Saturday, February 28, 2015

Find at Shiga ruins suggests ancient Buddhist site-cleansing ritual

RITTO, Shiga Prefecture--Five coin-filled pots believed to have been used in an ancient Buddhist ritual to purify a building site have been unearthed at the Tehara ruins here.

The peculiar arrangement of the pots in a cross shape, with points facing north, south, east and west, suggests they were part of an esoteric rite in the Buddhist tradition, according to the Ritto city board of education.

"In Buddhist site-purification rituals, noxious vapors are purged by placing Buddhist images at nine points around a square, including the center," said Masayoshi Mizuno, an archaeologist and director of the Gangoji temple institute for research on cultural property. "This indicates there used to be an important building there."

The find is believed to be the first of its kind in Japan.

The jars, complete with lids, were found inside a hole 28 centimeters deep and 70 cm across in an open area at the ruins of a building that is believed to have served as a public office or private house for a local leader.

"Hajiki" clay plates 3 cm high and 13 cm in diameter were also found at the four corners of the hole.

Each of the containers, measuring 14 cm in diameter and 12 cm high, contained five "Fujushinpo" coins forged in 818. A peach seed was also found in one of the containers.

"The pots that contain offerings appear to have been deliberately positioned in a central location and the four points of the compass," said Towao Sakaehara, director at the Osaka Museum of History and an expert in Japanese ancient history. "They seem to have been treated with great care.”

"They were likely buried in the hope of prosperity for the building owners and others, given that ancient coins bearing such words as ‘tomi’ (wealth) and ‘kotobuki’ (congratulations), as well as a peach seed believed to clear away bad vapors and bring perpetual youth and longevity, are encased," he added.

Pottery filled with "Wadokaichin" and "Jingukaiho" coins were also discovered around the hole. The ages of the clay pots and other factors suggest the site-purification ceremony continued for dozens of years, archaeologists said.
Yaoita, Ippei. 2015. “Find at Shiga ruins suggests ancient Buddhist site-cleansing ritual”. The Asahi Shimbun. Posted: January 22, 2015. Available online:

Friday, February 27, 2015

Anthropologist Seeks the Roots of Terrorism

In the wake of terrorist attacks last week on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a Paris supermarket, the world has struggled to understand the combination of religion, European culture and influence from terrorist organizations that drove the gunmen. Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Paris, studies such questions by interviewing would-be and convicted terrorists about their extreme commitment to their organizations and ideals. Atran recently returned from Paris, where he talked with members of the shooters’ communities. He spoke with Nature about what he discovered.

What sociological and cultural factors are behind the Paris attacks?

Unlike the United States, where immigrants achieve average socioeconomic status and education within a generation, in Europe even after three generations, depending on the country, they’re 5–19 times more likely to be poor or less educated. France has about 7.5% Muslims and [they make] up to 60–75% of the prison population. It’s a very similar situation to black youth in the United States.

The difference is here’s an ideology that appeals to them, it’s something that’s very attractive to more people than you might think. In France, a poll by [ICM Research] showed that 27% of young French people, not just Muslims, between 18 and 24 had a favourable attitude toward the Islamic State. The jihad is the only systemic cultural ideology that’s effective, that’s growing, that’s attractive, that's glorious—that basically says to these young people, “Look, you're on the outs, nobody cares about you, but look what we can do. We can change the world.”

And of course they are. These three lowlifes, they managed to capture the entire world’s attention for the better part of a week. They mobilized all of French society. That’s a pretty good cost–benefit for the bad guys.

So is this a ready-made population for groups such as the Islamic State and Al Qaeda to recruit from?

It’s not about recruitment, it’s about self-seekers. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda don’t directly order commando operations. Basically they say, “Hey guys, here are ideas, do it yourself. Here’s the way to make a pressure cooker bomb; here are likely targets that will terrorize people; here are things we hate. Go out and do it.”

Do the terrorists you study seem to have fit this pattern?

I talked to people in the neighbourhood where the [9/11 pilots] came from, their families. They didn’t know what the hell they were doing. They were guys who worked at a technical university, they sort of hooked up, went to mosque together, got an apartment together, wanted to do something together. They dragged in mattresses, they watched videos. Neighbours told us the place stank because they never went out of the apartment.

None of this was carefully planned. But the [attacks] we remember, the ones that work, they pick carefully planned targets. The attacks on the [World Trade Center] and Pentagon, these shook America to the core. In Madrid, [when a set of train bombings in 2004 killed 191 people] they changed the government. But they're petty criminals with a little bit of training.

It’s the organized anarchy of it that does more to terrorize than actually carefully planned commando operations. Of course, a lot more of these guys are now heroes. They're going to be models for other guys.

Can anything be done to predict extremist attacks?

I think people want to be able to predict, to have surety. [But] it wouldn’t help if you knew about every single [foiled] plot in terms of being able to predict it. The fact is that anybody at any time anywhere can start to make their own network with their friends. It’s like when you boil water, when the cones rise up, you don’t know which will boil first and pop. Complexity theory is not good for modelling these things. You’ll never be able to predict with certainty. It depends on the poll, but 7–14% of Muslims worldwide supported the Al Qaeda strike against the United States. If something like that support the Islamic State, that’s a lot of people, [over 100] million. But who is actually willing to fight and die? There is a problem of specificity. Even if people buy into the ideology, buy into the values, it’s far from a sufficient condition.

The best predictors turn out to be things like who your friends are and whether you belong to some action group. In the case of the Kouachi brothers [who committed the Charlie Hebdo attack], we had the greatest bonding experience and that is prison. But it could be soccer, it could be whitewater rafting. If you want to find out who's going to fight and die, if you want to break up a particular terrorist cell, find out what they’re eating and how they dress. Plots never occur in mosques: you have to be quiet in a mosque. They occur in fast food places, soccer fields, picnics and barbeques.

Why aren’t more people doing anthropological fieldwork, such as interviewing jihadis and their families?

The problem is you can't have large samples. The insights you get can't come from surveys. They have to come from in-depth field interviews and very tightly controlled experiments.

If you really want to do a scientific study with jihadis—I do it—you have to convince them to put down their guns, not talk to one another, and answer your questions. Some people, if you ask them if they would give up their belief in God if offered a certain amount of money, they will shoot you. So you can't ask that question.

It’s not just because it’s dangerous. It’s because human subjects reviews at universities and especially the [US] defence department won't let this work be done. It’s not because it puts the researcher in danger, but because human subjects [research ethics] criteria have been set up to defend middle class university students. What are you going do with these kind of protocols when you talk to jihadis? Get them to sign it saying, “I appreciate that the Defense Department has funded this work,” and by the way if you have any complaints, call the human subjects secretary? This sounds ridiculous and nothing gets done, literally.

Have you run into such difficulties with your fieldwork?

As an example, I got permission, before the [three] Bali bombers [who carried out a set of simultaneous attacks in 2002] were executed, to interview them. They were going to be shot because they blew up 200 people. I couldn’t get human subjects approval because “you have to bring a lawyer, and besides we won't allow anyone to interview prisoners.” I said why? “You can never be sure you're not violating their right to speech.”

Then you have crazy things [required by US funding bodies] like host country authorization. Suppose you want to do work in Israel and Palestine. So you go to the Israelis, say, “We want to do studies, just like we do in American universities,” and say, “We need host country authorization from some government.” They say, “Are you crazy?” And in many countries that are in chaos, who’s going to give you permission?
Reardon, Sara and Nature Magazine. 2015. “Anthropologist Seeks the Roots of Terrorism”. Scientific American. Posted: January 20, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Evidence for ancient bone surgery found at Kuelap Fortress

What could possibly be the first ever evidence of bone surgery has experts investigating all possible answers at Kuelap.

A study by the University of Florida published in the International Journal of Paleopathology claims to have discovered the first ever evidence for ancient bone surgery found in Peru.

Dr. J Maria Toyne details that two skeletons (dated 800-1535 CE) from the pre-Colombian site of Kuelap demonstrate pathology similar to trepanation. Trepanation is the surgical practice of drilling holes into bones and is the oldest example of surgical intervention.

The two moderately healthy male skeletons, one an adolescent and the other an adult of 30-34 years of age, were found to have drilled holes in the bones of their legs.

The placement and depth suggest to the bioarchaeologists that the holes are not random but were perhaps done to relieve pressure from a physical injury and or severe infection. The holes would have been administered to cure build-up of fluid in the leg.

From their evidence thus far it is unclear whether the skeletons were of individuals that were living patients who died during surgery or if they were experimental skeletons of recently deceased used for training purposes. However, the skill of healers in the region was emphasized by Dr. Toyne and in this period advanced medical practices were known and performed among those living in the Chachapoya region.
Ojeda, Hillary. 2015. “Evidence for ancient bone surgery found at Kuelap Fortress”. Peru This Week. Posted: January 20, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Linguistics of Tragedy

Will Charlie Hebdo, the magazine, reclaim its name from Charlie Hebdo, the terrorist attack?

At their core, words are codes. They aren't things, but representations of things. The word “bottle” is not a cylindrical object made of glass. It's code a speaker/writer uses to let a listener/reader know they're talking about a cylindrical object of glass. This key difference between thing and representation allows for a certain malleability.

Some words can have completely different meanings depending on the context in which they're used. (A writer doesn't use “story” the same way an architect does.) In other cases, the representation they're attached to can shift. This usually occurs over a period of time. (The term “awful” began in the 1300s as meaning something “inspiring wonder,” and now means the complete opposite.) But now and then, the shift occurs almost immediately.

“Charlie Hebdo,” for example.

Most tragedy-associated metonyms take on the location of the event as opposed to the time, possibly because our minds like to place horrific events in the past.

If you said this phrase before January 7, the person on the other side of the conversation might have thought you were referring to the satirical French periodical, if they knew it at all. Say it today, and the phrase is shorthand for the terrorist attack that took place at the magazine's headquarters.

This rapid shift is nothing new, particularly when it comes to tragic events. On December 6, 1941, “Pearl Harbor” meant the naval base located at the harbor in Honolulu; now it means the attack that took place. It makes sense that tragedies lead to sudden shifts in meaning, seeing as the key component of these events is usually the speed in which the situation changes from relative calm to chaotic violence. But just what's happening in the realm of linguistics when these changes take place?

THE KEY CONCEPT IS “metonymy.” This is the act of a word or phrase associated with a concept coming to represent the entirety of said concept. Generally, this means an extension of the original meaning. For example, “city hall” no longer means just the structure, but also the lawmakers who inhabit that structure. In the same way, “dish” started as the physical plate a meal is served on, before people started using it to represent the meal itself. In almost all cases, metonymic phrases focus on two questions: when and where?

“Times and locations are salient parts of the basic event frame,” says Dr. Eve Sweetser, a linguistics professor at University of California-Berkeley. “Hence labels can refer to the salient events that took place on that date and in that location.”

In other words, we remember an event taking place during a time or place, so it makes sense why we choose to refer to an event with those factors. Where it gets strange is when an event occurs that overwhelms the meaning of the original location name. Few use “Watergate” anymore to mean the actual hotel; in the cases of “Columbine” or “Sandy Hook,” the terms have almost lost their previous meaning.

As you can tell, most tragedy-associated metonyms take on the location of the event as opposed to the time, possibly because our minds like to place horrific events in the past. We want to forget troubling events, so we reserve date metonyms for things like weddings, anniversaries, or celebratory events like the Fourth of July (celebratory, at least, if you're on the right side of history). But there is one huge exception: “9/11.”

THERE ARE PLENTY OF theories why this phrase focuses on a date rather than location. The most obvious is that, rather than the attack taking place at a single location, it was spread across four different places. Using a metonym like “New York City” or “Manhattan” rings hollow as to the geography. A date doesn't have to deal with that issue.

Another has to do with a kind of poetics, specifically the date's similarity to America's emergency telephone number. 9-1-1 is a phone number everyone knows growing up; its mention is associated with fear and disaster. If you're dialing 9-1-1, something's wrong. Using it in conjunction with another terrible event, then, isn't a huge leap. If the events took place on March 11 (like the public information phone number 3-1-1), perhaps the metonym wouldn't be “3/11,” since it isn't similarly visceral. (It's worth noting that the Madrid train bombings, which took place on March 11, are known in Spain as “11-M” due to the country's use of the date-before-month method of date formatting.)

(This connection between “9/11” and 9-1-1 is made evident in the story of its initial usage. Last year at Medium, Adrienne LaFrance tracked the first use of the metonym to the New York Times' Bill Keller, who exploited the similarities for a column title. Not to say it wouldn't have surfaced without Keller's help. “The dual meaning of 9/11 was so obvious and inevitable that I’d never presume to take credit for it,” Keller told LaFrance.)

There's also the way “9/11” works visually. A pair of “one” digits, positioned side-by-side, look an awful lot like the two towers destroyed during that attack. It's no surprise that most of the “9/11 collectibles” on eBay utilize this similarity in their design. Branding-wise, there's power in the aesthetics of 9/11.

And there's the fact that, intended or not, a date lends itself a certain ominous quality. In a 2010 paper on the linguistics of 9/11, co-authors Adan Martin and Juani Guerra explored the metonym. “The use of such a tag as 9/11 makes us think about a possible return to a same date, an idea is reinforced by the lexical items which collocate with 9/11,” they write. Using the tag not only locked in a yearly memorial, but allowed the threat of a terrorist attack to become a question of when, not necessarily where.

We want to forget troubling events, so we reserve date metonyms for things like weddings, anniversaries, or celebratory events like the Fourth of July. But there is one huge exception: "9/11."

“9/11” also allowed the subjects of the attack to expand. In the weeks and months after, rhetoric associated with the attacks focused less on the fact that they took place in a specific location (New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania), and more that they took place in “America.” This was due somewhat to the dictated aim of the attackers—al-Qaeda made countless public mentions of attacking “America” as opposed to specific cities—but mostly because the country's leaders used the murky location as galvanizing terminology. Rather than calling on citizens to support a specific locale away from them (putting them on the outside), by expanding the attack's location, politicians made every citizen feel as if they were “under attack.” The end result was a nationalism (albeit short-lived and with troubling consequences) that has rarely been seen in the country.

All of which is why, 13 years later, the phrase “9/11” is the only newly created phrase to remain in use since the attack. (Adios “Ground Zero” and “weapons of mass destruction.”) Linguistically, it's a metonymic beast that shows no sign of discontinuation.

SO, WHAT DOES ALL this mean for “Charlie Hebdo?” There hasn't been a whole lot of literature in the realm of “tragedy linguistics," but we can extrapolate.

Currently, it's one of the top news stories, so the use of a shortcut is possible. Rather than typing out or saying the entire event that took place (at the very least, the accurate description is “Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack”), people are removing the extensions because it's possible. Metonymy, after all, is all about shortcuts. This will definitely continue, then, until news of the attack is shifted into the tertiary because of other stories. The week after the 2011 terrorist attacks in Norway, all you needed to do was say the word “Oslo,” and people knew what you were talking about. Now, you need that explanatory addenda to get the other person on the same page. Tragedy plus time may not always equal comedy, but sometimes it equals a return to linguistic normalcy.

At the same time, the city Oslo was founded in 1000 C.E. and has a rich enough history that no single event will ever monopolize—or metonymize, if you want—the name. “Charlie Hebdo,” meanwhile, has been around since 1970, and wasn't exactly a household name to begin with. So, the question is, will “Charlie Hebdo” ever be known for something bigger? Its latest cover, once again, depicts a cartoon version of the prophet Muhammed, this time with the words "All is forgiven" written above. Perhaps this is the first bold move toward reasserting itself strongly enough to reclaim its name from the terror-inspired metonym. That might be the truest form of defiance.
Paulas, Rick. 2015. “The Linguistics of Tragedy”. Pacific Standard Magazine. Posted: January 16, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Antiquity of dairying on Emerald Isle revealed

As dairy farmers across Europe anxiously await the lifting of EU milk quotas in April this year, new research from the University of Bristol, UK has revealed the antiquity of dairy farming in a region famous for its dairy exports: Ireland.

Research published today in the Journal of Environmental Archaeology shows that dairying on the island goes back approximately 6,000 years, revealed through traces of ancient dairy fats found in pots dating to around 4,000 to 2,500 BC.

Dr Jessica Smyth of Bristol's School of Chemistry analysed nearly 500 pots from the Neolithic, the period when people switched from hunting and gathering to farming. In Britain and Ireland, this change occurred around 4,000 BC, more than 1,000 years later than on the Continent. The Bristol team use a combination of fat or lipid 'fingerprinting' and compound-specific carbon isotope techniques to identify the origin of fats preserved in the walls of prehistoric cooking pots.

Dr Smyth, who led the study, said: "We know from previous research that dairying was an important part of many early farming economies, but what was a big surprise was the prevalence of dairy residues in Irish pots. It looks to have been a very important food source."

Ninety per cent of the residues tested for fat origin were found to be dairy fats, with ten per cent found to be meat fats (beef or mutton) or a mixture of milk and meat.

Dr Smyth added: "People can obviously cook meat in other ways than boiling it in pots, and there is plenty of evidence for cereal processing at this time, but the Irish dairy signal remains very striking, particularly when you compare it with the continental European data sets. Ireland really does seem to go mad for milk in the Neolithic."

Milk is still a traditional and valuable food in Europe today, produced by over 30 million dairy cows and representing 14 per cent of the value of European agricultural production [2011 figures]. Six thousand years ago, dairying in Ireland looked very different.

Dr Smyth said: "We know that settlements were small in the Irish Neolithic, usually one or two houses, so it's likely that early farming groups had just one or two animals supporting the household with their products, which were perhaps part of a wider community herd."

Such results are even more significant given the fact that domesticated animals such as cattle, sheep and goats had to be physically shipped to Ireland as part of the process, as these animals were not native to the island.

"These are a very determined group of pioneer farmers. They are setting up everything from scratch, and taking a significant gamble with their livelihoods and those of their dependants," Dr Smyth said.

It would appear that the Irish love of dairy products is very ancient, and the suitability of the island for dairy farming was recognised early in prehistory.
EurekAlert. 2015. “Antiquity of dairying on Emerald Isle revealed”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 16, 2015. Available online:

Monday, February 23, 2015

Map that changed the world has its 200th birthday

Two hundred years ago, the geology of an entire country came to life for the first time. The map shown above gave an unprecedented view of the UK by showing the distribution of rock types in vivid colour.

Created solely by English surveyor William Smith, it is based on his discovery that sedimentary rock across southern Britain contains layers that are arranged in a set sequence, from oldest rocks to youngest. What's more, even if sheets of rock from different time periods are of a similar colour, each contains distinctive fossils that can be used to identify the layer.

Smith used an innovative shading technique for his map. Painting with watercolours, he chose darker tones for bottom layers of rock, which gave the impression of three dimensions when surrounded by the paler colours of more recently-deposited rock.

The map was intended as a reference tool for mineral exploration, land drainage and agriculture. It was of interest to land owners at the time because it helped determine whether their property was likely to contain deposits of coal, which was in high demand.

Today, the oil industry still uses Smith's fossil correlating method to distinguish between rock layers. The technique has even proved useful on other planets – it was recently used to build up a new geological map of Mars.
Ceurstemont, Sandrine. 2015. “Map that changed the world has its 200th birthday”. New Scientist. Posted: January 15, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Five bizarre rituals – and why people perform them

Rituals can be found in every human group and society, yet they are remarkably difficult to define. One thing they all have in common is being outside the everyday – they do not make sense in terms of cause and effect. Another is that they serve as a badge of belonging and a kind of social glue to unite the people that perform them. This helps explain some strange characteristics associated with the most powerful rituals.


On Pentecost Island, Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, men perform a terrifying ritual akin to bungee jumping. "Land diving" entails jumping head-first from a platform up to 30 metres tall, with just two tree vines wrapped around their ankles and no safety net.

Such highly rousing rituals are known as rites of terror and are extremely effective at binding groups together. One reason is that people tend to be more committed to a group, and tolerate its shortcomings, when they have paid a high price for entry. Another is that rites of terror are highly memorable, creating vivid and shocking "flashbulb" memoriesthat remain with participants for a lifetime.

Such rituals are usually infrequent, often once in a lifetime, but land diving was originally performed annually and now occurs weekly from April to June as a tourist spectacle. It remains a rite of passage to manhood for the boys of Pentecost Island. 


Eunoto, the coming-of-age ceremony for Masai men, consists of several days of rituals including adumu, the jumping dance. The young men form a circle and take it in turns to jump as high and straight as they can, while the others chant. As the dancing continues, they often become entranced, partly under the influence of an intoxicating drink made from a bark infusion, and partly due to the rhythmic nature of the activity.

Such rhythmic repetition is characteristic of many rituals because it creates focus and a sense of bonding among group members. Repetition is especially common in the rituals of world religions, such as the Catholic mass and Muslim prayer, known as salat, which is preceded by ritual ablution and usually performed five times a day.

This reflects another benefit of repetition – it reinforces the beliefs of the group by fixing them firmly in the memory of those who participate in its rituals. 


Made famous by New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team, the haka is a traditional Maori dance that includes vigorous movements, facial contortions and chanting. Today, haka are used in various events, from welcoming visiting dignitaries to funerals, but they were originally performed by warriors before battle. 

The war haka (peruperu) was designed to intimidate the opposition, and synchrony was important: performing it out of unison was considered a bad omen for the coming fight. 

Synchrony is key to many rituals because it increases social cohesion, one of the main purposes of ritualistic behaviour. Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford has found thatrhythmic activities such as dancing and chanting stimulate the release of endorphins, neuropeptides that promote a sense of connection and trust. 


A Japanese tea ceremony can last up to 4 hours. Strongly influenced by Zen Buddhism, centuries of history have resulted in many variations of this practice, each with its own elaborate procedures that vary with the time of year and day, venue and other things. 

Such complexity is the hallmark of a good ritual. In fact, the more steps a ritual has, and the more precise these are, the more highly people rate it. That, at least, is what André Souza at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Cristine Legare from the University of Texas at Austin found when they asked people to rate rituals. For the purposes of their study the researchers had invented practices based on Brazilian simpatias – which are bought like recipes over-the-counter and designed to help people achieve goals such as finding a new job or romantic partner. 


If rituals help groups bond, it is hardly surprising that many aspects of military life are ritualistic – from how members of a unit make their beds to the precise details of their drill. 

Like many rituals, these practices often appear nonsensical. For example, the way the Greek soldiers known as Evzones march when changing the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens doesn't seem to achieve a specific purpose. Intriguing new research suggests that when we observe such "causal opacity" our minds switch from their normal way of thinking into a ritual stance. This happens even in infants and seems to prompt children to copy nonsensical actions even more faithfully than actions with obvious goals. 
Douglas, Kate. 2015. “Five bizarre rituals – and why people perform them”. New Scientist. Posted: January 15, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Ancient golden artefacts found in Almaty

Excavations of a burial mound in Alatau district of Almaty have uncovered unique golden artifacts, Tengrinews reports citing the City Department of Culture.

Archaeological research was conducted by an expedition from the museum of history of Almaty in the burial mound of Kok Kainar. Three historical artefacts were found. One of them is a golden figurine of a feline predator.

"It is made of two pressed embossed plates connected into a single sculptural figurine. It can be refereed to as a "playing kitten" for its pose. Dated back to the 4th century BC, the figure probably represented an element of a magical composition of a headwear. The artifact was found in the mound number 2 of Kok Kainar burial," the Department said.

The second finding is a golden plate with a picture of a bird. "The plate depicts a bird of prey, its head turned to the left, with a large beak, and wings unfolded. The bird is depicted against the background of strawberries. This image is treated as a heraldic symbol," the Department explained.

The last finding was a bronze mirror with a handle and a round bronze disc with a protrusion. The disk of the mirror and the ring are soldered together. This artifact was found in the burial mound number 1 and dates back to period from the 2nd century BC and the 2nd century AD. 

All of these artefacts are kept in the Museum of History.
Urazova, Dinara. 2015. “Ancient golden artefacts found in Almaty”. Tengri News. Posted: January 15, 2015. Available online:

Friday, February 20, 2015

Rome's military women have been hiding in plain sight

TALK about hiding in plain sight. Women are thought to have had no official role in Roman army activities. But now a monument that's been sitting in the centre of Rome for almost 2000 years is adding to the evidence that soldiers ignored a ban on marriage, and that the wives or daughters of commanders might have taken part in triumphal ceremonies.

Archaeologist Elizabeth Greene told the 8-11 January annual meeting of theArchaeological Institute of America in New Orleans about six females depicted on the iconic Trajan's column in Rome, Italy, a triumphal monument to a military victory.

The figures on the column are attendants holding sacrificial offerings at a military religious ceremony, a role usually carried out by boys. But six of them are clearly recognisable as women or girls, says Greene, of the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada. She thinks the six females may have been wives or daughters of senior officers.

Scholars have studied the column since the 18th century, so how has no one noticed these women before? For starters, it's more than 30 metres tall, so much of it is hard to examine close up. Plus, you see what you look for, saysLindsay Allason-Jones of the University of Newcastle, UK: "Trajan's column tends to be studied by military historians, looking for details of how things were built and machinery."

Only men could join the Roman army, and during his reign from 27 BC to AD 14, the emperor Augustus forbade rank and file soldiers from marrying, a ban that lasted nearly two centuries. Classical texts on the Roman army have little to say about women. So, for many years, most archaeologists believed no women were attached to the army, says Allason-Jones.

This started to change in the late 1980s, when Allason-Jones started finding evidence that the wives and children of centurions – officers who commanded units of 80 soldiers – lived with them at border and provincial forts.

And in the early 1990s, Allason-Jones and Carol van Driel-Murray of the University of Leiden in the Netherlands found shoes in women's and children's sizes at Vindolanda, the site of a Roman fort along Hadrian's wall in northern England. They also found bronze plaques called diplomas, which were given to provincial soldiers who earned Roman citizenship by 25 years of service, that mention their wives and children.

Now, Greene has reassessed that evidence. She says about 40 per cent of the thousands of shoes found at the site clearly belonged to women or children rather than men. And of some 1000 diplomas catalogued, 43 per cent mention a wife, children or both. At Vindolanda, Greene says, the non-legal, de facto wife of a foot soldier probably lived outside the fort with their children, and had to work because the average soldier wasn't paid enough to support a family. Van Driel-Murray thinks some women may have worked within the fort as cooks, seamstresses or washerwomen.

Penelope Allison of the University of Leicester, UK, says that shoes and brooches from a site in Germany from the same period indicate that womenthere may have lived inside forts. "They just lived in the barracks with everybody else," she says, "engaging with the military community."

But it might be some time until everyone believes this happened. "I'm still trying to convince the older generation, mostly classical scholars and historians, who have problems with these forts being mixed communities," says van Driel-Murray. Whether the women Greene found on Trajan's column will tip the scales remains to be seen.
Hecht, Jeff. 2015. “Rome's military women have been hiding in plain sight”. New Scientist. Posted: January 14, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Extremely lucky" archaeologists find evidence of 15th century settlement near Northern Irish castle

Archaeologists searching for a lost 17th century town say the remains of a fireplace, found in a field near a medieval Irish coastal castle, was part of a previously unknown settlement which could have been established 200 years earlier.

Radiocarbon dating from the clay floor of a structure, discovered by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, suggests an earlier community could have lived in Dunluce during the late 15th and 16th centuries.

“This area was targeted for excavation as it was expected that remains of the 17th century town survived there,” says Mark H Durkan, the Environment Minister for Northern Ireland. 

“The archaeologists found the remains of a stone-built structure that had a doorway at the corner, which is quite different to the 17th century buildings revealed to date.

“A fireplace in the building has been scientifically dated to the late 15th century. This leads archaeologists to suspect an earlier phase of settlement.

“Up to now we knew there was a substantial 17th century settlement in the fields around Dunluce.

“What we are now beginning to uncover are traces of earlier and extensive late medieval settlement activity which are equally as important as the remains of the 17th century Dunluce Town.”

As the 13th century Lords of the Route, the McQuillan family built a stronghold at the now-ruined castle around 500 years ago. Pottery from the late medieval period was also found.

“Traces of buildings were unearthed close to the cliffs upon which the castle was built,” says Durkan.

“This is a tremendously exciting historical development.

“These buildings most likely formed a small settlement just outside the original castle gate. 

“They pre-date the later expansion of the castle complex and development of 17th century Dunluce Town.

“Very few 15th century buildings, other than those built entirely from stone, have survived in Ulster and normally there would be few traces, if any, for archaeologists to investigate.

“We are extremely lucky to make this exciting discovery.”

Organisers are now planning a major project to reveal more buried remains from the town and the castle gardens. 
Miller, Ben. 2015. “"Extremely lucky" archaeologists find evidence of 15th century settlement near Northern Irish castle”. Culture 24. Posted: January 14, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ancient bone hand ax identified in China

People may have dug up roots with shovellike tool

Researchers say they have identified the first example of a bone, not stone, hand ax crafted by ancient humans in East Asia. Makers of the curved, pear-shaped implement probably used it to dig up edible roots in a densely vegetated part of South China around 170,000 years ago, say paleontologist Guangbiao Wei of China Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing and his colleagues.

Part of a lower jaw from a stegodon, a now-extinct, elephant-like creature, provided raw material for the tool, the researchers report January 8 in Quaternary International. The jaw includes a wide, thick piece of curved bone with a grip-ready indentation on its inner surface, the scientists say.

Excavation of a Chinese cave in 2002 yielded the hand ax, along with bones of stegodons and other large animals. Until now, though, the artifact’s age was unknown. Wei’s team dated the find by measuring the decay rate of forms of uranium and thorium in the fossilized bone.

Bone hand axes are rare, even outside East Asia. A handful of such tools previously unearthed in Africa, Europe and West Asia were made from limb bones, ribs and tusks of creatures such as mammoths. Stone hand axes, which preserve far better than bone artifacts, are more numerous and date to 800,000 years ago in South China (SN: 3/4/00, p. 148).

Editor's note: This article was updated on January 16, 2015, to correct that the researchers measured the decay rates of uranium and thorium, not just two forms of uranium. 
Bower, Bruce. 2015. “Ancient bone hand ax identified in China”. Science News. Posted: January 14, 2015. Available online:

Issue: Magazine issue: Vol. 187 No. 3, February 7, 2015

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

World's oldest butchering tools gave evolutionary edge to human communication

Scientists find Oldowan technology behind the genesis of language and teaching

Two and a half million years ago, our hominin ancestors in the African savanna crafted rocks into shards that could slice apart a dead gazelle, zebra or other game animal. Over the next 700,000 years, this butchering technology spread throughout the continent and, it turns out, came to be a major evolutionary force, according to new research from the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Liverpool and the University of St. Andrews, both in the UK.

Combining the tools of psychology, evolutionary biology and archaeology, scientists have found compelling evidence for the co-evolution of early Stone Age slaughtering tools and our ability to communicate and teach, shedding new light on the power of human culture to shape evolution.

To be reported Jan. 13 in the journal Nature Communications, the study is the largest to date to look at gene-culture co-evolution in the context of prehistoric Oldowan tools, the oldest-known cutting devices. It suggests communication among our earliest ancestors may be more complex than previously thought, with teaching and perhaps even a primitive proto-language occurring some 1.8 million years ago.

"Our findings suggest that stone tools weren't just a product of human evolution, but actually drove it as well, creating the evolutionary advantage necessary for the development of modern human communication and teaching," said Thomas Morgan, lead author of the study and a postdoctoral researcher in psychology at UC Berkeley.

"Our data show this process was ongoing two and a half million years ago, which allows us to consider a very drawn-out and gradual evolution of the modern human capacity for language and suggests simple 'proto-languages' might be older than we previously thought," Morgan added.

Morgan and University of Liverpool archaeologist Natalie Uomini arrived at their conclusions by conducting a series of experiments in teaching contemporary humans the art of "Oldowan stone-knapping," in which butchering "flakes" are created by hammering a hard rock against certain volcanic or glassy rocks, like basalt or flint.

Oldowan stone-knapping dates back to the Lower Paleolithic period in eastern Africa, and remained largely unchanged for 700,000 years until more sophisticated Acheulean hand-axes and cleavers, which marked the next generation of stone tool technology, came on the scene. It was practiced by some of our earliest ancestors, such as Homo habilis and the even older Australopithecus garhi, who walked on two legs, but whose facial features and brain size were closer to those of apes.

In testing five different ways to convey Oldowan stone-knapping skills to more than 180 college students, the researchers found that the demonstration that used spoken communication - versus imitation, non-verbal presentations or gestures - yielded the highest volume and quality of flakes in the least amount of time and with the least waste.

To measure the rate of transmission of the ancient butchery technology, and establish whether more complex communication such as language would get the best results, study volunteers were divided into five- or 10-member "learning chains." The head of the chain received a knapping demonstration, the raw materials and five minutes to try their hand at it. That person then showed it to the next person in the chain, who in turn showed the next person, and so on. Their competence picked up significantly with verbal instruction.

"If someone is trying to learn a skill that has lots of subtlety to it, it helps to engage with a teacher and have them correct you," Morgan said. "You learn so much faster when someone is telling you what to do."

As for what the results mean for the Oldowan hominins: "They were probably not talking," Morgan said. "These tools are the only tools they made for 700,000 years. So if people had language, they would have learned faster and developed newer technologies more rapidly."

Without language, one can assume that a hominin version of, say, Steve Jobs would have been hard-pressed to pass on visionary ideas. Still, the seeds of language, teaching and learning were planted due to the demand for Oldowan tools, the study suggests, and at some point hominins got better at communicating, hence the advent of Acheulean hand-axes and cleavers some 1.7 million years ago.

"To sustain Acheulean technology, there must have been some kind of teaching, and maybe even a kind of language, going on, even just a simple proto-language using sounds or gestures for 'yes' or 'no,' or 'here' or 'there,'" Morgan said.

Indeed, the data suggest that when the Oldowan stone-tool industry started, it was most likely not being taught, but communication methods to teach it were developed later.

"At some point they reached a threshold level of communication that allowed Acheulean hand axes to start being taught and spread around successfully and that almost certainly involved some sort of teaching and proto-type language," Morgan said.
EurekAlert. 2015. “World's oldest butchering tools gave evolutionary edge to human communication”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 13, 2015. Available online:

Monday, February 16, 2015

Society began shifting towards individualism more than a century ago

Baby Boomers have been referred to as the Me Generation, but new research indicates that people actually started to become increasingly self-centred more than 100 years ago.

In the first study of its kind covering a 150-year period, researchers looked at U.S. culture to determine how and why people there became more independent and less reliant on family ties, conformity and duty. This phenomenon is called individualism.

"We found that changes in the social class structure precede changes in individualism," said Professor Igor Grossmann, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo and the study's first author. "As demands of American society shifted from manual labour to office jobs, Americans gained education and wealth, both of which promote self-direction and ultimately facilitate individualism."

Grossmann and Professor Michael Varnum, of Arizona State University, found that the significant cultural change American society experienced started before the turn of the last century.

They tested six factors commonly thought to influence cultural change toward individualism: urbanization, secularism, socio-economic structure, climatic demands, infectious disease and disaster. Then in the context of those factors, they examined the growth of eight indicators associated with cultural individualism, such as presence of individualist words in books, percentage of single-child families, percentage of adults living alone, and divorce rates. Since preference for uniqueness is also a key factor of individualism, so the researchers looked at the prevalence of unique baby names -- those not in the top 20 for the time.

"Cultural levels of individualism affect everything from marketing to election outcomes to education -- based on whether we tend to prefer unique or common products, politicians who appeal to achievement or to a sense of duty and whether we motivate students through their sense of belonging to the group and family obligation or due to their being special," said Professor Grossmann. "Knowing where it is heading and what may determine the change may help in many of these domains to prepare for the future."

While the research used the United States as a case study, the Canadian culture of individualism is similar, so it is possible that the pattern of cultural change would be as well.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Society began shifting towards individualism more than a century ago ”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 5, 2015. Available online:

Essentialism In Kids: Bilingualism Changes Beliefs

Most young children are essentialists, they believe that human and animal characteristics are innate, so traits like native language and clothing preference are intrinsic rather than acquired. It is a natural law that other kids should speak the same language - until other kids don't.

A new study postulates that bilingual kids learn earlier that it's what one learns, rather than what one is born with, that makes up a person's psychological attributes. The study suggests that bilingualism in the preschool years can alter children's beliefs about the world around them. Contrary to their unilingual peers, many kids who have been exposed to a second language after age three believe that an individual's traits arise from experience. 

Concordia University psychology professor Krista Byers-Heinlein and her co-author Bianca Garcia tested a total of 48 monolingual, simultaneous bilingual (learned two languages at once) and sequential bilingual (learned one language and then another) five- and six-year-olds. 

The kids were told stories about babies born to English parents but adopted by Italians, and about ducks raised by dogs. They were then asked if those children would speak English or Italian when they grew up, and whether the babies born to duck parents would quack or bark. The kids were also quizzed on whether the baby born to duck parents would be feathered or furred. 

"We predicted that sequential bilinguals' own experience of learning language would help them understand that human language is actually learned, but that all children would expect other traits such as animal vocalizations and physical characteristics to be innate," says Byers-Heinlein.

She was surprised by the results. Sequential bilinguals did, in fact, show reduced essentialist beliefs about language -- they knew that a baby raised by Italians would speak Italian. But they were also significantly more likely to believe that an animal's physical traits and vocalizations are learned through experience -- that a duck raised by dogs would bark and run rather than quack and fly.

"Both monolinguals and second language learners showed some errors in their thinking, but each group made different kinds of mistakes. Monolinguals were more likely to think that everything is innate, while bilinguals were more likely to think that everything is learned," says Byers-Heinlein.  "Children's systematic errors are really interesting to psychologists, because they help us understand the process of development. Our results provide a striking demonstration that everyday experience in one domain -- language learning -- can alter children's beliefs about a wide range of domains, reducing children's essentialist biases." 

The study is important, they say, because the social implication is that adults who hold stronger essentialist beliefs are more likely to endorse stereotypes and prejudiced attitudes. 

"Our finding that bilingualism reduces essentialist beliefs raises the possibility that early second language education could be used to promote the acceptance of human social and physical diversity," says Byers-Heinlein.
Science 2.0. 2015. “Essentialism In Kids: Bilingualism Changes Beliefs”. Science 2.0. Posted: January 13, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Earthquakes, tsunamis and a naked tribe. It’s Chile – and not just the Galápagos – that inspired Darwin

“‘The climate is certainly wretched: the summer solstice was now passed, yet every day snow fell on the hills, and in the valleys there was rain, accompanied by sleet. From the damp and boisterous state of the atmosphere, not cheered by a gleam of sunshine, one fancied the climate even worse than it really was.”

Charles Darwin, writing in December 1832 on his arrival in Tierra del Fuego aboard the Beagle during his five-year around-the-world trip, makes clear that he was not immediately taken with this, the southernmost region on Earth. Not surprising, since this South American archipelago situated at the foot of Argentina and Chile, has been inviting lurid descriptions ever since Europeans first came upon it in 1520. Richard Walter, a chaplain on a military excursion in 1740, was similarly struck by the area around Cape Horn. “Nothing can be imagined more savage and gloomy than the whole aspect of this coast.” When Darwin returned to the same area two years later in 1834, having diverted to the Falkland Islands andArgentina as part of Captain Robert Fitzroy’s principal task to map the coasts of southern South America, nothing much had changed. “We anchored in the fine bay of Port Famine. It was now the beginning of winter, and I never saw a more cheerless prospect; the dusky woods, piebald with snow, could be only seen indistinctly through a drizzling hazy atmosphere.” Names like Port Famine, Desolation Island and Desolation Bay speak of a hostile and barren region, and for years many explorers and expeditions met their end here.

For Darwin, invited aboard the Beagle as a companion for Fitzroy, the voyage would prove “the most important in my life and has determined my whole career”. But much of the analysis and reporting of Darwin’s voyage is consumed by his time in the Galápagos Islands, a critical period that would do much to informOn The Origin of Species, published in 1859, and the urtext of evolutionary biology. Much less attention has been devoted to the time (about a third of the total spent on the voyage) in Tierra del Fuego and other parts of Chile. But that may be about to change.

Among those in the vanguard of asserting the importance of Chile in Darwin’s thinking is Alvaro Fischer, director of the Foundation for Science and Evolution in Santiago. For Fischer, it has become something of a mission to restate the significance of Darwin’s time in Chile. “Since Darwin is best known for his theory of evolution by means of natural selection, and apparently – and I stress ‘apparently’ – there is no direct link between what he did and recorded while in Chile with the theory he later developed, that part of his trip has been greatly ignored.

“Most people believe that it was his visit to the Galápagos Islands, from 15 September through 30 October 1835, which triggered his ideas on evolution, as a result of the varieties of finches he saw on the different islands of the archipelago. But even that is not the correct story, since it was only much later, already back in England, when he related the finches with evolution in the way we now understand it.” What was on offer to Darwin in Chile was one of the most remarkable landscapes in the world. From the Chilean sub-Antarctic to Patagonia; from the virtually untouched island of Chiloé up to the arid north; and from the foothills of the Andes to peaks of the longest mountain range in the world, Chile offered an extraordinary range of habitats, climates, species and geology.

Fischer is in no doubt that the elemental Chilean landscape must have informed Darwin’s later thinking. “His stay in Chile was very important because it gave him first-hand experience of geological events – a massive earthquake and tsunami, a volcanic eruption, glaciers breaking down as they got to the sea, and seabed fossils on mountaintops – which had a strongly impact on him emotionally, probably reinforcing his hunch that together with geological variation, a similar evolutionary process should be taking place at the species level. Also, he encountered the Fuegians in Chile, directly influencing the way he would, later on, explain humans within the evolutionary context he developed.” If relatively little is known of Darwin’s time in Chile, even less is known about his extraordinary contact with the remarkable Fuegians, a tribe of canoe people who are thought to have lived in Tierra del Fuego for more than 7,000 years. Though that hardly stood them in good stead – barely 100 years of contact with westerners quickly put an end to their incredible story. About a third of their number were wiped out when four Argentinian naval vessels arrived in Tierra del Fuego in 1882 and left behind a measles virus for which they had no immunity.

Darwin recorded his first sight of the Fuegians (they were, more correctly, members of the Yaghan tribe, one of four tribes in Tierra del Fuego) on 17 December, 1832. “In the afternoon we anchored in the Bay of Good Success. While entering we were saluted in a manner becoming the inhabitants of this savage land. A group of Fuegians were perched on a wild point overhanging the sea; and as we passed by, they sprang up and sent forth a loud and sonorous shout. It was without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I had ever beheld.”

The Yaghan were a nomadic tribe, living mostly on canoes and moving across the bays and channels of Tierra del Fuego depending on weather, tides and, most importantly, food. Theirs was an almost exclusively sea-based diet of sea lions and shellfish. And for 7,000 years it served the southernmost inhabitants of the Earth well. Despite the savage cold and prodigious rain, the Yaghan sported no clothes and when on land only bunkered down in flimsy wigwams. Darwin’s incredulity at the way they lived is clear from his writing, which peaks with wonder at what he sees – not least their seemingly extraordinary ability to survive in one of the harshest climates. “These Fuegians in the canoe were quite naked, and even one full-grown woman was absolutely so. It was raining heavily, and the fresh water, together with the spray, trickled down her body. In another harbour not far distant a woman, who was suckling a recently born child, came one day alongside the vessel, and remained there whilst the sleet fell and thawed on her naked bosom, and on the skin of her naked child.” There has been much speculation about how they survived the extreme temperatures, though Tierra del Fuego offers a clue, so named because early explorers noted the fires that burned constantly along the shores of the archipelago. Darwin also noted that the Yaghan adopted a squat position when stationary, to reduce exposure to wind and rain.

Professor Patience Schell, chair of Hispanic studies at the University of Aberdeen, believes that it wasn’t until later in life that Darwin’s time in Chile, and contact with the canoe tribe, came into focus. “When Darwin was an old man, he looked back on his time aboard the Beagle, and reflected that the forests of Tierra del Fuego and meeting the ‘naked savages’ of Tierra del Fuego were unforgettable experiences. The landscape of glaciers, fjords and forests in Tierra del Fuego certainly awed him, and made him feel small against the power of nature, but his encounters with the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego were also extremely important.

“He had already become acquainted with three indigenous people from the region, who were aboard the Beagle returning home. The contrast between the indigenous people on the Beagle, who had been Europeanised in their customs, and the local indigenous people, whose subsistence depended on hunting and gathering in the cold waters and woods of the region, demonstrated to him how adaptable human beings were.”

Though it was not till later that his observations from Tierra del Fuego played out in his later work, his early deliberations on the Yaghan suggest that even then he was ruminating on the survival of the fittest, as is clear when he wrote in December 1832. “Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe they are fellow creatures, and inhabitants of the same world. At night, five or six human beings, naked and scarcely protected from the wind and rain of this tempestuous climate, sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals. “Their country is a broken mass of wild rock, lofty hills, and useless forests. Nature, by making habit omnipotent, and its effects hereditary, has fitted the Fuegian to the climate and the productions of his country.”

For Fischer, this contact with early humans in Tierra del Fuego was of lasting import: “The experience of living among the Fuegians was a long lasting one for Darwin, which allowed him, 35 years later, to describe emotions as a human universal, thus laying the foundation for modern evolutionary psychology, developed at the end of the 19th century. Meeting the Fuegians became, eventually, scientifically relevant.”

But for Schell, too, Darwin’s time in Chile remains mysteriously under-reported. For her, the geological significance of the events he recorded were fundamental to his theories of how the Earth evolved. Schell points out that because the theory of natural selection accounts for biological diversity, and Darwin’s most important experiences in Chile were geological, his time in Chile is often overlooked. “The 1835 earthquake and finding the fossilised shells and forests in the high Andes were dramatic evidence of how the Earth had changed (and continued to change) over innumerable years, providing the timeframe for evolution. In these moments, while still in Chile, Darwin realised he was seeing vital clues to the history of the world and evidence of the Earth’s vast age, which was the debate in geology at the time. The Galápagos finches were one example of evolution in process, but he did not actually realise the importance of these birds until he was back in the UK. The Chilean experiences were a catalyst for his thinking.”

But it is not just Darwin’s time in Tierra del Fuego that is drawing renewed interest to the Chilean sub-Antarctic. Since 2006, when Unesco identified part of the Cape Horn as a biosphere reserve, the region’s scientific importance has steadily increased. And on Sunday Chile’s president, Michelle Bachelet, will visit Cape Horn and open a research centre dedicated to highlighting and researching the diversity of mosses and lichens that so struck Darwin in Cape Horn. Ricardo Rozzi, a Chilean ecologist and co-founder of the Omora Ethnobotanical Park, where many of these lichen and fungi can be seen, describes them as the “miniature forests of Cape Horn”. Visitors are encouraged to sweep through the park with a hand lens to better study and understand the role played by these tiny organisms.

Rozzi was also the driving force behind the creation of the Cape Horn Biosphere Reserve and makes an impressive case for saying that this area is among the unique regions on Earth. There is no equivalent land mass between these southerly latitudes anywhere else in the southern hemisphere, nor any equivalent in the north.

“Here is the limit of the forests in the world. The southernmost forested point of New Zealand is in the southern hemisphere at a latitude of close to 47 degrees south. Below that, the only forests in the southern hemisphere are in southwestern South America in the Magellanic sub-Antarctic eco-region, which reaches a latitude of almost 56 degrees south, which consequently has no geographical replica in the world.”

And yet, this region attracts relatively little scientific scrutiny or money when compared to the research on land and species in Europe or North America. An analysis of scientific research across different latitudes in both north and southern hemispheres shows a tiny percentage of work that focuses on this southernmost part of the Earth. That is one of the major reasons for the establishment of the new Cape Horn Biocultural Centre in Puerto Williams (the tiny capital of the Chilean Antarctic province). This centre, to be opened by Bachelet, will dedicate itself to investigating, conserving and managing the unique fauna for the benefit of future generations.

Bachelet’s visit and Rozzi’s determined campaign to recognise the value of the area is starting to bear fruit. A recent expedition organised by Red Alta Dirección of Santiago’s Universidad del Desarrollo attracted leading scientists from the US and the UK. At the core of that trip was highlighting the scientific importance of Cape Horn, and drawing attention to the legacy left by Darwin’s visits.

As Rozzi says: “After the second world war, In the Galápagos there has been a rich scientific narrative built on Darwin’s work in the archipelago, developed by individual scientists and the Charles Darwin Research Station there. In contrast, Cape Horn has remained comparatively understudied until the end of the 20th century. But we want to collaborate with the Galápagos Charles Darwin station and expand on Darwin’s legacy in Cape Horn by establishing the Cape Horn Biocultural Centre.” That work starts today.
Mulholland, John. 2015. “Earthquakes, tsunamis and a naked tribe. It’s Chile – and not just the Galápagos – that inspired Darwin”. The Guardian. Posted: January 11, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Secular to Sacred: The Story of the Lacock Cup

The Salisbury Museum in Wiltshire (south England), announces a new temporary exhibition, “Secular to Sacred: The Story of the Lacock Cup”, to run from 31st January until Monday 4th May 2015.

Made in the fifteenth century, the Lacock Cup is a breathtakingly rare masterwork by an unknown silversmith. A solid silver vessel of timeless simplicity, it has a unique history, having been used both as a feasting cup and a holy chalice. Its survival against all odds makes it a poignant English icon of endurance and tenacity.

The cup is on permanent display at the British Museum but during 2015, the Salisbury Museum will be the first of five venues to exhibit the Cup on a Spotlight Tour from the British Museum across England.

Feasting cup for nobleman

Sometime in the 15th century, nearly 1kg of silver bullion was fashioned by a master-craftsman into a feasting cup for a high-ranking nobleman. Gilded at the base and the top of the lid, measuring 35cm high and with a miraculously smooth hammered surface, it is an object of outstanding elegance and simplicity. Unmarked, probably made in London, the cup is of international significance and heart-stopping beauty.

Late Middle Age drinking cups are so rare because most were melted down as fashions changed. This one was gifted to the Church of St Cyriac in the village of Lacock, Wiltshire, immediately after the reformation and served as a sacred communion cup there for over 400 years. Thus it quietly survived the turbulent reformation, when most church silver was confiscated, and avoided the notice of reformers.

In 2013 the cup was acquired by The British Museum and The Wiltshire Museum with support from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the Art Fund and private donations.

“Salisbury Museum is honoured to be the first of five museums to display the Lacock Cup, to work in partnership with the British Museum and to have the chance to reveal this fascinating and complex story to our visitors,” said Kim Chittick, exhibitions officer.

The exhibition at Salisbury Museum opens at the end of January, and will place the Lacock Cup in a rich context supported by objects from Salisbury Museum’s own collection and important comparison pieces loaned exclusively to the Museum for this show. “We are delighted to be working in partnership with The Salisbury Museum to display the Lacock Cup alongside precious metal items loaned to the museum for this exhibition,” said Naomi Speakman, Curator of Late Medieval Europe at the British Museum.

Comparison pieces

In the post-medieval period, Salisbury was one of several assay towns and a centre for the manufacture of silver ware. So it’s doubly fitting that the Lacock Cup begins its countrywide Tour in Salisbury.

“This uniquely English object is closely tied to Wiltshire, and to start the Cup’s Spotlight Tour in its home county is an exciting opportunity. Visitors will be able to compare the vessel to medieval, and post-medieval objects, allowing wider stories about the Lacock Cup to be discovered” said Naomi Speakman.

The Spotlight Tour is generously supported by the John Ellerman Foundation. The Salisbury Museum is grateful for the support of the Churches Conservation Trust and loans from several private collections. Salisbury Cathedral has also given generous assistance with loans from several local parishes.
Past Horizons. 2015. “Secular to Sacred: The Story of the Lacock Cup”. Past Horizons. Posted: January 10, 2015. Available online:

Friday, February 13, 2015

ARCHAEOLOGY Mummy Poo Solves 700-Year-Old Murder Mystery

Analysis of fecal matter from the natural mummy of Cangrande della Scala, a medieval warlord and the patron of the poet Dante Alighieri, has established the Italian nobleman was poisoned with a deadly heart-stopping plant known as Digitalis or foxglove.

The most powerful man in the history of Verona, to whom Dante dedicated part of the “Divine Comedy,” Cangrande della Scala (1291-1329) died at the age of 38 on 22 July 1329.

“He became sick with vomit and diarrhoea just a few days after winning control over the city of Treviso,” Gino Fornaciari, professor of history of medicine and paleopathology at the University of Pisa, told Discovery News.

The Treviso victory was the last act in Cangrande’s long struggle to control the entire region of Veneto in northern Italy.

According to contemporary accounts, he had contracted the disease a few days before by “drinking from a polluted spring.”

Rumors of poisoning immediately started to spread. In 2004, 675 years after Cangrande’s death, Fornaciari’s team exhumed the nobleman’s body from a richly decorated marble tomb in the church of Santa Maria Antica in Verona.

“The natural mummy, still wearing its precious clothes, appeared in good state of preservation,” Fornaciari and colleagues wrote in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Lying on the back with the arms folded across the chest, the 5-foot, 7-inch mummy was initially studied using digital X-ray and CT scans.

These showed regurgitated food in the throat, signs of arthritis in the elbows and hips, evidence of tuberculosis and possible cirrhosis.

The abdominal CT scans also showed the presence of feces in the rectum, allowing Fornaciari and colleagues to extract a sample.

Analyses of the feces showed the presence of pollen grains of chamomile, black mulberry and, “totally unexpected, of foxglove (Digitalis sp. perhaps purpurea),” the researchers said.

Toxicological analyses confirmed concentrations of digoxin and digitoxin, two Digitalis glycosides, both in the liver and in the faeces.

“Although it is not possible to rule out totally an accidental intoxication, the most likely hypothesis is that of a deliberate administration of a lethal amount of Digitalis,” Fornaciari and colleagues concluded.

Indeed, the gastrointestinal symptoms showed by Cangrande in the last hours of his life and described by historical sources are compatible with the early phase of Digitalis intoxication.

According to the researchers, the foxglove poison may have been masked in a decoction containing chamomile, largely used as a sedative and antispasmodic drug, and black mulberry, used as astringent, which was prepared for some indisposition of Cangrande.

Following Cangrande’s death, one of his physicians was hanged by his successor and nephew Mastino II.

“This adds more weight to the possibility that foul play was at least suspected, although who was ultimately behind the killing is likely to remain a mystery,” Fornaciari said.

Cangrande certainly had enemies. Among the principal suspects are the neighboring states, the Republic of Venice or Ducate of Milan, worried about the growing power of Cangrande.

But the murderer could have also been someone closer to Cangrande.

“It could have well been Mastino II himself,” Fornaciari said.
Lorenzi, Rossella. 2015. “ARCHAEOLOGY Mummy Poo Solves 700-Year-Old Murder Mystery”. Discovery News. Posted: January 10, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ancient maize followed two paths into the Southwest

After it was first domesticated from the wild teosinte grass in southern Mexico, maize, or corn, took both a high road and a coastal low road as it moved into what is now the U.S. Southwest, reports an international research team that includes a UC Davis plant scientist and maize expert.

The study, based on DNA analysis of corn cobs dating back over 4,000 years, provides the most comprehensive tracking to date of the origin and evolution of maize in the Southwest and settles a long debate over whether maize moved via an upland or coastal route into the U.S.

Study findings, which also show how climatic and cultural impacts influenced the genetic makeup of maize, will be reported Jan. 8 in the journal Nature Plants.

The study compared DNA from archaeological samples from the U.S. Southwest to that from traditional maize varieties in Mexico, looking for genetic similarities that would reveal its geographic origin.

"When considered together, the results suggest that the maize of the U.S. Southwest had a complex origin, first entering the U.S. via a highland route about 4,100 years ago and later via a lowland coastal route about 2,000 years ago," said Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, an associate professor in the Department of Plant Sciences.

The study further provided clues to how and when maize adapted to a number of novel pressures, ranging from the extreme aridity of the Southwest climate to different dietary preferences of the local people.

Excavations of multiple stratigraphic layers of Tularosa cave in New Mexico allowed researchers to compare genetic data from samples from different time periods.

"These unique data allowed us to follow the changes occurring in individual genes through time," said lead author Rute Fonseca of the University of Copenhagen. Researchers used these data to identify genes showing evidence of adaptation to drought and genes responsible for changes in starch and sugar composition leading to the development of sweet corn, desired for cultivation by indigenous people and later Europeans.
EurekAlert. 2015. “Ancient maize followed two paths into the Southwest”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 8, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Huge Fossil Graveyard Found In Underwater Caves

Live Science. 2015. “Huge Fossil Graveyard Found In Underwater Caves | Video”. Live Science. Posted: January 8, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

China: 30 tombs, 28 chariots and 98 horse skeletons dating back 2,800 years found in Hubei

Also discovered are some of the earliest music instruments ever found in China

Archaeologists from Peking University have discovered a group of 30 tombs, 28 chariots and 49 pairs of horse skeletons dating back 2,800 years in Zaoyang city, Hubei Province in China.

The tombs are believed to belong to high-ranking Chinese nobility and date back to the Spring and Autumn Period in Chinese history (770-476BC).

All the tombs have been found on the same piece of land, with a separate "mass grave" of at least 28 wooden chariots buried together on their sides in a pit that measures 33m long by 4m wide.

"This chariot and horse pit is different from those discovered previously along the Yangtze River. The chariots and horses were densely buried," Liu Xu, a professor from School of Archaeology and Museology of Peking University told China Central Television (CCTV).

"Many of the wheels were taken off and the rest parts of the chariots were placed one by one."

In the three months they have been excavating, the archaeologists have also unearthed another pit, five metres away from the chariot pit, which holds at least 49 pairs of horse skeletons.

"Judging from the way the horses were buried, they were buried after they were killed, as there was no trace of struggle. Second, it is the way they were laid...back to back, lying on their sides. It means that two horses pull one chariot," said Huang Wenxin, researcher from the provincial archaeological institute.

The archaeologists say that the number of chariots buried with the tombs are meant to demonstrate the high ranks of the tomb owners, as well as the strength of the ruling state they lived in at the time.

"More chariots mean that the country was powerful. The strength was measured by the number of chariots. In modern words, the chariots represent a kind of high-tech product. Only people with rather high ranks can own chariots," Liu said.

The archaeologists still have a lot of work ahead of them in excavating the tombs, but so far over 400 pieces of bronze, pottery and other objects have been uncovered, including a bronze pot engraved with Old Chinese characters, a fine pottery container in the shape of a dragon, and a thin flat metal item with white Old Chinese characters painted on one side, that could have been a tool or a fixture.

Also discovered were some of the oldest musical instruments ever found in China, including a broken Se, a 25-string ancient zithersimilar to the guzheng, and the 4.7m-long frame of a Bianzhong (bronze chimes).

During the Spring and Autumn Period, the Zhou Dynasty was in control, but in reality they only had power their own capital Luoyi, located near present-day Luoyang.

In order to try and retain power, Zhou Dynasty kings gave away fiefdoms of land to royal relatives and generals, but as the kings' powers waned, these fiefdoms gradually all became independent states rife with interstate power struggles and civil wars.

At one point there were up to 148 independent states in China during the period, and by the end of the dynasty, 128 of these had been annexed by the four most powerful states. The great philosopher Confucius lived during the later part of the Zhou Dynasty, in the state of Lu.

One of these states was Chu, which covers most of present-day Hubei and Hunan province, so it can be surmised that the nobles buried in these tombs were related to the ruling house of Chu.

Chu became a fully independent state from the Zhou kings in either 703BC or 706BC, and the tombs are buried 320km away from the city of Ezhou, which was the capital of Chu during the Zhou Dynasty.
Russon, Mary-Ann2015. “”. International Business Times. Posted: January 8, 2015. Available online:

Monday, February 9, 2015

Buddhist Relics of 3rd Century Unearthed

Seventy three years since preliminary excavations were first carried out at the Phanigiri hillock in Nalgonda by the Archaeology department of the then Nizam government in 1941, the efforts of excavators have borne fruit on Tuesday with the most valuable discovery till date.

For the first time in Telangana, excavators unearthed a relic container from the Mahastupa containing belongings of the chief monk or an important person of Buddhism making it the most important Mahastupa in the region. On Wednesday, they found a dull redware earthen pot with a silver container consisting of 11 miniature beads, three silver and three thin flower petals from the north-eastern corner of the Mahastupa, at base of drum portion.

Following this discovery, it can be confidently assessed that this Mahastupa may be considered as Paribhogika stupa (containing the personal belongings of Buddhist monks) flourished right from the period of Ashoka to 4th century AD. Further, a Potin Coin (alloy of copper and lead-weight 1.3gms dia 1.5 cms) is also collected from the surface. On the coin, a bust of a male figure (King) and on the reverse a ship with a legend of 3rd century AD characters are depicted. Preliminarily, it is deciphered as Mahakshtrapa, said officials.

“The Buddhist findings are pertaining to 3rd century AD. First time we have a Buddhist cascade with material in it and this puts Phanigiri area as an important Buddhist heritage site,” said BP Acharya, principal secretary, Tourism, Telangana. According to him, it is the culmination of efforts since 1941. After the primary excavations conducted in 1941-44, further excavations were conducted in 1979 and 2002 when the Mahastupa and Chaityagrihas were exposed and a number of panels, articles, inscriptions, coins inscribed pillars, coins of Satavahanas, Romans, Ikshvakus, Kshatrapas etc were recovered.

With the ruins of congregation halls, viharas, apsidal chaityagruhas and sixteen pillar hall discovered, the department is eyeing at preservation and conservation of the site to transform it into a Buddhist heritage tourism place. “Excavation will continue and simultaneously restoration of the site will be taken up. Structures will be covered with lime mortar and in future, it will be one of the important tourist spot in the region,” said B Srinivas, director in-charge, Department of Archaeology and Museums.

The 16 acre site on the hillock of Phanigiri in Tirumalagir mandal of Nalgonda dates back between 3rd century BC and 3rd century AD. It is believed to be an important Buddhist learning centre with presence of Viharas and Chaityas. Only about 4 acres of the entire site has been explored till date.

“Usually we get only bodily remains of Buddha or of any important monks. The fact that gold, silver and beads were preserved here, indicates the importance of the personality,” explained J Vijayakumar, deputy director (excavations).

Three Types of Stupas

  •  Sharirika means the ones with bodily relics of Buddha or important monks
  •  Paribhogika means the ones with valuable belongings of an important monk
  •  Udheshika means stupa at a place which was visited by Buddha or an important monk
  •  Other Vital Buddhist Sites in telangana
  •  Dhulikatta in
  • Karimnagar
  •  Nelakondapalli in Khammam
  •  Tirumalagiri in
  •  Nalgonda

Express News Service. 2015. “Buddhist Relics of 3rd Century Unearthed”. New Indian Express. Posted: January 8, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Study of ancient dogs in the Americas yields insights into human, dog migration

A new study suggests that dogs may have first successfully migrated to the Americas only about 10,000 years ago, thousands of years after the first human migrants crossed a land bridge from Siberia to North America.

The study looked at the genetic characteristics of 84 individual dogs from more than a dozen sites in North and South America, and is the largest analysis so far of ancient dogs in the Americas. The findings appear in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Unlike their wild wolf predecessors, ancient dogs learned to tolerate human company and generally benefited from the association: They gained access to new food sources, enjoyed the safety of human encampments and, eventually, traveled the world with their two-legged masters. Dogs also were pressed into service as beasts of burden, and sometimes were served as food, particularly on special occasions.

Their 11,000- to 16,000-year association with humans makes dogs a promising subject for the study of ancient human behavior, including migratory behavior, said University of Illinois graduate student Kelsey Witt, who led the new analysis with anthropology professor Ripan Malhi.

"Dogs are one of the earliest organisms to have migrated with humans to every continent, and I think that says a lot about the relationship dogs have had with humans," Witt said. "They can be a powerful tool when you're looking at how human populations have moved around over time."

Human remains are not always available for study "because living populations who are very connected to their ancestors in some cases may be opposed to the destructive nature of genetic analysis," Witt said. Analysis of ancient dog remains is often permitted when analysis of human remains is not, she said.

Previous studies of ancient dogs in the Americas focused on the dogs' mitochondrial DNA, which is easier to obtain from ancient remains than nuclear DNA and, unlike nuclear DNA, is inherited only from the mother. This means mitochondrial DNA offers researchers "an unbroken line of inheritance back to the past," Witt said.

The new study also focused on mitochondrial DNA, but included a much larger sample of dogs than had been analyzed before. See interactive map.

Molecular anthropologist Brian Kemp of Washington State University provided new DNA samples from ancient dog remains found in Colorado and British Columbia, and the Illinois State Archaeological Survey (ISAS) provided 35 samples from a site in southern Illinois known as Janey B. Goode, near present-day St. Louis. The Janey B. Goode site is located near the ancient city Cahokia, the largest and first known metropolitan area in North America. Occupation of the Janey B. Goode site occurred between 1,400 and 1,000 years ago, the researchers said, while Cahokia was active from about 1,000 to 700 years ago.

Dozens of dogs were ceremonially buried at Janey B. Goode, suggesting that people there had a special reverence for dogs. While most of the dogs were buried individually, some were placed back-to-back in pairs.

In Cahokia, dog remains, sometimes burned, are occasionally found with food debris, suggesting that dogs were present and sometimes were consumed. Dog burials during this time period are uncommon.

As previous studies had done, the Illinois team analyzed genetic signals of diversity and relatedness in a special region (the hypervariable region) of the mitochondrial genome of ancient dogs from the Americas. University of Iowa anthropology professor Andrew Kitchencontributed significantly to this analysis.

The researchers found four never-before-seen genetic signatures in the new samples, suggesting greater ancient dog diversity in the Americas than previously thought. They also found unusually low genetic diversity in some dog populations, suggesting that humans in those regions may have engaged in dog breeding.

In some samples, the team found significant genetic similarities with American wolves, indicating that some of the dogs interbred with or were domesticated anew from American wolves.

But the most surprising finding had to do with the dogs' arrival in the Americas, Witt said.

"Dog genetic diversity in the Americas may date back to only about 10,000 years ago," she said.

"This also is about the same time as the oldest dog burial found in the Americas," Malhi said. "This may not be a coincidence."

The current study, of only a small part of the mitochondrial genome, likely provides an incomplete picture of ancient dog diversity in the Americas, Malhi said.

"The region of the mitochondrial genome sequenced may mask the true genetic diversity of indigenous dogs in the Americas, resulting in the younger date for dogs when compared with humans," he said.

More studies of ancient dogs are in the works, the researchers said. Witt has already sequenced the full mitochondrial genomes of 20 ancient dogs, and more are planned to test this possibility, the researchers said.
EurekAlert. 2015. “Study of ancient dogs in the Americas yields insights into human, dog migration”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 7, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Chapman University publishes research on jealousy

Impact of sexual vs. emotional infidelity

In the largest study to date on infidelity, Chapman University has learned men and women are different when it comes to feeling jealous. In a poll of nearly 64,000 Americans this study provides the first large-scale examination of gender and sexual orientation differences in response to potential sexual versus emotional infidelity in U.S. Adults.

According to the findings, heterosexual men were more likely than heterosexual women to be most upset by sexual infidelity (54 percent of men vs. 35 percent of women) and less likely than heterosexual women to be most upset by emotional infidelity (46 percent of men vs. 65 percent of women).

Participants imagined what would upset them more: their partners having sex with someone else (but not falling in love with them) or their partners falling in love with someone else (but not having sex with them). Consistent with the evolutionary perspective, heterosexual men were more likely than heterosexual women to be upset by sexual infidelity and less likely than heterosexual women to be upset by emotional infidelity. Bisexual men and women did not differ significantly. Gay men and lesbian women also did not differ.

"Heterosexual men really stand out from all other groups: they were the only ones who were much more likely to be most upset by sexual infidelity rather than emotional infidelity," said David Frederick, Ph.D., and lead author on the study. He went on to note: "The attitudes of gay, lesbian, and bisexual men and women have been historically understudied and under theorized in psychology, particularly in regards to tests of evolutionary perspectives."

Sexual and emotional infidelity can cause harm to both men and women, including leading to broken hearts and relationships coming to an abrupt and painful end; as well as abandonment, partner violence, and loss of resources when these resources are invested into affair partners.

"The responses of men and women to the threat of infidelity range from intense pangs of jealousy to elaborate displays of attention to woo their partner back. Jealousy can also trigger harmful and violent behavior, so it is important to understand what are the most potent triggers of jealousy," said Dr. Frederick.

The evolutionary perspective notes that men face a problem that women never face: paternal uncertainty. They never know if their child is genetically related to them, there is always a chance the child could have been fathered by another man. In contrast, women never face the problem of maternal uncertainty. Thus, while it is expected that both men and women experience sexual jealousy, men may exhibit particularly heightened responses compared with women. Further, while women do not face maternal uncertainty, they risk the potential loss of resources and commitment from partners if they channel their investment to another mate.

Sociocultural perspectives have generally claimed that no difference would be expected between men and women. However, this study notes that men are socialized to be masculine, which includes having great sexual prowess. If a man's partner commits sexual infidelity, this brings into question his sexual prowess and therefore threatens his masculinity, which leads him to react more negatively to his partner committing sexual rather than emotional infidelity.

In contrast, women are taught to think relationally and to be the emotional nurturers in a relationship. If their partner commits emotional infidelity, this may threaten her sense of self more so than if her partner commits sexual infidelity.

"There has been significant disagreement about whether or not men and women tend to differ in their responses to sexual and emotional infidelity. Most research relies on small samples or college samples. We set out to examine a broad and diverse sample of Americans," said Dr. Frederick.

Consistent with evolutionary perspective, one's reaction to sexual verses emotional infidelity is likely shaped by environmental and personal factors. This gender difference emerged across age groups, income levels, history of being cheated on, history of being unfaithful, relationship type, and length. Factors such as age, income and whether people had children were unrelated to upset over sexual versus emotional infidelity. However, younger participants were notably more upset by sexual infidelity than older participants.

A review of ethnographic accounts from 16 societies found that infidelity was the most common cause of marital dissolution. A meta-analysis of 50 studies found that 34 percent of men and 24 percent of women have engaged in extramarital sexual activities. Infidelity in dating relationships is even higher.

A total of 63,894 participants ages 18-65 years completed the survey. On average, participants were in their late 30s.

Authorship was: Dr. David Frederick of Chapman University and Melissa Fales, Ph.D. candidate of UCLA. The paper appears in the journal, Archives of Sexual Behavior.

Consistently ranked among the top universities in the West, Chapman University provides a uniquely personalized and interdisciplinary educational experience to highly qualified students. Our programs encourage innovation, creativity and collaboration, and focus on developing global citizen-leaders who are distinctively prepared to improve their community and their world.
EurekAlert. 2015. “Chapman University publishes research on jealousy”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 7, 2015. Available online:

Friday, February 6, 2015

Do infants judge others' language proficiency? It depends on their own, research shows

Monolingual infants expect others to understand only one language, an assumption not held by bilingual infants, a study by researchers at New York University and McGill University has found.

"Our results not only offer insight into infants' perception of linguistic abilities, but, more importantly, may help us better understand whom they see as good communication partners," explains Athena Vouloumanos, an associate professor in NYU's Department of Psychology and one of the study's co-authors.

"Knowing who might make a good communication partner may enhance learning about the many aspects of the world that we learn about from others, including our native languages," adds co-author Kristine Onishi, an associate professor at McGill University. Their findings appear in the journal Cognition.

Adults of course recognize that others can understand multiple languages. However, it's less clear if infants share this type of perception.

To explore this matter, the researchers examined the responses of both monolingual and bilingual 20-month-olds as they observed a series of interactions between adults with whom the infants were unfamiliar. Here, two adult speakers told an adult listener the location of a ball hidden inside cups using either the same (English or Spanish) or two different languages, which included English and another language (French and Spanish).

Following verbal instruction in one language, the adult always found the ball. Then, in one version of the scenario, the adult following the verbal instruction from a second speaker searched correctly for the ball; in a second version, the adult searched incorrectly (the infants had previously seen where the ball was hidden so knew its correct location).

The researchers employed a commonly used method to measure infants' expectations: looking time. Previous research has shown that a longer gaze indicates that infants see something they did not expect and therefore visually engage with it longer.

Their results showed that infants' expectations about whether the unfamiliar adult was monolingual or multilingual varied with the infants' own language background. For instance, after the listener gave evidence of understanding one language (by searching for the ball in the correct location), both monolingual and bilingual infants looked longer when the listener then searched incorrectly after receiving information from a second speaker using this same language. The longer look suggested the infants expected the adult to seek out the ball in the other (i.e., correct) location. However, when information was provided in two different languages, only monolingual infants looked longer when the listener reached correctly; in contrast, bilingual infants looked equally at both outcomes. That is, monolingual infants, surprisingly, did not expect the adult to understand a second language, even when this second language was the infants' own language -- for example, English-speaking monolingual infants who saw an unfamiliar person respond correctly to Spanish did not then expect that person would understand English.

"The monolingual infants assumed that an unfamiliar person would understand only one language while bilingual infants did not, suggesting that infants do not expect all speech to convey information to all people," explains Vouloumanos.
Science Daily. 2015. “Do infants judge others' language proficiency? It depends on their own, research shows”. Science Daily. Posted: January 7, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Learn to Count like an Egyptian

Last semester, I began my math history class with some Babylonian arithmetic. The mathematics we were doing was easy—multiplying and adding numbers, solving quadratic equations by completing the square—but the base 60 system and the lack of a true zero made those basic operations challenging for my students. I was glad that the different system shook them up a little, and got them thinking about things we take for granted, but some students seemed to draw the conclusion that Babylonian mathematics was awkward and silly. The class spent a lot of time thinking about the differences between the two systems but not as much thinking about the Babylonian system on its own terms. As children, we spend several years learning how to do arithmetic; it’s not really fair to judge an unfamiliar number system based on a few days of working with it.

Count like an Egyptian by David Reimer, published in 2014 by Princeton University Press, thoughtfully avoids that pitfall. The Egyptian number system, which has some profound differences from our own, is not presented as a sideshow or tourist attraction. In addition to explaining how the numbers were written and the basic arithmetic operations carried out, Reimer analyzes the logic behind the operations that seem unusual to us. He compares learning Egyptian math to learning a new language. “Spanish is stupid,” he told a junior high Spanish teacher after a run-in with an irregular verb. Irregular verbs can make a language seem arbitrary to an outsider. But of course English has more than its fair share of linguistic idiosyncrasies. Native speakers just don’t notice them until they’re pointed out. Reimer writes,

Egyptian mathematics has an alien feel to it. Most math historians refer to it as primitive or awkward. Even worse, many simply ignore it except for a passing reference. They look at this system and feel uncomfortable because it’s so different. They perceive apparent “flaws” and move on. They don’t understand Egyptian mathematics simply because they don’t do it enough to truly appreciate it. To someone who’s mastered it, Egyptian mathematics is beautiful. It scorns memorization and rote algorithms while it favors insight and creativity. Each problem is a puzzle that can be solved in many ways. Frequently, solutions will be surprising, something that never happens in the step-by-step drudgery that is modern computation.

Consider fractions. One of the first things you learn if you read a little bit about Egyptian mathematics is that with the exception of 2/3 and occasionally 3/4, Egyptians only used fractions with 1 in the numerator: 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, and so on. They would write other fractions as sums of unit fractions. For example, 7/24 could be written 1/4+1/24 or 1/6+1/8. (The Egyptians didn’t actually write their fractions with numerators and denominators; if your only numerator is one, it’s redundant to write it down every time. Instead, an Egyptian fraction would consist of a “mouth” symbol on top of the symbol of an integer. So 1/7 would be a mouth over a 7. To write a sum of two fractions, they would just write the second one after the first one.)

When I first read about Egyptian fractions, I dismissed them as awkward and inefficient. But Reimer points out that they aren’t so different from our decimal system. When we write the number 0.572, we’re just writing 5/10+7/100+2/1000 in a slightly different way. The denominators of those fractions follow a predictable pattern, unlike the Egyptian one, but we are still writing numbers as the sum of fractions with increasing denominators. One nice thing about our decimal system is that if we cut the number off after a few places, we have a pretty good idea of how big it is. The number 0.572 is pretty close to 0.5 and 0.57. Likewise in the Egyptian fraction system, 7/24 is pretty close to 1/4, the first term in one of the possible ways to write 7/24.

Egyptian fractions also have some advantages over decimals. For one, they will always terminate. We can’t even write 1/3 as a terminating decimal. Sticking rigidly to powers of ten in our denominators limits the numbers we can represent easily. Like our fractions, Egyptian fractions are exact but use only a finite number of terms. Reimer sees Egyptian fractions as a compromise between the best qualities of our fraction and decimal systems. They are just as precise as our fractions, but like our decimals, they also make approximation easy.

But Egyptian fractions can throw some curveballs. There isn’t necessarily just one way to write a number as an Egyptian fraction. For example, above I wrote 7/24=1/4+1/24 or 1/6+1/8. In that case, it is pretty clear that 1/4+1/24 is a better way to write it: 1/4 is a good approximation, while 1/6 is not. But in other cases, it isn’t so clear. In the book, Reimer gives the example of 4/15, which can be written as either 1/6+1/10 or 1/5+1/15. 1/5 is a better approximation than 1/6, but there may be other reasons to choose 1/6+1/10. Egyptians used doubling a lot when multiplying, and it’s easier to double fractions with even denominators than odd ones. So depending on the specific circumstance, 1/6+1/10 might be a better choice for computation. This is what Reimer is talking about when he says the system “scorns memorization and rote algorithms while it favors insight and creativity.” It seems strange to have so much leeway in how to represent numbers, but it shows that creativity can have a place even in simple arithmetic.

With insights like this, Reimer not only explains the logic of the Egyptian system but also encourage us to think about the whats, hows, and whys of our own mathematics techniques. “This book is a thinly disguised critique of modern mathematics,” Reimer writes. The last chapter, Judgment Day, is a “battle” between Egyptian and modern methods, but it’s not just about a winner and a loser. “We will consider which system is better and what exactly ‘better’ means.” As you might guess, it’s complicated.

Reimer sprinkles vignettes about Egyptian mythology and society throughout the book, and he also includes some historical information about the few Egyptian mathematical artifacts that still survive. (Papyrus generally doesn’t hold up very well for 3,000 years.) He also makes it clear when his mathematical commentary is backed by evidence from Egyptian papyri and when it is his own conjecture based on his mathematical intuition. Because I’m interested in the book from the perspective of a math history teacher, I do wish there had been a little bit more about exactly what mathematics is in what papyrus, but the book is not a scholarly history of Egyptian mathematics, and that information may have distracted from the mission of getting people to try Egyptian mathematics for themselves.

Count Like an Egyptian would make an excellent addition to math classrooms at many different levels. Reimer includes problems in the text and solutions in the back of the book, so the reader can practice techniques and get a feel for exactly how the system works as they go through the book. The mathematics is basic enough to be helpful for children learning fractions or multiplication for the first time, but it’s also different enough from the methods most of us know that adults will get a lot out of it as well. I used Egyptian multiplication and fractions on the first day of this semester’s math history class as a way to push students out of their comfort zone and get them thinking about some of the most basic building blocks of math in a new way. With more background on the rationale behind the system, I think it was an effective way to open the class up with some interesting discussion about what numbers should do for us.
Lamb, Evelyn. 2015. “Learn to Count like an Egyptian”. Scientific American Blogs. Posted: January 26, 2015. Available online: