Friday, October 31, 2014

New branch added to European family tree

Genetic analysis reveals present-day Europeans descended from at least 3, not 2, groups of ancient humans

The setting: Europe, about 7,500 years ago.

Agriculture was sweeping in from the Near East, bringing early farmers into contact with hunter-gatherers who had already been living in Europe for tens of thousands of years.

Genetic and archaeological research in the last 10 years has revealed that almost all present-day Europeans descend from the mixing of these two ancient populations. But it turns out that's not the full story.

Researchers at Harvard Medical School and the University of Tübingen in Germany have now documented a genetic contribution from a third ancestor: Ancient North Eurasians. This group appears to have contributed DNA to present-day Europeans as well as to the people who travelled across the Bering Strait into the Americas more than 15,000 years ago.

"Prior to this paper, the models we had for European ancestry were two-way mixtures. We show that there are three groups," said David Reich, professor of genetics at HMS and co-senior author of the study.

"This also explains the recently discovered genetic connection between Europeans and Native Americans," Reich added. "The same Ancient North Eurasian group contributed to both of them."

The research team also discovered that ancient Near Eastern farmers and their European descendants can trace much of their ancestry to a previously unknown, even older lineage called the Basal Eurasians.

The study is published Sept. 18 in Nature.

Peering into the past

To probe the ongoing mystery of Europeans' heritage and their relationships to the rest of the world, the international research team—including co-senior author Johannes Krause, professor of archaeo- and paleogenetics at the University of Tübingen and co-director of the new Max Planck Institute for History and the Sciences in Jena, Germany—collected and sequenced the DNA of more than 2,300 present-day people from around the world and of nine ancient humans from Sweden, Luxembourg and Germany.

The ancient bones came from eight hunter-gatherers who lived about 8,000 years ago, before the arrival of farming, and one farmer from about 7,000 years ago.

The researchers also incorporated into their study genetic sequences previously gathered from ancient humans of the same time period, including early farmers such as Ötzi "the Iceman."

"There was a sharp genetic transition between the hunter-gatherers and the farmers, reflecting a major movement of new people into Europe from the Near East," said Reich.

Ancient North Eurasian DNA wasn't found in either the hunter-gatherers or the early farmers, suggesting the Ancient North Eurasians arrived in the area later, he said.

"Nearly all Europeans have ancestry from all three ancestral groups," said Iosif Lazaridis, a research fellow in genetics in Reich's lab and first author of the paper. "Differences between them are due to the relative proportions of ancestry. Northern Europeans have more hunter-gatherer ancestry—up to about 50 percent in Lithuanians—and Southern Europeans have more farmer ancestry."

Lazaridis added, "The Ancient North Eurasian ancestry is proportionally the smallest component everywhere in Europe, never more than 20 percent, but we find it in nearly every European group we've studied and also in populations from the Caucasus and Near East. A profound transformation must have taken place in West Eurasia" after farming arrived.

When this research was conducted, Ancient North Eurasians were a "ghost population"—an ancient group known only through the traces it left in the DNA of present-day people. Then, in January, a separate group of archaeologists found the physical remains of two Ancient North Eurasians in Siberia. Now, said Reich, "We can study how they're related to other populations."

Room for more

The team was able to go only so far in its analysis because of the limited number of ancient DNA samples. Reich thinks there could easily be more than three ancient groups who contributed to today's European genetic profile.

He and his colleagues found that the three-way model doesn't tell the whole story for certain regions of Europe. Mediterranean groups such as the Maltese, as well as Ashkenazi Jews, had more Near East ancestry than anticipated, while far northeastern Europeans such as Finns and the Saami, as well as some northern Russians, had more East Asian ancestry in the mix.

The most surprising part of the project for Reich, however, was the discovery of the Basal Eurasians.

"This deep lineage of non-African ancestry branched off before all the other non-Africans branched off from one another," he said. "Before Australian Aborigines and New Guineans and South Indians and Native Americans and other indigenous hunter-gatherers split, they split from Basal Eurasians. This reconciled some contradictory pieces of information for us."

Next, the team wants to figure out when the Ancient North Eurasians arrived in Europe and to find ancient DNA from the Basal Eurasians.

"We are only starting to understand the complex genetic relationship of our ancestors," said co-author Krause. "Only more genetic data from ancient human remains will allow us to disentangle our prehistoric past."

"There are important open questions about how the present-day people of the world got to where they are," said Reich, who is a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator. "The traditional way geneticists study this is by analyzing present-day people, but this is very hard because present-day people reflect many layers of mixture and migration.

"Ancient DNA sequencing is a powerful technology that allows you to go back to the places and periods where important demographic events occurred," he said. "It's a great new opportunity to learn about human history."
EurekAlert. 2014. “New branch added to European family tree”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 17, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Babies learn words differently as they age, researcher finds

Study findings can help speech therapists, parents broaden toddlers' vocabularies

Research has shown that most 18-month-olds learn an average of two to five new words a day; however, little is known about how children process information to learn new words as they move through the preschool years. In a new study, a University of Missouri researcher has found that toddlers learn words differently as they age, and a limit exists as to how many words they can learn each day. These findings could help parents enhance their children's vocabularies and assist speech-language professionals in developing and refining interventions to help children with language delays.

"We found that babies' abilities to accurately guess the meaning of new words increases between 18 and 30 months of age, and by 24 to 36 months, toddlers are able to accurately guess the meanings of new words at a significantly higher level," said Judith Goodman, an associate professor in the MU School of Health Professions and chair of the Department of Communication Science and Disorders. "Interestingly, we observed that even from the time children mature from 18 to 30 months of age, the cues toddlers use to learn new words change."

In the study, researchers taught six new words to children, who ranged in age from 18 to 36 months, using three types of cues. The cues were presented alone or in pairs, and the researchers recorded the children's ability to accurately guess what the words meant.

"When children were presented with a new word and asked to choose between an item for which they already had a name and an unfamiliar object, they appropriately assigned the new word to the unfamiliar object, and this ability improved as children aged," Goodman said. "The toddlers' ability to infer a word's meaning from linguistic context, such as figuring out that a 'kiwi' must be a food item when they hear, 'Sammy eats the kiwi,' also improved as the children aged. However, using social cues, such as eye gaze, became less effective as the children matured. By 36 months of age, children were less likely to assume a word referred to the particular object a speaker was looking at – looking at a kiwi when teaching the child the word 'kiwi' – than younger children were."

Goodman also found that a limit exists as to how many words toddlers can retain. A day after the children learned the six words, the researchers tested whether the children remembered the words. The children better remembered the first three words they had learned the first day, Goodman said.

Children who are struggling with learning language may benefit from being presented with specific cues, Goodman said. Additionally, the research reinforces the importance of providing children with rich word-learning environments, in which toddlers are exposed to many words and are provided with a variety of cues to help them learn and remember those words and what they represent, Goodman said.

"When you're working with young children who are learning language, it's important to talk to them all the time and label everything in their environments," Goodman said. "At home, parents can name household items or foods the children are eating. If out on an excursion, such as a trip to the zoo, parents can label the animals they see."
EurekAlert. 2014. “Babies learn words differently as they age, researcher finds”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 17, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

NOAA team reveals forgotten ghost ships off Golden Gate

San Francisco area divers provided valuable assistance to help identify wrecks

A team of NOAA researchers today confirmed the discovery just outside San Francisco's Golden Gate strait of the 1910 shipwreck SS Selja and an unidentified early steam tugboat wreck tagged the "mystery wreck." The researchers also located the 1863 wreck of the clipper ship Noonday, currently obscured by mud and silt on the ocean floor.

These and other shipwreck investigations mark the first mission of a two-year project to locate, identify and better understand some of the estimated 300 wrecks in Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, and the adjacent Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

"The waters of the sanctuary and the park are one of the great undersea museums in the nation," said James Delgado, director of Maritime Heritage for the Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. "These wrecks tell the powerful story of the people who helped build California and opened America to the Pacific for nearly two centuries. Finding the remains of these ships links the past to the present."

NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the U.S. National Park Service, which began researching the wrecks in the 1980s, published the first detailed inventory and history of the submerged heritage of the region in 1990. Since then, Robert Schwemmer, project co-leader and NOAA maritime archaeologist, has conducted new research in archives around the world, and interviewed fishermen and pioneering wreck divers like Bruce and Robert Lanham of San Francisco.

The Lanham brothers have discovered a number of historic Bay-area wrecks. Bruce Lanham joined the recent NOAA expedition, and with his brother led the NOAA team to a widely scattered wreck site they believed was the Selja. In 1910 the steamer Selja sank in a fatal collision, which featured prominently in a legal case that ultimately was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court over a key aspect of maritime law, the "rule of the road."

"Bruce and Bob were crucial to the success of the mission as was volunteer Gary Fabian, who re-analyzed hours of NOAA sonar data to pinpoint wreck sites," said Schwemmer.

One of the targets Fabian pointed out was the right size and in the right location to be the clipper ship Noonday, lost in 1863 and part of the fleet of fast-sailing vessels that brought men and supplies to California during and after the Gold Rush. "Noonday Rock," north of the Farallones, was named for the wreck.

In addition to the newly identified ships, Vitad Pradith, a researcher with NOAA's Office of Coast Survey Navigation Response Team 6, completed the first-ever sonar survey of the submerged portions of the wrecks of the tankers Frank H. Buck and Lyman Stewart. The engines of both vessels are visible at low tide off San Francisco's Lands End, inside the waters of Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

"Buck and Stewart are probably the best known wrecks in the park," said Stephen Haller, park historian, who joined the project team on the just-completed mission. "We now have a better understanding of how the two wrecks lie next to each other, and what has survived beneath the surface."

The NOAA team used remote controlled cameras and sensing equipment and will continue to analyze data from the recent dives, conduct additional research, and plan for the next phase. Brian Johnson, Gulf of the Farallones sanctuary deputy superintendent, said findings from current and future research expeditions will be shared with the public.

"The shipwrecks off the Golden Gate are places to explore, discover and appreciate our country's maritime cultural heritage," Johnson said. "Through the study, protection and promotion of this diverse legacy, Americans can learn more about our shared past."
EurekAlert. 2014. “NOAA team reveals forgotten ghost ships off Golden Gate”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 16, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How learning to talk is in the genes

Researchers have found evidence that genetic factors may contribute to the development of language during infancy.

Scientists from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Integrative Epidemiology Unit at the University of Bristol worked with colleagues around the world to discover a significant link between genetic changes near the ROBO2 gene and the number of words spoken by children in the early stages of language development.

Children produce words at about 10 to 15 months of age and our range of vocabulary expands as we grow -- from around 50 words at 15 to 18 months, 200 words at 18 to 30 months, 14,000 words at six-years-old and then over 50,000 words by the time we leave secondary school.

The researchers found the genetic link during the ages of 15 to 18 months when toddlers typically communicate with single words only before their linguistic skills advance to two-word combinations and more complex grammatical structures.

The results, published in Nature Communications today [16 Sept], shed further light on a specific genetic region on chromosome 3, which has been previously implicated in dyslexia and speech-related disorders.

The ROBO2 gene contains the instructions for making the ROBO2 protein. This protein directs chemicals in brain cells and other neuronal cell formations that may help infants to develop language but also to produce sounds.

The ROBO2 protein also closely interacts with other ROBO proteins that have previously been linked to problems with reading and the storage of speech sounds. Dr Beate St Pourcain, who jointly led the research with Professor Davey Smith at the MRC Integrative Epidemiology Unit, said: "This research helps us to better understand the genetic factors which may be involved in the early language development in healthy children, particularly at a time when children speak with single words only, and strengthens the link between ROBO proteins and a variety of linguistic skills in humans."

Dr Claire Haworth, one of the lead authors, based at the University of Warwick, commented: "In this study we found that results using DNA confirm those we get from twin studies about the importance of genetic influences for language development. This is good news as it means that current DNA-based investigations can be used to detect most of the genetic factors that contribute to these early language skills." The study was carried out by an international team of scientists from the EArly Genetics and Lifecourse Epidemiology Consortium (EAGLE) and involved data from over 10,000 children.
Science Daily. 2014. “How learning to talk is in the genes”. Science Daily. Posted: September 16, 2014. Available online:

Monday, October 27, 2014

How the British treated ‘hardcore’ Mau Mau women

New research on the treatment of ‘hardcore’ female Mau Mau prisoners by the British in the late 1950s sheds new light on how ideas about gender, deviancy and mental health shaped colonial practices of punishment.

The research, published in the Journal of Eastern African Studies, was conducted by Gates Cambridge Scholar Katherine Bruce-Lockhart and is the first study to make use of new material on a camp in Gitamayu used to hold “hardcore” female detainees. The treatment of the Mau Mau by the British has led to compensation claims in the courts. Last year the British government agreed to pay out £19.9m in costs and compensation to more than 5,000 elderly Kenyans who suffered torture and abuse during the Mau Mau uprising in the 50s. Two of those involved in the recent case were women and further female compensation cases are pending.

Bruce-Lockhart is interested in the treatment of “hardcore” Mau Mau women in the final years of the Emergency Period, one that was marked by uncertainty, violence and an increasing reliance on ethno-psychiatry.

From 1954 to 1960, the British detained approximately 8,000 women under the Emergency Powers imposed to combat the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya. The majority of female detainees were held in Kamiti Detention Camp and its importance has been widely acknowledged by historians. However, new documentary evidence released from the Hanslope Park Archive since 2011 has revealed the existence of a second camp established for women at Gitamayu, created in 1958 in order to deal with the remaining “hardcore” female detainees.

The Archive contains over 1,500 files and was uncovered in 2011 by historians working on the London High Court case between the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Kenyan plaintiffs who were held in detention camps during the Emergency Period. The files were considered too sensitive to fall into the hands of the Kenyan government, and were taken out of Kenya by the British prior to independence. The files have been pivotal in the London High Court Case, as their contents show how senior British officials sanctioned the use of systematic force against Mau Mau detainees in the camps, stretching the legal limits of legitimate violence. The documents relating to Kamiti and Gitamayu reveal how this systematic use of violence was extended to hardcore women and the multiple ways colonial officials tried to hide it.

The intensity of this struggle with hardcore detainees, and the trajectory it took, has been overlooked by previous scholarly works on Mau Mau women, which have provided a general overview of female involvement in the movement, as well as their detention at Kamiti. Much more is known about hardcore men, who have authored over a dozen Mau Mau memoirs and are the subject of extensive scholarly analysis. The stories and identities of these men, from Jomo Kenyatta to J.M. Kariuki, are well known. The hardcore male camps, such as Manyani, Athi River, and Hola, are remembered as the sites of intense struggles between detainees and warders. Recent work from historian David Anderson has detailed the British policy toward hardcore males, which became more brutal and systematic from 1957 onwards.

Bruce-Lockhart says: “In contrast, the history of women’s detention has not been investigated in detail, especially in the latter years of the Emergency Period. Women’s punishment broadly followed a pattern similar to that of their male counterparts, with increasing severity of treatment characterising the final phase of incarceration as the British endeavored to compel inmates to confess their crimes. But the story of the female detainees at Gitamayu and Kamiti also reveals unique elements that were determined by colonial ideas about female deviancy, these ultimately becoming the defining feature of incarceration for Mau Mau’s hardcore women.

“The Hanslope archives reveal the strategies that the colonial administration employed to deal with hardcore women in the late 1950s. Whereas previously there was an assumption that women were malleable and could be easily persuaded away from the Mau Mau cause this expectation greatly diminished during this time, and was replaced with a discourse of madness, as certain elements of the colonial administration pressed for hardcore women to be classified as insane. This move was instrumental rather than genuine, meant to explain away women’s physical ailments in order to cover up mistreatment in the camp.”

She adds: “Debates about how to deal with this group of women engaged and perplexed the highest levels of the colonial administration, generating tensions between legal, political, and medical officials. At the centre of these debates was the question of the female detainees’ sanity, with some officials pressing for these women to be classified as insane. Examining the British approach to these detainees illuminates how ideas about gender, deviancy, and mental health shaped colonial practices of punishment.”
2014. “How the British treated ‘hardcore’ Mau Mau women”. Heritage Daily. Posted: September 16, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The creation of the Vuoksi River preceded a significant cultural shift

The creation of the Vuoksi River and the subsequent rapid decrease in the water level of Lake Saimaa approximately 6,000 years ago revealed thousands of square kilometers of new, fertile land in eastern Finland.

The creation of the Vuoksi River and the subsequent rapid decrease in the water level of Lake Saimaa approximately 6,000 years ago revealed thousands of square kilometres of new, fertile land in eastern Finland. A multidisciplinary research project organised by University of Helsinki researchers has studied the role that the decrease in water levels has played in the interaction between nature and humans. After dramatic shifts in the waterways, human life in the area underwent significant changes and gave rise to a new, innovative culture. This stemmed from an increase in the elk population, which flourished on the pioneer flora growing on the newly emerged land. Later, the culture regressed as the ecosystem in the area shifted towards old-growth spruce-dominated forests which could not maintain the large elk population.

After the end of the last ice age, post-glacial rebound caused the Earth's crust in eastern Fenno-Scandinavia to tilt, increasing the amount of water and size of the body of water that would later become Lake Saimaa. Approximately 6,000 years ago, the Salpausselkä ridge could no longer hold back the waters, which burst through and penetrated the glacial till and bedrock with incredible force. This created the Vuoksi River, and resulted in an approximately four-metre decrease in the water level of Lake Saimaa, revealing thousands of square kilometres of new land in Eastern Finland.

Run by University of Helsinki biologists, scientists and archaeologists together with the National Board of Antiquities, the Finnish Game and Fisheries Research Institute and the University of Bristol, the multidisciplinary research project has studied the role which the creation of the Vuoksi River played in the simultaneous spread of the most significant culture in our prehistory.

One of the basic principles of science is that the cause must come before the effect, emphasises Docent Markku Oinonen, who is the director of the Natural Sciences Unit of the Finnish Museum of Natural History, a University of Helsinki independent institute.

The research is based on probable sequences of events indicated by radiocarbon and Bayesian dating, which suggest that Vuoksi was created a few decades before the culture in the area changed. After the emergence of the river, the culture which used asbestos in its pottery disappeared and was replaced by an innovative culture which employed timber housing, flint and amber – as is typical of the Pit-Comb Ware culture.

Electron microscope analyses of the pottery together with stylistic differences of the pieces themselves and the eradication of the solidifying asbestos in the pottery indicate that distinct changes in pottery-making occurred.

The archaeological study of bones in the area reveals that the significance of elk as game was much greater in the emerging culture compared with the cultures that came before or after it. Another factor in the changes may have been the near-simultaneous spread of eastern spruce trees, which continue to be the dominant tree in the area.

We are beginning to understand how pioneer growth on the emerging land increased the elk population, which attracted people who had new ways of working and enabled the increase in the human population," Oinonen explains.

The spread of typical Pit-Comb Ware culture to the Saimaa region is related to the wider phenomenon of the Stone Age population maximum, i.e., the stage when the population in Finland was at its largest. The new culture was at its peak for a few centuries and regressed as the ecosystem became dominated by old-growth spruce forests which provided a less ideal elk habitat than the recently-emerged land.
EurekAlert. 2014. “The creation of the Vuoksi River preceded a significant cultural shift”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 15, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Language evolution: Quicker on the uptake

The ability to acquire and creatively manipulate spoken language is unique to humans. "The genetic changes that occurred over the past 6 million years of human evolution to make this possible are largely unknown, but Foxp2 is the best candidate gene we now have," says Wolfgang Enard, Professor of Anthropology and Human Biology at LMU. In his efforts to understand the molecular biological basis of language Enard has now taken an important step forward. The results of his latest study, undertaken in collaboration with scientists at several universities, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, have recently appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The human homolog of Foxp2 codes for a protein – a so-called transcription factor – that regulates the activity of hundreds of genes expressed in various mammalian cell types. Individuals who carry only one functional copy of the gene instead of the usual two experience specific difficulties in learning to speak and in language comprehension. "Genetic mutations that occurred during the 6 million years since our lineage diverged from that of chimpanzees have resulted in localized alterations in two regions of the Foxp2 protein. That is quite striking when one considers that the normal mouse version differs from that found in chimps by only a single mutation, although these two species are separated by over 100 million years of evolution. The question is how the human variant of this transcription factor contributes to the process of language acquisition," says Enard.

Enard and his coworkers had previously shown that the alterations in the human gene for Foxp2 specifically affect certain regions of the brain. When the two human-specific substitutions were introduced into the mouse version of the gene, he and his team observed anatomical changes exclusively in two neuronal circuits in the basal ganglia of the mouse cortex, which are involved in the control of motor function. "These circuits play a crucial role in the acquisition of habitual behaviors and other cognitive and motor capabilities," Enard explains.

Conscious and unconscious learning processes

In their latest work with the same mouse model, Enard and his collaborators found that, under certain conditions, the human version of Foxp2 actually enhances learning. "We have shown for the first time that the evolved alterations in the human gene have an effect on learning ability. The human version modifies the balance between declarative and motor neuron circuits in the brain. As a result, the mice take less time to associate a given stimulus with the appropriate response, and hence learn more rapidly," says Enard.

Learning to speak clearly requires interactions between conscious "declarative" knowledge and the unconscious effects of repetitive stimulation of particular patterns of neural activity. "As we learn, the underlying neuronal processes become automated, they are converted into routine procedures, enabling us to learn faster," Enard explains. Using various tests, the researchers demonstrated that the human-specific mutations enhance cooperative interactions between the two affected circuits in the basal ganglia of the mouse brain. "The human variant of the Foxp2 gene modulates the associative and sensorimotor nerve connections formed, as well as levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the basal ganglia, during the learning process. The increased ability to switch between conscious and unconscious forms of learning may play a role in the acquisition of language," Enard concludes.

Foxp2 is the only gene so far that has been shown to be directly associated with the evolution of language, and studies of Foxp2 function promise to throw new light on the evolution of the human brain. The mutation that first revealed the link with language was discovered in a kindred, many of whose members displayed severe speech difficulties, primarily as a consequence of defective control of the muscles of the larynx, the lips and the face.
EurekAlert. 2014. “Language evolution: Quicker on the uptake”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 18, 2014. Available online:

Friday, October 24, 2014

How Ancient DNA Is Rewriting Human History

There are no written records of the most important developments in our history: the transition from hunting and gathering to farming, the initial colonization of regions outside Africa, and, most crucially, the appearance of modern humans and the vanishing of archaic ones.

Our primary information sources about these “pre-historic” events are ancient tools, weapons, bones, and, more recently, DNA. Like an ancient text that has picked up interpolations over the millennia, our genetic history can be difficult to recover from the DNA of people alive today. But with the invention of methods to read DNA taken from ancient bones, we now have access to much older copies of our genetic history, and it’s radically changing how we understand our deep past. What seemed like an episode of Lost turns out to be much more like Game of Thrones: instead of a story of small, isolated groups that colonized distant new territory, human history is a story of ancient populations that migrated and mixed all over the world.

There is no question that most human evolutionary history took place in Africa. But by one million years ago—long before modern humans evolved—archaic human species were already living throughout Asia and Europe. By 30,000 years ago, the archaic humans had vanished, and modern humans had taken their place. How did that happen?

From the results of early DNA studies in the late 1980s and early ’90s, scientists argued that anatomically modern humans evolved in Africa, and then expanded into Asia, Oceania, and Europe, beginning about 60,000 years ago. The idea was that modern humans colonized the rest of the world in a succession of small founding groups—each one a tiny sampling of the total modern human gene pool. These small, isolated groups settled new territory and replaced the archaic humans that lived there. As a result, humans in different parts of the world today have their own distinctive DNA signature, consisting of the genetic quirks of their ancestors who first settled the area, as well as the genetic adaptations to the local environment that evolved later.

This view of human history, called the “serial founder effect model,” has big implications for our understanding of how we came to be who we are. Most importantly, under this model, genetic differences between geographically separated human populations reflect deep branchings in the human family tree, branches that go back tens of thousands of years. It also declares that people have evolutionary adaptations that are matched to their geographical area, such as lighter skin in Asians and Europeans or high altitude tolerance among Andeans and Tibetans. With a few exceptions, such as the genetic mixing after Europeans colonized the Americas, our geography reflects our deep ancestry.

Well, it’s time to scrap this picture of human history. Looking over the stunning new data generated in just the last five years, geneticists Joseph Pickrell at the New York Genome Center and David Reich at Harvard University argue that the genetic record of the first modern humans leaving Africa has long been “overwritten” by later developments. “It is now clear that the data contradict any model in which the genetic structure of the world today is approximately the same as it was immediately following the out-of-Africa expansion,” they write. Present-day geography of human genes is not a good guide to our ancestry.

Pickrell and Reich lay out the case for “a systematic reevaluation of human history” in light of the new genetic data collected with new technologies. Much of this new data comes from recent large-scale collections of human genomes, which provide a much more comprehensive picture of geographical patterns in the DNA of living human populations. But the truly revolutionary findings come from studies that look directly at ancient DNA. Instead of trying to reconstruct our ancient genetic record with only modern sources, scientists can now, in some cases, examine the original source itself. The Neanderthal genome, published in 2010, is the most famous case, but researchers have published many more ancient DNA studies since then. The results are clear: There are very few isolated branches of the human family tree. People in nearly every part of the world are a product of many different ancient populations, and sometimes surprisingly close relationships span a wide geographical distance.

One surprising finding, published in January, is that the traces of European DNA in contemporary Native Americans can’t all be chalked up to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. A team of scientists led by Eske Willerslev at the University of Copenhagen sequenced DNA taken from the bones of a boy who died 24,000 years ago in south-central Siberia. Their results show that this boy was from an ancient population that contributed to the ancestry of both Europeans and Native Americans. Other ancient DNA studies published within the past year include analyses of Stone Age hunter-gatherers and farmers from Scandinavia and Spain, a Bronze-age population from the Ukrainian steppes, and a 12,000-year-old Native American that lived in what is now Western Montana. The story coming out of these genetic studies is still developing, but one feature is clear. As Pickrell and Reich put it, “Human history is not one of stasis.” We can easily see this in written history, which tells why most African Americans and Latinos have a mixed ancestry. The genetic record shows that for the past tens of thousands of years, mixed human ancestry is the rule and not the exception. This finding has implications for the role of evolution in shaping who we are. Genetic adaptations that first evolved in one environment were sometimes brought to other parts of the world with very different environments. This means that we need to be wary about accepting overly simple stories about how present-day people in a particular region carry genes that have evolved to fit their particular niche—those evolved genes may be recent arrivals from somewhere else.

Reading deep human history from the record of our DNA is a tricky business, but it’s also a powerful way to answer some compelling questions about our past—a past that is more surprising and complex than we originally thought.
White, Michael. 2014. “How Ancient DNA Is Rewriting Human History”. Pacific Standard Magazine. Posted: September 12, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Iberian Peninsula endured tropical storms in the 18th century and severe droughts in Islamic times

The first meteorological measurements were taken in the Iberian Peninsula in 1724, which coincides with the year in which Portugal suffered one of the worst storms ever. Later, in 1816, Spain felt the effects of the eruption of the Mount Tambora volcano and almost one thousand years before, in 898, a drought in Al-Andalus was so severe that communities even resorted to cannibalism. These are facts recovered from old documents by researchers at the University of Extremadura.

The official registry for meteorological series began in Spain around 1850, but occasional measurements had already been taken in some areas of the Iberian Peninsula. The initial ones were sent in 1724 by the Portuguese doctor Isaac Sequeira to the British physician James Jurin, who was trying to form a European network of meteorologists, according to documents kept in the Royal Society of London.

"These observations, covering a period between November 1724 and January 1725, are the oldest known on the Peninsula," Fernando Domínguez, from the University of Extremadura (Spain), said, "but even more interesting is what they tell us." The notes taken by the Portuguese doctor describe one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the peninsular region. It passed through Lisbon on 19 November 1724 and affected the entire centre and north of Portugal, damaging palaces, churches and buildings, as well as sinking boats or destroying a number of them on the coast and along the Tagus River.

"The effects of this 'meteorological bomb' the day before (18 November) in Madeira indicates that it was a tropical storm," points out Domínguez. In Spain, we only know of two other storms like this, which are related to hurricanes in the Atlantic: "One in 1842 and a more recent one caused by the Hurricane Vince in 2005, which also took place around Madeira and even reached our coastlines."

The results of this study have been published in the 'Climatic Change' journal, although the authors have also analysed the climatic variability in the Iberian Peninsula at later dates, during the 1750-1850 period. Together with researchers from other universities, they have studied documents from the 18th and 19th centuries, such as newspapers, which were used to publish barometric, temperature, wind and daily weather measurements in their headlines.

Over 100,000 observations from that period taken in 16 towns such as Cadiz, Madrid, Badajoz, Palma de Mallorca, Valencia, Zaragoza, Bilbao, Palencia or La Coruña have been digitalised. This has shown the existence of high rainfall anomalies, such as that of 1780 or the cold period felt throughout Europe the year after the great eruption of the Mount Tambora volcano (Indonesia) in 1815.

But meteorological studies have delved much further into the past. Specifically, the "first serious attempt to obtain climate information from Arab sources in the Iberian Peninsula" has been carried out, outlines José Manuel Vaquero, another of the authors, emphasizing that: "We are talking about the weather in Spain one thousand years ago!."

Arabs occupied the peninsula for a number of centuries, although the team has focused on chronicles available between 711 and 1010. In these texts, Arab historians described political and social events, but sometimes they included articles related to the weather when these were relevant for the community.

"By collecting these events, we can say that there were important droughts in Al-Andalus between the 748-754, 812-823 and 867-879 periods in which we have come across plenty of references to droughts and related famines, which even led to people emigrating to North Africa," states Domínguez.

The scientist points out the most striking reference: "In 898 a drought, that was probably short but extremely severe, led the Andalusians to resort to cannibalism in order to survive, according to some chronicles, although other socio-economic factors or plagues may have also had an influence."

Other information reveals that the climate in Cordoba, one of the most important cities in the world at that time, had more snow and hail during the 971-975 period compared with current averages. This study has been published in the 'The Holocene' journal. "It is important to know about the climate in the past in order to understand the variability of the entire climatic system, which has interacting sub-systems on different levels and goes far beyond the 'official' meteorological records of the last 150 years, which are also affected by the burning of fossil fuels and do not reflect the natural weather variability," according to the authors, who also point out that: "Many of our ancestors' observations are waiting to be rescued from files and libraries."
Science Daily. 2014. “Iberian Peninsula endured tropical storms in the 18th century and severe droughts in Islamic times”. Science Daily. Posted: September 12, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Religion Doesn't Make People More Moral, Study Finds

The moral high ground seems to be a crowded place. A new study suggests that religious people aren't more likely to do good than their nonreligious counterparts. And while they may vehemently disagree with one another at times, liberals and conservatives also tend to be on par when it comes to behaving morally.

Researchers asked 1,252 adults of different religious and political backgrounds in the United States and Canada to record the good and bad deeds they committed, witnessed, learned about or were the target of throughout the day.

The goal of the study was to assess how morality plays out in everyday life for different people, said Dan Wisneski, a professor of psychology at Saint Peter's University in Jersey City, New Jersey, who helped conduct the study during his tenure at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The study's findings may come as a shock to those who think religious or political affiliationhelps dictate a person's understanding of right and wrong. Wisneski and his fellow researchers found that religious and nonreligious people commit similar numbers of moral acts. The same was found to be true for people on both ends of the political spectrum. And regardless of their political or religious leanings, participants were all found to be more likely to report committing, or being the target of, a moral act rather than an immoral act. They were also much more likely to report having heard about immoral acts rather than moral acts.

However, there were some differences in how people in different groups responded emotionally to so-called "moral phenomena," Wisneski said. For example, religious people reported experiencing more intense self-conscious emotions — such as guilt, embarrassment, and disgust — after committing an immoral act than did nonreligious people. Religious people also reported experiencing a greater sense of pride and gratefulness after committing moral deeds than their nonreligious counterparts.

Liberals and conservatives also tended to think of moral phenomena in different ways. In other words, though they seemed to experience the same amount of moral and immoral acts, they had different ways of talking about these experiences.

"Liberals more often mention moral phenomena related to fairness and honesty," Wisneski said. "Conservatives more often mention moral phenomena related to loyalty and disloyalty or sanctity and degradation."

For three days, participants received five text messages a day that included a link to the study's mobile website, where they could record any moral phenomena that they had experienced in the past hour via their smartphones. On average, participants reported one moral experience per day, Wisneski said.

This approach to studying morality is a far cry from previous studies, most of which have been conducted in a laboratory setting and have focused on studying peoples' responses to hypothetical moral dilemmas, according to Wisneski.

"As far as I know, this is the first study that's used this kind of lived-experience approach to track morality as it's happening," he said.

In the future, Wisneski and his colleagues hope to use their smartphone-enabled approach to study morality in a more nationally representative sample of people, he said. They also think this method could be applied to studying morality in different parts of the world, such as Asia and the Middle East, where religious and political beliefs may have different influences than on people in North America.

The morality study, which was conducted by psychologists at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Cologne, in Germany, and the University of Tilburg, in the Netherlands, was published online today (Sept. 11) in the journal Science.
Palermo, Elizabeth. 2014. “Religion Doesn't Make People More Moral, Study Finds”. Live Science. Posted: September 11, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Lost Ship from Ill-Fated Arctic Quest Discovered

In 1845, two doomed British ships set sail for the Canadian Arctic to end a legendary quest for the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. After the expedition became trapped in ice, both vessels and all 129 men on board were lost. Now, nearly 170 years later, one of the shipwrecks has been found.

Canadian authorities have released sonar images that show the skeleton of one of the two ships lost during the Franklin Expedition. (The voyage was named after the expedition's leader, British Royal Navy officer and explorer John Franklin.) Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said that the discovery "has solved one of Canada's greatest mysteries."

"Although we do not know yet whether the discovery is Her Majesty's Ship (HMS) Erebus or HMS Terror, we do have enough information to confirm its authenticity," Harper said in a statement. "This is truly a historic moment for Canada. Franklin's ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada's Arctic sovereignty."

The graves of Erebus and Terror jointly had the distinction of being Canada's only undiscovered national historical site. Dozens of search crews have looked for the ships since they went missing. Just since 2008, Parks Canada led six major expeditions to look for the ships, peering at hundreds of square miles of the Arctic seabed with underwater robots and sonar. Success finally came this week for the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition.

The fate of the Franklin Expedition has been an enduring mystery and fodder for much speculation. The three-masted ships Erebus and Terror had steam engines and iron-reinforced bows to punch through sea ice. The vessels had successfully completed a mission in Antarctica, but they were apparently no match for the ice-choked waterways of the Canadian Arctic.

It's believed that many of Franklin's men died of some combination of exposure to the elements, starvation, scurvy and lead poisoning (possibly from eating poorly canned foods) in the months and weeks after the ships became icebound near King William Island. In the 1850s, Britain was scandalized by reports that some of the crew resorted to cannibalism, based on stories an Inuit relayed to explorer John Rae, according to Canadian Geographic. Archaeologists later found cut marks on skeletal remains of crew members buried in shallow graves in the Arctic, suggesting there might be some truth to those grisly reports.

"The discovery of a Franklin expedition ship raises the possibility that some of the enduring mysteries surrounding the expedition's destruction can be solved," John Geiger, CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, said in a statement. "It's a wonderful and exciting discovery that promises to shed more light on the ill-fated expedition's final months, weeks and days."
Gannon, Megan. 2014. “Lost Ship from Ill-Fated Arctic Quest Discovered”. Live Science. Posted: September 10, 2014. Available online:

Monday, October 20, 2014

Islamic State's 'Medieval' Ideology Owes A Lot To Revolutionary France

Over recent weeks there has been a constant background noise that Islamic State and its ideology are some sort of throwback to a distant past. It is often framed in language used last week by the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, who claimed that ISIS is “medieval”. In fact, the terrorist group’s thinking is very much in a more modern western tradition.

Clegg’s intervention is not surprising. Given the extreme violence of Islamic State fighters and the frequent images of decapitated bodies, it is understandable that we attempt to make sense of this violence as somehow radically “other”.

But this does not necessarily help us understand what is at stake. Above all, this tends to accept one of the core assertions of contemporary jihadism, namely its claim that it reaches back to the origins of Islam. As one Islamic State supporter I follow on Twitter is fond of saying: “the world changes, Islam doesn’t”.

Generation gap

This is not just a question for academic debate. It has real impact. One of the attractions of jihadist ideology to many young people is that it shifts generational power in their communities. Jihadists and, more broadly, Islamists present themselves as true to their religion, while their parents, so they argue, are mired in tradition or “culture”.

It needs to be said very clearly: contemporary jihadism is not a return to the past. It is a modern, anti-traditional ideology, with a very significant debt to western political history and culture.

When he made his speech in July at Mosul’s Great Mosque, declaring the creation of an Islamic State with himself as its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi quoted at length from the Indian/Pakistani thinker, Abul A’la Maududi, the founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami party in 1941 and originator of the contemporary term “Islamic State”.

Maududi’s Islamic State is profoundly shaped by western ideas and concepts. He takes a belief shared between Islam and other religious traditions, namely that God alone is the ultimate judge of a person, and transforms this – reframing God’s possession of judgment into possession of, and ultimately monopoly of, “sovereignty”. 

Maududi also draws upon understandings of the natural world governed by laws that are expressions of the power of God – ideas at the heart of the 17th-century scientific revolution. He combines these in a vision of the sovereignty of God, then goes on to define this sovereignty in political terms, affirming that “God alone is the sovereign” (The Islamic Way of Life). The State and the divine thus fuse together, so that as God becomes political and politics becomes sacred.

Western tradition

Such sovereignty is completely absent in medieval culture, with its fragmented world and multiple sources of power. Its origins lie instead in the Westphalian system of states and the modern scientific revolution.

But Maududi’s debt to European political history extends beyond his understanding of sovereignty. Central to his thought is his understanding of the French Revolution, which he believed offered the promise of a “state founded on a set of principles” as opposed to one based upon a nation or a people. For Maududi this potential withered in France, its achievement would have to await an Islamic state (The Process of the Islamic Revolution). In revolutionary France, it is the state that creates its citizens and nothing should be allowed to stand between the citizen and the state. That is why still today French government agencies are prevented by law from collecting data about ethnicity, considered a potential intermediary community between state and citizen.

This universal citizen, separated from community, nation or history, lies at the heart of Maududi’s vision of “citizenship in Islam” (Islamic Way of Life). Just as the revolutionary French state created its citizens, with the citizen unthinkable outside the state, so too the Islamic state creates its citizens. 

This is at the basis of Maududi’s otherwise unintelligible argument that one can only be a Muslim in an Islamic state.

Modern violence

Don’t look to the Koran to understand this – look to the French Revolution and ultimately to the secularization of an idea that finds its origins in European Christianity: Extra ecclesia nulla salus (outside the church there is no salvation), an idea that became transformed with the birth of modern European states into Extra stato nulla persona (outside the state there is no legal personhood). This idea still demonstrates extraordinary power today, the source of what it means to be a refugee.

If IS’s Islamic State is profoundly modern, so too is its violence. IS fighters do not simply kill. They seek to humiliate as we saw last week as they herded Syrian reservists wearing only their underpants to their death. And they seek to dishonor the bodies of their victims, in particular through postmortem manipulations.

Such manipulations aim at destroying the body as a singularity. The body becomes a manifestation of a collectivity to be obliterated, its manipulation rendering what was once a human person into an “abominable stranger”. Such practices are increasingly evident in war today, from the Colombian necktie to troops trading images of body parts to access pornographic websites during the Iraq war.

Central to IS’s program is its claim to Muslim heritage (witness al-Baghdadi’s dress). Part of countering this requires understanding the contemporary sources of its ideology and its violence. In no way can it be understood as a return to the origins of Islam. 

This is a core thesis of its supporters, one that should not be given any credence at all. 

Nazism wasn’t medieval, nor is Islamic State.
McDonald, Kevin. 2014. “Islamic State's 'Medieval' Ideology Owes A Lot To Revolutionary France”. Science 2.0. Posted: Available online:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

China Exclusive: Teenager stumbles on 3,000-year-old bronze sword in river

A child in east China's Jiangsu Province had a stroke of luck after lunging into a river and stumbling upon a 3,000-year-old bronze sword.

Yang Junxi, an 11-year-old boy, discovered upon the rusty sword on July 2 when he was playing near the Laozhoulin River in Linze Township of Gaoyou County, according to the Gaoyou Cultural Relics Bureau.

While washing hands in the river, Yang touched the tip of something hard and fished out the metal sword. He took it home and gave it to his father Yang Jinhai.

Upon hearing the news, people began flocking to Yang's home, the father said.

"Some people even offered high prices to buy the the sword, but I felt it would be illegal to sell the cultural relic," Yang said.

After considering his options, the father sent the sword to the Gaoyou Cultural Relics Bureau on Sept. 3.

The bureau arranged initial identifications on the sword with a joint team of local cultural relics experts on the sword's material, length, shape and other major factors.

Initial identifications found the 26 cm-long yellow-brown sword could be dated back to more than 3,000 years ago, around the time of the Shang and Zhou dynasties, said Lyu Zhiwei, head of the cultural relics office of the bureau.

"There was no characteristic or decorative pattern on the exquisite bronze sword. Made in a time of relatively low productivity, its owner would have been an able man with the qualification to have such artifact," he said.

"The short sword seems a status symbol of a civil official. It has both decorative and practical functions, but is not in the shape of sword for military officers."

It is the second bronze artifact found in the region after a bronze instrument was excavated in the nearby Sanduo Township.

The sword was found in the Laozhoulin River, which crosses the ancient Ziying River which was excavated in the Qin Dynasty (221 BC-206 BC).

It also interlinks the ancient Han Ditch as the "predecessor" of China's Grand Canal, the world's longest artificial waterway with a history of more than 2,400 years.

The 1,794-km canal runs from Beijing to Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang Province. It was entered into the World Heritage list in June 2014.

The city has conducted several rounds of dredging in the Laozhoulin River, which might surface the sword from the river bottom, said Lyu, adding that the township government has prepared a further archeological dig into the river and in the nearby areas.

The relics bureau and municipal museum of Gaoyou City have sent the collection certificates and bonus for the boy and his father in honor of their deeds of protecting and donating cultural relic.
Yi, Yang. 2014. “China Exclusive: Teenager stumbles on 3,000-year-old bronze sword in river”. Xinhua Net. Posted: September 6, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Analysing Jawoyn rock-art in Arnhem Land

Researchers are working with archaeologists, anthropologists and the Northern Territory’s Jawoyn community to chemically analyse ancient rock art and uncover its secrets.

University of Technology Sydney Associate Professor Barbara Stuart and PhD student Alexandria Hunt are applying sophisticated techniques to understand the materials used by the artists and how their work has changed over time.

“One of my areas of interest has been working with archaeologists and applying chemical and analytical techniques to the study of archaeological problems,” said Associate Professor Stuart.

While chemistry and archaeology are not a usual pairing, Associate Professor Stuart said that chemistry plays an important role in understanding archaeological sites. “We are applying chemistry in an area that is a little less traditional. The chemistry tells you where materials were coming from, what types of materials they used and different practices at different times.”

Visiting rock art sites

Alexandria was working on her honours project in forensic science in 2012 when she was presented with the opportunity to join the team. In June of that year Alexandria and her two supervisors, Associate Professor Stuart and Dr Paul Thomas, visited the rock art sites in Arnhem Land for a week, where they worked with other professionals including archaeologists, environmental scientists, geologists and rock art experts.

“We need to take samples but we try to take as small amount as we can so that we don’t visually alter the paintings at all,” Alexandria said.

“We were blessed before we could go to the sites… they are amazing and you can see how important they are.”

During the trip, the team used a community campsite and worked in collaboration with an Indigenous elder, Aunty Margaret, who was pleased that people were interested in the Jawoyn culture.

“They have been very supportive of the whole process. It was a great privilege to go up and visit the site, which is very isolated,” Associate Professor Stuart said.

“It’s enjoyable from our point of view as scientists working in teams, but it was extra special going to such a historical and spiritual place and working on something that means so much to that community.”

Collaboration important

Alexandria said that the collaboration between specialists and the Indigenous community was important as it provided a fundamental cultural understanding that helped their research.

“We are lucky that there are still Aboriginal people who know about the sites. With chemistry you can link it to their studies and find out a lot more,” she said.

Sample sizes taken from the sites were very small and will be returned after analysis, in accordance with tradition.

“I am running some tests to characterise the pigments,” Alexandria said. “We are looking at what they were actually made from. Once I have that information I’ll be able to work out the age of the paintings.”

The study differs from previous Indigenous site analyses as it accounts for how pigments change over time due to biological processes.

“Traditionally such analyses have been more about elemental analysis, whereas we are looking at more sophisticated techniques to understand the whole of the paint and pigment structure and looking at chemical changes over time,” said Associate Professor Stuart.

Infrared beam

To gain complex data from the samples Alexandria used the infrared beam at the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne, which provides a powerful light source that enables small samples to be examined with precision. Associate Professor Stuart said that it is only because of such developments in technology that this type of study is possible.

“Our key strength is our quality analytical equipment and that is something that UTS specialises in. I think the field in general is advancing and we are playing a part in that,” she said.

Associate Professor Stuart hopes the project will lead to future collaborations and ongoing work in the field.

“They only rediscovered these indigenous rock art sites about six or seven years ago, almost accidentally, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
Past Horizons. 2014. “Analysing Jawoyn rock-art in Arnhem Land”. Past Horizons. Posted: September 8, 2014. Available online:

Friday, October 17, 2014

Climate and Civilization Killed Egypt's Animals

If you took a cruise along the northern stretch of the Nile some 6,000 years ago, you wouldn't have seen any pyramids, but you might have spotted a giraffe or an elephant taking a drink at the bank of the river.

At that time, the Nile wasn't surrounded by desert; rather, the warmer, wetter landscape resembled the current scenery of sub-Saharan East Africa.

Today, Egypt's elephants and giraffes are extinct. So are its cheetahs and aurochs and wildebeests. But animal bones and images of animals on ancient artifacts reveal what creatures once roamed the region. A team of researchers looked at Egypt's rich archaeological record and found that most mammal extinctions over the last six millennia were linked to periods of big change in terms of climate and human civilization.

Justin Yeakel — a researcher out of the University of California, Santa Cruz, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico — said the work was first inspired by a trip with a colleague to see a traveling exhibit on King Tutankhamun while it was in San Francisco a few years ago.

"We were just amazed at the diversity of animals in the artifacts," Yeakel told Live Science. "It got us thinking about how we could use representations of animals in the historical record to understand how animal communities have changed."

Egypt turned out to be a good area for a case study, because the area has been occupied continuously for thousands of years and has an extensive archaeological record. There are rock art drawings of hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses from the early Holocene. The tombs of Egyptian pharaohs are decorated with hunting scenes that show which creatures would have been prized prey. Import records of cheetahs and lions reveal when certain animals might have been considered exotic after disappearing locally.

The researchers found that Egypt was home to 37 large-bodied mammals (those over 8.8 lbs., or 4 kilograms) during the Late Pleistocene and early Holocene. Today, just eight of those creatures remain: the golden jackal, the ibex, the Barbary goat, the Egyptian fox, the Dorcas gazelle, the wild ass, the striped hyena and the slender-horned gazelle, which is on the verge of extinction.

"Our simplest observation was that the community changed in a very nonrandom way," Yeakel said.

The stability of the ecosystem tended to unravel during periods of major climate change and socio-political turnover, the scientists found. When the so-called African Humid Period ended about 5,000 years ago, Egypt's landscape switched to a drier, desertlike climate; around the same time, humans started farming and ancient Egypt's Dynastic Period began. Another aridification period occurred about 4,170 years ago and has been linked to the collapse of Egypt's Old Kingdom, the period that saw the first pyramids. A third drying period has been linked to the fall of the New Kingdom in Egypt about 3,000 years ago.

Yeakel said he and his fellow researchers can't really tease apart the possible causes that led to these ecological changes. But the scientists have identified the potential drivers. During the first big change after the African Humid Period, for example, human populations grew and overhunting might have driven the decline of large herbivores — such as elephants, giraffes and native camels — which then indirectly affected the populations of the predators that ate the herbivores. Agriculture was also on the rise during this period. Most of the region's nutrients were concentrated in the Nile floodplain, and competition with farmers might have also hurt herbivore populations. A third possible driver could have been the climate; the drier environment might have limited the availability of plants at the bottom of the food chain.

The changes humans are inducing in the environment now are probably fundamentally different from the factors that drove ecological changes in the past, Yeakel said. Nonetheless, studying past changes is the only way scientists can predict what will happen in the future.

"We have to look at ecosystems as a continuum," Yeakel said. "We can't just look at the modern ecosystem. We have to look at how it has functioned in the past and how has it changed over time to establish a baseline for how the system will change in future."

The findings were published today (Sept. 8) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Gannon, Megan. 2014. “Climate and Civilization Killed Egypt's Animals”. Live Science. Posted: September 8, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Word 'edges' are important for language acquisition

Word "edges" are important for language acquisition. Children start to learn the sound of words by remembering the first and last syllables. A SISSA study, published in Child Development, sheds light on the information the infant brain uses during language acquisition and the format in which it stores words in its memory.

If you're only seven months old, there's no difference between a "cinema" and a "cimena."

What infants accurately remember of a word is, in fact, only the first and last syllable. The middle syllables may even be jumbled, but to these little ears this will make virtually no difference. These are the main findings of a study carried out at SISSA and recently published in Child Development that uncovers the early mechanisms of word memory.

Infants start to learn words very early, during the first months of life, and to do so they have to memorise their sounds and associate them with meanings. The study by Silvia Benavides-Varela (now at the IRCCS Fondazione Ospedale San Camillo in Venice, but at SISSA at the time the study was performed) and Jacques Mehler, neuroscientist at SISSA, revealed the format in which infants remember their first words. In particular, the two scientists saw that infants aged about seven months accurately encode the sound and position of the first and last syllable, whereas they have difficulty retaining the order of syllables in the middle.

"The edges of words are important for the words to be recognised," explains Benavides-Varela. "In the sound of a word we can distinguish two sets of information: information about content, the actual sound of the single syllables, and information about the order in which the syllables are uttered. Our study demonstrates that the two formats, content and order, are dissociated from a very early age."

The strategy used by infants should not be seen as a limitation for lexical learning, but rather as a feature of human memory that interacts with language learning mechanisms. The "supremacy" of edge syllables seems indeed to be pervasive at all ages (previous studies have shown that the same also occurs in adults) and could explain some linguistic regularities observed in human language. For example, when an element is added to a complete word, in most cases it is a prefix or a suffix, that is, a morpheme that is appended to the beginning or end of the word and not to the middle.

Other phenomena as well can be explained by the effect of word edges: for example, when mothers teach their infants new words they tend to put them at the end of sentences, a spontaneous -- probably subconscious -- strategy that could be effective in the transmission of important information to their babies.
Science Daily. 2014. “Word 'edges' are important for language acquisition”. Science Daily. Posted: September 8, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Culture not the main culprit in domestic violence against minority children in the Nordic countries

Children with minority backgrounds are more frequently subjected to violence at home than ethnic Nordic kids. Poverty and social status are stronger contributing risk factors than foreign cultures, according to researchers.

“Although public attention often highlights the link between minority families and domestic violence, the cultural and ethnic aspects of this became increasingly peripheral as we delved into the problem. Other factors dominate the picture,” says Marianne Buen Sommerfeldt.

Sommerfeldt is a researcher at the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies (NKVTS).

Researchers have compared studies of the extent of violence in all the Nordic countries. They looked at conditions which entail risks and at factors which tend to protect minority children from violence. They have also considered how their accrued knowledge can be used among the social services.

Perceptions of reality

The researchers found a disparity between their perception of reality and that which dominated among employees in the social and child welfare services.

Violence against children is disproportionately present among minority groups, according to police and child care authority statistics. At the state-run Children’s House in Oslo, kids with ethnic minority backgrounds comprise a large percentage of those who come to be interviewed because domestic violence is suspected.

“Staff members generally see that minority children are the most susceptible. This is clearly their experience in the field,” says Sommerfeldt.

The statistics from other Nordic countries also indicate that children with minority backgrounds are more likely than their mainstream peers to encounter domestic violence. But the researchers warn against jumping to conclusions.

Slugging, thrashing and shoving

The Norwegian studies in the review show that 80 percent of youth have never experienced being struck by an adult family member. Among those who did report such abuse, most said it only happened once or a few times.

The share of children who are frequently subjected to violence – defined here as more than ten times – was two percent.

Most of the Nordic studies discern between severe and light violence. The more grievous category includes being hit with fists or various objects, being beaten up, etc. Mild violence includes being slapped, shoved around, shaken, pinched or having their hair tugged.

Critical of cultural justifications

Whether a person perceives the problem as large or small will impact how he or she understands it.

This is seen in courts and in cases handled by the Child Welfare Services.

“Many parents think the use of violence in raising their children is normal,” says Kari Stenseng who works in the social services in Norway’s Buskerud County.

“Others are plagued by mental problems, are outsiders in our society or lack self-control. Honour-related violence also occurs, mainly to control the girls in the family,” she adds.

A number of studies have criticised employees in the Child Welfare Service for giving leeway for domestic violence on the grounds of cultural background. This can cause them to overlook serious problems.

Some researchers have also pointed out that the Child Welfare Services risk overstepping in two veering directions. In some instances they can lack an understanding of cultural backgrounds among immigrants and intervene prematurely on behalf of children in a family. Or they can be too lenient the other way and intervene too late.

Sommerfeldt argues that cultures alone cannot explain why minority children are more often mistreated by mothers or fathers than other kids.

“Culture, in the form of values or child-raising methods, established the framework for understanding how families raised their offspring. But it is unacceptable to mistreat children in any cultures.

Culture is not a sufficient justification or explanation,” says Sommerfeldt. Other things play a more important role, such as the family’s financial situation, social conditions and immigration or asylum seeking experiences.

Stress triggers violence

We should therefore look into the stress these families experience, according to the researchers. They can have a high stress level from living in poverty and lacking other people to count on in their daily lives.

In a Swedish study of parents, 34 percent said they had been stressed during their last conflict with a child.

“This stress level often interacts with mental health and the parents’ self-esteem and can affect their capacity as caretakers. This also applies to ethnic Norwegian families,” says Sommerfeldt.

A larger share of minority families live in poverty, have insufficient social networks and are plagued by traumatic experiences. This can explain why they are more prone to engage in domestic violence.

“Wouldn’t some say that you are downplaying the impact of culture?”

“Yes, that could be. But we are concerned about highlighting the nuances. Methodical limitations in the studies we have looked at, as well as the importance of other risk factors than culture, require us to be cautious about explaining violence with ethnicity,” says Sommerfeldt.

“Explaining violence on the basis of a family’s ethnic background is problematic and potentially stigmatizing.”

Sommerfeldt thinks additional knowledge is needed about the role played by culture, with regard to the way social services tackle a family’s problems and the conditions by which violence is used in the upbringing of children.
Bakken, Hege Breen. 2014. “Culture not the main culprit in domestic violence against minority children in the Nordic countries”. Science Nordic. Posted: September 6, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Warrior's 3,900 year old suit of bone armour unearthed in Omsk

First pictures of 'unique' Bronze Age warlord's full battle dress may be a 'war trophy'.

Archeologists are intrigued by the discovery of the complete set of well-preserved bone armour which is seen as having belonged to an 'elite' warrior. The armour was in 'perfect condition' - and in its era was 'more precious than life', say experts.

It was buried separate from its owner and no other examples of such battle dress have been found around Omsk. Analysis is expected to determine its exact age but Siberian archeologists say it dates from 3,900 to 3,500 years ago.

Nearby archeological finds are from the Krotov culture, lived in forest steppe area of Western Siberia, but this bone armour more closely resembles that of the  Samus-Seyminskaya culture, which originated in the area of the Altai Mountains, some 1,000 km to the south east, and migrated to the Omsk area. The armour could have been a gift, or an exchange, or was perhaps the spoils of war.

Boris Konikov, curator of excavations, said: 'It is unique first of all because such armour was highly valued. It was more precious than life, because it saved life.

'Secondly, it was found in a settlement, and this has never happened before. There were found separate fragments in burials, like on Rostovka burial ground.'

Currently the experts say they do not know which creature's bones were used in making the armour. Found at a depth of 1.5 metres at a site of a sanatorium where there are now plans to build a five star hotel, the armour is now undergoing cleaning and restoration.

'We ourselves can not wait to see it, but at the moment it undergoing restoration, which is a is long, painstaking process. As a result we hope to reconstruct an exact copy', Boris Konikov said.

Scientist Yury Gerasimov, a research fellow of the Omsk branch of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, said: 'While there is no indication that the place of discovery of the armour was a place of worship, it is very likely. Armour had great material value. There was no sense to dig it in the ground or hide it for a long time - because the fixings and the bones would be ruined.

'Such armour needs constant care. At the moment we can only fantasise - who dug it into the ground and for what purpose. Was it some ritual or sacrifice? We do not know yet.'

Gerasimov, who is engaged in the restoration, said: 'Each armour plate in the ground was divided into many small fragments, which are held only by this ground. The structure was removed from the excavation, in 'monolith' as archaeologists say - namely, intact with the piece of ground, not in separate plates, and taken to the museum.

'Now we need to clean these small fragments of bone plates, make photographs and sketches of their location, and then glue them in a full plate.'

He is certain that the armour belonged to a 'hero', an 'elite warrior who knew special methods of battle' and would have 'given good protection from weapons that were used at the time - bone and stone arrowheads, bronze knives, spears tipped with bronze, and bronze axes'. 

The archeological site where the armour was found includes a complex of monuments belonging to different epochs. There are settlements, burial grounds, and manufacturing sites. Burials have been found here from the  Early Neolithic period to the Middle Ages.

The site, beside the Irtysh River, is now owned by Popov Omsk Radio Factory which has supported the archeological research.

Konikov, who worked on the site as a researcher for many years and is now a representative of the plant, supervising the excavations, said: 'Our goal is to save the site, to research it and to promote it.

'We organise excursions for schoolchildren and draw the attention of citizens to this unique site.'
Lugovskaya, Kseniya. 2014. “Warrior's 3,900 year old suit of bone armour unearthed in Omsk”. Siberian Times. Posted: September 6, 2014. Available online:

Monday, October 13, 2014

Australia returns two stolen ancient, priceless idols to India

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott who is on a state visit to India is returning two looted idols seized from Australian museums during a meeting with the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on Friday.

Abbott is personally delivering the National Gallery of Australia's Rs 30 crore ($5 million) Dancing Shiva or Nataraja Ardand and the Art Gallery of New South Wales's Rs 2 crore ($300,000) Ardhanarishvara to Modi as a "gesture of good will" at a state reception at the Rashtrapati Bhawan in the evening. Both priceless objects were stolen from temples in India and later sold to the museums by Manhattan dealer Subhash Kapoor, who, his gallery manager has admitted, created falsified ownership documents to hide their illicit origins.

The Australian returns mark the first major repatriations in the Kapoor case, but are unlikely to be the last. Dozens more Kapoor objects acquired by the Australian museums were sold with false ownership histories similar to those used with the returned objects. Several will likely play a prominent role in Kapoor's criminal trial in Chennai, India, which has been on hold pending the return of the NGA's looted Shiva says an exclusive website for the Hunt for Looted Antiquities in the World's Museums 'Chasing Aphrodite'.

The Tamil Nadu Police had produced evidence to establish that the idol was stolen from a temple at Sripuranthan in Tamil Nadu. They had arrested Kapoor for his alleged involvement in the theft. He is now lodged in the Chennai prison and is facing trial.

Meanwhile, Kapoor's international network of looters and smugglers is still being mapped by authorities in the United States, who have already seized over Rs 600 crore ($100 million) in art from the dealer's Manhattan gallery and storage facilities.

Federal investigators in the United States are methodically working through mountains of evidence seized from Kapoor, probing his ties to a number of American and foreign museums that did business with the dealer. Indian authorities, meanwhile, are considering a broader campaign to reclaim stolen antiquities from foreign institutions.

Over the past two years, we've traced hundreds of suspect Kapoor objects to museums around the world. To date, the Kapoor case has received the most attention in Australia, whose National Gallery for months stonewalled press and government inquiries and dismissed mounting evidence before agreeing to take the stolen idol off display. The Art Gallery of New South Wales took a slightly more proactive approach, releasing the ownership history that Kapoor supplied for its sculpture of Ardhanarishvara (left.) Soon after, Indian art blogger Vijay Kumar identified the temple from which the sculpture was stolen.

The idols have been in the Australian government's possession for months, but their fate remained unclear until today. The According to The Australian, Abbott decided during a July dinner with George Brandis, Australia's Attorney General and Arts Minister, to present the idols to Modi during his two-day state visit to India. "Brandis told him the issue was a potential problem in the relationship between the nation­s and Mr Abbott said returning the statues would be an important statement of goodwill towards the Indian Prime Minister, elected to office in May," the newspaper reported.

Underscoring the diplomatic importance of the returns, Abbott reportedly wanted to have his presidential plane transport the objects directly but they were too heavy and were dispatched on Wednesday by jumbo jet instead.

Meanwhile, the National Gallery officials who played a key role in acquiring the Shiva - despite the warnings of their own attorney - are quietly exiting the scene. Curator Robyn Maxwell, who handled the negotiations with Kapoor, retired quietly last month, the Australian reported. Director Ronald Radford will retire this month, his legacy tarnished by his mishandling of the case. The Art Gallery NSW's Michael Brand, who has taken a more open approach to looting investigations in Australia and previously at the Getty, has been mentioned as a possible successor.
IBN Live. 2014. “Australia returns two stolen ancient, priceless idols to India”. IBN Live. Posted: Available online:

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Official: Wreck off Haiti likely not Columbus ship

A shipwreck off the north coast of Haiti probably isn't a lost flagship of Christopher Columbus as a U.S. explorer has claimed, the country's culture minister says.

An analysis of the wreckage by a team of experts from UNESCO is expected within days but Culture Minister Monique Rocourt said the evidence she has seen and heard so far indicates that the wreckage is not the Santa Maria, which struck a reef and foundered in December 1492.

Rocourt, who met this week with members of a team from Spain seeking permission to search for the Santa Maria, said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press that some experts believe the wreckage identified as the ship is in the wrong place and not old enough to be the Santa Maria.

"We are still awaiting the final report, but so far what we have seen ... tends to lead us to think it is a later ship," she said of the wreckage found by Barry Clifford in about 15 feet of water near the northern city of Cap-Haitien. She said the wreckage identified by the U.S. explorer with great fanfare in May appeared to be from a 17th or 18th century ship.

Clifford, known for discovering a pirate ship off Cape Cod in 1984, stands by his belief that he found what's left of the Santa Maria. He said in phone interview that he has heard the UNESCO report raises doubts about the claim but said the organization's team of experts never consulted with him and did not even request his surveys and photos from the dive site. "I think it's going to be highly, highly prejudiced," he said.

Finding the Santa Maria would be a major archaeological feat if confirmed. Experts have urged caution about making any abrupt claims because of the difficulty in identifying the remains of a wooden ship after more than 500 years in a region littered with wrecks.

Columbus' ship struck a reef or a sand bank in the middle of the night and was abandoned on Christmas Day of 1492. Archaeologists and historians say the vessel was evacuated and about two dozen crew members were left behind in a fort built with the wood from the ship and christened "Navidad."

When Columbus returned a year later, the men had been killed or had vanished and the settlement was burned to the ground The location of Navidad is at the heart of the search for the Santa Maria. Clifford said he searched in an area where the shipwreck should be in relation to the settlement, based on the diaries of Columbus. At precisely that spot, the explorer and his son in 2003 found a type of cannon known as a lombard used on 15th century Spanish ships along with ballast stones and other evidence.

When they returned this year, the cannon had apparently been looted but they have photos of it and he said the overall case is "overwhelming" that this is the Santa Maria. "It's so obvious it just screams at you."

The researchers from Spain, however, believe that the coastline in that area has expanded as a result of deposits of sand from nearby rivers and that the likely resting place of the Santa Maria is now on land, according to a report they provided to the Haitian government. Rocourt says the Spanish team is seeking permission to excavate along the shore, a proposal she welcomes.

"We are open to suggestions on where to find that famous ship. It is quite an enigma," she said.
Luxama, Pierre-Richard. 2014. “Official: Wreck off Haiti likely not Columbus ship”. Posted: September 26, 2014. Available online:

Archaeological Dig Near Quinhagak Provides a Look Into Ancient Yup’ik Culture

At the site of an ancient village near Quinhagak, archaeologists race against erosion to uncover Yup’ik artifacts. What they find not only provides a look into the daily lives of Yup’ik ancestors, but also sheds light on a brutal period in the region’s history.

A cold breeze from the Bering Sea sweeps clouds across a tundra hill, upon which sits the ancient village of Araliq. Students and archaeologists are carefully scraping away layers of soil when something catches the attention of the crew.

The abandoned village of Araliq is about 5 miles south of Quinhagak, home of Warren Jones, President of Qanirtuuq Incorporated, the tribal corporation. There was a sense of urgency in 2009, Jones explains, when people first noticed erosion along the shoreline was exposing artifacts. Afraid that the site and its treasures would be lost for good, Jones contacted the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. 5 years later, he says the artifacts are bringing elders stories to life.

“It’s like the elders are saying, in their own way, ‘we told you so.’ Now all the little stories are coming alive,” says Jones.

Today there’s a show and tell of some items excavated from the site at a community building. Quinhagak elder John ‘Aatassuk’ Fox says this about a miniature carving of a human-like face.

“That was made by a shaman. It’s not that way for no reason,” says Fox.

Other elders agree that it might be the case. On display are many variations of household items, tools and jewelry. One item that stands out is a labret, a piece of carved wood or stone that Yup’ik people once wore by inserting them into piercings – men wore two, one along each jawbone while women wore one over their chin.

Other discoveries point to a violent end for the village. Weapons were also found at the site along with a layer of ash, and skeletal remains of humans who seemed to have died in an attack. Rick Knecht is the lead archaeologist on the project. He says the site holds evidence of the warring period known in Yup’ik folklore as ‘the bow and arrow wars.’

“There is a piece of armor that’s derived from Asian samurai armor where there’s these overlapping plates, except its made of antler sewn together. And here’s some more evidence of the ‘bow and arrow wars,’ this is one of the burned arrow points that we found in the ruins of the house. It was fired at somebody in anger. Roof sods and stuff absolutely riddled with those kinds of points. Seventy-five percent of the all the arrow points in that house were found in that upper layer,” says Knecht.

Archeologist say it’s the first tangible evidence of the ‘bow and arrow wars’ or ‘anguyagpallratni,’ as the period is called in Yup’ik. Stories say Araliq residents were massacred in a ferocious attack by the old village of Qinaq, and the village was burned and renamed Araliq. Which means ‘lots of ash’ due to the amount of ash, or ‘araq’ in Yup’ik, which was present on site after the attack. While it’s clear that Araliq’s residents experienced war, archaeologists also discovered signs of everyday life. Ann Riordan was there on behalf of the Calista Elders Council. One of the biggest things that struck her is how similar, yet different, some of the artifacts are to modern tools and crafts used by Yup’ik people today.

“There was an ul’uaq with a little indentation in it, but if you hold it, your thumb just fits in it beautifully. I’ve never seen one like it and it’s made out of stone and wood,” says Riordan.

With climate change causing erosion across much of the Yukon Kuskokwim Delta, Riordan says other communities could carry out similar projects, but the clock is ticking.

“There’s just never been anything this big in our area, and there’s lots and lots of old sites, many other old sites that are being washed away. Many more communities can have this experience,” says Riordan.

Back at the dig site, University of Oregon graduate student Anna Sloan uncovers what instantly has everyone at the dig site smitten.

It’s an ul’uaq, a woman’s cutting knife, with an ivory handle, beautifully carved in the likeness of a mythical sea monster known as the ‘Palrayak.’ It will travel to Scotland for study and preservation before being returned. Tribal leaders say they will eventually display it either in Bethel or Quinhagak for future generations.
Enoch, Charles. 2014. “Archaeological Dig Near Quinhagak Provides a Look Into Ancient Yup’ik Culture”. Alaska Public Media. Posted: September 4, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Jack the Ripper unmasked: How amateur sleuth used DNA breakthrough to identify Britain's most notorious criminal 126 years after string of terrible murders

It is the greatest murder mystery of all time, a puzzle that has perplexed criminologists for more than a century and spawned books, films and myriad theories ranging from the plausible to the utterly bizarre.

But now, thanks to modern forensic science, The Mail on Sunday can exclusively reveal the true identity of Jack the Ripper, the serial killer responsible for  at least five grisly murders in Whitechapel in East London during the autumn of 1888.

DNA evidence has now  shown beyond reasonable doubt which one of six key suspects commonly cited in connection with the Ripper’s reign of terror was the actual killer – and we reveal his identity.

A shawl found by the body of Catherine Eddowes, one of the Ripper’s victims, has been analysed and found to contain DNA from her blood as well as DNA from the killer.

The landmark discovery was made after businessman Russell Edwards, 48, bought the shawl at auction and enlisted the help of Dr Jari Louhelainen, a world-renowned expert in analysing genetic evidence from historical crime scenes.

Using cutting-edge techniques, Dr Louhelainen was able to extract 126-year-old DNA from the material and compare it to DNA from descendants of Eddowes and the suspect, with both proving a perfect match.

The revelation puts an end to the fevered speculation over the Ripper’s identity which has lasted since his murderous rampage in the most impoverished and dangerous streets of London.

In the intervening century, a Jack the Ripper industry has grown up, prompting a dizzying array of more than 100 suspects, including Queen Victoria’s grandson – Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence – the post-Impressionist painter Walter Sickert, and the former Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone.

It was March 2007, in an  auction house in Bury St Edmunds, that I first saw the blood-soaked shawl. It was  in two surprisingly large  sections – the first measuring 73.5in by 25.5in, the second 24in by 19in – and, despite its stains, far prettier than any artefact connected to Jack the Ripper might be expected to be. It was mostly blue and dark brown, with a delicate  pattern of Michaelmas daisies – red, ochre and gold – at either end.

It was said to have been found next to the body of one of the Ripper’s victims, Catherine Eddowes, and soaked in her blood. There was no evidence for its provenance, although after the auction I obtained a letter from its previous owner who claimed his ancestor had been a police officer present at the murder scene and had taken it from there.

Yet I knew I wanted to buy the shawl and was prepared to pay a great deal of money for it. I hoped somehow to prove that it was genuine. Beyond that, I hadn’t considered the possibilities. I certainly had no idea that this flimsy, badly stained, and incomplete piece of material would lead to the solution to the most famous murder mystery of all time: the identification of Jack the Ripper.

When my involvement in the 126-year-old case began, I was just another armchair detective, interested enough to conduct my own extensive research after watching the Johnny Depp film From Hell in 2001. It piqued my curiosity about the 1888 killings when five – possibly more – prostitutes were butchered in London’s East End.

Despite massive efforts by the police, the perpetrator evaded capture, spawning the mystery which has fuelled countless books, films, TV programmes and tours of Whitechapel. Theories about his identity have been virtually limitless, with everyone from Prince Albert Victor, the Duke of Clarence, to Lewis Carroll being named as possible suspects. As time has passed, the name Jack the Ripper has become synonymous with the devil himself; his crimes setting the gruesome standard against which other horrific murders are judged.

I joined the armies of those fascinated by the mystery and researching the Ripper became a hobby. I visited the National Archives in Kew to view as much of the original paperwork as still exists, noting how many of the authors of books speculating about the Ripper had not bothered to do this. I was convinced that there must be something, somewhere that had been missed. By 2007, I felt I had exhausted all avenues until I read a newspaper article about the sale of a shawl connected to the Ripper case. Its owner, David Melville-Hayes, believed it had been in his family’s possession since the murder of Catherine Eddowes, when his ancestor, Acting Sergeant Amos Simpson, asked his superiors if he could take it home to give to his wife, a dressmaker.

Incredibly, it was stowed without ever being washed, and was handed down from David’s great-grandmother, Mary Simpson, to his grandmother, Eliza Smith, and then his mother, Eliza Mills, later Hayes.

In 1991, David gave it to Scotland Yard’s Crime Museum, where it was placed in storage rather than on display because of the lack of proof of its provenance. In 2001, David reclaimed it, and it was exhibited at the annual Jack the Ripper conference. One forensic test was carried out on it for a Channel 5 documentary in 2006, using a simple cotton swab from a randomly chosen part of the shawl, but it was inconclusive.

Most Ripper experts dismissed it when it came up for auction, but I believed I had hit on something no one else had noticed which linked it to the Ripper. The shawl is patterned with Michaelmas daisies. Today the Christian feast of Michaelmas is archaic, but in Victorian times it was familiar as a quarter day, when rents and debts were due.

I discovered there were two dates for it: one, September 29, in the Western Christian church and the other, November 8, in the Eastern Orthodox church. With a jolt, I realised the two dates coincided precisely with the nights of the last two murder dates. September 29 was the night on which Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes were killed, and November 8 was the night of the final, most horrific of the murders, that of Mary Jane Kelly.

I reasoned that it made no sense for Eddowes to have owned the expensive shawl herself; this was a woman so poor she had pawned her shoes the day before her murder. But could the Ripper have brought the shawl with him and left it as an obscure clue about when he was planning to strike next? It was just a hunch, and far from proof of anything, but it set me off on my journey.

Before buying it, I spoke to Alan McCormack, the officer in charge of the Crime Museum, also known as the Black Museum. He told me the police had always believed they knew the identity of the Ripper. Chief Inspector Donald Swanson, the officer in charge of the investigation, had named him in his notes: Aaron Kosminski, a Polish Jew who had fled to London with his family, escaping the Russian pogroms, in the early 1880s.

Kosminski has always been one of the three most credible suspects. He is often described as having been a hairdresser in Whitechapel, the occupation written on his admission papers to the workhouse in 1890. What is certain is he was seriously mentally ill, probably a paranoid schizophrenic who suffered auditory hallucinations and described as a misogynist prone to ‘self-abuse’ – a euphemism for masturbation.

McCormack said police did not have enough evidence to convict Kosminski, despite identification by a witness, but kept him under 24-hour surveillance until he was committed to mental asylums for the rest of his life. I became convinced Kosminski was our man, and I was excited at the prospect of proving it. I felt sure that modern science would be able to produce real evidence from the stains on the shawl. After  a few false starts, I found a scientist I hoped could help.

Dr Jari Louhelainen is a leading expert in genetic evidence from historical crime scenes, combining his day job as senior lecturer in molecular biology at Liverpool John Moores University with working on cold cases for Interpol and other projects. He agreed to conduct tests on the shawl in his spare time.

The tests began in 2011, when Jari used special photographic analysis to establish what the stains were.

Using an infrared camera, he was able to tell me the dark stains were not just blood, but consistent with arterial blood spatter caused by slashing – exactly the grim death Catherine Eddowes had met.

But the next revelation was the most heart-stopping. Under UV photography, a set of fluorescent stains showed up which Jari said had the characteristics of semen. I’d never expected to find evidence of the Ripper himself, so this was thrilling, although Jari cautioned me that more testing was required before any conclusions could be drawn.

He also found evidence of split body parts during the frenzied attack. One of Eddowes’ kidneys was removed by her murderer, and later in his research Jari managed to identify the presence of what he believed to be a kidney cell.

It was impossible to extract DNA from the stains on the shawl using the method employed in current cases, in which swabs are taken. The samples were just too old.

Instead, he used a method he called ‘vacuuming’, using a pipette filled with a special ‘buffering’ liquid that removed the genetic material in the cloth without damaging it.

As a non-scientist, I found myself in a new world as Jari warned that it would also be impossible to use genomic DNA, which is used in fresh cases and contains a human’s entire genetic data, because over time it would have become fragmented.

But he explained it would be possible to use mitochondrial DNA instead. It is passed down exclusively through the female line, is much more abundant than genomic DNA, and survives far better.

This meant that in order to give us something to test against, I had to trace a direct descendant through the female line of Catherine Eddowes. Luckily, a woman named Karen Miller, the three-times great-granddaughter of Eddowes, had featured in a documentary about the Ripper’s victims, and agreed to provide a sample of her DNA.

Jari managed to get six complete DNA profiles from the shawl, and when he tested them against Karen’s they were a perfect match.

It was an amazing breakthrough. We now knew that the shawl was authentic, and was at the scene of the crime in September 1888, and had the victim’s blood on it. On its own, this made it the single most important artefact in Ripper history: nothing else has ever been linked scientifically to the scene of any of the crimes.

Months of research on the shawl, including analysing the dyes used, had proved that it was made in Eastern Europe in the early 19th Century. Now it was time to attempt to prove that it contained the killer’s DNA.

Jari used the same extraction method on the semen traces on the shawl, warning that the likelihood of sperm lasting all that time was very slim. He enlisted the help of Dr David Miller, a world expert on the subject, and in 2012 they made another incredible breakthrough when they found surviving cells. They were from the epithelium, a type of tissue which coats organs. In this case, it was likely to have come from the urethra during ejaculation.

Kosminski was 23 when the murders took place, and living with his two brothers and a sister in Greenfield Street, just 200 yards from where the third victim, Elizabeth Stride, was killed. As a key suspect, his life story has long been known, but I also researched his family. Eventually, we tracked down a young woman whose identity I am protecting – a British descendant of Kosminski’s sister, Matilda, who would share his mitochondrial DNA. She provided me with swabs from the inside of her mouth.

Amplifying and sequencing the DNA from the cells found on the shawl took months of painstaking, innovative work. By that point, my excitement had reached fever-pitch. And when the email finally arrived telling me Jari had found a perfect match, I was overwhelmed. Seven years after I bought the shawl, we had nailed Aaron Kosminski.

As a scientist, Jari is naturally  cautious, unwilling to let his imagination run away without testing every minute element, but even he declared the finding ‘one hell of a masterpiece’. I celebrated by visiting the East End, wandering the streets where Kosminski lived, worked and committed his despicable crimes, feeling a sense of euphoria but also disbelief that we had unmasked the Ripper.

Kosminski was not a member of the Royal Family, or an eminent  surgeon or politician. Serial killers rarely are. Instead, he was a pathetic creature, a lunatic who achieved sexual satisfaction from slashing women to death in the most brutal manner. He died in Leavesden  Asylum from gangrene at the age of 53, weighing just 7st.

No doubt a slew of books and films will now emerge to speculate on his personality and motivation. I have  no wish to do so. I wanted to provide real answers using scientific evidence, and I’m overwhelmed that 126 years on, I have solved the mystery
Edwards, Russell. 2014. “Jack the Ripper unmasked: How amateur sleuth used DNA breakthrough to identify Britain's most notorious criminal 126 years after string of terrible murders”. Daily Mail. Posted: September 6, 2014. Available online: