Sunday, January 31, 2016

Early proto-porcelain from China likely made from local materials

Early Chinese proto-porcelain was likely made from materials gathered locally, according to a study published November 4, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Yu Li from the Fudan University, Shanghai, China, and colleagues.

Researchers excavated the Piaoshan kiln site in June 2012 and found evidence that the sites contents may be the earliest known Chinese proto-porcelain, a type of early Chinese porcelain. Based on the decorated patterns on the impressed stoneware and proto-porcelain sherds, the site is estimated to date to the late Xia (2070-1600 BC), the first dynasty of China. The authors of this study conducted proton-induced X-ray emission analyses of 118 proto-porcelain and 35 impressed stoneware sherds (pottery fragments) from Piaoshan and five subsequent kiln sites in the vicinity.

"The chemical composition of proto-porcelain samples from Piaoshan kiln site is studied for the first time in history", said Yu Li. "The research clearly show the relationship of inheritance of early Chinese proto-porcelain, and fill the large gaps in knowledge regarding the origin of Chinese proto-porcelain."

The authors found that impressed stoneware and proto-porcelain samples from the six kiln sites had distinct chemical profiles. This may indicate that the raw materials at each site were procured locally. They also found what may be one of the earliest attempts at applying artificial calcium-based glaze by mixing woody plant ashes with increased calcia-potash ratios into the glaze formula, the ashes likely leftover from firewood used to heat the kilns.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Early proto-porcelain from China likely made from local materials”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 4, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Buried in ash, ancient Salvadoran village shows images of daily life

Village of Ceren so well preserved that footprints and finger marks remain

A continuing look at a Maya village in El Salvador--frozen in time by a blanket of volcanic ash from 1,400 years ago--shows the farming families who lived there went about their daily lives with virtually no strong-arming by the elite royalty lording over the valley.

Instead, archaeological evidence indicates significant interactions at the village of Ceren took place among families, village elders, craftspeople and specialty maintenance workers. This research comes from a new University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder) study, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Ceren is the best-preserved ancient Maya village in all of Latin America. In A.D. 660, the village was blasted by toxic gas, pummeled by lava bombs and then choked by a 17-foot layer of ash falling over several days after the Loma Caldera volcano, less than half a mile away, erupted.

Discovered in 1978 by CU-Boulder anthropology Professor Payson Sheets, Ceren has been called the "New World Pompeii." The degree of preservation is so great researchers can see marks of finger swipes in ceramic bowls, and human footprints in gardens that host ghostly ash casts of corn stalks. Researchers have also uncovered thatched roofs, woven blankets and bean-filled pots.

Some Maya archaeological records document "top-down" societies, where the elite class made most political and economic decisions, at times exacting tribute or labor from villages, said Sheets. But at Ceren, the villagers appear to have had free reign regarding their architecture, crop choices, religious activities and economics.

"This is the first clear window anyone has had on the daily activities and the quality of life of Maya commoners back then," said Sheets, who is directing the excavation. "At Ceren we found virtually no influence and certainly no control by the elites."

A paper on the subject appears in the current issue of Latin American Antiquity published by the Society for American Archaeology. The 10-acre Ceren research area was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993.

Ceren is believed to have been home to about 200 people. Researchers have excavated 12 buildings, including living quarters, storehouses, workshops, kitchens, religious buildings and a community sauna. There are dozens of unexcavated structures, and perhaps even another settlement or two under the Loma Caldera volcanic ash, which covers an area of roughly two square miles, Sheets said. Thus far, no bodies have been found, an indication a precursor earthquake may have given residents a running start just before the eruption.

The only relationship Ceren commoners had with Maya elite was indirect, through public marketplace transactions in El Salvador's Zapotitan Valley. There, Ceren farmers likely swapped surplus crops or crafts for coveted specialty items like jade axes, obsidian knives and colorfully decorated polychrome pots, all of which elites arranged to have brought to market from a distance. Virtually every Ceren household had a jade axe--which is harder than steel--used for tree cutting, building and woodworking.

"The Ceren people could have chosen to do business at about a dozen different marketplaces in the region," said Sheets. "If they thought the elites were charging too much at one marketplace, they were free to vote with their feet and go to another."

One of the excavated community buildings has two large benches in the front room, which Sheets believes were used by village elders when making decisions. One decision would have involved organizing the annual crop harvest festival, a celebratory eating and drinking ritual that appears to have been underway at Ceren when the Loma Caldera volcano abruptly blew just north of the village, said Sheets.

He believes the villagers fled south, perhaps along a white road leading away from the village discovered under 15 feet of ash in 2011. The elevated road, known as a sacbe (SOCK-bay), is about 2 meters wide and made from white tightly packed volcanic ash, with drainage ditches along each edge. The sacbe appears to split in the village and lead toward the plaza and two religious structures: the large ceremonial building and a second, smaller structure used by a female shaman.

Unique research

"There are two aspects that make this project unique," said John Yellen, NSF program manager for the Ceren excavations. "The first is the incredible degree of preservation at Ceren, which captures in such detail a moment in time. The second is the perseverance and ingenuity of Dr. Sheets, who devised effective techniques to address a broad range of questions involving Ceren's agricultural practices and its social organization."

Prior to the discovery of Ceren's sacbe, such "white way" roads--which often connected temples, plazas and towns and had strong practical, political and spiritual connotations--were known only from Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula and all were lined on each side with paving stones, unlike the Ceren sacbe, said Sheets.

Measurements with an instrument known as a penetrometer indicated the sacbe was extraordinarily hard. This was, in part, because villagers must have vigorously pounded sections of the sacbe with heavy objects over a period of days, he said. In addition, tiny, angular grains of the ash, or tephra used to build the sacbe lock together in a tight matrix when packed down under moist conditions. The center of the sacbe was slightly grooved, an indication people walked single file as they headed to their crop fields or perhaps traveled to and from the nearby town of San Andres.

"The western canal of the sacbe was crisp and well formed and had apparently been worked on just days before the eruption," said Sheets. "But it looks like the workers hadn't gotten around to maintaining the eastern canal before the volcanic event."

The team, which has dug 10 test pits so far in an attempt to trace the path of the sacbe from Ceren south, found several dozen footprints on its outer, softer edges. "More than half of the footprints were headed south away from the village, away from the danger," Sheets said. "I think at least some of them were left by people fleeing the eruption."

Who built and maintained the sacbe--now known to stretch at least 150 meters from the village and may well go all the way to San Andres--is still a mystery. "We think the work was done on the household level with multiple families involved, perhaps supervised by village elders," said Sheets.

There also is evidence that residents of particular households at Ceren were responsible for the upkeep of certain community structures, said Sheets. One household, for example, contained an inordinate amount of pots and firewood that the researchers speculated were used during activities in the domed community sauna building. That sweat bath, which could comfortably seat about a dozen people, had a central firebox where water was poured to create the desired steam and heat, Sheets said.

In 2009, Sheets and his team discovered intensively cultivated manioc (cassava) fields at Ceren. It was the first and only evidence of intense manioc cultivation at any New World archaeology site. Sheets and others believe such large manioc crops could have played a vital role in feeding indigenous societies living throughout tropical Latin America. Today, dried manioc powder is used in the region to make tortillas and tamales, and fermented manioc is used to make alcoholic beverages.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Buried in ash, ancient Salvadoran village shows images of daily life”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 3, 2015. Available online:

Friday, January 29, 2016

Revealing the mysteries of the Maya script

EPFL researchers have come up with an algorithm to analyze Mayan writing. This project could one day contribute to translating this complex and still partially unknown language.

While some five million people still speak a language that evolved out of Mayan civilization in South America, the written language has suffered a different fate. The secrets of the classical Maya were lost with the destruction of most works during the Spanish conquest in the 16th century. Only three codices have been preserved, and they are in museums and institutions in Paris, Dresden and Madrid. These documents contain precious data for the researchers who are seeking to discover the secrets of this pre-Columbian writing, much of which remains obscure (10 to 15% of the symbols are not known). Researchers at Idiap, a research institute affiliated with EPFL and with the new Digital Humanities Laboratory of the College of Humanities, are harnessing the power of computers to help archeologists and epigraphers make significant progress in their work. Creative writers The researchers, working closely with the Maya writing specialists, have analyzed thousands of hieroglyph signs, which are symbols that represent a sound, or also a meaning. Maya texts are often written in the form of blocks. A block could contain one or multiple glyphs, representing a sound, a word or even an entire sentence. "Each image tells a story," said Rui Hu, a researcher working on Social Computing at Idiap. "Sometimes we can guess their meaning with the help of people who still speak this language today, and also by using glossaries." The task is particularly difficult because the hieroglyphs are difficult to decipher in the historical documents owing to their age and state of deterioration. What's more, pre-Columbian writers sometimes drew the symbols in different and creative ways, varying by era and location. And then there are those symbols that look like each other yet mean something completely different.

A real conundrum for archeologists and epigraphers, who still spend a significant amount of time poring over catalogs to identify each symbol. Thanks to the work of the Idiap researchers and the involvement of Maya writing specialists from Bonn University in Germany, high quality representations of the hieroglyphs found in the three known works have now been created and will be catalogued digitally. The researchers will then be able to use this tool to quickly identify a given hieroglyph and its meaning, and to see, for example, what the most common combinations of symbols observed in the same 'block' of text are. "This research is of great interest to mayanists, given the potential of such novel multidisciplinary approaches for overcoming obstacles resulting from applying more traditional methods", said Carlos Pallán Gayol, researcher at Bonn University.

This interdisciplinary project with the contribution of the University of Geneva will eventually lead to an online database that the scientific community will be able to use to research, compare and annotate texts in the quest to expand our knowledge of Mayan writing and iconography. "By combining the work of the Maya experts with IT-based tools, we can make fascinating progress," said Rui Hu. Progress that may someday lead to machine translation – something like Google Translate for historians.

Bourquenoud, Sarah. 2016. “Revealing the mysteries of the Maya script”. Phys.Org. Posted: November 2, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Tomb Tells Tale of Family Executed by China's 1st Female Emperor

A 1,300-year-old tomb, discovered in Xi'an city, China, holds the bones of a man who helped the nation's only female emperor rise to power. The epitaphs in the tomb describe how she then executed him and his entire family.

Located within a cave, the tomb contains the remains of Yan Shiwei and his wife, Lady Pei. While little is left of the individual's skeletons, archaeologists found colorful ceramic figurines, a mirror with a gold plaque and, most importantly, epitaphs inscribed on bluestones.

The tomb and its epitaphs were described recently in the journalChinese Cultural Relics by researchers from the Xi'an Municipal Institute of Archaeology and Conservation of Cultural Heritage.

A woman comes to power

Wu Zetian started out as a concubine of Emperor Gaozong (649-683), eventually becoming his empress and gaining a high degree of influence over him.

After the emperor's death, Wu Zetian declared that she would ruleChina as Empress Dowager with her son, Emperor Ruizong. The epitaphs say that shortly after her declaration, a duke named Xu Jingye led a rebellion in Jiangdu (modern-day Yangzhou).

At this time, according to the translated epitaphs, Yan Shiwei was serving as a military official in Jiangdu; the duke, Jingye, tried to persuade Shiwei to join the rebels, but Shiwei refused and fought against the duke.

"The lord [Yan Shiwei] intentionally broke his own arm to resist the coercion from the rebel, showing that his loyalty to the imperial court had not been shaken," the epitaphs read in translation. It's unknown why Shiwei had to intentionally break his own arm. It could have been during hand-to-hand fighting while trying to get out of a hold. It's also possible that the phrase is metaphorical.

In the ensuing conflict the duke's forces were defeated. Wu Zetian claimed power as Empress Dowager, and Yan Shiwei was promoted.

"After the rebels were defeated, the lord received his reward. He was promoted to magistrate of Lanxi County of Wuzhou Prefecture and given the title of grand master for closing court," the epitaphs say.

In 690, Wu Zetian declared herself emperor in her own right and founded her own dynasty, which she called the "Zhou."

As Wu Zetian's power increased, Yan Shiwei became one of her favorite officials, taking on those who challenged her authority. The epitaphs say that at one point Yan Shiwei was charged with confronting "powerful families" near the capital city of Luoyang. The texts say that civil disorder was occurring.  

"There were more spoiled young bullies in the counties near the capital, and the local officials feared those powerful families," the epitaphs say. Yan Shiwei resolved the situation, although the epitaphs are vague on how he did it, saying that "the lord was strict as the autumn frost, as well as warming as the winter sun, and got the people to learn self-control, and civil order was established."

Betrayal and downfall

By 699, Yan Shiwei had become a senior official who "was stationed in the capital area and controlled mountains and rivers," the texts alluding to his great power.

The epitaphs say that Yan Shiwei had little time to enjoy his power before he was executed. "Before he started galloping, a tragedy descended upon him," the epitaphs say, explaining that his younger brother, Zhiwei, turned against the female emperor. The epitaphs don't specify precisely what Zhiwei did, but the consequences for Yan Shiwei and his family were severe.

"Due to guilt by association for the crime of his brother Zhiwei, he [Yan Shiwei] was executed under collective punishment," the epitaphs say, adding that "the entire family suffered collective punishment, and all were executed."

Yan Shiwei's wife, Lady Pei, had died a few years earlier, in 691, so she was not killed in the mass execution.

The epitaphs also suggest that murder was not enough of a punishment for Yan Shiwei's supposed betrayal. "The corpse and soul were carelessly buried, it being thought it would never be possible to move them for proper burial."

However, the female emperor was thrown out of power in 705, and died shortly afterward, bringing an end to her short-lived "Zhou" dynasty. The dynasty that had preceded her, called the "Tang," was restored to power.

"The resurrection of the Tang Dynasty brought exoneration [for Yan Shiwei]. Therefore, his remains were exhumed to be buried at his birthplace," the epitaphs say. The "tomb [that the archaeologists found] was built to house his remains," the writings say.

The tomb was excavated in 2002. The finds were first reported in Chinese in 2014 in the journal Wenwu. Recently, the Wenwu article was translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

Jarus, Owen. 2016. “Tomb Tells Tale of Family Executed by China's 1st Female Emperor”. Live Science. Posted: November 2, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

One thousand different words for water

New Guinea is one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world, with more than 1000 distinct languages crammed into an area not much larger than the state of Texas. Despite this rich variety—for comparison, Europe contains about 280 languages—linguists have only analyzed the grammatical structures of a fraction of the South Pacific island’s languages. Now, Simon Greenhill, a linguist at Australian National University in Canberra, is trying to remedy that situation, by gathering together hundreds of thousands of words from published surveys, book chapters, and articles, as well as the accounts of early European explorers, and putting them into an online database called Updated daily, the site already contains glossaries for more than 1000 languages from 23 different language families, including 145,000 words. There are roughly 1000 different words for “water,” as well as for “louse,” and linguists and language enthusiasts can view all the languages by geographic origin in an interactive map. Greenhill introduced the scientific community to the site this week in the journal PLOS ONE; already, he has used the database to look for clues about how the different languages are related. Through comparative, historical, and computational analyses of the data, he hopes the linguistic community will now use the site to solve long-standing questions about how New Guinean populations expanded and spread their culture. 

Underwood, Emily. 2016. “One thousand different words for water”. Science. Posted: October 30, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Often decried, polygyny may sometimes have advantages

Much of the world frowns on the practice of polygamy. Most countries around the globe ban or restrict marriages to more than one spouse at a time. And polygyny--where one husband has more than one wife--is decried by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and women's rights organizations as discriminatory to women.

But a new study of polygyny in Tanzania finds that the practice of sharing a husband may, in some circumstances, lead to greater health and wealth for women and their children.

UC Davis anthropologist Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and colleagues compared polygynous and monogamous households in 56 villages in northern Tanzania, where polygyny is widespread among certain ethnic groups, including the Maasai.

When comparing households within individual villages, polygynous households often had better access to food and healthier children. Polygynous households also owned more cattle and farmed more land than monogamous households. These findings support evolutionary anthropological accounts of marriage indicating that polygyny can be in a woman's strategic interest when women depend on men for resources.

"If you have a choice of a guy who has 180 cows, lots of land and other wives, it might be better for you to marry him rather than a guy who has no wives, three cows and one acre," Borgerhoff Mulder said.

Consistent with prior research, the study found that polygyny was associated with low food security and poor child health when looking at data across all villages. However, this pattern was accounted for by the tendency of polygyny to be most common in ecologically vulnerable and marginalized ethnic groups. This error of interpretation is known as the "ecological fallacy", and flaws all previous analyses of large data sets like the Demographic and Health Surveys.

"Our study suggests that highly polygynous, predominantly Maasai, villages do poorly not because of polygyny, but because of vulnerability to drought, low service provision and broader socio-political disadvantages," said David Lawson, a population health lecturer at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and lead author of the study published in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Tanzania faces a high burden of food insecurity and malnutrition: 45 percent of children are of low height for their age, indicating chronic malnutrition with long term impacts on physical and cognitive development. Previous research by Lawson, Borgerhoff Mulder and colleagues showed that nearly 60 percent of Tanzanian Maasai children experience stunting.

The United Nations states that polygyny contravenes a woman's right to equality with men and can have such serious emotional and financial consequences for her and her dependents that such marriages ought to be discouraged and prohibited.

However, the researchers highlight the importance of local context in studying the health implications of cultural practices, and suggest that in some settings, prohibiting polygyny could be disadvantageous to women by restricting their marriage options.

"The issue is not the number of partners," Borgerhoff Mulder said. "Women should be assured the autonomy to make the decisions they want""

The study is limited to food security and health, and cannot tell us about the wider potential for polygyny to cause harm, the researchers said. They also note that polygyny was only associated with superior outcomes when fathers and children were co-resident: outcomes for other polygynously-married women were indistinguishable from those of monogamous women. This suggests that any potential benefits of sharing a husband may be limited to the primary wife within a polygynous marriage.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Often decried, polygyny may sometimes have advantages”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 28, 2015. Available online:

Monday, January 25, 2016

Ancient Native American 'Twins' Had Different Mothers

Native American "twins" who died 11,500 years ago in the area that's now Alaska actually had different mothers, a new genetic analysis suggests.

The genetic lineage of one of the fake twin babies suggests all Native Americans can trace can trace their lineage to a single wave of migrants who crossed the Bering Strait, said study co-author Justin Tackney, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Utah.

Past studies had suggested that a separate wave of migrants might have entered the continent from other regions.

Murky migration history

Native Americans descend from people who first left Siberia and crossed the Bering Strait when sea levels were lower and the region formed a land bridge, sometime between 23,000 and 30,000 years ago.

But the details and timing of that process are up for debate. During the last ice age, the Laurentide Ice Sheet covered all of Canada and blocked the entrance to North America as recently as 20,000 years ago. Many geneticists and archaeologists have suggested that the ancestors of Native Americans were stuck and therefore lingered in the region between Siberia and Southern Alaska, called Beringia for millennia — a theory called the Beringia standstill hypothesis.

Though northern Alaska is now an extremely forbidding environment, at that time, "there were pockets of tundra, and maybe even forests, that large mammals and humans could actually live in, and it wasn't as harsh as it is nowadays," Tackney said. "People could eat, find food and find freshwater and survive for thousands of years."

But archaeologists and geneticists don't agree on just how long people were stuck in Beringia. And some have even argued that people came to North and South America in multiple migration waves, some of which didn't pass through Beringia.

One reason for the uncertainty is that there are no human remains that date to the probable time of the migration, and no ancient human remains from anywhere near Beringia. The earliest human remains in North America come from a child, known as the Anzick Boy, who died 12,600 years ago in what is now Montana. Other ancient remains, such as those of the Kennewick Man found in Washington, are thousands of years younger.

Ancient surprises

The recently discovered remains, which are 11,600 years old, were uncovered deep in Alaska's interior, at a site known as Upward Sun River.

"This is the oldest human remain we've found so far north," Tackney said.

The site contained the burials of three children; a cremated 3-year-old; a premature baby; and a 6-week-old infant.

The researchers analyzed the little ones' mitochondrial DNA (DNA that is passed on from mothers to their children). It turned out that the two babies, originally believed to be twins, had different mothers. (The cremated baby had no usable DNA.) One of the babies had a genetic lineage, or haplogroup, known as C1b, whereas the other had a B2 lineage, the researchers reported today (Oct. 26) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Both lineages appear in modern Native Americans, but B2 has previously been found only in tribes that currently live farther south, such as the Navajo and the Anasazi of the American Southwest.

Because the B2 lineage is common in Native Americans but has never been found in modern-day northern Siberians or North American Indians at high latitudes, some researchers have proposed that one wave of migrants from Siberia colonized the Americas, while a second colonization wave carried the B2 lineage, said Connie Mulligan, a genetics professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville, who was not involved in the study. But the new findings nix that notion, she said.

The new result "really solidifies the argument for a single migration by showing that all major New World mitochondrial haplogroups can be found in ancient populations in the New World at the right time and in the right place," Mulligan told Live Science.

The genetic data suggests that the ancestors of modern people with the B2 lineage came across the Bering Strait, whereas their ancestral population in Siberia died out, she added.

Still, the new study can't settle the debate about how long people hung out in Beringia, Tackney said. Native Americans reached a site in southern Chile, called Monte Verde, 14,800 years ago, meaning the migration out of Beringia occurred at least 3,000 years before these ancient babies died.

Completing the timeline for the settlement of the Americas would require finding older human remains in the Beringia heartland — which is unlikely, given that most of that territory is now covered by ocean, he said.

Ghose, Tia. 2016. “Ancient Native American 'Twins' Had Different Mothers”. Live Science. Posted: October 26, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Russia readies to exhume Tsar Alexander III in Romanov probe

Russian investigators began examining the grave of Tsar Alexander III Tuesday ahead of his exhumation in a probe looking to finally identify the remains of the last tsar Nicholas II and his family.

The Peter and Paul Cathedral in Saint Petersburg where Tsar Alexander III is buried was closed to visitors as the state commission examined the 121-year-old grave, its press service said.

Alexander III, the father of the last Romanov Tsar Nicholas II, died in 1894, and the preparatory work on his grave began with a religious service.

The full exhumation is expected to take place in several weeks.

"We have discussed how to do this in an extremely tactful way so as not to destroy the cultural heritage," said criminal investigator Vladimir Solovyov in charge of the probe, quoted by the news website

Before the exhumation, there will be a requiem mass, the city's Orthodox Church diocese said.

Nicholas II, his family and their retinue were shot by the Bolsheviks in 1918, who then tried to hide the crime by burning their bodies, dousing them in acid and hurriedly burying them in the provincial city of Yekaterinburg.

The remains of Nicholas II, his wife and three of their daughters were found in 1991 and reburied in Peter and Paul Cathedral in 1998 when Boris Yeltsin was in power.

Nearly a decade later, the remains of his heir Alexei and daughter Maria were found in a separate grave in 2007. Their remains are currently in limbo in the state archive.

Canonised as saints

Russia wants the remains of all of the Romanovs laid to rest in the same place and is pushing for them to be formally recognised in a ceremony by the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, which has canonised the family as martyrs.

But the Church has never formally recognised any of the Romanov remains as authentic despite the results of DNA testing by international and Russian scientists.

The Church says there must be no doubt over their identity since believers will revere them as holy relics. This summer, a government-backed working group called for the remains of Alexei and Maria to be buried within months. But the Church has insisted on further DNA testing by Russian scientists, with the remains being handled under close supervision by priests.

For the new round of testing, the remains of Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra have also been exhumed and specialists are looking at the bloodstained clothes of the last tsar's grandfather, Alexander II, who was assassinated in 1881.

Phys.Org. 2016. “Russia readies to exhume Tsar Alexander III in Romanov probe”. Phys.Org. Posted: November 3, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Aboriginal female hunters aided by dingoes

In modern society dogs are often referred to as "man's best friend" but according to an archaeological review early Aboriginal society sported a similar relationship between women and dingoes (Canis lupus dingo).

The study by UWA and ANU suggests people formed close bonds with dingoes soon after the dogs' arrival on the mainland roughly 4000 years ago, with the dogs enabling women to contribute more hunted food.

UWA archaeologist Jane Balme, who led the research, says it is thought the first dingoes arrived on watercraft with people from South East Asia.

"What they're doing on the boat is not clear but if you're on a small boat 4000 years ago or so with people, then they probably came here as a domesticated animal," she says.

"But then when they got here they went wild."

Dr Balme says previously collected DNA evidence suggests dingoes could have been introduced at two locations, one in the Kimberley and one in the north-east of Australia.

She says it is likely Aboriginal people quickly formed close bonds with the dogs and early European colonisers recorded that dingoes were used by Aboriginals for a variety of purposes including as blankets and watch dogs.

In today's society dogs are sometimes used as watch dogs but have also been put to work to assist humans in other means such as aiding blind people or as therapy tools for sick or lonely people.

Evidence suggests dingoes would have cramped men's style

Dr Balme says most of the records considered in the study and anthropological observations suggest Aboriginal men did not take dingoes out when they went hunting because they would scare away large animals.

But Dr Balme's and ANU archaeologist Sue O'Connor's study reveals Aboriginals started to feed on a wider variety of small animals after the dingoes arrived in Australia.

This is based on previous archaeological digs of early occupation sites unearthing a wider range of animal bones, which dating techniques confirmed were placed there after the dingoes' arrival.

The research suggests this increase in the variety of animals eaten by Aboriginal people was because women used dingoes to hunt small animals such as goannas.

"We reviewed some of the evidence from archaeological sites, including Tunnel Cave in South West Australia, because it's long been noted that from mid-Holocene [4000-5000 years ago] that there is this change in fauna in many sites," Dr Balme says.

"We thought that maybe this change in fauna is the result of using dingoes as hunting dogs for small animals that are traditionally caught by women."

Wheeler, Michelle. 2016. “Aboriginal female hunters aided by dingoes”. Phys.Org. Posted: October 23, 2015. Available online:

Friday, January 22, 2016

Documenting the world's last nomadic tribes


Discovery News. 2016. “Documenting the world's last nomadic tribes”. Discovery News. Posted: October 22, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, January 21, 2016

All religions will come together in new research project

Tribal religions in Africa. Buddhist traditions in Japan, Korea, and Sri Lanka. Christians who are Roman Catholic, Pentecostal or Lutherans.

The knowledge that exists about religions and religious groups is overwhelming--even for historians and theologians. That is why researchers from the University of British Columbia in Canada have set out to make a huge internet-based database of all the world’s religions.

It has become a worldwide project backed by $30 million in funding.

"It's a huge step forward," says lead-scientist Professor Anders Klostergaard Petersen, from Aarhus University, Denmark. “Once the database is complete, a researcher can make a targeted search and know where to go for a complete religious and cultural history of any particular topic. We’ve never been able to this before.”

In the project, more than 50 researchers from around the world have contributed information to the database on specific religions, by responding to almost 200 questions on that religion's beliefs, rituals, and followers.

The database will answer the big questions

The project is set to finish in 2018, but Petersen believes it could easily take 10 to 20 years to gather all existing knowledge of Vishnu, Zeus, Allah, and all the other deities.

However, scientists will be able to use the database well before this:

"The hope is that over the next few years it will contain information on all religions, from the earliest religions, right up to the present day. As we begin to build the database, we can start to use it for research purposes. Then we’ll really be able to start comparing religious groups," says Petersen.

The project aims to answer some of the big questions about religion, culture, and society.

The overall goal is to find out how religions may help societies to work together.

Colleague: a good reference tool

It is precisely these issues that Associate Professor Tim Jensen from the University of Southern Denmark is interested in. The Canadian project should enable a more scientific approach to studying religions:

"Many ordinary people may also benefit from the database: Today, many people are interested in the impact of religion on, for example, war, conflict, and social cohesion, and that's what the database will answer," says Jensen, who is not a part of the project.

He does not know whether the database will provide revolutionary new knowledge, but nonetheless, he believes that it could give a good overview of the world’s religions, some of which, we have little information about:

"As far as I know, this hasn’t been done before, and anything that can improve our overview and the amount of [available] data and knowledge is great,” says Jensen, who describes the project as providing a generalist overview based on expert knowledge.

The preliminary data should be open for public access by late 2015. You can read more about the database here and see the video below.

Lange, Sedsel Brøndum. 2016. “All religions will come together in new research project”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 16, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Evidence of Ice Age ‘economic migrants’ in Europe to be unearthed

New excavation in Bradgate Park, Leicestershire, aim to save flint artefacts from the impact of erosion.

After being hidden for nearly 15,000 years, the lives of Ice Age hunter-gatherers who migrated to Europe to benefit from warmer climes are to be revealed in an archaeological dig at a very rare site in Bradgate Park, Leicestershire.

The Bradgate Park Trust has commissioned the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) to begin a new stage of work on a rare Late Upper Palaeolithic site at Bradgate Park in October, following an assessment that revealed in situ deposits containing an assemblage of worked flint. The site is anticipated to yield thousands more flint artefacts, including tools such as projectile points, scrapers, knives and piercers.

Analysis of the flint scatter suggests that different activity zones may be identifiable, giving the archaeologists an understanding of the dynamics of life at the camp site some 14,700 years ago.

Continuing erosion of the site threatens to destroy the archaeological remains which is why the Bradgate Park Trust has gained permission from Natural England, Historic England and Leicestershire County Council to allow a team of archaeologists from University of Leicester's Archaeological Services to carry out a full excavation of the site in order to record this nationally important heritage site.

The work which the Bradgate Park Trust is funding has been made possible by a grant of financial support from Natural England and 'in kind' support from Historic England. The excavation will take place this year during October to December with subsequent analysis and reporting in 2016 -- 2017.

Lynden Cooper, Principal Investigator on the project, said: "To Upper Palaeolithic archaeologists sites such as Bradgate Park are the equivalent of a Pompeii, preserving a record of human existence from a snapshot in time millennia ago. There is some irony in that this rare preservation of a hunters' campsite is entirely due to the creation of the medieval deer park which has not been cultivated.

"The people who left behind these clues were members of a small group of pioneer mobile hunter gatherers who repopulated north-west Europe towards the end of the last Ice Age with the rapid onset of a warmer climate (the Lake Windermere Interstadial) and the development of open grassland vegetation.

"The new environment attracted a rich fauna of large vertebrates including wild horse and red deer, two of the preferred prey species. Other species included mammoth, elk, wild cattle, wolf, arctic fox, arctic hare and brown bear.

"They were re-colonising lands that had been lost for circa 10,000 years -- economic migrants in a period of rapid global climate change, if you like.

"In the 19th and earlier 20th century excavation of caves such as at Creswell Crags and Cheddar Gorge provided the first evidence for the archaeology of this period but open air sites were missing pieces of the jigsaw. In recent years we have started to identify such sites allowing research of hunter-gatherer behaviour in the open environment."

Bradgate Park is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its rare geology, and very special ancient parkland and wet heath habitats. It is also a Country Park and is included on the register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest. There are also two Scheduled Ancient Monuments and five listed buildings which includes Bradgate House and Old John. The management of the Park is supported by a Higher Level Stewardship agreement, which is helping to ensure that these important environmental and heritage assets are cared for.

Peter Tyldesley, Director of the Bradgate Park Trust, commented: "Whilst the medieval and later history of Bradgate Park is well documented and the Park's association with Lady Jane Grey is well known, we are only just beginning to uncover the fascinating story of this area in prehistoric times. We are delighted to be working with ULAS to secure this nationally important site and ultimately to tell its story to our visitors."

Science Daily. 2016. “Evidence of Ice Age ‘economic migrants’ in Europe to be unearthed”. Science Daily. Posted: October 15, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Does Celtic art have links with Asia?

An Oxford University-led project is documenting the spread and influence of Celtic art. One of the most intriguing questions researchers hope to answer is whether Celtic art had links into the wider Eurasian world. Until now, this material has mainly been analysed in terms of its European stylistic development, but the research team is now broadening its scope to look at the relationship between Celtic art and Iron Age art in the Eurasian steppe. They will be looking at a group of artefacts in excavations and museum collections that are traditionally described as ‘Celtic’ because of their use of spirals, circles, interlaced designs, or swirling representations of plants or animals.

One main line of enquiry is the relationship between the central European Celts and their nomadic Eurasian neighbours (often referred to as Scythians or Sarmatians), who inhabited the European end of a grassland (steppe) corridor that stretched east towards Central Asia and China. Longstanding routes of communication across these semi-deserts and steppes, which later formed part of the Silk Road, are known to have played a significant role in earlier artistic and cultural exchanges between East and West.

Themes which resonate

Iron Age tombs frozen in the mountains of Siberia, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan have yielded Roman glass, Chinese silk, and Central Asian textiles, alongside a wealth of local materials, whose elaborate designs, though clearly different, express themes which resonate with the swirling styles of Celtic Art. The researchers will examine what, if anything, might link these distant forms of artistic expression.

The team will also visit museum collections in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Czech Republic, as part of the ‘European Celtic Art in Context’ project. Funded by the Leverhulme Trust, researchers from Oxford and Cambridge, together with the British Museum, will gather existing resources to compile an extensive European database of Celtic Art. It will also focus on finds of Celtic art beyond what we traditionally regard as the boundaries of the ‘Celtic’ world.

Blurred boundaries

Project leader Professor Chris Gosden, from the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: ‘In Europe, Celtic Art is strongly associated with countries like Scotland and Ireland, but we are now thinking more broadly about connected art styles across Europe and Asia. We suspect that the imagery was linked to performances and possibly altered states of consciousness. It uses imagery which may be linked to animistic beliefs, to a world in which spirits inhabit the material world and where the boundaries between people, animals, plants, and objects are blurred‘.

Celtic art in Europe is thought to have started around 500 BC, at around the same time as a new tradition of ‘realism’ appeared in the artistic traditions of the Mediterranean world. Though clearly related, the inspiration that lay behind the creation of Celtic art was in stark contrast to this Classical Art of Greece and Rome. Both Celtic and Classical art forms emerged from two continental streams of interaction, with Celtic art as the western-most expression of shape-shifting imagery found right across the steppes to the borders of China. In looking at eastern influences, this project intersects with a major research project organised by Professor Dame Jessica Rawson of Oxford examining the influences of central Asian steppe culture on the development of China, which is also funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Does Celtic art have links with Asia?”. Past Horizons. Posted: October 15, 2015. Available online:

Monday, January 18, 2016

Modern humans out of Africa sooner than thought

"The model that is generally accepted is that modern humans left Africa only 50,000 years ago," said Maria Martinon-Torres, a researcher at University College London and a co-author of the study.

Human teeth discovered in southern China provide evidence that our species left the African continent up to 70,000 years earlier than prevailing theories suggest, a study published on Wednesday said.

Homo sapiens reached present-day China 80,000-120,000 years ago, according to the study, which could redraw the migration map for modern humans.

"In this case, we are saying the H. sapiens is out of Africa much earlier," she told the peer-reviewed journal Nature, which published the study.

While the route they travelled remains unknown, previous research suggests the most likely path out of East Africa to east Asia was across the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East.

The findings also mean that the first truly modern humans—thought to have emerged in east Africa some 200,000 years ago—landed in China well before they went to Europe.

There is no evidence to suggest that H. sapiens entered the European continent earlier than 45,000 years ago, at least 40,000 years after they showed up in present-day China.

The 47 teeth exhumed from a knee-deep layer of grey, sandy clay inside the Fuyan Cave near the town of Daoxian closely resemble the dental gear of "contemporary humans," according to the study.

They could only have come from a population that migrated from Africa, rather than one that evolved from an another species of early man such as the extinct Homo erectus, the authors said.

The scientists also unearthed the remains of some 38 mammals, including specimens of five extinct species, one of them a giant panda larger than those in existence today.

No tools were found.

"Judging by the cave environment, it may not have been a living place for humans," lead author Wu Liu from the Chinese Academy of Science in Beijing told AFP.

Why not Europe?

The study, published in the journal Nature, also rewrites the timeline of early man in China. Up to now, the earliest proof of H. sapiens east of the Arabian Peninsula came from the Tianyuan Cave near Beijing, and dated from no more than 40,000 years ago.

The new discovery raises questions about why it took so long for H. sapiens to find their way to nearby Europe. "Why is it that modern humans—who were already at the gates—didn't really get into Europe?", Martinon-Torres asked. Wu and colleagues propose two explanations.

The first is the intimidating presence of Neanderthal man. While this species of early human eventually died out, they were spread across the European continent up until at least some 50,000 years ago.

"The classic idea is that H. sapiens... took over the Neanderthal empire, but maybe Neanderthals were a kind of ecological barrier, and Europe was too small a place" for both, Martinon-Torres said. Another impediment might have been the cold.

Up until the Ice Age ended 12,000 years ago, ice sheets stretched across a good part of the European continent, a forbidding environment for a new species emerging from the relative warmth of East Africa.

"H. sapiens originated in or near the tropics, so it makes sense that the species' initial dispersal was eastwards rather than northwards, where winter temperatures rapidly fell below freezing," Robin Dennell of the University of Exeter said in a commentary, also in Nature.

Martinon-Torres laid out some of the questions to be addressed in future research, using both genetics and fossil records.

A near miss

"What are the origins of these populations, and what was their fate? Did they vanish? Could they be the ancestors of later and current populations that entered Europe?"

She also suggested there might have been "different movements and migrations" out of Africa, not just one. Besides the prehistoric panda, called Ailuropoda baconi, the scientists found an extinct species of a giant spotted hyaena.

An elephant-like creature called Stegodon orientalis and a giant tapir, also present, were species that may have survived into the era when the Chinese had developed writing, some 3500 years ago.

The cache of teeth nearly went unnoticed, Wu told AFP.

He and his Chinese colleagues discovered the cave—and its menagerie of long-deceased animals—in the 1980s, but had no inkling that it also contained human remains.

But 25 years later, while revisiting the site, Wu had a hunch.

"By thinking about the cave environment, we realised that human fossils might be found there," he told AFP by email. "So we started a five-year excavation."

Phys.Org. 2016. “Modern humans out of Africa sooner than thought”. Phys.Org. Posted: October 14, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Cultural blunders make people better thinkers

Amid mass migrations, stress can accrue as refugees and longtime residents experience cultural differences. Researchers at USC and other institutions discovered a silver lining: People encountering cultural gaffes flex their brains more.

Halloween-decorated plates at a Labor Day party. A bride in a green gown with her groom in a purple tuxedo and no wedding party. An obituary that declares of the deceased: "Regina had no hobbies, made no contribution to society, and rarely shared a kind word or deed in her life."

These cultural faux pas would surely set America's late etiquette expert, Emily Post, spinning in her grave. But for a team of researchers at USC and other institutions, these situations - which included July Fourth and Labor Day parties hosted by the lead researcher's mother - were opportunities for natural experiments.

People are more likely to think and behave mindlessly - buying things, eating more and performing poorly on cognitive reasoning tests when they encounter a cultural situation that meets their expectations, such as a white wedding. The researchers referred to these situations as moments of "cultural fluency."

The opposite is true for people confronted with moments of "cultural disfluency" - such as the wrong holiday plates at a party or a "goodbye-and-good-riddance" obituary. Then people perform better on cognitive reasoning tests and are less likely to succumb to impulse purchases and consumption.

"Culture sets up a general blueprint for the way things should work, so that if things unfold as we expect, we don't have to think," said corresponding author Daphna Oyserman, Dean's Professor of Psychology and Co-director of the USC Dornsife Center for Mind and Society. "It's good because it frees up our cognitive capacity to do other things. But it also has a downside because it means we're not processing details. What we showed in these studies is that this lack of attention carries over to unrelated tasks."

Oyserman said the study's results show that people shift from a low-level, associative thought process to higher level, systematic thinking when they encounter a situation in which something is awry. This shift in intensity is the difference between coasting downhill on a bike and pedaling uphill; it can raise people's stress levels.

"Cultural disfluency can facilitate a shift to systematic mindset and set up feelings of distrust and suspicion with potentially problematic consequences depending on the context," the researchers warned.

Prior psychology studies of culture have contrasted how it differs between groups, but Oyserman said the researchers for this study sought to explore how culture affects reasoning.

Cultural disfluency can be thought of as part of culture shock. Oyserman said this is an especially important consideration for countries now accepting thousands of migrants and refugees from areas of conflict such as Syria or Afghanistan. The migrants and the long-time residents have expectations based on a cultural script that the other does not know. Moments of cultural disfluency are sure to accrue and increase stress levels even for residents in those countries who are accustomed to its culture and traditions, she said.

The study was published online on Aug. 31 by the journal Social Cognition.

Bats and pumpkins on Labor Day

The researchers ran a series of experiments using holidays, weddings and funerals. The first two took place at the Midwestern home of lead author James Mourey's mother during her annual July Fourth and Labor Day picnics.

Mourey, then a doctoral student at the University of Michigan and now of DePaul University, brought plates to his mother's picnics. For the July Fourth party, some white plates were randomly mixed into the stack of plates decorated in stars and stripes. For the Labor Day study, some Halloween-themed plates with pictures of bats and pumpkins were randomly mixed into the stack of patriotic plates. The food was served buffet-style to the 19 guests on July Fourth and 26 guests on Labor Day weekend.

"At the end of the row of the array of foods was chatty Jim who grabs your hand and says, 'It's so great to see you,'" Oyserman said. "He eases the plate out of your hand to put it on a thin scale sitting underneath a tablecloth so you wouldn't notice. Neither his mother nor the guests knew what was going on."

Halloween plates at the Labor Day picnic were loaded with less food than the patriotic plates. The Halloween plates had even less food than the white plates that guests drew at the July Fourth picnic.

Weddings and snow shovels

Americans were asked to rate photographs taken at actual weddings. Half were shown photos of a traditional-style or "culturally fluent" wedding - a groom in a black tux, bride in a white dress, and a typical tiered cake - and the other half were shown photos of non-traditional, or "culturally disfluent" wedding - a bride in a green dress, a groom in a purple tux and a cake decorated with gears.

There were three groups of participants, ranging in number fro 69 to 132 participants. in one group, participants took a cognitive reasoning task after viewing the photographs. Those who saw the traditional wedding made more reasoning errors. In the two other groups, researchers asked the subjects to help with another study and rate their interest in purchasing products. Oyserman said that although the products, such as a snow shovel, seemed unrelated to weddings, people who saw the traditional wedding photos were more interested in purchasing the items, supporting the prediction that cultural fluency increases mindless consumption.

Thinking in pink

Undergraduate students, 76 in Hong Kong and 73 in the U.S., took a cognitive reasoning test either on Valentine's Day or on Feb 21. They read and completed the questions on a computer screen that had either a black, white or pink border.

"It turns out pink makes you stupid but only on Valentine's Day," Oyserman said. "A week later, pink is just a color."

Grateful she's dead

A total of 463 Americans were asked to choose which obituary "read better."

Half were given a traditional "culturally fluent" obituary that revered a departed mother and the other half received a "culturally disfluent" obituary expressing gratitude that she was dead.

Some participants then took a cognitive reasoning test. Others were asked to consider whether they would buy a key fob that could help find lost keys or a keychain cellphone charger.

"People who read the 'good cry' obituary were not as smart and were more wiling to buy stuff than people who read the 'glad she is gone' one," Oyserman said.

Although these experiments seem like minor scenarios, they demonstrate what happens when things are even a bit off track Oyserman said.

"We are used to thinking about culture shock as negative and something that happens to those who move, but the disfluency that results in culture shock has some positive consequences for thinking," Oyserman said. "Disfluency can also occur for people who haven't moved, especially if there are large groups of others who are using a different cultural script are arriving at their shores. For them, those moments of what should be cultural fluency are harder to predict."

EurekAlert. 2016. “Cultural blunders make people better thinkers”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 13, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Origins of Religion: How Supernatural Beliefs Evolved

Many Catholics reveled in the pope's whirlwind visit to the East Coast of the United States last month. But as the devout return to life as usual, nonreligious Americans may be left scratching their heads, wondering what all the fuss was about.

The vast majority of the U.S. population does not belong to the Catholic Church, and a growing percentage of Americans are not affiliated with any organized religion at all, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Centers. So the question then becomes, what role does religion play in today's American society? Perhaps oddly, that question can be answered by a group of people not usually associated with religion: scientists.

Despite the popular belief that science and religion (or science and the supernatural, more generally) don't quite go hand in hand, scientists have quite a lot to say about this topic — specifically, why such beliefs even exist in the first place.

The 'god faculty'

There are many theories as to how religious thought originated. But two of the most widely cited ideas have to do with how early humans interacted with their natural environment, said Kelly James Clark, a senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. Picture this: You're a human being living many thousands of years ago. You're out on the plains of the Serengeti, sitting around, waiting for an antelope to walk by so you can kill it for dinner. All of a sudden, you see the grasses in front of you rustling. What do you do? Do you stop and think about what might be causing the rustling (the wind or a lion, for example), or do you immediately take some kind of action? "On the plains of the Serengeti, it would be better to not sit around and reflect. People who took their time got selected out," Clark told Live Science. Humans who survived to procreate were those who had developed what evolutionary scientists call a hypersensitive agency-detecting device, or HADD, he said.

In short, HADD is the mechanism that lets humans perceive that many things have "agency," or the ability to act of their own accord. This understanding of how the world worked facilitated the rapid decision-making process that humans had to go through when they heard a rustling in the grass. (Lions act of their own accord. Better run.)

But in addition to helping humans make rational decisions, HADD may have planted the seeds for religious thought. In addition to attributing agency to lions, for example, humans started attributing agency to things that really didn't have agency at all.

"You might think that raindrops aren't agents," Clark said. "They can't act of their own accord. They just fall. And clouds just form; they're not things that can act. But what human beings have done is to think that clouds are agents. They think [clouds] can act," Clark said of early humans.

And then humans took things to a whole new level. They started attributing meaning to the actions of things that weren't really acting of their own accord. For example, they thought raindrops were "acting for a purpose," Clark said.

Acting for a purpose is the basis for what evolutionary scientists call the Theory of Mind (ToM) — another idea that's often cited in discussions about the origins of religion. By attributing intention or purpose to the actions of beings that did have agency, like other people, humans stopped simply reacting as quickly as possible to the world around them — they started anticipating what other beings' actions might be and planning their own actions accordingly. (Being able to sort of get into the mind of another purposeful being is what Theory of Mind is all about.)

ToM was very helpful to early humans. It enabled them to discern other people's positive and negative intentions (e.g., "Does that person want to mate with me or kill me and steal my food?"), thereby increasing their own chances of survival.

But when people started attributing purpose to the actions of nonactors, like raindrops, ToM took a turn toward the supernatural. 

"The roaring threat of a thunderstorm or the devastation of a flood is widely seen across cultures as the product of a dangerous personal agent in the sky or river, respectively," said Allen Kerkeslager, an associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia."Likewise, the movements of the sun, moon and stars are widely explained as the movements of personal agents with extraordinary powers,"Kerkeslager told Live Science in an email.

This tendency to explain the natural world through the existence ofbeings with supernatural powers — things like gods, ancestral spirits, goblins and fairies — formed the basis for religious beliefs, according to many cognitive scientists. Collectively, some scientists refer to HADD and ToM as the "god faculty," Clark said.

In fact, human beings haven't evolved past this way of thinking and making decisions, he added.

"Now, we understand better that the things we thought were agents aren't agents," Clark said. "You can be educated out of some of these beliefs, but you can't be educated out of these cognitive faculties. We all have a hyperactive agency-detecting device. We all have a theory of mind."

For the good of the group

But not everyone agrees that religious thinking is just a byproduct of evolution — in other words, something that came about as a result of nonreligious, cognitive faculties. Some scientists see religion as more of an adaptation — a trait that stuck around because the people who possessed it were better able to survive and pass on their genes.   

Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom whose work focuses mostly on the behavior of primates, including nonhuman primates like baboons. Dunbar thinks religion may have evolved as what he calls a "group-level adaptation." Religion is a "kind of glue that holds society together," Dunbar wrote in "How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar's Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks" (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Humans may have developed religion as a way to promote cooperation in social groups, Dunbar said. He noted that primates tend to live in groups because doing so benefits them in certain ways. For instance, hunting in groups is more effective than hunting alone. But living in groups also has drawbacks. Namely, some individuals take advantage of the system. Dunbar calls these people "freeriders."

"Freeriding is disruptive because it loads the costs of the social contract onto some individuals, while others get away with paying significantly less," Dunbar wrote in a New Scientist article, "The Origin of Religion as a Small-Scale Phenomenon." As a result, those who have been exploited become less willing to support the social contract. In the absence of sufficient benefit to outweigh these costs, individuals will leave in order to be in smaller groups that incur fewer costs."

But if the group can figure out a way to get everyone to behave in an unselfish way, individual members of the group are less likely to storm off, and the group is more likely to remain cohesive.

Religion may have naturally sprung up from this need to keep everybody on the same page, Dunbar said. Humans' predisposition to attribute intention to just about everything (e.g., volcanic eruptions, lunar eclipses, thunderstorms) isn't necessarily the reason religion came about, but it helps to explain why religions typically involve supernatural elements that describe such phenomena. 

Palermo, Elizabeth. 2016. “The Origins of Religion: How Supernatural Beliefs Evolved”. Live Science. Posted: October 5, 2015. Available online:

Friday, January 15, 2016

'Religions resemble each other in their diversity'

Scholar of Religion Perry Schmidt-Leukel is the first German in 30 years to give the renowned Gifford Lectures -- he will present new theory on religious diversity

According to the scholar of religion and theologian Professor Perry Schmidt-Leukel, traditional theologies provide insufficient answers to the growing challenge of religious diversity and conflicts. "Instead of continuing to pursue theology in a religion specific manner, we should rather opt for an interreligious theology", says the scholar from the Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics". As the "theology of the future", interreligious theology shows that religions such as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism resemble each other much more than had previously been thought, but in respect of their internal diversity. "That which distinguishes religions can often also be found, in a different form, as differences within one's own religion. This insight permits that ecumenical theology be broadened to interreligious theology", according to Professor Schmidt-Leukel, who is the first German in 30 years to give the renowned "Gifford Lectures" in Scotland. In the lecture series taking place from 12 to 21 October 2015, he will present a new theory of religious diversity for the first time. The invitation to give the Gifford Lectures is one of the highest international academic honours in the field of religious philosophy and theology.

"Interreligious theology, in contrast to intercultural philosophy, takes the confessional dimension of religions seriously", according to the scholar. The confessions to Muhammad as "the prophet", to Jesus as "the son of God" and to Gautama as "Buddha" share basic characteristics regarding their underlying motives: "For Muslims, the word of God turns into text, as in the case of the Qur'an, while it turns into a person for Christians, as in the case of Jesus. However, both religions know the other concept as well, and in both cases it is a question of how the presence of God is to be understood in the act of divine revelation", according to the theologian. Even behind a rejection of other beliefs, there are often more commonalities than expected, for example, if something is rejected that the other actually does not advocate in this form. "Instead of considering other religions as a threat, they can enrich one's own belief." Therefore, interreligious theology not only draws on the holy scriptures of one's own religion but also those of others. According to Schmidt-Leukel, "This provides great opportunities in dealing with the increasing religious diversity in our society."

"Fractal patters in the style of ferns and cauliflowers"

In developing his "fractal theory of religious diversity", Professor Schmidt-Leukel draws on the theory of fractals of mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot (1924-2010), according to which objects in nature such as ferns or cauliflowers are composed of scaled-down copies of themselves. According to Schmidt-Leukel, a fractal understanding of religious diversity can support an interreligious theology. He emphasises that "the other religion and the person of a different faith are less alien than initially assumed. The new theory provides an alternative to the widespread view that religions are incompatible and incommensurable."

"Basic patterns of religious diversity are reflected in the diversity within every religion and eventually within the religious capabilities inherent in every single person", explains the theologian. Thus, there is more continuity between a conservative understanding of theology and interreligious theology than one may think: "In interreligious theological discourse, one encounters in new forms issues and questions which are also known from the theological tradition of one's own religion. Thus, in part, the key to understanding other religions is also found in one's own religion", according to the scholar.

Professor Schmidt-Leukel's Gifford Lectures are entitled "Interreligious Theology: The Future Shape of Theology". He will present research results of the Cluster of Excellence's project C2-16, "Interreligious Theology". The first lecture, "Interreligious Theology: Whither and Why" will explain the principles and methodology of interreligious theology. Lectures two to four will exemplify these by dealing with the Muslim, Christian and Buddhist confessions to Muhammad as the last prophet, to Jesus as the son of God, and to Gautama as Buddha. Schmidt-Leukel will present his new conception of religious diversity in the concluding lecture, "Towards a Fractal Theory of Religious Diversity".

"Overcoming prejudices against other religions"

Sooner or later, traditional theologies of all religions will develop towards interreligious theology, according to the scholar. This form of pursuing theology and reflecting beliefs brings different confessional and religious perspectives into a permanent exchange. "Interreligious theology aims at understanding the reasons and motives of different religious affirmations and, as far as possible, at sharing them". It can help believers to overcome prejudices and develop appreciation for other religions. "Against this backdrop, the dialogue of the religions, which is pursued at many levels in society, is to be understood as a theological activity in the strict sense", according to the scholar. The matter here is not only peaceful coexistence, but also to deal, across religious boundaries, with those larger questions that have always been concerning humanity in all cultures and religions." However, interreligious theology must not be misunderstood as a theology of a universal "unified religion".

The five lectures of the renowned Gifford series will initially be published in English and later also in German translation. The edited volume, "Interreligiöse Theologie" (Interreligious Theology) that Schmidt-Leukel published in 2013 together with the Protestant theologian Professor Reinhold Bernhardt from Basel, also deals with the opportunities and problems of interreligious theology. Since 2009, Professor Perry Schmidt Leukel has been director of the University of Münster's Institute for Religious Studies and Inter-Faith Theology and member of the Cluster of Excellence "Religion and Politics". He had been professor of religious studies and systematic theology at the University of Glasgow from 2000 to 2009. His research is focused on the theology of religions, interreligious relations, the Christian-Buddhist dialogue, interreligious theology and the religions' capacity for pluralism. (ska/vvm)

The Gifford Lectures

Ever since 1888, the four Scottish universities in Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews and Aberdeen have organised the lecture series every year or every other year. Adam Lord Gifford (1820-1887), judge and advocate, endowed it in order to support "natural theology in the broadest sense". Today, the universities understand this in terms of an academic study of religion that focusses on the rationality and possible truth of religion.

The first Gifford Lectures were given in Glasgow between 1888 and 1892 by the German scholar of religion Friedrich Max Müller. He was followed by numerous renowned scholars, principally from the disciplines of theology, philosophy, history and the natural sciences. Between 1984 and 1985, German Protestant theologian Prof. Dr. Jürgen Moltmann was the last German to give the Gifford Lectures.

Among the Gifford Lecturers are US-American psychologist and philosopher William James (1900-1902), French philosopher and Nobel laureate in literature Henri Bergson (1913-1914), Scottish ethnologist and philologist James Frazer (1923-1925), German-French physician and philosopher Albert Schweitzer (1934-1935), Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1936-1938), German and later US-American Protestant theologian Paul Tillich (1952-1954), Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann from Marburg (1954-1955), German physicist and Nobel laureate Werner Heisenberg (1955-1956), as well as German physicist and philosopher Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1959).

Others who have given the Gifford Lectures were German-American philosopher Hannah Arendt (1973), Anglo-Irish writer Iris Murdoch (1981-1982), US-American philosopher Martha Nussbaum (1992-1993), Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor (1998-1999) and US-American linguist Noam Chomsky (2004-2005). Furthermore, the following philosophers are among the speakers of the Gifford Lectures with the highest international renown: Alfred North Whitehead (1927-1928), Gabriel Marcel (1949-1950), Alfred Ayer (1972-1973), Ninian Smart (1979-1980), Richard Swinburne (1982-1984), Paul Ricoeur (1985-1986), Antony Flew (1986-1987), John Hick (1986-1987), Raimon Panikkar (1988-1989), Hilary Putnam (1990-1991), Keith Ward (1993-1994), Michael Dummett (1996-1997), and Alvin Plantinga (2004-2005). (vvm)

EurekAlert. 2016. “'Religions resemble each other in their diversity'”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 5, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Languages less arbitrary than long assumed

Recent research suggests a more textured view of vocabulary structure, in which arbitrariness is complemented by 'iconicity' and 'systematicity'

"It's not that arbitrariness was a bad idea. It is an important principle, but it doesn't fully explain how words work," says Mark Dingemanse, language scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and lead author on the paper. The authors review accumulating findings from across the cognitive sciences suggesting that the principle of arbitrariness needs to be supplemented by at least two further types of relations between form and meaning.

Iconicity and systematicity

One of these is iconicity, which is when the form of words suggests aspects of their meaning. Iconicity is more widespread in vocabulary than often assumed: it is common in signed languages but also in ideophones, vivid sensory words found in many of the world's spoken languages. For instance, many people share the intuition that a word like 'pumbuluu' is more likely to mean 'fat' rather than 'slim'. Iconicity can help in learning and communication, though not all meanings can be iconically expressed.

Another is systematicity, which involves a statistical relationship between the sound patterns of a group of words and their grammatical usage. Research by co-authors Padraic Monaghan and Morten Christiansen has shown that subtle patterns in the sounds of words can help speakers to distinguish nouns from verbs in Japanese, English, Dutch and French. For instance, verbs in English tend to be somewhat shorter on average than nouns. Such subtle differences can help people to learn the grammatical categories of their language.

Interdisciplinary team

A key contribution of the paper is to consider how the three form-to-meaning correspondences can coexist in language. Research shows that each of them provides distinct advantages in language processing, learning and communication, and this is the key to their coexistence. "Words are not just abstract ideas," says Dingemanse. "They are tools, and the way they are learned and used influences their shape." New research from the sprawling field of cultural evolution - which studies how cultural items evolve over time - can help to explain the patterning of arbitrariness, iconicity and systematicity in vocabulary, the international team of authors suggest.

The paper was written by Dingemanse with Damián Blasi of the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences and Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Gary Lupyan of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Morten Christiansen of Cornell University and the University of Southern Denmark, and Padraic Monaghan of Lancaster University. Between them, the authors cover a broad swathe of fields in the cognitive sciences, from linguistics and experimental psychology to cultural evolution, mathematics, and language typology. Blasi: "To bring together findings from so many disparate literatures, you need a team like this. The language sciences are increasingly interdisciplinary."

Three takeaways about the research:

  • Language is less arbitrary than assumed: the sounds and shapes of words can reveal aspects of meaning and grammatical function
  • The paper captures an emerging consensus in the field that arbitrariness is necessary, but not sufficient to account for vocabulary structure
  • Written by a team of experts representing 7 academic institutions worldwide.


EurekAlert. 2016. “Languages less arbitrary than long assumed”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 1, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Celts: not quite the barbarians history would have us believe

A close examination of Celtic craftsmanship reveals a scientifically sophisticated people with good links to the rest of Europe

A farmer, ploughing a field near Snettisham in Norfolk in 1948, turned up what he thought was a bit of an old brass bedstead. But it was gold, not brass, which he’d discovered and this was just the first piece of the richest iron age hoard ever discovered in Europe, including more than 200 torcs and fragments of torcs: neck rings made of gold, silver and bronze. Today, the collection is in the British Museum, and earlier this year, I was lucky enough to get a close look at some of these beautiful treasures.

I met European iron age collections curator Julia Farley in the bowels of the museum, otherwise known as the Sturge Basement. She had liberated some of the Snettisham artefacts from their glass cases up in the gallery, bringing them down to the basement stores, and now she carefully lifted each of the glittering objects out of its tray and laid it on the sheet of dark grey foam that covered the table.

There were five almost complete torcs and several fragments, including some bits of scrap metal that had been assembled on a loop of gold, looking for all the world like an iron age bunch of keys (the keys to Boudicca’s chariot, we joked). The colour of the torcs varied quite widely – from a bright, brassy gold to reddish gold to silver. All of them were made of alloys of gold, silver and copper, in various proportions. These alloys had been deliberately created, Julia told me, perhaps to achieve a certain colour or to make the metal easier to work.

The selection ranged from some simple gold torcs to the magnificently ornateGreat Torc. The simpler torcs were made from twisting just two or three metal rods together, with loops forming the ends, or terminals. But the Great Torc is a breathtaking example of iron age craftsmanship. Here, eight ropes of gold are twisted together to form the neck ring and its terminals have been cast on to it, using a lost-wax technique. The decoration on each terminal is wonderfully intricate: raised arcs of gold sweep across their surfaces, with a line of stamped dots framing each embossed arc. At the facing ends of the terminals, some areas enclosed by the arcs are filled with an incised hatched texture, but there are also areas where the goldsmith resisted the urge to decorate every inch of surface. This type of design, with flowing curves, and a careful balance between dense decoration and empty space, epitomises the British La Tène style of Celtic art.

The metalsmiths who created these works of art took inspiration from continental European designs, but added a local twist. These objects amply demonstrate the artistic flair and impressive technical abilities of those iron age artisans. But recent research on the Snettisham treasures has revealed another level of sophistication. Down in the smart new science labs of the British Museum, I met metallurgist Nigel Meeks. He had been using cutting-edge scientific techniques to reveal the secrets of these iron age masterpieces.

A modestly sized scanning electron microscope, no larger than a small fridge, sat next to an array of screens in the lab. Nigel placed a small fragment of a relatively simple bronze torc in the electron microscope and fired up the machine. The pictures came through in no time, filling the first screen with a hugely magnified view of this twisted piece of torc, in black and white. There were patches of lighter and darker areas on the surface of the metal.

This microscope could do more than just allowing us to visualise the surface of this object; it had an inbuilt spectrometer so it was possible to analyse the elements present on that surface. I selected an area of interest on the dark grey that seemed to represent the background material and the results appeared on a second screen. There was a high peak of copper and another of tin: this torc was indeed made of bronze. Then I chose a portion of the pale area and a totally different series of peaks appeared. There was one very tall spike corresponding with gold; another spike indicated mercury.

“Is that just an impurity in the gold?” I asked Nigel.

“No. You don’t naturally get mercury impurities in gold. The two metals have been deliberately mixed together – this is mercury gilding.”

This technique would have involved mixing grains of gold into mercury and applying the resulting silvery slurry to the bronze. Then, by heating the metal – to over 357C – the mercury would have been driven off, vaporising and leaving the rod coated in a skin of gold. It was iron age alchemy – turning base metal into gold, or at least, into what looked like solid gold. This process never eliminates all the mercury from the surface of the gilt bronze, which is why there was enough left behind in the gold for Nigel’s analysis to pick it up.

This is an extremely early example of fire gilding – for Britain. The technique seems to have been invented around the middle of the first millennium BC, becoming relatively common in the Mediterranean by the 3d century BC. But this 1st century BC torc didn’t look like an exotic import – it was characteristically British. There’s no source of mercury in Britain, so both this metal, and presumably the knowledge of this technique must have come from elsewhere. Archaeologists have discovered late iron age Spanish torcs that, though very different in style from the British one we were looking at, are gilded in the same way. There were also sources of cinnabar, the bright red mercury ore, in Iberia. So it’s possible that the ore, and the idea of fire gilding, arrived in iron age Britain from Spain, along well-used Atlantic seaways.

When we read Greek and Roman accounts of the Celts, we come away with a caricature of uncouth barbarians who wear trousers and drink undiluted wine, who go naked into battle and who are terrified by an eclipse. But archaeology reveals a different story and we glimpse the Celts’ love of art and design, where exquisite jewellery symbolised power and where horse-riding warriors carried beautifully decorated swords and scabbards. We also discover how the Celtic-speaking tribes inhabiting the islands in the far north-west corner of Europe were culturally and technologically linked to their neighbours on the continent: iron age Britain was far from being a backwater.

Roberts, Alice. 2016. “The Celts: not quite the barbarians history would have us believe”. The Guardian. Posted: October 4, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Bronze Age Britons Mummified Their Dead, Analysis Reveals

The rainy climate of the British Isles might not seem like the best place to preserve human bodies through time, but a new scientific analysis of ancient bones reveals that Bronze Age Britain was a mummy hotspot.

Specifically, archaeologists found that human remains had been preserved in various ways during the Bronze Age, a period lasting from about 2200 B.C. to 750 B.C.

At first glance, the analyzed skeletal remains might not look like mummies, the researchers said. That's because the region's wet climate has long since disintegrated the fleshy tissue, including the skin and organs, from the human bones found buried in the ground. But archaeologists, who have uncovered a number of Bronze Age skeletons over the years, now can analyze the bones to determine whether they were once mummified, the researchers said in a study. 

"The results demonstrate that Bronze Age populations throughout Britain practiced mummification on a proportion of their dead, although the criteria for selection are not yet certain," the researchers wrote.

When people die, their gut bacteria — which usually aid in digestion — turn against them.

"After you die and your cells start to break down, the kind of internal gates that keep your bacteria within their locales break down as well," said study lead researcher Thomas Booth, a postdoctoral student of Earth sciences at the Natural History Museum in London. Booth completed the research when he was a doctoral student in archaeology at the University of Sheffield in England.

"Your bacteria — they have no loyalty," Booth told Live Science. "They start to attack your soft tissues in the first few hours after death."

These gut bacteria can eventually get into the bones, leaving behind microscopic tunnels as they devour proteins in a dead person's skeleton, research suggests.

Archaeologists have seen evidence of this bacterial tunneling — called bacterial bioerosion — in multitudes of bones. But if the body has been mummified, or purposely preserved with natural and man-made techniques, the bones tend to have few or no microscopic tunnels, Booth said.

When he and his colleagues looked at skeletons from the Bronze Age in Britain, "they were showing only a little bit of bacterial attack, or none at all," Booth said. "And, therefore, the best explanation for Bronze Age remains is that they had been mummified, but the preserved soft tissue subsequently degraded away because of the climate."

Bronze Age bodies

The researchers did a microscopic analysis on the bones of 301 people, retrieved from 25 European archaeological sites. In most cases, they looked at the femur, a long bone in the leg, Booth said.

Of these, 34 individuals were from the Bronze Age. More than half of the samples showed evidence that the person had been buried immediately, but 16 had "excellent bone preservation," compared with mummies from Ireland and Yemen, indicating that these Bronze Age people were mummified after death, the researchers wrote. 

The finding gives researchers a glimpse of howBronze Age people treated the dead, and "opens up how we approach the Bronze Age in Europe," Booth said. It's likely the Bronze Age Britons used a variety of ways to mummify the dead, including temporarily placing them in bogs, smoking them over a fire or removing their organs after death, he said.

The study is the first time researchers have used this type of analysis to identify specific funerary treatments in archaeological bones, he said. It also reminds other scientists that "even if you don't have preserved soft tissue at a site, it doesn't mean that people weren't mummifying at the site," Booth said.

The study was published online today (Sept. 30) in the journal Antiquity.

Geggel, Laura. 2016. “Bronze Age Britons Mummified Their Dead, Analysis Reveals”. Live Science. Posted: September 30, 2015. Available online:

Monday, January 11, 2016

Using ancient DNA, researchers unravel the mystery of Machu Picchu

Dramatically perched on an Andes mountain ridge some 8,000 feet above sea level in Peru, Machu Picchu is a visual wonder and a technical masterpiece.

"It is breathtaking," said Brenda Bradley, an associate professor of anthropology at the George Washington University.

The Inca built the site's 15th-century ruins without mortar, fitting the blocks of stone so tightly together that you still cannot fit a piece of paper between them. The design included steeped, agricultural terraces to boost planting space and protect against flooding.

But despite its distinction as one of the most iconic and important archeological sites in the world, the origins of Machu Picchu remain a mystery. The Inca left no record of why they built the site or how they used it before it was abandoned in the early 16th century.

"There is a longstanding debate about what the function of Machu Picchu was because it is so unique and unusual as an Inca site," Dr. Bradley said. "It is too big to be a local settlement. And it's too small and not the right structure to have been an administrative center for the Inca Empire."

Now, Dr. Bradley and a team of researchers will be the first to analyze the genomes of the skeletal remains from more than 170 individuals buried at the site. The team's other members include Lars Fehren-Schmitz from the University of California, Santa Cruz and Yale University's Richard Burger and Lucy Salazar.

By sequencing the skeletons' ancient DNA, the researchers hope to better understand the functional role of Machu Picchu and its residents, as well as patterns of diversity, migration and labor diaspora in the Inca Empire—the largest in pre-Columbian America.

Yale explorer Hiram Bingham launched a study of the "lost city of the Incas" in the summer of 1911. His work included excavating Machu Picchu and bringing human bones and other objects, like ceramics and jewelry, back with him to the United States.

The artifacts remained at the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven until 2012, when, after years of negotiations, the bones and relics were sent back to Peru. The Peru-Yale University International Center for the Study of Machu Picchu and Inca Culture houses the bones and relics. The museum, in Cusco about 45 miles from Machu Picchu, is open to the public and includes more than 360 items from Dr. Bingham's original excavation.

Before returning the skeletons to their home country, Dr. Bradley—who was a Yale faculty member at the time—and her colleagues scrambled to collect DNA samples from the ancient bones.

Next, with a recent National Science Foundation grant, the researchers will use cutting-edge methods to sequence nuclear, mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA from the samples. Dr. Fehren-Schmitz will conduct the initial analysis, and Dr. Bradley will attempt to replicate the results in her lab.

"With ancient human DNA, you always have to worry about contamination," Dr. Bradley said. "If you replicate the experiment in a different lab with different researchers, and you find the same results, that is the gold standard." The researchers will then compare the results of the genetic analysis with previous data from Machu Picchu in order to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the site.

The prevailing hypothesis among researchers is that Machu Picchu was a so-called "royal retreat"—akin to what Camp David is for the White House—where Inca Emperor Pachacuti would have visited and held diplomatic meetings, Dr. Bradley explained. The archeology indicates that people who resided there were likely crafts specialists brought in from locations throughout the empire to work at the site.

"They were probably very skilled people who came from far and wide to play very specific roles. That's what we predict," she said. "We can now look at the DNA to see if that is true."

The genetic analysis will test this hypothesis by showing the relationships among the ancient people, whether they are from the same ancestral lines and locations, said Dr. Fehren-Schmitz, who has analyzed the genomes of many different populations throughout South America. This information also will help to put Machu Picchu in the context of the larger Inca Empire. "I'm interested in local processes and how increases in social complexity and social change influence genetic diversity," he said. "One thing that makes Machu Picchu so interesting is the idea that actually the population buried there doesn't reflect just a local population."

The researchers said the wealth of genomic data they plan to collect also would provide an interesting look at how colonialism affected people living in the Andes. Since the skeletons from Machu Picchu represent a pre-Spanish conquest population, they can compare those genetics to post-colonial DNA.

"Colonialism introduced disease and likely wiped out a lot of genetic diversity," Dr. Bradley said. "This is a chance to look at genetic diversity before that happened."

Phys.Org. 2016. “Using ancient DNA, researchers unravel the mystery of Machu Picchu”. Phys.Org. Posted: October 1, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Viking symbols of travel, prestige and adventure

From a Scandinavian perspective, the Viking Age (ca. 800 to 1050) was a time of increased contact with other countries. People from Scandinavia plundered and traded in foreign countries.  They brought home jewels, clothing, silver, gold, coins and other costly objects.

Archaeologist Hanne Lovise Aannestad examined as part of her doctoral thesis “Transformations. Reworking and use of imported objects in the Viking Age”, the ways in which these expensive, imported objects were used in Scandinavia during the Viking Age. In her thesis, she has surveyed over 350 imported objects that were used as clothing accessories in Eastern Norway in the Viking Age. These objects include buckles, necklaces, coins, belts and pearls from the British Isles, from the European Continent and from along the eastern trade routes to Asia via the Baltic Sea.

Parts of holy reliquaries

“Throughout the whole Viking Age, people were eager to display these exotic objects. The ninth century in particular was a time when large quantities of imported objects were refashioned into jewellery for women. Coins were turned into necklaces in big strings of pearls. Fittings from harnesses for horses and parts of holy reliquaries and books were used as buckles for clothing and thereby assumed new functions and attained a different significance in Scandinavia,” says Aannestad.

The objects show signs of both wear and reworking. These traces show that certain groups of objects were remodelled by local craftsmen, whereas others were reworked by professional metalsmiths who had long experience with this kind of work. The different traces indicate social disparities, but the way in which the jewels are used indicates a common understanding throughout all of Scandinavia of the importance of the imported objects.

Imported objects used as personal adornment

Aannestad interprets the importance of the imported objects in light of cultural and ideological conditions in Norse society. When so many objects have been refashioned into clothing accessories, it indicates that it was very important to be seen wearing these objects. Norse literature describes travels to remote places. In many cases, the journey amounted to a kind of coming-of-age ritual, a transitional period between childhood and adulthood. The political circumstances in the Viking Age were unstable and power was in the hands of individuals. The prestige that was accorded to those who had been on journeys to foreign lands was significant in social and political proceedings. The fact that the imported objects were used as personal adornment attests that they signalled the individual’s or the clan’s status and prestige.

Culturally and ideologically closer

The practice of refashioning exotic objects into jewellery for women disappeared in the latter part of the Viking Age. This development suggests that Scandinavians had gained a greater understanding of how the objects were originally used. Archaeological complexes with many imported objects tell us that the Scandinavians were steadily developing more stable relations with foreign countries. The way that the use of imported objects developed shows that Scandinavia and foreign countries were coming culturally and ideologically closer during the Viking Age.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Viking symbols of travel, prestige and adventure”. Past Horizons. Posted: September 30, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Builders in Omsk stumble across Bronze Age burial site

Two graves dating back 2,700 years believed to be from ancient necropolis under city centre.

Workmen called in police and archeologists after discovery of the remains of the ancient people. One was buried with a knife and buckle.

Archeologists are still inspecting the find but they grave is believed to be from the Irmen culture and dates to approximately 700 BC to 800 BC.

]The experts believe the graves are in the same Bronze Age necropolis as was disturbed 103 years ago when the site was previously excavated during construction of a building that is now being renovated. At this time, five skulls were found along with an arrowhead, knife and buckle. 

In 1959 well-known local historian Andrei Palashenkov claimed this site on a high bank of the Om River was likely the site of an ancient necropolis or settlement, or both.

Visit the site to see the pictures:

Siberian Times. 2016. “Builders in Omsk stumble across Bronze Age burial site”. Siberian Times. Posted: September 29, 2015. Available online: