Friday, September 30, 2016

Are you a nice person? Brain scans can tell how generous you are

Are you a giver or a taker? Brain scans have identified a region of the cerebral cortex responsible for generosity – and some of us are kinder than others.

The area was identified using a computer game that linked different symbols to cash prizes that either went to the player, or one of the study’s other participants. The volunteers readily learned to score prizes that helped other people, but they tended to learn how to benefit themselves more quickly.

MRI scanning revealed that one particular brain area – the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex – seemed to be active when participants chose to be generous, prioritising benefits for someone else over getting rewards for themselves.

But Patricia Lockwood, at the University of Oxford, and her team found that this brain area was not equally active in every volunteer. People who rated themselves as having higher levels of empathy learned to benefit others faster, and these people had more activity in this particular brain area, says Lockwood.

This finding may lead to new ways to identify and understand anti-social and psychopathic behaviour.

New Scientist. 2016. “Are you a nice person? Brain scans can tell how generous you are”. New Scientist. Posted: August 15, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Genes shape our social ideological attitudes

Genes influence our ideological orientation towards topics such as border controls and attitudes towards religious extremism, but not on economics, shows new research.

A new Danish study has discovered that genes are at least partly responsible for shaping our opinions and may explain the wide array of political views expressed across society.

“My research shows that genes are an important part of individual opinion formation. In particular the results show that genes influence individual differences in social ideological orientation,” says Ph.D. student Camilla Nexøe, from the Department of Political Science and Public Management at the University of Southern Denmark.

Social ideology includes attitudes towards social issues, such as the approach towards border control, gay rights, or notions of free speech.

“Genes explain up to 30 per cent of individual differences in social ideological orientation, such as our perception of minorities,” says Nexøe. And she stresses while genes predispose us to a particular opinion, that does not necessarily mean that we will go on to hold those opinions.

“Most of the variation in political opinion formation is not due to genetics, but some is,” she says.

The results are part of Nexøe’s Ph.D. thesis, which she will defend later this year.

No influence on our views of the economy

Previous research has found a link between genetics and ideological orientation, but Nexøe’s research narrows that down, specifically to social ideology.

“Many previous studies have shown that genes have an impact on ideological orientation, but my research shows that it’s not always the case. For example, genes affect our tolerance of diversity, but not our views on economic issues,” she says.

The new results should help researchers to understand why people hold the political views they do, says Nexøe.

“Even if you grew up in the same environment or have the same level of education, political opinions sometimes differ between individuals. Genetic influences may partly explain why individuals hold different world views,” she says.

Not surprising that we inherit ideological views

A genetic influence on your opinions may sound alarming, but Nexøe disagrees.

“I think it's reassuring that you cannot force everyone to agree. People can differ on which environmental influences they are exposed to, but part of our ideological orientation cannot be swayed.”

And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that political perceptions are at least partially inherited.

“Human personality is affected by both genetic and environmental components, just like the propensity to smoke or drink,” says Nexøe.

“We accept that personality and types of diseases are heritable. We should also accept that political views are under some genetic influence.”

Twins under the microscope

Nexøe studied 646 sets of twins in Denmark, who answered a questionnaire about their attitudes and political engagement.

Identical twins grow up in the same environment and have the same genes, while fraternal (non-identical) twins experience the same environment but only share about half of their genes.

If fraternal twins differ more in their politics than identical twins, then this difference is probably due to genetics.

This method is based more on statistics than biology, and Nexøe herself stresses that she is not a geneticist.

“I can’t say anything about which types of genes are at play, or why they affect individual opinion formation,” says Nexøe. But based on the twin-survey data, she identified the overall proportion of genetic influence on individual ideological orientation.

A step forward in genetics

The new study is ground breaking, as it specifically identifies the type of opinions that are, and are not influenced by genetics, says Troels Bøggild, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University, Denmark.

“Nexøe’s results are new and interesting, because she examines which attitudes are influenced by genes. A number of other studies have established a genetic effect, but Nexøe’s results offer a more nuanced picture,” says Bøggild.

Previous studies focused on a one-dimensional understanding of ideology or either left- or right-wing political leanings. But the new study specifically isolates social vs. economic points of view, which is “quite obvious and a very relevant contribution to genetics research,” says Bøggild.

Kerrn-Jespersen, Rasmus. 2016. “Genes shape our social ideological attitudes”. Science Nordic. Posted: August 10, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

New method reveals the secrets of bog bodies

Protein analyses on Denmark’s large collection of bog bodies gives archaeologists deeper insights into Iron Age culture and society.

Archaeologists have learned a lot about the lives of Iron Age Europeans from the mummified remains preserved in bogs--including how they dressed.

But not even the best-preserved bog can withstand the ravages of time. And archaeologists could not identify the exact origin of fibres from hair, wool, or skin in such old, degraded garments.

But this is all about to change, thanks to a new method, which analyses proteins in the fibres to determine exactly what type of animal they came from.

“With proteins, we could make a completely accurate species identification in 11 out of 12 samples and show that species identification that was carried out by microscopy on half of the samples was incorrect,” says lead-author Luise Brandt, who completed the research during her Ph.D. at the University of Copenhagen, but is now based at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

The new technique can for the first time help archaeologists to differentiate between goats or sheeps wool, for example, which would otherwise be difficult to do when studying hairs that had spent 2000 years in a bog, says Brandt.

Skins provides insight into Iron Age culture

Karin Frei, from the National Museum, Denmark, sees great potential in the new method, which should help archaeologists to learn more about how the prehistoric societies produced clothing from animals.

Frei was not involved in the new research, but she has also studied wool garments preserved in peat bogs.

“The method is very exciting because it allows us to clarify several archaeological issues, which have often been difficult to study with any certainty. This new method allows us to form a much more accurate picture,” says Frei.

According to Brandt, her method should help to identify how people selected the material from which to make their clothes, which may give an insight into the resources available at the time in that society.

"It’s important to know what kind of material you have chosen for what [purpose], and there were various skins that were particularly useful for different functions. It tells us whether they kept or hunted the animals at that time, and beyond the practical aspects, the choice of material also reflects their tastes, or a desire to send a certain signal through what they wore,” says Brandt.

For example, clothes are typically an indicator of a person’s position in society.

Hair breaks down in acidic bog environment

Even 2,000 years ago, Iron Age people in Northern Europe cared about what their clothes were made of and how they were made.

Archaeological findings have revealed, that people had a deep knowledge of the different animal skins and their characteristics, which influenced the cuts and appearance of the materials they used.

But there was a lot of confusion about which type of animal skins were actually used.

In 2011, Brandt tried to extract DNA from various materials found on bog bodies in Denmark. But she hit a dead end.

The DNA was too degraded to work out what type of material the clothes were made out of. So she switched her attention to proteins.

“I found out that proteins are preserved, ten times longer than DNA,” says Brandt.

The protein analyses showed that the composition of amino acids--the building blocks of proteins--in the various material changes according to animal species. They can therefore act as a fingerprint for the type of animal that the material came from.

Cloaks sewn with great care

Brandt analysed 12 samples from ten cloaks and a tunic from the Danish National Museum’s collection of leather suits that were preserved at a number of archaeological sites in Jutland, West Denmark. All of the garments are around 2000 years old.

She successfully identified the animal species in 11 out of 12 samples. Two samples came from cattle, three from goat, and six from sheep. The twelfth sample is from either a sheep or a goat, but this test was inconclusive as the protein that distinguishes between sheep and goat was not preserved.

The results suggest that Iron Age garments were made exclusively from the skins of domesticated animals, and not wild animals as popular mythology often suggests.

Tunic made from a young calf

More sensational is the discovery that that one of the garments, a tunic buried in Møgel bog in Jutland, west Denmark, was made from calf leather. It contained a protein found in blood—haemoglobin.

This particular type of haemoglobin is only produced during the last months of pregnancy and in the first three months after birth in the young calves, after which it is replaced by another type of haemoglobin.

“This extraordinary result told us that it was not only made from leather from a cow, but on top of that, it came from a calf,” says Brandt.

This discovery, along with the ability to extract proteins from 2000 year-old animal skin, gives archaeologists a greater understanding of Iron Age textile production.

Perhaps leather was just as important as meat

Brandt speculates that the skins may even have been just as important as the meat to local Iron Age people of the time.

“I think that the smoking gun was the haemoglobin. We can see that they went to great lengths to make the garments and choose the right skin,” says Brandt.

“But now we can see that they used calfskin for the tunic, which could suggest that the skin was a really important part of why they slaughtered young animals and that it was an important product,” says Bradt.

Livestock in the Iron Age were well-developed, but our perception is usually that they were bred primarily for food. But the new results suggest that the animals served a larger purpose.

Frei agrees.

“This is very important for how we view these Iron Age people and the society that they lived in,” says Frei.

“Because they chose calfskin, which is softer and more flexible than skin from older animals, we immediately get the feeling that these people didn’t just wear anything. It suggests a society that made clear decisions about what they found to be comfortable to wear, which is also what we do today,” she says.

Persson, Charlotte Price. 2016. “New method reveals the secrets of bog bodies”. Science Nordic. Posted: August 12, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The archaeology of the domestic cat

mousers and men

When did cats graduate from convenient pest-control to one of the world’s most popular pets, and how can you tell the difference in the archaeological record? The answer, John Buglass and Jennifer West suggest, may lie in Roman Yorkshire.

Today, the image of a pet cat purring on its owner’s lap is the epitome of cosy domesticity – but this was not always the case. While the archaeological record suggests that dogs staked their claim to being man’s best friend as long as 15,000 years ago (CA 301), felines were much slower in joining our households. But how far can we trace the evolution of this relationship, and how far is it possible to distinguish between cats that coexisted with humans for their own advantage (scavenging our settlements) or for ours (as resident pest control) and those cats that had taken the next step to achieve the status of a beloved pet? Again, archaeology may hold the key.

Pussycat went to sea

Excavations have uncovered cat remains all over the world, but genetic studies suggest that the domestic cat (Felis catus) first emerged as a distinct species from their ancestors, African wildcats (Felis silvestris lybica), in the Near East around 10,000 years ago. Since then they have spread around the world, being transported by humans (knowingly or otherwise) as we explored, traded, and settled. By 7000 BC, we can see evidence of cats cohabiting with humans in China, while some 5,300 years ago they had reached Cyprus – almost certainly introduced by humans, as the island had no indigenous cat population.

The first hints of actual integration with humans came later still, however, from Egypt around 4,000 years ago. This was a culture that revered cats as sacred, but felines also seem to have forged more worldly relationships with humans: an increased cooperation vividly illustrated in 18th Dynasty era (c.1350 BC) murals adorning the tomb chapel of a wealthy official, Nebamun, in Thebes (now on display in the British Museum). Here, a small striped cat is shown helping a hunter to catch or retrieve wild birds, much as we might employ a gundog today. But this is still clearly a working animal, rather than evidence of cats attaining a more sentimental status.

Moving into Europe, cats first appear in ancient Greek art in the 5th and 4th centuries BC – though never as an unambiguous pet – but in the Roman world they are shown in more clearly domestic scenes, including a mischievous moggy helping itself to the contents of a larder, captured in a 1st century AD mosaic from Pompeii’s ‘House of the Faun’. Feline figures feature far less frequently in Roman art than dogs, however, which might suggest that if they were regarded as pets by now, they had not yet attained the heights of popularity that they enjoy today. Once again, few of these depictions allow us to distinguish between resident mousers and members of the family.

Perhaps the most convincing image of a potential pet from this period comes from the Musée d’Aquitaine in Bordeaux, which houses the gravestone of a Gallo-Roman child who died in the 2nd century AD. The stele bears an appealingly lifelike image of a little girl cuddling a cat to her chest. With a childish lack of concern for the animal’s comfort, she grips it under its front legs, leaving its lower body to dangle (and allowing an opportunistic cockerel, perhaps another pet, to seize the tip of its tail in its beak), all the while gazing out at the viewer as if posing for her portrait. An incomplete inscription identifies the girl only as the daughter of a man called Laetus, but it is tempting to fill in the gaps ourselves: might this be a loving depiction of a lost child, shown clutching a pet that she had played with in life?

Cats (and Romans) conquer Britain

Closer to home, our earliest clues to domestic cats in Britain also come mostly from the Roman period (again, much later than dogs, whose remains are known from sites as early as the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer camp at Star Carr, near Scarborough). Although their bones have also been found at a small number of Iron Age sites – notably seven 3rd-century BC skeletons excavated at Gussage All Saints hillfort in Dorset – our best evidence for their being adopted as household animals is found at villa sites like Bishopstone, Lullingstone, and Rudston, as well as in York.

In most of these cases, it once more remains unclear whether these animals were pest control or pets – but one site in the Mid Tees Valley seems more promising. This is a Romano-British villa at Dalton-on-Tees, North Yorkshire, which was first excavated by Teesside Archaeological Society in 1997. Their investigation revealed not only the remains of a substantial villa located beyond what was then accepted as the northern limit of such residences, but also a large and varied assemblage of over 3,700 well-preserved animal bones representing 28 different species. Almost 70% of these remains came from a well that had been backfilled sometime between the 2nd and 4th century AD, and among them were the remains of a small domestic cat.

Even a preliminary examination of its bones could tell that this was one unlucky feline: it had suffered devastating injuries to both the hind- and forelimb on its left side, with the entire head of the left femur missing, and the left elbow showing signs of having been badly broken. The fact that these wounds occur on the same side and – as we will discuss shortly – show similar signs of healing, suggests that they may have been inflicted at the same time, perhaps as a result of being kicked by a larger animal like a horse while hunting for food in a stable, or being hit by the wheel of a cart.

Whatever their cause, there is no doubt that they would have been disabling, potentially fatal injuries – and yet the cat had not died. Extensive new bone growth on both limbs shows clear signs of healing, while ‘polished’ wear patterns on the affected joint surfaces indicate that the limbs had eventually returned to use, albeit with a drastically reduced range of movement. In other words, it appears that a friendly human may have, if not nursed the stricken feline back to health, at least tended it with food and water while its bones knitted back together – a level of care above and beyond what you might expect to be accorded to ‘pest control’ or an opportunistic cohabiter.

Further analysis of the cat’s remains suggests that even after its fractures had healed the animal would no longer have been an effective hunter – one elbow was left partially fused, while its rear limb shows signs of an infection and healed break. Both injuries may (without all of the bones present to compare, we cannot be sure) have left the affected legs shorter than their counterparts.

If this stiff-legged, limping cat, which would certainly not have been able to earn its keep as a working mouser, had been allowed to continue living at the villa rather than being euthanised and replaced, might this suggest that its owner had felt a deeper emotional connection with the animal? If so, this could be our earliest evidence yet in Britain for a cat that was not just a household tool, but a cherished pet.

2016. “The archaeology of the domestic cat”. Current Archaeology. Posted: August 5, 2016. Available online:

Monday, September 26, 2016

Canadian anthropologist in a tight squeeze

In order to do her exciting excavation of fossils in South Africa’s Rising Star cave complex, Marina Elliottmust squeeze into some very narrow passages. Researchers have already uncovered am astounding 1,800 fragments of bones and teeth from 15 individuals of Homo naledi, somehow related to our own species.

A cranial capacity the size of a large orange

Although they share many features with us, they are also very different, says Elliott: “They are quite a bit smaller than modern humans and they had a very, very tiny head. They had a cranial capacity about a third the size of a modern human, so about the size of a large orange.

“And the body below this little head is quite slim, very long limbs, quite a short trunk, but a real combination of features that we haven’t seen in any other early hominid species.”

A ‘treasure trove’ of fossils

The site is highly significant as a “veritable treasure trove” of material that is not encased in hard rock, but preserved in relatively soft material which means it can be relatively easily unearthed, relatively intact.

Cousins or more?

Beyond that, Elliott says finding these 15 individuals of all ages may change our understanding of human evolution. “We don’t know yet whether Homo naledi is on the human line or just a distant cousin, but what it does tell us is that the picture that we’ve been painting for many years is a bit more complicated than we thought at first.”

Marina Elliott got her PhD in biological anthropology at Simon Fraser University in western Canada. She was named one of the National Geographic Society’s 2016 Emerging Explorers. She is now South Africa’s Witwatersrand University. Results of her work were published in the current edition of theJournal of Human Evolution.

Desjardins, Lynn. 2016. “Canadian anthropologist in a tight squeeze”. Radio Canada International Net. Posted: August 5, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, September 25, 2016

First evidence of legendary flood reveals China’s origin story

Legend has it that a great flood engulfed China 4000 years ago. Lasting for more than 20 years, it was finally tamed by the heroic efforts of Emperor Yu, whose Xia dynasty marked the birth of Chinese civilisation and its transition into the Bronze Age.

“This was the first stage in the founding of Chinese civilisation,” says Wu Qinglong of Nanjing Normal University. “But no scientific evidence had been discovered until now.”

This lack of evidence for such a flood had prompted some to challenge the truth of the story.

But we now have the first compelling evidence that the flood did actually happen at the time and place chronicled in the legend.

In the Jishi Gorge, along the Yellow river, his team discovered rocks and sedimentary formations that could only have existed as a result of a cataclysmic flood.

They also found evidence of an earthquake and analysed the skeletons of three children (see picture below), which helped them recreate the timeline of what happened.

“The first thing was the earthquake, and this triggered a huge landslide that blocked the river,” says Darryl Granger of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. The dammed water became a lake 200 metres deep.

“The lake built up behind and took six to nine months to fill up before the water overtopped, causing the dam to fail catastrophically,” he says.

This released a huge volume of water, estimated at between 12 and 17 cubic kilometres, two to three times as much as contained by Loch Ness in Scotland.

The floods engulfed Lajia, the archaeological site 25 kilometres downstream where the bodies of the three children killed by the earthquake months earlier lay buried, and where the world’s oldest noodles were found.

Rocks and debris deposited by the floodwaters around the children’s home show the earthquake and flood must have happened within a year of each other. The clinching evidence for this was that cracks in Lajia created by the quake were filled with flood-related sediment, not the fine silt sediment deposited by annual rainwater runoff at the same site each year, showing that the flood sediment got there first, and so must have arrived within a year of the quake.

And radiocarbon dating of the skeletons showed the children died around 1920 BC, roughly in accordance with the time of the legend.

“It corresponds so closely in time with the legends of the flood and the beginning of the Bronze Age in China,” says David Cohen, an anthropologist at National Taiwan University.

Cohen says that according to the historical accounts, it took Emperor Yu 22 years to bring the floodwaters under control through massive dredging operations, after which he established the dynasty marking China’s transition to modernisation.

“In the accounts, the hero Yu was able to control the flood through dredging, bringing order from chaos,” says Cohen. “It’s very much about the establishment of a new political order and the principles of rulership that went with it.”

“The flood they document is in the right place and time to explain the origin of Yu’s flood,” says David Montgomery of the University of Washington in Seattle. “The case they’ve put together is quite compelling, but it doesn’t settle whether the flood reported was indeed the origin of this ancient flood story.”

“It’s probably beyond the reach of science to ‘prove’ the origin of an oral tradition handed down generation to generation for a thousand years before the first written records,” he says. “But it supports the historicity of events central to the early history of Chinese civilisation, and provides another example of how some of humanity’s oldest stories — tales often taken as mythology or folklore — may be rooted in natural disasters that really happened.”

Coghlan, Andy. 2016. “First evidence of legendary flood reveals China’s origin story”. New Scientist. Posted: August 4, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Bones on Coast Could Be 1847 Shipwreck Victims

The Carricks of Whitehaven was en route to Quebec City when it went down

In late July, human remains were found near Cap-des-Rosiers, Quebec—and archaeologists believe they may belong to people who died at sea in 1847. The story of the Carricks of Whitehaven layers tragedy upon tragedy: Passengers on the Irish ship were trying to escape the potato famine that was killing their countrymen, only to see their ship go down in a storm while en route to Quebec City. Of the nearly 200 people on the Carricks, at least 80 are believed to have died off the Gaspe coast. Parks Canada archaeologist Martin Perron says the remains, which look to belong to five adults and three kids, appear to have been quickly deposited in what theCanadian Press calls a "shallow trench"—and could potentially be a mass grave.

Bones have been found in the same area before. The Globe and Mail's report on the initial May 2011 find there noted that historical accounts describe victims as being laid out on the beach before burial, but no specific location of the grave was reported. It quotes some historical writings: a magazine article from the time noting the ship "went to pieces in the course of two hours," and a 1919 book on Gaspe that stated, "For a whole day two oxcarts carried the dead to deep trenches near the scene of the disaster." A 2014 Mail article reported that the bones found in 2011 were determined to be those of three European children who experienced malnutrition—suggesting they were very likely Carricks victims. Parks Canada will be using ground-penetrating radar in a search for additional remains.

Seamons, Kate. 2016. “Bones on Coast Could Be 1847 Shipwreck Victims”. Newser. Posted: August 4, 2016. Available online:

Friday, September 23, 2016

Fresh look at burials, mass graves, tells a new story of Cahokia

A new study challenges earlier interpretations of an important burial mound at Cahokia, a pre-Columbian city in Illinois near present-day St. Louis. The study reveals that a central feature of the mound, a plot known as the "beaded burial," is not a monument to male power, as was previously thought, but includes both males and females of high status.

The new study, published in the journal American Antiquity, is one of several recent analyses of the site from researchers at the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois and their colleagues at other institutions. All of the studies confirm the presence of males and females in the beaded burial.

In 1967, archaeologist Melvin Fowler discovered a massive burial site at Cahokia while excavating an unusual, ridgetop mound. This mound, now called Mound 72, held five mass graves, each containing 20 to more than 50 bodies, with dozens of other bodies buried individually or in groups, sometimes directly over the mass graves. Fowler identified 270 bodies in the mound.

Scientists later determined that all of the burials occurred between about 1000 and 1200, during the rise and peak of Cahokia's power and influence. Some of the burials appeared to be high-status individuals whose bodies were placed on cedar litters. "Mound 72 burials are some of the most significant burials ever excavated in North America from this time period," said ISAS director Thomas Emerson, who conducted the most recent study with physical anthropologist Kristin Hedman and skeletal analysts Eve Hargrave of ISAS, Dawn Cobb of the Illinois State Museum Society, and Andrew Thompson of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. The ISAS is a division of the Prairie Research Institute at Illinois.

"Fowler's and others' interpretation of these mounds became the model that everybody across the east was looking at in terms of understanding status and gender roles and symbolism among Native American groups in this time," Emerson said.

Emerson and his colleagues discovered that some of those early interpretations were based on inaccurate and incomplete information. Most of the errors involved the beaded burial. Here, two central bodies were placed, one on top of the other, on a partial bed of beads that also ran between and around the bodies. Several other bodies, buried at the same time, were arranged around this pair.

Fowler and later archaeologists came to believe that this was a burial of two high-status males surrounded by their servants. They interpreted the arrangement of beads associated with these central figures as the remains of a beaded cape or blanket in the shape of a bird. The pattern of beads near the heads of the two central bodies resembled a bird head, some thought.

Because the bird is a common motif related to warriors and supernatural beings in some Native American traditions, Fowler proposed that the central males of the beaded burial represented mythical warrior chiefs.

"One of the things that promoted the concept of the male warrior mythology was the bird image," Emerson said. Once this interpretation took hold, many researchers came to see this as evidence that Cahokia was "a male-dominated hierarchy," he said.

A fresh look at the early archaeologists' maps, notes and reports and the skeletal remains told a new and surprising story. First, the researchers found that there were 12 bodies associated with the beaded burial - not six, as had been previously reported. And independent skeletal analyses conducted by each of the co-authors - Thompson, Hedman, Hargrave and Cobb - revealed that the two central bodies in the beaded burial were actually male and female.

Further analyses revealed other male-female pairs on top of, and near, the beaded area. Some were laid out as fully articulated bodies. Others were disarticulated bodies, the bones of which had been gathered and bundled for burial near these important couples. The researchers also discovered the remains of a child.

"We had been checking to make sure that the individuals we were looking at matched how they had been described," Hedman said. "And in re-examining the beaded burial, we discovered that the central burial included females. This was unexpected."

"The fact that these high-status burials included women changes the meaning of the beaded burial feature," Emerson said. "Now, we realize, we don't have a system in which males are these dominant figures and females are playing bit parts. And so, what we have at Cahokia is very much a nobility. It's not a male nobility. It's males and females, and their relationships are very important."

The new findings are more in line with other evidence from Cahokia, Emerson said. "For me, having dug temples at Cahokia and analyzed a lot of that material, the symbolism is all about life renewal, fertility, agriculture," he said. "Most of the stone figurines found there are female. The symbols showing up on the pots have to do with water and the underworld. And so now Mound 72 fits into a more consistent story with what we know about the rest of the symbolism and religion at Cahokia."

Emerson said that those who saw warrior symbolism at Cahokia missed the special culture of the time period. "When the Spanish and the French came into the southeast as early as the 1500s, they identified these kinds of societies in which both males and females have rank," he said. "Really, the division here is not gender; it's class."

"People who saw the warrior symbolism in the beaded burial were actually looking at societies hundreds of years later in the southeast, where warrior symbolism dominated, and projecting it back to Cahokia and saying: 'Well, that's what this must be,'" Emerson said. "And we're saying: 'No, it's not.'"

Other recent findings related to the people buried in Mound 72 are described in the Journal of Archaeological Science, the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and a chapter in the book "Beyond Collapse: Archaeological Perspectives on Resilience, Revitalization and Transformation in Complex Societies."

Yates, Diana. 2016. “Fresh look at burials, mass graves, tells a new story of Cahokia”. Posted: August 4, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, September 22, 2016

This female skeleton has been discovered at an ancient burial ground on the site of the Queen's Hillsborough Castle residence in Northern Ireland

These are the remains of a well-preserved adult female found in an ancient burial ground at Hillsborough Castle, the Queen’s residence in Northern Ireland where archaeologists believe the cemetery could have been connected to a medieval church which once stood there.

Her skeleton could be 1,000 years old. She was unearthed by volunteers during the first day of digging at the castle, built during the 1780s on grounds now thought to have been used long before medieval times.

Slate roof tiles, nails and mortar discoveries could also be signs of a settlement in Hillsborough before the Georgian village that exists today.

Rosanagh Fuller, of Historic Royal Palaces, says the finds - made with the help of more than 300 local volunteers - are “extremely exciting”. Further analysis is expected to reveal more about a previously unknown part of the castle’s story.

Culture24 Reporter. 2016. “This female skeleton has been discovered at an ancient burial ground on the site of the Queen's Hillsborough Castle residence in Northern Ireland”. Culture24. Posted: August 4, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Sensational grave find in Cypriote Bronze Age city

An archaeological expedition from the University of Gothenburg has discovered one of the richest graves from the Late Bronze Age ever found on the island of Cyprus. The grave and its offering pit, located adjacent the Bronze Age city of Hala Sultan Tekke, contained many fantastic gold objects such as a diadem, pearls, earrings and Egyptian scarabs, as well as more than 100 richly ornamented ceramic vessels. The objects, which originate from several adjacent cultures, confirm the central role of Cyprus in long-distance trade.

Hala Sultan Tekke, a Bronze Age city from 1600-1150 BC that covered an area of up to 50 hectares, had far-reaching trade connections that included Sweden. Peter Fischer, professor of Cypriote archaeology at the University of Gothenburg, has led the excavations performed by the Swedish Cyprus expedition for seven seasons since 2010.

'The excavations in May and June this year were the most successful to date. We discovered an older city quarter from around 1250 BC and outside the city we found an incredibly rich grave, one of the richest in Cyprus from this period, and an offering pit next to it. The fact that we have discovered a burial site from the Late Bronze Age is quite sensational, since those who died around this time were usually buried within the settlement,' says Fischer.

The area where the grave was found is exposed to erosion caused by farming. Prior to the excavation, a so-called geophysical survey was performed using radar equipment able to identify what is in the ground down to a depth of two metres. The surveying revealed almost 100 underground 'pits', some of which turned out to be wells, some offering pits and - as this year - a grave.

'Wells are usually one metre in diameter, but this structure was 4 x 3 metres. The grave seems to be a family tomb for eight children ages 5-10 years and nine adults, of whom the oldest was about 40 years old. The life expectancy was much shorter back then than it is today,' says Fischer.

The archaeologists found over 100 ceramic vessels and several gold finds, including a diadem, beads, earrings and Egyptian scarabs (picture 1), in the grave and the offering pit. The finds also include gemstones and five cylinder seals, some produced locally and some from Syria and Mesopotamia, as well as a bronze dagger.

The archaeologists assign the greatest importance to the more than 140 complete ceramic vessels, most of which were decorated with spectacular illustrations of for example people sitting in a chariot drawn by two horses and a woman wearing a beautiful dress (picture 2). There were also vases decorated with religious symbols and animal illustrations of for example fish. Many of the vessels were imported mainly from Greece and Crete but also from Anatolia, or the equivalence of present-day Turkey.

'The pottery carries a lot of archaeological information. There were for example high-class Mycenaean imports, meaning pottery from Greece, dated to 1500-1300 BC. The motif of the woman, possibly a goddess, is Minoan, which means it is from Crete, but the vase was manufactured in Greece. Back in those days, Crete was becoming a Greek "colony",' says Fischer.

According to Fischer, the painting of the woman's dress is highly advanced and shows how wealthy women dressed around this time. The motif can also be found on frescos for example in the Palace of Knossos in Heraklion, Crete. Other finds are from Egypt. Two of the stone scarabs are gold-mounted and one features hieroglyphs spelling 'men-kheper-re' next to an illustration of a pharaoh. This has given the archaeologists a unique opportunity to tie the roughly 3 500-year-old find to a historic person. The inscription refers to Egypt's most powerful pharaoh Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC), during whose reign Egypt peaked in size and influence as he conquered both Syria and parts of Mesopotamia, present-day Iraq.

'We also found evidence in the city of large-scale manufacturing and purple-dying of textiles. These products were used in the trade with the high cultures in Egypt, Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Crete and Greece, which explains the rich imported finds.

What is most interesting about the finds is the dating: they are from 1500/1400 BC, but the researchers have still only found the burial site but not the city from this period.

'It must have been a rich city judging from the grave we found this year. But it is most likely located closer to the burial site in an area that still has not been explored,' says Fischer.

This year's excavation period is over and until next year's on-site work begins, the researchers have some intense processing of finds to look forward to.

'In spring 2017 we'll continue our uncovering of parts of the city and the burial site. As the integrity of both areas is threatened by agricultural activities, there is a need for quick action to secure our shared cultural heritage before it is destroyed forever,' says Fischer.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Sensational grave find in Cypriote Bronze Age city”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 10, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Archaeologists have uncovered a massive palace at the legendary birthplace of King Arthur

British archaeologists have reported the discovery of massive walls that appear to be part of a Dark Ages palace complex that existed around the same time and place as King Arthur’s birthplace in the famous legend of Camelot.

The walls, located in the English village of Tintagel in southwest Cornwall, enclose a number of buildings that would have formed the royal centre of theKingdom of Dumnonia in the 5th and 6th centuries AD, experts suggest.

The dozen or so buried buildings discovered inside the 1-metre-thick (3-foot) masonry walls contained hundreds of fine glass fragments from medieval France and pottery shards from Late-Roman amphorae and Phocaean red-slip ware, thought to have carried wine from modern-day Turkey and olive oil from northern Africa.

The exotic origins of these artefacts suggest that whoever was living inside this building complex would have likely been very wealthy, and probably royalty. 

"It isn't just a trading centre to move olive oil around, they're actually indulging in it, they're feasting here," one of the team, Winn Scutt from English Heritage,told BBC News.

So the elite probably lived here, but why do people think it could be King Arthur?

Well, first thing’s first: the legend of King Arthur is exactly that - a legend. Despite the fact that the mythological figure has been wildly popular for centuries, no one’s actually been able to prove he existed.

But what makes Arthur so intriguing is the way we can tie certain historical places and events to him. If we look at the original source of the Arthur legend, the author points to a fortress at the same site as the recently unearthed palace complex as being Arthur's birthplace.

"Geoffrey of Monmouth, a 12th century Welsh cleric, recorded one of the first detailed written accounts of King Arthur's life in his Historia Regum Britanniae(History of the Kings of Britain), likely taken from earlier oral traditions. 

In Geoffrey's account, completed around 1136, King Arthur was conceived in the 5th century in a fortress at Tintagel that had fallen into ruin by Geoffrey's time. The ruins of a castle that was completed about a century after Geoffrey lived still stand near the dig site where the Dark Ages buildings were discovered."

Geoffrey’s account is also the origin of famous details of Arthur’s life, including his friendship with the wizard Merlin, and when he pulled a sword from a stone.

To make things even more interesting, a slate engraved with "Artognou", Latin for the English name Arthnou, was uncovered at the site back in 1998.

The myth of King Arthur states that during the 5th or 6th century, he managed to unite the Britons so they could fight off the invading Anglo-Saxons and bring about the peaceful age of Camelot.

Historians generally agree that these events did actually happen, but whether or not a king named Arthur orchestrated them has yet to be proven. Although the legend states that he won some 12 battles against the Anglo-Saxons, his name does not appear anywhere in the only surviving contemporary history of the invasion.

As Bennett explains, "Skeptics will ... point to the fact that Geoffrey was writing some 600 years after King Arthur's alleged death, suggesting that the myth of Arthur was likely patched together from the lives of many historical rulers."

The excavation of Tintagel, upon which still stands a medieval castle that was built almost 100 years after the recently uncovered fortress, will continue, and the results of the excavation will be published in the coming years.Maybe we'll find something concrete to tie it to the Arthur, but until then, the legend remains a legend.

Science Alert. 2016. “Archaeologists have uncovered a massive palace at the legendary birthplace of King Arthur”. Science Alert. Posted: Available online:

Monday, September 19, 2016

Tracking down the first chefs

A study led by Antonio J. Romero at the UPV/EHU's Department of Geography, History and Archaeology and published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports has shown that human bites on bones have distinctive features allowing them to be differentiated from bites made by other animals, and that cooking the meat in advance influences the appearance of these marks. This study provides valuable conclusions for analyzing food remains found on sites.

Archaeological sites speak about the everyday lives of people in other times. Yet knowing how to interpret this reality is not straightforward. We know that Palaeolithic societies lived on hunting and gathering, but the bones found in prehistoric settlements are not always food remnants of the societies that lived there—or at least not exclusively. Many Paleolithic people were nomads and were constantly on the move across their territory. Thus, other predators such as hyenas or wolves, which survived on food remains left by humans, would be a common occurrence. Carnivores could even have sheltered in caves abandoned by Prehistoric peoples, raised their offspring, and left behind the remnants of the animals they caught and ate, leaving teeth marks on bones.

So it is very difficult to identify, for example, a roasted shoulder of mouflon eaten several thousand years ago from a few bone fragments remaining today. To be able to identify cases like this one, a novel way is to analyse the marks that humans make on bones when eating meat today.

In this respect, the researcher at the UPV/EHU's Department of Geography, Prehistory and Archaeology of the Faculty of Arts Antonio J. Romero has led a study in which 90 lamb bones —phalanges, radii and scapulae— were examined and the meat of which was consumed by 10 volunteers using only hands and teeth. To control the variables resulting from the processing of the food beforehand, a third of the sample was eaten raw, another third roasted and the rest boiled.

What did they eat and how?

The results, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, show that over half of the bones bore the marks of human bites, teeth marks as well as fractures caused by chewing. These marks, analysed under a binocular magnifying glass, have a set of characteristics (size and morphology) that allows them to be differentiated from those produced by other animals. Furthermore, as Romero explained, "although the men produced more marks than the women, according to these data, it is not possible as yet to differentiate between them." On the other hand, cooking the meat beforehand affects the appearance of marks: "the teeth marks tend to appear more regularly in the roasted or boiled specimens," says Romero, "while the damage on the tips, edges and crushing tends to be more usual in the bones eaten raw."

"There are similar studies that have explored in depth the damage caused by animals on bones when feeding, but not dealing with the marks that we humans leave behind," he says. Studies of this type have a clear application in the analysis of archaeological remains, in particular for historical eras. So in each case, a whole set of characteristics is studied, such as the location of the damage left on the bones, its morphology and dimensions, which is not always easy to apply to the archaeological record, but "together with other prints of human activity that are more reliable, such as the marks of stone knives, etc., it is possible to complete the interpretation," he insisted. This research constitutes a real breakthrough in the possibility of finding out what kinds of meat foods hominids consumed and in what circumstances (whether or not they cooked the meat before they ate it). "It allows us to find out more about human beings in the past and the origin of our modern behaviour, about the way we process foods (cooking them or not) and about our way of eating," he concluded.

2016. “Tracking down the first chefs”. Posted: August 3, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Famous Shipwreck in Canada Finally Floats Again

Norwegians have spent 6 years recovering Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen's ship

For six years, a small team of Norwegians has worked tirelessly to recover a famous shipwreck in the remote hamlet of Cambridge Bay in Nunavut, a northern territory of Canada—and as of Saturday, they were finally able to lift it off the ocean floor thanks in large part to giant sausage-shaped balloons. "This is a milestone," Jan Wanggaard, project manager for the Norway-based organization Maud Returns Home, tells the CBC. "To actually see her releasing from the seabed—it's a great experience." He says he was in the water inflating one of the balloons when it first lifted off the seabed and the water became dusty. "I thought, 'Ah, that's a bit strange,'" he says. "I came to the surface and I saw my friend with a big smile."

The Maud belonged to Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen, who failed to cross the North Pole between 1918 and 1920, then went bankrupt and sold the ship to the Hudson Bay Company. From there, it was put to use as a floating warehouse before sinking off Cambridge Bay in 1930. Wanggaard hopes to return the Maud to Norway, where Amundsen remains a national hero, before cleaning it up and putting it on display, reports Nunatsiaq Online. For now, the team plans to fully lift the nearly 600,000-pound vessel by sinking a barge beneath the Maud, draining the barge's water tanks to make it float, and bringing it safely to the surface on the barge, giving it a chance to dry out over the winter before a return trip home. "If you were a kid, I’m sure you would love [the challenge]," Wanggaard says.

Armstrong, Elizabeth. 2016. “Famous Shipwreck in Canada Finally Floats Again”. Newser. Posted: August 2, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Population boom preceded early farming

University of Utah anthropologists counted the number of carbon-dated artifacts at archaeological sites and concluded that a population boom and scarce food explain why people in eastern North America domesticated plants for the first time on the continent about 5,000 years ago.

"Domesticated plants and animals are part of our everyday lives, so much so that we take them for granted," says Brian Codding, senior author of the study published online August 2 by the British journal Royal Society Open Science. "But they represent a very unique thing in human history. They allowed for large numbers of people to live in one place. That ultimately set the stage for the emergence of civilization."

Graduate student Elic Weitzel, the study's first author, adds: "For most of human history, people lived off wild foods - whatever they could hunt or gather. It's only relatively recently that people made this switch to a very different method of acquiring their food. It's important to understand why that transition happened."

The study dealt not with a full-fledged agricultural economy, but with the earlier step of domestication, when early people in eastern North America first started growing plants they had harvested in the wild, namely, squash, sunflower, marshelder and a chenopod named pitseed goosefoot, a pseudocereal grain closely related to quinoa.

Codding, an assistant professor of anthropology, says at least 11 plant domestication events have been identified in world history, starting with wheat about 11,500 years ago in the Middle East. The eastern North American plant domestication event, which began around 5,000 years ago, was the ninth of those 11 events and came after a population boom 6,900 to 5,200 years ago, he adds.

For many years, two competing theories have sought to explain the cause of plant domestication in eastern North America: First, population growth and resulting food scarcity prompted people to grow foods on which they already foraged. Second, a theory called "niche construction" or "ecosystem engineering" that basically says intentional experimentation and management during times of plenty - and not immediate necessity - led people to manage and manipulate wild plants to increase their food supply.

"We argue that human populations significantly increased prior to plant domestication in eastern North America, suggesting that people are driven to domestication when populations outstrip the supply of wild foods," Weitzel says.

"The transition to domesticating food allowed human populations to increase drastically around the world and made our modern way of life possible," he adds. "People start living near the fields. Whenever you've got sedentary communities, they start to expand. Villages expand into cities. Once you have that, you have all sorts of social changes. We really don't see state-level society until domestication occurs."

When early North Americans first domesticated crops

The region of eastern North America covered by the study includes most of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Arkansas, and portions of Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Louisiana.

"This is the region where these plant foods were domesticated from their wild variants," Weitzel says. "Everywhere else in North America, crops were imported from elsewhere," particularly Mexico and Central America.

Four indigenous plant species constitute what scientists call the Eastern Agricultural Complex, which people began to domesticate about 5,000 years ago.

Previous research shows specific domestication dates were 5,025 years ago for squash at an archaeological site named Phillips Spring in Missouri, 4,840 years ago for sunflower seeds domesticated at Hayes in Tennessee, 4,400 years ago for marshelder at the Napoleon Hollow site in Illinois, and 3,800 years ago for pitseed goosefoot found in large quantities at Riverton, Illinois, along with squash, sunflower and marshelder.

Three more recent sites also have been found to contain evidence of domestication of all four species: Kentucky's Cloudsplitter and Newt Kindigenash rockshelters, dated to 3,700 and 3,640 years ago, respectively, and the 3,400-year-old Marble Bluff site in Arkansas.

Sunflower and squash - including acorn and green and yellow summer squashes - remain important crops today, while marshelder and pitseed goosefoot are not (although the related quinoa is popular).

Deducing population swings from radiocarbon dates

"It's really difficult to arrive at measures of prehistoric populations. So archaeologists have struggled for a long time coming up with some way of quantifying population levels when we don't have historical records," Weitzel says.

"People have looked at the number of sites through time, the number of artifacts through time and some of the best work has looked at the effects of population growth," such as in the switch from a diet of tortoises to rabbits as population grew in the eastern Mediterranean during the past 50,000 years, he adds.

Codding says that in the past decade, archaeologists have expanded the use of radiocarbon-dates for artifacts to reconstruct prehistoric population histories. Weitzel says radiocarbon dates in the new study came from artifacts such as charcoal, nutshells and animal bones - all recorded in a database maintained by Canadian scientists.

The University of Utah anthropologists used these "summed radiocarbon dates" for 3,750 dated artifacts from eastern North America during the past 15,000 years.

"The assumption is that if you had more people, they left more stuff around that could be dated," Weitzel says. "So if you have more people, you conceivably should have more radiocarbon dates."

"We plotted the dates through time," namely, the number of radiocarbon dates from artifacts in every 100-year period for the past 15,000 years, he adds.

The analysis indicated six periods of significant population increase or decrease during that time, including one during which population nearly doubled in eastern North America starting about 6,900 years ago and continuing apace until 5,200 years ago - not long before plant domestication began, Codding says.

Codding notes that even though plant domestication meant "these people were producing food to feed themselves and their families, they're still hunting and foraging," eating turtles, fish, water fowl and deer, among other animals.

The other theory

Weitzel says the concept of niche construction is that people were harvesting wild plants, and "were able to get more food from certain plants." By manipulating the environment - such as transplanting wild plants or setting fires to create areas favorable for growth of wild food plants - they began "experimenting with these plants to see if they could grow them to be bigger or easier to collect and consume," he adds. "That kind of experimentation then leads to domestication."

Codding says: "The idea is that when times are good and people have plenty of food then they will experiment with plants. We say that doesn't provide an explanation for plant domestication in eastern North America." He believes the behavioral ecology explanation: increasing population and-or decreasing wild food resources led to plant domestication.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Population boom preceded early farming”. EurekAlert. Posted: August 2, 2016. Available online:

Friday, September 16, 2016

The geologist who wanted to understand the Sami

While his scientific contemporaries were exhuming skulls from Sami graves to measure them, the Finnish geologist and amateur anthropologist Väinö Tanner tried to see the Skolt Sami through their own eyes.

A century ago, a Finnish geologist named Väinö Tanner was appointed by the government to explore the country’s northern reaches. Along the way, he gave himself a not-so-typical task: as he explored Lapland, he decided, he would try to understand its people, the Sami, as they understood themselves.

Today we would think nothing of this approach. But around the turn of the last century, when field scientists dressed in knickers and double-breasted jackets and used skull measurements as a way to classify different races, Tanner’s approach was positively radical.

“He was one of the first researchers who tried to understand Sami communities based on their own terms,” says historian Jukka Nyyssönen.

Nyyssönen is an associate professor at UiT the Arctic University of Norway, and is writing a book about Tanner. The Tromsø Museum has a large Tanner archive, including books, letters and photographs, along with other researchers’ descriptions of him.

Geologist and anthropologist

He was a contradictory man, Väinö Tanner. Educated as a geologist, self-appointed as an anthropologist. Concerned about race and simultaneously acting as a cheerleader for the Sami. A dilettante and yet deeply scientific.

“He managed to get the Sami to speak up, but it appears he lacked the people skills to have any lifelong friendships,” says Nyyssönen.

Born in 1881, the young Tanner built his research career at the time when researchers were in the midst of exploring the indigenous people of the northern regions.

It was a little by chance that Tanner came to be one of the researchers who knew the Skolt Sami the best.

Between 1924 and 1931 he was the state geologist in Pechenga, a Russian region in Pasvikdalen near Kirkenes that belonged to Finland at the time. His real job was supposed to be mapping bedrock and soils with an eye to exploiting mineral resources in the area.

But he had previously been head of two reindeer commissions in other Sami areas, which fueled his interest in the Sami way of life.

Twenty-five summers with the Sami

Much like other scientists of his day, he collected information about the Sami once he was in Pechenga. In this unfamiliar landscape he hired Eastern Sami as helpers, and reportedly discovered that the population was not nearly as drunken and degenerate as it had been portrayed —at least according to an online exhibit from the Finnmark County Library.

In total, he spent 25 summers among the Skolt Sami, or Eastern Sami as they are often called today.

This group has traditionally lived in the border areas between Norway, Finland and Russia. It has its own language and a culture that differs from the North Sami. The Eastern Sami use the Cyrillic alphabet and belong to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Today, this group of indigenous people is almost gone. There are about 600 Eastern Sami in Finland and 250 in Russia. In Norway there are very few left, possibly just 150, according to the Finnmark County Library exhibit.

Racial research

In the early 1900s, some researchers were more interested in measuring the body parts of indigenous people than learning about their way of life.

Race researchers measured the shape of skulls and used these measurements to come to conclusions about how intelligent or developed different ethnic groups were.

Skolt Lapps were considered to be at the bottom of the ladder.

One legacy of this research is a large collection of skulls that for many years was housed at the University of Oslo. Researchers removed the skulls from Sami graves in the service of racial research at the turn of the last century. They were finally reinterred in 2011, at the request of the Orthodox Church in Norway.

Tanner, in contrast, came home from his time in northern Finland with an elaborate description of Sami Siida system, which regulates everything from homes and families’ right to fishing grounds to legal disputes. He saw this system as the Sami’s rational adaptation to their natural environment.

Children of nature

Tanner was nevertheless a man of his time, a time when the Sami were seen as inferior to Finns and Norwegians.

His accounts of the Sami reflected some of that feeling. On the one hand he argued in support of their way of life, while on the other hand he would also correct his own informants.

He, the expert, would admonish these children of nature about how they should live. He thought they should be partially nomadic, and he prized reindeer husbandry, even though only a few Skolt Sami were reindeer herders, and herding was a fairly new occupation among the East Sami.

A comprehensive book still in use

But he was also occupied by racial differences, and his book about the Skolt Sami has descriptions of their physical characteristics.

Nevertheless, Tanner was not quite as bad as other scientists of his day, Nyyssönen says.

“Unlike others, he did not believe that race decided a person’s place in the world forever. He believed that Skolt Sami had the opportunity to improve themselves,” Nyyssönen said.

While Tanner’s efforts were not widely acclaimed by his peers, later academics recognized the value of Tanner’s work among the Sami. Despite some questionable theories and a little messy presentation, Tanner’s book, “Antropogeografiska studier inom Petsamoområdet: 1. Skoltlapparna” provides among the most comprehensive overviews of Skolt Sami traditions.

His book, published in 1929, is still read today.

Bazilchuk, Nancy. 2016. “The geologist who wanted to understand the Sami”. Science Nordic. Posted: August 1, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, September 15, 2016

More than scenery: National parks preserve our history and culture

On August 25, 2016, the National Park Service (NPS) will celebrate its 100th birthday. But what’s a party without people? In fact, while many Americans think of national parks as places to experience nature, they also preserve unique resources that tell stories about the everyday lives of people and their American journeys.

Along with protecting natural wonders, such as Yellowstone National Park’s geysers, the National Park Service is charged with preserving cultural resources that are relevant to living communities. Many of the more than 400 sites in the national park system are repositories of history and heritages of people and communities – some well-known, others underrepresented – that shape the national dialog. Particularly in recent decades, NPS has worked to showcase a diverse range of human stories that help us understand our nation’s past and present.

Today NPS' role in cultural heritage preservation – collecting and interpreting stories about people and the many ways they inhabit places – is more important than ever. These stories help us to see our similarities and better understand our differences as a society. And this work helps NPS tell a national story of relevance and significance to all.

Telling diverse stories

Our national park system includes many of our nation’s most important and, in some cases, most contested cultural sites and resources. Examples include Historic Jamestowne, where English colonization of North America began; the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, which commemorates the forcible removal of the Cherokee people from Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee; the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, which honors Tubman’s heroic work leading enslaved people to freedom; and the Manzanar National Historic Site, one of 10 camps where Japanese-American citizens were interned during World War II.

Most recently, on June 24, 2016, President Obama designated the area around the Stonewall Inn in New York City, where protests sparked the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in 1969, as a national monument.

Each of these sites links our nation’s past and present in challenging and enriching ways. As a cultural anthropologist, I work with the National Park Service to involve underrepresented communities in interpretations of place and to ensure that our park system embraces and reflects diverse experiences.

This work is not just about written history and preserving the past. The National Park Service’s Ethnography Program, created in 1981, focuses on “living people linked to the parks by religion, legend, deep historical attachment, subsistence use, or other aspects of their culture.” Through consultation and research, the program works to ensure that voices and practices of these communities are heard and taken into account in decision making and administration of National Park Service sites.

Conserving objects and experiences

For example, in 2010 I conducted research in rural southeast Georgia with students from the University of South Florida (USF) focusing on the community of Archery. Our study documented Archery’s roles as the boyhood home of former President Jimmy Carter and home of Bishop William Decker Johnson (1867-1936), who was a prominent preacher, educator and founder of the Johnson Home Industrial College, which started in 1912 in Archery as a school for black youth. Archery is also the site of the St. Mark African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, Johnson’s home congregation. St. Mark represents the heart of the historically African-American community that constituted the majority of Archery during President Carter’s boyhood.

We used tools and methods that encouraged participation and enabled people to share their stories. This included conducting interviews and collecting oral histories from former residents of Archery, including President Carter. In addition, we participated in community events like the annual May Day festival and visited with people in their homes, businesses and churches.

We documented stories about farming, fishing, segregated schooling and special events like family reunions, baseball games and train rides. And we linked these stories with material culture findings, such as photographs, remains of old buildings, abandoned wells and gravesites, and with places such as train depots, baseball fields, ponds, pecan groves and pine tree stands. Together they tell a story about a small community in rural Georgia that has national significance.

Our team also translated some of the stories and information collected into maps, posters and other visual and digitally accessible products in order to showcase the community of Archery to people who were unfamiliar with its history and heritage. For example, with the help of community elders, we surveyed the St. Mark A.M.E. Church cemetery and identified nearly 200 graves, some of which had previously gone unmarked. We created a detailed map of the cemetery with associated names, and a geographic information system (GIS) database that digitally displays information listed on each grave marker and shows a picture of each gravesite.

As Archery continues to work on preserving its past and securing its future, preservation and management of the cemetery should remain a key goal. It is an integral part of the Archery community. For example, it allows us to see multigenerational connections and extended family histories and reflect on them, such as those of Zenobia Wakefield, (1867-1962), midwife and member of a founding family of the community, and Bishop William Decker Johnson. The cemetery links the past to the present in tangible and intangible ways.

Our cemetery mapping work, ethnographic interviews and other community engagement activities pursued as part of this project demonstrate the power of incorporating community knowledge into cultural resource management and heritage preservation initiatives. The National Park Service cited our ethnohistory study of Archery in its 2015 Call to Action plan, which pledges that in its second century, the park system will “fully represent our nation’s ethnically and culturally diverse communities” and help communities protect places and objects that are special to them.

Our Archery community project materials are archived at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains, Georgia and are on display at the St. Mark A.M.E. Church. Our maps and posters can also be accessed via the USF Heritage Research Lab.

What places can tell us

As our work in Archery shows, we can find unique and precious connections to our past in seemingly unassuming places. In his book “Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache” (1996), anthropologist Keith Basso captures what places can mean to people and how people help us know places. Basso writes that:

“places possess a marked capacity for triggering acts of self-reflection, inspiring thoughts about who one presently is, or memories of who one used to be, or musings on who one might become. And that is not all. Place-based thoughts about the self lead commonly to thoughts of other things - other places, other people, other times, whole networks of associations.”

Wisdom does sit in places, and in stories people tell about those places, and the lives people live in those places. Perhaps we should reconsider the artificial lines that we often draw between natural and cultural resources, between tangible and intangible cultural resources and between historic resources in museums and the knowledge we can find within communities, families and their lived experiences.

The national park system provides a window into stories about places, people and experiences. This makes it, and NPS' cultural resources and heritage preservation programs – particularly those focused on engaging living communities – invaluable assets for educating future generations. We can learn as much about our American journey from people such as Bishop William Decker Johnson and communities such Archery as we can from experiencing the Grand Canyon or the mountains of Yosemite.

Jackson, Antoinette. 2016. “More than scenery: National parks preserve our history and culture”. The Conversation. Posted: July 29, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How To Use Ethnographic Research To Help Your Business

As the president and CEO of a company that produces software-enabled solutions for other businesses, one of my biggest goals is to design products that create a compelling user experience. One strategy that I’ve found vital to achieve this goal, to which I directly attribute my company’s success, is the use of ethnographic research.

Stemming from anthropology, ethnographic research is the study of a something — in this case a business — in its own environment. My company uses it to meet with clients face-to-face and observe them in their normal environment. This allows us to view the real relationships between the business and its own clients, and as a byproduct, what the products or services they’re providing need to succeed.

Ethnographic research is without a doubt the largest part of achieving our user experience (UX) goals. However, it also can work for other types of businesses, whether you’re selling software like us, doing digital marketing, or offering a product like baby clothes.

How Ethnographic Research Can Help Your Business

My company UM Technologies is not the pioneer of this strategy. As Intel Research’s anthropologist Ken Anderson said, when he summed up the use of ethnographic research inHarvard Business Review, “Our goal is to see people’s behavior on their terms, not ours. While this observational method may appear inefficient, it enlightens us about the context in which customers would use a new product and the meaning that product might hold in their lives.”

An example of this in action: My firm completed work for a utility company’s platform in a market that had no existing systems to model from. We based our initial design on user observation and modified this based on user feedback about what features were important to them for running the business. The result was a focus on triggering alarms when things went wrong, without the need to review when things ran properly. Without having observed its natural business environment, we would not have been able to know what the company needed or been able to build a design tailored to the business.

We’ve found ethnographic research when seeking UX solutions powerful, and so can you. The following are important guidelines for incorporating this type of research into your business plan.

Pinpoint The Actual Needs Of The Business

By viewing a company’s business-client relationships in real time, the actual needs of the business can surface — not just the wants. Sometimes, too much energy is placed on a business’s wants instead of what product or services their customers actually need.

Wants are usually addressed during conferences or internal meetings — this could be the idea of improving the product, which is mostly based on customer interactions. To find the real needs of the business, observe how their customers react to the business — either by watching the sales people or client services staff. The real needs of the customer, and consequently the business, will emerge.

For us, viewing the utility company it in its natural environment helped us figure out what they actually needed — rather than what they said they wanted.

Understand The True Client

Businesses spend a lot of energy trying to understand what they perceive are the optimal clients. Although you can learn from objective data, nothing pushes along the client discovery process more than observing a customer talking with a client services person.

When observing the client service employees at the utility company, we quickly realized that some were not asking a few basic protocol discovery questions. Discovering this not only helped the utility company itself, but a few answers to these missing questions helped us improve the software we eventually developed.

A business can learn a lot during this observation — a core tenant of ethnographic research — and the lessons are absorbed more quickly than time-consuming, data-based studies.

Predict Design Through A Business’s Natural Flow

The most important takeaway of ethnographic research is its ability to predict future design elements of your product or services model, or the entire business itself. As you observe the reaction of a client and business in real time, you’ll also observe trends that are naturally developing within the industry.

If you can recognize these movements quickly, it will help you freshen your product or services and give you a jump on the competition.

The most successful and sustainable businesses have deep thinkers throughout their organization, ones who master both long-term strategy and everyday tactics. Using ethnographic research as part of this can help you stay ahead of the competition and create a truly valuable product or service.

Stiner, Scott. 2016. “How To Use Ethnographic Research To Help Your Business”. Forbes. Posted: June 1, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Cooperation emerges when groups are small and memories are long, Penn study finds

The tragedy of the commons, a concept described by ecologist Garrett Hardin, paints a grim view of human nature. The theory goes that, if a resource is shared, individuals will act in their own self-interest, but against the interest of the group, by depleting that resource.

Yet examples of cooperation and sharing abound in nature, from human societies down to single-celled bacteria.

In a new paper, published in the journal Scientific Reports, University of Pennsylvania researchers use game theory to demonstrate the complex set of traits that can promote the evolution of cooperation. Their analysis showed that smaller groups in which actors had longer memories of their fellow group members' actions were more likely to evolve cooperative strategies.

The work suggests one possible advantage of the human's powerful memory capacity: it has fed our ability as a society to cooperate.

"In the past we've looked at the interactions of two players to determine the most robust evolutionary strategies," said Joshua B. Plotkin, a professor in Penn's Department of Biology in the School of Arts & Sciences. "Our new analysis allows for scenarios in which players can react to the behaviors and strategies of multiple other players at once. It gives us a picture of a much richer set of social interactions, a picture that is likely more representative of the complexities of human behavior."

Plotkin collaborated with Alexander J. Stewart, then his postdoctoral researcher and now a Royal Society research fellow at University College London, on the work, which builds on years of game theory examinations by the pair.

In their earlier works, they used the Iterated Prisoner's Dilemma scenario, in which two players face off and can choose to either cooperate or not, to understand what circumstances promote the rise of generosity versus selfishness.

In the new paper, they added two levels of complexity. First, they used a different scenario, known as a public-goods game, which allows players to interact with more than one other player at a time. The set-up also enabled the researchers to vary the number of players in a given game. In the public-goods game, a player can contribute a certain amount of a personal resource to a public pool, which is then divided equally among all players. The greatest shared benefit comes when all players contribute generously, but that also puts generous players at risk of losing resources to selfish players, a tragedy of the commons scenario.

The second added level of complexity was imbuing players with the capacity for long memories. That is, players could use the actions of their opponents from multiple earlier rounds of the game to inform their strategies for subsequent rounds. If a player repeatedly encountered a player in a group that frequently behaved selfishly, for example, they may be more likely to "punish" that defector by withholding resources in future rounds.

In addition, the populations of players were permitted to "evolve," such that more successful players, those that achieve greater payoffs, are more likely to pass their strategies on to the next generation of players.

Stewart and Plotkin found that the more players in a game the less likely that cooperative strategies could win out. Instead, the majority of robust strategies in large groups favored defection.

"This makes intuitive sense," Plotkin said. "As a group size increases, the prospects for sustained cooperation go down. The temptation to defect and become a freeloader goes up."

Conversely, their findings showed that giving players a longer memory, the ability to remember and base decisions on as many as 10 previous rounds of their opponents' actions, led to a greater relative volume of robust cooperative strategies. Part of the reason for this, the researchers said, was because greater memories allowed players to develop a broader array of more nuanced strategies, including ones that could punish individuals for defecting strategies and ensure they didn't take over the population

"A stronger memory allowed players to weed out the rare defector," Plotkin said.

In a final set of experiments, Stewart and Plotkin used computer simulations that allowed the memory capacity of players to evolve alongside the strategies themselves. They found that not only were longer memories favored, but the evolution of longer memories led to an increase in cooperation.

"I think a fascinating takeaway from our study," Stewart said, "is that you can get a set of circumstances where there is a kind of runaway feedback loop. Longer memories promote more cooperation and more cooperation promotes longer memories. That kind of situation, where you go from a simpler system to one that is more complex, is a great example of what evolution does, it leads to more and more complexity."

As a next step, Stewart and Plotkin would like to use human subjects to evaluate their mathematical findings.

"We have all these results about what kinds of strategies are successful that take into account different features of players' actions," Stewart said. "We'd like to run an experiment with people to figure out what they are actually paying attention to when they're playing. Is it their payoffs? Is it their opponents' payoffs? And see how those strategies match up to those we see in our analyses."

EurekAlert. 2016. “Cooperation emerges when groups are small and memories are long, Penn study finds”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 1, 2016. Available online:

Monday, September 12, 2016

Tutankhamun dagger likely made from meteoric iron: study

Scientific analysis of one Tutankhamun's 3,300-year-old daggers found buried with him "strongly supports" a theory it was made of meteoric iron, according to a new study.

"Our study confirms that ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of precious objects," said the Italian and Egyptian scientists who performed X-ray analysis of the dagger, which took place at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Tutankhamun died aged 19 in 1324 BC after just nine years on the throne.

His tomb, discovered in 1922 by British Egyptologist Howard Carter, contained artefacts including an 11-kilo (24-pound) gold mask that revived global public interest in Egyptology.

Carter found the dagger on Tutankhamun's right thigh in the wrapping of his mummy, according to the authors of the study. Along with its iron blade, the dagger's fine gold handle "is decorated with cloisonne and granulation work, and ends with a pommel of rock crystal," they said.

The findings match a 2013 scan of a 5,000-year-old cemetery in the Lower Egyptian village of El-Gerzeh which showed the earliest iron artefacts ever found were made from a meteorite, according to a paper published May 20 in the Meteoritics & Planetary Science journal.

As a result, "we suggest that ancient Egyptians attributed great value to meteoritic iron for the production of fine ornamental or ceremonial objects," said the scientists behind the latest study.

The dagger's quality "suggests a significant mastery of ironworking in Tutankhamun's time," said the study.

In addition, a new term used in the 19th dynasty, one dynasty following Akhenaten's, translated literally as "iron of the sky," and was used to describe "all types of iron," according to the study.

"The introduction of the new composite term suggests that the ancient Egyptians... were aware that these rare chunks of iron fell from the sky," said the authors of the study.

Mahmoud el-Halwagy, a former director of the Egyptian Museum who took part in the study, said he was unable to confirm whether ancient Egyptians clearly knew that this iron came from a meteor.

"We don't want to go to other angles, to symbolic or religious issues. These were rocks that were available and were used by humans," said Halwagy.

"Whether they had symbolic or religious uses, this is not unlikely. He was a king and royalty held a high status."

Other iron ancient artefacts in other parts of the world have been identified scientifically to be of meteoritic origin, the scientists said.

These included iron tools made by Inuits in Greenland, the ancient "Iron Man" Buddhist sculpture, and two funerary bracelets and an axe excavated in two different Polish archaeological sites.
Reference: 2016. “Tutankhamun dagger likely made from meteoric iron: study”. Posted: June 2, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Regional dialects are dying out – it’s enough to get you blarting

Britons are increasingly speaking like southern Englanders, according to an app produced by Cambridge University. Here’s a guide to some bostin’ words and phrases at risk of extinction

Never mind whether you take it with jam or cream, does your “scone” rhyme with “gone” or “stone”? Chances are, it’s the former. Basically the “stone” pronunciation of scone is almost gone. Still with me?

According to the first set of results from an app mapping changes in English dialects launched in January by the University of Cambridge, regional accents are dying out. The English Dialects app, downloaded 70,000 times already, has generated data from 30,000 users across 4,000 locations.

And the results reveal Britons from the West Country to the north-east are increasingly speaking like southerners. In essence, the app draws a modern picture of a land of identikit scones and ‘arms’ lopped of their resounding ‘r’s in which a pesky piece of wood caught beneath the skin is no longer known as a spool, spile, speel, spell, spelk, shiver, spill, sliver, or splint, depending on where you are from, but simply a boring old splinter. It’s enough to get you blarting. Or crying, as it’s now more commonly known.

So in tribute to the dying art of talking like your ancestors, instead of the members of the Tory cabinet, here is a guide to a few words from around the UK that we don’t want to go south.

’Anging:disgusting (Manchester).
That chip butty was ’anging.

Antwacky:old fashioned, out of date (Liverpool).
Our kid’s new place is dead antwacky.

Backend:autumn (north), from the phrase ‘the back end of the year’.
We’re waiting until backend to go away this year.

Bishy barnabee:a ladybird (Norfolk), thought to refer to Bishop
Bonner, known as bloody Bonner for his persecution of heretics in the sixteenth century.
I hoolly blundered over in the rud when I saw that bishy barnabee.

Blart:crying (Black Country, Birmingham), from the bleating of sheep.
He’s blarting again because Aston Villa lost.

Bostin’:amazing, brilliant, excellent (Black Country, Birmingham).
Bost is slang for broken and thus bostin’ comes from ‘smashing’.
Bostin’ fittle! (Great food!).

Dibble:the police, derived from Officer Dibble in the cartoon Top Cat(Manchester).
We best get off, the dibble are coming…

Donny:hand (Birmingham, Black Country).
Wash your donnies before tea, bab.

Fettling:to give something a good old clean, mend or repair (Yorkshire, Northumberland) but also denotes a person’s (generally bad) mood(Northumberland, Cumbria).
What’s yer fettle marra?

Ginnel:alley (Manchester, Yorkshire), though in some parts gennel is preferred. Also known as snicket in the north-west, a twitchel in the East Midlands, and a chare in Newcastle.
He couldn’t stop a pig in a ginnel.

Nesh:unusually susceptible to cold weather (Midlands, north) and also timid, weedy, or cowardly.
Stop being a nesh git, it’s not even snowing.

Netty: toilet (Newcastle).
Where’s ya netty, hinny? I’m bustin’.

Paggered:exhausted (Newcastle, Cumbria) but pagger is also to fight.
Am awer paggered to pagger.

Yampy:daft, mad or losing the plot (various).
My iPhone’s gone totally yampy.

Ramaswamy, Chitra. 2016. “Regional dialects are dying out – it’s enough to get you blarting”. The Guardian. Posted: May 30, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Mysterious Markings May Hold Clues to Origin of Writing

Geometric signs on cave walls and ancient artifacts may be some of humanity’s earliest graphic communications. 

For decades, archaeologists have pored over the spectacular images of stampeding horses and charging bison left by Ice Age artists on European cave walls more than 10,000 years ago. But few researchers have paid much attention to the simple geometric signs that often accompany the art. Unable to interpret or decipher these markings, many archaeologists dismissed them as mere decorations.

Now, paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger, a Ph.D. student at the University of Victoria in Canada and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, has conducted a new study of the signs, gleaning fresh clues to their purpose. In a forthcoming book entitled The First Signs, von Petzinger reports that Ice Age Europeans used just 32 distinct types of geometric symbols over a period of 30,000 years, suggesting that the markings were “meant to transmit information”—an early step on humanity’s long road to developing writing.

Von Petzinger, the granddaughter of a World War II codebreaker at Bletchley Park in England, began her study nearly a decade ago. “I was interested in finding patterns in the signs across time and space,” she says. France’s well-dated Ice Age rock art sites seemed the best place to start, so she combed through inventories of the cave paintings and engravings for records of geometric signs. Then she classified the markings by type, entered them in a relational database, and looked for patterns in the data. 

The preliminary findings took her by surprise. She thought that the Ice Age artists would begin with just a few sign types and gradually add more symbols to their repertoire over time—a trend towards complexity that other researchers observed in the development of tools. But that didn’t happen in France. Instead, the Canadian researcher found that nearly three-quarters of the sign types were already in use during the Aurignacian period, which lasted from 40,000 to 28,000 years ago. This early complexity didn’t look like the start of a tradition. It suggested instead that the signs’ origins lay somewhere else.

Intrigued, von Petzinger expanded her study to all of Europe, scouring reports of 367 Upper Paleolithic rock art sites from northern Spain to the Ural Mountains in Russia. In addition, she looked for mentions of markings on portable art, such as a deer-tooth necklace found in the grave of an Ice Age woman known as the Lady of St. Germaine-la-Rivière.

Two Weeks Underground

But many of the existing inventories lacked details von Petzinger needed to classify the symbols. So she journeyed to Europe with her photographer-husband Dillon von Petzinger to record signs in 52 rarely visited caves. “We spent the equivalent of two weeks underground,” she says. In the process the pair discovered several previously unnoticed signs.

The resulting study was an eye-opener: She found just 32 types of signs in use across the entire continent during the Upper Paleolithic period. “For there to be this much continuity between sites, I realized that our ancient ancestors had to have a system in place,” she writes. Moreover, the early diversity of geometric signs she had discovered in France was repeated across Europe. This suggested that modern humans had invented these signs long before they arrived in Europe—mostly likely in their African homeland.

But what exactly was the point of the markings? At a decorated cave known as La Pasiega in Spain, early cave-art researchers discovered a rare sequence of Ice Age signs painted about 12 feet (3.6 meters) above the floor. Arranged in three groups separated by spaces, the markings in La Pasiega resembled a short written message, prompting speculation that the signs formed an early writing system.

Von Petzinger, however, found little evidence to support that idea. By definition, a writing system, she notes, “is the systematic representation of spoken language.” Any idea or thought that a speaker can express verbally can be jotted down or inscribed. But Europe’s cave artists did not have a sufficient number of geometric signs, or did not combine them in the right way, to represent all the words that would have occurred in their language. “We don’t seem to have all the complexities to write a paragraph or a sonnet,” von Petzinger says.

Even so, the Ice Age signs were far from meaningless, she says. Some markings, such as the meandering lines that von Petzinger spotted at a site in Portugal’s Côa Valley region, may have been maplike representations of a river or other landscape features. Other signs, such as the lines inscribed on the deer-tooth necklace, could have served as memory aids for ceremonialists presiding over important rituals or recounting a tribe’s origin stories. Such markings, says von Petzinger, seem to be a way of storing information externally—a form of graphic communication that eventually led to writing.

Paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall, a curator emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, finds much value in the new study. “It’s really nice to see the abstract symbolism brought to the fore,” he says. “We have these wonderful animal images in caves like Chauvet and so forth, but that is just the tip of it. The symbolic stuff clearly had meaning.”

Other researchers think von Petzinger’s research will likely spur new interest in a neglected subject. “It will make people think about the signs all over again, and the extent of the record of signs will awaken people’s interest,” says Louise Leakey, a paleoanthropologist at the Turkana Basin Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.

Certainly von Petzinger would welcome more archaeologists in this field of research, as she’s convinced there is a lot to be learned. 

“I personally believe that without those first tentative steps [our distant ancestors] took into the world of graphic communication, the cognitive building blocks would not have been there for their descendants to create the writing systems we take for granted today,” she concludes in The First Signs.

Pringle, Heather. 2016. “Mysterious Markings May Hold Clues to Origin of Writing”. National Geographic News. Posted: May 29, 2016. Available online:

Friday, September 9, 2016

Archaeologists and geographers team to predict locations of ancient Buddhist sites

For archaeologists and historians interested in the ancient politics, religion and language of the Indian subcontinent, two UCLA professors and their student researchers have creatively pinpointed sites that are likely to yield valuable transcriptions of the proclamations of Ashoka, the Buddhist king of northern India's Mauryan Dynasty who ruled from 304 B.C. to 232 B.C. In a study published this week in Current Science, archaeologist Monica Smith and geographer Thomas Gillespie identified 121 possible locations of what are known as Ashoka's "edicts."

First they isolated shared features of 29 known locations of Ashokan edicts, which were found carved into natural rock formations in India, Pakistan and Afghanistan. They then harnessed species-distribution modeling tactics—which includes examining sophisticated geographic information systems datasets along with Google Earth images—to overlay those unique characteristics against a geological and population map of ancient India. They believe they have identified locations that hold the same characteristics as proven sites and are significantly accurate markers for future discovery.

Predictive modeling can be a powerful new tool for scholars and researchers, Smith said. The known edicts and other archaeological discoveries have previously come about through random discovery or comprehensive surveys of whole regions. "With the realities of looking for artifacts on a continental scale, we need more effective tools, and a search mechanism like predictive modeling is a high-priority development," said Smith, emphasizing that many nations are facing the challenge of balancing preservation with much-needed development.

The Ashoka monuments in particular are of huge importance, especially in India, Smith said. They constitute the earliest known writings in the region. The national symbol of the modern nation of India is a sculpture that dates to the time of King Ashoka. Ashoka's edicts are also considered to be internationally significant as evidence of the power of an ancient political regime and as tangible expressions of religious practices related to Buddhism.

An excerpt of Ashoka's edicts from Romila Thapar's "Ashoka and the Decline of the Mauryas."

"I consider that I must promote the welfare of the whole world, and hard work and the dispatch of business are the means of doing so. Indeed there is no better work than promoting the welfare of the whole world...For this purpose has this inscription of Dhamma (dharma, righteousness) been engraved. May it endure long."

Smith's fieldwork has long taken place on the Indian subcontinent. For this study, and with the support of a transdisciplinary seed grant from the UCLA Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, she partnered with Gillespie, whose expertise lies in determining the presence or absence of ecological and biological species in a given geography, with a special focus on the plants and trees native to Hawaii.

Gillespie, who has also visited India, said the project captured his imagination.

Gillespie and his team of UCLA doctoral candidates combed through data and images to check off a list of environmental consistencies in the known edict sites. Three factors in particular helped provide a reliable prediction of where more might be found—the specific kind of rock the text is carved in, the estimated population density of the area in A.D. 200-300 and the slope of the rock bearing the text.

"The models really give a high probability of occurrence in the sites we identified," Gillespie said. "Looking at the data of the existing sites, their placement certainly appears to be non-random. The scribes tasked with carving these edicts really seemed to think about the geology of the chosen space, the towns that were nearby, even the low level of the rock face they carved upon."

Gillespie and Smith hope that their predictive model will allow local students or teachers in India and Pakistan and Afghanistan to make the next discovery of Ashokan edicts.

Wolf, Jessica. 2016. “Archaeologists and geographers team to predict locations of ancient Buddhist sites”. Posted: May 27, 2016. Available online: