Monday, June 30, 2014

Confederate Steamer Hijacked by Slaves Found Off S.C.

It's one of the most daring escapes of the Civil War: a band of black slaves commandeer a Confederate steamship at night, navigate through Southern defenses, then run for freedom to the Union blockade of Charleston Harbor.

That remarkable tale is now coming back to life with the discovery of the wreck of the steamship Planter off the South Carolina coastline.

Marine archaeologists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the ship's location Tuesday, 152 years after Robert Smalls sailed the Planter, eight crew members and their families out of slavery. It's the culmination of a six-year search for the sidewheel steamship using historic records, side-scan sonar and ground-penetrating magnetometers.

NOAA officials say the underwater search has engaged students about the history of the Civil War and the contribution of African-American slaves as seamen during the early years of the United States.

"Robert Smalls stands out as a figure of history," said Michael Cottman, president of the National Association of Black Scuba Divers. "The symbolism is important and will resonate with people."

The Planter was a Canadian cargo ship and crew transport that was leased to the Confederate Navy when the war broke out in early 1862. Smalls had worked as a steersman on the ship, learning the underwater topography of the harbor and its backwaters, according to Bruce Terrell, an archaeologist and historian for NOAA's Office of Marine Sanctuaries.

"The captain would tell him where to go, and Smalls' knowledge became vital to the Confederates," Terrell said.

On the night of May 12, 1862, the white officers of the Planter debarked to attend a ball in Charleston, leaving eight black crew members on board. Planter hatched his plan, sailing to a nearby wharf to pick up several families and then sailing out to sea. Smalls wore the straw hat of a captain and wasn’t noticed by guards at the harbor entrance, Terrell said.

Smalls then raised a white shirt or tablecloth as a sign of surrender to the Union ships blockading Charleston Harbor. The commanding admiral was so impressed with the escapade that they offered Smalls a job as pilot of the Planter, which was turned over the Union Army as a transport.

Smalls became a cause célèbre in the North, and was tapped to recruit black slaves to form units to fight against the Confederacy. He eventually was elected to Congress. After the war, Smalls and the Planter were well known among local African Americans. As the Planter's captain, he transported many freed slaves to newly created farm communities at Hilton Head and Port Royal.

The Planter returned to service as a cotton cargo hauler along the South Carolina coast. It ran aground off Cape Romain in 1876 during a salvage operation and in time, its exact location became forgotten.

NOAA officials resurrected the Planter search in 2008. Underwater archaeologists believed they found the ship in 2010 in 12 feet of water and 10 feet of sand in Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge. Because the ship lies inside an important sea turtle breeding area, it’s not likely that it will be salvaged.

NOAA and NABS put together this website about the history of Smalls, the Planter and other ships during the slave era.
_________________ References:

Niiler, Eric. 2014. “Confederate Steamer Hijacked by Slaves Found Off S.C.”. Discovery News. Posted: May 14, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The hall at the crossroads of Baltic waterways

New intriguing finds from the Late Iron Age have been found in Kvarnbo, Saltvik, on the Åland Islands, within the framework of a project led by Dr Kristin Ilves. Finds, consisting mainly of personal ornaments of silver and bronze, were unearthed in connection to what is believed to be the remains of a 40 metre x 12 metre building.

Overall, the results point towards the existence of an elite settlement at the site, comparable to only a handful of places in the Baltic Sea region.

Outline of possible large Late Iron Age hall

The research project titled “The Hall at the Crossroads of Baltic Waterways” was initiated in 2012 and emanated from infra-red aerial photography depicting the fields north of the church of Saltvik where archaeologists observed a soil impression that bears very strong similarities with the outlines of large Late Iron Age hall structures known from Scandinavia.

Halls were buildings with special social importance for the region. There are similar hall buildings known throughout Scandinavia, such as in Gamla Uppsala, Sweden, but longhouses of comparable dimensions have been previously unknown both on the Åland Islands and on mainland Finland.

Several interesting finds

The project aims to discuss the nature of the settlement. As a first step, non-intrusive field surveys were conducted at the site and several interesting finds were collected from the area where the longhouse is believed to have been situated.

Among the unearthed objects, there are several different types of brooches from the late 6th century AD to the end of the Viking Age. One of the earliest finds recovered is a brooch shaped as a bird of prey. A well-preserved small oval brooch belongs to the same period.

The craftsmanship is characterised by rich ornamentation in different techniques and motifs – a Viking silver finger ring exhibits an intricate pattern of punched triangles, while the unearthed part of an equal armed brooch depicts the head of a human or an animal.

In addition to jewellery, an end socket made of bronze that has been sitting at the tip of a scabbard, a so-called sword chape, was found. This object has a direct parallel in an object found at Birka, where the better preserved specimen displays ornamentation in the shape of a human figure.

Further investigations are planned in the area in 2014.
_________________ References:

Past Horizons. 2014. “The hall at the crossroads of Baltic waterways”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 14, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The mystery of mummy W1013

Held within the Egypt Centre of Swansea University in Wales is a small (52 cm long) and carefully painted sarcophagus, known only as W1013. The painting style fits with what might be expected of a 26th Dynasty (c.600BCE) mummy, however, the inscriptions on the front and back are without meaning, leading some to think the artefact a 19th century fake? But following a recent x-ray scan, the contents of the sarcophagus were finally revealed, proving that it was in fact the real thing.

A small unassuming treasure

Brought to the Egypt Centre in 1971, W1013 forms part of the Wellcome Collection. The case is the size of very small child and is made of cartonnage (layers of linen stiffened with plaster or glue). The case would have been made by forming the wet cartonnage around a core of clay and straw. A hole would then be cut in the back and under the feet to remove the core in order to place a wrapped mummy within. Once the cartonnage had hardened, the cast could be covered with another thin layer of plaster and painted. On some cartonnage cases of this date it is possible to see where the case was laced up. EC1064b, for example shows lacing holes.

Mock hieroglyphs such as those found on W1013 are in fact relatively common. Several twenty-first Dynasty ‘intrusive coffins‘ (c. 900BC) found in the Nineteenth Dynasty tomb of Iurudef at Saqqara are inscribed in such a way for instance (Martin 1992: 144-145).

Egyptologist Flinders Petrie (1893: 124-5) discusses sham inscriptions of the 22 to 25th Dynasty on coffins at Lahun and suggests they were due to the makers being illiterate. However, it was still important to have hieroglyphic signs as a magical aid to the afterlife.

Who was in the coffin?

If the coffin wasn’t a fake, then what was contained inside? In 1998 Singleton hospital agreed to x-ray the cartonnage case but the results were inconclusive. However, this year, Paola Griffiths of the Clinical Imaging College of Medicine at Swansea University offered to CT scan the artefact and the results revealed interior detail that had never before been seen.

The entire case was filled with long strips of folded material, presumably linen bandages, and within that a darker area about 10cm long appeared to be a foetus (in foetal position still within a placental sac) and what looked like a femur.

“The length of the femur together with the size of the dark patch is consistent with that of a 12-16 week old foetus” explained curator Carolyn Graves-Brown.

Another dark patch in the scan suggests an amulet and there are several areas with circles resembling strings of beads or tassels.

An ancient tragedy

Graves-Brown explains that: “As the foetus is only 12-16 weeks and is not in a perfect state of preservation I would not guess the sex”.  The outer casing does not clearly define the occupants sex as it is painted with a heavy, yellow and blue striped wig and a wide collar; something which is commonly found on male coffins, though can also be found on female coffins (Taylor 1984: 51). However the reddish-brown of the face is often associated with males.

The body is decorated with a criss-cross pattern of rhombus shapes that may imitate the bead net placed over other mummies. The pattern can be seen on several mummy related artefacts in the Egypt Centre, for example: EC232 (a Sokar hawk); W2001 (a Ptah-Sokar-Osiris figure); Osiris himself can be seen wearing a rhomboid patterned garment on W1042 (a pink Roman period coffin) and some Soter-type shroud fragments of the Roman Period.

It is sometimes claimed that because there were so many miscarriages and infant death in the ancient world, that somehow people became ‘hardened’ to such tragedies. However, it is clear from the care taken by the Egyptians that in many instances such losses were not treated casually. For example, two coffins holding foetuses were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun. In New Kingdom (c.1550-1070BC) Deir el-Medina, a part of the eastern cemetery seems to have been set aside for child burials but also foetuses and even placentas in bloody cloths (Bruyère 1937; Anthes 1943). The placenta was believed to represent the twin of the self (Pinch 1994:130) and so was treated with care too.

Graves-Brown concludes, “We can imagine that the probable foetus within W1013 represents someone’s terrible loss; an occasion of great grief and public mourning.”
_________________ References:

Past Horizons. 2014. “The mystery of mummy W1013”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 14, 2014. Available online:

Friday, June 27, 2014

Microbes from 1,500-year-old feces support archeological theories

By evaluating the bacteria and fungi found in fossilized feces, microbiologists are providing evidence to help support archeologists' hypotheses regarding cultures living in the Caribbean over 1,500 years ago. They report their findings today at the annual meeting of the American Society for Microbiology.

"Although fossilized feces (coprolites) have frequently been studied, they had never been used as tools to determine ethnicity and distinguish between two extinct cultures. By examining the DNA preserved in coprolites from two ancient indigenous cultures, our group was able to determine the bacterial and fungal populations present in each culture as well as their possible diets," says Jessica Rivera-Perez of the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, who presented the study.

Various indigenous cultures inhabited the Greater Antilles thousands of years ago. The Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico have thousands of pre-Columbian indigenous settlements belonging to extinct cultures that migrated to the Caribbean at some point in history.

Archaeological excavations in Vieques, Puerto Rico unearthed hand-made tools and crafts as well as fossilized feces dating from 200 to 400 A.D. The presence of two distinct styles of craftsmanship, as well as other clues obtained from the dig sites, suggested these artifacts belonged to two distinct cultures.

"One culture excelled in the art of pottery; in fact, their signature use of red and white paint helped identify them as descendants from the Saladoids, originating in Saladero, Venezuela. In contrast, the second culture had exquisite art for crafting semiprecious stones into ornaments, some of which represented the Andean condor. This helped archaeologists identify the Bolivian Andes as possible origins of this Huecoid culture," says Rivera-Perez.

To help confirm these archeological hypotheses, Rivera-Perez and her colleagues examined the DNA preserved in coprolites from both Saladoid and Huecoid settlements and compared the bacterial and fungal populations found in each. Major differences were detected between the fecal communities of these cultures, providing additional support that they may have had different origins. Additionally, they found fungal and corn DNA in the Huecoid coprolite that suggests the consumption of an Andean fermented corn beverage, further confirming the theory that the Huecoids originated in the Bolivian Andes.

"The study of the paleomicrobiome of coprolites supports the hypothesis of multiple ancestries and can provide important evidence regarding migration by ancestral cultures and populations of the Caribbean," says Rivera-Perez.
_________________ References:

EurekAlert. 2014. “Microbes from 1,500-year-old feces support archeological theories”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 20, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, June 26, 2014

'Scotland's dodo' bone found at Scottish Seabird Centre dig

A bone from an extinct bird known as "Scotland's dodo" has been uncovered following an archaeological dig in East Lothian.

The bone from the Great Auk, a species last seen in British waters on St Kilda in 1840, was recovered at the Kirk Ness site, now known as North Berwick.

It was unearthed during a dig at the Scottish Seabird Centre.

Archaeologists said the find sheds new lights on human habitation of the area in the Middle Ages.

The archaeological dig, by Edinburgh-based Addyman Archaeology, and supported by Historic Scotland, revealed bones of butchered seals, fish and seabirds, including the bone of the Great Auk.

The upper arm bone of the flightless bird was unearthed at the entrance area of an early building and has been radio carbon dated to the 5th to 7th Centuries.

The seabird was a favoured food source in medieval times as it was easy to catch.

Human predation led to the decline of the species, ensuring that by the middle of the 19th Century it had become persecuted and exploited into extinction.

The penguin-like bird was 1m tall and its range at one time extended from the north-eastern United States across the Atlantic to the British Isles, France and Northern Spain.

Tom Brock, chief executive of the Scottish Seabird Centre, said: "The discovery of the Great Auk bone on site at the Scottish Seabird Centre is fascinating but also very sad.

"We are so fortunate in Scotland to have a rich variety of seabirds and we must use the extinction of the Great Auk as a warning to future generations to look after our wonderful wildlife and the marine environment as an absolute priority.

"There are both behavioural and environmental lessons that must be taken from this internationally-important finding, and as an educational and conservation charity we will remain dedicated to inspiring people to enjoy, protect and learn about wildlife and the natural environment."

Future generations

Tom Addyman, of Addyman Archaeology, said: "The discovery of the Great Auk bone at Kirk Ness is an illuminating find, as we seek to understand and document the importance of the area in the history of wildlife and human habitation in the Middle Ages.

"We hope that its discovery helps historians and conservation experts, such as the Scottish Seabird Centre, to educate future generations about the precious nature of our natural resources."

Rod McCullagh, senior archaeology manager at Historic Scotland, said: "In the last two decades, there has been a renaissance in our understanding of the archaeology and history of early Medieval Scotland.

"The discovery of the remains of domestic buildings and the associated detritus of daily life at Kirk Ness gives us a glimpse of what ordinary life was like in East Lothian at this time.

"That 'daily life' involved the killing of such valuable birds as the Great Auk is no surprise but the discovery of this single bone perhaps attests to a time when hunting did not overwhelm such a vulnerable species."
_________________ References:

BBC News. 2014. “'Scotland's dodo' bone found at Scottish Seabird Centre dig”. BBC News. Posted: May 12, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Mapping medieval miracles

The work of the medieval saint often began even before birth; the earliest text telling the life story of 6th-century Gildas has him making important pronouncements from the safety of his mother’s womb.  Even after death, patron saints were portrayed in the exercise of astonishing powers. The author of the vernacular Irish text which recounts the life of Saint Bairre of Cork sees the saint resurrect a king’s dead wife by bathing her. The Welsh saint, Beino, is recorded as reducing a recalcitrant king to a pool of water, by force of words alone, a feat worthy of Game of Thrones.

A conference which took place in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at the University of Cambridge saw the launch of a project to categorise and chart the thousands of miracle stories recorded about saints of the British Isles between 500 and 1300.  The meeting, Mapping the Miraculous: Hagiographical Motifs and the Medieval World, had been organised by three graduate students at Cambridge – Robert Gallagher, Julianne Pigott and Sarah Waidler – in collaboration with a colleague from St Andrews, Jennifer Key.

Establishing the bona fides

Hagiographers, tasked with writing the biographies of the holy men and women who converted pagan populations or headed Christian communities, relied on the wondrous and weird to establish the bona fides of the saints who populated the religious landscape of early England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. “The layered stories of saints’ acts served multiple purposes in medieval communities, from regulating orthodox religious behaviour to explaining the otherwise unexplainable in the natural world,” said Pigott.

Political expediency was another aspect of saintliness: a timely miracle could save a dynasty. When his local king feared that he would die before producing a male heir, Saint Abban is depicted as coming to his rescue. Abban took the king’s new born daughter in his hands “and prayed to God that the king might have an heir; and the girl he immersed in the font he took out as a boy, and laid it in the king’s bosom. ’Here is thy son,’ he said. And the king was exceedingly glad”.

Pigott explained: “It isn’t difficult to imagine how a narrative such as this might have served the needs of both ruler and ruled. Potentially, it reassured contemporary audiences that, by divine intervention, the proper order of succession would be followed, and life would continue as normal. Though, to the modern reader it’s certainly more complicated.”

Charting miracle stories

The conference was the first step in a project to categorise and chart the thousands of miracle stories recorded about saints of the British Isles between 500 and 1300.  The organisers hope that this collaborative tool will help students and established scholars plot the parallels and divergences between textual accounts of wonder-working across linguistic and geographic boundaries.

Their ultimate intention is to develop an online database – called Mapping Miracles – that will allow scholars to see how miracles recorded in texts that were often composed centuries and hundreds of miles apart, share commonalities and differences. While recently, the current Pope made saints of two former popes, the medieval path to sainthood was a much more democratic affair. Authors created, copied and amended miracle accounts to support the case of their chosen holy-man, often to accord with local knowledge and customs.

Gallagher said: “When we began work on this project each of us was struck by the differences in the miracle accounts we had each previously considered to be universal. We all have specialisms in a certain range of vernacular and Latin texts, but when we began this collaborative research, we realised that the assumptions we held as a result of our own work, may not hold true for texts produced in other regions.”

As a digital database, Mapping Miracles will offer significant advantages over more conventional efforts at creating indices of literary motifs, as the proposed online format will facilitate complex cross referencing, creating a richer and more nuanced picture of the material, while also allowing scholars from around the world to contribute to the process. “The transformation of a baby, from girl to boy, attributed to Saint Abban is just one example of how the database might be used to categorise a miracle in several ways,” said Pigott. “It’s interesting on a number of levels: the sacramental setting of baptism, the mutability of gender, and the provision of service to a king and his political needs.”

Waidler said: “Miracles were a strong feature of the extensive bodies of Latin and vernacular literatures produced in these islands throughout the medieval period. Reading these texts today we are offered a window on the medieval mind, helping us to understand how people might have thought about not just the divine, but their own lives and personal concerns. The landscape itself, with its place names, is a record of how deeply the lives of the saints are scored into our culture.

Repetitive nature of narratives

Miracles are told and retold in the texts that survive in medieval and early modern manuscripts we find littered across European libraries. For now, the Mapping Miracles team is focusing on the British Isles but as hagiography is not confined to one geographic region or even one period of history, there’s no reason to suppose that their online project won’t expand accordingly.” Gallagher noted: “Part of the fascination of miracles lies in the repetitive nature of narratives that have endured for so long – rather as pop music, much of it is very simplistic in form and content, yet it’s popular for exactly that familiarity.”

Pigott added: “Notional familiarity may be consciously constructed, and we can’t just read repetition as failure to innovate. Medieval authors took the universal and particularised and localised it. I would argue they often turned stereotypes into oicotypes – to borrow a term from folkloric studies. For example, they took Biblical miracles and made them more relevant to local concerns, so the Irish saint conveniently changes water into beer, rather than wine. A miracle tale will resonate more with the reader if they can recognise their own cultural values at play.”
_________________ References:

Past Horizons. 2014. “Mapping medieval miracles”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 11, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

'Rice theory' explains north-south China cultural differences, study shows

A new cultural psychology study has found that psychological differences between the people of northern and southern China mirror the differences between community-oriented East Asia and the more individualistic Western world – and the differences seem to have come about because southern China has grown rice for thousands of years, whereas the north has grown wheat.

"It's easy to think of China as a single culture, but we found that China has very distinct northern and southern psychological cultures and that southern China's history of rice farming can explain why people in southern China are more interdependent than people in the wheat-growing north," said Thomas Talhelm, a University of Virginia Ph.D. student in cultural psychology and the study's lead author. He calls it the "rice theory."

The findings appear in the May 9 issue of the journal Science.

Talhelm and his co-authors at universities in China and Michigan propose that the methods of cooperative rice farming – common to southern China for generations – make the culture in that region interdependent, while people in the wheat-growing north are more individualistic, a reflection of the independent form of farming practiced there over hundreds of years.

"The data suggests that legacies of farming are continuing to affect people in the modern world," Talhelm said. "It has resulted in two distinct cultural psychologies that mirror the differences between East Asia and the West."

According to Talhelm, Chinese people have long been aware of cultural differences between the north region and the southern, which are divided by the Yangtze River – the largest river in China, flowing west to east across the vast country. People in the north are thought to be more aggressive and independent, while people to the south are considered more cooperative and interdependent.

"This has sometimes been attributed to different climates – warmer in the south, colder in the north – which certainly affects agriculture, but it appears to be more related to what Chinese people have been growing for thousands of years," Talhelm said.

He notes that rice farming is extremely labor-intensive, requiring about twice the number of hours from planting to harvest as does wheat. And because most rice is grown on irrigated land, requiring the sharing of water and the building of dikes and canals that constantly require maintenance, rice farmers must work together to develop and maintain an infrastructure upon which all depend. This, Talhelm argues, has led to the interdependent culture in the southern region.

Wheat, on the other hand, is grown on dry land, relying on rain for moisture. Farmers are able to depend more on themselves, leading to more of an independent mindset that permeates northern Chinese culture.

Talhelm developed his rice theory after living in China for four years. He first went to the country in 2007 as a high school English teacher in Guangzhou, in the rice-growing south.

A year later, he moved to Beijing, in the north. On his first trip there, he noticed that people were more outgoing and individualistic than in the south.

"I noticed it first when a museum curator told me my Chinese was clearly better than my roommate's," Talhelm said. "The curator was being direct and a little less concerned about how her statement might make us feel."

After three years in China, including time as a journalist, he later went back as a U.Va. doctoral student on a Fulbright scholarship.

"I was pretty sure the differences I was seeing were real, but I had no idea why northern and southern China were so different – where did these differences come from?" Talhelm asked.

He soon found that the Yangtze was an important cultural divider in China. "I found out that the Yangtze River helped divide dialects in China, and I soon learned that the Yangtze also roughly divides rice farming and wheat farming," he said.

He dug into anthropologists' accounts of pre-modern rice and wheat villages and realized that they might account for the different mindsets, carried forward from an agrarian past into modernity.

"The idea is that rice provides economic incentives to cooperate, and over many generations, those cultures become more interdependent, whereas societies that do not have to depend on each other as much have the freedom of individualism," Talhelm said.

He went about investigating this with his Chinese colleagues by conducting psychological studies of the thought styles of 1,162 Han Chinese college students in the north and south and in counties at the borders of the rice-wheat divide.

They found through a series of tests that northern Chinese were indeed more individualistic and analytic-thinking – more similar to Westerners – while southerners were interdependent, holistic-thinking and fiercely loyal to friends, as psychological testing has shown is common in other rice-growing East Asian nations, such as Japan and Korea.

The study was conducted in six Chinese cities: Beijing in the north; Fujian in the southeast; Guangdong in the south; Yunnan in the southwest; Sichuan in the west central; and Liaoning in the northeast.

Talhelm said that one of the most striking findings was that counties on the north-south border – just across the Yangtze River from each other – exhibited the same north/south psychological characteristics as areas much more distantly separated north and south.

"I think the rice theory provides some insight to why the rice-growing regions of East Asia are less individualistic than the Western world or northern China, even with their wealth and modernization," Talhelm said.

He expects to complete his Ph.D. next year, and this year received an Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Research Fellowship from U.Va.'s Office of the Vice President for Research and the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences for an in-depth study of people from the rice-wheat border in China's Anhui province.
_________________ References:

EurekAlert. 2014. “'Rice theory' explains north-south China cultural differences, study shows”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 8, 2014. Available online:

Monday, June 23, 2014

Archaeologists discover a lost medieval village in the Scottish Borders

Archaeological investigations undertaken in the Scottish Borders by GUARD Archaeology, and which have just been published, have concluded that the stone walls, cobbled surfaces and artefacts discovered belong to a lost medieval village dating from between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.

The discoveries were made during a Scottish Water project to lay a new pipeline mains on the outskirts of Selkirk. This provided an opportunity for limited archaeological investigations where the course of the pipeline crossed the site of the Battle of Philiphaugh, fought in 1645, and skirted the edge of a Scheduled Monument identified from aerial photographs as a possible early medieval settlement. Over the winter of 2012 and 2013, the GUARD Archaeology team, led by Alan Hunter Blair, uncovered the foundations of stone built structures, cobbled farmyards and the foundations of walls, buildings and hearths.

Re-used pivot stones

Amongst the artefacts recovered were two pivot stones, thought to have been used as hinges for the doors of the buildings. Given that the stones were found in a stone wall and as part of cobbling, it is likely that they derived from buildings that had been demolished and the stones re-used as rubble for subsequent structures at the site.

The team also recovered a variety of finds, which subsequent post-excavation analyses led by GUARD Archaeology Medieval Pottery Specialist Bob Will, revealed were of a predominantly domestic character. The artefacts included fragments of medieval pottery cooking vessels, jugs and mugs from Scotland, Germany and the Low Countries. A decorated stone spindle whorl, which was used with a wooden spindle for the spinning of woollen thread, was also recovered. Other artefacts included stone counters, perhaps used for games, a rubbing stone used for wood or leather working and a whetstone, used for sharpening iron tools. Fired clay fragments were also found indicating the presence of ovens or wooden structures nearby.

A medieval date

Although the bulk of the artefacts were recovered from the lower plough soil rather than sealed archaeological contexts they support a medieval date for occupation of this settlement, which was corroborated by charcoal from two hearths that yielded radiocarbon dates of cal AD 1472 -1645. None of the artefacts appeared to be connected to either the seventeenth century battle of Philiphaugh or the early medieval settlement apparent on aerial photographs, but they do suggest a later medieval settlement on the site dating from between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries.

As well as the post-excavation analyses of the artefacts recovered from the investigations, the archaeological excavations led to documentary research, by Dr Tom Turpie of the University of Stirling, into the history of the area, which revealed a number of references to tenants and dwellings at Philiphaugh in the sixteenth century and describes the ‘town’ of Philiphaugh in 1582 with a ‘tower, fortalice, manors, gardens, orchards and mills’. This suggests that there was a range of buildings probably spread over a large area along the river Tweed here, only a small sample of which was revealed by the new water pipeline. These references suggest that there were a number of tenants each with their own house, garden, outbuildings and fields, some of which had been sub-divided between families.

Dispersed linear settlement

The archaeological evidence would support these descriptions as the structural remains are located over a large area and suggest a dispersed linear settlement along the valley. The walls and extensive areas of cobbled surfaces indicate that the buildings were substantial and well made.

The project demonstrated the archaeological benefits of limited small scale investigations where the main parties all work together. Consulting the Scottish Borders Council Archaeologist and Historic Scotland throughout the work, Scottish Water Solutions adapted their plans to avoid the most sensitive archaeological areas. As Simon Brassey, of Scottish Water’s specialist engineering environment team, said, ‘When working in areas of archaeological impact and finding artefacts, you are continually surprised what you uncover.‘ Dr Chris Bowles, Archaeology Officer with Scottish Borders Council, added: ‘This is a significant addition to our knowledge of where and how people lived in the medieval Scottish Borders. Our sincere thanks go out to Scottish Water and GUARD Archaeology for ensuring this important site has been discovered and understood.’

Abandoned and then lost

The historical evidence demonstrates that houses and farms were known in this area but it does not identify  their location, while the archaeological evidence can provide some indication of the location of structures. The site and surrounding area is well known for the Battle of Philiphaugh in 1645 but contemporary accounts refer to ditches, dikes and hedges that indicate field systems, but they do not mention houses or buildings, which could suggest that the farms or small holdings had been abandoned by that time. These investigations demonstrate that there was a thriving farming community in the immediate area, one that was ‘lost’ in the later farming improvements that restructured farms and fields.
_________________ References:

Past Horizons. 2014. “Archaeologists discover a lost medieval village in the Scottish Borders”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 8, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, June 22, 2014

New study sheds light on survivors of the Black Death

A new study suggests that people who survived the medieval mass-killing plague known as the Black Death lived significantly longer and were healthier than people who lived before the epidemic struck in 1347.

Caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the Black Death wiped out 30 percent of Europeans and nearly half of Londoners during its initial four-year wave from 1347 – 1351.

Released Wednesday (May 7) in the journal PLOS ONE, the study by University of South Carolina anthropologist Sharon DeWitte provides the first look at how the plague, called bubonic plague today, shaped population demographics and health for generations.

The findings have important implications for understanding emerging diseases and how they impact the health of individuals and populations of people.

"Knowing how strongly diseases can actually shape human biology can give us tools to work with in the future to understand disease and how it might affect us," DeWitte says.

She says the Black Death was a single iteration of a disease that has affected humans since at least the 6th century Plague of Justinian.

"Genetic analysis of 14th century Y. pestis has not revealed significant functional differences in the ancient and modern strains," DeWitte says. "This suggests that we need to consider other factors such as the characteristics of humans in order to understand changes in the disease over time."

To better understand those human factors DeWitte has spent the last decade examining the skeletal remains of more 1,000 men, women and children who lived before, during and after the Black Death. The skeletons, maintained in the archives of the Museum of London, were excavated from a handful of well-documented London cemeteries, including St. Mary Spital, Guildhall Yard, St. Nicholas Shambles and St. Mary Graces.

The skeletons are catalogued in 3-foot by 1-foot boxes. As she studies each skeleton, DeWitte determines biological sex, age at death and analyzes specific markers, including porous lesions, and teeth, to gauge each individual's general health. Her bioarchaeological research is providing a new dimension to the study of Black Death and provides the first look at the lives of women and children during this medieval time period.

"It's innovative because of the analytical approaches I take. I'm providing more nuanced reconstructions of life in the past than is possible with more traditional methods in my field," DeWitte says. "My Black Death research is rare because the samples that I use are exceedingly rare. There are only a handful of large cemetery samples that are clearly linked to the 14th century Black Death.

"And, most medieval historical records only tell about the experience of men. We have little information about the experiences of women and children and the poor in general during medieval plague epidemics, including the Black Death. My bioarchaeological data allows us to understand how the population in general fared during and after the epidemic."

DeWitte's analysis has revealed several important findings. Most notably that:

  • the 14th-century Black Death was not an indiscriminate killer, but instead targeted frail people of all ages;
  • survivors of the Black Death experienced improvements in health and longevity, with many people living to ages of 70 or 80 years, as compared to pre-Black Death populations;
  • improvements in survival post-Black Death didn't necessarily equate to good health over a lifespan, but revealed a hardiness to endure disease, including repeated bouts of plague; and
  • the Black Death, either directly or indirectly, very powerfully shaped mortality patterns for generations after the epidemic ended.
DeWitte says she was surprised by how much of a change she estimated between the pre- and post-Black Death periods.

"The Black Death was just the first outbreak of medieval plague, so the post-Black Death population suffered major threats to health in part from repeated outbreaks of plague," DeWitte says. "Despite this, I found substantial improvements in demographics and thus health following the Black Death."

In addition to the PLOS ONE journal article, DeWitte has a related article appearing in the current issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

DeWitte will head back to London this month with two graduate students for six weeks to collect further data. Her research is funded by the National Science Foundation, the Wenner-Grenn Foundation, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists and the university's office of the provost.
_________________ References:

Science Daily. 2014. “New study sheds light on survivors of the Black Death”. Science Daily. Posted: May 7, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Archaeologists use drone images to uncover ancient New Mexico village

Using thermal imagery, researchers can now see what lies beneath the dirt-covered desert landscape. A team of researchers from the University of North Florida and the University of Arkansas has successfully used drones to unearth a 1,000-year-old village in northwestern New Mexico, revealing never-seen-before structures, unique insight into who lived there and what the area was like.

Dr. John Kantner, a UNF associate professor of anthropology and an assistant vice president of research, and Dr. Jesse Casana, an archaeologist at the University of Arkansas, teamed up last summer to test the drones in a remote area of northwestern New Mexico. The research results were published in the May issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The archaeologists used an advanced drone that was programmed to fly a precise, GPS-guided path, with the thermal camera systematically imaging the ground surface. Images captured by the airborne camera were then processed using specialized software that transforms hundreds of individual photos into an accurate "heat map" of the ground.

"The drone with its thermal camera was able to not only pinpoint buried masonry architecture that I didn't know about, but it also identified a number of circular "cool" signals that are the perfect shape and size to be kivas, ceremonial structures where people would meet for worship and decision-making," said Kantner, who noted it was one of the most interesting discoveries.

"I was really pleased with the results," said Casana. "This work illustrates the very important role that drones have for scientific research."

With funding from the National Science Foundation, Kantner has studied the landscape south of Chaco Canyon for decades. He said he always knew there were homes from Pueblo ancestors in the area now called "Blue J," but the ruins have been obscured by vegetation and buried in eroded sandstone.

He's particularly interested in how this powerful religious phenomenon impacted local social and political dynamics. "To determine this from ancient remains requires that I know exactly where houses and religious buildings were located and what they looked like, and this is where the challenge lies, because many of them are buried below the surface. It's all but impossible to find ruins covered with dirt and vegetation unless you systematically and painstakingly excavate test pits to find them, and this takes forever," Kantner said.

Archaeologists have known for decades that aerial images of thermal infrared wavelengths of light could be a powerful tool for spotting cultural remains on the ground, but the technology just wasn't feasible.

"Really just a few days work allowed us to do something which would have taken a decade of work, said Kantner. "So this is great for quickly and pretty cheaply being able to find sites."

"This project has convinced us that UAV-based thermal imaging holds great potential for discovery and mapping of ancient sites," said Casana. "Traditional archaeological fieldwork is time-consuming and labor-intensive, and surveying large areas can become expensive."

The team is working on refining its methods and plans to use thermal imagery for research in other parts of the world, with the goal of making aerial thermography a routinely used method for uncovering the human past.
_________________ References:

Science Daily. 2014. “Archaeologists use drone images to uncover ancient New Mexico village”. Science Daily. Posted: May 7, 2014. Available online:

Friday, June 20, 2014

A Dozen Words for Misunderstood

Few fields of study suffer from a more complete public misunderstanding than linguistics. It isn’t uncommon for a linguist to be asked, on meeting a non-linguist, how many languages he or she speaks, or to hear the exclamation, “Oh dear, I must watch my grammar!” Linguists study languages and their structures, but speaking many of them isn’t a job requirement, nor is being a professional grammar scold. A slightly rarer misimpression is usually held by those with just enough knowledge to be dangerous. These people think they flatter a linguist when they say how important linguistics is, “because what we think depends on the words we use to think it.”

This last belief is the bugbear that’s been eating John McWhorter’s trash, and that he hopes to kill off once and for all with his latest book, The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language. McWhorter’s writing appears frequently in the liberal New Republic and the conservative City Journal, often on the subject of race and politics. (McWhorter subscribes to a number of political heterodoxies.) But before he went into punditry, McWhorter trained as a linguist and contributed to the study of creolization, the process by which two or more languages coalesce into a full-featured third language.

The belief in question—that the languages we speak shape the thoughts we think—is known in linguistics as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, and among the linguistic establishment, Whorfianism has fallen on very bad times indeed. The hypothesis’ namesakes, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, have been dead for 70 years, and in my own linguistics classes I rarely heard them invoked except to be ridiculed, like biologists of yore who thought maggots grew spontaneously from rotting meat, or historians who thought the world began 6,000 years ago. What Whorfianism claims, in its strongest form, is that our thoughts are limited and shaped by the specific words and grammar we use. Mayans don’t just speak Mayan; they think Mayan, and therefore they think differently from English speakers. According to Sapir-Whorf, a person’s view of the world is refracted through her language, like a pair of spectacles (not necessarily well-prescribed) superglued to his face.

Whorf came up with his version of the hypothesis through his study of the language of the Hopi Indians. Hopi, he believed, lacks tense markers, like the “-ed” in “I walked to the store,” or words meaning “before” and “after.” In English we can’t say a sentence about walking to the store without saying when the walking happened. Whorf turned out to be wrong about Hopi time-words and tense-markers, McWhorter notes: Hopi has them. But Whorf viewed Hopi’s supposed lack of them as a sign that the Hopi see the world with less reference to time than we do, and that they are a culturally “timeless” people, living in communion with eternity while we English speakers are slaves to tense markers and clocks.

Perhaps the most famous invocation of Sapir-Whorf is the claim that because Eskimos have dozens of words for snow, they have a mental apparatus that equips them differently—and, one assumes, better—than, say, Arabs, to perceive snow. (I once watched the wintry film Fargo with an Egyptian who called everything from snowflakes to windshield-ice talg—the same word she used for the ice cube in her drink.) To get a hint of why nearly all modern linguists might reject this claim, consider the panoply of snow-words in English (sleet, slush, flurry, whiteout, drift, etc.), and the commonsense question of why we would ever think to attribute Eskimos’ sophisticated and nuanced understanding of snow to their language, rather than the other way around. (“Can you think of any other reason why Eskimos might pay attention to snow?” Harvard’s Steven Pinker once asked.)

McWhorter’s first order of business in his book is to show that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is testable, and that the cognitive differences between speakers of different languages turn out to be infinitesimal. A Sapir-Whorfian might expect a speaker of a language with a sophisticated inventory of words for colors—not just Newton’s seven basic hues, but hundreds of names for the gradations in between—to be better at differentiating colors. Unlike English speakers, for example, Russians have distinct words for dark and light blue. But if you show a Russian the two shades of blue, his speed at differentiating them is just 124 milliseconds faster—not even the blink of an eye—than an English speaker’s. Some languages are particularly forlorn in their inventory of color words; the Herero people of southwest Africa use the same word for green and blue. But they have no difficulty distinguishing “the color of a leaf and the color of the sky,” McWhorter notes. “Living on the land as they do would seem to have made it rather difficult to avoid noticing it at least now and then.”

What’s amazing about Sapir-Whorf, given the fairly negligible differences that linguists have thus far detected between language speakers, is that educated people from many other disciplines—philosophy, cultural studies, and literature—claim that their own thoughts are shaped by language in exactly the way Sapir-Whorf proposed, and that linguists now consider risible.

If you look for folk-Whorfianism you’ll see it all over. McWhorter rightly calls its appeal “almost narcotic.” George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946), which generations of writers have accepted as a model of clarity and common sense, takes as its premise something awfully like Whorfianism: “the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” The novelist Anthony Burgess, who wrote two delightful books on linguistics, lapsed into Whorfianism when explaining why he wanted the protagonist of A Clockwork Orange to borrow the Russian ruka (“rooker,” in the book) as his slang for “hand.” “Russian makes no distinction,” Burgess wrote, “between … hand and arm, which are alike ruka. This limitation would turn my horrible young narrator into a clockwork toy with inarticulate limbs.” A character in a novel by John Crowley rhapsodizes about how his Puerto Rican girlfriend’s Spanish enhances her sexiness by surrounding her with gendered nouns and making the world “a constant congress of male and female, boy and girl.” (What must life be like for the Nasioi speakers of New Guinea, whose language has over 200 genders? Like living in the Castro District of San Francisco, one imagines.)

So The Language Hoax is the work not of John McWhorter, pundit, but of John McWhorter, zombie killer: slayer of an undead theory. He is a talented guide to linguistics, one of a number of gifted lay and professional linguist popularizers, including Burgess (stronger on philology and phonetics than on language and mind), Pinker, Geoffrey Pullum, Robert Lane Greene, and William Safire. McWhorter’s writing is just a bit less graceful than these others, in part because of his chatty habit of including bafflingly irrelevant detail (we learn that one of his teachers looked like a sad Tom Petty, and that McWhorter thinks Nivea cream smells heavenly).

But on the substance, McWhorter is exhaustive, fair-minded, and convincing. He is withering toward most of Sapir-Whorf ’s lay acolytes, yet also generous to the academic linguists and psychologists who have led a minor neo-Whorfian revival. These researchers, such as Lera Boroditsky of the University of California-San Diego, have found minuscule ways—far smaller than anything proposed by the original Whorfians—in which language does affect thought. McWhorter praises Boroditsky and others for elegant and sound experimental design, but says they have resurrected the hypothesis in such a diluted form that their work only serves to show that language barely affects thought at all, as measured cognitively.

Even academic neo-Whorfians haven’t found evidence for a further claim of Whorfians, that languages express “cultural needs”—that the intricacies of grammar reflect cultural facts about the groups who speak it. Whorf’s original hypothesis about the Hopi—that they are “timeless” because their language doesn’t mark tense—is but one example. McWhorter offers another, this time of a language that marks more, not less, than we do in English. Tuyuca, an Amazonian language, marks sentences with endings that show the provenance of the information the speaker is giving. So just as in English we have no choice but to include a marker on our verbs to say when something happened (“he walked to the store”), Tuyuca speakers are forced to add a marker that says how they know the information: I hear (-gí), I see (-í), they say (-yigï). Having these “evidential markers” would, in a Whorfian world, make Tuyuca speakers more attuned to the accuracy and provenance of information—perhaps making them more skeptical, or better on the witness stand.

Again, McWhorter shows that evidential markers just don’t correlate with these broader cultural traits. Korean has them, and researchers have found that Korean children are no better at attributing things than English-speaking children who speak with no evidential markers. Of European languages, Bulgarian is perhaps the only major one that does, and no one seriously thinks Bulgarians are the supreme skeptics of Europe. And plenty of cultures (the ancient Greeks, the French philosophes) seem to have been plenty skeptical without the assistance of Tuyuca-like suffixes. Indeed, this Whorfian attempt at a compliment to the Tuyucans for their skepticism comes across as a slander against the speakers of languages that have no evidential markers. Are those languages less skeptical? Do languages that mark very few things make their speakers ignorant? Chinese syntax is particularly bare in this regard, and its speakers regularly say sentences of the form “he go store,” without explicit marking of time, evidence, or much else. Yet no one considers Chinese speakers especially lacking in discernment. McWhorter encourages us to see linguistic structures as nothing more than products of “chance,” and to accept that we are all “mentally alike.”

McWhorter’s book should convince any doubters that strong-form Whorfianism is a bad idea whose time will never stop coming. So why does this bad idea, apparently without evidence, keep getting re-discovered and confidently touted? It is, after all, not the sort of thing one would expect people to want to believe. It implies that we are prisoners of our dictionaries, and that our words distort our worlds in ways we cannot escape. The belief in a strong version of Sapir-Whorf means that other people are in a sense unknowable, and that some have virtues and skills (skepticism, color perception) that are unattainable to us. Call it a belief in the inevitable inequality of language speakers.

One reason for its persistence, McWhorter proposes, is that we are humble. Social and cognitive science has repeatedly shown that our minds are particularly bad at knowing their limits. A Whorfian linguistic constraint would be just one more such distortion, like the visual blind-spot that is on the retina of every human who has ever lived, but that most of us never learn about unless we take a neuroscience class. It also appeals to our sense that human diversity is greater than we once thought.

McWhorter’s anti-Whorfian sentence “all humans are mentally alike” is, for me anyway, not an immediately appealing one. Whorfianism encourages the belief that every language is a beautiful and unique snowflake—or some other snow-entity, thinkable only by Eskimos. But it’s telling, McWhorter notes, that Whorfians tend only to celebrate languages for their differences (making Tuyuca speakers out to be skeptics, say), and never vilify them (making Chinese out to be credulous).

I would propose another attraction: Sapir-Whorf lets us off the hook. The theory suggests that some thoughts or ways of seeing the world are simply not possible for us—and that can be comforting, particularly if it means we’re limited in the same way that thousands or millions of other speakers of our language are limited. Less comforting is the post-Whorfian reality: that our potential thoughts are not limited by constraints of language, but by our own deeper inabilities to imagine, perceive, and feel. For those who thought they could blame words, that is an unsettling thought in any language.
_________________ References:

Wood, Graeme. 2014. “A Dozen Words for Misunderstood”. Pacific Standard. Posted: May 6, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Qatar coastal heritage revealed

The Wales Qatar Archaeological Project was originally set up in 2010 by archaeologist Dr Andrew Petersen from the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD). The project is concerned with the research excavation and survey of a number of coastal sites in northern Qatar.

Currently the university is working on two sites, Ruwaydha and Rubayqa. Preliminary reports on both sites have been published in the Proceedings of the Seminar for Arabian Studies.

Dr Petersen first travelled to Qatar in 2008, a visit which by chance coincided with a decision by the Qatar Museum Authority (QMA) to begin a comprehensive series of archaeological investigations targeting Islamic period sites. This was the catalyst for the creation of the project.]

Dr Petersen explained: “On a tour of the archaeological sites in northern Qatar, I was immediately struck by the density of the occupation along the coast and saw the potential of a targeted excavation programme.

Ras ‘Ushairiq

“So far two sites have unearthed a rich history of the State. The excavation of a site called Ras ‘Ushairiq uncovered a large settlement called Rubayaqa which revealed several large courtyard homes, a mosque and two cemeteries.”


“A second site called Ruwayda has revealed the remains of a town which was dominated by a large fortress. It includes a mosque complex, workshops, warehouses and a tomb. Other finds, such as ceramics, indicate long-distance trade with nations such as China, southeast Asia, Oman, Iran and India.”

Al-Ruwayda rarely appears in historical sources. It does not, for example, appear on the map made by Captain Brucks in the 1820s. The site is first mentioned in the 1790s when it was one of a number of settlements conquered by the Wahhābī commander Ibrāhīm ibn Ufaysān.

John Gordon Lorimer, the writer of the Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia: an encyclopaedic two volume work of colonial intelligence surveying the history and geography of the region at the end of the 19th century is the first to refer to the site as ‘Dōhat al-Ruwaydah’ (i.e. the bay of al-Ruwayda) and describes it as ‘a deserted village three miles above Khor Hassan [al-Khuwayr]’. Lorimer further states that ‘the inhabitants migrated to Zubarah when the latter was founded’.

Three main phases

The first excavations at the site concentrated on the area of the fort in an attempt to understand the sequence and nature of construction. It now appears that it was built in three main phases. In the first phase a small square fort was built with a single round tower at the northwest corner. The date of this early construction is not yet known although it appears to have existed before the eighteenth century when extensive repairs were carried out. In the second phase dating to the early eighteenth century the size of the fortress was more than doubled and had a maximum length of 100 metres per side. However the walls of this larger fortress were fairly thin (less than 80cm wide) and this feeble construction suggests the level of attack that was expected despite the display of strength it tried to present with its large rectangular towers at each corner and in the middle of each wall.

At the northeast corner of the newly enlarged fortress there was a large courtyard house with a portico supported on stone piers. This building has been interpreted as the ruler or governor’s palace and in addition to the rooms ranged around the courtyard also had direct access to the north-east corner tower.

Soon the palace walls of the second phase fortress (18th century) were dismantled and its size was drastically reduced, but the walls doubled in thickness, suggesting a concern with security, perhaps due to raids from the sea. In addition to the fortress a number of other structures within it have been identified and excavated, including a mosque, a series of warehouses and an enigmatic tomb like structure.

The excavations have provided plentiful evidence for long distance trade with ceramics from China, southeast Asia (Burma), Oman, Iran and India. The proportion of East Asian ceramics is particularly high reaching 5% of the total, suggesting both a high standard of living as well as good connections to Indian Ocean trading routes. In addition to ceramics, numerous other types of objects were found including grinding stones, glass, jewellery and metalwork.

State of the art survey

Analysis of the sites have been further enhanced following the award of a Qatar National Research Fund Grant. This has given the Project an opportunity to use an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to carry out survey work. It allows 3D terrain models to be generated and is able to support the creation of high-resolution maps of the sites under investigation. Through the use of on-board sensing systems, such as near infra-red, thermal and various other techniques, the UAV has the potential to identify sub-surface remains.

The advantage of having a high specification UAV like the Microdrone is that it flies using waypoints or predetermined routes controlled by on-board GPS, gyroscope and barometric readings. For example this means that it is able to survey a grid pattern and take a series of photographs at predetermined intervals enabling production of a high resolution total map of the surface of the archaeological site.
_________________ References:

Past Horizons. 2014. “Qatar coastal heritage revealed”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 6, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Older Than Nazca: Mysterious Rock Lines Marked Way to Ancient Peru Fairs

New rock lines discovered in Peru predate the famous Nazca Lines by centuries and likely once marked the site of ancient fairs, researchers say.

The lines were created by people of the Paracas, a civilization that arose around 800 B.C. in what is now Peru. The Paracas culture predated the Nazca culture, which came onto the scene around 100 B.C. The Nazca people are famous for their fantastic geoglyphs, or rock lines, built in the shapes of monkeys, birds and other animals.

The new lines date to around 300 B.C., making them at least 300 years older than the oldest Nazca lines, said Charles Stanish, the director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles, who reported the new find today (May 5) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"They used the lines in a different way than the Nazca," Stanish told Live Science. "They basically created these areas of highly ritualized processions and activities that were not settled permanently."

The closest European analog, Stanish said, would be the medieval fairs that brought visitors from far and wide.

Ancient fairs

Stanish and his team discovered the lines in the Chinca Valley, which is about 125 miles (200 kilometers) south of Lima, Peru. The area has a history of pre-European-contact settlements stretching from at least 800 B.C. to the 1500s A.D.

Archaeological surveys revealed large, ancient mounds in the valley. Over three field seasons, Stanish and his colleagues mapped these mounds, as well as nearby rock lines associated with each mound. They found 71 geoglyph lines or segments, 353 rock cairns, rocks forming circles or rectangles, and one point at which a series of lines converged in a circle of rays. The researchers also excavated one cluster of man-made mounds.

The excavations and mapping revealed a carefully built environment. Some long lines marked the spot where the sun would have set during the June solstice (the winter solstice in the Southern Hemisphere). Two U-shaped mounds also pointed toward the June solstice sunset, and the largest platform mound on the site lined up with the solstice as well. These lines and mounds probably served as a way to mark time during festivals, Stanish said.

Some lines are set out to frame pyramid structures, Stanish said. The lines are parallel, but because parallel lines seem to converge with distance, these framing lines appear to point directly at pyramids. Other lines run parallel to roads that are still used today, Stanish said.

"I don't think people needed the signposts, but it was more kind of a ritualized thing, where you come down and everything's prepared," he said.

Andean trade

The desert lines and mounds are about 9 miles (15 km) from settlements near the coast. Stanish and his colleagues suspect that the ancient "fairgrounds" were built on land that was useless for farming and were intended to attract tradespeople and buyers from the coast and the Andes highlands.

The mounds, pyramids and lines were likely the ancient version of neon signs, Stanish explained: "We're expending time and effort and resources to make our place bigger and better," he said, explaining the mindset of those who created the constructions. The various settlements on the coast probably competed to attract the most participants to their own fairs.

To confirm this notion, the researchers plan to excavate pyramids near the coast, looking for artifacts that would link settlements to the desert lines and mounds.

The discovery of these older rock lines emphasizes the geoglyphs had more than one function, Stanish said. People have long looked for "the" reason for the Nazca lines, but it's more accurate to think of the lines like multi-purpose technology, he said.

"The lines are effectively a social technology," Stanish said. "They're using it for certain purposes. Some people have said the lines point out sacred mountains. Sure, why not? The lines [might] point out sacred pyramids. Why not? The lines could [also] be used to point out processions," Stanish said of both the Nazca and Peru lines.

In that way, Stanish said, the lines are like pottery: one invention used for multiple purposes.

"Native Americans in this part of the world were extremely ingenious," he said.
_________________ References:

Pappas, Stephanie. 2014. “Older Than Nazca: Mysterious Rock Lines Marked Way to Ancient Peru Fairs”. Live Science. Posted: May 5, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The American Language: A Historical Database of English in the U.S.

Robert Frost is reported to have said, “The difference between a job and a career is the difference between 40 and 60 hours a week.”

While this bon mot has the advantage of being admirably succinct, it leaves something to be desired in terms of completeness. What other differences are there between a job and a career?

For one thing, the word job is considerably more common than career, as the former has been used by American writers more than twice as often over the past 200 years. Additionally, jobs tend to be viewed as less desirable, no matter how many additional hours a career may require.

When one looks at the adjectives most commonly used to describe a job, the list includes dirty, lousy, and toughest. The corresponding set of adjectives used to describe a career includes glorious, illustrious, and distinguished. Careers are far more likely to be artistic (literary, operatic, or dramatic), whereupon jobs are more likely to be pedestrian (tedious, thankless, or steady).

One rarely hears of anyone having a steady career. While the descriptors affixed to jobs cover a wide range of ground, the words are much more frequently referring to some sort of necessary and ungratifying work, whereas careers appear to be viewed as much more fulfilling.

How do we know all this? Has a team of researchers been painstakingly keeping tabs on how people use these words ever since Thomas Jefferson was in the White House? Is it through some multi-year, large-scale survey taken of the writing habits of the American people? No, it is by taking 60 seconds or so to run a search on a publicly accessible website, the Corpus of Historical American English (COHA).

COHA was created in 2009 by Mark Davies, a linguistics professor at Brigham Young University, and it is the largest tagged and searchable corpus of historical English available today. Containing hundreds of millions of words spread out from the beginning of the 19th century to the end of the 20th, it is evenly distributed between fiction and non-fiction (and each of these categories is drawn from a variety of genres), and is free to all, requiring nothing more than your inquiry. It allows linguistic researchers, scholars of other fields, and anybody who has more than a passing interest in language to discover subtleties about how we use words that would have been impossible to find until very recently. It is a marvelous trove of linguistic data, and shines light on thousands of aspects of that peculiar variety of language, American English.

Before we look at all that makes COHA unusual and interesting, we should first look at what a linguistic corpus is. Corpus, in Latin, simply means “body,” a sense that is in large measure preserved in many English words that derive from it and are in use today. A corporation is a body of people united in a business sense, a corporal is a non-commissioned military officer who leads a body of troops, and someone who is corpulent has a large body. Hence, a linguistic corpus is just another kind of body: A body of language.

With a few exceptions, linguistic corpora are a relatively recent addition to the study of language. The first ones were of necessity small and limited in usefulness, as they were compiled by hand. In the late 19th century, the German psychologist William Preyer studied early language acquisition by creating a corpus of words that parents had written down when their children used them. In addition to various forms of mother and father, the words bird, sugar, and hair were apparently popular with German infants at this time. Also in the 19th century, the original editors of the Oxford English Dictionary relied on a somewhat corpus-based approach to their dictionary, as the bulk of that work is made up of millions of citations that were all originally written out on little slips of paper, which were then organized into thousands of pigeonholes, built into an enormous unheated iron shed, based on the word each citation was meant to illustrate.

Creating a corpus without a computer required an exhausting commitment of time and energy. Charles F. Meyer, writing in Corpus Linguistics, An International Handbook, points out that one of the earlier attempts to create a searchable body of text, Alexander Cruden’s 18th-century concordance of the Bible, was completed in only two years. Cruden, however, worked 18 hours every day. Otto Jesperson, the great Danish linguist, used a corpus for much of the research on his seven-volume A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. It was a corpus that Jesperson had created himself over the course of several decades.

It was not until the 1940s that computers began to play a part in creating a searchable corpus. In 1949, a Jesuit priest named Roberto Busa began work on what he called the Index Thomasticus, what was to be a complete computerized concordance to all the words in the work of Thomas Aquinas. A mere 30 years or so later, the work was completed (initially published in 56 print volumes, it was later released on CD, and is now accessible on the Internet).

In the 1960s, Henry Kucera and W. Nelson Francis built the Brown University Standard Corpus of Present-Day American English. The Brown Corpus, as it is generally known, was the first large body of language to be put in a format that allowed for complex searches. It tagged parts of speech, consisted of words from a wide variety of sources (such as differing genres of fiction, academic and non-academic texts, and specific types of newspaper writing), and permitted users to do far more than simply see how many times a specific word had been used. One could, for example, find all the pronouns that were used after a certain verb. The earliest version of the Brown Corpus had slightly over 1,000,000 words, and became the prototype for most of the corpora to follow in the next few decades.

COHA could be described as a direct descendant of the Brown Corpus. It relies mostly on written American English (there are few corpora of spoken language), is spread over a wide variety of genres, and consists of 400,000,000 words, each of which has been identified by its part of speech. Both Brown and COHA have a large number of words, but COHA is considerably larger than Brown, or most any of the similar corpora that came before it. It takes evidence from a variety of wells (Project Gutenberg,, The Making of America site at Cornell University), all of which were capable of providing digital text with high-quality optical character recognition.

Once you begin tossing about numbers in the hundreds-of-millions range, it is very easy to lose perspective on size. After all, Google Books is a corpus, and, by most estimates, has hundreds of billions of words. But Google Books does not allow for many kinds of complex searches a linguist or language lover might want to undertake. Say you want to examine the history of usage behind the controversy over whether it is acceptable to use impact as a verb. Using only Google Books, you would have to dig through thousands of untagged results and filter out by hand all the instances of impact being used as a noun.

When I spoke with Mark Davies on the telephone, he referred to Google Books as “one of the best and the worst ambassadors” for corpora studies. The search function of Google Books and their Ngram viewer does not allow for much beyond examining word frequency, and Davies says, “word frequency is very interesting, but it’s just a very small glimpse of what words are doing.”

Many linguists have taken the position that corpora needn’t be so large, and that stuffing hundreds of millions of words into a database does naught but create a messy environment. Davies disagreed, and after having built a number of large corpora in other languages (Spanish and Portuguese), he saw a need for a more substantial searchable record of English than was currently available.

One obvious thing that COHA provides is a historic record of the language, rather than simply a thin slice of the fossil record. This allows us to look at how our language has changed (some would say deteriorated) over the past two hundred years. As an example, we can look at the movement and usage of a single word. Let’s start with unique.

Some people hold that unique is a non-modifiable adjective. After all, something is either unique or it is not, and thus such turns of phrase as almost unique, somewhat unique, and most unique are illogical. The apparent misuse of this word is one of the more common bugaboos of people who like to complain about the language use of others, and one frequently hears that this misuse is a recent phenomenon.

When we examine how unique has been used in COHA, we get a somewhat different picture. For the first two decades of data (1800-1820), unique appears very infrequently, and tends to be used without qualification, coming up in such phrases as “the last is unique” and “a unique single principle.” All is well with the world.

But soon enough, Satan comes to Eden, cleverly disguised as semantic drift. By the 1830s, we can see, American writers had begun to qualify unique, and to use it in ways that indicate something not exactly one-of-a-kind. Phrases such as “quite unique,” “more unique,” and “somewhat unique” begin to appear. By the 1850s, Americans are using “almost unique,” and it becomes apparent that this word was conveying shades of meaning in a way that purists have found objectionable for quite some time now. This type of examination is not possible when one has only a few million words to search through.

Linguists have been using COHA for much more detailed and tricky questions than these. Martin Hilpert used it in his paper “Diachronic Collostructional Analysis Meets the Noun Phrase: Studying Many a Noun in COHA.” Guenther and Martina Lampert used it to research their paper “Where Does Evidentiality Reside? Notes on (Alleged) Limiting Cases: Quotatives and Seem-Verbs.” But not all of the academic inquiries using COHA sound so intimidating. Johanna Wood and Sten Vikner employed COHA in search of the answer posed by the title of a paper they published in 2013, “What’s to the Left of the Indefinite Article?” (Oddly enough, the answer is another indefinite article: The authors found that in some dialects of German, Danish, and English, the construction a such a is used.)

For those of you who have never found yourselves awake at night wondering where evidentiality resides, or what else is to the left of the indefinite article, rest assured that there is still much in COHA to amuse and educate you.

For instance, you can use this corpus to examine how political labels have shifted over the past 200 years. You would find that the noun Democrat did not begin to be affiliated with the adjective liberal until the 1930s, the heyday of the New Deal. Before that, it is most often seen with the words Southern, good, and little (which is apparently not a pejorative use—Little Democrat was the name of a ship that spawned a diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and France). Shifts in how Republican has been used are also visible. For four decades, from 1910 until 1950, progressive Republican was somewhat common, before being eclipsed in use by collocates such as conservative or moderate Republican.

Politician, on the other hand, appears to have relatively stable connotations over this time period. When one searches for the adjectives that have been used to describe such a person, the resultant list reads like a thesaurus entry for something especially unpleasant: unprincipled, crooked, profane, third-rate, unscrupulous, corrupt, cheap, wily, and selfish all make appearances.

Be warned, as it is quite easy to lose hours of your time on this sort of thing. You start off by just looking up a word to see how its frequency has changed since the 1930s. This prompts you to wonder what other words precede or follow it, or whether it was more common in fiction or non-fiction. Then maybe you compose searches for variant forms of the word in passive constructions. Before you know it, you find yourself sitting at a desk, bathed in the light of the computer screen, searching through the historical record of the language and wondering to yourself about what lies to the left of the indefinite article, and what is to the left of that.
_________________ References:

Shea, Ammon. 2014. “The American Language: A Historical Database of English in the U.S.”. Pacific Standard. Posted: May 5, 2014. Available online:

Monday, June 16, 2014

Exhibition traces our love of tattoos from Neolithic age to today

Kim Willsher reports from Paris on a new show that tells the 5,000-year history of the practice of inking human skin

Once considered the mark of an underclass of criminals, prostitutes, bikers, seafarers and those inhabiting the margins of society, the tattoo is now à la mode. Samantha Cameron, the British prime minister's wife, has one – a dolphin just below the ankle; Charlize Theron has a fish on her leg and a flower on her foot; Angelina Jolie and David Beckham have too many to mention.

The fashion had its early exponents: George Orwell had bright blue knuckle spots; Teddy Roosevelt bore the family crest on his chest, and legend has it that after the battle of Hastings, Harold II's body was identifiable only by the tattoos over his heart of his wife's name, Edith, and the word England.

Even Winston Churchill's mother, Jennie, had a snake etched on her wrist (easily covered with a diamond bracelet), while Britain's wartime leader is reported to have had an anchor on his forearm. A new exhibition opening on Tuesday at Paris's museum of indigenous arts, the Musée du Quai Branly, explores the long history of tattooing and how it developed from a sign of exclusion and a representation of a crude but bold subculture into what curators says is a popular artistic movement.

It also explores its spread around the globe from Tahiti and the Maoris of New Zealand to Japan, China, the Americas and Europe. Today an estimated 20% of young French people and nearly 25% of American youngsters have tattoos.

The practice of marking human skin dates back well over 5,000 years, according to researchers, who say the remains of Otzi, the Neolithic iceman found in 1991 on a mountain between Austria and Italy, bore 57 markings, including a cross on the back of the left knee. Mummies found in Siberia and Egypt from more than 2,000 years ago were tattooed with animals and monsters. The Ainu, western Asian nomads, introduced the tradition to Japan. Tattoos were often more than just decoration. In Borneo, a woman's tattoo indicated her skill: if her symbol showed that she was a weaver, her status was increased.

The positioning of tattoos has also been important. Decorations around wrist and fingers were thought to ward off evil spirits and disease. Tattoos also signified membership of a tribe, clan or society. Danes, Saxons and Norse peoples tattooed their family crests, but after the Norman conquest it fell out of fashion.

The word tattoo, and wider interest in the practice, is attributed to the voyages of Captain James Cook in the late 1700s. His science officer and botanist, Sir Joseph Banks, who joined him on his first voyage on the Endeavour – to Brazil, Tahiti and Australia from 1768 to 1771 – returned to England with a tattoo. Banks, a respected member of the Lincolnshire landowning gentry, who attended both Harrow and Eton, was president of the Royal Society for more than 41 years and advised George III on the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. In Polynesia, he observed natives using bone and shell cut into sharp teeth to penetrate the skin as part of their tatau, the Samoan word for mark.

Banks was puzzled by the custom. "Everyone is marked thus in different parts of his body accordingly maybe to his humour or different circumstances of his life," he wrote. "What can be sufficient inducement to suffer so much pain is difficult to say; not one Indian (though I have asked hundreds) would ever give me the least reason for it … possibly superstition may have something to do with it. Nothing else in my opinion could be a sufficient cause for so apparently absurd a custom."

Cook later brought back a tattooed South Sea islander known as Omai, who was paraded before King George. Many of Cook's crew returned with tattoos, and this sparked the tradition for European sailors, as well as the lower and criminal classes, to get them. In the early 19th century, it was estimated that 90% of Royal Navy sailors had a tattoo. A turtle signified that the sailor had crossed the equator, an anchor the Atlantic, a dragon that he had gone east.

Just a couple of years ago in Japan, the association of tattoos with the yakuza, or organised crime, led Osaka's mayor to require public sector employees to have tattoos removed or cover them with clothing.

Tattooing has not always been a matter of choice. In Russia under the tsars and later the Soviets, prisoners were marked according to their crime and sentence: SP for exile, K for forced labour, V on the forehead for vor (thief). The Nazis tattooed the arms of concentration camp inmates with a number.

The Paris exhibition is curated by journalists Anne & Julien (they never give their surnames), who edit the bilingual art revue Hey!, and who have spent more than 18 months pulling it together. The 300-plus exhibits include photographs, tools, skulls, statues and even pieces of human skin showing tattoos.

Artistic advice was given by France's tattooer-to-the-stars, a man called Tin-Tin, who counts Jean-Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, Philippe Starck and Yannick Noah among his VIP clientele.

"Tattooing is part of the common heritage of most of humanity," Julien said. "We wanted to do this exhibition for a long time because we feel it's important to show that tattooing has a real history and is a pure product of humanity. There's not a place in the world where mankind has been that has not used tattooing … It's both artisan and artistic. In the past there was a fear of tattoos and people would hide them. Today attitudes have changed. People used to do it because they wanted to identify themselves as different to make a statement, but today it's become fashionable and the opposite holds true. People want to be different so they don't want tattoos."

The fashion is moving away from portraiture and symbolism to abstract designs. "It's an art movement that's developing and changing all the time," Julien said.
_________________ References:

Willsher, Kim. 2014. “Exhibition traces our love of tattoos from Neolithic age to today”. The Guardian. Posted: May 3, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Who Were the Barbarians?

Barbarians — a word that today often refers to uncivilized people or evil people and their evil deeds — originated in ancient Greece, and it initially merely referred to people who did not speak Greek.

Today, the meaning of the word is far removed from its original Greek roots. A poignant example comes from a 2012 speech given by President Barack Obama in New York City.

“When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed — that’s slavery. When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family — girls my daughters’ age — runs away from home, or is lured by the false promises of a better life, and then imprisoned in a brothel and tortured if she resists — that’s slavery. It is barbaric [writer’s emphasis], and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world,” he said.

When Obama used the term “barbaric,” he was not referring to non-Greek-speaking people but rather to acts of evil in general. Indeed, the meaning of the word barbarian has changed dramatically over time and, in fact, the word did not always have a negative meaning for everyone.

Greek origins

“The earliest attestation of the word barbarian in Greek literature is in Homer’s descriptions of the Carians as ‘barbarophonoi’…” writes Konstantinos Vlassopoulos, a professor of Greek history at the University of Nottingham, in his book “Greeks and the Barbarians” (Cambridge University Press, 2013).

By “the archaic period [2,700 years ago] there is no doubt that one of the major meanings of the word was linguistic: the Barbarians were those who did not speak Greek.”

He notes that the ancient Greeks themselves used this word in a confusing and contradictory fashion. One problem they had is that there was no agreement among the ancient Greeks as to who spoke Greek and who didn’t, at least up until around the time of Alexander the Great. There “existed a variety of local and regional dialects, which were mutually comprehensible to a larger or smaller degree,” writes Vlassopoulos.

So the original meaning of the word “barbarian” did not refer to acts of evil but rather to those who were not Greek or did not speak Greek. Also who didn’t speak Greek was a matter of debate among the ancient Greeks themselves.

Barbarians and Rome

The meaning of the word “barbarian” would change dramatically late in the Roman Empire when Romans (many of whom did not speak Greek) used the word to refer to all foreigners, especially the wide variety of people who were encroaching on their borders.

These barbarians were never united. Some pillaged the Roman Empire while others became its allies. There were numerous groups and their allegiances changed over time.

“Rome dealt actively with, among others, Goths, Vandals, Herules, Sueves, Saxons, Gepids, as well as Sarmatians, Alans, Huns, Avars, Picts, Carpi and Isaurians,” writes Walter Goffart, a scholar at Yale University, in his book “Barbarian Tides: The Migration Age and the Later Roman Empire” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).

For instance Attila the Hun, who was perhaps the most famous “barbarian” from this period, ruled a vast empire that controlled other barbarian groups. At the start of his rule he allied himself with the Romans against the Burgundians (another “barbarian” group). Then, later on, he turned against the Romans and marched against them in France. The Roman then allied themselves with the Visigoths (also “barbarians”) and defeated Attila.

Also, the word “barbarian” did not have a negative meaning for everyone in the Roman Empire. Around A.D. 440, the Christian priest Salvian wrote that “almost all barbarians, at least those who are of one race and kin, love each other, while the Romans persecute each other.”

He noted that many poor Romans turned to the “barbarians” for help. “They doubtless seek Roman humanity among the barbarians, because they cannot bear barbarian inhumanity among the Romans.” (Translation through Fordham University website)

Who is a barbarian?

Among modern-day scholars, and among the general public, the definition of barbarian gets even more confusing.

“If there is one characteristic that civilizations have in common, it is their ideological need to defend themselves not just against their own enemies, but against the enemies of civilizations, the ‘barbarians,’” writes Nicola Di Cosmo, of the Institute for Advanced Study, in his book “Ancient China and Its Enemies: The Rise of Nomadic Powers in East Asian History” (Cambridge University Press, 2002). “This opposition between civilization and its enemies can be recognized as one of the great ongoing themes that we encounter in world history.”

Using this definition, the term “barbarian” can be extended to ancient China and their struggles to deal with people beyond their borders. Indeed, it can be extended to any culture we consider a “civilization” and their struggle to deal with people who live close to them but have a different social structure.

While the ancient Greeks argued about who was a non-Greek speaker (and therefore a barbarian) the meaning of the term has changed dramatically throughout time to a point where the ancient Greeks probably wouldn’t recognize it. Presidential speechwriters, take note.
_________________ References:

Jarus, Owen. 2014. “Who Were the Barbarians?”. Live Science. Posted: May 1, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Solved! How ancient Egyptians moved massive pyramid stones

The ancient Egyptians who built the pyramids may have been able to move massive stone blocks across the desert by wetting the sand in front of a contraption built to pull the heavy objects, according to a new study.

Physicists at the University of Amsterdam investigated the forces needed to pull weighty objects on a giant sled over desert sand, and discovered that dampening the sand in front of the primitive device reduces friction on the sled, making it easier to operate. The findings help answer one of the most enduring historical mysteries: how the Egyptians were able to accomplish the seemingly impossible task of constructing the famous pyramids.

To make their discovery, the researchers picked up on clues from the ancient Egyptians themselves. A wall painting discovered in the ancient tomb of Djehutihotep, which dates back to about 1900 B.C., depicts 172 men hauling an immense statue using ropes attached to a sledge. In the drawing, a person can be seen standing on the front of the sledge, pouring water over the sand, said study lead author Daniel Bonn, a physics professor at the University of Amsterdam.

"Egyptologists thought it was a purely ceremonial act," Bonn told Live Science. "The question was: Why did they do it?"

Bonn and his colleagues constructed miniature sleds and experimented with pulling heavy objects through trays of sand.

When the researchers dragged the sleds over dry sand, they noticed clumps would build up in front of the contraptions, requiring more force to pull them across.

Adding water to the sand, however, increased its stiffness, and the sleds were able to glide more easily across the surface. This is because droplets of water create bridges between the grains of sand, which helps them stick together, the scientists said. It is also the same reason why using wet sand to build a sandcastle is easier than using dry sand, Bonn said.

But, there is a delicate balance,the researchers found.

"If you use dry sand, it won't work as well, but if the sand is too wet, it won't work either," Bonn said. "There's an optimum stiffness."

The amount of water necessary depends on the type of sand, he added, but typically the optimal amount falls between 2 percent and 5 percent of the volume of sand.

"It turns out that wetting Egyptian desert sand can reduce the friction by quite a bit, which implies you need only half of the people to pull a sledge on wet sand, compared to dry sand," Bonn said.

The study, published April 29 in the journal Physical Review Letters, may explain how the ancient Egyptians constructed the pyramids, but the research also has modern-day applications, the scientists said. The findings could help researchers understand the behavior of other granular materials, such as asphalt, concrete or coal, which could lead to more efficient ways to transport these resources.
_________________ References:

Chow, Denise. 2014. “Solved! How ancient Egyptians moved massive pyramid stones”. Live Science. Posted: May 1, 2014. Available online:

Friday, June 13, 2014

Humans have a nose for gender

The human body produces chemical cues that communicate gender to members of the opposite sex, according to researchers who report their findings in the Cell Press journal Current Biology on May 1. Whiffs of the active steroid ingredients (androstadienone in males and estratetraenol in females) influence our perceptions of movement as being either more masculine or more feminine. The effect, which occurs completely without awareness, depends on both our biological sex and our sexual orientations.

"Our findings argue for the existence of human sex pheromones," says Wen Zhou of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "They show that the nose can sniff out gender from body secretions even when we don't think we smell anything on the conscious level."

Earlier studies showed that androstadienone, found in male semen and armpits, can promote positive mood in females as opposed to males. Estratetraenol, first identified in female urine, has similar effects on males. But it wasn't clear whether those chemicals were truly acting as sexual cues.

In the new study, Zhou and her colleagues asked males and females, both heterosexual and homosexual, to watch what are known as point-light walkers (PLWs) move in place on a screen. PLWs consist of 15 dots representing the 12 major joints in the human body, plus the pelvis, thorax, and head. The task was to decide whether those digitally morphed gaits were more masculine or feminine.

Individuals completed that task over a series of days while being exposed to androstadienone, estratetraenol, or a control solution, all of which smelled like cloves. The results revealed that smelling androstadienone systematically biased heterosexual females, but not males, toward perceiving walkers as more masculine. By contrast, the researchers report, smelling estratetraenol systematically biased heterosexual males, but not females, toward perceiving walkers as more feminine.

Interestingly, the researchers found that homosexual males responded to gender pheromones more like heterosexual females did. Bisexual or homosexual female responses to the same scents fell somewhere in between those of heterosexual males and females.

"When the visual gender cues were extremely ambiguous, smelling androstadienone versus estratetraenol produced about an eight percent change in gender perception," Zhou says, a statistically very significant effect.

"The results provide the first direct evidence that the two human steroids communicate opposite gender information that is differentially effective to the two sex groups based on their sexual orientation," the researchers write. "Moreo
_________________ References:

EurekAlert. 2014. “Humans have a nose for gender”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 1, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ground-breaking technique traces DNA direct to your ancestor's home 1,000 years ago

Tracing where your DNA was formed over 1,000 years ago is now possible, thanks to a revolutionary technique developed by a team of international scientists led by experts from the University of Sheffield.

The ground-breaking Geographic Population Structure (GPS) tool, created by Dr Eran Elhaik from the University of Sheffield's Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and Dr Tatiana Tatarinova from the University of Southern California, works similarly to a satellite navigation system as it helps you to find your way home, but not the one you currently live in -- but rather your actual ancestor's home from 1,000 years ago.

Previously, scientists have only been able to locate where your DNA was formed to within 700kms, which in Europe could be two countries away; however this pioneering technique has been 98 per cent successful in locating worldwide populations to their right geographic regions, and down to their village and island of origin.

The breakthrough of knowing where the gene pools that created your DNA were last mixed has massive implications for life-saving personalised medicine, advancing forensic science and for the study of populations whose ancestral origins are under debate, such as African Americans, Roma gypsies and European Jews.

Genetic admixture occurs when individuals from two or more previously separated populations begin interbreeding. This results in the creation of new gene pools representing a mixture of the founder gene pool.

Such processes are extremely common in history during migrations and invasions, for example, when the Vikings invaded Britain and Europe in the 11th Century and settled with locals some of them formed a new Viking-Anglo-Saxon gene pool, but some married other Vikings and maintained their original gene pool, allowing GPS to trace their Scandinavian origins.

Dr Eran Elhaik said: "If we think of our world as being made up of different colours of soup -- representing different populations -- it is easy to visualise how genetic admixture occurs. If a population from the blue soup region mixes with a population from the red soup region their off-springs would appear as a purple soup.

"The more genetic admixture that takes place, the more different colours of soup are introduced which makes it increasingly difficult to locate your DNA's ancestry using traditional tools like Spatial Ancestry analysis (SPA) which has an accuracy level of less than two per cent."

He added: "What we have discovered here at the University of Sheffield is a way to find not where you were born -- as you have that information on your passport -- but where your DNA was formed up to 1,000 years ago by modelling these admixture processes.

"What is remarkable is that, we can do this so accurately that we can locate the village where your ancestors lived hundreds and hundreds of years ago -- until now this has never been possible."

To demonstrate how accurate GPS predictions are, Dr Elhaik and his colleagues analysed data from 10 villages in Sardinia and over 20 islands in Oceania. The research published today in the journal Nature Communications shows that Dr Elhaik and his team were able to place a quarter of the residents in Sardinia directly to their home village and most of the remaining residents within 50km of their village. The results for Oceania were no less impressive with almost 90 per cent success of tracing islanders exactly to their island.

"This is a significant improvement compared to the alternative SPA tool that placed Oceanians in India," said Elhaik.

"In his third book, children's author L. Frank Baum revealed that Oz resided around Australia. It always troubled me that if I ever met anyone claiming to be from the wonderful world of Oz, I would like to be able to verify their origins and now we can!

"This technique also means that we can no longer easily classify people's ethnic identities with one single label. It is impossible for any of us to tick one box on a form such as White British or African as we are much complex models with our own unique identities. The notion of races is simply not plausible."

Tracing our ancestry is now a major social trend and genealogy is the number one hobby in America. An estimated one million people in the USA have already had their DNA genotyped. People can explore their DNA by simply taking a swab from inside their mouth and sending it to a company such as 23andme or for costs ranging from $99-$200.

Dr Elhaik's co-author, Dr Tatiana Tatarinova, developed a website making GPS accessible to the public.

"To help people find their roots, I developed a website that allows anyone who has had their DNA genotyped to upload their results and use GPS to find their ancestral home," said Dr Tatarinova, who is also an Associate Professor of Research Paediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.

"We were surprised by the simplicity and precision of this method. People in a given geographical area are more likely to have similar genetics. When they also have genetic traits typically found in other, distant regions, the geographical origin of those traits is generally the closest location where those traits can be found."

According to the researchers, in ethnically-diverse regions like the UK or US, where many people know only a few generations of their descendants, this kind of screening has huge, important medical implications.

Discovery of a certain genotype might indicate the potential for a genetic disease and suggest that diagnostic testing be done. Also, as scientists learn more about personalized medicine, there is evidence that specific genotypes respond differently to medications -- making this information potentially useful when selecting the most effective therapy and appropriate dosage. The investigators are currently designing a study to correlate pharmacokinetics -- the time course of drug metabolism -- with genotype.
_________________ References:

Science Daily. 2014. “Ground-breaking technique traces DNA direct to your ancestor's home 1,000 years ago”. Science Daily. Posted: May 1, 2014. Available online: