Saturday, December 31, 2016

Changing attitudes on genital cutting through entertainment

Though female genital cutting can lead to serious health problems throughout life, an estimated 125 million girls and women are cut, and every year an additional three million girls are at risk of being cut. Therefore, governments and international agencies have promoted the abandonment of cutting for decades. In the past, many programs promoting abandonment of the practice assumed that attitudes favoring cutting are locally pervasive and deeply entrenched. However, recent empirical research has shown that these attitudes vary greatly. Conflicting attitudes coexist within communities and even within families. The arguments for and against cutting generally fall into one of the following two categories: personal values concerning health, purity and perceived religious obligations or questions regarding the future marriage prospects of cut or uncut daughters.

Taking heterogeneity of attitudes into account

Sonja Vogt, Charles Efferson and Ernst Fehr from the University of Zurich, together with two Sudanese researchers, put the discussion of these conflicting attitudes at the center of their empirical approach. «Instead of pressing values onto the communities and ignoring their cultural heritage, we took the conflicting attitudes on FGC within communities as a starting point», explains Sonja Vogt, one of the lead authors. The researchers created four versions of a full-length movie, the main plot being a heady mix of love, intrigue and deception involving a family living in Sudan. Three of these movies included a 27 minute subplot about girls in the family who were approaching cutting age. In the subplots, the protagonists of the extended family discuss the arguments for and against cutting.

One of the versions focuses on personal values, one on marriageability, and the third on a combination of both. The discussions within these subplots evenly cover both arguments for and against cutting and eventually led to the decision to abandon cutting. Charles Efferson explains: «By presenting conflicting sides of the issue, the movies dramatize how difficult it is for parents to make a decision about cutting, and they allow viewers to make their own judgements».

Challenging and changing attitudes through entertainment

«We saw that all three movies about cutting immediately improved attitudes, but that only the movie addressing both personal values and future marriage prospects had a relatively persistent effect by improving attitudes for at least a week», says Sonja Vogt. Charles Efferson, the other lead author, points out that they could measure a causal relation (instead of mere correlation) between a person seeing one of the movies and a change in attitude towards uncut girls.

«This shows that using entertainment to dramatize the arguments can be an effective approach to changing attitudes about female genital cutting», he says.

Sonja Vogt believes that there is further potential in this approach. «Done in an ethical and balanced way, entertainment-embedded public information could increase the possibility of non-governmental organizations and for-profit ventures to cooperate», she says: «including such messaging in entertainment formats could initiate discussion and sustainable change». Efferson sees this as a key advantage of using entertainment: «Entertainment can often reach a much wider audience than educational documentaries. Documentaries run the risk of preaching to the converted».

How the study was conducted

To produce the movies, the researchers worked closely with a team of writers and actors in Sudan over the course of nearly two years. The movies were filmed in a family compound in a rural area outside of Khartoum. Participants watched the movies in public viewings as part of two randomized and controlled experiments. To measure how participants feel about cut versus uncut girls, the researchers developed an implicit association test to measure attitudes about cutting that adults might not want to reveal explicitly. The researchers used mobile computer labs to implement this test in a way that completely preserved the anonymity of participants. The researchers used the movies as treatments in two experiments with nearly 8000 participants in 127 communities in Sudan. The research was funded by the Swiss National Committee of Unicef and supported by Unicef, Sudan

EurekAlert. 2016. “Changing attitudes on genital cutting through entertainment”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 12, 2016. Available online:

Friday, December 30, 2016

Professors recommend improvements for domestic, substance abuse survivors based on experiences volunteering in shelters

Surviving domestic violence is a harrowing ordeal on its own. For those who spend time escaping abuse in shelters, they often find additional challenges navigating the system, especially if substance abuse is involved in some way. A University of Kansas professor has co-authored three studies detailing the experiences of women's navigation of, and tensions in, a domestic violence shelter and a substance abuse center.

Adrianne Kunkel, professor of communication studies at KU, along with Jennifer Guthrie, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas and a former student of Kunkel's, volunteered at Harbor Safe House (a pseudonym), a domestic violence shelter, and Guthrie also volunteered at New Day (a pseudonym), a substance abuse treatment center. They have authored articles on the experiences of survivors of domestic violence and have recommended several pragmatic steps that shelters, as well as substance abuse centers, can take to better serve survivors, make services more efficient and help women escape the cycle of both domestic violence and substance abuse.

One study, published in the journal Communication Quarterly explored the topic of overlapping domestic and substance abuse. "Alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence are commonly linked, yet they are almost always viewed as separate problems," Kunkel said. "And even in cases where they are recognized as being related, women trying to overcome them often face messages that are conflicting or even contradictory. For instance, domestic violence survivors are told they need to be independent and break free of the abusive situation but are also told they are powerless over addiction.

"We encourage women to be independent of their previous lives, yet they are still very dependent on the shelter. There's a very fine line between dependence and independence that can be difficult to recognize and navigate."

Substances are frequently factors in abusive relationships. And though many shelters prohibit the use of substances on their premises, it is nonetheless quite common for women to turn to drugs or alcohol to self-soothe as they deal with the stresses of having been abused. Compounding the problem, services that deal with domestic violence and substance abuse frequently are viewed as two separate entities and often don't work well together. This argument was featured prominently in Guthrie and Kunkel's Communication Quarterly article.

"They are two systems that have very altruistic goals, but there are different approaches to each, and even some territoriality involved," Kunkel said.

Further work completed by Kunkel and Guthrie centers on the role of narratives of domestic violence as they are understood culturally and even expressed individually by survivors of abuse. In their second recent article, featured in 2015 in the journal Women & Language, the researchers portray problems with a culture-wide, uniform application of a "formula story" wherein an "evil villain" terrorizes a "pure victim" with severe physical violence. Due to such widespread broad conceptions of domestic violence, many women fail to realize that they are experiencing it.

In a third article, published in the Western Journal of Communication, Kunkel and Guthrie explore the paradoxes and tensions women commonly experience in domestic violence shelters. An especially common problem survivors faced was the need to shift their narratives, or tell the story of their experiences differently, depending on who they were telling it to. The practice is one people take part in every day, often without even realizing it. But when domestic violence survivors frame their story differently to different audiences—depending on the situation like seeking housing, protection from abuse orders or clothing vouchers—they can be viewed as less than honest or as embellishing their story. And Kunkel's previous research, based on that of social psychologist James Pennebaker, indicates that telling one's distressful story completely and fully garners significant psychological and physical gains; altering and reshaping their narratives is likely to deny survivors the full benefits of such disclosure.

"All marginalized groups, including survivors of domestic violence, hate crimes or other incidents, feel the need to shift the narrative for particular audiences," Kunkel said. "We all know when we want things in life we have to go certain places and talk to people in certain ways. But to see it play out in this situation was heartbreaking."

Based on that, and other challenges the authors saw domestic violence survivors confronted with, they made five practical recommendations shelters could implement to better serve women.

First, they recommend reconsidering the standard 30-day limit on stays at shelters. The long-standing policies are often enacted because space is limited and to keep people from becoming completely dependent on the shelters. However, it can be extremely difficult to escape an abusive situation and make major life changes in such a brief period of time. So many women in interviews pointed to the stay limit as an obstacle that Kunkel and Guthrie recommend offering a 45-day (or longer) stay to those who demonstrate they need the extra time.

In relation to the aforementioned problem of dependence, the authors recommend striking a balance between it and independence. By implementing "individualized tailoring," or using a modified empowerment and case management approach, shelters could provide and demonstrate tools women need to recover, as opposed to telling survivors exactly what to do and when.

Third, providing dedicated listeners could address the problem of shifting narratives. Understanding the tension between what Kunkel and Guthrie labeled as "narrative accuracy" and "narrative efficacy" could help prevent the need for survivors to tell their stories in multiple ways, to be accused of dishonesty, or to miss out on the varied benefits of full disclosure.

"Recognizing limitations and working together among shelter staff could also help improve services," Kunkel and Guthrie wrote. Women's shelters are often very dependent on government grants to operate. Yet, the people who work to secure funding are not always aware of the challenges staff working with survivors are facing, and vice versa. That often leads to situations of bureaucratic hurdles for both camps.

Finally, the authors call for increased understanding of the link between domestic violence and substance abuse. Just realizing the two can be closely related, and that it can be counterproductive to only address one problem, could go a long way in helping women recover from both situations, they argue. Moreover, efforts to foster collaboration and align agencies directed at each issue may greatly improve outcomes.

Kunkel and Guthrie will present a portion of their findings in October at the 2016 Organization for the Study of Communication, Language, and Gender conference in Chicago. They also have several other articles in the works and ultimately plan to collect their findings in a book to help both survivors of domestic and substance abuse, as well as the staff at domestic violence shelters and substance abuse centers dedicated to serving them.
Reference: 2016. “Professors recommend improvements for domestic, substance abuse survivors based on experiences volunteering in shelters”. Posted: October 6, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A 300-year-old murder could be solved

Workers recently came across a skeleton during the restoration of Leine Palace in the German state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen). The bones and remnants of clothes have been examined by doctors but they couldn’t ascertain the cause of death. 

However, this is where the young Swedish Count Philip Christoph Königsmarck is thought to have vanished without a trace in 1694.

“If the remains prove to be the young Swedish count who disappeared 322 years ago, he could have been the victim of a royal murder triggered by jealousy,” says historian Håkan Håkansson. He has studied over 300 coded love letters at Lund University in Sweden.

These show that the count and the duchess had a totally improper romantic relationship.

Unhappy marriage to a prince

The count was only 29 when he disappeared. He had a long-going romantic relationship with his childhood friend Sophia Dorothea. She was regrettably already married – and not to a historical nobody.

At the age of 16 she had married off for political reasons to a six-year-older crown prince, Georg Ludwig of Hannover. He later became King George I of the UK and Ireland.

But it was an unhappy marriage, and George and his parents were cold and reserved toward the Duchess Sophia Dorothea.

Count Philip disappeared after a nocturnal assignation with the princess.

Love letters

Count Philip and Sophia Dorothea were ardent correspondents. Over 300 letters, sent during a two-year period, still exist. The turtledoves sent an average of three letters to one another per week.

The letters were donated to the university in the early 1800s by Pontus de la Gardie, an eager collector of archive material from Swedish noble families.

These are now kept by the Lund University Library.

“It was not unusual for people to write so many letters in these times. They often wrote many letters a day,” says Håkan Håkansson, an associate professor in the history of ideas at Lund University.

Many of the letters also include numerical codes, cyphers, a feature that was not so common.

“The encrypted language was used to conceal sensitive information. But this one was decoded back in the 1800s,” he explains.

Rather innocent, but scandalous

The numeric code was very simple, with each number representing a letter in the alphabet. When the sweethearts switched from ordinary remarks to sweet nothings they simply wrote in the numeric code.

The encrypted contents were quite innocent from a modern perspective.

Prince Georg was also notoriously unfaithful, bedding down with many women. In the 17th century, as in other times, it was normal for powerful men, particularly kings, to have multiple mistresses. 

“But it was much worse, in fact scandalous, for a princess to have extramarital relations,” says Håkansson.

Although the young lovers tried to keep the contents of their letters covert, they would have needed confidants to deliver their letters. This could have been the Achilles heel of their relationship.

Speculations about the children

Sophia Dorothea and Georg Ludwig had two children, a daughter who later became the mother of Frederick the Great of Prussia, and a son who became King George II of the UK. In their day, there were rumours about that the Swedish count was the real father of these children.

“If the children were illegitimate, it would have impacted the claims of the British and the Swedish royal houses,” explains Håkansson. 

Researchers, however, have later calculated that the children were born before Sophia could have had sexual relations with the Swedish count.

Historians have also questioned whether the letters were forgeries, made by enemies to undermine the royal houses.

“But we have known for some time now that these letters are authentic,” says Håkansson.

Planning to run off

In the summer of 1694, Philip Königsmarck and Sophia Dorothea planned to run off together. But this did not pan out.

Their love affair was exposed, probably by their friend, the Countess Clara Elisabeth von Platen.

The scandal was out in the open and Count Philip just disappeared.

Sophia Dorothea was sent away and locked in the Ahlden Palace in Lüneburg, not far from Hannover. She spent 30 years there, until her death.

Contemporaries suspected that Georg Ludwig had the count assassinated, but no body was found.

DNA of relatives

Researchers would like to compare the DNA of the bones that have been found this summer with living relatives of Philip. The DNA tests will be done at Germany’s University of Göttingen.

“A relative of the Swedish count consented to help and has provided a DNA sample,” says Håkansson.

This might clear up a murder mystery that has been a cold-case for over three centuries. But Håkansson thinks it unlikely that the skeleton will turn out to be Count Philip.

“It’s evident that this unfortunate individual did not die a natural death. He was found in a palace, rather than buried in a graveyard,” says Håkansson. But he points out that there are all sorts of possibilities for this to be someone other than the Swedish count.

“There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of persons who could have been in the palace at some time, either servants or guests. So I think this is most probably someone else,” says the Swedish historian.

Stranden, Anne Lise. 2016. “A 300-year-old murder could be solved”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 26, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What do Americans fear?

Chapman University recently completed its third annual Chapman University Survey of American Fears (2016). The survey asked respondents about 65 fears across a broad range of categories including fears about the government, crime, the environment, the future, technology, health, natural disasters, as well as fears of public speaking, spiders, heights, ghosts and many other personal anxieties.

In addition to the set of fears examined in previous waves, the survey team took a closer look at two fear related phenomena: Americans' beliefs in conspiracy theories and fear of Muslims, sometimes referred to as "Islamophobia."

In its third year, the annual Chapman University Survey of American Fears included more than 1,500 adult participants from across the nation and all walks of life. The 2016 survey data is organized into five basic categories: personal fears, conspiracy theories, terrorism, natural disasters, paranormal fears, and fear of Muslims.

The 2016 survey shows that the top 10 things Americans fear the most are:

  1. Corruption of government officials (same top fear as 2015)
  2. Terrorist attacks
  3. Not having enough money for the future
  4. Being a victim of terror
  5. Government restrictions on firearms and ammunition (new)
  6. People I love dying
  7. Economic or financial collapse
  8. Identity theft
  9. People I love becoming seriously ill
  10. The Affordable Health Care Act/"Obamacare"

"The 2016 survey data shows us the top fears have shifted from last year's, which were heavily based in economic and 'big brother' type issues to include more health and financial fears this year," said Christopher Bader, Ph.D., professor of sociology at Chapman University, who led the team effort. "People often fear what they cannot control," continued Dr. Bader, "and we find continued evidence of that in our top fears."

What aren't they telling us? American Beliefs in Conspiracy

Beliefs in conspiracy theories were a new element to the 2016 survey and included questions asking about levels of belief in nine different popular conspiracies and conspiracy theories, such as the JFK assassination, Barack Obama's birth certificate, alien encounters, the moon landing, the 9/11 attacks, the AIDs virus and more.

What they learned is more than half of all Americans believe the government is concealing information about the 9/11 attacks; as well as the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Another 40 percent believe the government is hiding information about extra-terrestrials and global warming; and one-third believe there are conspiracies surrounding Obama's birth certificate and the origin of the AIDs virus. Nearly one-fourth of Americans also believe there is something suspicious about the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

"We found clear evidence that the United States is a strongly conspiratorial society," said Dr. Bader. "We see a degree of paranoia in the responses. Most indicative is nearly one-third of respondents believed the government is concealing information about 'the North Dakota crash,' a theory we asked about that -- to our knowledge -- we made up," Dr. Bader continued.

According to the demographics gathered in the survey, the most likely person to believe in a conspiracy theory is a Republican who is employed, but has a lower level of income and education. He or she is likely to be Catholic -- or a Christian denomination -- but attend religious services infrequently.

"Conspiracy theorists tend to be more pessimistic about the near future, fearful of government, less trusting of other people in their lives and more likely to engage in actions due to their fears, such as purchasing a gun," added Dr. Bader.

Americans Fear Terrorism -- and the Public's Role in Preventing Terrorism

Due to the increase in domestic terror attacks, such as in Orlando and San Bernardino, as well as abroad, the researchers added specific language to explore Americans' fears related to terrorism. In the top 10 fears cited in the survey overall, "terrorist attack" ranks second, with 41 percent of Americans being afraid of a terror attack -- and more than 60 percent believing the United States is likely to experience a large scale terrorist event (such as 9/11) in the near future.

"These attacks have added urgency to the need for the public to understand the precursors of terrorism," said Ann Gordon, Ph.D., associate dean of the Wilkinson College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Chapman University and one of the three researchers on the study. "Following the San Bernardino attacks, President Obama reminded Americans that if they 'see something, say something." The researchers found that most Americans want to be vigilant, but they are unaware of what kinds of behaviors constitute precursors to terrorism.

"For the See Something, Say Something Campaign to be successful, Americans need to know what they should report -- and what not to report," said Dr. Gordon. "The campaign encourages people to report situations and behavior as possible terrorist or violent acts rather than beliefs, thoughts, ideas, expressions, associations or speech unrelated to criminal activity. More education is needed. Our survey indicates Americans are more likely to report a shoplifter than a terrorist."

Interestingly, there are clear partisan differences in views on the government's handling of terrorism with Democrats being more likely to believe government has done a good job compared with either Republicans or Independents.

Additionally, the survey asked respondents if they have rethought everyday activities due to fear of terrorism. Half of Americans fear traveling abroad; one-fifth reported they are less likely to attend a concert, sporting or other public event; and three-fourths are more willing to accept longer lines and security screenings at airports.

Motivating Disaster Preparedness

More than half of all Americans (63 percent) believe that "natural disasters in my area are capable of doing serious harm to me or my property." And, the vast majority (78 percent) believes an emergency kit would improve their chances of surviving a disaster. Nevertheless, 74 percent have made no effort to put together such a kit.

The survey identified four attitudes that are essential components for motivating preparedness:

  • This can happen to me
  • This is serious
  • I can actually do something to help myself
  • The recommended action would make a difference

"We found that each of these attitudes contributed significantly to the likelihood of preparing for disaster with an emergency kit and a plan," said Dr. Gordon. "When communicating with the public about the importance of disaster preparedness, it is vital that the message emphasize these four beliefs. Without these components, the message is likely to cause fear without action," Dr. Gordon continued.

Paranormal America 2016

The Chapman University 2016 Survey of American Fears included a series of items on paranormal beliefs ranging from Bigfoot and psychic powers to haunted houses and extraterrestrial visitation. Currently, the most common paranormal belief in the United States is the belief that places can be haunted by spirits with nearly half of Americans believing this.

"Overall, the survey showed two-thirds of Americans believe in something paranormal, which is an increase from last year where just half of Americans reported that," said Dr. Bader. "However, of all the items we asked about, Americans are most skeptical of Big Foot with only 13 percent expressing belief in its existence."

The survey also shed light on certain characteristics of people who believe in the paranormal. People with the highest levels of paranormal beliefs have the following traits:

  1. Catholic
  2. Infrequent church attendance
  3. Protestant or just "Christian"
  4. Other (non-Christian) religions
  5. Lower income
  6. Lower education

Fear of Muslims in American Society

Roughly one percent of the U.S. adult population are Muslims. The 2016 Chapman University Survey of American Fears explored how Americans as a whole view this small subgroup. The results show that a large proportion of the adult American population distrusts Muslims and believes extra security should be employed against them. The survey further examined how Muslims are viewed relative to other segments of society based on trust -- only "strangers" were more distrusted than Muslims.

When it comes to feelings about and treatment of Muslims, nearly half of Americans reported that they would not be comfortable with a Mosque being built in their neighborhood; one-third reported that Muslims are more likely to engage in terrorism, as well as agree that the U.S. should halt all immigration from Muslim nations.

"For a nation that touts its commitment to religious liberty, the prevalence of these beliefs should be disturbing," said Ed Day, Ph.D., chair of the department of sociology at Chapman University and one of the three researchers on this survey.

In examining beliefs about Muslims from different regions of the country there was a striking finding -- the difference between people living in metropolitan areas and nonmetropolitan Americans. Urban residents are much less likely to distrust Muslims or support institutionalized discrimination. When it comes to gender, the survey showed that men are more likely than women to hold anti-Muslim opinions. And, when compared with the rest of the ethnic groups in the American population, whites showed significantly higher levels of Islamophobia than non-whites. Finally, there is a strong relationship between political party affiliation and anti-Muslim views -- Republicans expressed the highest levels and Democrats the lowest, with independents in the middle.

"Results from the Chapman University Survey of American Fears 2016 show significant portions of the U.S. population distrust Muslims and believe the nation is justified in singling out one religious tradition for increased law enforcement scrutiny," said Dr. Day. "Those with Islamophobic views are more likely to be rural, male, white, older, and lacking a college education. However, the survey data do not allow us to dig deeply into the sources of anti-Muslim prejudice. Regardless of the sources, the prevalence of anti-Muslim sentiment is a concern."


The survey was a random sample of 1,511 Americans who are English speaking and over the age of 18. The survey was administered by GFK (Knowledge Networks) a consumer research company with expertise in probability samples. Data were collected between May 5, 2016, and May 18, 2016. The survey took, on average, 20 to 25 minutes to complete. The sample of the Chapman University Survey of American Fears mirrors the demographic characteristics of the U.S. Census. A comprehensive list of the all the fears from The Chapman Survey on American Fears 2016 can be found In addition to Bader, Day and Gordon, student involvement was key in helping throughout the process.

Science Daily. 2016. “What do Americans fear?”. Science Daily. Posted: October 12, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Ancient Doggerland diet discovered

Some 8000 years ago freshwater fish was the most frequent contribution to the menu of the hunter-gatherers that roamed ‘Doggerland’, the drowned landscape between the Netherlands, the UK and Denmark. Dutch archaeologists have discovered this based on isotopic research of prehistoric human bones dredged or fished from the North Sea. The discovery provides important clues regarding the past inhabitation of this presently “drowned” region and the effects of climate change on small-scale societies.

Surf ’n turf

The research, which is published in the December issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science-Reports, is based on isotopic research of 56 human bones from the North Sea, conducted by the university of Groningen and the ‘Doggerland Research Group’, a collective including the National Museum of Antiquities (RMO), the Cultural Heritage Agency (RCE), Stichting ‘Stone’ for Stone Age research in the Netherlands and the municipal archaeologists of Rotterdam (BOOR). The results demonstrate that the menu of the ‘Doggerlanders’ over a period of 4000 years, roughly between 9500 and 6000 cal BC, gradually changed from terrestrial to aquatic, or… from a regular steak to mostly fish. Freshwater fish occurred mostly on the menu as well as associated species such as waterfowl, otter and beaver.

The research is based on the analysis of stable isotopes, in particular carbon and nitrogen. These are variants of atoms with a distinct basic value. These differ according to the trophic level of the consumer and whether they live in an aquatic reservoir and make use of its resources. The raised levels of the bones dating to the Mesolithic (N=33) clearly pointed to a dominant contribution of freshwater resources. At the same time the researchers were able to discover a trend over time. This was not straightforward since the dates of the Mesolithic bones suffer from the so-called reservoir effect, which is an offset between the levels of C14 in  water and the atmosphere. This means that all the bones are up to several hundred years too old. Due to the fact that the bones were dredged from the North Sea and are without a direct archaeological context it was not possible to calibrate this effect, yet their relative age and the fact that they pre-date the inundation of Doggerland makes them all Mesolithic and made it possible to discover a statistically relevant trend from terrestrial to aquatic resources over time. Of course this does not mean that an occasional deer or boar was not shot, but it was mostly fish that was on the table.

Living in a drowning landscape

The trend that was discovered in the composition of the Doggerland-menu is strongly related to the fact that this area gradually drowned following the last Ice Age. Between 9500 and 6000 cal BC sea levels rose about two metres per century on average (which is about ten times the current rate!). The low-lying North Sea basin gradually flooded. It was often thought that this drowning land and the encroaching coast-line forced people further inland or made them change towards a marine diet. The isotopic values rather demonstrated a different scenario. Although there are some bones with a marine signal the majority point to the increased consumption of freshwater fish and related resources. This indicates that people, rather than abandoning this increasingly wet area stayed where they were. Instead of abandoning their homelands, they changed their ways and traditions and adapted to the developing wetlands that arose around them in the delta areas of Meuse, Rhine and Thames. This is actually far from strange as freshwater wetlands rank amongst the most rich areas in food sources world-wide.

Treasure trove in front of our coast

The bones that were used in this research come from the North Sea, which yielded many prehistoric finds over the last years. The finds are not only from fishing nets, but actually mainly derive from beaches and large infrastructural projects such as the Tweede Maasvlakte (a large harbour extension near Rotterdam) and the Zandmotor (an artificial beach replenishment reservoir). The sand that is used for these projects originates several kilometres from the Dutch coast and harbours the remains of this largely undiscovered prehistoric landscape. While research with divers at the original sites is difficult, the finds and these scientific results indicate the quantity and quality of the data that is available. These are more than individual finds without context, but they actually derive from sites and locations where parts of the prehistoric lansdcape is likely preserved intact. This makes it worthwhile to investigate and protect these areas.

The National Museum of Antiquities

In collaboration with its partners the National Museum of Antiquities in the Netherlands conducts reseach into the Stone Age of the North sea and curates and displays many objects of this lost landscape. It actively involves the public in  reporting these finds and records them.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Ancient Doggerland diet discovered”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 10, 2016. Available online:

Monday, December 26, 2016

Scientists map genome of African diaspora in the Americas

Researchers at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus along with colleagues at Johns Hopkins University and other institutions have conducted the largest ever genome sequencing of populations with African ancestry in the Americas.

The scientists, for the first time, have created a massive genetic catalog of the African diaspora in this hemisphere. It offers a unique window into the striking genetic variety of the population while opening the door to new ways of understanding and treating diseases specific to this group.

The study was published today in the journal Nature Communications.

"The African Diaspora in the Western Hemisphere represents one of the largest forced migrations in history and had a profound impact on genetic diversity in modern populations," said the study's principal investigator Kathleen Barnes, PhD, director of the Colorado Center for Personalized Medicine at CU Anschutz. "Yet this group has been largely understudied."

Barnes said those of African ancestry in the Americas suffer a disproportionate burden of disability, disease and death from common chronic illnesses like asthma, diabetes and other ailments. The reasons why, remain largely unknown. With that question in mind Barnes and her colleagues, with support from the NIH's National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, created the `Consortium on Asthma among African-ancestry Populations in the Americas' or CAAPA. They sequenced the genome of 642 people of African ancestry from 15 North, Central and South American and Caribbean populations plus Yoruba-speaking individuals from Ibadan, Nigeria. The ultimate goal of the study is to better understand why they are more susceptible to asthma in the Americas. But the result was a wide-ranging genetic catalogue unlike any other.

The African genome is the oldest and most varied on earth. Africa is where modern humans evolved before migrating to Europe, Asia and beyond.

Barnes and her team are finding changes in the DNA of Africans in the Americas that put them at higher risk for certain diseases. Perhaps one reason for this is the amount of genetic material they carry from other populations including those of European ancestry and American Indians.

"Patterns of genetic distance and sharing of single nucleotide variations among these populations reflect the unique population histories in each of the North, Central and South American and Caribbean island destinations of West African slaves, with their particular Western European colonial and Native American populations," the study said.

For example, the researchers showed that the mean African ancestry varied widely among populations depending on where they were settled, from 27% of Puerto Ricans to 89% of Jamaicans. In places like the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Honduras and Colombia there was also significant Native American ancestry as well.

Untangling this genetic history will take years, but Barnes said the catalogue is a good start. The data will serve as an important resource for disease mapping studies in those with African ancestry.

"This will contribute to the public database and give clinicians more information to better predict and track human disease," Barnes said. "It will allow us to tailor clinical to specific individuals based on their ethnic and racial backgrounds."

A companion paper demonstrating the clinical utility of the African diaspora genome catalog appears in the same issue of Nature Communications.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Scientists map genome of African diaspora in the Americas”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 11, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, December 25, 2016

People view funny co-workers as competent and self-assured, study says

After "attractive," few compliments are more universally welcomed than "funny." But being deemed hilarious or witty is more than just a personality trait that can win you more friends. If used successfully, humor also can boost your status at work, persuading others that you're both more confident and more competent than you may actually be, according to forthcoming research into the connection between status and humor.

"If you are brave enough to tell the joke that you want to tell, whether it succeeds or not, people ascribe confidence to you because they see you as efficacious" for taking such a risk with all the ways a joke can potentially fail, said Alison Wood Brooks, assistant professor at Harvard Business School and the paper's co-author. "To tell a successful joke does, in fact, take quite a lot of competence and not just general intelligence, but emotional intelligence, to figure out all those variables."

Humor is often viewed as superfluous or ancillary behavior and hasn't been thought of as something that affects relationships and hierarchy within organizations and in daily life.

"We do a lot of things to increase our status. We try to work really hard. We try to demonstrate that we're really smart. We work hard at developing our status in an organization, and what we're showing is that humor is one of those tools," said Professor Maurice Schweitzer of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and a paper co-author, along with Brad Bitterly, a Wharton doctoral student.

Make no mistake: Using humor is definitely risky. If a joke bombs because it is inappropriate or boring or just not funny, it can diminish status by causing people to see you as less competent for failing to pull off the aside. And if a joke really goes beyond the pale, it may even get you fired.

What makes something funny? One prevailing theory posits that humor is a violation of some social norm or expectation that's done in a benign way.

"If the violation is too severe—if I'm making jokes about 9/11—that crosses a line, it's too much of a violation. But if I'm making jokes about the War of 1812, there's so much distance that's passed, it doesn't feel as raw, and so that can feel more benign," said Schweitzer.

Bitterly and Brooks were prompted to explore the relationship between humor and status after noticing how people with less standing, like graduate students and young adults just entering the workforce, often deliberately muffle their full personalities at work for fear of looking bad and perhaps diminishing their career options.

They "often feel trapped in a prison of silence where they can't make their jokes because they know that it's risky. They know that if they voice their jokes and they don't land, people are going to think they're dumb and inappropriate and unprofessional," said Brooks. "And all of that stuff is really damaging."

Because humor is so context-dependent, little academic research has been done into how trying to be funny, and either succeeding or failing, influences interpersonal perceptions, cognitive behaviors, and relationships inside and outside of work organizations, the authors said.

What could be funny in an industry like the restaurant business might not get a laugh with dentists; within a company, the folks in accounting might find something hilarious that goes right by the human resources department; and what amuses an executive assistant may not do much for the boss. Cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic differences also affect what is perceived as funny.

"So to study it properly, not only do you need to use an enormous array of different jokes, but also different scenarios or contexts," said Brooks.

After testing hundreds of jokes to identify a representative selection of remarks that were universally seen as either funny, not funny, work-appropriate, or not work-appropriate, the authors ran eight experiments asking respondents to rate jokes on how funny, how boring, and how appropriate they were under various situations.

Later, the respondents were asked to rate the confidence and competence of someone who had told a funny and appropriate joke. Those who made funny and appropriate remarks or jokes were rated highest in confidence and competence. Those who told appropriate but unfunny or boring jokes were still rated highly confident, but were seen as less competent, and thus lost status, for failing to make people laugh. Joke tellers who told inappropriate jokes but got people laughing were not penalized for going over the line. But people who told inappropriate and unfunny jokes were perceived as having low competence and therefore accorded less status.

"We did anticipate that if someone said something massively inappropriate, people are going to think, 'What an idiot, I can't believe that person said that,' and it would harm status," said Bitterly. "Something that was more surprising was when we looked at appropriate jokes, if they didn't land … the overall effect on status wasn't that detrimental" because the person was still seen as confident and the hit to their perceived competence "was relatively small."

The key takeaway, the authors say, is that given how effective humor can be in advancing a person's status at work, employees should use humor more deliberately and strategically, while businesses should consider humor as a key dimension during management hiring and training. Prior studies have shown that having a good sense of humor brings levity to a workplace, which contributes positively to work culture, helping keep employees engaged and happy to come to work each day.

And while there are many ways that a joke can go wrong—and certainly it's essential to be mindful of potential pitfalls—being too cautious is not a good strategy because that removes a powerful and effective tool for getting ahead, particularly for low-ranking employees trying to advance.

"Just as we want to develop our spreadsheet skills, our communication skills, or our negotiation skills, we should develop our humor skills," said Schweitzer. "We need to create impressions at work, we need to communicate effectively, we need to stick up for ourselves, [and] this is part of that skill set."
Reference: 2016. “People view funny co-workers as competent and self-assured, study says”. Posted: October 6, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Two-thirds of all languages use similar sounds in common words

Point to a picture of the Earth and say the word 'round.' You might be astonished that people who speak completely different languages would understand your meaning. It turns out that a surprisingly large amount of languages use that particular r-sound as part of this word.

This is one of the conclusions of a new study of more than 6,000 languages from around the world. The study has effectively done away with age-old notions of the relationship between a word’s sound and meaning.

“A fundamental idea in linguistics is that there’s no relationship between sound and meaning. But we conclude that there’s a high correlation between word sound and meaning from countries around the world,” says co-author Morten Christiansen, a professor of child language at Aarhus University, Denmark.

The study is published in the American Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Nose” and “red” sound similar in many languages

But how can words in such seemingly different languages as Portuguese and Danish have any sort of similarity in sound and meaning?

“In several countries, the word “nose” has a nasal sound, which emphasizes the meaning of the word,” says Christiansen.

And that’s not the only example.

"The word "red" sounds alike in many languages. “Rouge” in French, “rot” in German and “red” in English are just some examples,” he says.

Contesting theories explain similarities

Christiansen is not sure why so many words sound the same in so many languages.

One theory says that globalisation allows words to be transferred from one language into another and blurs the boundaries between them. But Christiansen is not convinced by this explanation.

“We’ve investigated whether words from countries located close to one another have a greater similarity in sound and meaning. But we find that the correlation arises between countries of totally different continents and that it’s not dependant on geographical proximity,” he says.

Words do not just sound similar because they are loaned from or inspired by other languages, he says. Language may be biological

The relationship may instead depend on our biology, says Christiansen.

“Our hypothesis is that there are similar ‘factors’ all around us. There may be some biological factor in terms of how it seems natural for us to communicate. We know that we have, for example, some limitations in terms of how we perceive words in the brain,” he says.

Co-author Søren Wichmann agrees.

“The words should sound right in relation to the objects that they describe. What sounds right, depends on how we experience the world,” says Wichmann who is a postdoc and linguist at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Babies mumble the word “breasts”

What makes a word sound right in our brains is still a mystery, says Wichmann.

But, he says, there is often a logical relationship between the word’s sound and meaning.

“Around the world, the word “breast” often contains the sound ‘u’ and ‘m.’ This is probably related to the muttering sounds that a breast-feeding child makes. It sounds a bit like ‘um um,’” says Wichmann.

For example, a commonly used word for breast in East Africa is “mumi.” In Japan, it is called a “mune” and in Pakistan they call it a “mamu”. Analysis of more than 6,000 languages

Wichmann and Christiansen have analysed two thirds of the world’s languages.

“We analysed more than 6,000 languages and dialects, and we found signals that indicate a relationship between sound and meaning in many words,” says Christiansen.

The researchers found up to 100 such words or concepts.

They determined the similarity between these words using statistical techniques.

“Out of the 100 words that we choose, we found 74 positive signals, or ‘hits.’ This shows that there is a great relationship between these words in different countries,” says Christiansen.

Results challenge old language philosophy

Until now, linguists thought that word sound and meaning were completely unrelated.

“This has been the mainstay of linguistics since 1916, when the famous language theorist Ferdinand de Sassure wrote that a word’s sound and meaning were completely unrelated,” says Christiansen.

The new results directly contradict this. Implications for how children learn

Christiansen says that the new knowledge could help children when they first learn how to speak.

“Children have to figure out what the adults’ sounds mean, and now we know that the meaning is connected to the sound of the word. So when I say ‘dog,’ it’s in reference to the small, cute, furry thing running around,” says Christiansen.

Children may learn languages faster as they become aware of how sounds and meaning are linked, he says.

“It’s an end of an era in language research and now we need to delve into new questions,” says Christiansen.

Eriksen, Ida. 2016. “Two-thirds of all languages use similar sounds in common words”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 21, 2016. Available online:

Friday, December 23, 2016

Climate change may help Ethiopia, increase the country's access to water

Despite the many disastrous impacts of climate change, there are some regions of the globe that might benefit from hotter temperatures.

A team of researchers from Virginia Tech have predicted that water availability in the Blue Nile Basin of Ethiopia may increase in coming decades due to global climate change. It could also lead to increased crop production, spur massive hydroelectric power projects, and foster irrigation development in the region.

"For all the catastrophic impacts of climate change, there are some silver linings," said Zach Easton, associate professor of biological systems engineering. "The sad irony is that climate change may be the catalyst Ethiopia needs to become a food-exporting country."

The research team used a suite of climate and hydrologic models to predict the impact of climate change on water availability and sediment transport in the Blue Nile. Most previous Nile Basin climate impact studies have only focused on water availability, but the study conducted by the team at Virginia Tech was a first of its kind to to assess sediment transport, a big problem in the basin where some of the highest erosion rates in the world have been measured.

The findings of the study were recently published in the journal Climatic Change.

"Ethiopia could experience increased water accessibility making growing seasons longer and potentially allowing for two crops to be grown per year," said Moges Wagena, from Assosa, Ethiopia. Wagena is first author on the paper and also associated with the Abay Basin Authority, a water resource management entity for one of Ethiopia's 12 water basins. Wagena is one of Easton's doctoral candidates in the Department of Biological Systems Engineering, housed in both the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering. The team also included Andrew Sommerlot, another of Easton's doctoral candidates; Daniel Fuka, a post-doctoral student working with Easton; researchers from the University of Maryland; and the International Water Management Institute, Nile Basin Office. The work was funded by the World Bank and the International Water Management Institute.

The team coupled hydrologic models with bias-corrected and downscaled Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 5 models, known as CMIP5, for the project. Previously, studies that looked only at temperature and precipitation from the climate models found an increased rate of water availability of just 10 percent, where Easton and Wagena found potentially 20 to 30 percent more streamflow available in the region in the coming decades.

One potential problem that the analysis identified was increased sediment transport in the rivers due to increased water flow. The increased sediment has the potential to reduce the capacity of reservoirs and dams, making massive hydroelectric projects like Ethiopia's largest dam currently under construction, the Grand Renascence Dam, less efficient in storing the 65 billion cubic meters of water that could potentially turn its turbines.

"Greater water availability is certainly a positive outcome, but this is countered by more sediment. One way to combat that is through installing conservation practices on farms, for instance using cover crops and low- and no-till planting methods to make the soil healthier, more stable, and reduce erosion," said Easton.

While climate change is and will continue to cause untold problems, nuances in climate-induced weather events could benefit the Blue Nile Basin with increased rainfall in the area.

"It's interesting, because much of the Blue Nile Basin is well above 5,000 feet in elevation, giving it pretty much an ideal climate for agriculture with low humidity, low disease and pest pressure, and potentially great water availability, which could spur development," said Easton.

Science Daily. 2016. “Climate change may help Ethiopia, increase the country's access to water”. Science Daily. Posted: October 12, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Bronze Age city discovered in Northern Iraq

Archaeologists from the Institute for Ancient Near Eastern Studies (IANES) at the University of Tübingen have uncovered a large Bronze Age city not far from the town of Dohuk in northern Iraq. The excavation work has demonstrated that the settlement, which is now home to the small Kurdish village of Bassetki in the Autonomous Region of Kurdistan, was established in about 3000 BC and was able to flourish for more than 1200 years. The archaeologists also discovered settlement layers dating from the Akkadian Empire period (2340-2200 BC), which is regarded as the first world empire in human history.

Scientists headed by Professor Peter Pfälzner from the University of Tübingen and Dr. Hasan Qasim from the Directorate of Antiquities in Dohuk conducted the excavation work in Bassetki between August and October 2016. As a result, they were able to preempt the construction work on a highway on this land.

The former significance of the settlement can be seen from the finds discovered during the excavation work. The city already had a wall running around the upper part of the town from approx. 2700 BC onwards in order to protect its residents from invaders. Large stone structures were erected there in about 1800 BC. The researchers also found fragments of Assyrian cuneiform tablets dating from about 1300 BC, which suggested the existence of a temple dedicated to the Mesopotamian weather god Adad on this site. There was a lower town about one kilometre long outside the city centre. Using geomagnetic resistance measurements, the archaeologists discovered indications of an extensive road network, various residential districts, grand houses and a kind of palatial building dating from the Bronze Age. The residents buried their dead at a cemetery outside the city.

The settlement was connected to the neighbouring regions of Mesopotamia and Anatolia via an overland roadway dating from about 1800 BC.

Bassetki was only known to the general public in the past because of the “Bassetki statue,” which was discovered there by chance in 1975. This is a fragment of a bronze figure of the Akkadian god-king Naram-Sin (about 2250 BC). The discovery was stolen from the National Museum in Baghdad during the Iraq War in 2003, but was later rediscovered by US soldiers. Up until now, researchers were unable to explain the location of the find. The archaeologists have now been able to substantiate their assumption that an important outpost of Akkadian culture may have been located there.

Although the excavation site is only 45 kilometres from territory controlled by the IS, it was possible to conduct the archeological work without any disturbances. “The protection of our employees is always our top priority. Despite the geographical proximity to IS, there’s a great deal of security and stability in the Kurdish autonomous areas in Iraq,” said Professor Peter Pfälzner, Director of the Department of Near Eastern Archaeology at the IANES of the University of Tübingen. The research team consisting of 30 people lived in the city of Dohuk, which is only 60 kilometres north of Mosul, during the excavation work.

In another project being handled by the “ResourceCultures” collaborative research centre (SFB 1070), Pfälzner’s team has been completing an archaeological inspection of territory in the complete area surrounding Bassetki as far as the Turkish and Syrian borders since 2013 – and 300 previously unknown sites have been discovered. The excavations and the research work in the region are due to be continued during the summer of 2017. “The area around Bassetki is proving to be an unexpectedly rich cultural region, which was located at the crossroads of communication ways between the Mesopotamian, Syrian and Anatolian cultures during the Bronze Age. We’re therefore planning to establish a long-term archaeological research project in the region in conjunction with our Kurdish colleagues,” says Pfälzner. The excavation work is being funded by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Bronze Age city discovered in Northern Iraq”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 4, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Volunteering may have benefits for memory among older adults

A new research study has shown that volunteering regularly over time may have benefits for older adults. The study was published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Older adult volunteers can help address many community needs. This study shows that older adults who volunteer, for example, enjoy better emotional and physical health, and even tend to live longer than non-volunteers do. And there is a huge economic upside to volunteering: the volunteer work that older adults perform generates some $162 billion dollars toward the U.S. economy every year.

In this new study, Arizona State University researchers examined information collected from more than 13,000 people aged 60 and older between 1998 and 2012. At the beginning of the study and at two-year intervals, the research team asked participants if they'd spent any time in the past 12 months doing volunteer work for religious, educational, health-related, or other charitable organizations.

Researchers tested participants' abilities to remember, learn, concentrate, and make decisions. Participants were asked if they smoked, exercised, or had problems performing common daily activities. The researchers also collected information about the participants' physical health and whether they had symptoms of depression.

After analyzing the information gathered over the 14-year period, the researchers reported that older adults who volunteered--even at a single point in time--showed a decreased risk for developing cognitive problems, even if they had other risk factors for cognitive impairment, such as smoking or being inactive.

People who volunteered regularly reduced their chances for developing cognitive problems by 27 percent.

The researchers stressed the need for more studies focusing on the benefits of volunteering for older adults. Specifically, studies examining why volunteering reduces one's risk for memory problems would be particularly useful, they said. The researchers also suggested that geriatrics healthcare professionals might consider writing "prescriptions to volunteer" for older adults under care.

"The benefits of volunteering extend beyond emotional and physical health. Volunteering helps people preserve their memory and their ability to think and make decisions as they age. Furthermore, our study shows that even for older adults who have never volunteered, newly engaging in volunteering over time also shows positive benefits," said study co-author Frank J. Infurna, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Psychology, Arizona State University.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Volunteering may have benefits for memory among older adults”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 5, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

NYC launches archaeological repository and digital archive

Nearly 1 million antiquities including ceramics, a bayonet, perfume and medicine bottles—even a 200-year-old douche device—have been unearthed at construction sites in New York City, artifacts that help shed light on local history and the people who once lived there.

Excavated from 31 sites across the city's five boroughs, the objects—frequently in fragments—had been stored for decades at 14 locations across the city—until now.

On Wednesday, the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission unveiled a climate-controlled repository where all the specimens are housed under one roof. It also launched an online database of the archaeological finds that have been cataloged and photographed in partnership with the Museum of the City of New York.

The 1,400-square-foot archaeological repository in the basement of an office tower in midtown Manhattan is lined with shelves containing more than 1,500 antiquities-filled boxes and about two dozen objects on view. The collection will be open only by appointment to researchers, scholars and anyone interested.

"They run the gamut," said Commission Chair Meenakshi Srinivasan. "There are artifacts that go back thousands of years or you have more recent finds from the late 19th and early 20th century."

The artifacts range from a hunter's spear point used to kill animals from 8,000 years ago, excavated in College Point, Queens, to an early 20th century toy teacup discovered in Battery Park in Lower Manhattan.

What makes the repository particularly fascinating is that it contains objects New Yorkers used in their daily life, said Srinivasan.

"These artifacts tell us about what people did at that time, what kinds of objects they used. They tell you about their lifestyles, about their eating habits and occupations," she said. They show "New York was extremely diverse."

The project to move the objects to a central location started in 2014, when the city first announced the creation of an archaeological repository named The Nan A. Rothschild Research Center in 2014. It's named after an urban archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Columbia University who has directed several New York City excavations.

The archaeological collections started in 1979 after the city's environmental review law went into effect, requiring any development to consider the impact on archaeology.

Among other objects in the repository are 19-century marbles, hand-rolled from clay or made from stone, found in City Hall Park, which then housed barracks, prisons and almshouses. There are "health and beauty" items from the 1800s found near the Van Cortlandt Manor in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx, likely discarded when the property was being transformed into a city park in 1889. There are cold cream jars, a "hair invigorator" bottle and medicine bottles that contained high levels of opiates in an era of no regulatory oversight.

Among the more unusual finds is a device made of cow bone that women used for douches. It was unearthed near City Hall. Dog bones were found in College Point, Queens, in the 1930s. Researchers determined the canine was buried by Native Americans more than 1,000 years ago, suggesting that dogs were considered not only for hunting but also as afterlife companions.

All the objects have been studied by archaeologists, said Amanda Sutphin, the commission's director of archaeology. "Understanding how we've evolved and how some of our issues are the same is really fascinating," she said. "It can offer lessons for today and tomorrow."
Reference: 2016. “NYC launches archaeological repository and digital archive”. Posted: October 5, 2016. Available online:

Monday, December 19, 2016

Mathematicians can now predict your social networks

Mathematicians have developed a formula that can describe our interactions with the people around us.

The discovery could improve models to predict human behaviour, which can improve our understanding of how epidemics spread or improve town planning.

“For the first time in history, we can now study social networks on a large scale and learn more about them,” says co-author Sune Lehmann from the Department of Applied Mathematics and Computer Science at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU).

“Until now, no one had really gotten down to the mathematical core of it--but now we have, and it opens up for new modelling options,” he says.

The results are published in the scientific journal PNAS.

Thousands of articles on social networks

We all take part in social networks. It could be in a football club, at the work place, meeting old school friends, and so on.

There are many reasons why scientists want to understand the mathematics behind social behaviour. For example, by understanding patterns of behaviour, scientists can understand how quickly infections can be transmitted and ultimately how epidemics spread.

But until now, maths had fallen short of being able to describe these complex networks.

To change that, Lehmann devised an experiment involving 1,000 undergraduate freshmen from the Technical University of Denmark.

They all received a mobile phone, which tracked their whereabouts for 2.5 years. Even more, it recorded who the students spoke to, who they socialised with on Facebook, and who they met out in the real word.

All of this was possible with the telephones inbuilt apps, GPS, and Bluetooth.

Lehmann and his team amassed a gigantic dataset, which contained data on all of the students’ social interactions.

“The idea was to see if we could learn something from looking at all of these data channels simultaneously, and not just what people did on Facebook, or who they spoke with on the phone,” says Lehmann. “We have all of this in the dataset alongside data on when people met each other face to face.”

Time is important

Using all of this data, Lehmann and colleagues were able to mathematically describe the students’ social network dynamics.

They discovered that time resolution of the data was an important factor to understand the complex networks.

Without this temporal framework, the data becomes a mass of social interactions, which does not yield much useful information. So the scientists broke the data up into 15 minute time intervals.

In doing so, they could see how one person interacts with their friends at a given time of the day, without having to analyse everyone’s social connections at the same time.

“It’s been a hard nut to crack because we were studying the entire network over long time intervals. So the picture was too muddy. We find that you don’t need to search after all these groups in the entire network. If you just look at the data in short snippets of 15 minutes, then it all falls into place, and you can observe the groups directly,” says Lehmann.

The results also show how each individual student forms a part of different social groups.

It could be specific courses, reading groups, pub meet ups, or sports teams. Often these groups overlap with one another.

Sjøgren, Kristian. 2016. “Mathematicians can now predict your social networks”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 20, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, December 18, 2016

New analysis sheds light on Zika virus evolution, spread

In a study published in Pathogens and Global Health, researchers have modelled the evolutionary development and diversity of the Zika virus to better understand how infection spreads between populations and how the virus reacts with the immune system. Such an understanding is essential if an effective vaccine is to be developed.

First found in Uganda in 1947, Zika is the newest discovery among a group of mosquito-transmitted viruses known as flaviviruses. It is an emerging threat in South and Central America and the Caribbean, with the recent Brazilian epidemic resulting in 440,000-1,300,000 cases and spreading to more than thirteen other countries.

While infected people usually show no symptoms, these can include fever, rash, joint pain or conjunctivitis. In addition, the Brazilian outbreak indicated Zika might cause fetal losses in pregnant women or microcephaly in infants born to infected women.

Dr. Silvia Angeletti from the University Campus Bio-Medico, Rome, and colleagues, carried out evolutionary analysis of the virus combined with homology (shared ancestry) modelling and T- and B-cells epitope prediction, which aims to determine how immune system responses cause the virus to react and change.

Their analysis revealed two distinct genotypes of the virus, African and Asiatic, and two separate clades (biological groupings that include a common ancestor and all the descendants of that ancestor). Clade I represented African gene sequences and Clade II, sequences of Asiatic and Brazilian origin.

The Brazilian sequences were found to be closely related to a sequence from French Polynesia. This lends support to the hypothesis that the virus might have been introduced to Brazil during the Va'a World Sprint Canoeing Championship in Rio de Janeiro in 2014, which included a team from French Polynesia, rather than the World Cup in which no teams from Pacific countries participated.

Among the factors that influence Zika infection, 'antigenic variability' (the way the virus alters its surface proteins to evade the host's immune response) and pre-existing immunity caused by cross-reactions with other viruses might play an important role. Such cross-reactions also make diagnosis of Zika infection unreliable, and could thus facilitate the spread of the virus.

"Understanding the differences and similarities between Zika and other flaviviruses, such as the dengue fever and chikungunya viruses, is essential if effective drugs, vaccines and Zika-specific immunological tests for large population screening are to be designed," the authors say.

Science Daily. 2016. “New analysis sheds light on Zika virus evolution, spread”. Science Daily. Posted: October 12, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Ancient burials suggestive of blood feuds

There is significant variation in how different cultures over time have dealt with the dead. Yet, at a very basic level, funerals in the Sonoran Desert thousands of years ago were similar to what they are today. Bodies of the deceased were buried respectfully, while families and mourners followed certain customs to honour lives lost.

At least, most of the time.

In some cases, however, the dead received far less reverential treatment. Instead, bodies were tossed haphazardly, headfirst, into their eternal resting place, sometimes sustaining post-mortem injuries on top of an often already violent death.

These atypical burials are of interest to University of Arizona bioarchaeologist James Watson, whose study of ancient graves is providing new insight into the social and biological factors that might have motivated violent killings and statement-making burials in the Southwest’s Early Agricultural Period, and how some of the same factors may still be relevant today.

Watson’s new research, which analyzed a series of atypical burial sites in the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico between 2100 B.C. and A.D. 50, is published in the journal Current Anthropology. It was co-authored by UA anthropology doctoral student Danielle O. Phelps.

The burials Watson analyzed showed evidence of a violent end; skeletal remains often included broken bones or projectile points indicating a shooting death. Yet the position of the bodies in their graves was the most telling. Awkwardly splayed or deposited in the ground headfirst, they clearly were not given customary burial treatment, in which they would have been arranged in a flexed position on their sides. The burials also lacked other standard funerary features of the time, which would have been present had the bodies been interred by family members.

“These people were buried very differently than the rest of the community, and we’re trying to understand why that is,” said Watson, UA associate professor of anthropology and associate director and associate curator at the Arizona State Museum. “We’re arguing that the way they were tossed into these pits is a form of continued desecration of the body. It’s moving from violence on the living individual, through to the process of death, to violence on the corpse.”

So-called atypical burials often are associated with victims of “bad deaths” — deaths described as unnatural, unplanned or “evil” in nature, Watson said. A common theory in the geographical area where Watson works is that the bodies belong to those accused of witchcraft. Yet, given that the corpses were not dismembered in the way suspected witches’ historically were, Watson offers an alternative explanation.

In his paper, he argues that these bodies may have been the victims of blood feuds, or family feuds, during a time when the population was experiencing some serious growing pains. He further suggests that the violence of these ongoing blood feuds may have become enculturated, or ingrained, in certain communities.

“This was right when agriculture came into the area, and these were the earliest villages, so we think that some of this violence comes from growing pains, as villages are established and people are claiming territory and farming the desert river valleys,” Watson said. “Social tensions develop between communities, or even within communities, and end up boiling over into violence.”

At the root of that violence may be a desire to win prestige, which in turn has important biological implications, even though the perpetrator of violence may not be consciously thinking about those implications, Watson said.

“Prestige has a potential to confer biological benefits, in the sense that you can gain access to power and wealth, including wives, and have more offspring, so there is a level of biological fitness there,” he said.

But why the brutal handling of bodies after death?

Watson uses evolutionary biology’s “costly signaling theory” to explain what might be behind the ruthless post-mortem treatment.

Costly signaling theory is the idea that all animals exhibit certain behaviors and physical traits that are simultaneously advantageous and risky. For example, male birds often have colorful plumage to attract females, which is biologically beneficial, as it will result in more offspring. At the same time, the bright feathers could be costly, as they also make the birds more visible to predators.

Watson suggests that violent killings followed by disrespectful burials similarly send a strong signal — one asserting power and dominance. This signal has the potential benefit of attracting prestige, and the wives and children that come with it, but it also comes with significant risk of retaliation by the victim’s family.

“By creating these atypical burials — where they’re basically desecrating the bodies of the people killed — they’re signaling their prowess to gain status, but it’s at a very significant potential cost, and that is either their life or lives in their community or family,” Watson said.

While Watson’s work focuses on violence that occurred 2,000 to 4,000 years in the past, he suggests costly signaling theory might also be applied in the context of modern-day violence.

“With some of the issues that we’re seeing today — like increased violence and murders in a lot of cities, police shootings, retaliation upon police — a lot of kids are growing up in a culture of violence in certain communities, and they’re learning different values on how to interact with their environment because of the disadvantages that they have,” Watson said.

“They gain status because they’re good at being violent; that’s how you gain respect, then along with that comes advantages — wealth, women and offspring, potentially. There is a biological imperative to signal that they are worthy of the status they’re trying to earn.“

Past Horizons. 2016. “Ancient burials suggestive of blood feuds”. Past Horizons. Posted: October 26, 2016. Available online:

Friday, December 16, 2016

Here's looking at you -- finding allies through facial cues

After being on the losing side of a fight, men seek out other allies with a look of rugged dominance about them to ensure a backup in case of future fights. Women in similar situations however, prefer to seek solace from allies whose faces suggest they can provide emotional support. There is an evolutionary root to the differences in how men and women seek out allies and it is driven by the need for social survival in the long run. This is according to UK researchers Christopher Watkins of Abertay University and Benedict Jones of the University of Glasgow, in Springer's journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology.

Alliance formation refers to the tendency among people to team up in pursuit of a common goal. It is an important facet of social intelligence among humans and other species. Not much is known however about the cognitive processes that come into play when people choose allies within different social settings - and whether 'minimal information', such as snap judgments made about someone based on how their face looks, is used in our assessments of suitable allies.

Watkins and Jones tested how people associate specific facial cues with suitability as an ally in the aftermath of specific social experiences. To find out if there are specific gender differences to this, the researchers analyzed the responses of 246 young adults who completed an online experiment. Participants were first asked to visualize themselves either winning or losing one of two situations: a physical fight or a contest for promotion with a same-sex rival. They were then shown 20 pairs of male and female faces. These photographs were manipulated using computer graphic methods so that each pair consisted of a masculine and a feminine version of the same individual. On each trial, participants had to choose who they judge to be the better ally from looking at their facial characteristics alone.

In general men preferred masculine men as allies, in contrast to women who did not prefer masculine or feminine-looking faces when judging men as possible allies. However, feminine-looking women were preferred as allies by both men and women. According to Watkins and Jones, these general social preferences may have an evolutionary basis. Alliances with dominant men might benefitted ancestral males when competing against rival groups and improved the social rank of the male who selected a dominant ally.

"Our results suggest that there are sex-specific responses to facial characteristics which are flexible and change in light of a recent experience of confrontation," says Watkins. While men's preferences for dominant-looking allies were stronger after a loss compared to a win in a violent confrontation with another male, women's preferences for dominant-looking allies were weaker after a loss compared to a win in a violent confrontation with another female.

"These findings suggest that intra-sexual selection, in part, has shaped the evolution of social intelligence in humans as revealed by flexibility in social preferences for allies," say Watkins and Jones.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Here's looking at you -- finding allies through facial cues”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 5, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Research to answer a 'crushing' evolutionary question

Studying the physical features of long-extinct creatures continues to yield surprising new knowledge of how evolution fosters traits desirable for survival in diverse environments. Placodonts are a case in point—specifically, the placodont teeth that Stephanie Crofts, an NJIT post-doctoral researcher, has written about in an article recently published in the journal Paleobiology. Now working with Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences Brooke Flammang in her Central King Building lab, Crofts is the co-author of "Tooth occlusal morphology in the durophagous marine reptiles, Placodontia (Reptilia: Sauropterygia)."

Placodonts, a group of extinct marine reptiles, lived at the beginning of the Triassic Period, the beginning of the age of dinosaurs, some 250 million years ago. They thrived in the shallows of the sea that split the ancient supercontinent Pangea. Their fossils have been found in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, and new specimens are being discovered in China.

All placodonts have teeth on their upper and lower jaws, as well as a set of teeth lining the roof of the mouth. But over their evolutionary history, Crofts explains, placodonts developed specialized "crushing" teeth well-suited for eating the "hard prey" creatures that shared their environment—creatures with thick shells, like clams or mussels.

The evolutionary ancestors of placodonts had long, pointy teeth, even on the roof of the mouth, especially suitable for catching soft-bodied prey. In contrast, placodonts are easily identified by their crushing teeth, bulbous in early placodonts and flattened in species that occur later in the evolutionary lineage. The basic question for Crofts: How well did these teeth function, and did later placodonts achieve an "optimal" crushing tooth?

International Investigation

Working with and international team of colleagues she met before joining NJIT in 2016, Crofts, traveled to museums throughout Europe to collect data on the shape of placodont teeth. Crofts' collaborators were James Neenan, a research fellow at the Oxford Museum of Natural History in England, Torsten Scheyer, associate professor at the University of Zurich's Palaeontological Institute and Museum, and Adam Summers, professor in the University of Washington's Department of Biology and head of the comparative vertebrate biomechanics lab at the university's marine field station, Friday Harbor Laboratories. Their investigative effort was made possible by funding from the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, the University of Washington, the National Science Foundation and Swiss National Science Foundation.

In the course of her travel, Crofts compared the shapes of placodont teeth in the museum collections to models that tested how efficiently the teeth would break shells and how well they resisted breaking under pressure. Based on these models, Crofts and her team were able to predict that placodonts should have evolved a slightly rounded tooth surface, which would break shells efficiently without damaging the tooth itself. While some later occurring placodonts did just that, evolution equipped the latest known occurrences of these creatures with teeth that had quite different and very intriguing characteristics.

Instead of the predicted optimal tooth, this group of placodonts developed a complex tooth surface with a shallow, crescent-shaped furrow surrounding a small cusp on the principal crushing teeth. As Crofts and her collaborators suggest in the Paleobiology article, this tooth structure may have worked in a way similar to the function proposed for early hominin molars—with the furrow holding prey in place while the small cusp applies the force needed to break through the prey's shell. Further, Neenan and Scheyer have demonstrated that there is a slower rate of tooth replacement in this same group of placodonts, likely because changes in tooth shape protect the tooth from failure.

Palaeontological Perspectives

Crofts, who completed her Ph.D. at the University of Washington in 2016, brings a paleontological perspective and interest in the evolution of functional morphology to the increasing range of research under way in Flammang's Fluid Locomotion Laboratory. Flammang is the founding director of the lab, and with the assistance of Crofts and other colleagues is taking a multidisciplinary look at nature's marine propulsion systems. Crofts became interested in the postdoc position available at NJIT when she met Flammang while both were taking a course at Brown University on X-Ray Reconstruction of Moving Morphology (XROMM), an advanced technique for producing highly detailed 3D video of skeletal movement.

Crofts' current work at NJIT integrates comparative anatomy and physiology, biomechanics, hydrodynamics, and the use of biologically inspired robotic devices to investigate how aquatic organisms interact with their environment and drive the evolution of morphology and function. In addition to increasing the fund of basic scientific knowledge, it's work that has implications for the design of various types of submersible vehicles, including fully autonomous vehicles.

Reflecting on her research involving placodonts, Crofts says that it is a "window into the complexities and possibilities" inherent to the process of evolution. The placodonts she studied and wrote about surprised with teeth differing very significantly from those which evolved in other related species. At NJIT, Crofts is continuing the search for new insights into how evolution shapes the functional relationship of all creatures—including humans—with the surrounding world.
Reference: 2016. “Research to answer a 'crushing' evolutionary question”. Posted: October 5, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What colour did the Vikings paint their houses?

Did Vikings paint their houses white or red? Which colours were popular, and when?

These questions were the focus of a furious debate among researchers during a seminar entitled “Colourful Vikings” hosted by the Centre for Historical-Archaelogical Research and Communication in Denmark (as also known as Sagnlandet Lejre).

Archaeologists at Sagnlandet Lejre are currently reconstructing a full sized royal Viking hall.

When finished, it will measure 60 metres long, be slightly oval shaped, and built from planks of oak. But exactly what colours the original hall was painted with, remains a mystery.

Eighteenth century preservationist repainted Viking objects

Archaeologists have found a range of wooden Viking objects that have retained some colour, and preserve some evidence of the fashions of the day. But even so, we cannot be completely sure about the exact colours used, says Mads Christensen, a chemist from the National Museum of Denmark.

He refers to objects found in the tomb of Gorm the Old, one of Denmark’s earliest kings, in west Denmark.

“Various wooden objects found in Gorm the Old’s tomb in Jelling were probably painted with white, red, green, black, and yellow. They’re dated to around 960 CE,” says Christensen.

The colours of these 1,000-year-old pieces of timber are no longer visible, but Christensen was able to chemically extract traces of pigment from the wood. But he still cannot tell how intense the original colours might have been.

“We can determine that the colours were there, but we can’t tell how intense they were,” he says.

On top of this, the objects were likely repainted with a protective layer by a well-meaning conservationist in the eighteenth century, which somewhat muddles the results.

Kusnitzoff, Johanne Uhrenholt. 2016. “What colour did the Vikings paint their houses?”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 16, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

In the workplace, incivility begets incivility, new study shows

Incivil behaviors at work -- put-downs, sarcasm and other condescending comments -- tend to have a contagious effect, according to a new study by a management professor at the University of Arkansas and several colleagues.

Incivil behaviors are less serious than openly hostile behavior such as bullying, harassment and threats, but incivil behaviors are also more frequent in the workplace and have a significant effect on employees, the study found.

"And it's probably costing companies a lot more money," said Chris Rosen, professor of management in the Sam M. Walton College of Business. "Estimates are that workplace incivility has doubled over the past two decades and on average costs companies about $14,000 per employee annually because of loss of production and work time."

Rosen and his colleagues surveyed 70 employees. Three times a day for 10 consecutive workdays, the employees answered questions and completed performance-based tasks that allowed the researchers to study how and why acts of incivility are contagious in business organizations.

The researchers found that experiencing rude behavior increased mental fatigue, which reduced employees' self-control and led them to act in a similar, incivil manner later in the day. These "incivility spirals" occurred unintentionally and predominantly in workplaces that were perceived as "political," which was defined as an environment where workers do what is best for them and not best for the organization.

"Basically, incivility begets incivility," said Rosen. "And our findings verify that these contagion effects occur within very short, even daily cycles."

To reduce perceptions of politics at work, the researchers suggested that managers provide clear feedback to employees regarding the types of behaviors that are desired. This practice can be accomplished informally, by enhancing the quality of feedback during day-to-day interactions, or formally through performance evaluations.

The researchers' study was published in the June issue of Journal of Applied Psychology.

Science Daily. 2016. “In the workplace, incivility begets incivility, new study shows”. Science Daily. Posted: October 12, 2016. Available online:

Monday, December 12, 2016

Early evidence of heating stone to enhance flaking qualities

According to a new study published in PLOS ONE (open access), humans living in South Africa in the Middle Stone Age after 65,000 years ago deliberately heated silcrete, a hard, fine-grained, local rock used in stone tool manufacture, so that they could more easily obtain blades from the core material.

A major effect on hunting

These blades were then crescent shaped and glued into arrow heads. This era, known as the Howiesons Poort, has produced the first known evidence for the use of the bow and arrow.

“This is the first time anywhere that bows and arrows were used. This would have had a major effect on hunting practices as both spears and bow and arrow could be used to hunt animals,” says Professor Christopher Henshilwood. He and Postdoctoral Fellow Karen van Niekerk, from the Department of Archaeology, History, Cultural Studies and Religion at the University of Bergen (UiB) in Norway, are among the co-authors of the study.

Creating early transformative technology

The heat treatment enabled early humans to produce tougher, harder tools – the first evidence of a transformative technology. However, the exact role of this important development in the Middle Stone Age technological repertoire was not previously clear.

Novel analytical research approach

Delagnes, Henshilwood, van Niekerk and the rest of the research team, from South Africa and Germany, used a novel non-destructive approach to analyse the heating technique used in the production of silcrete artefacts at the Klipdrift Shelter, a recently discovered Middle Stone Age site located on the southern Cape of South Africa, including unheated and heat-treated comparable silcrete samples from 31 locations around the site. The site was discovered by Henshilwood and van Niekerk and first excavated in 2011.

“Based on the development of a non-destructive method using geological heated and unheated comparative reference samples, we have shown that more than 90 per cent of the silcrete used for the production of blades has been intentionally heated,” says Henshilwood.

“Heating was applied, non-randomly, at an early stage of core exploitation and was sometimes preceded by an initial knapping stage. As a consequence, the whole operational chain, from core preparation to blade production and tool manufacturing, benefited from the advantages of the heating process,” explains van Niekerk.

The hardening, toughening effect of the heating step would therefore have impacted all subsequent stages of silcrete tool production and use.

Heat treatment: a major asset

The authors suggest that silcrete heat treatment at the Klipdrift Shelter may provide the first direct evidence of the intentional and extensive use of fire applied to a whole lithic chain of production. Along with other fire-based activities, intentional heat treatment was a major asset for Middle Stone Age humans in southern Africa, and has no known contemporaneous equivalent elsewhere.

“The advantages of the heating process are multiple: by reducing the material’s fracture toughness and increasing its hardness, less force was needed to detach blades after heat treatment, resulting in better control and precision during percussion,” explains Henshilwood.

“An additional advantage relates to the heat-induced fracturing of the silcrete blocks at an early stage of core exploitation,” adds van Niekerk.

Three main benefits

According to the researchers this resulted in three main benefits:

  • 1 The elimination of internal heterogeneities (iron oxide inclusions), which could have caused the incidental breakage of the core at an advanced stage of reduction.
  • 2 The production of angular fragments with suitable angles and surfaces that can be directly exploited for knapping without further preparation.
  • 3 Fewer constraints on the selection of the volumes to be heat-treated.

“The heat-induced fractures we observed are indicative of a fast heating process using open fires, an hypothesis which is strengthened by the presence of tempering residues, deposited through direct contact of the heated material with glowing embers,” says van Niekerk.

“This heating process marks the emergence of fire engineering as a response to a variety of needs that largely transcend hominin basic subsistence requirements, although it did not require highly specialized technical skills and was likely performed as part of on-site domestic activities,” says Henshilwood.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Early evidence of heating stone to enhance flaking qualities”. Past Horizons. Posted: October 22, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Archaeogenetics reveals unknown migration in the South Pacific

Archaeogenetic analysis points towards settlers from Melanesia

Only some 3500 years ago people began to colonize the South Pacific archipelagos of Oceania. An international team of researchers including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena now analyzed for the first time, the genomes of the first settlers who lived on the island chains Tonga and Vanuatu 3100-2500 years ago. The results, published today in Nature contradict common assumptions about the colonization of the region and point to another large and previously unknown migration wave from Melanesia.

A group of people set out from the Solomon Island chain in the southwestern edge of the Pacific Ocean and steered their outrigger canoes toward the horizon more than 3,500 years ago. These people and their descendants were to be the first to cross more than 350 kilometer stretches of open sea into a region known as Remote Oceania. It was the last great movement of humans to unoccupied but habitable lands.

Now a scientific team led by researchers at Harvard Medical School, University College Dublin, and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena for the first time have analyzed DNA from people who lived in Tonga and Vanuatu between 2,500 and 3,100 years ago, and were among the first people to live on these islands.

"This is the first genome-wide data on prehistoric humans from the hot tropics, and was made possible by improved methods for preparing skeletal remains" says Ron Pinhasi at University College Dublin, a senior author of the study. "DNA gets degrades very quickly in tropical climates, however we found that in the very dense inner ear bone, called the petrous bone, DNA is well preserved even under such adverse environmental conditions for thousands of years," says Cosimo Posth, doctoral student at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.

Genetic evidence overturn established colonization model

The result of genetic analysis was a big surprise for the research team: the ancient individuals carried no trace of ancestry from people who settled Papua New Guinea more than 40,000 years ago, in contrast to all present-day Pacific islanders who derive at least one-quarter of their ancestry from Papuans. Instead, the early islanders resemble genetically people who live in China and Taiwan. This means - contrary to previous assumptions - that the Remote Oceanian pioneers swept past the archipelago that surrounds New Guinea without much mating with local people.

"A major and not previously recognized migration must have spread the Papuan ancestry that is found everywhere in the Pacific today " says David Reich, a senior author at Harvard Medical School and at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

"The unexpected results about Oceanian history highlight the power of ancient DNA to overthrow established models of the human past", says Johannes Krause, Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena.

"A particularly striking finding is the different ancestry observed on the X-chromosome, which is inherited mainly from females" says lead author Pontus Skoglund of Harvard Medical School and Stockholm University. "This reveals that the vast majority of the ancestry from these open water pioneers that survives today is derived from females, showing how DNA information can provide insights into cultural processes in ancient societies".

EurekAlert. 2016. “Archaeogenetics reveals unknown migration in the South Pacific”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 4, 2016. Available online: