Saturday, May 31, 2014

What is Anthropology?

Anthropology is the study of humans, early hominids and primates, such as chimpanzees.

Anthropologists study human language, culture, societies, biological and material remains, the biology and behavior of primates, and even our own buying habits. It’s a broad discipline that constantly incorporates new technologies and ideas. As technologies are developed that allow exoplanets to be detected and studied in greater detail, anthropology may eventually expand to include the study of non-human civilizations.

“Historically, anthropologists in the United States have been trained in one of four areas: sociocultural anthropology, biological/physical anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics,” writes the American Anthropological Association on its website. “Anthropologists often integrate the perspectives of several of these areas into their research, teaching, and professional lives.”

To an anthropologist, “anything is available to inspection, including the most ordinary, mundane items and events such as a McDonald’s hamburger, a pair of blue jeans, a cell phone, a birthday or New Year’s Eve, and so forth,” writes Carol Delaney, a professor emeritus at Stanford University, in her book “An Experiential Introduction to Anthropology” (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011). “Each of them provides a window into a much larger set of beliefs, power relations, and values,” she writes.

In thinking about ordinary things from our culture, we can help understand those of others. “For example what would you make of a community that celebrates death days rather than birthdays? How might that fact relate to other facets of that society? What other kinds of questions would you need to ask to begin to understand not just that practice but also the culture in which it occurs?”

Sociocultural anthropology

“Sociocultural anthropologists examine social patterns and practices across cultures, with a special interest in how people live in particular places and how they organize, govern, and create meaning,” writes the American Anthropological Association.

It’s a broad discipline that explores human behavior in all its diversity, from hunter-gatherer societies to the habits of shopping mall visitors.

For instance, Richard Lee, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, is known for his studies of the !Kung people that live in several countries in southern Africa (the ! represents a sound). The !Kung are one of a small number of modern-day societies that live as hunter-gatherers, providing a window into how ancient hunter-gatherers lived.

On the other side of the coin is the growing field of business anthropology where anthropologists study consumer behavior, including how people act in shopping malls. It’s something that can help companies produce and market products to meet their needs and desires.

“Business anthropologists have influenced market research by pointing out that, to be successful, marketers must understand people — what they do and how they live,” writes Shirley Fedorak, of the University of Saskatchewan, in her book “Anthropology Matters” (University of Toronto Press, 2013).


Archaeology is the study of humanity through the materials — the stuff — we leave behind. This can be in the distant past, such as the pyramids at Giza, or very recent times, such as a 21st-century marriage proposal carved near a closed quarantine station.

Many archaeologists do not call themselves anthropologists, and archaeology’s relationship to anthropology is a matter of debate. Archaeologists examine past societies using some of the methods and theories that sociocultural anthropologists work with. Additionally, physical anthropologists work closely with archaeologists to investigate human remains.

Physical anthropology

Physical or biological anthropologists study the remains of human beings and hominids using a variety of techniques to investigate human disease, diet, genetics and lifestyle.

Some, such as Jane Goodall, specialize in the study of primates, such as chimpanzees. By studying these creatures, which are closely related to us, we can learn much about ourselves and how we came to be.

Another important sub-branch is forensic anthropology, which tends to focus on helping authorities solve crimes and identify human remains found at crime and disaster scenes.

A 2008 article published in the magazine Chico Statements tells the story of Ben Figura, who “worked in the foul waters of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and in Thailand in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami that killed some 230,000 people.” He also led “a small team of experts from New York City’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner working to put names to the thousands of human remains still being found at Ground Zero. Most of the remains at this stage are bone fragments, some very small.”

It’s a tough field to work in. “Working at the site of a historic tragedy and in such intimate contact with its victims, as well as its survivors — Figura often calls family members when his team identifies remains — can be emotionally wrenching,” the article notes.

Linguistic anthropology

In some ways, linguistic anthropology can be the hardest branch of anthropology to identify.

The American Anthropological Association states that it “is the comparative study of ways in which language reflects and influences social life. It explores the many ways in which language practices define patterns of communication, formulate categories of social identity and group membership, organize large-scale cultural beliefs and ideologies, and, in conjunction with other forms of meaning-making, equip people with common cultural representations of their natural and social worlds.”

Linguistic anthropologists can be found analyzing languages, both verbal and non-verbal, around the world. They do things like study American presidential debates to determine how candidates use non-verbal hand gestures to communicate with voters. They can also be found analyzing the books and movies read by young teenagers (the "Twilight" series, for instance) to determine how they affect the teenage mind.

By studying the usage of language, these anthropologists can determine what cultures value.

“The everyday language of North Americans, for example, includes a number of slang words, such as dough, greenback, dust, loot, cash, bucks, change and bread, to identify what an indigenous native of Papua-New Guinea would recognize only as money,” writes William Haviland, a professor emeritus at the University of Vermont, in his book “Anthropology” (Harcourt College Publishers, 2000).

“Such phenomena help identify things that are considered of special importance to a culture.”

How do you become an anthropologist?

Anthropologists tend to have either a master’s or doctoral degree. There are many universities in the United States, Canada and Europe that teach the discipline. Often those studying anthropology will specialize in a specific area.  Fieldwork is often required to complete a degree.

Where do anthropologists work?

Anthropologists can be found working for a wide variety of employers. These include museums, police departments, marketing companies, cultural resource management firms, government agencies and research institutes.

How much do anthropologists earn?

It is hard to give a salary range for anthropologists. A junior anthropologist doing fieldwork on contract may earn a low amount of money, perhaps not much more than minimum wage. On the higher end, a tenured professor at a large university may earn over $100,000, while those in senior positions at large private companies may earn considerably more.

How did anthropology get its start?

In some ways anthropology is in itself an ancient discipline. Writers in the ancient world often analyzed the cultures of various peoples in an attempt to understand their practices.

For instance, in A.D. 43, the writer Pomponius Mela examined the Druid religious beliefs of the Gauls and noted how it prepared them for the many wars they fought. “And yet, they have both their own eloquence and their own teachers of wisdom, the Druids. These men claim to know the size and shape of the Earth and of the universe, the movements of the sky and of the stars, and what the gods intend…” he wrote. “One of the precepts they teach — obviously to make them better for war — has [become] common knowledge, namely that their souls are eternal and there is a second life for the dead.” (Translation by E.F Romer)

As the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution spawned new technologies and ideas, anthropology grew as a discipline. For example, Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution paved the way for the skeletal remains of hominids to be better understood, allowing for a new understanding of how humans came into existence.

Jarus, Owen. 2014. “What is Anthropology?”. Live Science. Posted: April 15, 2014. Available online:

Friday, May 30, 2014

Chilean Mummies Reveal Signs of Arsenic Poisoning

People of numerous pre-Columbian civilizations in northern Chile, including the Incas and the Chinchorro culture, suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning due to their consumption of contaminated water, new research suggests.

Previous analyses showed high concentrations of arsenic in the hair samples of mummies from both highland and coastal cultures in the region. However, researchers weren't able to determine whether the people had ingested arsenic or if the toxic element in the soil had diffused into the mummies' hair after they were buried.

In the new study, scientists used a range of high-tech methods to analyze hair samples from a 1,000- to 1,500-year-old mummy from the Tarapacá Valley in Chile's Atacama Desert. They determined the high concentration of arsenic in the mummy's hair came from drinking arsenic-laced water and, possibly, eating plants irrigated with the toxic water.

"In Chile, you have these sediments that are rich in arsenic because of copper-mining activities in the highlands," which expose arsenic and other pollutants, said lead study author Ioanna Kakoulli, an archaeological scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. "When it rains, the arsenic can leach out into the rivers."

Analyzing hair

In fields ranging from forensics to archaeology, hair is widely used to gain insight into the lives of modern and past peoples. Unlike other biological samples, such as bone and skin tissue that change over time, hair remains stable after it forms (keratinizes). This feature, along with hair's steady growth rate, means that it can provide a chronological record of the substances that previously circulated in the blood.

In the past, scientists have analyzed the hair samples of the mummies from the pre-Columbian populations that lived in Chile's Atacama Desert between A.D.
500 and 1450. The remains showed patterns of chronic poisoning, which some researchers have suspected was due to these populations' consumption of water contaminated with arsenic. But the methods didn't allow them to determine how the arsenic got into the mummies' hair.

"They didn't map where the arsenic is precipitated on the hair — they just took it and dissolved it," Kakoulli told Live Science. With this technique, you cannot tell if the arsenic wound up in the hair externally, or if it was ingested and traveled through the bloodstream first, she said.

To learn more about the possible arsenic poisoning of the ancient people from northern Chile, Kakoulli and her colleagues looked at a naturally preserved mummythat was buried in the TR40-A cemetery in the Tarapacá Valley of the Atacama Desert. Using portable techniques that were noninvasive and nondestructive, they imaged and analyzed the mummy's skin, clothes and hair, as well as the soil encrusting the mummy.

As expected, the team detected arsenic in the mummy's hair and in the soil. They also discovered skin conditions indicative of arsenic poisoning. Though these findings were suggestive of arsenic ingestion, they weren't definitive, so the researchers collected hair samples to analyze further in the lab.

Finding the source

Kakoulli and her colleagues imaged the hair samples with a very-high-resolution scanning electron microscope. They also subjected the samples to various tests with the synchrotron light source — a large particle accelerator that analyzes materials with intense, focused X-ray beams — at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, allowing them to map the distribution of the elements and minerals in the hair.

Their tests revealed a uniform, radial distribution of arsenic in the hair. If the hair had been contaminated from arsenic in the soil, the toxic element would have only coated the surface, Kakoulli said. Comparisons of the arsenic in the soil and hair also showed the soil contained much lower concentrations of the element.

Furthermore, the dominant form of arsenic in the hair was a type called arsenic III, while the inorganic arsenic in surface water and groundwateris mostly arsenic V. Studies have suggested that the body "biotransforms" ingested arsenic into arsenic III.

"The results are consistent with modern epidemiological studies of arsenic poisoning by ingestion," Kakoulli said, adding that the technological approach used in the study could prove useful to forensic investigations and toxicity assessments in archaeology.

The team is now using the same approach to see if the ancient people of the Tarapacá Valley used certain hallucinogens, as some individuals were buried with exotic Amazonian seeds and various hallucinogenic paraphernalia. If the people buried with the items didn't use the hallucinogens, it would suggest they were shaman or doctors who used the hallucinogenic plants to aid other people, the researchers said.

"It then becomes a question about the level of interaction they had with the people of the Amazon, because the seeds aren't from Chile," Kakoulli said. "They would've had to have known the properties of the seeds and where to get them."

Castro, Joseph. 2014. “Chilean Mummies Reveal Signs of Arsenic Poisoning”. Live Science. Posted: April 15, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Digitising cave art will prevent it being lost forever

Virtual records of fragile archaeological sites will preserve them for future generations when it's not possible to defend them from the elements

A RESCUE mission is underway on the Scottish coast north of Edinburgh. Jonathan's Cave, with its rare trove of 1500-year-old rock art, risks being flooded by the sea or buried in a landslide. But rather than fight the elements researchers have opted to save the cave by putting the whole thing on the internet.

A team led by Joanna Hambly, an archaeologist at the University of St Andrews, UK, is using a series of laser and visual scanning techniques to recreate a virtual cave in minute detail.

Starting last year, the team brought in a low-flying drone to shoot aerial footage of the outside of the cave and the surrounding land. Lasers then scanned the cave, both inside and out, to build a 3D model of the site on a millimetre-scale.

The team also scanned the carvings several times using a variety of techniques. In one, a camera snapped images of the walls as they were lit from many different angles. And another approach, called structured light scanning, projected different patterns onto the walls and then read distortions in the patterns caused by the rock surface. This method provides detail down to the level of 100 micrometres – fine enough resolution to examine each individual hammer blow that made up the carvings.

"We're throwing everything at it. There is a danger that we may lose these caves," says team member Tom Dawson of the non-profit trust Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion.

An online walk-through of Jonathan's Cave will go live later this month. As well as clicking to move through the cave, you will be able to use the mouse cursor like a torch to illuminate more than 30 different carvings left by the Picts, who lived in Scotland during the Iron Age. These include images of men and animals, Christian symbols and the earliest known depiction of a Scottish boat. If all goes well, the team hopes to recreate the process for other nearby caves that are also in danger of disappearing.

"One of the objectives is to see which technique is most effective at recording heritage like this," says Hambly.

The project is not the first to create a virtual record of fragile archaeological sites.

"This scarce resource is being lost forever," says Frank Weaver, a documentary filmmaker who has been using Microsoft's Kinect depth-sensing cameras to record rock art in Paraguay. "What better way to save it for future studies and appreciation than online?"

Katherine Tsiang, an art historian at the University of Chicago, has used similar methods to digitally record historic caves in China. But she cautions that even high-tech archives are vulnerable to becoming outdated, or simply forgotten about. "All of this digital stuff isn't permanent unless it's carefully maintained," she says.

Rutkin, Aviva. 2014. “Digitising cave art will prevent it being lost forever”. New Scientist. Posted: Available online:

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Sixty Languages at Risk of Extinction in Mexico—Can They Be Kept Alive?

Online dictionaries and smartphones may help with preservation, experts say. Of the 143 native languages in Mexico, 60 are at risk of being silenced forever, linguists say.

One language, Ayapenaco, is spoken fluently by just two elderly men who aren't even on speaking terms. Another indigenous language, Kiliwa, is spoken by only 36 people. While 60 of Mexico's native tongues are at risk, 21 are critically endangered, with only a few elderly speakers left, according to a statement released recently by Mexico's Centre of Research and Higher Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS). (Read about vanishing languages in National Geographic magazine.) The languages most at risk in Mexico—including the Zapotec, the Chatino, and the Seri tongues—are undergoing "rapid change" for a number of reasons, says Lourdes de León Pasquel, a linguist at CIESAS. Among them are "migration, social instability, [and] economic and ideological factors that push speakers to adopt Spanish." Mexico isn't the only country losing its voices: If nothing is done, about half of the 6,000-plus languages spoken today will disappear by the end of this century, according to UNESCO's Endangered Languages Programme website. It's vital to save languages because they "are the primary conduit for human culture," says K. David Harrison, a linguist and co-leader of National Geographic's Enduring Voices project. Mexico is a good example of that, Harrison said in an email interview: "Each of the Mexican indigenous languages contains millennia of human experience, wisdom, and practical knowledge about the natural environment." León Pasquel argues that to preserve Mexico's threatened languages, "there should be an integrated policy to keep them alive: bilingual education [and] design of school curricula and bilingual materials. But more importantly, teacher training is basic to achieve this goal and that is what we lack." Because Spanish is the dominant language in the workplace and Mexicans are typically taught Spanish in school, many Mexicans may have less interest in their region's native tongue, she said. But in her view, "Everybody should learn an indigenous language apart from Spanish." Keeping Voices Alive Losing languages is "neither inevitable nor irreversible," according to UNESCO's Endangered Languages website. There are many efforts under way worldwide to boost learning and speaking of languages in decline, especially for younger generations. "Mexico is indeed home to many endangered languages, but also to many language-revitalization efforts—for example, among the Zapotec and Chatino communities in Oaxaca, and the Seri," Harrison said. For instance, Harrison has been working with a team of linguists, partially sponsored by National Geographic, to build a talking dictionary for Zapotec speakers in the Tlacolula Valley. "The Tlacolula Zapotec are a rural, agrarian community, but they are quickly crossing the digital divide, and eager to create digital tools and resources for their language," Harrison said. Harrison said he considers the Zapotec speakers "a great example of how endangered language communities are leveraging new technologies—especially smartphones—to maintain their heritage languages." León Pasquel agreed that new communication technology can help keep languages going. For instance, adding language-specific buttons to keypads on cell phones and computers would be a "great support" to people who speak these endangered tongues, she said. Language Barriers Linguistic anthropologist Susan D. Penfield works with the Endangered Languages Project, an online resource for vanishing languages. Because the world is interconnected like never before, she says, more people are exposed to and speaking the globe's dominant languages: Mandarin Chinese, English, and Spanish. "Of the 2,000 or so African languages, most are endangered," she said in an email interview. "Mexico is no more susceptible than anywhere else impacted by globalization." Penfield is convinced that "in most communities, there is a desire to slow the process of loss, and revitalize" threatened native languages. "There has been some remarkable success with this," she said. "But it is an uphill battle." Some Zapotec phrases:

Dell'Amore, Christine. 2014. “Sixty Languages at Risk of Extinction in Mexico—Can They Be Kept Alive?”. National Geographic News. Posted: April 10, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

14,000 year old flint tools: Earliest human occupation of Scotland

Archaeologists have uncovered the earliest evidence of the presence of humans in Scotland with an assemblage of over 5,000 flint artefacts which were recovered in 2005-2009 by Biggar Archaeology Group in fields at Howburn, South Lanarkshire. Subsequent studies have dated their use to 14,000 years ago.

Prior to the find, the oldest evidence of human occupation in Scotland could be dated to around 13,000 years ago at a now-destroyed cave site in Argyll, northwest Scotland.

Similar to finds from northern Germany and southern Denmark

Dating to the very earliest part of the late-glacial period, Howburn is likely to represent the first settlers in Scotland. The flint tools are strikingly close in design to similar finds in northern Germany and southern Denmark from the same period, a link which has helped experts to date them.

The new findings were revealed by Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs in her speech at the Institute for Archaeologists’ annual conference, which is this year taking place in Glasgow. The definitive findings will be published next year in a report funded by Historic Scotland.

Pursuit of game

The hunters who left behind the flint remains at Howburn came into Scotland in pursuit of game, probably herds of wild horses and reindeer, at a time when the climate improved following the previous severe glacial conditions. Glacial conditions returned once more around 13,000 years ago and Scotland was again depopulated, probably for another 1000 years, after which new groups with different types of flint tools make their appearance.

Connections not yet well understood

The nature of the physical connections made between the peoples in Scotland, Germany and southern Denmark is not yet understood. However the similarity in the design of the tools from the two regions offers tantalising glimpses of connections across what would have been dry land, now drowned by the North Sea.

Alan Saville, President of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, Senior Curator, Earliest Prehistory at the National Museums of Scotland and a specialist in the study of flaked flint and stone tools said: “These tools represent a real connection with archaeological finds in north-west Germany, southern Denmark and north-west Holland, a connection not seen elsewhere in Britain at this time. This discovery is both intriguing and revolutionises our ideas about where humans came from in this very early period. In southern Britain, early links are with northern France and Belgium. Howburn is just one chance discovery and further such discoveries will no doubt emerge.”

Past Horizons. 2014. “14,000 year old flint tools: Earliest human occupation of Scotland”. Past Horizons. Posted: April 9, 2014. Available online:

Monday, May 26, 2014

Language structure ... you're born with it

Humans are unique in their ability to acquire language. But how? A new study published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences shows that we are in fact born with the basic fundamental knowledge of language, thus shedding light on the age-old linguistic "nature vs. nurture" debate.


While languages differ from each other in many ways, certain aspects appear to be shared across languages. These aspects might stem from linguistic principles that are active in all human brains. A natural question then arises: are infants born with knowledge of how the human words might sound like? Are infants biased to consider certain sound sequences as more word-like than others? "The results of this new study suggest that, the sound patterns of human languages are the product of an inborn biological instinct, very much like birdsong" said Prof. Iris Berent of Northeastern University in Boston, who co-authored the study with a research team from the International School of Advanced Studies in Italy, headed by Dr. Jacques Mehler. The study's first author is Dr. David Gómez.


Consider, for instance, the sound-combinations that occur at the beginning of words. While many languages have words that begin by bl (e.g., blando in Italian, blink in English, and blusa in Spanish), few languages have words that begin with lb. Russian is such a language (e.g., lbu, a word related to lob, "forehead"), but even in Russian such words are extremely rare and outnumbered by words starting with bl. Linguists have suggested that such patterns occur because human brains are biased to favor syllables such as bla over lba. In line with this possibility, past experimental research from Dr. Berent's lab has shown that adult speakers display such preferences, even if their native language has no words resembling either bla or lba. But where does this knowledge stem from? Is it due to some universal linguistic principle, or to adults' lifelong experience with listening and producing their native language?


These questions motivated our team to look carefully at how young babies perceive different types of words. We used near-infrared spectroscopy, a silent and non-invasive technique that tells us how the oxygenation of the brain cortex (those very first centimeters of gray matter just below the scalp) changes in time, to look at the brain reactions of Italian newborn babies when listening to good and bad word candidates as described above (e.g., blif, lbif).

Working with Italian newborn infants and their families, we observed that newborns react differently to good and bad word candidates, similar to what adults do. Young infants have not learned any words yet, they do not even babble yet, and still they share with us a sense of how words should sound. This finding shows that we are born with the basic, foundational knowledge about the sound pattern of human languages.

It is hard to imagine how differently languages would sound if humans did not share such type of knowledge. We are fortunate that we do, and so our babies can come to the world with the certainty that they will readily recognize the sound patterns of words--no matter the language they will grow up with.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Language structure ... you're born with it”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 8, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Why do we love to organise knowledge into trees?

From studying the bible to visualising computer storage, Manuel Lima's sumptuous The Book of Trees explores the tree diagram's appeal for showing information

IN THE early 1990s, 14 computer scientists at the University of Maryland were sharing an 80-megabyte hard drive. The drive was often overloaded, with expendable files taking up space in neglected sub-directories. Finding anything was like blindly reaching along all the branches of an overgrown tree.

There had to be a better way, thought departmental professor Ben Shneiderman. So he wrote a six-line algorithm that visualised the drive as a rectangle. Vertical divisions split the rectangle into smaller ones, representing directories, which then subdivided horizontally to show subdirectories. Each of the smallest rectangles corresponded to a megabyte of storage space, so free space was visible at a glance.

He called his invention a "treemap", and it was adopted by computer labs around the world. It soon found other uses, such as in an interactive chart of stocks and shares, still popular today.

These hierarchical treemaps "epitomize the recent growth of information visualization", writes Manuel Lima in The Book of Trees: Visualizing branches of knowledge. And as big data engulfs labs and lives, the need for such powerful visualisations will only increase.

Lima, a digital designer and information guru, thinks visual literacy, including the ability to express ourselves graphically, is as important as reading and writing. True to this visual orientation, he has provided us with a fine field guide to tree forms past and present in a sumptuous book that places pictures firmly in the foreground. Full-colour reproductions of charts from many of the world's great library collections graphically connect 2014 with the 1000-year evolution of using trees as a mode of visual communication.

Trees were symbolically important for most ancient cultures, often worshipped and frequently present in art. Their association with immortality and their branching structure made them natural scaffolds for genealogies, showing, for example, the lineage of Christ and of royalty. They visually established pedigree and, equally crucial in medieval societies, helped to control inbreeding by showing how closely people were related to a potential spouse.

Yet, as Lima's book shows, the greatest impact of trees was in the realm of taxonomy, as visual representations of abstract religious and scientific concepts. Religion illuminated the way, with 13th-century scribes drawing trees to show relationships between scriptural texts, to aid memory and encourage exegesis – the practice of critical interpretation of texts common in monasteries.

According to Lima, these tree illustrations supported "combinatorial invention and creativity". His idea of exegesis is overly modern (monasteries were not tech start-ups) but it's easy to see how visualisation nurtured more systematic thinking. And, in turn, more systematic thinking nurtured more elaborate visualisation.

Lima convincingly singles out 13th-century Spanish philosopher Ramon Llull as a key figure, whose encyclopedic Arbor Scientiae (Tree of Science) presented a unified vision of knowledge. His 16 domains of science, from the moral to the celestial, are each represented by a branch, and all are supported by a single trunk fed by 18 roots. The roots are also labelled, with nine bearing divine attributes such as wisdom, and nine signifying logical principles, including contrariety.

Over the next five centuries, the roots were pruned, but the tree of knowledge flourished as a metaphor – think "branches" of science – and evolved as a visualisation model.

In fact, the French Encyclopédie, the Enlightenment's foremost encyclopedia, was prefaced by a tree diagram. This schematised its contents with as many as eight levels of branching. Interestingly, in the 1751 edition, the tree was abstract, rendered entirely in type with nested brackets as branches.

The powerful combination of taxonomic complexity and visual simplicity in this tree foreshadows many of the contemporary ones in Lima's book. Here, the typographic tree is one branch of a tree diagram, reaching from medieval drawings to Shneiderman's treemaps.

Lima has skilfully organised his book to reveal these developments. In addition to his section on rectangular treemaps, his chapter on radial trees is especially absorbing, all the more so because there's nothing overtly arboreal about them.

For instance, a "species-level supertree of mammals" shows rodents, monotremes and the rest of us as nodes on a circle. Connective brackets sequentially link up species, genera, orders and families to a common ancestor at the centre. The radius is a 166-million-year timeline, and a smaller concentric circle is drawn at the 65-million-year-mark.

Originally published in Nature (vol 446, p 507), this supertree revealed how little mammalian diversification was affected by the dinosaur mass extinction. In The Book of Trees, it exemplifies the potential of visualisation "to explain and educate; to facilitate cognition and gain insight; and, ultimately, to make the invisible visible", as Lima writes in his preface.

This is all fascinating. But Lima's book lacks balance. Reading his intellectually sparse introductory text and captions, you would never guess that tree diagrams have been criticised by various experts for half a century.

This omission is all the stranger given that Visual Complexity, his previous book, drew on several critiques, including some by French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. There, Lima summarised their views approvingly: trees are "authoritarian, unidirectional, and stagnant", contrasting them unfavourably with network maps.

At that time, Lima's contrast between trees and net maps was too extreme and his distinction between them too stark. Now he seems to have shifted to the opposite position.

His examples in The Book of Trees show that tree diagrams, especially interactive ones, can be remarkably dynamic.

However, for any diagram to be properly interpreted, its limitations must be fully grasped so that we know which qualities it can't represent, or, at least, can't represent effectively. For example, the Mercator map of the world is good for sea navigation, but bad for judging the relative size of continents: one of its key limitations is the representation of landmass. Likewise, suppose you wanted to use a tree to show the World Wide Web's structure. This would represent it very poorly, since its structure is a network, not a hierarchy.

The problem of limitations is especially true for tree diagrams that don't resemble trees – and fewer and fewer do. Lima's guidance is sadly absent where it's needed most.

Despite these reservations, there's much to be gained by exploring Lima's trees. What he lacks as commentator, he makes up for as a curator, and his subject couldn't be more apposite.

As data visualisation becomes ubiquitous, we typically look at diagrams as simple infographics. Being reminded of the complex, old-growth forests of medieval scribes or Enlightenment savants cultivates our appreciation of contemporary trees – and may inspire us to combine old forms with new in creative ways.

Keats, Jonathon. 2014. “Why do we love to organise knowledge into trees?”. New Scientist. Posted: April 7, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Search for Inca 'lost city' in Amazon may endanger indigenous people

A six-week expedition starting in July will try to find Paititi in the Megantoni National Sanctuary in south-east Peru

A French writer and adventurer plans to explore one of the most remote parts of the Peruvian Amazon in search of a "lost" or "secret city" that may have been built by the Incas, but there are fears that the expedition could endanger the health of isolated tribes that have never been exposed to common human diseases.

Thierry Jamin believes that the city, which he calls "Paititi", could lie somewhere in a 215,000-hectare protected area called the Megantoni National Sanctuary in the Cuzco region of south-east Peru.

"The magnificent discoveries realised by my group in the valleys of Lacco, Chunchusmayo and Cusirini in the north of the department of Cuzco lead towards a precise zone situated in the national sanctuary of Megantoni," Jamin told the Guardian via email.

"Several natives of the forest – Matsiguengas – assert that 'monumental ruins' exist at the top of a strange square mountain. I think that we are very close to officialise the existence of this big archaeological site."

According to his website, Jamin is planning a six-week expedition starting in July. He will be assisted by an NGO based in Cuzco that he leads and a group of Machiguengas from a village near the sanctuary.

His website describes Paititi, or "Paititi-Eldorado", as the "Incas' secret city" – "one of the most fascinating stories of the Inca mythology", the "biggest archaeological enigma of South America", and the place where the Incas hid "all the treasures of [their] empire" when Europeans invaded.

The search for Paititi or an Inca "lost city" has attracted scores of people and considerable controversy ever since the 16th century, with conflicting theories and ideas about where it might be and whether it really exists.

But some experts fear that such an expedition would pose a threat to isolated indigenous Nanti people – sometimes called "Kugapakoris" – within the sanctuary. One of the main reasons for the sanctuary's creation 10 years ago was to protect groups of indigenous people who have had little or no contact with outsiders and are extremely vulnerable to infectious diseases because of their lack of resistance.

According to the sanctuary's "master plan" for 2007-2011 – a 160-page government document outlining strategies and programmes to manage the area – the 215,000 hectares are divided into a number of "zones" where different activities are permitted. The biggest, most remote zone is in the sanctuary's far east and is called the "Strict Protection Zone" (ZPA). Its first stated aim is to protect "voluntarily isolated indigenous people", with scientific investigation only allowed in "exceptional circumstances".

Jamin is keeping the precise destination of the expedition a secret, but told the Guardian he intended to travel up the river Ticumpinia – not the river Timpia where he said there were "numerous Kuga-Pakuri communities".

"We don't want to tell anyone about our study zones, nor disseminate the exact locations of the sites we have found," he said.

Lelis Rivera, who works for the NGO Cedia and played a key role in the sanctuary's creation, pointed out that the presence of any outsiders in the sanctuary "could cause danger to the people living there" and that entering the ZPA in particular is "completely prohibited" by Peruvian law.

"Any people currently living in the upper Timpia or Ticumpinia regions are extremely vulnerable to germ transmission – that's the nature of living in relative social and immunological isolation," said anthropologist Christine Beier from the NGO Cabeceras Aid Project and one of the world's leading experts on Nanti society and history.

Jamin told the Guardian that he will apply to the ministry of environment, which oversees management of "protected natural areas", for permission to enter the Megantoni sanctuary. He said he has already applied for permission from the ministry of culture.

However, Ramon Rivero Mejia at the culture ministry says it has received no application from either Jamin, any member of his team or the NGO that Jamin presides over.

Some experts doubt that Paititi is where Jamin thinks it is. "The Incas conquered territories of the Machiguenga and Piro and built roads, bridges and some fortified settlements, meaning it's possible that in Megantoni some Inca-type buildings and objects will be found," said Martti Parssinen, a Finnish archaeologist and historian who has researched Peru and the Incas for decades.

"Nevertheless, Paititi is not there … At first, it was located from the confluence of the Madre de Díos and the Beni rivers toward the east or south, but during the colonial period some Inca refugees probably reestablished it near the present Brazilian Pacaas Novos mountains."

Asked by the Guardian why he thinks archaeological remains in Megantoni might be related to the Incas, Jamin said: "We don't know if they're Inca or pre-Inca. One of the objectives of our 2014 campaign will be to establish that."

Hill, David. 2014. “Search for Inca 'lost city' in Amazon may endanger indigenous people”. The Guardian. Posted: April 7, 2014. Available online:

Friday, May 23, 2014

Skulls in print: scientific racism in the transatlantic world

A mummified corpse. An embalmed head. A neat bullet hole in the side of a skull. These are just some of the 78 disturbing illustrations which make up Samuel George Morton’s Crania Americana, undoubtedly the most important work in the history of scientific racism.

Published in Philadelphia in 1839, Morton divided mankind into five races before linking the character of each race to skull configuration. In a claim typical of the developing racial sciences, Morton wrote of Native Americans that “the structure of his mind appears to be different from that of the white man”.

Within a few years Crania Americana had been read in Britain, France, Germany, Russia and India. James Cowles Prichard, the founding father of British anthropology, described it as “exemplary” whilst Charles Darwin considered Morton an “authority” on the subject of race. Later in the nineteenth century, other European scholars produced imitations with titles including Crania Britannica and Crania Germanica.

James Poskett, from the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, is working to uncover how Crania Americana became so influential, not only in the United States, but in Europe and beyond. He has also curated a new exhibition for readers at the Whipple Library charting this history. The showpiece is undoubtedly a copy of Crania Americana itself. The book is extremely rare. Only 500 copies were ever printed with no more than 60 being sent outside of the United States.

“This research is crucial for understanding how racist theories gain credibility,” said Poskett. “Particularly in the early nineteenth century, European scholars tended to treat American science with suspicion. Morton had to work hard to convince his peers across the Atlantic that Crania Americana should be taken seriously.”

Establishing a reputation

The illustrations, now on display at the Whipple Library helped Morton establish his reputation in Europe. Reviewers in Britain were astounded by the eerie, life-like quality of the skulls. To create such an effect, Morton’s artist, John Collins, used a new technique called lithography. He first drew each image onto a limestone block in wax before fixing, inking and printing. The limestone allowed Collins to create fine-grained textures, reproducing the subtle contours of each skull in Morton’s collection.

Previously, such impressive images could only be found in European scientific metropolises such as Paris and Edinburgh. “Crania Americana was the first example of American scientific lithography to gain widespread acclaim in Europe,” said Poskett. “The textured effect also allowed men like Prichard to make the perverse claim that Native American skulls were actually of a different consistency to Europeans.”

The Whipple Library exhibition also features a series of recently-discovered loose plates, printed to promote Crania Americana in Britain. “These images are unique,” added Poskett. “I was amazed when I discovered them, just tucked into the back of the book.”

Morton sent early copies of his illustrations to men of science in Europe. This allowed him to garner support prior to the arrival of the finished volume. Prichard himself first displayed Morton’s cranial illustrations to a European audience in Birmingham in 1839. Darwin was there in the crowd. “I had read about Prichard’s use of these plates in letters, but never imagined I would find copies,” said Poskett. By putting these images on display for the first time, visitors can get a sense of how European scholars must have felt on initially seeing Morton’s work.

Beyond the scientific elite

Whilst men like Prichard and Darwin found it easy to access Crania Americana, not everyone was so fortunate. The book was expensive, costing Morton $2175 to print. That’s at least $50,000 in today’s money. And to buy a copy, you’d need $20, equivalent to about two months’ wages for an average farm labourer. Particularly in Europe, where import duties inflated the price even further, Crania Americana could only be found in the most prestigious institutions. The Royal Society owned a copy, whereas the London Mechanics’ Institute did not.

Despite these limits to access, Morton’s ideas and images did penetrate beyond the scientific elite with working-class readers certainly aware of Morton and his skulls according to Poskett. In Britain, phrenologists such as George Combe promoted Crania Americana in cheap periodicals, some of which were available for just a couple of pence. A full page notice of the work appeared in Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal in 1840, a magazine with a circulation of at least 60,000 at the time. Copies of Morton’s illustrations were also reproduced in cheap formats. The Phrenological Journal in Edinburgh, on display at the Whipple Library, features small woodcut copies of “Ancient Peruvian” skulls from Crania Americana.

Women too were excluded from most of the libraries in which Morton’s work was held. Still, periodicals aimed at female readers once again ensured his ideas reached a wider audience. In 1840 the Ladies’ Repository, a magazine for Methodist women in Ohio, quoted Morton in an article entitled “Man”. The author described Native Americans as “adverse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge.” For white settlers living to the west, this was exactly what they wanted to hear. Crania Americana was published just as the remaining Shawnee peoples of Ohio were forcibly relocated west of the Mississippi River.

“The idea that Native Americans could not integrate into modern industrial society was central to both Morton’s argument and Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal,” said Poskett.

Anti-slavery and scientific racism

People often associate Crania Americana with slavery. But, according to Poskett, this is a mistake. It wasn’t until later in the century that southern slave owners really started to take up Morton’s ideas in earnest. And in Europe, the majority of readers were abolitionists. The phrenologist Combe was an antislavery man, as was Prichard. It was an odd logic: according to these men, if non-European races were inferior, that meant they deserved protection, not enslavement.

“Anti-slavery and scientific racism were not mutually exclusive in the nineteenth century,” explained Poskett. In Quentin Tarantino’s recent film, Django Unchained, it is the slave owner played by Leonardo DiCaprio who takes up phrenology. In real life it was just as likely to be an abolitionist.

“This research shows just how alert we must be to the variety of places in which racist theories can take hold,” added Poskett. “It can seem counterintuitive at first but, in the course of advocating for the freedom of African slaves, men like Prichard and Combe allowed scientific racism to flourish. The Crania Americana exhibition at the Whipple is a stark reminder of this unsettling history.”

Past Horizons. 2014. “Skulls in print: scientific racism in the transatlantic world”. Past Horizons. Posted: April 7, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, May 22, 2014

History of the Celts

The “Celts” refer to a people that thrived in both ancient and modern times. Today, the term often refers to the cultures, languages and people that are based in Scotland, Ireland, other parts of the British Isles and Brittany in France.

“Today six Celtic languages survive — the Gaelic group comprising Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx and the Britonic group comprising Welsh, Breton and Cornish,” wrote the late professor Dáithí Ó hÓgáin in his book “The Celts: A History” (The Collins Press, 2002). He notes that Manx and Cornish originally died out but have now been revived.

The relationship between modern-day Celts and their ancient forbearers is a contentious issue that scholars have different opinions about. Languages change over time, and people move, and how much modern-day Celtic peoples, language and cultures are related to the ancient Celts is an open question.

Nevertheless the Celts, both ancient and modern, have provided humanity with some fantastic art, culture and stories of martial prowess.

Ancient Celts

The Celts were first referenced in texts about 2,500 years ago. Many of the ancient sources, however, were written by Greeks, Romans and other non-Celts.

Evidence indicates that the Celts were spread out across a vast area of continental Europe. They lived as far east as modern-day Turkey and even served as mercenaries for the Egyptian queen Cleopatra. They were never politically united as a single people but consisted of different groups, including Gauls (from areas including France) and Celtiberians (based in Iberia).

They spoke different languages and, in fact, “given the size of the language area it is rather unlikely that all the people identified by the Greeks and Romans as Celts would have been able to communicate with each other in the same language,” writes Felix Muller, of the Historisches Museum in Berne, in his book “Art of the Celts: 700 B.C. to A.D. 700” (Historisches Museum Berne, 2009).

He notes that identifying particular works of art as “Celtic” can also be challenging. But if we look at art from areas where the Celts were said to flourish, we can see some of the wonders they produced. For instance, more than 2,500 years ago, at a burial mound at Ins in western Switzerland, they left behind a golden globe-shaped object, less than an inch in diameter, that was “decorated with approximately 3600 granules,” an example of the incredibly intricate gold work the Celts could produce.

Ancient writers tended not to discuss Celtic artistic achievements but rather their reputation for fierceness in war. Gauls had succeeded in sacking Rome in 390 B.C. Later that century, when Alexander the Great was campaigning, he received a party of Celts.

“The king received them kindly and asked them when drinking what it was that they most feared, thinking they would say himself, but that they replied they feared no one, unless it were that Heaven might fall on them,” wrote the Greek writer Strabo who lived ca. 64 B.C. – A.D. 24 (translation through Perseus Digital Library).

Fighting in the buff?

It was said that some Celts would strip completely naked before going into battle; something meant to impact their enemies psychologically.

“Very terrifying too were the appearance and the gestures of the naked warriors in front, all in the prime of life, and finely built men, and all in the leading companies richly adorned with gold torques and armlets,” wrote Polybius (200-118 BC), in an account of a battle they fought against the Romans. (Translation through University of Chicago Penelope website:*.html)

Perhaps not coincidentally, ancient sources also say that the Celts detested being overweight and had penalties against this. Strabo, quoting another writer named Ephorus, wrote “that they endeavour not to grow fat or pot-bellied, and any young man who exceeds the standard measure of the girdle is punished.”

Celtic religion

While the Celts would eventually be Christianized along with much of the Roman Empire (in time the Romans would conquer many of their lands) ancient sources provide hints at the religious beliefs of the Celts.

A poem by Lucan (A.D. 39-65) describes a grove that was sacred to the Celts. It, along with other sources, suggests that human sacrifice was practiced.

“There stood a grove Which from the earliest time no hand of man Had dared to violate; hidden from the sun…”
“No sylvan nymphs Here found a home, nor Pan, but savage rites And barbarous worship, altars horrible On massive stones upreared; sacred with blood Of men was every tree…”

The Celts were interested in Druidism. Robert Wisniewski of the University of Warsaw notes in an article published in the journal Palemedes that in A.D. 43 Pomponius Mela wrote about the Gauls as follows:

“And yet, they have both their own eloquence and their own teachers of wisdom, the Druids. These men claim to know the size and shape of the earth and of the universe, the movements of the sky and of the stars, and what the gods intend…” he wrote. “One of the precepts they teach — obviously to make them better for war — has [become] common knowledge, namely that their souls are eternal and there is a second life for the dead.” (Translation by E.F Romer)

No Celts in ancient Britain!?

Remarkably a number of scholars now believe that the ancient Celts did not live in Britain but were confined to the European continent, with settlements located as far east as Turkey.

John Collis, an archaeology professor at the University of Sheffield, points out in his book “The Celts: Origins, Myths and Inventions” (Tempus, 2004) that ancient writers refer to Celtic people living in continental Europe but not the British Isles. He notes that Strabo actually “distinguished Britons from Celts.”

He writes that terms like Celt and Gaul “was never used for the inhabitants of the British Isles except in the most general way for all the inhabitants of western Europe including non Indo-European speakers such as Basques.”

His analysis is backed up by University of Leicester professor Simon James who says that “many people are startled to discover that although they 'know' Britain in pre-Roman times was populated by Ancient Celts, most British Iron Age specialists abandoned the idea decades ago,” he writes in a 2004 review of Collis’s book published in British Archaeology magazine.

The “question is not why have so many British (and Irish) archaeologists abandoned the notion of ancient island Celts, but how and why did we come to think there had ever been any in the first place? The idea is a modern one; the ancient islanders never described themselves as Celts, a name reserved for some continental neighbours.”

Celts in Turkey?

Yet while scholars are dismissing the idea of Celts in ancient Britain, they are finding evidence for Celts flourishing in Turkey.

“In 278 B.C., King Nicomedes I of Bithynia welcomed as allies 20,000 European Celts, veterans who had successfully invaded Macedonia two years earlier. These warriors, who called themselves the Galatai, marched into northwestern Anatolia with 2,000 baggage wagons and 10,000 noncombatants: provisioners and merchants as well as wives and children,” write researchers Jeremiah Dandoy, Page Selinsky, and Mary Voigt in a 2002 Archaeology magazine article.

In excavations at Gordion, Turkey, they’ve found evidence of cultural practices that they interpret as Celtic. They found “chilling evidence of strangulation, decapitation, and bizarre arrangements of human and animal bones. Such practices are well known from Celtic sites in Europe and are now documented for Anatolian Celts as well.”

Jarus, Owen. 2014. “History of the Celts”. Live Science. Posted: April 7, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

World's Oldest Decimal Times Table Found in China

The newly deciphered multiplication table, written on bamboo strips dated to 310 B.C., was more sophisticated than earlier versions.

Q: How much is 230 times 10?

A: The number of years humans have been calculating with decimals.

A crack team of scholars in Beijing learned this last year when they solved a 23-centuries-old puzzle. And it only took them five years.

The complex mathematical problem arose in 2008, when an alumnus of Tsinghua University donated a bundle of ink-inscribed bamboo strips he'd bought at a Hong Kong art market.

But the strips were an inscrutable mess. They were out of order, and some were broken. All were reeking, caked in mud and mold.

Clearly they'd come from a looted tomb. But what were they?

Cracking the Code

On the top floor of Tsinghua's Research and Conservation Center for Excavated Texts, a multidisciplinary team of researchers got together—and got to work. Laying out the 2,500 strips in a climate-controlled room, they spent three painstaking months drying and cleaning them.

"We had to be very careful," says Wen Xing, a paleography professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, who was involved from the start. "They were saturated with water, so we had to stop the mold from growing and making them completely rotten. And we had to use soft brushes, to keep the ink on the strips. It was a very difficult process."

But it paid off. They could soon see a vertical line of calligraphy, brushed in black ink, on each strip, which were 20 inches (51 centimeters) long and a half inch (1.27 centimeters) wide. After they applied antioxidizing chemicals, they carbon-dated the batch to 310 B.C.

For the next four years Xing and his colleagues read through every strip, sorting them by their content and calligraphy style—and finding more than 60 discrete texts.

"Most were historical works," says Xing, "including chapters from the Book of Documents, [which is] one of the Five Classics [of the Confucian canon]. There were some military texts too, all written in a beautiful style used in the ancient state of Chu."

Yet 21 of the strips stood out. They were painted with numerical characters, not alphabetical ones. When Feng Lisheng, a math historian at Tsinghua, placed them in the proper order, they formed a base-10 multiplication matrix—the oldest decimal-based calculator in the world.

How It Works

It looks a lot like a modern multiplication table. The top row and the far-right column contain the same 19 numbers: 0.5, the integers 1 through 9, and multiples of 10 from 10 to 90.

It's remarkably simple to use, says Joseph Dauben, a distinguished history professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

To multiply 8 times 7, for example, find the 8 on the top row and the 7 on the far-right column. Follow the numbers beneath the 8 until they intersect with the numbers to the left of the 7. The answer is at the intersection: 56.

"You can see [the answer] at a glance," says Dauben. "And that's probably its great virtue. It's impressive the way this thing is put together."

(The Chinese written system didn't use a symbol for zero, because it didn't need one. When Chinese mathematicians recorded the result of a computation, says Dauben, they used a specific character for each power of ten. So for 57 they would write 5 tens and a 7. But for 507 they would write 5 hundreds and a 7.)

The Tsinghua table also lets you multiply partial numbers between 0.5 and 99.5, though to do that you have to first convert the equations into sums. For instance, (29.5 × 31.5) would be (20 + 9 + 0.5) × (30 + 1 + 0.5). That creates nine separate multiplications (20 × 30, 20 × 1, 20 × 0.5, then 9 × 30, and so on), each of which can be read off the table. Adding up the answers gives you the final result.

But to what end? Feng says he suspects the table was used to calculate land area, crop yields, and taxes. "We can even use the matrix to do divisions and square roots," he says. "But we can't be sure that such complicated tasks were performed at the time."

Guo Shuchun of the Chinese Academy of Sciences calls the table "very advanced for the world at that time, an important discovery in the mathematical history of China—and the world."

On the Timeline of Math

"Mathematics," says Dauben, "has been around since someone looked up and realized there was a sun and a moon and objects around them. The record of human counting goes back to prehistoric caves, to Paleolithic times, with lines indicating times between months or how many animals were killed on a given day."

"Like the art found in southern France and northwestern Spain," writes Marlboro College math professor Joseph Mazur in his book Enlightening Symbols: A Short History of Mathematical Notation and Its Hidden Powers, "number writing came about through the human endeavor to record. ... Humans have always had an uncanny ability to recognize numbers beyond the values for which they had words."

After humans learned to count, they developed arithmetic. In the West, that started with the ancient Babylonians and Egyptians. According to Mazur, Sumerian cuneiform number writing dates to 3400 B.C. And well before 2000 B.C. both civilizations were adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing.

Yet they did it differently than we do. The Babylonian number system was sexagesimal, or base 60—the basis for 60 seconds, 60 minutes, and 360 degrees. And their multiplication tables, says Dauben, were used to compute fractions.

"But they weren't a matrix setup like [the Tsinghua table], where you take a number and can run down the column to any other given number and find out what the product is going to be."

The Egyptians did use a base-10 system like ours—perhaps based on having 10 fingers and 10 toes—but they didn't have place values. So they represented orders of magnitude with different symbols in hieroglyphs (a coiled rope for 100, a lotus flower for 1,000) or a cursive system called Hieratic.

The Chinese weren't far behind.

"China has had written numerals since as early as the Shang Dynasty, circa 1200 B.C. or slightly earlier," says Dauben. Compared with the Greeks of their time, "they made comparable achievements. It's sometimes said that they didn't develop the concept of 'proof' that's fundamental to Euclid and Archimedes, but this is wrong. They [may not have used] an abstract axiomatic method—and much of their math was based on practical concerns like business, bureaucracy, astronomy, and calendars—but they understood the importance of being able to prove that their results were correct."

What's more, he says, "Chinese mathematicians stayed at the mathematical forefront until the Renaissance, when the rebirth of ancient mathematics in the West soon led to new methods that advanced the algebra of the Islamic world and forged new methods, including Descartes's analytic geometry and the infinitesimal calculus of Newton and Leibniz."

That's also when decimal tables appeared in Europe. Though records show they existed as early as the 12th century A.D., they weren't used widely until the Renaissance, when the printing press aided their spread.

Sign of the Times

The multiplication table deciphered at Tsinghua wasn't the first one found in China. But it was particularly sophisticated and practical.

Earlier examples, says Dauben, "only list the results of multiplication: 9 times 9 is 81, 9 times 8 is 72, et cetera. What makes the Tsinghua table unique is its matrix structure, and the simplicity with which it allows any multiplications—or divisions or even, possibly, the determinations of square roots—simply by reference to the table.

"It's considerably more advanced than later times tables produced in the Qin Dynasty. Those tables date to between 221 and 206 B.C., and they show simple sentences like the kind you recited in class: 'Two times one is two, two times two is four, two times three is six.' You can't really use sentences to calculate elaborate multiplications, never mind divisions, square roots, et cetera, in the same way you can with a matrix."

The Tsinghua table was made during the Warring States period, says Xing, a century before the first Qin Dynasty emperor, Qin Shi Huang, unified China.

One of the emperor's first undertakings was to try to stamp out the ideas of Confucius and other philosophers he deemed a threat to his authority. He executed scholars, rewrote texts, burned books, and banned private libraries.

The bamboo strips at Tsinghua escaped that fate, probably because they were buried underground in a tomb. Their survival offers us a glimpse of life—historical, intellectual, philosophical—during a formative period in China.

"They tell us about thinking in early China," says Xing. "They were using characters to describe numbers and do calculations. It also helps establish the place-value system, a crucial development in the history of math. This is material evidence of that."

Over the next 50 years, says Dauben, "the archaeology that's coming out of China is going to change our understanding of history. And this [times table is] just one good example. Until this thing turned up, nobody had a clue that the Chinese had been so clever as to present an immediate visual understanding of multiplication."

Berlin, Jeremy. 2014. “World's Oldest Decimal Times Table Found in China”. National Geographic News. Posted: April 5, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Indigenous societies' 'first contact' typically brings collapse, but rebounds are possible

It was disastrous when Europeans first arrived in what would become Brazil -- 95 percent of its population, the majority of its tribes, and essentially all of its urban and agricultural infrastructure vanished. The experiences of Brazil's indigenous societies mirror those of other indigenous peoples following "first contact."

A new study of Brazil's indigenous societies led by Santa Fe Institute researcher Marcus Hamilton paints a grim picture of their experiences, but also offers a glimmer of hope to those seeking ways to preserve indigenous societies.

Even among the indigenous societies contacted in just the last 50 years, says Hamilton, "all of them went through a collapse, and for the majority of them it was disastrous," with disease and violence responsible in most cases, and with lasting detrimental effects. "That's going on today -- right now."

Brazil is "a tragic natural experiment," Hamilton says: several hundred native tribes contacted by outsiders remain, according to Instituto Socioambiental, a non-governmental organization that reports census data on 238 of those societies going back a half-century or more. That volume of data makes possible a detailed analysis of the health and prospects of the surviving contacted -- and uncontacted -- societies, an analysis that wouldn't be possible any where else in the world.

Using a method called population viability analysis, the researchers found that contact by outsiders is typically catastrophic, yet survivable. While first contacts in Brazil led to population declines of 43 percent on average, that decline bottomed out an average of eight or nine years after contact, following which population numbers grew as much as four percent a year -- about as much as possible. Projecting those results into the future suggests that contacted and as-yet uncontacted populations could recover from a low of just 100 individuals.

Hamilton and co-authors Robert Walker and Dylan Kesler of the University of Missouri describe their analysis in a paper published this week in Scientific Reports.

While their analysis paints a hopeful picture, Hamilton notes that deforestation, the breakdown of interactions between tribes, and assimilation with the outside world pose ongoing threats to indigenous societies.

"Demographically they're healthy," Hamilton says, but as for their long-term survival, "it's very up in the air."

EurekAlert. 2014. “Indigenous societies' 'first contact' typically brings collapse, but rebounds are possible”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 3, 104. Available online:

Monday, May 19, 2014

World's oldest weather report could revise Bronze Age chronology

An inscription on a 3,500-year-old stone block from Egypt may be one of the world's oldest weather reports—and could provide new evidence about the chronology of events in the ancient Middle East.

A new translation of a 40-line inscription on the 6-foot-tall calcite block called the Tempest Stela describes rain, darkness and "the sky being in storm without cessation, louder than the cries of the masses."

Two scholars at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute believe the unusual weather patterns described on the slab were the result of a massive volcano explosion at Thera—the present-day island of Santorini in the Mediterranean Sea. Because volcano eruptions can have a widespread impact on weather, the Thera explosion likely would have caused significant disruptions in Egypt.

The new translation suggests the Egyptian pharaoh Ahmose ruled at a time closer to the Thera eruption than previously thought—a finding that could change scholars' understanding of a critical juncture in human history as Bronze Age empires realigned. The research from the Oriental Institute's Nadine Moeller and Robert Ritner appears in the spring issue of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies.

The Tempest Stela dates back to the reign of the pharaoh Ahmose, the first pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty. His rule marked the beginning of the New Kingdom, a time when Egypt's power reached its height. The block was found in pieces in Thebes, modern Luxor, where Ahmose ruled.

If the stela does describe the aftermath of the Thera catastrophe, the correct dating of the stela itself and Ahmose's reign, currently thought to be about 1550 B.C., could actually be 30 to 50 years earlier.

"This is important to scholars of the ancient Near East and eastern Mediterranean, generally because the chronology that archaeologists use is based on the lists of Egyptian pharaohs, and this new information could adjust those dates," said Moeller, assistant professor of Egyptian archaeology at the Oriental Institute, who specializes in research on ancient urbanism and chronology.

In 2006, radiocarbon testing of an olive tree buried under volcanic residue placed the date of the Thera eruption at 1621-1605 B.C. Until now, the archeological evidence for the date of the Thera eruption seemed at odds with the radiocarbon dating, explained Oriental Institute postdoctoral scholar Felix Hoeflmayer, who has studied the chronological implications related to the eruption. However, if the date of Ahmose's reign is earlier than previously believed, the resulting shift in chronology "might solve the whole problem," Hoeflmayer said.

The revised dating of Ahmose's reign could mean the dates of other events in the ancient Near East fit together more logically, scholars said. For example, it realigns the dates of important events such as the fall of the power of the Canaanites and the collapse of the Babylonian Empire, said David Schloen, associate professor in the Oriental Institute and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations on ancient cultures in the Middle East.

"This new information would provide a better understanding of the role of the environment in the development and destruction of empires in the ancient Middle East," he said.

For example, the new chronology helps to explain how Ahmose rose to power and supplanted the Canaanite rulers of Egypt—the Hyksos—according to Schloen. The Thera eruption and resulting tsunami would have destroyed the Hyksos' ports and significantly weakened their sea power.

In addition, the disruption to trade and agriculture caused by the eruption would have undermined the power of the Babylonian Empire and could explain why the Babylonians were unable to fend off an invasion of the Hittites, another ancient culture that flourished in what is now Turkey.


Some researchers consider the text on the Tempest Stela to be a metaphorical document that described the impact of the Hyksos invasion. However, Ritner's translation shows that the text was more likely a description of weather events consistent with the disruption caused by the massive Thera explosion.

Ritner said the text reports that Ahmose witnessed the disaster—the description of events in the stela text is frightening.

The stela's text describes the "sky being in storm" with "a tempest of rain" for a period of days. The passages also describe bodies floating down the Nile like "skiffs of papyrus."

Importantly, the text refers to events affecting both the delta region and the area of Egypt further south along the Nile. "This was clearly a major storm, and different from the kinds of heavy rains that Egypt periodically receives," Ritner said.

In addition to the Tempest Stela, a text known as the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus from the reign of Ahmose also makes a special point of mentioning thunder and rain, "which is further proof that the scholars under Ahmose paid close and particular attention to matters of weather," Ritner said.

Marina Baldi, a scientist in climatology and meteorology at the Institute of Biometeorology of the National Research Council in Italy, has analyzed the information on the stela along with her colleagues and compared it to known weather patterns in Egypt.

A dominant weather pattern in the area is a system called "the Red Sea Trough," which brings hot, dry air to the area from East Africa. When disrupted, that system can bring severe weather, heavy precipitation and flash flooding, similar to what is reported on the Tempest Stela.

"A modification in the atmospheric circulation after the eruption could have driven a change in the precipitation regime of the region. Therefore the episode in the Tempest Stela could be a consequence of these climatological changes," Baldi explained.

Other work is underway to get a clearer idea of accurate dating around the time of Ahmose, who ruled after the Second Intermediate period when the Hyksos people seized power in Egypt. That work also has pushed back the dates of his reign closer to the explosion on Thera, Moeller explained.

EurekAlert. 2014. “World's oldest weather report could revise Bronze Age chronology”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 1, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Universal syllables

Some innate preferences shape the sound of words from birth

Take the sound "bl": how many words starting with that sound can you think of? Blouse, blue, bland... Now try with "lb": how many can you find? None in English and Italian, and even in other languages such words either don't exist or are extremely rare. Human languages offer several examples of this kind, and this indicates that in forming words we tend to prefer certain sound combinations to others, irrespective of which language we speak. The fact that this occurs across languages has prompted linguists to hypothesize the existence of biological bases of language (inborn and universal) which precede language learning in humans. Finding evidence to support this hypothesis is, however, far from easy and the debate between the proponents of this view and those who believe that language is merely the result of learning is still open. But proof supporting the "universalist" hypothesis has now been provided by a new study conducted by a research team of the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) in Trieste and just published in the journal PNAS.

David Gomez, a SISSA research scientist working under the supervision of Jacques Mehler and first author of the paper, and his co-workers decided to observe the brain activity of newborns. "In fact, if it is possible to demonstrate that these preferences are already present within days from birth, when the newborn baby is still unable to speak and presumably has very limited language knowledge, then we can infer that there is an inborn bias that prefers certain words to others", comments Gomez.

"To monitor the newborns' brain activity we used a non-invasive technique, i.e., functional near-infrared spectroscopy", explains Marina Nespor, a SISSA neuroscientist who participated in the study. During the experiments the newborns would listen to words starting with normally "preferred" sounds (like "bl") and others with uncommon sounds ("lb"). "What we found was that the newborns' brains reacted in a significantly different manner to the two types of sound" continues Nespor.

"The brain regions that are activated while the newborns are listening react differently in the two cases", comments Gomez, "and reflect the preferences observed across languages, as well as the behavioural responses recorded in similar experiments carried out in adults".

"It's difficult to imagine what languages would sound like if humans didn't share a common knowledge base", concludes Gomez. "We are lucky that this common base exists. This way, our children are born with an ability to distinguish words from "non-words" ever since birth, regardless of which language they will then go on to learn".

EurekAlert. 2014. “Universal syllables”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 1, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Ancient nomads spread earliest domestic grains along Silk Road, study finds

Findings push back earliest known East-West interaction along Slik Road by 2,000 years

Charred grains of barley, millet and wheat deposited nearly 5,000 years ago at campsites in the high plains of Kazakhstan show that nomadic sheepherders played a surprisingly important role in the early spread of domesticated crops throughout a mountainous east-west corridor along the historic Silk Road, suggests new research from Washington University in St. Louis.

"Our findings indicate that ancient nomadic pastoralists were key players in an east-west network that linked innovations and commodities between present-day China and southwest Asia," said study co-author Michael Frachetti, PhD, an associate professor of archaeology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University and principal investigator on the research project.

"Ancient wheat and broomcorn millet, recovered in nomadic campsites in Kazakhstan, show that prehistoric herders in Central Eurasia had incorporated both regional crops into their economy and rituals nearly 5,000 years ago, pushing back the chronology of interaction along the territory of the 'Silk Road' more than 2,000 years," Frachetti said.

The study, to be published April 2 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, establishes that several strains of ancient grains and peas had made their way across Eurasia thousands of years earlier than previously documented.

While these crops have been known to exist much earlier in ancient China and Southwest Asia, finding them intermingled in the Bronze Age burials and households of nomadic pastoralists provides some of the earliest concrete signs for east-west interaction in the vast expanse of Eurasian mountains and the first botanical evidence for farming among Bronze Age nomads.

Bread wheat, cultivated at least 6,000 years ago in Southwest Asia, was absent in China before 2500 B.C. while broomcorn millet, domesticated 8,000 years ago in China, is missing in southwest Asia before 2000 B.C. This study documents that ancient grains from eastern China and soutwest Asia had made their way to Kazakhstan in the center of the continent by 2700-2500 B.C. (nearly 5,000 years ago).

"This study starts to rewrite the model for economic change across Eurasia," said first author Robert Spengler, PhD, a paleoethnobotanist and research associate in Arts & Sciences at WUSTL.

"It illustrates that nomads had diverse economic systems and were important for reshaping economic spheres more generally."

Findings are based on archaeobotanical data collected from four Bronze Age pastoralist campsites in Central Eurasian steppe/mountains: Tasbas and Begash in the highlands of Kazakhstan and Ojakly and Site 1211/1219 in Turkmenistan.

"This is one of the first systematic applications of archaeobotany in the region, making the potential for further future discovery very exciting," Spengler said.

Frachetti and a team of WUSTL researchers led the on-site excavations, working closely with archaeologists based in Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Italy. Spengler conducted the paleoethnobotany laboratory work at WUSTL, under the directorship of Gayle J. Fritz, PhD, professor of archaeology and expert in human-plant relationships.

"Finding this diverse crop assemblage at Tasbas and Begash illustrates first evidence for the westward spread of East Asian and Southwest Asian crops eastward, and the surprise is that it is nomads who are the agents of change," Frachetti said.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Ancient nomads spread earliest domestic grains along Silk Road, study finds”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 1, 2014. Available online:

Friday, May 16, 2014

Born to chat: Humans may have innate language instinct

People instinctively organise a new language according to a logical hierarchy, not simply by learning which words go together, as computer translation programs do. The finding may add further support to the notion that humans possess a "universal grammar", or innate capacity for language.

The existence of a universal grammar has been in hot dispute among linguists ever since Noam Chomsky first proposed the idea half a century ago. If the theory is correct, this innate structure should leave some trace in the way people learn languages.

To test the idea, Jennifer Culbertson, a linguist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and her colleague David Adger of Queen Mary University of London, constructed an artificial "nanolanguage".

They presented English-speaking volunteers with two-word phrases, such as "shoes blue" and "shoes two", which were supposed to belong to a new language somewhat like English. They then asked the volunteers to choose whether "shoes two blue" or "shoes blue two" would be the correct three-word phrase.

Semantic hierarchy

In making this choice, the volunteers – who hadn't been exposed to any three-word phrases – would reveal their innate bias in language-learning. Would they rely on familiarity ("two" usually precedes "blue" in English), or would they follow a semantic hierarchy and put "blue" next to "shoe" (because it modifies the noun more tightly than "two", which merely counts how many)?

People chose to group the words by semantic hierarchy about three-quarters of the time. They were even more likely to choose phrases like "shoes blue these" over "shoes these blue", in which the word "these" is even less tightly bound to the noun than the numeral. This suggests that the volunteers were consulting an internal hierarchy, not merely learning to invert the word order, says Culbertson.

The finding suggests that our brains learn language in a more complex way than simply working out which words are likely to go together in sequence, says Jeffrey Lidz, a linguist at the University of Maryland at College Park. This should add fuel to the debate over universal grammar. "For people who don't believe in the Chomskyan idea, this will be a challenge," he says.

Not everyone agrees. Our minds tend to group more similar objects in many different domains, says Adele Goldberg, a linguist at Princeton University. In a grocery store, for example, apples are more likely to be next to the oranges than next to the beer. A tendency to group adjectives close to nouns may reflect this general tendency, not any property universal to language in particular, she says.

Nonsense syllables

A second study, also released this week, hints at a second apparently innate facet to language. David Gomez, a neuroscientist at the University of Chile in Santiago, and his colleagues measured blood flow in the brains of 24 newborn infants as they listened to recordings of spoken nonsense syllables. The syllables differed in a linguistic property called "sonority", which describes the consonants that most easily precede and follow one another.

Blood-flow changes revealed that the infants could tell the difference between syllables with well formed sonority, such as "blif", and more poorly formed syllables, such as "lbif", Gomez found. Since the infants had heard little speech in their brief lives, and certainly had never tried to pronounce the syllables themselves, it suggests an innate sensitivity to sonority, says Gomez.

In response to an enquiry from New Scientist, Noam Chomsky said the papers add little evidence to what is obvious. It's like adding a toothpick to a mountain, he said.

Holmes, Bob. 2014. “Born to chat: Humans may have innate language instinct”. New Scientist. Posted: March 31, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Biographies in bone

Our knowledge of past civilisations is gleaned from what is left behind – the shards of pots, traces of dwellings and goods from graves. And just as these are clues to the everyday behaviours of individuals long gone, so too are their bodily remains. Locked in their teeth and bones is information that scientists can use to reveal how they lived, such as the food they ate and the distances they travelled.

Dr Ronika Power and Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr from Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES) with Dr Tamsin O’Connell from the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research are reading these ‘biographies in bone’ in the skeletons and skulls of people who lived up to 8,000 years ago in the Sahara Desert and across the African continent.

The remains are among those of 18,000 individuals housed in the University of Cambridge’s Duckworth Laboratory – one of the world’s largest repositories of skulls, skeletons, death masks, mummies, hair bundles and blood samples, including a jawbone tens of thousands of years old. Bones from 19th-century plague pits sit alongside axe-cleaved skulls from Iron Age battles, together with the cast of fossil of an early hominin who lived around 3 million years ago, and medically important skeletons distorted by diseases that, with today’s drugs, would never have the chance to run their course.

To describe the ancient Saharan diets, the researchers are measuring the levels of chemical entities called isotopes in the remains. Biological tissues are reservoirs for elements such as carbon and oxygen, which arrive in the body through the food we eat and the environment we live in, and which have variants (isotopes) that can be measured.

“Tooth enamel is formed in the very early years of life and the chemical fingerprints within it don’t change throughout life,” explained O’Connell. “So whatever isotope signals the teeth contain are a result of the geographical area where individuals spent their childhood and the food and drink they consumed there.”

Bone, on the other hand, is ‘remodelled’ throughout life – most of a healthy adult’s skeleton is made in the last ten years of their life. “Isotopes in bone therefore tell you where the person was living in the years leading up to their death.”

Isotope ‘signatures’, together with the geographic distribution of the shape and size of skulls, can therefore be used to look for evidence of migration in ancient populations. “Discontinuities between what the teeth tell us and what the bones tell us may provide evidence that the individual migrated. This in turn opens up questions about the interconnectedness of peoples – the movement of individuals, ideas, knowledge and material culture at very early stages of civilisation,” said Power.

Their work has focused on a group of 120 individuals who lived in pre-Dynastic Egypt around 5,000 BC, two-and-a-half millennia before the pyramids of Giza were built. Tiny scrapings of tooth enamel have been taken from the remains and are currently being analysed for their isotopic content.

Garamantes civilisation

These analyses run parallel to those of samples from skeletons of the Garamantes civilisation, who lived in the central Sahara from 1000 BC until AD 1500. The Garamantes samples are being analysed as part of the Trans-Sahara project, which is led by Professor David Mattingly (University of Leicester) and is funded by the European Research Council.

“The little we know about the Garamantes is that they developed sophisticated irrigation systems to cultivate the desert and also that they were traders. There seems to have been an astonishing degree of commercial activity – trade routes across the Sahara linked settlements that were like islands in a sea of sand, and with these came gold, Roman wares, olive oil, ebony, textiles and probably slaves,” said Power.

“Our analysis of this population will identify those individuals who migrated into the central Sahara during their own lifetimes compared with others of potentially diverse ethnic composition who lived in the region all their lives.”

Working with Dr Nick Ray from the University of Leicester, Power will link the biological evidence to the archaeological: “we want to examine how migrants within these Saharan communities expressed their identity through material culture, burial ritual and funerary structures. Did they adopt the customs of their hosts or did they maintain their immigrant identity?”

Past not as homogeneous as once thought

As the research extends to the analysis of other skeletons in the Duckworth Laboratory and in museums worldwide, the researchers hope to arrive at a better idea of regional mobility over thousands of years in Africa. “No other study has ever comprehensively tested the pre-Dynastic Egyptians with the sort of scientific protocols we are applying here. Without these biological testimonies, we have little to no idea about the extent to which mobility characterised the processes of state formation,” explained Power. “Classical ideas that kingdoms were formed from indigenous people are increasingly being questioned – we are now more aware that culture comprises many elements that come together and that the past was not as homogeneous as once thought.”

“Studies such as this highlight the critical role that human remains play in the study of our past – from the life of individuals, to the composition of societies, to cultural aspects. Alongside archaeological and ethnographic artefacts, they provide the basic evidence of life in the past,” added Mirazon Lahr, who is Director of the Duckworth Laboratory.

“New technology is exposing information preserved within the remains as never before – whether it’s genome mapping of humans and their ancestors, or using CT scans to determine differences in the thickness of skull bones – scientific techniques are transforming the nature and extent of the information we can obtain from human remains. And it is now even possible to look for the evolution of disease-resistant genes that are pertinent to modern medicine.

“The scientific importance of these studies can’t be underestimated – many of the remains represent our only means for deriving information on the life, growth and health of past people.”

Past Horizons. 2014. “Biographies in bone”. Past Horizons. Posted: March 28, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

What Is Archaeology?

Archaeology is fundamentally the study of humanity and its past. Archaeologists study things that were created, used or changed by humans. They do this by studying the material remains — the stuff we leave behind, such as lithic tools, a simple hut dwelling, a skeleton covered with gold jewelry or a pyramid that majestically rises from a desert floor. Sometimes, archaeologists study contemporary societies in order to shed light on those that flourished in the past.

Archaeology is practiced around the world by archaeologists who work with people from a wide variety of other disciplines to help answer questions about who we are and where we came from. In doing so, archaeologists find evidence that sheds light on what our future may bring.

Who are archaeologists?

While archaeologists don’t use bullwhips or revolvers like the fictional Indiana Jones, they use a multitude of technologies and techniques to help solve mysteries of the past. Archaeologist Zahi Hawass, the former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities, said that people sometimes tell him that real-life archaeology, with its careful note-taking and lab work, doesn’t sound as exciting as what Indiana Jones does in the movies. He replies that, on the contrary, “to an archaeologist, yes, it certainly is!”

The term “archaeologist” is an increasingly broad term. While professional archaeologists may all share some general fieldwork and lab skills, they may have developed expertise that allows them to specialize in the study of certain types of artifacts or sites.

Underwater archaeology, textile analysis and the study of plant and animal remains found at archaeological sites are just a few examples. Some may develop language skills that allow them to record and translate texts found at archaeological sites. These language experts may not call themselves archaeologists but instead refer to themselves as epigraphers or another title related to the language that they study. Similarly those who specialize in the study of human remains often call themselves “physical” or “biological” anthropologists, rather than archaeologists.

As new technologies and disciplines appear, the skills that archaeologists develop will continue to grow. Some undergraduate archaeology programs offer only a small number of core archaeology courses and instead encourage students to branch out, taking courses from across many other departments at a university.

Archaeologists also tend to focus their studies on a certain part of the world, or a specific culture, such as Egypt, China or the Maya civilization in Central America. They may also focus on specific timeframes. For instance, an Egyptologist may focus on the Old Kingdom period (2649-2150 B.C.), the time period when the pyramids at Giza were built.

Archaeology deals with animals and plants in only so much as it helps us understand humanity. A dinosaur fossil, for instance, would not be studied by an archaeologist unless that dinosaur was dug up by a human and became part of an archaeological site under investigation (in which case the archaeologist would work with a paleontologist to study it).

Becoming a professional archaeologist

In North America and Europe, professional archaeologists tend to have a masters degree or doctorate. This wasn’t always the case. Howard Carter, the archaeologist who led the team that discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, had little formal education and learned various archaeological techniques by practice.

A large number of universities offer archaeology programs. The expertise they can convey to their students depends on the faculty and staff members who are available to teach.

Archaeologists can work for a wide variety of employers. These include museums, art galleries, universities, research institutes, government agencies (the National Park Service, for instance), cultural resource management firms (which often work with private companies and governments to survey and excavate sites before development), tourism companies (for instance, acting as highly educated guides) and media companies (helping to make documentaries and aiding in the publication of books, journals and magazines).

Opportunities for amateurs

There are many opportunities for amateurs to become involved in archaeology. Local archaeology societies offer chances for volunteers to become involved in excavation and lab work.

Overseas digs will sometimes also offer the chance for people, who are able to pay their own way, to volunteer and help excavate an archaeological site. Sometimes those who volunteer can get course credit at a university in return.

Archaeologists' salary

It is hard to give an exact salary range for an archaeologist. In the United States and Canada, a junior field archaeologist (sometimes called a “technician”) who works with a small cultural resource management firm may earn a small amount of money, perhaps not much more than minimum wage.

On the high end, a tenured professor at a major research university may earn a salary that reaches over $100,000. An archaeologist who holds a senior management position at a university, government agency, large cultural resource management firm or large museum may also earn a salary that reaches into six figures. If an archaeologist succeeds in publishing a book that sells well (something that is difficult to do) that may raise their income further. Few, if any, archaeologists say that they went into the discipline for the money.

It does belong in a museum (or at least it should)

Archaeologists today, generally, do not sell the artifacts they dig up. In the past, this was not always the case. Over a century ago, antiquarians (sometimes little more than looters) would excavate artifacts and sell them. In the past, museums, universities, galleries and private individuals would sometimes help pay the cost of a scientific archaeological excavation and, in return, expect a share of the artifacts.

One of the few areas of archaeology where practices like these still, legally, occur is in the salvage of underwater shipwrecks. Some jurisdictions, which don’t have the money to pay for an underwater excavation, will allow a salvage company to excavate a site using professional archaeologists and scientific techniques. The salvage company in turn recoups their costs (and sometimes makes a good profit) by selling some of the artifacts. This practice is deeply controversial among archaeologists and a source of debate among lawmakers.

Another notable exception occurs in part of the United Kingdom where amateurs using metal detectors are allowed to search for artifacts, and at times own their finds, under a complicated system of laws. Again, the use of metal detectors by amateurs is highly controversial with many archaeologists saying that they damage archaeological sites and impede scientific investigations.

How did archaeology get its start?

In some ways, archaeology is an ancient discipline. It was not unusual for ancient societies to keep old material and take steps to preserve sites and monuments they deemed important.

In the early modern period, with the onset of the Enlightenment and subsequent scientific revolution, archaeology gradually became what we would consider “scientific” as methods were developed at recording sites in greater detail and determining the age of artifacts (for instance by studying the sediment in which they were found and analyzing how the style of lithic and ceramic artifacts changed over time).

Where does archaeology go from here?

As technology develops, new methods for studying the past have been incorporated into the discipline. For instance, as high resolution Google Earth imagery became available in the last decade, archaeologists (and amateurs) got to make use of this free (or otherwise very cheap) tool that allowed them to survey large tracts of land in areas that are sometimes difficult to access (such as Iraq or Afghanistan).

Where archaeology will go in the future depends very much on future technological advances and where humans will travel to in the future. With the development of techniques that allow astronomers to detect Earth-size planets it’s even been speculated that archaeologists will increasingly work with astronomers, physicists, biologists and other scientists, to search for the remains of non-human civilizations.

Jarus, Owen. 2014. “What Is Archaeology?”. Live Science. Posted: March 28, 2014. Available online: