Wednesday, August 31, 2016

How humans and wild birds collaborate to get precious resources of honey and wax

By following honeyguides, a species of bird, people in Africa are able to locate bees' nests to harvest honey. Research now reveals that humans use special calls to solicit the help of honeyguides and that honeyguides actively recruit appropriate human partners. This relationship is a rare example of cooperation between humans and free-living animals.

Humans have trained a range of species to help them find food: examples are dogs, falcons and cormorants. These animals are domesticated or taught to cooperate by their owners. Human-animal collaboration in the wild is much rarer. But it has long been known that, in many parts of Africa, people and a species of wax-eating bird called the greater honeyguide work together to find wild bees' nests which provide a valuable resource to them both.

Honeyguides give a special call to attract people's attention, then fly from tree to tree to indicate the direction of a bees' nest. We humans are useful collaborators to honeyguides because of our ability to subdue stinging bees with smoke and chop open their nest, providing wax for the honeyguide and honey for ourselves.

Experiments carried out in the Mozambican bush now show that this unique human-animal relationship has an extra dimension: not only do honeyguides use calls to solicit human partners, but humans use specialised calls to recruit birds' assistance. Research in the Niassa National Reserve reveals that by using specialised calls to communicate and cooperate with each other, people and wild birds can significantly increase their chances of locating vital sources of calorie-laden food.

In a paper (Reciprocal signaling in honeyguide-human mutualism) published in Science today (22 July 2016), evolutionary biologist Dr Claire Spottiswoode (University of Cambridge and University of Cape Town) and co-authors (conservationists Keith Begg and Dr Colleen Begg of the Niassa Carnivore Project) reveal that honeyguides are able to respond adaptively to specialised signals given by people seeking their collaboration, resulting in two-way communication between humans and wild birds.

This reciprocal relationship plays out in the wild and occurs without any conventional kind of 'training' or coercion. "What's remarkable about the honeyguide-human relationship is that it involves free-living wild animals whose interactions with humans have probably evolved through natural selection, probably over the course of hundreds of thousands of years," says Spottiswoode, a specialist in bird behavioural ecology in Africa.

"Thanks to the work in Kenya of Hussein Isack, who electrified me as an 11-year-old when I heard him speak in Cape Town, we've long known that people can increase their rate of finding bees' nests by collaborating with honeyguides, sometimes following them for over a kilometre. Keith and Colleen Begg, who do wonderful conservation work in northern Mozambique, alerted me to the Yao people's traditional practice of using a distinctive call which they believe helps them to recruit honeyguides. This was instantly intriguing - could these calls really be a mode of communication between humans and a wild animal?"

With the help of honey-hunters from the local Yao community, Spottiswoode carried out controlled experiments in Mozambique's Niassa National Reserve to test whether the birds were able to distinguish the call from other human sounds, and so to respond to it appropriately. The 'honey-hunting call' made by honey-hunters, and passed from generation to generation, is a loud trill followed by a short grunt: 'brrr-hm'.

To discover whether honeyguides associate 'brrr-hm' with a specific meaning , Spottiswoode made recordings of this call and two kinds of 'control' sounds : arbitrary words called out by the honey-hunters and the calls of another bird species. When these sounds were played back in the wild during experimental honey-hunting trips, birds were much more likely respond to the 'brrr-hm' call made to attract them than they were to either of the other sounds.

"The traditional 'brrr-hm' call increased the probability of being guided by a honeyguide from 33% to 66%, and the overall probability of being shown a bees' nest from 16% to 54% compared to the control sounds. In other words, the 'brrr-hm' call more than tripled the chances of a successful interaction, yielding honey for the humans and wax for the bird," says Spottiswoode.

"Intriguingly, people in other parts of Africa use very different sounds for the same purpose - for example, our colleague Brian Wood's work has shown that Hadza honey-hunters in Tanzania make a melodious whistling sound to recruit honeyguides. We'd love to know whether honeyguides have learnt this language-like variation in human signals across Africa, allowing them to recognise good collaborators among the local people living alongside them."

The greater honeyguide is widely found in sub-Saharan Africa, where its unassuming brown plumage belies its complex interactions with other species. Its interactions with humans to obtain food are mutually beneficial, but to obtain care for its young it is a brutal exploiter of other birds.

"Like a cuckoo, it lays its eggs in the nests of other birds, and its chick hatches equipped with sharp hooks at the tips of its beak. Only a few days old, the young honeyguide uses these built-in weapons to kill its foster siblings as soon as they hatch," says Spottiswoode. "So the greater honeyguide is a master of deception and exploitation as well as cooperation -- a proper Jekyll and Hyde of the bird world."

Human cooperation is crucial to honeyguides because bees' nests are often hidden in inaccessible crevices high up in trees -- and honeybees sting ferociously. Therefore the honeyguide waits while an expert human undertakes the dangerous tasks of subduing the bees (by smoking them out using a flaming bundle of twigs and leaves hoisted high into the tree) and extracting the honey from within, usually by felling the entire tree. There is no competition for the prize: the honey-hunters harvest the honey and honeyguides devour the wax combs left behind.

Co-author Dr Colleen Begg adds: "The Niassa National Reserve is as much about people as it is about wildlife, and this is really exemplified by these human-honeyguide interactions that have been forged over thousands of years of coexistence. While many people consider wilderness not to have people in it, at Niassa people are an essential part of the landscape."

This foraging partnership was recorded in print as early as 1588, when a Portuguese missionary in what is now Mozambique observed a small brown bird slipping into his church to nibble his wax candles. He described how this bird had another remarkable habit: it led men to bees' nests by calling and flying from tree to tree. Once the nest was located, he wrote in his account of life on the eastern African coast in the 17th century, Ethiopia Oriental, the men harvested the honey and the bird fed on the wax.

"What João dos Santos described was what we now call a mutualism between species. Mutualisms are crucial everywhere in nature, but to our knowledge, the only comparable foraging partnership between wild animals and our own species involves free-living dolphins who chase schools of mullet into fishermen's nets and in so doing manage to catch more for themselves. It would be fascinating to know whether dolphins respond to special calls made by fishermen, as Pliny the Elder asserted nearly two thousand years ago," says Spottiswoode.

"Back in Africa, we're fascinated by the evolution of the honeyguide-human mutualism and, as a next step, we want to test whether young honeyguides learn to recognise local human signals, creating a mosaic of honeyguide cultural variation that reflects that of their human partners. Sadly, the mutualism has already vanished from many parts of Africa. The world is a richer place for wildernesses like Niassa where this astonishing example of human-animal cooperation still thrives."

EurekAlert. 2016. “How humans and wild birds collaborate to get precious resources of honey and wax”. EurekAlert. Posted: July 21, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Ancient feces provides earliest evidence of infectious disease being carried on Silk Road

An ancient latrine near a desert in north-western China has revealed the first archaeological evidence that travellers along the Silk Road were responsible for the spread of infectious diseases along huge distances of the route 2,000 years ago.

Cambridge researchers Hui-Yuan Yeh and Piers Mitchell used microscopy to study preserved faeces on ancient 'personal hygiene sticks' (used for wiping away faeces from the anus) in the latrine at what was a large Silk Road relay station on the eastern margins of the Tamrin Basin, a region that contains the Taklamakan desert. The latrine is thought to date from 111 BC (Han Dynasty) and was in use until 109 AD.

They found that eggs from four species of parasitic worm (helminths) were present: roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides), whipworm (Trichuris trichiura), tapeworm (Taenia sp.), and Chinese liver fluke (Clonorchis sinensis).

Chinese liver fluke is a parasitic flatworm that causes abdominal pain, diarrhoea, jaundice and liver cancer. It requires well-watered, marshy areas to complete its life cycle. Xuanquanzhi relay station was located at the eastern end of the arid Tamrin Basin, an area that contains the fearsome Taklamakan Desert. The liver fluke could not have been endemic in this dry region.

In fact, based on the current prevalence of the Chinese liver fluke, its closest endemic area to the latrine's location in Dunhuang is around 1,500km away, and the species is most common in Guandong Province - some 2,000km from Dunhuang.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge's Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, who conducted the study, suggest that the traveller infected with this liver fluke must have journeyed an enormous distance, and suggest the discovery provides the first reliable evidence for long distance travel with an infectious disease along the Silk Road.

The findings are published today in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

"When I first saw the Chinese liver fluke egg down the microscope I knew that we had made a momentous discovery," said Hui-Yuan Yeh, one of the study's authors. "Our study is the first to use archaeological evidence from a site on the Silk Road to demonstrate that travellers were taking infectious diseases with them over these huge distances."

The Silk Road (or Silk Route) came to prominence during the Han Dynasty in China (202 BC - AD 220) as merchants, explorers, soldiers and government officials journeyed between East Asia and the Middle East/Mediterranean region. Researchers have previously suggested that diseases such as bubonic plague, anthrax and leprosy might have been carried by ancient travellers along the legendary trading route, as similar strains have been found in China and Europe.

"Until now there has been no proof that the Silk Road was responsible for the spread of infectious diseases. They could instead have spread between China and Europe via India to the south, or via Mongolia and Russia to the north," says study lead Piers Mitchell.

The Cambridge team worked alongside Chinese researchers Ruilin Mao and Hui Wang from the Gansu Institute for Cultural Relics and Archaeology, who originally excavated the ancient latrine and relay station in Ganzu Province.

The stop was a popular one on the Silk Road with travellers staying there and government officials using the facility to change their horses and deliver letters. While excavating the latrine, the Chinese team found the personal hygiene sticks with cloth wrapped round one end.

Added Mitchell: "Finding evidence for this species in the latrine indicates that a traveller had come here from a region of China with plenty of water, where the parasite was endemic. This proves for the first time that travellers along the Silk Road really were responsible for the spread of infectious disease along this route in the past."

EurkAlert. 2016. “Ancient feces provides earliest evidence of infectious disease being carried on Silk Road”. EurekAlert. Posted: July 21, 2016. Available online:

Monday, August 29, 2016

What the world’s oldest calculator tells us about the ancient Greeks' view of the universe

When we talk of the history of computers, most of us will refer to the evolution of the modern digital desktop PC, charting the decades-long developments by the likes of Apple and Microsoft. What many don’t consider, however, is that computers have been around much longer. In fact, they date back millennia, to a time when they were analogue creations.

Today, the world’s oldest known “computer” is the Antikythera mechanism, a severely corroded bronze artefact which was found at the beginning of the 20th Century, in the remains of a shipwreck near the Mediterranean island of Antikythera. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the importance of the Antikythera mechanism was discovered, when radiography revealed that the device is in fact a complex mechanism of at least 30 gear wheels.

The mechanism has since been established as the first known astronomical calendar, a complex system which can track and predict the cycles of the solar system. Technically, it is a sophisticated mechanical “calculator” rather than a true “computer”, since it cannot be reprogrammed, but nonetheless an impressive artefact.

Since 2004, an international collaboration has applied modern imaging methods to probe the mechanism’s structure and function. These techniques have now revealed many of the texts on its surfaces and even much of the inscription which was buried inside the remaining fragments, as a result of damage during and after the shipwreck.

So what do we know about the mechanism? And what has the deciphering of the texts added?

Inside history

When first made, the mechanism was about the size of a shoe box, with dials on both its front and back faces. A handle or knob on the side of the box enabled the user to turn the trains of gears inside –- originally there were considerably more gears than the 30 that still survive. On the front, pointers showed where the sun and moon were in the sky, and there was a display of the phase of the moon. On the rear, dials displayed a 19-year cycle of lunar months, the 18.2 year Saros cycle of lunar and solar eclipses, and even a four-year cycle of athletic competitions including the Olympic games.

The inscriptions are thought to have been a description for the user of what it was they were viewing as they operated the mechanism. However, the newly published texts add more to what we know of the mechanism: they establish that the positions of the five planets known in antiquity were also shown – Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

The planets were displayed on the machine in a way that took account of their rather irregular “wanderings” about the sky. Such a display had been suspected, and the confirmation reinforces that this was a very sophisticated and quite complicated device. The actual gear trains needed for the display of the planets are missing – presumably lost in the shipwreck – but we know from the very ingenious way that the sun and moon drives are designed and constructed that the makers of the mechanism certainly had the skills necessary to make the planetary drive.

The newly uncovered inscriptions include passages about what stars were just becoming visible –- or about to be lost in the glare of the sun – at different times of year. The style of these passages is very close to that of a well-known astronomical text by Greek astronomer and mathematician Geminos from the first Century BC. Not only does this tie in perfectly with the presumed date of the shipwreck (around 60BC), but also the latitude – which is implied by stellar data to be mid-Mediterranean – which would fit nicely with the mechanism originating on the island of Rhodes, from where there is a contemporary historic record from the writer Cicero of such devices.

Uncovering the truth

Some mysteries still remain, however. It is still not clear exactly what such a mechanism was actually for. Was it some kind of teaching device? Would it have had any religious significance? Was it a prestigious “toy”? The latter interpretation is seeming less and less likely. This was a serious bit of kit, with a very detailed astronomical description.

The mechanism is basically an astronomical device, which bears witness both to the Greeks’ astronomical knowledge and their extraordinary, and rather unrecognised, mechanical design skills. One other small detail may hint at its integration into our ancestors' view of the wider world too. Some of the texts seem to be discussing the possible colours of eclipses, which might be interpreted in the context of whether the eclipse was a good or bad omen. It must be emphasised that this is the only astrological reference found on the mechanism though, despite careful searching.

To understand the Antikythera mechanism, what is really needed is more artefacts or texts on mechanical devices from the classical era. Unfortunately the recycling of valuable metal, both in ancient and medieval times, has resulted in nearly all mechanisms being destroyed. There is always the possibility that another device or text might turn up at an extensive archaeological site like Pompeii or Herculaneum, but probably the best bet for hardware remains classical-era shipwrecks.

Divers have returned to the Antikythera wreck this year, so perhaps the missing parts of the planetary display will turn up. An enticing possibility is that the Antikythera mechanism was on the ship because it was being delivered to a customer. The mechanism was not, as sometimes claimed, a navigational device and navigation was not the reason for its presence. If one device was being delivered, might there be more – if not on this ship, then perhaps on others from Rhodes? New devices might help indicate how widely geared technology developed, before almost completely disappearing from view in the rather obscure period that lasted from 500AD until the sudden blossoming again of gearwork in the era of the medieval cathedral clocks from about 1180AD, well over a millennium after the Antikythera mechanism.

The Conversation. 2016. “What the world’s oldest calculator tells us about the ancient Greeks' view of the universe”. The Conversation. Posted: July 20, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Excavated tombs of Peru's Moche priestesses provide archaeologists with troves of artifacts, data

When archaeologists unearthed a large chamber tomb in San José de Moro, a ceremonial center of pre-Columbian Moche civilization on the northern coast of Peru, they found the remains of a woman who had been laid to rest with lavish offerings, befitting a priestess or a queen or both.

Excavated in 2013, the burial featured a richly decorated coffin covered with copper plaques, and inside it a skeleton, buried 1,200 years ago, along with precious pottery vessels, a ceremonial knife, and a silver goblet, all telling signs of the power the woman had wielded in life.

The discovery of the splendid burial shattered archaeologists' notions about the Moche, which until recently had been perceived as a society ruled by male warriors, said Peruvian archaeologist Luis Castillo, the 2016 Robert F. Kennedy Visiting Professor in Latin American Studies Lecture.

"When I started as a young student, 25, 30 years ago, we thought the Moche was a culture led by powerful kings, warriors, or priests," Castillo said at the Harvard Peabody Museum, where he taught a course on the rise and the fall of the Moche. The royal tomb, the eighth found in 25 years, was discovered by the San José de Moro Archaeological Program, which is shepherded by Pontifical Catholic University of Peru and headed by Castillo. All eight tombs showcased women wearing rich headdresses and beaded necklaces, and surrounded by sacrifice victims and exquisite relics including silver goblets. Called the priestesses of San José de Moro, they highlight the prominent role of women in Moche society.

"These women were among the most important individuals in their society," said Castillo. "Their elaborate burials are narratives of their lives, and the ornaments they were buried with are indicators of their high status."

Archaeologists believe that the women were priestesses because of their resemblance to figures depicted in rituals scenes found on Moche art. The Moche had no written language but left thousands of ceramic vessels with intricate drawings portraying their daily lives and their cosmological beliefs. In those depicting human sacrifice, a priestess wears a headdress and holds a silver goblet filled with victims' blood.

Regarded as the first state-level civilization in the Americas, the Moche flourished and ruled the northern coast of Peru before the Incas, between the first and eighth centuries, at the same time the Mayas thrived in Mexico and Central America. They dominated the desert through a complex irrigation system, built adobe pyramids, and, like many ancient cultures, used religion to unify society.

The finding of the priestesses of San José de Moro has taken place amid a backdrop of other excavations that have made the Moche an electrifying subject of archaeological research.

In 1987, Peruvian archaeologists found the regal tomb of the Señor de Sipan, which has been compared to King Tutankhamen's tomb in Egypt. And in 2006, they discovered a well-preserved mummy buried with magnificent objects and two ceremonial war clubs in Cao, a town on the northern coast of Peru. A warrior queen, the Señora de Cao, is considered the first female ruler of pre-Hispanic Peru and is believed to have reigned 1,700 years ago.

In the wake of the recent discoveries, archaeologists are also dropping a widely held belief that the Moche in northern Peru were a unified empire led by a single ruler.

"They were multiple polities, small chiefdoms that never achieved a political unification," said Castillo, Peru's former vice minister of culture. "Some communities may have been led by women and others by men."

Studies of the remains of Moche priestesses show they were physically strong and well-fed, another clue to their status and nobility, which may have influenced their positions of power in society.

Many pieces of Moche art are on display in museums around the world, including a permanent exhibit of Moche ceramics at the Peabody Museum, but with the growing interest in that culture, the mystery around the Moche elite women persists.

"They were not the sisters, the mothers, or the wives of somebody powerful," Castillo said. "In all the burials, the women had a status associated with Moche priests. They were priestesses, but they could have also been rulers. In ancient cultures, political and religious power were blended, and the rulers were often the priests."

Mineo, Liz. 2016. “Excavated tombs of Peru's Moche priestesses provide archaeologists with troves of artifacts, data”. Posted: July 20, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, August 27, 2016

How however almost kicked but's butt: Linguistics study

However you're using the word however, be aware you might be getting it wrong.

A new analysis of more than a century of books, newspapers, magazines and online writings has revealed the life and journey of the word however, but particularly its common misuse as a synonym for but.

University of Melbourne researcher Dr Andrew Hamilton has dubbed the erroneous trend Conjunctive Howeveritis, a phenomenon that peaked in the 1980s and 1990s.

His study shows that instead of correctly using however as an adverb, it is often misappropriated as a conjunction.

For example, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary:

"My teacher is very nice but a bit strict" not "My teacher is very nice however a bit strict".

Dr Hamilton is a renowned ecologist and an Honorary Principal Fellow with the University's Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, but has had a long-standing interest in linguistics.

He pored through more than 100 years of literature with the aid of trends-tracking software to analyse how the word has been used from 1900 to 2008.

"I personally noticed this trend after having to stop and re-read sentences like 'however the cat walked down the street'," he said.

"This has the reader thinking that the author meant 'in whatever manner the cat walked down the street'."

Dr Hamilton analysed the misuse of however both at the beginning of a sentence (sentence-initial conjunction) and in-between (within-sentence conjunction).

Looking at however as a sentence-initial conjunction, Dr Hamilton said its incorrect use has risen roughly since World War II, and has been mirrored by a decrease in the use of but.

Dr Hamilton suggested the trend is a result of the common misconception that sentences shouldn't start with but.

'However sounds much more impressive, he said.

Dr Hamilton's study has been published in the journal, English Today, of Cambridge University Press.

EurekAlert. 2016. “How however almost kicked but's butt: Linguistics study”. EurekAlert. Posted: July 20, 2016. Available online:

Friday, August 26, 2016

Vatican Museums unveils their latest Ethnology collection: “The Americas”


Rome Reports. 2016. “Vatican Museums unveils their latest Ethnology collection: “The Americas””. Rome Reports. Posted: June 19, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Cave discoveries shed new light on Native and European religious encounters in the Americas

A project led by archaeologists from the British Museum and the University of Leicester has discovered remarkable evidence which shows how the first generations of Europeans to arrive in the Americas engaged with indigenous peoples and their spiritual beliefs deep inside the caves of a remote Caribbean island.

Recent fieldwork by a collaborative Anglo-Puerto Rican* team has uncovered new evidence in the Caribbean of an early religious dialogue between Europeans and Native Americans.

A large collection of early colonial inscriptions and commentaries written by named individuals within a cave system of pre-existing indigenous spiritual iconography provides dramatic new insights into the tone and personal context of this momentous time of encounter.

In a paper, published in Antiquity, researchers have provided new understandings about the formation of emergent cultural identities in the Caribbean that challenge historic accounts of indigenous extinction.

The island of Mona, on a key Atlantic route from Europe to the Americas, was at the heart of sixteenth-century Spanish colonial projects and was recorded by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in AD 1494.

Communities on the island were exposed to the earliest waves of European impact during a critical period of transformation and the forging of new identities.

A team of researchers led by Dr Jago Cooper (British Museum) and Dr Alice Samson (University of Leicester) has been studying the island - which is one of the most cavernous regions, per square kilometre, in the world.

The team, which has just completed its 2016 season, includes students from Puerto Rico and the UK carrying out dissertations in Climate Science, Archaeology, and History.

Since 2013, exploration and survey of around 70 cave systems--part of an interdisciplinary study of past human activity on Mona Island--has revealed that Mona's caves include the greatest diversity of preserved indigenous iconography in the Caribbean, with thousands of motifs recorded in darkzone chambers far from cave entrances.

In the astonishing cave discussed in this paper more than 30 historic inscriptions include named individuals, phrases in Latin and Spanish, dates and Christian symbols that occur within a series of connecting chambers all within the area of indigenous iconography.

This account of spiritual encounters provides a rare, personalised insight into intercultural religious dynamics in the early Americas.

Dr Alice Samson from the University of Leicester School of Archaeology and Ancient History said: "Increasing use of interdisciplinary approaches and archaeometric analyses have provided new understandings of colonial processes that are more nuanced than mere oppression, domination and, in the case of the Caribbean, indigenous extinction.

"This not only provides a counterpoint to official metropolitan histories, but also tracks the beginnings of new religious engagements and transforming cultural identities in the Americas."

Dr Jago Cooper from the British Museum added: "This research reveals a new perspective on the personal encounter between indigenous populations and the first generations of Europeans in the Americas.

"This is a unique site that helps us to understand the origins of cultural identity in the Americas, the start of a process that continues right up to the modern day."

EurekAlert. 2016. “Cave discoveries shed new light on Native and European religious encounters in the Americas”. EurekAlert. Posted: July 19, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Hundreds of years later, teeth tell the story of people who didn't get enough sunshine

Researchers at McMaster University have found a rich new record of vitamin D deficiency, one that resides in the teeth of every person and remains viable for hundreds of years or more.

The team of anthropologists has determined that looking into the microscopic structure of teeth opens a window into the lives and challenges of people who lived hundreds of years ago, and whose only record is their skeletal remains.

Their paper, published online today in the Journal of Archaeological Science, establishes that when the body is deprived of vitamin D, permanent microscopic abnormalities form in the layers of dentin, the tooth structure under the enamel, creating an ongoing record that can later be read like the rings of a tree.

"The layers store what happens as teeth grow," says author Lori D'Ortenzio, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at McMaster.

"We all know the importance of vitamin D, but until now we did not have such a clear way of measuring exactly what happened to people, and when."

The discovery is significant, since it can yield valuable information about vitamin D deficiency - also known as rickets - which continues to be a serious public health issue, affecting some 1 billion people worldwide. Most cases of rickets are caused by a lack of sun exposure, with effects that can include pain, bone deformities and failure to achieve or maintain adequate bone levels.

"If we can properly understand past changes in deficiency levels, we can evaluate where we currently are and move forward," says author Megan Brickley, a professor of Anthropology at McMaster who holds the Canada Research Chair in the Bioarchaeology of Human Disease.

Until now, scientists trying to understand historical patterns in vitamin D deficiency have had to use bones, which are problematic sources of such information. In life, bone material is constantly being remodelled, obscuring details of prior damage. After death, bones interact with soil and break down.

Dentin is not remodelled, and dental enamel - much harder than bone - protects the dentin long after death, making teeth a rich and accurate source of archaeological information.

"They're essentially fossils in your mouth," says author Bonnie Kahlon, a Lab Co-Ordinator in McMaster's Department of Anthropology.

The researchers compared the teeth of modern-day control subjects to teeth extracted from bodies buried in rural Quebec and France in the 1700s and 1800s. Their analysis showed that one Quebec man had suffered four bouts of rickets in his 24 years of life - all before he turned 13.

Examining thin sections of the teeth under a microscope and using technology at the McMaster-based Canadian Centre for Electron Microscopy, the researchers were able to show that anomalies formed in the dentin layers during years when victims failed to get enough Vitamin D to fully mineralize the structures that form dentin and bone.

McMaster University, one of four Canadian universities listed among the Top 100 universities in the world, is renowned for its innovation in both learning and discovery. It has a student population of 30,000, and more than 170,000 alumni in 137 countries.
Reference: 2016. “Hundreds of years later, teeth tell the story of people who didn't get enough sunshine”. Posted: July 18, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

'Witch' Prison Revealed in 15th-Century Scottish Chapel

An iron ring set in the stone pillar of a 15th-century chapel in the Scottish city of Aberdeen may not look like much, but historians say it could be a direct link to a dark chapter in the city’s past — the trial and execution of 23 women and one man accused of witchcraft during Aberdeen's "Great Witch Hunt" in 1597.

"I was skeptical, to be honest — the ring is not all that spectacular, but it is actually quite genuine," said Arthur Winfield, project leader for the OpenSpace Trust in the United Kingdom, which is restoring the chapel as part of a community-based redevelopment of the East Kirk sanctuary at the historic Kirk of St Nicholas, in central Aberdeen.

Winfield told Live Science that two places within the kirk (the Lowland Scots word for "church") had been equipped as a prison for witches snared in the Aberdeen witch hunt: the stone-vaulted chapel of St Mary, and the tall steeple of the kirk, which was at that time the tallest structure in the city.

Winfield said that neither location would have been warm in the winter of 1597, when those accused of witchcraft awaited trail, and likely their execution: "In the winter nowadays, the temperature gets down to 3 degrees [Celsius] in St Mary's Chapel, and I guess it would be even colder up in the spire."

Witch hunting in Scotland in the 16th century was not carried out by mobs with pitchforks, but by royal commissions at the orders of the king. As a result, Aberdeen’s city archives today hold meticulous original records of the witch trials and executions in 1597, including payments to a local blacksmith for the iron rings and shackles installed to imprison accused witches at the Kirk of St Nicholas.

The city records also detail the costs for the rope, wood and tar later used to burn the convicted witches at the stake, at Castle Hill and Heading Hill in Aberdeen, before large crowds of onlookers. As a small mercy, most of the condemned were strangled to death before their bodies were burned, according to the University of Edinburgh’s online Survey of Scottish Witchcraft.

The Great Witch Hunt

Chris Croly, a historian at the University of Aberdeen, told Live Science that Aberdeen’s Great Witch Hunt of 1597 was one phase of a wave of witch persecutions across Scotland sparked by the witchcraft laws of King James VI of Scotland (who became James I of England in 1603).

"It is often said that Aberdeen burned more witches than anywhere else — that may not be entirely accurate, but what is absolutely accurate is that Aberdeen has the best civic records of witch burning in Scotland, and so it can appear that way," Croly told Live Science.

He said the wave of witchcraft persecutions that began in Europe in the 15th century and reached Scotland in the 1590s, continued into the Americas in the 17th century and led to the infamous witch trials at Salem in Massachusetts in 1692 and 1693.

Many Protestant and Catholic authorities at the time were united in a belief that witchcraft was the result of witches "communing with the devil" and that biblical scripture justified their execution. "That's how this wave can sweep through both Protestant and Catholic countries," Croly said.

One the most famous cases of the 1597 witch trials in Aberdeen involved two members of one family. The mother, Jane Wishart, was convicted of 18 counts of witchcraft, including casting spells that caused illness in her neighbors; inducing a mysterious brown dog to attack her son-in-law after an argument; and dismembering a corpse that hung on a gallows, to provide the ingredients for her magic.

Wishart's son, Thomas Leyis, was also convicted of heading a coven of witches that had danced with the devil at midnight in Aberdeen's fish market area. Both mother and son were strangled and burned, and the city records note that it cost "3 pounds, 13 shillings and 4 pence" to provide enough peat, tar and wood for Leyis’ pyre.

Buried beneath the kirk

In 2006 and 2007, the East Kirk of St Nicholas was the scene of a major archeological excavation before restoration work could be done to develop the former church as a community center. The redevelopment effort is known as the "Mither Kirk Project," from the Lowland Scots words for "mother church."

No remains of the accused witches were found at the site, and Croly noted that they would have been buried elsewhere, on "unhallowed ground." But the excavations had provided archaeologists with an extraordinary look at the lives of the people of the city from the 11th to the 18th centuries, he said. Over the course of the excavation, the remains of more than 2,000 people, including 1,000 entire skeletons, were disinterred from grave sites that lay under the floor of the East Kirk, said Croly, who was Aberdeen’s city historian at the time of the excavations, and worked closely with city archaeologists on the project.

Most of the bodies were buried before the 1560s, when the Protestant Reformation in Scotland forbade burials inside churches, but the practice was profitable and continued in a small way until the 18th century, he said.

The excavations had also found evidence of earlier church buildings beneath the existing kirk that dated to the 11th century, and the graves of nine babies that had been laid out together in an arc near an 11th-century wall — possibly the victims of an epidemic of disease, Croly said.

Now that archaeological tests on the bodies from the kirk have been completed, the Mither Kirk Project plans to hold a ceremony later this year to reinter the bodies in a vault beneath the current floor level.

At a later date, the former "prison for witches" in St Mary's Chapel will be redeveloped as a "contemplative space," said Arthur Winfield, the project leader for the OpenSpace Trust. "That space will be kept as an area of peace and tranquility — essentially, it is going to be respected for the chapel that it was, and will be again," he said.

Metcalfe, Tom. 2016. “'Witch' Prison Revealed in 15th-Century Scottish Chapel”. Live Science. Posted: July 19, 2016. Available online:

Monday, August 22, 2016

Identifying Migrant Deaths in South Texas


The rise in migrant deaths at the South Texas Border has created a humanitarian crisis.  The dead have been buried as “unknown” without proper analyses or DNA collection, leaving no hope of identification. With recent exhumations of these “unknowns”, Texas State University faculty and students are helping to identify and repatriate these individuals to their families.

The Humanitarian Crisis at The South Texas Border

"People sometimes have difficulty understanding why the families of those who die in disasters are so invested in the recovery of their loved ones' bodies...It is when the remains of their loved ones are returned to the family that the more personal experience of the death tends to begin. " Gerard Jacobs, 2014

In 1994, the United States Border Patrol (USBP) adopted the policy “Prevention through Deterrence” as the operational strategy of choice for securing the US-Mexico border.  This strategy deterred migrant crossings in populated areas that were relatively safe and instead forced migrants to cross in more remote and dangerous areas (Haddal 2010).  As a result, a funnel effect was created that led to an increase in migrant apprehensions and deaths (Rubio-Goldsmith 2006).  The Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner (PCOME) located in Tucson, Arizona receives the remains of migrants, due to their proximity to the border.  The PCOME also keeps official statistics on border deaths. In 2000, as a result of “Prevention through Deterrence”, migrant death rates began to rise.  Between the years of 1990 to 1999, 129 deaths occurred along the Arizona-Mexico border in contrast to the 802 deaths that occurred within the next five years (Rubio-Goldsmith et al. 2006).

Although USBP strategies have historically aimed to stop migrants before entering the US, the problem still remains that migration and death continue, creating a humanitarian crisis at the US-Mexico border. Until recently the majority of migrant deaths occurred in Arizona despite the fact that the Texas-Mexico border covers 1,254 miles of the 1,900 miles of the entire border (Texas Tribune, 2014). However, in 2012 Texas surpassed Arizona in deaths, with the majority occurring in the Rio Grande Valley and more specifically in Brooks, County, Texas (USBP, 2012).

The Mass Disaster in Brooks County, Texas

In Texas, unlike Arizona, not all migrant deaths are sent to a medical examiner’s office.  Brooks County, Texas receives the highest reported number of undocumented migrant deaths each year (80 in 2011, 129 in 2012, and [Grave Marker] 87 in 2013, and these deaths fall under the jurisdiction of a Justice of the Peace (JP), as there is no medical examiner within the county.  When any individual dies and the circumstances surrounding death are unknown, the Texas Code of Criminal Procedures requires a forensic examination, collection of DNA samples, and submission of paperwork to an unidentified and missing persons database.  However, due to the high volume of deaths and lack of county resources, the local JP and Brooks County Sheriff’s Office were overwhelmed and began to bury the undocumented migrants, most without proper analyses or collection of DNA samples, leaving little chance that these individuals will ever be returned to their families.  In turn, families are left without knowing what has happened to their son, daughter, mother, father, brother or sister.

In response to the migrant burials in Brooks County, Dr. Lori Baker (Baylor University) and Dr. Krista Latham (University of Indianapolis) and their students performed voluntary exhumations of these burials for the purpose of skeletal analysis and DNA sampling in hopes of facilitating positive identifications and returning individuals to their families.  However, the majority of the exhumations contained individuals in early to late stages of decomposition, requiring storage until the remains could be prepared for analysis.  Because the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS) has large scale storage, processing, and analysis capabilities due to the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) and the Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory (ORPL), the undocumented migrant remains (57 in 2013 and 20 in 2014) were brought to FACTS for processing (maceration to skeletal remains) and analysis to facilitate identification. Teaching, research, and service are the pillars of the FACTS mission.

Once in FACTS custody, all remains are taken to a special enclosure within FARF while faculty and students conduct intake procedures that involve opening body bags and documenting the condition of remains and personal effects.  At this time, personal effects are removed and placed in plastic bags for freezer storage until they can be hand-washed and dried for photography. Thus far, in our work towards identification, personal effects have played a major role in narrowing down the identity of remains because family members report what their loved one was wearing when they were last seen alive.  Once the remains have been processed at ORPL, they are analyzed to generate a biological profile, the estimation of age, sex, geographic origin, and height.  [Shirt] Additionally, any trauma or pathology is noted.

"The man tied a [brown plad] shirt around the knee to help him walk.  He was left behind under a tree, somewhere near Falfurrias, Texas.  The family visited Falfurrias and were shown pictures of a body that they believe is Oscar*, but were told that the body had already been buried and there was no DNA sample to confirm identity."

Excerpt from a missing persons report taken by the Colibri Center for Human Rights and upload into NamUS

*name has been changed

The Identification Process

The identification process for any unidentified human remains usually begins with entering the biological profile, along with all case information, including personal effects, into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs).  Because NamUs contains both missing persons information (reported by family) and unidentified persons information (reported by medical examiners, anthropologists, or law enforcement), FACTS faculty and students can search through records of the missing and unidentified to narrow down potential matches.  If a missing person in NamUs is a potential match to an unidentified person, the family of the missing person can submit a DNA sample to the University of North Texas (UNT) and FACTS will submit a DNA sample from the skeletal remains.  Identity can be established or ruled out based on comparison of the DNA profiles.  Additionally, DNA testing through UNT is free.

Alternatively, if the biological profile of an unidentified individual does not have any potential matches within NamUs, a DNA sample from the skeletal remains is submitted to UNT and the DNA profile generated will be stored in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).  CODIS contains DNA from families and unidentified human remains.  CODIS will cross-reference DNA from unidentified human remains with DNA samples from families to see if there are any potential matches (identifications).

Problems With Identification For Undocumented Migrants

Resources for decedent identification within the US, such as NamUS and CODIS often lack missing persons information or appropriate DNA samples from family for comparison to undocumented migrant deaths. While DNA profiles of unidentified remains are cross-referenced with DNA from the families of missing persons within CODIS, CODIS does not allow foreign nationals to submit DNA samples unless there is a potential for a one-to-one match (e.g. based on circumstantial evidence, missing persons case A is likely one in the same as unidentified persons case A).  Therefore, although DNA samples from undocumented persons are submitted to CODIS, there is no DNA for comparison, therefore no identifications will be made.

The process of identification of migrant remains in Texas, as in every other border state requires collaboration with multiple agencies. Currently FACTS collaborates with the Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (EAAF) and with the Colibrí Center for Human Rights to facilitate migrant identifications. The EAAF and Colibrí provide a mechanism for families of missing migrants to file missing persons reports. These agencies also provide a mechanism for families to submit DNA samples that can be sent to a private DNA lab for comparison. FACTS faculty maintain a close working relationship with these agencies in addition to foreign consulates and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as some of the cases represent individuals under the age of 18.  Working with all of these agencies has resulted in one positive identification of a young woman from Honduras and another pending identification.

Request for Funding

The amount of migrant deaths recovered from Brooks County, Texas in 2012 is equivalent to the passenger capacity of a Boeing 737. If a 737 crashes, it is considered a mass disaster and state funding is spent to facilitate recovery and identification of the passengers. Because these migrant deaths accumulate slowly, albeit in the same geographic location, they are not considered a mass disaster and no funding has been released to adequately process this particular mass fatality. While Texas State University has the facilities to handle such a mass fatality, our efforts are strictly voluntary. Because FACTS also has a large willed body donation program, processing both the donated remains (~70 per year) and the migrant remains is time consuming and requires full time efforts. Time is of the essence in trying to identify these individuals.

We are seeking funding for a full time project manager and a part-time project assistant to ensure that the migrant deaths are processed in a timely fashion that will facilitate identification and repatriation of remains to families. The full time project manager will supervise all processing and analysis of remains, organize case information, serve as point of contact for collaboration with all external agencies including but not limited to the EAAF, Colibrí Center for Human Rights, foreign consulate offices, law enforcement, and NCMEC.  The project assistant will facilitate processing of human remains, assist with analysis, provide data entry into internal databases and NamUs, and supervise undergraduate students to wash and photograph personal effects for upload to NamUs, DNA sample collection, and assist in searching for possible matches with missing persons.

With funding we anticipate we can analyze all cases, upload to NamUs, submit DNA samples to UNT and private labs as needed, and work towards identification on the remaining 53 cases in our laboratory within a two-year time period.  Without funding, it may take five years or longer to complete this work. Traditional funding sources, such as the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Justice, and the National Institute of Health only fund research. Operation Identification is an applied project, not research oriented, that benefits the many families who are missing loved ones. Any financial support will go directly to Operation Identification funds for processing, analysis, and identification.

Texas State University is a Hispanic Serving Institution and maintains a 501c3 status for charitable gifts.

Spradley, Kate. 2016. “Identifying Migrant Deaths in South Texas”. Texas State University Department of Anthropology. Posted: March 25, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Vikings abused and beheaded their slaves

The Vikings in Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland had slaves, or thralls. These thralls probably held multiple roles, serving their masters in many ways in Viking society a thousand years ago.

They could also be given the ultimate rough assignment when important Vikings died.

Some followed their masters into the grave.

Few contemporary descriptions of Viking burials exist. But the Arab explorer Ibn Fadlān witnessed one such ritual when a Viking chieftain died.  Fadlān had met the Eastern Vikings, also called Rūsiyyah, in what is now Russia:

“Six men entered the pavilion and all had intercourse with the slavegirl. They laid her down beside her master and two of them took hold of her feet, two her hands. The crone called the ‘Angel of Death’ placed arope around her neck (…) She advanced with a broad-bladed dagger and began to thrust it in and out between her ribs (…) while the two men throttled her with the rope until she died.” [From Ibn Fadlān’s Account as related in an article by James E. Montgomery, Cambridge, published in The Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 2000] (more text here)

Ibn Fadlān journeyed into what is now Russia in the 920s AD and left us a manuscript describing his experiences. He told the above story of this slave girl who volunteered to be sacrificed.

The Viking Age started in the late 700s and lasted until the year 1050. Vikings travelled far out of Scandinavia, west as far as present day Canada and east through Russia to Constantinople.

But who were their slaves and what can we learn from the archaeological findings?

Physical labourers and advisors

As many as 10 percent of the population of Viking Scandinavia could have been slaves, according to the Norwegian website These can have been kidnaped and forced into slavery. They can have been captured during Viking raids but they can also have simply sunk into debt and had to meet their obligations by entering into lifelong servitude. 

In “Rigsthula”, which is one of the Edda Poems of Iceland, it is clear that the thralls comprised the lowest class in society. They were shouldered with the heavy and undesirable tasks on the farms, such as digging peat or watching over pigs, according to They could also be exploited sexually.

There were probably many categories of these thralls. But how much do we know about their roles?

Anna Kjellström is a researcher at the Osteological Research Laboratory at Stockholm University. We met her recently at the conference “Viking World 2016”, held at the University of Nottingham in England.

Kjellström participates in a project examining the graves of what are assumed to be slaves in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The skeletal remains of these servants of the Vikings are being analysed to reveal some facts about where they came from and how they lived.

Several of these slave graves have one thing in common: The thralls did not end their lives in a peaceful way. Most of them had been abused, injured and decapitated before being laid to rest together with their masters.

In some of the graves the skulls were missing altogether but no one knows why.

Not typical slaves

Few archaeological traces of the Viking’s slaves are found. Kjellström’s investigations cover around ten graves in Norway, Sweden and Denmark where slaves are thought to be buried, either alone or along with persons of rank.

But can slavery be detected by studying bones?

“Often what we find in graves are higher-ups, but other individuals can also be present. These are not as dutifully interred in the grave,” explains Kjellström.

These companions in death were also buried without any grave goods or treasures, which are otherwise common in Viking graves. The graves in this study have been known for a long time and excavated decades ago. One of these graves belonged to the “Moose Man” from Birka, near Stockholm.

This is a famous grave found in 1988. Its occupant was a warrior who had been buried with weapons, a shield and moose antlers. Beside the man was a thrall who was interred without any possessions. The head had been separated from the body. This person is thought to have been sacrificed.

“Many bare signs of execution or mortal harm. They don’t have signs of injuries which have healed. This would have suggested that their injuries came to them earlier in life, for instance in battle,” says Kjellström.

Another example is the Grimsta grave, also in the Stockholm area. Two decapitated men were found here who could also have been slaves and perhaps sacrificed.

Human sacrifices?

“In addition to Fadlān’s tale there are a few descriptions in the sagas of slaves and wives who volunteer to being killed and placed in the grave,” says Elise Naumann, an archaeologist and postdoc at the University of Oslo.

“We have no reason to doubt that the burials were brutal,” says Naumann in comment to the Fadlān narrative.

“Another common practice was the sacrificing of animals and placing them in human graves, so this does tie in with Viking rituals.”

Naumann has also studied a Viking grave at Flakstad, in Norway’s Lofoten Islands. Again, slaves might have been included along with grave goods. Here too, the dead who accompanied a person of high rank had been decapitated and are presumed to have been slaves.

“But we don’t really know why the slaves were killed. The term ‘human sacrifice’ can be a bit off the mark, as that usually applies to sacrifices to the gods.”

Naumann mentions the theories of the archaeologist Neil Price who works at Uppsala University. He has pointed out that every one of these graves is different, despite sharing common characteristics. The grave goods in them differ and the slaves have been abused or killed in various ways.

“There are lots of macabre treatments of the bodies. Some have chopped off limbs, such as in the Viking graves at Kaupang [Norway].”

“The fact that the graves are so disparate might mean that they are part of a burial ritual that recreates important incidences in the deceased person’s life. This would explain why each grave is unique,” says Naumann.

In any case, many slaves seem to have suffered a brutal death.

Not much difference

Anna Kjellstrøm’s project is not complete yet. But she presented some initial results at the conference in Nottingham.

Strontium isotope analyses have been made on the remnants of the persons who were assumed to be slaves. These can show where a person has grown up. Strontium is present in rocks round the world and we absorb it in our bodies through water and food. It builds up in our teeth and bones in the course of our lives, as described in Archaeology magazine.

Strontium levels can thus provide indications of whether, for instance, persons have grown up at the same location.

“The results clash. Some individuals have come from other places. But some of the skeletal material we have seen shows little difference from other, local groups,” she says.

This could mean that a few of the slaves in the graves had grown up in the same place as their masters. People may have a notion of thralls being captured elsewhere and brought to Scandinavia. But many might have been locals who were born into slavery.

“We don’t have may graves to og by. So it’s hard to tell whether these are common slaves or whether these once had special roles, perhaps as advisors.” Despite the obviously brutal executions, the skeletons do not indicate that these persons were undernourished. 

“Some diseases leave traces in the bones. Theoretically, you would see whether individuals have suffered much, but we are not seeing this here.”

“In some of the graves it looks like these persons have lived quite like their masters.”

Kjellström stresses that bones do not tell the whole story and she would be cautious about drawing conclusions.

“They can have been slapped around daily, but that doesn’t turn up in the bones.”

Local slaves

Elise Naumann also thinks it probable that many slaves came from the same locations as the rest of the Viking population.

“The female slaves might have given birth to lots of children. Even though the master had sired many of these kids, such offspring could still grow up as slaves,” says Naumann.

Researchers who have studied slavery in the Nordic countries commonly think the majority of the thralls came from Scandinavian countries.

The historian Tore Iversen took his doctorate with a study of Norwegian slaves in the Middle Ages and concludes that many were recruited from within the country.

Biørnstad, Lasse. 2016. “Vikings abused and beheaded their slaves”. Science Nordic. Posted: Available online:

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Blue, green or 'nol'?

A new Northwestern University study shows that even in infants too young to speak, the object categories infants form and their predictions about objects' behavior, are sculpted by the names we use to describe them.

As English speakers, we might encounter a natural scene and describe the blue lake, green grass and light blue sky in front of us. But speakers of Berinmo, an indigenous language of Papua New Guinea, have a single term for the colors we describe as blues and greens. They would describe the lake, grass and sky all as "nol."

"This cross-linguistic difference reveals that the particular categories we impose on our experience of the world are shaped by the language we speak. And this has consequences for thinking and memory," said senior author Sandra Waxman, the Louis W. Menk Chair in Psychology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and faculty fellow in the University's Institute for Policy Research. "Berinmo speakers are less likely to remember distinctions among shades that English speakers describe as blue versus green."

This compelling cross-cultural evidence leaves little doubt that the categories we form bear the imprint of our language. But how early in life does naming shape the categories we perceive?

To answer this question, the Northwestern researchers created a continuum of colorful cartoon-like creatures. First, in a learning phase, 9-month-old infants had an opportunity to observe several of these creatures, presented in random order: Each appeared at the center of the screen, moved in one direction or another, and then disappeared. By experimental design, creatures from one end of the continuum moved to the left, and those from the other end moved to the right.

What varied was how the creatures were named. Some infants heard the same novel word applied to all objects along the entire continuum; others heard two different names, one for objects from one end of the continuum and another for objects from the other end. Next, in a test phase, new creatures from the same continuum appeared in the center of the screen.

The researchers were interested in whether infants could anticipate the side to which the new objects would move, and whether this varied as a function of how the creatures had been named in the phase.

The results were striking, according to lead author Mélanie Havy of the University of Geneva.

"Infants who heard two different names discerned two categories and therefore were able to anticipate correctly the likely location to which the test objects would move," she said.

In sharp contrast, infants who heard one name formed a single overarching category and therefore searched for new test objects at both locations.

"These results constitute the first evidence that for infants as young as 9 months of age, naming not only shapes the number of categories they impose along a perceptual continuum but also highlights the joints or boundaries between them," Havy said.

"Naming influences 9-month-olds' identification of discrete categories along a perceptual continuum" will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Cognition.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Blue, green or 'nol'?”. EurekAlert. Posted: July 18, 2016. Available online:

Friday, August 19, 2016

7 Bizarre Ancient Cultures That History Forgot

Long-Lost Cultures

The ancient Egyptians had their pyramids, the Greeks, their sculptures and temples. And everybody knows about the Maya and their famous calendar.

But other ancient peoples get short shrift in world history. Here are a handful of long-lost cultures that don't get the name recognition they deserve.

The Silla

The Silla Kingdom was one of the longest-standing royal dynasties ever. It ruled most of the Korean Peninsula between 57 B.C. and  A.D. 935, but left few burials behind for archaeologists to study.

One recent Silla discovery gave researchers a little insight, however. The intact bones of a woman who lived to be in her late 30s was found in 2013 near the historic capital of the Silla (Gyeongju). An analysis of the woman's bones revealed that she was likely a vegetarian who ate a diet heavy in rice, potatoes or wheat. She also had an elongated skull.

Silla was founded by the monarch Bak Hyeokgeose. Legend held that he was hatched from a mysterious egg in the forest and married a queen born from the ribs of a dragon. Over time, the Silla culture developed into a centralized, hierarchical society with a wealthy aristocratic class. Though human remains from the Silla people are rare, archaeologists have unearthed a variety of luxurious goods made by this culture, from a gold-and-garnet dagger to a cast-iron Buddha to jade jewelry, among other examples held at the Gyeongju National Museum in South Korea.

The Indus

The Indus is the largest-known ancient urban culture, with the people's land stretching from the Indus River in modern-day Pakistan to the Arabian Sea and the Ganges in India. The Indus civilization persisted for thousands of years, emerging around 3300 B.C. and declining by about 1600 B.C.

The Indus, also known as the Harappans, developed sewage and drainage systems for their cities, built impressive walls and granaries, and produced artifacts like pottery and glazed beads. They even had dental care: Scientistsfound 11 drilled molars from adults who lived between 7,500 to 9,000 years ago in the Indus Valley, according to a study published in 2006 in the journal Nature. A 2012 study suggested that climatic change weakened monsoonal rains and dried up much of the Harappan territory, forcing the civilization togradually disband and migrate to wetter climes. 

The Sanxingdui

The Sanxingdui were a Bronze Age culture that thrived in what is now China's Sichuan Province. A farmer first discovered artifacts from the Sanxingdui in 1929; excavations in the area in 1986 revealed complex jade carvings and bronze sculptures 8 feet (2.4 meters) tall.

But who were the Sanxingdui? Despite the evidence of the culture's artistic abilities, no one really knows. They were prolific makers of painted bronze-and-gold-foil masks that some archaeologists believe may have represented gods or ancestors, according to the Sanxingdui Museum in China. The Sanxingdui site shows evidence of abandonment about 2,800 or 3,000 years ago, and another ancient city, Jinsha, discovered nearby, shows evidence that maybe the Sanxingdui moved there. In 2014, researchers at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union argued that at around this time, a major earthquake and landslide redirected the Minjiang River, which would have cut Sanxingdui off from water and forced a relocation.

The Nok

The mysterious and little-known Nok culture lasted from around 1000 B.C. to A.D. 300 in what is today northern Nigeria. Evidence of the Nok was discovered by chance during a tin-mining operation in 1943, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Miners uncovered a terra-cotta head, hinting at a rich sculptural tradition. Since then, other elaborate terra-cotta sculptures have emerged, including depictions of people wearing elaborate jewelry and carrying batons and flails — symbols of authority also seen in ancient Egyptian art, according to the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Other sculptures show people with diseases such as elephantiasis, the Met said.

Contributing to the mystery surrounding the Nok, the artifacts have often been removed from their context without archaeological analysis. In 2012, the United States returned a cache of Nok figurines to Nigeria after they were stolen from Nigeria's national museum and smuggled into the U.S.

The Etruscans

The Etruscans had a thriving society in northern Italy from about 700 B.C. to about 500 B.C., when they began to be absorbed by the Roman Republic. They developed a unique written language and left behind luxurious family tombs, including one belonging to a prince that was first excavated in 2013.

Etruscan society was a theocracy, and their artifacts suggest that religious ritual was a part of daily life. The oldest depiction of childbirth in Western art — a goddess squatting to give birth — was found at the Etruscan sanctuary of Poggio Colla. At the same site, archaeologists found a 4-foot by 2-foot (1.2 by 0.6 meters) sandstone slab containing rare engravings in the Etruscanlanguage. Few examples of written Etruscan survive. Another Etruscan site, Poggio Civitate, was a square complex surrounding a courtyard. It was the largest building in the Mediterranean at its time, said archaeologists who have excavated more than 25,000 artifacts from the site.

The Land of Punt

Some cultures are known mostly through the records of other cultures. That's the case with the mysterious land of Punt, a kingdom somewhere in Africa that traded with the ancient Egyptians. The two kingdoms were exchanging goods from at least the 26th century B.C., during the reign of the pharaoh Khufu (the builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza).

Strangely, no one really knows where Punt was located. The Egyptians left plenty of descriptions of the goods they got from Punt (gold, ebony, myrrh) and the seafaring expeditions they sent to the lost kingdom. However, the Egyptians are frustratingly mum on where all these voyages were headed. Scholars have suggested that Punt may have been in Arabia, or on the Horn of Africa, or maybe down the Nile River at the border of modern-day South Sudan and Ethiopia. 

The Bell-Beaker Culture

You know a culture is obscure when archaeologists name it based on its artifacts alone. The Bell-Beaker culture made pottery vessels shaped like upside-down bells. The makers of these distinctive drinking cups lived across Europe between about 2800 B.C. and 1800 B.C. They also left behind copper artifacts and graves, including a cemetery of 154 graves located in the modern-day Czech Republic.

The Bell-Beakers were also responsible for some of the construction at Stonehenge, researchers have found: These people likely arranged the site's small bluestones, which originated in Wales. 

Pappas, Stephanie. 2016. “7 Bizarre Ancient Cultures That History Forgot”. Live Science. Posted: July 18, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Did the Lost Colony live at "Site X"? Clues point the way

Evidence is mounting that at least part of John White’s lost colony may have ended up in Bertie County.

Archaeologists have excavated 850 square feet of the tract in question and found dozens of artifacts including bale seals used to verify cloth quality; 16th-century nails; firing pans from snaphaunce guns of the day; aglets used to form tips on shirt lace strings; tenterhooks used to stretch hides; pieces of pottery jars for storing dried and salted fish; and bowl pieces like those found in Jamestown.

The findings do not prove Lost Colony residents lived there, but they certainly show they could have, said Clay Swindell, archaeologist and collections specialist at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City. A member of the First Colony Foundation, Swindell reported last week on the recent findings and conclusions drawn from them at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. He shared them with a reporter Thursday.

The rural site south of the Chowan River bridge has been inhabited for centuries first by Native Americans, then early English settlers, Swindell said. Later it became the site of a governor’s plantation. The ground is high and dry and lies next to the river, ideal for habitation.

“It’s got lots and lots of different time periods represented,” Swindell said.

A series of events led to the discovery of Site X. In 2007, a developer planned to build a large subdivision there. As usual, the state first required a search for historically significant sites or artifacts. A team found early English pottery and signs of a Native American village. Meanwhile, the development never panned out.

In 2012, researchers looking at a map that John White drew of eastern North Carolina in the 1580s found a patch covering what looked like a fort. The map is still preserved at the British Museum in London.

The fort symbol sat at the western end of the Albemarle Sound in what is now Bertie County, matching where the English artifacts were found.

“We put two and two together,” Swindell said.

Before he left for England in 1587, John White told the colony to “remove 50 miles into the main.” That clue did not help archaeologists much at first, since a 50-mile radius from Roanoke Island covers most of northeastern North Carolina.

“No one had a good understanding where the 50 miles might be,” Swindell said.

The Bertie site lies 49.32 nautical miles (or 56.76 miles) from Roanoke Island, according to Google Earth.

Researchers are continuously discovering how the artifacts and writings may tie the Lost Colony to the Bertie site. The North Devon baluster jars used to provision ships with dried or salted fish were used in the late 1500s. The Surrey-Hampshire Border ware matches hundreds of pottery fragments found in early Jamestown, but was not used that much past the early 1600s. The explorers of the day wrote about the Chowan River and the tribes that lived there.

“That location is something they were familiar with,” Swindell said.

John White was part of all three Walter Raleigh expeditions from England to the North Carolina coast. In 1585 and 1586, he made the map preserved at the British Museum. In 1587, he returned to Roanoke Island with a group that included his daughter, Eleanor Dare, and son-in-law, Ananias Dare. Eleanor gave birth on Aug. 18 to Virginia, the first English baby born in the New World. He left the colony shortly afterward to resupply.

White could not return until three years later. By then, the colony was gone. He found the word “Croatoan” carved in a post and CRO carved into a tree. The Croatoan tribe lived around Buxton.

Years later, Jamestown leaders sent a party south to search for the colonists, but bad relations with Native Americans hindered the effort. The party never made it to the Bertie site, Swindell said. The recent discoveries do not indicate a fort as was shown on the map, but only show evidence of a smaller group of early English there.

“We have new clues,” Swindell said. “That’s all we can say, there are new clues.”

Hampton, Jeff. 2016. “Did the Lost Colony live at "Site X"? Clues point the way”. the Virginian Pilot: Pilot Online. Posted: July 16, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Kendra Sirak: Combining anthropology and genetics to study ancient DNA

Kendra Sirak, a PhD candidate in anthropology in the Laney Graduate School, is currently working in Ireland, testing the DNA of people ranging from medieval Nubians to an ancient Chinese specimen to an Irish rebel.

Originally from the small town of Dallas, Pennsylvania, Sirak attended Northwestern University on an athletic scholarship for field hockey. There, she fell in love with study of anthropology.

"Starting out in psychology, I was inspired by an amazing young professor and became hooked after writing a research paper about the allegedly extinct subspecies Homo sapiens idaltu," Sirak recalls. "I wanted to study the past of humanity so I added anthropology for a double major."

Sirak came to Emory in 2012, drawn by the opportunity to work with George Armelagos, Goodrich C. White Professor of Anthropology (who passed away in 2014).

"I emailed George, who was one of the gods of anthropology, not expecting an answer," she says. "He responded in 37 minutes."

Now, Sirak is working as a visiting researcher at the Earth Institute at University College Dublin. Her research has also taken her to Russia, Hungary, Romania, China, India and Italy to access DNA in human skeletons and train other researchers in those techniques.

In an interview from Ireland, Sirak talks about her work and how she came to add genetics to anthropology, resulting in fascinating research and career paths.

What led you to add genetics to anthropology?

I had no interest in genetics, being totally dedicated to the study of human osteology and paleopathology. But George [Armelagos] believed DNA was going to become a critical part of anthropological research — and he couldn’t have been more right.

He proposed that I take some Nubian skeletal remains he had excavated in the 1970s to Ireland and learn how to do ancient DNA analysis at Trinity College Dublin.

I went home and cried because I didn’t want to say no, but I really, really did not want to go. However, I decided to just go anyway. It was the best academic decision I could have ever made. I stepped into the ancient DNA lab at Trinity and realized that I had been spelling “chromosome” wrong for as long as I could remember, which was where my knowledge of DNA was then.

What do you gain by combining anthropology with genetics in your research?

Genetics provides really fantastic, concrete data. However, it doesn’t provide the contextthat anthropology does. I like to think of genetics giving me the hard scientific data that I want, but anthropology adding in the human context and making the molecular data a human reality.

At Emory, I have learned how to think from a “biocultural” point of view. While many other anthropology programs stress only either a “biological” or a “cultural” approach, Emory combines the two.

I study the biology of past populations and I think about the way their culture and social environment could have influenced individual health and well-being, population demographics, patterns of morbidity and mortality, etc.

What have you been working on in Ireland?

Primarily extracting and sequencing DNA from skeletal remains from two socially disparate medieval cemeteries at the site of Kulubnarti in Sudanese Nubia. I am also part of a collaboration between University College Dublin and Harvard Medical School’s Department of Genetics lab.

We were recently contacted by the Irish National Police to help identify the remains of Thomas Kent, executed by the British for his part in the Easter Rising insurrection in 1916 and buried in a shallow grave on the grounds of Cork Prison; however, his body could not be positively identified. Collaborating with another team, we came up with this novel method to compare genetic data collected from two of Kent’s known living relatives and confirm his identity. He was given an honorable burial and a big state parade.

What other projects do you have in the works?

We hope to become involved in the Duffy’s Cut Project. Duffy’s Cut is the location of railroad tracks west of Philadelphia built by 57 Irish immigrants in the mid-1800s. All 57 are thought to have died from cholera. However, forensic evidence suggests that some might have been murdered, perhaps because of fear of contagion. We are hoping a DNA analysis on these samples will help identify these men and their family relationships.

We are in conversation with an Irish human rights group about identifying the remains of more than 800 Irish babies uncovered in a mass grave in western Ireland. This grave was a consequence of the period when it was not socially acceptable for a woman to have a baby out of wedlock. The ultimate goal would be a database of the unidentified infants’ genetic information. Then people who believe they might have some relative in this mass grave could be tested for a genetic match. This project was presented at the United Nations.

What are your post-Emory plans and goals?

My goal is to start writing my dissertation, a bioethnography of the ancient Nubians, this fall and be graduated from Emory in June 2018.

Post-Emory, I can see myself applying for a postdoc position to expand my research, or I might like to get involved with scientific communication to the lay public.

After taking a human genetics course taken at Emory, I’m really interested in genetic counseling. I’ve been thinking about becoming a certified genetic counselor.

What do you like to do in your “off” time?

I am a world traveler, marathon runner and craft beer connoisseur. Studying anthropology and working in ancient DNA has given me incredible opportunities to travel around the world to collect samples for our analyses.

King, Leslie. 2016. “Kendra Sirak: Combining anthropology and genetics to study ancient DNA”. Emory. Posted: July 13, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Fossil finds in China are challenging ideas about the evolution of modern humans and our closest relatives - Part 2

Politics at play?

Some Western researchers suggest that there is a hint of nationalism in Chinese palaeontologists' support for continuity. "The Chinese—they do not accept the idea that H. sapiens evolved in Africa," says one researcher. "They want everything to come from China."

Chinese researchers reject such allegations. "This has nothing to do with nationalism," says Wu. It's all about the evidence—the transitional fossils and archaeological artefacts, he says. "Everything points to continuous evolution in China from H. erectus to modern human."

But the continuity-with-hybridization model is countered by overwhelming genetic data that point to Africa as the wellspring of modern humans. Studies of Chinese populations show that 97.4% of their genetic make-up is from ancestral modern humans from Africa, with the rest coming from extinct forms such as Neanderthals and Denisovans5. "If there had been significant contributions from Chinese H. erectus, they would show up in the genetic data," says Li Hui, a population geneticist at Fudan University in Shanghai. Wu counters that the genetic contribution from archaic hominins in China could have been missed because no DNA has yet been recovered from them.

Many researchers say that there are ways to explain the existing Asian fossils without resorting to continuity with hybridization. The Zhirendong hominins, for instance, could represent an exodus of early modern humans from Africa between 120,000 and 80,000 years ago. Instead of remaining in the Levant in the Middle East, as was thought previously, these people could have expanded into east Asia, says Michael Petraglia, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford, UK.

Other evidence backs up this hypothesis: excavations at a cave in Daoxian in China's Hunan province have yielded 47 fossil teeth so modern-looking that they could have come from the mouths of people today. But the fossils are at least 80,000 years old, and perhaps 120,000 years old, Liu and his colleagues reported last year6. "Those early migrants may have interbred with archaic populations along the way or in Asia, which could explain Zhirendong people's primitive traits," says Petraglia.

Another possibility is that some of the Chinese fossils, including the Dali skull, represent the mysterious Denisovans, a species identified from Siberian fossils that are more than 40,000 years old. Palaeontologists don't know what the Denisovans looked like, but studies of DNA recovered from their teeth and bones indicate that this ancient population contributed to the genomes of modern humans, especially Australian Aborigines, Papua New Guineans and Polynesians—suggesting that Denisovans might have roamed Asia.

María Martinón-Torres, a palaeoanthropologist at University College London, is among those who proposed that some of the Chinese hominins were Denisovans. She worked with IVPP researchers on an analysis7, published last year, of a fossil assemblage uncovered at Xujiayao in Hebei province—including partial jaws and nine teeth dated to 125,000–100,000 years ago. The molar teeth are massive, with very robust roots and complex grooves, reminiscent of those from Denisovans, she says.

A third idea is even more radical. It emerged when Martinón-Torres and her colleagues compared more than 5,000 fossil teeth from around the world: the team found that Eurasian specimens are more similar to each other than to African ones8. That work and more recent interpretations of fossil skulls suggest that Eurasian hominins evolved separately from African ones for a long stretch of time. The researchers propose that the first hominins that left Africa 1.8 million years ago were the eventual source of modern humans. Their descendants mostly settled in the Middle East, where the climate was favourable, and then produced waves of transitional hominins that spread elsewhere. One Eurasian group went to Indonesia, another gave rise to Neanderthals and Denisovans, and a third ventured back into Africa and evolved into H. sapiens, which later spread throughout the world. In this model, modern humans evolved in Africa, but their immediate ancestor originated in the Middle East. Not everybody is convinced. "Fossil interpretations are notoriously problematic," says Svante Pääbo, a palaeogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. But DNA from Eurasian fossils dating to the start of the human race could help to reveal which story—or combination—is correct. China is now making a push in that direction. Qiaomei Fu, a palaeogeneticist who did her PhD with Pääbo, returned home last year to establish a lab to extract and sequence ancient DNA at the IVPP. One of her immediate goals is to see whether some of the Chinese fossils belong to the mysterious Denisovan group. The prominent molar teeth from Xujiayao will be an early target. "I think we have a prime suspect here," she says.

Fuzzy picture

Despite the different interpretations of the Chinese fossil record, everybody agrees that the evolutionary tale in Asia is much more interesting than people appreciated before. But the details remain fuzzy, because so few researchers have excavated in Asia.

When they have, the results have been startling. In 2003, a dig on Flores island in Indonesia turned up a diminutive hominin9, which researchers named Homo floresiensis and dubbed the hobbit. With its odd assortment of features, the creature still provokes debate about whether it is a dwarfed form of H. erectus or some more primitive lineage that made it all the way from Africa to southeast Asia and lived until as recently as 60,000 years ago. Last month, more surprises emerged from Flores, where researchers found the remains of a hobbit-like hominin in rocks about 700,000 years old10.

Recovering more fossils from all parts of Asia will clearly help to fill in the gaps. Many palaeoanthropologists also call for better access to existing materials. Most Chinese fossils—including some of the finest specimens, such as the Yunxian and Dali skulls—are accessible only to a handful of Chinese palaeontologists and their collaborators. "To make them available for general studies, with replicas or CT scans, would be fantastic," says Stringer. Moreover, fossil sites should be dated much more rigorously, preferably by multiple methods, researchers say.

But all agree that Asia—the largest continent on Earth—has a lot more to offer in terms of unravelling the human story. "The centre of gravity," says Petraglia, "is shifting eastward."
Reference: 2016. “Fossil finds in China are challenging ideas about the evolution of modern humans and our closest relatives”. Posted: July 15, 2016. Available online:

Monday, August 15, 2016

Fossil finds in China are challenging ideas about the evolution of modern humans and our closest relatives - Part 1

On the outskirts of Beijing, a small limestone mountain named Dragon Bone Hill rises above the surrounding sprawl. Along the northern side, a path leads up to some fenced-off caves that draw 150,000 visitors each year, from schoolchildren to grey-haired pensioners. It was here, in 1929, that researchers discovered a nearly complete ancient skull that they determined was roughly half a million years old. Dubbed Peking Man, it was among the earliest human remains ever uncovered, and it helped to convince many researchers that humanity first evolved in Asia.

Since then, the central importance of Peking Man has faded. Although modern dating methods put the fossil even earlier—at up to 780,000 years old—the specimen has been eclipsed by discoveries in Africa that have yielded much older remains of ancient human relatives. Such finds have cemented Africa's status as the cradle of humanity—the place from which modern humans and their predecessors spread around the globe—and relegated Asia to a kind of evolutionary cul-de-sac.

But the tale of Peking Man has haunted generations of Chinese researchers, who have struggled to understand its relationship to modern humans. "It's a story without an ending," says Wu Xinzhi, a palaeontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) in Beijing. They wonder whether the descendants of Peking Man and fellow members of the species Homo erectus died out or evolved into a more modern species, and whether they contributed to the gene pool of China today.

Keen to get to the bottom of its people's ancestry, China has in the past decade stepped up its efforts to uncover evidence of early humans across the country. It is reanalysing old fossil finds and pouring tens of millions of dollars a year into excavations. And the government is setting up a US$1.1-million laboratory at the IVPP to extract and sequence ancient DNA.

The investment comes at a time when palaeoanthropologists across the globe are starting to pay more attention to Asian fossils and how they relate to other early hominins—creatures that are more closely related to humans than to chimps. Finds in China and other parts of Asia have made it clear that a dazzling variety of Homo species once roamed the continent. And they are challenging conventional ideas about the evolutionary history of humanity.

"Many Western scientists tend to see Asian fossils and artefacts through the prism of what was happening in Africa and Europe," says Wu. Those other continents have historically drawn more attention in studies of human evolution because of the antiquity of fossil finds there, and because they are closer to major palaeoanthropology research institutions, he says. "But it's increasingly clear that many Asian materials cannot fit into the traditional narrative of human evolution."

Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, agrees. "Asia has been a forgotten continent," he says. "Its role in human evolution may have been largely under-appreciated."

Evolving story

In its typical form, the story of Homo sapiens starts in Africa. The exact details vary from one telling to another, but the key characters and events generally remain the same. And the title is always 'Out of Africa'.

In this standard view of human evolution, H. erectus first evolved there more than 2 million years ago (see 'Two routes for human evolution'). Then, some time before 600,000 years ago, it gave rise to a new species: Homo heidelbergensis, the oldest remains of which have been found in Ethiopia. About 400,000 years ago, some members of H. heidelbergensis left Africa and split into two branches: one ventured into the Middle East and Europe, where it evolved into Neanderthals; the other went east, where members became Denisovans—a group first discovered in Siberia in 2010. The remaining population of H. heidelbergensis in Africa eventually evolved into our own species, H. sapiens, about 200,000 years ago. Then these early humans expanded their range to Eurasia 60,000 years ago, where they replaced local hominins with a minuscule amount of interbreeding.

A hallmark of H. heidelbergensis—the potential common ancestor of Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans—is that individuals have a mixture of primitive and modern features. Like more archaic lineages, H. heidelbergensis has a massive brow ridge and no chin. But it also resembles H. sapiens, with its smaller teeth and bigger braincase. Most researchers have viewed H. heidelbergensis—or something similar—as a transitional form between H. erectus and H. sapiens.

Unfortunately, fossil evidence from this period, the dawn of the human race, is scarce and often ambiguous. It is the least understood episode in human evolution, says Russell Ciochon, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "But it's central to our understanding of humanity's ultimate origin."

The tale is further muddled by Chinese fossils analysed over the past four decades, which cast doubt over the linear progression from African H. erectus to modern humans. They show that, between roughly 900,000 and 125,000 years ago, east Asia was teeming with hominins endowed with features that would place them somewhere between H. erectus and H. sapiens, says Wu (see 'Ancient human sites').

"Those fossils are a big mystery," says Ciochon. "They clearly represent more advanced species than H. erectus, but nobody knows what they are because they don't seem to fit into any categories we know."

The fossils' transitional characteristics have prompted researchers such as Stringer to lump them with H. heidelbergensis. Because the oldest of these forms, two skulls uncovered in Yunxian in Hubei province, date back 900,000 years1, 2, Stringer even suggests that H. heidelbergensis might have originated in Asia and then spread to other continents.

But many researchers, including most Chinese palaeontologists, contend that the materials from China are different from European and African H. heidelbergensis fossils, despite some apparent similarities. One nearly complete skull unearthed at Dali in Shaanxi province and dated to 250,000 years ago, has a bigger braincase, a shorter face and a lower cheekbone than most H. heidelbergensis specimens3, suggesting that the species was more advanced.

Such transitional forms persisted for hundreds of thousands of years in China, until species appeared with such modern traits that some researchers have classified them as H. sapiens. One of the most recent of these is represented by two teeth and a lower jawbone, dating to about 100,000 years ago, unearthed in 2007 by IVPP palaeoanthropologist Liu Wu and his colleagues4. Discovered in Zhirendong, a cave in Guangxi province, the jaw has a classic modern-human appearance, but retains some archaic features of Peking Man, such as a more robust build and a less-protruding chin.

Most Chinese palaeontologists—and a few ardent supporters from the West—think that the transitional fossils are evidence that Peking Man was an ancestor of modern Asian people. In this model, known as multiregionalism or continuity with hybridization, hominins descended from H. erectus in Asia interbred with incoming groups from Africa and other parts of Eurasia, and their progeny gave rise to the ancestors of modern east Asians, says Wu.

Support for this idea also comes from artefacts in China. In Europe and Africa, stone tools changed markedly over time, but hominins in China used the same type of simple stone instruments from about 1.7 million years ago to 10,000 years ago. According to Gao Xing, an archaeologist at the IVPP, this suggests that local hominins evolved continuously, with little influence from outside populations.
Reference: 2016. “Fossil finds in China are challenging ideas about the evolution of modern humans and our closest relatives”. Posted: July 15, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A language where space has no directions

The way that different languages convey information has long fascinated linguists, anthropologists and sociologists alike. Murrinhpatha, the lingua franca spoken by the majority of Aboriginal people in the Moyle and Fitzmaurice rivers region of Australia's Northern Territory has many interesting features, with the absence of verbal abstract directions a prominent one among them. But if a language doesn't have terms to denote specific space concept, how can speakers communicate the direction of one location with respect to another?

A new paper published in Open Linguistics investigates directional pointing and demonstrative usage in an ecologically valid direction-giving task. As co-speech gesture is normally thought of as 'extra-linguistic', the necessity of pointing for direction-giving in Murrinhpatha calls for a conception of language that incorporates the visual/corporal modality.

Rather than using abstract directionals, speakers of Murrinhpatha make reference to locations of interest using named landmarks, demonstratives and pointing. And because pointing is necessary for direction giving, people of the region point a great deal. Certain demonstratives (e.g. kanyi, 'this'/'here') are quite likely to occur with points, whereas others don't. The choices speakers make about which demonstrative to select, and whether or not to point, are influenced by whether the current speaker is soliciting information about a location, or providing information only.

Both, demonstrative selection (e.g., this way vs. that way) and the likelihood that directional pointing will occur are closely tied to the sequential organization of talk, and depend on the current speaker's knowledge about the relevant location relative to their addressee's knowledge about that location.

This is the world's first methodologically entirely innovative study to investigate the relationships between pointing, demonstrative use, and the sequential structure of social interaction. Murrinhpatha speakers use place names and pointing to convey spatial directions that can't be otherwise expressed through abstract means. Points are most likely to occur with proximal demonstratives (this X, here) and least likely to occur with anaphoric demonstratives (that X previously mentioned). Irrespective of demonstrative type, points are more likely to be used when information is being solicited than when it is being provided.

In non-signed languages, pointing is normally relegated to co-speech gesture; that is, as a helpful addition to language proper. A small number of researchers have argued that points and certain other gestures are sufficiently language-like as to be brought in to the larger language faculty. This article calls for a broader conception of language -- one, that subsumes gesture.

Science Daily. 2016. “A language where space has no directions”. Science Daily. Posted: Available online:

Saturday, August 13, 2016

A lesson in archaeology at the Dena’ina culture camp of Kijik

On the north shore of Lake Clark, there’s a place called Kijik. It’s the historic homeland of the Dena’ina Athabascans of the area, and also the site of a culture camp where youth and elders from the village of Nondalton came together last week. Dozens of abandoned homes dot the area.

“A little pushdown, flick out, and then you wanna keep going down the wall,” said Randy Tedor.

Tedor kneels in front of a 50-centimeter square of dirt. The bushy-bearded archeologist is showing a group of kids how to carefully excavate the quadrant.

“Excavation is an art,” he tells them, deftly pulling layers of soil loose.”

11-year-old Cordelle Balluta-Trefon puts down a metal detector he’s been playing with and gets to work in the dirt with a dustpan and a trowel.

After a while, Balluta-Trefon puts down the trowel and hands something to Tedor. It’s a tiny red speck.

“Good eye, man! I can’t believe you saw that” Tedor said laughing. “A little baby bead.”

That little bead, Tedor explained, is a huge clue. This type of glass bead was only manufactured in Europe after a certain date, so it helps archaeologists like Tedor figure out how old the site is. They think this house was occupied between 1840 and the 1880s.

As he explores more into the site, Balluta-Trefon said he’s getting a picture in his head, visualizing what it might have looked like when people lived here

“I don’t see people, but I just see a house. There’s a fire pit, there’s a storage room, a bedroom, that’s the front door over there,” Balluta-Trefon mused. “I’m still kinda putting the picture together.”

This curiosity is exactly what Tedor is trying to inspire; he wants the kids to wonder how people lived back then, maybe to realize that the people living on this land were, in many ways, just like us.

But like many old village sites in Alaska, this land, and its people have a troubled history.

Fur hunters and explorers from Russia started plundering Lake Clark’s Dena’ina villages in the late 1790s. Next came the Russian Orthodox missionaries, who by the 1830s were traveling around regularly to baptize and hold services in villages.

And of course, with this new contact came new diseases. Around 1900, measles and flu epidemics devastated the population at Kijik. The survivors moved down the lake to what is now the village of Nondalton, seeking better access to salmon runs and trading posts.

They left Kijik behind, along with a lakeshore full of graves and sad memories.

“They’re estimating up to 200 graves here,” said Karen Evanoff, a Dena’ina Athabascan cultural anthropologist with Lake Clark National Park. For five years she’s been working with the Nondalton Tribal Council and researchers to identify and mark the graves.

The work culminated in a blessing ceremony last summer.

“Close to a hundred people were here, and we combined the traditional way of spirituality and blessing with the Russian Orthodox way, so it was a huge celebration,” Evanoff said. “This is a healing place.”

There’s still controversy over the land at Kijik; parts of it are now owned by a Native allotment and a homesteader, who built structures on and around the church and grave sites. The Kijik Corporation has managed to buy a few acres back, and Evanoff said they hope to regain more of the land the people consider sacred.

“That’s part of the vision,” she said, “to clear this of the cabins and have some plaques here to identify who’s buried.” Holding the culture camp here is another part of that healing process. Evanoff planned the camp along with Michelle Ravenmoon of Pope-Vanoy on Lake Iliamna

“Of course, we want the kids to have a lot of fun and enjoy themselves and grow their self-confidence and pride,” Ravenmoon said. “But we also wanted to make sure they learn their history and their identity, where they come from, who they are.”

Each activity – from wood carving to caribou hide-tanning to language classes – is meant to help kids understand their Dena’ina culture.

“We’ve been very unsuccessful as Native people sending them out, preparing them for this outside world,” Ravenmoon said. “We give them computers, and we teach them (the) history of the United States, but we’ve taught them so little about who they are where they come from. I think it’s important for kids to know their history.”

A piece of that history lies in the ground at the archeological site, waiting for the kids to get their hands on it.

Up until recently, the archaeological site was known to scientists as “house pit XLC-098.” But Michelle and Karen were happy to share that the site is now being officially renamed: “Quk Taz’Un,” the same name as the culture camp. It means “the sun is rising,” hopefully on a brighter future for the Dena’ina Athabascans of Lake Clark.

Colton, Hannah. 2016. “A lesson in archaeology at the Dena’ina culture camp of Kijik”. Ktoo. Posted: July 10, 2016. Available online: