Monday, March 31, 2014

From surf to turf: Archaeologists and chemists trace ancient British diets

The change by our ancestors from hunter-gathers to farmers is one of the most intensively researched aspects of archaeology. Now a large-scale investigation of British archaeological sites dating from around 4,600 BC to 1,400 AD has examined millions of fragments of bone and analysed over 1,000 cooking pots.

The team, led by Professor Richard Evershed of the University of Bristol's School of Chemistry, developed new techniques in an effort to identify fish oils in the pots. Remarkably, they showed that more than 99 per cent of the earliest farmer's cooking pots lacked sea food residues.

Other clues to ancient diets lie within human bones themselves, explored by the Cardiff group led by Dr Jacqui Mulville. The sea passes on a unique chemical signature to the skeletons of those eating seafood; while the early fisher folk possessed this signature it was lacking in the later farmers.

Lead author of the study, Dr Lucy Cramp said: "The absence of lipid residues of marine foods in hundreds of cooking pots is really significant. It certainly stacks up with the skeletal isotope evidence to provide a clear picture that seafood was of little importance in the diets of the Neolithic farmers of the region."

Returning to the pots, the Bristol team used a compound-specific carbon isotope technique they have developed to identify the actual fats preserved in the cooking pots, showing that dairy products dominated the menu right across Britain and Ireland as soon as cattle and sheep arrived.

The ability to milk animals was a revolution in food production as, for the first time humans did not have to kill animals to obtain food. As every farmer knows, milking stock requires a high level of skill and knowledge.

In view of this, team member, Alison Sheridan from the National Museum of Scotland concludes that: "The use of cattle for dairy products from the earliest Neolithic confirms the view that farming was introduced by experienced immigrants."

Viewed together the findings show that Early British hunters feasted on venison and wild boar and ate large quantities of sea food, including seals and shellfish. With the introduction of domestic animals some 6,000 years ago they quickly gave up wild foods and fishing was largely abandoned, and people adopted a new diet based around dairying.

Dr Cramp continued: "Amazingly, it was another 4,000 years before sea food remains appeared in pots again, during the Iron Age, and it was only with the arrival of the Vikings that fish became a significant part of our diet."

Dr Mulville said: "Whilst we like to think of ourselves as a nation of fish eaters, with fish and chips as our national dish, it seems that early British farmers preferred beef, mutton and milk."

Why people changed so abruptly from a seafood to farming diet remains a mystery. Professor Evershed said: "Since such a clear transition is not seen in the Baltic region, perhaps the hazardous North Atlantic waters were simply too difficult to fish effectively until new technologies arrived, making dairying the only sustainable option."

EurekAlert. 2014. “From surf to turf: Archaeologists and chemists trace ancient British diets”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 12, 2014. Available online: ttp://

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Language Vitality Barometer Toolkit for Detecting Endangered Languages Available Online

Tools and database of the EU project ELDIA now generally accessible / Wake-up call to policymakers to help save endangered languages

The EuLaViBar language vitality barometer is a tool that can be used to determine the extent to which a language is threatened with extinction. Academics from eight universities in six European countries developed the barometer during a three-and-a-half year project sponsored by the European Union. It is now available to anybody interested online at "We originally developed the barometer for the purpose of analyzing Finno-Ugric minority languages, some of which are very much in danger of dying out," explained Professor Anneli Sarhimaa of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), who headed up the study. "However, the language vitality barometer can generally be applied to all languages threatened with extinction."

The barometer is designed to help policymakers and stakeholders identify languages that are at particular risk. The information provided by the barometer is based on empirical data extracted from surveys. Once particularly critical linguistic domains have been identified, it should then be possible to put in place targeted measures and use available resources efficiently.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Language Vitality Barometer Toolkit for Detecting Endangered Languages Available Online”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 11, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Males and females differ in specific brain structures

Reviewing over 20 years of neuroscience research into sex differences in brain structure, a Cambridge University team has conducted the first meta-analysis of the evidence, published this week in the prestigious journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews.

The team, led by doctoral candidate Amber Ruigrok and Professors John Suckling and Simon Baron-Cohen in the Department of Psychiatry, performed a quantitative review of the brain imaging literature testing overall sex differences in total and regional brain volumes. They searched all articles published between 1990 and 2013. A total of 126 articles were included in the study, covering brains from individuals as young as birth to 80 years old.

They found that males on average have larger total brain volumes than women (by 8-13%). On average, males had larger absolute volumes than females in the intracranial space (12%; >14,000 brains), total brain (11%; 2,523 brains), cerebrum (10%; 1,851 brains), grey matter (9%; 7,934 brains), white matter (13%; 7,515 brains), regions filled with cerebrospinal fluid (11.5%; 4,484 brains), and cerebellum (9%; 1,842 brains). Looking more closely, differences in volume between the sexes were located in several regions. These included parts of the limbic system, and the language system.

Specifically, males on average had larger volumes and higher tissue densities in the left amygdala, hippocampus, insular cortex, putamen; higher densities in the right VI lobe of the cerebellum and in the left claustrum; and larger volumes in the bilateral anterior parahippocampal gyri, posterior cingulate gyri, precuneus, temporal poles, and cerebellum, areas in the left posterior and anterior cingulate gyri, and in the right amygdala, hippocampus, and putamen.

By contrast, females on average had higher density in the left frontal pole, and larger volumes in the right frontal pole, inferior and middle frontal gyri, pars triangularis, planum temporale/parietal operculum, anterior cingulate gyrus, insular cortex, and Heschl's gyrus; bilateral thalami and precuneus; the left parahippocampal gyrus, and lateral occipital cortex.

The results highlight an asymmetric effect of sex on the developing brain. Amber Ruigrok, who carried out the study as part of her PhD, said: "For the first time we can look across the vast literature and confirm that brain size and structure are different in males and females. We should no longer ignore sex in neuroscience research, especially when investigating psychiatric conditions that are more prevalent in either males or females."

Professor Suckling added: "The sex differences in the limbic system include areas often implicated in psychiatric conditions with biased sex ratios such as autism, schizophrenia, and depression. This new study may therefore help us understand not just typical sex differences but also sex-linked psychiatric conditions. It is important to note that we only investigated sex differences in brain structure, so we cannot infer anything about how this relates to behaviour or brain function. Integrating across different levels will be an important goal for future research."

Professor Baron-Cohen commented: "Although these very clear sex differences in brain structure may reflect an environmental or social factor, from other studies we know that biological influences are also important, including prenatal sex steroid hormones (such as foetal testosterone) as well as sex chromosome effects. Such influences need to be teased out, one by one."

Dr Meng-Chuan Lai, another member of the team, noted: "The advantage of conducting a meta-analysis is that we can summarise the best knowledge from a vast, heterogeneous literature, with a very large sample size. However, we found a bias in the existing literature towards the use of volunteers over 18 years old, probably because this is the easiest age group to recruit and to brain scan. We need more research exploring brain development over the entire lifespan, especially in the early, formative years".

EurekAlert. 2014. “Males and females differ in specific brain structures”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 11, 2014. Available online:

Friday, March 28, 2014

Beach burials reveal slaving legacy

Coastal erosion of Saint -François, on the south coast of Grande-Terre, part of the Guadeloupe group of islands in the Lesser Antilles, has partially destroyed a colonial era cemetery situated on the beach. An archaeological excavation of the eroded area has been carried out by Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives (INRAP).

A skull and slave collar

This particular cemetery has been known about for several years. In the 1990s, the discovery of a skull associated with a slave collar produced the initial clue. Since then, human bones and coffin nails have emerged from the sand at regular intervals. Surveys conducted in 2013 helped uncover 48 individual burials, with indications of wooden coffins.

The deceased are all lying on their backs and mainly within coffins. The burials are aligned roughly east -west parallel to the shoreline; their heads mainly at the west end, and the presence of bone buttons indicate that they were dressed for burial. One of the individuals had cut incisors, suggesting an African place of birth and can be compared with the discoveries made at the slave cemetery of Anse Sainte -Marguerite (Grande-Terre). The population consists of adults and children of both sexes.

A long period of use

Overlapping burials reflect a relatively long use of the cemetery. The timeline remains unclear, but the evidence collected allows the archaeologists to propose an occupation from the late seventeenth to the nineteenth century. Between 500 and 1,000 graves are still in place.

All the threatened remains will be excavated and studied along with any historical sources. Guadeloupe had lucrative sugar plantations and a large slave population. Slavery was finally abolished in 1848, which was largely due to a campaign led by Victor Schoelcher, a French politician.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Beach burials reveal slaving legacy”. Past Horizons. Posted: February 11, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Is intelligence written in the genes?

Scientists at Kings College, London, have found the first gene which appears to be directly linked to intelligence

A gene which may make people more intelligent has been discovered by scientists. Researchers have found that teenagers who had a highly functioning NPTN gene performed better in intelligence tests.

It is thought the NPTN gene indirectly affects how the brain cells communicate and may control the formation of the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of the human brain, also known as ‘grey matter.’ Previously it has been shown that grey matter plays a key role in memory, attention, perceptual awareness, thought and language.

Studies have also proved that the thickness of the cerebral cortex correlates with intellectual ability. However, until now no genes had been identified.

Teens with an underperforming NPTN gene did less well in intelligence tests.

Dr Sylvane Desrivières, from King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry and lead author of the study, said: “We wanted to find out how structural differences in the brain relate to differences in intellectual ability.

“It’s important to point out that intelligence is influenced by many genetic and environmental factors.

“The gene we identified only explains a tiny proportion of the differences in intellectual ability.” An international team of scientists, led by King’s, analysed DNA samples and MRI scans from 1,583 healthy 14 year old teenagers.

The teenagers also underwent a series of tests to determine their verbal and non-verbal intelligence.

The researchers looked at over 54,000 genetic variants possibly involved in brain development.

They found that, on average, teenagers carrying a particular gene variant had a thinner cortex in the left cerebral hemisphere, particularly in the frontal and temporal lobes, and performed less well on tests for intellectual ability.

The genetic variation affects the expression of the NPTN gene, which encodes a protein acting at neuronal synapses and therefore affects how brain cells communicate.

Their findings suggest that some differences in intellectual abilities can result from the decreased function of the NPTN gene in particular regions of the left brain hemisphere.

Although the genetic variation identified in this study only accounts for an estimated 0.5 per cent of the total variation in intelligence.

However, the findings may have important implications for the understanding of biological mechanisms underlying several psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, autism, where impaired cognitive ability is a key feature of the disorder.

The study was published in Molecular Psychiatry.

Knapton, Sarah. 2014. “Is intelligence written in the genes?”. The Telegraph. Posted: February 11, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Cultural construction of nudes in Roman mosaics examined

The female nudes in Roman mosaics exalt beauty, the carnality and eroticism, while male bodies reflect determination, strength and power. This is one of the conclusions of research being carried out at the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid (UC3M) that analyzed the cultural construction and ideological implications of these artistic representations in which female predominate as compared to those of males.

Other research on the representations that appear in Roman mosaics analyzed clothing as an iconographic element that was fundamental in identifying the characters and determining their status, but this new focus centers on the opposite theme: the absence of any type of clothing. "The construction of the bodies is neither natural nor casual, as we are sometimes led to believe, but rather it is the result of relationships based on power; they were well established in society and were promoted by those who wielded that power," explains UC3M Ancient History professor, Luz Neira.

The analysis of the representations of nudes goes beyond the study of the work of art, investigating the very significant ideological implications for the reconstruction of the history of the elite during the Roman Empire, and the level of its influence on posterity. This is what is being examined in the essays, written by approximately ten specialists, which are gathered in the recently published book "Desnudo y cultura: la construcción del cuerpo en los mosaicos romanos" (The Nude and Culture: the construction of the body in Roman Mosaics), coordinated and edited by Professor Luz Neira. "Judging from the nude images in the mosaics, what is generally exalted is the beauty, the carnality and the eroticism of the female figure, through a subtle combination of different representations of the bust and abdomen, or the back and buttocks, which reflect care for the body and its availability; in contrast, the nudes depicting male bodies, equally complete but muscular, show determination, strength and power," states the researcher from UC3M's Instituto de Cultura y Tecnología (Institute for Culture and Technology).

More female than male nudes

The deeply asymmetric treatment of male and female bodies is evident and, therefore, constitutes a reflection of relationships based on power, according to the researchers. "The female figures predominate in the mosaic scenes, although some male representations have also been documented," the professor comments. In this case, the main male figures tend to be gods, heroes and mythological beings, or else wrestlers and athletes.

Contrary to what one might expect, these images were not limited to the most private areas of the homes. In fact, they have been documented in different receiving rooms of dwellings and in bathing areas, both public and private, where the impact of these images, sometimes covered by water, must have been very evocative, the researchers comment. One very revealing example is a representation of Ariadne or the Nereid that shows a nude female figure lying on a marine animal, with one arm behind her head in a position and with a gesture that has been interpreted as "availability to the other."

"The nudes chosen to decorate the flooring of domestic spaces are the result of the choices made by the most privileged members of the elite and they reflect their mentality, which leads us to consider that looking at them might awaken a series of feelings, reactions and attitudes," notes Luz Neira. "As is pointed out in the book, the reflected image is a tool for evocation, a symbol of everything that we see without really seeing and, at the same time, what we would like to see but do not see. Because the reflected image is, excuse the repetition, a reflection of the brain, the subconscious, the language of emotions," she concludes.

Science Daily. 2014. “Cultural construction of nudes in Roman mosaics examined”. Science Daily. Posted: February 10, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Genghis Khan, Founder of Mongol Empire: Facts & Biography

Genghis Khan was a 13th-century warrior in central Asia who founded the Mongol Empire, one of the largest empires in history. By the time he died, the empire controlled a vast amount of territory in China and central Asia, and its armies had ventured as far west as Kiev in modern-day Ukraine. The successors of Genghis Khan would go on to control kingdoms with territories in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe.

Despite his great achievements, and ferocious reputation, there is much about Genghis Khan that we don’t know. For instance, there is not a single authentic portrait of the man that survives to present day, writes Jean-Paul Raux, a professor emeritus at the Ecole du Louvre, in his book “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire” (Thames & Hudson 2003). All of the images of him that exist were created after his death or by people who otherwise never met him.

Additionally, until Genghis Khan gained control over the Uyghur people, the Mongolians did not have a writing system. As such many of the records that survive of him were written by foreigners. An important Mongolian record that survives is called the “Secret History of the Mongols,”but was written anonymously (as its name suggests) apparently sometime after Genghis Khan’s death. From what modern-day historians can gather he was born sometime around A.D. 1160 (the exact year is uncertain) and died in August 1227, apparently of natural causes, while in the process of waging a punitive campaign against the Tangut people (who were slaughtered after Genghis Khan died).

Early life

Genghis Khan was born with the name Temujin (also spelled Temuchin). At the time, Mongolia was ruled by different clans and tribal groups. His father, named Yesukai, “was lord and leader of 40,000 tents or families. Even his brothers, including those senior to him, acknowledged him as their leader and head of the Borjigin clan,” writes the late Syed Anwarul Haque Haqqi, who was a professor at Aligarh Muslim University, in his book “Chingiz Khan: The Life and Legacy of an Empire Builder” (Primus Books, 2010).

Temujin's mother, Hoelun, had been captured by his father’s clan and forced to become Yesukai’s wife (something that was common in Mongolia at the time). The boy was named Temujin to celebrate his father's triumph over an enemy, also named Temujin, writes Haqqi, who notes that naming a newborn child after an auspicious event was a common practice.

We know nothing of his early life “but it is reasonable to suppose that as the years rolled by and childhood turned into youth (he) was brought up in the hard and harsh atmosphere of nomadic life, in which the tribal lords and chiefs fought, drank, and duelled, married and slept with their weapons underneath them — a rigorous life in which chiefs shared the miseries, hungers and privations of their people,” writes Haqqi.

Around the age of 9, Temujin was betrothed to Börte, the 10-year-old daughter of Dai Sechen, the leader of the Jungirat tribe (there are different spellings of these names). Haqqi believed that Temujin lived for some time with his father in-law, although this is a source of debate among scholars.

At some point Temujin’s father, Yesukai, died (apparently poisoned) and Temujin returned home to find his father dead. The family’s power faded as many of his father’s followers deserted them.

Temujin, his family and remaining followers were forced to eke out a living on marginal pasturelands, contending with thieves and old rivals of Yesukai hoping to kill his family. Around the age of 14, Temujin is said to have murdered his half brother Bektor.

Rise to power

After a few years, Temujin felt that he was strong enough to return to Dai Sechen and take Borte’s hand in marriage. He overestimated his own strength, and Borte was kidnapped in a raid by a tribe called the Merkit. Temujin had to seek out the help of his friends Jamuqa and Toghrul (also called the Ong Khan or Wang Khan) to free her (they were both glad to help, as they hated the Merkit).

Chinese historical sources say that at some point Temujin was captured by the Jin Dynasty (who controlled part of China) and was held there for a number of years. Whether this is accurate or not is unknown.

The records do show that around 1200 Temujin had allied himself with Toghrul and would launch a campaign against the Tatars, which they defeated in 1202. The two would later have a falling out, and Toghrul was killed after his forces were defeated by Temujin. Temujin also had a falling out with Jamuqa and eventually had him killed also.

In 1206, Temujin had conquered most of Mongolia and the remaining tribes were forced to acknowledge him as their leader. He took the name Genghis Khan (also spelled Chingiz Khan or Tchingis Qaghan). The name has different translations, one of them being “oceanic sovereign,” writes Raux.

Building an empire

In the years after taking over Mongolia, Genghis Khan would launch a successful campaign against the Jin Dynasty, taking their capital Zhongdu (near modern-day Beijing) in 1215. He then turned his attention to the west, moving deeper and deeper into central Asia. In 1219, he launched a successful campaign against the shah of Khwarezm (based in modern-day Iran) reportedly with an army of up to 200,000 men.

Why Genghis Khan felt compelled to launch these campaigns is a matter of debate among scholars. Morris Rossabi of Columbia University writes in a section of the book “Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire” (University of Washington Press, 2009) that several ideas have been put forward. It’s possible that the wars in Mongolia had exhausted the country’s supply of animals and Genghis Khan needed to raid other countries to prevent starvation. Another idea is that a period of dry weather in Mongolia led to Genghis Khan decision to seize new lands for his people. Yet another idea is that Genghis Khan felt he had a divine right to conquer the world.

Whatever his reasons, his rapid conquests stunned the medieval world, Rossabi notes. While his tactics — the use of the composite bow, cavalry and feigned retreats — were not new, and he had to seek foreign help in order to learn how to conduct siege warfare, Genghis Khan made innovations in the form of government and organization. He transformed Mongolian society from one based on tribes to one capable of conquering and running an empire.

“Once he had conquered territories beyond Mongolia, he instituted a more sophisticated administrative structure and a regular system of taxation,” Rossabi writes. “Recruiting captured Turks, Chinese and others, he began to devise a more stable system that could contribute to a more orderly government, with specialized official positions.”

He devised a system of laws and regulations to run this new empire of his. “In accordance and agreement with his own mind he established a rule for every occasion and a regulation for every circumstance; while for every crime he fixed a penalty,” wrote the Persian writer Ata-Malik Juvayni, who lived in the 13th century, in his book “History of the World Conqueror” (Translated by John Andrew Boyle in 1958).

Genghis Khan said that plunder from his campaigns must be shared among his troops and insisted they follow a vigorous training routine focused on hunting. This was “not for the sake of the game alone, but also in order that they may become accustomed and inured to hunting and familiarized with the handling of the bow and the endurance of hardships,” Juvayni wrote.

Policies like these helped keep his army together, even when they were a long way from home. They are a “peasantry in the guise of an army, all of them, great and small, noble and base, in time of battle becoming swordsmen, archers and lancers and advancing in whatever manner the occasion requires,” wrote Juvayni.

While Genghis Khan was known for his brutality, he often ordered his troops not to harm artisans and to leave clerics alone, respecting holy men of other faiths. Khan himself followed a system of beliefs that revolved around Mongolian shamanism.

Genghis Khan’s death

Genghis Khan sought out Daoist priests, whom he believed knew the secret to eternal life. However, in the midst of a campaign against the Tangut people (whom he said had broken their word to him) he died, apparently of natural causes. His body was returned to Mongolia and his tomb was said to have been relatively modest for a ruler of his stature, although its location is unknown today.

After his death his son, Ogedai, succeeded him until his own death in 1241. Rossabi notes that future successions were contested, leading to disputes, wars and eventually the empire breaking into different states. “Such conflicts and the ensuing disunity would be prime factors in the collapse of the Mongol empire,” he writes.

To the people who became subjects of the empire, the rise of Genghis Khan was stunning and, to some, almost divine.

“Before the appearance of (Genghis Khan) they had no chief or ruler. Each tribe or two tribes lived separately; they were not united with one another, and there was constant fighting and hostility between them,” Juvayni wrote.

But when “the phoenix of prosperity wishes to make the roof of one man its abode, and the owl of misfortune to haunt the threshold of another … neither scarcity of equipment nor feebleness of condition prevents the fortunate man from attaining his goal …”

Jarus, Owen. 2014. “Genghis Khan, Founder of Mongol Empire: Facts & Biography”. Live Science. Posted: February 10, 2014. Available online:

Monday, March 24, 2014

Mysterious code in Viking runes is cracked

A runic code called jötunvillur has finally been decrypted. It just might help solve the mystery of the Vikings’ secret codes.

Why did Vikings sometimes use codes when they wrote in runes? Were the messages secret, or did they have other reasons for encrypting their runic texts? Researchers still don’t know for sure.

But Runologist K. Jonas Nordby thinks he has made progress toward an answer. He has managed to crack a code called jötunvillur, which has baffled linguists and historians for years.

His discovery can help researchers understand the purpose behind the mystery codes.

“It’s like solving a riddle,” says Nordby.

“After a while I started to see a pattern in what appeared to be meaningless combinations of runes,” he says.

Codes in frequent use

Ancient codes prompt associations with treasure hunts and conspiracies as depicted in The Da Vinci Code. But mysterious codes are not just the stuff of fiction and films. Real-life Vikings and medieval Norse people carved runic codes onto sticks of wood, stones and other objects.

The codes are found in many forms and contexts. They have turned up all over Scandinavia, the British Isles and other places where runes were used.

“It was very common to use codes. Much of the population mastered them. That’s why I think they were something people picked up at the same time they learned the runic alphabet. If you had learned to read and write, you had also learned codes,” says Nordby.

The use of the code as a tool in learning is not as odd as it might seem. There were no rune schools then but knowledge of this alphabet could be transferred from generation to generation by linking it to games, poetry, drills and codes,  Nordby says.

He is working on his doctorate in runes. Nordby is the first person to study all the findings of runic codes in Northern Europe, around 80 inscriptions. His PhD research has taken him to several countries to analyse runic inscriptions dating back as far as 800 AD.

Imaginative use

The use of runic codes was imaginative, but not mysterious enough for a Hollywood blockbuster.

“Many think the Vikings used cryptography to conceal secret messages. But I think the codes were used in play and for learning runes, rather than to communicate,” says Nordby.

One of the reasons for his claim is that the jötunvillur code is written in a way that makes the interpretation ambiguous.

“Jötunvillur can only be written, not read. It would be pointless to use it for messages,” says Nordby.

This is why he has considered other possible uses for the code.  Nordby thinks the Vikings memorised rune names with the help of the jötunvillur code.

All runes have names, and the jötunvillur code works by exchanging the rune sign with the last sound in the rune’s name. For example, the rune for the letter U is called “urr” so it is encoded with the rune for R. The problem is that many runes end in the same sound. This makes it hard to figure out which runic letter the code refers to.

The rune codes were not just used for learning. Nordby thinks the use also indicates a whimsical use of runes in the Viking Era and the Middle Ages.

“We have little reason to believe the runic codes were used to conceal sensitive information. People often wrote short, routine messages,” says Nordby.

Coded declarations such as “Kiss me” demonstrate that the use of code was not limited to issues of political significance. Many of the messages in runic codes included a challenge to the reader to crack the code. The inscription “Interpret these runes” was common.

“People challenged one another with codes. It was a kind of competition in the art of rune making. This testifies to a playfulness with writing that we don’t see today,” says Nordby.

Nine of the 80 or so coded runic writings that Nordby has investigated are written in the jötunvillur code. The others are written in cipher runes and with the use of Caesar cipher, a system involving a shift to letters a few places away in the alphabet. The latter two codes have been understood by researchers for some time.

Bragging about literacy and sex Being good at writing and breaking codes ensured a certain amount of status, and people bragged about their proficiencies. On the Orkney Islands, for instance, someone wrote in code:  “These runes were carved by the most rune-literate man west of the sea”.

Runic codes drawn as figures also show that Vikings played with writing.

A window of understanding

Henrik Williams, a professor at Uppsala University’s Department of Scandinavian Languages and a Swedish expert on runes, says that Nordby’s discovery is important.

“Above all, it helps us understand that there were more codes than we were aware of. Each runic inscription we interpret raises our hopes of soon being able to read more. This is pure detective work and each new method improves our chances,” says Williams.

He agrees that the codes could have been used as a tool for learning runes. But he is uncertain how big a role this would have played in the learning process. In any case, Williams thinks the codes were used for much more than communication.

“They challenged the reader, demonstrated skills, and testify to a joy in reading and writing.”

What can the codes say about society at the time they were used?

“They tell us much about people’s playfulness and innovation. We come closer to the thoughts of people living at the time through understanding their codes. Nordby has made an important discovery by breaking the code,” says Williams.

“But personally I think jötunvillur is an idiotic code, because whoever made it chose a system that is so hard to interpret. It’s irritating not being able to read it.”

Kvittingen, Ida. 2014. “Mysterious code in Viking runes is cracked”. Science Nordic. Posted: February 5, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bones of Father of Europe Found

Bones from Charlemagne's golden casket in Aachen Cathedral in Germany likely do belong to the warrior-king, say Swiss and German scientists who have studied the remains for 26 years.

"It might appear as an obvious conclusion but it isn't. Charlemagne was exhumed and reburied many times with parts of his body given away as relics, so identifying his skeleton is not an easy task," Frank Rühli, Head of the Center for Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, told Discovery News.

Rühli and colleagues announced the results of their research last week, 1,200 years after Charlemagne's death.

"The bones appear to belong to a single individual, an old and rather tall man. This matches contemporary descriptions of Charlemagne," Rühli said.

Charlemagne managed to forge the first empire in Europe after the demise of the Roman Empire. He died, possibly of pleurisy, after having ruled as Emperor for just over 13 years. Buried in the German Cathedral the same day as his death, on Jan. 18, 814, the father of Europe has not really rested in peace.

His tomb was first opened by the Emperor Otto III in the year 1000. According to contemporary chronicles, as Otto entered the underground chamber, he was struck by the vision of Charlemagne seated upon a throne, wearing a golden crown and holding a scepter, his fingernails sticking out the gloves.

"He had not lost any of his members to decay, except only the tip of his nose. Emperor Otto replaced this with gold, took a tooth from Charles's mouth, walled up the entrance to the chamber and withdrew," the Chronicle of Novalesia, written about 1026, reported.

In 1165, Frederick I, also known as Barbarossa, re-opened the tomb, displayed the remains as holy relics, then buried Charles in a marble sarcophagus beneath the floor of the cathedral. Fifty years later, Frederick II re-interred him in a casket made of gold and silver.

In 1349, some of Charlemagne's bones were removed and kept as relics by Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. After five undisturbed centuries, the founder of the Holy Roman Empire was exhumed again in 1861 for research purposes.

Scientists reconstructed the skeletal remains and came to understand what may have been behind the emperor's names: Charlemagne or Carolus Magnus (meaning "Charles the Great" as well as "Charles the Big"). His skeleton suggested he was surprisingly tall for his time.

In 1988, scientists secretly opened his sarcophagus one more time to reveal 94 bones and bone fragments. The researchers also discovered bones in a golden bust that were believed to belong to the famous leader.

More recently, in 2010, Church authorities made available to Rühli and colleagues the left tibia from the Shrine.

X-rays and CT scan analysis confirmed that Charlemagne was indeed a tall man, standing about 1.84 meters (6 feet) tall.

"He must have towered over 98 out of a 100 persons in his time," Rühli said.

Oddly, Charles's father, known as Pepin the Short, was just around 5 feet tall.

Analyzing the bone, Rühli and Australian colleague Maciej Henneberg also discovered that Charlemagne may have been thin. However, no serious illness was detected in the bones.

See Pictures at:

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2014. “Bones of Father of Europe Found”. Discovery News. . Posted: February 5, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Who owns the bones? Should bodies in museum exhibits be returned home?

From Egyptian mummies to Ötzi the Iceman, human remains are a common, if macabre, feature of museum exhibits. Writing in Clinical Anatomy, Dr. Philippe Charlier explores the argument that curators have an ethical obligation to return these bodies to their native communities for burial.

The recent case of the 'Irish Giant' Charles Byrne reveals that this is not an issue limited to cadavers from pre-antiquity. Byrne found celebrity in the 1780s and while his skeleton remains in the Royal College of Surgeons in London, ethics experts argue his remains should be buried at sea in accordance with his wishes.

Dr. Charlier argues that human remains in museums and scientific institutions can be divided into four categories, 'ethnographical elements' such as hair samples with no certain identification; anatomical remains such as whole skeletons or skulls; archaeological remains; and more modern collections of skulls, used in now discredited studies in the early 20th century.

After exploring case study examples from around the world, Dr. Charlier argues that the concept of the body as property is anything but clear and depends heavily on local political views and the administrative status of the human remains. The author proposes that the only precise factor permitting restitution should be the name of the individual, as in the case of Charles Byrne.

"The ethical problem posed by the bones of this 18th century individual approximates to that of all human remains conserved in public collections, displayed in museums or other cultural institutions," said Dr. Charlier. "In the near future, curators will have to choose between global conservation of all (or almost all) anthropological collections on the one hand and systematic restitution to their original communities or families on the other."

EurekAlert. 2014. “Who owns the bones? Should bodies in museum exhibits be returned home?”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 4, 2014. Available online:

Friday, March 21, 2014

When it comes to memory, quality matters more than quantity

The capacity of our working memory is better explained by the quality of memories we can store than by their number, a team of psychology researchers has concluded.

Their analysis, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Psychological Review, helps clarify a long-standing debate in psychology about the capacity of our "working memory": Are the limits on the amount of information we can remember for a short period, such as a phone number or a snapshot of a traffic situation, best understood as a cap on the total number of memories we can store or, rather, as a limitation on their quality?

"Our findings show that we don't simply store a set number of items and then recall them near-perfectly," says Weiji Ma, an associate professor in NYU's Center for Neural Science and Department of Psychology, and the study's senior author. "Rather, we try to memorize all relevant objects, but the quality of these recollections is uneven and gets worse as we have to remember more."

Working memory (WM) has a similar function as random access memory (RAM) in computers, but its mechanisms are not nearly as well understood. In recent years, psychology researchers have come to contrasting conclusions on the limits of working memory. Some have posited that there a fixed number of memories we can store in there—for example, we may be able to store the positions of only four different cars in our working memory at any one time.

However, others have maintained that working memory's storage is not defined by the number of items it can hold; rather, these scholars see its limits as better defined by the quality of memories. For instance, in recalling the colors in a painting, we may remember seeing light blue in the work when, in fact, the actual color was teal. In other words, working memory's bounds are a matter of precision rather than quantity.

In an effort to resolve this debate, Ma and colleagues examined data from 10 previously conducted experiments across six different laboratories, in total consisting of more than 130,000 subject responses. In a typical experiment, subjects were asked to recall one of up to eight colors they had seen a few seconds ago—a well-established measurement for gauging memory. This allowed the researchers to test different models that explained the capacity of our working memory—that is, is it a function of quality or quantity?

"This is the first study in this area that uses this much data, and we hope that our data set can serve as a benchmark for future studies," explains Ma.

Their analysis showed that working memory capacity is best explained in terms of the quality of memories. This quality gradually diminished as subjects were asked to recall more and more colors. Contrary to what many textbooks claim, memory performance could not be explained by a fixed number of memories.

Ma does add a caveat, "Our results certainly don't mean that you always remember everything that matters. However, 'remembering everything a little bit' seems much closer to the truth than 'remembering a few things perfectly and others not at all'."

Ma points to how we navigate traffic in illustrating how quality matters in working memory. When driving, we may store the positions of cars and pedestrians, the colors of the street signs, and the distance to the next traffic light. However, quality of some of these memories may be quite high (e.g., the positions of other cars) while for others it may be poor (e.g., the color of the street signs).

EurekAlert. 2014. “When it comes to memory, quality matters more than quantity”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 4, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Shy kids not delayed or deficient in language, they just speak less

Previous research has suggested that shy children have difficulties with language. Now, a new longitudinal study paints a more nuanced picture. The study, of 816 toddlers, found that children who are inhibited in their behavior tend to speak less but understand what's being said as well as less shy peers. In other words, these children have performance problems when speaking with others, but don't lack capability, suggesting that they're merely reluctant to respond rather than delayed or deficient in understanding language.

The study, conducted at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Connecticut, appears in the journal Child Development.

"Our findings suggest that inhibited behaviors like shyness don't hamper language acquisition overall but instead relate specifically to how toddlers express themselves through words," according to Ashley K. Smith Watts, graduate student, and Soo H. Rhee, associate professor of psychology, both of the University of Colorado, who were part of the research team.

The study also found that girls had higher levels of both shyness and language than boys. However, the degree to which shyness was related to language development was similar for girls and boys.

Researchers collected information from 816 children in Colorado who were primarily White but varied in socioeconomic status and who were representative of the population of Boulder. Information was collected at ages 14, 20, and 24 months through parent reports and by observing children during home and lab visits. The researchers assessed expressive, or spoken, language by asking children to imitate certain sounds and words (like /ai/ and "mama"), and by asking the children to answer questions verbally. They assessed receptive, or understood, language by asking children to follow instructions ("Give me the cup and ball").

"Shy children may need help with developing their speaking abilities," added Smith Watts and Rhee. "They may benefit from interventions that target confidence, social competence, and autonomy to support the development of expressive language. For example, caregivers can encourage them to be autonomous and arrange play dates with compatible peers."

Science Daily. 2014. “Shy kids not delayed or deficient in language, they just speak less”. Science Daily. Posted: February 3. 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Cultural identity – Celtic and Anglo-Norman realms

Jutting out from the edge of the Lake District and home to a proud industrial heritage, the Furness Peninsula seems to weld together many of our contrasting ideas about what Englishness means. To the north lies some of the country’s most outstanding areas of natural beauty; at the southern tip sits a shipyard where nuclear submarines for the Royal Navy are built. The area is defined by working-class values, post-industrial decline and 21st-century regeneration.

By uniting these elements, Furness appears to epitomise many of the complex ideas behind a notion of England that is both very modern, and very old.

Raises questions

But this, it turns out, is far from the complete picture. In a recent project, historians have begun to scratch the surface of a much earlier period in Furness’ past – one that not only changes what we know about its history, but also raises questions about these very ideas of Englishness itself.

For hundreds of years, it appears, this corner of the country was influenced as much by Irish, Manx and Scandinavian cultures as it was by the Anglo-Saxon, and then Anglo-Norman, kingdoms that stretched from the Channel to the Scottish border. Variously populated by speakers of English, Norse, Gaelic, Brittonic and French, Furness is unlikely to have always identified itself solely with what we now call England. Politically and culturally, its centre of gravity was quite often a complex network of communities clustered around the edges of the Irish Sea.

A monk called Jocelin

This different vision of Furness has the potential to change our view of how social identities and loyalties were formed not just there, but in medieval England as a whole. Why, though, have historians focused specifically on this obscure Cumbrian headland? The answer lies with a monk called Jocelin, who so far as we know was active between 1175 and 1214, and spent most of his life at Furness Abbey. Although now just a ruin outside the town of Barrow, in its heyday, the Abbey was one of the most powerful Cistercian monasteries in England.

Jocelin of Furness was a writer of saints’ lives, and one of the most significant writers to emerge from north-west England during the Middle Ages. His little-studied legacy poses an interesting conundrum: all four of the major Lives that he wrote are linked to the Celtic world, but were written when divisions between Anglo-Norman England and the Celtic realms (Scotland, Ireland and Wales) were supposedly very distinct. Indeed, recent histories of medieval Lancashire and Cumbria stress that this was a time when English royal government began to dominate and define the region.

If so, it is curious that Jocelin was so interested in, and conversant with, the Celtic world beyond. With this in mind, researchers embarked on a project in 2010 that aimed to understand more about Jocelin and the context in which he worked. ‘Hagiography at the Frontiers: Jocelin of Furness and Insular Politics’ was a joint project carried out by Dr Clare Downham and Dr Ingrid Sperber from the University of Liverpool and Dr Fiona Edmonds from the University of Cambridge, and was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Cultural interactions

As part of the initiative, Edmonds, based at Cambridge’s Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, carried out a study which pieced together cultural interactions around the Furness Peninsula, using the evidence of place names, personal names, administrative documents from Furness, the history of the Abbey, its offshoot ‘daughter-houses’ and Jocelin’s work itself.

“Typically this is a time when there is supposed to have been a strong distinction between the Anglo-Norman kingdom in which Jocelin lived and the Celtic world,” Edmonds said. “In fact, the history also involves deeper connections with Gaelic-Scandinavian communities in places like Ireland and the Isle of Man. These were still relevant in Jocelin’s own time.”

Her work presents a picture of ongoing cultural fluidity in Furness which pre-dates the Norman invasion by hundreds of years. For example, in the 7th century, when Furness was part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, it is possible that there was an enclave of people speaking Brittonic – the language of the Celtic Britons. Local place names like Leece and Roose have Brittonic origins, and it may be no coincidence that Jocelin himself stressed the Brittonic links of some of the saints whose Lives he wrote.

Great strategic importance

During the Viking age, archaeological finds such as the Silverdale Hoard (found on Morecambe Bay in 2011) suggest a distinctive ‘Hiberno-Scandinavian’ culture. This fits with the intermittent link that the Scandinavian rulers of York and Dublin attempted to forge between the two cities during the 10th century in particular. Lying in between, England’s northwest would have been of great strategic importance. Coinage, jewellery, grave goods, stone monuments and place names all point to Norse settlements and staging posts in the Furness area. It may even be that the local nobility was, at times, subject to powerful Norse rulers who dominated the Irish Sea from points such as Dublin and the Norse-Gaelic-ruled Kingdom of Man.

This cultural hybridity does not seem to have disappeared with the coming of the Normans. In the Domesday Book of 1086, the entry for the territory between the Ribble and the Esk is noteworthy because, unlike other parts of the country, it has not been divided into hundreds or wapentakes, the standard regional subdivisions used by the royal administration. The implication is that this regime was not fully imposed; certainly, landowners recorded around this time still exhibit a variety of Old English, Old Norse and Gaelic names.

Very strong links with the Isle of Man, in particular, probably remained in place for the next 200 years. In the 12th century, the Abbey established a daughter-house on Man – an unusual event because, by this stage, Furness Abbey was itself the daughter-house of the Norman foundation at Savigny. During the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, the Peninsula fell under the rule of the powerful Scottish king, David I. Meanwhile, Wimund, Bishop of Man and the Isles, launched attacks on the Scottish kingdom, and he was appeased by a grant of the Furness Peninsula.

Old Norse runic inscriptions

So by Jocelin’s own time, although Furness was officially part of the county of Lancashire and the kingdom of England, it seems that its cultural make-up was not so straightforward. If its elite was firmly Anglo-Norman by this stage, the identity of other people living there was less clear cut. Documents from the time reveal insular names among the local freemen, such as Gilmichel (Gaelic), Suanus (Old Norse origin), Waltheof (Old Norse) and Ailsi (Old English). At ecclesiastical sites on the Peninsula, like Conishead and Pennington, archaeologists have found Old Norse runic inscriptions. It may be that both Norse and Gaelic were still spoken. Jocelin himself was certainly able to deal confidently with Gaelic place names and personal names in his work.

In the end, Edmonds is careful about the implications of this six-century survey. “The Irish Sea link should not be over-emphasised at the expense of links to the rest of England and the Continent,” she writes. But they are also not mutually exclusive. At a time when historians have traditionally perceived the affirmation of Anglo-Norman England, Furness was a place with international contacts reaching from Scandinavia to Normandy. Beyond those who ruled, ordinary people may never have stopped looking west, where ties with those living on, and across, the Irish Sea survived.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Cultural identity – Celtic and Anglo-Norman realms”. Past Horizons. Posted: February 2, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Ishtar Gate: Grand Entrance to Babylon

The Ishtar Gate, named after a Mesopotamian goddess of love and war, was one of eight gateways that provided entry to the inner city of Babylon during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II (reign 605-562 B.C.). It was decorated with glazed blue bricks that depicted alternating rows of bulls and dragons.

A processional way went through this gateway and was decorated, in part, with reliefs of lions. Every spring a procession that included the king, members of his court, priests and statues of the gods traveled to the “Akitu” temple to celebrate the New Year’s festival.

“The dazzling procession of the gods and goddesses, dressed in their finest seasonal attire, atop their bejeweled chariots began at the Kasikilla, the main gate of the Esagila (a temple dedicated to Marduk), and proceeded north along Marduk’s processional street through the Ishtar Gate,” writes Julye Bidmead, a professor at Chapman University, in her book “The Akitu Festival: Religious Continuity and Royal Legitimation in Mesopotamia” (Gorgias Press, 2004).

The gate was excavated between 1899 and 1917 by a German archaeological team led by Robert Koldewey. After World War I part of the gateway, the smaller antegate, was reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin and is on public display. Additionally, the museum has the remains of the larger inner gate, which rose an estimated 25 meters (82 feet) off the ground from the roadway to the top of its towers, writes Andrew George, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, in an article in the book “Babylon” (Oxford University Press, 2008). A passageway running 48 meters (157 feet) connected the two gates to form a single double gateway, writes researcher Joachim Marzahn in another article in "Babylon."

“From the top of the gate an observer could see the whole city spread out below them,” George writes. This inner gate was so large that the Pergamon Museum didn’t have room to reconstruct it and its remains are currently in storage.

One name of the gateway was “Ishtar is the one who defeats his enemies” Marzahn writes. George added that the gateway was also called “Ishtar repels her attackers” and eventually it gained the epithet “entrance of kingship” because the gate “was where kings of gods and men together re-entered Babylon in triumph after the symbolic rituals of the Akitu temple.”

The Empire of Babylon

By the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II, the city of Babylon had existed for almost 2,000 years and had seen its share of good and bad times. Nebuchadnezzar II came to the throne at a time when Babylon was achieving unparalleled prosperity. By the end of his reign, the city would control an empire that extended, in an arc, from the Egyptian border to the Persian Gulf.

The city’s good fortune meant that Nebuchadnezzar II was able to embark on a building program that would see an older Ishtar Gate torn down and a new one, with blue glazed bricks, constructed. He also built a new processional way that went through the gate.

In the process of constructing the gate and renovating the processional way, and nearby palace, the king’s builders raised the ground nearly 20 meters (65 feet) above its original grade.

“Step by step, the former low-lying gate building and street had been raised some 20 (meters) during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar II,” writes Olof Pedersén of Uppsala University in an online article in the journal “Zeitschrift für archäologie und Kunstgeschichte.”

Dragons and bulls

The gateway itself was decorated with glazed blue bricks, which depict alternating rows of bulls and a dragon like creature called “Mušḫuššu.” This creature is the “sacred hybrid” of Marduk, the imperial god of Babylon who had a large temple in the city, and his son Nabu, writes Tallay Ornan of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in a 2005 edition of the journal “Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis.”

“The Mušḫuššu was viewed as a menacing hybrid with leonine features and a snake’s head which spouted two erect horns or a long horn, bent back with a curling end,” she writes. “Its long forked tongue sometimes hung from its mouth or, alternatively, was depicted as if spitting fire.”

She notes that bulls, such as the ones seen on the Ishtar Gate, represented Adad, a storm god in Mesopotamia.

Creating blue glazed bricks

The blue glazed bricks were a challenge to make but were durable and could make an impression on a visitor. They “created glossy and colorful pictures that were capable of withstanding weather,” writes Stephen Bertman, professor emeritus at the University of Windsor, in his book “Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia” (Facts on File, 2003).

“The brick was sculpted in low relief before being baked and was then coated with glazes in which pigments were blended with melted silica,” he writes.

Blue was a rare natural color in the Mesopotamian world and the glazed bricks “must have been a really, really, striking appearance to a visitor,” said Royal Ontario Museum curator Clemens Reichel in a video discussing a lion from Nebuchadnezzar II’s throne room which is now in the Toronto museum.

The end of Babylon

In 539 B.C., Babylon would fall to the forces of Cyrus the Great, who incorporated the city into the Persian Empire. About two centuries later, the city would fall again to Alexander the Great, who made it the capital of his own short-lived empire, which collapsed after his death in 323 B.C. Babylon then fell into a period of decline and eventually became abandoned, falling into ruin. 

While the Pergamon museum has many remains from the Ishtar Gate and processional way, reliefs can be found in other museums throughout the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. There are also substantial remains present in Iraq, and in 2010 a $2 million conservation grant was given by the U.S. State Department to help preserve the remaining portions of the gate, processional way and nearby ruins. They had sustained some damage in the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq War.

Jarus, Owen. 2014. “Ishtar Gate: Grand Entrance to Babylon”. Live Science. Posted: January 31, 2013. Available online:

Monday, March 17, 2014

Revealing how the brain recognizes speech sounds

UC San Francisco researchers are reporting a detailed account of how speech sounds are identified by the human brain, offering an unprecedented insight into the basis of human language. The finding, they said, may add to our understanding of language disorders, including dyslexia.

Scientists have known for some time the location in the brain where speech sounds are interpreted, but little has been discovered about how this process works. Now, in Science Express (January 30th, 2014), the fast-tracked online version of the journal Science, the UCSF team reports that the brain does not respond to the individual sound segments known as phonemes -- such as the b sound in "boy" -- but is instead exquisitely tuned to detect simpler elements, which are known to linguists as "features."

This organization may give listeners an important advantage in interpreting speech, the researchers said, since the articulation of phonemes varies considerably across speakers, and even in individual speakers over time.

The work may add to our understanding of reading disorders, in which printed words are imperfectly mapped onto speech sounds. But because speech and language are a defining human behavior, the findings are significant in their own right, said UCSF neurosurgeon and neuroscientist Edward F. Chang, MD, senior author of the new study.

"This is a very intriguing glimpse into speech processing," said Chang, associate professor of neurological surgery and physiology. "The brain regions where speech is processed in the brain had been identified, but no one has really known how that processing happens."

Although we usually find it effortless to understand other people when they speak, parsing the speech stream is an impressive perceptual feat. Speech is a highly complex and variable acoustic signal, and our ability to instantaneously break that signal down into individual phonemes and then build those segments back up into words, sentences and meaning is a remarkable capability.

Because of this complexity, previous studies have analyzed brain responses to just a few natural or synthesized speech sounds, but the new research employed spoken natural sentences containing the complete inventory of phonemes in the English language.

To capture the very rapid brain changes involved in processing speech, the UCSF scientists gathered their data from neural recording devices that were placed directly on the surface of the brains of six patients as part of their epilepsy surgery.

The patients listened to a collection of 500 unique English sentences spoken by 400 different people while the researchers recorded from a brain area called the superior temporal gyrus (STG; also known as Wernicke's area), which previous research has shown to be involved in speech perception. The utterances contained multiple instances of every English speech sound.

Many researchers have presumed that brain cells in the STG would respond to phonemes. But the researchers found instead that regions of the STG are tuned to respond to even more elemental acoustic features that reference the particular way that speech sounds are generated from the vocal tract. "These regions are spread out over the STG," said first author Nima Mesgarani, PhD, now an assistant professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University, who did the research as a postdoctoral fellow in Chang's laboratory. "As a result, when we hear someone talk, different areas in the brain 'light up' as we hear the stream of different speech elements."

"Features," as linguists use the term, are distinctive acoustic signatures created when speakers move the lips, tongue or vocal cords. For example, consonants such as p, t, k, b and d require speakers to use the lips or tongue to obstruct air flowing from the lungs. When this occlusion is released, there is a brief burst of air, which has led linguists to categorize these sounds as "plosives." Others, such as s, z and v, are grouped together as "fricatives," because they only partially obstruct the airway, creating friction in the vocal tract.

The articulation of each plosive creates an acoustic pattern common to the entire class of these consonants, as does the turbulence created by fricatives. The Chang group found that particular regions of the STG are precisely tuned to robustly respond to these broad, shared features rather than to individual phonemes like b or z.

Chang said the arrangement the team discovered in the STG is reminiscent of feature detectors in the visual system for edges and shapes, which allow us to recognize objects, like bottles, no matter which perspective we view them from. Given the variability of speech across speakers and situations, it makes sense, said co-author Keith Johnson, PhD, professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, for the brain to employ this sort of feature-based algorithm to reliably identify phonemes.

"It's the conjunctions of responses in combination that give you the higher idea of a phoneme as a complete object," Chang said. "By studying all of the speech sounds in English, we found that the brain has a systematic organization for basic sound feature units, kind of like elements in the periodic table."

Science Daily. 2014. “Revealing how the brain recognizes speech sounds”. Science Daily. Posted: January 30, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

A drowned land – 11,000 year old settlement of Hanö Bay

During the Early Holocene in southern Scandinavia sea levels were rising and large areas of the North Sea and the Baltic which had once been dry land were inundated and now lie beneath metres of cold waters.

Partly because of the growing exploitation of the continental shelves for resources including wind-farms, oil drilling and mining industries, this unique landscape is coming to light with the use of new technologies such as high resolution photogrammetric 3D-modelling and hydro acoustic mapping. This is allowing for remarkable visualisations of the submerged landscapes complete with sunken forests.

Combining environmental and archaeological data

In the Baltic, due to a combination of oscillating sea-levels  and the lack of common shipworm, the preservation of organic matter from the Preboreal, Boreal/Atlantic periods gave the researchers a unique possibility of combining both environmental and archaeological data from a period which contained several important climatic and cultural changes for the region.

Recent reports have highlighted the wealth of information that is being revealed on the seabed by Södertörn University Senior Lecturer Bjorn Nilsson and a team from Södertörn and Lunds University during both archaeological dives and marine survey investigations.

A drowned landscape

The team has uncovered a drowned landscape complete with trees and all the signs of human activity, including artefacts such as flint tools, animal horns, and modified auroch bones as well as ropes and fishtraps.

Nilsson explains that in contrast to dry land sites, this anaerobic environment has allowed the preservation of most organic remains.    Around 11,000 and 9,000 years ago, the sea level was up to 20 metres lower than it is today, and this forested coastal valley beside a river would have been a perfect location for early Mesolithic populations to exploit for resources.

However, before the maritime archaeologists can begin to dig, it requires careful investigation and mapping of the landscape below sea level, says Björn Nilsson, who has just returned after a first week of fieldwork in Blekinge.

Earliest settlers

On previous dives Arne Sjöström, a marine archaeologist at Södertörn University and fellow marine archaeologist January Öijeberg at Malmö Museum, found the world’s oldest surviving fixed fishing system – several fish traps of woven hazel branches, which has been C14 radiocarbon dated to circa 9,000 years old.

The area that the scientists are examining would have once been a forested landscape before the gradual inundation of the land turned it first to lagoon and then submerged the area beneath what is now the Baltic Sea.

Using a multidisciplinary approach, the archaeologists, geologists, marine biologists, geographers and environmental scientists can create a new picture of life and climate 11,000 years ago. This research will also increase our knowledge of prehistoric settlements and resource usage in ways that inland sites are just not able to do.

Past Horizons. 2014. “A drowned land – 11,000 year old settlement of Hanö Bay”. Past Horizons. Posted: January 29, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Save ancient Chinese scrolls with anti-curl weapons

Ancient Chinese scrolls may solve a dilemma for futuristic electronics: how to avoid curling. Hanging scrolls traditionally used in Chinese paintings are normally stored rolled up to protect their delicate artwork. But when unrolled, the long sides will curl, potentially causing damage.

Tzay-Ming Hong at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and his colleagues decided to investigate curling scrolls after a trip to the National Palace Museum in Taipei, where they talked to art conservationists about ways to use physics to protect hanging scrolls. "Like the mounting masters before them, over the span of more than 2000 years, they did not think this problem was at all solvable," says Hong.

The team modelled the problem on computers and with real paper and plastic films. They found that rolling causes the back layer of a scroll to stretch along its length. This means the paper shrinks back when the scroll is laid out flat, causing it to expand along its width and curl.

Stiffer back

The paper backing used to mount scrolls is often replaced as part of normal restoration. So Hong's team says one solution is to replace the backing on scrolls with paper that has fibres aligned with the long edges, increasing stiffness in that direction. Adding extra layers of paper to the sides has a similar effect.

Alternatively, making tiny perforations along the entire backing sheet with a stiff brush will reduce the amount of stretch that converts into curling. The team saw similar results for plastic films, which suggests that these techniques could be useful for designing flexible electronic displays, which also curl after rolling.

"No one would have guessed that studying ancient Chinese paintings would lend a lesson to modern technologies such as flexible electronic paper," says Hong.

Aron, Jacob. 2014. “Save ancient Chinese scrolls with anti-curl weapons”. New Scientist. Posted: January 28, 2014. Available online:

Friday, March 14, 2014

Plague or Black Death could re-emerge: Cause of one of the most devastating pandemics in human history revealed

An international team of scientists has discovered that two of the world's most devastating plagues - the plague of Justinian and the Black Death, each responsible for killing as many as half the people in Europe -- were caused by distinct strains of the same pathogen, one that faded out on its own, the other leading to worldwide spread and re-emergence in the late 1800s. These findings suggest a new strain of plague could emerge again in humans in the future.

"The research is both fascinating and perplexing, it generates new questions which need to be explored, for example why did this pandemic, which killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people die out?" questions Hendrik Poinar, associate professor and director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre and an investigator with the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research.

The findings are dramatic because little has been known about the origins or cause of the Justinian Plague- which helped bring an end to the Roman Empire - and its relationship to the Black Death, some 800 years later.

Scientists hope this could lead to a better understanding of the dynamics of modern infectious disease, including a form of the plague that still kills thousands every year.

The Plague of Justinian struck in the sixth century and is estimated to have killed between 30 and 50 million people -- virtually half the world's population as it spread across Asia, North Africa, Arabia and Europe. The Black Death would strike some 800 years later with similar force, killing 50 million Europeans between just 1347 and 1351 alone.

Using sophisticated methods, researchers from many universities including McMaster University, Northern Arizona University and the University of Sydney, isolated miniscule DNA fragments from the 1500-year-old teeth of two victims of the Justinian plague, buried in Bavaria, Germany. These are the oldest pathogen genomes obtained to date.

Using these short fragments, they reconstructed the genome of the oldest Yersinia pestis, the bacterium responsible for the plague, and compared it to a database of genomes of more than a hundred contemporary strains.

The results are currently published in the online edition of The Lancet Infectious Disease. They show the strain responsible for the Justinian outbreak was an evolutionary 'dead-end' and distinct from strains involved later in the Black Death and other plague pandemics that would follow.

The third pandemic, which spread from Hong Kong across the globe is likely a descendant of the Black Death strain and thus much more successful than the one responsible for the Justinian Plague.

"We know the bacterium Y. pestis has jumped from rodents into humans throughout history and rodent reservoirs of plague still exist today in many parts of the world. If the Justinian plague could erupt in the human population, cause a massive pandemic, and then die out, it suggest it could happen again. Fortunately we now have antibiotics that could be used to effectively treat plague, which lessens the chances of another large scale human pandemic" says Dave Wagner, an associate professor in the Center for Microbial Genetics and Genomics at Northern Arizona University.

The samples used in the latest research were taken from two victims of the Justinian plague, buried in a gravesite in a small cemetery in the German town of Aschheim. Scientists believe the victims died in the latter stages of the epidemic when it had reached southern Bavaria, likely sometime between 541 and 543.

The skeletal remains yielded important clues and raised more questions.

Researchers now believe the Justinian Y. pestis strain originated in Asia, not in Africa as originally thought. But they could not establish a 'molecular clock' so its evolutionary time-scale remains elusive. This suggests that earlier epidemics, such as the Plague of Athens (430 BC) and the Antonine Plague (165 -180 AD), could also be separate, independent emergences of related Y. pestis strains into humans.

"The tick of the plague bacteria molecular clock is highly erratic. Determining why is an important goal for future research" says Edward Holmes, an NHMRC Australia Fellow at the University of Sydney.

Our response to modern infectious diseases is a direct outcome of lessons learned from ancestral pandemics, say the researchers.

"This study raises intriguing questions about why a pathogen that was both so successful and so deadly died out. One testable possibility is that human populations evolved to become less susceptible," says Holmes.

"Another possibility is that changes in the climate became less suitable for the plague bacterium to survive in the wild," says Wagner.

The research was funded in part by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Canada Research Chairs Program, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. National Institutes of Health and the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council.

Science Daily. 2014. “Plague or Black Death could re-emerge: Cause of one of the most devastating pandemics in human history revealed”. Science Daily. Posted: January 27, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Humans in nature: The world as we find it and the world as we create it

New book by Hastings Center scholar explores the intrinsic value of nature in polarized debates about environmental preservation, GMOs, synthetic biology, and human enhancement

People are increasingly concerned about the extent to which technology enables us to alter nature: causing the extinction of plants and animals, genetically modifying crops and livestock, using synthetic biology to engineer organisms for human benefit, and enhancing athletic performance and other aspects of human nature.

Underlying each of these concerns is an intuition that a natural state of affairs should be preserved for its own sake because it has intrinsic moral significance. Does it? How far should public policy go to preserve nature? And is there even an agreed-upon definition of "natural?"

These questions are central to Humans in Nature: The World as We Find it and the World as We Create It, a new book by Gregory E. Kaebnick, a research scholar at The Hastings Center and editor of the Hastings Center Report. The book was published by Oxford University Press.

Debates about nature are highly polarized. On one side are those who believe that concerns about altering nature are profoundly important; on the other side are those who argue that such concerns are irrational, even incoherent. This book marks out a middle way – "to provide a way of thinking about the human relationship to nature that neither leaves all objections to altering nature standing nor wipes them all off the table as illegitimate."

The book begins by exploring the question, "What is natural?" The answer is not as simple as it seems. "The world as found and the world as created or altered can be hard to tease apart," Kaebnick writes. "Is the tallgrass prairie 'natural,' or does the fact that human beings maintain it by regularly setting fires establish that the entire ecosystem we associate with the American Midwest was actually a kind of human artifact?"

"The difficulty of understanding how to think about the concept of nature is possibly the most fundamental problem in getting clear on whether leaving nature alone can ever be morally desirable," he writes.

The first half of the book isolates the philosophical arguments about the human relationship to nature and their bearing on public policy. The second half conducts a comparative analysis of four specific debates: arguments about preserving the environment, genetically altering livestock and crops, synthetic biology, and human enhancement. Setting these seemingly diverse problems alongside each other can be illuminating. For example, the literature on environmentalist concerns might suggest new ways of thinking about human enhancement, since concerns about enhancement have foundered on the difficulty of identifying a natural state of affairs or explaining why it can have intrinsic value, topics that are explored in environmental philosophy. "These arguments should be in dialogue with each other," he writes.

Kaebnick concludes that nature need not be entirely distinct from that which is caused by humans. The challenge is to determine where to draw the line between "natural" and "unnatural." In many cases, there will be no consensus on where to draw that line; individuals will have different views, based on their personal values. Kaebnick also concludes that moral perspectives about nature may legitimately be taken up in public policy, but in a way that "carves out room" in which citizens can live by their own values.

He offers the debate over genetically modified foods as an example of how this recommendation might be put into practice. "Where food comes from and what has happened to it along the way, whether it seems natural, matters to people," he writes. "At stake, then, in the decision to avoid GM foods (or, for that matter, in a decision actively to seek them) is a feeling about the kind of relationship to the natural world one wants to stand in."

The policy response to GM foods "should make it possible for people to uphold their commitments but should not force others to conform to them," he writes, citing labeling as one way to accomplish this.

"Humans in Nature is an exceptionally wide-ranging and fair-minded exploration of the concept of nature and its role in practical issues," writes William A. Galston, senior fellow at The Brookings Institution.

"Kaebnick's discussion is nuanced, wide-ranging, and persuasive," writes B. Andrew Lustig, Holmes Rolston III Professor of Religion and Science at Davidson College. "The book will be of immense value to both academic and policy audiences."

"Greg Kaebnick has fearlessly traveling into hotly contested debates," says Mildred Z. Solomon, EdD, president of The Hastings Center. "In true Hastings Center spirit, this important book finds a way to respect seemingly incommensurable values and to walk forward together."

EurekAlert. 2014. “Humans in nature: The world as we find it and the world as we create it”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 27, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A treasure trove of Arabic terms

Are the terms alcohol and kohl related? Yes, if we trace their origins. An Arabic etymological term base, the first of its kind, can provide new knowledge about Arab identity and cultural history.

Arabic is one of the world's most widely spoken languages, with an estimated 250 to 300 million native speakers. Despite this fact, there is still no Arabic etymological dictionary. However, the dictionary is on its way. Stephan Guth, Professor of Arabic at the University of Oslo, has taken the initiative to pursue this research project.

"There has been a lot of etymological research, but it has not been collected anywhere," the professor explains.

The plan is to establish an electronic database, EtymArab. In an upstart phase, the website will be based on words and concepts from Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) only, but these are also chosen to shed light on roots and concepts that have a special importance in Arab intellectual and cultural history, from ancient times until the present day.

"The history of their language helps us understand who the Arabs are -- and were," Guth says. He points out that the database will also present the narratives that emerge when a word is traced back in time. As such, EtymArab will be more than a standard etymological dictionary.

Words unlock the doors to history

"Alcohol is a word that you will not find in dictionaries of Classical Arabic. In the final analysis, however, this word is of Arabic origin. It is derived from the Arabic al-kuhl, which means 'kohl'. When the Europeans became familiar with this substance in Andalusia, which was also used for medical purposes, they referred to it and gradually all other fine powders, and subsequently all kinds of volatile essences, as alcohol. In Catalan, kohl is still called alcofoll.

In the meaning "essence of wine, spirit," the word later returned to the Arabs and became al-kuhul, Guth explains.

"Today, we thus have two Arabic words: The one that started this development, i.e. al-kuhl, which still means 'kohl', and the loan word al-kuhul, which means 'alcohol'.

"When a word is opened, several doors to history are unlocked," Guth points out. Kohl (kuhl) turns out to have been a commodity which was widely used in the Orient, and it was probably already known in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia.

"Almost each time I go to the root of a word, I discover new nuances, new narratives," the professor says.

The first step: a thousand-word prototype

The research project, launched in 2012, builds upon the many studies undertaken so far in the West and in Arab countries.

"It's a comprehensive work we have ahead of us. As for myself, I do not expect to see the database completed," Guth says.

The first step is a prototype that will contain approximately 1,000 words and concepts.

"Everything will need quality assurance, of course. This is a major challenge. We need expertise from a number of other disciplines to interpret our findings correctly. For example philosophy, theology and medicine, as well as all the major philologies of the Ancient Orient, in particular Semitic languages such as Akkadian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Ethiopic and Old South Arabian. But also all stages of Persian. Gradually, we wish to open the database to the entire world, according to the Wikipedia model."

Etymology is a sensitive issue

"Why a European project, and not an Arabic one?"

"The fact that the Arabs themselves have not produced an etymological dictionary so far is probably due to the sacred status of the Arabic language. A historic approach, such as ours, is more common in the European tradition than in the Arabic one," Guth explains. He has previously lived in Arabic-speaking countries, in Cairo and Beirut.

"Arabs tend to be hesitant about cooperating with the West with regard to projects that touch upon Arab and Muslim identity. Etymology, like archaeology, can be a very sensitive area. It was not always like this, however. Until the mid-20th century such cooperation was far more relaxed. Matters were later complicated by the establishment of the state of Israel, the Palestine refugee tragedy, and other traumatic experiences such as the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the Gulf Wars."

He adds, however, that attitudes to the West have changed somewhat in recent years.

"We now have contact with scholars in Qatar. A group of Arab researchers have embarked on a promising project, a dictionary that addresses Arabic language history."

Even the Koran is full of loanwords

"Many Arabs claim that Arabic is essentially a pure language," Professor Guth points out.

"As a result of the anticolonial national movement, several purist language academies emerged, striving to keep the language 'pure'."

According to etymological research, however, Arabic has always been a linguistic cocktail.

"But Arabic is also a conservative language. Loanwords tend to be Arabized," he says, using the word 'train' as an example.

"The Arabs became familiar with trains as a means of transport in the 19th century. But instead of adopting the French or English word 'train', as the Turks did, they chose an old Arabic word instead: qitar, which until then had been used to describe a train of camels."

Throughout various historical epochs, Arabic has been influenced by several other languages.

"Even though most Arabic words look 'purely Arabic', many of them are loanwords, which points to the fact that there has always been close contact between the cultures. Even the Koran is full of loanwords, most of which originate from Syrian-Aramaic and Hebrew. This is a result of the presence of Christian and Jewish groups in Arabia at the time."

Islamic theology impossible without Hellenism

"Islamic theology and other sciences would look much different, or perhaps would not exist at all, had the Arabs not absorbed the Hellenist legacy," Guth points out.

"The culture of the Arab royal courts during the 'Golden Age' is basically Persian royal court culture."

The culture and history of the Arabs are hidden in their words.

"That's why this research project is important. That's why it is essential to put in place an etymological dictionary such as this one. It may provide answers to questions such as: Who are the Arabs today? Who were the Arabs before the birth of Islam?"

Science Daily. 2014. “A treasure trove of Arabic terms”. Science Daily. Posted: January 24, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cultural connections with Europe found in ancient Jordanian settlement

Swedish archaeologists in Jordan led by Professor Peter M. Fischer from the University of Gothenburg have excavated a nearly 60-metre long well-preserved building from 1100 B.C. in the ancient settlement Tell Abu al-Kharaz. The building is from an era characterized by major migration. New finds support the theory that groups of the so-called Sea Peoples emigrated to Tell Abu al-Kharaz. They derive from Southern or Eastern Europe and settled in the Eastern Mediterranean region all the way to the Jordan Valley.

"We have evidence that culture from present Europe is represented in Tell Abu al-Kharaz. A group of the Sea Peoples of European descent, Philistines, settled down in the city," says Peter Fischer. "We have, for instance, found pottery resembling corresponding items from Greece and Cyprus in terms of form and decoration, and also cylindrical loom weights for textile production that could be found in central and south-east Europe around the same time."

Tell Abu al-Kharaz is located in the Jordan Valley close to the border to Israel and the West Bank. It most likely corresponds to the biblical city of Jabesh Gilead. The Swedish Jordan Expedition has explored the city, which was founded 3200 B.C. and lasted for almost 5,000 years. The first excavation took place in 1989 and the most recent in autumn 2013. All in all, 16 excavations have been completed.

Peter M. Fischer and his team of archaeologists and students have surveyed an urban settlement that flourished three times over the 5,000 years: around 3100-2900 B.C. (Early Bronze Age), 1600-1300 B.C. (Late Bronze Age) and 1100-700 B.C. (Iron Age). These are the local periods; in Sweden, they occurred much later.

Remarkably well-preserved stone structures have been exposed during the excavations. The finds include defensive walls, buildings and thousands of complete objects produced locally or imported from south-east Europe.

"What surprises me the most is that we have found so many objects from far away. This shows that people were very mobile already thousands of years ago," says Fischer.

The scientists have made several sensational finds in the last three years, especially during the excavation of the building from 1100 B.C. where containers still filled with various seeds were found. There are also finds from Middle Egypt that were exported to Tell Abu al-Kharaz as early as 3100 B.C.

The exploration of the 60-metre long building discovered in 2010 continued during the most recent excavation. It was originally built in two levels of which the bottom level is still standing with walls reaching 2.5 meters in height after more than 3,000 years.

The archaeologists found evidence indicating that the Philistines who lived in the building together with local people around 1100 B.C. utilized a defense structure from 3,000 B.C. in the form of an old city wall by constructing their building on top of it. In this way, they had both easy access to building material and a solid surface to build on.

"One of our conclusions after the excavation is that "Jordanian culture" is clearly a Mediterranean culture even though the country does not border the Mediterranean Sea. There were well-organized societies in the area long before the Egyptian pyramids were built," says Peter M. Fischer.

The excavations in Tell Abu al-Kharaz are funded mainly by the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities. Only about 20 per cent of the city has been exposed so far, and in some places just the top layers. The Swedish Jordan Expedition 2013 consisted of professional archaeologists and students from Sweden, Austria, Germany, Iceland, Poland, Switzerland and Jordan.

Science Daily. 2014. “Cultural connections with Europe found in ancient Jordanian settlement”. Science Daily. Posted: January 23, 2014. Available online:

Monday, March 10, 2014

Islamic studies: Papyrus, parchment and paper trails.

In a pioneering project funded by the Mellon Foundation, scholars at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich are compiling a database of Arabic documents, many dating from the early years of Islam. The online resource affords unique insights into everyday life in Arab lands.

The Arabic Papyrology Database (APD) is a unique resource which makes a wealth of historical documents written in Arabic freely available online. The collection includes letters, marriage contracts and rental agreements dating from the seventh century, accounts of tax revenues received and wages paid out, and texts inscribed on amulets. "The documents give us unparalleled insights into daily life, particularly in Egypt, from the time of the Arab conquest up until the 16th century," says Professor Andreas Kaplony, who holds the Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies at LMU, and is supervising the compilation of the database.

The work of Kaplony and his colleagues is being made possible by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, which has just approved a grant of over 450,000 dollars for the coming two years. The database is expected to be complete by the end of 2015, and will bring together all 2500 documents previously published in the literature. In addition, the researchers at LMU are constructing a second database which consists of metadata on texts that have not previously been published elsewhere. When complete, this will provide information on a further 15,000 documents.

Largely untapped sources

The APD is a unique database that catalogs historical documents from Arab lands which are directly concerned with the minutiae of everyday life. "These informal sources provide insights into aspects of daily life that literary sources pass over. For instance, they give us glimpses of the lives of women, children and peasants. The database reveals a rich variety of sources, which are not widely known," says Kaplony.

The database is freely accessible on the internet, and offers a range of research tools for scholars in many fields, not just papyrologists but also historians and linguists. In addition to a transcript of each original text, the database incorporates metadata pertaining to each document, including its date, the material it is written on and translations with unusually detailed commentaries. "We document the various steps in the editorial process, and include variant readings, which is a feature not found in other databases," says Kaplony. In addition, each lexical term in the Arabic texts is directly linked to an online glossary.

The team at LMU and universities of Zürich and Vienna has been working on the APD since 2006,and the database currently comprises 1575 texts. "The APD provides valuable information about Arabic language usage, both in its colloquial and literary forms. It also facilitates the study of particular classes of documents such as legal or administrative texts, but also personal correspondence. This material tells us how a sales contract was set out, or how letters were formulated. How did one address one's 'favorite (female) slave'? How did one inform a son, politely but firmly, that he should return home immediately? That sort of question can only be answered if one has access to a large corpus of texts," as Kaplony explains.

The texts were written on papyrus, parchment or paper. The originals are held in archives and manuscript collections dispersed all over the globe. Some 130,000 historical documents relating to everyday life in Arab societies are currently known, the majority of which are not yet available in scholarly editions. The Mellon Foundation has a long-standing association with the Arabic Papyrology Database, and provided funding for the project over the three years up to 2013.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Islamic studies: Papyrus, parchment and paper trails”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 23, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Seashells inspire new way to preserve bones for archeologists, paleontologists

Recreating the story of humanity's past by studying ancient bones can hit a snag when they deteriorate, but scientists are now reporting an advance inspired by seashells that can better preserve valuable remains. Their findings, which appear in the ACS journal Langmuir, could have wide-ranging implications for both archeology and paleontology.

Luigi Dei and colleagues explain that a process similar to osteoporosis causes bones discovered at historically significant sites to become brittle and fragile — and in the process, lose clues to the culture they were once part of. Preserving them has proved challenging. Current techniques to harden and strengthen bones use vinyl and acrylic polymers. They act as a sort of glue, filling in cracks and holding fragments together, but they are not ideal. In an effort to stanch the loss of information due to damage, Dei's team set out to find a better way to preserve old bones.

The researchers turned to seashells for inspiration. Using skeletal fragments from the Late Middle Ages, they grew aragonite, a kind of lime that some sea animals produce to shore up their shells, on the bones in a controlled way. The treatment hardened the surfaces of the bones, as well as the pores inside them, making the ancient remains 50 to 70 percent sturdier. "These results could have immediate impact for preserving archeological and paleontological bone remains," the scientists conclude.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Seashells inspire new way to preserve bones for archeologists, paleontologists”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 22, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Elephant Mystery at Ancient Syrian Battle Solved

The mystery of an ancient battle between two warring troops of elephants has been solved, thanks to a modern genetic analysis of the lumbering beasts.

Researchers have now found that Eritrean elephants, which live in the northeastern portion of Africa, are savanna elephants, and are not related to the more diminutive forest elephants that live in the jungles of central Africa.

That, in turn, discounts an ancient Greek account of how a battle between two warring empires played out, with one side's elephants refusing to fight and running away, the scientists report in the January issue of the journal of Heredity.

Ancient battle

In the third century B.C., the Greek historian Polybius described the epic Battle of Raphia, which took place around 217 B.C. in what is now the Gaza Strip, as part of the Syrian Wars. During these wars, Seleucid ruler Antiochus III the Great fought against  Ptolemy IV Philopator, the fourth ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt, whose last leader was Cleopatra. The matchup included tens of thousands of troops, thousands of cavalry and dozens of war elephants on each side.

The elephants were the "ace in the hole," able to trample the enemy and sow terror with their massive size.

"Elephants were considered the tanks of the time, until eventually the Romans figured out how to defeat war elephants," in later times, said study co-author Alfred Roca, an animal scientist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Antiochus had easy access to Asian elephants from India, but Ptolemy didn't. Instead, he set up outposts in what is now modern-day Eritrea to get African elephants.

Unfortunately, that strategy didn't work out so well: According to Polybius' account, the African elephants turned tail and ran when they saw how gigantic the Asian elephants were. Ptolemy, however, was able to recover due to missteps by Antiochus and eventually won the battle.

African elephants

In reality, Asian elephants are smaller than African elephants, so some historians speculated that perhaps the Ptolemies were using African forest elephants, which tend to be smaller, Roca said.

So Roca and his colleagues conducted a thorough genetic analysis of the elephants found in Eritrea, the descendants of the losers in the ancient battle.

"We showed using pretty much every genetic marker, that they were savanna elephants," Roca told LiveScience. "This was contrary to some speculation that there may be forest elephants present in that part of the world."

The team also found that there were just 100 to 200 African elephants left in isolated pockets in Eritrea, which could make them susceptible to inbreeding in the future.

Ancient myths

The findings suggest that Polybius had it wrong, and the African elephants got spooked for some other reason than the overpowering size of the Asian elephants.

In other ancient documents, "There were these ancient semi-mythical accounts of India, and they claimed that India had the biggest elephants in the world," Roca said.

Polybius, who wasn't actually at the battle, likely read those accounts and surmised the Asian elephants' bigger size caused their opponents to panic.

In fact, until about the 1700s, when scientists actually measured the two, most people still thought Asian elephants were the larger species, Roca said. (And even now, games such as Age of Empires that recreate the Battle of Raphia depict the Ptolemaic elephants as smaller.)

Ghose, Tia. 2014. “Elephant Mystery at Ancient Syrian Battle Solved”. Live Science. Posted: January 21, 2014. Available online: