Sunday, November 30, 2014

Being Gullah or Geechee, Once Looked Down On, Now a Treasured Heritage

The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor links historic African-American communities in four southern coastal states.

Emory Campbell remembers growing up Gullah on Hilton Head Island, before the golf courses and the resorts. He remembers hunting in the forests and roaming free in the marshes. He remembers an island where white people were a rarity and his family was part of a close-knit community of African-American farmers and fishers, of teachers and preachers. He remembers the curse and blessing found in the island's isolation, of having to take a ferry to get to the outside world. And he remembers the year it all changed: 1956, when the first bridge opened and the developers poured in. Campbell was 15. Today, the cemetery where his ancestors are buried is corralled by vacation homes set back from a fairway at the Harbour Town Golf Links. To visit, he needs to get waved through at a guardhouse.

"This part of the South used to be too hot for anybody to care about before mosquito control, before bridges and air conditioning," said Campbell. "We were the ones that endured, and ironically, it is us who is now suffering."

Most Threatened Places

The Gullahs or Geechees are descendants of slaves who lived and still live on the coastal islands and lowcountry along the coast of the southeastern United States, from the St. John's River in Florida to the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. (Gullah tends to be the preferred name in North and South Carolina, Geechee in Georgia and Florida.) Their communities dot the 400-mile strip, and they are slowly disappearing, casualties of progress and our love affair with coastal living.

In 2004, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Gullah/Geechee Coast on its list of most threatened places. "Unless something is done to halt the destruction," the trust said, "Gullah/Geechee culture will be relegated to museums and history books, and our nation's unique cultural mosaic will lose one of its richest and most colorful pieces." (Read "Lowcountry Legacy" in the November issue of National Geographic magazine.)

Congress created the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission in 2006, and the agency published its first management plan in 2013. With limited funds and authority, it is working at the grassroots level across the region. It has teamed up with transportation departments in the four states to place road signs informing motorists when they are in the corridor. And it's also getting involved with public policy. You can see the commission's efforts in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, which lies just across the Cooper River from Charleston. The town is known for its sweetgrass basketmakers, who have sold their work from small stands along U.S. 17 for many years. Mount Pleasant's population is now about 75,000, up almost 60 percent since 2000.

When the highway was widened two years ago, the gravel shoulders were eliminated. The commission was one of several agencies that devised a plan to rebuild the basket stands, and in some cases move them to the entrances of shopping centers. It's an imperfect compromise that made the road safer while still allowing the artisans some access to customers.

"People are taking note of the Gullah community and not making decisions without including them," said Michael Allen, a community partnership specialist with the National Park Service at the Charles Pinckney National Historic Site, north of Sullivan's Island. He has worked closely on the planning and implementation of the heritage commission.

In addition to the road project, Mount Pleasant has embraced its basketmakers in other ways. Council member Thomasena Stokes-Marshall is the executive director of the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association. She said the town has set aside areas where the basketmakers can gather their raw materials, a task that had become more difficult as development placed more of the lowcountry off-limits.

Stokes-Marshall was born in Mount Pleasant and moved away as a child, but returned in 1993 to care for her aging mother. She then became immersed in politics and preserving what is left of the Gullah culture. "It's woven into the fabric of this community, and many people don't even realize it," she said.

Pressures Intensifying

The pressures on Gullah communities are intensifying, she said. The soaring value of coastal property drives up property taxes. Regulations designed to make homes more storm-safe increase the cost of building, making it difficult for people of modest means to build new homes on long-held property.

In addition, the land is often held communally by numerous family members. This diffuse ownership can lead to forced sales under what is called "Heirs' Property" law. Stokes-Marshall and others say that these laws allow developers to pit family members against each other and push short-term profits at the expense of long-term community stability. "All the white-owned tracts are gone," she said. "Now they're coming for the black landowners."

An environmental impact statement published in 2005 estimated that 200,000 people of Gullah and Geechee heritage live along the southeast coast. But these numbers don't tell the full story. Many people left the area to seek opportunity in other cities, taking their culture and cuisine with them.

"It is everywhere," said Jonathan Green, an internationally acclaimed artist who lives in Charleston and whose paintings celebrate the Gullah world. "This is the beautiful thing about the Gullah culture. It is a culture. So it becomes submerged in groups of people. You hear it in the language, the tone in which people speak, the dialect, the words they use, the cuisine they favor, the facial attitudes, the expression. So the culture is very much alive."

Green grew up in Gardens Corner, a small community near Beaufort, South Carolina. In recent years he has turned much of his attention to researching the role of rice in the region's history. It remains a staple of Gullah cuisine and was the crop that brought his ancestors here in bondage from the west coast of Africa. Their labor and knowledge of rice cultivation—everything from the sweetgrass baskets used to winnow the crop to the construction of the dikes and canals that managed the flow of water—helped create enormous wealth, and it's a contribution that has been long ignored.

Hiding in Plain Sight

You can still see the remains of a rice dike near Bill Wilder's house on James Island, which is across the Ashley River from downtown Charleston. Wilder lives in the Sol Legare community, which is set behind a supermarket along a marsh and an inlet.

A few hundred yards from his house is the Seashore Farmers' Lodge No. 767, which once served as a gathering place and provided assistance for families facing hardship. Built in 1915, it fell into disrepair but was saved and now is a small museum that tells part of the story of Sol Legare and how its residents found strength in their isolation.

Like many Gullah and Geechee communities, Sol Legare is hiding in plain sight. It's also aging, said Wilder, filled with retirees like himself who don't mind the slower pace. He is worried about the future, about a time when his generation is gone, when Sol Legare yields to high-end development and there's little left but memories.

Almost all of the people involved in the preservation efforts are middle-aged or older, and they recognize the need to bring younger people into the effort. I met Shirley Carter as she was cleaning the Sol Legare Community Center, a former school built in the 1940s. "[Young people] don't see it the way that we do, but when you explain to them the heritage, they appreciate it."

In the past, many Gullahs and Geechees were looked down upon. They spoke their own language, a Creole that had roots in both English and African words and sentence structure and a singsong cadence that is still heard today. But not everyone was proud to be Gullah, said Allen, and that creates a need to build trust across the corridor and be respectful of privacy while telling the larger story.

Since retiring in 2002 from the Penn Center, which was created in 1862 as a school for the Gullah Geechee on St. Helena Island and the other sea islands, Campbell has given tours of his Hilton Head. He takes visitors down Beach City Road, once the site of the Mitchelville community, created in 1862 as a town for freed slaves. It's gone now, but the town of Hilton Head and a local group have developed part of the area as a park, a place for recreation and paying tribute to the island's Gullah heritage.

As a former chair of the Gullah Geechee commission, Campbell is encouraged by what he sees, but he also understands the uphill nature of the struggle and the need to move quickly to preserve both places and a way of life. "Whatever happens," he said, "is going to require a lot of work, a lot of sweat, and a lot of cooperation."
Otterbourg, Ken. 2014. “Being Gullah or Geechee, Once Looked Down On, Now a Treasured Heritage”. National Geographic News. Posted: October 17, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

The map below is an interactive available at the World Atlas of Language Structures. It represents an extensive, but not quite comprehensive collection of world languages. Each dot represents one. White dots are languages that do not include gendered pronouns. No “he” or “she.” Just a gender neutral word that means person.

The colored dots refer to languages with gendered pronouns, but there are more than one kind, as indicated by the Values key. The number on the right indicates how many languages fit into each group. Notice that the majority of languages represented here (57 percent) do not have gendered pronouns.

The map at the site is interactive. Go there to click on those dots and explore.

Wade, Lisa. 2014. “The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns”. Pacific Standard Magazine. Posted: October 17, 2014. Available online:

Friday, November 28, 2014

Kennewick Man’s Injuries, Bones Reveal Ancient Secrets

The discovery of the ‘Kennewick Man’ has changed how scientists look at early man, says one of the researchers who is the lead investigator of the project during a presentation Thursday at Texas A&M University.

Doug Owsley, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, says the discovery of the skeletal remains of the Kennewick Man, found in 1996 on the banks of the Columbia River near Kennewick, Wash., is highly significant because “it is a very old skeleton and it is complete.

“He’s in many pieces, but he’s all there,” Owsley explains.

“It’s very rare that you find such an old skeleton that still has the bones with it, but that is the case with Kennewick Man.  He is a remarkable fellow and he is slowly revealing many secrets to us.” v Owlsey and co-author Richard Jantz of the University of Tennessee have written a detailed book about the project titled  Kennewick Man: The Scientific Investigation of an Ancient American Skeleton that has been published by the Texas A&M University  Press.

Because of legal battles with Native Americans in the Northwest, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other groups, it took almost 10 years before researchers could study Kennewick Man, Owsley points out.

The skeleton is one of the most complete and ancient ever found and tests have shown it to date to almost 8,000 years old.  A five-inch stone projectile was found imbedded in the man’s hip, and researchers believe it was a spear point used by hunters of that time.

“The injured area shows that a spear was probably thrown at him and the point remained in him,” Owsley notes.

“This had to have been a very painful injury.  His body sort of ‘walled off’ the area around the wound, and he kept on going.  He did not have time to let the wound heal like it should – he had to eat and to survive.  So walking around with this spear point in him must have been very painful.”

Tests show that Kennewick Man stood about 5-7 to 5-8 and weighed 161 pounds. “His right arm bone tells us he was a strong man, and he threw a spear,” Owsley says.

“He also had many other injuries. He had five fractured ribs, a shoulder injury and other ailments.  He had a hard life.” The researchers believe Kennewick Man was probably of Mongolian descent and he was a maritime hunter-gatherer.  Isotopes show that he ate a great deal of salmon and seals found in the area.

“He was a traveler, and we know he came from the North,” Owsley notes.

“It has been an honor to work on this skeleton.  A discovery like this is so rare that you have to take time to study and learn from it.  We are just now learning the secrets he has held for almost 8,000 years. We have so much more to learn about him – we have just scratched the surface.”
Randall, Keith. 2014. “Kennewick Man’s Injuries, Bones Reveal Ancient Secrets”. Tamu Times. Posted: October 16, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Ethnic Group in China That Doesn’t Have a Word for Father

In the Yunnan and Sichuan provinces of China lives a small ethnic group called the Mosuo. Among the Mosuo, romantic and family life are separated into different spheres by design. Children are usually raised in the home of their maternal grandmother with the help of their mother. She may maintain a long-term, monogamous romantic relationship with the father but, unlike in the West, this is considered separate from her role as a mother.

The role of the biological father is discretionary. There is no word in their language, in fact, for husband or father. A father is allowed, but not required to provide financial support and he is usually permitted to visit the mother and their child(ren) only at night. They call it “Axia” or “walking marriage.” The children’s primary male role models are usually their uncles, who remain under the authority of the children’s grandmother as they live under her roof.

From the Mosuo point of view, separating marriage from the raising of children ensures that the vagaries of romance do not disrupt the happiness and health of the child and its mother. Nor can the father wield power over the mother by threatening to withdraw from the marriage. Meanwhile, because the family of origin is never eclipsed by a procreative family, the Mosuo system reduces the likelihood that elders will be abandoned by their families when they need support in old age.

“Think about it,” writes an expert at Mosuo Project.

Divorce is a non-issue … there are no questions over child custody (the child belongs to the mother’s family), splitting of property (property is never shared), etc. If a parent dies, there is still a large extended family to provide care.

This way of organizing families is an excellent refutation of the hegemonic view that children need the biological father to live under their roof (and by implication, to be their patriarch). You can learn more about the Mosuo in the documentaries The Women’s Kingdom and The Mosuo Sisters.
Harrison, Jonathan. 2014. “The Ethnic Group in China That Doesn’t Have a Word for Father”. Pacific Standard Magazine. Posted: October 13, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Seven Accused African Witches Burned to Death

Seven people in the East African country of Tanzania were killed earlier this week following accusations of witchcraft.

According to a report in the “Mail and Guardian:”

“‘They were attacked and burnt to death by a mob of villagers who accused them of engaging in witchcraft,’ the police chief for the western Kigoma region, which borders Burundi, Jafari Mohamed, told Agence France-Presse… Among those arrested on suspicion of carrying out the killings was the local traditional healer, or witchdoctor.”

The victims, most of whom were elderly, were burned alive and in some cases hacked to death with machetes. Nearly two dozen people were arrested, and the fact that a witch doctor was among them is not unusual.

Throughout Africa belief in witches is common, and black magic is considered a normal part of everyday life. A 2010 poll of 18 countries in sub-Saharan Africa found that over half of the population believe in magic. Witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases, but also for placing, or removing, curses or bringing luck. It is not unusual for people to consult witch doctors seeking magical assistance when preparing for a job interview, starting a business or seeking a mate.

It’s not clear what sparked the attack, but often witchcraft accusations follow some unexplained misfortune such as an accident, a sudden sickness or a village drinking well drying up. If there is no obvious, immediate explanation, the event may be blamed on a suspected witch — usually women and the elderly. Other times the witchcraft accusations are used as a pretext to settle personal grudges or confiscate the victim’s property.

Witchcraft persecutions have been prevalent in East Africa and especially Tanzania. In May of this year an albino woman in a rural Tanzania was murdered for her body parts. Two witch doctors were arrested in connection with her death. Though she was not accused of witchcraft, she was killed for it. The belief and practice of using body parts for magical ritual or benefit is called muti.Muti murders are particularly brutal, with knives and machetes used to cut and hack off limbs, breasts and other body parts from their living victims.

Belief in, and persecution of, witches is universal and dates back millennia. Often all that is needed is a belief in magic, though sometimes witchcraft is prohibited by organized religion. The Christian bible, for example, explicitly calls for accused witches to be put to death per Exodus 22:18, which states, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (KJV). The passage seems crystal clear in its murderous command to kill witches — but there’s a problem.

In his book “The Witch-Hunt in Early Modern Europe,” professor Brian Levack of the University of Texas at Austin notes that “the original Hebrew word translated as ‘witch’ in this passage meant a poisoner or ‘someone who works in darkness and mutters things’ rather than a sorcerer who makes a pact with the Devil.” This misunderstood translation indirectly led to the persecutions, and in some cases deaths, of hundreds of thousands of people around the world because “the word was translated as ‘witch’ in all Western European languages and used by preachers and judges to sanction an uncompromising campaign against witches” in Europe between 1450 and 1750.

Though witch hunts were common in Europe hundreds of years ago, the practice still occurs in India, Africa and South America. According to records from India’s National Crime Records Bureau, over 2,000 people have been killed after being accused of witchcraft between 2000 and 2012. Belief in magic and witches may seem quaint or funny, especially around Halloween, but it can have very real consequences.
Radfor, Benjamin. 2014. “Seven Accused African Witches Burned to Death”. Discovery News. Posted: October 11, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Found: closest link to Eve, our universal ancestor

A man who died in 315 BC in southern Africa is the closest relative yet known to humanity’s common female ancestor – mitochondrial Eve

HE DIED later than Socrates and Aristotle, but a man who fished along the coast of southern Africa is the closest genetic match for our common female ancestor yet found.

If you trace back the DNA in the maternally inherited mitochondria within our cells, all humans have a theoretical common ancestor. This woman, known as "mitochondrial Eve", lived between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago in southern Africa. She was not the first human, but every other female lineage eventually had no female offspring, failing to pass on their mitochondrial DNA. As a result, all humans today can trace their mitochondrial DNA back to her.

Within her DNA, and that of her peers, existed almost all the genetic variation we see in contemporary humans. Since Eve's time, different populations of humans have drifted apart genetically, forming the distinct ethnic groups we see today.

Now a skeleton from around 315 BC, not long after the death of Alexander the Great, has been identified as a member of a previously unknown branch on the human family tree. It is the earliest group to diverge from all other modern humans ever identified (Genome Biology and Evolution, The man was 50 years old when he died, and is the first ancient human from sub-Saharan Africa – the cradle of humanity – to have had its DNA sequenced.

"He belongs to the earliest diverged lineage – the oldest we know of," saysVanessa Hayes of the Garvan Institute in Sydney, Australia, who led the work. She says his ancestors diverged from other humans roughly 150,000 years ago.

"This is a very exciting paper," says geneticist David Reich at Harvard University. "It is the first old ancient DNA ever to be convincingly extracted from an African context."

The man was found at St Helena Bay in South Africa in 2010 by archaeologist Andrew Smith at the University of Cape Town, and examined by anthropologist Alan Morris at the same university.

Morris discovered that the man was a marine forager. A bony growth in his ear canal – known as "surfers' ear" – revealed he spent a lot of his time in the cold waters of the South Atlantic Ocean, gathering food (see "A fisher's life").

The man was 1.5 metres tall and was buried in a grave with a large number of shells. That is unusual for African hunter-gatherers, who are not known to bury their dead, says Hayes.

By examining the similarities and differences between the man's mitochondrial genome and those of living Africans, Hayes confirmed that the man's group split from Eve's descendants earlier than the two oldest previously known groups, which have been found among living members of the click-speaking southern African peoples known as the Khoisan.

Old genes

"It is, so far, the oldest identified lineage," says Rebecca Cann of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, a geneticist who helped develop the work that led to the idea of mitochondrial Eve.

Although he lived more than 100,000 years after mitochondrial Eve, he provides the closest insight yet into the genetic make-up of the link between all living humans. The DNA he carries is genetically "older" than ours, says Hayes.

Because mitochondrial DNA is inherited only from the mother, geneticists use it to trace how much it has changed over the years and identify branches in human evolution and our spread around the globe. It was part of what convinced scientists that anatomically modern humans originated in Africa.

Even though the specimen is only 2330 years old, other human lineages that were around at this time had diverged more from mitochondrial Eve. Genomes from remains in Europe – even if chronologically much older – have been changed by several large selection events – genetic bottlenecks that wipe out huge amounts of genetic diversity and create new lineages.

The age of the remains suggests that the fisherman lived in the region that is now South Africa before any of the known human migrations back into that area, in particular before the crucial arrival of herding groups from further north some 500 years later.

"We know very little about the more than 100,000 years of history within the continent, despite it being the cradle of mankind," says Wolfgang Haak, a palaeobiologist from the University of Adelaide in Australia.

Haak says this man's mitochondrial genome, especially if we find more like it, will help scientists develop a map of how early modern humans moved around Africa. And sequencing his nuclear genome – the genetic information inherited from both parents – and that of other ancient specimens could give a more complex picture of the way groups mixed with one another.

Hayes is particularly keen to see how the genomes of the earliest African agriculturalists differ from those of hunter-gatherers. "The most significant thing that changed the face of the planet is conversion from hunter-gatherer to farmer," she says. "Where did we start, and how did that change our genome?" She says this genome can provide a reference to which the genomes of herders in the region can be compared.

Hayes is now producing a better map of where early humans moved, using genomes she has sequenced from living people in Africa belonging to early human lineages. Step-by-step, Hayes says, she is homing in on the root of humanity.
Slezak, Michael. 2014. “Found: closest link to Eve, our universal ancestor”. New Scientist. Posted: October 9, 2014. Available online:

Monday, November 24, 2014

Prehistoric Paintings in Indonesia May Be Oldest Cave Art Ever

Paintings of miniature buffalos, warty pigs and human hands covering the walls and ceilings of caves in Indonesia could be among the oldest examples of cave art in the world, a new study finds.

The paintings — some of which might be more than 40,000 years old — challenge Europe's standing as the birthplace of prehistoric art.

"It was previously thought that Western Europe was the centerpiece of a 'symbolic explosion' in early human artistic activity, such as cave painting and other forms of image making, including figurative art, around 40,000 years ago," said study leader Maxime Aubert, an archaeologist and geochemist at Australia's Griffith University. "However, our findings show that cave art was made at opposite ends of the Pleistocene Eurasian world at about the same time, suggesting these practices have deeper origins — perhaps in Africa before our species left this continent and spread across the globe." 

Sulawesi caves

The paintings were found in the karst caves of Sulawesi, an island just east of Borneo with four long peninsulas that radiate like flower petals. Archaeologists have known about the cave art for decades. They've also found shellfish, animal bones, pigment-stained stone tools and even ochre "crayons" inside these caverns.

The cave paintings were assumed to be prehistoric, but relatively "young," perhaps created by the region's first farmers a few thousand years ago or hunter-gatherers around 8,000 years ago at the earliest, Aubert told Live Science in an email. But scientists had never tried to date the artworks before.

Stylistically, some of the paintings resemble those found in Europe. There are hand stencils that would have been created as a person spit or sprayed red pigment over his or her hand to leave the outline of a handprint. These look quite similar to the hand stencils found in the El Castillo cave in Spain, estimated to be 37,300 years old. (At 40,800 years old, a red disk on the wall of El Castillo cave was proclaimed to be the oldest reliably dated wall painting ever in a 2012 study in the journal Science.)

As for the figurative paintings, artists in Europe and Southeast Asia apparently shared a favorite subject: wild animals. But while prehistoric paintings in places such as Chauvet Cave in France depict cave lions, horses and hyenas, the animals represented in Sulawesi include fruit-eating pig-deer called babirusas, Celebes warty pigs and midget buffalos also known as anoas.

Prehistoric 'popcorn'

Adam Brumm, an archaeologist at Australia's University of Wollongong, first noticed small cauliflowerlike knobs on some of the hand stencils while doing research in Sulawesi in 2011. These crusty bumps were actually calcite deposits known as coralloid speleothems or, more informally, "cave popcorn." The deposits contain tiny amounts of radioactive uranium, which decays to thorium over time. By measuring the ratio of uranium to thorium in the layers of cave popcorn, scientists can determine the minimum age of underlying artwork.

Aubert and his colleagues determined the age of 14 paintings inside seven caves. The artworks range in age from 17,400 years old to 39,900 years old, the study found. But since uranium dating of the cave popcorn layer that grew on top of the art only provides a minimum age, these paintings could be much older, the researchers said. The findings were published today (Oct. 8) in the journal Nature.

The oldest painting — a hand stencil — was discovered on a 13-foot-high (4 meters) ceiling in a cave known as Leang Timpuseng in Sulawesi's southwestern peninsula. The researchers say this is now the earliest known example of a hand stencil, and it also represents the earliest evidence for a human presence on Sulawesi.

In the same cave, a painting of a babirusa was found to be at least 35,400 years old. That means this pig-deer could be the oldest known figurative work of art in the world — older than the beasts that line the walls of Chauvet Cave.

Origins of art

The revelation that art was being made on opposite sides of the world during the Ice Age suggests that symbolic painting could have originated independently — or perhaps art-making originated much earlier, in Africa, where humans evolved before marching out to other continents about 100,000 years ago.

Benjamin Smith, a rock-art expert and a professor at the University of Western Australia who was not involved in the study, said it is "highly important, but not surprising, that we have finally found evidence that settlers in Southeast Asia had rock art as part of their cultural package some 40,000 years ago."

Archaeologists already had some clues that this "cultural package" predated the cathedrals of cave art in Europe. Ochre, a reddish natural pigment, has been found on human remains in burials in Israel dating back to 100,000 years ago, Smith said, and humans left decorated pieces of ochre and ostrich eggshell in caves in South Africa as early as 100,000 years ago.

But whether figurative art developed before the exodus from Africa or soon thereafter remains to be seen, Smith told Live Science.

"But what is clear is that those who continue to try to place Europe at the center of the human story hold an untenable position," Smith wrote in an email. He thinks scientists studying the origins of art and symbolic thought should instead shift their attention to Africa, Asia and Oceania.
Gannon, Megan. 2014. “Prehistoric Paintings in Indonesia May Be Oldest Cave Art Ever”. Live Science. Posted: October 8, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, November 23, 2014

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Cities touch you, each in their own special way. Walk its streets, and Seattle feels different than Berlin or Johannesburg or Tokyo. Each has its own fingerprint.

Still, those fingerprints have just four types, exemplified by Buenos Aires, Athens, New Orleans, and Mogadishu, argue researchers Rémi Louf and Marc Barthelemy.

Louf and Barthelemy trained in physics but have an ongoing interest in how one part of a city’s core infrastructure—its streets—evolves and how that evolution relates to, say, where people live in relation to work. It’s part of an emerging science of cities aimed at understanding how an urban environment’s physical, social, and economic networks evolve over time, though much of the current research is somewhat abstract. In a typical model, street networks are just that—abstract representations that could be Paris or a map of the brain. But real streets are grounded in real cities, which take on attributes like size and shape. How should those factors be taken into account? How could different street plans change the way cities work?

No one’s quite prepared to answer those questions yet, but Louf and Barthelemy decided to take a first step by at least categorizing what was out there in the maps of the 131 cities on six continents. Rather than study the street network itself, they considered the shapes and sizes of the blocks that streets form. Following academic geographers’ lead, they computed shape factors: the ratio of a block’s area to that of the smallest circle that could fit around it. Then, Louf and Barthelemy categorized cities based on their blocks’ distribution of size and shape.

The analysis revealed four main city fingerprints. The largest group, comprising 102 cities, were New Orleans-like cities with the largest city blocks in a wide range of shapes. Athens-like cities made up another 27 cities and contained generally smaller blocks—less than about 10,000 square meters, or, for a square block, about 300 feet on a side—but a wide variety of shapes. Only two cities remained: Buenos Aires, with medium-sized square and rectangular blocks, and Mogadishu, which features almost entirely small, square blocks.

Interestingly, every major city the team looked at in the United States and Europe fell into the NOLA category except Vancouver and Athens. Europe and the U.S. have their own particular subtypes, but a few U.S. cities, including Portland, Oregon, and Washington, D.C., fall more into the European mold.

Those sorts of differences, the authors suggest, could be used to better understand how cities are born and evolve. Uniform block sizes, such as those found in New York, “could be the result of planning” while a city like Paris reflects a continual process of building and rebuilding that produces a range of block shapes and sizes.
Collins, Nathan. 2014. “A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways”. Pacific Standard. Posted: October 13, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The overlooked history of African technology

In the border region where Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and South Africa meet, indigenous hunters have for centuries made and used an impressive array of tools. There is the bow, made from giant raisin trees and called the "vurha" or "uta" in the languages of two ethnic groups in the area, the chiShona and the xiTshangana. Local craftsmen make arrows ("matlhari" or "miseve"), knives ("mukwanga" or "banga"), and axes ("xihloka" or "demo"). Until the advent of colonial rule, villagers also dug pits lined with poison-tipped stakes ("goji" or "hunza"), where animals as big as elephants were captured.

"The hunt was a transient or mobile workspace where work was done on the move," says Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, an associate professor in MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society. "Boys were schooled in the arts of tracking, shooting, trapping, making weaponry, and using trees as assets for making poisons, medicines, food, and other purposes. The hunt was a professoriate of indigenous knowledge."

These hunts were also incorporated within a highly spiritualized understanding of forests, animal life, and human behavior, Mavhunga emphasizes. For instance, hunters would never orphan an antelope fawn, and strict local taboos limited elephant hunting to basic needs for meat, skin, and ivory. Chiefs and spirit mediums enforced these rules.

Indeed, the maTshangana calendar is based, in part, on the life cycles of animals: "Mpala," or November, is when antelopes give birth; "Nkokoni," or December, is when wildebeest are born and elephants mate. No hunting was allowed during these months.

"Centuries of acquired and received knowledge were available on the annual rates of increase, out of which sustainable yields were calculated," Mavhunga writes in a new book about technology, society, and nature in southern Africa.

In exploring the hunt as a mobile space for work and education, Mavhunga's book — "Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe," just published by MIT Press — is a call for a historical rethinking about the meaning, prevalence, and application of technological innovation in Africa.

"What I am challenging is the idea that technology can only come from outside Africa, from the laboratories and factories," Mavhunga says. "This general narrative of technology transfer — from the haves to the have-nots — is one I find troubling."

That isn't the only thing Mavhunga describes as troubling in his book. The colonial-era portioning of land into game reserves, as he makes clear, has forced indigenous people out of their native lands and criminalized traditional hunting — as "poaching" — while providing local residents no clear economic alternative. That policy has continued in the postcolonial era, to the continued detriment of locals, as Mavhunga emphasizes.

Ordinary people

Mavhunga grew up in rural Zimbabwe; his book involves archival and linguistic research, political analysis, and what he describes as "a wealth of childhood and adult experience" that included making some of the technologies he details.

The work also comes from the scholarly recognition that relatively few studies of African technology have been written from an African point of view. A more common perspective focuses on the Western technologies, such as guns and quinine, which helped enable colonial incursions on the continent.

"Western scholars talk about technology in the Roman Empire," Mavhunga says. "What if we were to do this for Africa? If we say that technology is something that comes prior to the colonial period, what does it do to the way we think about history?"

He adds: "What then happens to the idea and practice of technology when its itineraries are so thoroughly dominated by spirituality? What does it say about the meanings of technology within African societies, if one takes vaShona and maTshangana as an example?"

The deep experiential knowledge of the forests that Mavhunga explores in the book also applies to the tsetse fly, known for transmitting the African "sleeping sickness," or trypanosomiasis. The tsetse fly inhabits low-lying areas, so vaShona and maTshangana tended to develop agriculture in higher-altitude areas.

When the British forcibly occupied Zimbabwe starting in 1890, they had no technology to deal with the tsetse fly, and so deferred to local technological practices instead, such as concentrated human settlements and control of traffic to reduce the spread of trypanosomiasis; forest-clearance efforts that created buffer zones between infected and uninfected areas; and the elimination of wild animals in such areas.

To accomplish this last step, the British employed vaShona and msTshangana hunters, as Mavhunga's book explains. In so doing, Europe's colonizers were relying on the more effective technologies of the Africans, in contrast to the more widespread narrative of Western technological superiority.

"I've always been somebody who believes ordinary people have something up their sleeves," Mavhunga says. "They know things that we think they don't know."

Two critical debates

Ultimately, Mavhunga hopes to spur debate on both the trajectory of African technology and the basic policy questions surrounding game reserves. Postcolonial African governments, he believes, "need to initiate a serious discussion" about the realities of the game reserves and their consequences.

"A lot of people who fought for independence had been promised that they would reclaim these ancestral lands that were taken away from them by force of arms and arson," Mavhunga says. The essential issue, he adds, is "how to serve the people and save the animals" in these areas; understanding the traditional practices that let both thrive in the past is a necessary first step, in his view.

"Under colonialism, when the hunt was criminalized, all that knowledge was also criminalized," Mavhunga says. "And when you criminalize that practice, you destabilize the place where the knowledge existed."
EurekAlert. 2014. “The overlooked history of African technology”. EurekAlert. . Posted: October 6, 2014. Available online:

Friday, November 21, 2014

Wreck thought to be from Mongol invasion attempt found near Nagasaki

A wreck found off Takashima island here is likely part of a Mongol invasion fleet that came to grief in a typhoon more than 700 years ago.

The discovery was announced Oct. 2 by archeologists with the University of the Ryukyus and the Matsuura city board of education who are researching the Takashima Kozaki underwater historic site.

Numerous artifacts have been recovered from the seabed from wrecks of fleets dispatched in 1274 and 1281 to invade Japan. In both invasion attempts, battles were fought in northern Kyushu. The fleet of 4,400 vessels sent by Kublai Khan in 1281 was wrecked near Takashima island in a storm the Japanese dubbed "kamikaze" (divine wind) for ultimately saving their homeland from the Mongols.

The latest wreck, discovered using shipboard sonar, lies 14 meters below the surface about 1.7 kilometers east of another Mongolian warship that was discovered in 2011.

Nine sites of interest were detected and divers found timbers in some of the spots.

The wreck mainly comprises the port and starboard structures near the bow of the ship. Planks on the starboard side are at least 11 meters long.

Divers also found stone ballast, prompting researchers to speculate that the ship's keel lies underneath.

The wreck is in a better state of preservation than the one found in 2011. But experts are unable to conclusively determine its origin as no artifacts like Chinese porcelain have been recovered.

"We really hope it is a Mongol invasion ship," said Yoshifumi Ikeda, a professor of archaeology at the university who is leading the research effort. "We plan to clarify details like its structure, size and origin by excavating further. It's well preserved, so we expect it to carry a significant load of cargo like porcelains and weapons."

The team plans to excavate the shipwreck in fiscal 2015.
Ueda, Tasuku. 2014. “Wreck thought to be from Mongol invasion attempt found near Nagasaki”. The Asahi Shimbun. Posted: October 3, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Curiosity Prepares the Brain for Better Learning

Neuroimaging reveals how the brain’s reward and memory pathways prime inquiring minds for knowledge

Do we live in a holographic universe? How green is your coffee? And could drinking too much water actually kill you?

Before you click those links you might consider how your knowledge-hungry brain is preparing for the answers. A new study from the University of California, Davis, suggests that when our curiosity is piqued, changes in the brain ready us to learn not only about the subject at hand, but incidental information, too.

Neuroscientist Charan Ranganath and his fellow researchers asked 19 participants to review more than 100 questions, rating each in terms of how curious they were about the answer. Next, each subject revisited 112 of the questions—half of which strongly intrigued them whereas the rest they found uninteresting—while the researchers scanned their brain activity using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

During the scanning session participants would view a question then wait 14 seconds and view a photograph of a face totally unrelated to the trivia before seeing the answer. Afterward the researchers tested participants to see how well they could recall and retain both the trivia answers and the faces they had seen.

Ranganath and his colleagues discovered that greater interest in a question would predict not only better memory for the answer but also for the unrelated face that had preceded it. A follow-up test one day later found the same results—people could better remember a face if it had been preceded by an intriguing question. Somehow curiosity could prepare the brain for learning and long-term memory more broadly.

The findings are somewhat reminiscent of the work of U.C. Irvine neuroscientist James McGaugh, who has found that emotional arousal can bolster certain memories. But, as the researchers reveal in the October 2 Neuron, curiosity involves very different pathways.

To understand what exactly had occurred in the brain the researchers turned to their imaging data. They discovered that brain activity during the waiting period before an answer appeared could predict later memory performance. Several changes occurred during this time.

First, brain activity ramped up in two regions in the midbrain, the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens. These regions transmit the molecule dopamine, which helps regulate the sensation of pleasure and reward. This suggests that before the answer had appeared the brain’s eager interest was already engaging the reward system. “This anticipation was really important,” says Ranganath’s co-author, U.C. Davis cognitive neuroscientist Matthias Gruber. The more curious a subject was, the more his or her brain engaged this anticipatory network.

In addition, the researchers found that curious minds showed increased activity in the hippocampus, which is involved in the creation of memories. In fact, the degree to which the hippocampus and reward pathways interacted could predict an individual’s ability to remember the incidentally introduced faces. The brain’s reward system seemed to prepare the hippocampus for learning.

The implications are manifold. For one, Ranganath suspects the findings could help explain memory and learning deficits in people with conditions that involve low dopamine, such as Parkinson’s disease.

Piquing curiosity could also help educators, advertisers and storytellers find ways to help students or audiences better retain messages. “This research advances our understanding of the brain structures that are involved in learning processes,” says Goldsmiths, University of London psychologist Sophie von Stumm, unconnected to the study. She hopes other researchers will replicate the work with variations that can clarify the kinds of information curious people can retain and whether results differ for subjects who have broad ‘trait’ curiosity as opposed to a temporarily induced specific interest.

Ranganath’s findings also hint at the nature of curiosity itself. Neuroscientist Marieke Jepma at the University of Colorado Boulder, who also did not participate in this study, has previously found that curiosity can be an unpleasant experience, and the brain’s reward circuitry might not kick in until there is resolution. She suspects, however, that her findings and Ranganath’s results are two sides of the same coin. To explain this, she refers to the experience of reading a detective novel. “Being uncertain about the identity of the murderer may be a pleasant reward-anticipating feeling when you know this will be revealed,” she says. “But this will turn into frustration if the last chapter is missing.”

Ranganath agrees that the hunger for knowledge is not always an agreeable experience. “It’s like an itch that you have to scratch,” he says. “It’s not really pleasant.”
Yuhas, Daisy. 2014. “Curiosity Prepares the Brain for Better Learning”. Scientific American. Posted: October 2, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Quinhagak Residents Hopeful Hair Samples will Unlock More Mysteries About Ancestors

An archaeological dig near Quinhagak, in Southwest Alaska, contributed the largest set of genetic samples for a groundbreaking DNA study of Arctic indigenous people released this summer. The study answers longstanding questions about migrations of the ancient Alaska Native people, on the state’s west coast and the local people hope to learn even more about their own ancestors.

The project, called Nunalleq, meaning ‘old village’, is located five miles outside Quinhagak. Dr. Rick Knecht is an archaeologist with the University of Aberdeen in Scotland who manages the dig. He says permafrost at the ancient Yup’ik village of Araliq, preserved artifacts up to 700-years-old made of wood and leather that normally would have disintegrated. Knecht says that most sites in the lower 48 provide just ‘stones and bones’, but at the Araliq site they get: “Things like utensils that people used in their daily lives. We get bentwood bowls and scoops. We get ul’us with the handles still on them. We get grass baskets for example, complete grass baskets and woven mats. We’re getting things like weapons and kayak parts, masks and artwork, things that you normally just see in museums. And these all date from between about 1400 and 1600 AD,” said Knecht.

And hundreds of hair samples Knecht says, likely clippings from haircuts were also preserved at the site. Some of those clippings contributed to the study of indigenous Alaskans that was featured in the journal, Science, this summer.

“We contributed about 33 hair samples to the study and I think that’s more than any of the sites were able to produce. Just because of the extraordinary preservation here,” said Knecht.

There were 169 samples analyzed in the study. The study, led by a group of Danish researchers revealed that the modern Inuit people, including those in Alaska are descended from the Thule, who developed around 700-hundred years ago, replacing an earlier population, the Paleo-Eskimos. The genetic evidence shows there was very little interbreeding, and that the Thule are the ancestors of the Yup’ik and Inupiat people living on Alaska’s west coast today.

“We don’t know the origins of that, of what we call the Thule population or the Neo-Eskimos. But we do know that both in the archaeological evidence, both the artifacts and the genetics look very much alike, surprisingly so, on the two ends of the arctic, which is the largest indigenous territory of any group in the world,” said Knecht.

Knecht says the donation of the hair clippings from the Araliq site was the sole contribution for the study from Alaska.

Warren Jones is the President of the village corporation in Quinhagak, Qanirtuuq Inc. He says they agreed to work with the archaeologists because they want to learn more about the people who they believe may be their ancestors. “The archeologists know what they’re doing. And everything they dig out is going to be brought back to us. So it will be back here for our future, children, generations. Now our future kids, grandkids they’ll be able to see what our ancestors lived, how they lived, what they used, the tools they made. All the little stories are coming alive,” said Jones.

Jones says the corporation is interested in comparing the DNA of the ancient people of Araliq with the modern residents of Quinhagak.

“We might get to see who was related to the people of Araliq, that’s pretty cool,” said Jones.

Jones says the corporation in Quinhagak eventually wants to develop ecotourism around the archeological site, but rapid erosion at the site has made getting artifacts out a priority.'

Knecht says it requires a certain level of trust for Native people to allow genetic material to be released for studies, and the over the past five years of the project researchers from the University of Aberdeen and Native people in Quinhagak have built that trust.

The project is funded by Qanirtuuq Inc. and through a $1.8 million dollar grant from the UK-based Arts and Humanities Research Council.
Eaton, Daysha. 2014. “Quinhagak Residents Hopeful Hair Samples will Unlock More Mysteries About Ancestors”. KYUK. Posted: October 2, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Massive Study Shows How Languages Change

More than 100 years ago, the playwright Oscar Wilde had one of his British characters say that England and America "have everything in common nowadays except, of course, language.” It turns out, according to linguists, he was almost right. But lately, the two languages are getting closer.

Languages change over time -- some faster than others. Some reflect changes in the world around them, according to a new paper published by The Royal Society in London. There are universal and historical factors at work, and languages change at varying rates, the scientists found.

The researchers used the Google Books Ngram corpus to monitor word and phrase usage in the past five centuries in eight languages. They drew from 8 million books – roughly 6 percent of all the books ever published, according to Google's own estimates. The books were scanned into a database by Google.

While linguists have always known that the changes vary, this use of the gigantic Google database is by far the largest.

The researchers were an international group that ironically had its own language difficulties.

The lead author was Søren Wichmann, a Dane working at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. His coauthors were Valery Solovyev, a linguist at Kazan Federal University in the Republic of Tartarstan in Russia, and astrophysicist Vladimir Bochkarev, also at Kazan, who was interested in languages. The work was done at the Kazan linguistics lab.

Research was hampered by the fact Wichmann did not speak Russian, and Bochkarev didn’t speak English.

Wichmann’s wife translated part of the time. Otherwise they used Google’s translator, which was not always useful.

For this study, they delved into written languages, which are more conservative in their expressions, rather than tackle spoken languages for which there is no good record. They looked specifically at how frequently words were used. Each word form counted as one word; for instance "park" and "parked" were counted as two different words.

The process they used is called "glottochronology" by linguists.

Language Shaped by Culture

“One word which was earlier specialized might take on a broader meaning and can replace the word that had a broader meaning before,” Wichmann said.

Sometimes it is just a matter of fashion; sometimes it is outside events. For instance, the early English word for “dog” was “hound.” Now “hound" is a specific kind of dog. The same thing may be happening in reverse to the word “vodka,” which in some places is replacing “liquor.”

“Any major change in society will change the frequency of words,” Wichmann said.

Mostly, the researchers found, languages change at a similar rate but that rate usually is measured in terms of half a century unless something intervenes, like a war. When wars come, Wichmann said, changes in vocabulary came more rapidly as new words like “Nazis” came into the language and people start thinking about things they did not contemplate before hostilities, he said.

During the Victorian era, the height of the British Empire and a very stable time in Britain, the language was fairly steady. With the tumult and chaos of the 20th century, vocabulary changes came more rapidly.

From about 1850 on, British English and American English drifted apart. For the first half of the 19th century the Queen’s English and American English were the same except that the British English lagged behind about 20 years. New words came into the American English lexicon, but only appeared in Britain about 20 years later.

Then, the influence of the mass media began to bring the two languages together starting in 1950. Now, the two languages are far more similar than they were before, Wichmann said.

Challenges in Learning Languages

Ever wonder why some languages are harder for adults to learn than others? The researchers point out that languages contain what linguists call a “kernel lexicon,” meaning a list of words that constitute 75 percent of the written language. If you know those words, you can make out much of the literature. These also are the words least likely to change even as the language morphs.

The kernel lexicon for English is less than 2,400 words. If you know them you can read 75 percent of the text. The kernel lexicon for Russian is about 24,000 words. So, even though the whole of the English language has about 600,000 words and Russian only has about a sixth of that, without the crucial 21,000 kernel words, most Russian writing would be largely incomprehensible.

"The fact a given word might be used a lot in one period doesn't necessarily mean the word is new," said Brian Joseph, distinguished university professor of linguistics at the Ohio State University in Columbus. For instance, one word now trending in English is "cupcake."

Sometimes words combine, like "labradoodles," he said.

Definitions change too. Some words meant one thing to Shakespeare but mean something else to us, said David Lightfoot, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. "Scientist" is in the current lexicon but before the 19th century, they were called "natural philosophers."

Sometimes the change in wording tells us more than we think it would. In recent years, the use of the word “divorce” has become more frequent than “marry,” Wichmann said.

Perhaps more telling, “information” is replacing “wisdom.”
Shurkin, Joel N.2014. “Massive Study Shows How Languages Change”. Inside Science. Posted: September 30, 2014. Available online:

Monday, November 17, 2014

Improving babies' language skills before they're even old enough to speak

A Rutgers researcher focuses infants on noticing the sounds that are most important

In the first months of life, when babies begin to distinguish sounds that make up language from all the other sounds in the world, they can be trained to more effectively recognize which sounds "might" be language, accelerating the development of the brain maps which are critical to language acquisition and processing, according to new Rutgers research.

The study by April Benasich and colleagues of Rutgers University-Newark is published in the October 1 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. The researchers found that when 4-month-old babies learned to pay attention to increasingly complex non-language audio patterns and were rewarded for correctly shifting their eyes to a video reward when the sound changed slightly, their brain scans at 7 months old showed they were faster and more accurate at detecting other sounds important to language than babies who had not been exposed to the sound patterns.

"Young babies are constantly scanning the environment to identify sounds that might be language," says Benasich, who directs the Infancy Studies Laboratory at the University's Center for Molecular and Behavioral Neuroscience. "This is one of their key jobs -- as between 4 and 7 months of age they are setting up their pre-linguistic acoustic maps. We gently guided the babies' brains to focus on the sensory inputs which are most meaningful to the formation of these maps."

Acoustic maps are pools of interconnected brain cells that an infant brain constructs to allow it to decode language both quickly and automatically – and well-formed maps allow faster and more accurate processing of language, a function that is critical to optimal cognitive functioning. Benasich says babies of this particular age may be ideal for this kind of training.

"If you shape something while the baby is actually building it," she says, "it allows each infant to build the best possible auditory network for his or her particular brain. This provides a stronger foundation for any language (or languages) the infant will be learning. Compare the baby's reactions to language cues to an adult driving a car. You don't think about specifics like stepping on the gas or using the turn signal. You just perform them. We want the babies' recognition of any language-specific sounds they hear to be just that automatic."

Benasich says she was able to accelerate and optimize the construction of babies' acoustic maps, as compared to those of infants who either passively listened or received no training, by rewarding the babies with a brief colorful video when they responded to changes in the rapidly varying sound patterns. The sound changes could take just tens of milliseconds, and became more complex as the training progressed.

"While playing this fun game we can convey to the baby, 'Pay attention to this. This is important. Now pay attention to this. This is important,'" says Benasich, "This process helps the baby to focus tightly on sounds in the environment that 'may' have critical information about the language they are learning. Previous research has shown that accurate processing of these tens-of-milliseconds differences in infancy is highly predictive of the child's language skills at 3, 4 and 5 years."

The experiment has the potential to provide lasting benefits. The EEG (electroencephalogram) scans showed the babies' brains processed sound patterns with increasing efficiency at 7 months of age after six weekly training sessions. The research team will follow these infants through 18 months of age to see whether they retain and build upon these abilities with no further training. That outcome would suggest to Benasich that once the child's earliest acoustic maps are formed in the most optimal way, the benefits will endure.

Benasich says this training has the potential to advance the development of typically developing babies as well as children at higher risk for developmental language difficulties.

For parents who think this might turn their babies into geniuses, the answer is – not necessarily. Benasich compares the process of enhancing acoustic maps to some people's wishes to be taller. "There's a genetic range to how tall you become – perhaps you have the capacity to be 5'6" to 5'9,"' she explains. "If you get the right amounts and types of food, the right environment, the right exercise, you might get to 5'9" but you wouldn't be 6 feet. The same principle applies here."

Benasich says it's very likely that one day parents at home will be able to use an interactive toy-like device – now under development – to mirror what she accomplished in the baby lab and maximize their babies' potential. For the 8 to 15 percent of infants at highest risk for poor acoustic processing and subsequent delayed language, this baby-friendly behavioral intervention could have far-reaching implications and may offer the promise of improving or perhaps preventing language difficulties.
EurekAlert. 2014. “Improving babies' language skills before they're even old enough to speak”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 30, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Are the world's religions ready for ET?

How will we deal with it?

In 1930, Albert Einstein was asked for his opinion about the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe. "Other beings, perhaps, but not men," he answered. Then he was asked whether science and religion conflict. "Not really, though it depends, of course, on your religious views."

Over the past 10 years, astronomers' new ability to detect planets orbiting other stars has taken this question out of the realm of philosophy, as it was for Einstein, and transformed it into something that scientists might soon be able to answer.

Realization that the nature of the debate about life on other worlds is about to fundamentally change led Vanderbilt Professor of Astronomy David Weintraub to begin thinking seriously about the question of how people will react to the discovery of life on other planets. He realized, as Einstein had observed, that people's reactions will be heavily influenced by their religious beliefs. So he decided to find out what the world's major religions have to say about the matter. The result is a book titled "Religions and Extraterrestrial Life" (Springer International Publishing) published this month.

"When I did a library search, I found only half a dozen books and they were all written about the question of extraterrestrial life and Christianity, and mostly about Roman Catholicism, so I decided to take a broader look," the astronomer said. As a result, his book describes what religious leaders and theologians have to say about extraterrestrial life in more than two dozen major religions, including Judaism, Roman Catholicism, the Eastern Orthodox churches, the Church of England and the Anglican Communion, several mainline Protestant sects, the Southern Baptist Convention and other evangelical and fundamentalist Christian denominations, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Seventh Day Adventism and Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons), Islam and several major Asian religions including Hinduism, Buddhism and the Bahá'í Faith.

Discovery of Planets

The remarkable progress that astronomers have made at detecting exoplanets gives the issue of extraterrestrial life a new sense of immediacy. In 2000, astronomers had detected 50 planets orbiting other stars. Today, the number has grown to more than 1,000. If the rate of discovery keeps up its current pace, astronomers will have identified more than a million exoplanets by the year 2045.

"If even one exoplanet shows signs of biological activity – and those signs should not be hard to detect, if living things are present – than we will know Earth is not the only place in the universe where life exists," Weintraub points out. "Although it is impossible to prove a negative, if we have not found any signs of life after a million exoplanets have been studied, then we will know that life in the universe is, at best, exceedingly rare."

Public opinion polling indicates that about one fifth to one third of the American public believes that extraterrestrials exist, Weintraub reports. However, this varies considerably with religious affiliation.

Belief in Extraterrestrials Varies by Religion

  • 55 percent of Atheists
  • 44 percent of Muslims
  • 37 percent of Jews
  • 36 percent of Hindus
  • 32 percent of Christians
Of the Christians, more than one third of the Eastern Orthodox faithful (41 percent), Roman Catholics (37 percent), Methodists (37 percent), and Lutherans (35 percent) professed belief in extraterrestrial life. Only the Baptists (29 percent) fell below the one-third threshold.

Asian religions would have the least difficulty in accepting the discovery of extraterrestrial life, Weintraub concluded. Some Hindu thinkers have speculated that humans may be reincarnated as aliens, and vice versa, while Buddhist cosmology includes thousands of inhabited worlds.

Weintraub quotes passages in the Qur' an that appear to support the idea that spiritual beings exist on other planets, but notes that these beings may not practice Islam as it is practiced on Earth. "Islam, like other faiths, has fundamentalist and conservative traditions. All Muslims, however, likely would agree that the prophetically revealed religion of Islam is a set of practices designed only for humans on earth," Weintraub wrote.

Weintraub found very little in Judaic scriptures or rabbinical writings that bear on the question. The few Talmudic and Kabbalistic commentaries on the subject do assert that space is infinite and contains a potentially infinite number of worlds and that nothing can deny the existence of extraterrestrial life. At the same time, Jews don't believe the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would have much effect on them. He quotes a Jewish anthropologist and scholar who has addressed this issue and concluded that the relationship beween Jews and God would not be affected in the slightest by "the existence of other life forms, newly discovered scientific realities or pan-human behavioural changes."

Christian Debate

Among Christian religions, the Roman Catholics have done the most thinking about the possibility of life on other worlds, the astronomer discovered. In fact, they have had an on-again, off-again theological debate that has gone on for a thousand years. The crux of the matter is original sin. If intelligent aliens are not descended from Adam and Eve, do they suffer from original sin? Do they need to be saved? If they do, then did Christ visit them and was he crucified and resurrected on other planets? "From a Roman Catholic perspective, if sentient extraterrestrials exist some but perhaps not all such species may suffer original sin and will require redemption," Weintraub summarizes.

The inherent diversity of Protestant denominations, where individuals are encouraged to interpret scripture independently, has led to many conflicting approaches to the question of extraterrestrial intelligence. Weintraub determined that the views of Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich appear to represent a viable consensus. Tillich argued that the need for salvation is universal and the "saving power" of God must be everywhere. At the same time, he maintained that God's plan for human life need not be the same as his plan for aliens.

Evangelical and fundamental Christians are most likely to have difficulty accepting the discovery of extraterrestrial life, the astronomer's research indicates. "...most evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders argue quite forcefully that the Bible makes clear that extraterrestrial life does not exist. From this perspective, the only living, God-worshipping beings in the entire universe are humans, created by God, who live on Earth." Southern Baptist evangelist Billy Graham was a prominent exception who stated that he firmly believes "there are intelligent beings like us far away in space who worship God."

Weintraub also identified two religions – Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism – whose theology embraces extraterrestrials. In Mormonism, God helps exalt lesser souls so they can achieve immortality and live as gods on other worlds. And, Ellen White, who co-founded Seventh-Day Adventism, wrote that Got had given her a view of other worlds where the people are "noble, majestic and lovely" because they live in strict obedience to God's commandments.

Are We Ready?

In answer to the question "Are we ready?" Weintraub concludes, "While some of us claim to be ready, a great many of us probably are not... very few among us have spent much time thinking hard about what actual knowledge about extraterrestrial life, whether viruses or single-celled creatures or bipeds piloting intergalactic spaceships, might mean for our personal beliefs [and] our relationships with the divine."
EurekAlert. 2014. “Are the world's religions ready for ET?”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 30, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The cultural side of science communication

New research explores how culture affects our conceptions of nature

Do we think of nature as something that we enjoy when we visit a national park and something we need to "preserve?" Or do we think of ourselves as a part of nature? A bird's nest is a part of nature, but what about a house?

The answers to these questions reflect different cultural orientations. They are also reflected in our actions, our speech and in cultural artifacts.

A new Northwestern University study, in partnership with the University of Washington, the American Indian Center of Chicago and the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin, focuses on science communication and how that discipline necessarily involves language and other media-related artifacts such as illustrations. The challenge is to identify effective ways of communicating information to culturally diverse groups in a way that avoids cultural polarization, say the authors.

"We suggest that trying to present science in a culturally neutral way is like trying to paint a picture without taking a perspective," said Douglas Medin, lead author of the study and professor of psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern.

This research builds on the broader research on cultural differences in the understanding of and engagement with science.

"We argue that science communication -- for example, words, photographs and illustrations -- necessarily makes use of artifacts, both physical and conceptual, and these artifacts commonly reflect the cultural orientations and assumptions of their creators," write the authors.

"These cultural artifacts both reflect and reinforce ways of seeing the world and are correlated with cultural differences in ways of thinking about nature. Therefore, science communication must pay attention to culture and the corresponding different ways of looking at the world."

Medin said their previous work reveals that Native Americans traditionally see themselves as a part of nature and tend to focus on ecological relationships. In contrast, European-Americans tend to see humans as apart from nature and focus more on taxonomic relationships.

"We show that these cultural differences are also reflected in media, such as children's picture books," said Medin, who co-authored the study with Megan Bang of the University of Washington. "Books authored and illustrated by Native Americans are more likely to have illustrations of scenes that are close-up, and the text is more likely to mention the plants, trees and other geographic features and relationships that are present compared with popular children's books not done by Native Americans.

"The European-American cultural assumption that humans are not part of ecosystems is readily apparent in illustrations," he said.

The authors went to Google images and entered "ecosystems," and 98 percent of the images did not have humans present. A fair number of the remaining 2 percent had children outside the ecosystem, observing it through a magnifying glass and saying, "I spy an ecosystem."

"These results suggest that formal and informal science communications are not culturally neutral but rather embody particular cultural assumptions that exclude people from nature," Medin said.

Medin and his research team have developed a series of "urban ecology" programs at the American Indian Center of Chicago, and these programs suggest that children can learn about the rest of nature in urban settings and come to see humans as active players in the world ecosystems.
EurekAlert. 2014. “The cultural side of science communication”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 30, 2014. Available online:

Friday, November 14, 2014

Unique archaeological discovery in Supraśl

A place where people performed rituals more than four thousand years ago has been discovered by archaeologists in Supraśl (Podlaskie). The closest analogies to discovered fragments of ceramic vessels originate from the Iberian Peninsula, told PAP Dariusz Manasterski, one of the leaders of the excavation.

The discovery was made on a sands and gravels elevation covered with oaks, formed as a result of a moving glacier. Dr. Włodzimierz Kwiatkowski of the Knyszyń Forest Landscape Park suggested that in terms of the environment and vegetation, the area looked similar at the time of the creation of the ritual place.

At the highest point of the elevation, archaeologists stumbled upon fragments of cups and bowls, belonging to the Bell Beaker community, named after the culture's distinctive pottery drinking vessels that resemble inverted bells. This culture inhabited large areas of Europe and even North Africa, but can not be identified with one particular people. Vessels discovered in Supraśl were decorated with incised ornament on both the outer and inner surface.  

According to the researchers, the vessels were associated with libation rituals with alcohol beverages. The drinks were ceremonial or prestige, and the vessels from which they were consumed - presentable.  

Fragments of decorated vessels were surrounded by a small cluster of burned animal or human bones, where the archaeologists also found a fragment of amber bead. Another object made of this material was placed near the cluster, next to burned bones.  

"Amber was an exotic and prestigious material for the Bell Beaker communities, and never before found in Podlasie. Discovered ornaments are among the oldest objects of this type in the region" - said Dr. Manasterski.  

In the place of rituals, archaeologists also found items made of stone and flint. The first category included an arrow straightener, an adze, fragment of curved blade (so-called Krummesser) and fragments of a dagger. Flint objects included arrowheads, various inserts for tools with a complex blade design and knives.  

"All the stone artefacts are perfectly made and alien to the local production. These objects rare in this part of Europe, and very prestigious" - said Dr. Manasterski.  

Some of the items were damaged or unfinished, which according to the archaeologists may be associated with a symbolic meaning for people who offered them.  

"The entire ritual deposit is an exceptional find in the central Europe. It contains one of the richest collections of objects usually found in the elite skeletal graves in Western Europe from this period" - said the researcher.  

Archaeologists believe that the representative bell beaker fragments, ornaments made of exotic material and parts of prestigious arms indicate the presence near Supraśl of privileged persons with a different, higher social status, ancestors of the aristocracy. However, so far have not been able to unambiguously determine the origin of the discovered objects. Specialized laboratory tests will help answer this question.  

"This year's finds, while exceptional due to the presence of the most easterly collection of objects associated with the Bell Beaker community, do not explain the migration routes and distances of its carriers" - concluded Dr. Manasterski.  

Excavations in Supraśl are part of the joint research project, carried out since 2011 by Dr. Dariusz Manasterski and Dr. Katarzyna Januszek from the Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw and Adam Wawrusiewicz of Podlaskie Museum in Białystok. The project explores the settlements of the younger period of the Stone Age and the beginning of the Bronze Age on the middle part of the river Supraśl.
Science and Scholarship in Poland. 2014. “Unique archaeological discovery in Supraśl”. Science and Scholarship in Poland. Posted: September 29, 2014. Available online:,401990,unique-archaeological-discovery-in-suprasl.html

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Sophisticated 600-Year-Old Canoe Discovered in New Zealand

Sophisticated oceangoing canoes and favorable winds may have helped early human settlers colonize New Zealand, a pair of new studies shows.

The remote archipelagos of East Polynesia were among the last habitable places on Earth that humans were able to colonize. In New Zealand, human history only began around 1200-1300, when intrepid voyagers arrived by boat through several journeys over some generations.

A piece of that early heritage was recently revealed on a beach in New Zealand, when a 600-year-old canoe with a turtle carved on its hull emerged from a sand dune after a harsh storm. The researchers who examined the shipwreck say the vessel is more impressive than any other canoe previously linked to this period in New Zealand.

Separately, another group of scientists discovered a climate anomaly in the South Pacific during this era that would have eased sailing from central East Polynesia southwest to New Zealand. Both findings were detailed today (Sept. 29) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Canoe on the coast

The canoe was revealed near the sheltered Anaweka estuary, on the northwestern end of New Zealand's South Island.

"It kind of took my breath away, really, because it was so carefully constructed and so big," said Dilys Johns, a senior research fellow at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

The hull measured about 20 feet (6.08 meters), long and it was made from matai, or black pine, found in New Zealand. The boat had carved interior ribs and clear evidence of repair and reuse. Carbon dating tests showed that the vessel was last caulked with wads of bark in 1400.

Johns and colleagues say it's likely that the hull once had a twin, and together, these vessels formed a double canoe (though the researchers haven't ruled out the possibility that the find could have been a single canoe with an outrigger). If the ship was a double canoe, it probably had a deck, a shelter and a sail that was pitched forward, much like the historic canoes of the Society Islands (a group that includes Bora Bora and Tahiti) and the Southern Cook Islands. These island chains have been identified as likely Polynesian homelands of the Maori, the group of indigenous people who settled New Zealand.

The boat was surprisingly more sophisticated than the canoes described centuries later by the first Europeans to arrive in New Zealand, Johns told Live Science. At the time of European contact, the Maori were using dugout canoes, which were hollowed out from single, big trees with no internal frames. In the smaller islands of Polynesia, boat builders didn't have access to trees that were big enough to make an entire canoe; to build a vessel, therefore, they had to create an elaborate arrangement of smaller wooden planks.

The newly described canoe seems to represent a mix of that ancestral plank technology and an adaptation to the new resources on New Zealand, since the boat has some big, hollowed-out portions but also sophisticated internal ribs, Johns and colleagues wrote.

The turtle carving on the boat also seems to link back to the settlers' homeland. Turtle designs are rare in pre-European carvings in New Zealand, but widespread in Polynesia, where turtles were important in mythology and could represent humans or even gods in artwork. In many traditional Polynesian societies, only the elite were allowed to eat turtles, the study's authors noted.

Shifty winds

A separate recent study examined the climate conditions that may have made possible the long journeys between the central East Polynesian islands and New Zealand. Scientists looked at the region's ice cores and tree rings, which can act like prehistoric weather stations, recording everything from precipitation to wind patterns to atmospheric pressure and circulation strength.

Because of today's wind patterns, scholars had assumed that early settlers of New Zealand would have had to sail thousands of miles from East Polynesia against the wind. But when the researchers reconstructed climate patterns in the South Pacific from the year 800 to 1600, they found several windows during the so-called Medieval Climate Anomaly when trade winds toward New Zealand were strengthened. (That anomaly occurred between the years 800 and 1300.)

"There are these persistent 20-year periods where there are extreme shifts in climate system," the study's head author, Ian Goodwin, a marine climatologist and marine geologist at Macquarie University in Sydney, told Live Science. "We show that the sailing canoe in its basic form would have been able to make these voyages purely through downwind sailing."

Goodwin added that a downwind journey from an island in central East Polynesia might take about two weeks in a sailing canoe. But the trip would take four times that if the voyagers had to travel upwind.
Gannon, Megan. 2014. “Sophisticated 600-Year-Old Canoe Discovered in New Zealand”. Live Science. Posted: September 29, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ancient human genome from southern Africa throws light on our origins

What can DNA from the skeleton of a man who lived 2,330 years ago in the southernmost tip of Africa tell us about ourselves as humans? A great deal when his DNA profile is one of the 'earliest diverged' – oldest in genetic terms – found to-date in a region where modern humans are believed to have originated roughly 200,000 years ago.

The man's maternal DNA, or 'mitochondrial DNA', was sequenced to provide clues to early modern human prehistory and evolution. Mitochondrial DNA provided the first evidence that we all come from Africa, and helps us map a figurative genetic tree, all branches deriving from a common 'Mitochondrial Eve'.

When archaeologist Professor Andrew Smith from the University of Cape Town discovered the skeleton at St. Helena Bay in 2010, very close to the site where 117,000 year old human footprints had been found – dubbed "Eve's footprints" – he contacted Professor Vanessa Hayes, a world-renowned expert in African genomes.

At the time, Hayes was Professor of Genomic Medicine at the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego, California. She now heads the Laboratory for Human Comparative and Prostate Cancer Genomics at Sydney's Garvan Institute of Medical Research.

The complete 1.5 metre tall skeleton was examined by Professor Alan Morris, from the University of Cape Town. A biological anthropologist, Morris showed that the man was a 'marine forager'. A bony growth in his ear canal, known as 'surfer's ear', suggested that he spent some time diving for food in the cold coastal waters, while shells carbon-dated to the same period, and found near his grave, confirmed his seafood diet. Osteoarthritis and tooth wear placed him in his fifties.

Due to the acidity of the soil within the region, acquiring DNA from skeletons has proven problematic. The Hayes team therefore worked with the world's leading laboratory in ancient DNA research, namely that of paleogeneticist Professor Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropolgy in Leipzig, Germany, who successfully sequenced a Neanderthal.

The team generated a complete mitochondrial genome, using DNA extracted from a tooth and a rib. The findings provided genomic evidence that this man, from a lineage now presumed extinct, as well as other indigenous coastal dwellers like him, were the most closely related to 'Mitochondrial Eve'. The study underlines the significance of southern African archaeological remains in defining human origins, and is published in the journal Genome Biology and Evolution, now online.

"We were thrilled that archaeologist Andrew Smith understood the importance of not touching the skeleton when he found it, and so did not contaminate its DNA with modern human DNA," said Professor Hayes.

"I approached Svante Pääbo because his lab is the best in the world at DNA extraction from ancient bones. This skeleton was very precious and we needed to make sure the sample was in safe hands."

"Alan Morris undertook some incredible detective work. He used his skills in forensics and murder cases to assemble a profile of the man behind the St Helena skeleton."

"Alan helped establish that this man was a marine hunter-gatherer - in contrast to the contemporary inland hunter-gatherers from the Kalahari dessert. We were very curious to know how this man related to them."

"We also know that this man pre-dates migration into the region, which took place around 2,000 years ago when pastoralists made their way down the coast from Angola, bringing herds of sheep. We could demonstrate that our marine hunter-gatherer carried a different maternal lineage to these early migrants – containing a DNA variant that we have never seen before."

"Because of this, the study gives a baseline against which historic herders at the Cape can now be compared."

While interested in African lineages, and how they interact with each other, Professor Hayes is especially keen for Africa to inform genomic research and medicine worldwide.

"One of the biggest issues at present is that no-one is assembling genomes from scratch – in other words, when someone is sequenced, their genome is not pieced together as is," she said.

"Instead, sections of the sequenced genome are mapped to a reference genome. Largely biased by European contribution, the current reference is poorly representative of indigenous peoples globally."

"If we want a good reference, we have to go back to our early human origins."

"None of us that walk on this planet now are pure anything - we are all mixtures. For example 1-4% of Eurasians even carry Neanderthal DNA"

"We need more genomes that don't have extensive admixture. In other words, we need to reduce the noise."

"In this study, I believe we may have found an individual from a lineage that broke off early in modern human evolution and remained geographically isolated. That would contribute significantly to refining the human reference genome."
EurekAlert. 2014. “Ancient human genome from southern Africa throws light on our origins”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 29, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Building an Ark for the Anthropocene

We are barreling into the Anthropocene, the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet. A recent study published in the journal Science concluded that the world’s species are disappearing as much as 1,000 times faster than the rate at which species naturally go extinct. It’s a one-two punch — on top of the ecosystems we’ve broken, extreme weather from a changing climate causes even more damage. By 2100, researchers say, one-third to one-half of all Earth’s species could be wiped out.

As a result, efforts to protect species are ramping up as governments, scientists and nonprofit organizations try to build a modern version of Noah’s Ark. The new ark certainly won’t come in the form of a large boat, or even always a place set aside. Instead it is a patchwork quilt of approaches, including assisted migration, seed banks and new preserves and travel corridors based on where species are likely to migrate as seas rise or food sources die out.

The questions are complex. What species do you save? The ones most at risk? Charismatic animals, such as lions or bears or elephants? The ones most likely to survive? The species that hold the most value for us?

One initiative, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services formed in 2012 by the governments of 121 countries, aims to protect and restore species in wild areas and to protect species like bees that carry out valuable ecosystem service functions in the places people live. Some three-quarters of the world’s food production depends primarily on bees.

“We still know very little about what could or should be included in the ark and where,” said Walter Jetz, an ecologist at Yale involved with the project. Species are being wiped out even before we know what they are.

Another project, the EDGE of Existence, run by the Zoological Society of London, seeks to protect the most unusual wildlife at highest risk. These are species that evolved on their own for so long that they are very different from other species. Among the species the project has helped to preserve are the tiny bumblebee bat and the golden-rumped elephant shrew.

While the traditional approach to protecting species is to buy land, preservation of the right habitat can be a moving target, since it’s not known how species will respond to a changing climate.

To complete the maps of where life lives, scientists have enlisted the crowd. A crowdsourcing effort called the Global Biodiversity Information Facility identifies and curates biodiversity data — such as photos of species taken with a smartphone — to show their distribution and then makes the information available online. That is especially helpful to researchers in developing countries with limited budgets. Another project, Lifemapper, at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute, uses the data to understand where a species might move as its world changes.

“We know that species don’t persist long in fragmented areas and so we try and reconnect those fragments,” said Stuart L. Pimm, a professor of conservation at Duke University, and head of a nonprofit organization called SavingSpecies. One of his group’s projects in the Colombian Andes identified a forest that contains a carnivorous mammal that some have described as a cross between a house cat and a teddy bear, called an olinguito, new to science. Using crowd-sourced data, “we worked with local conservation groups and helped them buy land, reforest the land and reconnect pieces,” Dr. Pimm says.

Coastal areas, especially, are getting scrutiny. Biologists in Florida, which faces a daunting sea level rise, are working on a plan to set aside land farther inland as a reserve for everything from the MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow to the tiny Key deer.

To thwart something called “coastal squeeze,” a network of “migratory greenways” is envisioned so that species can move on their own away from rising seas to new habitat. “But some are basically trapped,” said Reed F. Noss, a professor of conservation biology at the University of Central Florida who is involved in the effort, and they will most likely need to be picked up and moved. The program has languished, but Amendment 1, on the ballot this November, would provide funding.

One species at risk is the Florida panther. Once highly endangered, with just 20 individuals left, this charismatic animal has come back — some. But a quarter or more of its habitat is predicted to be under some three feet of water by 2100. Males will move on their own, but females will need help because they won’t cross the Caloosahatchee River. Experts hope to create reserves north of the river, and think at some point they will have to move females to new quarters.

Protecting land between reserves is vital. The Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, known as Y2Y, would protect corridors between wild landscapes in the Rockies from Yellowstone National Park to northern Canada, which would allow species to migrate.

RESEARCHERS have also focused on “refugia,” regions around the world that have remained stable during previous swings of the Earth’s climate — and that might be the best bet for the survival of life this time around.

A section of the Driftless Area encompassing northeastern Iowa and southern Minnesota, also known as Little Switzerland, has ice beneath some of its ridges. The underground refrigerator means the land never gets above 50 or so degrees and has kept the Pleistocene snail, long thought extinct, from disappearing there. Other species might find refuge there as things get hot.

A roughly 250-acre refugia on the Little Cahaba River in Alabama has been called a botanical lost world, because of its wide range of unusual plants, including eight species found nowhere else. Dr. Noss said these kinds of places should be sought out and protected.

Daniel Janzen, a conservation ecologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is working to protect large tracts in Costa Rica, said that to truly protect biodiversity, a place-based approach must be tailored to the country. A reserve needs to be large, to be resilient against a changing climate, and so needs the support of the people who live with the wild place and will want to protect it. “To survive climate change we need to minimize the other assaults, such as illegal logging and contaminating water,” he said. “Each time you add one of those you make it more sensitive to climate change.”

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, beneath the permafrost on an island in the Arctic Ocean north of mainland Norway, preserves seeds from food crops. Frozen zoos keep the genetic material from extinct and endangered animals. The Archangel Ancient Tree Archive in Michigan, meanwhile, founded by a family of shade tree growers, has made exact genetic duplicates of some of the largest trees on the planet and planted them in “living libraries” elsewhere — should something befall the original.

In 2008, Connie Barlow, a biologist and conservationist, helped move an endangered conifer tree in Florida north by planting seedlings in cooler regions. Now she is working in the West. “I just assisted in the migration of the alligator juniper in New Mexico by planting seeds in Colorado,” she said. “We have to. Climate change is happening so fast and trees are the least capable of moving.”
Robbins, Jim. 2014. “Building an Ark for the Anthropocene”. New York Times. Posted: September 27, 2014. Available online:

Monday, November 10, 2014

Couvade Syndrome: Why Some Men Develop Signs Of Pregnancy

Harry Ashby, the 29-year-old security guard who was signed off work with morning sickness, cravings, a growing stomach and breasts during his girlfriend’s pregnancy, was told he had Couvade syndrome.

Couvade is an involuntary manifestation of pregnancy in men with a partner who is expecting a baby – sometimes called “sympathetic pregnancy”. It isn’t a medically recognized physical or mental disorder, and it isn’t explained by injury or illness.

A range of “pregnancy-related” physical and psychological symptoms include abdominal pain and bloating, back pain, pseudocyesis (euphemistically known as “phantom pregnancy”), lethargy, morning sickness, toothache, food cravings and aversions – many of which were confirmed in a study we carried out at St. George’s hospital, in London. Prominent psychological symptoms include ante-natal depression and mood swings, early morning waking, anxiety, poor concentration, distraction and memory loss.

Collectively, these symptoms may signify an empathic identification with a pregnant partner and to the man’s unborn child, but the could also be a resolution of unconscious thoughts that might threaten both.

Couvade symptoms follow a chronological pattern, beginning in the first trimester of pregnancy, before temporarily disappearing in the second and then re-appearing in the final trimester. They can even extend into the period after the baby is born.

While the syndrome primarily occurs in developed countries all over the world, the number of new cases in those countries varies. Several studies have found an incidence of between 25-52% of all men with a pregnant partner in the US; 20% in Sweden, and an estimated 61% in Thailand, though this includes mild to extreme symptoms such as the physical ones above. The incidence in the UK is unknown, but estimates in the 1970s put it between 11%-50%.

A range of theories that have been proposed to explain Couvade syndrome. Along with psychoanalytical and psychosocial explanations, they also include emotional attachment to both the unborn child and partner, and hormonal influences.


Psychoanalytical theory proposes that the syndrome evolves from the man’s envy of the woman’s procreative ability. The theory also proposes that for the male partner, the pregnancy acts as a catalyst for the emergence of ambivalence and the resurgence of oedipal conflicts. The event may cause regression – the man’s retreat to childhood feelings and conflicts triggered by his partner’s pregnancy, such as rejection, exclusion, ambivalence and anxiety – with a sense of passivity and dependency that is intensified by the developing fetus and which conflicts with the man’s need for autonomy. A second psychoanalytical theory proposes that expectant fathers may sometimes view the unborn child as a rival for maternal attention. Some have explained this as the expectant father’s interpretation of the unborn baby as a rival from whom attention is diverted. But this is expressed through a more socially acceptable outlet such as the syndrome. 

This interpretation would suggest that the syndrome has a protective function for the man because it enables him to identify with his pregnant partner and strengthens his protective instincts towards her and the baby.


Psychosocial theory, which takes in social circumstances, instead focuses on a marginalisation of men during the woman’s gestation and childbirth, especially among men who are having their first child. While motherhood is an important defining feature for women, the same may not be true for fatherhood and men; expectant women have their maternity careers endorsed commercially, socially and medically in contrast to the careers of prospective fathers. 

Since the 1970s men have become familiar figures in the delivery room and their attendance is now almost obligatory.

The fact that men can’t actually give birth or experience delivery directly can relegate men to an ancillary role where they feel marginal and sometimes useless. 

To resolve this ancillary status during gestation and childbirth the man inadvertently diverts attention from the woman to himself through a display of the Couvade syndrome. However, this implies that the syndrome is a conscious entity, which I and others, such as Arthur Klein reject.

Transition and crisis

Paternal transitional theory proposes that the transition to fatherhood is potentially pathological, involving disruptive interpersonal struggles that are highly stressful.

According to Klein the transition from dyad – two tied entities such as man-wife – to a triad – group of three – constitutes one of the most cataclysmic periods for the expectant man. This may be compounded by the fact that men usually accept pregnancy but without any concomitant physical changes that reinforce its reality. They lack the biological markers of the transition to parenthood and these “disembodied” experiences of pregnancy are very different from the woman’s experiences. 

This in turn causes multiple conflicts during transition, including jealousy and rivalry with the unborn baby, an intensified ambivalence toward their own parents and sexuality conflicts. With all of this going on, it wouldn’t be surprising to see some psychological fallout.


Yet paradoxically, men who have had preparation for their parental role – ante-natal classes, for example – show a higher susceptibility to being afflicted the syndrome. Attachment theory proposes that the man’s closeness to the foetus gives rise to the syndrome. 

In a seminal study published in 1983, a sample of white middle-class, first-time expectant men found a modest correlation between more paternal-fetal involvement and attachment (feeling and hearing the unborn child kicking, confirmation through the woman’s pregnancy symptoms and the ultrasound scan) with the incidence of six physical symptoms of the syndrome. These included feeling more tired (34%), sleeping difficulties (33%), indigestion (14%), stomach upsets (12%), appetite changes (8%) and constipation (6%). 

The investigators concluded men’s symptoms were a reflection of their level of attachment to the unborn child and involvement in the pregnancy.

Attack of the hormones

Couvade syndrome also appears to show a relationship with hormones, but there is a dearth of research investigating such an association. To date only two studies have supported a hormonal basis for the syndrome, one published in 2000 and another in 2001. 

The findings of both indicated a significant increase in men’s levels of the hormones of prolactin and estrogen in the first and third trimesters of pregnancy, but lower levels of testosterone and the stress hormone cortisol. 

These hormonal changes were associated with the display of paternal behaviours as well as Couvade symptoms of fatigue, appetite changes and weight gain.

So a plethora of different theories have offered accounts for the origins of the syndrome. However, some of these, such as the hormonal explanation, have not been investigated sufficiently. 

And those that have, psychosocial reasons for example, clearly show disparate findings, which weakens a definitive conclusion that the syndrome has roots in this. Suggested directions for future research in the area might focus more hormonal associations with the syndrome.
Brennan, Arthur. 2014. “Couvade Syndrome: Why Some Men Develop Signs Of Pregnancy”. Science 2.0. Posted: Available online: