Thursday, September 30, 2010

Forensics Helps ID Victims of Murderous Dictator Pinochet

A new analysis of skeletons in a cemetery in Chile is helping medical examiners and others identify those who were killed or "disappeared" during the military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet (1973–1990).

The results also may prove useful in identifying victims of the Chile earthquake, the researchers say.

While complete and well-preserved skeletons are relatively easy to identify, remains are often fragmented for natural or other reasons, making them tricky to ID.

The Pinochet deaths were part of a regime mandate "to cleanse the country of socialist ideologies while raising new economic and social programs," the researchers write in a forthcoming issue of the journal Forensic Science International.

When he realized people were onto him, that he was burying people in mass graves, [Pinochet] would go back with excavators and take the remains and dump them into the Pacific Ocean, study researcher Ann Ross, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at NC State, told LiveScience. "Those were one of the major things that hindered investigations."

That meant hundreds of bodies were left unidentified.

Whether or not the work will be useful in IDing victims from the earthquake in Chile will depend on how complete those remains are, since the equation would only be needed for fragmentary remains, Ross said.

For the past decade, forensic researchers like Ross have been developing identification criteria, such as height, build and other physical characteristics that can vary significantly from population to population and are important when attempting to identify human remains.

In the new study, Ross and Maria Jose Manneschi of the University of Chile, Santiago, evaluated remains of 139 females and 137 males from a 20th-century Chilean cemetery (Cementerio General at the University of Chile)to find these population-specific skeletal features. Then they developed stature criteria to translate lengths of long bones, such as the femur or the arm's tibia, into an individual's height.

Past methods for determining height are based primarily on Europeans and these overestimate stature for Chileans, the researchers found.

To figure out sex, the researchers measured the diameter of the head of the upper arm bone (humerus), femur head diameter and the circumference of the femur, resulting in accuracies of 87 percent, 86percent and 82 percent, respectively. This measure would only be needed if the pelvis were not available, as would be the case for fragmented remains from the Pinochet regime or even a natural disaster that buries and scatters remains.

Ross said she is very excited that the Human Rights Program, Medical Legal Service, Chile (Chilean government) is using the results to identify Pinochet's victims.

Bryner, Jeanna. 2010. "Forensics Helps ID Victims of Murderous Dictator Pinochet". Live Science. Posted: September 14, 2010. Available online:

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Are dying languages worth saving?

Language experts are gathering at a university in the UK to discuss saving the world's endangered languages. But is it worth keeping alive dialects that are sometimes only spoken by a handful of people, asks Tom de Castella?

"Language is the dress of thought," Samuel Johnson once said.

About 6,000 different languages are spoken around the world. But the Foundation for Endangered Languages estimates that between 500 and 1,000 of those are spoken by only a handful of people. And every year the world loses around 25 mother tongues. That equates to losing 250 languages over a decade - a sad prospect for some.

This week a conference in Carmarthen, west Wales, organised by the foundation, is being attended by about 100 academics. They are discussing indigenous languages in Ireland, China, Australia and Spain.

"Different languages will have their quirks which tell us something about being human," says Nicholas Ostler, the foundation's chairman.

"And when languages are lost most of the knowledge that went with them gets lost. People do care about identity as they want to be different. Nowadays we want access to everything but we don't want to be thought of as no more than people on the other side of the world."

Apart from English, the United Kingdom has a number of other languages. Mr Ostler estimates that half a million people speak Welsh, a few thousand Scots are fluent in Gaelic, about 400 people speak Cornish, while the number of Manx speakers - the language of the Isle of Man - is perhaps as small as 100. But is there any point in learning the really minor languages?

Last speaker dies

"I do think it's a good thing for a child on the Isle of Man to learn Manx. I value continuity in a community."

In Europe, Mr Ostler's view seems to command official support. There is a European Charter for Regional Languages, which every European Union member has signed, and the EU has a European Language Diversity For All programme, designed to protect the most threatened native tongues. At the end of last year the project received 2.7m euros to identify those languages most at risk.

But for some this is not just a waste of resources but a misunderstanding of how language works. The writer and broadcaster Kenan Malik says it is "irrational" to try to preserve all the world's languages.

Earlier this year, the Bo language died out when an 85-year-old member of the Bo tribe in the India-owned Andaman islands died.

While it may seem sad that the language expired, says Mr Malik, cultural change is driving the process.

"In one sense you could call it a cultural loss. But that makes no sense because cultural forms are lost all the time. To say every cultural form should exist forever is ridiculous." And when governments try to prop languages up, it shows a desire to cling to the past rather than move forwards, he says.

If people want to learn minority languages like Manx, that is up to them - it shouldn't be backed by government subsidy, he argues.

"To have a public policy that a certain culture or language should be preserved shows a fundamental misunderstanding. I don't see why it's in the public good to preserve Manx or Cornish or any other language for that matter." In the end, whether or not a language is viable is very simple. "If a language is one that people don't participate in, it's not a language anymore."

Wicked words

The veteran word-watcher and Times columnist Philip Howard agrees that languages are in the hands of people, not politicians. "Language is the only absolutely true democracy. It's not what professors of linguistics or academics or journalists say, but what people do. If children in the playground start using 'wicked' to mean terrific then that has a big effect."

The former Spanish dictator Franco spent decades trying to stamp out the nation's regional languages but today Catalan is stronger than ever and Basque is also popular.

And Mr Howard says politicians make a "category mistake" when they try to interfere with language, citing an experiment in Glasgow schools that he says is doomed to fail. "Offering Gaelic to children of people who don't speak it seems like a conservation of lost glories. It's very romantic to try and save a language but nonsense."

But neither is he saying that everyone should speak English. "Some people take a destructivist view and argue that everyone will soon be speaking English. But Mandarin is the most populous language in the world and Spanish the fastest growing."

There are competing forces at work that decide whether smaller languages survive, Howard argues. On the one hand globalisation will mean that many languages disappear. But some communities will always live apart, separated by sea, distance or other barriers and will therefore keep their own language. With modern communications and popular culture "you find that if enough people want to speak a language they can".

In short, there is no need for handwringing.

"Language is not a plant that rises and falls, lives and decays. It's a tool that's perfectly adapted by the people using it. Get on with living and talking."

Visit the site to view an informative video.
BBC News Magazine. 2010. "Are dying languages worth saving?". BBC News Magazine. Posted: September 14, 2010. Available online:

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Congo examines mass graves to find proof of revenge genocide on Hutus

As a UN report suggests Rwandan complicity in slaughter of refugees, forensic scientists hope to find the evidence

Forensic science experts examining mass graves in the Democratic Republic of the Congo could provide further evidence of a Tutsi-led retaliatory genocide of Hutu civilians in the mid-1990s.

A diplomatic row is raging over a draft of a UN report, leaked to the press late last month, that accuses Rwandan President Paul Kagame's troops of massacring Hutu refugees who had fled to neighbouring Zaire, now Congo, after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda of Tutsis and moderate Hutus that left 800,000 dead. The intervention of Kagame's forces has been credited with ending the 1994 killings.

The Rwandan government reacted furiously to the UN draft last week, calling it "outrageous" and describing its claims as "immoral". The government is now threatening to pull troops out of UN peacekeeping duties in protest. Many fear the UN will be forced to tone down the report when it is published, after some delay, next month.

Evidence is mounting that Rwandan forces, which were ordered by Kagame into Congo in pursuit of Hutu militias, may have taken systematic revenge on refugees, killing tens of thousands of civilians who had taken refuge in camps and villages across the border.

Killings of Hutus continued into the subsequent war, the Second Congo War, which ended in 2003, and the country is still scarred by conflict.

The Observer has learned that the leak of the report coincides with the completion of the training of the first team of Congolese forensic science investigators, which is being led by Peruvian forensic expert José Pablo Baraybar.

He gained international renown for his investigations in Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were murdered by Serbian forces in 1995. Baraybar's work there was crucial to the declaration that a genocide had taken place.

Baraybar, who has previously worked at exhumations in Haiti, Rwanda and Ethiopia, has spent three months training 40 carefully selected members of the police and the Congolese army in the province of North Kivu, eastern DRC, to "investigate their own dead".

He told the Observer that the apparent acknowledgment by the world of the massacres in Congo meant work could now start on uncovering the stories of the millions who had since died.

The UN draft report suggests that both Hutu DRC civilians and Rwandan Hutu refugees were being killed up until 2003 by the Rwandan armed forces and Congolese militias.

"Thanks to this new report by the UN we will be able to exhume the bodies that are spread throughout a country waiting for justice to be done for a community that has suffered a genocide, which has been silenced for over 10 years," said Baraybar.

The new Congolese forensic science team had been practising on cloth dummies in mock graves, he said.

"This was excellent training, very participatory," said Major David Bodeli Dombi, as he finished the two-week foundation course. "None of us can say we knew this material before we came."

The testimonies of more than 1,200 Hutus who survived attacks in Congo were collated by the authors of the UN report. Those accounts were corroborated by witnesses in North Kivu, interviewed by the Observer, who backed the claims of Rwandan atrocities.

One witness, Mukaru, a Hutu who was living in the Congolese village of Rutshuru in 1996 when the soldiers came, said: "The Rwandan army arrived in my village, and put us all in an enclosed space. They wanted to talk, they said. I was small and scared, and I didn't want to go. I ran off and hid, but my family and all the other villagers went in.

"A little while later they took them to the banana plantation and the massacre began. They cut off their heads, and hit them with hammers. They killed all of them, more than 400 people. Women, children, they all died. There was no one left, only me. I was 10 years old."

Emmanuel, from the same village,said simply: "I am a victim of genocide. They locked us into a large place and began to separate the men from the women. I thought I was going to die.

"There were about 300 of us in that room. They began to take us off in groups of 10 and I could hear gunshots outside. And no one came back. Then they took another 10 men, and then another 10. They did this 30 times. They were being executed. I had to escape." Thousands of Hutu were decapitated and their bodies thrown into trenches – just as the Hutu killers in Rwanda had done with their Tutsi victims.

In the provincial capital, Goma, police captain Wivine Emwendo has become one of the first female forensic science technicians in her country. She is aware of the importance of her role. "Soldiers and rebel groups have been humiliating and exterminating an ethnic group. I want to help bring those responsible to justice, and I now have the tools necessary to do this," she said.

Farther north in the town of Rubare, Herve Sabiarimana has created, with the help of the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team, a human rights centre which is compiling a list of the victims, essential data for identification and for the eventual prosecution of those responsible.

Herve said: "We already know where the mass graves are, a total of 49,000 people have been buried in this area alone, and we are now in the process of finding all possible data linked to the disappearances."

Outside the centre is 12-year-old Bamako who watched his entire family die at the hands of machete-wielding Rwandan soldiers. "My pain is so huge that I need to recover my dead so that I can bury them and weep for them. I don't want them to be left, buried like animals," he said.

Despite the fury of Rwandan politicians, the survivors of what may yet be declared a second genocide are eagerly awaiting recognition by the world of what their relatives and neighbours suffered. "Hope now lies in the heart of an entire people who have suffered in silence, suffering a systematic genocide that has gone unpunished," said Baraybar.

"A light seems to have appeared at the end of a dark tunnel of death. The new Congolese forensic team is ready, at last, to exhume its own dead."

Pablo, Ofelia de, Zurita, Javier, McVeigh, Tracy. 2010. "Congo examines mass graves to find proof of revenge genocide on Hutus". Guardian. Posted: September 12, 2010. Available online:

Monday, September 27, 2010

WTC Ship Gives Up Lucky Coin

As Nichole Doub -- Head Conservator at the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory -- was helping extract the remains of an 18th century ship from the mud of the World Trade Center construction site, she was asked a familiar question:

While we’re out on the site, we have all these construction workers coming up and one of the most common questions asked any archaeologist on a site is: Have you found the gold yet? It’s kind of the question that everyone asks. And normally you go “No, no.”

But in this case there’s a chance we could find gold. And that’s if we found one of the lucky coins.

Lucky coin? Ever since the 2nd century B.C. -- not long after Romans began minting coins -- shipbuilders have been slipping a coin into the structure of their ships. It’s a tradition that continues today. In fact, the USS New York - made partially from steel recovered from the World Trade Center towers - did it as well (see "What is Stepping the Mast?").

For the ancient Romans it was likely a continuation of religious customs. Now it's just a tradition and done for good luck.

So we didn’t find it during the five days we were actually excavating it. However, one of my curators did find it between the stern knee and the stern post while we were cleaning the timbers.

Here's what they found:

It’s only a copper alloy coin. I think it’s of George II, a half penny.

Originally they thought they were working on the front of the ship. Not so -- upon closer inspection they've discovered they've got the stern of the ship.

Doub also says signs continue to point to the ship being a coastal vessel, most likely involved in commerce.

As for the mysteries surrounding the ship? Answers are forthcoming.

As of last week, all the researchers who required access to the timbers had taken their samples and measurements and returned to their respective laboratories for analysis. That means we'll soon know:

-- the species of the tree the wood came from;

-- the region where the wood was grown;

-- what year the tree was cut down;

-- the origins of the woodworm remains found in the timbers (which tells you where the ship sailed).

Doub estimates it'll take several months for that analysis to finish up.

In the meantime, it's her job to battle against the natural process of deterioration to ensure the timbers remain intact and in the good condition they arrived in. That fight includes keeping the waterlogged timbers waterlogged. Letting them dry out would cause the timbers -- even on a molecular level -- to break down. You can see what that would look like [here]. Broken cells = not pretty.

In order to keep the submerged wood from rotting away, she has to make sure there are no organisms in the lab's wet tanks, where the timbers are kept. The reason the back part of the ship remained preserved while the front of the ship disappeared was that the stern was buried in mud so dense there wasn't enough oxygen for the wood bores and wood-hungry microbes to survive. Instead, those bugs stayed above the mud and ate what they could, which turned out to be the bow of the ship.

In the tanks, the water does contain plenty of oxygen, but the water is finely filtered to keep the bugs out.

One other bad guy for the marine archaeologist: salt.

This has been an ocean-going vessel, or at least traveled in brackish water, so it has a lot of salt retained in it. And salt, when it's wet, when it's in its soluble form, it's fine. It's completely stable, it's neutral, it kind of floats through the cellular structure of the ship, no problem.

But we've all seen salt crystallize. It grows. And if that salt crystal is trapped in one of those cell walls as it expands, it's going to burst through. And it's another means of cracking and warping and distortion. The pressure exerted by a single salt crystal on a single cell wall -- and if you have that times millions and billions -- you get a lot of damage.

I asked Nichole if anything about the project stood out for her personally:

Being able to work on a shipwreck on land. It's very unusual to be able to work on a terrestrial excavation of a ship.

Visit the website to see the rest of the pictures

See another story about the World Trade Centre ship:
Mysteries abound in wtc ship remains


Williams, James. 2010. "WTC Ship Gives Up Lucky Coin". Discovery News. Posted: September 10, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Ancient Medical Kit Held Veggie Pills

A Roman ship that wrecked nearly 2,000 years ago contained a chest stocked with surgical tools and green pills.

Advanced DNA analysis of 2,000-year-old tablets has revealed that vegetable pills may have been part of an ancient travel medical kit, according to a new study.

The kit was recovered from a shipwreck found some 200 meters (656 feet) from one of the most beautiful beaches in Tuscany. The wreck is estimated to date back to 140-120 B.C. and was partly excavated in the 1980s and 1990s by a team of the Archeological Superintendency of Tuscany.

"It wasn't an easy task. The wreck is covered by marine plants and their roots. This makes it hard to excavate it. But our efforts paid off, since we discovered a unique, heterogeneous cargo," underwater archaeologist Enrico Ciabatti told Discovery News.

Made from pinewood, oak and walnut tree, the ship, named "Relitto del Pozzino" after the beach near where it was found, carried ceramic vases (amphoras) for wine from Rhodos; glass cups from the Syro-Palestinian area; ceramics possibly from Athens and Pergamon; a pitcher in Cypriot style; and lamps from Asia minor.

"The cargo made it possible to trace the ship's itinerary. We think that the Roman ship sank because of a mistral storm on its way back from the Eastern Mediterranean Sea after visiting the Syro-Palestinian area, Cyprus and Delos," Ciabatti said.

But the most interesting part of the cargo was a sort of medical chest possibly belonging to a physician on board the ship.

Within the kit, the archaeologists found a bleeding cup, a surgery hook and a mortar. They also recovered 136 drug vials made of boxwood and several tin containers carrying circular, flat green tablets -- each about three centimeters wide and half a centimeter thick. Because they were sealed, the pills were completely dry even though they had been laying on the sea floor for millennia.

"We obtained some samples in 2004, but only recently a next generation sequencing technology has allowed us to identify their ingredients," Alain Touwaide, an international authority on medicinal plants of antiquity at the Smithsonian Institution and the Institute for the Preservation of Medical Traditions in Washington , D.C., told Discovery News.

Geneticist Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, who presented the findings last week at the Fourth International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Copenhagen, Denmark, was able to analyze DNA fragments in two of the pills.

After comparing the sequences to the GenBank genetic database maintained by the US National Institutes of Health, he identified many plants typical of a vegetable garden, including carrot, radish, parsley, celery, wild onion and cabbage. Alfalfa, yarrow and the more exotic hibiscus were also part of the mix.

"The plants match those described in ancient texts such as those by the ancient Greek physicians Dioscorides and Galen. However, more work has to be done since we do not have the complete sequence for each plant, but only fragments which could belong to other species as well," Touwaide said.

The researchers have divided the plants in three groups: the more likely, the uncertain and the improbable ones.

"On the basis of the ancient texts, all the plants included in the first group, that of the likely ones, have a common property, which is the treatment of intestinal disorders," Touwaide said.

One hypothesis is the pills were dissolved in water or wine to make a liquid medicine that was ingested. The sailors could have used the pills as a vitamin supplement during the long voyages.

Touwaide stressed that for now that's only hypothesis and has yet to be confirmed. But he added, "Preliminary analysis of these tablets seems to confirm that the ancient doctors used common plants for their treatments."

According to Gianna Giachi, chemist director at the Archeological Superintendency of Tuscany, the research is extremely important.

"For the first time, the new technology has allowed a full investigation of these pills and their use. Personally, I believe they were not ingested, but melted a bit and applied on the skin. We hope to publish the final results by next year," Giachi told Discovery News.

Part of the ship's recovered cargo, including the tin containers and the cylindrical vials of boxwood, is on now display at the Archaeological Museum in Piombino.


Lorenzi, Rossella. 2010. "Ancient Medical Kit Held Veggie Pills". Discovery News. Posted: September 14, 2010. Available online:

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Top 10 Weird Ways We Deal with the Dead

10. Towers of Silence

Zoroastrians believe the body is impure and shouldn't pollute the earth after death through burial or cremation. Instead, the deceased are brought to a ceremonial "tower of silence", usually located on an elevated mountain plateau, and left exposed to the animals and elements. When the bones have been dried and bleached by the sun, they are gathered and dissolved in lime.

9. Tree Burials

Indigenous tribes in many parts of the world discovered that the best way of disposing the dead was to put them up high, rather than down below. Groups in Australia, British Columbia, the American southwest and Siberia were known to practice tree burial, which involved wrapping the body in a shroud or cloth and placing it in a crook to decompose.

8. Viking Ship Burials

Middle Age Vikings lived and literally died by the sea. After death, wealthier Vikings were placed in ships filled with food, jewels, weapons, food and even sometimes servants or animals for their comfort in the afterlife. The boats were interred in the ground, set alight or sent out to sea. The ultimate postmortem destination for Viking warriors was Valhalla, or "Odin's Hall", made famous in the Old Norse sagas.

7. Tibetan Sky Burial

Ever wanted to fly? In Tibet, you get to do just that, only after you're already dead. Instead of trying to bury bodies in the hard, rocky ground, some Tibetans send their loved ones to the top of a mountain and leave them to be eaten by the vultures. The disassembled corpses are even mixed with flour and milk for a tastier treat, to make sure every bit leaves the Earth for good.

6. Bog Bodies

Plenty of travelers perished accidentally crossing the murky bogs of northern Europe, but at least some individuals, especially in the Middle Ages, were buried there carefully and on purpose. Lucky for archaeologists, the chemical make-up of a bog preserves human flesh very well, allowing them to study the unlucky bog bodies closely.

5. Neanderthal Cave Burials

Before they began interring their dead in the ground proper around 100,000 years ago, Neanderthals routinely left the deceased deep inside the caves of Europe and the Middle East. To Neanderthals, the dark, mysterious recesses of a cave may have seemed like a good place to transfer over to the otherworld, some archaeologists have argued.

4. Plastination

Send your corpse on a tour of museums 'round the world with plastination, developed by German scientist Gunther von Hagens. His popular "Body Worlds" exhibits showcase the controversial preservation technique, which involves dissecting the body into bits, embalming it with a hardening fluid and reposing the body into various 'educational' positions.

3. Balinese Cremation

Contrary to the more somber western funerals, cremation ceremonies among the Hindus of Bali have an almost carnival-like atmosphere. Festive floats parade down local streets accompanying the body to a burning ground, where it is transferred into a ceremonial bull receptacle and set alight.

2. Cryonics

Who's never heard of Walt Disney's quest for immortality by having his body frozen? While that was an urban legend, cryonic science is a reality, currently only legal to perform on those who've been pronounced dead. Soon after dying, participants are stored in a liquid nitrogen solution to prevent decay until that time when death becomes a reversible phenomenon. Until then, the bodies remain on ice.

1. Mummification

The mummies of ancient Egypt are probably the world's most famous dead bodies. Reserved for members of the upper classes, mummification involved the removal of all organs including the brain, which was pulled through the nose by a hook. The body was then stuffed with dry materials like sawdust and wrapped in linens. The Egyptians believed that mummification preserved the soul for its journey into the afterlife.

Live Science. 2008. "Top 10 Weird Ways We Deal with the Dead". Live Science. Posted: 2008. Available online:

Friday, September 24, 2010

For Men on a Date, Evolution May Guide Where Their Eyes Go

Whether a man is drawn to a woman's body or her face may depend on whether he sees her as a short-term fling or a long-term lover, according to a new study that discusses evolutionary motivations in dating.

Men who, for the purposes of the study, were considering just a fling with a woman were more likely to peek at a picture of her body than men who were thinking about a long-term relationship, the research found. The guys considering a long-term relationship showed a preference for looking at her face.

The findings may reflect men's evolutionary drives, said study co-author Jaime Confer, a psychology graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin. Men who want a fling, she said, may be subconsciously looking to a woman's waistline to judge the woman's current fertility. Men looking for long-term partners, on the other hand, may be more interested in her face for clues of reproductive potential in the future.

Body or face?

Previous studies have noted that a woman's face reflects her youth and health, which can affect her future reproductive abilities. Lots of wrinkles might suggest she has few childbearing years left, for example. The body, on the other hand, holds clues as to how fertile a woman is right now. Waist-to-hip ratio can signal whether a woman is already pregnant, and maybe even whether she is currently ovulating, according to previous research.

Confer and her colleagues asked 192 men and 183 women, all heterosexual and in college, to consider entering into either a short- or long-term heterosexual relationship. The students were given a masked picture of a potential date, with boxes covering both the head and clothed body. They could choose to remove either the box covering the head or the box covering the body, but not both.

On the whole, 61 percent of men and 69 percent of women chose to see the individual's face. But among the men who were thinking short-term, the interest in viewing the woman's face decreased. Of the men considering short-term relationships, 52 percent chose to see the body. If men had been picking more or less randomly, with no particular rhyme or reason, statistics predict, 39.5 percent would have looked at the woman's body.

Similarly, if men had been choosing randomly, 55 percent of the men considering a long-term relationship were expected to look at the woman's face. In actuality, 68 did.

As for women, they preferred looking at the man's face regardless of relationship type, the researchers reported in the September issue of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

Unconscious urges

The study is a "fairly novel" look at mate preference that fits well with evolutionary theory, said Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, who was not involved in the study.

"Most people probably wouldn't be able to say why they would have preferences for the face over preferences for somebody's body," Kruger said. "But it makes sense if you consider what the reproductive consequences of each choice would be."

Further research is needed to understand whether people were judging attractiveness or some other clue, like personality or a hint of returned romantic interest, Confer told LiveScience in an e-mail. Future studies should also examine more realistic scenarios, she said, to find out what sort of cues people use when on the prowl in the real world.

Pappas, Stephanie. 2010. "For Men on a Date, Evolution May Guide Where Their Eyes Go". LiveScience. Posted: September 14, 2010. Available online:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Métis Complete Traditional Plant Use Study for Southern Ontario

Today, the Métis Nation of Ontario (MNO) released the findings from a first-of-its-kind traditional knowledge study on Métis plant and vegetation use in southern Ontario. The study, entitled, “Southern Ontario Métis Traditional Plant Use Study”, highlights some of the unique traditional and medicinal practices of Métis in relation to plants and vegetation in southern Ontario, which differ from First Nations. The study also documents notable changes to the environment in southern Ontario over the past few decades and the impacts those changes have had on Métis plant and vegetation use, as identified by Métis Elders and traditional resource users.

The study was supported by Ontario Power Generation (OPG), as a part of its engagement of Aboriginal groups who may be potentially impacted by the Darlington New Nuclear Build project. Over the last year, OPG has engaged with the MNO’s Community Councils in Northumberland, Oshawa and Durham Regions, as well as the MNO’s Lands, Resources and Consultation branch in order to produce the study and ascertain any potential impacts from the Darlington New Nuclear Build project on Métis way of life.

The study was first presented at a Métis community feast held in Whitby on June 5th. It will also be presented as evidence to the Joint Review Panel that has been created under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in order to assess the environmental effects of the proposed Darlington New Nuclear Build.

MNO President Gary Lipinski commented, “Through studies like this, Ontario Métis are finally being able to tell our story in the province and share our traditional knowledge in order to protect Métis rights, interests and way of life for generations to come.”

“I want to thank all of the Elders, Métis traditional resource users and MNO Community Councils who had a role in making this study a reality. I also want to thank OPG for its willingness to work with our communities. I know this study will be an important resource for our people today and generations to come,” concluded President Lipinski.

The MNO democratically represents Métis people and Métis communities in Ontario through a province-wide governance structure at the local, regional and provincial levels. The MNO has also developed a province-wide framework for ensuring effective consultation with Métis communities throughout the province, which is supported by the Ontario Government’s New Relationship Fund. For more information on the MNO or on how to consult with Ontario Métis visit

The document is available for download: Southern Ontario Métis Traditional Plant Use Study.

Metis Nation of Ontario. 2010. "Métis Complete Traditional Plant Use Study for Southern Ontario". Metis Nation of Ontario. Posted: September 15, 2010. Available online:

For more information:
Brian Tucker
MNO Manager of Lands, Resources and Consultation
T: 905-301-5203

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Undersea Cave Yields One of Oldest Skeletons in Americas

Ritually placed in once dry cavern, Mexico skeleton offers clues to first Americans.

Apparently laid to rest more than 10,000 years ago in a fiery ritual, one of the oldest skeletons in the Americas has been retrieved from an undersea cave along Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, researchers say.

Dating to a time when the now lush region was a near desert, the "Young Man of Chan Hol" may help uncover how the first Americans arrived—and who they were.

About 80 miles (130 kilometers) south of Cancún, the cave system of Chan Hol—Maya for "little hole"—is like a deep gouge into the Caribbean coast.

In 2006, after entering the cave's opening, about 30 feet (10 meters) underwater, German cave divers swam more than 1,800 feet (550 meters) through dark tunnels spiked with rock formations. There they accidentally uncovered the Ice Age human's remains and notified archaeologists based in the surrounding state, Quintana Roo.

For the last three years researchers led by Arturo González, director of the Desert Museum in Saltillo, Mexico, have been studying and documenting the bones in place, so as not to lose any clues offered by context.

In late August scuba-diving researchers finally raised the bones for lab study, after having placed them in plastic bags of cave water and sealing the remains in plastic bins.

(Related: "Fossil Feces Is Earliest Evidence of North America Humans.")

And Then There Were Four

No fewer than 10,000 years ago, Chan Hol filled with seawater as Ice Age ice caps melted, the researchers say.

No human, they conclude, could have ended up so far back in the cave system after that point—which is why they believe the young man is at least 10,000 years old. The exact age of the bones should be determined by ongoing carbon-dating tests, which should be completed in three to four months, Gonzalez said.

The newly raised skeleton is the fourth to be found in underwater caves around the town of Tulum (map). One of the other skeletons—named the Woman of Naharon, or Eve of Naharon—is thought to be even more ancient, around 12,000 years old.

At about 60 percent complete, the Young Man of Chan Hol skeleton is remarkably whole for a 10,000-year-old specimen, the researchers say. Especially revealing are his teeth—lack of wear tipped off the team to the individual's relatively young age at death.

For now, the bones have been sealed in a special chamber for the next six months to a year to dry out and to allow time for their minerals to harden, making the remains less fragile. Afterward, the bones will be scanned to create 3-D computer models that can be compared with the bones of other ancient Native American remains, project leader Gonzalez said.

American Originals

The skeletons found in the Quintana Roo caves could force scientists to rethink their ideas about the initial population of the Americas, Gonzalez said.

For example, the skulls of both the Young Man of Chan Hol and the Woman of Naharon have anatomical features that suggest their owners were descended from people of South Asia and Indonesia—not from northern Asia, like North America's other known early migrants.

The discovery supports the idea that multiple groups of migrants may have entered North America via the Bering Strait—using the now submerged land bridge that once connected what are now Siberia and Alaska—at different times in history, Gonzalez said.

A Different Yucatán

Today, the Yucatán Peninsula is covered by rain forests, but when the Young Man of Chan Hol lived, it was a semiarid savannah, said Wolfgang Stinnesbeck, a geologist at Heidelberg University in Germany, who was not involved in the research.

"The Yucatán surface was dry, and there were no rivers or lakes on the surface," Stinnesbeck said in an email.

Finding water and shade would have been a problem, and as a result humans may have found refuge and drinking water in subterranean caves, he added.

The caves may have also served a spiritual purpose, project leader Gonzales said.

The skeleton, he noted, was found in an unusual position—on its side, with legs bent and arms held straight along the sides of the body—suggesting the man had been purposely placed in the cave, perhaps as part of a funeral process.

"At the moment we do not know the cause of death, but considering the articulated position in which we found him, we think he was placed at this location," Gonzalez said.

The team also found evidence of bonfires inside the cavern, which could suggest that illuminating the cave was a part of the funeral ceremony, he added.

The cavern where the body was found may have been chosen as the young man's final resting place due to its rich trove of stalactites and stalagmites—rocky cones that hang from the ceiling and thrust up from the ground, respectively.

"Next to his head are a group of stalagmites that could have evoked a special resting place," Gonzalez said, "or perhaps the place to begin a journey after death."

Than, Ker. 2010. "Undersea Cave Yields One of Oldest Skeletons in Americas ". National Geographic Daily News. Posted: September 14, 2010. Available online:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Hadrian's Wall child murder: estimated time of death pre-367AD

Gaul legionnaires seen as main suspects after skeleton of girl is found buried under Roman barracks at Vindolanda

The murderous reputation of one of Britain's best-known Roman towns has been raised by the discovery of a child's hastily buried skeleton under a barrack room floor.

Archaeologists at Vindolanda fort near Hadrian's Wall are preparing for a repeat of a celebrated coroner's inquest in the 1930s that concluded two other corpses unearthed near the site were "victims of murder by persons unknown shortly before 367AD".

The latest discovery at the frontier settlement in Northumberland is thought to be the remains of a girl aged between eight and 10 who may have been tied up before she died.

Her burial place is reckoned to be almost certain evidence of a crime, according to specialists at the Vindolanda Trust, which has made thousands of finds at the town and its associated fort since the 1920s.

Human burials were strictly forbidden within built-up areas in Roman times, and Vindolanda followed regulations requiring cemeteries to be laid out on the settlement's outskirts. The bones, initially thought to have been those of a large dog, were in a shallow pit dug in a corner of the garrison's living quarters at the heart of the fort.

Patricia Birley, director of the Vindolanda Trust, said: "This definitely looks like a case of foul play. It has been very sad to find a child in this shallow grave under the barrack floor.

"It would have been very difficult to get a body out of the barracks, through the wider fort and out of the gate, but we may never know if the burial took place with or without the collusion of the men who shared the barracks."

The skeleton was identified by Dr Trudy Buck, a biological anthropologist at Durham university, who will now carry out a full autopsy in the hope of establishing a cause of death. This was relatively easy in the 1930s case, when one of the two skeletons found hidden under the floor of a civilian home in Vindolanda's sister-fort of Housesteads had a knife blade slotted between its ribs.

Punishment for any child murder at Vindolanda is obviously impossible, but the guilty party could conceivably be traced in due course. The trust's excavations have produced the earliest and best-preserved written records from the Roman empire, and the unit stationed in the fort at the suspected time of the death – the mid-third century AD – is known to have been the Fourth Cohort of Gauls.

Wainwright, Martin. 2010. "Hadrian's Wall child murder: estimated time of death pre-367AD". Guardian. Posted: September 15, 2010. Available online:

Monday, September 20, 2010

The REAL ‘Stuff White People Like’

What is it that makes a culture unique? How are whites, blacks, Asians, or whoever different from everybody else? What tastes, interests, and concepts define an ethnic group? And is there any way to make fun of other races in public and get away with it?

These are big questions, and here's how we answered them.

We selected 526,000 OkCupid users at random and divided them into groups by their (self-stated) race. We then took all these people's profile essays (280 million words in total!) and isolated the words and phrases that made each racial group's essays statistically distinct from the others'.

For instance, it turns out that all kinds of people list sushi as one of their favorite foods. But Asians are the only group who also list sashimi; it's a racial outlier. Similarly, as we shall see, black people are 20 times more likely than everyone else to mention soul food, whereas no foods are distinct for white people, unless you count diet coke.

Using this kind of analysis, we were able find the interests, hobbies, tastes, and self-descriptions that are specially important to each racial group, as determined by the words of the group itself. The information in this article is not our opinion. It's data, aggregated from the essays of half a million real people.

In general, I won't comment too much on these lists, because the whole point of this piece is to let the groups speak for themselves, but I have to say that the mind of the white man is the world's greatest sausagefest. Unless you're counting Queens of the Stone Age, there is not even one vaguely feminine thing on his list, and as far as broad categories go we have: sweaty guitar rock, bro-on-bro comedies, things with engines, and dystopias.

As for the interests of white women, you have romance novels, some country music, and a broad selection of Good Housekeeping type stuff. It's also amazing the extent to which their list shows a pastoral or rural self-mythology: bonfires, boating, horseback riding, thunderstorms. I remind you that OkCupid's user base is almost all in large cities, where to one degree or another, if you find yourself doing much of any of these things, civilization has come to an end.

If I had to choose over-arching themes for white people's lists, for men, I'd go with "frat house" and for women, "escapism." Whether one begot the other is a question I'll leave to the reader.

Hopefully it's been obvious that the font-size of a phrase indicates the relative frequency with which it appears. So, toggling between black men and black women above, you can see that while soul food is important to both, but it's really, really important to the women. In fact, soul food and black women is the single strongest phrase/group pair we found.

The above lists also make it clear that, regardless of whether Jesus himself was black, his most vocal followers definitely are. Religious expressions weren't among the top phrases for any of the other races, but they're all over the place for black men and (especially) black women, for whom 13 of the top 50 phrases are religious. Black people are more than twice as likely than average to mention their faith in their profiles.

Finally, it's worth noting that of the four lists we've seen so far, black women's is the only one to explicitly include someone of another race: Justin Timberlake.

Double finally, how bold is it that I am cool is the second most typical phrase for black men?

Visit the website and see the lists for the White, Black and Hispanics. You have to click on the female/male icon to pull up that gender's list.

What is missing is the growing and diverse hybrids -- people of mixed ethnicity. People of mixed parentage. Research into this group of people seemed to climax in the 90s, just in time for the global hybrid icon: Barak Obama to be elected President of the United States. Two movie action heroes also emerged in the 90s of mixed ethnicity. That is, Vin Diesel and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. When will it filter down to these type of sites?


Rudder, Christian. 2010. "The REAL ‘Stuff White People Like’". OK Trends. Posted: September 8, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Experts Question Claim That Alexander the Great's Half-Brother Is Buried at Vergina

Claims that a tomb at Vergina, Greece, the ancient burial place of the Macedonian royal family in the fourth century B.C., contains the body of King Philip III Arrhidaios, half-brother of Alexander the Great, and not Philip II, Alexander's father, are called into question by researchers from the universities of Bristol, Manchester and Oxford.

The tomb was discovered during the excavation of a large mound -- the Great Tumulus -- at Vergina in 1977. Along with many treasures including ceremonial military equipment, bronze utensils, silver tableware, and gold wreaths, the tomb contained two sets of skeletal remains. Those of a man were found in a gold casket in the main chamber and those of a woman in a smaller gold casket in the second chamber. Both individuals had been cremated and evidence of a wooden funerary house containing a pyre was also found near the tomb.

Dr Jonathan Musgrave of the University of Bristol's Centre for Comparative and Clinical Anatomy and colleagues argue that evidence from the remains is not consistent with historical records of the life, death and burial of Arrhidaios, a far less prominent figure in the ancient world than his father Philip II.

The male skull appears to have a healed fracture on the right cheekbone and a marked asymmetry in the wall of the right maxillary sinus. History records that Philip II lost his right eye at the siege of Methone in 355-4 BC -- an injury which would be consistent with this damage to the skeleton.

The colour and fracture lines of the bones suggest they were cremated 'green' (with flesh still around them) rather than 'dry' (after the flesh had been decomposed by burial). Arrhidaios was murdered in the autumn of 317 BC; his remains, some suggest, were subsequently exhumed and reburied between four and 17 months later. However, the existence of the funeral pyre indicates that the bodies were cremated at Vergina. As Greek beliefs would never have countenanced contact with a decomposing corpse, Arrhidaios would not have been exhumed, moved and then cremated 'green'.

From the historical account of their deaths and committals, it is thought that Arrhidaios was buried along with his wife Eurydice and her mother Kynna. However, the tomb contains remains from only two individuals. The female remains belong to a woman aged between 20 and 30 whereas Eurydice seems to have been no more than 19 years old when she died.

Dr Musgrave said: "The aim of this paper is not to press the claims of Philip II and his wife Cleopatra but to draw attention to the flaws in those for Philip III Arrhidaios and Eurydice. We do not believe that the condition of the bones and the circumstances of their interment are consistent with descriptions of the funeral of Arrhidaios, his wife and his mother-in-law."

2010. "Experts Question Claim That Alexander the Great's Half-Brother Is Buried at Vergina". Science Daily. Posted: September 9, 2010. Available online:

Saturday, September 18, 2010

First Clear Evidence of Organized Feasting by Early Humans

Community feasting is one of the most universal and important social behaviors found among humans. Now, scientists have found the earliest clear evidence of organized feasting, from a burial site dated about 12,000 years ago. These remains represent the first archaeological verification that human feasting began before the advent of agriculture.

"Scientists have speculated that feasting began before the Neolithic period, which starts about 11.5 thousand years ago," says Natalie Munro of the University of Connecticut, and author of a research article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "This is the first solid evidence that supports the idea that communal feasts were already occurring -- perhaps with some frequency -- at the beginnings of the transition to agriculture."

At a burial cave in the Galilee region of northern Israel, Munro and her colleague Leore Grosman of Hebrew University in Jerusalem uncovered the remains of at least 71 tortoises and three wild cattle in two specifically crafted hollows, an unusually high density for the period. The tortoise shells and cattle bones exhibited evidence of being cooked and torn apart, indicating that the animals had been butchered for human consumption.

Each of the two hollows, says Munro, was manufactured for the purpose of a ritual human burial and related feasting activities. The tortoise shells were situated under, around and on top of the remains of a ritually-buried shaman, which suggests that the feast occurred concurrently with the ritual burial. On their own, the meat from the discarded tortoise shells could probably have fed about 35 people, says Munro, but it's possible that many more than that attended this feast.

"We don't know exactly how many people attended this particular feast, or what the average attendance was at similar events, since we don't know how much meat was actually available in the cave," says Munro. "The best we can do is give a minimum estimate based on the bones that are present."

A major reason why humans began feasting -- and later began to cultivate their own foods -- is because faster human population growth had begun to crowd their landscape. In earlier periods of the Stone Age, says Munro, small family groups were often on the move to find new sources of food. But around the time of this feast, she says, that lifestyle had become much more difficult.

"People were coming into contact with each other a lot, and that can create friction," she says. "Before, they could get up and leave when they had problems with the neighbors. Now, these public events served as community-building opportunities, which helped to relieve tensions and solidify social relationships."

But when a once-nomadic group of humans settles down, that can put tremendous pressure on the local resources. Munro notes that humans around the time of this feast were intensively using the plants and animals that their descendants later domesticated.

"The appearance of these feasts at the beginnings of agriculture is particularly interesting because people are starting to experiment with domestication and cultivation," she notes.

This combination of increased social interaction and changes in resources, says Munro, is what eventually led to the beginnings of agriculture.

"Taken together, this community integration and the changes in economics were happening at the very beginning when incipient cultivation was getting going," she says. "These kinds of social changes are the beginnings of significant changes in human social complexity that lead into the beginning of the agricultural transition."

Science Daily. 2010. "First Clear Evidence of Organized Feasting by Early Humans". Science Daily. Posted: August 30, 2010. Available online:

Friday, September 17, 2010

Did Ancient Coffee Houses Lay the Groundwork for Modern Consumerism?

If you think that your favorite coffee shop is a great gathering place for discussion, you should have been around in the Ottoman Empire starting in the 1550s. A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research examines the role of coffee houses in the evolution of the consumer.

Authors Eminegül Karababa (University of Exeter, Exeter, UK) and Güliz Ger (Bilkent University, Ankara, Turkey) dug wide and deep into the history of coffeehouses in the early modern Ottoman Empire and found they offered their patrons a lot more than coffee.

They found that patrons engaged in gambling, taking drugs, meeting with "young beautiful boys," as well as performing or watching entertainments such as puppet theatres, storytellers, and musical and dance performances. The early coffee houses were controversial enterprises. "Formation, normalization, and legalization of such a site for transgressive pleasures was controversial since formal religious morality of the period (orthodox Islam) considered it as sinful and illegal. Thus, they were repeatedly banned by the state."

Yet, the coffee houses flourished, and by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Ottomans from all ranks of the society met to drink coffee, socialize, and have literary discussions.

Coffee house discourse often challenged the authority of the state and religion and led to changes in the society. "Simultaneously, a new Ottoman consumer, resisting the prescriptions of the state and religion, actively constructing selfethics, and taking part in the formation of the coffeehouse culture, was forming as well."

"Obviously, the early modern Ottoman context was very different than any modern capitalist system," the authors write. "But the active consumer may not be as recent or even a chronological phenomenon as many consumer researchers think."

Science Daily. 2010. "Did Ancient Coffee Houses Lay the Groundwork for Modern Consumerism?". Science Daily. Posted: August 25, 2010. Available online:

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Edward Sapir was not an "armchair linguist"!

This is a blog response to an article that was posted here last week: Does Your Language Shape How You Think?, published September 8, 2010. The article was published in the New York Times on August 26, 2010 by Guy Deutscher.

A couple of weeks ago, I promised to say something about Guy Deutscher's 8/26/2010 NYT magazine article, "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?". I was reminded of this still-unfulfilled obligation by Ange Mlinko's 9/7/2010 piece in The Nation, "Bluer Rather Than Pinker", which is a review of the new book (Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages) that Deutscher's NYT article was promoting. I'm still putting off Deutscher, but I'm going to take Mlinko to task for two howlers about the history of linguistics, one major and one minor.

Mlinko is a poet who occasionally writes on linguistic topics for The Nation. But poetic license applies at best only to poems, not to book reviews. Even poets should be responsible for basic historical truth.

In the fourth paragraph of her review, Mlinko gives us this extraordinary sentence:

Edward Sapir, Whorf's teacher, was an armchair linguist influenced by Bertrand Russell and Ludvig Wittgenstein's work on the limits of language.

Let's ignore the eccentric spelling of Wittgenstein's first name, and the curious notion that Bertrand Russell was a partner in Wittgenstein's later work, and focus on the description of Edward Sapir as an "armchair linguist".

What does "armchair linguist" mean? The OED tells us that armchair is used attributively to mean "in the home; hence domesticated, comfortable; often applied to persons who confine themselves or are addicted to home-made views or criticism of matters in which they take no active part, or of which they have no first-hand knowledge, as armchair critic, politician, travel(ler)".

In Directions in Corpus Linguistics (Proceedings of Nobel Symposium 82, 1991), Charles Fillmore wrote:

Armchair linguistics does not have a good name in some linguistics circles. A caricature of the armchair linguist is something like this. He sits in a deep soft comfortable armchair, with his eyes closed and his hands clasped behind his head. Once in a while he opens his eyes, sits up abruptly shouting, "Wow, what a neat fact!", grabs his pencil, and writes something down. Then he paces around for a few hours in the excitement of having come still closer to knowing what language is really like. (There isn't anybody exactly like this, but there are some approximations.)

There are thus two relevant aspects of stereotypical armchair-hood in linguistics: armchair linguists sit at home and think rather than going out in the world to learn how things are; and they focus on isolated "neat facts" and related insights to the exclusion of creating new systematic descriptions.

On both counts, Edward Sapir was obviously innocent. Nor is it difficult to discover this truth. You could read the Wikipedia article about him, for example, or Ruth Benedict's obituary "Edward Sapir”, American Anthropologist 41(3): 465-477, 1939.

You'd learn that in 1905, when Sapir was 21 years old and fresh from his B.A. at Columbia, he went to the Pacific Northwest, where he spent a year studying Wishram and then a year studying Takelma. Some of the results were published in 1907 as "Preliminary Report on the Language and Mythology of the Upper Chinook", American Anthropologist 9(3): 533-544, 1907, which began:

In the summer of 1905 I was commissioned by the Bureau of American Ethnology to continue the study of Chinookan linguistics and, incidentally, mythology, which has been begun some ten years ago by Professor Boas, and the result of which, so far as published, have appeared in "Chinook Texts" and "Kathlamet texts", both bulletins of the Bureau, and in Dr Swanton's "Morphology of the Chinook Verb" and Professor Boas' "Notes on the Chinook Vocabulary," both of which articles appear in the American Anthropologist. This published material deals with the dialects of the Chinookan family spoken at or near the mouth of Columbia river. It was therefore desirable, in order to gain a somewhat more comprehensive idea of the peculiarity of Chinookan grammar, to devote study to the extreme eastern dialects.

Other results of this field work included his Wishram texts, published in 1909, and the grammar of Takelma that he submitted as his 1909 PhD dissertation. Meanwhile, in 1907-08, he had a temporary position at Berkeley, during which time worked on Yana — some of the fruits of this work were published as Yana Texts in 1910.

He then moved on to the University of Pennsylvania, where he spent the years 1909-1910. During this period, according to Benedict's obituary,

His work on the Southern Paiute was done in Philadephia, the first thorough study of a Shoshonean language, and a piece of work he often referred to as his "best." Neither grammar nor texts appeared until 1930, a delay which was grievous to him, but the historical implications of his investigations he discussed carefully in the 1913 and 1915 articles published in Paris. These papers substantiated the existence of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic stock which had previously been posited.

Nor did Sapir then relax into an armchair. Benedict continues:

After two years in Pennsylvania he was called in 1910 to Ottawa as chief of the newly established Division of Anthropology under the Geological Survey of Canada. […] His first fieldwork under the Canadian auspices was among the Nootka Indians of Vancouver Island […] This was the time also of his work on Sarcee and other Athabascan languages of Canada. His interest had shifted; he was devoting himself to the study of linguistic change and to the study of genetic relationships among languages not hitherto classifed together. His intensive studies of various Athabascan languages, continued in later years with a highly refined study of Navaho, gave him the material with which to explore processes of linguistic change with rigorous methodology and to construct an Ur-Athabascan language in the best philological manner.

I could go on, but really: Edward Sapir an "armchair linguist"? I don't think so. How could Ange Mlinko believe this? I can only imagine that she was unwilling to leave the comfort of her poetical armchair long enough to do a web search on Sapir's name.

I mentioned two history-of-linguistics howlers. What's the other one? It's more subtle:

This complete reversal of cherished assumptions induced a revulsion proportionate to the excitement Sapir-Whorf once generated. For the past several decades we have accepted the Chomskyan version of language—that it is a genetic and therefore universal component of the human brain—and have seen it championed in the pop science press by the untergiversating Steven Pinker.

Chomsky's views on the biological foundations of language are complex and somewhat hard to pin down, but they are clearly not the same as those of Steven Pinker. Thus the abstract of Steven Pinker and Paul Bloom, "Natural language and natural selection", Behavioral and Brain Sciences 13(4): 707-784, 1990, begins:

Many people have argued that the evolution of the human language faculty cannot be explained by Darwinian natural selection. Chomsky and Gould have suggested that language may have evolved as the by-product of selection for other abilities or as a consequence of as-yet unknown laws of growth and form. […] We examine these arguments and show that they depend on inaccurate assumptions about biology or language or both.

Various aspects of this debate continued in a series of articles chronicled in my post "JP versus FHC+CHF versus PJ versus HCF", 8/25/2005. And if you'd like some further discussion of what Noam Chomsky apparently thinks about language, evolution, and the genome, check out "Chomsky testifies in Kansas", 5/6/2005.

Visit the site and read the comments.

Liberman, Mark. 2010. "Edward Sapir was not an "armchair linguist"!". Language Log. Posted: September 11, 2010. Available online:

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

These Dance Moves Are Irresistible

Hey, guys, want to impress ladies on the dance floor? Keep your head and torso moving, and don't flail your arms and legs. This useful advice comes courtesy of a new study, which finds that women are more attracted to computer avatars that rock these moves.

Humans aren't the only animals that move in special ways to lure females. Male fiddler crabs wave an outsized claw to show off, and male hummingbirds display their flying prowess with a flamboyant mating dive. These moves probably show off their strength and motor skills. Evolutionary psychologist Nick Neave of Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne wondered whether there was something about male human dancing that impressed females as well.

Neave and colleagues couldn't just round up a bunch of men and ask them to gyrate in front of women, however. That's because it's hard to separate a man's physical appearance from his dancing skills. "You could be the best dancer in the world, but if you've got an awful haircut or something like that," women may still find you unattractive, says Neave. So he and colleagues cut out the effect of physical appearance by using motion-capture technology, like the techniques moviemakers use to make digital characters.

The researchers stuck 38 reflective markers to the joints and other body parts of 30 male students at Northumbria University. Then they asked the guys to dance for 30 seconds as if they were in a nightclub, while a thumping drum beat played over speakers. Twelve video cameras recorded the action. A computer used data on the location of the markers to construct an avatar of each man (see videos). The avatars are "not quite James Cameron [quality], but they're pretty good," says Neave. In a video of a bad dancer, the avatar trudges in a circle, awkwardly moving his arms. An avatar made from a good dancer moves his whole body from side to side, mixing up his moves with impressive creativity.

Heterosexual women watched the videos and rated them according to whether the man was a good dancer or a bad dancer. (Neave says pilot studies by his group found that asking women who's a good dancer is the same as asking who's attractive.)

The most important factor to the women was how much the man moved his head, neck, and torso, the researchers will report online tomorrow in Biology Letters. Better dancers are "nodding their head, they're turning the head to one side, they're turning their head to the other side, there's a large nod, there's a small nod, there's a nod to the left," Neave says.

The team expected to see a lot of action in the hands and feet. "Legs and arms we thought would be really important, and they're not, apart from the right knee," says Neave. He thinks that's because most people are right-footed—so they use their left leg for balance and execute fancy moves with the right. He and his colleagues think dance is an honest signal to women of the man's strength and health, just as it is in crabs and hummingbirds; in future studies, they'll look at the health of the good and bad dancers.

It makes sense that women would care about men's ability to dance, says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "For millions of years, a man with well-coordinated movements of the head, neck, and trunk [which he used when throwing weapons] probably signaled his ability to provide," she writes in an e-mail. Varying his dance moves shows creativity, a trait associated with energy, optimism, and daring.

Judith Hanna, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies dance, calls the use of avatars "brilliant." She says it would be interesting to replicate the study with different populations; in different cultures, different dance moves may be seen as attractive.

Fields, Helen. 2010. "These Dance Moves Are Irresistible". Science. Posted: September 7, 2010. Available online:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The secrets behind ancient red fingerprints

FOR tens of thousands of years, Aboriginal Australian artists have used ochre from the earth, with its rich red, yellow and brown hues, to express their Dreamtime stories.

Now this ancient material is to be chemically ''fingerprinted'' in the first comprehensive high-tech survey of ochre from across the country.

Dr Rachel Popelka-Filcoff, a research associate at Flinders University, says her research will help uncover the sources of the pigment used in different pieces of art, on artefacts such as spears, shields, paddles and boomerangs, and from archaeological contexts such as burials as well as rock art.
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It could also reveal how the precious substance was traded between groups of Aborigines as they moved about the continent.

''It could shed light on cultural interactions between groups that have been lost to history,'' she says.

People often travelled long distances to places where special ochre could be found. A site in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia, for example, was an important place for coming-of-age ceremonies for young men.

The ochre there is a dark, purple red, and was used to decorate the skin as well as for art, says Popelka-Filcoff. ''It has a very sparkly quality to it because of its crystalline structure.''

People travelled hundreds of kilometres to participate in the ceremonies and to mine the ochre, she says. ''And they would carry up to 35 kilograms of it on their heads back home to their original communities.''

As a first step in the project, Popelka-Filcoff and her colleagues are using the OPAL nuclear reactor at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation's Lucas Heights facility to analyse 100 samples from four main ochre sites, in South Australia, the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

''These are the sites that have the greatest amount of ethnographic and historical information about how the ochre was mined and used,'' she says.

Lucas Heights is the only facility in Australia able to provide neutron activation analysis, which can detect more than 50 elements in a sample.

While elements such as iron, calcium, potassium, aluminium and others are present in large amounts in ochre, the method can also identify elements that are there in trace amounts of only a few parts per million, such as lanthanum, europium and other rare earth elements, and antimony.

The iron oxide pigment is first irradiated with neutrons from the OPAL reactor and then the energy of the gamma rays it emits as the sample decays is used to determine the elements present and their concentrations.

Ochre samples from different areas have different chemical signatures, reflecting the original geology of the source site, says Popelka-Filcoff, who has used the technique in the US to distinguish between ochres from different areas of North America and Peru. ''We can look at it as a fingerprint or a signature.''

The samples from the four main Australian sites were collected between five and 100 years ago, and were received from the South Australian Museum and other collaborators, she says.

Eventually an online database will be built with the chemical signature of ochre from as many sites as possible. It will be a valuable resource for those wanting to study Aboriginal history, art and culture, says Popelka-Filcoff, whose research is part of a project with the South Australian Museum and Artlab Australia.

Ochre has great significance in Aboriginal culture. Its colour evokes connotations of death and blood, and its application to something like a spear was able to transform the cultural meaning of the object.

Eventually it will be possible to test ochre samples from objects in the museum and elsewhere using the nuclear technique and compare their fingerprints with the database to try and identify their origins and understand ancient exchange routes.

Smith, Deborah. 2010. "The secrets behind ancient red fingerprints". Sydney Morning Herald. Posted: September 9, 2010. Available online:

Monday, September 13, 2010

World's Biggest Tent Rises in Kazakhstan

Khan Shatyr

Image Credit: Will Webster

Billed as the world's largest tent by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev and its designers, the Khan Shatyr opened on July 5 in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The leaning, needle-tipped leisure center is designed to evoke a yurt, which "has great resonance in Kazakh history as a traditional nomadic building form," said Nigel Dancey, a senior partner at Foster Partners, the London-based architecture firm behind the design.

"Khan Shatyr roughly translates as 'the tent of the khan, or king,'" Dancey added.

The Khan Shatyr's debut comes more than a dozen years after President Nazarbayev moved the Kazakh capital from Almaty to the relatively cold and isolated north-central city of Astana—then called Aqmola—in 1997 (Kazakhstan map).

Than, Ker. 2010. "World's Biggest Tent Rises in Kazakhstan". National Geographic Daily News. Posted: August 31, 2010. Available online:

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Do artefacts belong in museums?

Collecting tribal artefacts in the late 19th century, Harvard University's Peabody Museum sought to preserve a span of American history that 18th-century frontiersmen had tried to obliterate. By the end of the 20th century, the tribes wanted their things back. Thousands of ceremonial objects were returned before curators realised that earlier conservators had doused them with arsenic to repel insects. Saving the artefacts had rendered them deadly.

This is just one of the fascinating and morally fraught tales told in Finders Keepers, a book about archaeology and its implications. Craig Childs is a superb storyteller, expertly recounting Aurel Stein's 1906 pan-Asian pursuit of the Diamond Sutra - the world's oldest printed book - for the British Museum, and his own search for pre-Columbian artefacts in the American Southwest. Presenting myriad perspectives on the pursuit of artefacts, Finders Keepers is a cross between Indiana Jones and a parliamentary debate.

"In no other field of research have I encountered so many people who have wanted the other party dead," Childs writes. To start, there is the epic battle between archaeologists and looters, sometimes with actual gunfire. Then there is the political war over repatriation, fought very publicly between museums and nations. Even within archaeology, the proper approach to history is a matter of vehement debate. Take, for instance, William Saturno, discoverer of an ancient temple in Guatemala dubbed the Mayan Sistine Chapel. Against the advice of his conservation-minded colleagues, Saturno refused to have the temple's extraordinary murals moved to a climate-controlled museum, instead preserving them in situ. "This temple has been here for two thousand years," he tells Childs. "Beat that."

Childs agrees, leaving the artefacts he finds alone - a point he sanctimoniously emphasises a dozen times too many. Yet he admirably remains sympathetic to other views. He salutes Stein and the Peabody, recognising what might have been irretrievably lost without their timely interventions. Surprisingly, he even pays tribute to a man he met while travelling through northern Mexico, a local named Mario who had dug a pre-Columbian jar from the ground. Mario had spray-painted it gold because his wife didn't like its natural earth colour, and set it on the kitchen table filled with flowers. "In a kind of connection with the past I had never even imagined, the jar, and its purpose, were still alive in his home," Childs writes.

As Childs makes clear in this engrossing book, how people grapple with the past is as varied as history itself.

New Scientist. 2010. "Do artefacts belong in museums?". New Scientist. Posted: August 31, 2010. Available online:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Words Cannot Express

New York Times Book Review

Is language first and foremost an artifact of culture? Or is it largely determined by human biology? This issue has been argued back and forth for a couple of centuries with no clear resolution in sight. Guy Deutscher’s 2005 book “The Unfolding of Language” placed him firmly in the pro-culture camp. Now, in his new book, “Through the Language Glass,” he examines some idiosyncratic aspects of particular languages that, in his opinion, cast further doubt on biologically based theories of language.

Deutscher starts with the puzzling fact that many languages lack words for what (to English speakers) seem to be basic colors. For anyone interested in the development of ideas, Deutscher’s first four chapters make fascinating reading. Did you know that the British statesman William Gladstone was also an accomplished Greek scholar who, noting among other things the surprising absence of any term for “blue” in classical Greek texts, theorized that full-color vision had not yet developed in humans when those texts were composed? Or that a little-known 19th-century philologist named Lazarus Geiger made profound and surprising discoveries about how languages in general divide up the color spectrum, only to have his discoveries ignored and forgotten and then rediscovered a century later? Did you know that Siegfried Sassoon’s World War I psychiatrist, William Rivers, carried out the earliest psychological experiments to test the precise relationship between the colors people could name and the colors they actually saw?

Deutscher does not merely weave little-known facts into an absorbing story. He also takes account of the vast changes in our perceptions of other races and cultures over the past two centuries. Although the strange sequence in which color terms appear in the world’s languages over time — first black and white, then red, then either green or yellow, with blue appearing only after the first five are in place — still has no full explanation, Deutscher’s suggestion that the development of dyes and other forms of artificial coloring may be involved is as convincing as any other, making color terms the likeliest candidate for a culture-induced linguistic phenomenon.

But then Deutscher switches to another issue entirely, that of linguistic complexity. He brings off a superb “emperor has no clothes” moment by demonstrating that the “fact” (attested in countless linguistic texts) that all languages are equally complex has no empirical basis whatsoever. Moreover, as he points out, such a claim could not be made even in principle, since there are no objective, nonarbitrary criteria for measuring linguistic complexity across entire languages.

Deutscher then goes on to addresses the relationship between language and thought. Do speakers of all languages think in similar ways, or do different languages give their speakers quite different pictures of the world (a view sometimes referred to as “linguistic relativity”)? Deutscher rejects linguistic relativity in its strong form, pouring scorn on its most vehement defender, the early-20th-­century linguist Benjamin Whorf, and again firmly locating his account in the cultural-historical background. His skepticism extends even to promising cases like that of the Amazonian language Matses, whose arsenal of verb forms obliges you not only to explicitly indicate the kind of evidence — personal experience, inference, conjecture or hearsay — on which every statement you make is based, but also to distinguish recent inferences from older ones and say whether the interval between inference and event was long or short. If you choose the wrong verb form, you are treated as a liar. But the distinctions that must be expressed by verbal inflections in Matses, Deutscher argues, can all be easily understood by English speakers and easily expressed in English by means of circumlocutions.

Deutscher does find three areas where a weaker version of linguistic relativity might hold — color terms, spatial relations and grammatical gender. Ever since Mark Twain mocked the pronoun confusions of “the awful German language” — a young girl is an “it” while a turnip is a “she” — most people, including linguists, have treated gender assignment as largely arbitrary and idiosyncratic, devoid of any cognitive content. But recent experiments have shown that speakers do indeed, on a subconscious level, form associations between nonliving (“neuter”) objects and masculine or feminine properties. As for spatial relationships, we English speakers relate the positions of objects or other people to ourselves (“in front of,” “behind,” “beside”) or to each other, but some languages use compass references (“east of,” “southwest of”) for identical relationships. Deutscher argues that repeated use of such expressions forces speakers of these languages to develop an internal cognitive compass, so that regardless of where they are and what they are facing, they automatically register the location of the cardinal points.

Deutscher presents his material in a chatty and accessible (if sometimes verbose) style, and if he had left things at that, he would have written just the kind of language book most readers love — heavy on quirky detail, light on technicalities and theory. But he also burdens his findings with more theoretical weight than they can bear.

First, the facets of language he deals with do not involve “fundamental aspects of our thought,” as he claims, but relatively minor ones. Things like location, color and grammatical gender hardly condition our thinking even in the day-to-day management of our lives, let alone when we address issues of politics, science or philosophy. Moreover, with the possible exception of color terms, cultural factors seldom correlate with linguistic phenomena, and even when they seem to, the correlation is not causal. For instance, languages of small tribes tend to have words with multiple inflections, while those of complex industrial or post­industrial societies do not. However, this phenomenon is not directly caused by differing degrees of social complexity. Rather, complex societies tend to have much larger and more ethnically diverse populations, hence they experience far more interactions between native speakers of different languages and dialects. It is this factor that encourages simplification and erodes word endings.

Take a hypothetical correlation that ­really might have cultural causes. Suppose relative clauses appeared only when a society entered the market economy. Any such finding would revolutionize our understanding of the interface between language and culture. But not only has no such relationship ever been demonstrated, nothing remotely like it has ever been found.

Explaining why he rejects biologically based explanations of language, Deutscher states that “if the rules of grammar are meant to be coded in the genes, then one could expect the grammar of all languages to be the same, and it is then difficult to explain why grammars should ever vary in any fundamental aspects.” Actually, it’s quite easy. Simply suppose that biology provides not a complete grammar, but rather the building blocks out of which such a grammar can be made. That is, in fact, all biology could be expected to do. With physical organs, biology can mandate — two legs instead of four, five fingers instead of six. But when it comes to behavior, biology cannot mandate. It can only facilitate, offering a range of possibilities from which culture (or more likely, sheer chance) can choose.

Fortunately, relatively little of “Through the Language Glass” is devoted to these issues. Readers can ignore Deutscher’s broader claims, and enjoy the little-­trodden linguistic bypaths along which he so knowledgeably leads them.


Bickerton, Derek. 2010. "Words Cannot Express". New York Times. Posted: September 3, 2010. Available online:

Friday, September 10, 2010

Belief in Witchcraft Widespread in Africa

A new Gallup poll found that belief in magic is widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with over half of respondents saying they personally believe in witchcraft. Studies in 18 countries show belief varies widely (ranging from 15 percent in Uganda to 95 percent in the Ivory Coast), but on average 55 percent of people polled believe in witchcraft.

As might be expected, the older and less educated respondents reported higher belief in witchcraft, but interestingly such belief was inversely linked to happiness. Those who believe in witchcraft rated their lives significantly less satisfying than those who did not.

One likely explanation is that those who believe in witchcraft feel they have less control over their own lives. People who believe in witchcraft often feel victimized by supernatural forces, for example, attributing accidents or disease to evil sorcery instead of randomness or naturalistic causes.

A cultural belief in witchcraft has wider implications for Africans as well, from law enforcement to aid donations to public health. In Africa, witch doctors are consulted not only for healing diseases, but also for placing curses on rivals. Magic (or at least the belief in magic) is commonly used for personal, political, and financial gain.

African belief in witchcraft has also led to horrific murders and mutilations in recent years. In 2008, a mob of hundreds of young men killed eight women and three men in two villages in rural western Kenya. The victims were accused of witchcraft — having cast spells that lowered the intelligence of the village's children. Some of the suspected witches and wizards were hacked to death with machetes, or had their throats slit before their bodies were burned.

In East Africa, at least 50 albinos (people with a rare genetic disorder that leaves the skin, hair and eyes without pigment) were murdered for their body parts in 2009, according to the Red Cross. An albino's arms, fingers, genitals, ears, and blood are highly prized on the black market, believed to contain magical powers and are used in witchcraft.

In a continent of dark-skinned Africans, albinos are often the subject of fear, hatred, and ridicule. The practice of using body parts for magical ritual or benefit is called muti. Such attacks are particularly brutal, with knives and machetes used to cut and hack off limbs, breasts and other body parts from their screaming victims — including children.

While personal belief in magic and witchcraft may seem harmless, the actions some people take based on those beliefs clearly are not.

Radford, Benjamin. 2010. "Belief in Witchcraft Widespread in Africa". Live Science. Posted: August 30, 2010. Available online:

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Turkish archeologists find 4,000 year-old trade deal in Anatolia

Archeologists have unearthed the tablets of first written trade agreement in Anatolia.

Archeologists have unearthed the tablets of first written trade agreement in Anatolia.

Professor Cahit Gunbatti of Ankara University's Faculty of Letters, History and Geography said the first written trade agreement in Anatolia was made 4,000 years ago.

"We have discovered the cuneiform-script tablets in Kultepe-Karum excavations in (the Central Anatolian province of) Kayseri," Gunbatti told AA correspondent.

Archeologists have been carrying out excavations in Karum hamlet near Kultepe tumulus, where Assyrians used to live, since 1948. They have unearthed some 23,000 cuneiform-script tablets so far.

"Around 4,500 tablets have been smuggled abroad since 1948," Gunbatti said. Gunbatti said Assyrian tradesmen who settled in the region 4,000 years ago sold the tin and fabrics they brought from Mesopotamia.

The two tablets indicated that the oldest trade agreement in Anatolia was made 4,000 years ago, Gunbatti said.

"The Assyrian Kingdom in Mesopotamia made written trade agreements with Kanesh Kingdom and Hahhum Kingdom near Adiyaman," he said.

Kultepe is a modern village near the ancient city of Kanesh, located in Kayseri.

Kanesh, inhabited continuously from the Chalcolithic period down to Roman times, flourished most strongly as an important merchant colony (karum) of the Old Assyrian kingdom, from ca. 20th to 16th centuries BC. A late (c 1400 BC) witness to an old tradition includes a king of Kanesh called Zipani among seventeen local city-kings who rose up against the Akkadian Naram-Sin (ruled c.2254-2218).

It is the site of discovery of the earliest traces of the Hittite language, and the earliest attestation of any Indo-European language, dated to the 20th century BC.

2010. "Turkish archeologists find 4,000 year-old trade deal in Anatolia". World Bulletin. Posted: August 29, 2010. Available online:

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Does Your Language Shape How You Think?

Seventy years ago, in 1940, a popular science magazine published a short article that set in motion one of the trendiest intellectual fads of the 20th century.

At first glance, there seemed little about the article to augur its subsequent celebrity. Neither the title, “Science and Linguistics,” nor the magazine, M.I.T.’s Technology Review, was most people’s idea of glamour. And the author, a chemical engineer who worked for an insurance company and moonlighted as an anthropology lecturer at Yale University, was an unlikely candidate for international superstardom. And yet Benjamin Lee Whorf let loose an alluring idea about language’s power over the mind, and his stirring prose seduced a whole generation into believing that our mother tongue restricts what we are able to think.

In particular, Whorf announced, Native American languages impose on their speakers a picture of reality that is totally different from ours, so their speakers would simply not be able to understand some of our most basic concepts, like the flow of time or the distinction between objects (like “stone”) and actions (like “fall”). For decades, Whorf’s theory dazzled both academics and the general public alike. In his shadow, others made a whole range of imaginative claims about the supposed power of language, from the assertion that Native American languages instill in their speakers an intuitive understanding of Einstein’s concept of time as a fourth dimension to the theory that the nature of the Jewish religion was determined by the tense system of ancient Hebrew.

Eventually, Whorf’s theory crash-landed on hard facts and solid common sense, when it transpired that there had never actually been any evidence to support his fantastic claims. The reaction was so severe that for decades, any attempts to explore the influence of the mother tongue on our thoughts were relegated to the loony fringes of disrepute. But 70 years on, it is surely time to put the trauma of Whorf behind us. And in the last few years, new research has revealed that when we learn our mother tongue, we do after all acquire certain habits of thought that shape our experience in significant and often surprising ways.

Whorf, we now know, made many mistakes. The most serious one was to assume that our mother tongue constrains our minds and prevents us from being able to think certain thoughts. The general structure of his arguments was to claim that if a language has no word for a certain concept, then its speakers would not be able to understand this concept. If a language has no future tense, for instance, its speakers would simply not be able to grasp our notion of future time. It seems barely comprehensible that this line of argument could ever have achieved such success, given that so much contrary evidence confronts you wherever you look. When you ask, in perfectly normal English, and in the present tense, “Are you coming tomorrow?” do you feel your grip on the notion of futurity slipping away? Do English speakers who have never heard the German word Schadenfreude find it difficult to understand the concept of relishing someone else’s misfortune? Or think about it this way: If the inventory of ready-made words in your language determined which concepts you were able to understand, how would you ever learn anything new?

SINCE THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that any language forbids its speakers to think anything, we must look in an entirely different direction to discover how our mother tongue really does shape our experience of the world. Some 50 years ago, the renowned linguist Roman Jakobson pointed out a crucial fact about differences between languages in a pithy maxim: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” This maxim offers us the key to unlocking the real force of the mother tongue: if different languages influence our minds in different ways, this is not because of what our language allows us to think but rather because of what it habitually obliges us to think about.

Consider this example. Suppose I say to you in English that “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor.” You may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we were speaking French or German, I wouldn’t have the privilege to equivocate in this way, because I would be obliged by the grammar of language to choose between voisin or voisine; Nachbar or Nachbarin. These languages compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I feel it is remotely your concern. This does not mean, of course, that English speakers are unable to understand the differences between evenings spent with male or female neighbors, but it does mean that they do not have to consider the sexes of neighbors, friends, teachers and a host of other persons each time they come up in a conversation, whereas speakers of some languages are obliged to do so.

On the other hand, English does oblige you to specify certain types of information that can be left to the context in other languages. If I want to tell you in English about a dinner with my neighbor, I may not have to mention the neighbor’s sex, but I do have to tell you something about the timing of the event: I have to decide whether we dined, have been dining, are dining, will be dining and so on. Chinese, on the other hand, does not oblige its speakers to specify the exact time of the action in this way, because the same verb form can be used for past, present or future actions. Again, this does not mean that the Chinese are unable to understand the concept of time. But it does mean they are not obliged to think about timing whenever they describe an action.

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

BUT IS THERE any evidence for this happening in practice?

Let’s take genders again. Languages like Spanish, French, German and Russian not only oblige you to think about the sex of friends and neighbors, but they also assign a male or female gender to a whole range of inanimate objects quite at whim. What, for instance, is particularly feminine about a Frenchman’s beard (la barbe)? Why is Russian water a she, and why does she become a he once you have dipped a tea bag into her? Mark Twain famously lamented such erratic genders as female turnips and neuter maidens in his rant “The Awful German Language.” But whereas he claimed that there was something particularly perverse about the German gender system, it is in fact English that is unusual, at least among European languages, in not treating turnips and tea cups as masculine or feminine. Languages that treat an inanimate object as a he or a she force their speakers to talk about such an object as if it were a man or a woman. And as anyone whose mother tongue has a gender system will tell you, once the habit has taken hold, it is all but impossible to shake off. When I speak English, I may say about a bed that “it” is too soft, but as a native Hebrew speaker, I actually feel “she” is too soft. “She” stays feminine all the way from the lungs up to the glottis and is neutered only when she reaches the tip of the tongue.

In recent years, various experiments have shown that grammatical genders can shape the feelings and associations of speakers toward objects around them. In the 1990s, for example, psychologists compared associations between speakers of German and Spanish. There are many inanimate nouns whose genders in the two languages are reversed. A German bridge is feminine (die Brücke), for instance, but el puente is masculine in Spanish; and the same goes for clocks, apartments, forks, newspapers, pockets, shoulders, stamps, tickets, violins, the sun, the world and love. On the other hand, an apple is masculine for Germans but feminine in Spanish, and so are chairs, brooms, butterflies, keys, mountains, stars, tables, wars, rain and garbage. When speakers were asked to grade various objects on a range of characteristics, Spanish speakers deemed bridges, clocks and violins to have more “manly properties” like strength, but Germans tended to think of them as more slender or elegant. With objects like mountains or chairs, which are “he” in German but “she” in Spanish, the effect was reversed.

In a different experiment, French and Spanish speakers were asked to assign human voices to various objects in a cartoon. When French speakers saw a picture of a fork (la fourchette), most of them wanted it to speak in a woman’s voice, but Spanish speakers, for whom el tenedor is masculine, preferred a gravelly male voice for it. More recently, psychologists have even shown that “gendered languages” imprint gender traits for objects so strongly in the mind that these associations obstruct speakers’ ability to commit information to memory.

Of course, all this does not mean that speakers of Spanish or French or German fail to understand that inanimate objects do not really have biological sex — a German woman rarely mistakes her husband for a hat, and Spanish men are not known to confuse a bed with what might be lying in it. Nonetheless, once gender connotations have been imposed on impressionable young minds, they lead those with a gendered mother tongue to see the inanimate world through lenses tinted with associations and emotional responses that English speakers — stuck in their monochrome desert of “its” — are entirely oblivious to. Did the opposite genders of “bridge” in German and Spanish, for example, have an effect on the design of bridges in Spain and Germany? Do the emotional maps imposed by a gender system have higher-level behavioral consequences for our everyday life? Do they shape tastes, fashions, habits and preferences in the societies concerned? At the current state of our knowledge about the brain, this is not something that can be easily measured in a psychology lab. But it would be surprising if they didn’t.

The area where the most striking evidence for the influence of language on thought has come to light is the language of space — how we describe the orientation of the world around us. Suppose you want to give someone directions for getting to your house. You might say: “After the traffic lights, take the first left, then the second right, and then you’ll see a white house in front of you. Our door is on the right.” But in theory, you could also say: “After the traffic lights, drive north, and then on the second crossing drive east, and you’ll see a white house directly to the east. Ours is the southern door.” These two sets of directions may describe the same route, but they rely on different systems of coordinates. The first uses egocentric coordinates, which depend on our own bodies: a left-right axis and a front-back axis orthogonal to it. The second system uses fixed geographic directions, which do not rotate with us wherever we turn.

We find it useful to use geographic directions when hiking in the open countryside, for example, but the egocentric coordinates completely dominate our speech when we describe small-scale spaces. We don’t say: “When you get out of the elevator, walk south, and then take the second door to the east.” The reason the egocentric system is so dominant in our language is that it feels so much easier and more natural. After all, we always know where “behind” or “in front of” us is. We don’t need a map or a compass to work it out, we just feel it, because the egocentric coordinates are based directly on our own bodies and our immediate visual fields.

But then a remote Australian aboriginal tongue, Guugu Yimithirr, from north Queensland, turned up, and with it came the astounding realization that not all languages conform to what we have always taken as simply “natural.” In fact, Guugu Yimithirr doesn’t make any use of egocentric coordinates at all. The anthropologist John Haviland and later the linguist Stephen Levinson have shown that Guugu Yimithirr does not use words like “left” or “right,” “in front of” or “behind,” to describe the position of objects. Whenever we would use the egocentric system, the Guugu Yimithirr rely on cardinal directions. If they want you to move over on the car seat to make room, they’ll say “move a bit to the east.” To tell you where exactly they left something in your house, they’ll say, “I left it on the southern edge of the western table.” Or they would warn you to “look out for that big ant just north of your foot.” Even when shown a film on television, they gave descriptions of it based on the orientation of the screen. If the television was facing north, and a man on the screen was approaching, they said that he was “coming northward.”

When these peculiarities of Guugu Yimithirr were uncovered, they inspired a large-scale research project into the language of space. And as it happens, Guugu Yimithirr is not a freak occurrence; languages that rely primarily on geographical coordinates are scattered around the world, from Polynesia to Mexico, from Namibia to Bali. For us, it might seem the height of absurdity for a dance teacher to say, “Now raise your north hand and move your south leg eastward.” But the joke would be lost on some: the Canadian-American musicologist Colin McPhee, who spent several years on Bali in the 1930s, recalls a young boy who showed great talent for dancing. As there was no instructor in the child’s village, McPhee arranged for him to stay with a teacher in a different village. But when he came to check on the boy’s progress after a few days, he found the boy dejected and the teacher exasperated. It was impossible to teach the boy anything, because he simply did not understand any of the instructions. When told to take “three steps east” or “bend southwest,” he didn’t know what to do. The boy would not have had the least trouble with these directions in his own village, but because the landscape in the new village was entirely unfamiliar, he became disoriented and confused. Why didn’t the teacher use different instructions? He would probably have replied that saying “take three steps forward” or “bend backward” would be the height of absurdity.

So different languages certainly make us speak about space in very different ways. But does this necessarily mean that we have to think about space differently? By now red lights should be flashing, because even if a language doesn’t have a word for “behind,” this doesn’t necessarily mean that its speakers wouldn’t be able to understand this concept. Instead, we should look for the possible consequences of what geographic languages oblige their speakers to convey. In particular, we should be on the lookout for what habits of mind might develop because of the necessity of specifying geographic directions all the time.

In order to speak a language like Guugu Yimithirr, you need to know where the cardinal directions are at each and every moment of your waking life. You need to have a compass in your mind that operates all the time, day and night, without lunch breaks or weekends off, since otherwise you would not be able to impart the most basic information or understand what people around you are saying. Indeed, speakers of geographic languages seem to have an almost-superhuman sense of orientation. Regardless of visibility conditions, regardless of whether they are in thick forest or on an open plain, whether outside or indoors or even in caves, whether stationary or moving, they have a spot-on sense of direction. They don’t look at the sun and pause for a moment of calculation before they say, “There’s an ant just north of your foot.” They simply feel where north, south, west and east are, just as people with perfect pitch feel what each note is without having to calculate intervals. There is a wealth of stories about what to us may seem like incredible feats of orientation but for speakers of geographic languages are just a matter of course. One report relates how a speaker of Tzeltal from southern Mexico was blindfolded and spun around more than 20 times in a darkened house. Still blindfolded and dizzy, he pointed without hesitation at the geographic directions.

How does this work? The convention of communicating with geographic coordinates compels speakers from the youngest age to pay attention to the clues from the physical environment (the position of the sun, wind and so on) every second of their lives, and to develop an accurate memory of their own changing orientations at any given moment. So everyday communication in a geographic language provides the most intense imaginable drilling in geographic orientation (it has been estimated that as much as 1 word in 10 in a normal Guugu Yimithirr conversation is “north,” “south,” “west” or “east,” often accompanied by precise hand gestures). This habit of constant awareness to the geographic direction is inculcated almost from infancy: studies have shown that children in such societies start using geographic directions as early as age 2 and fully master the system by 7 or 8. With such an early and intense drilling, the habit soon becomes second nature, effortless and unconscious. When Guugu Yimithirr speakers were asked how they knew where north is, they couldn’t explain it any more than you can explain how you know where “behind” is.

But there is more to the effects of a geographic language, for the sense of orientation has to extend further in time than the immediate present. If you speak a Guugu Yimithirr-style language, your memories of anything that you might ever want to report will have to be stored with cardinal directions as part of the picture. One Guugu Yimithirr speaker was filmed telling his friends the story of how in his youth, he capsized in shark-infested waters. He and an older person were caught in a storm, and their boat tipped over. They both jumped into the water and managed to swim nearly three miles to the shore, only to discover that the missionary for whom they worked was far more concerned at the loss of the boat than relieved at their miraculous escape. Apart from the dramatic content, the remarkable thing about the story was that it was remembered throughout in cardinal directions: the speaker jumped into the water on the western side of the boat, his companion to the east of the boat, they saw a giant shark swimming north and so on. Perhaps the cardinal directions were just made up for the occasion? Well, quite by chance, the same person was filmed some years later telling the same story. The cardinal directions matched exactly in the two tellings. Even more remarkable were the spontaneous hand gestures that accompanied the story. For instance, the direction in which the boat rolled over was gestured in the correct geographic orientation, regardless of the direction the speaker was facing in the two films.

Psychological experiments have also shown that under certain circumstances, speakers of Guugu Yimithirr-style languages even remember “the same reality” differently from us. There has been heated debate about the interpretation of some of these experiments, but one conclusion that seems compelling is that while we are trained to ignore directional rotations when we commit information to memory, speakers of geographic languages are trained not to do so. One way of understanding this is to imagine that you are traveling with a speaker of such a language and staying in a large chain-style hotel, with corridor upon corridor of identical-looking doors. Your friend is staying in the room opposite yours, and when you go into his room, you’ll see an exact replica of yours: the same bathroom door on the left, the same mirrored wardrobe on the right, the same main room with the same bed on the left, the same curtains drawn behind it, the same desk next to the wall on the right, the same television set on the left corner of the desk and the same telephone on the right. In short, you have seen the same room twice. But when your friend comes into your room, he will see something quite different from this, because everything is reversed north-side-south. In his room the bed was in the north, while in yours it is in the south; the telephone that in his room was in the west is now in the east, and so on. So while you will see and remember the same room twice, a speaker of a geographic language will see and remember two different rooms.

It is not easy for us to conceive how Guugu Yimithirr speakers experience the world, with a crisscrossing of cardinal directions imposed on any mental picture and any piece of graphic memory. Nor is it easy to speculate about how geographic languages affect areas of experience other than spatial orientation — whether they influence the speaker’s sense of identity, for instance, or bring about a less-egocentric outlook on life. But one piece of evidence is telling: if you saw a Guugu Yimithirr speaker pointing at himself, you would naturally assume he meant to draw attention to himself. In fact, he is pointing at a cardinal direction that happens to be behind his back. While we are always at the center of the world, and it would never occur to us that pointing in the direction of our chest could mean anything other than to draw attention to ourselves, a Guugu Yimithirr speaker points through himself, as if he were thin air and his own existence were irrelevant.

IN WHAT OTHER WAYS might the language we speak influence our experience of the world? Recently, it has been demonstrated in a series of ingenious experiments that we even perceive colors through the lens of our mother tongue. There are radical variations in the way languages carve up the spectrum of visible light; for example, green and blue are distinct colors in English but are considered shades of the same color in many languages. And it turns out that the colors that our language routinely obliges us to treat as distinct can refine our purely visual sensitivity to certain color differences in reality, so that our brains are trained to exaggerate the distance between shades of color if these have different names in our language. As strange as it may sound, our experience of a Chagall painting actually depends to some extent on whether our language has a word for blue.

In coming years, researchers may also be able to shed light on the impact of language on more subtle areas of perception. For instance, some languages, like Matses in Peru, oblige their speakers, like the finickiest of lawyers, to specify exactly how they came to know about the facts they are reporting. You cannot simply say, as in English, “An animal passed here.” You have to specify, using a different verbal form, whether this was directly experienced (you saw the animal passing), inferred (you saw footprints), conjectured (animals generally pass there that time of day), hearsay or such. If a statement is reported with the incorrect “evidentiality,” it is considered a lie. So if, for instance, you ask a Matses man how many wives he has, unless he can actually see his wives at that very moment, he would have to answer in the past tense and would say something like “There were two last time I checked.” After all, given that the wives are not present, he cannot be absolutely certain that one of them hasn’t died or run off with another man since he last saw them, even if this was only five minutes ago. So he cannot report it as a certain fact in the present tense. Does the need to think constantly about epistemology in such a careful and sophisticated manner inform the speakers’ outlook on life or their sense of truth and causation? When our experimental tools are less blunt, such questions will be amenable to empirical study.

For many years, our mother tongue was claimed to be a “prison house” that constrained our capacity to reason. Once it turned out that there was no evidence for such claims, this was taken as proof that people of all cultures think in fundamentally the same way. But surely it is a mistake to overestimate the importance of abstract reasoning in our lives. After all, how many daily decisions do we make on the basis of deductive logic compared with those guided by gut feeling, intuition, emotions, impulse or practical skills? The habits of mind that our culture has instilled in us from infancy shape our orientation to the world and our emotional responses to the objects we encounter, and their consequences probably go far beyond what has been experimentally demonstrated so far; they may also have a marked impact on our beliefs, values and ideologies. We may not know as yet how to measure these consequences directly or how to assess their contribution to cultural or political misunderstandings. But as a first step toward understanding one another, we can do better than pretending we all think the same.

Deutscher, Guy. 2010. "Does Your Language Shape How You Think?". New York Times. Posted: Available online: