Sunday, January 22, 2017

Mapping the elephant ivory trade: New evidence revealed

Archaeologists from the University of York have conducted pioneering analysis on historic ivory, revealing where East African elephants roamed and where they were hunted in the 19th century.

Eastern Africa has been a major source of elephant ivory for millennia, with a sharp increase in trade witnessed during the 19thcentury fuelled by escalating demand from Europe and North America.

Desirable objects such as cutlery-handles, piano keys and billiard balls drove the extension of global trade networks and the industrialisation of the ivory-working industry. However, little was previously known about the precise origins of the hunted elephants and the trade-routes of primary suppliers at the time.

Conducting isotope analysis on historic East African ivory and skeletal remains, providing information about an elephant's diet and therefore likely habitat, scientists were able to determine the origin of previously un-localised ivory and map elephant geography in the region.

They found that ivory samples traded after 1890 match values of elephants living in forested interior regions of East Africa.

This supports previous evidence suggesting that an increase in hunting resulted in the eradication of elephants from along the coast of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania by the mid-19thcentury, driving trade inland.

Dr Ashley Coutu, lead researcher on the study and a Marie Curie Outgoing Global Fellow between York's Department of Archaeology and the University of Cape Town, South Africa, said: "Our results shed light on the significant historic ecological and socio-economic impact of the ivory trade, in addition to informing contemporary elephant conservation strategies.

"Today, elephants live in national parks and game reserves in these same landscapes, but are more restricted in terms of their movement than they would have been in the 19th century. Our database provides information on the historical ecology of these animals before there were regulations on their protection. By understanding elephant movement in the past, our research could potentially provide data to improve wildlife corridors for the movement of elephants between national parks and game reserves, which can often cause human-elephant conflict in these regions."

Professor Matthew Collins, Founder of BioArCh at York's Department of Archaeology and co-author of the paper, added: "Our findings help us to understand the interactions between humans and elephants during a time when there was an exponential demand for ivory from this region of Africa.

"Isotope and DNA analysis is often used to track the source of illegal ivory today. Our database of isotope values for both modern and historic East African elephants will add to the body of growing data to help us understand and track elephant populations on the African continent."

Science Daily. Past Horizons. 2016. “Mapping the elephant ivory trade: New evidence revealed”. Science Daily. Posted: October 19, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The fight against deforestation: Why are Congolese farmers clearing forest?

Only a small share of Congolese villagers is the driving force behind most of the deforestation. They're not felling trees to feed their families, but to increase their quality of life. These findings are based on fieldwork by bioscience engineer Pieter Moonen from KU Leuven (University of Leuven), Belgium. They indicate that international programmes aiming to slow down tropical deforestation are not sufficiently taking local farmers into account.

Forests, and especially centuries-old primeval forests such as in the Congo Basin in Africa, are huge CO2 reservoirs. When trees are cut down, large amounts of greenhouse gases are released. This contributes to climate change - both regional and global.

The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is in the world's top five in terms of amount of deforested land per year. According to the government, this is mostly due to subsistence farming and population growth. The argument is that small farmers grow crops to feed their own families. As there is a rise in population, farmers have to keep on clearing forest to increase the area under cultivation.

Bioscience engineer Pieter Moonen is preparing a PhD on land use and climate change in the DRC. He examined whether subsistence farming really is the main culprit for deforestation. For a year, he did fieldwork in 27 Congolese villages and questioned 270 households in a survey about agriculture and deforestation.

"Most of the people surveyed are farmers, and only half of them deforest. A very small group is behind most of the deforestation. Their motive is not self-sufficiency, but earning money. After all, selling crops on the market is one of the few ways to get cash. They need this money to cover the increasing cost of education and health care or to buy western consumer goods. The image of the poor farmer felling trees to feed his family is therefore incorrect. The slightly richer farmers are the ones deforesting to sell their agricultural produce on the market- although 'rich' is very relative in this case." A second important motive for deforestation is the possibility to claim the land that has become available as your property.

These findings are important for the implementation of the United Nations REDD+ programme. REDD+ stands for reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. This initiative aims to slow down or end deforestation in developing countries by means of financial incentives.

"Now that the Paris Agreement on climate change is about to take effect, REDD+ is receiving a lot of attention. The Democratic Republic of Congo is interested in taking part: they want to fight deforestation in exchange for financial compensation. But their response to deforestation focuses too much on intensifying agriculture - increasing the amount of produce per hectare. The reasoning is that felling trees is no longer necessary if existing fields yield more produce. This is an effective strategy when dealing with subsistence farming, but it may have a perverse effect when applied to commercial agriculture. After all, it may stimulate the wealthier farmers to deforest more land, so that they have even more produce to sell. Therefore, without local support for forest preservation, the outcome of such interventions is very uncertain. In that case, we risk wasting money and valuable time with REDD+."

This study once again shows that a simple government approach to deforestation is not effective, Moonen continues. "A more effective and fair approach requires that you and the local communities reach a consensus on a sustainable system. This means that you have to agree on which areas are protected forest. You also have to set aside the necessary resources to support development: provide basic facilities and create opportunities to increase revenues, in the agricultural system and beyond."

EurekAlert. 2016. “The fight against deforestation: Why are Congolese farmers clearing forest?”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 21, 2016. Available online:

Friday, January 20, 2017

Recommendations for secure and sustainable European cultural landscapes

Following its final conference that took place in Brussels on 4 October 2016, the EU HERCULES consortium has provided stakeholders with a detailed set of policy recommendations that will preserve Europe's diverse heritage in cultural landscapes.

Over millennia, we have created and maintained cultural landscapes. They provide us with a variety of values and services that are essential for human societies to function and grow. These include cultural and recreational facilities, tourism opportunities, ecological and environmental knowledge, the ability to grow food, use medicinal resources, and extract raw materials. Cultural landscapes adapt over time, though with the dawn of the modern age, many have changed rapidly through factors such as deforestation and urbanisation. This has impacted their sustainability and raised concerns over the need to effectively preserve cultural heritage.

The three-year HERCULES project was formed to empower public and private actors to protect, manage, and plan for sustainable landscapes of significant cultural, historical, and archaeological value at local, national, and pan-European scales. But what exactly is a cultural landscape? The HERCULES project utilised the definition of landscape within the Council of Europe's European Landscape Convention (ELC): 'An area as perceived by people, whose character is the result of the action and interaction of natural and/or human factors.' At the heart of the ELC therefore is the premise that all places – be they natural, rural, urban and marine – are 'cultural landscapes', and are inherently dynamic.

A landscape approach to governance

Through their research, the HERCULES project team found that Europeans tend to feel that their landscapes are threatened, culturally, economically and environmentally. In Europe there tends to be a natural sense of conservatism with regards to the landscape and how it changes. Even in cases where landscapes were/are more or less stable, the team found that people still tended to believe that their landscape was threatened.

This is one of the key reasons as to why the project recommends a 'landscape approach' to environmental governance, an approach which is participative and transdisciplinary. This avoids the pitfalls of single-sector or single-discipline approaches and encourages the active participation of local citizens in finding the best means to not only protect and preserve their environment but also to help them embrace positive change to their landscapes.

Specifically from a policy perspective, the project recommends that EU policies impacting all land (urban, rural and marine) should be harmonised to avoid the ineffectiveness of policies that concentrate too narrowly on single sectors of economic land use, or that impact on sections of society that are too narrowly defined.

HERCULES also advocates that the landscape approach should be considered at every stage of the policy and decision-making process. This includes the development of policy areas and tools that have a direct or indirect bearing on the natural and/or human factors of the landscape.

A HERCULES Knowledge Hub to inform policymaking

The project team arrived at these recommendations by setting up nine 'study landscapes' that were located across Europe. They were selected to ensure a balanced representation of environmental and land use gradients within Europe and to encompass diverse European cultural landscapes. The data collected was also fed into the HERCULES 'Knowledge Hub', an online two-component system that allows users to view, explore, extrapolate and interact with the data collected from the nine sites.

The Hub also contains a wealth of further information that will be of great benefit to policymakers and other stakeholders, including examples of best practices for cultural landscape management, the lessons learnt from the 'Cultural Landscape Days' organised in five of the study landscapes, and evaluations of the potential threats to European cultural landscapes on a European scale.

With the project due to end in November 2016, HERCULES has been successful in bringing back landscapes to the forefront of the political agenda, arguing that an interdisciplinary and inclusive landscape approach is the best means to preserve Europe's vast cultural heritage and diverse environments.

Indeed the project has acted as a trailblazer, with further calls within the Horizon 2020 programme due in the near future for large demonstration projecting linking heritage and landscape preservation.
Reference: 2016. “Recommendations for secure and sustainable European cultural landscapes”. Posted: October 11, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Piecing together bits of Norway’s medieval history

The National Archives of Norway’s stores some of its property three stories underground, beneath 25 metres of granite bedrock. Walls are thick around the seemingly endless shelves of books and documents. Pipes full of cables and wiring feed into holes in the walls.  Before these perforations were made for electronics and power, the walls were capable of withstanding a nuclear attack.

A shower head protrudes incongruously from a white wall.  You would not like to see it drenching all this valuable paper and parchment. But of course it was designed for washing off radioactive fallout on any survivors if the Cold War got hot. The thick walls and the unused shower tell the story of an earlier era.

Much older stories are found down here. The shelves are packed with state documents that have been in the hands of the National Archives since the institution was founded in 1817. Here are protocols from the Fredrikshald [now Halden] Toll Station on the border with Sweden, for instance. Of course census figures and statistics are dominant, just as even the most ancient notations on clay tablets are often linked to taxation and book-keeping.

Fragments of history

Tor Weidling and Espen Karlsen are employed respectively by the National Archives of Norway and the National Library of Norway. Their assignment is to hunt for bits and pieces of documents.

They page through old ledger books, trying to find even older fragments of manuscripts and documents used to bind them. The ledgers were sent from Norway to Copenhagen in the 16th and 17th centuries, when Norwegians were under Danish rule.

The books full of accounting figures were made of animal skin, or parchment. When making a book, the pages of parchment were sewn together with strong thread. Sometimes these threads ripped the parchment. So pieces of older parchment were added as patches to prevent the books from coming apart at the spine.

It is these recycled fragments that Weidling and Karlsen spend their time fitting together. Some of them contain texts and comprise parts of older manuscripts.

Specifically, the project involves identifying remnants of a book collection from the old Halsnøy Abbey on the Hardangerfjord in Hordaland County. This abbey on the spectacular Norwegian west coast was founded in 1163 and was dissolved with the Reformation in 1536. To date the researchers have found documents comprising nearly 40 books.

“All we have from Halsnøy are these fragments that we have found,” says Karlsen.

Their discoveries are contributing to knowledge about the Middle Ages and Norway’s cultural history.

Made in Norway

Karlsen’s curiosity was roused when he noticed the difference in sizes among the fragments of parchment. While most of the fragments used to strengthen ledgers were little bits, the ones from Halsnøy were fortunately quite large.

Weidling and Karlsen are sure these fragments are from Norway, even though the ledgers were sent to Denmark and spent centuries there. One indication is the discovery of such fragments on Norwegian accounts that had never been shipped south to Denmark. This means the fragments were added to the ledgers in Norway. 

“We have not come across a single fragment which with any certitude was added in Copenhagen. But there are lots that undoubtedly were fitted to the books in Norway,” says Karlsen.

Weidling offers material from Norway’s Akershus County as an example. Feudal overlords, lensherrer in Norwegian, distributed various goods and materials to bailiffs, men in their employ who among other services acted as tax collectors. Each of these had their own way of binding these parchments together and different parts of the country had their disparate methods too. Documents from Akershus are thus physically discernible from documents originating in Bergen or Trondheim.

Weidling doubts that the Danes would have done things this way – using different methods of bookbinding for the different parts of Norway, especially as all of these are unlike the way Danes did these tasks in Denmark. 

The bits of documents from Akershus could come from different churches. There were numerous churches in the county, which covers extensive countryside and towns around Oslo. It is difficult to determine which churches the fragments come from.

It is easier in smaller and more isolated locations, which is why documents from Halsnøy Abbey stand out. It was rather distant and isolated from Bergen and other towns and communities, making it easier to determine exactly where the pieces come from. 

After the Reformation, the administration of the Halsnøy district housed itself in what had formerly been the Abbey, so it is easy to imagine that when old parchments were needed, administrators just took those left by the medieval men who had formed a monastic community living under the rule of St. Augustine.


The documents from Halsnøy Abbey were written in Latin, as were all the other bits and pieces that Weidling and Karlsen hunt down. Similar projects have run earlier with fragments of old Norse documents.

The recycled abbey documents were sometimes liturgical, mostly linked to church services. Song books are among them. Fortunately for posterity, as society and religion changed, things that were no longer of any use were not always discarded.

“This is definitely an example of recycling,” says Weidling.

Parchment came in a limited supply and even the elite in Norway who worked for the government centuries ago had to use it sparingly. It is a durable material but expensive, made from an inner layer of hides of calves or sheep. If large parchments were demanded the skin of a whole sheep was needed to make just one page. 

“The most extravagant I have heard of was a book made from 500 sheep,” says Karlsen.

So books were expensive. Of course the meat from the livestock did not go to waste, but plenty of skilled work went into making good parchment. To draw a comparison, the production of a book could represent a cost amounting to tens of thousands of dollars in today’s currency.

A century or two

The practice of recycling parchment was most common in the 16th and 17th centuries. From the mid-1600s it started to decline. 

“Some of the latest documents we have found using remnants from Halsnøy Abbey are from 1647,” says Karlsen.

As the 1700s approached, new parchment was used more often than old here on the Hardangerfjord. Weidling and Karlsen are not entirely sure why, but one explanation comes readily to mind.

“Perhaps the supply of medieval parchment manuscripts was depleted. Even at Halsnøy there had to be a limited number of them,” says Karlsen.

Einarsdóttir, Silja Björklund. 2016. “Piecing together bits of Norway’s medieval history”. Science Nordic. Posted: November 14, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Caribbean heritage under threat

Loss of cultural heritage first brings to mind the destruction in the Middle East. But in the Caribbean it is mainly natural processes such as coastal erosion and human interventions driven by economics that are damaging the local natural and cultural heritage. A conference is taking place on Bonaire on this issue.

Coastal erosion and climate change

In her work, Professor of the Archaeology of the Caribbean Region Corinne Hofman regularly comes into contact with threatened archaeological sites. As a result of climate change, natural disasters such as tropical storms and hurricanes are becoming more and more common in the Caribbean region, and coastal destruction and erosion are increasing. These phenomena pose a threat to archaeological sites in coastal areas. There are also threats motivated by economic considerations such as the construction of bungalow parks, golf courses and airports for tourists, as well as large-scale sand excavation.

Geopolitical diversity

Parts of the islands in the Caribbean fall under French, American or Dutch rule. But there are also a number of independent island states where Hofman and others are currently carrying out archaeological research. These include the Dominican Republic, St. Lucia, Grenada and St. Vincent. Hofman knows well those areas that are under threat. The photo at the top shows that the coastline at Morel has receded 30 t0 40 metres in the course of the past 45 years, and is coming very close to an archaeological site.

Netherlands should do more

The diverse types of government make it difficult to create a clear picture of all the threats. 'The French do a lot,' Hofmann commented from the Caribbean, 'and the Netherlands should do more.' She pointed out that Aruba, Curaçao and St Maarten are independent countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and Saba, St Eustatius and Bonaire are municipalities with a special status. One problem is that these islands do not have the financial means to take action themselves.

Multidisciplinary conference

From 18 to 21 October a major conference is taking place on Bonaire, organised by TNO in collaboration with the non-profit Planet Earth Foundation -- via the Earth Dynamics programme -- and the ERC-Synergy project NEXUS1492. The conference is an opportunity for marine biologists, geologists, ecologists and archaeologists from all parts of the world to come together with representatives from the Netherlands and the local authorities. 'This is the first time that the Netherlands has organised this kind of conference on the islands,' says Hofman. 'It's crucial that it's being held here so that the participants can see for themselves what is going on in the region. My aim from the viewpoint of NEXUS1492 is to highlight what man's influence on the environment in the Caribben has been from the first settlement by Indian communities in around 6,000 BC until the arrival of the Europeans. We're also focusing on the current threat to the cultural heritage from natural disasters and human intervention.'

You can't understand the past if you don't preserve and manage your heritage

'In our project,' Hofman explains, 'we're using archaeology to map the way the original Indian people lived. This conference is also a means of focusing attention on the need to preserve heritage sites, particularly those close to the coast. From the start of my career as an archaeologist, in parallel with my scientific research I've always worked to preserve and protect the cultural-archaeological heritage. You need access to that heritage to be able to reconstruct the past so that you can tell present and future generations about it.'

Science Daily. 2016. “Caribbean heritage under threat”. Science Daily. Posted: October 19, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Water sources key to Australia’s colonisation

Researchers from James Cook University assessed the position and permanency of water bodies to investigate early human migration across the continent.

“Australia is the driest inhabited continent on Earth and there is debate over when and which route it was colonised by its earliest people,” said Professor Michael Bird.

Aboriginal people initially arrived in Australia by 47,000 years ago, but it may have been as early as 50,000 to 55,000 years ago. From an initial entry point in the north-west or north people quickly made their way to south-east Australia with occupation of the Willandra Lakes region by 41,000 to 45,000 years ago. This suggests that people rapidly filled the continent within 5,000 to 10,000 years of initial arrival.

“We thought the distribution of water sources, particularly in the dry interior, may have played an important role in the rapid human colonisation of the continent.”

High degrees of connectivity

The scientists mapped 112,786 permanent water bodies. They found high degrees of connectivity during wet periods and a high density of water sources stretching from northern Australia, through semi-arid and arid regions, to south-eastern Australia and into the continent’s arid centre.

Results have been reported this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (open access).

“Our analysis placed 84% of archaeological sites older than 30,000 years within 20 km of permanent water sources. The findings suggest that a series of well-watered routes across Australia, particularly through the Channel Country in western Queensland, could have made possible the rapid human occupation of the continent’s arid interior,” said Professor Sean Ulm.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Water sources key to Australia’s colonisation”. Past Horizons. Posted: September 27, 2016. Available online:

Monday, January 16, 2017

Adverse events affect children's development, physical health and biology

It's known that adverse childhood experiences carry over into adult life, but a new study is focusing on the effect of these experiences in the childhood years.

For an abstract to be presented at the American Academy of Pediatrics 2016 National Conference & Exhibition in San Francisco, researchers conducted a systematic literature review to identify some of the clinical signs that can be used to recognize children at risk after experiencing trauma. They examined 39 cohort studies to determine the effect adverse childhood experiences has on health and biological outcomes in children.

The authors found that household dysfunction affects children's weight early in childhood, and abuse and neglect affect children's weight later in childhood. Children exposed to early adversity also have increased risk for asthma, infection, somatic complaints, and sleep disruption. Maternal mental health issues are associated with elevated cortisol levels, and maltreatment is associated with a lower cortisol profile.

"The majority of research on early adversity has looked at long-term adult outcomes," said Debby Oh, PhD, research associate at the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco, California. "While this research has helped identify the problem, we must also deepen our understanding of what is happening in the brains and bodies of our children as they experience adversity."

Dr. Oh said that with appropriate intervention, children are able to recover from some of these negative health effects, making early detection a powerful tool to protect the health and well-being of children before long-term adult outcomes occur.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Adverse events affect children's development, physical health and biology”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 21, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Targeting the social networks of group violence

A strong network of friends may be just as big a factor in acts of group violence as having a charismatic leader or a savvy battle plan, according to a new study.

Researchers studied the social dynamics of the Nyangatom, a nomadic tribal group in East Africa that is regularly involved in violent raids with other groups. The researchers mapped the interpersonal connections among Nyangatom men over a three-year period, focusing on how those friendship networks affected the initiation of raids and participation in those raids.

The findings, which appear the week of Oct. 10 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, may also apply to potentially violent activities associated with terrorism, revolutions, and gangs.

"Social interactions in networks are crucial for the emergence of positive phenomena, like cooperation and innovation, but they also play a role in other sorts of collective behavior, like the seemingly spontaneous emergence of violence," said Nicholas Christakis, co-director of the Yale Institute for Network Science (YINS) and senior author of the study. Christakis is a professor of sociology, ecology & evolutionary biology, biomedical engineering, and medicine at Yale.

"People go to war with their friends, and the social network properties of such violent activities have rarely been explored," Christakis added.

The study found that the initiation of Nyangatom raids depended on the presence of leaders who had participated in many raids, had more friends, and held central positions in the social network. However, membership in raiding parties depended on a population much larger than the leaders' network of friends. Non-leaders, in fact, had a bigger impact on raid participation than leaders, by virtue of their own friendships.

"Collective action doesn't get off the ground with just a charismatic leader attracting random followers," said Alexander Isakov, co-first author of the study and a postdoc at the Human Nature Lab at YINS. "People are driven to participate in the group predominantly due to friendship ties."

A surprising aspect of the findings, according to the researchers, was the interplay between leadership and friendship in an environment without any formal hierarchy. The Nyangatom raiding groups are informal groups of peers, yet individuals played distinct roles that mirrored a formal leadership structure.

"They have no formal political leaders or chiefs," said co-first author Luke Glowacki, a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, France. "The lack of political centralization creates an opportunity to study the social dynamics of collective action in a way that is difficult in a state society such as our own. We wanted to know how, outside of formal leadership or institutions, real-world collective behavior, including violence, is initiated."

The researchers said their work suggests that diminishing a leader's impact may prevent an original spark of violence. Yet the study also suggests that once violence begins, participants are likely to join in from throughout the entire group's population. Once initiated within a network, violent tendencies and groups propagate.

In addition, the study offers a mathematical system to observe multiple groups over a period of time and determine who the leaders are in the overall population.
Reference: 2016. “Targeting the social networks of group violence”. Posted: October 10, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Danish concept of 'hygge'--and why it's their latest successful export

November 13, 2016 - 06:24 Hygge is an integral part of Danish culture and it is now taking the world by storm. But do you really know what it is, and can you even pronounce it?

If you’re reading this in a comfortable chair, surrounded by tasteful soft furnishings and perhaps even a candle or two, that sense of cosiness you’re feeling might just be hygge.

The latest fashionable export from Denmark, following on from interior design and high quality television drama, hygge is the Scandinavian country’s latest gift to the world.

But this particular export is a concept. Roughly described as a feeling of cosy contentment, tips on how to achieve a sense of hygge fill lifestyle and fashion magazines. As is often the case with lifestyle concepts, an older cultural practice has been commodified. Real hygge can happen anywhere: in Denmark or somewhere else, alone or in company, indoors or outdoors, with or without candles, hand knitted socks and stylish furniture.

And after a turbulent, less than cosy year, it’s not hard to grasp why hygge has usurped mindfulness as the well-being trend of the moment. As one commentator has observed, hygge is “a soothing balm for the traumas of 2016”.

Hygge is also hitting the lifestyle supplements at a time when the idea of Denmark as the world’s happiest nation lingers in the collective imagination. The Danish Tourist Board has not been slow to leverage this reputation for the purposes of nation-branding, diagnosing Denmark’s chronic state of contentment as an effect of the welfare state, high levels of social trust, and of course hygge as a lifestyle.

This small northern European nation has emerged as a safe, familiar and yet aspirational kind of foreign; the kind of foreign that can capture our attention with a notionally untranslatable and distinctive looking word. A word that can easily be dressed up as a philosophy and a set of lifestyle choices complex enough to inspire a dozen Christmas stocking-filler books (and counting).

Splashing out on felt slippers, scented candles and gourmet beverages in a frenzy of consumerism can be rationalised as an investment in our emotional well-being. And whilehygge is often defined in such gorgeously-designed books as enjoying the simple, homemade, hand crafted things in life, consumerism is integral to the contemporary use of the term in Denmark, too. Lifestyle supplements and manufacturers make liberal use of the term in their advertising, especially as the nights draw in at this time of year, and candles begin to appear on the doorsteps of Copenhagen shops and cafes.

It is as a noun that hygge has made its way into foreign lifestyle pages, but the Danes are just as likely to use the concept as an adjective or verb. The Danish dictionary traces the verb form back to the Old Norse hyggja and Old English hycgan, whereas the modern meaning (to comfort or give joy) comes from Norwegian. But the word peppers contemporary Danish conversation in ways that are highly context-specific. Compound nouns can indicate seasonal variations with associated activities (julehygge at Christmas or påskehygge at Easter, for example).

The Danes’ trademark fine sense of irony can also easily re-purpose hygge as a euphemism for alcohol abuse or other forms of overindulgence. Hyggelig(t), the adjective, can be used to mean “cosy” or “enjoyable”, but in some contexts is closer to the English “nice”, damning with faint praise.

The verb form, at hygge sig, is often used as a casual goodbye – kan du hygge dig: “have fun”, or “all the best”. At hygge sig med – to do hygge with someone – can simply mean to enjoy a fun or cosy experience together, but can also serve as a euphemism for more intimate activities.

Hygge seems to be the hardest word

That outlandish sequence of the letters y, g and e has spawned many an opening gambit to an article. In the introduction to his hilarious The Little Book of Hygge, Meik Wiking tests out “hooga”, “hhyooguh” and “heurgh” before reassuring the reader that the term can only be felt, not spelt. The otherwise beautifully designed cover of Louisa Thomsen Brits’ book Hygge: The Danish Art of Living Well features a pronunciation guide (“hue-gah”) which, one Dane of my acquaintance remarked, is a much closer approximation of the sound made the morning after a night of too much hygge than it is the phonetic transcription (ˈhygə).

More egregious is the attempt by one Daily Mail headline writer to rhyme hygge with “snug”. Indeed, if there’s one thing guaranteed to thwart a trainee hyggethusiast’s evening of hygge, it’s a fruitless struggle to pronounce the word. In fact, the angst that strikes new learners when they discover just how tenuous is the relationship between written and spoken Danish can be characterised by adding a negative prefix to create the conceptual opposite of hygge – uhygge – a feeling of fright or unease.

Perhaps the tension between hygge and uhygge is at the heart of this latest craze. After all, fans of Danish television drama spent much of the last five years peering into the stylish Copenhagen apartments and cosy provincial homes featured in The Killing, Borgen and The Bridge. Based as it is on emotional as well as material comforts, hygge is a gift to the screenwriter and set designer.

Not so hyggelig TV.

In fiction as in real life, then, hygge is the perfect foil for unspeakable crimes – and the perfect antidote to uhyggelige times.

Thomson, Claire. 2016. “The Danish concept of 'hygge'--and why it's their latest successful export”. Science Nordic. Posted: November 13, 2016. Available online:

Friday, January 13, 2017

New satellite image database maps the dynamics of human presence on Earth

Built-up areas on Earth have increased by 2.5 times since 1975. And yet, today 7.3 billion people live and work in only 7.6% of the global land mass. Nine out of the ten most populated urban centres are in Asia, while five out of the ten largest urban centres are in the United States. These are some of the numbers calculated by a new global database which tracks human presence on Earth, launched on 18 October 2016 by the European Commission's Joint Research Centre at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III).

Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL)

While the growth of the global population is closely monitored by statistical offices, until now there has been little consistent, open and detailed information on the spatial distribution of people, and hardly any information on built-up areas with complete and global coverage. For the first time, the Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL) developed by the JRC with the support of the Directorate-General for Regional and Urban Policy (DG REGIO) makes it possible to analyse in a consistent and detailed manner the development of built-up areas, population and settlements of the whole planet over the past 40 years.

The GHSL is the most complete, consistent, global, free and open dataset on human settlements from villages to megacities. The datasets are based on more than 12.4k billions of individual image data records collected by different satellite sensors in the past 40 years. It combines satellite imagery on built-up areas, green areas and night lights with census data on population.

The GHSL can be used to check where and how people live, to measure the size of built-up areas and map their growth of over time, to calculate the density of cities and to analyse how green or how exposed to disasters urban centres are. It also provides a practical tool for the monitoring of the implementation of international frameworks.

Built-up area increasing globally, strongest growth in low-income countries

The GHSL shows that over the past 40 years, built-up areas increased by about 2.5 times globally, while the global population increased by a factor of 1.8. The changes in population and built-up areas show major regional differences. The strongest growth can be observed in low income countries. For example, over the past 40 years, the population of Africa tripled and the built-up area quadrupled. During that same period, the population of Europe remained stable, while the built-up area doubled.

Much of the expansion in population and built-up areas has taken place in locations that are at risk to natural disasters. For example, the world urban population of coastal areas has doubled over the last 40 years, from 45 to 88 million people.

Most densely populated urban centres are in low-income countries

Today, most of the world's population is living in agglomerations with a density greater than 1.500 people per square kilometre and with more than 50,000 inhabitants. The GHSL counts more than 13,000 of these urban centres from the data for the year 2015. The ten most populated urban centres in the world are Guangzhou/Donguan, Cairo, Jakarta, Tokyo, New Delhi, Kolkata, Dhaka, Shanghai, Mumbai and Manila. Thus, nine out of the ten most densely populated urban centres are in Asia and seven are in low-income countries.

Urban centres with biggest built-up area are in high-income countries

Los Angeles is the largest urban centre in the world, with its built-up area extending over 4 734 km2, followed by Tokyo, Jakarta, Guangzhou/Donguan, New York, Chicago, Johannesburg/Pretoria, Dallas, Miami and Osaka. Consequently, eight out of the ten largest urban centres are in high-income countries and five of them are in the United States.

The different growth trends in the different continents lead to an unequal distribution of built-up per capita globally, the built-up area per capita in urban clusters in Northern America being almost ten times that of Asia.

Vegetation in urban clusters increased by 38% in 25 years

Large regional and income inequalities are reported in accessing electricity, as observed from night light emissions of urban centres. At the same time, a relative decline of night light emissions can be observed in urban centres of high income countries, possibly related to the implementation of environmental protection and energy saving policies. According to the evidence collected by the GHSL, our urban centres, towns and suburbs are becoming greener: the average intensity of vegetation associated to built-up areas in the whole urban clusters of the planet has increased by 38% in the past 25 years.

Atlas of the Human Planet

The GHSL is the core baseline data supporting the first release of the "Atlas of the Human Planet," an international collaborative effort within the Group of Earth Observation (GEO) Human Planet initiative. It aims to support the monitoring of the implementation of the post-2015 international frameworks: the UN Third Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development (Habitat III, 2016), the post-2015 framework on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030 (DRR).

European Commission's Joint Research Centre experts presented the Global Human Settlement Layer (GHSL) open data tools and the analytical findings included in the "Atlas of the Human Planet 2016" at the Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, on 17 -- 20 October 2016.

Science Daily. 2016. “New satellite image database maps the dynamics of human presence on Earth”. Science Daily. Posted: October 18, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Kangaroo bone ornament is Australia’s oldest known piece of jewellery

Australia’s oldest-known piece of Indigenous jewellery has been unearthed in the Kimberley region of northern Australia by archaeologists at The Australian National University (ANU). The ornament, a pointed kangaroo bone worn through the nose, has been dated at more than 46,000-years-old and debunks a theory that bone tools were not used in Australia for thousands of years.

Researcher Dr Michelle Langley of the ANU School of Culture, History and Language said this was the earliest hard evidence that Australia’s first inhabitants were using bone to make tools and ornaments.

“We know people had bone tools in Africa at least 75,000 years ago. People were leaving Africa around the same time and arrived in Australia some 60,000 years ago,” Dr Langley said.

“Until very recently the earliest bone tools we had found in Australia dated to about 20,000 years ago, so there has been a 40,000 year gap.

“Some people believed that the knowledge of bone tool making was lost on the journey between Africa and Australia.

“With this find, we now know they were making bone tools soon after arriving in Australia.”

Carpenter’s Gap

The bone was dug up at Carpenter’s Gap, a large rockshelter in Windjana Gorge National Park.

“It’s a shaped point made on kangaroo leg bone, and at each end we can see traces of red ochre,” Dr Langley said.

“This artefact was found below a deposit dated to 46,000 years ago, so it is older than that date.”

Throughout history Indigenous Australians have used kangaroo leg bones for a variety of activities, such as leatherwork, basketry, ceremonial tasks, and bodily decoration.

“The bone we found is most consistent with those used for facial decoration,” she said.

“All across Australia both men and women would wear a bone point through their nose identical to this one. Children in some communities were known to have had their nose pierced quite young, while in others only certain individuals were allowed to adorn themselves in this fashion.”

Dr Langley said the location and nature of this artefact made it a rare and remarkable discovery. “Organic based items like this don’t survive in the north Australian archaeological record very often, so it’s a very unusual find,” she said.

This work resulted from an Australian Research Council Linkage grant awarded to Professor Sue O’Connor. The same project previously unearthed fragments from the world’s oldest-known ground-edge axe.

The research has been published in Quaternary Science Reviews.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Kangaroo bone ornament is Australia’s oldest known piece of jewellery”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 18, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Leisure activities, job crafting can make company 'misfits' more productive

Finding meaning outside of work and proactively tailoring duties on the job may help people who fail to gel with a company's culture stay engaged and become more productive workers, according to researchers.

In a recent study, employees who were not a good fit with their company's culture could remain engaged and productive through job crafting and enhanced leisure activities, according to Ryan Vogel, assistant professor of management, Penn State Erie, who worked with Jessica Rodell, associate professor of management and John Lynch, doctoral candidate in management, both of the University of Georgia.

Vogel said that this is good news for many employees who may not be working in their ideal jobs or organizations. Prior to this, employees were commonly thought to be passive recipients of their work situations, he added.

"Most of the books and information you see in the popular press are oriented around the idea of companies hiring to achieve a good fit with company values, and there are some benefits to that, but, unfortunately, there are some drawbacks, too," said Vogel. "If you have too many people who are exactly the same in an organization, it can make the organization stagnant and resistant to change."

Employees who have different values -- or misfits -- may struggle in the organization, said Vogel.

"For the individual, if you don't fit in, it can be a bad work situation," said Vogel. "You don't feel like you belong, your work has less meaning, and you may have trouble maintaining performance in that workplace."

Job crafting allows workers to modify their job duties to better match personal abilities and interests, said Vogel. It can also allow employees to interact with colleagues who are more supportive, or who might be easier to get along with.

Misfits on the job may not dress or act different from other workers, according to Vogel. Misfit status is more about what the worker values, he added.

"These might be people who are under-the-radar misfits," said Vogel. "These are people who may, to others, be doing just fine but who show up to work every day and just feel out of place. Perhaps they highly value giving back to society, but work for a tobacco company, or they may highly value autonomy and making their own decisions, but they work for a highly bureaucratic organization."

Vogel said organizations should be aware of how critical meaning and value are to new workers.

"What is even more concerning is the next generation of workers for whom meaning and values may be even more critical," Vogel said. "I think that for millennials and young people coming up in the workforce today having a job that has personal meaning is becoming more important."

The researchers, who report their findings in the current issue of the Academy of Management Journal, recruited 193 employees and their supervisors from a variety of industries using Craigslist. They then sent the employees a questionnaire designed to measure individual and work values, job crafting, leisure activities and engagement. The researchers sent a questionnaire to the employees' supervisors to measure the employees' job performance and behavior.

Misfit employees who reported in the survey that they engaged in more job crafting -- for instance, they more regularly take new approaches to tasks or change minor procedures -- were significantly less likely to suffer low engagement and performance. Misfits with higher levels of leisure activity were also less likely to suffer these negative effects.

"While not hypothesized, the pattern of results further suggests that leisure activity not only mitigates the negative effect of value incongruence on job engagement, but could also positively impact job engagement for some misfits," added the researchers.

Future research may focus on the experience of misfits based on specific values, such as whether employees are labeled as misfits by other workers and the consequences of that label.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Leisure activities, job crafting can make company 'misfits' more productive”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 20, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Study reveals how gender and social pressure drive unethical decisions

Would you tell a lie to help someone else? A new study says women won't lie on their own behalf, but they are willing to do so for someone else if they feel criticized or pressured by others.

In contrast, research by Prof. Laura Kray of UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business and Asst. Prof. Maryam Kouchaki of Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, found that men are the opposite: they do not compromise their ethical standards under social pressure regardless of whether they're advocating for themselves or anyone else.

Their paper, "'I'll Do Anything For You.' The Ethical Consequences of Women's Social Considerations," received the Best Empirical Paper Award from the International Association of Conflict Management (IACM) on Jun 28.

"We found that when women act on their own behalf, they maintain higher ethical standards than men. However, women will act less ethically, such as telling a lie, when they fear being viewed as ineffective at representing another person's interests," says Kray. "When women negotiate on behalf of someone else, they are willing to make compromises in order to satisfy the needs of others."

But at what cost?

Kray says there's a tradeoff for women, who face a "Catch 22." Men are typically less constrained by social expectations. But when women are asked to advocate for others they face a conflict because they must either relinquish or reduce their usual moral standards, or open themselves up to possible social backlash.

The authors write, "they are damned if they lie because it goes against their communal mandate with respect to their negotiating counterpart, however they are damned if they do not lie because it goes against their communal mandate with respect to the party they are representing."

The findings are a result of four studies, each involving from 160 to 235 participants.

In the first study, participants were assigned either self-advocacy or friend-advocacy roles and asked to consider the appropriateness of various negotiating tactics. As hypothesized, women who negotiated on behalf of someone else were less ethical than when advocating for themselves.

The second study was designed to better understand the psychological process behind unethical negotiating tactics. Participants advocating for others answered questions about how much they anticipated social backlash if they did not reduce their ethical standards to help others. For example, "How much would your friends like to socialize with you?" and "How likely would your colleagues be to go with you if you invited them out for drinks after work?" The findings were the same as in the first study. However, women were not found to completely disregard—only lower—their moral obligations regardless of whether they were advocating for themselves or others.

"This suggests that women did not see unethical tactics as more acceptable when helping others but instead, they lowered their ethical standards because they felt pressured to do so," says Kray.

The third study focused on the anticipation of social backlash. Female participants were asked to read a description of a salary negotiation from a self-advocacy perspective; for example, as new recruits negotiating their own starting salary. They also read a description depicting an other-advocacy situation such as a friend negotiating salary on behalf of a new recruit whom she referred for the position. The ethical dilemma of each script is whether to tell the hiring manager that they (or the friend) had another job offer even though one didn't really exist. The alternative option was to be honest with the hiring manager and tell him that they (or the friend) had no other job offers. Women were more inclined to lie when negotiating for the friend.

In the final study, the authors recruited participants (49% male; 51% female) to complete an actual negotiation and assigned them to be either a property seller or a buyer. In the scenario, the seller wants to sell to a buyer who would retain the property for residential use. However, buyers were instructed that their intent was to turn the property into a high-rise, commercial building against the wishes of the seller. Would those negotiating on behalf of the buyer be deceptive as a result of social pressure? Again, women who chose to be dishonest expected greater social backlash when negotiating for themselves than on behalf of others. And, women who chose not to lie anticipated greater backlash when representing someone else's interests. Across all studies including men, the men's ethics were not affected whether they represented themselves or another person.

Also, their ethical standards were lower than women representing themselves.

The study's results may appear disturbing to women who are trying to do the right thing, but Kray contends that when considering whether to compromise one's usual ethics, consider the particular situation. Women may be unaware that they have this tendency to lower their moral standards when trying to help others.

"Ask yourself, 'What are the constraints and social pressures? If I was doing this for myself or someone else, how would I act differently," says Kray.

Tom, Pamela. 2016. “Study reveals how gender and social pressure drive unethical decisions”. Posted: October 10, 2016. Available online:

Monday, January 9, 2017

Counting the years the Viking way

Dates matter. Whether it’s your fifth anniversary with your significant other or a date for a job interview, you need to keep track of time in line with everyone else in your world.

And while there are anomalies —the Jewish calendar, for example, where it is now the year 5777 — most people have landed on the Gregorian calendar, with its 52 weeks and 365.24 days per year, as the way to keep track of time.

But it wasn’t always like this. In fact, it wasn’t until 1700 that Norwegians actually jumped on the Gregorian bandwagon.

Calendars and culture

To begin with, keeping track of the passage of the years in an orderly way isn’t as easy as it might seem — at least if you want your calendar to reflect the changing seasons and the movement of the Earth around the sun.

Take the Gregorian calendar: it has 12 months of varying lengths, and a leap year every four years to compensate for the fact that the Earth’s orbit around the sun actually takes 365.24 days.

Other calendars, including the Jewish and ancient Chinese calendars, are called lunisolar calendars, because they use dates to indicate the phase of the moon as well as the time of the solar year. These calendars may actually have a leap month every second or third year to compensate for the difficulties of timing everything correctly with the movement of the Earth, and depending upon how they are constructed.

Calendar and Christianity linked

The Gregorian calendar, the world standard, was derived from the Julian calendar, introduced in 46 BC by the Roman emperor, Julius Caesar.

The Julian calendar first made inroads to Norway when the country converted to Christianity, beginning in approximately 1000 AD.

But between 900 and roughly 1450, the more common way for Norwegians to calculate years was based on the reign of different kings, says Jón Vidar Sigurðsson, a professor of history at the University of Oslo.

“It was a fairly complex form of reckoning,” Sigurðsson said. “It was very difficult for the authors of the sagas, for example, because they only had the reign of the different kings as their chronological starting point.”

The sagas are written documents that describe historical events from the Nordic countries, especially Norway and Iceland.

Sigurðsson cites examples from the Landnámabók, which describes the Viking settlement of Iceland in the ninth and tenth centuries. As a way of dating when the land was claimed, the saga authors referred to the reign of two popes, and the rulers Harald the Fairhaired and Sigurd Jarl of Orkney.

It was a rather complicated way of saying that Iceland was settled around 870-930.

“Because of all the different ‘time zones’ that were found in Europe at the time, the authors of the saga needed to rely on a number of different ways to place events in European history,” he said.

“People’s understanding of time could be a bit vague because of this system,” says Sigurðsson. “That meant it was very important to be familiar with the royal succession, since it was the only way to position past events in time.”

Local traditions and conditions

Although most people were familiar with the succession of kings, and perhaps even weeks and months, this did not necessarily govern their everyday lives.

Instead, local conditions probably were important in helping residents account for time, says Sigurðsson.

“Just think of the difference between Northern Norway and Southern Norway. They must have taken that into account,” he said.

One Norwegian author, Brynjulf Alver, wrote in 1970 about how some Norwegians relied on changes in local glaciers to account for time.  For example, when a section of the glacier melted back in the early summer, that meant it was to send their animals to summer pastures.

Old letter uses AD

But gradually, as Christianity became established in Norway, so did the Julian calendar.  The Julian calendar divides the year into 365 days with 12 months. Every fourth year consisted of 366 days.

“It was well into the 500s that people first calculated the year of Christ's birth in relation to the present, a way of accounting for time that became common in Europe in the 700s. This type of accounting came to Norway along with Christianity,” Audun Dybdahl wrote in an email. Dybdahl is a professor emeritus at the Department of Historical Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

He noted that one of the oldest Norwegian documents with a date based on the birth of Christ comes from the Oslo bishop's residence. The document is dated 12 March 1225.

“After 1250, it appears that it was quite common to use Anno Domini - in the year of our Lord,” Dybdahl wrote.

Jumping ahead to keep pace with the Earth

The Julian calendar definitely had its problems. For example, under the Julian calendar, one year is 11 minutes and 15 seconds longer than it takes the Earth on average to make one orbit around the sun. This means that after 128 years, the difference would add up to one day.

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII had to address this issue, because the Julian calendar had fallen about ten days behind the Earth year. He decided to simply jump the calendar ahead ten days, so that the day after October 4 became October 15.

Norway introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1700, on 18 February. With the adoption of the new calendar, the following day became 1 March.

2016. “Counting the years the Viking way”. Science Nordic. Bazilchuk, Nancy. Posted: November 8, 2016. Available online: (Based on the article by Ulla Gjeset Schjølberg)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Human transport has unpredictable genetic, evolutionary consequences for marine species

New research, led by the University of Southampton, has found that human activities such as shipping are having a noticeable impact on marine species and their native habitats.

The research, published in the journal Biology Letters, says that human forms of transport can disrupt natural genetic patterns that have been shaped over long periods of time. This has unknown consequences for both native and invasive species.

Lead author and PhD Student Jamie Hudson said: "Marine species are expected to develop populations whereby geographically close populations are more genetically similar than geographically distant populations. However, anthropogenic (environmental change caused by humans) activities such as shipping promote the artificial transport of species and bring distant populations together, leading to the crossing of individuals and therefore genetic material. The disruption of pre-modern genetic patterns through anthropogenic activities is an unprecedented form of global change that has unpredictable consequences for species and their native distributions."

The researchers investigated the genetics of a native marine invertebrate species (the tunicate Ciona intestinalis) in the English Channel, an area with a high prevalence of shipping. Ciona intestinalis has restricted dispersal capabilities and is most often reported in artificial habitats, such as marinas, so are therefore readily transported by human activities.

They collected specimens between June and December 2014 from 15 different locations on the English and French coasts. They looked at sections of DNA called microsatellites (areas of DNA that contain repeating sequences of two to five base pairs), which can be read and can help determine how similar populations are to each other.

They found a mosaic of genetic patterns that could not be explained by the influence of natural or anthropogenic means alone.

Jamie, who is based in the Ecology and Evolution Lab, added: "We found that C. intestinalis from some locations exhibited a shuffling of genetic material, as expected by human-mediated transport (boats can travel further distances than the larvae). However, unexpectedly some of the populations exhibited the opposite pattern (some populations were not genetically similar), despite there being evidence of artificial transport between these locations -- this may be due to natural dispersal or premodern population structure.

Taken together, the authors found dissimilar patterns of population structure in a highly urbanised region that could not be predicted by artificial transport alone. They conclude that anthropogenic activities alter genetic composition of native ranges, with unknown consequences for species' evolutionary trajectories.

The research was conducted by Jamie, under the supervision of Dr Marc Rius from the University of Southampton, and Dr. Frédérique Viard and Charlotte Roby at the Station Biologique de Roscoff, in France. This study was funded by the ANR project HYSEA and the University of Southampton.

Science Daily. 2016. “Human transport has unpredictable genetic, evolutionary consequences for marine species”. Science Daily. Posted: October 14, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Anglo-Saxon plank-lined graves and tree-trunk coffins excavated

Archaeologists from MOLA have uncovered an important Anglo-Saxon cemetery in an excavation funded by Historic England in advance of a conservation and fishing lake and flood defence system at Wensum View in Norfolk. The waterlogged conditions of the river valley led to the remarkable preservation of burials that are extremely rare in the archaeological record, including plank-lined graves and tree-trunk coffins dating from the 7th-9th century AD.

Archaeologists have revealed evidence that this may have been the final resting place for a community of early Christians, including a timber structure thought to be a church or chapel, of which there are few examples from this period. The wooden grave markers, east-west alignment of the coffins and the evident lack of grave goods all support the Christian origins of the cemetery.

Anglo-Saxon coffins seldom survive because wood decays over time. Evidence to date has largely consisted staining in the ground from decayed wood.

Hollowed out oak tree logs

The 81 dug-out coffins discovered comprise oak trees split in two length-ways and hollowed out. This type of coffin is first seen in Europe in the Early Bronze Age and reappears in the early medieval period. From Britain they are mentioned in antiquarian records from the late 19th century, but this is the first time they have been properly excavated and recorded by modern archaeologists. The burials, in hollowed out logs, were positioned in the lower half and the upper half rested on top to form a lid. Although they are not decorative, it would have taken considerable effort to hollow a single coffin, an estimated four man days. The fact that evidence for similar burial rites is also found in earlier cemeteries may signify the blending of pagan and Christian traditions.

Plank lined graves

The six plank-lined graves found  are very rare in in this country and are believed to be the earliest known examples from Britain. The graves were cut into the ground, lined with expertly hewn timber planks, the body placed inside and planks positioned on top to form a cover. The relationship between the two burial types is not fully understood, but may denote an evolution in burial practices. Tree-ring dating is being undertaken to date the timber.

Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England, said: “These rare and exceptionally well-preserved graves are a significant discovery which will advance our understanding of Middle-Saxon religious beliefs and rural communities. This cemetery has been revealed because under the current system, archaeological surveys are required before work on a sensitive site starts. This site has immense potential for revealing the story of the community who once lived there.”

James Fairclough, archaeologist from MOLA, said: “The combination of acidic sand and alkaline water created the perfect conditions for the skeletons and wooden graves to survive, revealing remarkable details of Christian Anglo-Saxon burial practices.”

Gary Boyce, Land Owner of Wensum View, said: “It’s really exciting to have such a rare and important heritage site on my land. We set out to create a lake to maximise conservation and biodiversity, to alleviate flooding in the river valley and create a new spot for anglers to fish, and along the way have revealed the hidden secrets of the area’s past.”

Matthew Champion, the local archaeologist who made the initial discoveries at the site, said: “This discovery is going to significantly add to our understanding of just how the settlement patterns in the river valley developed over time, and is a fantastic example of what can be achieved by working closely with landowners.”

Tim Pestell, Curator at Norwich Castle Museum, where the finds from the dig will be kept said: “The site was in use in the heyday of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia and positioned next to a strategic river crossing. As with much of East Anglia at this early date, we have no documentary sources that relate to this site and so it is archaeological finds like this that are crucial in helping us to understand the development of the kingdom.

“This find is a dramatic example of how new evidence is helping to refine our knowledge of this fascinating period when Christianity and the Church were still developing on the ground. Detailed analysis of the cemetery provides the hope of better understanding the actual people living according to this new religion.”

The discovery is shedding light on a previously unknown religious site and early Christian rural community. Continued research and scientific testing, in the form of ancient DNA, stable isotope and dental calculus analysis, will help to develop biographies for the people buried. Archaeologists hope to be able to say more about where these people came from, whether they were related, and what their diet and health were like, once research is complete.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Anglo-Saxon plank-lined graves and tree-trunk coffins excavated”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 16, 2016. Available online:

Friday, January 6, 2017

Science sheds light on 250-year-old literary controversy

The social networks behind one of the most famous literary controversies of all time have been uncovered using modern networks science.

Since James Macpherson published what he claimed were translations of ancient Scottish Gaelic poetry by a third-century bard named Ossian, scholars have questioned the authenticity of the works and whether they were misappropriated from Irish mythology or, as heralded at the time, authored by a Scottish equivalent to Homer.

Now, in a joint study by Coventry University, the National University of Ireland, Galway and the University of Oxford, published today in the journal Advances in Complex Systems, researchers have revealed the structures of the social networks underlying the Ossian's works and their similarities to Irish mythology.

The researchers mapped the characters at the heart of the works and the relationships between them to compare the social networks found in the Scottish epics with classical Greek literature and Irish mythology.

The study revealed that the networks in the Scottish poems bore no resemblance to epics by Homer, but strongly resembled those in mythological stories from Ireland.

The Ossianic poems are considered to be some of the most important literary works ever to have emerged from Britain or Ireland, given their influence over the Romantic period in literature and the arts. Figures from Brahms to Wordsworth reacted enthusiastically; Napoleon took a copy on his military campaigns and US President Thomas Jefferson believed that Ossian was the greatest poet to have ever existed.

The poems launched the romantic portrayal of the Scottish Highlands which persists, in many forms, to the present day and inspired Romantic nationalism all across Europe.

Professor Ralph Kenna, a statistical physicist based at Coventry University, said: "By working together, it shows how science can open up new avenues of research in the humanities. The opposite also applies, as social structures discovered in Ossian inspire new questions in mathematics."

Dr Justin Tonra, a digital humanities expert from the National University of Ireland, Galway said: "From a humanities point of view, while it cannot fully resolve the debate about Ossian, this scientific analysis does reveal an insightful statistical picture: close similarity to the Irish texts which Macpherson explicitly rejected, and distance from the Greek sources which he sought to emulate."

EurekAlert. 2016. “Science sheds light on 250-year-old literary controversy”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 20, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Computer experts identify 14 themes of creativity

The elusive and complex components of creativity have been identified by computer experts at the University of Kent.

Dr Anna Jordanous, lecturer in the School of Computing, worked with language expert Dr Bill Keller (University of Sussex) on how to define the language people use when talking about creativity, known in the field as computational creativity. With that knowledge it becomes possible to make computer programs use this language too.

Dr Jordanous and Dr Keller looked at what people say when they talk about "what is creativity" in academic discussions, from various disciplines - psychology, arts, business, and computational creativity.

In an article entitled Modelling Creativity: Identifying key components through a corpus-based approach, published by PLOS ONE, they describe a unique approach to developing a suitable model of how creative behaviour emerges that is based on the words people use to describe it. Computational creativity is a relatively new field of research into computer systems that exhibit creative behaviours.

Using language-analysis software they identified the creative words and grouped them into clusters. These are considered to be 14 components of creativity. These clusters have been used to evaluate the creativity of computational systems, and are expected to be a useful resource for other researchers in computational creativity, as well as forming a basis for the automated evaluation of creative systems.
Reference: 2016. “Computer experts identify 14 themes of creativity”. Posted: October 6, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Ancient skeleton covered in cannabis shroud unearthed in China

A team of archaeologists led by Hongen Jiang with the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences working in the Turpan Basin in a northwestern part of China has unearthed the skeleton of a man who died between 2,500 and 2,800 years ago and was covered with a cannabis shroud when he was buried. In their paper published in the journal Economic Botany, the team describes how they were continuing work on exploring an ancient cemetery looking for clues about early cannabis use and happened upon the unusual find.

Humans have a long history of using cannabis for a variety of purposes—as hemp, it has been used to make rope and clothes; its seeds have been consumed to gain nutrition from the oils they contain, but perhaps most notoriously, the plant has been burned or eaten to gain a feeling of euphoria. In this new find, it appears the plant may have been used as part of a burial ritual.

The skeleton has been identified as once belonging to a Caucasian man approximately 35 years old at the time of his death. Those that had buried him had placed a willow pillow under his head and had then placed a shroud of (13) cannabis plants over his chest reaching from below his pelvis at one end to the side of his face on the other. The skeleton lay in one of the 240 graves in the area known as the Jiayi cemetery. The people that lived in the area at the time were part of a Kingdom from 3,000 and 2,000 years ago known as the Subeixi. Prior research has shown the people lived there because it was an oasis in the desert, one that had become an important place for travelers to rest during their trek along the Silk Road.

The researchers note that other examples of cannabis use have been found in the other nearby graves, but not as shrouds—mainly they were simply seeds or just leaves tossed into a grave site before burial. They point out that their find is the first to have full cannabis plants and the first time it has ever been seen used as a shroud. They believe the inclusion of whole plants suggests that the plants were grown locally—also the ripeness of the heads suggested they had been harvested and buried in the latter part of the summer. And because the heads were covered in glandular trichomes, which contain THC, the active ingredient in such plants, they believe that it was normally used as a psychoactive drug.
Reference: 2017. “Ancient skeleton covered in cannabis shroud unearthed in China”. Posted: October 6, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Archaeologist discovers a new style of Viking combat

Sunlight bounces off the sword blade as an archaeologist clad in chain mail smashes it down upon his opponent’s shield. It strikes with a loud thud, but a swift tilt of the shield quickly defects the blow. The opponent is safe, for now.

Playing through many more variations of such combat scenarios has helped combat archaeologist Rolf Warming, University of Copenhagen, Denmark, to “rediscover” Viking fighting techniques.

Wearing 12 kilos of armour, Warming allowed himself to be attacked by a professional martial arts instructor to figure out how the Vikings used their shields to fend off attacks.

“It turns out that the Vikings may have used their shields much more actively than previously thought,” says Warming, who has been studying shield construction and Viking fighting techniques as part of his master’s thesis on the martial practices of the Viking Age.

It is the first time that Viking fighting techniques have been scientifically tested using sharp swords and realistic shields, he says. Archaeologist took a sword to the head

Warming’s methods were pretty brutal, but caused some initial nervousness.

“It was fun but I was also a little nervous because we had to really hit hard, with both force and intent, for it to be realistic,” says Warming.

During the experiment, Warming took a hit on the head. Fortunately he was wearing a helmet and the event only served to strengthen his theory.

“It happened when I was was using the shield in a passive way. This illustrates the futility of passive shield use and suggests that they didn’t use the shield in that way,” says Warming.

Warming produced a Viking shield known as a “round shield” for the experiment. The design was based on various archaeological discoveries throughout Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.

The shield is approximately one metre in diameter and made of pine planks, covered in treated pig leather, and trimmed in ox rawhide. On top of that, it has a whole lot of battle scars.

“The deep cut here on the edge is from when I used the shield as passive protection. The shield clearly worked better when I used it more actively,” he says.

This observation led to one of the main conclusions of Warming’s thesis: the Vikings may have used their shields to actively fend off blows. Otherwise, they would have quickly broken, he says.

Warming does not suggest that there was one single fighting style used by all Vikings. But this active technique was probably an important aspect of their fighting repertoire, he says. Functioned almost as a weapon itself

Active shield use means that the Vikings probably not only hid behind the shield, but also used it actively to parry and strike their opponent.

Warming tested seven different shield-sword scenarios. He switched shield positions from a crooked angle and a right angle, and switched between different variations of active and passive postures. Afterwards, he analysed the shields to see which technique worked best.

“When I actively moved forward with the shield at both angles, it seemed almost like a weapon, because you could both avoid the battle and also deliver forceful blows to the enemy with the shield edge,” he says.

No blood was shed during the experiment, but certain blows may well have been fatal if it had been a real Viking battle.

Need to review current knowledge of Viking combat

Along with the experimental shield tests, Warming also studied the literature on Viking combat techniques and analysed remains of past shields collected from sites around what was then the Danish territory.

Based on this, Warming concluded that Vikings had used their round shields almost as actively as their swords in combat.

It is a strong and well-founded conclusion, says archaeologist Henriette Lyngstrøm, associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, who supervised Warming’s project. She is “incredibly impressed” with his work.

“We’ve never seen the Viking round shields as something that they used actively in battle. But based on Rolf’s studies, we can now say how the Vikings used them and no longer base it on assumptions,” she says. Mysterious shield damage can now be explained

The results are in line with previous research, and the findings are undoubtedly important for other archaeologists, says Lyngstrøm.

“It solves a problem for us archaeologists in connection with investigations of shields,” she says.

For the most part, only the shield boss remains, that is, the metal dome that sits in the middle of the shield. And they often have some nicks and damage that archaeologists have not been able to explain previously.

“But knowing that shields have been used actively to ward off blows, it suddenly makes sense,” says Lyngstrøm. Results are consistent with experience

Archaeologist Anne-Christine Larsen is interested in the new results. Larsen is the chief investigator at the Trelleborg Viking castle, part of the National Museum of Denmark.

She and her colleagues have often discussed Viking fighting styles and techniques, and often have to make some assumptions about it.

“Many of the warriors in Trelleborg’s fighting groups and in our annual re-enactment of a Viking battle use their shields actively. So it’s fantastic to finally have some scientific evidence that matches these observations,” says Larsen.

Controlled experimental archaeology

The conclusions are particularly robust, because they include real data from an actual test of the shield, says Larsen.

“It’s not enough to just write about it, you need to actually test these hypotheses in practice. This is what he’s done and it’s led to some really interesting results that we can certainly use at Trelleborg,” she says.

Lyngstrøm is also a big fan of this kind of experimental archaeology.

“He’s combined the best of two worlds by putting himself in the actual situation and being beaten with swords. That’s what experimental archaeology is all about,” says Lyngstrøm. Next stage: experiment with axes and arrows

Warming is not yet done with the violent world of experimental Viking battle techniques.

He now plans to expand the shield experiment and find out exactly how much this piece of weaponry could withstand during a battle.

“I hope to get funding to conduct similar studies, but with axes and arrows,” he says.

Kusnitzoff, Johanne Uhrenholt. 2017. “Archaeologist discovers a new style of Viking combat”. Science Nordic. Posted: October 30, 2016. Available online:

Monday, January 2, 2017

Low socio-economic status, fear of abandonment early in life can lead to poor adult health

Low socio-economic status and fear of abandonment early in life can lead to poor health in adulthood, regardless of adult socio-economic status, according to a new study from psychologists at Rice University.

"Attachment Orientations, Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia and Stress Are Important for Understanding the Link Between Childhood Socio-Economic Status and Adult Self-Reported Health" appears in the current edition of Annals of Behavioral Medicine. The study examined the self-reported measures of childhood socio-economic status, attachment orientations (such as fear of abandonment or difficulty in forming relationships), stress and adult health of 213 participants from 2005 to 2011.

The study found that people who were in the lowest 25 percent of the sample for socio-economic status as children had 65 percent worse self-reported health as adults than people who were in the top 75 percent of the sample as children. The researchers noted that this poor health later in life occurred regardless of adult socio-economic status.

"Low socio-economic status places burdens on parents where they are less available to their kids at times," he said. "This can lead to the development of 'attachment orientations' -- which include fear of abandonment or difficulty in forming close relationships -- that can compromise adult health," said Chris Fagundes, an assistant professor of psychology and the study's co-author.

Fagundes said the study is one of the first to examine how these attachment issues link early adversity and adult health. He and his co-author, Kyle Murdock, a postdoctoral research fellow in psychology, also found that a person's biological capacity to regulate their emotions -- including stress -- had a correlation to overall health.

"If individuals are better at managing negative feelings and levels of stress, they are more likely to be healthy as adults," Murdock said. "However, if they are not so good at managing emotions, they are more likely to be less healthy."

Fagundes and Murdock hope the study will encourage further exploration of why low socio-economic status during childhood is associated with an increased risk of experiencing health disparities in adulthood.

"Ultimately, early childhood is a critical time for adult health, regardless of whether you move up the socio-economic ladder as an adult," the authors concluded.

Science Daily. 2017. “Low socio-economic status, fear of abandonment early in life can lead to poor adult health”. Science Daily. Posted: October 13, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mesolithic settlement in the Baltic Sea mapped out

Seven years ago divers discovered the oldest known stationary fish traps in northern Europe off the coast of southern Sweden. Since then, researchers at Lund University in Sweden have uncovered an exceptionally well-preserved Stone Age site. They now believe the location was a lagoon environment where Mesolithic humans lived during parts of the year.

Other finds include a 9,000 year-old pick axe made out of elk antlers. The discoveries indicate mass fishing and therefore a semi-permanent settlement.

“As geologists, we want to recreate this area and understand how it looked. Was it warm or cold? How did the environment change over time?” says Anton Hansson, PhD student in Quaternary geology at Lund University.

Changes in the sea level have allowed the findings to be preserved deep below the surface of Hanö Bay in the Baltic Sea.

Drilled into seabed

The researchers have drilled into the seabed and radiocarbon dated the core, as well as examined pollen and diatoms. They have also produced a bathymetrical map that reveals depth variations.

“These sites have been known, but only through scattered finds. We now have the technology for more detailed interpretations of the landscape“, says Anton Hansson.

“If you want to fully understand how humans dispersed from Africa, and their way of life, we also have to find all their settlements. Quite a few of these are currently underwater, since the sea level is higher today than during the last glaciation. Humans have always prefered coastal sites“, concludes Hansson.

Past Horizons. 2017. “Mesolithic settlement in the Baltic Sea mapped out”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 14, 2016. Available online: