Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Humans spread around the world in a single wave of migration

The largest genetic study to date concludes that all humans alive today are descendants from a single wave of migration.

Anatomically modern humans arose in Africa around 200,000 years ago. Most scientists think that a small group left Africa between 50,000 to 100,000 years ago and colonised the rest of the planet.

But the question is, why did they wait so long and were there other migration waves?

A triad of studies by three international teams of scientists have now mapped the genetics of hundreds of genomes from people around the world and reached an answer.

They have mapped more human genetic variation than ever before and collectively, they conclude that all people alive today outside of Africa are the descendants of a single wave of migration that occurred less than 80,000 years ago.

One of the studies also found evidence for an earlier wave of migration more than 100,000 years ago, as a trace of ‘old’ DNA embedded within the genomes of Aboriginal people from Australia and the Philippines.

The discovery shows how deep and complex our shared history is and may even have included other, older, migrations for which no genetic evidence survives.

“The articles help to give us a qualified basis which is necessary to understand where we come from and to determine where we’re going,” says Professor Peter Kjærgaard, Director of the Danish Natural History Museum, Copenhagen. He was not involved in any of the new studies.

All three articles are published in the scientific journal Nature.

People’s long history written in DNA

The studies have collectively mapped 787 new genomes from more than 280 different populations.

They have covered as many different languages and cultural groups as possible, and included data from often overlooked aboriginal groups including Basques, Pygmies, Bedouins, Pima Indians, Sherpa, and Australian Aborigines.

Their results show that all non-African peoples today are descendants from early humans who left Africa in a single wave of migration.

Old African DNA embedded in chromosomes

But there are still nuances to the story.

“We find a small footprint--at least two per cent--of a previous migration in the genomes of people from Papua New Guinea,” says one of the co-authors Mait Metspalu, Director at the Estonian Biocentre, University of Tartu, Estonia.

This suggests that people from Papua New Guinea and the Negritos from the Philippines have an earlier split time than other non-African groups.

“If everyone alive today came out of Arica at the same time, then we should all have the same split-time,” says Metspalu.

The two per cent comes from an older population of humans who probably lived around 120,000 years ago.

Climate allowed people to migrate

In another new study, also published in Nature, a team of scientists investigated the timing of this migration. The scientists behind this study analysed climate data from around the world since the last ice age and produced models of how and when groups of people migrated, according to climate conditions, desertification, and primary productivity of the land.

They discovered pulses of migration at 100,000; 80,000; 55,000; and 37,000 years ago from humans moving in and out of Africa, through the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant.

These pulses coincide with 20,000-year-cycles in the Earth’s orbit, where the planet wobbles on its axis, causing changes in sunlight, monsoons, and desertification.

“It’s fascinating that astronomical effects have been such an important pace-maker of where and when Homo sapiens migrated,” says Axel Timmermann, co-author on one of the other new studies.

Small seemingly insignificant changes in the planet’s climate history could have had huge implications for the history of our species, says Kjærgaard.

“We might not even be here,” he says. “But we are here, and unlike other animals we have the tools to understand our own history and it’s consistency with other species, as well as our species’ deep dependence on the conditions for life that the world has given us.”

“This is where we are today in the science of human development. And this is where we stand today with the ability to make some crucial choices about our continued shared history in what we call the Anthropocene era,” says Kjærgaard.

Jakobsen, Rasmus Kragh. 2016. “Humans spread around the world in a single wave of migration”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Bragging as a strategy: What boasting buys, and costs, a candidate

Life is full of auditions in which it might seem advantageous, if not outright required, to describe oneself as above average. Think of job interviews, dating or running for president of the United States. A new study that measured how people judge those who made such boasts and those who didn't, however, showed that making self-superiority or self-effacement claims is a strategy with considerable complexity and risk, often requiring a person to know whether evidence of their true ability could come to light.

Probably the most intuitive result of the study is that there is a significant tradeoff, a "humility paradox," in which individuals who claim to be of above-average ability will be perceived as more competent, but sometimes less moral, than those who remain humble. And once actual evidence of ability comes into play, those who unduly inflate their self-image pay the steepest price on both aspects of their character.

"Our biggest theoretical contribution is that the paper casts the decision to claim to be better than others as a strategic choice," said Patrick Heck, lead author of the study in Social Psychology and a graduate student in Brown University's Department of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences. "It turns out that if you know the evidence isn't ever going to show up, then your reputation as a competent person is in good shape when you claim to be better than others -- but the opposite is true for your reputation as a moral person."

And with its multidimensional framework, the study goes much further in revealing more nuanced scenarios in which sometimes the best idea is to keep one's mouth shut.

Self-evaluation and others' perceptions

To do the research, Heck and Brown Professor Joachim Krueger conducted a series of online experiments involving a total of 400 volunteers over two main phases.

In the first phase, participants read single-page descriptions of people who said they scored better than average on an ability test and people who said they did worse. For each one the volunteers also learned their test scores so they'd know whether any bragging -- or self-effacement -- was based in truth. Half the volunteers were told the tested ability was intelligence while the other half were told that the test was of morality.

In every case the hypothetical subjects were male, to control for potentially confounding effects of gender.

The volunteers were then asked to rate the competence and the morality of the four different categories of individuals -- those who bragged and scored high, those who bragged but scored low, those who self-effaced and scored high, and those who self-effaced and scored low.

The participants judged the people who bragged about their intelligence and scored high as the most competent. They were even judged as more competent than people who scored high but said they scored low, suggesting that when competence is the issue, it pays to advertise. But correct braggers were not seen as any more moral than people who self-effaced, whether the self-effacers were actually smart or not. In fact, those who claimed to be worse than average were seen as more moral than those who claimed to be better.

Participants reserved harsh judgment for individuals who bragged about their performance but were proven wrong by the evidence. Such people were deemed significantly less competent and less moral than any other man. The same was true for undeserving braggers when the test was of their morality, rather than their intelligence.

"In all cases, claiming to be better than average when the evidence shows otherwise is the worst strategic move you can make," Heck said.

In a second phase, half of an entirely new group of 200 volunteers did the same thing as participants in the first experiment, though now all the hypothetical men were all talking and testing on intelligence, not morality. Given essentially the same experimental procedure, these volunteers produced very similar results as the participants in the first phase, showing that the results could be replicated in a new group of volunteers.

But the other half of the new second-phase group were given something different to consider. Some of them got information on the individuals' test results, but didn't know whether they bragged or self-effaced. Others learned who claimed to be better than average and who claimed to be worse, but didn't see their test results. These volunteers were asked to judge the competence and morality of the different types of hypothetical men.

Not surprisingly, people who scored high on the intelligence test were seen as more competent but not any more moral than those who scored low. But when scores were not known, they were caught in the humility paradox: those who bragged about their intelligence were believed to be more competent, but less moral, than those who said they didn't do well.

Combining the results, it was clear in the data that men who were smart and said so were perceived as more competent than men who were smart but didn't say so, or men who said they were smart but for whom evidence wasn't available.

Meanwhile, self-effacers were perceived as less competent when their scores were not known than men who self-effaced when their scores were known, regardless of what the scores showed. In other words, just declaring oneself to be not particularly smart is worse for one's perceived competence than being shown to be right about not being smart, or being shown to be smart despite one's gloomy self-assessment.

"This pattern holds an intriguing lesson for a person of low self-confidence," Heck and Krueger wrote. "The winning strategy might be to abstain from making any self-related assessment unless objective results are at hand."

Scenarios and strategies

Indeed, the paper is rife with such guidance, Heck said. People who want to know whether to brag, to self-efface or to say nothing need to know whether their goal is to improve their perceived competence or morality, and whether the facts back them up, contradict them, or will never be known.

"The answer depends on which aspect of your reputation you are concerned with," Heck said. "If you are more concerned with your perceived morality -- your likability, trustworthiness and ethics -- the answer is simple: avoid self-enhancing claims, even if the evidence supports them. Here, humility is the best option.

"If you are more concerned with your perceived competence -- your intelligence or capability to get the job done -- things are more nuanced," he said. "Here, you should only claim to be better than average if you are sure (or fairly certain) that (a) the evidence will support this claim, or (b) supporting evidence will never be revealed. If there is a possibility that the evidence will invalidate your self-enhancing claim, the best option is to simply remain humble."

That can pose a problem for many political candidates, who rarely remain humble, even as they are subjected to fact-checks that don't always go their way.

2016. “Bragging as a strategy: What boasting buys, and costs, a candidate”. Science Daily. Posted: October 5, 2016. Available online:

Monday, November 28, 2016

Probiotics improve cognition in Alzheimer's patients

For the first time, scientists have shown that probiotics -- beneficial live bacteria and yeasts taken as dietary supplements -- can improve cognitive function in humans. In a new clinical trial, scientists show that a daily dose of probiotic Lactobacillusand Bifidobacteriumbacteria taken over a period of just 12 weeks is enough to yield a moderate but significant improvement in the score of elderly Alzheimer's patients on the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE) scale, a standard measure of cognitive impairment.

Probiotics are known to give partial protection against certain infectious diarrheas, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, eczema, allergies, colds, tooth decay, and periodontal disease. But scientists have long hypothesized that probiotics might also boost cognition, as there is continuous two-way communication between the intestinal microflora, the gastrointestinal tract, and the brain through the nervous system, the immune system, and hormones (along the so-called "microbiota-gut-brain axis"). In mice, probiotics have indeed been shown to improve learning and memory, and reduce anxiety and depression- and OCD-like symptoms. But prior to the present study there was very limited evidence of any cognitive benefits in humans.

Here, the researchers, from Kashan University of Medical Sciences, Kashan, and Islamic Azad University, Tehran, Iran, present results from a randomized, double-blind, controlled clinical trial on a total of 52 women and men with Alzheimer's between 60 and 95 years of age. Half of the patients daily received 200 ml milk enriched with four probiotic bacteria Lactobacillus acidophilus, L. casei, L. fermentum, and Bifidobacterium bifidum(approximately 400 billion bacteria per species), while the other half received untreated milk.

At the beginning and the end of the 12-week experimental period, the scientists took blood samples for biochemical analyses and tested the cognitive function of the subjects with the MMSE questionnaire, which includes tasks like giving the current date, counting backwards from 100 by sevens, naming objects, repeating a phrase, and copying a picture.

Over the course of the study, the average score on the MMSE questionnaire significantly increased (from 8.7 to 10.6, out of a maximum of 30) in the group receiving probiotics, but not in the control group (from 8.5 to 8.0). Even though this increase is moderate, and all patients remained severely cognitively impaired, these results are important because they are the first to show that probiotics can improve human cognition. Future research, on more patients and over longer time-scales, is necessary to test if the beneficial effects of probiotics become stronger after longer treatment.

"In a previous study, we showed that probiotic treatment improves the impaired spatial learning and memory in diabetic rats, but this is the first time that probiotic supplementation has been shown to benefit cognition in cognitively impaired humans," says Professor Mahmoud Salami from Kashan University, the senior author of the study.

Treatment with probiotics also resulted in lower levels of triglycerides, Very Low Density Lipoprotein (VLDL), high-sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (hs-CRP) in the blood of the Alzheimer patients, and likewise a reduction in two common measures (called "Homeostatic Model Assessment", HOMA-IR and HOMA-B) of insulin resistance and the activity of the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas.

"These findings indicate that change in the metabolic adjustments might be a mechanism by which probiotics affect Alzheimer's and possibly other neurological disorders," says Salami. "We plan to look at these mechanisms in greater detail in our next study."

Walter Lukiw, Professor of Neurology, Neuroscience and Ophthalmology and Bollinger Professor of Alzheimer's disease at Louisiana State University, who reviewed the study but was not involved in the research, said: "This early study is interesting and important because it provides evidence for gastrointestinal (GI) tract microbiome components playing a role in neurological function, and indicates that probiotics can in principle improve human cognition. This is in line with some of our recent studies which indicate that the GI tract microbiome in Alzheimer's is significantly altered in composition when compared to age-matched controls, and that both the GI tract and blood-brain barriersbecome significantly more leaky with aging, thus allowing GI tract microbial exudates (e.g. amyloids, lipopolysaccharides, endotoxins and small non-coding RNAs) to access Central Nervous System compartments." The study is published in the open-access journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Probiotics improve cognition in Alzheimer's patients”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 10, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, November 27, 2016

What's in a name? For young Chinese consumers, it's about culture mixing

Bringing a product to the Chinese market can be a major hurdle for a burgeoning company looking to expand abroad. But according to new research from a University of Illinois expert in consumer behavior and global marketing, for a Western brand to crack the Chinese market, the name's the thing.

Young, educated Chinese consumers who are highly bicultural - that is, conversant with both Eastern and Western cultures - tend to more favorably evaluate brand translations that keep both the sound and the meaning of the original name, says Carlos J. Torelli, a professor of business administration at Illinois.

"China is challenging for Western companies, and the name-translation issue is particularly challenging. But there is the potential to strategically decide whether you want to be seen as more of a Western brand, more of a Chinese brand, or seen as a brand seeking a happy medium," he said.

The study, which will be published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, examines how integrative responses to culture mixing, in the context of Western brand names translated into Chinese, can influence consumer evaluations of products.

"Specifically, we examine young, educated Chinese consumers' evaluations of three types of brand name translations: by sound, by meaning and by sound plus meaning," Torelli said.

Results show that younger, more educated and more cosmopolitan Chinese consumers tend to favor "phonosemantic" brand translations, which integrate both sound and meaning into a product's name.

"What we found is that if you're targeting young Chinese consumers, they tend to be more bicultural," he said. "The established view of Chinese consumers is that they are conservative in the sense that they value tradition and conformity, whereas Westerners tend to be more open to new experiences or are individualistic in the sense that they emphasize new things like autonomy and pursuing one's own goals."

Younger Chinese consumers, however, were born after the one-child policy and have much more exposure to the West than previous generations.

"When they are the target, since they are much more Westernized in their values, they have a more bicultural mindset. So young Chinese consumers fall somewhere in the middle, modulating between those two poles of valuing tradition and embracing what's new."

Because of that, the researchers hypothesized that young Chinese consumers would respond much more favorably to cultural mixing.

"We found that the foreign name connects them with that aspect of cosmopolitanism that they valued, but the Chinese understanding of the brand also connects with their Chinese identity, which is also important to them," Torelli said.

It also signals that the company is being sensitive to their language.

"It's a foreign brand that's making an effort, and is respecting and valuing the culture, thereby integrating the Western values of self-expression and autonomy while also paying tribute to traditional Chinese value of conservatism," he said. "So there's a double path that leads to positive feelings toward brands."

But why go to the extra effort if you could just do a phonetic translation?

"That's what most American companies do when they go somewhere else - they don't rebrand, they simply translate the name," Torelli said. "If the country uses the alphabet, then you don't have to do anything. It's maybe how you pronounce it that changes."

The problem is that Chinese is a logographic language.

"There are no letters in Chinese. There are characters that have sounds," he said. "So the project started out of the notion that, when you translate to Chinese, you have a decision to make at the get-go. And that decision is, when you tell whoever it is who's going to take that name in China, do you translate it phonetically? If you take that route, then it's going to sound weird to Chinese consumers. It will sound similar to how it sounds in the home market, but it will sound foreign to Chinese consumers. OK, then why don't you just translate the meaning? Many brands have meaning, like Pampers or Suave. Others, like 7UP, don't. These are names that are suggestive in the home language. So you can't do a straightforward translation." According to Torelli, it all points to the broader cultural mixing phenomenon.

"The idea is that, more and more in everyday situations, we're starting to see symbols of two cultures juxtaposed in the same place. Sometimes we like that, sometimes we don't. And that has marketing and branding implications."

For marketers, the benefit is if you're an American or Western European company trying to break into the Chinese market, "you might want to think carefully about adopting a phonosemantic translation for your product," he said.

"That might be the best approach, especially if you're targeting this young, affluent, cosmopolitan market."

2016. “What's in a name? For young Chinese consumers, it's about culture mixing”. Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Health determined by social relationships at work

Whether you're an engineer, a nurse, or a call center worker, you are likely to spend an average of one third of your day on the job. In a new meta-analysis covering 58 studies and more than 19,000 people across the globe, psychologists have shown that how strongly we identify with the people or organization where we work is associated with better health and lower burnout.

The work appears in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review, published by the Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

While many people assume that finding the right job that fits your personality and skills is the key to a healthy work life, this meta-analysis shows that health at work is determined to a large extent by our social relationships in the workplace -- and, more particularly, the social groups we form there.

Previous studies on the relationships between people and their workplaces focus on issues of satisfaction, motivation, and performance in organizations, but much less on health and well-being.

"This study is the first large-scale analysis showing that organizational identification is related to better health," says lead researcher Dr. Niklas Steffens (University of Queensland, Australia). "These results show that both performance and health are enhanced to the extent that workplaces provide people with a sense of 'we' and 'us.'"

Prof. Alex Haslam and Prof. Jolanda Jetten (both University of Queensland), Dr. Sebastian Schuh (China Europe International Business School, China), and Prof. Rolf van Dick (Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany) also collaborated on the study. The team reviewed 58 studies covering people in a variety of occupations, from service and health to sales and military work, in 15 countries.

While the type of job was not a significant factor in the link between social identification and health benefits, several factors influenced the relationship.

"Social identification contributes to both psychological and physiological health, but the health benefits are stronger for psychological health," says Steffens.

The positive psychological benefit may stem from the support provided by the work group but also the meaning and purpose that people derive from membership in social groups.

"We are less burnt out and have greater well-being when our team and our organization provide us with a sense of belonging and community -- when it gives us a sense of 'we-ness,'" summarizes Steffens.

The authors also found that the health benefits of identifying with the workplace are strongest when there are similar levels of identification within a group -- that is, when identification is shared. So if you identify strongly with your organization, then you get more health benefits if everyone else identifies strongly with the organization too.

The team was surprised to find that that the more women there were in a sample, the weaker the identification-health relationship.

"This was a finding that we had not predicted and, in the absence of any prior theorizing, we can only guess what gives rise to this effect," says Steffens. "However, one of the reasons may relate to the fact that we know from other research that there are still many workplaces that have somewhat 'masculine' cultures. This could mean that even when female employees identify with their team or organization, they still feel somewhat more marginal within their team or organization."

As part of their work, the researchers have several recommendations for future research.

"One important area where we need to do much more work is making use of this research in applied settings." says Steffens. "In particular, it is important to examine whether health may actually precede changes in performance and what role identification plays in this."

The team also recommends exploring the role of leadership. This is because other findings that emerge from the same program of research indicate that how leaders manage teams and groups has a strong influence on the social identification-health connection. "Leaders play a key role in shaping a sense of group identity in the workplace," Steffens said, "and this is important not only for team performance but also for the mental and physical health of employees."

Science Daily2016. “Health determined by social relationships at work”. Science Daily. Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online:

Friday, November 25, 2016

Hallucinations or spiritual experiences? - Part 2

Continued from yesterday...

Dangerous convictions

Several of the patients that Hanevik interviewed use faith to cope with their psychosis.

But belief in higher powers can also be dangerous for them. Voices and visions do not always have good intentions. Evil spirits can bring messages for a patient to harm himself or others.

This happened to Hans. "I can see that I’ve been drawn to dark forces... I believe so strongly that there are outside forces, and I’ve heard voices, good and evil ones, and I’ve seen some kinds of shapes. There’s a lot that’s so intense... ," he says.

Danny believes that Jesus is an astronaut who will pick him up if he tries to commit suicide by jumping from a bridge.

And although Elmer thinks it’s a lifesaver to be Jesus, Hanevik sees that it doesn’t help him integrate back into society.

She has treated psychotic patients over several years and found this to be an advantage when she was interviewing patients. It can be tricky business to follow the logic of a twisted view of reality.

Can get even sicker

One-third of schizophrenia patients will never be cured of the illness, which is one of the psychoses Hanevik has studied.

Some psychiatrists believe that focusing on the content of the psychosis can make patients sicker. Hanevik belongs to a tradition that believes exploring experiences can help patients sort out the ideas whirling in their heads.

Some studies show that patients with religious delusions are sicker than other psychotic patients. They may find it difficult to accept that they’re sick, because they’re convinced that their experiences are religious.

Yet Hanevik thinks it’s wrong to categorize all visions and voices as evidence of delusions,. Some experiences can be part of a healthy faith life.

Conversely, patients who do consider themselves religious don’t necessarily interpret their hallucinations as religious experiences.

If they do, they may run into problems with their faith. When vexing hallucinations are related to God, religion can turn into something negative. Then God is not longer a safe haven.

Ingrid had a good relationship with God before she began to feel that he was after her. The voice she heard and believed was God’s, changed from caring to uncomfortable and judgmental.

“This led to her losing her faith,” says Hanevik. She believes that religion can also affect people negatively. “But I don’t think any religion has a God who wants believers to make fools of themselves.

Tradition or illness?

Some of the patients that Hanevik talked to are afraid to talk about their faith because they fear that it will always be seen in light of their illness.

Social anthropologist Mona Kiil interviewed patients for her doctoral thesis who have mental disorders but are not psychotic. These individuals share the same concerns.

They believe in healing through rituals and that they can see the dead. And they’re afraid that psychologists will classify these experiences as signs of psychosis,” explains Kiil.

She thinks it’s all about what society regards as inside and outside of social boundaries.

“When you live in a community where this is part of the worldview, faith provides security for people. That isn’t psychosis. But faith can become a double-edged sword if it prevents them from participating in society,” says Kiil, who is doing her doctoral work at UiT - The Arctic University of Norway.

She encourages health care clinicians in to explore patients’ cultural backgrounds, to go into their stories and not categorize something as sick simply because they’ve never heard of it before.

But patients can also use religion as a drug, says Kiil. It's not necessarily healthy to numb the pain instead of dealing with the problems.

“People have a need to cling to something when things get difficult,” she says.

Hanevik agrees, but thinks that religion becomes more of a way to explain their experiences for patients with psychosis.

Normal religiosity

Kiil and Hanevik agree, however, that it is particularly difficult to separate religion from illness when the patient has a psychosis.

UiT ethnography professor Jens Ivar Nergård researched how young psychotic patients in Sweden built up their alternative reality understanding.

He found that a narrow interpretation of what is real in psychiatry poses a challenge for patients. Then they find support in understanding themselves in a religious space. But if you are psychotic and think you’re Jesus, you lose the possibility to be human. You take on religion to throw yourself out of the world.

Nergård thinks Hanevik offers an exciting contribution to the discussion of what can be considered normal religiosity and believes that healthcare professionals should think through questions like this.

“The boundaries between psychosis and religion may not be something they think about everyday,” he says.

Nuse. Ingrid P. 2016. “Hallucinations or spiritual experiences?”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Hallucinations or spiritual experiences? - Part 1

Religious revelations and psychotic hallucinations are sometimes confusingly similar.

“The two can resemble each other. It’s difficult to separate out what contributes to the disease,” says psychiatrist Hilde Hanevik, who works at Jæren District Psychiatric Centre in southern Norway. She has just finished her doctorate, for which she interviewed 29 patients with psychotic disorders.

People with psychotic issues may see visions or hear voices. They experience hallucinations as so real that they are unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

It’s not uncommon for these experiences to have spiritual content. They can range from visits by the dead to contact with higher powers. Or the patient may believe that he is Jesus and omnipotent.

The participants in the study have different types of psychoses, including schizophrenia and depression. They must meet a number of criteria to receive these diagnoses, but hallucinations are a symptom of several illnesses.

Crop circles and reincarnation

Holy wars, crop circles, reincarnation, good and evil forces, meetings with ancestors and a personal relationship with a holy figure are just some of the incidents that patients report.

Many people without a mental disorder claim to have similar experiences. Some see the Virgin Mary, others find angel feathers in their couch.

Occurrences like these extend beyond religious ranks. A 1991 survey shows that twelve per cent of the Norwegian population report having contact with dead people. American and British studies suggest that up to half of grieving individuals experience contact with the deceased.

Hanevik refers to an American study that compared the beliefs of charismatic churches and psychosis patients and concluded that the content of their thoughts was about equally  unusual.

One of the things that separate the two groups is how preoccupied psychosis patients become with those thoughts.

“The thoughts take over their world,” Hanevik says.

Whereas believers usually share their experiences with others, the psychotic patient remains isolated,” she says.

“The problem with psychosis is that no one else identifies with the perception of reality you have. The sense experiences lead a psychotic person to create their own very private world,” she adds.

Uncomfortable exploration

But Hanevik believes that psychotic patients must be allowed to have a spiritual life, too.

She wants the health care system to dare to explore the distinction between faith and illness, and admits that “we may have been a little uncomfortable with this”.

She is the daughter of a priest and attends church, and is open to the idea that spiritual experiences can be real.

But since it’s impossible to ascertain whether God exists or whether relatives can continue to make visitations after they’ve died, the psychiatrist is trying another approach.

Hanevik is more interested in what function the experiences have for patients.

Can faith help them through difficult times or does it contribute to them becoming even sicker?

Like healthy believers, several of the patients in the study say that the events are important to them.

“Feeling God’s presence, or the presence of whatever you feel is sacred, can give you meaning, support and confidence in life,” she says.

This is the experience of Betty, a participant in the study. She feels that she finally gets to rest in the arms of God after being plagued by depression and hallucinations and lying in bed sleepless.

Thinks he's Jesus

Not everyone in the study was religious to begin with. But it can be comforting for patients to put their hallucinations into a religious framework. It can also help them understand their mystical, confusing and sometimes frightening experiences. God can be a companion through a difficult illness.

The psychosis itself also appropriates religious elements.

Elmer believes he is closer to God than most people. He believes he is God's son, although he has never had a Bible, and doesn’t know what Jesus did.

"I can’t walk around and think that I’m Jesus without getting signs,” he says and tells about one of them:

"It began to burn something fierce. I took my hand and put it on top [of the fire] and it hurt like heck, you know, but I just kept it there until all the flames died down and then I looked at my hand afterwards – no burn marks! Try to explain that! It’s impossible to explain. "

Experiences like those Elmer describes can be both good and bad for patients, says Hanevik.

Elmer feels they’ve saved him. "If I hadn’t had this belief (of being Jesus), I would have killed myself," he says.

Believing that he has supernatural abilities can give Elmer a sense of control in his life. Maybe he likes the ideas of being a powerful, important person for the very reason that as a human being he feels the opposite, that he has no power or value.

“At the same time, that notion becomes an escape from reality and isolates him even more from other people,” says Hanevik.

Part 2 tomorrow.

Nuse. Ingrid P.. 2016. “Hallucinations or spiritual experiences?”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Mesolithic long distance journey with pet dog

Prehistoric man’s best friend was a dog, it seems – evidence of the earliest journey in British history has been uncovered and a pet dog came along for the gruelling 250-mile trip from York to Stonehenge. It is the first clear evidence showing Mesolithic people were travelling long distances – and with pets – thought to be an alsatian in this case, 7,000 years ago.

Crucially, this reveals that what came before Stonehenge was every bit as important as the monument itself as the journey adds to evidence from the excavation site of people coming to Stonehenge 2,000 years before it was built. The site, Blick Mead, a mile from Stonehenge, is under threat. The Government plans a £2billion tunnel around 100 metres away which would critically alter the water table making it impossible to dig up further bones and other organic material because it would rot due to lack of water.

Important Mesolithic site

University of Buckingham senior research fellow, archaeologist David Jacques, has dug up a dog’s tooth from Blick Mead, which has already yielded the most important Mesolithic finds in the whole of the World Heritage Site that includes the monument. Just over 35,000 flints were found there, the first evidence that man feasted on frogs’ legs (burnt bones), a house made out of an upturned tree, and the area is the longest continuously occupied in Britain in prehistoric times indicating that the site was of paramount importance in the Mesolithic era. Mr Jacques ran all the digs.

Isotope analysis of the tooth by Durham University reveals the geographical location of the water the dog drank and shows that this was likely to have been from the York area. Professor Peter Rowley-Conwy, of Durham University, said: “The findings reveal that the dog would have been roughly the size, shape and possible colour of an alsatian.”

David Jacques said: “The fact that a dog and a group of people were coming to the area from such a long distance away further underlines just how important the place was four millennia before the circle was built. Discoveries like this give us a completely new understanding of the establishment of the ritual landscape and make Stonehenge even more special than we thought we knew it was. It would be devastating if the tunnel obliterated our chance of piecing together the jigsaw to explain why Stonehenge was built.”

Prestige pet

At that time prehistoric people were starting to tame dogs and have them as pets. The alsatian would’ve been a prized prestige pet and may even have been brought to Stonehenge to exchange, in the way pedigree dogs are bought and sold. Bones recovered from Blick Mead indicate that the dog would’ve feasted on salmon, trout, pike, wild pig and red deer.

A slate tool from Wales has been found at the site, revealing people travelled a long way. Stone tools from the Midlands and the West of England have also been found. People met to exchange ideas and new technology. As the Ice Age had just ended one of the attractions of Blick Mead would’ve been a natural spring, in which the only puce stones in the country can be found due to unique algae which change the colour of the stone due to the warm water. It would’ve been relatively easy to reach because the nearby River Avon was the M1 of its time – a major route used by people travelling on logs from all over the country because it was a rich hunting ground. Large numbers of deer and aurochs – extinct massive prehistoric cattle – grazed there. Burnt stones, wood and aurochs bones from the site indicate that it was popular for feasting, an important ritual activity.

2016. “Mesolithic long distance journey with pet dog”. Past Horizons. Posted: October 7, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

How science is giving voice to mummies such as Otzi the Iceman

Researchers recently managed to recreate the voice of 5,300-year-old Ötzi the iceman by recreating his vocal tract. The technology is promising and could be used to digitally produce the voices of other mummified remains. But how does it work and what else could it be used for?

When you make a vowel sound (aah, ee, oh, ooh and so on), three parts of your anatomy play important roles: your lungs, your larynx and the tube made from your throat and mouth. Your lungs provide the airflow that powers the sound. If the flow becomes too weak it will turn into a whisper instead.

Your larynx, or voice box, sits about midway between your lungs and your lips, just behind your Adam's apple. The part you can feel from the outside is the cartilage protecting and supporting the vocal folds (or vocal cords) inside. These are a pair of soft, lip-like structures that run from your Adam's apple to the back of your windpipe.

You can bring these folds firmly together across your windpipe to close it off completely – you do this when you cough or choke. You can also bring them across so they just touch, and if you do that and then breathe out they vibrate in much the same way your lips do if you blow a raspberry. These vibrating vocal folds are the source of sound for a vowel. If you say aah while you press your fingers gently either side of your Adam's apple you can feel the vibrations in your larynx.

Everyone's voice has a natural pitch based on the size of their larynx and in particular the length and thickness of their vocal folds. Your natural pitch is what comes out when your throat muscles are fairly relaxed and you don't try to speak too loudly. Women have shorter, thinner vocal folds than men and so they have generally a higher natural pitch.

If your windpipe ended just above the larynx then you would just be able to produce buzzing sounds. The lowest frequency in the buzzing sound is part of your natural pitch, but there is also energy at many higher frequencies included in that sound. It's the airway that shapes the buzz sound into a particular vowel.

We can think of this airway as a tube. You can change the length of that tube by protruding your lips, as you do when you say ooh, or by moving your tongue. When you say aah, your tongue rolls back out of your mouth and into your throat so the lower half of the tube is narrow and the upper half is wide, for example.

Every tube has a series of resonance frequencies that relates to its length and its cross-sectional area. These are the frequencies of sound that pass along the tube most easily and with least energy loss, so if we have a buzz sound generated at the larynx end of the tube, the sound at the lips' end will be the original buzz, but with the resonance frequencies of the tube sounding much louder than any other frequencies in the buzz.

When you listen to a vowel sound it's these resonance frequencies you are using to decide which vowel you are hearing. Changing the position of your tongue and lips changes the length and cross-section of the tube, which changes the resonances and ultimately the vowel you hear. Ötzi and his peers To know how Ötzi the Iceman sounded we need to know how long and how thick his vocal folds were – that tells us about the natural pitch of his voice. We also need to know how long his airway was and about the cross-sectional area to work out the resonance frequencies. His tongue and lips will have been preserved in one particular position which will only give us information about a single vowel sound. So if we are to work out how he sounded for other vowels we also need to know a bit about the size of his tongue and where it joined to his windpipe. Knowing this allows us to work out the other possible tube-shapes he could make and calculate their related resonances.

But how can you actually work all this out? It's pretty simple, all you really need is a CT scan, which uses X-rays to create detailed images of the inside of the body. This allows us to measure all these anatomical dimensions. We can then use that information to make a computer model to synthesise what his voice might have sounded like.

The first use of X-rays to explore mummified remains is thought to have been by Walter Konig in 1896, very soon after X-rays were first discovered. CT scans have been conducted on mummies for more than 40 years, with the popularity of the technique increasing rapidly over the last decade or so. However, the study of Ötzi the Iceman seems to be the first time the CT data has been used to synthesise a voice.

In a study of 137 mummies published in the Lancet in 2013, CT scans were used to show that, contrary to much current thinking, disease of the arteries was common in many pre-industrial populations. For speech, the CT scanning technique could similarly provide us with valuable information about the dimensions of the vocal system for any mummified body. And with enough different sets of scans we might be able to track trends in voice over time, such as changes in the typical natural frequency due to nutrition and body size.

One of the big open questions about speech is exactly when the ability to communicate in this way evolved, and there is quite a controversy about whether Neanderthals, for example, could speak. Sadly the CT scanning techniques can't help us with this as they rely on the preservation of soft tissue. The earliest hominid remains are fossilised which means only the bone structure has survived. The absence of lung, larynx, airway or tongue information in these fossils makes our ability to predict their capacity for speech very much less certain. At about 5,300-years-old Ötzi is the earliest European mummy in existence, but deliberately mummified bodies as old as 7,000 years have been found in South America. Spirit Cave Man, found in North America in 1940, has been dated at 9,000-years-old, so if CT scans were made, even older voices than Ötzi's could perhaps be heard one day.
Reference: 2016. “How science is giving voice to mummies such as Otzi the Iceman”. Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online:

Monday, November 21, 2016

DNA confirms Australian Aboriginals are the oldest civilisation still around on Earth

Scientists have mapped the genome of two of the Earth’s oldest and most mysterious people.

An international team of scientists, which includes Australian Aboriginals, have produced the first comprehensive population study using full genomes of 83 Aboriginal Australians and 25 individuals from Papua New Guinea.

Both peoples are part of the same branch of our family tree, they conclude.

“We show that all Australian Aboriginals descend from a population that became separated from other human populations approximately 51,000 to 72,000 years ago,” says co-author Rasmus Nielsen, a professor with the University of California, Berkeley, USA and the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

The new results are published in the scientific journal Nature.

Aboriginal studies are politically sensitive

The scientists first mapped the genome of a single Aboriginal individual using a sample of 100 year-old hair, archived at the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies in Cambridge, UK.

Their analysis showed that Aboriginals are one of the oldest living populations outside of Africa. This made the scientists want to analyse more samples from living people to map the Aboriginals’ unique genetic history.

But the project has been politically sensitive, not least because some Australian scientists expressed doubts that Aboriginal Australians were indeed the first people to inhabit the country.

“Australian scientists said it was impossible. ‘No, no, no, it’s so politically dangerous,’ they said. But that simply wasn’t our experience. Most people have been really positive,” says co-author Professor Eske Willerslev from the Center for Geogenetics at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

A big job to obtain samples

Before they could start the science, Willerslev and colleagues took steps to meet with Aboriginal groups to first gain their permission for the study.

Native Australians have long been sceptical about “the white man’s” science and have forbidden scientists from collecting genetic material. The ice was finally broken with the results of the 100 year-old hair sample.

“I think that a lot of them had heard about the study and were interested,” says Willerslev.

It took Willerslev and his team many years to travel round the country, assisted by Professor David Lambert, from Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. Eventually they established contacts with Aboriginal groups and gained their permission to take samples for DNA analysis.

Together with samples already obtained from habitants of Papua New Guinea, the scientists set out to map the two groups’ genetic history.

First Australians came from Africa

Australia has long played a central role in the history of modern human migration out of Africa.

We all originate from Africa and some of the oldest archaeological finds of modern humans outside of Africa are some 40,000 to 50,000 year-old skeletons from Mungo in Australia. Almost as far from Africa as you can get.

It suggests that the first people to leave Africa followed an express route along the coast that lead them all the way to Australia.

Language and tools are witnesses to migration from India

How many waves of migration there were from Africa, and whether Aboriginal Australians are the descendants of the first humans to reach Australia, were contentious topics.

Language researchers have estimated that 90 per cent of all Australian Aboriginals are a part of a language group called Pama-Nyungan, which according to researchers is no more than 6,000 years old.

And archaeological discoveries of stone tools that date back to 6,000 to 7,000 years ago point towards a migration of people from India. But the DNA tells a very different story.

“Let me say straight away that we’ve found absolutely no evidence for that [migration from India]. We see a long period of isolation in Australia up until a couple of thousand years ago,” says Willerslev.

Two very different groups

The genetic evidence suggests that both Australian Aboriginals and Papuans came out of Africa in a single group. But they split away from this group of Africans, around 70,000 years ago and followed the coast east, past India and on to Indonesia.

They reached Australia around 50,000 years ago, which at that time was connected to Papua New Guines, as part of a larger continent called Shaul.

Aboriginals and Papuans separated around 25,000 to 45,000 years ago, at the same time that Europeans and Asians split into two groups probably around the Middle East.

“Even though Aboriginals and Papuans are close relatives, they are just as different as the Han Chinese are to Danes,” says Willerslev.

Cultural Barriers kept them apart

The landmass between Papua New Guinea and Australia was submerged around 10,000 years ago, after the last ice age.

“It’s perhaps a little surprising that Aboriginals and Papuans began to diverge from each other,” says Nielsen.

Scientists do not know why they diverged from one another, but one factor could have been cultural barriers.

Willerslev and colleagues also discovered large variations between Aboriginal groups. Their genetics reveal that the indigenous population had already begun to diverge around 32,000 years ago, when the continent’s central desert began to grow and isolated the different groups to the east and west of this vast desert.

These genetic differences are further evidence for just how long, Aboriginals have inhabited Australia.

Mysteries surrounding language and tools

The discrepancies in time-scales between the genetic evidence and archaeology and language history can be rectified.

“It’s really interesting that we see a population growth around 6,000 to 7,000 years ago, which is evidence for a gene-flow spreading from the northeast to the rest of the continent. But it’s mysterious,” says Willerslev.

These people could have spread Pama-Nyungan languages and the new stone technology and culture to the rest of Australia.

Traces of an unknown group of humans

Within all of our genomes are traces of our ancestors’ interactions with earlier groups of humans such as Neanderthals. But the Australian’s DNA suggest that they must have met another, previously unknown group shortly after leaving Africa.

The scientists also discovered traces of DNA that are similar, but still different from other known groups of hominids.

“The DNA is more closely related to Denisovans than Neanderthals, but at the same time it is very different from the Denisovan genome,” says Willerslev.

It is likely that the DNA comes from a third group of hominid that survived until around 50,000 years ago. The discovery gives a whole new picture of our ancestral landscape.

“Although evidence for gene flow from an unknown hominin group is tentative, it highlights the potentially surprising things that can be learnt from a comprehensive sampling of human genomic variation,” write biologists Serena Tucci and Joshua Akey from the University of Washington, USA, in a commentary for Nature.

Jakobsen, Rasmus Kragh. 2016. “DNA confirms Australian Aboriginals are the oldest civilisation still around on Earth”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 2, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Much bullying among boys goes unnoticed

When researchers examined bullying in twenty schools, they were told that the main problem was drama created by the girls. Their findings told a very different story, however.

For three weeks at a time, the researchers sat by a desk in different classrooms. In four different schools they observed the class environment this way. They followed the pupils outside during the breaks, talked to them, listened to them talk to each other and about each other – for better or worse. They interviewed teachers and other staff at twenty schools.

The material Ingunn Eriksen (NOVA Centre for Welfare and Labour Research) and Selma Therese Lyng (AFI Work Research Institute) ended up with was extensive, but some of their impressions were clear: The girls’ drama played a central role in the stories about indirect bullying such as slander, ostracism, exclusion, and rumours. The term “relational bullying” is used when someone experience these types of episodes repeatedly by a person with superior power.

Although some boys also were involved in the “girly stuff”, as it was referred to by both staff and pupils, this was not where the shoe pinched. The typical refrain was that boys are more direct, less cunning, and that they solve problems immediately as they arise. The girls’ bullying is lingering, it is more covert, and may destroy the class environment. 

But when the researchers looked at their material more closely, they experienced what Eriksen refers to as “a eureka moment”.

“We thought, oh my God, here’s really something!”

When they reread their analyses, they realised that both their own and the school staff’s perception was wrong. The boys were just as exposed as the girls were. The article just came naturally after this realisation, says Eriksen. It came as an addition to a main reporton strategies for a good school environment.

“When we went over our material again, we saw a number of episodes that we hadn’t noticed the first time around. We were surprised by how many stories the boys told regarding relational offences and bullying.”

“We are insignificant”

The problem was that the boys themselves didn’t perceive it as bullying. Thus, the episodes went under the radar.

“We’re invited if someone’s has a birthday party, but they don’t really care about us. It feels as if we’re insignificant, and the others are cool.”

“I’ve noticed that if you try to talk to any of them, then they, like, don’t always respond. They just ignore you. They think they’re so much better than you… When the teachers are around, they automatically respond. But as soon as the teacher is gone it’s like talking to a glass wall.”

This is how one of the boys described his school reality. Eriksen and Lyng soon realised that the stories are clearly about relational bullying. But since they were so coloured by the idea of relational bullying as “girly stuff” themselves, they didn’t catch this the first time around.

“During the last ten to twenty years, scholars who study bullying have become very good at including girls in their research, which has shown that girls also bully although in a different manner than boys. This is very important. The problem used to be that only direct bullying was subject to research, and here boys are overrepresented. But because covert bullying has been considered a girls’ phenomenon, boys have been more or less excluded from the qualitative research on the field.”

In quantitative research, the boys’ experiences are naturally taken into account, says Eriksen. And when she and Lyng looked through previous research, they found support for their findings in a major study from 2010. After having looked at gender differences and bullying in Norwegian schools from fourth to tenth grade, Professor Dan Olweus concludes that boys are overrepresented in all categories.  

“The study concludes that boys to a larger degree than girls practice both direct and indirect bullying. Additionally, it finds that boys are more exposed to both kinds of bullying.” 

Different expectations

According to Eriksen, there might be several reasons why relational bullying among boys goes under the radar. One reason is that boys don’t possess the same language to describe their experiences as girls.

“Girls are used to seeing this as a problem they need to address and that is taken seriously by the teachers. This is often not the case with boys.”

Another factor that makes the problems even worse is gender stereotypical expectations regarding how one is supposed to express ones feelings.

“The opposite of masculinity is to be girly in a negative sense. If a boy expresses himself as a victim of bullying in a girly way, this can make him even more exposed.”

Not only do the girls have a better understanding of when they are exposed to something unacceptable. They’re also better equipped when it comes to addressing the bullying problems.

“There was a lot of girls’ drama in our material. Indirect bullying among girls was perhaps unnoticeable to begin with, but then they had meetings with parents and text messaging to straighten things out. Everything soon became very public. Of course, this is also very painful, but at least then they have the opportunity to seek help.”

Individual problem

“The boy who told the story about how the others regarded him as insignificant did not realise that he was exposed to exclusion,” says Eriksen.

“He saw it as a hierarchical problem. He experienced that the exclusion had to do with him and his personality, not with the class environment.”

And here lies the biggest challenge, according to Eriksen. Because relational bullying that is not recognised is a much heavier burden to carry.

“Bullying among girls may also remain covert to the teachers for a long time. But generally it is easier for girls who experience similar things to go to the teacher, since the girls understand it as bullying.”

Bullying among boys, on the other hand, becomes an individual matter that is seldom addressed, according to Eriksen.

“The greatest gender differences are not seen in terms of what the pupils are exposed to, they are seen in their possibility to get help.”

Must be concrete

There are a number of books and tools that may be used in order to address relational bullying, according to Eriksen. As a result, the teachers now have more knowledge about what to look for in order to uncover covert types of bullying and offences among girls. In general, she thinks it’s important that the people who deal with the pupils know that boys and girls may express themselves differently.

“When talking to boys about how they are doing in class, you need to be concrete. You need to ask questions such as “have you experienced exclusion?” or “are you under the impression that the others talk about you behind your back?” I think you have better chances of getting through the boys’ wall in this way.”

Torp, Ingrid S. 2016. “Much bullying among boys goes unnoticed”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 1, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Gone phishin': How our ability to spot phishing emails is far from perfect

Each year, tens of millions of phishing emails make it to your inbox, uncaught by your email client's spam filter. Of those, millions more slide past our own judgment and are clicked and opened. A recent study out of Carnegie Mellon's CyLab Security and Privacy Institute has revealed just how likely we are to take the bait.

"Despite the fact that people were generally cautious, their ability to detect phishing emails was poor enough to jeopardize computer systems," says Casey Canfield, a CyLab researcher from Carnegie Mellon's Department of Engineering and Public Policy.

Canfield's study was recently published in the journal Human Factors. Those interested can test their own phishing email detection skills in our brief online quiz.

In the study, Canfield and her colleagues showed a set of participants information about phishing before asking them to evaluate 38 different emails, half of which were legitimate and half were phishing. For each email, participants answered questions about whether the email was phishing, what action they would perform, their confidence in their choices, and the perceived consequences of falling for the email if it was phishing.

On average, participants were only able to correctly identify just over half of the phishing emails presented to them. Fortunately, participants displayed a little more caution when it came to their behavior: roughly three-quarters of the phishing links were left un-clicked.

"Some users were able to identify a vast majority of the phishing emails, but only because they were biased to think everything was a phishing attack," Canfield says. "So they didn't necessarily have a high ability to tell the difference between phishing and legitimate emails."

What's more, participants' confidence levels were not always calibrated with their ability.

"When making decisions about phishing emails, people were more cautious when they were unconfident and perceived very negative consequences of opening a phishing email," Canfield says. "Unfortunately, they were often overconfident so they would still fall for phishing attacks."

Based on the results, the authors of the study suggest interventions such as providing users with feedback on their abilities and emphasizing the consequences of phishing attacks. One effective training method that companies commonly use, Canfield explains, is sending out fake phishing emails and teaching a user about phishing emails if they open the email. This training method, called "embedded training," was originally developed by the CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Lab.

"It seems like those trainings may not always be making people better at telling the difference, but it's probably making them more cautious," Canfield says. "Helping people tell the difference may not be as useful as just encouraging them to be more cautious."

Other authors on the phishing study included Engineering and Public Policy professors Baruch Fischhoff and Alex Davis.

Science Daily. 2016. “Gone phishin': How our ability to spot phishing emails is far from perfect”. Science Daily. Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online:

Friday, November 18, 2016

Don’t let rift between generations spark a toxic era of ageism

There is a growing narrative familiar to most of us: a globally ageing population is placing unprecedented strain on government resources, social safety nets and the younger generation. With little end in sight to these demographic trends, intergenerational resentment is set to become an even bigger issue than it already is.

Now the UN has weighed in with a plea for peace, dedicating its International Day of Older Persons on 1 October to defusing negative attitudes to older people. It says older citizens are routinely labelled as a drain on society and stereotyped as decrepit and marginalised, with their healthcare questioned and devalued.

But are these perceptions of doom accurate? And do they miss half the story? Will the already bleak economic prospects of the young continue to clash with the needs of the largest older generation in history and intensify negative attitudes?

Unfortunately, the indications are that this growing problem is serious, multifaceted, and worldwide. It will not simply go away. Ill feeling can spark ageism, which can ultimately harm health.

Despite this older population being the richest and most powerful in history, it is not gold-plated early retirees but the poorer and frailer who tend to bear the brunt of ageism.

Read more here

North, Michael. 2016. “Don’t let rift between generations spark a toxic era of ageism”. New Scientist. Posted: October 5, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Ancestral Puebloans didn’t abandon Chaco Canyon due to salt pollution

Various salt compounds found deep in the soil of New Mexico’s desert may be the key to understanding how crops were cultivated in ancient Chaco Canyon — despite the backdrop of what seems an otherwise arid and desolate landscape, according to a University of Cincinnati study.

Prior studies on the canyon’s environment suggest that water management techniques used by the Ancestral Puebloans during periods of drought eventually resulted in toxic levels of salinity (salt) in the water. This left scientists doubting any viability of the soil for growing corn, which they believe eventually led to the abandonment of the Chaco culture.

But recent research at the University of Cincinnati finds the contrary is true. In fact, the researchers found that together with volcanic minerals already indigenous to the area, the calcium sulfate mixture actually increased the soil’s fertility for cultivating maize. This find, they say reveals further evidence for the development and maintenance of a thriving agricultural urban centre.

“One thing we can say with a great degree of certainty — the Ancestral Puebloans did not abandon Chaco Canyon because of salt pollution,” says Kenneth Barnett Tankersley, UC associate professor of anthropology and geology. “Previous investigations of this area only looked at surface soil samples and found what they thought were toxic levels of salt, but the studies lacked an in-depth chemical analysis of the type of salt found in the water and soil and an anthropological look at how the culture lived.”

By investigating modern Puebloan culture as well as looking at the geological environment, the researchers used a holistic approach to investigate how the culture flourished. Analyzing 1,000-year-old sediment, water and salt compounds and examining the water management technology of early Chaco Canyon dwellers led the research to conclusions that Tankersley described as remarkable.

All salts are not created equal

“What we have found regarding water management, salt issues and salt contamination will shake up southwestern archaeology anywhere in the world for any era,” Tankersley contends. “Harsh salts such as chloride minerals can indeed be deleterious to plants such as maize, however, not all salts are chlorides, and not all salts are harmful to plants.” The UC interdisciplinary team of faculty and graduate students from the departments of geology, anthropology and geography published the conclusions and details of the study this month in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

In contrast to earlier studies that suggested the salts were toxic, the researchers exhumed samples from deeper in the earth and found that salts in the canyon’s water and soil from 1,000 years ago were instead non-deleterious sulfate minerals.

Looking back, according to the researchers, Ancestral Puebloans flourished in this area from the 9th to 12th centuries in the arid, yet fertile land they referred to as an oasis. But during this time the Puebloans suffered severe droughts in the canyon on several occasions, leaving them searching for other ways to manage water.

Early bottled water

Described by Tankersley as an unprecedented structural endeavour by pre-Columbian Native Americans, Chaco Canyon is characterized by the construction of monumental great houses and ceremonial Kivas surrounded by mountain chains dotting the horizon.

He describes them as multistory, planned structures comprised of millions of pieces of dressed sandstone and thousands of roof beams — some functioning as residences and others as sacred and ceremonial centres. “The settlement was surrounded by mountains, which would provide water in the spring after the snow melted,” says Tankersley. “During the rainy season when floodwaters hit, the Puebloans would capture runoff water from small canyons known as the Rincons and local arroyos (periodic streams) such as Chaco Wash and the Escavada Wash. “This process helped the water gather essential minerals along the way providing a rich fertilizer and an efficient irrigation system.”

Moreover, the researchers found evidence for water from ponds and puddles collected in ceramic jars during periods of drought, which the Puebloans stacked and stored in thickly walled rooms inside the great houses. Tankersley explains this as an efficient way to keep the water at a constant cool temperature for drinking during dry periods.

Not only were these early denizens ahead of their time for such sophisticated infrastructure in these early mesa lands, but Tankersley describes the Ancestral Puebloans as master artisans who loved colour.

“Among our research we also found evidence for sulfates being used as a base for paint pigments,” says Tankersley. “We already know that sulfate mineral salts were among the most important and sacred raw materials of past and present Puebloan cultures. They even influenced the selection of Pueblo sites such as the Santa Domingo Pueblo, chosen because of its close proximity to a deposit of calcium sulfate referred to as gypsum.

“When ground up and mixed with water, gypsum created a whitewash to paint the inside and outside of their homes.” After uncovering a range of decorated crafts, ceramics and refined stone artefacts, he says scientists have unearthed strong evidence for amalgams made of sulfate gypsum and other local minerals to create a variety of pigments to decorate objects and paint murals on walls.

Many of their painted designs were stylized birds, deer, snakes, goats and ceremonial designs in story-form pictographs.

Kinship mobility

One of the most valuable resources the researchers had while combing through the desert was the friendships they built with the Puebloans and Navajo who still live in the immediate vicinity of the canyon, Tankersley said. “The first president of our flagship organization, the Society for American Archaeology, was a Native American and since then somehow archaeologists got away from talking to indigenous people,” says Tankersley. “This brings back what we call ethnoarchaeology — comparing past human livelihoods with those of the modern direct descendants.

“When compared to what their ancestors did, the great thing about the Puebloans is that they have a high degree of cultural continuity.”

Further dialogue with the Native Americans helped shed light on how corn grown in different regions was found among the local samples the researchers investigated. Comparing the chemical isotope signatures in various corncobs to the same chemical signature in water from the areas outside Chaco Canyon, the researchers found specimens from sites as far as 300 km away.

“We explain this movement of maize into Chaco Canyon from significant distances away in terms of ‘kinship mobility,‘” says Tankersley. “This is the distance goods and services, ceremonial or economic, moved between extended families.” He further describes Ancestral Puebloans as a sharing culture — families gathering over great distances to share produce, exchange wares and participate in seasonal feasts and celebrations.

Understanding human behaviour and culture is something the researchers value as much as analyzing the chemical and geological environment and Tankersley says that without this holistic approach much of research is left unsolved or misguided, in his opinion.

While the focus of this research was on Chaco Canyon, the researchers found the conclusions for water management systems and kinship mobility relevant to modern urban centres built in arid environments anywhere and anytime in the world.

Furthermore, the theory — that Ancestral Puebloan water management systems built in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, had led to catastrophic salt pollution and ultimately the abandonment of the area — can no longer be supported, the researchers contend.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Ancestral Puebloans didn’t abandon Chaco Canyon due to salt pollution”. Past Horizons. Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Socioeconomics play key role in Arctic search and rescue

Traveling and harvesting on the land and sea is of vital importance to Indigenous communities in the Canadian Arctic and subarctic, with links to food security, cultural identity, and wellbeing. A new study by the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group at McGill University however, finds that economic transitions, social shifts, and climate change are dramatically affecting the safety of Inuit during these activities.

Traveling and harvesting on the land and sea is of vital importance to Indigenous communities in the Canadian Arctic and subarctic, with links to food security, cultural identity, and wellbeing. A new study by the Climate Change Adaptation Research Group at McGill University however, finds that economic transitions, social shifts, and climate change are dramatically affecting the safety of Inuit during these activities. In 2015, the rate of search and rescue missions in Nunavut was 14.1 per 1,000 people – a doubling of incidents in the past decade - with related costs nearing $1 million. Recently published research by researcher Dylan Clark, and team connects these life-endangering events to an increasing cost of harvesting and travel on the land, changing technology and equipment, and transitions of Indigenous knowledge. "A lot of the time we think of unintentional injuries as just 'accidents' or unfortunate circumstances maybe impacted by weather or 'bad' decision making, but that is a misnomer," Clark said. "We show that historic and current Northern social and economic policies are influencing the risk of backcountry injury and search and rescue in the Arctic." The research suggests that socioeconomic status also influences the ability of households and communities to adapt to climate change; across the region, overland temperatures have increased by 1.9oC over the past 30 years. Adaptation to climate change, such as behavioral change, transitioning knowledge, or new technologies, are often expensive and require resources.
Reference: 2016. “Socioeconomics play key role in Arctic search and rescue”. . Posted: October 3, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Well that was a great hiatus! Back and ready to roll! Thanks for hanging in there all.