Monday, August 31, 2009

Computers Help Decode Ancient Texts

Aug. 27, 2009 -- An ancient, indecipherable text from the Indus Valley region is slowly being decoded with the help of a computer program, according to recent research.
Though it has yet to decrypt this mysterious language, the program may help to decipher other ancient texts whose meanings have been long since forgotten.
"The computer program operates on sequences of symbols, so it can be used to learn a statistical model of any set of unknown or known texts," said Rajesh Rao, a University of Washington professor of computer science and co-author of the paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
"In fact, such statistical models have been used to analyze a wide variety of sequences ranging from DNA and speech to economic data."
Roughly 5,000 seals, tablets and amulets, filled with about 500 different symbols, were created somewhere between 2600 and 1900 B.C. by a people living in the Indus River Valley.
Despite numerous attempts to decipher the symbols, a full translation has long eluded scientists. In fact, one recent paper even cast doubt on whether the Indus Valley script was even a written text at all, but rather political or religious symbols.

Ancient Symbols
A collection of written texts of the ancient inhabitants of the Indus River Valley region. Although the meaning of the symbols in these texts have long eluded scientists, computers are helping researchers to slowly decode their meaning.

To start the search for what meaning the text might hold, American and Indian scientists input the symbols into a computer program and then ran a statistical analysis of the symbols and where they appear in the texts.
With that information, the program can do many things: create new, hypothetical Indus Valley texts, fill in missing symbols in existing texts, and tell the scientist if a particular text has been generated by their computer model.
"We used the latter to show that the Indus texts that have been discovered in West Asia are statistically very different from the texts found in the Indus Valley," said Rao, "suggesting that the Indus people used their script to represent different content or language when living in a foreign land."
For Asko Parpolo, a professor at the University of Helsinki and an expert on the Indus Valley script, the PNAS research helps prove that the symbols are indeed an early written language. It does little, however, to decipher the text.
The written of the ancient inhabitants of the Indus Valley might never be decoded, according to Parpolo, but computer modeling of unknown languages could help reveal their meaning as well, said Marcelo Montemurro, a scientist at the University of Manchester.
Using modern texts to validate this theory, Montemurro and his colleagues used computers and information theory to find the main topic of written works including Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Speciesand Herman Melville's Moby Dick. Not surprisingly, words like species, selection and islands were some of the top ten words in Origin of Species.
Montemurro now wants to test his model on an undeciphered medieval text known as the Voynich manuscript.
"The text is not long, but these methods can be applied so we can at least obtain a list of special words that would presumably convey the overall meaning of the texts," said Montemurro.
The technique "separates words like 'a' and 'the' that are frequent but not functional from words that presumably convey the overall meaning of the texts," said Montemurro. With the most significant symbols identified, scientists could then study those symbols intensively to decipher the language more quickly.
For now, however, the Indus Valley script and the Voynich manuscript, along with many other ancient texts, remain indecipherable, but scientists are hopeful that computers will eventually decode the symbols on them.
"There are some who say the (Indus Valley) script can never be deciphered without a bilingual text like the Rosetta Stone or really long texts," said Rao.

(Photo Credit: National Academy of Sciences) 
Character Map
A list of some of the characters that appear in the Indus Valley texts.

"I am however optimistic that given a few more years, we may be able to at least narrow down the language family of the script by using computer analysis to gain an in-depth understanding of the underlying grammar."

Bland, Eric. 2009. "Computers Help Decode Ancient Texts". Discovery News. August 27, 2009. Available online: <"">

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cypraea moneta as global trade route marker

Money cowries are such an important study for Anthropologists. At one time they were part of the global economy as a mutually agreed upon currency. They traveled the extensive trade networks that spread literally across the globe. I recently went to a museum in my town and saw a beautiful Native dress from BC decorated with cowries.

To read about the extensive trade of the cowrie (aka cowry), read this article available online. It includes a distribution map of the Cypraea moneta or Money Cowrie.

Another article discusses the early uses of cowrie as money. He places its origins in the Shang and Chou Dynasties so about 1766 BC. From that early use, the cowrie has been a trade currency up until this century in certain African centres.

But how did it get to the Canada?

A general search of information indicates that the cowrie was introduced by the English as a trade good to the Ojibwa people. Rapp and Hill mention in their book, Geoarchaeology: the earth-science approach to archaeological interpretation, that "Cowries were also used for human decoration in prehistoric Europe and North America." (p.211). It has also been noted in Jackson's book, Shells as Evidence of the Migrations of Early Culture;

“Some interesting evidence of the early use of the money cowry in North America is contained in an exhaustive account on Aboriginal sites on Tennesse River by C.B. Moore. In his description of the Roden mounds, Marshall County, Alabama, the author informs us that in burial no. 44, well in the body mound A, were fragments of a large marine bivalve, and five shells, some much decayed, which had been pierced for stringing, like beads. These were pronounced by Dr. H.A. Pilsbury, the well known American conchologist to be examples of the money currency, Cypreae moneta, of Eastern seas. Such shells have never been recorded before from an aboriginal mound in the United States. The careful investigation fo the Roden mounds indicated that they had been built before their makers had any intercourse with white persons. The presence of coweries therefore, is of special interest.”

There has to be more evidence out there, but its fascinating that such a little shell could make such an journey around the globe.


Jackson, Wilfrid. 1917. Shells as Evidence of the Migrations of Early Culture. Manchester: University of Manchester. pp.186 & 188.

Rapp, George Robert and Hill, Christopher L. 2006. Geoarchaeology: the earth-science approach to archaeological interpretation. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Wade Davis on the worldwide web of belief and ritual

(Note: Again, I recommend that you go to the site for the interactive transcript. However, I have provided the non-interactive below.)

You know, culture was born of the imagination, and the imagination -- the imagination as we know it came into being when our species descended from our progenitor Homo erectus and, infused with consciousness, began a journey that would carry it to every corner of the habitable world. For a time, we shared the stage with our distant cousins, Neanderthal, who clearly had some spark of awareness, but whether it was the increase in the size of the brain or the development of language or some other evolutionary catalyst, we quickly left Neanderthal gasping for survival. By the time the last Neanderthal disappeared in Europe 27,000 years ago, our direct ancestors had already, and for 5,000 years, been crawling into the belly of the earth, where in the light of the flickers of tallow candles, they had brought into being the great art of the Upper Paleolithic.

And I spent two months in the caves of Southwest France with the poet Clayton Eshleman, who wrote a beautiful book called "Juniper Fuse." And you could look at this art and you could, of course, see the complex social organization of the people who brought it into being. But more importantly, it spoke of a deeper yearning, something far more sophisticated than hunting magic. And the way Clayton put it was this way: He said, "You know, clearly at some point, we were all of an animal nature, and at some point we weren't." And he viewed proto-shamanism as a kind of original attempt, through ritual, to rekindle a connection that had been irrevocably lost. So he saw this art not as hunting magic, but as postcards of nostalgia. And viewed in that light, it takes on a whole other resonance.

And the most amazing thing about the Upper Paleolithic art is that as an aesthetic expression, it lasted for almost 20,000 years. If these were postcards of nostalgia, ours was a very long farewell indeed. And it was also the beginning of our discontent, because if you wanted to distill all of our experience since the Paleolithic, it would come down to two words: how and why. And these are the slivers of insight upon which cultures have been forged. Now, all people share the same raw, adaptive imperatives. We all have children. We all have to deal with the mystery of death, the world that waits beyond death, the elders who fall away into their elderly years. All of this is part of our common experience, and this shouldn't surprise us, because after all, biologists have finally proven it to be true -- something that philosophers have always dreamt to be true: and that is the fact that we are all brothers and sisters. We are all cut from the same genetic cloth. All of humanity, probably, is descended from a thousand people who left Africa roughly 70,000 years ago.

But the corollary of that is that if we all are brothers and sisters and share the same genetic material, all human populations share the same raw human genius, the same intellectual acuity. And so whether that genius is placed into -- technological wizardry has been the great achievement of the West -- or by contrast, into unraveling the complex threads of memory inherent in a myth, is simply a matter of choice and cultural orientation. There is no progression of affairs in human experience. There is no trajectory of progress. There's no pyramid that conveniently places Victorian England at the apex and descends down the flanks to the so-called primitives of the world. All peoples are simply cultural options, different visions of life itself. But what do I mean by different visions of life making for completely different possibilities for existence?

Well, let's slip for a moment into the greatest culture sphere ever brought into being by the imagination -- that of Polynesia. 10,000 square kilometers, tens of thousands of islands flung like jewels upon the southern sea. I recently sailed on the Hokulea, named after the sacred star of Hawaii, throughout the south Pacific to make a film about the navigators. These are men and women who, even today, can name 250 stars in the night sky. These are men and women who can sense the presence of distant atolls of islands beyond the visible horizon, simply by watching the reverberation of waves across the hull of their vessel, knowing full well that every island group in the Pacific has its unique refractive pattern that can be read with the same perspicacity with which a forensic scientist would read a fingerprint. These are sailors who in the darkness, in the hull of the vessel, can distinguish as many as 32 different sea swells moving through the canoe at any one point in time, distinguishing local wave disturbances from the great currents that pulsate across the ocean, that can be followed with the same ease that a terrestrial explorer would follow a river to the sea. Indeed, if you took all of the genius that allowed us to put a man on the moon and applied it to an understanding of the ocean, what you would get is Polynesia.

And if we slip from the realm of the sea into the realm of the spirit of the imagination, you enter the realm of Tibetan Buddhism. And I recently made a film called "The Buddhist Science of the Mind." Why did we use that word, "science"? What is science but the empirical pursuit of the truth? What is Buddhism but 2,500 years of empirical observation as to the nature of mind? I travelled for a month in Nepal with our good friend, Matthieu Ricard, and you'll remember Matthieu famously said to all of us here once at TED, "Western science is a major response to minor needs." We spend all of our lifetime trying to live to be 100 without losing our teeth. The Buddhist spends all their lifetime trying to understand the nature of existence.

Our billboards celebrate naked children in underwear. Their billboards are manuals, prayers to the well-being of all sentient creatures. And with the blessing of Trulshik Rinpoche, we began a pilgrimage to a curious destination, accompanied by a great doctor. And the destination was a single room in a nunnery where a woman had gone into lifelong retreat, 55 years before. And en route we took darshan from Rinpoche, and he sat with us and told us about the four noble truths, the essence of the Buddhist path. All life is suffering. That doesn't mean all life is negative. It means things happen. The cause of suffering is ignorance. By that, the Buddha did not mean stupidity, he meant clinging to the illusion that life is static and predictable. The third noble truth said that ignorance can be overcome. And the fourth and most important, of course, was the delineation of a contemplative practice that not only had the possibility of a transformation of the human heart, but had 2,500 years of empirical evidence that such a transformation was a certainty.

And so when this door opened onto the face of a woman who had not been out of that room in 55 years, you did not see a mad woman. You saw a woman who was more clear than a pool of water in a mountain stream. And of course, this is what the Tibetan monks told us: they said, at one point, you know, we don't really believe you went to the moon, but you did. You may not believe that we achieve enlightenment in one lifetime, but we do. And if we move from the realm of the spirit to the realm of the physical, to the sacred geography of Peru, I've always been interested in the relationships of indigenous people that literally believe that the earth is alive, responsive to all of their aspirations, all of their needs. And of course the human population has its own reciprocal obligations.

I spent 30 years living amongst the people of Chincherro and I always heard about an event that I always wanted to participate in. Once each year, the fastest young boy in each hamlet is given the honor of becoming a woman. And for one day he wears the clothing of his sister and he becomes a transvestite, a "waylaka." And for that day, he leads all able-bodied men on a run, but it's not your ordinary run. You start off at 11,500 feet. You run down to the base of the sacred mountain, Antkilka*. You run up to 15,000 feet, descend 3,000 feet, climb again over the course of 24 hours. And of course, the Waylakamaspin*, the trajectory of the route, is marked by holy mounds of Earth where coke is given to the earth, libations of alcohol to the wind, the vortex of the feminine is brought to the mountain top. And the metaphor is clear: you go into the mountain as an individual, but through exhaustion, through sacrifice, you emerge as a community that has once again reaffirmed its sense of place in the planet. And at 48, I was the only outsider ever to go through this, only one to finish it. I only managed to do it by chewing more coca leaves in one day than anyone in the 4,000-year history of the plant.

But these localized rituals become pan-Andean, and these fantastic festivals, like that of the Qoyllur Rit'i, which occurs when the Pleiades reappear in the winter sky. It's kind of like an Andean Woodstock: 60,000 Indians on pilgrimage to the end of a dirt road that leads to the sacred valley called the Sinakara, which is dominated by three tongues of the great glacier. The metaphor is so clear. You bring the crosses from your community, in this wonderful fusion of Christian and pre-Columbian ideas. You place the cross into the ice in the shadow of Ausangate, the most sacred of all Apus, or sacred mountains of the Inca. And then you do the ritual dances that empower the crosses.

Now, these ideas and these events allow us even to deconstruct iconic places that many of you have been to, like Machu Picchu. Machu Picchu was never a lost city. On the contrary, it was completely linked in to the 14,000 kilometers of royal roads the Inca made in less than a century. But more importantly, it was linked in to the Andean notions of sacred geography. The Intiwatana, the hitching post to the sun, is actually an obelisk that constantly reflects the light that falls on the sacred Apu of Machu Picchu, which is Sugarloaf Mountain, called Huayna Picchu. If you come to the south of the Intiwatana, you find an altar. Climb Huayna Picchu, find another altar. Take a direct north-south bearing, you find to your astonishment that it bisects the Intiwatana stone, goes to the skyline, hits the heart of Salcantay, the second of the most important mountains of the Incan empire, and then beyond Salcantay, of course, when the southern cross reaches the southernmost point in the sky, directly in that same alignment, the Milky Way overhead. But what is enveloping Machu Picchu from below: the sacred river, the Urubamba, or the Vilcanota, which is itself the earthly equivalent of the Milky Way, but it's also the trajectory that Viracocha walked at the dawn of time when he brought the universe into being. And where does the river rise? Right on the slopes of the Koiariti*.

So 500 years after Columbus, these ancient rhythms of landscape are played out in ritual. Now when I was here the at the first TED, I showed this photograph -- two men of the elder brothers, the descendants, survivors of Eldorado. These, of course, are the descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization. If those of you who are here remember that I mentioned that they remain ruled by a ritual priesthood, but the training for the priesthood is extraordinary. Taken from their families, sequestered in a shadowy world of darkness for 18 years -- two nine-year periods deliberately chosen to evoke the nine months they spend in the natural mother's womb. All that time, the world only exists as an abstraction, as they are taught the values of their society. Values that maintain the proposition that their prayers, and their prayers alone, maintain the cosmic balance. Now, the measure of a society is not only what it does, but the quality of its aspirations.

And I always wanted to go back into these mountains to see if this could possibly be true, as indeed had been reported by the great anthropologist, Reichel-Dolmatoff. So literally two weeks ago, I returned from having spent six weeks with the elder brothers on what was clearly the most extraordinary trip of my life. These really are a people who live and breathe the realm of the sacred, a baroque religiosity that is simply awesome. They consume more coca leaves than any human population, half a pound, per man, per day. The gourd you see here is -- everything in their lives is symbolic. Their central metaphor is a loom. They say, upon this loom, I weave my life. They refer to the movements as they exploit the ecological niches of the gradient as "threads." When they pray for the dead, they make these gestures with their hands, spinning their thoughts into the heavens.

You can see the calcium build-up on the head of the Poporo gourd. The gourd is a feminine aspect, the stick is a male. You put the stick in the powder to take the sacred ashes -- well they're not ashes, they're burnt limestone -- to empower the coca leaf to change the pH of the mouth to facilitate the absorption of cocaine hydrochloride. But if you break a gourd, you cannot simply throw it away, because every stroke of that stick that has built up that calcium, the measure of a man's life, has a thought behind it. Fields are planted in such an extraordinary way, that the one side of the field is planted like that by the women. The other side is planted like that by the men, metaphorically, you turn it on the side, and you have a piece of cloth. And they are the descendants of the ancient Tairona civilization, the greatest goldsmiths of South America, who in the wake of the conquest, retreated into this isolated volcanic massif that soars to 20,000 feet above the Caribbean coastal plain.

There are four societies: the Kogi, the Wiwa, the Kankuamo and the Arhuacos. I traveled with the Arhuacos, and the wonderful thing about this story was that this man, Danilo Viathanya* -- if we just jump back here for a second. When I first met Danilo, in the Columbian embassy in Washington, I couldn't help but say, you know, you look a lot like an old friend of mine. Well, it turns out he was the son of my friend, Aroberto*, from 1974, who had been killed by the FARC, and I said, Danilo, you won't remember this, but when you were an infant, I carried you on my back up and down the mountains. And because of that, Danilo invited us to go to the very heart of the world, a place where no journalist had ever been permitted. Not simply to the flanks of the mountains, but to the very iced peaks which are the destiny of the pilgrims.

And this man sitting cross-legged is now a grown-up Yuhenio*, a man who I've known since 1974. And this is one of those initiates. No, it's not true that they're kept in the darkness for 18 years, but they are kept within the confines of the ceremonial men's circle for 18 years. This little boy will never step outside of the sacred fields that surround the men's hut for all that time, until he begins his journey of initiation. For that entire time, the world only exists as an abstraction, as he is taught the values of society, including this notion that their prayers alone maintain the cosmic balance. Before we could begin our journey, we had to be cleansed at the portal of the earth. And it was extraordinary to be taken by a priest -- and you see that the priest never wears shoes because holy feet -- there must be nothing between the feet and the earth for a Mamo. And this is actually the place where the great mother sent the spindle into the world that elevated the mountains and created the homeland that they call the heart of the world.

We traveled high into the Potomo, and as we crested the hills, we realized that the men were interpreting every single bump on the landscape in terms of their own intense religiosity. And then of course, as we reached our final destination, a place called Mananakana*, we were in for a surprise, because the FARC were waiting to kidnap us. And so we ended up being taken aside into these huts, hidden away until the darkness. And then abandoning all our gear, we were forced to ride out in the middle of the night, in a quite dramatic scene. It's going to look like a John Ford western. And we ran into a FARC patrol at dawn, so it was quite harrowing. It will be a very interesting film. But what was fascinating is that the minute there was a sense of danger, the Mamos went into a circle of divination.

And of course, this is a photograph literally taken the night we were in hiding, as they divine their route to take us out of the mountains. We were able to, because we had trained people in filmmaking, continue with our work, and send our Wiwa and Arhuaco filmmakers to the final sacred lakes to get the last shots for the film, and we followed the rest of the Arhuaco back to the sea, taking the elements from the highlands to the sea. And here you see how their sacred landscape has been covered by brothels and hotels and casinos, and yet, still they pray. And it's an amazing thing to think that this close to Miami, two hours from Miami, there is an entire civilization of people praying every day for your well-being. They call themselves the elder brothers. They dismiss the rest of us who have ruined the world as the younger brothers. They cannot understand why it is that we do what we do to the earth.

Now, if we slip to another end of the world. I was up in the high Arctic to tell a story about global warming, inspired in part by the former Vice President's wonderful book. And what struck me so extraordinary was to be again with the Inuit -- a people who don't fear the cold but take advantage of it. A people who find a way with their imagination, to carve life out of that very frozen. A people for whom blood on ice is not a sign of death but an affirmation of life. And yet tragically, when you now go to those northern communities, you find to your astonishment that whereas the sea ice used to come in in September and stay till July, in a place like Kanak in Northern Greenland, it literally comes in now in November and stays until March. So their entire year has been cut in half.

Now, I want to stress that none of these peoples that I've been quickly talking about here are disappearing worlds. These are not dying peoples. On the contrary, you know, if you have the heart to feel and the eyes to see, you discover that the world is not flat. The world remains a rich tapestry. It remains a rich topography of the spirit. These myriad voices of humanity are not failed attempts at being new, failed attempts at being modern. They're unique facets of the human imagination. They're unique answers to a fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? And when asked that question, they respond with 6,000 different voices. And collectively, those voices become our human repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us in the ensuing millennia.

Our industrial society is scarcely 300 years old. That shallow history shouldn't suggest to anyone that we have all of the answers for all of the questions that will confront us in the ensuing millennia. The myriad voices of humanity are not failed attempts at being us. They are unique answers to that fundamental question: What does it mean to be human and alive? And there is indeed a fire burning over the earth, taking with it not only plants and animals, but the legacy of humanity's brilliance.

Right now, as we sit here in this room, of those 6,000 languages spoken the day that you were born, fully half aren't being taught to children. So you're living through a time when virtually half of humanity's intellectual, social and spiritual legacy is being allowed to slip away. This does not have to happen. These peoples are not failed attempts at being modern -- quaint and colorful and destined to fade away as if by natural law.

In every case, these are dynamic, living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces. That's actually an optimistic observation, because it suggests that if human beings are the agents of cultural destruction, we can also be, and must be, the facilitators of cultural survival.

Thank you very much.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Studies of Amazonian languages challenge linguistic theories

(note the people referred to as Piraha actually refer to themselves as "Hi'aiti'ihi'".)

Two studies that appear in the August/October 2005 issue of Current Anthropology challenge established linguistic theories regarding the language families of Amazonia.
New research by Dan Everett (University of Manchester) into the language of the Pirahã people of Amazonas, Brazil disputes two prominent linguistic ideas regarding grammar and translation. The Pirahã are intelligent, highly skilled hunters and fishers who speak a language remarkable for the complexity of its verb and sound systems. Yet, the Pirahã language and culture has several features that not known to exist in any other in the world and lacks features that have been assumed to be found in all human groups. The language does not have color words or grammatical devices for putting phrases inside other phrases. They do not have fiction or creation myths, and they have a lack of numbers and counting. Despite 200 years of contact, they have steadfastly refused to learn Portuguese or any other outside language. The unifying feature behind all of these characteristics is a cultural restriction against talking about things that extend beyond personal experience. This restriction counters claims of linguists, such as Noam Chomsky, that grammar is genetically driven system with universal features. Despite the absence of these allegedly universal features, the Pirahã communicate effectively with one another and coordinate simple tasks. Moreover, Pirahã suggests that it is not always possible to translate from one language to another.
In addition, Alf Hornborg's (Lund University) research into the Arawak language family counters the common interpretation that the geographical distribution of languages in Amazonia reflects the past migrations of the inhabitants. At the time of Christopher Columbus, the Arawak language family ranged from Cuba to Bolivia. Yet, geneticists have been unable to find significant correlations between genes and languages in the Amazonia. Moreover, Arawakan languages spoken in different areas show more similarities to their non-Arawakan neighbors than to each other, suggesting that they may derive from an early trade language. As well, Arawak languages are distributed along major rivers and coastlines that served as trade routes, and Arawak societies were dedicated to trade and intermarriage with other groups. But, the dispersed network of Arawak-speaking societies may have caused ethnic wedges between other, more consolidated language families with which they would have engaged in trade and warfare. Finally, there is increased evidence that language shifts were common occurrences among the peoples of Amazonia and were used as a way to signal a change in identity, particularly when entering into alliances, rather than migratory movement.
This Eurekalert was taken from the following article: 
Everett, Daniel L. 2005. "Cultural Constraints on Grammar and Cognition in Pirahã Another Look at the Design Features of Human Language". In Current Anthropology August/October 2005, Vol. 46, No. 4: pp. 621-646.
Reference for this article: 
Adams, Carrie Olivia. 2005."Studies of Amazonian languages challenge linguistic theories". In Available online: <"

About the Piraha

The Pirahã are an indigenous hunter-gatherer tribe of Amazonian Indians in Brazil who mainly live on the banks of the Maici River. They currently number about 200, which is sharply reduced from the numbers recorded in previous decades, and the culture is in danger of extinction. The Pirahã people do not call themselves pirahãs but instead the Hi'aiti'ihi', roughly translated as 'the straight ones'.
The Pirahã speak the Piraha language, which is very important to their culture and to their group identity. Members of the Piraha actually can whistle their language, which is how its men communicate when hunting in the jungle. The culture and language each have several unique traits, which it has been argued are related. Among these:

  • As far as the Piraha have related to researchers, their culture is concerned solely with matters that fall within direct personal experience, and thus there is no history beyond living memory.
  • The language is claimed to have no relative clauses or grammatical recursion, but this is not clear. Should the language truly feature a lack of recursion, then it would be a counterexample to the theory proposed by Chomsky, Hauser and Fitch (2002) that recursion is a crucial and uniquely human language property.
  • Its seven consonants and three vowels are the fewest known of any language.
  • The culture has the simplest known kinship system, not tracking relations any more distant than biological siblings.
  • The people do not count and the language does not have words for precise numbers. Despite efforts to teach them, researchers claim they seem incapable of learning numeracy.
  • It is suspected that the language's entire pronoun set, which is the simplest of any known language, was recently borrowed from one of the Tupl-Guaranl languages, and that prior to that the language had no pronouns whatsoever. Many linguists, however, find this claim questionable, noting that there is no historical-comparative evidence indicating the non-existence of pronouns in a previous period of the history of Piraha also, the overall lack of Tupi-Guarani loanwords in areas of the lexicon more susceptible to borrowing (such as nouns referring to cultural items, for instance) makes this hypothesis even less plausible.
  • There is a disputed theory that the language has no color terminology. There are no unanalyzable root words for color; the color words recorded are all compounds like bi„i¼sai, "blood-like", which is not that uncommon.
  • They have very little artwork. The artwork that is present, mostly necklaces and drawn stick-figures, is crude and used primarily to ward off evil spirits.
The Pirahã take short naps of 15 minutes to two hours through the day and night, and rarely sleep through the night. They often go hungry, not for want of food, but from a desire to be tigisai - "hard".
The Pirahã have not related to researchers any fiction or mythology.
Prof. Daniel Everett is the cognitive linguist who wrote the first Pirahã grammar.
Gordon, Peter (2004). "Numerical cognition without words: Evidence from Amazonia".
Everett, Daniel (2005). "Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in Pirahã: Another look at the design features of human language". Current Anthropology 46 (4): 621-46.
Picture credit: Daniel L. Everett.

Spiegel Online - May 10, 2006 also see Spiegel Article From March, 2006
The Piraha people have no history, no descriptive words and no subordinate clauses. That makes their language one of the strangest in the world - and also one of the most hotly debated by linguists.
The language of the forest dwellers, which Dan Everett describes as "tremendously difficult to learn," so fascinate the researcher who spent a total of seven years living with the Pirahãs - during which time he committed his career to researching their puzzling language.
Indeed, he was long so uncertain about what he was actually hearing while living among the Pirahãs that he waited nearly three decades before publishing his findings.
What he found was enough to topple even the most-respected theories about the Pirahãs' faculty of speech. The small hunting and gathering tribe, with a population of only 310 to 350, has become the center of a raging debate between linguists, anthropologists and cognitive researchers.
The debate over the people of the Maici River goes straight to the core of the riddle of how homo sapiens managed to develop vocal communication. Although bees dance, birds sing and humpback whales even sing with syntax, human language is unique. If for no other reason than for the fact that it enables humans to piece together never before constructed thoughts with ceaseless creativity -- think of Shakespeare and his plays or Einstein and his theory of relativity.
Linguistics generally focuses on what idioms across the world have in common. But the Pirahã language -- and this is what makes it so significant -- departs from what were long thought to be essential features of all languages.
The language is incredibly spare. The Pirahã use only three pronouns. They hardly use any words associated with time and past tense verb conjugations don't exist. Apparently colors aren't very important to the Pirahãs, either -- they don't describe any of them in their language. But of all the curiosities, the one that bugs linguists the most is that Pirahã is likely the only language in the world that doesn't use subordinate clauses. Instead of saying, "When I have finished eating, I would like to speak with you," the Pirahãs say, "I finish eating, I speak with you."
Equally perplexing: In their everyday lives, the Pirahãs appear to have no need for numbers. During the time he spent with them, Everett never once heard words like "all," "every," and "more" from the Pirahãs. There is one word, "hoi," which does come close to the numeral 1. But it can also mean "small" or describe a relatively small amount -- like two small fish as opposed to one big fish, for example. And they don't even appear to count without language, on their fingers for example, in order to determine how many pieces of meat they have to grill for the villagers, how many days of meat they have left from the anteaters they've hunted or how much they demand from Brazilian traders for their six baskets of Brazil nuts.
The debate amongst linguists about the absence of all numbers in the Pirahã language broke out after Peter Gordon, a psycholinguist at New York's Columbia University, visited the Pirahãs and tested their mathematical abilities. For example, they were asked to repeat patterns created with between one and 10 small batteries. Or they were to remember whether Gordon had placed three or eight nuts in a can.
The results, published in Science magazine, were astonishing. The Pirahãs simply don't get the concept of numbers. His study, Gordon says, shows that "a people without terms for numbers doesn't develop the ability to determine exact numbers."
Psycholinguist Peter Gorden: Are we only capable of creating thoughts for which words exist? His findings have brought new life to a controversial theory by linguist Benjamin Whorf, who died in 1914. Under Whorf's theory, people are only capable of constructing thoughts for which they possess actual words. In other words: Because they have no words for numbers, they can't even begin to understand the concept of numbers and arithmetic.
But then, coming to terms with something like Portuguese multiplication tables would require the forest-dwellers to acquire some basic arithmetic.
The Warlpiri -- a group of Australian aborigines whose language, like that of the Pirahã, only has a "one-two-many," system of counting -- had no difficulties counting farther than three in English.
But the Pirahãs proved to be completely different. Years ago, Everett attempted to teach them to learn to count. Over a period of eight months, he tried in vain to teach them the Portuguese numbers used by the Brazilians -- um, dois, tres. "In the end, not a single person could count to ten," the researcher says.
It's certainly not that the jungle people are too dumb. "Their thinking isn't any slower than the average college freshman," Everett says. Besides, the Pirahãs don't exactly live in genetic isolation -- they also mix with people from the surrounding populations. In that sense, their intellectual capacities must be equal to those of their neighbors.
Eventually Everett came up with a surprising explanation for the peculiarities of the Pirahã idiom. "The language is created by the culture," says the linguist. He explains the core of Pirahã culture with a simple formula: "Live here and now." The only thing of importance that is worth communicating to others is what is being experienced at that very moment. "All experience is anchored in the presence," says Everett, who believes this carpe-diem culture doesn't allow for abstract thought or complicated connections to the past -- limiting the language accordingly.
Living in the now also fits with the fact that the Pirahã don't appear to have a creation myth explaining existence. When asked, they simply reply: "Everything is the same, things always are." The mothers also don't tell their children fairy tales -- actually nobody tells any kind of stories. No one paints and there is no art.
Even the names the villagers give to their children aren't particularly imaginative. Often they are named after other members of the tribe which whom they share similar traits. Whatever isn't important in the present is quickly forgotten by the Pirahã. "Very few can remember the names of all four grandparents," says Everett.
The scientist is convinced that linguists will find a similar cultural influence on language elsewhere if they look for it. But up till now many defend the widely accepted theories from Chomsky, according to which all human languages have a universal grammar that form a sort of basic rules enabling children to put meaning and syntax to a combination of words.
Whether phonetics, semantics or morphology -- what exactly makes up this universal grammar is controversial. At its core, however, is the concept of recursion, which is defined as replication of a structure within its single parts. Without it, there wouldn't be any mathematics, computers, philosophy or symphonies. Humans basically wouldn't be able to view separate thoughts as subordinate parts of a complex idea.
And there wouldn't be subordinate clauses. They are responsible for translating the concept of recursion into grammar. Renowned US psychologist Pinker believes that if the Piraha don't form subordinate clauses, then recursion cannot explain the uniqueness of human language -- just as it cannot be a central element of some universal grammar. Chomsky would be refuted.
The logical way forward now would be to try to prove that the Pirahã can actually think in a recursive fashion. According to Everett, the only reason this isn't part of their language is because it is forbidden by their culture. The only problem is nobody can confirm or deny Everett's observations since no one can speak Pirahã as well as he does.
Despite this, several researchers -- including two Chomsky colleagues -- will travel this year to Maici to try and check parts of his claims. But for some, it's already getting too crowded in the jungle. "I'm concerned the Pirahã will simply become one more scientific oddity, to be exploited and analyzed right down to their feces," complains Peter Gordon.

There is also a great Wikipedia article about the Piraha language. See also the following links for more information.
Science Literature
Listen to a podcast.
Another story.

To learn more about Dr. Daniel L. Everett's work with the Piraha, visit his website:

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Study shows bilinguals are unable to 'turn off' a language completely

With a vast majority of the world speaking more than one language, it is no wonder that psychologists are interested in its effect on cognitive functioning. For instance, how does the human brain switch between languages? Are we able to seamlessly activate one language and disregard knowledge of other languages completely?
According to a recent study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, it appears humans are not actually capable of "turning off" another language entirely. Psychologists Eva Van Assche, Wouter Duyck, Robert Hartsuiker and Kevin Diependaele from Ghent University found that knowledge of a second language actually has a continuous impact on native-language reading.
The researchers selected 45 Ghent University students whose native-language was Dutch and secondary language was English. The psychologists asked the students to read several sentences containing control words — plain words in their native-language—and cognates. Cognates are words that have a similar meaning and form across languages, often descending from the same ancient language; for example, "cold" is a cognate of the German word "kalt" since they both descended from Middle English.
While the students read the sentences, their eye movements were recorded and their fixation locations were measured—that is, where in the sentence their eyes paused. The researchers found that the students looked a shorter period of time at the cognates than at the controls. So in the example sentence "Ben heeft een oude OVEN/LADE gevonden tussen de rommel op zolder" (Ben found an old OVEN/DRAWER among the rubbish in the attic"), the bilingual students read over "oven" more quickly than "lade."
According to the psychologists, it is the overlap of the two languages that speeds up the brain's activation of cognates. So even though participants did not need to use their second language to read in their native-language, they still were unable to simply "turn it off." It appears, then, that not only is a second language always active, it has a direct impact on reading another language—even when the reader is more proficient in one language than another.


This article is taken from the following publication: 
Assche, Eva Van. 2009. "Does Bilingualism Change Native-Language Reading? Cognate effects in a sentence context"" In Psychological Science. Aug;20(8):923-7

Kline, Kate. 2009. "Study shows bilinguals are unable to 'turn off' a language completely". In EurekAlert! Available online: <"">

Picture Credits:
1. Chmiel, P.J. P.J. Chmiel Signs. Online <"">

2. Then, David Chen-On and Ting, Su-Hie. University of Malaysia Sarawak. Found in thetheir paper; "A Preliminary Study of Teacher Code-switching in Secondary English and Science in Malaysia" Available online: <"">

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

University of California Withdraws Request to Return Ancient Remains to Local Tribe

This story was posted April 7, 2009 on the Science Magazine Blog. The big issue is that these 10,000 year old remains are NOT Native American. Those skeletons that do manage to get to the Anthropology labs are being proven to belong to another group of people, distinct from the Native population of the Americas. These scientists should be allowed to study these skeletons and get a better handle on their origins. NAGPRA has its uses and benefits to obvious Native American skeletal finds, but these older skeletons must also be repatriated to their own people, whether or not they still exist. That can only be determined by close, scientific examination.   
After weeks of protest from anthropologists, University of California, San Diego (UCSD), officials have withdrawn their request to the federal government to rebury the skeletal remains (left) of Paleoindians unearthed near the chancellor’s home in La Jolla. The rare, 10,000-year-old bones were found in 1976. Anthropologists and the university’s own scientific working group wanted to keep the remains for further scientific study, but a local American Indian group wanted them reburied. The withdrawal comes not necessarily because of the researchers’ protests but mainly because Kumeyaay nation leaders object to the wording of the UCSD request to the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
In an official statement, university officials said that they withdrew the request late last week “upon learning that theKumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee (KCRC) does not support the university’s request submitted to the Review Committee" of NAGPRA, according to Jeff Gattas, senior director of university communications and public affairs.
In a statement issued Monday, the Kumeyaay committee members wrote that they opposed the UCSD request because UCSD Vice Chancellor for Resource Management and Planning Gary Matthews filed a request with NAGPRA to repatriate the remains as “culturally unidentifiable.” Even though the Kumeyaay leaders want the remains—and filed a request for them in 2006—they firmly believe that the remains are indeed culturally affiliated with the Kumeyaay and Dugueno people and that the wording of the request should reflect that. The Kumeyaay committee wrote that they have provided “a mountain of evidence from linguistic, anthropological, archaeological and historical scholars to support their claim that these individuals were indeed culturally affiliated with today’s Kumeyaay/Dugueno people,” according to the statement. “This process sets a dangerous precedent for future claims, both from KCRC and other tribes whose ancestors may be in the possession of the UC.”
But the UCSD scientific advisory group that reviewed the claims (and a separate systemwide UC research committee) drew a different conclusion. It found that the remains of the three individuals have no cultural or biological affinity with the Kumeyaay or any living Americans Indians, according to UCSD anthropologist Margaret Schoeninger, who is co-director of the UCSD working group that reviewed the request. It also found that the Kumeyaay language moved into the region 2000 years ago and that they traditionally cremated their dead rather than burying them. Moreover, preliminary DNA evidence shows no connection between Kumeyaay and known older American Indian groups. Indeed, in a talk Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Chicago, Schoeninger reported that her lab’s analysis of stable isotopes from samples of the skeletons indicated that they ate a diet of marine mammals and offshore fish—a coastal adaptation that contrasts with the desert origins of the Kumeyaay (see Origins, 3 April). Anthropologists who study the bones and DNA of Paleoindians also agree that the remains are probably too old to have any affiliation, cultural or otherwise, with tribes living in southern California today. And, at such an early age, they are important for scientific analysis, particularly because new methods are being developed to extract and study ancient DNA, and to analyze the diet and lifestyles of ancient people.
To acknowledge that the remains are too ancient to be affiliated with living people, however, might weaken the Kemeyaay’s strongest argument to claim ancient remains in this and other cases before the NAGPRA review committee, which meets next in May in Seattle, Oregon. Kumeyaay spokesperson Steve Banegas says, “We cannot rest until the remains of our ancestors are cared for properly and interred as they should be.” But by quibbling over the wording of UCSD’s request, the Kumeyaay put UC officials in a no-win situation where they were opposed by anthropologists, on the one hand, and the Kemeyaay, on the other hand. The Kumeyaay committee members may have just lost their best ally in their process to get these bones for reburial.
—Ann Gibbons
Photo Credit:  Jan Austin, Santa Monica Community College

How Forensic Anthropologists Read Bones

I just thought that this would be of general interest. I know that I had a conversation with a person once who thought a bone was a bone was a bone. Enjoy!

When bones or skeletons are found, they are taken to a forensic laboratory for examination. The job of an anthropologist, a forensic scientist specializing in the area of bones, is to examine the bones, to possibly deduce the gender, age, height, race, as well as medical history and manner of death.

The first step an anthropologist takes during the examination of bones, is to find out whether the bones are human or animal, as sometimes certain animal bones will resemble that of human bones. Once this has been determined, the next step is finding the age of the bones by noting the growth and decay that has occurred in the bones.

Determining Growth Rate:

Teeth that have or have not grown can also reveal the age of the skeleton, as young children will have not lost their milk teeth and at the age of 18, wisdom teeth first appear. During the teenage years, bones become thicker and larger and fuse together in a process known as 'ossification'. Ossification occurs in 800 points of the body and is the best guide to revealing the age of a child's skeleton. An example of ossification occurs in the arms, where at the age of six, the two bone plates form at either end of the outer forearm (radius).

At the 17 in males and 20 in females, the lower bone plate and the radius fuse together and soon after, the upper bone plate and radius fuse together. The bone in the body that finishes growing last is the collarbone, which ceases growth at 28 years. In the bones of the elderly, degeneration begins to occur. Anthropologists will look for tiny spikes that start to appear on the edges of the vertebrae, the wearing of teeth due to age and joints that show signs of arthritis. All of the bones in the body will deteriorate with age.

Determining Gender:

When determining male and female in a skeleton, anthropologists look at the skull and hip bones, as there lie clues to the sex of the skeleton. The skull has three points in determining gender. These are the ridges located above the eyes, the bone situated just below the ear and the occiput, the bone located at the lower back of the skull. The latter two bones are muscle attachment sites, all of which are more prominent in men, indicating greater strength. The difference in hips is very obvious, as a man's hip are narrower and a women's hips are wider, being built for child bearing. However there are smaller differences in other bones, which anthropologists rely on when there is no hip or skull bone.

Determining Height:

Determining the height of a skeleton involves reassembling the skeleton and measuring the length of significant bones. By adding 10-11cm or four inches onto the bone length, it accounts for the missing tissue and muscle. If parts of the skeleton are missing, certain individual bones are used as a height guide. The longer the bone is, the better and more accurate the estimate will be, so the femur is measured first. The human height measures roughly two and two thirds the length of the femur, though it also depends on the race and sex of the skeleton.

Bone Defects:

Disease, injury and birth defects are also revealed in the bones. Birth defects such as spina bifida, some infectious diseases, poor diet and cancer can all be damaging to the bones. In the case of injuries, broken bones and mended bones are easily visible and because they are so easily visible, mended bones can reveal identity. Work and hard labour leave damage such as occupational arthritis, which visibly changes the appearance of affected joints. The skeletal remains of someone who has died a particularly violent death are evident in the bones. Bullet wounds leave round holes, sharp weapons cause chips to be taken out of the bone and fractures in the bones also suggest forms of violence. Distinguishing between fractures that occurred before and after death is difficult, but there are some clues that are helpful. For example, the bones of a deceased person break differently compared to the bones of a live person and healing at the edge of a fracture indicates injuries during life.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009


Nüshu is a special written language used and understood only by women in Jiangyong County, Hunan Province. Discovered 20 years ago, this mysterious language has been handed down, mother to daughter, for generations. It now faces extinction.
The Discovery of Nushu

In 1982, Gong Zhebing, a teacher from the South-Central China Institute for Nationalities ,accompanied his students to Jiangyong County, in Hunan Province, where they hoped to investigate local customs and culture. There they found a strange calligraphy used only by women, which men did not use or understand. It was referred to as "nüshu"(women's script) in the locality. Gong Zhebing instantly realized the importance of these characters, which despite having a long history had never been seen before.

With the help of Professor Yan Xuejiong, a linguist, the institute established a research group on this special language. Researchers went to Jiangyong to investigate, where they collected calligraphy samples and recordings of women reading nüshu and found evidence of a 20,000 word vocabulary. It was not long before nüshu was causing ripples of excitement both at home and abroad. Hence nüshu, which has been passed quietly from woman to woman in Jiangyong for unknown centuries, has finally left its rural home. The secret is out.

According to studies by the Central-South China Institute for Nationalities, nushu has finally been defined as a written language, which contains more than 2,000 characters. The content of nüshu writings have proved to be revealing about society, history, nationality and culture. It is now listed as one of the world's most ancient languages and the only exclusively female language ever discovered. It is, however, a written language only. Women formed their own written symbols to represent the words in their local dialect. Hence men can usually understand nüshu if they hear it read aloud.

Recording Women's Feelings

Older women from Jiangyong all remember the time when they were little, after Qing Dynasty and before Liberation (1912-1949), when there were women in every village who were familiar with n¹shu. They wrote their female script on fans, paper, handkerchiefs or embroidered the characters on cloth. Sometimes, they used the characters to make patterns and wove them into quilt covers and braces.

In ancient times, the women in the area where nüshu spread were good at needlework. As they did needlework, they enjoyed reciting nüshu. Every year there would be competitions at festival time, where they could win prizes for needlework, nüshu writing and calligraphy. When a woman got married, other women would write nüshu for the occasion. In temple fairs, they would write and chant prayers written in nüshu.

Among sworn sisters, nüshu was often used to write letters. Nüshu letters reflect women's joy and sorrow. A large amount of n¹shu work focuses on women's oppression and the suffering they experienced in feudal society. Women had no right to receive an education, let alone to take part in social activities. They did not have as much power or status as men in the home; they were not allowed to include their names in the family genealogy, and of course could not inherit legacies. Under strict control by their husbands and mothers-in-law after marriage, many women were abused and exploited. Using nüshu, they wrote letters, poems, invitation cards, riddles and scripts for ballad-singing, recording authentically the beauty and ugliness of their lives. These works allow us an important insight into the minds of women in feudal society. They also served as a means to help women cope, stay in touch with their female friends and discuss their feelings.

In Crying About a Marriage, the author writes about her resentment towards her friends parents-in-law, who mistreated her friend after she married into their family. In Letters, the writer complains about oppression and yearns for sexual liberation.

Nüshu writing also hits out against forced marriages and almost every single piece of writing contains a sense of resistance and feminist outcry, much stronger than in other folk literature of the period. Another distinctive characteristic of nüshu is that all nüshu letters are written in a structured poetic style.

Nüshu Buried With its Authors

When Gong Zhebing discovered nüshu in 1982, there were still a dozen old women who were still familiar with it. One of them was Gao Yinxian, a woman who was very good at nüshu. She told Gong that she had learned nüshu from her mother, since women were not allowed to go to school. She guessed that the women's script had been handed down for at least two generations. All nüshu writers were buried with their works, believing they could take their work with them to the next life, so today we have very few examples of this precious female script. The rarity of nüshu makes research into the origin of nüshu very difficult.

In the 1920s, the Chinese Women's Liberation Movement made progress and schools were established in Jiangyong County where women could receive a standard education. The number of women who had been learning nüshu rapidly declined as a result. Since 1949, the feudal system has been abolished, women enjoy a better status and the majority of young girls go to school. Most of the young women in Jiangyong today do not want to learn nüshu because they regard it as useless. Gao Yinxian took great pains to teach her three grand-daughters nüshu, but only the second, Hu Meiyue, continued in her studies. Gao has now passed away and women like Hu Meiyue are becoming fewer and fewer each year.

Nüshu Mysteries Left

At present, in cooperation with the local government, the Nüshu Culture Research Center is setting up a project to rescue nüshu culture. This project will create a reference library for studies on nüshu, build a museum, a cultural village and will hold an international symposium, the first of its kind. It is hoped that people both at home and abroad will be more able to find out accurate information about this special script.

There are no accounts about nüshu in either historical records or local annals and nothing related can be found in genealogies or inscriptions on tablets.

In academic circles, there are various opinions about the origin of nüshu. Some hold that it is a variant of regular Chinese characters; others think it stems from cuts made in wood; still others maintain that it is the official writing of the Yi (ancient name for tribes in the east of China). But nüshu still remains a mystery.

As an ancient script accessible only to women, nüshu continues to attract attention, but big questions still remain. Which dynasty did nüshu originate in? Why is it used only among women? What kind of relationship is there between nüshu and the standard, pictographic Chinese characters? Maybe one day, we will find the answers.
Dictionary of unique women's language published in China

CHANGSHA, May 30 (Xinhuanet) -- A dictionary containing all the 1,800 ancient characters only used and inherited by Chinese women has been published in central China's Hunan Province.

Nushu, a kind of mysterious writing unique to women, appeared in Hunan's three adjacent counties of Jiangyong, Daoxian and Jianghua and some other areas in southern China's Guangxi Zhunag Autonomous Region.

Nushu was faced with extinction because of lack of use. Zhou Shuoyi, 78, a retiree who worked at the Cultural Bureau in Jiangyong, compiled the unique dictionary after 50 years of study.

"The dictionary acts as an encyclopedia for Nushu playing an important role in inheriting and studying the characters," said Jiang Hao, dictionary editor.

These gracefully-written rhombic characters are structured by just four kinds of strokes, including dot, horizontal, virgule andarc, and can be spoken in dialect to describe women's misfortunes and inner feelings.

The dictionary has complete stylistic rules and layout with pronunciation, glossary and grammar, and arranged in internationalphonetic symbol order.

Each Nushu character is followed by phonetic notation, notes and paraphrase and a corresponding Chinese character and example sentences.
Xinhuanet 2003-05-30 23:06:46
Female-only language loses master speaker

BEIJING, Oct. 20 (Xinhuanet) -- China's oldest inheritress of the mysterious Nushu language, probably the world's only female-specific language, died at her Central China home last month. She was in her 90s.

Chinese linguists say the woman, Yang Huanyi, was the last woman who possessed the most and genuine knowledge of a 400-year-old tradition in which women shared their innermost feelings with female friends through a set of codes that were incomprehensible to men.

Yang was born in Jiangyong County, where many people believe the language originated. She learned to read and write the language as a little girl. Before her marriage, she used to exchange letters in Nushu with Gao Yinxian, the eldest of the seven sworn sisters of the county who were the local authorities on the female-only language.

Though Yang herself did not join the sworn sisters, she did spend three years with them to learn the language, and became its only surviving inheritress at the end of the 1990s, after all the seven sisters had passed away.

Since then she had been dubbed a "living fossil of the women-specific language" by linguists.

Until her death on September 20, it remained a mystery as to how old Yang was. During an interview with Xinhua in the summer of 2002, she said she was 94. Authorities in her hometown, however, said she was 98 when she died. Zhao Liming, a specialist with Tsinghua University, said Yang was born in 1909.

It is often hard to tell the actual age of elderly Chinese people because many are accustomed to giving their "nominal age," which is one to two years ahead of the actual age. A baby's "nominal age" is considered to be one at birth and becomes two at the beginning of the very next year.

Yang was invited to Beijing in 1995 to attend the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. The letters, poems and prose she wrote were collected and compiled by linguists of the Beijing-based Tsinghua University in a book that was published earlier this year.

Linguists are trying hard to learn the language and experts say Yang's writing was more standard, original and unaffected by Putonghua, or standard Chinese or Han language, in which she was totally illiterate.

None of Yang's children or grand-children inherited her proficiency in the unique language. The gracefully-written rhombic Nushu characters are structured by just four kinds of strokes, including dot, horizontal, virgule and arc, and can be spoken to describe women's misfortunes and inner feelings.

Some experts presume that the language is related to Jiaguwen - the inscriptions on animal bones and tortoise shells of the Yin Ruins from more than 3,000 years ago - but no conclusions have been drawn as to when the language originated.

Besides Hunan Province, the language was also used in some areas of southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Nushu manuscripts are extremely rare because, according to local custom, they were supposed to be burnt or buried with the dear departed in sacrifice.

The language, among the first to enter the national list of China's ancient cultural heritage, has aroused keen interest in worldwide scholars. At least 100 surviving manuscripts are abroad, according to archive keepers in Hunan Province.

China has stepped up preservation of the language since the 1990s amid assiduous efforts to better protect the country's traditional culture in an increasingly globalized society.

The Hunan provincial archives have collected handkerchiefs, aprons, scarves and handbags embroidered with Nushu characters, manuscripts written on paper or fans, and calligraphic works.

"We have collected 303 artifacts bearing the rare language during five trips to Yongjiang County, birthplace of the female language, over the past year," said Liu Gening, head of the provincial archives. "The oldest of them dates back to the late Qing Dynasty in the early 1900s, and the most recent pieces are from the 1960s or 1970s."

Among their collections are calligraphic works by Zhou Shuoyi, a retiree in Jiangyong County who is believed to be the first man to learn the language in China. Zhou, after half a century of study, compiled a Nushu dictionary last year at the age of 79.

The dictionary, which contains all the 1,800 ancient characters of the language, has complete stylistic rules, a layout with pronunciation, a glossary, and grammar is arranged in international phonetic symbol order. Each Nushu character is followed by a phonetic description, notes, a corresponding Chinese character and example sentences.

(China Daily)

The passage roughly translates as "They taught her to apply makeup and comb her hair; on her head she was wearing pearls that are shining magnificently; she is sitting like Guanyin out of a Buddhist shrine". Source: Chinese