Saturday, December 31, 2011

Ancient Offering Discovered Beneath Pyramid of the Sun

A detailed green stone mask unearthed beneath Mexico's Pyramid of the Sun may be a portrait of a specific individual.

Archaeologists in Mexico have uncovered a small treasure trove of items that may have been placed as offerings to mark the start of construction on the Teotihuacan Pyramid of the Sun almost 2,000 years ago.

The offerings include pieces of obsidian and pottery as well as animal remains. Perhaps most striking are three human figurines made out of a green stone, one of which is a serpentine mask that researchers think may have been a portrait.

The Pyramid of the Sun is the largest structure in Teotihuacan, an archaeological site northeast of Mexico City that dates back to about 100 B.C. The city remained populated for hundreds of years, and the residents likely started to build the Pyramid of the Sun around A.D. 100.

Beheaded human remains, possibly sacrifices, were found nearby in the Pyramid of the Moon in 2004.

Archaeologists with Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) have been excavating within the pyramid for the last several years, digging 59 holes and three short tunnels in search of offerings and burials. They've uncovered seven human burials, some of them infants, that even predate the Pyramid of the Sun structure.

The researchers also found two offerings — one containing the green mask and another offering — in the base of the pyramid, "so we know that was deposited as part of a dedication ceremony," Perez Cortez, an investigator with the Zacatecas INAH Center, said in a statement.

Pappas, Stephanie. 2011. "Ancient Offering Discovered Beneath Pyramid of the Sun". Live Science. Posted: December 14, 2011. Available online:

Friday, December 30, 2011

Found Coins May Unveil a Lost Viking

A hoard of silver found by a metal detector has provided intriguing new clues to a previously unknown Viking king, the British Museum announced on Wednesday.

Found some 16 inches beneath the surface of a field in Silverdale, a village in North Lancashire, U.K., the hoard materialized as Darren Webster, a 39-year-old stonemason, lifted a lead box signaled by his metal detector.

A shower of 201 pieces of silver revealed an abundance of arm-rings, brooch fragments, ingots and coins.

"I had a very good idea what it was. The coins, the bracelets, I knew it was possibly Viking, more than likely Viking," Webster told the Lancashire Evening Post.

Indeed, the treasure, possibly buried by a Viking warrior before he went into battle, includes coins evoking Viking kings such as Alfred the Great, who reigned from 871 to 899. At that time, the Vikings were fighting the Anglo-Saxons to keep control of the north of England.

"Among the many stand-out objects is a coin type none of us had seen before," said Ian Richardson, treasure registrar at the British Museum's Portable Antiquities and Treasure department.

On one side, the coin bears an inscription in the shape of a cross that reads DNS (Dominus) REX (many Vikings had converted to Christianity within a generation of settling in Britain).

More intriguingly, the inscription on the other side reads AIRDECONUT -- "an attempt to represent the Scandinavian name Harthacnut," said Richardson.

"There was indeed a Viking ruler in both Scandinavia and England with the name Harthacnut. But the finds at Silverdale are dated earlier than this well-known ruler –- around 900-910 -– and therefore it’s thought that the Harthacnut recorded on this coin is possibly a previously unknown ruler of the Viking kingdom of Northumbria," Richardson explained.

The find will go through a treasure inquest to determine its value, with the reward shared between Webster and the landowner.

Meanwhile, a selection of objects and coins from the hoard are on display at the British Museum through the New Year.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2011. "Found Coins May Unveil a Lost Viking". Discovery News. Posted: Available online:

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Was Darwin wrong about emotions?

Contrary to what many psychological scientists think, people do not all have the same set of biologically "basic" emotions, and those emotions are not automatically expressed on the faces of those around us, according to the author of a new article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science. This means a recent move to train security workers to recognize "basic" emotions from expressions might be misguided.

"What I decided to do in this paper is remind readers of the evidence that runs contrary to the view that certain emotions are biologically basic, so that people scowl only when they're angry or pout only when they're sad," says Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University, the author of the new paper.

The commonly-held belief is that certain facial muscle movements (called expressions) evolved to express certain mental states and prepare the body to react in stereotyped ways to certain situations. For example, widening the eyes when you're scared might help you take in more information about the scene, while also signaling to the people around you that something dangerous is happening.

But Barrett (along with a minority of other scientists) thinks that expressions are not inborn emotional signals that are automatically expressed on the face. "When do you ever see somebody pout in sadness? When it's a symbol," she says. "Like in cartoons or very bad movies." People pout when they want to look sad, not necessarily when they actually feel sad, she says.

Some scientists have proposed that emotions regulate your physical response to a situation, but there's no evidence, for example, that a certain emotion usually produces the same physical changes each time it is experienced, Barrett says. "There's tremendous variety in what people do and what their bodies and faces do in anger or sadness or in fear," she says. People do a lot of things when they're angry. Sometimes they yell; sometimes they smile.

"Textbooks in introductory psychology says that there are about seven, plus or minus two, biologically basic emotions that have a designated expression that can be recognized by everybody in the world, and the evidence I review in this paper just doesn't support that view," she says. Instead of stating that all emotions fall into a few categories, and everyone expresses them the same way, Barrett says, psychologists should work on understanding how people vary in expressing their emotions.

This debate isn't purely academic. It has consequences for how clinicians are trained and also for the security industry. In recent years there's been an explosion of training programs that are meant to help security officers of all kinds identify people who are up to something nefarious. But this training might be misguided, Barrett says. "There's a lot of evidence that there is no signature for fear or anger or sadness that you could detect in another person. If you want to improve your accuracy in reading emotion in another person, you have to also take the context into account."

Incidentally, the theory that emotional expressions evolved for specific functions is normally attributed to Charles Darwin, in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. But Darwin didn't write that emotional expressions are functional. "If you're going to cite Darwin as evidence that you're right, you'd better cite him correctly," Barrett says. Darwin thought that emotional expressions – smiles, frowns, and so on –were akin to the vestigial tailbone – and occurred even though they are of no use.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Was Darwin wrong about emotions?". EurekAlert. Posted: December 13, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Do the Math! Sex Divide Is Cultural, Not Biological

Many explanations for the gender gap in math skills don't hold up, suggests new research on math skills and gender in 86 countries.

Math has traditionally been seen as a man's game, and the statistics often indicate that there are differences between males and females in their math skills, participation in math activities and performance on tests — called the gender gap in math. Some researchers have proposed this gap is natural — that men are just better at math than women — while others say it's a cultural difference, whereby society somehow keeps girls from pursuing or excelling in math.

The new research points to culture as the culprit, finding that certain countries showed less of a gap between males and females in math. Specifically, these female-math friendly countries have more gender equality, better teachers and fewer students living in poverty. In many countries, there isn't a gender gap in mathematics performance, the researchers said.

As for the United States, they say the gap has greatly narrowed in recent decades as more females are considered "highly gifted mathematicians" (3 to 1 now, instead of 13 to 1 in the 1970s) and more women are getting graduate degrees in math, though 70 percent are still men.

"This is not a matter of biology: None of our findings suggest that an innate biological difference between the sexes is the primary reason for a gender gap in math performance," study researcher Janet Mertz, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in a statement. The study suggests that "the math-gender gap, where it occurs, is due to sociocultural factors that differ among countries, and that these factors can be changed."

Greater variability

Lawrence Summers, then president of Harvard, proposed in 2005 that men are overrepresented in math-based fields (like engineering and physics) because they have more natural variability in their math abilities.

This hypothesis suggests that there are more women who are "average" at math and more men who are really good or really bad at math, and these men who are high-ranking outliers would be the ones who end up in these math-based fields. [6 Gender Myths Busted]

The study analyzed data from two international surveys of school mathematics performance, one from 2007, which included fourth- and eighth-graders, and the other from 2009, which included 15-year-olds. The data from 86 countries, including the U.S., Belgium, England, Hong Kong and New Zealand, shows greater variability in male math talent only in some cultures, for example, Taiwan. In others, like Tunisia, girls showed more variability. This suggests that culture, not biology, drives women out of math fields.

International data

It has been suggested that cultural influences on math skills may be nullified by single-sex education. Single-sex schooling systems are seen in some Muslim countries, so to see if this theory was true the researchers took a close look at the data from Middle Eastern countries.

"The girls living in some Middle Eastern countries, such as Bahrain and Oman, had, in fact, not scored very well, but their boys had scored even worse, a result found to be unrelated to either Muslim culture or schooling in single-gender classrooms," study researcher Jonathan Kane, of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, said in a statement.

This gender divide may be due to the type of schooling the boys get. Some of the schools are religious in nature, and contain few mathematics lessons. Many low-performing girls also drop out of school, so the datasets in these countries may be skewed, the researchers say.

Equality is key

The researchers found specifically that math achievement is highly related to gender equality. When the genders are more equal in income, education, health and politics, the math gender gap was smaller and students did better in math, the researchers found.

"We found that boys — as well as girls — tend to do better in math when raised in countries where females have better equality," Kane said. "It makes sense that when women are well-educated and earn a good income, the math scores of their children of both genders benefit."

Actions can be taken to improve the gender gap in math studies, the researchers say: Increasing the number of math-certified teachers in middle- and high schools, decreasing the number of children living in poverty and balancing the gender-equality gap could help improve female math skills, student assessment scores and participation in math-based careers.

The study was published in the January 2012 issue of the journal Notices of the American Mathematical Society.


Welsh, Jennifer. 2011. "Do the Math! Sex Divide Is Cultural, Not Biological". Live Science. Posted: December 12, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

CSIC analyzes gold composition of pre-Columbian treasure

An international project including CSIC, in collaboration with the Museo de America in Madrid, is studying a set of pre-Columbian metallurgic pieces with the latest advances in observational and non-destructive analysis techniques. The initiative aims to have an in-depth knowledge of the processes of making, assembly and usage of nearly 200 pieces from Costa Rica and the archeological complex known as "Quimbaya Treasure," from Colombia.

For this purpose, the objects have been moved from the museum, to two laboratories, where they will be examined with the aid of ion beams generated in a particle accelerator, among other techniques.

CSIC researcher Alicia Perea, explains: "The project's objective is the study of gold, silver and copper alloys, known as tombacs, and their connection to the socio-economic processes of transmission, innovation and technological change in this historical period. In some parts of America, metallurgy of gold had reached levels of technical and artistic excellence, but there is still much research to do on the procedures used".

Archaeometric study

The study of the metallurgic complex will focus on the characterization of objects by means of several observational and non-destructive analysis techniques, such as scanning electron microscopy (SEM-EDS), X-ray fluorescence (XRF) or ion beams techniques (IBA) generated in a particle accelerator. Thus, the experts' team will try to determine the processes of making, assembly and usage of the pieces, as well as the deterioration that may had suffered at the site. Perea adds: "The idea is to make the latest technology available to the service of historical heritage study".

The treasure analysis is being conducted in two research centers. The first, in the Electron Microscopy and Microanalysis Laboratory of CSIC Human and Social Sciences Center, provided with specific technology for energy dispersive microanalysis. The second, in the Center for Microanalysis of Materials of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, since it has a particle accelerator specifically designed for archeological or artistic objects.

The Central Bank Museums Foundation of Costa Rica and the Physics Institute of UNAM (National Autonomous University of Mexico) have also participated in the study, which will last three years.

The Quimbaya civilization

The term "Quimbaya" refers to the tribes that occupied the middle Cauca river basin, at the current Colombian Coffee-Growers Axis, around the 16th century, when the Spanish Conquest took place. The same term is used to define the two historical periods of metallurgic production in this region: the Early Quimbaya (between 500 BC and 600 AD) and the Late Quimbaya (until around 1600). CSIC researcher states: "We use the same term despite not being able to establish a line of ethnic continuity between the Quimbaya people of the conquest period and the historical settlement that made gold work their most refined and complex artistic expression".

Perea adds: "These tribes, whose economy was based on agriculture, were organized into small groups of about 200 people. They were led by a chief or cacique, responsible for the redistribution of wealth. The cacique accumulated treasures, expressing his range, and exhibited them to his people. Metallurgy, especially metallurgy of gold, was a technology associated with power".

The most charismatic objects of their metallurgic production are anthropomorphic recipients, where they mixed coca leaf and lime for ceremonial use. The figures depict the images of men and women in ecstatic trance. The researcher concludes: "These same recipients were also used as funerary urns to store the ashes of dead people in burial grounds. Throughout history, these sites have been systematically looted by looters and the pieces have been scattered through antique market".

The set of objects to analyze in this study was found in 1891 and makes up part of two grave goods from Quindio Department, in Colombia. The president of the Republic of Colombia, Carlos Holguín, bought this set in order to present it in the 4th Centenary of the Discovery of America Exhibition in 1892, in Madrid. Eventually, it was donated to the Queen Regent of Spain, María Cristina de Habsburgo y Lorena, in appreciation of her mediation in a border dispute with Venezuela. Currently, the collection belongs to the Museo de América, located in Madrid.

EurekAlert. 2011. "CSIC analyzes gold composition of pre-Columbian treasure". EurekAlert. Posted: December 12, 2011. Available online:

Monday, December 26, 2011

Ireland's earliest surviving example of a timber-framed house

Dendrochronological analysis is expected to conclude that the timber structure at Chapel Lane, Parnell Street, Ennis, dates back to the late 16th century.

The house was first inspected in 2008 by Clare County Council’s Conservation Officer, who recommended that the property undergo structural repair work. Following detailed technical analyses by the National Monuments Service, officials from Ennis Town Council and Consulting Conservation Engineers, it was concluded that the structure was unstable and represented a danger to the general public.

Ennis Town Council, using its statutory powers to deal with dangerous buildings, commenced a €170,000 project to make the building safe and to protect and restore the historic fabric of the structure. A grant of €85,000 was procured under the “Structures at Risk Scheme” from the Department of the Environment towards the restoration project.

During October 2011, the gable and chimney were carefully recorded, taken down and stored. At present the historic gable is being re-built using the original stones bedded in an authentic hydraulic-lime mortar, the floor of the house having been archaeologically excavated prior to this.

In recent weeks, archaeologists have discovered an oak frame structure which they have described as “potentially one of the most exciting urban archaeological discoveries in Ireland in recent years”.

Frank Coyne, Consultant Archaeologist from Aegis Archaeology Ltd. explained that the limited archaeological excavation has revealed a wealth of information.

“The existence of a foundation cut in the interior of the house, indicates an earlier structure on the site, which is also borne out by the presence of large oak beams in the walls of the house. It is hugely significant that these beams are oak, which will enable us to use tree ring dating. If these prove to be of medieval date, which we believe is the case, then this means that this house is the only structure of its type in the country”, explained Mr. Coyne.

Commenting on the restoration project, Mayor of Ennis Councillor Michael Guilfoyle stated: “The works to McParland’s, when completed, will yield invaluable information on the traditional skills and construction techniques of Late Medieval Ennis. This work makes the building safe and protects a major piece of the history and character of Ennis. I have no doubt that the building will continue to be of tremendous interest to all those who have an appreciation of the importance of our heritage and the very fine examples of medieval architecture in the town.”

According to David Humphreys of ACP Consultant Conservation Engineers: “Although built originally using crude rubble stone and weak mortar, the fact that this building has stayed intact up to the present is a tribute to the skills of the medieval masons, who possessed a great knowledge of their materials and confidence in their designs”.

Conservation Officer Dick Cronin noted that the present discoveries at McParland’s further enhance Ennis’ status as the most intact medieval town in Ireland.

He continued: “Evidence appears to come to light regularly showing that the whole town centre from The Abbey, to the Old Ground, to Lower Parnell Street contains a large amount of Late Medieval masonry, most of which is hidden behind Georgian and Victorian facades.”

“This has been a very important project and is a tribute to the foresight and pride of place, of the officials and members of Ennis Town Council, who were prepared to invest in the past to ensure the future of this historic town”, Mr. Cronin concluded.

Restoration work at McParland’s, Parnell Street, Ennis, Co Clare, is scheduled for completion in February 2012.

Past Horizons. "Ireland's earliest surviving example of a timber-framed house". Past Horizons. Posted: December 7, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Another Cognitive Benefit for Musicians, Athletes

New research from Germany finds honing one’s music or sports skills enhances at least one important mental ability.

Can you mentally rotate a three-dimensional object, getting a clear sense of how it looks it from a variety of angles? It’s a specific cognitive skill that has been the subject of much study in recent years, since it’s a key component of processing spatial information. Professionals ranging from auto mechanics to brain surgeons rely on this ability.

A newly published study suggests there may be a way to enhance this important skill, and it does not involve spending hours in front of a computer screen. Rather, it suggests students might want to put down their laptops and pick up a musical instrument, or suit up and take to the sports field.

Two German researchers report student musicians and athletes performed better at a standard mental-rotation task than a group of their peers. Moreover, for musicians, the much-discussed gender gap in this important arena disappeared, with women catching up to men.

Stefanie Pietsch and Petra Jansen of the University of Regensburg Institute of Sport Science report their findings in the journal Learning and Individual Differences.

Their study featured 120 students (60 men and 60 women) enrolled at a German university. One-third of the participants were musicians, one-third athletes, and the final third education students who did not participate in either sports or music. The athletes and musicians reported how many years they have been practicing and how many hours they practiced per week.

The participants then took two tests: one to measure their cognitive processing speed, and a standard mental rotation test, in which they compared configurations of blocks. They were given a “target” image of a three-dimensional structure, and then asked which of four additional images depicted that same structure as seen from a different perspective.

The results were intriguing. For the education students, men gave correct answers at twice the rate of women (a finding that confirms those of previous studies). For athletes, the gap was narrowed; the number of correct answers increased for women but shot up even higher among men, to the point where male athletes had the highest score overall.

Among musicians, men scored just a bit higher than the education students, but women’s scores rocketed up, to the point where they did slightly better than their male counterparts.

“Because the female musicians in this study show a higher speed of cognitive processing,” the researchers write, “it is possible that their ability to process information quickly, combined with their long-term motor training, may explain their enhanced mental rotation ability.”

The researchers speculate that musicians learn to think in terms of spatial relationships “because notes are coded in terms of their spatial positions.” This makes intuitive sense. A musician, like an athlete, instinctively learns to navigate through space: one reads notes on a staff, while another masters the parameters of a tennis court or football field.

While this one small study is hardly conclusive, it provides more evidence of the drawbacks of a basics-only approach to education. Such an approach ignores the ways important mental processes are enhanced by learning that occurs outside the core curriculum. This research suggests, in the words of Pietsch and Jansen, that “playing an instrument or a sport for many years has an enhancing effect on a specific cognitive task” — one that confers real-world benefits.

Jacobs, Tom. 2011. "Another Cognitive Benefit for Musicians, Athletes". Miller-McCune. Posted: December 5, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Evidence for early 'bedding' and the use of medicinal plants at a South African rock shelter

An international team of archaeologists is reporting 77,000-year-old evidence for preserved plant bedding and the use of insect-repelling plants in a rock shelter in South Africa

An international team of archaeologists is reporting 77,000-year-old evidence for preserved plant bedding and the use of insect-repelling plants in a rock shelter in South Africa. This discovery is 50,000 years older than earlier reports of preserved bedding and provides a fascinating insight into the behavioural practices of early modern humans in southern Africa.

The team, led by Professor Lyn Wadley of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, in collaboration with Christopher Miller (University of Tübingen, Germany), Christine Sievers and Marion Bamford (University of the Witwatersrand), and Paul Goldberg and Francesco Berna (Boston University, USA), is reporting the discovery in the scientific journal Science, to be published on Friday, 9 December 2011.

The ancient bedding was uncovered during excavations at Sibudu rock shelter (KwaZulu-Natal province, South Africa), where Lyn Wadley, honorary professor at the University of the Witwatersrand, has been digging since 1998. At least 15 different layers at the site contain plant bedding, dated between 77,000 and 38,000 years ago. The bedding consists of centimetre-thick layers of compacted stems and leaves of sedges and rushes, extending over at least one square metre and up to three square metres of the excavated area. Christine Sievers, of the University of the Witwatersrand, was able to identify nutlets from several types of sedges and rushes used in the construction of the bedding.

The oldest evidence for bedding at the site is particularly well-preserved, and consists of a layer of fossilised sedge stems and leaves, overlain by a tissue-paper-thin layer of leaves, identified by botanist Marion Bamford as belonging to Cryptocarya woodii, or River Wild-quince. The leaves of this tree contain chemicals that are insecticidal, and would be suitable for repelling mosquitoes.

"The selection of these leaves for the construction of bedding suggests that the early inhabitants of Sibudu had an intimate knowledge of the plants surrounding the shelter, and were aware of their medicinal uses. Herbal medicines would have provided advantages for human health, and the use of insect-repelling plants adds a new dimension to our understanding of behaviour 77,000 years ago," says Professor Lyn Wadley.

"The inhabitants would have collected the sedges and rushes from along the uThongathi River, located directly below the site, and laid the plants on the floor of the shelter. The bedding was not just used for sleeping, but would have provided a comfortable surface for living and working," adds Wadley.

Microscopic analysis of the bedding, conducted by Christopher Miller, junior-professor for geoarchaeology at the University of Tübingen, suggests that the inhabitants repeatedly refurbished the bedding during the course of occupation.

The microscopic analysis also demonstrated that after 73,000 years ago, the inhabitants of Sibudu regularly burned the bedding after use.

"They lit the used bedding on fire, possibly as a way to remove pests. This would have prepared the site for future occupation and represents a novel use of fire for the maintenance of an occupation site," says Miller.

The preserved bedding is also associated with the remains of numerous fireplaces and ash dumps. Beginning at 58,000 years ago, the number of hearths, bedding and ash dumps increases dramatically. The archaeologists believe that this is a result of intensified occupation of the site. In the article, the archaeologists argue that the increased occupation may correspond with changing demographics within Africa at the time. By around 50,000 years ago, modern humans began expanding out of Africa, eventually replacing archaic forms of humans in Eurasia, including the Neanderthals.

This discovery adds to a long list of important finds at Sibudu over the past decade, including perforated seashells, believed to have been used as beads, and sharpened bone points, likely used for hunting.

Wadley and others have also presented early evidence from the site for the development of bow and arrow technology, the use of snares and traps for hunting, and the production of glue for hafting stone tools.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Evidence for early 'bedding' and the use of medicinal plants at a South African rock shelter". EurekAlert. Posted: December 8, 2011. Available online:

Friday, December 23, 2011

Do thoughts have a language of their own?

What is the relationship between language and thought? The quest to create artificial intelligence may have come up with some unexpected answers

THE idea of machines that think and act as intelligently as humans can generate strong emotions. This may explain why one of the most important accomplishments in the field of artificial intelligence has gone largely unnoticed: that some of the advances in AI can be used by ordinary people to improve their own natural intelligence and communication skills.

Chief among these advances is a form of logic called computational logic. This builds and improves on traditional logic, and can be used both for the original purpose of logic - to improve the way we think - and, crucially, to improve the way we communicate in natural languages, such as English. Arguably, it is the missing link that connects language and thought.

According to one school of philosophy, our thoughts have a language-like structure that is independent of natural language: this is what students of language call the language of thought (LOT) hypothesis. According to the LOT hypothesis, it is because human thoughts already have a linguistic structure that the emergence of common, natural languages was possible in the first place.

The LOT hypothesis contrasts with the mildly contrary view that human thinking is actually conducted in natural language, and thus we could not think intelligently without it. It also contradicts the ultra-contrary view that human thinking does not have a language-like structure at all, implying that our ability to communicate in natural language is nothing short of a miracle.

Research in AI lends little support to the first view, and some support to the second. But if we want to improve how we communicate in natural language, the AI version of the LOT hypothesis comes into its own, offering us a detailed analysis we can use as a guide.

Using this guide we can then try to express ourselves in a form of natural language that is closer to the LOT. This will make it easier for others to understand our communications because they will require less effort to translate them into thoughts of their own. But to fully exploit the guide, we need to understand the nature of the LOT and the relationship between it and natural language.

One approach is to study natural language communications that are designed to be easy to understand. If they are indeed easy to understand, then their form should be close to that of the LOT. What better place to look than at communications designed to deal with emergencies, where it can be a matter of life or death that the reader understands the communication as intended, and with as little effort as possible.

Take a sign designed for London's underground train system:

Press the alarm signal button to alert the driver.

The driver will stop if any part of the train is in a station.

If not, the train will continue to the next station, where help can more easily be given.

There is a £50 penalty for improper use.

What is most striking about the form of these sentences is that they all have the same underlying "logical conditional" form: if conditions, then conclusion, or, alternatively and equivalently, conclusion, if conditions. This conditional form is explicit in the second and third sentences, and it is implicit in the first and fourth sentences: if you press the alarm signal button then you will alert the driver; there is a £50 penalty if you press the alarm signal button improperly.

We can also find evidence for the logical form of the LOT in communications that may be hard to understand because of the complex nature of the thoughts they convey, but which are designed to minimise any additional complexity due to the inadequacies or ambiguities of natural language.

A good place to look is in well-written legal documents. Consider the very first sentence of the British Nationality Act 1981:

1.-(1) A person born in the United Kingdom after commencement shall be a British citizen if at the time of the birth his father or mother is - (a) a British citizen; or (b) settled in the United Kingdom.

Here the conditional form is explicit, but with some of the conditions, born in the United Kingdom after commencement, inserted, for succinctness, into the middle of the conclusion.

The British Nationality Act also illustrates the use of conditional form to represent rules and exceptions. Take this clause:

40.-(2) The Secretary of State may by order deprive a person of a citizenship status if the Secretary of State is satisfied that deprivation is conducive to the public good.

40.-(4) The Secretary of State may not make an order under subsection (2) if he is satisfied that the order would make a person stateless.

Reasoning with such rules and exceptions is not well catered for in traditional logic, but it is an important feature of everyday reasoning. If I tell you that if John is hungry then John will eat [And] John is hungry, what do you conclude? That John will eat, no doubt. But if I draw your attention to the exception that if John does not have food then John will not eat, then you might be tempted to withdraw your conclusion, and perhaps qualify it by concluding instead that if John has food, then John will eat. This kind of reasoning goes against the rules of traditional logic, but conforms to what AI researchers call "default reasoning", that is, drawing a conclusion in the absence of evidence to the contrary, and then gracefully withdrawing the conclusion if there is reason to believe otherwise.

But suppose that I am performing a psychological experiment, and instead of stating the exception, I state that if John has food then John will eat. Do you then conclude that I really mean that John will literally eat all the food in the house, no matter whether he is hungry or not? Or am I trying to draw your attention to the exception, without stating it explicitly? What should you do? Take me at my word or try to work out what was in my head?

As far as I know, no one has carried out this experiment, but psychologists have carried out similar experiments. Here is the most famous. Suppose I tell you that if Mary has an essay to write, then she will study late in the library [And] Mary has an essay to write, what do you conclude? That Mary will study late in the library, of course.

Now suppose I say: If the library is open, then Mary will study late in the library. What do you conclude? That Mary will literally study late in the library whenever it is open, no matter whether she has a reason to study or not? Or do you ignore what I actually said, and assume I meant to draw your attention to the obvious exception: if the library is not open, then she will not study late in the library. Taking me literally means standing by your earlier conclusion. But if you try to figure out what was in my head, you will probably want to withdraw or modify it. Not surprisingly, many - perhaps most - psychologists end up concluding that ordinary people do not use the rules of logic in everyday life.

There is an alternative way of seeing this: that there is a language of thought, and that it has a more logical form than ordinary natural language. This view has an added bonus: it tells us that, if you want to express yourself more clearly and more effectively in natural language, then you should express yourself in a form that is closer to computational logic - and therefore closer to the language of thought. Dry legalese never looked so good.

Kowalski, Robert. 2011. "Do thoughts have a language of their own? ". New Scientist. Posted: December 8, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, December 22, 2011

DNA highlights Native American die-off

Genetic evidence now backs up Spanish documents from the 16th century describing smallpox epidemics that decimated Native American populations.

Native American numbers briefly plummeted by about 50 percent around the time European explorers arrived, before rebounding within 200 to 300 years, say geneticist Brendan O’Fallon of ARUP Laboratories in Salt Lake City and anthropologist Lars Fehren-Schmitz of the University of Göttingen in Germany. Population declines occurred throughout North and South America around 500 years ago, the researchers report in a paper published online December 5 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

O’Fallon and Fehren-Schmitz analyzed chemical sequences in ancient and modern mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the mother, to calculate the number of breeding females in the Americas over time. Based on those results, O’Fallon estimates that a Native American population of several million fell to roughly half that size once European explorers entered the continent.

“If disease was the primary cause of mortality, surviving Native Americans would have been more resistant to infection after initial epidemics, helping them bounce back quickly,” O’Fallon says.

Researchers disagree about when people first reached the Americas. Whenever initial human settlers arrived, Native American numbers expanded rapidly between 15,000 and 10,000 years ago, several thousand years later than previous DNA-based estimates, the scientists say. Population size then stabilized until suddenly plummeting as the era of European contact dawned, they find.

Several earlier genetic investigations uncovered no signs of mass deaths among Native Americans around the time they first encountered Europeans (SN: 2/16/08, p. 102).

“These new results confirm what’s known from historic sources, but the quality of ancient DNA data raises potential concerns,” remarks geneticist Phillip Endicott of Musée de l’Homme in Paris. An unknown number of chemical sequence changes in mitochondrial DNA preserved in Native Americans’ bones may have resulted from contamination in the ground or after being handled by excavators, Endicott says. These sequence configurations, if intact, provide crucial clues to population trends.

O’Fallon and Fehren-Schmitz analyzed partial sequences of ancient Native American DNA ranging in age from 5,000 to 800 years old. The researchers also examined mitochondrial DNA of 137 people representing five major Native American sequence patterns found in different parts of North and South America.

In the new analysis, only one, relatively rare mitochondrial DNA group repeatedly branched into new genetic lineages over the past 10,000 years. The other four groups display genetic splits bunched within the past few hundred years.

Reasons for these population differences are unclear, O’Fallon says. A closer examination of each of the five Native American genetic groups is needed to confirm that the new estimate of contact-era population losses is accurate, comments anthropological geneticist Connie Mulligan of the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Bower, Bruce. 2011. "DNA highlights Native American die-off". Science News. Posted: December 5, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Steven Pinker - Interview

An interview with the Harvard psychologist and linguist on violence, language and Twitter.


2011. "Steven Pinker". The New York Times. Posted: November 28, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Archaeologists find new evidence of animals being introduced to prehistoric Caribbean

An archaeological research team from North Carolina State University, the University of Washington and University of Florida has found one of the most diverse collections of prehistoric non-native animal remains in the Caribbean, on the tiny island of Carriacou. The find contributes to our understanding of culture in the region before the arrival of Columbus, and suggests Carriacou may have been more important than previously thought.

The researchers found evidence of five species that were introduced to Carriacou from South America between 1,000 and 1,400 years ago. Only one of these species, the opossum, can still be found on the island. The other species were pig-like peccaries, armadillos, guinea pigs and small rodents called agoutis.

Researchers think the animals were used as sources of food. The scarcity of the remains, and the few sites where they were found, indicate that the animals were not for daily consumption. "We suspect that they may have been foods eaten by people of high status, or used in ritual events," says Dr. Scott Fitzpatrick, an associate professor of anthropology at NC State and co-author of a paper describing the research.

"Looking for patterning in the distribution of animal remains in relation to where ritual artifacts and houses are found will help to test this idea," said Christina Giovas, lead author and a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington.

The team, which also included Ph.D. student Michelle LeFebvre of the University of Florida, found the animal remains at two different sites on the island, and used carbon dating techniques to determine their age. The opossum and agouti were the most common, with the latter remains reflecting the longest presence, running from A.D. 600 to 1400. The guinea pig remains had the shortest possible time-frame, running from A.D. 985 to 1030.

These dates are consistent with similar findings on other Caribbean islands. However, while these species have been found on other islands, it is incredibly rare for one island to have remains from all of these species. Guinea pigs, for example, were previously unknown in this part of the Caribbean. The diversity is particularly surprising, given that Carriacou is one of the smallest settled islands in the Caribbean, though the number of remains is still not that large – a pattern seen on other islands as well.

This combination of small geographical area and robust prehistoric animal diversity, along with evidence for artifact trade with other islands and South America, suggests that Carriacou may have had some significance in the pre-Columbian Caribbean as a nexus of interaction between island communities.

The animal remains are also significant because they were found in archaeological digs at well-documented prehistoric villages – and the remains themselves were dated, as opposed to just the materials (such as charcoal) found near the remains.

"The fact that the dates established by radiocarbon dating are consistent with the dates of associated materials from the villages means the chronology is well established," says Fitzpatrick, who has been doing research on Carriacou since 2003. "In the future we'd like to expand one of the lesser excavated sites to get more information on how common these species may have been, which could shed light on the ecological impact and social importance of these species prehistorically."

The paper, "New records for prehistoric introduction of Neotropical mammals to the West Indies: evidence from Carriacou, Lesser Antilles," is published online in the Journal of Biogeography and was co-authored by Fitzpatrick, Giovas and LeFebvre. The research was supported by the National Science Foundation, NC State, the University of Washington and the University of Florida.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Archaeologists find new evidence of animals being introduced to prehistoric Caribbean". EurekAlert. Posted: December 1, 2011. Available online:

Monday, December 19, 2011

Language may be dominant social marker for young children

Children's reasoning about language and race can take unexpected turns, according to University of Chicago researchers, who found that for younger white children in particular, language can loom larger than race in defining a person's identity.

Researchers showed children images and voices of a child and two adults, and asked, "Which adult will the child grow up to be?" Children were presented with a challenge: One adult matched the child's race, and one matched the child's language, but neither matched both. For example, children saw a white child speaking English, a black adult speaking English and a white adult speaking French. The exercise was intended to gauge whether the children perceived language or race as more central to an individual's identity over time. As would be expected, 9- and 10-year-old children chose the adult who matched the featured child's race. By that age, they understood that skin color is relatively stable, whereas language can be learned.

Five- and six-year-old English-speaking white children's responses were a bit more surprising: Most of those children chose the language match, even though this meant that the featured child would have needed to change race.

In explaining the puzzling choices of the 5- and 6-year-old white children, Katherine Kinzler, the Neubauer Family Assistant Professor in Psychology at UChicago, and lead author on the paper published in Developmental Science, said. "From a child's perspective, language offers many of the characteristics of a biologically determined or inherited category. Children usually speak the same language as their families, and they likely do not remember the time as infants that they spent learning a native language."

This finding builds on past research by Kinzler and colleagues, which found that children are highly attentive to others' accent and language: Indeed, language can be more important than race in guiding young children's social preferences for others.

Interestingly, when African American 5- and 6-year-old children were shown the same photos and voices, they performed like the older white children and made a match based on racial identity. "Children of different racial groups may have different experiences with race as a meaningful social category, which could contribute to their performance on this tasks," said Jocelyn Dautel, co-author of the study and a UChicago graduate student.

Other research helps explain why race may be a more salient category for young African American children than for young white children, Dautel said. Research has shown that children who are minorities are more aware of prejudice and stereotypes, and that children of different groups may have different socialization experiences and conversations about race.

In the Development Science paper, entitled "Children's Essentialist Reasoning about Language and Race," the two researchers showed the same stimuli to four groups of children. Three groups were tested in Chicago: 9- and 10-year-old white children, 5- and 6-year-old white children, and 5- and 6-year-old African American children. A final group of 5- and 6-year-old white children were tested in northern Wisconsin; these children lived in a more racially homogenous group than the Chicago children. The researchers found:

* When 9- and 10-year old-white children were asked whether an English-speaking white boy was likely to grow up to be an English-speaking black man or a French-speaking white man, they were more likely to choose the white, French-speaking adult.

* In contrast, when 5- and 6-year-old white children were shown photographs and asked who the white English-speaking white boy was likely to grow up to be, they were more likely to choose an English-speaking black man over a French-speaking white man. This was the case among the 5- and 6-year-old white children in both Chicago and Wisconsin.

* Finally, when African American 5- and 6-year-old children were presented with the same tasks, they were likely to choose the white, French-speaking adult (the race match). These children's responses mirrored those of the older white children, rather than the younger white children.

The paper clarifies how researchers can better understand how young children develop understandings of social categories, Kinzler said. Some theorists have maintained that categorization occurs independently of culture, while others contend that the categories are the result of cultural influence. Kinzler said the work she did with Dautel suggests that both explanations may be valid: Although some understandings about social distinctions are formed early in childhood, others, such as understanding about race, may be highly

EurekAlert. 2011. "Language may be dominant social marker for young children". EurekAlert. Posted: December 1, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Papyrus research provides insight into job training, prayer and more in the ancient world

Education, jobs, religion and even the cultural effects of bilingualism were as topical in the ancient world as they are today.

All of these topics and more are featured in translations of ancient papyrus in the University of Cincinnati-based journal, Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists, due out Dec. 2.

The annually produced journal, edited since 2006 by Peter van Minnen, UC associate professor and head of classics, features the most prestigious global research on papyri, a field of study known as papyrology. (Papyrology is formally known as the study of texts on papyrus and other materials, mainly from ancient Egypt and mainly from the period of Greek and Roman rule.)

Below are five topics treated in the 2011 volume of the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists.


Chris Eckerman of the University of Oregon edits a Greek apprenticeship contract for an uncle to teach his nephew the carpentry trade in an Egyptian village. The contract dates from the time of Roman rule in Egypt, which began in 30 BC. About 50 such contracts exist from that time period in Egypt. For instance, one contract from Alexandria calls for four years of musical training for a slave. Today's college students can probably relate.


Stephen Kidd of New York University publishes an essay on dream records in bilingual (Greek and Egyptian) papyri from the second century BC. Dreams were then regarded as messages from the gods, and it would be safe to assume that in ancient Egypt, it was the "local" gods speaking to the local population. But this was a time when there were fully bilingual people in Egypt under Greek rule. Did they dream in Egyptian or Greek? Were the gods that were speaking the local Egyptian gods or "imported" Greek gods? It would seem that Egyptian interpretations held sway. While Greeks or sufficiently Hellenized people would record their dreams in Greek, the dream interpreters were Egyptians or at least thoroughly trained in Egyptian dream interpretation, and the record shows that essential portions and word associations (puns) were provided and unraveled for meaning in Egyptian.


Albert Pietersma and Susan Comstock of the University of Toronto edit pages that, until recently, were missing from a famous early Christian papyrus codex (manuscript volume) from the fourth century AD. The codex itself has a fascinating history. It was acquired in the 1950s by the University of Mississippi with funds raised from, among others, William Faulkner. But, as things go, the university later sold the codex to a private collector in the 1980s, and it later wound up in the hands of a Norwegian shipping magnate who now owns the bulk of the codex. However, Pietersma and Comstock found missing pages from the codex in Dublin.

The codex, with its early Christian texts in Greek and Coptic, originally came from a monastery in Upper Egypt that was founded by Pachomius, an Egyptian Christian, who was the originator of the monastic way of life in which male or female monastics live together and have their possessions in common under the leadership of an abbot or abbess.

The recently found missing pages contain a Coptic prayer written by Pachomius for the annual Easter celebration. Arguably, Pachomius himself first recited this prayer at the end of the Easter service near the middle of the 4th century AD.


Ryan Boehm of the University of California, Berkeley, edits a 4th-century petition BC on papyrus, seeking justice from an administrator from Hermopolis. The petition charges an evil doer in an Egyptian village of stealing agricultural produce belonging to minors who are likely orphans.


Theodore de Bruyn and Jitse Dijkstra of the University of Ottawa publish a study of magical amulets from Egypt that contain Christian elements such as crosses and saints' names. About 200 such texts survive from Late Antiquity (4th to 8th centuries AD), a time when the church fathers were combating the use of magical amulets by Christians. These amulets ranged from those seeking revenge and cursing opponents (for example, an insomnia curse) to those seeking healing, prosperity, success, protection and even exorcism.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Papyrus research provides insight into job training, prayer and more in the ancient world". EurekAlert. Posted: November 30, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bavaria Germany: Neuschwanstein Among 20 Building Wonders of the World

When I was a teenager, I lived in this small tourist town and worked at one of the souvenir stores there. It's nice to see that the local Neuschwanstein architecture is being recognized.

Neuschwanstein is on the list of the 20 building wonders of the world, and since 2007, people have voted for the world’s seven wonders, in fact, millions of people around the world voted. Neuschwanstein was not one of the seven. The seven wonders were: Chichén Itzá Temple in the Yucatan, the Christ statue outside Rio de Janeiro, the Colosseum in Rome, the Taj Mahal in India, the Great Wall of China, Petra in Jordan, Machu Pichu in Peru. The Egyptians were of course also on the list, and they became quite angry that the Pyramids were not included in the fine company of the seven. Maybe next time?

One could wonder, what a wonder really is, if the pyramids are not wonders? Maybe we live in a wonderful world with such wonders sprinkled around us like pearls on a string. We know they’re there, but how much do we really know about these wonders and history behind them? Do we really appreciate them? Makes you wonder… In any case, the Neuschwanstein fairytale castle is a really photogenic building and, thus, is one of the world’s most photographed buildings.

The history of Neuschwanstein has it all. It is the story of the handsome young King Ludwig II, who didn’t know which leg to stand on, when he became king. A sad story about an unrequited love, loneliness, art, music, wealth and a coup with a macabre end. When Maximilian II died as King of Bavaria in 1864, his son ascended the throne, only 18 years old. Ludwig II would be an absolute monarch, with power and everything that goes with it. Bavaria at that time, was a constitutional monarchy, so the kid did not have the full power over the country. He was pretty angry because of that.

As a young ambitious king, it was not satisfactory just to be a figurehead king. He tried to change the laws so he could obtain the power he so wanted, but he failed. It was only in history books, that he was able to read about the absolute monarchs. One could try to buy a kingdom, he thought. Ludwig II set about trying to buy the island of Mallorca, but Spain wanted 50 million Reichsmark, to insert him as ruler of the island. Ludwig II did not have that much money, so the idea was promptly dropped.

In 1866, after the ‘Seven Weeks War’ between Prussia and Bavaria, Ludwig II was instated in the disappointing role of Vassal King, a figurehead under the iron chancellor Otto von Bismarck of Prussia. The young man was very weary of it all, and he fled into his own fantasy world, where only he ruled, supremely.

Ludwig II loved music, and especially works of composer Richard Wagner, (the temporal response to Rammstein), who was number one on the charts in southern Germany, with his romantic works which focused on German fairytales and legends. Ludwig II’s nanny at Hohenschwangau had introduced him to Richard Wagner’s musical universe, when he was only 13 years old, and it came to influence him for the rest of his life.

In 1860, Ludwig II saw Richard Wagner’s opera ‘Lohengrin’ live, and he was sold. In his childhood years in Hohenschwangau, he was surrounded by adventure in the form of romantic murals of German heroes and their deeds. He became so obsessed with the legendary figure Lohengrin, he began to compare himself with this romantic swan knight. He was such a hardcore fan of the composer Richard Wagner, he took the composer under his protective wings, which came to mean a leap ahead, for Richard Wagner’s life and career. Ludwig II was convinced that Richard Wagner was in touch with God, when he composed the music.

In 1864, just after Ludwig II became king, he sent a letter to his musical idol via his private secretary: “I have the honour of being King Ludwig II of Bavaria’s private secretary. The king has entrusted me, my dear master, to invite you to his palace, and ask that you must come without hesitation.”

Richard Wagner was reeling on his heels, and wrote back: “Beloved, most gracious liege! I’m sending you these tears of celestial motion to say that the miracle of poetry has finally come into my poor, loveless life as a divine truth.”

Richard Wagner went to the court in Munich, and met with Ludwig II for the first time. The 51-year-old composer was a close friend with the young king, through a short and stormy period, which had its hub in the summer castle Hohenschwangau. Richard Wagner composed, enjoyed life, and his new status in the castle. Ludwig II went to the bank and repaid Richard Wagner’s considerable debts, which made the composer uncannily creative and sharp. Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde, was set up at Court Theatre in Munich on 10 June 1865, and was a resounding success.

In 1866, Ludwig II had a date of the serious kind. He met his future fiancée, Countess Sophie of Austria. Sophie was a music-happy girl, and they both loved Wagner’s music, but it was also the only thing they had in common. Sophie was his cousin, and sister of his good friend, the Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Ludwig II cancelled his engagement to Sophie shortly before the two should be welded together. Love just wasn’t there.

Ludwig II was a pretty mysterious fellow, and the women flocked around him. It’s good to be king. Ludwig II had many female acquaintances, but no one grasped his deep interest, and, as years went by, gossip and intrigue as to his sexual orientation abounded. It was not appropriate back then. Shut in, he slept all day and was only awake at night. Love was just something that existed in the music.

Although Ludwig was no good as king by day, he could be, by night. He planned his own private kingdom, which would consist of castles all over Bavaria. Like so many other kings through the ages, he was also an entrepreneur. But he also had an incredibly romantic imagination, which brought him over the edge of the ordinary human mind. Only a year after he became king, he wrote to Richard Wagner: “I plan to rebuild the old castle ruins in the same style as the old German knight’s castles. I look forward to living there someday. There will be many rooms and the views are wonderful over Tyrol. The location is one of the loveliest, holiest and most difficult to find. Thus, a worthy temple for my divine friend, who has brought salvation and true blessing to the world.

His friend Richard Wagner liked young women, and he had chosen a mate after writing ‘Tristan and Isolde’. During the same period, where Ludwig II muddled up his own engagement, the composer had seduced his conductor’s wife. Although the conductor, Hans von Bülow, was a significant piece of Richard Wagner’s life, and a good supporter, Wagner was cold as a stone, he wanted his wife. Cosima, as the young woman was named, was at Wagner’s side until his death, and bore him a daughter Isolde, so it may well have been true love.

Cosima was 24 years younger than Richard Wagner, and so again, the gossip went around, and many believed it was a proper scandal. Wagner fell into disfavour among persons at court, they feared that he would bring ideas into the mind of the young king, which he previously had done. Ludwig II was forced to send Richard Wagner away from court. Ludwig II was so depressed, and was on the verge of collapse. He thought of abdicating, so that he could follow his friend in exile. He found it hard to live a life without Richard Wagner and his music, at his side. Wagner managed to talk some sense into the young king, who in turn had Wagner installed in Villa Triebschen, on Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. Now, Wagner could be really creative, and the young king went ahead with plans for the construction, which would celebrate the composer, and would later become his destiny.

In 1868, Wagner’s opera “Die Meistersinger of Nuremberg”, premiered in Munich, and same year Cosima divorced from Hans von Bülow. In 1870, Wagner and Cosima married. Ludwig II, who was only 23 years old during those events, now began to live out his fantasies and began to build castles. Drawings and sketches where created for the new palace, and they were not accepted until all details were in order. All modern building techniques should be used, and no expense would be spared. Neuschwanstein would be a direct homage to Richard Wagner. A great operatic backdrop.

The decor inside, consists of murals with scenes from Richard Wagner’s operas. ‘Parsifal’, ‘Lohengrin’ and ‘Tristan and Isolde’. The old castle ruin, which was just opposite to Hohenschwangau, was the centrepiece of his imaginary royal kingdom. Richard Wagner was to be the musical bridge between God, king and the common people.

In 1869, the construction of Neuschwanstein started, and it would only be completed seventeen years later. When you are in close contact with the castle, one can hardly understand that it was possible to bring so much beauty into one building. Artists and architects must have stepped on each other’s toes in the creative process. In the seventeen years it took to build the castle, there was plenty of turmoil in Europe, while the Swan Knight King reigned quietly, without love, in his own fantasy realm.

He built for dear life, and spent more money than he had. He sat for days on end, and followed the construction by telescope. It was not just the new palace that had his interest, the king also built elsewhere in Bavaria. Richard Wagner tried to get Ludwig to take a little more interest in his country than just music, art and buildings. He failed, but Richard Wagner loved his young king: “This wonderful, unique, young man is deeply connected to me through the mystery and magic.”

Ludwig II was so much a fan of Richard Wagner, that he became addicted to the composer’s works. During the construction of Neuschwanstein, he became quite strange, and locked himself in his mother’s castle Hohenschwangau, with binoculars as the only window to the outside world. Ludwig II now assumed a really bad lifestyle, and as years went by, he fell more and more into disrepair. Teeth falling out, he got out of shape and became irritable, and slept all day. Sometimes he’d leave the palace at night to go for a ride in the dark, with all his other dark sides. In the years during construction of the dream palace, he banned visitors from come to Hohenschwangau, defending the construction of his dream castle. In 1883, Richard Wagner died without having seen the gigantic manifestation of his works. It was a real loss for Ludwig II.

In 1886, the dream castle was nearly completed, and Ludwig II moved into apartments in the new palace. He could now live in the palace, his imagination had fostered. But Ludwig’s days were literally numbered; he would only have 172 days in the castle. He was loved by the people and hated by the rulers. He now had some massive problems, with bad credit, and a debt of around 20 million Reichsmark. There was no chance that Bavaria could ever repay this debt, but Ludwig II didn’t care.

On June 10th of the same year, the castle invaded by a group of men forcing their way through the castle gates. They dragged Ludwig away, and he was deposed as king the same day, by both his own family, and the government. The official reason given to the people, was that he suffered from galloping insanity. He had spent too much money on his construction work across Bavaria, to complete his fantasy kingdom. The Swan Knight King was taken to Munich.

On June 12, the King was out taking a walk with his private physician, but the two never returned from that trip. Their bodies were found in the Starnberger See, and there were no witnesses to this drama. The official explanation was that Ludwig II had beaten his doctor to death, and then had killed himself, because he had lost his royal title. But how could this mad romantic soul who loved music, art and beauty, beat another man to death? How insane was Ludwig II anyway? One thing is for sure. He was a great financial burden for Bavaria, and this was probably why he was killed.

The last second before the swan knight king slipped into death, he may have heard Wagner’s music in his mind’s ear, and thought of a letter he sent the composer after a concert in Bayreuth: “Oh, now I recognize again the beautiful world that I’ve been away from, the sky opened up again for me, the angels rays of colour, spring reaches into my soul with thousands of sweet sounds. The true artist of God’s grace that has brought the sacred fire from heaven to earth to clean, to sanctify, to salvation. The God-Man cannot get lost and cannot fail “.

When you exit the castles and continue your trip, you can sit and think in the saddle of this mysterious tale. About all the architecture and furniture loaded into Neuschwanstein. About life at Hohenschwangau, and the wealth the king and his family surrounded themselves with. About the mad king, his debauchery and decadence. About how his food was raised up through the floors of Hohenschwangau, because he did not like servants, and how his lovers walked through the castle in secret passages. About how his servants stood on top of his bedroom, and shone lights into the room through coloured glass. About the room where Richard Wagner was asleep drunk, while he was wondering how he could seduce some young girls, not to forget the natural environment and location of the palaces, which were literally royal houses, fit for kings.

Ludwig II, in his brief and mysterious life, through the composer Richard Wagner’s music, his own wild imagination, and on the brink of romantic insanity, left us a marvel of a castle at the bottom of the A7 motorway. A romantic monument, perhaps to remind us that love and romance can be found in the real world. Perhaps the message from Ludwig II to the future of humanity is: “Find love while you live, and don’t end up like I did”?

OByrne, Dave. 2011. "Bavaria Germany: Neuschwanstein Among 20 Building Wonders of the World". We Blog the World. Posted: December 9, 2011. Available online:

Friday, December 16, 2011

The 2000 year old food forest

In 1975, Geoff Lawton discovered a remarkable oasis in the Moroccan desert, a remnant of an ancient sustainable agriculture, the 2000 year old food forest farmed by 800 people. He returned to document it 28 years later. Date palms are the main overstorey species with an understorey of carob, bananas, quince, olives, figs, pomegranates, guava, citrus, mulberries, tamarinds, grapes... and many more smaller species. He found the food forest to have a wonderful atmosphere – cool, lush, shaded as if he was inside an organism, safe and secure yet surrounded by desert. Imagine a world where desert food forests stretch from North Africa to Central Asia in various forms. Geoff suggests we should document these food forests before all the young farmers migrate to the cities for work and they are lost forever. Our ancestors had a true knowledge of sustainable, extremely long term sustainable multi-species food systems. We are going to need them.

Geoff Lawton made the film Establishing a Food Forest which explains the patterns of a food forest and then he turns the theory into action, planting the seeds and watching the system grow. (Some species not suitable for N Europe.) He also visits other established food forests around the world.

Lawton, Geoff. 2011. "The 2000 year old food forest". Permaculture. Posted: December 9, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Babies embrace punishment earlier than previously thought, study suggests

Babies as young as eight months old prefer it when people who commit or condone antisocial acts are mistreated, a new study led by a University of British Columbia psychologist finds.

While previous research shows that babies uniformly prefer kind acts, the new study published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that eight month-old infants support negative behavior if it is directed at those who act antisocially – and dislike those who are nice to bad guys.

“We find that, by eight months, babies have developed nuanced views of reciprocity and can conduct these complex social evaluations much earlier than previously thought,” says lead author Prof. Kiley Hamlin, UBC Dept of Psychology, who co-authored the study with colleagues from Yale University and Temple University.

“This study helps to answer questions that have puzzled evolutionary psychologists for decades,” says Hamlin. “Namely, how have we survived as intensely social creatures if our sociability makes us vulnerable to being cheated and exploited? These findings suggest that, from as early as eight months, we are watching for people who might put us in danger and prefer to see antisocial behavior regulated.”

For the study, researchers presented four scenarios to 100 babies using animal hand puppets. After watching puppets act negatively or positively towards other characters, the babies were shown puppets either giving or taking toys from these “good” or “bad” puppets. When prompted to choose their favorite characters, babies preferred puppets that mistreated the bad characters from the original scene, compared to those that treated them nicely.

The researchers also examined how older infants would themselves treat good and bad puppets. They tested 64 babies aged 21 months, who were asked to give a treat to, or take a treat away from one of two puppets – one who had previously helped another puppet, and another who had harmed the other puppet. These older babies physically took treats away from the “bad” puppets, and gave treats to the “good” ones.

Hamlin, who conducted the research with Karen Wynn and Paul Bloom of Yale University’s Dept. of Psychology, and Neha Mahajan of Temple University, says the findings provide new insights into the protective mechanisms humans use to choose social alliances, which she says are rooted in self-preservation.

Hamlin says the infant responses may be early forms of the complex behaviors and emotions that get expressed later in life, such as when school children tattle on kids who break the rules, the rush people feel when movie villains get their due, and the phenomenon of people cheering at public executions.

Hamlin says while such tendencies surely have many learned components, the fact that they are present so early in life suggests that they may be based in part on an innate foundation of liking those who give others their “just desserts.”

EurekAlert. 2011. "Babies embrace punishment earlier than previously thought, study suggests". EurekAlert. Posted: November 28, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Mexico adds yet another brick to the 2012 Maya legend

Archaeologists say another artifact refers to date, but downplays doomsday angle

Mexico's archaeology institute downplays theories that the ancient Maya predicted some sort of apocalypse would occur in 2012, but on Thursday it acknowledged that a second reference to the date exists on a carved fragment found at a southern Mexico ruin site.

Most experts had cited only one surviving reference to the date in Mayan glyphs, a stone tablet from the Tortuguero site in the Gulf coast state of Tabasco.

But the National Institute of Anthropology and History said in a statement that there is in fact another apparent reference to the date at the nearby Comalcalco ruin. The inscription is on the carved or molded face of a brick. Comalcalco is unusual among Mayan temples in that it was constructed of bricks.

Arturo Mendez, a spokesman for the institute, said the fragment of inscription had been discovered years ago and has been subject to thorough study. It is not on display and is being kept in storage at the institute.

The "Comalcalco Brick," as the second fragment is known, has been discussed by experts in some online forums. Many still doubt that it is a definite reference to Dec. 21, 2012 or Dec. 23, 2012, the dates cited by proponents of the theory as the possible end of the world.

Referring to past or future?

"Some have proposed it as another reference to 2012, but I remain rather unconvinced," David Stuart, a specialist in Mayan epigraphy at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a message to The Associated Press.

Stuart said the date inscribed on the brick "'is a 'Calendar Round,' a combination of a day and month position that will repeat every 52 years."

The brick date does coincide with the end of the 13th Baktun; Baktuns were roughly 394-year periods, and 13 was a significant, sacred number for the Mayas. The Mayan Long Count calendar begins in 3114 B.C., and the 13th Baktun ends around Dec. 21, 2012.

But the date on the brick could also correspond to similar dates in the past, Stuart said.

"There's no reason it couldn't be also a date in ancient times, describing some important historical event in the Classic period. In fact, the third glyph on the brick seems to read as the verb huli, 'he/she/it arrives,'" Stuart wrote. "There's no future tense marking (unlike the Tortuguero phrase), which in my mind points more to the Comalcalco date being more historical than prophetic."

Cryptic characteristics

Both inscriptions — the Tortuguero tablet and the Comalcalco brick — were probably carved about 1,300 years ago, and both are cryptic in some ways.

Tortuguero tablet
Source: INAH
The Tortuguero stone tablet apparently refers to an event that is due to occur in 2012, but a crack in the stone makes the final passage almost illegible.

The Tortuguero inscription describes something that is supposed to occur in 2012 involving Bolon Yokte, a mysterious Mayan god associated with both war and creation. However, erosion and a crack in the stone make the end of the passage almost illegible, though some read the last eroded glyphs as perhaps saying, "He will descend from the sky."

The Comalcalco brick is also odd in that the molded or inscribed faces of the bricks were probably laid facing inward or covered with stucco, suggesting they were not meant to be seen.

The Institute of Anthropology and History has long said rumors of a world-ending or world-changing event in late December 2012 are a Westernized misinterpretation of Mayan calendars.

The institute repeated Thursday that "Western messianic thought has twisted the cosmovision of ancient civilizations like the Maya."

The institute's experts say the Maya saw time as a series of cycles that began and ended with regularity, but with nothing apocalyptic at the end of a given cycle.

Given the strength of Internet rumors about impending disaster in 2012, the institute is organizing a special round table of 60 Mayan experts next week at the archaeological site of Palenque, in southern Mexico, to "dispel some of the doubts about the end of one era and the beginning of another, in the Mayan Long Count calendar."

Stevenson, Mark. 2011. "Mexico adds yet another brick to the 2012 Maya legend ". MSNBC. Posted: November 25, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Our ancestors speak out after 3 million years

YOU may think humanity's first words are lost in the noise of ancient history, but an unlikely experiment using plastic tubes and puffs of air is helping to recreate the first sounds uttered by our distant ancestors.

Many animals communicate with sounds, but it is the variety of our language that sets us apart. Over millions of years, changes to our vocal organs have allowed us to produce a rich mix of sounds. One such change was the loss of the air sac - a balloon-like organ that helps primates to produce booming noises.

All primates have an air sac except humans, in whom it has shrunk to a vestigial organ. Palaeontologists can date when our ancestors lost the organ, as the tissue attaches to a skeletal feature called the hyoid bulla, which is absent in humans. "Lucy's baby", an Australopithecus afarensis girl who lived 3.3 million years ago, had a hyoid bulla; but by the time Homo heidelbergensis arrived on the scene 600,000 years ago, air sacs were a thing of the past.

To find out how this changed the sounds produced, Bart de Boer of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands created artificial vocal tracts from shaped plastic tubes. Air forced down them produced different vowel sounds, and half of the models had an extra chamber to mimic an air sac.

De Boer played the sounds to 22 people and asked them to identify the vowel. If they got it right, they were asked to try again, only this time noise was added to make it harder to identify the sound. If they got it wrong, noise was reduced.

He found that those listening to tubes without air sacs could tolerate much more noise before the vowels became unintelligible.

The air sacs acted like bass drums, resonating at low frequencies, and causing vowel sounds to merge; Lucy's baby would have had a greatly reduced vocabulary. Even simple words - such as "tin" and "ten" - would have sounded the same to her.

Observations of soldiers from the first world war corroborate de Boer's findings. Poison gas enlarged the vestigial air sacs of some soldiers, who are said to have had speech problems that made them hard to comprehend.

De Boer's study provides clear evidence supporting the idea that the need to produce complex sounds to communicate better made air sacs shrink, says Ann MacLarnon of the University of Roehampton in London. More sounds meant more information could be shared, giving those who lacked air sacs a better chance of survival in a dangerous world.

De Boer found that air sacs also interfered with the workings of the vocal cords, making consonants trickier. Only once they had gone could words like "perpetual", requiring rapid changes in sound, be produced.

What, then, might our ancestors' first words have been? With air sacs, vowels tend to sound like the "u" in "ugg". But studies suggest it is easier to produce a consonant plus a vowel, and "d" is easier to form with "u". "Drawing it all together, I think it is likely cavemen and cavewomen said 'duh' before they said 'ugg'," says de Boer.

Visit the site to get sound samples from the experiment

Harvey, Charles. "Our ancestors speak out after 3 million years". New Scientist. Posted: November 23, 2011. Available online:

Journal reference: Journal of Human Evolution, DOI: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2011.07.007

Monday, December 12, 2011

Native American Blankets Made With Dog Hair

To Native Americans known as the Coast Salish, the hair of the dog isn't a dubious hangover cure—it's a key ingredient in the large, beautiful blankets woven by their ancestors more than a century ago. A molecular analysis of some of these venerable textiles now confirms they are made partly of yarn spun from the fur of an unusual canine, verifying oral accounts handed down through the Pacific Northwest tribe over generations.

The Coast Salish live in northern Washington and southern British Columbia, and according to tribal lore, their ancestors raised a strange breed of canine. The Salish woolly dog was bred, the story goes, specifically for its fleecy undercoat and long outer hairs, which were woven into the famous Salish blankets. Salish oral tradition about the canine is corroborated by historical accounts, such as the journal of 18th century explorer George Vancouver, who wrote that the Salish dogs had coats that were "a mixture of a coarse kind of wool, with very fine, long hair, capable of being spun into yarn."

Recent research shows the woolly dog probably resembled a current breed called the Spitz, a thick-coated, curly-tailed dog native to Finland. By 1900, however, the Salish woolly dog had vanished. Today the only known physical evidence of it is a single pelt—rediscovered in 2004 in a drawer at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.—of a woolly dog named "Mutton," the pet of a 19th century ethnographer who studied the tribes of the Pacific Northwest.

Despite the tribal lore and other ample evidence, some have dismissed the claim that Salish blankets contain canine hair as just a shaggy-dog story. A survey of more than 100 items woven by the Salish found no dog hair, according to a seminal 1980 book on Salish textiles. And a 2006 DNA analysis that analyzed a small sample of textiles was inconclusive.

The new work, published in the December issue of Antiquity, sheds light on why past studies could have missed dog hair. Using mass spectrometry, a molecular technique for revealing the components of complex mixtures, biochemist Caroline Solazzo of the University of York in the United Kingdom and colleagues analyzed nine blankets woven in the 19th or early 20th centuries by the Coast Salish. They found protein fragments, or peptides, matching peptides from the hair of sheep and mountain goats, as expected. But some of the peptides in five of the nine blankets matched ones from the pelt of Mutton, indicating that the blanket peptides comes from dog hair. Only the older blankets—those woven in the first half of the 19th century—contained dog yarn, and none of them was pure dog. (The earlier DNA analysis had looked at only more recent blankets, which the new analysis showed did not have dog hair.) In most cases, the weavers had combined dog fiber with the highly prized fiber from mountain goats to make a mixed yarn.

Canine hair was easier to come by than mountain goat hair, which could be obtained only by trading with nearby tribes with access to goats, the researchers say. "Dog hair was probably used for less important blankets, blankets with less value, and for common usage, [not] ceremonial usage," Solazzo says. She and her colleagues found, for example, two very plain ceremonial blankets that contained only goat hair. The weaver might have avoided dog hair because the blankets' stark design shows off all their fibers rather than concealing some of them.

Klaus Hollemeyer, a researcher at Saarland University in Saarbrücken, Germany, who developed the mass spectrometry technique used by Solazzo's team, believes the new work is definitive. The protein analysis is "well done and documented," he writes via e-mail.

The new study also helps erase doubts about the accuracy of the Salish oral tradition, says textile conservator Susan Heald of the National Museum of the American Indian's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Maryland, and a co-author of the new study. "It's been close to 10 years since Coast Salish community curator Marilyn Jones asked me if I could find out if dog hair was used in any of the Coast Salish blankets" displayed in a particular museum exhibit, Heald writes via e-mail. "I'm pleased that we can finally tell Marilyn that we did find dog hair in the older blankets, corroborating the oral history."

Watson, Traci. 2011. "Native American Blankets Made With Dog Hair". Science. Posted: November 23, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Art rocks in Saudi Arabia

“Jubbah is one of the most curious places in the world, and to my mind one of the most beautiful,” wrote Lady Anne Blunt. The granddaughter of Lord Byron had arrived in January 1879 with her husband, Wilfrid, at the oasis two-thirds of the way across the Nafud desert. En route to the city of Hail to see, and perhaps buy, some of the famous horses of Ibn Rashid, then ruler in Najd, they were among the first travelers from the West to set foot in Jubbah.

Near Bir Hima, the camel on this panel is a recent addition to an otherwise curious frieze: An oryx faces one of the most naturalistic human figures found in Saudi rock art; he wields a spear and holds what may be a shield, wears feathered headgear and shows what may be tattoos on his abdomen. A smaller figure— a child?—appears under his arm. Photo: Lars Bjurström/Saudi Aramco World/SAWDIA

Although not geologists, they recognized that the plain, more than 16 kilometers long and five kilometers wide (10 x 3 mi)—”a great bare space fringed by an ocean of sand” and overlooked by a sandstone massif”—was the site of a former lake. Among the rocks, Wilfrid found inscriptions. They had been on the lookout for traces of ancient writing, but had “hitherto found nothing except some doubtful scratches, and a few of those simple designs one finds everywhere on the sandstone, representing camels and gazelles.”

When it came to rock art, 19th-century westerners were interested mainly in writing: Anything else they found unworthy of attention. But attitudes have changed. Today, rock art is recognized as sophisticated, complex and esthetically interesting evidence of how early humans socialized their landscapes. Pictures carved or pecked into rock speak to us all, however faintly or incomprehensibly, across great divides of time, and appeal powerfully to our imaginations. According to Paul Bahn, a leading scholar of prehistoric art, it “gives humankind its true dimension” by showing that even from the earliest times, “human activities hold meanings other than those of a purely utilitarian kind.”

The “simple designs” that the Blunts saw can still be seen today: a veritable gallery of rock art that survives in the stark mountain area west of what is now a small modern town. The parade of images and elaborate symbols, left there by successive prehistoric nomadic and settled groups, leads up to more recent written inscriptions that lie on the horizon of history.
The first survey

Nearly a century after the Blunts’ visit, scholars began to grasp the importance of these pictures. The first state-sponsored archaeological and paleo-environmental surveys of Jubbah and other sites were conducted by Saudi Arabia’s Department of Antiquities in 1976 and 1977. These located and recorded thousands of images and inscriptions, and they proved that the Jubbah site did indeed lie on an ancient lake-bed stretching eastward from the sandstone mountain called Jabal Um Sanaman, “Two Camel-Hump Mountain.”

And now, 25 years after the surveys, Jubbah is the centrepiece of some 2000 known rock-art sites across Saudi Arabia. Both within the country and internationally, with interest sparked by new finds and increasingly accurate dating methods, their significance is finally emerging.
A growing understanding

Although rock art has been found in just about every nation, Saudi Arabia’s extensive heritage has remained virtually unknown. For example, the 1998 Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art does not mention Saudi Arabia, and its map of prehistoric rock-art sites shows the whole of the Arabian Peninsula as a blank.

This shows how much there is yet to learn, says Robert Bednarik, founder and current president of the International Federation of Rock Art Organizations (IFRAO). “Saudi Arabia is one of the four richest regions in the world for rock art, along with South Africa, Australia and India. It possesses a major concentration of sites—yet, until now, this has not been realized internationally.”

Bednarik paid his first visit to Saudi Arabia in November, including a visit to a major new discovery in a remote area of Saudi Arabia that until now was thought to be devoid of rock art. The site, called Shuwaymas after the nearest village, “stands ready to surpass…any other rock-art site on the Arabian Peninsula,” he says.

In contrast to Jubbah, Shuwaymas is surrounded by black volcanic lava, not sand, in one of the dry valley systems in the south of Hail province. Professor Saad Abdul Aziz al-Rashid, Deputy Minister for Antiquities and Museums, calls it “a unique and very important find,” and points out that it can tell us much about the early domestication of animals. “As well as rock art, there are also numerous ancient stone ‘kites,’ mounds, tails and enclosures in the area,” says al-Rashid.

The discovery came in March 2001, when a Bedouin told Mahboub Habbas al-Rasheedi, a teacher in the nearby town, about rock images he had spotted while grazing his camels. After days scouring the crumbling sides of valleys up to 65 kilometres distant from the school, al-Rasheedi stumbled into a proliferation of rock art tableaux, including an unusually detailed carving nearly two meters from head to tail that has been dubbed “the lion of Shuwaymas.”

Further explorations by al-Rasheedi and his brother Saad yielded fresh discoveries incised and pecked into the rock: images of cheetah, hyenas, dogs, long- and short-horned cattle, oryx, ibex, horses, mules, camels and ostrich; human figures; geometric shapes, serpentine squiggles, inscrutable symbols, carved-out footprints and, perhaps, hoofprints.

“We kept coming back to reflect on the place, on what these pictures mean and the stories they tell. Somehow we are connected to them,” says Mahboub al-Rasheedi. The brothers took their local school superintendent, Mamduah Ibrahim al-Rasheedi, to the site. “As soon as I returned home,” says Mamduah, “I clambered up a nearby hill where my cell phone can work, and I called the provincial director of antiquities in Hail to report that we had found something.”

The Shuwaymas area is densely peppered with rock art, and it likely had a very heavy and significant concentration of Neolithic people,” says Bednarik, whose more than 650 publications in more than 50 professional journals make him one of the most extensively published archaeological authors. “Clearly a great deal of labor has been invested here. It reminds me of Egyptian material and also Saharan rock art. There are lots of questions here that, if answered, could well change opinions and attitudes. This is the beginning of a major research opportunity.”

Jubbah, 25 years ago, was just as little known as Shuwaymas is now. But now we are aware that Arabia has not always been desert, and indeed that the region has undergone considerable climatic changes. The sequence of strata in the lakebed at Jubbah is similar to those in locations in the Rub’ al-Khali (the Empty Quarter) and the al-Jafr Basin in Jordan, as well as long-dry African lake basins in the Sahara. All of this region underwent successive moist and arid periods, and during the Neolithic Wet Phase (9000-6000 years ago), savannah grasslands supported cattle.
A long history of use

Archaeologists have found evidence of four major periods of settlement at Jubbah stretching back through the Middle Palaeolithic period, 80,000 to 25,000 years ago. They also found Neolithic sites and evidence of early trade: finely retouched arrowheads, blades and awls manufactured from stone that had been carried in from sources up to 145 kilometres (90 mi) away.

The panoply of rock art around Jubbah’s Jabal Um Sanaman covers some 39 square kilometers (15 sq mi), and it presents a rich, often perplexing gallery, including panels depicting early domesticated dogs and long-horned cattle, and others that suggest a transition from hunter-gatherer to agricultural communities. The abundant images of camels raise the intriguing possibility that the camel was first domesticated in northern Arabia, not southern, as is usually believed. Among the hundreds of thousands of camel figures carved in rocks throughout the Arabian Peninsula, the ones at Jubbah are believed to be the oldest: At approximately 4000 years old, they date back to the beginning of the Bronze Age.

Among the most recent markings in the chronology of Jubbah’s early civilizations are 3000-year-old inscriptions in Thamudic, the oldest known script of the Arabian Peninsula. Majeed Khan, the leading authority on the rock art of Arabia and the Middle East, is currently an advisor to the national Antiquities Department; he has spent 27 years studying rock art and inscriptions. The Thamudic script, he says, “evolved independently within the Peninsula from an earlier rock-art system of communication, an embryonic form of writing employing elaborate signs and symbols as ideograms.”

Along with Khan, archaeologist Juris Zarins worked on the early surveys in the mid-1970’s, before joining the faculty of Southwest Missouri State University. Over the past two decades, he has taken many SMSU students to Saudi Arabia, and he was chief archaeologist of the 1992 Transarabia Expedition, which made the headline-grabbing discovery of what they believed was the ancient city of Ubar.

“Pound for pound and piece for piece, in terms of rock art concentration and importance, Jubbah is the number-one or number-two site in the whole of the Middle East,” Zarins says. “It rivals anything in North Africa. With the art going back at least to the Pottery Neolithic period 7000 to 9000 years ago, and with paleo-environment and geology showing traces of human activity extending into the Middle Palaeolithic period, it’s a treasure trove for answering questions about the Middle East.”

If so, then why has Saudi Arabia so long remained a blank spot on the international rock-art map? One reason, contends Zarins, has to do with an ancient bias: “Throughout the world, scholarship has always slighted deserts. Even the ancients despised the desert people. This has carried over into the modern world, since history is written by settled, civilized peoples.”
A curious oversight

What makes the oversight more curious still is that there has been activity between the time of the Blunts’ visit and the modern Saudi studies. In 1972, a four-volume work, Rock-Art in Central Arabia, was published by Emmanuel Anati. Although he never visited the country, he worked from a huge corpus of photographs, tracings and sketches acquired from the explorer, mapmaker and writer on Arabia Harry St. John Philby. In the winter of 1952, Philby had set off on a three-month field survey of rock art and inscriptions in the south of the country. Accompanying him were a renowned Belgian scholar of Semitic studies, Monseigneur Gonzague Ryckmans, pre-Islamic historian Jacques Ryckmans and a photographer of rock art and epigraphy, Count Philippe Lippens. The expedition returned to Riyadh with records of 13,000 previously unknown petroglyphs. “Sad to say,” wrote Elizabeth Monroe, Philby’s biographer, in 1973, “only a fraction of this major addition to the world’s knowledge of Arabia has so far been published.” (The originals are today at St. Antony’s College, Oxford.) So rich was one of the sites west of the ancient wells of Bir Hima that one of the expedition members was able to copy 250 images without moving from his seat.

Look carefully at the black rock,” says Naif al-Ateek, the curator of the rock-art site at Jubbah and a descendant of the town amir who welcomed the Blunts. “If you concentrate, you’ll see a faint carving lying behind the clear and lighter top one.” Even with such a lead—for without it only the superficial images would register—intently staring at the blackened rock surface is an exercise akin to picking out a modern three-dimensional picture that appears buried within an inscrutable, computer-generated pattern. Yet al-Ateek is right: If one adjusts one’s eye, focusing and refocusing slowly, another image appears in the background, a work executed perhaps millennia before the more apparent images.

“The darker ones are the oldest,” he explains, showing a life-sized figure, depicted with a characteristic oval head, holding a curved, boomerang-like throwing stick and followed by a short-horned bovine. “Now let me show you our prize figure, an ancient ruler.” Finely incised in the dark patina of desert varnish is a life-sized male human figure with a crown-like headdress. Nearby is the curved horn of an ibex reaching and arching to its back, its face complete with a small beard.

Later, after a day spent scrambling over rock surfaces, al-Ateek serves coffee in the same smoke-blackened parlor that the Blunts sat in. He has built up a small museum that includes several rock-art fragments found in the sands and brought in by Bedouin over the years.

“We are proud of our mountain and the heritage it contains,” says Bandar al-Amar, who has opened Jubbah’s own Internet café, runs computer courses and created an Arabic-language website for the town. “Twenty years ago our parents pressed to have a tarred road brought across the dunes to Jubbah from Hail,” he says. “The authorities suggested that we move to Hail and resettle in the modern town. The answer was ‘Okay, so long as you move our mountain with us.’ This here is all part of our deep past, even though its history is difficult to understand.”

Just three years ago, a rock with one of Arabia’s most intriguing petroglyphs was moved: A helicopter hoisted it from its site 160 kilometers (100 mi) north of Najran and lowered it onto a flatbed trailer, and it was later craned onto the marble floor of Riyadh’s National Museum. The rough, pyramid-shaped sandstone rock, 1.3 meters tall, shows arms and hands waving on one side and another hand, apparently with a broken arm, on the other. The motif is ubiquitous in rock art throughout the world.
The difficulty of interpretation

The Department of Antiquities and Museums is also quartered at the National Museum. In his office, surrounded by journals, surveys, publications and rock-art conference proceedings, Majeed Khan explains why he prefers not to interpret the meaning of the waving hands, let alone any other rock art images.
Carved footprints. Photo: Lars Bjurström/Saudi Aramco World/SAWDIA

Carved footprints. Photo: Lars Bjurström/Saudi Aramco World/SAWDIA

“The biggest challenge with rock art is chronology and dating. Once we tried to interpret the art, but with our modern minds interpretation is entirely hypothetical. So now we concentrate on dating, chronology and the technical aspects.” He adds one exception, unique to Saudi Arabia:

Tribal markings called wasum are still used today by Bedouin to mark territorial and animal possessions. They provide a modern link with much older rock art. Khan’s Wasum: The Tribal Symbols of Saudi Arabia was published by the Ministry of Education in 2000.

In the museum gallery, Khan demonstrates further the pitfalls of interpretation. “You might say this is a territorial marker,” he says as he and a group of schoolchildren ponder the rock with the waving hands. “That child might say it’s a keep-out sign, for the broken arm on the rear face shows the consequence of intrusion. I might suggest that it reveals supplication to some deity. You could speculate these incised images from handprints daubed onto the rock are mere doodles by a person with time—and paint—on his hands: Art for art’s sake!

“With such a diversity of ideas, how can we interpret the meaning of people’s thoughts thousands of years ago?” asks Khan. “One thing is clear to me though: These images were symbolic, communicating meaning which the artist and the ancient people of the time could understand.”

Khan’s words echo those of Paul Bahn. In most rock art, argues Bahn, “individual artistic inspiration was related to some more widespread system of thought and had messages to convey: signatures, ownership, warnings, exhortations, demarcations, commemorations, narratives, myths and metaphors.”
A shared legacy

Among the younger Saudi scholars devoted to rock art is Abdulraheem Hobrom, one of the first to undertake postgraduate studies in the subject at Riyadh’s King Sa’ud University. He sees a wide-open field, and attitudes changing in ways that will favor further study. “Islam encourages us to explore and discover the world. People are recognizing the significance of the shared legacy and heritage of rock art. Our ancestors created these works, and we need to understand them,” he says.

More publications, increased survey activities and a documentary film in progress, intended for broadcast in Europe, all show the growing interest in Saudi rock art, says Daifallah al-Talhi, director general of the Antiquities Research and Survey Center. “We display rock art in our provincial museums, our mobile exhibition on education in history includes it and we will soon launch a website for the National Museum which will feature petroglyphs,” he says. Provincial representatives of the Ministry of Education discuss the country’s rock-art heritage in presentations to schools throughout Saudi Arabia’s 13 provinces.

This heightened interest, naturally, is leading to another prospect—more discoveries. Saad al-Rashid is a busy man these days, one who often returns to his office at the National Museum in the evenings to work past midnight. He talks of prospects for new studies to address the questions that multiply with the discoveries. “To what extent are the wasum of today inherited by tribes, and were there tribes that no longer exist? When were the animals domesticated in Arabia? There are so many facets to examine— and of course always the scientific challenge of accurate absolute dating.”

His enthusiasm is echoed by Bednarik. “Saudi Arabia is taking on a pioneer role. This could lead to better things in terms of rock-art studies in other Arab countries, and opting for a scientific approach rather than one of interpretation makes eminent sense. It’s also appropriate, as the Arabs were at the forefront of scientific tradition and innovation in the past.”

In the middle of the broad, flat, sandy valley of the Shuwaymas site, a small campfire flickers under a canopy of stars in a crystalline sky. Sharing its warmth, sipping coffee and tea, are two Bedouin who live in tents a few kilometers away and who are now officially charged with guarding the site. Also sitting at the fire are Mamduah Ibrahim al-Rasheedi, the school superintendant who called in the find, his teacher colleagues and Saad Rowaisan, the visiting provincial director of antiquities from Hail. They muse over how this once-populated site has been virtually unknown for nearly the full duration of recorded history, and they speculate what their find will bring to this remote area: survey teams, archeologists, students, international specialists, film crews and curious visitors with four-wheel drives and GPS navigation units. Al-Rasheedi already plans a visit for his schoolchildren. There will, of course, be more.

As the coffee-maker tends the embers, talk turns to the people who left their mark on the rocks. “Our children will ask, ‘Who were the people who left all this? How did they live, how did they cut the pictures and symbols in the stone?’” says Ruwaisan. “’What were the dogs used for, and why did the cows, lions and cheetahs disappear?’”

Later, after a simple meal, the conversation dies, marking the time for reflective silence interspersed with poetry recitations. The small cloaked gathering draws closer to the fire and listens to verses from an eighth-century qasidah by Jarir ibn ‘Atiya that opens in the traditional way, with an image of a deserted campsite. Like the art flickering faintly on the rocks, it seems to speak from a distant past.

Source: This article appeared on pages 18-25 of the Compilation Issue 2008 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Harrigan, Peter. 2011. "Art rocks in Saudi Arabia". Past Horizons. Posted: November 23, 2011. Available online: