows that feral children date back many centuries: "On July 27, 1724, the boy who came to be called Wild Peter was captured near the German town of Hamelin. He appeared to be about 12 years old. He could not speak and ate only vegetables and grass and sucked the juice of green stalks; at first he rejected bread. The story of the wild boy spread, and in February 1726 King George I of England sent for him."

The boy became a celebrated case, and turned out to be more influential than he could have imagined: the French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed to this feral child as an example of a "natural man," one untainted by modern life or learning. However, questions were raised about Peter's story: "a German naturalist and scholar later examined all the earliest documents on Wild Peter and concluded that he must have lived with people until shortly before he was captured, because he wore a rag around has neck and parts of his body were pale rather than tanned, suggesting that he had worn breeches [trousers]." Wild Peter turned out to be just Peter.

Another celebrated account of feral children came from a reverend named J.A.L. Singh, who in the 1920s discovered two young girls (one about 18 months old, the other about 8 years old) in Bengal, India, who were raised by wolves. Singh claimed that the girls, whom he named Amala and Kamala, preferred raw meat, walked on all fours and would howl at the moon like a wolf. He tried, with limited success, to get them to speak and walk upright. The case aroused great interest, and several books were written about their mysterious case, including one on child development.

Wild Child: Truth or Myth?

Over the centuries many stories of feral children have been told; fortunately, virtually all of them have later been revealed as hoaxes. In the strange case of the Indian girls Amala and Kamala, for example, later research concluded that though the girls did exist, they had not been raised by wolves, but instead suffered from developmental and birth defects. There was no independent corroboration of Singh's claims (we only have his diary), and it is generally accepted that he faked or exaggerated his interaction with the feral children.

More recently, there was a 1997 memoir of ayoung Jewish girl who escaped the German Holocaust by fleeing into the forest where she was raised by a pack of wolves. The book, "Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years," was a bestseller before finally being exposed as a fictional hoax. And in September 2011, a mysterious teenager calling himself Ray showed up at a police station in Germany, claiming to have lived alone in a forest for at least five years. The boy, who was in good health and spoke English and German, claimed not to know his identity. After nearly a year of investigation, the police discovered that "Ray" was actually a 21-year-old man who got bored with his life in the Netherlands and decided to quit his job and reinvent himself as a semi-feral teen.

Feral children — if they ever truly existed — are relics of the past. Except in the most remote regions of the world (such as tribes in the Amazon jungle), certificates are issued for live births, and it's unlikely that a child would be born and somehow completely disappear into the wild to be raised by animals. Even if a family lived in the remote jungle and both parents died suddenly, the lost infant or child would likely starve to death (or be eaten by wild animals instead of being nurtured into adolescence by them).

Yet the stories remain with us. Part of the reason feral children have long captured the public's imagination is that they symbolize humanity's ambiguous relationship with other animals. These young feral humans — much like Bigfoot in some ways — fascinate us because they dwell in the twilight between not quite human and not quite animal.

Radford, Benjamin. 2014. “Feral Children: Lore of the Wild Child”. Live Science. Posted: November 27, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Archaeological discoveries confirm early date of Buddha's life

Evidence found at world's earliest Buddhist shrine in Nepal

Archaeologists working in Nepal have uncovered evidence of a structure at the birthplace of the Buddha dating to the sixth century B.C. This is the first archaeological material linking the life of the Buddha — and thus the first flowering of Buddhism — to a specific century.

Pioneering excavations within the sacred Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, Nepal, a UNESCO World Heritage site long identified as the birthplace of the Buddha, uncovered the remains of a previously unknown sixth-century B.C. timber structure under a series of brick temples. Laid out on the same design as those above it, the timber structure contains an open space in the center that links to the nativity story of the Buddha himself.

Until now, the earliest archaeological evidence of Buddhist structures at Lumbini dated no earlier than the third century B.C., the time of the patronage of the Emperor Asoka, who promoted the spread of Buddhism from present-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh.

"Very little is known about the life of the Buddha, except through textual sources and oral tradition," said archaeologist Professor Robin Coningham of Durham University, U.K., who co-led the investigation. Some scholars, he said, have maintained that the Buddha was born in the third century B.C. "We thought 'why not go back to archaeology to try to answer some of the questions about his birth?' Now, for the first time, we have an archaeological sequence at Lumbini that shows a building there as early as the sixth century B.C."

Early Buddhism revealed

The international team of archaeologists, led by Coningham and Kosh Prasad Acharya of the Pashupati Area Development Trust in Nepal, say the discovery contributes to a greater understanding of the early development of Buddhism as well as the spiritual importance of Lumbini. Their peer-reviewed findings are reported in the December 2013 issue of the international journal Antiquity. The research is partly supported by the National Geographic Society.

To determine the dates of the timber shrine and a previously unknown early brick structure above it, fragments of charcoal and grains of sand were tested using a combination of radiocarbon and optically stimulated luminescence techniques. Geoarchaeological research also confirmed the presence of ancient tree roots within the temple's central void.

"UNESCO is very proud to be associated with this important discovery at one of the most holy places for one of the world's oldest religions," said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who urged "more archaeological research, intensified conservation work and strengthened site management" to ensure Lumbini's protection.

"These discoveries are very important to better understand the birthplace of the Buddha," said Ram Kumar Shrestha, Nepal's minister of culture, tourism and civil aviation. "The government of Nepal will spare no effort to preserve this significant site."

Buddhist tradition records that Queen Maya Devi, the mother of the Buddha, gave birth to him while holding on to the branch of a tree within the Lumbini Garden, midway between the kingdoms of her husband and parents. Coningham and his colleagues postulate that the open space in the center of the most ancient, timber shrine may have accommodated a tree. Brick temples built later above the timber shrine also were arranged around the central space, which was unroofed.

Four main Buddhist sites

Lumbini is one of the key sites associated with the life of the Buddha; others are Bodh Gaya, where he became a Buddha or enlightened one; Sarnath, where he first preached; and Kusinagara, where he passed away. At his passing at the age of 80, the Buddha is recorded as having recommended that all Buddhists visit "Lumbini." The shrine was still popular in the middle of the first millennium A.D. and was recorded by Chinese pilgrims as having a shrine beside a tree.

The Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini remains a living shrine; the archaeologists worked alongside meditating monks, nuns and pilgrims.

In the scientific paper in Antiquity, the authors write: "The sequence (of archaeological remains) at Lumbini is a microcosm for the development of Buddhism from a localized cult to a global religion."

Lost and overgrown in the jungles of Nepal in the medieval period, ancient Lumbini was rediscovered in 1896 and identified as the birthplace of the Buddha on account of the presence of a third-century B.C. sandstone pillar. The pillar, which still stands, bears an inscription documenting a visit by Emperor Asoka to the site of the Buddha's birth as well as the site's name — Lumbini.

Despite the rediscovery of the key Buddhist sites, their earliest levels were buried deep or destroyed by later construction, leaving evidence of the very earliest stages of Buddhism inaccessible to archaeological investigation, until now.

Half a billion people around the world are Buddhists, and many hundreds of thousands make a pilgrimage to Lumbini each year. The archaeological investigation there was funded by the government of Japan in partnership with the government of Nepal, under a UNESCO project aimed at strengthening the conservation and management of Lumbini. Along with the National Geographic Society, the research also was supported by Durham University and Stirling University.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Archaeological discoveries confirm early date of Buddha's life”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 25, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon

The legendary ‘Hanging Garden of Babylon’ has since ancient times been recognised as one of the Seven Wonders of the World – but no trace of it has ever been found.

After 20 years of research, Dr Stephanie Dalley may have discovered why.

Dr Dalley, an honorary research fellow at Somerville College and part of the Oriental Institute at Oxford University, believes the garden was actually created at Nineveh, 300 miles from Babylon, in the early seventh century BC. She argues that it was built by the Assyrians in the north of Mesopotamia – modern-day Iraq – at the instigation of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib.

Unrivalled palace

One piece of evidence is a record of description by Sennacherib of an ‘unrivalled palace’ and a ‘wonder for all peoples’. He describes the marvel of a water-raising screw made using a new method of casting bronze.

A recent excavation near Nineveh found traces of an aqueduct with the inscription: ‘Sennacherib king of the world … Over a great distance I had a watercourse directed to the environs of Nineveh‘.

Dr Dalley also believes the landscapes of Babylon and Nineveh support her conclusion – the flat countryside around Babylon would have made it impossible to deliver water to the raised gardens as described in classical sources.

New Babylon

Dr Dalley suggests that after Assyria conquered Babylon in 689BC, the Assyrian capital Nineveh may have been seen as the ‘New Babylon’, which could have created the confusion. Earlier research showed that after Sennacherib conquered Babylon, he renamed all the gates of Nineveh after the names used for Babylon’s city gates.

Moreover, Dr Dalley believes the Hanging Garden may in fact have been depicted in a bas-relief from Sennacherib’s palace in Nineveh, which shows trees growing on a roofed colonnade as described in classical accounts of the ‘Babylon’ gardens.

‘It has taken many years to find the evidence to demonstrate that the gardens and associated system of aqueducts and canals were built by Sennacherib at Nineveh and not by Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon,’ Dr Dalley says.

‘For the first time it can be shown that the Hanging Gardens really did exist.’

Past Horizons. 2014. “The Mystery of the Hanging Garden of Babylon”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 24, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

How the visual language of comics could have its roots in the ice age

Psychologist and comics obsessive Neil Cohn believes cartoons have a sophisticated language all their own and a heritage that goes back to cave art. Here he breaks it down

Neil Cohn's love of comic strips began in his family's attic. In one of his earliest memories, he recalls his dad climbing the stairs and pulling down a box of 1960s Batman and Superman books that he had stashed away from his own childhood. To Cohn's four-year-old self, it was as if they'd been imported from a strange and foreign place. "They had this kind of mystery to them," he says. Instantly he was hooked.

It was not long before he became a compulsive comic artist himself; in his teens he even started his own mail-order comic company. As he set about his creations, he would often wonder how the brain makes the huge cognitive leap to piece together a story from the fragmentary, stylised pictures on his drawing board.

Now a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego, Neil Cohn is finally getting the chance to answer that question, as he carefully dismantles comic strips such as Peanuts. His theory, presented in The Visual Language of Comics (Bloomsbury) next month, is provocative. At a neural level, he says, the pictures of comic strips are processed as another form of language, with their own vocabulary, grammar and syntax.

"Human beings only have three ways to convey our thoughts," he explains. "We create sounds using our mouths; we can move our bodies with hands and faces; and we can draw things… My idea is that whenever these meaning-making channels get structured in a coherent sequence, then you end up with a type of language." If he is right, the hidden logic of cartoon panels could provide new vistas on art, language and creative development.

Cohn's theory builds on a growing acceptance that the brain's language toolkit is a kind of Swiss army knife for many different kinds of expression, such as music or dance. In some ways the ties with art should be stronger, however – since, unlike music, pictures encode a definite meaning. "Drawing has always been about communication – to express an idea in your head to other people," says Cohn.

The drive to tell stories with pictures certainly has deep roots. Stone age paintings in places such as the Chauvet cave in France seem to show scenes of galloping horses and pouncing lions, using techniques that would be familiar to graphic artists today. More advanced picture narratives appeared in works such as the Bayeux tapestry and Paupers' Bibles. In some indigenous Australian cultures, sand drawings are used as a regular part of discourse; in fact, drawing is so entwined with speech in the language of these cultures that you can't be considered fluent if you don't know the appropriate pictures.

Before Cohn began his research, however, few serious analyses of comic strips existed. One writer who dissected the way strips are constructed was Scott McCloud in in his landmark book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, published in 1993. "That book really got me thinking about it, as a teenager," says Cohn. His interest would remain a hobby, however, and after school he embarked on an undergraduate course in Asian studies at the University of California, Berkeley. As part of his degree, he decided to take a linguistics course. Suddenly his musings took a whole new shape. "I noticed that all these things that happen in language were the same as the things I understood in comics," he says.

Comic strips do, after all, have the basic structure of language, with a hierarchy of elements that can be combined with infinite variety. The building blocks of this hierarchy are a "visual vocabulary" of signs and symbols. That might include speech bubbles, motion lines, or stars to represent the throw of a punch. Even the characters' anatomy is highly stylised: cartoon hands, eyes and noses can look almost identical from strip to strip, even when these are by different artists. "If you look at the bits and pieces, they're all systematic," Cohn says.

At the next level comes the cartoon pane, which combines elements of the vocabulary to build new meanings. It's difficult to find an exact analogy to the English language here; according to Cohn, the cartoon strip pane helps to divide our attention into units, like a word, but it is perhaps closer to the words in agglutinative languages such as Turkish or Inuit, in which stems and suffixes are strung together in a single term to give a more complex meaning. (In one Inuit language, for instance, a single word, angyaghllangyugtuqlu, encapsulates the sentence "also, he wants a bigger boat"). Similarly, a single panel of Peanuts can represent "Charlie Brown gets ready to swing his baseball bat" through its signs.

Governing the hierarchy is a set of rules that Cohn dubs "narrative grammar". Just as spoken or written grammars contain different types of word – nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on – the narrative grammar includes different types of panel. Among these are: establisher panels, which set up a scene; initial panels, which create a tension; peaks, which show the climax; and release panels, which undo the tension. Each has its own characteristics, and, like the words in a sentence, they have to follow a certain order. Crucially, Cohn argues that these panes can also be grouped into separate clauses that are embedded in larger structures – so a whole string of panels might represent an "establisher" clause in another sequence. That leads to recursion – the property that allows us to say: "He thought that he said that she said…" – which is thought to be one of the defining characteristics of language.

Despite having no background in linguistics or psychology apart from his undergraduate course, Cohn realised that he needed to add flesh to the bones of his theory with experimental evidence. "The only way to make the comparison between visual language and spoken language is to see what the brain is doing," he says.

That would be easier said than done. Cohn had to wait five years for a place on a postgraduate course at Tufts University, Massachusetts, under the linguist Ray Jackendoff, who is known for groundbreaking work comparing music to language. With additional supervision from the psychologists Phillip Holcomb and Gina Kuperberg, he set about testing his ideas.

To do so, he turned to some classic psycholinguistic experiments from the 1970s and 80s that had attempted to pick apart the way the brain processes grammar. Measuring how quickly subjects are to pick out certain words in a sentence, researchers found that grammatical sentences are quicker to process, even if they are nonsensical, such as "green ideas sleep furiously", than something ungrammatical such as "Picnic strike ideas quiet launched".

If comic books are built from a visual language with its own grammar, Cohn suspected that the same must happen when we look at the pictures of Peanuts – so he set about picking apart Charlie Brown's antics. In some cases he would take pictures from different strips but arrange them so the establishers, initials and peaks all followed the right order. In others, the pictures of the panes were scrambled completely. Recording his volunteers' reaction times as they answered questions on the strips, he found that the grammatical sentences did seem to be processed more quickly – just as you would expect if the brain were using underlying grammatical rules to try to make sense of the confusion.

Further experiments played more subtly with Snoopy's grammar. For instance, in one study Cohn placed blank panels in the middle of a "clause", interrupting the flowing sequence. "I compare it to moving a comma to the wrong place in a sentence," he says. Measuring his subjects' brain activity using electrodes placed on the scalp, he found the same pulse of activity after 600 microseconds – known as a P600 signal – that seems to come as the brain tries to grapple with violations of written or spoken grammar.

Clearly, there is still a long way to go before comics enter neuroscience textbooks, but Cohn's work is already attracting serious interest from comic artists and cognitive scientists alike. He regularly gives talks at Comic-Con events, and this year he won a $10,000 award from the Cognitive Science Society in the US, based on the strength and originality of his doctoral thesis.

Cohn is passionate about the way his theory could influence art education. He points out that children naturally absorb language through imitation and mimicry. But that's not how we are taught art, where individuality is championed. "Our culture is suppressing the biological desires for imitation." The result is that we never learn a fluent visual vocabulary, except a few simple symbols, such as stick men.

A better approach, he says, would be to tap into children's innate language instinct by actively encouraging them to mimic others' drawing. He speaks from experience: from the age of eight, he obsessively copied figures from Disney until he was fluent in every aspect of Mickey Mouse's world. "I was obsessed," he says. "By third grade I was teaching my class to draw them."

For further evidence you need only look to Japan, where comics are more central to mainstream culture. According to studies by Brent Wilson at Penn State University, nearly all six-year-olds surveyed were already able to draw complex narratives to a high level, whereas even by the time they had reached 12, less than half the children he surveyed in western countries were able to do the same. Clearly, that's a different skill to producing the Mona Lisa – but it's still an enticing idea that comics might kickstart artistic development.

For the future, Cohn hopes to investigate the different visual languages that have developed across the world, by building large dictionaries of the elements and their grammars. He has already found that manga comics tend to focus less on a wider scene and more on the individual characters than American comics. Cohn is also interested in studying indigenous Australian sand drawings in more detail. His early analyses suggest that this language, which evolved over perhaps thousands of years, does seem to follow some of the same rules and grammars as western comics. Ultimately, such studies may help to find universals that govern all visual languages. Cohn also wants to apply a historical linguistics approach to comic books – examining how symbols such as motion lines first arose, for instance.

Whatever happens, it's clear that no matter how long he studies them, the fascination he first felt as a child when poring over his dad's old comics will never be quenched. "Each study raises so many new questions about the brain," he says.

Robson, David. 2014. “How the visual language of comics could have its roots in the ice age”. The Guardian. Posted: November 24, 2013. Available online:

Monday, January 20, 2014

Rural China Is Dying

Everybody is leaving the farm for the city as China moves from an agricultural economy to an industrial one.

This time, it's not the birth rate, stupid. Rural China is dying. The culprit is outmigration. Leaving the farm for the city:

China's leaders are being urged to take urgent action to save thousands of historic villages from extinction amid reports that more than 900,000 villages were abandoned or destroyed in the first decade of this century. …

… "It's ironic that some villages survived thousands of years of war and disasters but have disappeared in peacetime through demolition or people's short-term views," Prof Li Huadong said in an interview with state media.

Prof Li, whose group was founded in June this year to draw attention to the disappearing communities, told The Telegraph protecting Chinese villages was about far more than preserving "old houses and folk art".

It was, he said, about facing up to the "spiritual and moral crisis" that China's rush towards modernity and materialism had created.

"In our old rural society we had moral standards, ancestral halls and family discipline based on close-knit relationships. All this has been wiped out," he said. "The DNA of our culture is in the villages. If our villages are destroyed, Chinese people will cease to be Chinese people."

Emphasis added. Without the villages, China will expire. The nation used to be agricultural. Now, it is industrial. The land use patterns, which places show up on the map, depend on the economy. People follow jobs.

Less hands are needed in the fields, freeing up labor to go to the cities and work in factories. Next, less bodies are needed in the factories, freeing up labor to freelance? Mechanization allows more production with less people. Unwanted labor migrates to where it is wanted. China priming that pump:

A reform to give China's farmers clearer rights to their land portends big changes, giving them a new way to raise money and boosting the economy far beyond the farm. …

… Under the change, farmers would gain as would the government's goals of promoting urbanization and improving agriculture. With more security to their land and the rights to mortgage some of it, farmers could better fund their migration to cities or invest into expanding and mechanizing their farms.

"If you don't give them a chance to make use of that capital, which is often the only asset they have to their name, you're condemning a lot of farmers and their children to remain in poverty," said Mark Williams, an economist at research firm Capital Economics.

China isn't trying to save its rural soul. The goal is to speed up urbanization. China gave up on collective farming. Agrarian Marxists suck at feeding the hungry. The independent plots of food production only go so far. In rural areas, China will unleash das kapital. Mortgaging real estate, farmers buy combines and other machines that allow for economies of scale. A huge harvest justifies slim margins while pushing more labor off of the farm and into the city.

The global migration to the city is mostly rural-to-urban as developing countries ramp up manufacturing. In the United States, that's old hat. Financial deregulation unleashed das kapital in the realm of manufacturing. Less people are needed to produce more industrial goods. Urban America was dying. Now, Chinese cities are hell with the lid taken off. The able can't get out of big city fast enough. Next up, China's roar of the locavore.

Russell, Jim. 2014. “Rural China Is Dying”. Pacific Standard. Posted: November 23, 2013.Available online:

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Researchers Map Brain Areas Vital to Understanding Language

When reading text or listening to someone speak, we construct rich mental models that allow us to draw conclusions about other people, objects, actions, events, mental states and contexts. This ability to understand written or spoken language, called "discourse comprehension," is a hallmark of the human mind and central to everyday social life. In a new study, researchers uncovered the brain mechanisms that underlie discourse comprehension.

The study appears in Brain: A Journal of Neurology.

With his team, study leader Aron Barbey, a professor of neuroscience, of psychology, and of speech and hearing science at the University of Illinois, previously had mapped general intelligence, emotional intelligence and a host of other high-level cognitive functions. Barbey is the director of the Decision Neuroscience Laboratory at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology at Illinois.

To investigate the brain regions that underlie discourse comprehension, the researchers studied a group of 145 American male Vietnam War veterans who sustained penetrating head injuries during combat. Barbey said these shrapnel-induced injuries typically produced focal brain damage, unlike injuries caused by stroke or other neurological disorders that affect multiple regions. These focal injuries allowed the researchers to pinpoint the structures that are critically important to discourse comprehension.

"Neuropsychological patients with focal brain lesions provide a valuable opportunity to study how different brain structures contribute to discourse comprehension," Barbey said.

A technique called voxel-based lesion-symptom mapping allowed the team to pool data from the veterans' CT scans to create a collective, three-dimensional map of the cerebral cortex. They divided this composite brain into units called voxels (the three-dimensional counterparts of two-dimensional pixels). This allowed them to compare the discourse comprehension abilities of patients with damage to a particular voxel or cluster of voxels with those of patients without injuries to those brain regions.

The researchers identified a network of brain areas in the frontal and parietal cortex that are essential to discourse comprehension.

"Rather than engaging brain regions that are classically involved in language processing, our results indicate that discourse comprehension depends on an executive control network that helps integrate incoming language with prior knowledge and experience," Barbey said. Executive control, also known as executive function, refers to the ability to plan, organize and regulate one's behavior.

"The findings help us understand the neural foundations of discourse comprehension, and suggest that core elements of discourse processing emerge from a network of brain regions that support language processing and executive functions. The findings offer new insights into basic questions about the nature of discourse comprehension," Barbey said, "and could offer new targets for clinical interventions to help patients with cognitive-communication disorders.

"Discourse comprehension is a hallmark of human social behavior," Barbey said. "By studying the mechanisms that underlie these abilities, we're able to advance our understanding of the remarkable cognitive and neural architecture from which language comprehension emerges."

Science Daily. 2014. “Researchers Map Brain Areas Vital to Understanding Language”. Science Daily. Posted: November 21, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Major source of Stonehenge spotted dolerites located

Researchers have uncovered in west Wales, another major source of one of the bluestone types found at Stonehenge.

Experts have argued that the large sarsen stones at Stonehenge are local to the Salisbury Plain area. However, the origin of the smaller bluestones has been the topic of research for many years, although there has been little refinement of the research conducted by geologist Herbert Henry Thomas in 1923 about their original sources.

The new paper by Dr Richard Bevins (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales), Dr Rob Ixer (Institute of Archaeology, UCL) and Professor Nick Pearce (Aberystwyth University), will soon be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Spotted dolerite location In 2011, Bevins and Ixer confirmed for the first time the exact location of some of the bluestones known as rhyolites (a type of silica-rich igneous rock). Their research identified the source of the stone to the prominent outcrop of Craig Rhos y Felin near Crymych, Pembrokeshire. Now – along with Pearce – they are confident of the location of another major type of bluestone – the spotted dolerite (a type of relatively silica-poor igneous rock containing distinctive alteration spots).

H.H. Thomas from the Geological Survey published a paper in The Antiquaries Journal in which he claimed to have sourced the spotted dolerite component of the Bluestones to hilltop rock outcrops, exposed in the high Preseli, to the west of Crymych in west Wales. Specifically, he thought that the tors on Carn Meini and Cerrig Marchogion were the likely source outcrops. He went on to speculate about how humans had transported the stones to the Salisbury Plain, favouring transport across land rather than a combined land and sea journey. As a result of Thomas’s views recent archaeological excavations have concentrated on finding Stonehenge-related quarries at Carn Meini.

Carn Goedog

Using geochemical techniques, Bevins, Ixer and Pearce have compared samples of rock and debris from Stonehenge with Thomas’s findings and also geochemical data published in the early 1990’s by Richard Thorpe and his team from the Open University. The current findings conclude that the majority of the spotted dolerites analysed actually come from Carn Goedog which is about 1.5km away from Thomas’s originally proposed site of Carn Meini.

Dr Richard Bevins (Amgueddfa Cymru) who has been studying the geology of Pembrokeshire for over 30 years said:

“When the first part of our research was announced in 2011, we communicated our commitment to continue to work in the area and we have added to that initial work with papers in 2012 and 2013. I am very pleased that we have continued to revisit the area and be able to further study the standing stones and debris from Stonehenge!

“The geology of Pembrokeshire is unique, which is why I have spent so much time in the area. The area has much to offer in helping us understand what happens when magma is erupted from underwater volcanoes, and how those igneous rocks are transformed by the effects of increased temperatures and pressures during later mountain building events. Equally interesting of course is the fact that these igneous rocks have been used in the construction of Stonehenge and only once we know their correct geographical origins can we fully interpret the archaeological significance.

“I hope that our recent scientific findings will influence the continually debated question of how the bluestones were transported to Salisbury Plain.”

Continue the research

Dr Rob Ixer who studied his first Stonehenge bluestone twenty-five years ago said:

“As this and earlier papers show, almost everything we believed ten years ago about the bluestones have been shown to be partially or completely incorrect. We are still in the stages of redress and shall continue to research the bluestones for answers. This paper is a very important component  of this search and must re-direct us (and others) to relook at the standing stones, their debris and possible quarry sites so that we can correctly determine their origins.”

Past Horizons. 2014. “Major source of Stonehenge spotted dolerites located”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 20, 2013. Available online:

Friday, January 17, 2014

Boy’s Skeleton In Siberia Raises New Questions About First Americans

Results from a DNA study of a young boy’s skeletal remains believed to be 24,000 years old could turn the archaeological world upside down – it’s been proven that nearly 30 percent of modern Native American’s ancestry came from this youngster’s gene pool, suggesting First Americans came directly from Siberia, according to a research team that includes a Texas A&M University professor.

Kelly Graf, assistant professor in the Center for the Study of First Americans and Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M, is part of an international team spearheaded by Eske Willerslev and Maanasa Raghaven from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark and additional researchers from Sweden, Russia, United Kingdom, University of Chicago and University of California-Berkeley. Their work, funded by the Danish National Science Foundation, Lundbeck Foundation, and the National Science Foundation, is published in the current issue of Nature magazine.

Graf and Willerslev conceived the project and traveled to the Hermitage State Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the remains are now housed to collect samples for ancient DNA.  The skeleton was first discovered in the late 1920s near the village of Mal’ta in south-central Siberia, and since then it has been referred to as “the Mal’ta child” because until this DNA study the biological sex of the skeleton was unknown.

“Now we can say with confidence that this individual was a male” says Graf.

Graf helped extract DNA material from the boy’s upper arm and “the results surprised all of us quite a bit,” she explains.

“It shows he had close genetic ties to today’s Native Americans and some western Eurasians, specifically some groups living in central Asia, South Asia, and Europe. Also, he shared close genetic ties with other Ice-Age western Eurasians living in European Russia, Czech Republic and even Germany. We think these Ice-Age people were quite mobile and capable of maintaining a far-reaching gene pool that extended from central Siberia all the way west to central Europe.”

Another significant result of the study is that the Mal’ta boy’s people were also ancestors of Native Americans, explaining why some early Native American skeletons such as Kennewick Man were interpreted to have some European traits.

“Our study proves that Native Americans ancestors migrated to the Americas from Siberia and not directly from Europe as some have recently suggested,” Graf explains.

The DNA work performed on the boy is the oldest complete genome of a human sequenced so far, the study shows.  Also found near the boy’s remains were flint tools, a beaded necklace and what appears to be pendant-like items, all apparently placed in the burial as grave goods.

The discovery raises new questions about the timing of human entry in Alaska and ultimately North America, a topic hotly debated in First Americans studies.

“Though our results cannot speak directly to this debate, they do indicate Native American ancestors could have been in Beringia—extreme northeastern Russia and Alaska—any time after 24,000 years ago and therefore could have colonized Alaska and the Americas much earlier than 14,500 years ago, the age suggested by the archaeological record.”

“What we need to do is continue searching for earlier sites and additional clues to piece together this very big puzzle.”

Tamu Times. 2014. “Boy’s Skeleton In Siberia Raises New Questions About First Americans”. Tamu Times. Posted: November 20, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ancient Siberian genome reveals genetic origins of Native-Americans

The genome sequence of a 24,000-year-old Siberian individual has provided a key piece of the puzzle in the quest for Native American origins. The ancient Siberian demonstrates genomic signatures that are basal to present-day western Eurasians and close to modern Native Americans. This surprising finding has great consequences for our understanding of how and from where ancestral Native Americans descended, and also of the genetic landscape of Eurasia 24,000 years ago. The breakthrough is reported in this week's Nature (Advance Online Publication) by an international team of scientists, led by the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum of Denmark (University of Copenhagen).

The search for Native American ancestors has been focused in northeastern Eurasia. In late 2009, researchers sampled at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg the remains of a juvenile individual (MA-1) from the Upper Palaeolithic site of Mal'ta in south-central Siberia. The MA-1 individual dated to approximately 24,000 years ago. Now, the team reports genomic results from the MA-1 individual which unravel the origins of the First Americans – ancestors of modern-day Native Americans.

"Representing the oldest anatomically modern human genome reported thus far, the MA-1 individual has provided us with a unique window into the genetic landscape of Siberia some 24,000 years ago", says Dr. Maanasa Raghavan from the Centre for GeoGenetics and one of the lead authors of the study. "Interestingly, the MA-1 individual shows little to no genetic affinity to modern populations from the region from where he originated - south Siberia."

Instead, both the mitochondrial and nuclear genomes of MA-1 indicate that he was related to modern-day western Eurasians. This result paints a picture of Eurasia 24,000 years ago which is quite different from the present-day context. The genome of MA-1 indicates that prehistoric populations related to modern western Eurasians occupied a wider geographical range into northeast Eurasia than they do today.

Dual ancestry of Native Americans

The most significant finding that the MA-1 genome reveals is its relation to modern Native Americans. This relative of present-day western Eurasians shows close affinity to modern Native Americans, but surprisingly not to East Asians who are regarded as being genetically closely related to Native Americans.

Furthermore, the team finds evidence that this genetic affinity between MA-1 and Native Americans is mediated by a gene flow event from MA-1 into the First Americans, which can explain between 14-38% of the ancestry of modern Native Americans, with the remainder of the ancestry being derived from East Asians. Supported by numerous reasons against these signatures being caused by contamination from modern DNA sources or from post-Columbian admixture (post 1492 AD), the study concludes that two distinct Old World populations led to the formation of the First American gene pool: one related to modern-day East Asians, and the other a Siberian Upper Palaeolithic population related to modern-day western Eurasians.

"The result came as a complete surprise to us. Who would have thought that present-day Native Americans, who we learned in school derive from East Asians, share recent evolutionary history with contemporary western Eurasians? Even more intriguingly, this happened by gene flow from an ancient population that is so far represented only by the MA-1 individual living some 24,000 years ago", says Professor Eske Willerslev from the Centre for GeoGenetics who led the study.

Early cosmopolitans

Additionally, results from a second south-central Siberian from Afontova Gora-2 site are presented in order to address human occupation of the region during and after the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM; ca. 26,000 to 19,000 years ago), a climatically cold period when glacial ice sheets extended to their maximum range. At approximately 17,000 years ago, this post-LGM individual demonstrates similar genomic signatures as MA-1, with close affinity to modern western Eurasians and Native Americans and none to present-day East Asians. This result indicates that genetic continuity persisted in south-central Siberia throughout this climatically harsh period, which is a significant consideration for the peopling of Beringia, and eventually the Americas some 15,000 years ago.

Dr. Pontus Skoglund from Uppsala University, and one of the lead authors of the study, explains, "Most scientists have believed that Native American lineages go back about 14,000 years ago, when the first people crossed Beringia into the New World. Our results provide direct evidence that some of the ancestry that characterizes Native Americans is at least 10,000 years older than that, and was already present in Siberia before the last Ice Age."

Professor Kelly Graf from the Center for the Study of the First Americans (Texas A&M University), who together with Professor Willerslev did the sampling, adds, "Our findings are significant at two levels. First, it shows that Upper Paleolithic Siberians came from a cosmopolitan population of early modern humans that spread out of Africa to Europe and Central and South Asia. Second, Paleoindian skeletons with phenotypic traits atypical of modern-day Native Americans can be explained as having a direct historical connection to Upper Paleolithic Siberia."

As such, results from this study contribute a major leap forward for resolving the peopling of the Americas.

Take-home messages:

  • First Americans descended from the meeting and admixture of at least two populations, of which one is related to contemporary East Asians and the other to present-day western Eurasians.
  • These findings may explain the presence of mitochondrial lineage X in Native Americans.
  • The presence of a population related to western Eurasians further into northeast Eurasia provides a more likely explanation for the presence of non-East Asian cranial characteristics in the First Americans, rather than the Solutrean hypothesis that proposes an Atlantic route from Iberia.
  • Genetic continuity in south-central Siberia before and after the LGM provides evidence for the presence of humans in the region throughout this cold phase, which is of consequence to population movements into Beringia and ultimately the Americas around 15,000 years ago.


EurekAlert. 2014. “Ancient Siberian genome reveals genetic origins of Native-Americans”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 20, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Ancient glass illuminates ancient societies

From small glass vessels and glass jewellery of the ancient world to the later mass production of containers after the invention of glass-blowing and the production of cathedral and church windows, glass objects have been used for a variety of functions for at least 4,500 years.

Today it is an everyday material we take for granted, but now the secrets of how we came to benefit from the many uses of the most unique of substances are revealed in a new book by Professor Julian Henderson from the University of Nottingham.

Versatile composite material

The illustrated Cambridge University Press volume, ‘Ancient Glass’, is the first monograph of this versatile composite material to combine forensic techniques of investigation from both the sciences and the humanities.

The book examines why and how glass came to be invented in the Bronze Age and reveals the ritual, social, economic and political contexts of its development across the world up to the 17th century.

The investigations also include a detailed scientific exploration of the provenances of ancient glass using isotopic evidence for the first production of late Bronze Age glass and its trade in the Mediterranean.

Illuminating ancient societies

Professor Henderson, an expert in innovative techniques in the analysis of archaeological materials, said: “The application of science to ancient glass research illuminates ancient societies in new ways.”

“The exciting part of this research using forensic techniques is when a wide range of fascinating new features about past societies, economies, cultures and even rituals are revealed. As the social and ritual values of glass changed from its first prestigious use as a ritual material to its massive-scale use as tableware and containers this is reflected in the ways in which it was made and traded.”

‘Ancient Glass’ tells the story of the earliest production of this transparent, refractive and colourful material, how early artisans learned to heat the two main ingredients, silica sand and plant ash which served as a source of soda-lime flux that decreased the melting point of the glass. The story focuses on three contrasting archaeological and scientific case studies: Late Bronze Age glass, late Hellenistic–early Roman glass, and Islamic glass in the Middle East. Using isotopic and chemical techniques discoveries are reported about provenance, primary production, raw materials and trade.

The main strength of the book is an interdisciplinary exploration of archaeological glass in which technological, historical, geological, chemical and cultural aspects of the study of ancient glass are combined.

There is an in-depth examination as to why and how this unique material was invented and considers the ritual, social, economic and political contexts of its development.

Origins of glass

The earliest known glass objects of the mid third millennium BCE were beads primarily in Egypt and Mesopotamia, perhaps initially created as accidental by-products of metal-working or during the production of faïence, a pre-glass vitreous material made by a process similar to glazing.

It was a material for high-status objects, with archaeological evidence for the Late Bronze Age (LBA) showing an almost exclusive distribution of glass finds at palace complexes such as in the city of Amarna in Egypt.

To highlight the status of this early glass, texts that list offerings to Egyptian temples would start with gold and silver, followed by precious stones (lapis lazuli) and glass, then bronze, copper etc.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Ancient glass illuminates ancient societies”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 20, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Lore and Lure of Ley Lines

Many people believe that a grid of earth energies circles the globe, connecting important and sacred sites such as Stonehenge, the Egyptian Pyramids, and the Great Wall of China.

If you plot these and other sites on a map, a curious thing becomes apparent: Many of them can be connected by straight lines. Were these monuments and sacred sites specifically built at those locations by ancient people with lost knowledge of unknown earth energies especially strong along these "ley lines"?

History of ley lines

People have often found special significance in the unusual landmarks and geological features surrounding them. High mountain peaks and majestic valleys may be viewed as sacred, for example, while deep, dark caves have often been considered the domain of the underworld. The same is true for roads; in 1800s on the British Isles many people believed in mysterious "fairy paths," trails connecting certain hilltops in the countryside. It was considered dangerous (or, at the very least, unwise) to walk on those paths during certain days because the wayward traveler might come upon a parade of fairies who would not take kindly to the human interruption.

Philip Carr-Gomm and Richard Heygate describe the origin of ley lines in their "Book of English Magic": "Alfred Watkins, a landscape photographer in Herefordshire, noticed that ancient sites seemed to be aligned with others nearby. His idea was that our ancestors built and used prominent features in the landscape as navigation points. These features included prehistoric standing stones and stone circles, barrows and mounds, hill forts and earthworks, ancient moats, old pre-Reformation churches, old crossroads and fords, prominent hilltops and fragments of old, straight tracks. Watkins went on to suggest that that the lines connecting these ancient sites represented old trackways or routes that were followed in prehistoric times for the purposes of trade or religious rites, and in 1921 he coined the term 'ley lines' to describe these alignments."

Watkins himself did not believe that there was any magical or mystical significance to ley lines. However, the authors note, "The idea that there is a hidden network of energy lines across the earth ... fired the imagination of the burgeoning New Age movement, and dowsers in particular became keen on detecting leys with dowsing."

Because of this New Age interest, ley lines rose from mundane origins to an entire field of study, spawning books, seminars, and groups of ley line enthusiasts who gather to discuss, research, and walk the lines. Ley lines have also been incorporated into a variety of otherwise unrelated paranormal subjects, including dowsing, UFOs, Atlantis, crop circles and numerology.

Science and pseudoscience

You won't find ley lines discussed in geography or geology textbooks because they aren't real, actual, measurable things. Though scientists can find no evidence of these ley lines — they cannot be detected by magnetometers or any other scientific device — New Agers, psychics and others claim to be able to sense or feel their energy.

Watkins's original idea of ley lines is quite valid and rather intuitive; archaeologists have long known that, on a local and regional scale, roads tend to be built in more or less straight lines, geography allowing, and since a line is the shortest distance between two points it makes sense that important sites in a given culture would often be aligned, not randomly placed.

Ley line experts cannot agree on which "sacred sites" should be included as data points. Some internationally known ancient sites are obvious choices, such as England's Stonehenge, Egypt's Great Pyramids, Peru's Machu Picchu ruins, and Australia's Ayers Rock. But on a regional and local level, it's anyone's game: How big a hill counts as an important hill? Which wells are old enough or important enough? By selectively choosing which data points to include or omit, a person can come up with any pattern he or she wishes to find.

With literally tens of thousands of potential data points around the globe, it is little wonder that ley lines can be found everywhere. Possible points include castles (or even places with "Castle" in the place name); moats; churches; ancient mounds; ancient stones; wells; crossroads; special groups of trees; and so on. Indeed, there are so many potential points that by chance alone connecting them will form many straight lines and seemingly significant patterns. For example, the Great Wall of China is thousands of miles long, and surely some parts of the wall will connect with many imaginary lines drawn across the globe from another important sites.

A good analogy is that ley lines exist in the same way that astrological constellations exist. You can draw (or imagine) lines connecting certain stars to form the horns of the Taurus constellation, the scales of the Libra sign, or the Big Dipper. But that doesn't mean that those points were placed there to make that pattern. The way the patterns of stars are grouped and connected is arbitrary and artificial, not guided by anything in nature or reality; they are patterns our brains impose on the world around us. The only meaning is that which we bring to it.

In most cases, the locations of these supposedly significant ancient sites were not dictated by any sort of unknown earth energies but by practical matters such as access to the building materials. Furthermore, many of these places are natural features, such as Mount Everest and Ayers Rock; no one built or placed those locations there based on knowledge of earth energy lines. And of course, the ancient builders of Stonehenge could not have known about the existence of Everest, Machu Picchu, or other sites, and therefore could not have intentionally built the monument to intersect with the alleged ley lines emanating from those sites.

Whether ley lines exist or not, the fact that many people believe they do provides insight into the human brain's amazing capacity for finding patterns in the world around us. 

Radford, Benjamin. 2014. “The Lore and Lure of Ley Lines”. Live Science. Posted: Available online:

Monday, January 13, 2014

First South Americans Ate Giant Sloths

Giant sloths were eaten by a population living in Uruguay 30,000 years ago, suggesting humans arrived in the Americas far earlier than previously thought, according to a new study.

The discovery, along with other recent findings, strengthens the theory that people arrived in South America via ocean crossings long before humans might have walked into North America from northeastern Asia, during the end of the last glacial period around 16,000 years ago. The study was published in the latest Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

These brave individuals apparently did not shy away from big game either, with giant sloth being at the top of the menu.

"If our interpretation is correct and the sloths were consumed, they might have been an interesting source of meat because of their very large size," lead author Richard Fariña told Discovery News. Giant sloths could grow to 15 feet and are estimated to have weighed between 2-4 tons.

Fariña, a paleontologist at the University of the Republic in Uruguay, and his team analyzed over 1,000 bones excavated at a site called Arroyo del Vizcaíno near Sauce, Uruguay. The bones belonged to at least 27 individuals, mostly from the giant sloth Lestodon. Radiocarbon dating suggest the site and bones date to 30,000 years ago.

The researchers determined that several of the giant sloth bones feature deep, asymmetrical marks consistent with those produced by human stone tools.

A stone, shaped like a scraper tool and found at the site, shows signs of wear from probable use by humans, according to Fariña.

He added that there is no evidence that the bones were part of a river deposit or some other nature-made collection.

Virtually all of the bones belonged to large, meaty adult giant sloths, which again suggests human may have been eating them. A natural collection of sloth bones likely would have included individuals representing multiple age groups.

When the sloths were alive, the landscape would have featured a "stream going through gently rolling grasslands," he said. The site today is somewhat similar.

Just last month, another team of researchers in nearby Brazil brought together artifacts -- including cave paintings and ceramic art -- from Serra da Capivara national park in Brazil's northeastern Piaui state. The oldest artifacts date to 30,000 years ago.

Franco-Brazilian archaeologist Niéde Guidon, who worked on the project and has led explorations of Piaui's interior, said that, in light of the findings from Uruguay and Brazil, she believes that it is time to reconsider how and when the Americas were first populated.

Piecing together the latest evidence, she believes that humans came to South America at least 30,000 years ago, and possibly much earlier, by water.

"130,000 years before the present, Africa suffered from a very dry climate, which was the origin of the deserts (there)," she said. "People tried to find food in the sea, and the streams and winds (flow) from Africa to the northeast of Brazil. It is possible to think that some boats arrived at the coast of Piaui."

To this day, these same water and wind currents benefit cruise ships coming into Brazil.

The indigenous people from Piaui and surrounding regions had ancestors with "dark skin (and) their hair was black, but smooth and not curly," Guidon said.

Visitors to Uruguay will soon be able to see the Arroyo del Vizcaíno artifacts.

Viegas, Jennifer. 2014. “First South Americans Ate Giant Sloths”. Discovery News. Posted: November 19, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, January 12, 2014

New Clues About Human Sacrifices at Ancient Peruvian Temple

Evidence suggests the Moche ritually slaughtered war captives.

Human-sacrifice rituals at an ancient Moche temple in Peru likely featured the killing of war captives from distant valleys, according to an analysis of bones and teeth at the site.

The human remains—mutilated, dismembered, and buried in pits—help explain territorial struggles among the Moche, who ruled Peru's arid coast from around 100 A.D. to 850 A.D.

Debate among scholars over Moche human sacrifices has centered on the question of whether they were ritual killings of elites or of war prisoners, says archaeologist John Verano of Tulane University in New Orleans, one of the authors of the report, available online and in an upcoming issue of Journal of Archaeological Science.

"They look like war captives," Verano concludes, pointing to the study's bone chemistry results, which suggest that sacrifice victims came from far away in the late days of the Moche empire.

Appeasing the Gods

The Moche left behind distinctive pottery, irrigation works, and giant adobe mounds, some adorned with murals depicting war captives.

Among the largest-known Moche ruins is the brick mound site of Huacas de Moche, located near the modern-day city of Trujillo, Peru. The mound consists of three platforms connected by corridors, plazas, and temples.

Roughly 70 sacrifice victims have been found there so far—an indication of frequent human offerings. That alone suggests the slaughter of captured warriors rather than rare killings of elites to appease the gods in religious rituals, Verano says. The victims were killed, displayed, and later swept into pits.

"You don't deny a proper burial, deflesh, mutilate, and turn your elites' bones into trophies as they did [at Huacas de Moche]," says Verano, whose work has been partly supported by National Geographic Society grants. "You don't make a drinking mug out of your elite [ruler's] skull."

Sacrifice ceremonies are depicted in Moche artwork, often showing the killing of bound, naked men. Priests and priestesses are portrayed offering goblets filled with the victims' blood to supernatural beings.

The sacrifice victims' bones were then left for vultures.

Victims From Far Away

The new report is the result of work on the remains of 34 people, some buried in neatly ordered graves and others in burial pits, the latter including young men with their throats slit and bones dismembered.

The chief author of the report, J. Marla Toyne of the University of Central Florida in Orlando, led efforts to analyze oxygen isotopes in the remains of the dead.

The water that people drink leaves specific oxygen traces in bones and teeth, which can help determine where victims lived, both in infancy and in the last decade of their lives. In the case of the Huaca de Moche burials, the male elite—buried in neat graves—were all locals who drank the local river water.

A Long-Term Shift

In the heyday of Huacas de Moche, around 600 A.D., perhaps 25,000 people lived there. Two large temples, the Huaca de la Luna (Temple of the Moon) and the Huaca del Sol (Temple of the Sun), sat atop the mound.

"Who you are choosing to kill, who you are choosing to sacrifice, says a lot about how you see other people," Toyne says. "We are seeing a long-term shift in the origins of sacrifice victims to farther and farther away."

For the past two decades, archaeologists have suspected that some Moche states pursued empire-building along the Andean coast, says Peruvian Ministry of Culture archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo Butters, who was not part of the study team.

"The Southern Moche, based in the Huacas de Moche, seem to have been the truly expansionist ones," he wrote by email. "Marla Toyne's research proves this with isotopic information."

Game of Thrones

When Huacas de Moche was first discovered 50 years ago, archaeologists thought that it was the capital of a long-standing Moche empire rather than a city that had expanded its geographic dominance over time.

The new study suggests that Moche centers vied with each other for power and resources, which likely led to warfare. The battles led to the taking of captives, and it seems that captives were slain in sacrifice ceremonies.

Another intriguing result of the bone analysis is that elite women buried at the temples also appear to have largely come from elsewhere.

That points to a "patrilocal" system for the Moche, suggesting that they traded "princess brides" between centers, Verano says. "Not so different from now in some places."

Overall, the findings are updating the view of the enigmatic Moche, who didn't leave behind records as detailed as those of contemporaries such as the Maya of Central America.

"We have to do a lot of careful detective work, still," says Verano, who has been part of excavation work at Huaca de Moches for more than a decade.

Vergano, Dan. 2014. “New Clues About Human Sacrifices at Ancient Peruvian Temple”. National Geographic News. Posted: November 19, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Sex of Speaker Affects Listener Language Processing

Whether we process language we hear without regard to anything about the speaker is a longstanding scientific debate. But it wasn't until University of Kansas scientists set up an experiment showing that the sex of a speaker affected how quickly listeners identified words grammatically that there was evidence that even higher-level processes are affected by the speaker.

Based on the fact that Spanish words have a grammatical gender -- words ending in "o" are typically masculine and in "a" are typically feminine -- the researchers showed that the sex of a speaker affected how fast and accurately listeners could identify a list of Spanish words as masculine or feminine. When there was a mismatch between the sex of the speaker and the gender of the word, listeners slowed down in identifying the word grammatically and were less accurate. Both the speakers and listeners were native Spanish speakers.

Grammar and syntax have been thought for decades to be automatic and untouchable by other brain processes, said Michael Vitevitch, KU professor of psychology. Everything else -- the sex of the speaker, their dialect, etc. -- is stripped away as our brains process the sound signal of a word and store it as an abstract form. This is the abstractionist model of how we store words in memory championed by well-known cognitive scientist, linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky and his followers.

An alternate school of thought conceives of our brains processing words using exemplars containing and indexing information about both the word and the speaker.

"Our study shows that all that other information does influence not just word recognition processing, but higher-level processes associated with grammar," said Vitevitch.

Vitevitch said that while linguists and psychologists have debated whether memory is abstract or exemplar, he believes that there is evidence for both. "We didn't evolve to be efficient. We evolved to get the job done," he said. "We need both systems."

The study was published in in the journal PLOS ONE on Nov. 13.

Science Daily. 2014. “Sex of Speaker Affects Listener Language Processing”. Science Daily. Posted: November 19, 2013. Available online:

Friday, January 10, 2014

The shaman's-eye view: A Yanomami verdict on us

In The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami shaman, Davi Kopenawa looks from the other side of the anthropological lens – and the result is a literary treasure

STORIES are quilts. They are patches of brightness sewn together by narratives. And as with a quilt, each patch is chosen, not random. No two people will make the same quilt or tell the same story, even if they choose the same material.

So it is with The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami shaman, one of the first and best autobiographical narratives by an indigenous lowland Amazonian. It is the result of a collaboration between French anthropologist Bruce Albert, who worked among the Yanomami for 38 years, and Davi Kopenawa, a shaman who became spokesman for all Amazonians through his work with indigenous-rights organisation Survival International. Albert wrote the introduction and the conclusion; the rest is Kopenawa, translated.

Each offers his perspective, but the central story is Kopenawa's, his personal history, the philosophy and spirituality of the Yanomami, and his view of the outsiders who have both attacked and celebrated his people, in Brazil, the US and Europe: the "white people".

One interpretation of the book is that it is little more than 600-plus pages praising superstition, interspersed with lengthy, mistaken condemnation of modern societies. But this misses the main point: all descriptions of other peoples will be affected by how the writer's perspective was formed within their own society, simultaneously full of truth and rife with misunderstanding, wrong focus, or attempts – conscious or unconscious – to impose the author's beliefs.

Kopenawa labels whites as "fierce people" with deliberate irony, playing on the label applied to the Yanomami by some anthropologists, the best known of whom is Napoleon Chagnon. His book about the Yanomami, The Fierce People, is perhaps the bestselling anthropological book of all time. His work has been attacked by Survival International for promoting the idea that the Yanomami are more violent than whites, a view that has informed the work of other academics.

Kopenawa makes it clear that the Yanomami revenge fights are nothing compared with whites' mastery of destruction, which dwarfs anything the world has seen. So he rejects the label "war" as a description of his people's violence, saying that they fight over "funerary urns" – the desire to avenge loved ones killed by the sorcery and violence of others.

You may not like the way he portrays whites because, surely, we are not like that? Yet Kopenawa bases his interpretation on personal experience, training and observations – no different from any anthropologist. And the story that emerges of our people is unpleasant. Even when he gets us wrong, The Falling Sky teaches us that it hurts to read partial truths about one's society from the pen of a largely unsympathetic observer. Just as it hurts the Yanomami. Anthropologists and travel writers, take note.

Yet ironically, the fame of the Yanomami and the interest this book is generating are partly due to anthropologists like Chagnon and their views. Kopenawa condemns the whites who "...continue to lie about us by saying: 'The Yanomami are fierce. All they think about is warring and stealing women. They are dangerous!' Such words are our enemies and we detest them."

The effect whites had on him as a child is more complex, though. "If the white people hadn't appeared... I would probably also have become a warrior and would have arrowed other Yanomami in anger when I wanted revenge. I have thought to do it. I always contained my evil thoughts... and stayed quiet by thinking of the white people. I would tell myself: 'If I arrow one of us, those who covet our forest will say I am evil and devoid of wisdom... they are the ones who kill us with their diseases and shotguns. And it is against them... I must direct my anger today!"

Fierceness is indeed a trait of the Yanomami, one that comes from the ancestor spirit Arowë, Kopenawa tells us. But so too are gentleness, hard work, love of family, deep philosophical thought, fun, and more. Your quilt will look different depending on which patch – the one for fierceness, understanding of nature, or love of family – you sew in the centre. None of the quilts is false: each shows the variety of human perceptions and why no quilt, story or book should be taken as "the truth". The true contribution of this book is to show us the richness of the Yanomami spirit and culture through the eyes of a respected leader of the community.

The author's name, too, speaks volumes. "Davi" is the name the whites gave him. Kopenawa is his Yanomami name, referring to the vicious kopena wasps found in the area, while the "omamo" part of Yanomamo – as it is sometimes transliterated – means "sons of God". The book's title, The Falling Sky, is also significant. It refers both to the periodic destruction of the world in Yanomami lore, and to the threat of final destruction if the "white man" does not adopt more of the Yanomami values.

The book is a mix of autobiography, history, personal philosophy, and cultural criticism of whites for their destruction of the world, worship of the material, and lack of spirituality and vitality. It extols the virtues of Yanomami life and culture and their deity, Omama, placing him at the foundation not only of their culture but of white culture, too. Tellingly, Kopenawa's first impression of Stonehenge, which served a society that some would label truly fierce, was that it was most likely built by and dwelt in by Omama.

Kopenawa's life began when he "fell on the ground from the vagina of a Yanomami woman". Pride in the lack of euphemism and in his origins is evident in this phrase. He has no desire to pretend he is like a white man, though he enjoys being among them. And the book is not only finely detailed and full of challenging philosophical points, it also contains much humour. Take Kopenawa's reaction on seeing the large populations of Brazilian cities: "White people must never stop copulating."

More darkly, he reminds us what it is like to be on "the other side" – to be missionised, anthropologised, and regulated by government. These are not pleasant experiences. His story is particularly pointed when he describes the ham-fistedness of Brazilian state employees. He singles out the officious attitudes of the FUNAI, the body that makes and carries out policy relating to indigenous peoples.

The book is also in part the story of anthropologist Bruce Albert. His narrative is clear and compelling as the story of an anthropologist working among a particular people in the Amazon. But the presence of a second narrative dilutes Kopenawa's story, and overall the book would have been stronger without it – though it would, no doubt, make an excellent stand-alone book.

Ultimately, it is Kopenawa's voice that tells us who he is, who his people are, and who we are to them. It is complex and nuanced; I'd go so far as to call The Falling Skya literary treasure: invaluable as academic reading, but also a must for anyone who wants to understand more of the diverse beauty and wonder of existence.

Everett, Daniel L. 2014. “The shaman's-eye view: A Yanomami verdict on us”. New Scientist. Posted: November 18, 2013. Available online: