Friday, February 28, 2014

Do cultural differences determine outcome of our activities?

Not necessarily, say researchers

A generally held assumption in various academic disciplines is that the way people perform various everyday activities – walking, swimming, carrying loads, etc. – is culturally determined. But, the question remains: do these cultural characteristics, when they affect various motor skills, also determine the results of people's efforts?

A study involving an original collaboration between archaeology, ethnology and human movement sciences indicates that different cultural approaches to various tasks do not necessarily produce different results.

These findings, for example, represent a cautionary tale for archaeologists, demonstrating that the cultural identity of a social group cannot be reduced to the shape of a ceramic artefact. Therefore, the morphological (shape) analysis of ancient ceramics needs to be complemented with other analyses for material content and markings.

The study conducted by researchers from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and from France and Australia has been published in the American journal PLoS One. The researchers were Dr. Leore Grosman and Dr. Enore Gandon of the Computerized Archaeology Laboratory at the Institute of Archaeology, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Dr. Reinoud J. Bootsma of the Institute of Movement Sciences of the University of Aix-Marseille, France; and Dr. John A. Endler of the Center for Integrative Ecology, Deakin University, Australia.

In their collaborative work, the researchers focused on pottery wheel-throwing in French and Indian cultural settings. Field experiments were set up with expert potters in workshops in central France (Bourgogne) and north India (Uttar Pradesh). All participants (nine French and six Indian) were invited to reproduce a common model shape (a sphere) with two different masses of clay.

The differing hand positions and movements used by the potters when shaping the pots were identified and recorded. In addition, the vessels produced were geometrically characterized as to their degree of similarity. As expected, results revealed a cultural influence on the operational aspects of the potters' motor skill. From the total of 62 different hand positions identified, 44% were culture-specific (only French or Indian) and only 27% were shared across cultures. Twenty-nine percent were individual.

In other words, most of the hand positions were cultural and the rest were either cross-cultural or individual. Yet, the large cultural differences in hand positions used did not give rise to noticeable differences in the shapes of the vessels produced. Hence, for the simple, spherical model selected, the culturally-specific motor traditions of the French and Indian potters gave rise to an equivalent outcome that was largely unified in shape.

In undertaking their novel approach, the researchers are convinced that they have opened up an innovative way to assess the cultural aspect of human motor skills, introducing in the process a cautionary note in addressing the characterization of these skills.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Do cultural differences determine outcome of our activities?”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 14, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, February 27, 2014

London skulls reveal gruesome evidence of Roman head hunters

Improved forensic techniques have shed new light on 39 skulls excavated near Museum of London in 1988

Scores of skulls excavated in the heart of London have provided the first gruesome evidence of Roman head hunters operating in Britain, gathering up the heads of executed enemies or fallen gladiators from the nearby amphitheatre, and exposing them for years in open pits.

"It is not a pretty picture," Rebecca Redfern, from the centre for human bioarchaeology at the museum of London, said. "At least one of the skulls shows evidence of being chewed at by dogs, so it was still fleshed when it was lying in the open."

"They come from a peculiar area by the Walbrook stream, which was a site for burials and a centre of ritual activity – but also very much in use for more mundane pursuits. We have evidence of lots of shoe making, so you have to think of the cobbler working yards from these open pits, with the dog chewing away – really not nice."

"We believe that some of the heads may be people who were killed in the amphitheatre. Decapitation was a way of finishing off gladiators, but not everyone who died in the Roman amphitheatre was a gladiator, it was where common criminals were executed, or sometimes for entertainment you'd give two of them swords and have them kill one another. Other heads may have been brought back by soldiers from skirmishes, probably on the Hadrian or Antonine walls – again, it would have taken weeks to bring them back, so not a nice process."

The 39 skulls were excavated at London Wall almost within sight of the Museum of London in 1988, and deposited at the museum, but the scientists have only recently applied improved forensic techniques to them. Redfern and her colleague Heather Bonney, from the Earth Sciences Department of the Natural History Museum, publish their results for the first time this week in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The tests revealed that almost all the skulls are of adult males – some could not be identified – and most bear scars and slash marks of many wounds inflicted around the time of death. Many also have multiple healed wounds, one with the shattered cheek bone typical of a violent punch in the face, showing their lives were not tranquil. On some there is clear evidence of decapitation with a sword: possibly all were killed in that way, but if the fatal blow was through the neck the proof has vanished with the rest of their bodies.

"Whether they died in the amphitheatre or in battle, decapitation with a sword is a very efficient way of ending a life – somebody very much wanted these people dead," Redfern said.

The evidence suggests that they were left for years decomposing in the open pits.

"There is none of the fracturing you'd expect if they'd been put on spikes, so it looks as if they were just set down and left – though of course you could have had a nice shelf to display them on."

There is evidence of head taking from across the Roman empire, including Trajan's column in Rome which shows clean shaven Roman soldiers presenting bearded barbarian heads as trophies to the emperor. Heads are also shown being held up in triumph on tomb stones of cavalry officers in Britain and elsewhere. Although pits of body parts have been found in Britain, the London skulls, deposited over several decades, are an unprecedented find from the Roman capital.

Hundreds of skulls have been found for centuries along the course of the long vanished Walbrook – most recently by the team working on the new Crossrail station just outside Liverpool Street station.

They have often been interpreted either as washed out of Roman cemeteries, or as victims of Boudicca's revolution, when the East Anglican leader of the Icenii tribe swept south to London in AD60, torching Roman settlements and towns.

However the work of Redfern and Bonney may force archaeologists to have another look at the skull finds.

The London Wall skulls are far too late for Boudicca: they have been dated to the 2nd century AD, a time of peace, prosperity and expansion for the Roman city.

"These were all young men, very untypical of what we usually find in Roman burials, where we tend to get the very young and the old," Redfern said.

"Most people in second century London lived peaceful quiet lives – but as we now know, not everyone. This is a glimpse into the very dark side of Roman life."

Kennedy, Maev. 2014. “London skulls reveal gruesome evidence of Roman head hunters”. The Guardian. Posted: January 15, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

'Lost' Remains of Martyred Georgian Queen Unearthed

The remains of a woman kept in an Indian church likely belong to an ancient queen executed about 400 years ago, a new DNA analysis suggests.

The DNA analysis suggests the remains are those of Queen Ketevan, an ancient Georgian queen who was executed for refusing to become a member of a powerful Persian ruler's harem. The findings are detailed in the January issue of the journal Mitochondrion.

Ketevan was the Queen of Kakheti, a kingdom in Georgia, in the 1600s. After her husband the king was killed, the Persian Ruler, Shah Abbas I, besieged the kingdom.

"Shah Abbas I led an army to conquer the Georgian kingdom and took Queen Ketevan as prisoner," said study co-author Niraj Rai, a researcher at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, India.

Queen Ketevan languished in Shiraz, Iran, for about a decade. But in 1624, Shah Abbas asked the queen to convert to Islam from Christianity and join his harem. She refused, and he had her tortured, then executed on Sept. 22, 1624. Ketevan the Martyr was canonized as a saint by the Georgian Orthodox Church shortly after.

Missing relics

Before her death, Queen Ketevan had befriended two Augustinian friars who became devoted to her. Legend had it that, in 1627, the two friars secretly dug up her remains and smuggled them out of the country. An ancient Portuguese document suggested her bones were held in a black sarcophagus kept in the window of the St. Augustinian Convent in Goa, India.

But the centuries had not been kind to the church: Part of the convent had collapsed and many valuables had been sold off in the intervening centuries. Early attempts to find her remains failed.

But starting in 2004, Rai and colleagues excavated an area they believed contained the remains and found a broken arm bone and two other bone fragments, as well as pieces of black boxes.

Rare lineage

To find out if the bones belonged to the martyred queen, the researchers extracted mitochondrial DNA, or DNA found only in the cytoplasm of an egg that is passed on through the maternal line.

The arm bone once belonged to a female with a genetic lineage, or haplogroup, known as U1b, the analysis showed. In a survey of 22,000 people from the Indian subcontinent, the researchers found none with U1b lineage. By contrast, the lineage was fairly common in a sample of 30 people from Georgia.

The other two bones showed evidence they were part of genetic lineages common in India, which supported documents suggesting the queen's relics were stored in a room with the bones of two local friars.

"The complete absence of haplogroup U1b in the Indian subcontinent and its presence in high-to-moderate frequency in the Georgia and adjoining regions, provide the first genetic evidence for the [arm bone] sample being a relic of Saint Queen Ketevan of Georgia," Rai told LiveScience.

The study is well done and honest, Jean-Jacques Cassiman, a geneticist at the University of Leuven in Belgium who was not involved in the study, wrote in an email.

"It is a bone presumed to be of the queen and will remain so until its DNA can be compared to that of preferably living relatives and if not available dead relatives," Cassiman said, referring to nuclear DNA that is in all the body's cells.

But until that point, the conclusion is based on statistics. Those statistics strengthen the idea that the bone belongs to St. Ketevan, but aren't strong enough to positively identify the remnant, Cassiman said. 

Ghose, Tia. 2014. “'Lost' Remains of Martyred Georgian Queen Unearthed”. Live Science. Posted: January 10, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Religion forms buffer against work stress

Having a religion could be the key to avoiding work stress as a study found those with a faith are less anxious in the work place, healthier and less likely to take sick days.

Religion is the answer to combating work stress because it provides a "buffer against strains" of modern life, research has claimed.

Dr Roxane Gervais, a senior psychologist at the Health and Safety Laboratory in Stockport, surveyed employees to find out how content they were with their working lives.

The study concluded that employees who are more actively religious are more likely to report low levels of anxiety, depression and fatigue and also higher presence of meaning in life, that is feeling that their lives have meaning.

Workers said that attending religious services connects them to a higher being as well as makes them feel better about themselves.

Dr Gervais said: “As the pace of work and life accelerates, people long for meaning, and the younger generation in particular is looking for more than just a big pay cheque at the end of the month.

“My research shows that religiosity in the workplace may act as a resource, making people more resilient to cope with the many challenges of working life. Such personal beliefs could be very helpful not only for employees, but also for employers providing people with a buffer zone.

“We should hence encourage employers to accommodate, where possible, employees’ religious beliefs while at work, and not shy away from the issue.”

These findings are being presented today (THURS) at the Annual Conference of the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology’s in Brighton.

Previous studies have shown that companies who accommodated workers beliefs improved morale, staff retention and loyalty.

The report also found that those who regularly practiced religion were more likely to have healthier lifestyles and so took fewer sick days.

Dr Gervais added: “Religiosity seemed to assist individuals in gaining better well-being and using more appropriate coping mechanisms.”

Knapton, Sarah. 2014. “Religion forms buffer against work stress”. The Telegraph. Posted: January 9, 2014. Available online:

Monday, February 24, 2014

Babies Know What Makes a Friend

Babies as young as 9 months old know that friends usually have similar interests, new research suggests.

The new study, published online January in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, shows that babies who are too young to talk still have a set of abstract expectations about the social world.

"Nine-month-old infants are paying attention to other people's relationships," said study co-author Amanda Woodward, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago. "Infants are able to watch two strangers interact in the movie and then make inferences about whether those two people are likely to be friends," said Woodward, referring to a movie showed to the babies during the experiment.

Baby brainiacs

Behind their wide-eyed, innocent facades, babies possess a surprising grasp of how the world works. Infants are born wired with a primitive number sense, have an innate grasp of physics and even know that living organisms should have guts.

They also have expectations about people's interactions. From a young age, babies know that might-makes-right, and want justice meted out to wrongdoers. By a year-and-a-half, many little ones can guess what people are thinking.

But researchers didn't know what babies knew or thought about friendship. Drawing from an assumption many adults hold — that friends have similar interests — Woodward and her colleagues wanted to see whether babies also had a buddies-think-alike intuition.

The researchers had 64 nine-month-olds watch two videos of two actors eating a mystery food from two differently colored containers. Sometimes the actors smiled and said, "Ooh, I like it," or made faces of disgust and said, "Eww, I don't like that." (The team chose to use food, because it plays a central role in many social gatherings with family and friends.)

The two actors either had similar food preferences or opposing ones.

Afterward, the tots watched a video of the two people meeting and either being friendly to one another or giving each other the cold shoulder.

It's all in the gaze

Though infants can't say what they're thinking, they reveal their thoughts by what they pay attention to, Woodward told LiveScience. "When they see events that are inconsistent or unexpected, they tend to look at them longer," she said.

The youngsters stared longer at videos of people with opposing views who were friendly to each other, suggesting the babies expected the two people who disagreed on food to be foes. Infants also stared longer at unfriendly people who still liked the same foods.

The findings suggest that even at a young age, babies expect people with similar likes and dislikes to be friends, and those who disagree to be unfriendly.

Babies may be wired to expect this behavior, Woodward said.

In their short lives, "babies probably didn't learn this expectation from experience," Woodward said. "It's some expectation that they are in some way prepared to have."

Ghose, Tia. 2014. “Babies Know What Makes a Friend”. Live Science. Posted: January 9, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Ancient Greeks Used Portable Grills at Their Picnics

The ancient Mycenaeans have a reputation as palace-builders and warriors, but they were also quite sophisticated cooks. More than 3,000 years ago, they used portable grill pits to make souvlaki and non-stick pans to make bread, new cooking experiments suggest.

The Mycenaean civilization, which was the backdrop for Homer's "Odyssey" and "Iliad," thrived in Greece during the late Bronze Age from around 1700 B.C. until the society mysteriously collapsed around 1200 B.C. The Mycenaeans left behind amazing palaces and gold-littered tombs at sites like Pylos and Mycenae, but in these places, archaeologists also have found less glamorous artifacts, such as souvlaki trays and griddles made from gritty clays.

It wasn't clear how these two types of pans were used, said Julie Hruby of Dartmouth College, presenting her research at the Archaeological Institute of America's annual meeting here on Saturday (Jan. 4).

"We don't have any recipes," Hruby told LiveScience. "What we do have are tablets that talk about provisions for feasts, so we have some idea of what the ingredients might have been, but in terms of understanding how people cooked, the cooking pots are really our best bet."

The souvlaki trays were rectangular ceramic pans that sat underneath skewers of meat. Scientists weren't sure whether these trays would have been placed directly over a fire, catching fat drippings from the meat, or if the pans would have held hot coals like a portable barbeque pit. The round griddles, meanwhile, had one smooth side and one side covered with tiny holes, and archaeologists have debated which side would have been facing up during cooking.

To solve these culinary mysteries, Hruby and ceramicist Connie Podleski, of the Oregon College of Art and Craft, mixed American clays to mimic Mycenaean clay and created two griddles and two souvlaki trays in the ancient style. With their replica coarsewares, they tried to cook meat and bread.

Hruby and Podleski found that the souvlaki trays were too thick to transfer heat when placed over a fire pit, resulting in a pretty raw meal; placing the coals inside the tray was a much more effective cooking method.

"We should probably envision these as portable cooking devices — perhaps used during Mycenaean picnics," Hruby said.

As for the griddles, bread was more likely to stick when it was cooked on the smooth side of the pan. The holes, however, seemed to be an ancient non-sticking technology, ensuring that oil spread quite evenly over the griddle.

Lowly cooking pots were often overlooked, or even thrown out, during early excavations at Mycenaean sites in the 20th century, but researchers are starting to pay more attention to these vessels to glean a full picture of ancient lifestyles.

As for who was using the souvlaki trays and griddles, Hruby says it was likely chefs cooking for the Mycenaean ruling class.

"They're coming from elite structures, but I doubt very much that the elites were doing their own cooking," Hruby told LiveScience. "There are cooks mentioned in the Linear B [a Mycenaean syllabic script] record who have that as a profession — that's their job — so we should envision professional cooks using these."

Gannon, Megan. 2014. “Ancient Greeks Used Portable Grills at Their Picnics”. Live Science. Posted: January 8, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Ancient Syrian Trade Routes Recreated with Google Earth

Google Earth may be a fun way to bring the far reaches of the present-day globe to people's fingertips, but archaeologists are now using the high-tech software to recreate maps of ancient civilizations. The endeavor is opening a window for researchers to the political and geographical changes that have shaped history.

Kristina Neumann, a doctoral candidate in the department of classics at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio, used Google Earth to track trade around the ancient city of Antioch, located in present-day southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, at the beginning of its takeover by the Roman Empire in 64 B.C. Neumann found the use of Antioch's civic coins was more widespread than was previously thought, suggesting the city had developed broad political authority within the region before being absorbed into the Roman Empire.

Neumann used the movement of ancient coins to track political relationships between cities, since authorities typically decided which foreign currencies were accepted in commerce. As such, if coins from Antioch were prevalent in a neighboring city, the two governments likely shared a political agreement, Neumann explained.

"I trace the process of change by working with historical proxies — in this case, coins," she said in a statement. "I created my own database from previously published excavation reports and lists of coin hoards, and imported it to Google Earth. My criteria are so detailed that I can see all the coins for a particular emperor or of a particular material."

Neumann tracked where different coins were found, and collected information on when they were minted and under whose authority. Using Google Earth, she was able to plot the flow of coins across different historical periods, creating a visual representation of Antioch's political reach.

"I'm very interested in the idea of an empire — physical empires, but also empires similar to what America has with its cultural and informational empires, and the idea of globalization," Neumann said. "My bigger question is, 'How do you get one empire which absorbs a lot of different people and yet lasts so long? How is stability achieved even with vast diversity?' I think that can speak to today's society with the culture changes we're seeing."

Antioch's civic coins were particularly abundant along a known trade route but were also used more widely among neighboring cities than was previously thought, Neumann found. Her maps effectively followed the contraction of Antioch's political authority as the ancient city was eventually integrated into the Roman Empire.

Neumann hopes this work will encourage historians and archaeologists to think of new ways to use technology for research.

"I'm trying to help historians think outside the box," she said. "There's a huge movement in the digital humanities in general, and this research speaks to that. Using tools such as Google Earth to visualize the ancient world could also have ramifications for how we look at data today."

Neumann presented her findings at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, held Jan. 2-5 in Chicago.

Chow, Denise. 2014. “Ancient Syrian Trade Routes Recreated with Google Earth”. Live Science. Posted: January 7, 2014. Available online:

Friday, February 21, 2014

Texas A&M Prof Hoping To Unlock Secrets Of Alcatraz

A Texas A&M University researcher is part of a team trying to uncover long-lost secrets in one of the country’s most infamous sites – Alcatraz Island.

Mark Everett, professor of geology and geophysics, has joined with colleagues from California’s Chico State University and the National Parks Service to see what is beneath layers of soil and concrete on Alcatraz, located in San Francisco Bay.  At various times, the island has been home to the oldest operating lighthouse on the West Coast, a military fortification, a military prison and a federal prison.

Everett and the team are exploring the Civil War connections to Alcatraz (which is derived from the Spanish word for pelican) and how the island may contain hidden tunnels and chambers about 12 to 15 feet below the recreation yard and parade ground of the prison.

“We know from records and drawings that Alcatraz, at one time called Fortress Alcatraz, has been heavily fortified,” Everett explains.

“At one time, it had 105 cannons that were to be used to protect the Bay area.  We know that the soldiers constructed what was called a ‘caponier,’ a large concrete and brick structure that extended outward so that if invaded, you could fire from different angles.

“We also know that the U.S. Army built underground tunnels and embankments, and we believe we have found the remains of several of these using ground-penetrating radar.”

Everett says the team has located them beneath the recreation yard and parade ground built during the penitentiary era on Alcatraz’ 22 acres.

Because of its location away from the mainland and the cold waters surrounding it, Alcatraz was used to house Civil War prisoners as early as 1861, and by 1868 it was designated as a long-term detention facility to hold military prisoners.

It became a Federal Bureau of Prisons facility in 1933 and was used to house some of the nation’s most famous criminals. Among the many convicts who called the island home were George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Mickey Cohen, Robert Stroud, known as the “Birdman of Alcatraz,” and Al Capone.

At least 14 escape attempts were made by dozens of prisoners, but it is believed none were successful during the prison’s 29-year existence.  Due to its deterioration and large upkeep (it cost more than three times to maintain compared to other federal prisons), then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy closed Alcatraz on March 21, 1963.

“One of the big problems that always plagued Alcatraz was water.  It had none, and water had to be brought in to fill a water tower on the grounds,” Everett says. “Water was always an issue with the facility.

“We do believe there are considerable structures 12 feet or so under the surface that are the original fortifications and that these were covered over through the years for prison use. It’s possible there could be some of the original weapons and arms down there, too.

“We hope to return next fall to learn what exactly is down there, and it would be nice if the National Park Service is able to could recover some of it for the benefit of the general public.  Alcatraz has had a very colorful past, and there could be some great history down there.”

To view a video about the project;


Tamu Times. 2014. “Texas A&M Prof Hoping To Unlock Secrets Of Alcatraz”. Tamu Times. Posted: January 7, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, February 20, 2014

'Ardi' skull reveals links to human lineage

The new work expands the catalogue of anatomical similarities linking humans, Australopithecus, and Ardipithecus on the tree of life

One of the most hotly debated issues in current human origins research focuses on how the 4.4 million-year-old African species Ardipithecus ramidus is related to the human lineage. "Ardi" was an unusual primate. Though it possessed a tiny brain and a grasping big toe used for clambering in the trees, it had small, humanlike canine teeth and an upper pelvis modified for bipedal walking on the ground.

Scientists disagree about where this mixture of features positions Ardipithecus ramidus on the tree of human and ape relationships. Was Ardi an ape with a few humanlike features retained from an ancestor near in time (6 and 8 million years ago, according to DNA evidence) to the split between the chimpanzee and human lines? Or was it a true relative of the human line that had yet to shed many signs of its remote tree-dwelling ancestry?

New research led by ASU paleoanthropologist William Kimbel confirms Ardi's close evolutionary relationship to humans. Kimbel and his collaborators turned to the underside (or base) of a beautifully preserved partial cranium of Ardi. Their study revealed a pattern of similarity that links Ardi to Australopithecus and modern humans and but not to apes.

The research appears in the January 6, 2014, online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Kimbel is director of the ASU Institute of Human Origins, a research center of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. Joining ASU's Kimbel as co-authors are Gen Suwa (University of Tokyo Museum), Berhane Asfaw (Rift Valley Research Service, Addis Ababa), Yoel Rak (Tel Aviv University), and Tim White (University of California at Berkeley).

White's field-research team has been recovering fossil remains of Ardipithecus ramidus in the Middle Awash Research area, Ethiopia, since the 1990s. The most recent study of the Ardi skull, led by Suwa, was published in Science in 2009, whose work (with the Middle Awash team) first revealed humanlike aspects of its base. Kimbel co-leads the team that recovered the earliest known Australopithecus skulls from the Hadar site, home of the "Lucy" skeleton, in Ethiopia.

"Given the very tiny size of the Ardi skull, the similarity of its cranial base to a human's is astonishing," says Kimbel.

The cranial base is a valuable resource for studying phylogenetic, or natural evolutionary relationships, because its anatomical complexity and association with the brain, posture, and chewing system have provided numerous opportunities for adaptive evolution over time. The human cranial base, accordingly, differs profoundly from that of apes and other primates.

In humans, the structures marking the articulation of the spine with the skull are more forwardly located than in apes, the base is shorter from front to back, and the openings on each side for passage of blood vessels and nerves are more widely separated.

These shape differences affect the way the bones are arranged on the skull base such that it is fairly easy to tell apart even isolated fragments of ape and human basicrania.

Ardi's cranial base shows the distinguishing features that separate humans and Australopithecus from the apes. Kimbel's earlier research (with collaborator Rak) had shown that these human peculiarities were present in the earliest known Australopithecus skulls by 3.4 million years ago.

The new work expands the catalogue of anatomical similarities linking humans, Australopithecus, and Ardipithecus on the tree of life and shows that the human cranial base pattern is at least a million years older than Lucy's species, A. Afarensis.

Paleoanthropologists generally fall into one of two camps on the cause of evolutionary changes in the human cranial base. Was it the adoption of upright posture and bipedality causing a shift in the poise of the head on the vertebral column? If so, does the humanlike cranial base of Ar. ramidus confirm postcranial evidence for partial bipedality in this species? Or, do the changes tell us about the shape of the brain (and of the base on which it sits), perhaps an early sign of brain reorganization in the human lineage? Both alternatives will need to be re-evaluated in light of the finding that Ardi does indeed appear to be more closely related to humans than to chimpanzees.

"The Ardi cranial base fills some important gaps in our understanding of human evolution above the neck," adds Kimbel. "But it opens up a host of new questions…just as it should!"

EurekAlert. 2014. “'Ardi' skull reveals links to human lineage”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 6, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Unique Neolithic child cemetery found in Egypt

A burial ground containing the remains of dozens of children and infants has been uncovered in Egypt by a Polish team led by Prof. J Kabaciński of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology in Poznan.

Deep in the desert region of Gebel Ramlah, located near the southern border of Egypt, about 140 km west of Abu Simbel, the archaeologists examined a unique necropolis dated to around 6500 years.

To date, there are no known cemeteries in the Western Desert intended almost exclusively for children, infants and foetuses – some of these fragile and poignant remains were found during recent excavations.

“In several cases, newborns were buried along with an adult, probably representing the death during childbirth of the mother. In one case we were able to accurately determine the age of the mother – the woman was only 14 years old “- explained Kabaciński.

Graves in the cemetery were relatively small and shallow and could not have been visible on the surface. However, in the case of the child mother burial, archaeologists speculate that there was a clearly visible ground structure, as evidenced by the remains of kerb stones, delineating the extent of the burial chamber.

No formalised layout

In contrast to other known cemeteries in the area of ​​Gebel Ramlah, on this site the researchers were not able to see any formalised structure to the layout of the site. The state of preservation of skeletal material was poor and most survived only as skull or fragments of the long bones.

Reddish ochre

All the graves found contained only a few modest grave goods. Every burial pit contained lumps of reddish ochre which the archaeologists consider to being an important and integral part of their belief system, hence the inclusion in every grave. In a few graves the archaeologists discovered bracelets made of ivory or shells imported from the Red Sea.

The researchers took numerous samples of genetic material from which it is hoped after the analysis, it will be possible to determine whether and what familial links united the interred individuals.

Adult burial ground

Scientists will also be given an opportunity to understand a broader picture of the Neolithic communities in the Western Desert. Next to this cemetery is another burial ground for adults, presumably from the same period. It will be the subject of research in the coming years.

Work in this area is part of an international mission, Combined Prehistoric Expedition Foundation (CPEF), which was initiated during the construction of the Aswan Dam.  The CPEF was created in 1962 to support long-term, multidisciplinary research at prehistoric archaeological localities along the Nile Valley and adjacent deserts. Research goals still include studying and recording the changes in  environment through time, the impact of these changes on human society, and changes in human behaviour over time.

Placing these finds into context, the expedition also boasts numerous successes including the discovery of the remarkable Neolithic astronomical observatory.

These studies have also provided arguments in favour of a close relationship between the population of the Nabata Playa in the Western Desert and the development of Pharaonic civilization along the Nile.

The current archaeological project is run by grant from the National Science Centre.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Unique Neolithic child cemetery found in Egypt”. Past Horizons. Posted: January 5, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Odors expressible in language, as long as you speak right language

It is widely believed that people are bad at naming odors. This has led researchers to suggest smell representations are simply not accessible to the language centers of the brain. But is this really so? Psychologist Asifa Majid from Radboud University Nijmegen and linguist Niclas Burenhult from Lund University Sweden find new evidence for smell language in the Malay Peninsula

The research appeared online in Cognition, 23 December 2013.

English speakers struggle to name odors. While there are words such as blue or purple to describe colors, nothing comparable exists to name odors. Even with familiar everyday odors, such as coffee, banana, and chocolate, English speakers only correctly name the smells around 50% of the time. This has led to the conclusion that smells defy words. Majid and Burenhult present new evidence that this is not true in all languages.


Majid and Burenhult conducted research with speakers of Jahai, a hunter-gatherer language spoken in the Malay Peninsula. In Jahai there are around a dozen different words to describe different qualities of smell. For example, ltpɨt is used to describe the smell of various flowers and ripe fruit, durian, perfume, soap, Aquillaria wood, bearcat, etc. Cŋɛs, another smell word, is used for the smell of petrol, smoke, bat droppings and bat caves, some species of millipede, root of wild ginger, etc. These terms refer to different odor qualities and are abstract, in the same way that blue and purple are abstract.

Odors and colors

Are Jahai speakers better at naming odors? To test this Majid and Burenhult presented Jahai speakers, and a matched set of English speakers, with the same set of colors and odors to name. Each participant was simply asked to say "What color is this?" or "What odor is this?." Responses were then compared on a number of measures, including length of response, type of response and speaker agreement in names. Majid and Burenhult found that Jahai speakers could name odors with the same conciseness and level of agreement as colors, but English speakers struggled to name odors. Jahai speakers overwhelmingly used abstract Jahai smell words to describe odors, whereas English speakers used mostly source-based descriptions (like a banana) or evaluative descriptions (that's disgusting).

Searching for words

English speakers grapple to describe smells. Their responses for odors were 5 times longer than their responses for colors. This is despite the fact that the smells used in the experiment were familiar to English speakers but not necessarily to the Jahai. For example, English speakers trying to name the smell of cinnamon said it was: spicy, sweet, bayberry, candy, Red Hot, smoky, edible, wine, potpourri, etc.

Studying other cultures

These results question the view that there is a biological limitation for our inability to name smells. Jahai speakers have an elaborate vocabulary for smells that they use with fluency. This means that the inability to name smells is a product of culture and not biology.

Science Daily. 2014. “Odors expressible in language, as long as you speak right language”. Science Daily. Posted: January 3, 2014. Available online:

Monday, February 17, 2014

Aztec offerings and skull rack victims found in Mexico City

As Mexico City extended it’s Metro system a further 25km, archaeologists were working in advance between October 2008 -August 2012. Among the burials, dwellings, statues and other exciting finds, something unique has come to light and captured the imagination of archaeologists and the public alike.

Unique ‘tzompantli‘ – skull rack

Four skulls oriented to the southwest, two male, one female and one canine, clearly formed part of a tzompantli (skull rack). This was a highlight of an investigation that yielded pre-Hispanic settlements including dwellings, stone slabs, sculptures, ceramics and an abundance of lithic material, as well as a hundred burials, mostly infants.

After some research was carried out the archaeologists  agreed the discovery of the skulls were part of a tzompantli dated to the Late Post Classic period (1350-1521 AD), where the remains of an incense burner was also found.

Uniquely, one of the skulls belonged to a canine, something which has never been found before in association with this type of altar. Dogs are often associated with funeral rites as they were used to accompany the dead on their way to the underworld.

Archaeologist María de Jesús Sánchez explained “We know that during the Conquest skulls of horses were placed in these structures, but not dogs”, referring to an account documented by the Spanish conquistadores who found the remains of captured soldiers as well as their horses displayed on a skull rack.  She concluded that,”we lack information, and perhaps dogs are associated with these tzompantlis shrines elsewhere and we have not yet found them. Currently there are only two known tzompantlis found in Mexico City, at Tlatelolco and the Templo Mayor. ”

Impaled on a wooden rod

Another of the skulls belonged to a woman aged between 18 and 22, who had cranial deformation and the two male skulls are aged between 25 and 35 years and the other around 35.

The skulls all have a hole through the temple, indicating they may have been impaled on a wooden rod which was placed on the tzompantli. However, at some point they have been removed  and remained only as an offering in that area.

The female skull is also significant, as tzompantlis were mainly used to display heads as trophies of war, and would normally have been made up of the severed heads of captives. The signs of cranial deformation indicate she was from an elite family, so her inclusion on a tzompantli is puzzling.

Other finds

The archaeologists also revealed evidence of prehispanic settlements as well as two sculpture and a abundance of type II and III Aztec ceramics. At one site they found over 63 burials including infants.

At the entrance to the Estrella Lomas station the skeletons of two adult individuals were found, one flexed (in a fetal position) the other individual was in a seated flexed position and was surrounded by offerings that included a basalt grinder, three bone flutes, two tripod bowls, and two Azteca type III bowls; both these burials are dated to circa 1500 CE. According to the physical anthropology analysis of the skeletons their teeth bear traces of a greenish blue pigment and there is also signs of cranial  deformation

Past Horizons. 2014. “Aztec offerings and skull rack victims found in Mexico City”. Past Horizons. Posted: January 2, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Finnish research team reveals how emotions are mapped in the body

Researchers Aalto University have revealed how emotions are experienced in the body

Researchers Aalto University have revealed how emotions are experienced in the body.

Emotions adjust our mental and also bodily states to cope with the challenges detected in the environment. These sensations arising from the bodily changes are an important feature of our emotional experiences. For example, anxiety may be experienced as pain in the chest, whereas falling in love may trigger warm, pleasurable sensations all over the body. New research from Aalto University reveals, how emotions are literally experienced through the body.

The researchers found that the most common emotions trigger strong bodily sensations, and the bodily maps of these sensations were topographically different for different emotions. The sensation patterns were, however, consistent across different West European and East Asian cultures, highlighting that emotions and their corresponding bodily sensation patterns have a biological basis.

Emotions adjust not only our mental, but also our bodily states. This way the prepare us to react swiftly to the dangers, but also to the opportunities such as pleasurable social interactions present in the environment. Awareness of the corresponding bodily changes may subsequently trigger the conscious emotional sensations, such as the feeling of happiness, tells assistant professor Lauri Nummenmaa from Aalto University.

The findings have major implications for our understanding of the functions of emotions and their bodily basis. On the other hand, the results help us to understand different emotional disorders and provide novel tools for their diagnosis.

The research was carried out on line, and over 700 individuals from Finland, Sweden and Taiwan took part in the study. The researchers induced different emotional states in their Finnish and Taiwanese participants. Subsequently the participants were shown with pictures of human bodies on a computer, and asked to colour the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Finnish research team reveals how emotions are mapped in the body”. EurekAlert. Posted: December 31, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, February 15, 2014

It's time to challenge the notion that there is only one way to speak English

Why do we persist in thinking that standard English is right, when it is spoken by only 15% of the British population? Linguistics-loving Harry Ritchie blames Noam Chomsky

Did you see that great documentary on linguistics the other night? What about that terrific series on Radio 4 about the Indo-European language family tree? Or that news report on language extinction? It is strange that none of those programmes happened, or has ever happened: it's not as if language is an arcane subject. Just as puzzling is the conspicuous lack of a properly informed book about language – either our own or language in general.

There is, of course, Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct – a bestseller that seems to have ticked the box for publishers and public alike as the book on linguistics. But The Language Instinct has a very specific agenda – to support Noam Chomsky's theories about our language skills being innate; other areas of linguistics are glimpsed, if at all, fuzzily in the background.

I'm not blaming Pinker. He ultimately failed to justify his title, but he did reach a keen, large audience with a well-written book fizzing with ideas and examples. I'm blaming someone else, the person who, inexplicably, doesn't exist – who should have written the book revealing how Pinker was so wrong and had a ding-dong with him on Newsnight; the ambitious, good-looking academic, who possibly had a spell in an indie band, with his or her own 13-part series about language on BBC2.

I began to appreciate how little we know about our own language when I studied grammar to teach English as a foreign language. I looked for a linguistically informed grammar guide, but couldn't find one. Finally, I gave up on waiting and decided to have a go myself. As a layman with an amateur's adoration for his subject, I find it astonishing that hardly anyone outside university linguistics departments knows the slightest thing about it. Whether it is the new discoveries of neurolinguistics or the 150-year-old revelations of the scholars who traced the Indo-European language family tree, linguistics can offer zap-kapow findings that trump those of archaeology and even astronomy.

Take the Proto-Indo-Europeans, that mysterious tribe whose homeland was recently located north of the Caspian Sea in about 3,300 BC. Their language somehow obliterated the hundreds of others then spoken in Europe and northern India, so that almost every language currently spoken, from Iceland to the Himalayas, is descended from one tongue. Dramatic enough, but, even more sensationally, much of that language has been reconstructed, so that we know, for example, their words for sky (dyeu) and father (pihter), and their chief god the Sky Father (Dyeu Pihter). Thanks to language, we know a great deal about the tribe – its kinship system, its beliefs, the feasts it held at which bards declaimed the long praise-poems that may well be the forerunners of the Sanskrit Vedic epics and The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer. We even know that the tribe had two words for different sorts of farting.

That few people have heard of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, or know about language evolution, children's language acquisition or the current process of language extinction, seems to me to be a crying shame. But the insights of linguistics are of social and political as well as intellectual importance.

The modern study of language has shown that all native speakers are experts in their language. Almost all judgments about someone's language – the laziness of a glottal stop, the slowness of rural speech, the supposed ugliness of a particular urban accent – have no linguistic justification and reflect only the prejudice of the judger. However, very few people are aware of these basic findings.

Linguistics has discovered that a language is created by a democratic collective of magnificently gifted experts – but has told nobody else about it. Frustrating as it is to hear discussions about the heinous abuse of "hopefully" or "disinterested", this public ignorance about language gets properly serious with the continuing discrimination against non-standard English.

Non-standard English is linguistically the equal of the standard version – in fact, dialects tend to be more sophisticated grammatically than standard (as in the plural "youse" of many non-standard dialects where standard has just one confusing form). Yet standard continues – even now – to be prized as the "correct" form, and any deviation is considered to be wrong, lazy, corrupt or ignorant.

This is most obviously the case in the education system. If a non-standard-speaking child persists in using non‑standard English, particularly non-standard grammar, that child will rarely progress. This is, of course, a class issue, standard English being the only dialect defined by socioeconomics rather than geography, and spoken by only 15% of the British population (the richest 15%). It is working-class children whose language is still marked as incorrect and who have to intuit the need to switch dialects – or fail..

In any formal, written context, only standard English is accepted. And in any informal, middle-class context, from office email to pub chat, non-standard usage will be noticed by standard speakers, who will judge that non-standard user to be at least unsophisticated, probably uneducated and very possibly a bit thick.

Let me quote a letter-writer to the Scotsman newspaper last year, complaining about declining linguistic standards. "I remember one candidate in a job interview," the letter-writer reminisced, "saying, 'Oh, we done that in media studies.' End of interview," he finished, approvingly.

Why has linguistics failed to counteract this discrimination? I put it down to the strange way that the discipline developed under the aegis of the man who has dominated and defined it since the late 50s, the father of modern linguistics, Chomsky.

Chomsky's theories were based on his ingenious explanation for the phenomenon that is children's language acquisition. Toddlers, who are surrounded by the broken babble of ordinary speech and who can do little else for themselves, somehow master many, or even most, grammatical constructions – because, Chomsky reasoned, there has to be innate software providing babies and toddlers with the equipment to get them up and talking. This means, he concluded, that human languages have to be organised according to universal constraints and rules, "principles and parameters". These constitute a "deep structure", converted into the individual operations of a particular language by a series of "transformations". Chomsky first outlined this idea in 1967 and has spent his non-political career since hunting for the universal features provided by our innate programming.

Brilliant – but wrong. Recent evidence from neurology, genetics and linguistics all points to there being no innate programming. Children learn language just as they learn all their other skills, by experience. The case against Chomsky is conclusive. The new empirical "connectionist" school and the various branches of cognitive linguistics have brought the subject back to scientific principles. Linguistics has undergone a revolution in the last 20 years, and Chomsky has been dethroned.

However, the wholesale acceptance of Chomsky's rationalist assumptions has meant that the discipline has been hunting for unicorns while neglecting many key areas of language. There is still little research being carried out on, for example, environmental influences on children's language acquisition.

Most pressingly of all, too little work is being done to record the languages currently facing extinction. By one estimate, 95% of the 7,000 languages now spoken in the world are in danger of dying out. Recording these should have been a priority.

Chomksy also played a significant part in creating a subject that managed to avoid engagement with culture and society. He turned grammar into an technical subject full of jargon and algebra studied on whiteboards by men with beards, leaving everyone prey to the pernicious drivel of the traditional grammar guardians, who belong to the 15%. It is crazy that such an unfair social-exclusion system should go on operating, and still without censure.

Linguistics has taught me many wonderful things, but it has also neglected many tasks, including telling the world about its discoveries. So if there is an academic linguist out there with good bone structure and a past career as a rhythm guitarist, please, for the love of God, get yourself a decent agent.

Ritchie, Harry. 2014. “It's time to challenge the notion that there is only one way to speak English”. The Guardian. Posted: December 31, 2013. Available online:

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Chinese village with the secret to long life

Tourists paying homage to Bama's centenarians are bringing in millions. But the Guangxi county's success may be its undoing

Her T-shirted charges trailing behind her, the young guide swept into Huang Puxin's home and flicked her tour flag towards the centenarian, who was waiting on the sofa beneath a giant bas-relief inscribed with the word "longevity". "The old man is 113," she mumbled into her headset, turning away.

The tourists stuffed cash into piled-up red envelopes and moved in beside Huang, patting his knee as they handed him the money and posed for a picture.

Huang has lived through wars, famines, the rise and fall of Maoism and much more. But his life's latest turn may be its unlikeliest: reinvention as a tourist attraction. Bama county, in southern Guangxi, used to be one of China's poorest places. Now, thanks to residents such as Huang, it is a travel hotspot.

Famed for centuries for its residents' unusual longevity, it now has 81 centenarians. Proportional to population, that is roughly five times China's average.

A decade ago the best-known settlement in the county rebranded itself as Longevity Village, and in the past few years coverage and word of mouth have prompted a surge in visits. More than 640,000 people came in the first five months of 2013, boosting the economy by 406m yuan (£41m), say officials.

An estimated 20,000 health tourists – many times the number of native residents – live in the surrounding district, staying for months at a time. Thousands more arrive on coach trips, to receive the benediction of the oldest residents.

Thick stands of bamboo, graceful eucalyptus and glossy chestnut trees line the road into Bama. Its stunning karst landscape is pierced by caverns and rises into steep crags.

"Even in winter it's not cold at all. The mountains are beautiful and the river is the colour of jade," said Dai Guifang, 65, who runs a construction firm in north-eastern China. "The air is very good. I feel uncomfortable if I smoke even half a cigarette in Shenyang – but in Bama I'm fine if I smoke a pack a day." Her late husband spent his last few months here. She believes the stay prolonged his life and reduced the pain of his stomach cancer. "A lot of people were sick but got better after living there – it's the water. It has a lot of minerals," she said.

Most tourists drink the waters and the bolder ones bathe in it, with mixed results. Some have drowned, report residents. Further up the valley, scores of middle-aged and elderly people perch on rocks in the gloom of the giant Baimo cavern. A few stand with their faces turned to giant boulders, pressing their hands to the stone. This is geomagnetic therapy, they say, enthusing about its beneficial effect on the heart, the brain and even varicose veins.

Cui Xuedong, 58, pulled up his shirt to show the scar across his torso; he had just had a second round of surgery for liver cancer. He was sceptical when a neighbour urged him to try Bama but said the impact was unmistakable: "After 30-odd days my face was rosy again. When I arrived I felt exhausted every afternoon, whatever I did in the morning. Soon I could swim a kilometre and still kick a shuttlecock around."

He has now moved to Bama and runs an organisation bringing city dwellers to the area, while his wife exports hundreds of tonnes of its water.

Cui believes the area's geomagnetism and negatively charged oxygen ions are as important as its relaxed, modest lifestyle. Experts scorn that and see simpler explanations for the town's longevity: in large part, poverty and isolation.

Yang Ze, deputy director of the Institute of Geriatrics at Beijing hospital, began researching Bama's secret in the mid-90s. One key, he said, is natural selection. The area is remote and mountainous. In the old days, it took three days to leave the hills, so there was relatively little mixing with the outside world. In tough conditions, without medical treatment, the strong genes remained; the weak were eliminated.

In particular, he said, Bama residents have mostly inherited a gene from both parents that helps the body to produce a protein called apolipoprotein-E. That combines with fats to form a lipoprotein that reduces excess cholesterol.

Lifestyle played a part, too. People worked hard in the fields. Much of their food was steamed, not fried. When Yang first arrived, they ate "rice porridge with a bit of salt, and hemp oil", and seldom consumed meat. Old people were surrounded by relatives. "They were not lonely and were happy. They were calm, had fewer desires, did not compete, and were more optimistic," Yang said.

Now the area's new-found popularity is destroying its very attractions. "The new residents bring a Beijing lifestyle to Bama. They shout in the mountains; they turn up the music to do exercise in the morning," he added.

Hammers and drills disturb the once-tranquil scene thanks to the soaring demand for rented property. Cars clog the narrow streets, pumping out fumes. Residents complain the river is polluted because visitors dump rubbish and because the sewage systems cannot cope with so many people. These days, the young prosper by selling goods to tourists rather than by labouring. And the eldest can sit at home, on a couch, and wait for red envelopes.

As the area has grown wealthier and less isolated, it has also grown less healthy. Bama is a microcosm of China: its burst of development made its shift from diseases of poverty to those of affluence even more pronounced.

"The centenarians eat braised pork every day. Since they have got richer, their diet has been changing," Yang said. "Last time I was there, I told them problems such as high blood sugar and high blood pressure were appearing in this village, and that if they were not careful, it would lead to death. They did not listen to me and despised [my advice]. They said they had just started to get rich, and we were trying to stop them."

In 2005 there were 17 or 18 people aged over 100, but these days there are just two, he thinks – not seven, as the village claims. An Italian, aged 111, is officially the world's oldest man.

Yang believes Bama could soon lose all its centenarians. Not only are the next generation likely to have shorter lives, even those who are already elderly are unlikely to reach 100, he suggests. But having struggled for years to feed themselves, Bama's elderly see little to lament in this new world of plenty. "In my time there were a lot of wars. A lot of people starved to death. A lot of people were hungry," ruminated Huang Puxin.

"I have had a lot of happy times, but the best is now," observed Huang Makan, a few houses down, with a flash of her exquisite smile.

A tiny figure in a padded jacket, with a jade bracelet on each wrist, she says that she is 108, has never had a day's sickness, and enjoys the constant company. "Many people come to see me. I hope I live until 200," she confided.

Branigan, Tania. 2014. “The Chinese village with the secret to long life”. The Guardian. Posted: December 30, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Disease and trauma within collapsing Indus Civilisation

During the third millennium BCE, the Indus Civilisation flourished in what is now northwest India and Pakistan. Between 2200-1900 BCE the culture was characterised by long-distance exchange networks, carefully planned urban settlements such as Harappa and Mohenjo Daro that had sophisticated sanitation facilities, standardised weights and measures, and a sphere of influence that extended over a million square kilometres of territory.

The culture was seemingly at its height when the end came  (collapse attributed to climatic change) but recent research published in both the open access journal PLoS ONE and an earlier 2012 article in the International Journal of Palaeopathologyhas expanded on this hypothesis.

A climatic collapse

Recent palaeoclimate reconstructions from the Beas River Valley demonstrates hydro-climatic stress due to a weakened monsoon system may have impacted urban centres like Harappa by the end of the third millennium BCE. However, the impact of environmental change was compounded by disruptions to the regional interaction sphere.

Lead author in both these studies, Gwen Robbins Schug, an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the Appalachian State University, explained, “we assessed evidence for palaeopathology to infer the biological consequences of climate change and socio-economic disruption in the post-urban period at Harappa”.

This site is one of the largest urban centres of the Indus Civilisation and the study suggests that climate, economic and social changes contributed to the disintegration after 1900 BCE; the change being evident within the declining health of the population and the seeming rise of interpersonal violence towards those suffering from visible diseases.

A clear correlation

The researchers examined 160 individuals (67% of the total number excavated) from three main burial areas at Harappa: an urban period cemetery (R-37), a post-urban cemetery (H), and an ossuary (Area G) where it is clear that the prevalence of infection and infectious disease increased through time.

Of the 209 skeletons excavated from Cemetery R-37, 66 (31.6%) were available at AnSI (Anthropological Survey of India) for the present research. Of these 66, 16 were from complete burials, 29 from fractional burials, and 21 were from multiple burials. Most of the burials were adults but there were two immature individuals present over five years of age.

Examination of the Harappan skeletons, showed evidence for non-specific periosteal reactions, sinus infections, and individuals that demonstrate a pattern of lesions consistent with leprosy and/or tuberculosis. In addition, there seems to be clear signs of internal and structured violence within what had previously been thought to be a ‘perfect‘ and peaceful society.

An unequal struggle

The results demonstrated that during this critical period there was no evidence for violence consistent with invasion or warfare, that would have supported the general belief of an Aryan Invasion. Rather, the majority of violent trauma seemed to have been directed against  women and children of the local population; showing untreated cranial fractures associated with the presence of congenital and communicable diseases.

Interestingly, one male with a cranial fracture consistent with interpersonal violence had received a craniotomy, perhaps as a form of surgical intervention to relieve the effects of the trauma. Women and children suffering from highly visible and often stigmatized diseases were  disproportionally affected by violence without benefit of available surgical intervention.

This pattern can conservatively be interpreted as evidence for social hierarchy at Harappa, but it appears likely that structural violence—unequal power, uneven access to resources, systematic oppression, and outright violence—also existed here.

Furthermore, the risk for infection and disease was uneven among burial communities with differences suggesting that socially and economically marginalized communities were most vulnerable in the context of climate uncertainty at Harappa.

Combined with prior evidence for rising levels of interpersonal violence, the data is increasing the general support for a growing pathology of power at Harappa after 2000 BCE.

Observations of the intersection between climate change and social processes in proto-historic cities offer valuable lessons about vulnerability, insecurity, and the long-term consequences of short-term strategies for coping with our own climate change.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Disease and trauma within collapsing Indus Civilisation”. Past Horizons. Posted: December 25, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

1,000-year-old vineyards discovered

The terraced fields of Zaballa (Iruna de Oca) were used for intensive vine cultivation in the 10th century, according to archaeologists of the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country

Zaballa (Iruña de Oca) was a medieval settlement abandoned in the 15th century. The building of a manor monastery at the heart of it undermined the organisation of the village in the 10th century with the creation of a highly significant rent-seeking system; it was later turned into a veritable factory, a specialised estate in the hands of local lords who, under the auspices of the economic boom in towns like Vitoria-Gasteiz, tried to obtain the maximum profits possible. In the end, the "flight" of its settlers towards the towns caused it to be abandoned. Today, it is archaeologists from the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country who are endeavouring to reconstruct and salvage our rural heritage by studying deserted settlements like Zaballa.

Zaballa is one of the more than 300 deserted settlements known in Alava-Araba; they are rural spaces abandoned in historical times but now being studied by the UPV/EHU's Cultural Heritage and Landscapes Research Group. Its director, Juan Antonio Quirós-Castillo, highlights the importance of Zaballa and Alavese sites in general, as they are part of one of the most importance archaeological records of the mediaeval era throughout northern Iberia, and on a par with few sites in Europe. "The important thing is not just their number, but that in the decade that we have been working on this project, extensive work has been done on nearly half a dozen of them, and work at other levels has been done on nearly a hundred."

A major site

Zaballa is also the first deserted settlement in Spain that has its own publication and is a major site. The most recent discoveries made there have been published in a special issue of the prestigious journal Quaternary International; among the discoveries, the authors stress that the terraced fields built in the 10th century —still perfectly visible in the landscape— were devoted to the intensive cultivation of vines. "Archaeo-botanical studies of seed remains found in the excavations and pollen studies have provided material evidence of the existence of vine cultivation in a relatively early period like the 10th century," explained Quirós. This evidence is also supported by the metal tools discovered and which had been destined for this very use, and the study of the agrarian spaces, "which owing to the nature of the crop spaces built and the agrarian practices developed, they are not compatible with cereal crops but they are with vines," he added.

This publication covers the geo-archaeological work conducted at Zaballa and Zornotegi (Salvatierra), another abandoned settlement in Alava, which became deserted in the 15th century and where the terraced fields were devoted to the cultivation of cereals.

These discoveries have been made possible by the use of archaeological excavation protocols, and geo-archaeological sampling and analysis, which are new in Spain and which have allowed the cultivated fields to be dated and the agrarian cycle to be studied. "It is not so much about excavating a site, but about excavating landscapes," explained Quirós. In other words, it is about abandoning the traditional concept of the site, understood as a monumental or monumentalised place, in order to get to know the context in which these places are located."

In comparison with Zaballa, "Zornoztegi has a completely different history," he pointed out. "Even though it was founded at more or less the same time, it is a much more egalitarian social community in which such significant social differences are not observed, and nor is the action of manorial powers which, in some way, undermined the balance of the community."

In Quirós' view, these microhistories constitute small windows into the past that allow one to analyse relatively complex historical processes directly, bottom upwards, "in other words, to see how the peasant community itself gradually adapts to the political and economic changes that take place in the medieval era and later."

What is more, the analytical study of these places of production allows one to abandon those more traditional points of view of history which "conceptualize the high medieval periods as a time of technical simplification, as a meagre period in economic terms, since they point to considerable social and economic complexity. Specifically, it has been possible in these studies to see that there are various important moments in the Basque Country, 5th to 6th centuries and 10th to 11th centuries, which were decisive in the construction of our landscapes."

Consideration of archaeological heritage

The study of abandoned settlements allow one to understand not only the village forming phenomena and the reasons why they were later abandoned, but more than anything, the transformation and degradation processes of the abandoned villages. That is why Quirós is calling for these places to be regarded as part of archaeological heritage: "The space for traditional crops, still easily recognisable in the landscapes closest to us, are historical spaces brimming with explanatory significance to help us understand the societies of the past; indeed, they require attention which they have not had until now," he concluded. In fact, the farm land analysed is gradually being destroyed year after year as a result of recent mechanised agricultural practices which have had and continue to have a very considerable destructive effect on this "invisible" heritage.

EurekAlert. 2014. “1,000-year-old vineyards discovered”. EurekAlert. Posted: December 23, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

6 Ancient Tributes to the Winter Solstice

This weekend marks the beginning of the end. Of winter's darkness, that is.

Today (Dec. 21), those living in the Northern Hemisphere celebrate the mark of increasingly longer days, those in the Southern Hemisphere will transition to shorter days, and those at the equator won't notice much of a difference at all.

The global discrepancy in seasonal sunlight results from Earth's 23.5-degree tilt on its axis: During the Northern Hemisphere winter, the Earth is tilted directly away from the sun, and during the summer, it is tilted directly toward the sun. The equator does not experience much of a change during the year since it sits in the middle of the axis.

For many ancient civilizations that struggled to subsist through harsh winter months, the winter solstice marked a time of spiritual rejoice and celebration. Modern heating technology and the globalization of food markets make the seasonal transition remarkably easier for modern humans to survive, but people still do celebrate the day with festivities and rituals, including a tradition of reading poetry and eating pomegranates in Iran, and the Guatemalan ritual known as polo voladore — or "flying pole dance" — in which three men climb to the top of a 50-foot-tall (15 meters) pole and perform a risky dance to flutes and drums.

Still other people celebrate the day by tuning into the spiritual rituals of ancient civilizations and visiting the sites of winter solstice tributes. Here are six archaeological sites that researchers believe pay tribute to the winter solstice:

1. Stonehenge, England

Stonehenge — one of the most famous archaeological sites in the world — is an arrangement of rocks carefully positioned on a barren ground in southern England. The megalith, which may have been a burial, was built between 3000 B.C. and 2000 B.C., over the course of roughly 1,500 years, in a series of several major phases.

When the sun sets on the winter solstice, its rays align with what are known as the central Altar stone and the Slaughter stone — an event that hundreds of families, tourists, Wiccans, and others visit each year to experience what researchers believe was an important spiritual event for those responsible for creating the monument.

2. Newgrange, Ireland

The Newgrange monument is located northeastern Ireland, and is thought to date back to about 3200 B.C. The mound, with grass on its roof, rises from a green field and, inside, contains a series of tunnels and channels. During sunrise on the winter solstice, the sun pours into the main chambers, which researchers have interpreted to mean it was built to celebrate this special day of the year.

3. Maeshowe, Scotland

Built in Orkney, Scotland, around 2800 B.C., Maeshowe is another burial ground that appears as a grassy mound rising about 24 feet (7.3 m) above a grassy field. Similar to Ireland's Newgrange, the inside of the mound contains a maze of chambers and passageways that become illuminated by sunlight during the winter solstice.

4. Goseck circle, Germany

The Goseck circle is a series of concentric rings dug into the ground — the largest of which measures about 246 feet (75 m) in diameter — located in Saxony-Anhalt, Germany. It dates back to about 4900 B.C., but was forgotten and covered by a wheat field before being discovered through aerial surveys in the early 1990s. Archaeological remains suggest Goseck circle was the site of religious rituals, such as sacrifices.

Upon discovery and excavation, researchers realized that two gates cut into the outermost circle aligned with the sunrise and sunset of the winter solstice, suggesting this the circle was somehow a tribute to the solstice.

5. Tulum, Mexico

Located on the eastern coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, Tulum is an ancient stone-walled Mayan city whose population collapsed around the 15th century when Spanish settlers had begun to occupy Mexico, bringing new disease that wiped out large portions of the Mexican population. Much of the stone buildings that made up the city still stand today. One of these buildings contains a small hole at its top that produces a starburst effect when the sun rises on the winter (and summer) solstice.

6.  Stone lines at Cerro del Gentil pyramid, Peru Earlier this year, researchers discovered two stone lines that, when approached straight on, appear to frame Peru's Cerro del Gentil pyramid in the distance. The lines are located roughly 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) southeast of the pyramid, and extend about 1,640 feet (500 m). Using 3D-modeling software, the researchers discovered that the winter solstice sun sets exactly where the lines converge on the pyramid in the horizon.

Poppick, Laura. 2014. “6 Ancient Tributes to the Winter Solstice”. Live Science. Posted: December 21, 2013. Available online:

Monday, February 10, 2014

A study of Peruvian trepanation in 1000 year old skulls

Evidence shows that healers in Peru practised trepanation — a surgical procedure that involves removing a section of the cranial vault using a hand drill or a scraping tool — more than 1,000 years ago to treat a variety of ailments, from head injuries to heartsickness.

Excavating burial caves in the south-central Andean province of Andahuaylas in Peru, UC Santa Barbara bioarchaeologist Danielle Kurin and her research team unearthed the remains of 32 individuals that date back to the Late Intermediate Period (ca. AD 1000-1250). Among them, 45 separate trepanation procedures were in evidence. Kurin’s findings appear in the current issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Reasonable thing to do

“When you get a knock on the head that causes your brain to swell dangerously, or you have some kind of neurological, spiritual or psychosomatic illness, drilling a hole in the head becomes a reasonable thing to do,” said Kurin, a visiting assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at UCSB and a specialist in forensic anthropology.

According to Kurin, trepanations first appeared in the south-central Andean highlands during the Early Intermediate Period (ca. AD 200-600), although the technique was not universally practised. Still, it was considered a viable medical procedure until the Spanish banned the practice in the early 16th century.

But Kurin wanted to know how trepanation came to exist in the first place. And she looked to a failed empire to find some answers.

“For about 400 years, from 600 to 1000 AD, the area where I work — the Andahuaylas — was living as a prosperous province within an enigmatic empire known as the Wari,” she said. “For reasons still unknown, the empire suddenly collapsed.” And the collapse of civilisation, she noted, brings a lot of problems.

“But it is precisely during times of collapse that we see people’s resilience coming to the fore,” Kurin continued. “In the same way that new types of bullet wounds from the Civil War resulted in the development of better glass eyes, the same way IED’s are propelling research in prosthetics in the military today, so, too, did these people in Peru employ trepanation to cope with new challenges like violence, disease and depravation 1,000 years ago.”

Kurin’s research shows various cutting practices and techniques being employed around the same time. Some used scraping, others used cutting and still others made use of a hand drill. “It looks like they were trying different techniques, the same way we might try new medical procedures today,” she said. “They’re experimenting with different ways of cutting into the skull.”

Only on men

Sometimes they were successful and the patient recovered, and sometimes things didn’t go so well. “We can tell a trepanation is healed because we see these finger-like projections of bone that are growing,” Kurin explained. “We have several cases where someone suffered a head fracture and were treated with the surgery; in many cases, both the original wound and the trepanation healed.” It could take several years for the bone to regrow, and in a subset of those, a trepanation hole in the patient’s head might remain for the rest of his life, thereby conferring upon him a new “survivor” identity.

When a patient didn’t survive, his skull (almost never hers, as the practice of trepanation on women and children was forbidden in this region) might have been donated to science, so to speak, and used for education purposes. “The idea with this surgery is to go all the way through the bone, but not touch the brain,” said Kurin. “That takes incredible skill and practice.

“As bioarchaeologists, we can tell that they’re experimenting on recently dead bodies because we can measure the location and depths of the holes they’re drilling,” she continued. “In one example, each hole is drilled a little deeper than the last. So you can imagine a guy in his prehistoric Peruvian medical school practising with his hand drill to know how many times he needs to turn it to nimbly and accurately penetrate the thickness of a skull.”

Some might consider drilling a hole in someone’s head a form of torture, but Kurin doesn’t perceive it as such. “We can see where the trepanations are. We can see that they’re shaving the hair. We see the black smudge of an herbal remedy they put over the wound,” she noted. “To me, those are signs that the intention was to save the life of the sick or injured individual.”

Good contextual information

The remains Kurin excavated from the caves in Andahuaylas comprise perhaps the largest well-contextualized collection in the world. Most of the trepanned crania already studied reside in museums such as the Smithsonian Institution, the Field Museum of Natural History or the Hearst Museum of Anthropology. “Most were collected by archaeologists a century ago and so we don’t have good contextual information,” she said.

But thanks to Kurin’s careful archaeological excavation of intact tombs and methodical analysis of the human skeletons and mummies buried therein, she knows exactly where, when and how the remains she found were buried, as well as who and what was buried with them. She used radiocarbon dating and insect casings to determine how long the bodies were left out before they were reduced to skeletons or were mummified, and multi-isotopic testing to reconstruct what they ate and where they were born. “That gives us a lot more information,” she said.

“These ancient people can’t speak to us directly, but they do give us information that allows us to reconstruct some aspect of their lives and their deaths and even what happened after they died,” she continued. “Importantly, we shouldn’t look at a state of collapse as the beginning of a ‘dark age,’ but rather view it as an era that breeds resilience and foments stunning innovation within the population.”

Past Horizons. 2014. “A study of Peruvian trepanation in 1000 year old skulls”. Past Horizons. Posted: December 21, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, February 9, 2014

What is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is an ancient health care tradition that has been practiced in India for at least 5,000 years. The word comes from the Sanskrit terms ayur (life) and veda (knowledge).

Though Ayurveda, or Ayurvedic medicine, was documented in the sacred historical texts known as the Vedas many centuries ago, Ayurveda has evolved over the years and is now integrated with other traditional practices, including yoga.

Ayurveda is widely practiced on the Indian subcontinent — more than 90 percent of Indians use some form of Ayurvedic medicine, according to the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality & Healing — and the tradition has gained popularity in the Western world, though it's still considered an alternative medical treatment.

Principles of Ayurveda

As a holistic health practice, Ayurveda seeks to maintain a balance between a person's physical, mental and spiritual aspects. When this balance is upset, disease and other health problems can result, according to Ayurvedic practitioners.

Health care is a highly individualized practice under Ayurvedic principles, and everybody has a specific pattern of characteristics called a dosha, which is like a metabolism type based on body chemistry and mental state. There are three basic doshas, and though everyone has some features of each, most people have one or two that predominate, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center:

Pitta energy is linked to fire, and is thought to control the digestive and endocrine systems. People with pitta energy are considered fiery in temperament, intelligent and fast-paced. When pitta energy is out of balance, ulcers, inflammation, digestive problems, anger, heartburn and arthritis can result.

Vata energy is associated with air and space, and is linked to bodily movement, including breathing and blood circulation. Vata energy is said to predominate in people who are lively, creative, original thinkers. When out-of-balance, vata types can endure joint pain, constipation, dry skin, anxiety and other ailments.

Kapha energy, linked to earth and water, is believed to control growth and strength, and is associated with the chest, torso and back. Kapha types are considered strong and solid in constitution, and generally calm in nature. But obesity, diabetes, sinus problems, insecurity and gallbladder issues can result when kapha energy is out of balance, according to Ayurvedic practitioners.

How safe is Ayurveda?

Disturbances in any of the three doshas are addressed by a range of Ayurvedic treatments, including herbal remedies, dietary restrictions, yoga, massage, meditation and breathing exercises called pranayama.

The effectiveness of Ayurvedic therapies has not been widely studied in clinical trials by practitioners of Western medicine. Therefore, some doctors and other health care professionals consider Ayurveda a risky adjunct to conventional medicine.

A 2008 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that almost 21 percent of Ayurvedic medicines purchased over the Internet contained detectable levels of lead, mercury or arsenic.

And in 2012, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that six cases of lead poisoning were found in pregnant women who had used Ayurvedic medicines containing lead. (Fetal exposure to lead can cause severe problems with neurological development and other prenatal health concerns.)

Benefits of Ayurveda

Despite these concerns, there have been studies demonstrating the effectiveness of some Ayurvedic treatments.

Turmeric, a spice derived from the turmeric plant (Curcuma longa), is often prescribed by Ayurvedic practitioners. Turmeric contains beta-carotene, calcium, flavonoids, iron, niacin, potassium, zinc and other nutrients.

And in addition to its potential effectiveness in treating peptic ulcers and some forms of cancer, turmeric also has proven anti-inflammatory properties. Several studies have suggested that it may help reduce the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

Additionally, a 2011 study found that an Ayurvedic herbal compound was just as effective at treating rheumatoid arthritis symptoms as Trexall (methotrexate), according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a division of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Another widely used Ayurvedic treatment is frankincense, a dried resin derived from the Boswellia tree. According to NCCAM, osteoarthritis patients had significant decreases in pain after using a frankincense remedy.

Before you begin Ayurvedic treatment

If you're considering an Ayurvedic treatment, or any other alternative therapies, be sure to speak with your primary care physician or other health care professional. Some Ayurvedic treatments may be dangerous when combined with prescription or over-the-counter medicines.

Because there is no nationally recognized licensing procedure for Ayurvedic practitioners, you may wish to contact an Ayurvedic school for recommendations about how to find a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner.

Lallanilla, Marc. 2014. “What is Ayurveda?”. Live Science. Posted: December 20, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Math Surprise: Remote Islanders Invented Binary Number System

The natives of a remote Polynesian Island invented a binary number system, similar to the one used by computers to calculate, centuries before Western mathematicians did, new research suggests.

The counting scheme, described today (Dec. 16) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, uses both decimal and binary numbers, so it isn't a complete binary system from zero to infinity. But the binary portion of the system may have helped ancient people keep track of an elaborate trading network between distant Pacific Islands.

"Those were probably the numbers that were most frequent in their trading and redistribution systems," said study co-author Andrea Bender, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bergen in Norway. "For that specific range, it was helpful to have these binary steps that make mental arithmetic much easier — they didn't have a writing or notational system, so they had to do everything in their mind."

Numbering scheme

One of the most famous, and avant-garde, mathematicians of the 17th century, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, invented a binary numeral system and showed that it could be used in a primitive calculating machine. Nowadays, binary numbers — a base-2 system where each position is typically written as a 0 or 1 — form the backbone of all modern computing systems.

But new evidence suggests some remote Polynesian islanders may have beat the famous mathematician to the numerical punch line by several centuries.

Bender and her colleague Sieghard Beller were looking through a dictionary from Mangareva, an island with less than 2,000 inhabitants, just 7 square miles (18 square kilometers) large, located about halfway between Easter Island and Tahiti.

"It's only a tiny spot in a vast ocean," Bender told LiveScience.

The researchers noticed Mangarevans had words for numerals 1 through 10. But for numbers 20 through 80, they used a binary system, with separate, one-word terms for 20, 40 and 80.  For really large numbers, they used powers of 10 up to at least 10 million.

As an example, to calculate 50 + 70  (which is 120), the Mangarevan system would take the words for 10 (takau)+40 (tataua) and then add it to the word for 10 (takau) + 20 (paua) + 40 (tataua), which would be expressed as 80 (varu) + 40 (tataua).

Solving mental arithmetic

The researchers next looked at the number systems in related Polynesian languages and deduced the Mangarevan system likely evolved to help people solve complex mental arithmetic to support a trading and tribute system that died out in the mid-1400s.

Up until that time, Mangarevans traded across long distances for items such as turtles, octopuses, coconut and breadfruit with people on the Marquesas Islands, Hawaii and the islands around Tahiti. Commoners had to tribute these items to higher-ranking people, all the way to the king, who would then redistribute the bounty at large feasts.

The numbering scheme may be the only known example of an extensive binary numeral system that predates Leibniz. (People in Papua New Guinea also use a binary system, but they don't use words for powers of two, meaning their system doesn't count very high, Bender said.)

"What is fascinating about it is that they show very clearly and very carefully that you can have a very complex number system being used in a culture without needing notation," said Heike Wiese, a cognitive scientist and linguist at the University of Potsdam in Germany, who was not involved in the study.

Ghose, Tia. 2014. “Math Surprise: Remote Islanders Invented Binary Number System”. Live Science. Posted: December 16, 2013. Available online:

Friday, February 7, 2014

New evidence challenges theories of Rapa Nui collapse

Dr. Mara Mulrooney, assistant anthropologist at Bishop Museum in Honululu, conducted a six year study on Rapa Nui (Easter Island) concerning the island’s theoretical civilisation collapse. Her findings now challenge these previous ideas, which have claimed that the islanders “self-destructed” before Europeans first visited in 1722.

Results from her doctoral dissertation are published in the December issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Debunking the popular view

As popularised in Jared Diamond’s 2005 book Collapse, Rapa Nui is often viewed as a prime example of what happens when people lose sight of what they are doing to their environment. According to the popular narrative, the Rapa Nui people committed “environmental suicide” by deforesting their island home. However, Dr. Mulrooney and colleagues are starting to construct a more positive scenario.

“The new picture that emerges from these results is really one of sustainability and continuity rather than collapse, which sheds new light on what we can really learn from Rapa Nui,” said Mulrooney. “Based on these new findings, perhaps Rapa Nui should be the poster-child of how human ingenuity can result in success, rather than failure.”

Continued use

Dr. Mulrooney analysed over 300 radiocarbon dates from across the island, including 15 dates from new excavations in the northern area of the island. These new findings, along with the re-analysis of previously collected dates, showed that large tracts of Rapa Nui’s interior continued to be used for agricultural production of foods like sweet potatoes and taro, even after European contact with the island. This directly challenges the previous belief that these areas were abandoned as the island chiefdom supposedly collapsed.

These results, together with recent results from Dr. Mulrooney’s colleagues Thegn Ladefoged, Ph.D. (University of Auckland), Christopher Stevenson, Ph.D. (Virginia Commonwealth University), and Sonia Haoa (an archaeologist from Rapa Nui), who have been analysing the ancient gardens of the island, suggest that the Rapa Nui people managed to transform their island home into a more productive and sustainable environment.

These new findings suggest that it was not until the fatal impacts of European contact in the 18th century that Rapanui society experienced a real societal collapse due to introduced diseases.

Past Horizons. 2014. “New evidence challenges theories of Rapa Nui collapse”. Past Horizons. Posted: December 13, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Chasing 5th-Century Clues From a Woman’s Tombstone

They figured out her first name, but not her father’s. They know where and when she died, but not her age or the cause of death. They could not tell whether she was married.

Source: James Estrin – New York Times

This is a detective story, but not the ripped-from-the-headlines kind. The woman died more than 1,600 years ago, in what is now Jordan. The detectives are a few students at Yeshiva University in Upper Manhattan and a professor who is sometimes called the Jewish Robert Langdon, referring to the fictional Harvard professor of iconology in the Dan Brown books and the movie “The Da Vinci Code.”

All they had to go on was the woman’s tombstone. And at first, they did not even have that, just photographs of it.

Here are the facts of the case:

In March 2012, the professor, Steven Fine, who is also the director of Yeshiva’s Center for Israel Studies, wrote an article for the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review about Jewish tombstones in the ancient city of Zoar, which most scholars say was on the Dead Sea. It was such an oasis, according to one account, that a sixth-century mapmaker drew a grove of palm trees as a symbol for it.

Dr. Fine soon heard from one of the magazine’s readers, the Rev. Carl Morgan of Woodland United Fellowship, a church in Woodland, Calif.

Pastor Morgan, who also has a doctorate in archaeology, emailed a tantalizing photograph: an image of a tombstone like the ones Dr. Fine had discussed in his article. Pastor Morgan said it was in the collection of the Woodland Museum of Biblical Archaeology, which occupies part of the church’s campus, about 20 miles from Sacramento. A private collector had given it to the museum, Pastor Morgan said.

“It had not been translated,” he recalled in a recent telephone interview. “I knew Dr. Fine could translate it.”

Dr. Fine showed the photo to students in an undergraduate Talmudic archaeology course, and they decided to spend a semester translating the Aramaic inscriptions and learning everything they could about who the woman was.

“We spent more time deciphering this than the people who made this,” said Mordechai Friedman, a freshman. “That was one hour. This was 15 or 20, each letter, trying to figure out what they mean. Many times, we had the first letter of a word and the last letter and we had lists of words, and when you know this word is possible, you think you can see it. But Professor Fine told me you can’t always do that. You have to look at what’s actually there.”

The tombstone, which is made of sandstone and is roughly the size of a legal pad, became their window to an ancient world centered in Zoar. Dr. Fine said that Zoar was “a major Christian city, a biblical pilgrimage city,” but that it had a sizable Jewish population. Hershel Shanks, the founder and editor of Biblical Archaeology Review and an influential scholarly figure on the Dead Sea Scrolls, agreed that such a tombstone “represents a Jewish community that thrived there.”

“It’s a very little known part of Jewish history which archaeology resuscitates,” Mr. Shanks said.

The students knew that Jewish tombstones from Zoar had been discovered in the early 20th century; Dr. Fine said 30 to 40 had been documented. Far more Christian tombstones have been found, and he said there were differences between the ways Christians and Jews remembered their dead. The Christian tombstones were inscribed in Greek, and most carried common Christian symbols — a cross, a fish or birds. Dr. Fine said the lettering on the Jewish ones was in a form of Aramaic that only Jews, not Christians, were taught to read. The symbols, as might be expected, included menorahs.

From the beginning, the Yeshiva students were confident they could make sense of the Aramaic inscriptions; Talmudic Aramaic is virtually the same as the Aramaic on the tombstone. They also know Hebrew. Mr. Friedman said the first few words were straightforward, and Ellie Schwartz, a senior, recited them: “ ‘Here rests the soul of Sa’adah, daughter of something.’ We don’t know the ‘something.’ ”

Going by the format of other ancient tombstones, they felt certain the missing word was the name of the woman’s father and wondered if it was Phineas, but they said they could not be sure. “We have the P,” Dr. Fine said. “We thought there was an N, but we’re stuck because whatever it is, it’s been scratched away. You get to the point where ‘I can’t know’ may be the most learned answer you can give.”

If the father’s name was elusive, so was another basic fact about the woman, whose name means “divine help.”

“They don’t mention her age,” Mr. Friedman said. Dr. Fine said Christian tombstones from that area carried ages, but Jewish tombstones did not. That was simply the custom of the day, he said.

But the students could date the stone, based on the parallel dating systems inscribed on it. One referred to the Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. (That system was used by Jews in Greece until World War II, Dr. Fine said; the last place the system was used, he said, was Corfu, before the Nazis rounded up the Jews who lived there and sent them to Auschwitz.) The other system was based on the number seven. By comparing the two systems, they could say with certainty that she died 362 years after the destruction of the temple.

And then there were the symbols painted on the tombstone. Mr. Schwartz said the group assumed one was the Ten Commandments, because in the photographs from the museum, it looked like a tablet with writing on it. Dr. Fine knew better. “It’s an incense shovel,” he said — a symbol of ceremonies in a temple.

As the students worked to make sense of the tombstone, Dr. Fine kept in touch with Pastor Morgan in California. Finally, Pastor Morgan called Dr. Fine and said the tombstone “belongs at Yeshiva.”

That was, in part, because of the students’ work on dating the memorial stone. “Four twenty-nine, 430, that’s beyond what we deal with here,” Pastor Morgan said. “That’s recent history for our purposes.”

Dr. Fine recalled their conversation. “He said, ‘This is a Talmudic object, it should be at Yeshiva.’ I said, ‘O.K.’ He said, ‘Do you have any money?’ I said no” — a similar tombstone offered for sale was listed for $2,500 to $3,000 in Israel, Dr. Fine said. “He said, ‘Do you have anything to trade?’ I said no. He said, ‘Why don’t you come out and give a lecture and take it home?’ I did everything I could to convince him that he shouldn’t give it to us. He kept saying, ‘No, no, this is something that should be with you.’ So I went there.”

Pastor Morgan said he was happy with the bargain he struck: If Dr. Fine would give a lecture at Woodland, Yeshiva could have the tombstone for its museum.

“The stone itself is not really of a biblical period,” Pastor Morgan said. “That’s why I didn’t really need it here.”

“We are not equipped here to preserve sandstone with paint on it, which can deteriorate pretty quick,” he added. “We can handle ceramics, I can treat bronze, but for sandstone I need to go somewhere else. So I wanted it to go somewhere where it could be appreciated and where they would take care of it.”

Dr. Fine gave not one but two talks at the museum in October, and then he flew to New York with the tombstone wrapped, carefully, in what looked like a pizza box.

But the student detectives — who, like the forensics experts on the police procedurals on television, wear special gloves to handle the tombstone — have not declared the case closed. Now that they are able to study the stone itself, not just the photographs, they hope to unravel more about who Sa’adah was. They are close to pinning down the month in which she died.

“The fact we know this woman existed at all,” Mr. Schwartz said, “is a miracle.”

Barron, James. 2014. “Chasing 5th-Century Clues From a Woman’s Tombstone”. New York Times. Posted: December 13, 2013. Available online: