Sunday, May 31, 2015

World Will Get More Religious by 2050

The world is becoming more religious, as the number of agnostics and others who don't affiliate with a certain religion shrinks as a percentage of the global population.

By 2050, just 13 percent of people in the world will say they are unaffiliated, compared with 16 percent who said the same in 2010, according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

The United States is an exception, where more Americans are expected to flee organized religion.

Religious risers

Numbers for all of the world's major religions, except Buddhism, are expected to rise as the population does the same.

Islam will grow faster than any other major religion, and at a higher rate than the world population balloons, the survey found. In fact, Muslims are projected to increase by 73 percent between 2010 and 2050. If current trends hold, Christianity will also grow, albeit at a slower rate, increasing by 35 percent by 2050. That is about the same rate as the world's population overall is expected to grow by 2050.

If those numbers pan out, there will be nearly equal numbers of Muslims (2.8 billion) and Christians (2.9 billion) in the world by 2050, for the first time in history. Increases in a slew of other religions are also forecast: Hindus are projected to rise by 34 percent, from just over 1 billion in 2010 to 1.4 billion in 2050; Jews are expected to grow from just under 14 million in 2010 to 16.1 million by 2050.

Also by 2050, some 450 million people in the world will be affiliated with various folk religions, such as African traditional religions, Chinese folk religions, Native American religions and Australian aboriginal religions, the survey projected. That represents an increase of 11 percent relative to 2010 numbers.

Nonbelievers and switchers

People who don't believe in any gods as well as agnostics and those not associated with a particular religion will become a smaller slice of the world's population. Though this unaffiliated group will increase in numbers from 1.1 billion to 1.2 billion, it will account for a lower percentage of the population (16 versus 13 percent) in 2050.

That won't be the case in the United States, however, where agnostics,atheists and other unaffiliated individuals will increase from 16 percent to 26 percent of the population by 2050, Pew found. Christians in the United States are predicted to decline from 2010's 78 percent to 66 percent by the middle of the 21st century. By that same date, Muslims (2.1 percent of population) are expected to outnumber Jews (1.4 percent) in the United States.

These shifts in the world's religions are the result of several factors, including differences in fertility rates, the size of the youth population and people switching faiths, Pew said. (Younger populations have more people with prime childbearing years ahead.)

For instance, a good chunk of the growth in Christianity and Islam is expected to happen in sub-Saharan Africa, where birth rates are high.Fertility rates varied by religion, according to Pew, with Muslims having the highest fertility rate, of 3.1 children per woman; Christians coming in second, with 2.7 kids per woman; Hindus and Jews with average fertility rates of 2.4 and 2.3, respectively; and Buddhists having one of the lowest fertility rates, at 1.6.

"Today's religiously unaffiliated population, by contrast, is heavily concentrated in places with low fertility and aging populations, such as Europe, North America, China and Japan," according to a statement by Pew.

Changing one's religious affiliation will also affect these numbers, with Christianity forecast to have the biggest exodus, losing 106 million believers by 2050 while gaining just 40 million. Most of those leaving Christian religions will choose not to be affiliated with a particular religion, Pew predicts. About 3 million people are expected to become Muslims, while 3 million Buddhists and 300,000 Jews are forecast to switch out of those religions, the report found.

The Pew results are based on censuses and surveys for 175 countries, with statistics for religions in the remaining 59 countries coming from the World Religion Database and other sources, according to Pew. Researchers at the Age and Cohort Change Project of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis made the projection calculations using a modified version of the so-called cohort-component method, which is the standard demographic method for population projections. Pew has a detailed description of their methodology online.

Bryner, Jeanna. 2015. “World Will Get More Religious by 2050”. Live Science. Posted: April 3, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Touch-Free Archaeology Reveals History With Lasers, Drones

It seems counterintuitive, but sometimes archaeologists can learn more bynot digging up the past. In fact, noninvasive methods—including lasers, ground-penetrating radar, and drone photography—are changing the way they do their work.

One of the latest examples: a project at Ammaia, in southern Portugal, where researchers have been able to create detailed, three-dimensional illustrations of a now-underground Roman village in its heyday.

Data from the site show that the town flourished in the first century A.D.—at its peak it was home to more than 2,000 inhabitants—but gradually declined in the fourth century. By the Middle Ages it was abandoned.

Using a variety of noninvasive techniques, an international team ofresearchers has been able to identify different phases of the town’s construction, from Augustan times onward.

The result? A first-of-its-kind video of what a walk through the town would have looked like, stitched together via different kinds of data.

Ammaia is one of the first projects in the world to fully integrate cutting-edge fieldwork techniques with visualization software in order to reveal an invisible heritage. But if the noninvasive trend continues apace, it certainly won’t be the last.

Looking Without Touching

Not all noninvasive techniques are new. Aerial photography, for instance, has been a mainstay of archaeological research since the 1970s.

But over the past decade, techniques and technologies have advanced in both depth and breadth, letting archaeologists see more detail beneath the ground, over a wider area. Keeping the past buried has its obvious benefits. Digging—even careful, scientific digging—can destroy some of the features that are underground. And artifacts that are exposed are vulnerable to a variety of environmental predations.

“The future of preservation is to refrain from excavation,” says Cristina Corsi, an archaeologist at the University of Cassino in Italy and coordinator of the Radio-Past Project, which broadcast the digital and traditional excavations at Ammaia.  

Corsi says that when Pompeii’s House of the Gladiators collapsed in 2010, many of her colleagues felt a strange sensation—relief, because the incident could mean that other sites will be saved from the same fate.

Many people aren’t aware that excavated archaeological structures need constant care, and that environmental conditions today—which are often very different from the climate in which relics were preserved—makes it likely that they’ll crumble

“For [every event like the House of Gladiators collapse] that’s in the news, hundreds happen each day at archaeological sites,” Corsi told an audience last month at an American Association for the Advancement of Sciencemeeting in San Jose, California.

Even in Rome, where cultural preservation is a well-funded priority, sites can be vulnerable. Pieces of the Colosseum recently tumbled free, for instance, and partial collapses have occurred in the plastering on Roman aqueducts, ceilings in the Domus Aurea, and several structures on thePalatine Hill.

A Closer Look

Ammaia sits in a Portuguese nature reserve, which means it can’t be dug up. So when the researchers—who hail from Portugal, Belgium, Slovenia, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Germany—began working in 2009, they had to do so in a noninvasive way.

Their first step was to create a topographic map, and then to use Helikites—helium balloons crossed with kites—to get a view of the area, including a quarry that Romans used for construction materials.

The next step was a geomagnetic survey. Covering more than 37 acres (15 hectares), it revealed almost the full plan of the town, plus many elements of Ammaia’s suburbs, including roads, cemeteries, and industrial sectors. It also showed stone blocks used for heating—probably ovens, kilns, or objects to heat water for the town’s baths.

Then the researchers turned to ground-penetrating radar, which shoots electromagnetic pulses into the earth and registers the signals reflected by underground structures. That makes it possible to create images of surfaces below street pavements and airport tarmacs, among other hard-to-reach locations.

At Ammaia, the radar survey of the forum and its adjacent baths revealed details like drains and columns within buildings.

Then and Now

Noninvasive methods are being used more and more often these days, in more and more places. But they’re hardly ubiquitous.

In fact, adoption of noninvasive methods varies widely, even within countries, says Axel Posluschny, an archaeologist and manager forArcheoLandscape Europe. Some governments are reluctant to give researchers access to data-packed aerial photos—usually the starting place for noninvasive archeology—for fear that they could be used for other purposes.

Nevertheless, over the past several decades, noninvasive methods have begun making their way into archaeological training—meaning the next generation of archaeologists will likely know how to use these techniques.

At places like Leiden University in the Netherlands, which is implementing an intensive training program for noninvasive archaeology, students are being taught remote-sensing techniques.

“Usually,” says Posluschny, “these courses consist of both a theoretical [part] and a practical part—either hands-on experience or a field school—related to an ongoing research prospect.”

At the same time, existing technologies are improving. Lidar scans, for instance, are made using red-light lasers, which don’t work underwater because liquid absorbs red light. But NASA and an Austrian firm are developing a lidar green-light laser that will soon be able to see clearly in shallow water.

As for cost, digital methods are generally cheaper than traditional ones (provided the researchers using them have the right training). Software to stitch together data from diverse sources is usually free. And as drone technology continues to advance—the latest devices have more sensors than ever before—data collection will speed up and aerial photography will become even cheaper and easier.  

Still, says Posluschny, traditional methods continue to play an important role. For one thing, it’s still not possible to date objects without digging them up. For another, because older objects are buried deeper than newer ones, it’s harder to create a digital chronology for a site than to use traditional digging methods.

“Excavating gives a different kind of information,” says Posluschny. “Aerial photos, lidar data visualizations, or geophysical surveys usually give information about the shape and the size of [buried] archaeological sites.”

Going forward, a combination of traditional and noninvasive techniques may be the best way to gather data. For instance, remote-sensing information—great for covering large areas and landscapes with minimal work—is now being used to pinpoint the best places to perform minimal, targeted excavations.

The Future of Seeing the Past

In some ways, it’s becoming easier than ever to connect people to the past. Smartphones and tablets can already display compelling, three-dimensional explorations in real time.

But for some people, there’s no replacing the real thing.

“Among tourists [looking at a site remotely], you have the impression that they feel robbed [of] the possibility to touch and see monuments,” said Corsi.

In some places, however, that’s not an option. Many cities, especially in Europe, have long histories of building on top of archaeological sites. In those cases, noninvasive research techniques may be the only way to dig into former times.

Cornelius Meyer, a geophysicist and managing director of the geo-prospecting firm Eastern Atlas, based in Berlin, says it’s now possible to see beneath many places—airports, roads, church floors, town squares—that were inaccessible in the past. And, he says, “we still have a lot of unexplored archeological sites” that are primed for a digital discovery.  

As noninvasive research methods grow more prevalent, the expense and danger of disturbing ancient sites may itself become a relic of the past.

Gammon, Katharine. 2015. “Touch-Free Archaeology Reveals History With Lasers, Drones”. National Geographic News. Posted: April 3, 2015. Available online:

Friday, May 29, 2015

Scientific Babel by Michael Gordin review – the hunt for a common language

If you’re a working scientist and you can’t read this sentence, you’re in trouble. English isn’t the only language of modern science, but it’s far and away the most important. “If you are interested in what it would be like to live in a world with one language of communication, a world with no Babel,” writes Michael Gordin, “you should look to the natural scientists. They come from there.” In Scientific Babel, Gordin looks beyond the dominance of English in contemporary scientific discourse to uncover a story of scientific debate that’s characterised by confusion and misapprehension as much as by collaboration and progress.

Scientists have always found ways of making themselves understood to each other. After all, without a bridging of the language gap, Archimedes is just another naked Greek man shouting in his bathroom. Science, of course, has had a shared language before, at least in Europe. Latin was the main language of medieval and Renaissance scholarship, but its empire wasn’t as universal as is often made out. Historians of science and medicine have shown that much of the scientific knowledge of this period had its roots in vernacular languages.

The strangest thing about Latin was that it was, for a time, nearly a universal language of science and yet those engaged in scientific inquiry chose to give it up. Of course, as a language of science, Latin still isn’t dead: it was only in 2012 that the international code of botanical nomenclature allowed descriptions of new plant species to be in other languages. But during the 18th century, European science began gradually to turn away from the idea of a single shared language, leading to the emergence of a “triumvirate” of languages of scientific inquiry – English, French and German.

It’s at this point in the story that Gordin takes something of a shortcut, bypassing the golden years of the triumvirate to bring us to 1850, where his account really begins. To cover the slow decline of Latin and the emergence of three dominant vernaculars demands a book all of its own, but Gordin’s pithy opening chapter (on the rise and fall of Latin) manages to cover a broad swath of ground. In any case, he isn’t trying to write a grand unified history of scientific languages. What he offers instead is something more idiosyncratic, surprising and ultimately more satisfying than any whistlestop tour might be. From the vantage point of languages in which he himself is competent, he offers a polyglot history of scientific endeavour from the middle of the 19th century to the present day.

Scientists in the 19th century recognised that a solution to the polyglot problem would be for everybody to speak the same language. Fine. But which one? National and linguistic chauvinism kept getting in the way: the French wouldn’t speak German, the English wouldn’t speak French, the Germans wouldn’t speak Russian, and so on. Since none of the national vernaculars would do, somebody would have to invent one.

Constructed languages such as Volapük, Ido and Esperanto (or Idiom Neutral, Latino sine flexione andInterlingua) often feature in histories of language as bizarre curiosities or dead ends. What’s masterful in Gordin’s treatment of these painstakingly constructed tongues – and of the vituperative debates that swirled around them – is that he takes them seriously, precisely as did the scientists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 1904, an Esperanto journal of science was founded, carrying translations of important scientific articles: its sponsors included the celebrated polymath Henri Poincaré and two Nobel laureates. Gordin argues convincingly that by the early 20th century, debates about the prospect of shared constructed languages were of real interest to scientists. His re-creation of these debates is fascinating, witty and never condescending, and proof that these beguiling languages are more than just a sideshow in the history of communication.

The global conflicts of the 20th century had lasting impacts on the scientific community, and also left their mark on the languages its members spoke. After the first world war, German’s status as a scientific language suffered a blow from which it never fully recovered. From being one of the triumvirate of languages central to science, it became an object of suspicion and even of disgust. By 1919, 16 US states had severely restricted the use of German – if you spoke the language in the streets of Findlay, Ohio, you could be fined $25 by the city council. The laws were dropped soon afterwards, but the damage was done, and not just to German: American provision of foreign-language education collapsed, clearing the ground for the panics around Russian-language scientific literature and machine translation that would characterise the cold war period. Gordin charts a cold war “language race”, in which scientists on both sides of the iron curtain strove to keep up with the work being done by their counterparts. The CIA ploughed funds into research on machine translation, while a lucrative private translation industry grew up, turning Russian journals into English so that Anglophone scientists could read about Soviet discoveries a mere six months after they had first appeared in print. English translation of Soviet material opened Russian science up not only to the Americans and the British, but also to a growing international community for whom English was fast becoming the main language of science.

But who cares what language science is in, especially – you or I might ask – when it’s one we speak? In 2001, an editorial in the journal Nature Cell Biology argued (in English): “The use of a universal language for communication in science is unavoidable, and resisting this concept for the sake of cultural difference would seem to be counterproductive.” Maybe language barriers in print aren’t all that important. A chemist might reasonably say that they can follow a paper published in another language pretty easily: once you know what you’re doing, you can get pretty far just by reading the equations. The English used in scientific publications tends to be more standardised and simplified than the language you might hear in the street.

But academic publications make up only one element of scientific discourse, and I was left wanting to hear more about face-to-face communication. How do non-native speakers deal with English as the working language of labs, of conferences, of funding bodies and international collaborations? Gordin recognises that there are questions of power and privilege at play here, but he might have gone further into the language strategies that lie behind the day-to-day work of modern scientific research. Other questions are left hanging, not least the place of Chinese, Hindi, Swahili or even Spanish in the history of science: where are these languages now, and where might we expect them to figure in future?

Gordin’s account doesn’t close the door on the subject: he pulls it wide open and jams a pile of dictionaries against it so we can gawk inside. He has hit on a marvellous idea and executed it with panache and laconic humour. His book is almost never dull, one somewhat plodding chapter on the slow demise of scientific German after the second world war notwithstanding. This reconstruction of nearly two centuries of scientific Babel reminds us that histories of science and discovery are always more than simple tales of great men and women: they are choral, and discordant, and it is only by listening for their many voices that we can begin to get at the reality of the past.

Gallagher, John. 2015. “Scientific Babel by Michael Gordin review – the hunt for a common language”. The Guardian. Posted: April 2, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Complete camel skeleton unearthed in Austria

Archaeologists working on a rescue excavation uncovered a complete camel skeleton in Tulln, Lower Austria. The camel, which was dated to the time of the Second Ottoman War in the 17th century, most likely died in the city of Tulln. Genetic analyses showed that the animal was a male hybrid of a dromedary in the maternal line and a Bactrian camel in the paternal line. The find is unique for Central Europe. Archaeozoologists and geneticists from the Vetmeduni Vienna now published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE.

In 2006 construction began on a new shopping centre in Tulln. The works unearthed various archaeologically valuable objects that were salvaged during rescue excavations. Among these objects was also the complete skeleton of a large mammal.

Large mammal uncovered during excavations in Tulln

"The partly excavated skeleton was at first suspected to be a large horse or cattle," says archaeozoologist Alfred Galik from the Institute for Anatomy, Histology and Embryology at the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna. "But one look at the cervical vertebrae, the lower jaw and the metacarpal bones immediately revealed that this was a camel."

Camel bones have been found in Europe dating back to the Roman period. Isolated bones or partly preserved skeletons are known from Mauerbach near Vienna as well as from Serbia and Belgium. But a complete camel skeleton is unique for Central Europe.

"Exotic animal" died in Tulln

In addition to horses, the Ottoman army also used camels for transportation and as riding animals. In cases of scarcity, the soldiers also ate the animal's flesh. But the skeleton found in Tulln was complete. "This means that the animal was not killed and then butchered. It may have been acquired as part of an exchange," says first author Galik. "The animal was certainly exotic for the people of Tulln. They probably didn't know what to feed it or whether one could eat it. Perhaps it died a natural death and was then buried without being used."

Camel was a hybrid

Extensive DNA analysis showed that the animal was a hybrid: its mother was a dromedary and its father a Bactrian camel. The genetic diagnosis confirmed what the scientists saw morphologically. Several of the physical features were that of a dromedary, others of a Bactrian camel. "Such crossbreeding was not unusual at the time. Hybrids were easier to handle, more enduring and larger than their parents. These animals were especially suited for military use," Galik explains.

The camel was male, around seven years old and most likely castrated.

Find dated to the 17th century

Besides animal bones, the excavations also unearthed ceramic plates and other items. A coin -- a so-called "Rechenpfenning" -- from the time of Louis XIV dates the find to the years between 1643 and 1715. A medicinal bottle containing Theriacum, a medieval remedy from the chemist's shop "Apotheke zur Goldenen Krone" in Vienna was also found at the site. This pharmacy existed between 1628 and 1665, which helped date the site with further precision.

Science Daily. 2015. “Complete camel skeleton unearthed in Austria”. Science Daily. Posted: April 1, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Pagan Roots Of Easter

Teaching any sort of academic program with religious content can be a tricky undertaking. Religious passions, whether pro or con, can be volatile; religion is a matter about which people can become upset.

My doctoral studies were in the relatively safe arena of Greek philosophy – no-one really cares what you say about Socrates and his mates these days – but I taught Religious Studies for many years and it was, by comparison, a minefield of sensitivities. In all those years, however, I managed to only really upset somebody once.

The student in question was a mature French lady, and she took great exception to my matter-of-fact announcement in one lecture that Easter had many pre-Christian associations and had its roots in ancient pagan festivals.

She went blue in the face, spat out several French expletives, stormed out of the lecture hall and never returned.

I was surprised by this because I regarded the pagan roots of Easter to be an uncontroversial matter. For a start, the word itself, “Easter”, is usually regarded as being derived from Anglo-Saxon forms such as “Estara” or “Ostara” (and cognates) associated with a dawn goddess and common spring festivals celebrated in the British Isles and Northern Europe long before Christianity. According to some, those associations extend back to the Babylonian deity Astarte.

More obviously, the ubiquitous egg given as a gift (or munched as a chocolate indulgence) at Easter is a widely employed fertility symbol that signals the rebirth of vegetation and the end of animal hibernation after the northern hemisphere’s winter. (If you tend backyard chickens, as I do, you’d understand.)

There is certainly nothing Christian about the Easter egg; it is pre-Christian and, more to the point, pagan in its history and its associations. That the Easter festival has pre-Christian, pagan layers of symbolism, therefore, I regard as an incontestable fact, but it seems that even such a “given” can be contested and can upset some people; such is the nature of religion, a field of cherished certainties.

The real source of the French woman’s peeve, I suppose, is the broader implication that there are pagan elements in Christianity. That is all I was suggesting, and again it seems to me a matter that should not rouse controversy. Nor does it detract from Christianity – on the contrary, it can and should be seen as a part of the accumulated richness of the Christian tradition.

When Christianity moved into pagan regions – especially in Europe – it would sometimes adopt the tactic of ruthlessly eradicating the existing religious culture. More often, though, it took the more pragmatic and compassionate approach of absorbing and adapting pagan rites, sites and institutions wherever they were not entirely inimical to the Christian spirit.

Rather than being manically hostile to all things pre-Christian, many of the wisest figures in Christian ideas – St Augustine is a conspicuous example – took the view that the pagan religions had, in their way, prepared the ground for Christ and that Christianity was not so much a replacement for paganism but a fulfilment of it.

In this way local pagan deities became Christian saints and Christian churches were built on pagan sacred sites. It was not so much a matter of invasion and eradication as a matter of adoption and conversion.

The same held true for festivals and holy days. Christmas and Easter are obvious instances. Both are cases where Christ has been assimilated to aspects of pre-Christian solar worship and the mythos of the dying and reborn sun that is a guiding reality in the life of any agricultural people.

Christmas was assimilated with Yule and related festivals at mid-winter and Easter was assimilated with festivals celebrating the rebirth of sun in the spring. In doing this Christianity showed itself to be not some new, freakish creed from the Middle-East, but rather the fulfilment of great spiritual traditions extending back to the dawn of history.

Christ, moreover, was not just an obscure Jewish carpenter from Palestine, but, as the New Testament insisted, the Prince of Creation, the Logos, who was from the very beginning and who was not unknown before the Incarnation. Appreciating the pagan assimilations of Christianity enriches the Christian tradition; denying them impoverishes it.

It is true that some people use the pagan assimilation of Christianity to supposedly “expose” and undermine the Christian faith. It is a sort of “gotcha” polemic used by anti-Christians and atheists. But that is a simplistic misconception and it need not be the case.

To show that Easter or some other aspect of the Christian tradition has pagan or pre-Christian roots only demonstrates the wealth of the tradition. Living traditions are always like that. They soak up what came before them. Buddhism did much the same in its spread through Asia. Even Islam, for all its official hostility to pagan idolatry, soaked up, absorbed and assimilated, much of pre-Islamic Arab customs.

The sacred month of Ramadan was celebrated long before Muhammad. We should not be surprised that this is the case. Religious traditions never enjoy a tabula rasa. They are at their most destructive and self-defeating when they deny all that came before them. Conversely, they are at their most creative and fertile when they transform all the best things that came before them.

Easter is an example of this. Not only did Christianity transform and sublimate the meanings of the Jewish heritage upon which it was built – Easter is a transformation of Passover – but as it moved into pagan Europe and beyond Christianity absorbed and reshaped much of the pagan order that came before it and it is richer for doing so.

It is even arguable, paradoxical though it might seem, that it preserved and nurtured much of the ancient pagan order that had already fallen into decadence and decay from the degradations of the Roman Empire.

In any case, the proposition that Easter is a 100% purely Christian affair is manifestly unsustainable. You will find it presented as such by Christian apologists – especially of the literalist Protestant persuasion – but it shows an ignorance of history. Worse, it shows a failure to understand the way that religious traditions work and of the rich organic patterns of tradition that they weave, often at odds to their own rhetoric.

Religions are complex things. They have to be because human beings and life itself is complex. To fail to appreciate this fact is exactly the sin of the fundamentalist. Reality is seething and variegated; they want it to be sterile and monochrome.

The modern fundamentalist also fails to appreciate what is sometimes called “cosmic” religion. This failure is a symptom of modern, abstracted urban life. We are removed from such great cosmic facts as the turn of the seasons and the cycles of the sun.

For most Christians in the past Christ was much more a conquering solar deity who overcame the dark trough of winter and was reborn with the new grass at the spring equinox than he was an historical person.

This is what Easter is about, why it is celebrated at the first moon after the equinox and why it became assimilated to the same cycles and themes from pre-Christian times.

Science 2.0. 2015. “The Pagan Roots Of Easter”. Science 2.0. Posted: April 2, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Scholars' Remains Found Under Cambridge University

Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of hundreds of medieval scholars, all fallen upon hard times, on a site that is now a Cambridge College.

Containing more than 1,000 people, the large graveyard was discovered three years ago beneath the Old Divinity School at St John’s College during refurbishment of the Victorian building. Details of the finding have only now been made public.

A report published in the current issue of the Archaeological Journal reveals that 400 perfectly preserved human skeletons were uncovered, along with the disarticulated and fragmentary remains of up to 1,000 more individuals.

“It’s one of the largest medieval hospital osteoarcheological assemblages from the British Isles,” dig director Craig Cessford, from the university’s department of archaeology and anthropology, said.

Mostly dating from the 13th to 15th centuries, the remains lay in burials belonging to the Hospital of St John the Evangelist. The building, from which St John’s College takes its name, stood opposite the graveyard until 1511 and was established to care for “poor scholars and other wretched persons.”

“Pregnant women, lepers, the wounded, cripples and the insane were all specifically excludedfrom its care,” Cessford wrote.

People were laid to rest without coffins, and even without shrouds, confirming the cemetery was mainly for the poor. Jewellery and personal items, including a crucifix, were only present in a handful of burials.

“Items were found in graves that might represent grave-goods, but their positions were ambiguous and it is equally possible that they represent residual material from earlier activity at the site,” Cessford said.

Anthropological examinations of the remains revealed there was a roughly equal gender balance, with the majority of individuals having died between around 25 and 45 years old.

The archaeologists also noted the complete absence of infants, normally expected in a medieval hospital, and a relative lack of remains of young women, which can be explained by the Hospital’s Augustinian ordinance from 1250 to exclude pregnant women from its care.

Some of the skeletons also did not fit their graves.

“This suggests that some, but not all of the graves may have been dug in advance of being needed,” Cessford wrote in the Archaeological Journal.

“One possibility is that this occurred prior to the winter, when ground conditions would have potentially made digging graves considerably more difficult,” he added.

No evidence of the Black Death was found among the remains. Most of the skeletons did not show signs of serious illnesses and conditions that would have required medical attention.

“This could reflect that the main role of the Hospital was spiritual and physical care of the poor and infirm rather than medical treatment of the sick and injured,” Cessford wrote.

The names of the dead remain a mystery, but a carefully maintained network of gravel paths, a water well and seeds from various flowering plants, suggest the site was a place for people to come and visit their deceased loved ones, much like today’s cemeteries.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2015. “Scholars' Remains Found Under Cambridge University”. Discovery News. Posted: April 1, 2015. Available online:

Monday, May 25, 2015

New cosmogenic burial ages for SA's Little Foot fossil and Oldowan artefacts

Researchers from South Africa, the US, Canada and France today announced new dates pertaining to the internationally famous Sterkfontein Caves in the Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site in Gauteng, South Africa.

The announcement was made at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg following the publication of their paper, titled: New cosmogenic burial ages for Sterkfontein Member 2Australophithecus and Member 5 Oldowan, in the prestigious scientific journal, Nature, on 1 April 2015.

The researchers announced:

  • A new date for StW 573, the Little Foot skeleton of Australopithecus prometheus, of 3.67 ± 0.16 million years (My);
  • A cosmogenic burial date for the Sterkfontein Oldowan of 2.18 ± 0.21 My.


Sterkfontein has been internationally famous since 1936 for its key hominid and palaeontological discoveries and since the 1950s for its early archaeological finds.

Until now, however, no direct dating of the deposits has been without controversy. In particular, there has been much confusion surrounding the dating of StW 573, the 'Little Foot' skeleton of Australopithecus prometheus.

Palaeomagnetic dating of flowstones published in 1999 suggested an age near 3.3 million years (My), but this was not widely accepted. Cosmogenic nuclide burial dating by Professor Darryl Granger (Purdue University, US) and colleagues published in 2003 suggested an age near 4 My for the cave sediments containing the fossil.

Subsequent uranium-lead dating of calcite flowstones indicated a much younger age of 2.2 My, calling the cosmogenic dates into question. Although Professor Ronald (Ron) Clarke (Wits University, South Africa) had recognised as early as 2002 that the calcite flowstones are younger than the skeleton, the major discrepancy in ages left the age of the skeleton in doubt.

Recently, in 2014, Dr Laurent Bruxelles (INRAP, France), Clarke and colleagues published a detailed map of the cave sediments and their stratigraphy and showed beyond doubt that the dated flowstones had formed within voids opened by collapse of the cave sediments. The flowstones, in fact, separate conjoining parts of the skeleton and must be younger than the skeleton itself. This opens the possibility that the sediment and the skeleton within it could be far older than the 2.2 My old flowstones.

In 2010, Wits alumnus Dr Ryan Gibbon (University of New Brunswick, Canada) took up postdoctoral research with Granger and worked extensively on cosmogenic dating at Sterkfontein and elsewhere.

In this week's issue of Nature, the researchers report on a new date for Little Foot of 3.67 ± 0.16 My. This successful cosmogenic dating represents the collaborative work of Granger and Gibbon. The new date is made possible by two major advances in methodology.

The first is the development of the 'isochron' method for burial dating with cosmogenic 26Al and 10Be. An isochron uses multiple samples from the same site to check that all assumptions required for cosmogenic burial dating are met, including that the sediment has not been reworked.

However, successful dating required a second major advance, the development of the gas-filled-magnet at Purdue University's PRIME Lab, the accelerator mass spectrometry facility directed by Professor Marc Caffee where the cosmogenic nuclides were measured. The gas-filled-magnet allows a much better measurement of 26Al, and therefore more precise burial dating. The equipment became operational in mid-2014, and samples from Sterkfontein were among the first to be re-analysed.

The results were stunning. Out of 11 samples collected over the past decade, nine fell onto a single isochron curve, giving a robust age for the deposit. The other dating reported here is of a quartz cobble found at a higher level in the cave sequence.

The researchers used a manuport (a cobble carried into the site by Oldowan hominids) to eliminate the issue of sediment reworking, so a simple burial date rather than an isochron suffices. The age of the Oldowan at Sterkfontein is about 2 My, similar to three other sites with Oldowan tools recently dated with cosmogenic nuclides in South Africa.


The process of discovery and excavation of StW 573, the Little Foot hominid fossil, has been ongoing since 1994 when the first four footbones were found in a box of animal fossils by Clarke. In July 1997, Clarke and his assistants, Stephen Motsumi and Nkwane Molefe, located the position of the end of the shin bone of the skeleton in a deep deposit of the Sterkfontein caves known as Member 2 in the Silberberg Grotto.

Due to the arduous conditions of excavation in this cavern, the concrete-like deposits, and the displaced and fragile nature of the bones, it was August 2010 before Clarke and his team had exposed the whole skeleton and began lifting it within blocks of breccia to the surface.

This process continued until December 2011, when the last elements were freed. Today the process of cleaning the matrix from the bones and reconstructing the fossil is still ongoing, but over half of the skeleton has been MicroCT scanned at Wits University and the more detailed interpretation has begun.

Clarke has assigned the skeleton to the species Australopithecus prometheus. It differs from the site's better- known fossils of Australopithecus africanus in being of larger body size, with a skull that has a flatter, longer face, and larger, bulbous-cusped cheek teeth. The new dating of this skeleton at 3.67 My places it as a contemporary of early Australopithecus afarensis from Laetoli in Tanzania and Woranso-Mille in Ethiopia.

However, A. Prometheus is morphologically very different from A. Afarensis and has more similarities to the younger, flat-faced Paranthropus, with its large bulbous-cusped cheek teeth. Hence the date of 3.67 My for A. Prometheus at Sterkfontein poses new questions about the diversity, geographic spread, and relationships of early hominid species in Africa.


In the early 1990s, Clarke and Professor Kathleen Kuman (Wits University) excavated Member 5 East, a younger and higher portion of the cave deposits exposed at the surface by erosion of the cave roof. A new tool industry of great antiquity was discovered in the lower levels of this infill and was the first of its kind in southern Africa.

Initially estimated by fauna to ca 1.7 to 2 My, the industry was announced by Kuman in 1994 as Oldowan and the details of 3 500 pieces published in 2009. The Oldowan is a simple flaked stone tool technology, occurring in East Africa as early as 2.6 My, focused on flake tools knapped from cobbles. It lacks the handaxes and cleavers which signal the advent of the Acheulean industry, which first appears ca 1.7 My in both East and South Africa (the latter occurring at Sterkfontein and in the Northern Cape Province).

Today the researchers announce a cosmogenic burial date for the Sterkfontein Oldowan of 2.18 ± 0.21 My. It is similar to the recently published date of 2.19 ± 0.08 My for Oldowan tools at the neighbouring site of Swartkrans and shows that South Africa's Cradle of Humankind was home to tool-making hominids by 2 My or earlier.

A third assemblage of similar age (also dated by Gibbon and Granger) is currently under excavation at Canteen Kopje in the Northern Cape, and a fourth Oldowan assemblage ca 1.8 My has recently been published from Wonderwerk Cave, also in the Northern Cape.

Thus we now know that the Oldowan is consistently present in South Africa by 2 My, a much earlier age for tool-bearing hominids than previously anticipated in this part of Africa. It is now clear that the small number of Oldowan sites in southern Africa is due only to limited research and not to the absence of these hominids.

The maker of this industry is much debated, but many researchers accept that it is the handy work of a species of early Homo, such as Homo habilis that is dated in Malawi and East Africa from 2.4 to 1.8 My and at Swartkrans by 1.8 My or more.

EurekAlert. 2015. “New cosmogenic burial ages for SA's Little Foot fossil and Oldowan artefacts”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 1, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Honolulu museum helps with worldwide artifact theft investigation

It's like a scene out of an Indiana Jones movie. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents converge on the Honolulu Museum of Art to retrieve stolen antiquities. This is part of a worldwide investigation – one the museum is happy to be part of.

"They don't belong here. They're stolen," said Honolulu Museum of Art Director Stephan Jost. "On one hand I hope they find a great home someplace. On the other hand, we've had them on view here almost 25 years. Lots of people loved them. The bottom line is they don't belong here."

Jost is gladly handing seven artifacts over to federal agents. They're hot. Stolen! It's now part of a case against New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who's accused of being involved in an international antiquities smuggling operation.

Immigration and customs enforcement agents contacted the museum last year after determining the 2000-year-old terra cotta rattle may be one of the stolen items. The museum jumped into action identifying even more ill-gotten pieces.

"Seven works. Five we bought from the dealer. One was given us by the dealer," said Jost. "We thought he was such a nice guy. One was sold to a private investor who gave it to the museum."

Homeland Security Special Agent Brenton Easter is part of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Easter is on this case. He's kind of like the Indiana Jones of ICE. His educational background is archaeology. He's been investigating the theft of cultural items for a decade and says this is a big case.

"Three other pieces came from a site which we believe was recently pillaged as recently as the 1990s. The pillaging there was rather prolific," said Easter. "It's good to know we're recovering this material and we'll be able to send it back because a lot of this material left India, I think. before the government knew it was there."

The items were carefully packed up and loaded onto a truck. They'll make their way to the East Coast while authorities build their case. Eventually, they, too, will return home. Easter says the museum was a big help.

"They came forward with the information. The provided us with additional information leading us to other pieces," said Easter. "They were incredibly helpful. They were incredibly easy to work with. I can't thank them enough."

"The more light you shine on systems, the more you ruin their market and I'm more than happy to ruin their market," said Jost.

Since 2007, ICE has repatriated over 7,800 artifacts. Kapoor is sitting in an Indian jail awaiting trial. There is an U.S. arrest warrant as well.

Special Agent Easter says three of Kapoor's co-defendants have been convicted in the U.S. Eventually, the seven artifacts retrieved on Wednesday will be returned to their homeland India.

You can read the transcript and or see the news clip here.

Akana, Paula. 2015. “Honolulu museum helps with worldwide artifact theft investigation”. KITV4. Posted: April 1, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The rapid rise of human language

At some point, probably 50,000 to 100,000 years ago, humans began talking to one another in a uniquely complex form. It is easy to imagine this epochal change as cavemen grunting, or hunter-gatherers mumbling and pointing. But in a new paper, an MIT linguist contends that human language likely developed quite rapidly into a sophisticated system: Instead of mumbles and grunts, people deployed syntax and structures resembling the ones we use today.

"The hierarchical complexity found in present-day language is likely to have been present in human language since its emergence," says Shigeru Miyagawa, Professor of Linguistics and the Kochi Prefecture-John Manjiro Professor in Japanese Language and Culture at MIT, and a co-author of the new paper on the subject.

To be clear, this is not a universally accepted claim: Many scholars believe that humans first started using a kind of "proto-language" -- a rudimentary, primitive kind of communication with only a gradual development of words and syntax. But Miyagawa thinks this is not the case. Single words, he believes, bear traces of syntax showing that they must be descended from an older, syntax-laden system, rather than from simple, primal utterances.

"Since we can find syntax within words, there is no reason to consider them as 'linguistic fossils' of a prior, presyntax stage," Miyagawa adds.

Miyagawa has an alternate hypothesis about what created human language: Humans alone, as he has asserted in papers published in recent years, have combined an "expressive" layer of language, as seen in birdsong, with a "lexical" layer, as seen in monkeys who utter isolated sounds with real-world meaning, such as alarm calls. Miyagawa's "integration hypothesis" holds that whatever first caused them, these layers of language blended quickly and successfully.

Word to the wise

Miyagawa's paper is published this month in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Psychology. Vitor A. Nobrega of the University of Sao Paulo co-authored the paper.

In the paper, Nobrega and Miyagawa write that a single word can be "internally complex, often as complex as an entire phrase," making it less likely that words we use today are descended from a presyntax mode of speech.

To see a straightforward example of this in English, take "nationalization," Miyagawa suggests. It starts with "nation," a noun; adds "-al" to create an adjective; adds "-iz(a)" to form a verb; and ends with "-tion," to form another noun, albeit with a new meaning.

"Hierarchical structure is present not only in single words, but also in compounds, which, contrary to the claims of some, are not the structureless fossilized form of a prior stage," Miyagawa says.

In their paper, Nobrega and Miyagawa hold that the same analysis applies to words in Romance languages that have been described elsewhere as remnants of formless proto-languages. In Brazilian Portuguese, "porta asciuga-mani" -- literally "carry dry-hands," but today colloquially meaning "towel holder" -- is one such case, they contend, where a compound derived from old words has a clear internal structure. (In this case, "dry hands" is a complement to the verb.)

Miyagawa's integration hypothesis is connected intellectually to the work of other MIT scholars, such as Noam Chomsky, who have contended that human languages are universally connected and derive from our capacity for using syntax. In forming, this school of thought holds, languages have blended expressive and lexical layers through a system Chomsky has called "Merge."

"Once Merge has applied integrating these two layers, we have essentially all the features of a full-fledged human language," Miyagawa says.

Science Daily. 2015. “The rapid rise of human language”. Science Daily. Posted: March 30, 2015. Available online:

Friday, May 22, 2015

‘Kúl’, ‘Beibí’, ‘Plís’ And Their Threat To Icelandic Language

Compared to most languages in the developed world, Icelandic is quite conservative. Formal German is almost useless in actual German society due to slang and informal terms, for example, while English has few rules but so many exceptions and colloquial phrases it can be difficult for tourists to understand eating in a restaurant.

Icelandic, by contrast, has a vocabulary well preserved in Old Norse roots and Icelanders want to keep it that way.  The purist tradition of preferring native words to foreign ones is thought to be connected to Iceland’s long process of liberation from Denmark, which was noticeable in the Icelandic language from the second half of the 19th century to some decades after the final independence in 1944.

Resistance remains strong but Twitter takes no prisoners and young people don't have the same attachment to the past, and so a number of "loanwords" are making their way into the lexicon. 

In his PhD thesis, Håkan Jansson of the University of Gothenburg has discovered patterns of change in the modern Icelandic vocabulary showing new loanwords have started to appear, especially online. Jansson looked for language examples on the Internet and found that many words that have never existed in written language were appearing with increasing frequency. 

"Words like kúl, kósí, beibí, plís, gig and pleis (Eng. cool, cozy, baby, please, gig and place) made me react, since they violate the purist attitude to the Icelandic vocabulary," says Jansson.

He became curious and began surveying both the use of loanwords that do not harmonize with the dominant patterns in standard Icelandic, and how colloquial words and word forms are used in writing. To this end, he searched large text corpora from Icelandic newspapers, blogs and onlinechats. He also explored how the language was used in Icelandic radio at different times, more exactly in 1990, 2000 and 2010.

 "The material turned out to contain words that deviate from the tradition in standard Icelandic in mainly three ways. There were colloquial words such as abbó (jealous), words containing parts that weren’t Icelandic, like brillisti (brainbox) and direct loanwords, like frík (freak)," says Jansson.

What caused it? International travel and young people going to college more in the 1990s. There is little way to hold it back, since the informal usage and loanwords are primarily in chats and blogs. "These words are used in chats and blogs where individuals’ language use can have a direct impact, since there are no proofreaders there to stop them. They can also be found in nationwide broadcast media, which is another place that’s largely out of reach for editors, at least when it comes to live broadcasts."

Science 2.0. 2015. “‘Kúl’, ‘Beibí’, ‘Plís’ And Their Threat To Icelandic Language”. Science 2.0. Posted: March 30, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, May 21, 2015

English speakers, you stink at identifying smells

Why do English speakers struggle to identify even common smells like cinnamon, asks linguist Asifa Majid. Is it down to language itself, or our environment?

Why study the language of olfaction?
There are centuries-old ideas that humans have evolved to be visual or auditory creatures, and that our senses of smell, taste and touch just aren't as important any more. We're looking to see whether that's reflected in different languages as well.

Are there languages which excel at describing smells?
Speakers of the Aslian languages – found throughout the Malay Peninsula – are particularly good at expressing olfactory experiences. For the Jahai group, for example, who live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we found that smell was as easy to talk about as colour – unlike in English.

How many smell words do the Jahai use?
They have about 12 that describe specific smell characteristics. These are words that can only be used for smells. For example, a term pronounced "pl'eng" is used for fresh blood, raw meat, mud, stagnant water, fresh fish, otters, some species of toad... These are different kinds of objects, but there seems to be a smell quality common to them.

What's a good smell-specific word in English?
A term in English that really picks up on a specific kind of smell quality is "musty" – something like when you open a door that's been closed for a long time, or maybe the smell of old books.

How good are English speakers at articulating what they smell?
We gave Jahai speakers and English speakers the same smell and asked them to describe it. Jahai speakers were quick and consistent. With English speakers, nearly everybody gave a different and lengthy description for the same smell. For the smell of cinnamon, for example, one participant went on and on, like "I don't know how to say it" and "I can't get the word" and "like that chewing gum smell" and finally "Big Red gum". It was hard for most English speakers to identify even the common smell of cinnamon.

Why do English speakers struggle when the Jahai don't?
Perhaps it's because the Jahai live in a tropical rainforest, where smells are simply more salient. But there seems to be something culturally different, too: people in the West seem to do everything they can to get rid of smells, and in many contexts odour is a taboo topic. This might be linked to changes in our smell environment since the industrial revolution. If you read stories from the UK or France from before the revolution, there's sewage in the streets and people are using perfume to cover up body odour. These days, we do everything we can to sanitise our environment.

What lessons do you draw from your cross-cultural studies of smell?
Our work with the Jahai is exciting because it shows us that we have the potential to experience our environment in so many different ways. It makes you rethink your way of being in the world.

Landau, Elizabeth. 2015. “English speakers, you stink at identifying smells”. New Scientist. Posted: March 30, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Earliest humans had diverse range of body types, just as we do today

One of the dominant theories of our evolution is that our genus, Homo, evolved from small-bodied early humans to become the taller, heavier and longer legged Homo erectus that was able to migrate beyond Africa and colonise Eurasia. While we know that small-bodied Homo erectus - averaging less than five foot (152cm) and under 50kg - were living in Georgia in southern Europe by 1.77 million years ago, the timing and geographic origin of the larger body size that we associate with modern humans has, until now, remained unresolved.

But a joint study by researchers at the Universities of Cambridge and Tübingen (Germany), published today in the Journal of Human Evolution, has now shown that the main increase in body size occurred tens of thousands of years after Homo erectus left Africa, and primarily in the Koobi Fora region of Kenya. According to Manuel Will, a co-author of the study from the Department of Early Prehistory and Quaternary Ecology at Tübingen, "the evolution of larger bodies and longer legs can thus no longer be assumed to be the main driving factor behind the earliest excursions of our genus to Eurasia".

Researchers say the results from a new research method, using tiny fragments of fossil to estimate our earliest ancestors' height and body mass, also point to the huge diversity in body size we see in humans today emerging much earlier than previously thought.

"What we're seeing is perhaps the beginning of a unique characteristic of our own species - the origins of diversity," said Dr Jay Stock, co-author of the study from the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology. "It's possible to interpret our findings as showing that there were either multiple species of early human, such as Homo habilis, Homo ergaster and Homo rudolfensis, or one highly diverse species. This fits well with recent cranial evidence for tremendous diversity among early members of the genus Homo."

"If someone asked you 'are modern humans 6 foot tall and 70kg?' you'd say 'well some are, but many people aren't,' and what we're starting to show is that this diversification happened really early in human evolution," said Stock.

The study is the first in 20 years to compare the body size of the humans who shared the earth with mammoths and sabre-toothed cats between 2.5 and 1.5 million years ago. It is also the first time that many fragmentary fossils - some as small as toes and tiny ankle bones no more than 5cm long - have been used to make body size estimates.

Comparing measurements of fossils from sites in Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, and Georgia, the researchers found that there was significant regional variation in the size of early humans during the Pleistocene. Some groups, such as those who lived in South African caves, averaged 4.8 feet tall; some of those found in Kenya's Koobi Fora region would have stood at almost 6 foot, comparable to the average of today´s male population in Britain.

"Basically every textbook on human evolution gives the perspective that one lineage of humans evolved larger bodies before spreading beyond Africa. But the evidence for this story about our origins and the dispersal out of Africa just no longer really fits," said Stock. "The first clues came from the site of Dmanisi in Georgia where fossils of really small-bodied people date to 1.77 million years ago. This has been known for several years, but we now know that consistently larger body size evolved in Eastern Africa after 1.7 million years ago, in the Koobi Fora region of Kenya."

"We tend to simplify our interpretations because the fossil record is patchy and we have to explain it in some way. But revealing the diversity that exists is just as important as those broad, sweeping explanations."

Previous studies have been based on small samples of only 10-15 fossils because techniques for calculating the height and body mass of individuals required specific pieces of bone such as the hip joint or most of a leg bone. Stock and Will have used a sample size three times larger, estimating body size for over 40 specimens contained in collections all over Africa and Georgia, making it the largest comparative study conducted so far.

Instead of waiting for new fossils to be discovered and hoping that they contained these specific bones, Stock and Will decided to try a different approach and make use of previously over-looked fossils. In what Stock describes as a "very challenging project," they spent a year developing new equations that allowed them to calculate the height and body mass of individuals using much smaller bones, some as small as toes. By comparing these bones to measurements taken from over 800 modern hunter-gatherer skeletons from around the world and applying various regression equations, the researchers were able to estimate body size for many new fossils that have never been studied in this way before.

"In human evolution we see body size as one of the most important characteristics, and from examining these 'scrappier' fossils we can get a much better sense of when and where human body size diversity arose. Before 1.7 million years ago our ancestors were seldom over 5 foot tall or particularly heavy in body mass.

"When this significant size shift to much heavier, taller individuals happened, it occurred primarily in one particular place - in a region called Koobi Fora in northern Kenya around 1.7 million years ago. That means we can now start thinking about what regional conditions drove the emergence of this diversity, rather than seeing body size as a fixed and fundamental characteristic of a species," said Stock.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Earliest humans had diverse range of body types, just as we do today”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 26, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Study underscores complexity of geopolitics in the age of the Aztec empire

New findings from an international team of archaeological researchers highlight the complexity of geopolitics in Aztec era Mesoamerica and illustrate how the relationships among ancient states extended beyond warfare and diplomacy to issues concerning trade and the flow of goods.

The work was done by researchers from North Carolina State University, the Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional-Unidad Mérida, El Colegio de Michoacán and Purdue University.

The researchers focused on an independent republic called Tlaxcallan in what is now central Mexico, about 75 miles east of modern Mexico City. Tlaxcallan was founded in the mid-13th century and, by 1500, was effectively surrounded by the Aztec Empire - but never lost its independence. In fact, Tlaxcallan supported Cortés and played a critical role in the Spanish Conquest of Mexico in the 16th century.

The new research focuses on where the people of Tlaxcallan obtained their obsidian in the century before the arrival of Cortés. Obsidian is a volcanic glass that was widely used in everything from household tools and weapons to jewelry and religious objects. But Tlaxcallan did not have a source of obsidian within its territory - so where did it come from?

"It turns out that Tlaxcallan relied on a source we hadn't expected, called El Paredón," says Dr. John Millhauser, an assistant professor of anthropology at NC State and lead author of a paper on the work. "Almost no one else was using El Paredón at the time, and it fell just outside the boundaries of the Aztec Empire. So, one question it raises is why the Aztecs - who were openly hostile to Tlaxcallan - didn't intervene."

One possible explanation is that the Aztecs didn't intervene because it would have been too much effort. "Obsidian was widely available and was an everyday good. It probably wasn't worth the time and expense to try to cut off Tlaxcallan's supply of obsidian from El Paredón because other sources were available," Millhauser says.

The finding drives home how complex international relations were during the Aztec Empire's reign.

"The fact that they got so much obsidian so close to the Aztec Empire makes me question the scope of conflict at the time," Millhauser says. "Tlaxcallan was able to access a source of household and military goods from a source that required it to go right up to the border of enemy territory."

At the same time, the research makes clear that there was an economic rift between Tlaxcallan and the Aztecs. Previous research shows that more than 90 percent of Aztec obsidian came from a source called Pachuca, further to the north. But the new research finds that only 14 percent of the obsidian at Tlaxcallan was from Pachuca - most of the rest came from El Paredón.

For this study, the researchers systematically collected artifacts from the surfaces of stone-walled terraces at the site of the pre-Columbian city of Tlaxcallan. A representative number of the artifacts were then analyzed using x-ray fluorescence. This information was compared with samples from known sources of obsidian in the region to determine where the obsidian artifacts came from.

"All of this drives home the fact that geopolitics mattered for the economies of ancient states," Millhauser says. "Political stances and political boundaries influenced everyday behavior, down to the flow of basic commodities like obsidian. The popular conception of the Aztec Empire as all powerful before the arrival of Cortés is exaggerated. The region was a politically and culturally complicated place."

EurekAlert. 2015. “Study underscores complexity of geopolitics in the age of the Aztec empire”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 25, 2015. Available online:

Monday, May 18, 2015

Local cults of saints played a role in Scandinavian Christianisation

There is a clear link between the celebration of native saints and the ecclesiastical organisation that emerged in Scandinavia in the 12th century. Yet, according to a new doctoral thesis in history from the University of Gothenburg, important differences can be noted between Sweden and Denmark.

Local cults of saints emerged during the Early Middle Ages in the area of Scandinavia that was separated into the ecclesiastical provinces of Lund and Uppsala, roughly corresponding to modern-day Denmark and Sweden. Dioceses and other institutions were established in both provinces in the 11th and 12th centuries.

A Scandinavian perspective

This first-ever comparative study of all 23 native saints in both provinces yields a comprehensive Scandinavian perspective that has been missing in previous research on European cults of saints.

‘These early cults of saints served several purposes. The celebration of local saints supported the Christianisation, but cults were also a way to confirm sacred places. It wasn’t unusual that churches and monasteries were built in these locations. New sacred places could also be used to support local leaders or to create new pilgrimage sites and thereby facilitate the undertaking of pilgrimages for the new Christians,’ says Sara Ellis Nilsson, author of the thesis.

These saints were often individuals who had lived in the location in question, such as Elin of Skövde, Botvid of Södermanland, Thøger of Vestervig and Margareta of Roskilde. They were important role models for people in areas that had recently been Christianised. All saints were considered to have performed miracles, which were documented in their biographies. Some saints were martyrs, whereas others were canonised based on their good deeds. For example, Elin of Skövde collected money for the construction of a church.

Ellis Nilsson shows that Denmark was interested in papal canonisation much earlier than Sweden, indicating stronger ties to the Papacy.

‘In Denmark, the holy person had to be canonised by the pope in order to be officially celebrated by the church. That wasn’t necessary in Sweden,’ she says.

Medieval church books

Her research on local cults has at times consisted of meticulous detective work to sort through the remains of medieval church books. After the Reformation, these books were cut up in pieces and used as new book covers, often for 17th century account books. One hundred years ago, efforts to catalogue the fragments were initiated. This work has resulted in a digital catalogue of the Swedish fragments, which means that these valuable sources can be used once again.

Ellis Nilsson has studied parchment fragments of church books and other texts, which comprise the earliest preserved evidence of these cults.

‘One can find a lot of information in these texts. The native saints were venerated and celebrated in church and had their own days in the Calendar. For example, in dioceses where they were considered to be important, the saint’s feast day was for everybody to enjoy and not just the priests. This was the case for Elin, who continued to be venerated in the Diocese of Skara for a long time. In contrast, the status of the Danish female saints was not nearly as long-lasting, probably because they did not have enough support from wealthy families and the Church. They were never given their own official feast days,’ says Ellis Nilsson.

Past Horizons. 2015. “Local cults of saints played a role in Scandinavian Christianisation”. Past Horizons. Posted: March 25, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, May 17, 2015

After learning new words, brain sees them as pictures

When we look at a known word, our brain sees it like a picture, not a group of letters needing to be processed. That's the finding from a Georgetown University Medical Center (GUMC) study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, which shows the brain learns words quickly by tuning neurons to respond to a complete word, not parts of it.

Neurons respond differently to real words, such as turf, than to nonsense words, such as turt, showing that a small area of the brain is "holistically tuned" to recognize complete words, says the study's senior author, Maximilian Riesenhuber, PhD, who leads the GUMC Laboratory for Computational Cognitive Neuroscience.

"We are not recognizing words by quickly spelling them out or identifying parts of words, as some researchers have suggested. Instead, neurons in a small brain area remember how the whole word looks -- using what could be called a visual dictionary," he says. This small area in the brain, called the visual word form area, is found in the left side of the visual cortex, opposite from the fusiform face area on the right side, which remembers how faces look. "One area is selective for a whole face, allowing us to quickly recognize people, and the other is selective for a whole word, which helps us read quickly," Riesenhuber says.

The study asked 25 adult participants to learn a set of 150 nonsense words. The brain plasticity associated with learning was investigated with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), both before and after training.

Using a specific fMRI technique know as fMRI-rapid adaptation, the investigators found that the visual word form area changed as the participants learned the nonsense words. Before training the neurons responded like the training words were nonsense words, but after training the neurons responded to the learned words like they were real words. "This study is the first of its kind to show how neurons change their tuning with learning words, demonstrating the brain's plasticity," says the study's lead author, Laurie Glezer, PhD. The findings not only help reveal how the brain processes words, but also provides insights into how to help people with reading disabilities, says Riesenhuber. "For people who cannot learn words by phonetically spelling them out -- which is the usual method for teaching reading -- learning the whole word as a visual object may be a good strategy."

In fact, after the team's first groundbreaking study on the visual dictionary was published in Neuron in 2009, Riesenhuber says they were contacted by a number of people who had experienced reading difficulties and teachers helping people with reading difficulties, reporting that learning word as visual objects helped a great deal. That study revealed the existence of a neural representation for whole written real words -- also known as an orthographic lexicon --the current study now shows how novel words can become incorporated after learning in this lexicon.

"The visual word form area does not care how the word sounds, just how the letters of the word look together," he says. "The fact that this kind of learning only happens in one very small part of the brain is a nice example of selective plasticity in the brain."

Science Daily. 2015. “After learning new words, brain sees them as pictures”. Science Daily. Posted: March 24, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Archaeologists discover Maya 'melting pot'

Archaeologists working in Guatemala have unearthed new information about the Maya civilization's transition from a mobile, hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a sedentary way of life.

Led by University of Arizona archaeologists Takeshi Inomata and Daniela Triadan, the team's excavations of the ancient Maya lowlands site of Ceibal suggest that as the society transitioned from a heavy reliance on foraging to farming, mobile communities and settled groups co-existed and may have come together to collaborate on construction projects and participate in public ceremonies.

The findings, to be published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, challenge two common assumptions: that mobile and sedentary groups maintained separate communities, and that public buildings were constructed only after a society had fully put down roots.

"There has been the theory that sedentary and mobile groups co-exited in various parts of the world, but most people thought the sedentary and mobile communities were separate, even though they were in relatively close areas," said Inomata, a UA professor of anthropology and lead author of the PNAS study. "Our study presents the first relatively concrete evidence that mobile and sedentary people came together to build a ceremonial center."

A public plaza uncovered at Ceibal dates to about 950 B.C., with surrounding ceremonial buildings growing to monumental sizes by about 800 B.C. Yet, evidence of permanent residential dwellings in the area during that time is scarce. Most people were still living a traditional hunter-gatherer-like lifestyle, moving from place to place throughout the rainforest, as they would continue to do for five or six more centuries.

The area's few permanent residents could not have built the plaza alone, Inomata said.

"The construction of ceremonial buildings is pretty substantial, so there had to be more people working on that construction," he said.

Inomata and his colleagues theorize that groups with varying degrees of mobility came together to construct the buildings and to participate in public ceremonies over the next several hundred years. That process likely helped them to bond socially and eventually make the transition to a fully sedentary society.

"This tells us something about the importance of ritual and construction. People tend to think that you have a developed society and then building comes. I think in many cases it's the other way around," Inomata said. "For those people living the traditional way of life, ceremony, ritual and construction became major forces for them to adapt a new way of life and build a new society. The process of gathering for ritual and gathering for construction helped bring together different people who were doing different things, and eventually that contributed to the later development of Mayan civilization."

The transition was gradual, with the Maya making the shift to a fully sedentary agrarian society, reliant on maize, by about 400 or 300 B.C., Inomata said.

"The most fascinating finding is that different peoples with diverse ways of life co-existed in apparent harmony for generations before establishing a more uniform society," said Melissa Burham, a study co-author and a graduate student in the UA School of Anthropology. "Discovering an ancient 'melting pot' is definitely the unexpected highlight of this research."

2015. “Archaeologists discover Maya 'melting pot'”. Phys.Org. Posted: March 23, 2015. Available online:

Friday, May 15, 2015

Archivists unearth rare first edition of the 1815 'Map that Changed the World'

A rare early copy of William Smith's 1815 Geological Map of England and Wales, previously thought lost, has been uncovered by Geological Society archivists. The new map has been digitised and made available online in time for the start of celebrations of the map's 200th anniversary, beginning with an unveiling of a plaque at Smith's former residence by Sir David Attenborough.

The map, the first geological map of a nation ever produced, shows the geological strata of England, Wales and part of Scotland. The newly discovered copy is thought to have been one of the first ten produced by William Smith (1769-1839), who went on to produce an estimated 370 hand-coloured copies of the map in his lifetime.

Now fully restored and digitised, images of the new map can be viewed on the Geological Society's image library from March 23 -- William Smith's birthday. It will also be on display at the Geological Society during a number of events celebrating the map's bicentennial.

Often called 'the Father of English Geology', William Smith pioneered the science of stratigraphy and geological mapping. His map of England and Wales became the basis for all future geological maps of Britain, and influenced geological surveys around the world. 'Smith's importance to the history of our science cannot be overstated' says John Henry, Chair of the Geological Society's History of Geology Group. 'His map is a remarkable piece of work. It helped shape the economic and scientific development of Britain, at a time before geological surveys existed.'

Smith's story was popularised by Simon Winchester's 2001 book, 'The Map that Changed the World', which tells the story of his relationship with the Geological Society, who produced their own geological map of Britain in 1820.

'These maps are extremely rare' says Henry. 'Each one is a treasure, and to have one of the very first produced is tremendously exciting.'

Although it is difficult to estimate the value of individual William Smith maps, an early copy was recently made available for sale at £150,000. The newly discovered map was found by the Society's then Archive Assistant Victoria Woodcock in 2014, during an audit of the Society's archives led by Geological Society Archivist Caroline Lam.

'The map was found among completely unrelated material, so at first I didn't realise the significance of what I'd uncovered' says Woodcock. 'Once we had worked out that it was an early copy of one of the earliest geological maps ever made, I was astonished. It's the kind of thing that anyone working in archives dreams of, and definitely the highlight of my career so far!'

The map was identified as a first edition due to its lack of serial number, and geological features which Smith was known to have updated on later versions.

'The very first batch of maps Smith produced did not have a series number or signature' says Henry. 'Other indications that it is a first edition is the geology depicted on the Isle of Wight, the lack of an engraved line on the Welsh border, and lack of granite around Eskdale in the Lake District.'

Records of the Geological Society's Council minutes from 1815 suggest the map was purchased by the Society in that year for the sum of £5 5s. Since then, its 'disappearance' means it has rarely been exposed to light, preserving the incredibly bright original colours. A number of organisations, including the Geological Society, the Natural History Museum, the British Geological Survey and National Museum Wales, are joining together throughout 2015 to celebrate the bicentennial of William Smith's map through a range of events. 'We're incredibly excited by the discovery' says Geological Society President Professor David Manning. 'It's wonderful that the map has been restored and made publicly available in time for the bicentennial celebrations, and we're very grateful to the sponsors who have made this possible.'

Science Daily. 2015. “Archivists unearth rare first edition of the 1815 'Map that Changed the World'”. Science Daily. Posted: March 23, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Transforming the use of cultural resources in education

TES, the largest network of teachers in the world, is launching a project to help transform the education landscape by giving teachers unprecedented access to the world’s very best cultural and online teaching resources.

TES is joining forces with the British Museum, the V&A, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Arts Council England and has the potential to make a significant impact on the status of cultural education in the classroom by placing a wealth of digitised materials into the hands of teachers everywhere.

The partners have made a strategic commitment to work together from June to ensure that hundreds of thousands of images, videos, classroom resources, artist and maker’s guides, archive film clips and celebrity interviews, professional development materials and lesson packs will be accessible through the TES Resources platform, the largest, busiest and fastest growing online classroom resource bank in the world. Over 1 million free and paid resources are currently downloaded from the platform by teachers on any given day.

About the project

The pilot will go beyond the hosting of existing and new materials on the TES platform, focusing on increasing the quality and usefulness of cultural resources in schools. It will look at ways of curating bundles of resources around subject specialisms, for example Shakespeare, and testing directly the impact they make in the classroom through data and dialogue with teachers.

Each participating organisation will be focusing on a key area. The British Museum has an acclaimed object-based approach to teaching and learning and focuses on history from many perspectives; the Royal Shakespeare Company excels in theatre and performance-based explorations of Shakespeare texts and has highly regarded professional development resources for teachers; and the V&A specialises in art, design and many aspects of technology, with materials that act as ‘rocket fuel’ for illustrating creative processes and practice.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Musuem said, “The British Museum is committed to showing how object based learning can bring history to life, as we have recently demonstrated in the ‘Teaching History with 100 Objects’ project supported by the Department for Education. Our 100 resources which are based on fascinating objects from 40 museums across the UK will now be able to be part of TES Global in this extremely exciting new pilot project, as we seek to make a reality of our ambition to engage all children with museum objects which tell both local and global stories.”

Catherine Mallyon, Executive Director and Gregory Doran, Artistic Director, Royal Shakespeare Company, said: “Enabling greater access to our work for more teachers across the UK and around the world is hugely important to us. We know that Shakespeare has a very special place in the lives of young people not just in this country but in territories all over the world; our research with the British Council suggests that 50% of school children in the world study Shakespeare in any given year. TES is already a vital distribution channel for our resources and we are looking forward to growing the range of materials available to teachers and students as well as deepening our online engagement with them.” Martin Roth, Director of the V&A said: “It is so important that every child is taught the basics of design and making. Technical skills and knowledge of the designs of the past are fundamental in understanding how to turn wonderful ideas into reality. Design greats, like the late Alexander McQueen whose retrospective we have just opened at the V&A, spent long hours absorbed in the riches of the V&A’s collections and combined this with a complete mastery of his craft, learning his legendary tailoring skills in Savile Row. Britain’s creative industries are world class but in order to maintain that position we need to foster and support the next generation of designers and makers. The V&A is the nation’s resource for art and design, founded to inspire creativity and that is why we are so pleased to be part of TES’s pilot project to help and encourage cultural education in the classrooms and further extend our reach to TES’s vast network of teachers.”

Peter Bazalgette, Chair, Arts Council England said: “A strong cultural education is fundamental to supporting creativity, innovation and free-thinking and is the incubator not just for great minds but is central to our thriving creative industries.  This pilot, from such a well-trusted source as TES, is an exciting step-change in how teachers might access some of the wealth of resources that are on offer; from some of the country’s most inspirational arts and cultural organisations.“

Past Horizons. 2015. “Transforming the use of cultural resources in education”. Past Horizons. Posted: March 23, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

First fine-scale genetic map of the British Isles

Who do you think you are? An international team used DNA samples collected from more than 2,000 people to create the first fine-scale genetic map of the British Isles.

Their findings, published in Nature, show that prior to the mass migrations of the 20th century there was a striking pattern of rich but subtle genetic variation across the UK, with distinct groups of genetically similar individuals clustered together geographically.

Population movements over 10,000 years

By comparing this information with DNA samples from over 6,000 Europeans, the team was also able to identify clear traces of the population movements into the UK over the past 10,000 years. Their work confirmed, and in many cases shed further light on, known historical migration patterns.

Main discoveries

  • The Orkney population emerged as the most genetically distinct, with 25% of DNA coming from Norwegian ancestors, and shows clearly that the Norse Viking invasion (9th century) did not simply replace the indigenous population. However, there is no obvious genetic signature of the Danish Vikings, who controlled large parts of England (“The Danelaw”) from the 9th century.
  • One of the most interesting discoveries was that there is not a single “Celtic” genetic group. In fact the Celtic parts of the UK (Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and Cornwall) are among the most different from each other genetically. For example, the Cornish are much more similar genetically to other English groups than they are to the Welsh or the Scots. The results also showed that there are separate genetic groups in Cornwall and Devon, with a division almost exactly along the modern county boundary.
  • The majority of eastern, central and southern England is made up of a single, relatively homogeneous, genetic group with a significant DNA contribution from Anglo-Saxon migrations (10-40% of total ancestry). This settles a historical controversy in showing that the Anglo-Saxons intermarried with, rather than replaced, the existing populations.
  • The Welsh appear more similar to the earliest settlers of Britain after the last ice age than do other people in the UK. However, the analyses suggest there was a substantial migration across the channel after the original post-ice-age settlers, but before Roman times. DNA from these migrants spread across England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, but had little impact in Wales. There is also genetic evidence of the effect of the Landsker line – the boundary between English-speaking people in south-west Pembrokeshire (sometimes known as “Little England beyond Wales”) and the Welsh speakers in the rest of Wales, which persisted for almost a millennium.
  • Many of the genetic clusters show similar locations to the tribal groupings and kingdoms around the end of the 6th century, after the settlement of the Anglo-Saxons, suggesting these tribes and kingdoms may have maintained a regional identity for many centuries.

People of the British Isles

The Wellcome Trust-funded People of the British Isles study analysed the DNA of 2,039 people from rural areas of the UK, whose four grandparents were all born within 80km of each other. Because a quarter of our genome comes from each of our grandparents, the researchers were effectively sampling DNA from these ancestors, allowing a snapshot of UK genetics in the late 19th Century. They also analysed data from 6,209 individuals from 10 (modern) European countries.

To uncover the extremely subtle genetic differences among these individuals the researchers used cutting-edge statistical techniques, developed by four of the team members. They applied these methods, called fineSTRUCTURE and GLOBETROTTER, to analyse DNA differences at over 500,000 positions within the genome. They then separated the samples into genetically similar individuals, without knowing where in the UK the samples came from. By plotting each person onto a map of the British Isles, using the centre point of their grandparents’ birth places, they were able to see how this distribution correlated with their genetic groupings.

The researchers were then able to “zoom in” to examine the genetic patterns in the UK at levels of increasing resolution. At the broadest scale, the population in Orkney (islands to the north of Scotland) emerged as the most genetically distinct. At the next level, Wales forms a distinct genetic group, followed by a further division between north and south Wales. Then the north of England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland collectively separate from southern England, before Cornwall forms a separate cluster. Scotland and Northern Ireland then separate from northern England. The study eventually focused at the level where the UK was divided into 17 genetically distinct clusters of people.

Dr Michael Dunn, Head of Genetics & Molecular Sciences at the Wellcome Trust, said: “These researchers have been able to use modern genetic techniques to provide answers to the centuries’ old question – where we come from. Beyond the fascinating insights into our history, this information could prove very useful from a health perspective, as building a picture of population genetics at this scale may in future help us to design better genetic studies to investigate disease.”

Past Horizons. 2015. “First fine-scale genetic map of the British Isles”. Past Horizons. Posted: March 18, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Red Lady cave burial reveals Stone Age secrets

Some 19,000 years ago, a woman was coated in red ochre and buried in a cave in northern Spain. What do her remains say about Paleolithic life in western Europe?

SHE was privileged to have a tombstone, and her grave may have been adorned with flowers. But the many who, for millennia after her death, took shelter in El Mirón cave in northern Spain must have been unaware of the prestigious company they were keeping. Buried in a side chamber at the back of the cave is a very special Palaeolithic woman indeed.

Aged between 35 and 40 when she died, she was laid to rest alongside a large engraved stone, her body seemingly daubed in sparkling red pigment. Small, yellow flowers may even have adorned her grave 18,700 years ago – a time when cave burials, let alone one so elaborate, appear to have been very rare. It was a momentous honour, and no one knows why she was given it.

"It's an area in the cave right where people were living," says Lawrence GuyStraus at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Along with Manuel González Morales of the University of Cantabria, Straus has been leading the excavation of El Mirón for 19 years. "It's not hidden away. This person in death was kind of presiding over the activities of her people."

The Red Lady, as researchers are calling her, was a member of the Magdalenian people of the late Upper Palaeolithic. They would have been anatomically just like us, they had clothes and probably language, too, and belonged to social networks that spread across Europe. But although they lived in large numbers in Portugal and Spain, and archaeologists have been searching for burial sites for nearly 150 years, the Red Lady's grave is the first Magdalenian burial found in the Iberian peninsula (Journal of Archaeological Science, doi. org/2t8).

"The Magdalenian age saw a real explosion in the number and abundance of art, and in the realism of the animals represented," says Straus, especially in sites in northern Spain and France. The El Mirón cave has its share, including an engraving of a horse and possibly one of a bison too. But most intriguing are the lines scratched upon the 2-metre-wide block of limestone behind which the Red Lady was buried. What looks like a mess of fine, straight lines could actually be far more significant.

"The lines seem to be sort of random, but there is a motif that is a triangle – repeated lines that make a V-shape," says Straus. "What is being represented, at least by some of these lines, might be a female person. Conceivably, this block serves as some kind of marker." It's as if the Red Lady had a primitive tombstone stating she was female (Journal of Archaeological Science, Her remains were discovered when Straus's team began digging behind this block in 2010. Radiocarbon dating reveals that the block fell from the ceiling at most only a few hundred years before the woman was buried in the narrow space behind it. "The block was engraved more or less contemporaneously with the burial," says Straus.

Dozens of researchers have been excavating El Mirón since 1996, with around 20 working on the Red Lady's grave since it was found. When they began digging, they discovered the jawbone (see picture) and shin bone (tibia) almost immediately. Both were bright red – although they have since faded – a sign that the woman had been covered in red ochre, a specially prepared iron oxide pigment that humans appear to have slathered on their dead for thousands of years. "It goes back to pre-Homo sapiens," says Straus. "This is a colour that in their lives must have been very spectacular," he says, suggesting that its blood-like hue may have symbolised life and death. The people who buried her used a special form of ochre, not from local sources, that sparkled with specular haematite, a form of iron oxide. It may have been applied to her corpse or clothes as a preservative or as a ritual. The regular use of red ochre at burials throughout the Upper Palaeolithic elsewhere in Europe implies this formed part of a burial rite, says William Davies of the University of Southampton, UK. "It is certainly possible that [these people] held spiritual beliefs," Davies says.

Chewed by canines

But the skeleton is incomplete, a fact that may be linked to gnaw-marks on the tibia left behind. The pattern of black manganese oxide, which forms on bones as bodies rot, shows that a carnivore – about the size of a dog or wolf – took to the tibia some time after the flesh had decomposed.

After this incident, a number of large bones, including the cranium, seem to have been removed, perhaps for display or reburial elsewhere. Many of the remaining bones, including the tibia and jawbone, were treated once again with red ochre, possibly to resanctify them (Journal of Archaeological Science,

María-José Iriarte-Chiapusso and Alvaro Arrizabalaga at the University of the Basque Country in Spain have taken a different tack, focusing on the pollen found at the burial site. They found an unexpected preponderance of pollen from the Chenopod group, which includes plants like spinach (Journal of Archaeological Science, Chenopod pollen is rare at archaeological sites from this period, and the high concentration found by the researchers doesn't match the patterns at burial sites in areas where these plants were a food source, says Iriarte-Chiapusso.

It is possible that the plants were used medicinally at this time, but that would still fail to explain the high levels of pollen. "The extraordinary nature of the finds within the burial suggest that [the plants] had been deliberately sought out for some purpose related to the deceased," says Arrizabalaga. This leads the team to believe that the woman's people may have left a floral offering at the grave, probably of small, yellowish flowers.

"You can't get away from the conclusion that this person, [out of] the hundreds and perhaps thousands of Magdalenians who once existed for several thousand years in Iberia, was given some kind of special treatment," says Straus. "God only knows why."

Could she have been some sort of leader or queen? "We don't really know much about the social structure of these hunter-gatherers, whether they were matriarchal or patriarchal societies," says Ignacio de la Torre of University College London. "But certainly hunter-gatherer societies had no queens or kings," he says, as they did not have much of a social hierarchy.

The people who buried the woman may have had some strong emotional connection with her, suggests Davies, or perhaps she was exceptional in some way. "For example," he says, "some individuals buried in Italy have skeletal abnormalities and might have been seen as a special people, thus warranting a separate burial."

Whoever she was, the Red Lady lived at a time when Europeans were recovering from the worst of the last ice age, about 21,000 years ago. Many people took refuge in Iberia and southern France, and then expanded back out across the continent. Straus hopes that the Red Lady's DNA – to be analysed by Svante Pääbo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany – will provide evidence that it was these Magdalenians in south-western Europe who went on to repopulate northern areas, including Belgium, Germany and the UK.

Perhaps the DNA will reveal that many Europeans today can trace their ancestry back to her artistic kinsfolk.

Sarchet, Penny. 2015. “Red Lady cave burial reveals Stone Age secrets”. New Scientist. Posted: March 18, 2015. Available online: