Friday, April 30, 2010

Educational historian looks at origins of the culture wars

It did not take long for Binghamton University educational historian Adam Laats to look to the past for answers while teaching high school in Wisconsin.

"I was amazed at how naive I was: I thought everyone was basically the same as me," said Laats, now an assistant professor in Binghamton's School of Education. "But parents were hawks, as they should be, about what was being taught in the classroom. Things I thought we agreed on, such as evolution, still raised their ire."

During graduate school, Laats turned his attention to Protestant fundamentalism in the 1920s. He found that the movement has had a major effect on the American school system and also helped lay the foundation for today's culture wars.

"The trenches were dug in the '20s for the fights that still go on today," he said. "The positions and even the names — including 'fundamentalist' — began in the '20s."

Laats was one of 20 scholars to receive the prestigious National Academy of Education/Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2009. A book based on his research, Fundamentalism and Education in the Scopes Era: God, Darwin and the Roots of America's Culture Wars, will soon be published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Unlike other movements of the period, fundamentalism did not arise in the 1920s because of new ideas. Instead, Laats said, it was a reaction to new ideas in schools, religion and culture, such as Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

"The fundamentalist movement came about in part because people felt their basic beliefs had been dismissed by educators," said Laats, who considers himself secular. "Fundamentalists worried that students were being taught dangerous ideas. In the 1920s, two ideas of what schools should be doing came into conflict. All of a sudden, schools seemed to be teaching ideas that were turning students away from their faith."

The confrontation came to a head in a courthouse in tiny Dayton, Tenn.

In 1925, Tennessee passed the Butler Act, prohibiting the teaching of evolution in place of the Bible's account. Teacher John Scopes agreed to challenge the law by violating it in the classroom. The so-called "monkey trial" drew a firestorm of publicity and featured two leading orators — William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow — on opposite sides.

Scopes was convicted and the anti-evolution movement sought similar laws in other states. But fundamentalists lost the battle for public opinion. Darrow's questioning of Bryan's biblical views on the witness stand helped the media and evolutionists portray fundamentalists in stereotypical terms, such as barbarians, bigots and ignoramuses, that resonated across the nation.

The trial and its aftermath proved to be "a shock to the fundamentalist system," Laats said. Fundamentalists were especially stunned that they were not seen as having the moral high ground of the debate.

In the wake of the trial, the fundamentalist movement became a smaller group that cared little about what mainstream America said. In fact, Laats said, fundamentalists embraced the fact that they would not win over the opposition.

"If they wanted to have control over education, they had to start their own subcultural institutions," he said.

Fundamentalists did just that by founding Bob Jones University, becoming active at schools such as Wheaton College in Illinois and forming Bible schools and radio stations across the country.

"It's that environment," Laats said, "that nurtured people like Billy Graham, who re-emerged in the 1940s and 1950s and said, 'We hold our beliefs, but we need to re-engage with mainstream America.'"

Bob Jones University became instrumental in the rise of Christian day schools and home schooling when it started a series of textbooks in 1973 written from a Bible-based perspective.

These influential books brought the work of 1920s-era fundamentalists into the latter part of the 20th century, Laats said, energizing a new generation.

"If you had not had this turning inward of fundamentalists and the building of educational infrastructure, you couldn't have had the explosion of home schooling and Christian day schools in the 1970s and 1980s," he said. "You can't have schools without books; you can't have Christian schools without Christian books."

The dissension and debates that exploded in the 1920s are still a part of today's public schools and society, whether focused on evolution, sex education or saying the Lord's Prayer in the classroom, Laats said.

"Some of the venom of today's culture wars comes from this divide in basic beliefs about who humans are and how humans fit into the universe," he said. "If you think what's being taught in schools is hurting children, it's difficult to say, 'It's more important that we all get along' than to do something about it.'"

Whether it is in schools or society, Laats believes the impact of fundamentalism in the 1920s cannot be overestimated.

"I sensed this was a story that hadn't been fully explored," he said. "Most of the literature that looks at the roots goes back to Billy Graham in the 1950s instead of the 1920s, where a lot of the direct beginnings come from. I thought the topic would be interesting, provocative and important not just for historians, but for all kinds of Americans."

PhysOrg. 2010. "Educational historian looks at origins of the culture wars". PhysOrg. Posted: April 19, 2010. Available online:

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Ancient artifacts revealed as northern ice patches melt

Scientists hope to save artifacts as ice recedes.

High in the Mackenzie Mountains, scientists are finding a treasure trove of ancient hunting tools being revealed as warming temperatures melt patches of ice that have been in place for thousands of years.

Tom Andrews, an archaeologist with the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife and lead researcher on the International Polar Year Ice Patch Study, is amazed at the implements being discovered by researchers.

"We're just like children opening Christmas presents. I kind of pinch myself," says Andrews.

Ice patches are accumulations of annual snow that, until recently, remained frozen all year. For millennia, caribou seeking relief from summer heat and insects have made their way to ice patches where they bed down until cooler temperatures prevail. Hunters noticed caribou were, in effect, marooned on these ice islands and took advantage.

"I'm never surprised at the brilliance of ancient hunters anymore. I feel stupid that we didn't find this sooner," says Andrews.

Ice patch archeology is a recent phenomenon that began in Yukon. In 1997, sheep hunters discovered a 4,300-year-old dart shaft in caribou dung that had become exposed as the ice receded. Scientists who investigated the site found layers of caribou dung buried between annual deposits of ice. They also discovered a repository of well-preserved artifacts.

Andrews first became aware of the importance of ice patches when word about the Yukon find started leaking out. "We began wondering if we had the same phenomenon here."

In 2000, he cobbled together funds to buy satellite imagery of specific areas in the Mackenzie Mountains and began to examine ice patches in the region. Five years later, he had raised enough to support a four-hour helicopter ride to investigate two ice patches. The trip proved fruitful.

"Low and behold, we found a willow bow." That discovery led to a successful application for federal International Polar Year funds which have allowed an interdisciplinary team of researchers to explore eight ice patches for four years.

The results have been extraordinary. Andrews and his team have found 2400-year-old spear throwing tools, a 1000-year-old ground squirrel snare, and bows and arrows dating back 850 years. Biologists involved in the project are examining dung for plant remains, insect parts, pollen and caribou parasites. Others are studying DNA evidence to track the lineage and migration patterns of caribou. Andrews also works closely with the Shutaot'ine or Mountain Dene, drawing on their guiding experience and traditional knowledge.

"The implements are truly amazing. There are wooden arrows and dart shafts so fine you can't believe someone sat down with a stone and made them."

Andrews is currently in a race against time. His IPY funds have run out and he is keenly aware that each summer, the patches continue to melt. In fact, two of the eight original patches have already disappeared.

"We realize that the ice patches are continuing to melt and we have an ethical obligation to collect these artifacts as they are exposed," says Andrews. If left on the ground, exposed artifacts would be trampled by caribou or dissolved by the acidic soils. "In a year or two the artifacts would be gone."

EurekAlert. 2010. "Ancient artifacts revealed as northern ice patches melt". EurekAlert. Posted: April 26, 2010. Available online:


For media interviews with Tom Andrews:
Tel: 867 873-7688, Email:

For information on Arctic Science Promotion program:
Ruth Klinkhammer, Director of Communications
Arctic Institute of North America
Tel: 403 220-7294, Email:

This media release is part of the Promotion of Arctic Science, an Arctic Institute of North America project made possible with the generous support of the Government of Canada Program for International Polar Year.

The mission of the Arctic Institute of North America at the University of Calgary is to advance the study of the North American and circumpolar Arctic and to acquire, preserve and disseminate information on physical, environmental and social conditions in the North. More information can be found at

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Children with cochlear implants appear to achieve similar educational and employment levels as peers

Seems to be the week to stir the controversy pot.

Deaf children who receive cochlear implants appear more likely to fail early grades in school, but they ultimately achieve educational and employment levels similar to their normal-hearing peers, according to a report in the April issue of Archives of Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

"For profoundly deaf children, cochlear implantation with rehabilitation is the recommended treatment to provide auditory function and facilitate proficiency in oral communication," the authors write as background information in the article. "In an ideal situation, cochlear implantation should also allow recipients to integrate into the hearing world and improve their quality of life; however, these outcomes can be difficult to measure."

Investigating educational and employment status is one way of assessing quality of life, the authors note. Frederic Venail, M.D., Ph.D., of Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Gui de Chauliac, France, and colleagues interviewed the parents of 100 children who were deaf before they began to speak, received cochlear implants before age 6 and had at least four years of follow-up (average follow-up, 10.6 years). Of the 74 patients without additional disabilities, 24 were age 8 to 11, 24 were age 12 to 15, 18 were age 16 to 18 and eight were older than 18 years.

Most children who did not have additional disabilities received mainstream schooling (67 percent to 83 percent of the 74 children, depending on the age group). Nineteen or 26 percent experienced delays in acquiring reading and writing skills, 39 (53 percent) experienced grade failures and, compared with the age-matched general French population, they experienced a mild delay in educational placement.

"The number of grade failures was associated with communication mode at the time of the survey," the authors write, with those communicating orally having fewer failures than those who used sign language or a combination of the two. "Age at implantation, preoperative communication mode and educational support influenced the final communication mode."

In the group of eight participants older than 18, five had a high school diploma (62 percent, vs. 53 percent of the general population), three had pursued vocational training, four had a university-level education and one was employed with a master's degree.

Among the participants with other disabilities, level of academic achievement and employment status varied. "Mainstreaming is not always possible, and specialized schools are often used," the authors write. "For these cochlear implant recipients, vocational education may provide a valuable alternative, and most still benefit from cochlear implants."

"Prelingually deaf children without additional disabilities achieve satisfactory educational and employment successes after cochlear implantation, especially if the cochlear implant allows for the use of oral communication," the authors conclude. "If delays in writing and reading skills and grade failures are commonly observed, perhaps as a consequence of the auditory deprivation before cochlear implantation, early cochlear implantation should reduce these delays, and further studies are required to address this point."

EurekAlert. 2010. "Children with cochlear implants appear to achieve similar educational and employment levels as peers". EurekAlert. Posted: April 19, 2010. Available online:


(Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2010;136[4]:366-372. Available pre-embargo to the media at

Editor's Note: Please see the article for additional information, including other authors, author contributions and affiliations, financial disclosures, funding and support, etc.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Human brain recognizes and reacts to race

I think this one will lead to a lot of discussion. For one, I hope the replicate the experiment with other people than just whites.

The human brain fires differently when dealing with people outside of one's own race, according to new research out of the University of Toronto Scarborough.

This research, conducted by social neuroscientists at UofT Scarborough, explored the sensitivity of the "mirror-neuron-system" to race and ethnicity. The researchers had study participants view a series of videos while hooked up to electroencephalogram (EEG) machines. The participants – all white – watched simple videos in which men of different races picked up a glass and took a sip of water. They watched white, black, South Asian and East Asian men perform the task.

Typically, when people observe others perform a simple task, their motor cortex region fires similarly to when they are performing the task themselves. However, the UofT research team, led by PhD student Jennifer Gutsell and Assistant Professor Dr. Michael Inzlicht, found that participants' motor cortex was significantly less likely to fire when they watched the visible minority men perform the simple task. In some cases when participants watched the non-white men performing the task, their brains actually registered as little activity as when they watched a blank screen.

"Previous research shows people are less likely to feel connected to people outside their own ethnic groups, and we wanted to know why," says Gutsell. "What we found is that there is a basic difference in the way peoples' brains react to those from other ethnic backgrounds. Observing someone of a different race produced significantly less motor-cortex activity than observing a person of one's own race. In other words, people were less likely to mentally simulate the actions of other-race than same-race people"

The trend was even more pronounced for participants who scored high on a test measuring subtle racism, says Gutsell.

"The so-called mirror-neuron-system is thought to be an important building block for empathy by allowing people to 'mirror' other people's actions and emotions; our research indicates that this basic building block is less reactive to people who belong to a different race than you," says Inzlicht.

However, the team says cognitive perspective taking exercises, for example, can increase empathy and understanding, thereby offering hope to reduce prejudice. Gutsell and Inzlicht are now investigating if this form of perspective-taking can have measurable effects in the brain.

Gutsell, Jennifer and Inzlicht, Michael. 2010. "Human brain recognizes and reacts to race". EurekAlert. Posted: April 26, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Rise of the Mind

When and where did the cognitive abilities of modern humans arise? It's a big question -- one debated by anthropologists for decades. It's an even bigger question for an undergraduate thesis, but senior Logan Bartram has a leg up on this ambitious project: he helped unearth artifacts that are playing a critical role in shaping our knowledge about human origins.

In the summer of 2009, Bartram and fellow UVM student Kristina Bauman were accepted to join a team of archaeologists at a pivotal dig site on the coast of South Africa. It's the shells, ochre and tools at this site -- and not the paintings in the caves of Europe -- that many anthropologists today cite as the first signs of higher human cognitive power.

Signs of (intelligent) life

One such scientist -- and principal investigator for this National Science Foundation-funded excavation -- is paleoanthropologist Curtis Marean, a professor at Arizona State University's Institute of Human Origins. Marean's research, which is highly transdisciplinary in nature, drawing on expertise from geologists, plant biologists, geneticists, nutritionists, and others, pinpoints caves along the coast of South Africa as a likely habitat of the small population of Homo sapiens we're directly descended from today.

Marean's work shows that the migration of hominids to the coast of Africa may have helped develop -- or at least coincided with -- a boost in brain function. The ochre at the cave sites along the Indian Ocean is a sign of symbolic behavior, whether it was used for self adornment or markings on stone. Small blades that would have been affixed to stone or wood, instead of just held in hand, are evidence of complex tools. And an appetite for seafood, as evidenced by burned shells in ash pits, means that these early humans were able to use tides and lunar schedules to successfully harvest shellfish as a dietary staple.

The work at these sites, which was recently featured in the three-part Nova special "Becoming Human" (in which Bartram and Bauman have cameo appearances), has extended the origin of modern cognitive abilities further back in time, to roughly 170,000 years ago.

Since this was not a field school designed to teach archaeological skills to newcomers, Bartram -- a novice -- had to learn the techniques on the job. His training ground was an embankment in a rock shelter, where he cleared away sand deposits in search of the landscape surface inhabited by early humans.

The digging was slow and methodical. Electronic distance measurement tools collected data to document the precise location in space for each artifact, which allows researchers back in the lab to reconstruct three-dimensional maps of the site.

"You're digging down, and you can see right in the strata what's going on," Bartram says while pointing to an image he took of a cross-section view of the ledge. A black line bisecting the beige sand is the remains of a hearth -- concreted ash and burned shells are what's left behind from an ancient seafood dinner.

Brain food

Why did our ancestors move to the coasts? Climate change and drought throughout Africa meant fewer resources on land just shy of 200,000 years ago. The nutrition offered up by the sea was life sustaining -- a point driven home for Bartram when the site director foraged for mussels at lunchtime on a rock formation just below the caves.

For a pre-med student like Bartram, the idea that higher cognitive function may have been aided by the brain-building omega-3 fatty acids that seafood provides is an intriguing one. The southern coast of Africa is also known for amazing biodiversity and an abundance of tuberous plants, which are high in carbohydrates. "You couple that with shellfish, and you've got a really nice nutritional package going on," Bartram says. "Is it the reason we evolved, just because we had access to this nutrient? Probably not. But the ability to have that available to you and raise kids who are getting complete brain food -- there's no way that could have hurt."

Back at UVM, Bartram's wrapping up his thesis: "Evidence for Modern Human Behavioral Origins on the Southern African Coast." While based on his time in Africa, where he unearthed his own share of stone tools and looked out at the sea from the same cave shelters our ancestors once shared, he says that his thesis work is really about reviewing the published research. "It's certainly a library project...There's been so much literature published on these issues, and from this site," Bartram says. "If nothing else, my thesis is helping me reaffirm the experience I had, not just for others, but for myself."

PhysOrg. 2010. "The Rise of the Mind". PhysOrg. Posted: April 22, 2010. Available online:

Saturday, April 24, 2010

In Venezuela’s Savanna, Clash of Science and Fire

This issue is huge. Fire ecology has been a part of traditional ecological management for millenia. In Alberta, Canada the government put a stop to this practice and now all the communities that were named for their grassland phenomenon are surrounded by thick forests. Now wild fires are more devastating because these communities are enclosed in broad woods.

For more information and leads to the research on fire ecology, consider Dr. Henry T. Lewis; an online excerpt from his book; The Association for Fire Ecology; and of course you can find something on Wikipedia, but bear in mind this is not the best article, but it has good references.

The mist-shrouded mountains rising out of the forest here form one of the world’s most beguiling frontiers of exploration and research, inspiring Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 fantasy novel “The Lost World” and teams of biologists who still mount expeditions to remote escarpments in hopes of finding species new to science.

But in the savannas below, the tendrils of smoke hanging over the landscape attest to a custom that has set off a fierce debate among scientists in Venezuela and beyond: the Pemón Indian tradition of repeatedly burning grassland and forest to hunt for animals and grow food.

The drought that afflicted Venezuela this year is intensifying claims that the Pemón have unleashed a surge in fires that rains would normally extinguish. Some forestry specialists say the fires put the Gran Sabana, a region about the size of Ireland that includes the enigmatic tabletop mountains known as tepuis (pronounced tey-POO-ees), at risk of deforestation and species loss.

President Hugo Chávez’s government is already facing broad public ire over electricity shortages, and the state electricity company fears that the fires could diminish the forests that help gather and release water, and boost river sediments into the Guri, the hydroelectric complex that provides Venezuela with most of its electricity.

But many Pemón, along with some of the scholars who study them, say the fires help prevent grasses from building into biomass for much larger fires that could tear through the region, in the way vast wildfires devastated parts of Indonesia in 1997.

“Outsiders think we are primitive savages, but they are ignorant of our ways,” said Leonardo Criollo, 46, a Pemón leader whose village, Yunék, sits in the shadow of the Chimantá Massif, a collection of 11 tepuis from which waterfalls descend from mile-high rock walls. “We burn so that we may live in harmony with the savannas around us.”

The clash of views on the centuries-old practice is part of a broader debate over the sovereignty and proper management of indigenous lands. Much of the Gran Sabana is cordoned off as either national park or military territory. But some fire ecologists claim that indigenous people around the world have long used fire to alter their ecosystems and shape regions like the prairies of the American Midwest.

Accounts of the origins of the Pemón in the Gran Sabana differ, but some historians say they may have migrated here about five centuries ago from the coast of what is now Guyana, after incursions by European explorers. Paleoecologists also debate how much of the Gran Sabana was originally covered by forests, and when fire-setting by humans here actually got under way.

Either way, the Pemón, who today number about 25,000, largely had the Gran Sabana to themselves until the dawn of the 20th century, when missionaries began strengthening their presence. The missionaries were then followed by teams of scientific researchers and, in more recent decades, by Venezuelan officials who built a highway in the 1970s.

The entire area is now in flux. Trucks from Brazil barrel down the paved highway with consumer goods. Smugglers take the same road across the border with contraband gasoline. Sullen soldiers solicit bribes at checkpoints. The military is increasing its presence in the area with a new satellite-monitoring base in the village of Luepa.

Throughout all this, the Pemón keep setting parts of the Gran Sabana on fire, since recently burned areas soon give rise to fresh grasses that lure coveted prey like white-tailed deer.

“Why would I change a custom that has worked for generations?” asked Antonio García, 70, a Pemón hunter, as he set out one recent morning near Santa Elena de Uairén, a squalid border town rife with smuggling activity.

Hunting is not the only reason. Bjorn Sletto, a planning expert at the University of Texas who studied Pemón fire customs, saw them burn to clear grasses of snakes and scorpions; to communicate with smoke signals; and to fish, with fire causing insects to leap into water and attract fish.

But foremost among the Pemón’s reasons for burning the savanna, Mr. Sletto said, may be to create a mosaic landscape divided by natural fire breaks that prevent larger fires from spreading. “There are ecologically sound reasons for the Pemón to keep fuel levels on the savanna low,” he said.

Others disagree. Nelda Dezzeo, a forestry biologist at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research, contends that some forests in the Gran Sabana may never recuperate from repeated fires. She said the threat of fires spreading from savanna to forest were especially worrisome.

“There are cloud forest areas in the Gran Sabana where new tree species are still being studied,” she said. “If damage migrates to these areas, these species could be lost, or we might lose species we’re not even aware of yet.”

The Pemón face a backlash over the fires beyond the realm of scientific debate. Nonindigenous Venezuelans here often call them “quemones,” a play on the Spanish word for someone who burns a lot. “The Pemón are pyromaniacs by nature, and this year we’ve seen some of the worst fires in memory,” said Raúl Arias, 54, who operates a helicopter service in the area.

Some Pemón chafe at such statements. “Outsiders come here and leave their excrement and trash on the tepuis, then complain to us about fires that spoil their view,” said Miguel Lezama, 46, a leader near Mount Roraima.

New motivations for some Pemón to light fires complicate matters further. Scholars have seen an increase in fires to protest the installation of electrical towers and the opening of the satellite-monitoring base. Other Pemón sometimes start fires to harass the government into meeting demands for services.

Few experts know how these fires will affect the Gran Sabana, aside from sowing dissent.

“The government is wrong if it thinks the Pemón are its docile sheep in the savannas,” said Demetrio Gómez, 36, a Pemón leader who took part in a violent protest near Santa Elena de Uairén this year to dislodge squatters from Pemón land. “We burned these lands long before anyone else arrived,” he said, “and we’ll keep burning them into eternity.”

Romero, Simon. 2010. "In Venezuela’s Savanna, Clash of Science and Fire". New York Times. Posted: April 22, 2010. Available online:

Friday, April 23, 2010

Coma Victim's Language Ability Explained

How could a Croatian girl speak German but forget her native language after coming out of a coma?

After 24 hours in a coma, a Croatian girl woke up speaking only German, according to reports that spread across the Internet last week. The 13-year-old had been studying German in school and watching German television shows on her own, according to various versions of the story, but she was not fluent until after the incident. Meanwhile, she lost the ability to speak her native language.

Discovery News did not confirm the report with the girl's doctors or parents, but experts say the story is plausible -- to some extent.

In a condition called bilingual aphasia, people often lose one of their two languages because different parts of the brain are involved in remembering each one, explained Michael Paradis, a neurolinguist at McGill University in Montreal.

Even if a brain injury affected the Croatian teenager's memory of her native language, the brain areas that were learning German could have remained untouched.

"This has been observed thousands of times," Paradis said. "It's not surprising at all. I'd like to know all the facts, but it's quite possible that after a coma, you'd have problems which might be located in such a way in the brain that they affect one language but not another."

What can't be true, though, is the claim that the coma gave the girl fluency that she didn't have before.

"I looked on the web and saw comments that she recovered perfect German," Paradis said. "This cannot be the case. If she recovered German to the point that she could communicate well, that's fine. That's the kind of thing you would expect."

Bilingual aphasia is possible because different types of memory are involved in learning first and second languages. As toddlers start to talk, their brains treat language like walking, jumping or any other motor skill. Those abilities belong to a realm called procedural memory; we do them without consciously thinking about them.

When an adult or older child learns a new language, on the other hand, something called declarative memory takes charge. As if the language were history, geography or math, the brain learns rules and memorizes facts. After years or decades of developing fluency, some of that knowledge gets transferred into the subconscious procedural memory. However, declarative, or conscious, memory will always hang on to it in some way. (Children who grow up multilingual can store more than one language within the subconscious memory system.)

Multiple areas of the brain intersect to encode both types of memory, but the two systems are generally distinct from each other. That makes it possible for a localized lesion, tumor or traumatic injury to wipe out one language but not another.

Paradis suspects that the Croatian teenager suffered from edema, or swelling, that interfered with her ability to speak Croatian but not German. In cases like hers, he said, the native language usually returns when swelling goes down after a few weeks or months.

Whether true or not, the case points out how much scientists still don't know about language and the brain.

"The bilingual neuroimaging literature is quite messy, and we're really only beginning to understand how the brain is capable of sustaining multiple languages," said Matt Leonard, a doctoral student in cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego.

Along with neuroscientist Eric Halgren and colleagues, his group is using new, magnetic field-based technology to zero in -- in more detail than ever -- on which parts of the brain process language and in what order.

"Second-language learning is a controversial field," Halgren added, with ongoing debate about which brain areas are involved. "The amount we don't know is far greater than the amount we know. That is going to be true for a long time."


Sohn, Emily. 2010. "Coma Victim's Language Ability Explained". Discovery News. Posted: April 23, 2010. Available online:

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Low-tech cool: Shade trees for subtropical streets

Just 'cos it's Earth Day.

Taiwanese researchers reveal the best and coolest trees for subtropical urban areas

Shade trees are the superstars of urban landscapes. In addition to their intrinsic aesthetic qualities, these low-tech workhorses reduce air and noise pollution, provide habitat for wildlife, increase property values, and offer cool respite for harried urbanites. Strategically planted shade trees decrease energy usage in urban buildings, absorb carbon dioxide, and supply fresh oxygen. It's no coincidence that researchers around the world are working to find the best shade trees for all types of urban environments.

While studies have reported on the "cooling effect" of shade trees in temperate urban areas, similar studies for tropical or subtropical areas are limited. Climate conditions and popular tree species in the tropics or subtropics are quite different from those in more temperate regions. Now, a research team from the Department of Horticulture at National Taiwan University has published a comprehensive study in HortScience that offers recommendations for landscape designers and urban planners in subtropical regions. Bau-Show Lin and Yann-Jou Lin evaluated the differences in cooling effect of trees and bamboo grown in Taipei, Taiwan.

The effect of shade trees on the air and surface-soil temperature reduction under the canopy was studied in a park in Taipei City, Taiwan. Ten species of trees and two species of bamboo, which had tightly clustered tall stems and spreading branches resembling trees, were chosen for the study. Microclimate conditions under the tree canopies and an unshaded open space were measured repeatedly at midday without precipitation. The researchers analyzed four characteristics of each plant related to cooling effect, determining that foliage density had the greatest contribution to cooling, followed by leaf thickness, leaf texture, and leaf color lightness. Regression analysis also revealed that solar radiation, wind velocity, and vapor pressure at the site had significant effects on temperature reduction attributable to shade trees or bamboo.

Twelve species in the study provided 0.64 to 2.52ºC lower air temperature and 3.28 to 8.07ºC lower surface-soil temperature under the canopies compared with the unshaded open site. When analyzed for "cooling effect", Chinese elm (Ulmus parvifolia) and Rose wood (Pterocarpus indicus) were the determined to be the most effective, while Golden shower tree (Cassia fitula), Autumn maple (Bischofia javanica), and Swollen bamboo (Bambusa ventricosa) were the least effective. "The shading of U. parvifolia reduced air temperature by 2.52ºC but that of C. fitula only by 0.64ºC; the difference was almost fourfold", noted the authors.

"This research could help maximize the cooling effect of shade trees by careful selection of species based on their canopy and leaf characteristics", the authors said. They added that although the field studies were carried out in a park, the results can be applied to shade trees in other subtropical urban environments.

Lin, Bau-Show and Yann-Jou Lin. 2010. "Low-tech cool: Shade trees for subtropical streets". EurekAlert. Posted: April 20, 2010. Available online:

The complete study and abstract are available on the ASHS HortScience electronic journal web site:

Founded in 1903, the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) is the largest organization dedicated to advancing all facets of horticultural research, education, and application. More information at

Monday, April 19, 2010

Ignoring racism makes distress worse, study finds

Subtle forms of racism are part of the fabric of life, according to Professor of Counseling Alvin Alvarez, but the way people choose to cope with racist incidents can influence how much distress they feel.

Alvarez' latest study, published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, found that denying or ignoring racial discrimination leads to greater psychological distress, including anxiety and depression, and lowers self-esteem.

"We found that some coping methods are healthier than others for dealing with everyday racism," Alvarez said. "When people deny or trivialize racist encounters, they can actually make themselves feel worse, amplifying the distress caused by the incident."

The study focused on what is referred to as 'everyday racism' -- subtle, commonplace forms of discrimination, such as being ignored, ridiculed or treated differently.

"These are incidents that may seem innocent and small, but cumulatively they can have a powerful impact on an individual's mental health," Alvarez said. "Trying to ignore these insidious incidents could become taxing and debilitating over time, chipping away at a person's spirit."

Alvarez surveyed 199 Filipino-American adults, both men and women, in the Bay Area and found that 99 percent of participants had experienced at least one incident of everyday racism in the last year.

The findings challenge the stereotype of Filipino-Americans as 'model minorities' -- ethnic groups that are typically successful in society and believed to no longer experience discrimination. "What's striking is we found that racism is still happening to Filipinos," Alvarez said. "Therapists need to look beyond the frequent portrayal of Asian Americans as model minorities and help clients assess what their best coping strategy could be, depending on their resources, what's feasible and who they could turn to for support."

While further research is needed to determine what makes a healthy coping method, the study did find that for men, dealing with racism in an active way, such as reporting incidents to authorities or challenging the perpetrator, was associated with decreased distress and increased self-esteem. For women, ignoring racism was linked to increased distress, but no significant correlation was found between other coping methods and psychological distress.

The study was published in the April 2010 issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology and was co-authored by Linda Juang, associate professor of psychology at SF State.


Bible, Elaine. 2010. "Ignoring racism makes distress worse, study finds". PhysOrg. Posted: April 6, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Deciphering the movement of pedestrians in a crowd

People watchers of the world, take note....

How do pedestrians move in the street? How do they interact? French researchers from the Université Toulouse, in partnership with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, have carried out a series of studies to improve understanding of the group behavior of pedestrians in urban environments. Published on April 7th in PloS ONE, their results establish realistic models of crowd dynamics to improve pedestrian traffic management.

The mechanisms that govern crowd motion remain largely unknown. However, this knowledge is essential for the management of pedestrian flows (walking comfort, traffic fluidity, etc.) in urban areas. The lack of information is due in part to the difficulty of studying these phenomena experimentally and of building quantitative models able to account reliably for them.

For simplicity's sake, most current models of crowd dynamics consider that pedestrians move independently of one another, trying to reach their destination while avoiding collisions. Using video recordings made in urban areas, Guy Theraulaz's team has shown that depending on the situation, 50 to 70% of pedestrians do not walk alone but in small groups, most commonly composed of two to four members. The study of the spatial organization of pedestrians within these groups reveals that when they have enough room, group members choose to walk side by side. Conversely, when crowd density increases the group no longer has enough room to walk abreast: the pedestrians in the middle move back slightly and those at the sides move towards each other, forming a concave structure. A group of three pedestrians adopts a “V”-like pattern. In groups of four, a “U”-like formation is observed.

These configurations facilitate communication between group members, but they considerably reduce their walking speed. A concave configuration makes the group's forward motion difficult and forces individuals moving in the opposite direction to perform avoidance maneuvers. At the scale of a crowd, this significantly modifies the spatial and temporal characteristics of pedestrian flows. Numerical simulations based on these observations demonstrate that the presence of pedestrian groups reduces overall traffic efficiency by about 17% compared to a situation in which pedestrians walk in isolation.

This study shows that it is important to take into account the highly heterogeneous composition of crowds and the presence of pedestrian groups who privilege their social activities to the detriment of their walking efficiency. This new knowledge will help improve the reliability of pedestrian traffic predictions in urban environments.

2010. "Deciphering the movement of pedestrians in a crowd". PhysOrg. Posted: April 13, 2010. Available online:

Researchers: M. Moussaďd, N.Perozo, S. Garnier, D. Helbing & Guy Theraulaz

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Materialistic people liked less by peers than 'experiential' people, says new CU-Boulder study

People who pursue happiness through material possessions are liked less by their peers than people who pursue happiness through life experiences, according to a new study led by University of Colorado at Boulder psychology Professor Leaf Van Boven.

Van Boven has spent a decade studying the social costs and benefits of pursuing happiness through the acquisition of life experiences such as traveling and going to concerts versus the purchase of material possessions like fancy cars and jewelry.

"We have found that material possessions don't provide as much enduring happiness as the pursuit of life experiences," Van Boven said.

The "take home" message in his most recent study, which appears in this month's edition of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, is that not only will investing in material possessions make us less happy than investing in life experiences, but that it often makes us less popular among our peers as well.

"The mistake we can sometimes make is believing that pursuing material possessions will gain us status and admiration while also improving our social relationships," Van Boven said. "In fact, it seems to have exactly the opposite effect. This is really problematic because we know that having quality social relationships is one of the best predictors of happiness, health and well-being.

"So for many of us we should rethink these decisions that we might make in terms of pursuing material possessions versus life experiences," he said. "Trying to have a happier life by the acquisition of material possessions is probably not a very wise decision."

CU-Boulder marketing Professor Margaret Campbell and Cornell University Professor Thomas Gilovich were co-authors on the study.

Past studies have found that people who are materialistic tend to have lower quality social relationships. They also have fewer and less satisfying friendships.

In the recent study, Van Boven and his colleagues conducted five experiments with undergraduate students and through a national survey. They sought to find out if people had unfavorable stereotypes of materialistic people and to see if these stereotypes led them to like the materialistic people less than those who pursued life experiences.

In one experiment undergraduates who didn't know each other were randomly paired up and assigned to discuss either a material possession or a life experience they had purchased and were happy with. After talking for 15 or 20 minutes they were then asked about their conversation partners by the researchers.

"What we found was that people who had discussed their material possessions liked their conversation partner less than those who had discussed an experience they had purchased," Van Boven said. "They also were less interested in forming a friendship with them, so there's a real social cost to being associated with material possessions rather than life experiences."

In another experiment using a national survey, the researchers told people about someone who had purchased a material item such as a new shirt or a life experience like a concert ticket. They then asked them a number of questions about that person. They found that simply learning that someone made a material purchase caused them to like him or her less than learning that someone made an experiential purchase.

"We have pretty negative stereotypes of people who are materialistic," Van Boven said. "When we asked people to think of someone who is materialistic and describe their personality traits, selfish and self-centered come up pretty frequently. However, when we asked people to describe someone who is more experiential in nature, things like altruistic, friendly and outgoing come up much more frequently."

So what do you do if you're somebody who really likes to buy lots of material possessions?

"The short answer is you should try to change," Van Boven said. "Not just our research, but a lot of other research has found that people who are materialistic incur many mental health costs and social costs -- they're less happy and more prone to depression."

Van Boven says one thing you can do is choose to be around people who are less interested in material goods.

"It's not a quick fix, but it can be done," he said. "I think what makes it particularly challenging is that it requires some extra effort and mindfulness about the way we make decisions about how to be happy in life."

2010. "Materialistic people liked less by peers than 'experiential' people, says new CU-Boulder study". EurekAlert. Posted: April 14, 2010. Available online:

Friday, April 16, 2010

Classic Maya History Is Embedded in Commoners' Homes

They were illiterate farmers, builders and servants, but Maya commoners found a way to record their own history -- by burying it within their homes. A new study of the objects embedded in the floors of homes occupied more than 1,000 years ago in central Belize begins to decode their story.

The study, from University of Illinois anthropology professor Lisa J. Lucero, appears in the Journal of Social Archaeology.

Maya in the Classic period (A.D. 250-900) regularly "terminated" their homes, razing the walls, burning the floors and placing artifacts and (sometimes) human remains on top before burning them again.

Evidence suggests these rituals occurred every 40 or 50 years and likely marked important dates in the Maya calendar. After termination, the family built a new home on the old foundation, using broken and whole vessels, colorful fragments, animal bones and rocks to mark important areas and to provide ballast for a new plaster floor.

Maya royals recorded their history in writing and in imagery carved on monuments, Lucero said. "But the commoners had their own way of recording their own history, not only their history as a family but also their place in the cosmos," she said.

"These things are buried, not to be seen, but it doesn't mean people forgot about them," she said.

"They are burying people in the exact same spot and removing bones from earlier ancestors to place them somewhere else, or removing pieces of them and keeping the pieces as mementos."

This "de-animation" and reanimation of the home marked the passage of time and the cyclical nature of life, Lucero said.

Anthropologists have known for decades about such rituals, but Lucero chose to look more closely at how the arrangement, color and condition of the buried artifacts lent them their symbolic meaning.

She and her crew found about a dozen human remains in the two homes they excavated in a small Maya center called Saturday Creek, in central Belize. These homes were occupied from about A.D. 450 to 1150.

Burial in the home was common among the Maya, but only a few family members were entombed there, Lucero said. No Maya cemeteries or other burial sites have been found to account for the rest of the dead.

There is no evidence that high status individuals were specifically selected for burial in the home. It is more likely that family members who died on or near important dates were placed there during the termination and reanimation rituals, Lucero said.

The team found full or partial skeletons of men, women and children, with artifacts arranged around and even on top of the bodies. Some bodies lay flat. Others were in a sitting position, which may have signified a higher status, Lucero said. Some of the bodies had had bones removed -- most often the spine and the pelvis. Black is the color of the west, death and the underworld, but Lucero never found black objects in or near a burial.

"The Maya believed in a cyclical way of living," she said. "So to their way of thinking, people don't die as much as become ancestors."

Colors, such as red, which represented the east, life and rebirth, were commonly used in burials. Sometimes an unbroken red vessel was inverted over a skull or kneecap. Red items were generally found on the east side of the body or group of artifacts.

Other artifacts -- including groups of obsidian or chert rocks -- represented the Maya belief in the nine levels of the underworld or the 13 levels of heaven.

Vessels were a very significant part of the dedication rites. Lucero found bowls and jars that were in perfect condition when they were buried -- manufactured specifically for the occasion, she said. For termination rites, archaeologists also found used vessels with their rims broken off, jars lacking bases or necks, and vessels stacked in groups of three. Some bowls were placed lip-to-lip, with stores of organic matter -- a food offering perhaps -- inside. Other vessels were damaged with a "kill hole" drilled through their bottoms.

"Things that were used in life had to be de-animated, terminated, before they entered the next stage of their life history," Lucero said. Pieces were likely given away or placed in other sacred sites, such as caves, she said.

The rimless vessels were intriguing, Lucero said. Other studies have found broken, but nearly complete vessels at temple sites, with the missing pieces located in nearby homes.

"Breaking off the rims is a lot of work," Lucero said. "Removing the rims may have been a way of de-animating them as well as giving a piece to somebody else." Perhaps the Maya revered the fragments of vessels or the bones of their ancestors in the same way that people today hold onto to, and cherish, religious relics, she said.

The new analysis supports her hypothesis that many of the elaborate rituals performed by Maya rulers and elites had a basis in the domestic rituals of their subjects. She argued in her 2006 book, "Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers," that the rulers reinforced community cohesion (as well as their own status) by adopting traditional domestic rituals and performing them on a grand scale.

"Nearly everything royal emerged or developed or evolved from domestic practices," she said. "So it makes sense to turn that around and use what we know about the rulers to interpret what we find in the commoners' homes."

Lucero has spent more than 20 years studying settlements and sacred sites that were important to the Maya in Belize, and works under the auspices of the Institute of Archaeology, which is part of the National Institute of Culture and History, Government of Belize.

The National Science Foundation provided funding for this study.


2010. "Classic Maya History Is Embedded in Commoners' Homes". ScienceDirect. Posted: April 16, 2010. Available online:

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Classic Maya History Is Embedded in Commoners' Homes." ScienceDaily. 16 April 2010.­ /releases/2010/04/100414111030.htm.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Cultural identity of indigenous society of Patagonia restored

Argentinean and Spanish researchers have shown that indigenous societies in Patagonia, the southernmost region of the Earth inhabited by humans over the past 13,000 years, were not static and marginal as had always been thought, but in fact had high levels of social organisation. The latest study by this team, published in the journal Arctic Anthropology, breaks down false myths and gives these societies the historic recognition they deserve.

"Was Patagonia a desert?" Using this question as its starting point, the Argentinean-Spanish research team has studied the development of ethnicity in Patagonia, one of the last regions of the world to be occupied by human beings, around 13,000 years ago according to radio carbon dating of archaeological remains in the region. The study, published in the journal Arctic Anthropology, overturns the traditional view of these societies.

"We started our study looking at the situation of the indigenous society today, which is suffering from a loss of cultural identity and a high degree of mixture between populations due to numerous migratory movements and the pressures of urban life", Juan A. Barceló, lead author of the study and an archaeologist and researcher at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), tells SINC.

Documentary evidence to date has held that the region was occupied by primitive hunter-gatherers who started to "die out" and disappeared leaving behind a "desert". However, even though the indigenous population subsists in marginal populations today, this study shows that it has a history of its own.

Using ethnographic documents containing the life stories of old people who lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers as children, as well as information sources from travellers and naturalists in the 19th Century, the social scientists used specially-created computer programmes to study the dynamics of indigenous populations.

"Going beyond the common areas of information, we incorporated archaeological, anthropological and ethno-historic data to highlight the profound social complexity and economic, social and reproductive strategies of these apparently extremely simple human communities", the researcher says.

One hundred years of resistance to colonisation

Prior to European colonisation, the indigenous population had highly ingrained levels of social hierarchy. "They had relatively well evolved leadership systems, social predominance was transmitted via parentage, and wealth was concentrated, particularly in the form of thousands of heads of cattle or horses", says Barceló.

The team of experts explains that the indigenous societies had complex social and political organisation, being able to mobilise thousands of warriors.

"When they were fighting against the pressure of industrial societies they were able to call up military bands of more than 1,000 warriors, bringing together forces from distant regions and with different languages and identities", the expert explains.

Barceló says this enormous mobilisation capacity held the ever-increasing pressures of industrial society at bay for almost 100 years "until the colonists started to use canons, rifles and sabres, totally wiping out certain ethnic groups".

Recognising the past

The view of these indigenous populations as marginal people who all spoke the same language is erroneous. Some historical studies on southern languages differentiate between 30 separate languages and dialects, which were inter-related to various degrees.

"Linguistic complexity was probably much greater before European contact, since a significant feature of colonisation was the trend towards linguistic homogeneity", according to the study.

The researchers also found these to be "extraordinarily dynamic" societies that adjusted their internal characteristics to cope with change. "These were not societies that had a passively adaptation to the land and its resources. Instead, they built their own path through history by taking constant social decisions", says Barceló.

"Aside from the academic community and the general public, this study is aimed at the indigenous societies who have traditionally been denied their own history", the expert concludes.

EurekAlert. 2010. "Cultural identity of indigenous society of Patagonia restored". EurekAlert. Posted: April 13, 2010. Available online:

Juan A. Barceló, Mª. Florencia del Castillo, Laura Mameli, Eduardo Moreno, Blanca Videla. "Where Does the South Begin? Social Variability at the Southern Tip of the World". Arctic Anthropology. 46 (1-2): 50-71, 2009.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Who's the better translator: Machines or humans?

This is an older story, but it still bears a revisit. Enjoy!

One of the Internet's great promises is that it's the ultimate democratizer. It's open to everyone and allows all people to communicate.

But, so far, there have been several hitches in that plan. Not everyone has access to a computer and a broadband connection. Some governments still censor the Internet. And of course, we don't all speak the same language.

For the World Wide Web to be truly global, shouldn't Chinese speakers be able to chat online with people who only speak Spanish? And why should an English speaker be barred from reading blogs written in Malagasy or Zulu?

Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. are two Web companies trying particularly hard to make this happen, and they've released a number of updates to their translation services in recent weeks.

The two online giants are going about the process in different ways.

Facebook aims to translate the Web using an army of volunteers and some hired professional translators. Meanwhile, Google plans to let computers do most of the work.

Which method will ultimately prevail remains to be seen.

But for now, here's a look at the latest language features from both companies, and some background on how their translation services work. (Feel free to add your own Internet translation tips -- and fun translation bloopers -- in the comments section at the bottom of the story):

Facebook's human translation

Many tech bloggers think Facebook's method of human translation seems promising. After all, the American-born social networking site introduced non-English languages for the first time only in January 2008. Now about 70 percent of Facebook's 300 million users are outside of the United States.

How it works: Real people are at the heart of Facebook translation plan. They suggest translated phrases and vote on translations that others have submitted. These crowd-sourced edits -- which work kind of like Wikipedia -- make Facebook's translation service smarter over time. Go to Facebook's translation page to check it out or to participate.

Size: More than 65 languages function on Facebook now, according to Facebook's statistics. At least another 30 languages are in the works, meaning Facebook needs help working out the kinks on those languages before they're put to use.

What's new? Facebook announced in a blog post on September 30 that the social network has made its crowd-sourced translation technology available to other sites on the Web. The update allows sites to install a translation gadget on their sites through Facebook Connect, a service that lets Facebook users sign in on other Web pages.

Facebook also added some new languages, including Latin and "Pirate," which translates the Facebooky word "share" as "blabber t'yer mates!"

Pros and cons: People are good at knowing idioms and slang, so Facebook tends to get these right, but there are limited numbers of multi-lingual volunteers who want to spend time helping Facebook translate things.

Also, Facebook's site is available in many languages, but its human translators don't touch wall posts, photo comments and other user-submitted items, which is a big con if you want to have friends who don't share a common language with you. People who use Facebook Connect to translate their sites can choose which text they want users to help translate, according to Facebook spokeswoman Malorie Lucich.

Craig Ulliott, founder of, said he's excited about Facebook's translation application, but it would be too much to ask his site's users to translate user-submitted material.

Google's 'mechanical' translation

Google uses mathematical equations to try to translate the Web's content. This fits in line with the company's mission, which is to organize the world's information and make it useful and accessible to all.

How it works: Google's computers learn how to be translators by examining text that's already on the Web, and from professional Web translations posted online, said Franz Och, a principal scientist at Google. The more text is out there, the more Google learns and the better its translations become. The search-engine company currently translates documents, search results and full Web pages.

Size: Google claims to be the largest free language translation service online. It covers 51 languages and more than 2,500 language pairs. The site's interface has been translated, with the help of Google users, into 130 languages.

What's new?: Google recently created a widget that any Web developer can put on his or her page to offer up Google translations. So, say you're a blogger who writes about music. You might get some Brazilian readers if you offered up a button to translate your site into Portuguese.

Google also recently unveiled a translation service for Google Docs, which lets anyone upload a document to the Web and have it translated into a number of languages for free. And there's a new Firefox add-on from Google to help people translate the Web more quickly.

Och said real-time translation of Internet chats is on the horizon, as are more languages and increased quality as Google's computers get smarter.

Pros and cons: Google's computerized approach means it can translate tons of content -- and fast. But computers aren't quite up to speed with ever-evolving modern speech, so reports of translation errors are fairly common.

On the plus side, the service has been vastly improved in the last five years, Och said. Also, Google lets people spot translation errors, suggest new wordings and translate its interface into languages Google's computers don't speak just yet.

Facebook's Statistics. According to their site:
  • More than 70 translations available on the site
  • About 70% of Facebook users are outside the United States
  • Over 300,000 users helped translate the site through the translations application

    Google's Language Tools.

    Sutter, John D. 2009. "Who's the better translator: Machines or humans?". CNN. Posted: October 7, 2009. Available online:
  • Tuesday, April 13, 2010

    Indian Tribes Go in Search of Their Lost Languages

    As far as the records show, no one has spoken Shinnecock or Unkechaug, languages of Long Island’s Indian tribes, for nearly 200 years. Now Stony Brook University and two of the Indian nations are initiating a joint project to revive these extinct tongues, using old documents like a vocabulary list that Thomas Jefferson wrote during a visit in 1791.

    The goal is language resuscitation and enlisting tribal members from this generation and the next to speak them, said representatives from the tribes and Stony Brook’s Southampton campus.

    Chief Harry Wallace, the elected leader of the Unkechaug Nation, said that for tribal members, knowing the language is an integral part of understanding their own culture, past and present.

    “When our children study their own language and culture, they perform better academically,” he said. “They have a core foundation to rely on.”

    The Long Island effort is part of a wave of language reclamation projects undertaken by American Indians in recent years. For many tribes language is a cultural glue that holds a community together, linking generations and preserving a heritage and values. Bruce Cole, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which sponsors language preservation programs, has called language “the DNA of a culture.”

    The odds against success can be overwhelming, given the relatively small number of potential speakers and the difficulty in persuading a new generation to participate. There has been progress, though, said Leanne Hinton, professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, who created the Breath of Life program in California in 1992 to revive dormant languages in the state.

    Representatives from at least 25 languages with no native speakers have participated in the group’s workshops so far, she said. Last month Ms. Hinton and a colleague at Yale received a federal grant to create a similar program based in Washington, D.C.

    Of the more than 300 indigenous languages spoken in the United States, only 175 remain, according to the Indigenous Language Institute. This nonprofit group estimates that without restoration efforts, no more than 20 will still be spoken in 2050.

    Some reclamation efforts have shown success. Daryl Baldwin started working to revive the dormant language of the Miami Nation in the Midwest (part of the Algonquian language family), and taught his own children to speak it fluently. He now directs the Myaamia Project at Miami University in Ohio, a joint effort between academics and the Miami tribe.

    Farther east is Stephanie Fielding, a member of the Connecticut Mohegans and an adviser on the Stony Brook project. She has devoted her life to bringing her tribe’s language back to life and is compiling a dictionary and grammar book. In her eyes language provides a mental telescope into the world of her ancestors. She notes, for example, that in an English conversation, a statement is typically built with the first person — “I” — coming first. In the same statement in Mohegan, however, “you” always comes first, even when the speaker is the subject.

    “This suggests a more communally minded culture,” she said.

    Now in her 60s, Ms. Fielding knows firsthand just how tough it is to sustain a language effort over time, however. She said she was still not fluent.

    “In order for a language to survive and resurrect,” she said, “it needs people talking it, and for people to talk it, there has to be a society that works on it.”

    Chief Wallace of the Unkechaug in Long Island already has a willing student from a younger generation. Howard Treadwell, 24, graduated from Stony Brook in 2009 with a linguistics degree. He will participate in the Long Island effort while doing graduate work at the University of Arizona, where there is a specialized program researching American Indian languages.

    Mr. Treadwell is one of 400 registered members of the tribe, which maintains a 52-acre reservation in Mastic, on the South Shore. The Shinnecocks have about 1,300 enrolled members and have a reservation adjacent to Southampton.

    Robert D. Hoberman, the chairman of the linguistics department at Stony Book, is overseeing the academic side of the project. He is an expert in the creation of modern Hebrew, the great success story of language revival. Essentially unspoken for 2,000 years, Hebrew survived only in religious uses until early Zionists tried to update it — an undertaking adopted on a grand scale when the State of Israel was established.

    For the American Indians on Long Island the task is particularly difficult because there are few records. But Shinnecock and Unkechaug are part of a family of eastern Algonquian languages. Some have both dictionaries and native speakers, Mr. Hoberman said, which the team can mine for missing words and phrases, and for grammatical structure.

    The reclamation is a two-step process, the professor explained. “First we have to figure out what the language looked like,” using remembered prayers, greetings, sayings and word lists, like the one Jefferson created, he said. “Then we’ll look at languages that are much better documented, look at short word lists to see what the differences are and see what the equivalencies are, and we’ll use that to reconstruct what the Long Island languages probably were like.” The Massachusett language, for example, is well documented with dictionaries and Bible translations.

    Jefferson’s Unkechaug word list was collected on June 13, 1791, when he visited Brookhaven, Long Island, with James Madison, later his successor in the White House. He wrote that even then, only three old women remained who could still speak the language fluently.

    Chief Wallace said he had many more records, including religious documents, deeds and legal transactions, and possibly a tape of some tribal members speaking in the 1940s.

    “When we have an idea of what the language should sound like, the vocabulary and the structure, we’ll then introduce it to people in the community,” Mr. Hoberman said.

    While it may seem impossible to recreate the sound of a lost tongue, Mr. Hoberman said the process was not all that mysterious because the dictionaries were transliterated into English.

    “Would someone from 200 years ago think we had a funny accent?” Mr. Hoberman asked. “Yes. Would they understand it? I hope so.”

    Cohen, Patricia. 2010. "Indian Tribes Go in Search of Their Lost Languages". New York Times. Posted: April 5, 2010. Available online:

    Monday, April 12, 2010

    Phase 1 of survey to map Himalayan languages to begin soon

    VADODARA: The first phase of the ambitious project of People's Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) will begin later this month, in which a survey on Himalayan languages and of central tribal belt of India will be carried out. The decision to launch PLSI initiative was taken by city-based NGO Bhasha Research and Publication Centre (BRPC) at the national meet 'Bhasha Confluence' held in the city.

    This survey will recreate history after 100 years. George Abraham Grierson had produced a 12-volume Linguistic Survey of India (1903-1923) material for which was collected in the last decade of the 19th century. In fact, the results of PLSI will be in juxtaposition to Grierson's survey.

    Even in 2007, the Linguistic Survey of India was planned and touted as the biggest ever to be conducted in the world. Central Institute of Indian Languages (CIIL) in Mysore was to conduct it, but the exercise was abandoned.

    Now, finally, BRPC is going to undertake this initiative to ensure that each and every language in the country is documented. "It was during the Bhasha Confluence that all the delegates and representatives from across the country expressed the need to have a linguistic survey. Many felt that their language was not represented well. As a solution, we volunteered to conduct the survey where the speaker of the language will furnish the details," said founder trustee of BRPC professor Ganesh Devy.

    The survey will not be an official exercise but a people's endeavour and will also look at India's historical, social, political and cultural aspects besides linguistics. "We have prepared an outline of questions and also invited scholars
    and cultural activists to contribute to the survey. By April 15, we will finalise the names of contributing authors. The survey documents will be scrutinised and finalised by a team of professional linguists at a workshop to be held at Keylong Museum at Himlok. The volume of the survey report will be published by July end," added Devy.


    Chaturved, Darshana. 2010. "Phase 1 of survey to map Himalayan languages to begin soon".Times of India. Posted: April 4, 2010. Available online:

    Sunday, April 11, 2010

    Researchers Shed Light on Ancient Assyrian Tablets

    A cache of cuneiform tablets unearthed by a team led by a University of Toronto archaeologist has been found to contain a largely intact Assyrian treaty from the early 7th century BCE.

    "The tablet is quite spectacular. It records a treaty -- or covenant -- between Esarhaddon, King of the Assyrian Empire and a secondary ruler who acknowledged Assyrian power. The treaty was confirmed in 672 BCE at elaborate ceremonies held in the Assyrian royal city of Nimrud (ancient Kalhu). In the text, the ruler vows to recognize the authority of Esarhaddon's successor, his son Ashurbanipal," said Timothy Harrison, professor of near eastern archaeology in the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations and director of U of T's Tayinat Archaeological Project (TAP).

    "The treaties were designed to secure Ashurbanipal's accession to the throne and avoid the political crisis that transpired at the start of his father's reign. Esarhaddon came to power when his brothers assassinated their father, Sennacherib."

    The 43 by 28 centimetre tablet -- known as the Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon -- contains about 650 lines and is in a very fragile state. "It will take months of further work before the document will be fully legible," added Harrison. "These tablets are like a very complex puzzle, involving hundreds of pieces, some missing. It is not just a matter of pulling the tablet out, sitting down and reading. We expect to learn much more as we restore and analyze the document."

    The researchers hope to glean information about Assyria's imperial relations with the west during a critical period, the early 7th century BCE. It marked the rise of the Phrygians and other rival powers in highland Anatolia -- now modern-day Turkey -- along the northwestern frontier of the Assyrian empire, and coincided with the divided monarchy of Biblical Israel, as well as an era of increased contact between the Levantine peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt, as well as the Greeks of the Aegean world.

    The cache of tablets -- which date back to the Iron Age -- were unearthed in August 2009 during excavations at the site of an ancient temple at Tell Tayinat, located in southeastern Turkey. A wealth of religious paraphernalia -- including gold, bronze and iron implements, libation vessels and ornately decorated ritual objects -- was also uncovered.

    TAP is an international project, involving researchers from a dozen countries, and more than 20 universities and research institutes. It operates in close collaboration with the Ministry of Culture of Turkey, and provides research opportunities and training for both graduate and undergraduate students. The project is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Institute for Aegean Prehistory (INSTAP), and receives support from the University of Toronto.

    2010. "Researchers Shed Light on Ancient Assyrian Tablets". Science Direct. Posted: April 10, 2010. Available online:

    Friday, April 9, 2010

    Pompeii's frozen victims on display

    24 August, AD79. The day one volcanic mountain came to life and two cities met their deaths.

    Pompeii and the nearby settlement of Herculaneum were consumed by a mixture of heat, falling pumice stone and ash.

    Mount Vesuvius, about 9km (5.5 miles) away, had exploded, sending a mass of volcanic debris high into the air, which then landed like a military bombardment on the citizens of the two cities below.

    Estimates of deaths in both places range from between 10,000 and 25,000.

    In Pompeii, the effects of the cataclysm were especially vivid, leaving as they did a city almost frozen at the moment of its expiration.

    So fast and vast was the tonnage of volcanic rock and dust dumped on its residents and livestock that many were killed on the spot.

    Skeletal remains

    It is these emblematic "figures" of Pompeii that are now the subject of an extraordinary new exhibition.

    They are the skeletal remains of the victims that have been preserved under a thin veneer of plaster, to give them their life form.

    "Until now, these figures have been dispersed around Pompeii itself, or to other museums around the world," says Grete Stefani, the organiser of the exhibition at the nearby Antiquarium de Boscoreale, a five-minute drive from Pompeii.

    "They've never been seen together."

    The process of unearthing the bones and preserving them in plaster has gone on since the 19th Century, when archaeologists really began the work of prising out Pompeii's buried existence.

    One of the exhibits shows a figure, probably a man, clasping a step.

    Another shows a man with his arm over his mouth, most likely trying to hold back the choking dust.

    A third shows a family, their arms raised, as though trying to fend off the calamity that was engulfing them.

    Trapped animals

    The figures are exactly how the archaeologists found them buried in the layers of ash.

    Once discovered, the cavity containing the skeleton is filled with a liquid plaster mixture.

    After 48 hours the plaster hardens and the life-like figure can be lifted out.

    Not even the animals had the speed to escape.

    The exhibition includes a pig and alongside a dog, his four legs contorted together to form one point and his mouth open.

    You can see a tooth and a collar, and even make out the lines of his fur.

    "The detail of the figures is remarkable" says Mrs Stefani. "They have been preserved at the very second of their death."

    On another figure you can make out the creases of a scarf they were wearing as they struggled to breathe.

    One of the saddest is the figure of a child.

    The exhibition reflects the merciless, indiscriminate nature of the volcanic eruption.

    The authorities decided to mount the displays partly because of the ignorance surrounding the figures.

    "Many visitors to Pompeii thought they were sculptures, the work of artists," says Mrs Stefani. "But they are the remains of real people".

    'Human archaeology'

    The work of preservation falls to Pompeii's workshop of experts.

    Set in a former villa in the city, the team prepare the plaster mixture.

    Too thin and it would not be strong enough to support the skeletal frame, too thick and it would obliterate the detail of the person or animal being covered.

    "It is a very delicate operation," says Stefania Giudice, one of the preservers working here.

    "The bones are very brittle, so when we pour in the plaster we have to be very careful, otherwise we might damage the remains and they would be lost to us forever."

    A little more than 100 figures have been preserved in plaster, though not all are on show at the exhibition.

    That is out of a total of about 1,150 bodies that have been discovered in Pompeii.

    Some are not suitable to be covered as they have already been damaged, either by the debris of the volcano, or when they were unearthed.

    As a third of Pompeii has yet to be excavated, more human and animal remains could be found.

    Where possible these, too, will be treated with the plaster, removed and preserved.

    To preservers like Ms Giudice, it is more than just a job.

    "It can be very moving handling these remains when we apply the plaster," she says.

    "Even though it happened 2,000 years ago, it could be a boy, a mother or a family. It's human archaeology, not just archaeology."

    The exhibition lasts until the end of the year.

    Kennedy, Duncan. 2010. "Pompeii's frozen victims on display". BBC News. Posted: April 5, 2010. Available online:

    Thursday, April 8, 2010

    Languages use different parts of brain

    The part of the brain that’s used to decode a sentence depends on the grammatical structure of the language it’s communicated in, a new study suggests.

    Brain images showed that subtly different neural regions were activated when speakers of American Sign Language saw sentences that used two different kinds of grammar. The study, published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests neural structures that evolved for other cognitive tasks, like memory and analysis, may help humans flexibly use a variety of languages.

    “We’re using and adapting the machinery we already have in our brains,” says study coauthor Aaron Newman of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada. “Obviously we’re doing something different [from other animals], because we’re able to learn language. But it’s not because some little black box evolved specially in our brain that does only language, and nothing else.”

    Most spoken languages express relationships between the subject and object of a sentence — the “who did what to whom,” Newman says — in one of two ways. Some languages, like English, encode information in word order. “John gave flowers to Mary” means something different than “Mary gave flowers to John.” And “John flowers Mary to gave” doesn’t mean anything at all.

    Other languages, like German or Russian, use “tags,” such as helping words or suffixes, that make words’ roles in the sentence clear. In German, for example, different forms of “the” carry information about who does what to whom. As long as words stay with their designated “the” they can be moved around German sentences much more flexibly than in English.

    Like English, American Sign Language can convey meaning via the order in which signs appear. But altering the sign by, for instance, moving hands through space or signing on one side of the body, can add information like how often an action happens (“John gives flowers to Mary every day”) or how many objects there are (“John gave a dozen flowers to Mary”) without the need for extra words.

    “In most spoken languages, if word order is a cue for who’s doing what to whom, it’s mandatory,” Newman says. But in ASL, which uses both word order and tags to encode grammar, “the tags are actually optional.”

    The researchers showed 14 deaf signers who had learned ASL from birth a video of coauthor Ted Supalla, who is a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester in New York and a native ASL signer, signing two versions of a set of sentences. One version used only word order to convey grammatical information, and the other added signed tags.

    The sentences, which included “John’s grandmother feeds the monkey every morning” and “The prison warden says all juveniles will be pardoned tomorrow,” were carefully constructed to sound natural to fluent ASL signers and to mean the same thing regardless of which grammar structure they used.

    Brain scans taken using functional MRI while participants watched the videos showed that overlapping but slightly different regions were activated by word-order sentences compared to word-tag sentences.

    The regions that lit up only for word-order sentences are known to be involved with short-term memory. The regions activated by word tags are involved in procedural memory, the kind of memory that controls automatic tasks like riding a bicycle.

    This could mean that listeners need to hold words in their short-term memory to understand word-order sentences, while processing word-tag sentences is more automatic, Newman says.

    “It’s very elegant, probably nicer results than we could have hoped for,” he says.

    “The story they’re telling makes sense to me,” says cognitive neuroscientist Karen Emmorey of San Diego State University, who also studies how the brain processes sign language. But, she adds, “it’ll be important to also look at spoken languages that differ in this property to see if these things they’re finding hold up.”

    Grossman, Lisa. 2010. "Languages use different parts of brain". Science News. Posted: April 5, 2010. Available online:

    Wednesday, April 7, 2010

    Town from Before Invention of Wheel Revealed

    A prehistoric town that had remained untouched beneath the ground near Syria for 6,000 years is now revealing clues about the first cities in the Middle East prior to the invention of the wheel.

    The town, called Tell Zeidan, dates from between 6000 B.C. and 4000 B.C., and immediately preceded the world's first urban civilizations in the ancient Middle East. It is one of the largest sites of the Ubaid culture in northern Mesopotamia.

    Now archaeologists from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and their Syrian colleagues are studying the town, which sits below a mound in an area of irrigated fields at the junction of the Euphrates and Balikh Rivers in what is now northern Syria.

    So far, they have unearthed evidence of the society's trade in obsidian and production and development of copper processing, as well as the existence of a social elite that used stone seals to mark ownership of goods and culturally significant items.

    The evidence here supports what archaeologists had long surmised, that the Ubaid people were among the first in the Middle East to experience division of social groups according to power and wealth.

    "The project addresses questions not only of how such societies emerged but how they were sustained and flourished," said John Yellen, program director for archaeology at the National Science Foundation, which provided funding for the research.

    The town's location was at the crossroads of major, ancient trade routes in Mesopotamia that followed the course of the Euphrates River valley. The Ubaid period lasted from about 5300 B.C. to 4000 B.C.

    "This enigmatic period saw the first development of widespread irrigation, agriculture, centralized temples, powerful political leaders and the first emergence of social inequality as communities became divided into wealthy elites and poorer commoners," said Gil Stein, director of the Oriental Institute and a leader of the expedition that uncovered the site.

    Stein added that the research "provides insight into how complex societies, based on linkages which extended across hundreds of miles, developed," said Yellen, noting the distance travelled for raw materials needed for many of the Tell Zeidan artifacts.

    For example, copper ore was carried by workers from sources near modern-day Diyarbakir, Turkey, about 185 to 250 miles (300 to 400 kilometers) away, then smelted at Tell Zeidan to produce metal tools and other implements.

    One of the most remarkable finds was a stone stamp seal depicting a deer that was carved from a red stone not native to the area, Stein said. A similar seal design was found 185 miles (300 km) to the east near Mosul in northern Iraq.

    "The existence of very elaborate seals with near-identical motifs at such widely distant sites suggests that in this period, high-ranking elites were assuming leadership positions across a very broad region, and those dispersed elites shared a common set of symbols and perhaps even a common ideology of superior social status," said Stein.

    Stein said the location's potential for further discoveries is so great the project is likely to last for decades.
    Live Science. 2010. "Town from Before Invention of Wheel Revealed." Live Science. Posted: April 6, 2010. Available online:

    Tuesday, April 6, 2010

    Secret of the 'lost' tribe that wasn't

    Everyone wants to be the one to discover a lost tribe. It's hard to believe in our globalized world, there are pockets of people who have not been discovered. This story has more political ramifications, however it also speaks to this drive to find an uncontacted tribe.

    They are the amazing pictures that were beamed around the globe: a handful of warriors from an 'undiscovered tribe' in the rainforest on the Brazilian-Peruvian border brandishing bows and arrows at the aircraft that photographed them.

    Or so the story was told and sold. But it has now emerged that, far from being unknown, the tribe's existence has been noted since 1910 and the mission to photograph them was undertaken in order to prove that 'uncontacted' tribes still existed in an area endangered by the menace of the logging industry.

    The disclosures have been made by the man behind the pictures, Jose Carlos Meirelles, 61, one of the handful of sertanistas -- experts on indigenous tribes -- working for the Brazilian Indian Protection Agency, Funai, which is dedicated to searching out remote tribes and protecting them.

    In his first interviews since the disclosure of the tribe's existence, Meirelles described how he found the group, detailed how they lived and how he planned the publicity to protect them and other tribes in similar danger of losing the habitat in which they have flourished for hundreds of years.

    Meirelles admitted that the tribe was first known about almost a century ago and that the apparently chance encounter that produced the now famous images was no accident. 'When we think we might have found an isolated tribe,' he told al-Jazeera, 'a sertanista like me walks in the forest for two or three years to gather evidence and we mark it in our [global positioning system]. We then map the territory the Indians occupy and we draw that protected territory without making contact with them. And finally we set up a small outpost where we can monitor their protection.'

    But in this case Meirelles appears, controversially, to have gone out to seek and find the uncontacted tribe in an area where it was known to be living.

    According to his account, the Brazilian state of Acre offered him the use of an aircraft for three days. 'I had years of GPS co-ordinates,' he said. Meirelles had another clue to the tribe's precise location. 'A friend of mine sent me some Google Earth co-ordinates and maps that showed a strange clearing in the middle of the forest and asked me what that was,' he said. 'I saw the co-ordinates and realised that it was close to the area I had been exploring with my son -- so I needed to fly over it.'

    For two days, Meirelles says, he flew a 150km-radius route over the border region with Peru and saw huts that belonged to isolated tribes. But he did not see people. 'When the women hear the plane above, they run into the forest, thinking it's a big bird,' he said. 'This is such a remote area, planes don't fly over it.'

    What he was looking for was not only proof of life, but firm evidence that the tribes in this area were flourishing -- proof in his view that the policy of no contact and protection was working. On the last day, with only a couple hours of flight time remaining, Meirelles spotted a large community.

    'When I saw them painted red, I was satisfied, I was happy,' he said. 'Because painted red means they are ready for war, which to me says they are happy and healthy defending their territory.'

    Survival International, the organisation that released the pictures along with Funai, conceded yesterday that Funai had known about this nomadic tribe for around two decades. It defended the disturbance of the tribe saying that, since the images had been released, it had forced neighbouring Peru to re-examine its logging policy in the border area where the tribe lives, as a result of the international media attention. Activist and former Funai president Sydney Possuelo agreed that -- amid threats to their environment and doubt over the existence of such tribes -- it was necessary to publish them.

    But the revelation that the existence of the tribe was already established will provoke awkward questions over why a decision was made to try to photograph them -- a form of contact in itself -- in order to make a political point.

    Meirelles, one of only five or so genuine sertanistas, has no regrets, arguing that the pictures and video released to the world were powerful and indisputable evidence to those who say isolated tribes no longer exist. 'Alan Garcia [the President of Peru] declared recently that the isolated Indians were a creation in the imagination of environmentalists and anthropologists -- now we have the pictures.'

    But he is determined to keep the tribe's location secret -- even under torture, he says. 'They can decide when they want contact, not me or anyone else.'

    2008. "Secret of the 'lost' tribe that wasn't." Inform. Available online:

    Monday, April 5, 2010

    Inca cemetery holds brutal glimpses of Spanish violence

    Skeletons provide first material evidence of conquest-related fatalities

    If bones could scream, a bloodcurdling din would be reverberating through a 500-year-old cemetery in Peru. Human skeletons unearthed there have yielded the first direct evidence of Inca fatalities caused by Spanish conquerors.

    European newcomers killed some Inca individuals with guns, steel lances or hammers, and possibly light cannons, scientists report online in the March 23 American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

    Surprisingly, though, no incisions or other marks characteristic of sword injuries appear on these bones, according to a team led by anthropologist Melissa Murphy of the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Spanish documents from the 16th century emphasize steel swords as a favored military weapon.

    Many Spaniards who helped Francisco Pizarro conquer the Incas were fortune-seekers, not soldiers, “so the absence of sword injuries makes some sense,” Murphy explains.

    Skeletons in the Inca cemetery, as well as at another grave site about a mile away, display a gruesome array of violent injuries, many probably caused by maces, clubs and other Inca weapons, the researchers report. Those weapons may have been wielded by Inca from communities known to have collaborated with the Spanish, or might have been borrowed by the Spanish, they posit. “The nature and pattern of these skeletal injuries were unlike anything colleagues and I had seen before,” Murphy says. “Many of these people died brutal, horrible deaths.”

    Little is known about early European dealings with the Inca, remarks anthropologist Haagen Klaus of Utah Valley University in Orem.

    “Murphy’s data show the types of violence that emerged from the first moments of contact between Spaniards and the Inca,” Klaus says. Pottery and artifacts at the sites date to between 1470 and 1540, placing the deaths close to when Spaniards captured the Inca emperor around 1532. It took the invaders nearly another 40 years to control all Inca lands.

    Murphy’s team assessed skeletons of 258 Inca individuals, age 15 or older, excavated several years ago at the two cemeteries.

    In one cemetery, bodies had been hastily deposited in shallow graves. One-quarter of 120 skeletons displayed head and body injuries inflicted at the time of death, as indicated by a lack of healed bone and other clues. That’s a conservative estimate, Murphy notes, since soft-tissue damage doesn’t show up on bones.

    “I’m struck by the severity of violence in certain individual cases, where the skull was essentially crushed, repeatedly stabbed or struck, or shot through by gunshot,” comments archaeologist Steven Wernke of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Whoever killed these individuals wanted to intimidate survivors as well, he asserts.

    One man’s skull contained two holes and radiating fractures consistent with damage produced by early guns that shot ammunition at low velocities.

    Another male skull sported three small rectangular openings in the back of the head. These injuries resemble those on skulls from a 1461 battlefield cemetery in England, Murphy says. Medieval weapons tipped with steel spikes or sharp beaks probably caused these wounds, she proposes.

    Three other skeletons exhibited injuries likely due to Spanish weapons. Other skeletons contained head and body fractures probably inflicted by attackers bearing Inca weapons.

    Individuals placed in this cemetery may have been slain in a documented 1536 Inca uprising against Spanish rulers in nearby Lima, Murphy suggests. Family members collected their bodies and buried them quickly near previously deceased relatives, she speculates.

    At the second Inca cemetery, 18 of 138 skeletons showed definite signs of violent death, all from Inca weapons. That supports a scenario in which social turmoil around the time Spaniards arrived triggered conflicts between Inca communities, Murphy says.


    Bower, Bruce. 2010. "Inca cemetery holds brutal glimpses of Spanish violence". Science News. Posted: April 2, 2010. Available online: