Thursday, April 30, 2015

New genetic evidence resolves origins of modern Japanese

Was there a single migration event or gradual mixing of cultures that gave rise to modern Japanese?

According to current theory, about 2,000-3,000 years ago, two populations, the hunter-gatherer Jomon from the Japanese archipelago, and the agricultural Yayoi from continental East Asia, intermingled to give rise to the modern Japanese population. However, some researchers have suggested otherwise, with the Jomon culture gradually transformed into the Yayoi culture without large migrations into modern day Japan.

To resolve the controversy, researchers Oota, Mano, Nakagome et al., identified the differences between the Ainu people (direct descendants of indigenous Jomon) with Chinese from Beijing (same ancestry as Yayoi).

The results from a genome-wide, single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) data strongly support the hybridization model as the best fit for Japanese population history. An initial divergence between the Ainu and Beijing group was dated to approximately 20,000 years ago, while evidence of genetic mixing occurred 5,000 to 7,000 years ago, older than estimates from the archaeological records, probably due to the effect of a further sub-population structure of the Jomon people.

The authors caution that further studies will need to be undertaken (especially ancient genome analysis of Jomon and Yayoi skeletal remains and genomic analysis of northeast Asians) to untangle the true evolutionary history of Japanese, in particular, the origins of the Jomon and Yayoi people and the source of gene flow to the Ainu.

EurekAlert. 2015. “New genetic evidence resolves origins of modern Japanese”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 11, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Neandertals modified white-tailed eagle claws 130,000 years ago

Krapina Neandertals may have manipulated white-tailed eagle talons to make jewelry 130,000 years ago, before the appearance of modern human in Europe, according to a study published March 11, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by David Frayer from University of Kansas and colleagues from Croatia.

Researchers describe eight mostly complete white-tailed eagle talons from the Krapina Neandertal site in present-day Croatia, dating to approximately 130,000 years ago. These white-tailed eagle bones, discovered more than 100 years ago, all derive from a single time period at Krapina. Four talons bear multiple edge-smoothed cut marks, and eight show polishing facets or abrasion. Three of the largest talons have small notches at roughly the same place along the plantar surface.

The authors suggest these features may be part of a jewelry assemblage, like mounting the talons in a necklace or bracelet. Some have argued that Neandertals lacked symbolic ability or copied this behavior from modern humans, but the presence of the talons indicates that the Krapina Neandertals may have acquired eagle talons for some kind of symbolic purpose. They also demonstrate that the Krapina Neandertals may have made jewelry 80,000 years before the appearance of modern humans in Europe.

"It's really a stunning discovery. It's one of those things that just appeared out of the blue. It's so unexpected and it's so startling because there's just nothing like it until very recent times to find this kind of jewelry," David Frayer said.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Neandertals modified white-tailed eagle claws 130,000 years ago”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 11, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

10,000-Year-Old Remains of Extinct Woolly Rhino Baby Discovered

The remains of a baby woolly rhino that roamed the Earth at least 10,000 years ago have been discovered in a frozen riverbank in Siberia, researchers said.

The rhino calf, nicknamed "Sasha" after the hunter and businessman who found it, is the only complete young specimen of the extinct species ever found, according to scientists at the Yakutian Academy of Sciences in Russia, to whom the creature was donated for study.

The researchers hope to extract DNA from the specimen to determine its placement on the mammal family tree.

"The newly found [calf] is about 1.5 meters long [4.9 feet] and 0.8 meters high [2.6 feet]," said study researcher Albert Protopopov, head of the mammoth fauna studies department of the Yakutian Academy of Sciences in Russia, as translated by Olga Potapova, the collections curator and manager at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota. By contrast, adults of this species could reach up to 15 feet (4.5 m) long and 6 feet (1.9 m) high at the shoulders, Protopopov said.

A rare find

Since the 18th century, the remains of only a few adult woolly rhinos have been discovered. Two complete bodies without hair were found in Staruni in what is now Ukraine, and a headless, frozen mummy was found in eastern Siberia, Potapova said. Woolly rhinos were depicted in late Paleolithic cave paintings in Western Europe, which add to scientists' knowledge of what the animals looked like, she added.

But the remains of rhino calves are very rare and fragmented, and little to nothing is known about the young animals, Protopopov told Live Science, via Potapova. Woolly rhinos likely had very high infant mortality — "that’s why [Sasha] is a very lucky find for us," he said.  

The new remains are from a very young rhino, probably between 3 and 4 years old, said fellow researcher Evgeny Maschenko, of the Paleontological Institute in Moscow, as translated by Potapova.

"The young rhino mummy was covered by thick hair" and had two fist-size horns that were tightly attached to its skull, Maschenko said. Based on the size of its horns, Sasha had probably already been weaned from its mother, but it's not clear whether the calf was a male or female, he added.

Woolly rhinoceroses (Coelodonta antiquitatis) first appeared some 350,000 years ago during the Pleistocene epoch, which lasted from 2.59 million to 11,700 years ago. The animals fed on mostly low-growing herbaceous vegetation, and were widely found in the mammoth steppe, a vast cold and dry region spanning from Spain in the west to eastern Siberia in the east, and from subarctic latitudes in the north to the Mediterranean, southern Siberia and northern China in the south.

To extinction … and back?

Woolly rhinos lived at the same time as, and shared a habitat with,woolly mammoths, but the two species are not related. The woolly mammoth is a cousin of the modern Asian elephant, whereas the woolly rhino is most closely related to the modern rhino, Potapova said.

Woolly rhinos went extinct about 10,000 years ago. Some scientists believe overhunting was the cause, but the more likely culprit is climate change, which caused the disappearance of the animals' food sources and habitat, researchers said. Unlike other large mammals of the time — such as woolly mammoths, steppe bison, cave lions and native horses — woolly rhinos may not have been able to cross the land bridge now occupied by the Bering Strait, because they were unable to adapt to the tundra climate, the researchers said.

If the researchers can obtain DNA from Sasha, they plan to sequence the animal's genome. This would allow scientists to identify the rhino's closest relatives, and determine whether there were one or two species of woolly rhino in the Late Pleistocene, Protopopov said.

There's been a lot of buzz among scientists lately that it might be possible to bring extinct animals "back to life" by cloning their DNA and breeding them in a related, living animal, a process called de-extinction. Some scientists have suggested using this technique to bring back the woolly mammoth, but could it also be used to revive the woolly rhino?

Currently, it seems too complicated, Protopopov said. Traditional cloning methods won't work for this purpose, he said, because even if his team can reconstruct the complete genome of the rhino specimen, there is no close modern relative with which to perform crossbreeding.

Besides, Maschenko said, even if humans could bring these creatures back from extinction, "should we proceed?"

Lewis, Tanya. 2015. “10,000-Year-Old Remains of Extinct Woolly Rhino Baby Discovered”. Live Science. Posted: Mrch 11, 2015. Available online:

Monday, April 27, 2015

Saharan 'carpet of tools' is earliest known man-made landscape

A new intensive survey of the Messak Settafet escarpment, a massive outcrop of sandstone in the middle of the Saharan desert, has shown that stone tools occur "ubiquitously" across the entire landscape: averaging 75 artefacts per square metre, or 75 million per square kilometre.

Researchers say the vast 'carpet' of stone-age tools - extracted from and discarded onto the escarpment over hundreds of thousands of years - is the earliest known example of an entire landscape being modified by hominins: the group of creatures that include us and our ancestral species.

The Messak Settafet runs a total length of 350 km, with an average width of 60 km. Parts of the landscape are 'anthropogenic', or man-made, through build-up of tools over hundreds of thousands of years.

The research team have used this and other studies to attempt to estimate the volume of stone tools discarded over the last one million years of human evolution on the African continent alone. They say that it is the equivalent of more than one Great Pyramid of Giza per square kilometre of the entire continent (2.1 x 1014 cubic metres of rock).

"The Messak sandstone, now in the middle of the vast sand seas of Libya, would have been a high quality rock for hominins to fracture - the landscape is in effect a carpet of stone tools, most probably made in the Middle and Upper Pleistocene," said Dr Robert Foley, from the Leverhulme Centre for Evolutionary Studies at the University of Cambridge, who conducted the research with colleague Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr.

"The term 'anthropocene' is now used to denote the point at which humans began to have a significant effect on the environment," said Mirazón Lahr. "The critical time may well be the beginning of the industrial revolution about 200 years ago. Some talk of an 'early anthropocene' about 10,000 years ago when forests began being cleared for agriculture.

"Making stone tools, however, dates back more than two million years, and little research has been done on the impact of this activity. The Messak Settafet is the earliest demonstrated example of the scars of human activity across an entire landscape; the effects of our technology on the environment may be considerably older than previously thought," Mirazón Lahr said. The study is published today in the journal PLOS ONE.

The survey, conducted in 2011, involved randomly selecting plots of one metre squared across the parts of the plateau surface. In each square, the researchers sifted through all the stones to identify the number that showed evidence of modification through hominin activity - evidence such as a 'bulb of percussion': a bulge or curved dent on the surface of a stone tool produced by the angular blows of hominin percussion. The average number of artefacts across all sample squares was 75.

At the simple end, large flakes of stone would have been opportunistically hacked from boulders to be used for cutting or as weapons. At the more sophisticated level, researchers found evidence that specific tools had been used to wedge into the stone in order split it.

"It is clear from the scale of activity how important stone tools were, and shows that African hominins were strongly technologically dependent," said Foley. "Landscapes such as these must have been magnets for hominin populations, either for 'stone foraging trips' or residential occupation."

The researchers say that if - as seems likely - the success of Stone Age communities depended significantly on tool technology, there would be enormous advantage to knowing, remembering and indeed controlling access to areas with a "super-abundance" of raw materials, such as the Messak Settafet.

"Hominins may well have become tethered to these areas, unable to stray too far if survival depended on access to the raw materials for tools, and forced to make other adaptations subservient to that need," said Mirazón Lahr.

One way that the environmental impact of hominin tool excavation may have been positive for later humans is through the clusters of small quarrying pits dotted across the landscape (ranging up to 2 metres in diameter, and 50 centimetres in depth).

These pits would have retained moisture - with surface water still visible today after rains - and the small pools would have attracted game. In many of these pits, the team found 'trapping stones': large stones used for traps and ties for game and/or cattle during the last 10,000 years.

By combining their data with previous extensive surveys carried out across Africa, the researchers attempted to estimate roughly how much stone had been used as tools and discarded during human evolution.

Although stone tool manufacture dates back at least 2.5 million years, the researchers limited the estimate to one million years. Based on their and others research, they standardised population density (based on extant hunter-gatherers), tool volume, the number of tools used by one person in a year and the amount of resulting debris per tool.

They estimate an average density of between 0.5 and 5 million stone artefacts per square kilometre of Africa. When converted into an estimate of volume, this is the equivalent of between 42 to 84 million Great Pyramids of Giza.

Researchers say this would be the equivalent of finding between 1.3 and 2.7 Great Pyramids per square kilometre throughout Africa.

2015. “Saharan 'carpet of tools' is earliest known man-made landscape”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 11, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Date of Armenia’s Birth, Given in 5th Century, Gains Credence

Movses Khorenatsi, a historian in the fifth century, wrote that his native Armenia had been established in 2492 B.C., a date usually regarded as legendary though he claimed to have traveled to Babylon and consulted ancient records. But either he made a lucky guess or he really did gain access to useful data, because a new genomic analysis suggests that his date is entirely plausible.

Geneticists have scanned the genomes of 173 Armenians from Armenia and Lebanon and compared them with those of 78 other populations from around the world. They found that the Armenians are a mix of ancient populations whose descendants now live in Sardinia, Central Asia and several other regions. This formative mixture occurred from 3000 to 2000 B.C., the geneticists calculated, coincident with Movses Khorenatsi’s date for the founding of Armenia.

Toward the end of the Bronze Age, when the mixture was in process, there was considerable movement of peoples brought about by increased trade, warfare and population growth. After 1200 B.C., the Bronze Age civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean suddenly collapsed, an event that seems to have brought about the isolation of Armenians from other populations. No significant mixing with other peoples after that date can be detected in the genomes of living Armenians, the geneticists said.

The isolation was probably sustained by the many characteristic aspects of Armenian culture. Armenians have a distinctive language and alphabet, and the Armenian Apostolic Church was the first branch of Christianity to become established as a state religion, in A.D. 301, anticipating that by the Roman empire in A.D. 380.

The researchers also see a signal of genetic divergence that developed about 500 years ago between western and eastern Armenians. The date corresponds to the onset of wars between the Ottoman and Safavid dynasties and the division of the Armenian population between the Turkish and Persian empires.

“This DNA study confirms in general outline much of what we know about Armenian history,” said Hovann Simonian, a historian of Armenia affiliated with the University of Southern California.

The geneticists’ team, led by Marc Haber and Chris Tyler-Smith of the Sanger Institute, near Cambridge in England, see long-isolated populations like that of the Armenians as a means of reconstructing population history.

Armenians share 29 percent of their DNA ancestry with Otzi, a man whose 5,300-year-old mummy emerged in 1991 from a melting Alpine glacier. Other genetically isolated populations of the Near East, like Cypriots, Sephardic Jews and Lebanese Christians, also share a lot of ancestry with the Iceman, whereas other Near Easterners, like Turks, Syrians and Palestinians, share less. This indicates that the Armenians and other isolated populations are closer than present-day inhabitants of the Near East to the Neolithic farmers who brought agriculture to Europe about 8,000 years ago.

The geneticists’ paper was posted last month on bioRxiv, a digital library for publishing scientific articles before they appear in journals. Dr. Tyler-Smith, the senior author of the genetics team, said he could not discuss their results for fear of jeopardizing publication in a journal that he did not name.

Wade, Nicholas.2015. “Date of Armenia’s Birth, Given in 5th Century, Gains Credence”. New York Times. Posted: March 10, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, April 25, 2015

'Bedlam' Graveyard Excavation May Reveal Thousands of Skeletons

Archaeologists could pull thousands of skeletons out of the ground in London over the next few weeks as they dig up the 450-year-old Bedlam graveyard to make room for a new train line.

London's Liverpool Street station is under construction so that it will be able accommodate a new east-west train line, dubbed Crossrail. The tracks will be laid deep underground, about 130 feet (40 meters) below the city's current street surface.

And to get down there, excavators have to slice though a rich archaeological layer cake that includes a Roman road, a medieval marsh and the abundant graves of the Bedlam cemetery.

"Construction for Crossrail is providing rare and exciting opportunities for archaeologists to excavate and study areas of London that would ordinarily be inaccessible," Nick Elsden, project manager with the Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA), said in a statement. "There are up to 6 m (19.6 feet) of archaeology on site, in what is one of the oldest areas of the city, so we stand to learn a great deal."

MOLA experts have been working with Crossrail for more than a decade to prepare for the massive excavation, which will involve 60archaeologists working in shifts six days a week for at least a month.

Their focus is the Bedlam graveyard, which was used intensively from 1569 to the 1730s and got its name because it was located near the original Bethlem Royal Hospital (notoriously known as Bedlam). The cemetery was an overflow graveyard outside the original city walls of London, and many of the remains buried there overlap with each other.

There are typically about three to six skeletons per cubic meter (35 cubic feet), Elsden said in an email to Live Science, so it's possible that 3,000 graves will be found in the excavation area. That's still just a fraction of the estimated 20,000 total burials at the cemetery.

Archaeologists probably won't be able to identify most of the skeletons they find. Some coffin plates have been found, but they are so heavily corroded that they are illegible, Elsden said. When the burial ground went out of use in the 18th century, the site was quickly built over to accommodate the expanding city; some gravestones were reused in later buildings and walls. Among the few gravestones that have been found is one that marked the final resting place of Mary Godfree, a woman who died of the plague in the 17th century.

Volunteers who pored over historic parish burial registers from across the city compiled the names of more than 5,000 people buried at the site, according to Crossrail officials. Among the more notable figures believed to have been buried at Bedlam are Lodowicke Muggleton, founder of the "Muggletonian" radical Protestant movement, and John Lambe, an astrologer who inserted himself into the English royal court and was stoned to death by an angry mob after he was accused of black magic and rape.

There's likely much more to be found below the graveyard, too. During previous trail excavations as part of the Crossrail project, archaeologists found animal-bone ice skates that date to the medieval period, when the site was a marsh. Excavators found a number hipposandals (like ancient horseshoes) from the Roman era, when there was a road running through the area. Further east, in North Woolwich, archaeologists found 150 bits of 9,000-year-old stone tools while digging a tunnel for the new train line.

Gannon, Megan. 2015. “'Bedlam' Graveyard Excavation May Reveal Thousands of Skeletons”. Live Science. Posted: March 10, 2015. Available online:

Friday, April 24, 2015

Early herders' grassy route through Africa

A University of Utah study of nearly 2,000-year-old livestock teeth show that early herders from northern Africa could have traveled past Kenya's Lake Victoria on their way to southern Africa because the area was grassy - not tsetse fly-infested bushland as previously believed.

"We studied the chemical signature of teeth in wild antelopes and domestic plant-eating animals - cows and sheep or goats - and found they all were eating a lot of grass in the Lake Victoria Basin," says Kendra Chritz, first author of the study published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"That means Lake Victoria could have been an area through which people passed while migrating southward to southern Africa," adds Chritz, a paleoecologist and University of Utah doctoral student in biology.

"The route people took on this southward migration has been a mystery, but recent genetic evidence supports that people moved from east Africa to southern Africa about 2,000 years ago," she says. "The specific route out of Kenya has been debated."

"It was thought that Lake Victoria wasn't part of the route because of a natural barrier - namely, a cool, moist, bushy environment filled with tsetse flies that would have infected humans and livestock with African sleeping sickness, which can be fatal."

Researchers study the issue because the transition to herding livestock from hunting, fishing and gathering transformed human populations, the researchers say.

"Food production led to modern human society," Chritz says. "Food production may have helped change our way of living - like building cities and having a political system with a central governing body."

Understanding how early herders spread through Africa "gives us perspective on how we transformed from relying on the landscape for support to actively providing for our livelihood and controlling for uncertainties in the environment that might have starved us," she adds.

Chritz conducted the research with University of Utah geochemist Thure Cerling, the senior author, who now is doing field work in Africa, and with M. Esperanza Zagal, an undergraduate in chemistry and anthropology. Other co-authors were archaeologist Fiona Marshall, of Washington University in St. Louis, and Francis Kirera, a paleontologist at Ross University School of Medicine in Miramar, Florida.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, Geological Society of America and the University of Utah's Global Change and Sustainability Center.

The birth of African livestock herding

Starting sometime between 8,000 to 9,500 years ago, domestic animals began appearing in Egypt and the eastern Sahara Desert, possibly because changes in the environment forced human foragers and hunters to pick a food-production strategy to survive, Chritz says.

Once humans began herding - mostly goats, sheep and cattle - "slowly we see domestic animals start moving eastward and southward through Africa," she adds. "They appear in east Africa 4,500 years ago. We see them in Kenya about 4,500 years ago, in southwest Kenya's Lake Victoria basin by 3,500 years ago and in southern Africa [Botswana and South Africa] about 2,000 years ago."

"We know they reached southern Africa," Chritz says. "The question has always been the route. Eastern Africa is one possibility [including past Lake Victoria or farther east, near Kenya's eastern coast]. Another one is through central and western Africa, down through Angola, Namibia and then into southern Africa."

The people who traveled through western Kenya were known as Elmenteitan herders, named after Lake Elmenteita, about 70 miles northwest of modern-day Nairobi. They still got some food from hunting, particularly antelope, but "they relied 90 percent on their domestic animals for food" beginning some 3,000 years ago, Chritz says.

Human genetic evidence indicates they traveled through Kenya's Great Rift Valley on their way south to the 75,000-square-mile Lake Victoria Basin, which today includes parts of Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

(When the Elmenteitans arrived, the area was occupied by ceramic-using people who fished, were mostly hunter-gatherers but maintained some livestock, Chritz says.)

The researchers studied fossil teeth of various animals that had been collected at a site on the east side of Lake Victoria known as Gogo Falls, on the Kuja River. Earlier research indicates herders were there less than 2,000 years ago.

The Elmenteitan herders at Gogo Falls "have always been unusual because they only relied about 50 percent on domestic animals, with the rest hunting and fishing," Chritz says. "The assumption was that due to some sort of environmental constraint, they weren't able to maintain large herds of domestic animals. The specific assumption relates to the presence of the tsetse fly, which carries African sleeping sickness or trypanosomiasis. This is fatal to cattle, goats, sheep and people. It's very difficult to maintain livestock where there are abundant tsetse flies."

The idea that a wet, bushy and woody tsetse-infested environment forced Gogo Falls residents to hunt and fish for almost half their food persisted even though other Elmenteitan archaeological sites east of Lake Victoria contain evidence that people there depended on livestock for 90 percent of their food supply.

The new findings mean people at Gogo Falls "weren't forced to hunt and fish by their environment," or at least by a bushy tsetse-infested environment, Chritz says. "They chose to do it, or had to do it for some other reason, like social or political pressures."

A study of animals long ago at Gogo Falls

Chritz spent two months in 2013 in Nairobi, analyzing 86 fossil teeth excavated from the ancient ash of cooking fires at the Gogo Falls site in 1986 and stored at the National Museum of Kenya. The teeth came from caprines, which are sheep or goats - the researchers don't know for sure because the teeth are similar - and from cows, various species of large and small antelopes, zebras, hippos, warthogs and bushpigs.

To avoid damaging the teeth, they removed only 1-milligram samples of tooth enamel from already broken tooth edges. Chritz analyzed stable isotopes, which are forms of elements that do not decay radioactively. They determined the ratios of heavier, rarer carbon-13 to lighter, common carbon-12.

Those carbon-isotope ratios indicate whether an animal ate what are called C3 plants, which include leafy trees, shrubs, forbs and herbs, or C4 plants, which include grasses and sedges. Higher carbon-13-to-carbon-12 rations indicate a C4 grassy diet.

The results indicate that at Gogo Falls, the cows and sheep or goats - as well as the majority of wild animals - ate a grassy diet. (Cows, goats and sheep don't eat sedges.) That is consistent with studies of old pollen and leaf wax from lake sediments that also suggested the Lake Victoria Basin had a grassy landscape, Chritz says.

The scientists found that 10 of the 13 species of wild and domestic animals ate a diet of more than 80 percent grass - cows and caprines ate almost a pure grass diet - while bush pigs and large and small forest antelopes ate less than 80 percent grass, but still "far more than in a modern environment," Chritz says. She believes the caprines were sheep, not goats, because goats would tend to browse on C3 shrubs and leaves.

Chritz says it isn't necessarily true that grasslands near Lake Victoria developed naturally and attracted herders, but that "it may have been the other way around. They may have maintained the environment to keep it grassy" by using grazing - as the Maasai people do today in southwest Kenya and northern Tanzania - and/or with fire.

She notes the area around Lake Victoria is much different today than it was 2,000 years ago, largely due to overgrazing of grasses by livestock and to increasing bushiness as humans kill or relocate giraffes and elephants in the area.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Early herders' grassy route through Africa”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 9, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Amid chaos of Libya, newly unearthed fossils give clues to our own evolution

Libya hasn't been terribly hospitable for scientific research lately.

Since the 2011 toppling of Muammar Gaddafi, fighters tied to various tribes, regions and religious factions have sewn chaos across that nation. Most recently, ISIS militants in Libya committed mass beheadings that triggered retaliatory bombings by neighboring Egypt.

"Currently, it is obviously very dangerous to be a Western scientist in Libya," said Christopher Beard, Distinguished Foundation Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas. "Even Libyan citizens are not immune to random violence." In spite of this turmoil, Beard and a team including fellow scientists from KU's Biodiversity Institute have just published a discovery of mammal fossils uncovered in the Zallah Oasis in the Sirt Basin of central Libya. The fossils date back to the early Oligocene, between about 30 and 31 million years ago.

According to Beard, their paper in the Journal of African Earth Sciences sheds light on a poorly documented interval of our own evolutionary history, and shows climate and environmental change can utterly alter a local ecosystem -- from a wet, subtropical forest in the Eocene to a dry desert today.

This valuable knowledge makes taking calculated risks in a war-torn land worth the risk. "The most important factor is to have local collaborators who are experienced and who have a good feeling for what is impossible or dangerous," Beard said. "Our Libyan collaborator is an experienced and highly accomplished professor of geology at Tripoli University. He has excellent ties to the Libyan petroleum industry, and he knows the Sahara Desert of Libya as well as anyone. We consulted closely with him prior to our 2013 expedition, and when he gave us the green light that it was safe to return to the country -- thanks largely to his logistical arrangements with a local oil company -- we felt safe about going back, despite State Department warnings against travel to Libya."

Beard, who participated in both the Libyan fieldwork and subsequent analysis of the fossil finds, said taking care of logistics was the hardest part of the work.

"The arrangements were hard to put in place, because we had to coordinate among a team of four different nationalities, and we required the consent and active participation of our colleagues working at Zuetina Oil Company in Zallah," he said.

Working in the Zallah Oasis in Libya's Sirt Basin -- an area that has "sporadically" produced fossil vertebrates since the 1960s -- the team discovered a highly diverse and unique group of fossil mammals dating to the Oligocene, the final epoch of the Paleogene period, a time marked by a broad diversity of animals that would seem strange to us today, but also development of species critical to human evolution.

Beard said that the fossil species his team discovered in Libya were surprisingly different from previous fossils tied to the Oligocene discovered in next-door Egypt.

"The fact that we are finding different species in Libya suggests that ancient environments in northern Africa were becoming very patchy at this time, probably because of global cooling and drying which began a short time earlier," he said. "That environmental patchiness seems to have promoted what we call 'allopatric speciation.' That is, when populations of the same species become isolated because of habitat fragmentation or some other barrier to free gene flow, given enough time, different species will emerge. We are still exploring how this new evolutionary dynamic may have impacted the evolution of primates and other mammals in Africa at this time."

Because Beard's work focuses on the origin and evolution of primates and anthropoids -- the precursors to humans -- he found the Libyan discovery of a new species of the primate Apidium to be the most exciting of the fossils uncovered by the team.

"These are the first anthropoid primate fossils known from the Oligocene of Libya and the only anthropoid fossils of this age known from Africa outside of Egypt," said the researcher. "Earlier hypotheses suggested that anthropoids as a group may have evolved in response to the global cooling and drying that occurred at the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. Our new research indicates this was certainly not the case, because anthropoids had already been around for several million years in Africa prior to that boundary. But the climate change still had a deep impact on anthropoid evolution, because habitat fragmentation and an increased level of allopatric speciation took place as a result. Anthropoids, being forest dwellers, would have been particularly impacted by forest fragmentation during the Oligocene."

Unfortunately, ongoing strife in Libya makes a return visit to the Sirt Basin site impossible at the moment. Indeed, armed conflict in that nation prohibits outside scientist from visiting to safely conduct any kind of field research. "The window has now passed," Beard said. "Field research like that which our team conducts cannot begin again until the country is stabilized and the personal security of scientific researchers in the field can be assured."

Science Daily. 2015. “Amid chaos of Libya, newly unearthed fossils give clues to our own evolution”. Science Daily. Posted: March 9, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Saving Chilean mummies from climate change

At least two thousand years before the ancient Egyptians began mummifying their pharaohs, a hunter-gatherer people called the Chinchorro living along the coast of modern-day Chile and Peru developed elaborate methods to mummify not just elites but all types of community members -- men, women, children, and even unborn fetuses. Radiocarbon dating as far back as 5050 BC makes them the world's oldest human-made mummies.

But after staying remarkably well preserved for millennia, during the past decade many of the Chinchorro mummies have begun to rapidly degrade. To discover the cause, and a way to stop the deterioration, Chilean preservationists turned to a Harvard scientist with a record of solving mysteries around threatened cultural heritage artifacts.

Nearly 120 Chinchorro mummies are housed in the collection of the University of Tarapacá's archeological museum in Arica, Chile. That's where scientists noticed that the mummies were starting to visibly degrade at an alarming rate. In some cases, specimens were literally turning into a black ooze.

"In the last ten years, the process has accelerated," said Marcela Sepulveda, professor of archaeology in the anthropology department and Archeometric Analysis and Research Laboratories at the University of Tarapacá who specializes in materials characterization, during a recent visit to Cambridge. "It is very important to get more information about what's causing this and to get the university and national government to do what's necessary to preserve the Chinchorro mummies for the future."

What was eating the mummies? To help solve that riddle Sepulveda called on experts in Europe and North America, including Ralph Mitchell, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Biology, Emeritus at Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). Mitchell has used his knowledge of environmental microbiology to pinpoint the causes of decay in everything from historic manuscripts to the walls of King Tutankhamen's tomb to the Apollo space suits.

"We knew the mummies were degrading but nobody understood why," Mitchell said. "This kind of degradation has never been studied before. We wanted to answer two questions: what was causing it and what could we do to prevent further degradation?"

Preparing the mummies "was a complicated process that took time -- and amazing knowledge," Sepulveda said. The Chinchorro would first extract the brains and organs, then reconstruct the body with fiber, fill the skull cavity with straw or ash, and use reeds to sew it back together, connecting jaw to cranium. A stick kept the spine straight and tethered to the skull. The embalmer restored the skin in place -- sometimes patching the corpse together using the skin of sea lions or other animals. Finally, the mummy was covered with a paste, the color of which archeologists assign to different epochs in the more than 3,000 years of Chinchorro mummy-making -- black made from manganese was used in the oldest ones, red made from ocher in later examples, and brown mud had been applied to the most recent finds.

The first thing that Mitchell and his team needed was physical evidence, something Sepulveda supplied in the form of samples -- both degrading skin and undamaged skin -- taken from mummies in the museum's collection. The task of receiving the unusual shipment fell to Alice DeAraujo, a research fellow in Mitchell's lab who also played a lead role in analyzing the samples as part of her thesis for a master's degree in biology at Harvard Extension School.

It became apparent to DeAraujo and Mitchell that the degradation was microbial. Now they needed to determine if there was a microbiome on the mummy skin that was responsible.

"The key word that we use a lot in microbiology is opportunism," Mitchell said. "With many diseases we encounter, the microbe is in our body to begin with, but when the environment changes it becomes an opportunist."

Mitchell had a series of questions: "Is the skin microbiome from these mummies different from normal human skin? Is there a different population of microbes? Does it behave differently? The whole microbiology of these things is unknown."

The pair isolated microbes present in the samples of both the degrading skin and uncompromised skin. But since there was only a limited amount of mummy skin, they needed a surrogate for the next step: culturing the organisms in the lab and testing them to see what happened when the samples were exposed to different humidity levels. Using pig skin acquired from colleagues at Harvard Medical School, DeAraujo began a series of tests. After determining that the pig skin samples began to degrade after 21 days at high humidity, she repeated the results using mummy skin, confirming that elevated moisture in the air triggers damage to the skin. This finding was consistent with something that Sepulveda reported: humidity levels in Arica where the archeological museum is located have been on the rise.

DeAraujo's analysis suggested that the ideal humidity range for mummies kept in the museum was between 40 percent and 60 percent. Any higher and degradation could occur; any lower and equally damaging acidification was likely. Further testing is needed to assess the impact of temperature and light.

The results will help museum staff fine-tune temperature, humidity, and light levels to preserve the mummies in their extensive collection, Mitchell said. But he is keen to solve an even larger challenge.

According to Sepulveda and others there are large numbers -- perhaps hundreds -- of Chinchorro mummies buried just beneath the sandy surface in the valleys throughout the region. They are often uncovered during new construction and public works projects. Rising humidity levels may make the unrecovered mummies susceptible to damage as well. While the degradation process is relatively controlled at the museum, it is worse in sites exposed to the natural environment.

"What about all of the artifacts out in the field?" Mitchell asks. "How do you preserve them outside the museum? Is there a scientific answer to protect these important historic objects from the devastating effects of climate change?"

The solution to the challenge of preserving the 7,000-year-old Chinchorro mummies, Mitchell believes, may draw from 21st-century science. "You have these bodies out there and you're asking the question: How do I stop them from decomposing? It's almost a forensic problem."

Others who contributed to the research include Vivien Standen, Bernardo Arriaza, and Mariela Santos of the University of Tarapacá, and Philippe Walter from the Laboratoire d'Archéologie Moléculaire et Structurale in Paris.

The work was supported by Harvard SEAS, Consejo Nacional de Investigación Científica y Tecnológica in Chile and the Universidad de Tarapacá.

Science Daily. 2015. “Saving Chilean mummies from climate change”. Science Daily. Posted: March 9, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Poorly preserved DNA from African slaves reveals their origins

Despite extensive historical knowledge about the African slave trade - including trends in the volume and demographics of the roughly 12 million people shipped from West and West Central Africa to the New World between 1500 and 1850 - fundamental details about their ethnic and geographical origins remain elusive. Dr. Hannes Schroeder from the Centre for GeoGenetics at the Natural History Museum, University of Copenhagen, who led the study, explains:

- There are historical records - merchant ledgers, shipping records and the like - but they tend to refer to coastal shipping points rather than the slaves' actual ethnic or geographic origins and this is where the DNA comes in. It can provide new insights where historical information is missing. To our knowledge this is the first time that genome-wide data has been used to identify the origins of enslaved Africans. And given the limited knowledge we have on the slaves' origins this is obviously quite a breakthrough.

Bones from the beach

Hannes Schroeder and colleagues performed a genome-wide analysis of three enslaved Africans buried in the Zoutsteeg area of Philipsburg on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. Previous reports suggest that the "Zoutsteeg Three," one adult female and two adult males, likely came from Africa as opposed to the New World. The present study digs deeper into the Africans' genetic origins, enriching the poorly preserved DNA using a technique known as whole genome capture. The authors compared the genomes with a reference panel of genotype data from 11 West African populations, and uncovered specific areas of origin. Dr. Schroeder continues:

- What's new about our study is that we were able to obtain genome-wide data from really poorly-preserved skeletal remains using this new technique called whole genome capture. Those remains had essentially been lying on a Caribbean beach for hundreds of years so their preservation was really not good. But by enriching the poorly preserved DNA in those samples we were able to obtain enough data to be able to dig deeper into the genetic origins of those three individuals we analyzed.

The findings demonstrate that genomic data can be used to trace the genetic ancestry of long-dead and poorly preserved individuals, a finding with important implications for archeology, especially in cases where historical information is missing. Dr. Schroeder concludes:

- There are still certain limitations - which are essentially to do with the comprehensiveness of our modern reference panels - but I don't see why we shouldn't be able to identify specific source populations or ethnic groups in the future.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Poorly preserved DNA from African slaves reveals their origins”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 9, 2015. Available online:

Monday, April 20, 2015

Ancient fossils reveal diversity in the body structure of human ancestors

Recently released research on human evolution has revealed that species of early human ancestors had significant differences in facial features. Now, a University of Missouri researcher and her international team of colleagues have found that these early human species also differed throughout other parts of their skeletons and had distinct body forms. The research team found 1.9 million-year-old pelvis and femur fossils of an early human ancestor in Kenya, revealing greater diversity in the human family tree than scientists previously thought.

"What these new fossils are telling us is that the early species of our genus, Homo, were more distinctive than we thought. They differed not only in their faces and jaws, but in the rest of their bodies too," said Carol Ward, a professor of pathology and anatomical sciences in the MU School of Medicine. "The old depiction of linear evolution from ape to human with single steps in between is proving to be inaccurate. We are finding that evolution seemed to be experimenting with different human physical traits in different species before ending up with Homo sapiens."

Three early species belonging to the genus Homo have been identified prior to modern humans, or Homo sapiens. Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis were the earliest versions, followed by Homo erectus and then Homo sapiens. Because the oldest erectus fossils that have been found are only 1.8 million years old, and have different bone structure than the new fossil, Ward and her research team conclude that the fossils they have discovered are either rudolfensis or habilis. Ward says these fossils show a diversity in the physical structures of human ancestors that has not been seen before.

"This new specimen has a hip joint like all other Homo species, but it also has a thinner pelvis and thighbone compared to Homo erectus," Ward said. "This doesn't necessarily mean that these early human ancestors moved or lived differently, but it does suggest that they were a distinct species that could have been identified not just from looking at their faces and jaws, but by seeing their body shapes as well. Our new fossils, along with the other new specimens reported over the past few weeks, tell us that the evolution of our genus goes back much earlier than we thought, and that many species and types of early humans coexisted for about a million years before our ancestors became the only Homo species left."

A small piece of the fossil femur was first discovered in 1980 at the Koobi Fora site in Kenya. Project co-investigator Meave Leakey returned to the site with her team in 2009 and uncovered the rest of the same femur and matching pelvis, proving that both fossils belonged to the same individual 1.9 million years ago.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Ancient fossils reveal diversity in the body structure of human ancestors”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 9, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Karnak: Excavation yields 38 artifacts

The Centre franco-égyptien d'étude des temples de Karnak (CNRS/Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities) has just completed the excavation of a favissa, a pit discovered in early December 2014 near the temple of the god Ptah. The dig has unearthed 38 statues, statuettes and precious objects, making this an exceptional find, both for the quantity and quality of the religious artifacts brought to light. Furthermore, a completely new recording method was used during the dig that makes it possible to virtually reconstruct each step of the discovery with millimeter accuracy.

The Centre franco-égyptien d'étude des temples de Karnak (French-Egyptian Center for the Study of the Temples of Karnak -- Cfeetk) was founded by the CNRS and the Egyptian Ministry for Antiquities to study and restore the Amun-Re precinct at Karnak (Luxor). Since October 2008, an interdisciplinary program has been dedicated to the temple of Ptah, located at the northern end of the temple of Amun-Re. Built during the reign of Thutmose III (c.1479 -- c.1424 BC), the temple of Ptah was restored, enlarged and adapted throughout the period before the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD). It is dedicated to the god Ptah, a divinity associated with the Egyptian town of Memphis.

The program has entered its second phase1, which focuses on archaeology, and the excavations recently uncovered a favissa (repository pit for cultic objects) two meters behind the temple. Here, Cfeetk archaeologists found 38 statues, statuettes and precious objects made of limestone, greywacke2, copper alloy and Egyptian frit3, sometimes covered in gold. These religious objects had been placed around the lower part of a seated statue of the god Ptah. The find notably included:

  • 14 statues, statuettes and figurines of Osiris,
  • --
  • 3 statuettes of baboons,
  • --
  • 2 statuettes representing the goddess Mut, including one covered in hieroglyphics,
  • --
  • 1 head and fragments of a cat statuette (Bastet),
  • --
  • 2 unidentified statuette bases,
  • --
  • 1 small plaque and the upper part of a small stele marked with the name of the god Ptah,
  • --
  • Several inlays (iris, cornea, beards, headdresses, etc.)

A sphinx statue and a small statue head probably representing the god Imhotep were also discovered in the upper part of the pit and fragments of a stele were found at the edge. According to the ceramic material found in the pit and the epigraphic4 data, this collection of statues dates back to the 8th-7th century BC, which marked the beginning of the 25th Egyptian dynasty.

This discovery is exceptional in Egypt in terms of both size and quality. Another aspect that makes it special is the recording method used during the dig. The excavation of the objects was recorded by a topographer specialized in archaeology who made a series of photogrammetric reconstructions by high-density image correlation, from the discovery of the first object until the complete removal of the statues from the pit. This technique consists in compiling hundreds of photographs taken during the fieldwork to make a virtual 3-D reconstruction of each step of the excavation. By linking these photogrammetric reconstructions with very precise topographical reference points -- to within a few millimeters -- this method makes it possible to locate all the objects after they have been removed and study their layout in detail. It also enabled the scientists to assemble a video of the whole removal operation, which needed to be completed rapidly due to the objects' value, while preserving the data collected on the site as it was discovered.

All the artifacts brought to light are being restored in the Cfeetk laboratory. The excavation is ongoing and could shed light on the organization of the surroundings of the Temple of Ptah -- as well as explain the digging of this outstanding favissa.

Science Daily. 2015. “Karnak: Excavation yields 38 artifacts”. Science Daily. Posted: March 6, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Ancient Celtic Prince's Grave and Chariot Unearthed

The 2,500-year-old lavish tomb and chariot of an ancient Celtic prince have been unearthed in France.

The ancient princely tomb, which was discovered in a large burial mound, was filled with stunning grave goods, including gorgeous pottery and a gold-tipped drinking vessel. The giant jug was decorated with images of the Greek god of wine and revelry, and was probably made by Greek or Etruscan artists.

The stunning new finds "are evidence of the exchanges that happened between  the Mediterranean and the Celts," Dominique Garcia, president of France's National institute of Preventive Archaeological Research (INRAP), told journalists at a field visit, according to France 24. 

Ancient trade routes

Though the heartland of the Greek  city-states was clustered in Greecein the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., the economic powerhouses later expanded their reach throughout the Mediterranean. At their peak, the Greek and Western Etruscan city-states had settlements dotting coastlines all the way to modern-day southern Spain to the south and to the Black Sea, near modern-day Russia, to the north. One of the key trading centers for this region was Massilia, in what is now modern-day Marseille, France. Merchants from the East came to the region seeking slaves, metals and amber, according to an INRAP statement about the find.

Many of the Mediterranean merchants bestowed impressive goods from Greek and Etruscan cultures as diplomatic gifts, in hopes of opening new trade channels. As a result, the Celts who ruled centrally located inland regions in the central river valleys amassed great wealth. The most elite of these ancient rulers were buried in impressive burial mounds, some of which can be found in Hochdorf, Germany, and Bourges, France.

Long burial tradition

The current site — located in the little village of Lavau, France, just a few hours' drive south of Paris — served as an ancient burial place for centuries. In 1300 B.C., the ancient inhabitants left burial mounds with bodies and the cremated remains of people, archaeologists have found. Another burial at the site, dating to about 800 B.C., holds the body of an ancient warrior bearing a sword, along with a woman bedecked in solid-bronze bracelets.

The current tomb was part of a set of four burial mounds that were grouped together, dating to about 500 B.C., though the tomb itself is likely younger than the rest of the burials. People continued to use the ancient cemetery during the Roman period, when some of the graves were emptied and replaced by newer graves.

The newly discovered funeral chamber was found in a giant mound about 130 feet (40 meters) wide — one of the largest found from that time period. Inside lies the body of an ancient prince in his chariot. In a corner of the tomb, someone had placed several basins; a bronze bucket; a fluted piece of pottery; and a large, sheathed knife.

The most striking find was a stunning bronze cauldron, about 3.3 feet (1 m) in diameter, that may have been made by the Greeks or the Etruscans.

The giant jug has four handles, with images of the Greek god Achelous, a Greek river deity. In this depiction, Achelous is shown with horns and bulls' ears, as well as a beard and three moustaches. The stunningly worked cauldron also depicts eight lion heads, and the interior contains an image of the Greek god Dionysus, the god of winemaking, lying under a vine and looking at a woman.

"This appears to be a banquet scene, a recurrent theme in Greek iconography," researchers from INRAP, which is overseeing the excavations at the site, said in a statement.

The cauldron, which was likely used by the ancient Celtic aristocrats in feasts, is also covered in gold at the top and the base.

Ghose, Tia. 2015. “Ancient Celtic Prince's Grave and Chariot Unearthed”. Live Science. Posted: March 6, 2015. Available online:

Friday, April 17, 2015

Study finds significant facial variation in pre-Columbian South America

A team of anthropology researchers has found significant differences in facial features between all seven pre-Columbian peoples they evaluated from what is now Peru - disproving a longstanding perception that these groups were physically homogenous. The finding may lead scholars to revisit any hypotheses about human migration patterns that rested on the idea that there was little skeletal variation in pre-Columbian South America.

Skeletal variation is a prominent area of research in New World bioarchaeology, because it can help us understand the origins and migration patterns of various pre-Columbian groups through the Americas.

"However, for a long time, the conventional wisdom was that there was very little variation prior to European contact," says Ann Ross, a forensic anthropologist at NC State University and co-author of a paper describing the new work. "Our work shows that there was actually significant variation." The research team also included anthropologists from the University of Oregon and Tulane University.

The recently-published findings may affect a lot of hypotheses regarding New World anthropology. For decades, research on pre-Columbian peoples used one sample of 110 individuals to represent the skull variation - including the facial features - of all South American peoples. But that representative sample consisted solely of individuals from the Yauyos people - a civilization that existed in the central Peruvian highlands.

"And our work shows that the Yauyos had facial features that were very different even from other peoples in the same region," Ross says. "This raises questions about any hypothesis that rests in part on the use of the Yauyos sample as being representative of all South America."

The researchers evaluated facial measurements of 507 skulls from seven different groups that have been clearly defined by archaeological evidence: the Yauyos, Ancon, Cajamarca, Jahuay, Makatampu, Malabrigo, and Pacatnamu peoples. These societies existed at various points between A.D. 1 and A.D. 1470.

Ross collected facial measurements of the Ancon, Cajamarca, and Makatampu remains. John Verano, an anthropologist at Tulane, collected measurements of the Jahuay, Malabrigo, and Pacatnamu remains. For the Yauyos, the researchers used measurements made by W.W. Howells in 1973.

The researchers found that each of these groups displayed distinct facial characteristics.

The researchers also plotted the sites where each group's remains were found. Using this information, they determined that geographical distance was a factor in facial differences between groups.

In other words, the farther apart two groups were, the less they looked alike.

"We've now collected samples from across Latin America - and those we've already published on can be viewed in a publicly available database," Ross says. "Our publications so far have focused on variation in specific regions. Next we want to compare variation across Latin America, to see if we can identify patterns that suggest biological relationships, which could be indicative of migration patterns."

EurekAlert. 2015. “Study finds significant facial variation in pre-Columbian South America”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 5, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, April 16, 2015

St. Barts Is Like the Galapagos for Linguistic Diversity

Beyond the glitz of tourism, St. Barts natives speak in unique varieties of French

The island of Saint Barthélemy isn’t just a popular vacation playground for the rich and famous — it’s also a destination for scholars of languages. Though it is tiny, St. Barts in the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands is home to four different languages, all connected to the island’s history. In the Christian Science Monitor, Ruth Walker, describing the findings of a 2013 book by linguist Julianne Maher, writes:

Today St. Barths is a French territory of eight square miles and about 8,000 people. Professor Maher’s map shows the island’s four sections with their languages: St. Barth Patois in Sous le Vent (the leeward, or western, end); St. Barth Creole in Au Vent (the windward, or eastern, end); “Saline French,” named for local salt ponds, in the center; and English in Gustavia, the capital, built by internationally minded Swedes.

Maher’s book is called The Survival of People and Languages: Schooners, Goats and Cassava in St. Barthélemy, French West Indies; it alludes to three traditional communities on the island—the seafarers, the herdsman and the farmers. The island may be small, but has such strict boundaries that these communtiies all have different blood types, Walker reports. And different languages.

After French settlers arrived in the 17th century, three dialects arose and diversified. Now, the Patois is different from that found in Cajun French or Canadian French; the creole is similar to that of Martinique; the Saline French was mostly spoken by older people, at the time Maher visited, and "very fast." English in the capital cropped up when France’s King Louis XVI gave the island to the Swedes in 1784. Sweden returned St Barts to France in 1978.

Gathering recordings of the different dialects for required hard work, Maher writes in the introduction to her book:

The St. Barths were suspicious of outsiders and their language varieties were used only with family or close friends, not with strangers. And to record their speech? Absolutely not! Initial contacts were very discouraging.

The reluctance, she suggests, lingers from the disparaging attitude that surrounding islands and France took toward people from St. Barts. But dozens of visits over the years built up enough trust for Maher to document the languages. 

The island is more than just a good place to study how distinct languages can emerge even in a small population. It’s also a place to study how languages die. Maher, Walker writes, tells the story of the island’s languages with "an awareness of reporting on phenomena that are vanishing almost as she writes. Many of those she interviewed have since died."

Saline French is "probably already gone," and St. Barts Creole is in decline. Standard French is gaining ground (even pushing English out). But St. Barts Patois is hanging on as a mark of St. Barts identity. But as the isolation of the past fades in the face of tourist traffic and increasing prosperity, that too may change. Maher notes:

My hope is that the reader will come to appreciate not only this distinctive society but also its courage and fortitude in its centuries-old struggle with adversity." 

Fessenden, Marissa. 2015. “St. Barts Is Like the Galapagos for Linguistic Diversity”. Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: March 5, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The unlikeliest of Pals? An Indian soldier alone among Yorkshiremen

A shattered pair of spectacles in an Indian museum has helped shed light on the fascinating story of a lone non-white soldier among Yorkshire volunteers fighting on the Western Front.

Jogendra Sen, a highly-educated Bengali who completed an electrical engineering degree at the University of Leeds in 1913, was among the first to sign up to the 1st Leeds "Pals" Battalion when it was raised in September 1914.

He remained the only known non-white soldier to serve with the 15th West Yorkshire Regiment during the First World War. Despite his education, he was thwarted in his attempt to join up as an officer and unable to progress beyond the rank of private. Killed in action near the Somme in May 1916, aged 28, the bachelor is thought to have been the first Bengali to have died in the war. Private Sen's name is on the University's war memorial.

His story caught the attention of Dr Santanu Das, Reader in English at King's College London and an expert on India's involvement in the First World War. On a visit in 2005 to Sen's home town of Chandernagore -- a former French colony -- Dr Das came across Sen's bloodstained glasses in a display case in the town's museum, the Institut de Chandernagore.

He said: "I was absolutely stunned when I saw the pair of glasses. It's one of the most poignant artefacts I've seen -- a mute witness to the final moments of Sen's life. It was astonishing that something so fragile has survived when almost everything else has perished." A contemporary photograph shows Private Sen relaxing with his fellow Pals -- who knew him as Jon -- wearing what is thought to be the same spectacles Dr Das found almost a century later.

While giving a talk in Leeds as part of the University's Legacies of War centenary project, Dr Das mentioned his discovery in India. Keen-eyed members of the audience pointed out that Sen's name was among those on the University war memorial nearby.

Further information began to pour forth from community researchers Dave Stowe and Andrea Hetherington, who have worked with academics on Legacies of War. Mr Stowe had already been researching Jogendra Sen as part of work to find out more about those on the University roll of honour.

Professor Alison Fell, who leads the project at the University of Leeds, said: "I found the piecing together of Sen's story from the historical traces of his life and death that had survived in India and in Yorkshire very moving.

"His story also illustrates the extent to which the First World War was a global war that involved colonial soldiers and workers as well as those who volunteered or who were conscripted in their home nations."

Dr Das added: "The glasses led me to find other remarkable objects, some from my own extended family, and onto a tantalising trail of other educated middle class Bengalis, who often served as doctors -- and partly inspired my book 1914-1918: Indians on the Western Front, which tells their story through photographs and objects.

"More than a million Indian soldiers and non-combatants served in different theatres of the First World War, but what is so unusual about Jogendra Sen is that he was not part of the Indian army but of the Leeds Pals Battalion.

"I sometimes wonder what his experiences would have been as the only non-white person in the battalion at that time -- and of his family when the glasses arrived, all the way from France to Chandernagore."

Bengalis, deemed by the British to be a "non-martial" race as part of their divide-and-rule colonial policies in India, were initially excluded from the Indian Army and were rarely found in British regiments.

Less than 100 Bengalis are thought to have fought in the conflict, although they supported the war effort in other ways, such as through fundraising or medical work. Instead, the British recruited Punjabis and Ghurkhas to fight in the West.

In total, India contributed some 1.5 million men as soldiers and non-combatants (including labourers and porters) to the war effort.

Science Daily. 2015. “The unlikeliest of Pals? An Indian soldier alone among Yorkshiremen”. Science Daily. Posted: March 5, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Ancient Mongol metallurgy an extreme polluter

The ancient Mongols have a reputation for having been fierce warriors. A new study out of the University of Pittsburgh shows them to have been unmatched polluters.

Graduate student Aubrey Hillman recently published a paper in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that shows copper and silver production in southwest China produced tremendous quantities of harmful heavy metals, such as lead, silver, zinc, and cadmium, starting in 1500 BC and continuing through the era of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368 AD). Hillman is near to earning her PhD from Pitt's Department of Geology and Planetary Sciences in the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences under her adviser and department chair Mark Abbott.

In 2009, Hillman and colleagues took core samples from Lake Erhai in the Yunnan province in southwestern China. The site was chosen because of its proximity to Kublai Khan's famed silver mines--Khan was the grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan Dynasty--and the area where ancient bronze artifacts had been found. The data from the samples surprised Hillman.

The researchers found that lead pollution in Lake Erhai peaked at 119 micrograms per gram of sediment in 1300 AD before then declining to around 30 micrograms per gram in 1420 AD. Peak pollution levels are three to four times higher than those generated by modern metallurgical methods, Hillman says.

"Notably, the concentrations of lead approach levels at which harmful effects may be observed in aquatic organisms," Hillman writes in the paper. "The persistence of this lead pollution over time created an environmental legacy that likely contributes to known issues in modern-day sediment quality."

"We went back in 2012 to confirm how widespread the pollution was," she continues. "Many studies have documented lead and metal pollution from early metalworking, but this study is the first to show that pollution was greater in the past than today. It shows that people may have been seriously impacting the environment for much longer than we thought." And her findings, she says, may have practical use today.

"The (metallurgic) processes would have volatilized heavy metals and spread throughout the landscape [not just Lake Erhai]," she says, which could have implications for agriculture since, as recent reports suggest, as much as one-sixth of China's arable land is affected by excessive accumulation of heavy metals.

Science Daily. 2015. “Ancient Mongol metallurgy an extreme polluter”. Science Daily. Posted: March 6, 2015. Available online:

Monday, April 13, 2015

Mapping 'switches' that shaped the evolution of the human brain

Thousands of genetic "dimmer" switches, regions of DNA known as regulatory elements, were turned up high during human evolution in the developing cerebral cortex, according to new research from the Yale School of Medicine.

Unlike in rhesus monkeys and mice, these switches show increased activity in humans, where they may drive the expression of genes in the cerebral cortex, the region of the brain that is involved in conscious thought and language. This difference may explain why the structure and function of that part of the brain is so unique in humans compared to other mammals. The research, led by James P. Noonan, Steven K. Reilly, and Jun Yin, is published March 6 in the journal Science.

In addition to creating a rich and detailed catalogue of human-specific changes in gene regulation, Noonan and his colleagues pinpointed several biological processes potentially guided by these regulatory elements that are crucial to human brain development.

"Building a more complex cortex likely involves several things: making more cells, modifying the functions of cortical areas, and changing the connections neurons make with each other. And the regulatory changes we found in humans are associated with those processes," said Noonan, associate professor of genetics, an investigator with the Kavli Institute for Neuroscience, and senior author of the study. "This likely involves evolutionary modifications to cellular proliferation, cortical patterning, and other developmental processes that are generally well conserved across many species."

Scientists have become adept at comparing the genomes of different species to identify the DNA sequence changes that underlie those differences. But many human genes are very similar to those of other primates, which suggests that changes in the way genes are regulated -- in addition to changes in the genes themselves -- is what sets human biology apart.

Up to this point, however, it has been very challenging to measure those changes and figure out their impact, especially in the developing brain. The Yale researchers took advantage of new experimental and computational tools to identify active regulatory elements -- those DNA sequences that switch genes on or off at specific times and in specific cell types -- directly in the human cortex and to study their biological effects.

First, Noonan and his colleagues mapped active regulatory elements in the human genome during the first 12 weeks of cortical development by searching for specific biochemical, or "epigenetic" modifications. They did the same in the developing brains of rhesus monkeys and mice, then compared the three maps to identify those elements that showed greater activity in the developing human brain. They found several thousand regulatory elements that showed increased activity in human.

Next, they wanted to know the biological impact of those regulatory changes. The team turned to BrainSpan, a freely available digital atlas of gene expression in the brain throughout the human lifespan. (BrainSpan was led by Kavli Institute member Nenad Sestan at Yale, with contributions from Noonan and Pasko Rakic, a co-author on this study.) They used those data to identify groups of genes that showed coordinated expression in the cerebral cortex. They then overlaid the regulatory changes they had found with these groups of genes and identified several biological processes associated with a surprisingly high number of regulatory changes in humans.

"While we often think of the human brain as a highly innovative structure, it's been surprising that so many of these regulatory elements seem to play a role in ancient processes important for building the cortex in all mammals, said first author Steven Reilly. "However, this is often a hallmark of evolution, tinkering with the tools available to produce new features and functions." Next, Noonan and colleagues plan to investigate the function of some of the regulatory changes they identified by introducing them into the mouse genome and studying their effects on mouse brain development.

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health (GM094780, DA023999, NS014841, GM106628) and a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship. It was conducted in collaboration with Pasko Rakic, director of the Kavli Institute at Yale and one of the world's leading experts on the development of the human cortex. Other authors were Deena Emera, Jing Leng, Justin Cotney and Richard Sarro in the Noonan lab and Albert E. Ayoub in the Rakic lab.

Science Daily. 2015. “Mapping 'switches' that shaped the evolution of the human brain”. Science Daily. Posted: March 5, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Discovery of jaw by ASU team sheds light on early Homo

A fossil lower jaw found in the Ledi-Geraru research area, Afar Regional State, Ethiopia, pushes back evidence for the human genus -- Homo -- to 2.8 million years ago, according to a pair of reports published March 4 in the online version of the journal Science. The jaw predates the previously known fossils of theHomo lineage by approximately 400,000 years. It was discovered in 2013 by an international team led by Arizona State University scientists Kaye E. Reed, Christopher J. Campisano and J Ramón Arrowsmith, and Brian A. Villmoare of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

For decades, scientists have been searching for African fossils documenting the earliest phases of the Homo lineage, but specimens recovered from the critical time interval between 3 and 2.5 million years ago have been frustratingly few and often poorly preserved. As a result, there has been little agreement on the time of origin of the lineage that ultimately gave rise to modern humans. At 2.8 million years, the new Ledi-Geraru fossil provides clues to changes in the jaw and teeth inHomo only 200,000 years after the last known occurrence of Australopithecus afarensis ("Lucy") from the nearby Ethiopian site of Hadar.

Found by team member and ASU graduate student Chalachew Seyoum, the Ledi-Geraru fossil preserves the left side of the lower jaw, or mandible, along with five teeth. The fossil analysis, led by Villmoare and William H. Kimbel, director of ASU's Institute of Human Origins, revealed advanced features, for example, slim molars, symmetrical premolars and an evenly proportioned jaw, that distinguish early species on the Homo lineage, such as Homo habilis at 2 million years ago, from the more apelike early Australopithecus. But the primitive, sloping chin links the Ledi-Geraru jaw to a Lucy-like ancestor.

"In spite of a lot of searching, fossils on the Homo lineage older than 2 million years ago are very rare," says Villmoare. "To have a glimpse of the very earliest phase of our lineage's evolution is particularly exciting."

In a report in the journal Nature, Fred Spoor and colleagues present a new reconstruction of the deformed mandible belonging to the 1.8 million-year-old iconic type-specimen of Homohabilis ("Handy Man") from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. The reconstruction presents an unexpectedly primitive portrait of the H. habilis jaw and makes a good link back to the Ledi fossil.

"The Ledi jaw helps narrow the evolutionary gap between Australopithecus and early Homo," says Kimbel. "It's an excellent case of a transitional fossil in a critical time period in human evolution."

Global climate change that led to increased African aridity after about 2.8 million years ago is often hypothesized to have stimulated species appearances and extinctions, including the origin of Homo. In the companion paper on the geological and environmental contexts of the Ledi-Geraru jaw, Erin N. DiMaggio, of Pennsylvania State University, and colleagues found the fossil mammal assemblage contemporary with this jaw to be dominated by species that lived in more open habitats--grasslands and low shrubs--than those common at olderAustralopithecus-bearing sites, such as Hadar, where Lucy's species is found.

"We can see the 2.8 million year aridity signal in the Ledi-Geraru faunal community," says research team co-leader Kaye Reed, "but it's still too soon to say that this means climate change is responsible for the origin of Homo. We need a larger sample of hominin fossils, and that's why we continue to come to the Ledi-Geraru area to search."

The research team, which began conducting field work at Ledi-Geraru in 2002, includes:

  • Erin N. DiMaggio (Pennsylvania State University), Christopher J. Campisano (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change), J. Ramón Arrowsmith (ASU School of Earth and Space Exploration), Guillaume Dupont-Nivet (CNRS Géosciences Rennes), and Alan L. Deino (Berkeley Geochronology Center), who conducted the geological research
  • Faysal Bibi (Museum für Naturkunde, Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Science), Margaret E. Lewis (Stockton University), John Rowan (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change), Antoine Souron (Human Evolution Research Center, University of California, Berkeley), and Lars Werdelin (Swedish Museum of Natural History), who identified the fossil mammals
  • Kaye E. Reed (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change), who reconstructed the past habitats based on the faunal communities
  • David R. Braun (George Washington University), who conducted archaeological research
  • Brian A. Villmoare (University of Nevada Las Vegas), William H. Kimbel (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change), and Chalachew Seyoum (ASU Institute of Human Origins and School of Human Evolution and Social Change, and Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage, Addis Ababa), who analyzed the hominin fossil

The Ledi-Geraru Research Project is based in the Institute of Human Origins (IHO) at Arizona State University. IHO is one of the preeminent research organizations in the world devoted to the science of human origins. A research center of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, IHO pursues an integrative strategy for research and discovery central to its over 30-year-old founding mission, bridging social, earth, and life science approaches to the most important questions concerning the course, causes, and timing of events in the human career over deep time. IHO fosters public awareness of human origins and its relevance to contemporary society through innovative outreach programs that create timely, accurate information for both education and lay communities.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Discovery of jaw by ASU team sheds light on early Homo”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 4, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Coring in Ethiopia to create a half million year sedimentary record

How was human evolution and migration influenced by past changes in climate? This question has led researchers to drill to great depths in a dried up lake in east Africa.

The Chew Bahir Drilling Project, in a remote part of south Ethiopia, will provide a sedimentary record of changes in rainfall, temperature and vegetation, spanning the last 500,000 years of human evolution.

Chew Bahir, is one of a chain of lake basins in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, close to the sites of the earliest known fossils of modern human, Homo sapiens.

Speaking of the importance of the project, Professor Henry Lamb, of Aberystwyth University’s Department of Geography and Earth Sciences, said:

“Ideas about how climatic change may have influenced the emergence and dispersal of modern humans have remained largely speculative. We are now going to be able to place the fossil and archaeological data against a detailed record of climatic variation. This will allow us to make more rigorous tests of these hypotheses.”

Sedimentary record of at least the last half million years

Coring was recently completed by an international team, reaching a final depth of 278m, in two adjacent drill holes. Based on earlier pilot drilling, these cores should provide a sedimentary record of at least the last half million years. Work had to stop after the breakage and loss of 32 drilling rods, including the crucial drill bits.

Conditions on the mudflats of the ancient lake were arduous. The team of scientists and drillers, from Germany, Ethiopia, USA and the UK, had to contend with mosquitoes, trucks stuck in the mud, heat, rain and dust storms, together with all the logistical difficulties of operating in a remote and challenging environment.

The cores are now being logged at LacCore, the US National Lacustrine Core Facility at the University of Minnesota.

The team will reconvene in April to study the cores and distribute samples for specialist analysis and dating at labs in the UK and Germany.

The Chew Bahir Project is part of the Hominin Sites and Paleolakes Drilling Project (HSPDP), a multi-national research effort focused on five key palaeoanthropological sites in east Africa.

Past Horizons. 2015. “Coring in Ethiopia to create a half million year sedimentary record”. Past Horizons. Posted: March 4, 2015. Available online:

Friday, April 10, 2015

Archaeologists find two 'lost cities' deep in Honduras jungle

Archaeological team say they have set foot in a place untouched by humans for at least 600 years in a site that may be the ‘lost city of the monkey god’

Archaeologists have discovered two lost cities in the deep jungle of Honduras, emerging from the forest with evidence of a pyramid, plazas and artifacts that include the effigy of a half-human, half-jaguar spirit.

The team of specialists in archaeology and other fields, escorted by three British bushwhacking guides and a detail of Honduran special forces, explored on foot a remote valley of La Mosquitia where an aerial survey had found signs of ruins in 2012.

Chris Fisher, the lead US archaeologist on the team, told the Guardian that the expedition – co-coordinated by the film-makers Bill Benenson and Steve Elkins, Honduras and National Geographic (which first reported the story on its site) – had by all appearances set foot in a place that had gone untouched by humans for at least 600 years.

“Even the animals acted as if they’ve never seen people,” Fisher said. “Spider monkeys are all over place, and they’d follow us around and throw food at us and hoot and holler and do their thing.”

“To be treated not as a predator but as another primate in their space was for me the most amazing thing about this whole trip,” he said. Fisher and the team arrived by helicopter to “groundtruth” the data revealed by surveying technology called Lidar, which projects a grid of infrared beams powerful enough to break through the dense forest canopy. That data showed a human-created landscape, Fisher said of sister cities not only with houses, plazas and structures, but also features “much like an English garden, with orchards and house gardens, fields of crops, and roads and paths.”

In the rainforest valley, they said they found stone structural foundations of two cities that mirrored people’s thinking of the Maya region, though these were not Mayan people. The area dates between 1000AD and 1400AD, and while very little is known without excavation of the site and surrounding region, Fisher said it was likely that European diseases had at least in part contributed to the culture’s disappearance. He also said it’s unclear whether the people could be related to the region’s indigenous communities who still live in the area.

The expedition also found and documented 52 artifacts that Virgilio Paredes, head of Honduras’s national anthropology and history institute, said indicated a civilisation distinct from the Mayans. Those artifacts included a bowl with an intricate carvings and semi-buried stone sculptures, including several that merged human and animal characteristics.

The cache of artifacts – “very beautiful, very fantastic,” in Fisher’s words – may have been a burial offering, he said, noting the effigies of spirit animals such as vultures and serpents.

Fisher said that while an archaeologist would likely not call these cities evidence of a lost civilisation, he would call it evidence of a culture or society. “Is it lost? Well, we don’t know anything about it,” he said. The exploratory team did not have a permit to excavate and hopes to do so on a future expedition. “That’s the problem with archaeology is it takes a long time to get things done, another decade if we work intensively there, but then we’ll know a little more,” Fisher said.

“This wasn’t like some crazy colonial expedition of the last century,” he added. Despite the abundance of monkeys, far too little is known of the site still to tie it to the “lost city of the monkey god” that one such expedition claimed to have discovered. In about 1940, the eccentric journalist Theodore Morde set off into the Honduran jungle in search of the legendary “white city” that Spanish conquistadors had heard tales of in the centuries before.

He broke out of the brush months later with hundreds of artifacts and extravagant stories of how ancient people worshipped their simian deity. According to Douglas Preston, the writer National Geographic sent along with its own expedition: “He refused to divulge the location out of fear, he said, that the site would be looted. He later committed suicide and his site – if it existed at all – was never identified.”

Fisher emphasised that archaeologists know extraordinarily little about the region’s ancient societies relative to the Maya civilisation, and that it would take more research and excavation. He said that although some academics might find it distasteful, expeditions financed through private means – in this case the film-makers Benenson and Elkins – would become increasingly commonplace as funding from universities and grants lessened.

Fisher also suggested that the Lidar infrared technology used to find the site would soon be as commonplace as radiocarbon dating: “People just have to get through this ‘gee-whiz’ phase and start thinking about what we can do with it.” Paredes and Fisher also said that the pristine, densely-wooded site was dangerously close to land being deforested for beef farms that sell to fast-food chains. Global demand has driven Honduras’s beef industry, Fisher said, something that he found worrying.

“I keep thinking of those monkeys looking at me not having seen people before. To lose all this over a burger, it’s a really hard pill to swallow.”

Yuhas, Alan. 2015. “Archaeologists find two 'lost cities' deep in Honduras jungle”. The Guardian. Posted: March 6, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Albino Toddler in Africa Killed for Witchcraft

A toddler named Yohana Bahati was abducted from his home in northern Tanzania on Feb. 14, taken by two men armed with machetes. Police were called and fears were immediately raised because of the child’s rare genetic disorder, albinism. The condition results in a lack of pigmentation in the hair, skin, and eyes, giving them poor eyesight and extreme sensitivity to light. It also makes its sufferers a target for magic-related murder.

Bahati was soon found several kilometers from his home and the worst fears were realized. As a news article in “The Telegraph” described:

“The mutilated body of an albino toddler has been found in Tanzania with his limbs hacked off, the latest such killing for body parts for witchcraft… police finding the body on Tuesday afternoon in a forest area close to his home. ‘His arms and legs were hacked off,’ regional police chief Joseph Konyo said. The baby’s mother Ester Jonas, aged 30, is in a serious state in (the) hospital with machete cuts to her face and arms after she tried to protect her baby.”

This horrific crime highlights the unusual intersection of magic beliefs, African culture, and government. This is only the latest in a series of albino murders. In Tanzania and Burundi, at least 50 albinos have been murdered for their body parts in recent years according to a 2010 Red Cross report. In November 2009, four people were arrested and sentenced to death in northern Tanzania for killing an albino man to harvest his body parts.

Throughout Africa witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases, but also for placing (or removing) magic curses or bringing luck in love or business. The belief and practice of using body parts for magical ritual or benefit is called muti.

Muti murders are particularly brutal, with knives and machetes used to cut and hack off limbs, breasts, and other body parts from their living victims. According to the United Nations albino body parts can sell for around $600 (or about what the average person earns in one year) in Tanzania.

Muti Magic

Earlier this year Tanzanian officials had reportedly banned witch doctors in an effort to prevent further witchcraft-related murders of people with albinism, but magical beliefs are deeply embedded in sub-Saharan cultures. Though the practice of muti specifically is not commonly practiced by witch doctors and traditional healers throughout Africa, it happens often enough (especially in East Africa) that albinos and their families live in constant fear for their lives.

What makes the death of Yohana Bahati especially tragic is his young age (most victims are older children or adults), and also the explanation for why the attacks have been increasing in recent months and may get worse: the use of magic by politicians in Tanzania’s upcoming elections to gain an advantage over their rivals.

As bizarre as it may sound to Westerners, the idea of using magic to gain an edge over an opponent — or for success in business or romance — is routine and commonplace throughout Africa. Witch doctors are hired to cast or remove curses, and if you believe that magic affects your daily life — as many Africans do — then obviously those with the most to gain or lose (such as those vying for public office) want the most powerful magic employed on their behalf.

Unfortunately many believe that albino body parts contain the most potent magic, and this in turn creates a demand and threat to innocent lives based on superstition.

Human body parts — whether from albinos or anyone else — do not, of course, contain magic. But as long as there are those who sincerely believe that they do, Africans afflicted with albinism will continue to be persecuted. Though belief in spells and curses are often thought of as being quaint or benign (perhaps akin to belief in angels or psychics), the fact is that in some cases belief in magic and witchcraft can have very real — and even deadly — consequences.

In addition to steps being taken by the Tanzanian government, other organizations are working to help to help protect Africans with albinism from attacks and persecution including the Red Cross, the United Nations and a Canadian charity established in 2008 called Under The Same Sun.

Radford, Benjamin. 2015. “Albino Toddler in Africa Killed for Witchcraft”. Discovery News. Posted: March 2, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Archaeologists unearth lost fortress of Genghis Khan in western Mongolia

Japanese and Mongolian archaeologists said Feb. 26 that they have discovered the remains of a 13th-century military outpost established for Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan (c. 1162-1227) in southwestern Mongolia.

The joint research team said the discovery could be useful in learning about the Mongol Empire’s strategy on western expansion and trade routes.

“We hope the discovery will be useful in ascertaining the history of the Mongolian Plateau between the 13th and 14th centuries,” said team leader Koichi Matsuda, professor emeritus of Mongol Empire history at Osaka International University. The researchers surveyed ruins about 880 kilometers west of Ulan Bator in 2001 and found that geographical features around them were similar to the landscape depicted in a travel book written by a medieval Chinese Taoism leader.

The researchers also unearthed pieces of Chinese ceramics dating to the 13th century. An aerial photograph taken in 2001 shows the remains of a fortress surrounded by a soil wall, measuring 200 meters by 200 meters. Last summer, the archaeologists used carbon dating to determine the age of unearthed wood chips and animal bones found at the site. The analysis showed the wood pieces were from the 12th to 13th century, while the bones were estimated to date to the 14th century.

Based on the findings, the archaeologists concluded the items were from a castle that was used as a military base when Genghis Khan was leading the bloody invasion of countries in central Asia.

The fortress is said to have been commissioned by a close aide to Genghis Khan in 1212. Although researchers from various countries have pointed to multiple areas as the former site of the castle, the actual location of the facility had not been confirmed.

Imai, Kunihiko. 2015. “Archaeologists unearth lost fortress of Genghis Khan in western Mongolia”. The Asahi Shimbun. Posted: February 27, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Cross-cultural communication -- much more than just a linguistic stretch

Mandarin-speaking Chinese more likely to read emotions in voices of others; English-speaking North Americans rely more on facial expressions

If you are a Mandarin-speaker from China and want to understand how someone else is feeling, you are likely to concentrate on their voice rather than on their face. The opposite is true for English-language speakers in North America, who tend to "read" the emotions of others in their facial expressions rather than in their tone of voice. These cultural/linguistic differences run so deep that they are to be found not only in terms of behaviour, but even at the level of brain activity, according to a study recently published by McGill researchers in Neuropsychologia.

The researchers arrived at this conclusion by using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure brain activity as they asked the participants (20 Mandarin-speakers and 19 English- speakers, all of whom were based in Montreal) to identify the emotions being expressed in a series of vocal and visual cues. The researchers believe that Mandarin-speakers' rely more on tone of voice rather than on facial cues to understand emotion compared to English-language speakers. This may be due to the limited eye contact and more restrained facial expressions common in East Asian cultures.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Cross-cultural communication -- much more than just a linguistic stretch”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 24, 2015. Available online:

Monday, April 6, 2015

A new look at culture and its influence on individuals and organizations

New research from Columbia Business School professor introduces 'polyculturalism'

Whether you are an executive, an entrepreneur, or even an MBA student, the ability to bridge cultural gaps and leverage foreign ideas and opportunities is critical to success in today's increasingly global business environment. However, this skill is more elusive than many think.

How do some people collaborate effectively all around the world, while others succeed only with people of similar backgrounds? Why do some diverse firms enjoy cosmopolitan creativity, whereas others suffer from cultural clashes?

New research from Columbia Business School suggests that traditional models of understanding culture and human behavior are, at best, incomplete. Why? Traditional research categorizes individuals by their culture of origin and identifies cultural influences with differences between cultures, which often lapses into stereotyping. Polyculturalism rejects this view, and contends that individuals' inheritance from cultural traditions is both partial and plural. For example, an individual from the United States internalizes and enacts only some aspects of American culture and takes some influences from other cultural traditions.

Polyculturalism views cultures as networks not categories. Whereas the traditional research paradigm of culturalism, and its entailed policies of "multiculturalism," emphasize differences among cultures, the research paradigm of polyculturalism, and its entailed policies of "interculturalism," emphasize interconnections among cultures.

"It's time for a paradigm shift in our understanding of culture," says Michael Morris, the Chavkin-Chang Professor of Leadership at Columbia Business School and lead author of the study. "At a time when so many businesspeople live and work in multiple cultures, categorizing people based on their passport or birthplace just doesn't ring true. Polyculturalism offers a better lens for understanding cultural complexity and how it affects collaboration, negotiation and leadership."

The paper, "Polycultural Psychology," was published this month in the 2015 edition of theAnnual Review of Psychology. It was co-authored by Morris, Chi-yue Chiu of the Nanyang Business School in Singapore, and Zhi Liu, a PhD student at Columbia Business School.

For polyculturalists, cultural programming is not an underlying "operating system" instilled in childhood, but rather a set of "apps" acquired through various life and career experiences. We select and develop our cultural proficiencies by engaging with institutions of our culture of origin, and as well as institutions of other cultures. These proficiencies also serve as cultural capital, allowing us to understand, communicate, and collaborate with others.

The paper reviews recent research conducted at Morris's lab at Columbia Business School that identified both conscious and subconscious learning processes used to acquire cultural proficiencies. Based on these discoveries, the researchers suggest new ways to select and train employees for assignments abroad or for roles working with culturally diverse partners and clients.

As the authors discuss in the paper, the polyculturalist paradigm not only gives insight into how individuals acquire and manage intercultural knowledge and relationships; it also offers new ways of understanding how cultures change. Cultures are linked to other cultures via individuals, and individuals' responses to foreign ideas and the social movements that often ensue from those responses can spark cultural change. Cultures often change by borrowing or adapting useful ideas or practices from a foreign culture, but they sometimes change in the opposite way, in reactionary contrast to foreign ideas. Polyculturalist research identifies factors that predict when each of these dynamics is most likely.

The paper also discusses culture-related policies that follow from different scientific paradigms about culture:

  • Colorblindness policies that prevented discrimination based on backgrounds were important developments in the mid-20th century; they were rooted in universalist research elucidating the commonality of human psychology and countering racist folk beliefs.
  • Multiculturalism policies that recognize and support several distinct cultural or ethnic communities within a society or organization developed in the late 20th century to support fuller inclusion of minority cultural groups; they were rooted in culturalist research showing that cultural identities are motivating and they carry distinctive valuable perspectives.
  • Interculturalist policies that foster inter-cultural interactions, increasingly adopted in Europe these days, are rooted in emerging polyculturalist research which shows how cultural traditions regenerate themselves through interaction and hybridity.

"These three basic cultural policies all have important roles in diverse organizations and societies," said Morris. Some societies have commitments to one of these policies--for example, colorblindness (France), multiculturalism (Canada), and interculturalism (Catalonia)--but all societies can benefit from understanding these three different approaches. "Likewise, corporations may find that some aspects of human resources are best handled through colorblindness, others through multiculturalism, and still others through interculturalism."

EurekAlert. 2015. “A new look at culture and its influence on individuals and organizations”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 24, 2015. Available online: