Thursday, March 31, 2011

Problems scrub 2012 World Indigenous Games

The first-ever World Indigenous Nations Games, set to take place in Winnipeg in 2012, have been cancelled.

The city was unanimously awarded the 10-day cultural and multi-sporting event by the WIN games board of directors in January 2008.

However, organizers have run into several challenges.

They could not secure federal funding and had trouble pinning down how many countries and athletes would participate, said Jeff Hnatiuk, chair of the WIN games steering committee and CEO of Sport Manitoba.

"As time got closer and closer, from a host planning perspective there was obviously a lot of logistical things that need to be looked at — facilities and venues and where to host athletes and house them and those kinds of things," he said.

It's a tough loss economically and culturally for the city and the province and for the athletes, Hnatiuk said.

"An event like this, especially when it's an aborginal event, was really something that Manitoba was looking forward to and I know our athletes were looking forward to," he said.

No notice of the cancellation has yet been posted on the WIN games website.

The games, sanctioned by the United Nations and the International Olympic Committee, were expected to attract more than 3,000 participants from indigenous regions worldwide and generate an estimated $50 million in economic activity.

Manitoba's Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Minister Eric Robinson, was in New York in April 2010, where he addressed the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

“The world’s 370 million indigenous peoples have historically been united by common suffering —colonization’s grim legacy of poverty, ill health and despair,” he said at the time.

“The first-ever World Indigenous Games in 2012 are an opportunity for us to unite instead around common hope for a better future through the unifying power of sport and culture.”


CBC News. 2011. "Problems scrub 2012 World Indigenous Games". CBC News. Posted: March 25, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Some key issues in African traditional education

ABSTRACT. Against a background discussion of the concept and general purpose of education, this article examines some key issues in African traditional education, namely its philosophical foundations, content and methods, strengths and weaknesses. The philosophical foundations of African traditional education are the five principles of preparationism, functionalism, communalism, perennialism and holisticism. We have highlighted the physical, social and spiritual content of African traditional education and the practical method of teaching and learning. The strengths and weaknesses of African traditional education are discussed and the attention of readers directed to possible areas for further study.

To enjoy the entire article visit the site and read. This article is a great introduction to education in Africa.


Adeyemi, Michael B. and Adeyinka, Augustus A. 2011. "Some key issues in African traditional education". McGill Journal of Education. Posted: Spring 2002. Available online:;col1

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Middle Eastern Visitation Rights: Is Visiting a Lost Art?

I sat on the formal couch and listened to the Arabic words swirling around me; lightening fast and coming from every direction. I looked at the people surrounding me and took note of their gestures and facial expressions. I tried to piece together the puzzle of what was being said, but I knew that was impossible. Instead I amused myself by simply making up a conversation in my head; I imagined what they were talking about in such a passionate fashion. I was directing a soap opera in my mind, slightly amused by my own imagination; then my dramatic world was interrupted as English words brought me back to reality. I looked around the room and everyone was looking at me in anticipation that I would answer. “Yes, I’d like more coffee.” I replied.

This was a scene I encountered daily in Jordan and Lebanon. The scene was always set in a ‘receiving room’, with little cups of Turkish coffee on the table. This process was the one thing that was for certain in the Middle East…visiting would occur daily.

I was prepared for desert, for camels, for drinking tea; but I wasn’t prepared for the hours of time I would spend sitting and visiting with people in the Middle East. Quite frankly, I don’t think most tourists would really experience this side of the Arabic culture which is an important process to maintaining family and community ties. However, because I was living with locals in both Jordan and Lebanon, I found myself thrust into the local pastime of talking.

The Visitation Process

While in Jordan each day Etidal, my host mom, would ‘accept’ a couple of visitors for coffee and visiting. The neighbors or a family member would stop by, and Etidal would run and make some coffee or tea and then we’d all sit on the couch and talk. Actually I would just listen to the swirl of Arabic around me unless of course the guest knew a little English and then I could be a part of the conversation. The only multi-tasking going on was drinking coffee at the same time; there was no distracting television, music, computer, or cell phone…just the simplicity of a few people sitting and talking.

In the evenings Etidal would put on her nice shoes, get cleaned up and ask me if I wanted to join her and the other family members. “Where are you going?” I’d ask.
“To see my sister/mother/brother/family friend.” I’d consider it for a bit and think if I were home there is no way I would go waste my time with this. However I wasn’t home, and I wasn’t sure if I could even say no. Since most of the family went with her, I felt somewhat obligated to accompany them as ‘part of’ the family. Normally I would close my laptop, put on my shoes and join them. After all, I knew it would be a cultural adventure even though I may not understand the whole conversation. It was in these numerous conversations I learned about the real Arabic culture, politics, religious views, dating, romance, and gossip of the country or city.

Visiting Etiquette

There was an etiquette to visiting. If you were visiting someone you weren’t as close to in friendship, then no doubt you’d be ushered into the ‘receiving room’ which was closer to the front door and much more formal. The good china would often be used to serve tea to guests who weren’t as well-known, and the whole atmosphere of visiting was a bit different; more formal. However if you were family or good friends, then you were able to be more casual. You were brought deeper into the home into the family room. Tea and coffee were still offered, but the everyday cups were used and it took on a really relaxed atmosphere.

In Lebanon the same etiquette to visiting occurred – there was a formal room to receive lesser known guests, and a family room to receive close friends and family. In addition, in both countries it was necessary to always have something more formal to serve as a treat with your coffee/tea. I remember one time when Mira, my host mom in Lebanon, was talking about how relieved she was that she had some chocolate cake on hand as she had an surprise visitor show up and had to have something nice to serve him. I asked her what would have been the consequences if she hadn’t had cake to serve him and she responded that it would have been “terrible”. I tried to probe more and basically got an answer that she would be considered cheap or not a good hostess if she wouldn’t have had the proper snacks to serve. Visiting is serious business and has serious social consequences.

Deciphering the codes

However, how does a foreigner who doesn’t speak Arabic really understand what is going on in such a situation? It was actually quite easy. First I understood the relationship of the visitor to my host family immediately as soon as the visitor was ushered into either the formal room or the family room. Then as soon as Mira walked in with a tray of good china and herbal tea it told me more about her relationship with the guest. If there was cake offered/served that told me even more. When the speaking began, I became very good at reading body language. I watched people intently and caught a few words here and there and could sometimes piece together conversations. Often my host family would stop and explain a bit to me – at least enough of the puzzle pieces to put together understanding of the conversation along with the body language. Sometimes though I would zone out and simply make up my own stories; imagining I knew what they were speaking about.

Is Visiting a Lost Art?

I came to really enjoy the visiting process. After a month, I started to long to have relationships like this, which were frequent, in-person, focused, and close. But quite frankly, this concept of visiting is a dying art in America. It still exists in some parts of the States, and with certain generations (like my parents), but it’s dying. It’s being killed by our constant need to multitask and have relationships with our electronic devices rather than sitting with real people. I can’t really remember a time when I had a surprise visitor show up at my apartment door. First of all, they definitely would have texted me first to let me know they were coming. There are few surprises in this digital world any longer. Our visiting takes place on skype or a chat room, or simply through a series of text messages with shortened words and cryptic abbreviations.

In this world of high tech communication it seems old fashioned and silly to sit and simply talk for an hour or two. I am so used to multi-tasking that I find sitting and talking to be a bit boring; at least I used to think it was boring. The Middle East changed my thoughts on the process. Granted, I don’t think I’m ready to fully convert my weekends to visiting cousins and friends completely, but something a bit more focused and regular would be nice.

Visiting in the Middle East seemed to build a strong family bond and further the idea that families must take care of each other. This is one of my favorite things about traveling – seeing how families operate and interact around the world. And the coffee and cake weren’t bad side benefits either!

Ott. Sherry. 2011. "Middle Eastern Visitation Rights: Is Visiting a Lost Art?". We Blog the World. Posted: March 25, 2011. Available online:

Monday, March 28, 2011

Human Prejudice Has Ancient Evolutionary Roots

The tendency to perceive others as "us versus them" isn't exclusively human but appears to be shared by our primate cousins, a new study led by Yale researchers has found.

In a series of ingenious experiments, Yale researchers led by psychologist Laurie Santos showed that monkeys treat individuals from outside their groups with the same suspicion and dislike as their human cousins tend to treat outsiders, suggesting that the roots of human intergroup conflict may be evolutionarily quite ancient.

The findings are reported in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"One of the more troubling aspects of human nature is that we evaluate people differently depending on whether they're a member of our 'ingroup' or 'outgroup,'" Santos said. "Pretty much every conflict in human history has involved people making distinctions on the basis of who is a member of their own race, religion, social class, and so on. The question we were interested in is: Where do these types of group distinctions come from?"

The answer, she adds, is that such biases have apparently been shaped by 25 million years of evolution and not just by human culture.

Santos and her lab studied the rhesus macaques living on an island off the coast of Puerto Rico. Like humans, monkeys in this population naturally form different social groups on the basis of family history. In order to assess whether monkeys made the same distinctions between ingroup and outgroup individuals, the researchers used a well-known tendency of animals to stare longer at novel or frightening things than at familiar or friendly things. They presented subject monkeys with pictures of monkeys who were either in their social group or members of a different group. They found that monkeys stared longer at pictures of other monkeys who were outside their group, suggesting that monkeys spontaneously detect who is a stranger and who is a group member.

"What made this result even more remarkable" noted Neha Mahajan, a Yale graduate student who headed up this project, "is that monkeys in this population move around from group to group, so some of the monkeys who were 'outgroup' were previously 'ingroup.' And yet, the result holds just as strongly for monkeys who have transferred groups only weeks earlier, suggesting that these monkeys are sensitive to who is currently to be thought of as an insider or an outsider. In other words, although monkeys divide the world into 'us' versus 'them,' they do so in a way that is flexible and is updated in real time."

Santos and colleagues then asked whether monkeys evaluated ingroup and outgroup members differently -- did they associate these individuals automatically with "good" and "bad" respectively? To study this, they developed a monkey version of a test of implicit attitudes known as the IAT. In humans, this test measures the extent to which people show implicit biases against members of other groups. To look at the same capacity in monkeys, the researchers showed monkeys a sequence of photos in which photos of ingroup or outgroup monkey faces were paired with photos of either good things, such as fruits, or bad things, such as spiders.

The researchers then recorded the time monkeys spent looking at both kinds of sequences. The monkeys spent little time looking at sequences that included ingroup faces paired with good stuff like fruits or outgroup faces paired with bad stuff like spiders, suggesting that the monkeys treated these two kinds of stimuli as being similar. On the other hand, the monkeys stared longer at sequences in which outgroup individuals were paired with positive objects like fruit suggesting that this association was unnatural to the monkeys. Like humans, monkeys tend to spontaneously view ingroup members positively and outgroup members negatively.

The Yale team's results suggest that the distinctions humans make between "us" and "them" -- and therefore the roots of human prejudice -- may date back at least 25 million years, when humans and rhesus macaques shared a common ancestor.

"Social psychologists introduced the world to the idea that the immediate situation is hugely powerful in determining behavior, even intergroup feelings," said Mahzarin Banaji, of the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and a co-author of the paper. "Evolutionary theorists have made us aware of our ancestral past. In this work, we weave the two together to show the importance of both of these influences at work."

"The bad news is that the tendency to dislike outgroup members appears to be evolutionarily quite old, and therefore may be less simple to eliminate than we'd like to think," Santos said. "The good news, though, is that even monkeys seem to be flexible about who counts as a group member. If we humans can find ways to harness this evolved flexibility, it might allow us to become an even more tolerant species."

Other Yale authors of the paper are Margaret A. Martinez and Natashya Gutierrez. Researchers from Bar-Ilan University and Harvard also contributed to the study.

The work was funded the National Center for Research Resources, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Science Daily. 2011. "Human Prejudice Has Ancient Evolutionary Roots". Science Daily. Posted: March 18, 2011. Available online:

Journal Reference:

Neha Mahajan, Margaret A. Martinez, Natashya L. Gutierrez, Gil Diesendruck, Mahzarin R. Banaji, Laurie R. Santos. The evolution of intergroup bias: Perceptions and attitudes in rhesus macaques.. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2011; 100 (3): 387 DOI: 10.1037/a0022459

Sunday, March 27, 2011

New Identity for Arctic Explorer Emerges 140 Years Later

In 1845, two ill-fated British ships headed for the Canadian Arctic in the hope of discovering the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. More than two decades later, the nearly complete skeleton of one of the explorers was recovered from a shallow, stone-covered grave on King William Island in the Canadian Arctic.

The remains were then identified as those of Henry Le Vesconte, a lieutenant aboard one of the ships, the HMS Erebus. However, a modern analysis points to another identity for the man.

Whoever he was, this man appears to have died early and so escaped the worst.

"That the body was accorded formal burial suggests that the death occurred before the final throes of the expedition when the dead seem to have been left unburied and, in some cases, cannibalized," write lead researcher Simon Mays of English Heritage, an organization that advises the government on historic issues, and colleagues in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The grave, then believed to be Le Vesconte's, was first discovered by native Inuits who later led an American adventurer to it. The body was returned to England, analyzed and buried beneath the Franklin Memorial in Greenwich. (Sir John Franklin led the expedition.) In 2009, renovations to the monument required that the body be exhumed, creating the opportunity to apply modern forensic techniques.

This wasn't the first time. In the 1980s, a team led by Canadian researcher Owen Beattie studied the remains of three men who also died early during that expedition and were buried in the permafrost on Beechey Island. Lead levels in these men's tissues were high, as they were among the scattered remains found there, leading to speculation that lead poisoning, possibly from poorly canned foods, had contributed to their deaths.

Mays and colleagues re-examined the bones thought to belong to Le Vesconte to estimate the man's age, ancestry and body shape. They concluded he was likely 30 to 40 years old, European and rather tall and slender. A gold filling in a tooth indicated a certain social status. Such filings are rare in 19th-century English burial grounds, except high-status church burial vaults, the researchers write in an online version of the journal article published on Feb. 27.

Scurvy — a disease caused by vitamin C deficiency — and tuberculosis have both been implicated in the disaster; however, this man's body contained no evidence of either. A chemical analysis of his tooth enamel offered clues about where in Britain he grew up, eliminating most of southwestern England as his residence. They knew that Le Vesconte had grown up in Devon, a southwestern county, making this identification unlikely.

Based on the clothing on the body and the gold filling, the researchers assumed the man was one of 23 officers on the trip. (Le Vesconte was eliminated from the total pool of 24.)

Alan Ogden, of the University of Bradford, created a facial reconstruction using a cast of the skull. They then compared the facial reconstruction with daguerreotypes — essentially old photos — taken for some, but not all, of the officers. They found a likely match in Harry Goodsir, an assistant surgeon and naturalist, who had a bulky, prominent lower lip and a deep groove beneath it that appeared to match the skull's unusual dental conformation. Raised in Scotland, a location that fit with the results of the chemical analysis, he was described by a shipmate as "long and straight," and would have been between 26 and 29 years old at the time of his death, an estimate that is younger than the overall impression given by the skeleton, but reasonable, according to the researchers.

They are, however, cautious.

"It is important to emphasize that facial reconstruction can eliminate possible candidates, but it cannot prove identity: It can only indicate a high probability of a match," the researchers write, pointing out that 10 officers did not have their pictures taken.

All 129 explorers, including Sir Franklin, perished on the expedition and personal identification has been possible for only a few, including Goodsir.

Parry, Wynne. 2011. "New Identity for Arctic Explorer Emerges 140 Years Later". Live Science. Posted: March 16, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Daughters are not for killing

I MET A YOUNG WOMAN a few years ago. She had come to New Delhi and had found a job as an assistant in a small shop. She was also in love and her conservative family had come around to accepting her adult choice of a life partner. They were coming to Delhi the following month to formalize her wedding. She was looking forward to it, since single lodgings in the city tended to be shabby, solitary and dreary. “Please do come for my engagement ceremony,” she entreated, as her eyes lit up with excitement.

I assured her of my participation and left my phone number with her so that she could inform me about the date and the location. A couple of months went by but there was no phone call from her. Not seeing her on a subsequent visit to the shop I enquired about her. Her employer told me guardedly that she no longer worked there. On my insistent questioning, the harrowing details were divulged. A week before her supposed engagement, her family had marched into the city. Her mother and maternal uncles had forcibly dragged her back to the village with them. She had made a frantic phone call to her employer who offered her support. The phone call was cut short. When the employer tried to contact her again, she was told that the girl was returning to her village and would not come in to work anymore. The phone connection was also abruptly terminated. Meanwhile her beau visited the employer. He confided that he had been knocked off his bike on a couple of occasions and had subsequently received phone calls telling him these were warnings. His family was also threatened. There was no news of the ebullient girl who had wanted to chart her own destiny.

Here was a situation where newspaper statistics had leapt off the page to reveal a grim three dimensional reality. There was no way of contacting the girl and I raged helplessly against a lawless country in which young women could be abducted by their own kinsfolk and treated so shabbily. This was by no means a solitary incident. Something is rotten in the fabric of our country. Something continues to dog and intimidate and brutalise young women. It injures men too in the attempt to settle scores relentlessly and lethally, notching points on behalf of insularity and barbarism and gratuitous gender cruelty. In 2000 the newspapers carried reports that Bibi Jagir Kaur, a Shiromani Akhali Dal councillor in Punjab, had allegedly abducted her daughter Harpreet, subjected her to an abortion, given her an overdose of pills and consigned her to the flames. This was because the young woman in question had married in secret while studying at a medical college. To date no one has been punished and witnesses in the face of muscle and money power have now turned hostile. What exactly was the crime these two young women had committed? What was the basis of their family’s behaviour? How could one even hope to understand this vicious and vitiating practice?

On paper we won our independence in 1947. Our constitution extends the fundamental right to self-expression even to women. Yet, everywhere around us despite the cries of a liberal plural space what we see is the buttressing and endorsement of hegemonic feudal stereotypes. Our republic awoke to Rajendra Krishan’s lyric ( sung by Lata to the strident assertion by Bina Rai in Anarkali ) “Yeh zindagi usi ki hai, Jo kisi ka ho gaya, Pyar hi mein kho gaya” in 1953. Lata Mangeshkar defiantly crooned Shakeel Badayuni’s lyric “Jab pyar kiya tho darna kya, Pyar kiya Koi chori nahi ki jhuk jhuk aahein bharna kya” in Mughal-e-Azam in 1960 for the ethereal Madhubala. Both actors were essaying the life of Anarkali, the slave girl, who received Prince Jehangir’s attentions. The battle lines were very firmly drawn at the very outset of this ill-fated historical romance. Benevolent Akbar, humanitarian and visionary and yet irrevocably the quintessential patriarch ordered that the hapless kaneez be entombed alive.

With apologies to Amartya Sen, there is nothing talkative about most Indian men as far as their engagement with women goes. If talk can initiate dialogue and thereby create a dialogic space, such a history of gender relations has yet to be unearthed. Dasaratha listened very little to any of his three wives. He planned his son’s coronation in accordance with the laws of primogeniture. Rama, the product of a levirate marriage outdid his father when he actively humiliated his wife. He watched her undergo a trial by fire and banished her to the forest without flinching in the face of scurrilous gossip despite supernatural certification of her purity. Gautam Buddha hastened to attain Nirvana but a discussion of this life-altering choice with his wife was never part of his itinerary. In fact, there are few narratives in which the gods, demigods or humans are shown as treating women fairly or as equals. Anarkali’s tale, the trauma and tragedy notwithstanding, spun out its course at the extreme end of the sixteenth century. Yet, well into the twentieth century in socialist, democratic India, with a poor track record on gender sensitivity and gender equality both in myth and in history, old mindsets continue to dominate gender politics, and subject women who dare to love to indignity, ignominy and death. The unofficial version of the Anarkali story softens our anger at the king when we hear that he gave orders to rescue her from her untimely death and transported her in secret to the outskirts of his empire. Our modern day dispensers of the death penalty do not give themselves any room or time for reflecting upon their decisions. The possibility of self-doubt does not arise and reprisals are swift and bloody.

Oddly, despite a Dowry Prohibition Law enacted in 1961, from the 70s North India was gripped by an epidemic of bride burning which added to the number of dowry related killings all over the country. This public enactment became so routine that in 1995 a youth congress leader allegedly shot dead his live-in partner Naina Sahni and disposed of her hacked remains in a restaurant’s tandoor. Possibly the public outcry over this murder most foul resulted in a go-slow on the burning of brides. Other forms of dowry deaths and harassment of course, continued. The singer from Ek Mahal Ho Sapnon Ka (1975) who fondly declared, “Dil Mey Kisi Ke Pyar Ka Jalta Hua Diya, Duniyaan Ki Aandhiyon Se Bhala Ye Bhujega Kya” had little or no idea of the blitzkrieg that the real world could unleash.

Some form of punishment, torture or cruelty has always dogged the lives of women in our country. Women are pushed off trains , murdered in their apartments and have acid flung in their faces by rebuffed, would-be- suitors and spurned lovers. The bodies of women have always been marked as sites for acts of violence. There has never been any let up on this. The process of extermination begins in utero with the female foetus. Those who survive can be subjected to any of the following : infanticide, paedophilia, molestation, harassment and rape. This could be followed up with domestic violence and marital abuse, withholding of property rights, denial of access to money, mobility, work and so on. A recent addition to this gruesome list of horrors which can be inflicted upon women is the spate of khap killings in Haryana, Punjab, Rajasthan and Bihar where young women who have married outside the community are made to let down their guard and then brutally silenced. Womens’ lives are well represented by that popular board game called Snakes and Ladders. Only in their case, there are venomous snakes at every turn and the ladders often turn into straws that can barely be clutched.

In the past few months the newspapers have repeatedly reported the killings of young women and often enough, the killing or harassment of their legally wedded husbands. In many cases, the girl’s side of the family seems to be an active orchestrator and implementer of the act of murder. Mothers and grandmothers are flanked by a bloody personal army that goes all out to butcher daughters (who in most cases have chosen suitable men from similar economic backgrounds or interests, not princely scions). In some cases it is death to both (conspirators against caste and gotra) the young woman and the man she has married. This in parts of North –West India is being validated by the Khap panchayats which are finally unelected bodies reinforcing hideous codes and demanding compliance to stereotypes, that are completely out of sync with the times. This is a travesty of the Panchayat Raj that Gandhiji dreamt would ensure ethical, judicial and social welfare to every little corner of India. The possibility that elders from varied communities could authorise the barbaric and heinous killing of daughters and their young men could have never crossed the mind of this practitioner of ahimsa. Ironically, this is the violent terror that stalks the hinterland currently.

If one were to take recourse to older stories, disowning daughter Desdemona after she married secretly as Brabantio did in Othello and the cold estrangement lived out by Barrett Senior when Elizabeth Barrett eloped with Robert Browning in the 19th century seem in retrospect to be extremely civilized ways of communicating a sense of betrayal and loss of control, emotions that understandably both men experienced. Brabantio died of a broken heart and Barrett Senior, I would like to believe, died of a frozen one. The rancour and bitterness which resulted in th outright rejection of their daughters by both men is a preferred means of communication in a flawed world. At its worst no bridges connected the generations and outraged parental sensibility was never assuaged. The daughters did leave for other lands with their husbands.

In stark contrast we have elders from different communities besmeared with the blood of their young. We also have an elected MP empathising with the sentiments of the Khap elders. Their perspective forms the axle around which he will steer the vehicle of governance. By doing so he has consigned to the garbage heap not only his responsibilities as MP but also the aspirations of another set of elders, Gandhiji and Rajagopalachariji who cemented inter-community ties and strengthened bonds through marriage between their wards.

How is it that daughters are allowed an education, freedom to travel to the city, pursue careers of their choice and live alone but cannot choose the men they would like to marry? Each one of these available options is a breaker of caste and gender prohibitions. All inroads made by the brave new world are stonewalled the moment women’s sexual freedom comes in for scrutiny. The MP’s choice reveals allegiance to an older world view, one in which women were sexually monitored and guarded and viewed as moveable assets in a world owned and run by men. In such a world, tokenism over a notional freedom assumes greater significance than the individual’s right to live or to love. Small matter if countless young people are hacked to death because they loved incorrectly. As long as the right to fly the national flag in individual backyards is endorsed, apparently all is well with the world.

This unfortunately is the cold truth that every young adult woman lives with. Tradition is not interpreted as being on her side although both swayamvara (choosing a groom oneself) and gandharvavivah (marriage by mutual consent) formed part of older cultural practice. Newly-written laws will take time to impact the collective’s consciousness, especially when the upholders of laws themselves are rather reticent about implementation. Such phenomena, wherein a separate set of codes come into play, circumscribing women’s sexual lives is part of cultures around the world. A report in the July issue of Time magazine online drew attention to the fact that in Afghanistan, 103 women had attempted to burn themselves between March 2009 and March 2010 as a way of escaping from their sorrows. Sakineh from Iran was recently rescued from being stoned to death for adultery because of the pressure generated by Awaaz through the international community. Patriarchal societies usually function through double standards and continue to exercise the power of punitive action against women, declaring them guilty and never to be proved innocent. Women cannot desire and do not have any sexual freedom. This conviction is relentlessly hammered into women along with a sense of their innate unworthiness.

I ran into the young woman in my story, a short while ago. Escaping from rigorous confinement in her natal home, she hopped on to several buses to reach a destination far away from her home. From a pay phone she established contact with her young man, and married her shining knight without any armour. They worked and lived on the run in various small towns for a while before shifting into the anonymity of New Delhi. The silence on the part of her family is ominous and she is rightly fearful that news of her little world of happiness may somehow come to the notice of her family. So here are two young adults, living out their lives, small ordinary citizens of this country, who have engineered all by themselves a precious, precarious peace. Their journey has been fraught with all manner of dangers and obstacles and continues to be so. This is too harsh a sentence and an extraordinarily difficult price to pay for love.


Raman, Ratna. 2011. "Daughters are not for killing". Ultra Violet. Posted: March 22, 2011. Available online:

Friday, March 25, 2011

New research demonstrates language learners' creativity

New research published in Language, the journal of the Linguistic Society of America (LSA) firmly establishes that language learning goes well beyond simple imitation, and in fact that language learners are quite creative and remarkably smart. Not only are learners able to generalize grammatical restrictions to new words in a category – in this case, made-up adjectives – but they also do not learn these restrictions in situations where they can be attributed to some irrelevant factor.

This point is driven home in an article, "Learning what not to say: The role of statistical preemption and categorization in a-adjective production," to be published in the March 2011 issue of Language. A preprint version of the article is available at When authors Jeremy Boyd of the University of Illinois and Adele Goldberg of Princeton University asked adult speakers to produce sentences containing made-up adjectives like ablim, they found that people avoided using ablim before the noun it modified, unconsciously treating it like real adjectives that sound similar—e.g., afraid, which also cannot be used before the noun it modifies (i.e., the afraid cat is a less preferred formulation than the cat that's afraid). This result indicates that speakers readily generalize a restriction against this use—referred to as "prenominal"—to adjectives that they've never heard before.

But how is the restriction learned in the first place? Drs. Boyd and Goldberg show that witnessing ablim used after nouns (i.e., postnominally, as in the hamster that's ablim) makes participants even more likely to avoid its use before nouns in their own utterances. While this may sound like learners are simply imitating the adjective uses they see in the language to which they are exposed, the authors go on to show that learning is savvy, and only occurs under certain conditions.

For example, in an analogous learning situation, when children see an adult with his right hand in a cast play a video game using just his left, they do not assume that there is a restriction on how the game can be played—i.e., that one can only use one's left hand. They immediately infer that the adult would use his right hand (or both hands) if he could, but that the cast is preventing him from doing so. In similar fashion, when a new group of participants witnessed ablim used postnominally, but this time in a context in which there was a reason for its postnominal use that had nothing to do with ablim itself, participants did not learn a restriction against ablim's prenominal use. This indicates that learners carefully evaluate the input they receive, and that learning only occurs when the input is deemed informative.

This research demonstrates that speakers do not learn purely by imitating others, but bring sophisticated and creative resources to bear on the process. This is especially true when it comes to language, where the fact that children routinely produce sentences to which they have never been exposed indicates that they are not simply imitating what they hear.

EurekAlert. 2011. "New research demonstrates language learners' creativity". EurekAlert. Posted: March 15, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Anthropologists link human uniqueness to hunter-gatherer group structure

One of the most complex human mysteries involves how and why we became an outlier species in terms of biological success.

Research findings published in the March 11 edition of the journal Science by an international team of noted anthropologists, including several from Arizona State University, who study hunter-gatherer societies, are informing the issue by suggesting that human ancestral social structure may be the root of cumulative culture and cooperation and, ultimately, human uniqueness.

Because humans lived as hunter-gatherers for 95 percent of their species' history, current foraging societies provide the best window for viewing human social evolution, according to the authors. Given that, the researchers focused on co-residence patterns among more than 5,000 individuals from 32 present-day foraging societies around the globe, including the Gunwinggu, Labrador Inuit, Mbuti, Apache, Aka, Ache, Agta and Vedda. Their findings identify human hunter-gatherer group structure as unique among primates.

Professor Kim Hill of ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, is the lead author, along with Robert Walker of the University of Missouri. The collaborative effort involved ASU professors James Eder and Ana Magdalena Hurtado; ASU anthropology graduate student Miran Božičević; and anthropologists from SIL International, Dallas; Southern Methodist University, Dallas; Hawassa University, Ethiopia; Washington State University; Durham University, UK; University of Utah; and Stanford University.

Their finding showed that across all groups, adult brothers and sisters frequently live together, making it common for male in-laws to co-reside. They also found that it was equally common for males or females to move from or remain with family units. This is in contrast to other primate species, where either males or females move to another group at puberty.

A major point in the study is that foraging bands contain several individuals completely unconnected by kinship or marriage ties, yet include males with a vested interest in the offspring of daughters, sisters and wives. This organization mitigates the group hostility frequently seen in other apes and also promotes interaction among residential groups, thereby leading to the development of a large social network.

"The increase in human network size over other primates may explain why humans evolved an emphasis on social learning that results in cultural transmission," said Hill. "Likewise, the unique composition of human ancestral groups promotes cooperation among large groups of non-kin, something extremely rare in nature."

The group's findings appear in the paper "Co-Residence Patterns in Hunter-Gatherer Societies Show Unique Human Social Structure." It is the first published analyses of adult co-residence patterns in hunter-gatherer societies based on census data rather than post-marital residence typologies, Hill noted.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Anthropologists link human uniqueness to hunter-gatherer group structure". EurekAlert. Posted: March 10, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Pictures: Prehistoric American Skull Found in Sea Cave?

Divers carefully place a marker near a human skull found upside down in a large underwater cave near the Caribbean Sea on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula in 2007.

Based on the skull's location, the team believes the remains ended up there about 10,000 years ago—just before the then dry cave was inundated as sea level began rising. If confirmed, that age would make the skull one of the oldest known remains of an early American, or Paleo-Indian.

Though the skull was found alongside bones of a mastodon and other prehistoric animals in 2007, news of the find was released only late last month, to allow time to properly document the site, train the divers in archaeological practices, and coordinate with authorities.

The divers had previously seen Ice Age animal remains in surrounding caves, but the human skull was a surprise. "That's one of the beauties of exploration—you never know what you're going to find," diver Alberto Nava said.

Now comes the tricky part. "We want to figure out the story of Hoyo Negro and how the human and animal remains got there," said Nave, of the Projecto Espeleológico de Tulum (PET) organization and Global Underwater Explorers (GUE).

Read Skull in Underwater Cave May Be Earliest Trace of First Americans, the original article, by Fabio Esteban Amador regarding this skull as it was published February 18, 2011.

Than, Ker. 2011. "Pictures: Prehistoric American Skull Found in Sea Cave?". National Geographic Pictures. Posted: March 9, 2011. Available online:

Photo Credit: Daniel Riordan-Araujo

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Scots team to digitally scan ancient Indian landmark

One of India's most historic landmarks is to be digitally recorded by a group of Scottish experts in an effort to preserve its every detail.

The team, from Glasgow School of Art and Historic Scotland, will scan the Rani Ki Vav Stepwell in Gujarat.

The site, which dates back to 1050, is made up of decorated stepped terraces descending into the ground.

The project is part of a global programme by the design team to record sites of historical significance.

Among the sites already scanned are New Lanark's 18th Century mills, Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and Neolithic sites in Orkney.

The team said they were aiming to use laser technology to create exact digital models of the site that will help with conserving and maintaining it.

'Breathtaking site'

Rani Ki Vav has only been fully excavated in the past 50 years and is currently on the Unesco tentative list to be considered for World Heritage Site status.

Scotland's Minister for Culture and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop said: "This is a great collaboration with the Scottish and Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) on behalf of the Indian government and I am delighted that Scotland is able to provide the expertise to ensure this nationally important and breathtaking site is captured in its entirety and conserved for future generations.

"The Scottish 10 is a project which is establishing Scotland as world leader in the use of digital documentation technology, innovation and is allowing us the chance to share our knowledge in heritage conservation and preservation while capturing some the world's most important heritage sites."

Doug Pritchard, of the Digital Design Studio at The Glasgow School of Art, said: "The Queen's Step Well clearly illustrates the sophistication and magnificence of Indian culture and I hope that by working with the Archaeological Survey of India we will be able to assist in conserving this structure for future generations.

"The team were amazed by the beauty and elegance of the site which, with its highly detailed sculptures and various levels, will present a real challenge to our technology and technical abilities."

The other Scottish World Heritage Sites to be scanned as part of the project are the Antonine Wall, The Old and New Towns of Edinburgh and St Kilda.

The images created will be shared with the American not-for-profit organisation CyArk, founded by Ben Kacyra, inventor of the laser scanner. It is collecting the data from 500 world heritage landmarks to hold in a global archive.

BBC News. 2011. "Scots team to digitally scan ancient Indian landmark". BBC News. Posted: March 6, 2011. Available online:

Monday, March 21, 2011

California islands give up evidence of early seafaring

Oregon, Smithsonian-led team uncovers numerous artifacts at late Pleistocene sites on the Channel Islands

Evidence for a diversified sea-based economy among North American inhabitants dating from 12,200 to 11,400 years ago is emerging from three sites on California's Channel Islands.

Reporting in the March 4 issue of Science, a 15-member team led by University of Oregon and Smithsonian Institution scholars describes the discovery of scores of stemmed projectile points and crescents dating to that time period. The artifacts are associated with the remains of shellfish, seals, geese, cormorants and fish.

Funded primarily by grants from the National Science Foundation, the team also found thousands of artifacts made from chert, a flint-like rock used to make projectile points and other stone tools.

Some of the intact projectiles are so delicate that their only practical use would have been for hunting on the water, said Jon Erlandson, professor of anthropology and director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History at the University of Oregon. He has been conducting research on the islands for more than 30 years.

"This is among the earliest evidence of seafaring and maritime adaptations in the Americas, and another extension of the diversity of Paleoindian economies," Erlandson said. "The points we are finding are extraordinary, the workmanship amazing. They are ultra thin, serrated and have incredible barbs on them. It's a very sophisticated chipped-stone technology." He also noted that the stemmed points are much different than the iconic fluted points left throughout North America by Clovis and Folsom peoples who hunted big game on land.

The artifacts were recovered from three sites that date to the end of the Pleistocene epoch on Santa Rosa and San Miguel islands, which in those days were connected as one island off the California coast. Sea levels then were 50 to 60 meters (about 160-200 feet) below modern levels. Rising seas have since flooded the shorelines and coastal lowlands where early populations would have spent most of their time.

Erlandson and his colleagues have focused their search on upland features such as springs, caves, and chert outcrops that would have drawn early maritime peoples into the interior. Rising seas also may have submerged evidence of even older human habitation of the islands.

The newly released study focuses on the artifacts and animal remains recovered, but the implications for understanding the peopling of the Americas may run deeper.

The technologies involved suggest that these early islanders were not members of the land-based Clovis culture, Erlandson said. No fluted points have been found on the islands. Instead, the points and crescents are similar to artifacts found in the Great Basin and Columbia Plateau areas, including pre-Clovis levels at Paisley Caves in eastern Oregon that are being studied by another UO archaeologist, Dennis Jenkins.

Last year, Charlotte Beck and Tom Jones, archaeologists at New York's Hamilton College who study sites in the Great Basin, argued that stemmed and Clovis point technologies were separate, with the stemmed points originating from Pacific Coast populations and not, as conventional wisdom holds, from the Clovis people who moved westward from the Great Plains. Erlandson and colleagues noted that the Channel Island points are also broadly similar to stemmed points found early sites around the Pacific Rim, from Japan to South America.

Six years ago, Erlandson proposed that Late Pleistocene sea-going people may have followed a "kelp highway" stretching from Japan to Kamchatka, along the south coast of Beringia and Alaska, then southward down the Northwest Coast to California. Kelp forests are rich in seals, sea otters, fish, seabirds, and shellfish such as abalones and sea urchins.

"The technology and seafaring implications of what we've found on the Channel Islands are magnificent," said study co-author Torben C. Rick, curator of North American Archaeology at the Smithsonian Institution. "Some of the paleo-ecological and subsistence implications are also very important. These sites indicate very early and distinct coastal and island subsistence strategies, including harvest of red abalones and other shellfish and fish dependent on kelp forests, but also the exploitation of larger pinnipeds and waterfowl, including an extinct flightless duck.

"This combination of unique hunting technologies found with marine mammal and migratory waterfowl bones provides a very different picture of the Channel Islands than what we know today, and indicates very early and diverse maritime life ways and foraging practices," Rick said. "What is so interesting is that not only do the data we have document some of the earliest marine mammal and bird exploitation in North America, but they show that very early on New World coastal peoples were hunting such animals and birds with sophisticated technologies that appear to have been refined for life in coastal and aquatic habitats."

The stemmed points found on the Channel Islands range from tiny to large, probably indicating that they were used for hunting a variety of animals.

"We think the crescents were used as transverse projectile points, probably for hunting birds. Their broad stone tips, when attached to a dart shaft provided a stone age shotgun-approach to hunting birds in flight," Erlandson said. "These are very distinctive artifacts, hundreds of which have been found on the Channel Islands over the years, but rarely in a stratified context, he added. Often considered to be between 8,000 and 10,000 years old in California, "we now have crescents between 11,000 and 12,000 years old, some of them associated with thousands of bird bones."

The next challenge, Erlandson and Rick noted, is to find even older archaeological sites on the Channel Islands, which might prove that a coastal migration contributed to the initial peopling of the Americas, now thought to have occurred two to three millennia earlier.

EurekAlert. 2011. "California islands give up evidence of early seafaring". EurekAlert. Posted: March 3, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Early Maya Building Rituals

Monday, Feb. 28

After four and a half field seasons, I have finally reached bedrock in the deep trench in the East Court! We managed to take the front 2-by-2-meter unit farther down after shoring up some very nasty loose fill from Preclassic days (600 to 300 B.C.). The pit ultimately reached 6.5 meters, and we found several construction episodes that date to the earliest occupation of the site.

Drawing the last part of the pit wall profiles was a bit of a challenge. The excavation was so deep and dark that I needed a lantern to be able to see the construction layers. Most of the construction fills are dark brown or gray, which does not help.

The trench excavation may appear relatively dull to the uninitiated, especially when compared with the dazzling finds in the Central Plaza. This season, we have found mostly clay floors. But it is really exciting to us, because it reveals the earliest construction layers of the site, dating to about 3,000 years ago. And about 4.3 meters down we made a very interesting discovery: evidence of how the earliest inhabitants at Ceibal built their already fairly large buildings.

Starting at that depth we encountered curious, round, ball-like mounds made of different colored clays — black, brown, tan, light buff — that we could clearly distinguish and that formed a fill 80 centimeters thick. They were basketloads of different clays that people had dumped there to build this fill. We had suspected that people used this method to build even the earliest structures, but we had not actually been able to see these basketloads of fill, because most of the fill material is so homogeneous that we cannot distinguish individual loads. This fill is very similar to the famous basketload fills of Monks Mound at Cahokia, Ill. These basketloads of clays that came from different sources show us that this construction was a communal effort to erect a substantial platform very early in the occupation of the site.

In the now-expanded old Harvard pit, we found a very nice stucco floor associated with the same Preclassic structure where we had found two burials. This warranted calling Takeshi to take photos — he takes fantastic photographs that are the envy of our colleagues in Mayaland. If he thinks I’m particular about excavation records, you should see him taking pictures! And, unlike me, he is not afraid of heights. Taking good excavation pictures is very important, and sometimes we have to go to great lengths to get them.

This is the fourth major construction that we have found in this area, and the stucco floor, which dates to the middle part of the Preclassic, between 600 and 300 B.C., was the original floor that went with this building. The floor shows many stains with lots of charcoal, and people left several partial ceramic vessels.

When starting a new building phase, like laying a new floor, the Maya often celebrated what we call a termination ritual. In these rituals they lighted fires and deposited broken vessels to mark the ending of a particular phase in the life of the building and to celebrate the new beginning. In this case it seems that the ritual took place before they laid down the next floor above this one. This subsequent floor was built while the building was still in use. This is some of the earliest evidence that we have for this type of ritual, and again shows that Ceibal was a very important place during the Preclassic.

Triadan, Daniela. 2011. "Early Maya Building Rituals". New York Times. Posted: March 3, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, March 19, 2011

2 languages in peaceful coexistence

Physicists and mathematicians from the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain are putting paid to the theory that two languages cannot co-exist in one society.

Analysing the pattern of populations speaking Castilian, the most common language spoken in Spain, and Galician, a language spoken in Galicia, the North West autonomous community of Spain, the researchers have used mathematical models to show that levels of bilingualism in a stable population can lead to the steady co-existence of two languages.

The research, published today, Thursday 3 March 2011, in New Journal of Physics (co-owned by the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society), refutes earlier research which sought to show how one of two languages would inevitably die out.

Older models only took the number of each language's speakers and the relative status of each language into consideration, concluding that eventually the most dominant language would kill off the weaker; the decline of Welsh is often cited as an example of this.

Still with an interest in languages' relative status, the researchers used historical data to show how you can predict the continued existence of a language when you also incorporate a mathematical representation of the languages' similarity to one another, and the number of bilingual speakers, into the calculation.

If a significant fraction of the population is bilingual in two relatively similar languages, there appears to be no reason to believe that the more dominant language will inevitably kill off the weaker.

Researcher Jorge Mira Pérez said, "If the statuses of both languages were well balanced, a similarity of around 40% might be enough for the two languages to coexist. If they were not balanced, a higher degree of similarity (above 75%, depending on the values of status) would be necessary for the weaker tongue to persist."

The researchers suggest their work could be used to inform political decisions concerning the protection of endangered languages, "Allowing for varying statuses and interlinguistic similarity could suggest further and more precise political guidelines for protecting endangered tongues, as well as illuminating the evolution of the language entities themselves."

Following the introduction of video abstracts to the New Journal of Physics, you will be able to see a film about the research here,

The researchers' paper can be downloaded for free from Thursday 3 March 2011 here:


EurekAlert. 2011. "2 languages in peaceful coexistence". EurekAlert. Posted: March 2, 2011. Available online:

Friday, March 18, 2011

Libya's 'extraordinary' archaeology under threat

As the Gadaffi regime continues to massacre citizens, its repression also puts a rich cultural heritage at risk.

Eleven Italian researchers who were evacuated from Libya in a C-130 Hercules military aircraft on Saturday are thought to have been among the last foreign archaeologists in the country. With Libya's people being attacked by forces loyal to the regime of leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, the scientists were thankful to escape to an air-force base south of Rome.

The team of seven men and four women were from the Italian–Libyan Archaeological Mission in the Acacus and Messak, an expedition to research prehistoric archaeology and rock-art. They took temporary refuge in an oilfield camp in the open desert. Stress levels were high, explains Savino di Lernia, head of the team: "We were hundreds of kilometres from an airport, with the entire country to be crossed to reach it," he says. In a Twin Otter light aircraft, they had to make their way at short notice to Sebha airport in central Libya to rendezvous with the evacuation plane.

The situation has been tense since al-Gaddafi's forces launched a brutal repression of a popular uprising, leaving thousands of civilians dead and causing more than 100,000 people to flee the country, provoking a humanitarian crisis along its borders. The regime's crackdown and the resulting conflict — as well as subsequent chaos and risk of looting — also threatens ancient archaeological sites, as have recent uprisings in nearby countries.

Libya has an extraordinary archaeological heritage, says Paul Bennett, head of mission at the Society for Libyan Studies in London, who has spent much of the past 30 years working in Libya. He explains that the country has been a "melting pot" of cultures throughout history, and has sites of Punic and Roman remains to the west, Greek and Egyptian to the east and Berber to the south. There are also important prehistoric sites, including some of the world's earliest rock and cave art, and underwater archaeological sites along the Mediterranean coast.

The Gaddafi regime has been blocking the Internet and telephone systems in the country since the uprising, which has made it very difficult to get information on the current status of archaeological sites, say researchers. However, di Lernia managed to speak with Salah Agab, chairman of the Libyan Department of Antiquities, and other department staff on 28 February, and says their understanding is that the situation is currently under control and that all museums and sites are safe. Nature was unable to reach Agab directly.

Libya is home to five World Heritage sites, designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO): the ancient Greek archaeological sites of Cyrene; the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna; the Phoenician port of Sabratha; the rock-art sites of the Acacus Mountains in the Sahara Desert; and the old town of Ghadamès, an oasis city that has been home to Romans, Berbers and the Byzantine civilization. Security is good in these areas, says di Lernia, but may be "problematic" elsewhere.

The capital city, Tripoli, remains tightly controlled by Gaddafi's heavily-armed forces, who this week launched counterattacks against nearby cities controlled by protestors. Despite the security presence, important sites in this northwestern region, such as Sabratha, are "really endangered", says di Lernia.

Tripoli itself is home to two major museums, both reportedly safe at present. The national Jamahiriya Museum holds important prehistoric collections, including the oldest known African mummy, from Uan Muhuggiag in the Libyan Sahara. The museum is also housed in the ancient Red Castle of Asaraya al-Hamra, itself a heritage site. The Museum of Libya, meanwhile, contains noteworthy Greek and Roman collections.

Work at a standstill

After Libya gained its independence from Italy in 1951, its rulers neglected archaeological research and sites, largely because they associated the field with the colonial period. Over the past decade, however, archaeology has bloomed in Libya, says Bennett, with more international missions allowed into the country.

That has partly been a result of Libya's transition from an international pariah, linked with terrorism, to a political and commercial ally of the West. But the resurgence also owes much to the country's growing awareness of the importance of its cultural heritage — and the tourism potential that it brings, says Bennett. That same opening-up also has a downside, however: for example, recent rampant development of the oil industry, construction, and agriculture also threatens the country's cultural heritage and archaelogical sites*.

The conflict has brought joint international–Libyan archaeological work to a standstill, and uncertainty surrounds future missions. There are thought to have been around 20 international missions in Libya, each comprising around a dozen or so archaeologists. All are now thought to be safely outside the country, having taken commercial transport home, been evacuated or taken refuge in nearby countries.

Researchers have little idea of when they will be able to return. Vincent Michel, an archaeologist at the University of Poitiers in France who has a decade's experience of working in Libya, is part of a French archaeological mission that was scheduled to leave next month for the ancient Greek Apollonia site on the Mediterranean coast. That venture has now been suspended. Di Lernia's mission — itself a legacy of the colonial period — began in 1955 and is the longest-running international mission in Libya, but now he no longer knows "if and when the mission will be able to work in the area".


*Bennett, P. and Barker, G., Afr. Arch. Rev, 2011. doi: 10.1007/s10437-010-9085-x

Butler, Declan. 2011. "Libya's 'extraordinary' archaeology under threat". Nature. Posted: March 2, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What Bilingual Babies Reveal About the Brain: Q&A with Psychologist Janet Werker

One of the most fascinating windows scientists have into the human mind comes from watching babies learn to interact with the world around them.

Janet Werker is a psychologist at Vancouver's University of British Columbia who studies how babies learn languages. Some of her recent work was aimed at investigating the claim that growing up bilingual can confuse a baby and make learning to speak more difficult. In fact, Werker and her colleagues found the opposite: Rather than causing any difficulties, learning two languages at once may confer cognitive advantages to babies, including not just special auditory sensitivity, but enhanced visual sensitivity as well.

LiveScience spoke to Werker at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., about what bilingual children can teach us about how the mind works.

LiveScience: So where did this idea that being bilingual might confuse the brain come from?

Werker: I'm not quite sure where the idea came from, but it's something that North Americans in particular seem to worry about. Because elsewhere, bilingualism — even in Canada — is just considered natural, because in most places in the world people speak more than one language.

Sometimes immigrant families are told that if they speak their heritage language that their baby may not learn the dominant language as well, and if they speak two languages to their children that they're going to be confused.

There just isn’t any really good evidence of language confusion. Of course there's language mixing. It's called code-switching and it's rule-governed. So any community of two languages will have rules about how much and when they can switch. Babies who grow up in this kind of environment, by the time they're 2 1/2 or 3, do the code-switching [going back and forth between the languages] themselves. If one parent is bilingual, they'll code-switch with them, and if another parent is monolingual they won't code-switch with them. So these are kinds of rules that they figure out.

LiveScience: So you have found a perceptual sensitivity in bilingual babies, where they can not only distinguish between two languages when hearing them, but also when watching muted videos of the same person speaking two different languages? What's going on here, and how long does this sensitivity last?

Werker: That's a great question. We've only tested babies on the visual-language discrimination at 4, 6 and 8 months of age. And 4- and 6-month-olds can discriminate two languages visually whether they're familiar with only one of them, or both of them.

But by 8 months, our previous work has suggested that they have to be familiar with both languages to keep them apart. Whereas our more recent work is showing that if you're bilingual you can discriminate even two unfamiliar languages [at 8 months old].

We haven’t tested babies after 8 months, so I'm not sure how long it's maintained. We have tested adults, and what we find is that as an adult, you do better again if you're bilingual. You can still perform better than chance but only slightly, so if you're familiar with one of the languages. But, in work we haven’t published yet, we've shown that you have to have had exposure to one of those languages by about age 4 or 5 to continue to show even this slightly-better-than-chance discrimination as an adult.

So we think there's a lasting influence from this early exposure.

LiveScience: OK. But the peak of this visual sensitivity to languages occurs when they're doing the bulk of this language learning?

Werker: We think the peak of this sensitivity occurs very early.

It's not necessarily the case that an 8-month-old couldn’t learn this. The fact that adults, when they're trying hard, can do a little bit better than chance, suggests there's some latent sensitivity there. We think what's going on is the perceptual system is getting tuned. It becomes more proficient at using that kind of information that it might require. And if you're growing up in a monolingual environment, and you haven't been experiencing the variability in input, well then treating all visual languages the same is probably not unadaptive, [in other words, wouldn't cause any disadvantage].

LiveScience: So this is the first I'd heard that bilingual children have other skills besides extra sensitivity to sound – that they, in fact, have heightened sensitivity to visual cues as well. So what other differences between bilingual and monolingual babies are known?

Werker: There's some great work by Aggie Kovács and Jacques Mehler that shows that at 7 and 12 months of age, babies growing up bilingual are better able to switch rules. So if a baby is taught to turn their head in one direction in order to hear or see something interesting, they'll do that well. But a bilingual baby at 7 months can then reverse the rule and learn to turn their head in another direction better than a monolingual baby can. And similarly, at 12 months they're better [able] to learn two sets of rules.

So it seems that babies who are growing up bilingual are learning the perceptual properties of each of their languages. They're learning to pay attention to perceptual cues that might be important for distinguishing things in the world, beyond distinguishing two languages and that they're able to switch between paying attention to one kind of property and paying attention to another.

LiveScience: Is there any reason to think these differences could affect other types of learning, beyond language?

Werker: Well, yeah. I think Aggie Kovács and Jacques Mehler's work suggests it can lead to more flexibility in learning more generally. In learning one rule, and then learning a second rule. So that's really interesting.

So I think there is evidence that growing up with two languages confers certain cognitive advantages. But I wouldn't go so far as to say you have to grow up bilingual to have those cognitive advantages. I think this is one natural route. And I think more generally what the work shows is that babies are just as prepared to learn two languages from birth as they are one, and that if parents speak two languages in the home they should be comfortable continuing to do so.

LiveScience: Based on what you know, would you tell your friends and family to try to raise their own children to be bilingual if at all possible?

Werker: I would tell my friends and family that if they have a baby and if they speak two languages in the home, to feel comfortable speaking both of those languages. I wouldn't say that they should now start introducing some other language that they don't really know yet.

LiveScience: What about sending babies to language schools, or hiring foreign au pairs?

Werker: You know, nobody's done any work on au pairs or even grandparents in the home, and I think that's a really interesting question. Babies learn the languages they want to learn. So even if bilingual families maintain the two languages that they have in the home, and even if babies are learning those two languages, once they start going even to preschool, if only one language is being used, they'll often stop using the nondominant language, and they'll even stop using it at home. And so that's a frustration, I think, for a lot of families.

So the attempt to introduce a second language in an unnatural fashion, or in a natural fashion but with somebody who isn't Mom or Dad – more work is needed to see what kind of impact this has. Does it confer the perceptual advantages and the cognitive advantages, even though the child might refuse to maintain that language? That we don't yet know.

LiveScience: What are some of your biggest unanswered questions about how humans learn language?

Werker: There are so many questions about language learning. I think what really drives me is I'm really interested in the preparation we have at birth for language learning. How the perceptual system – cause that's really all that we have at birth – we don't know any words yet, we don't know any concepts yet, we don't know sentence structure yet of our native language and so we have to get it all through listening and watching – and just how we do that is what really fascinates me.

LiveScience: Why can babies learn second languages without "foreign" accents, but adults rarely can?

Werker: I think what the research thinking on accents is, is that we've already established one representational system, the sound properties in both of the individual consonant and vowel sounds as well as the rhythmical properties of a first language. And then when we start putting a second language on top of that, if it's past this kind of sensitive period that people have talked about, it's more difficult.

I think the debate in the literature now is, is this sensitive period one that is in the brain – so are there structures or connections that are just difficult or impossible to change after a certain time – or is it continued interference with the first language? Because usually when somebody learns a second language, they're still speaking their first language. And so the properties of the first language will be influencing and maybe getting in the way and interfering with the second.

There's some work by Christophe Pallier and others that suggests that if you remove the first language entirely – so work, for example, with people who were adopted from Korea at 8 years of age, into different villages in France where they had no more contact with Korean speakers – suggests that without any interference from the first language, then more acquisition in an accent-free fashion might be possible.

It's still up in the air, because there are hardware changes in the brain as well. It's still an ongoing question.


Moskowitz, Clara. 2011. "What Bilingual Babies Reveal About the Brain: Q&A with Psychologist Janet Werker". Live Science. Posted: March 1, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Learning from old bones to treat modern back pain

The bones of people who died up to a hundred years ago are being used in the development of new treatments for chronic back pain. It is the first time old bones have been used in this way.

The research is bringing together the unusual combination of latest computer modelling techniques developed at the University of Leeds, and archaeology and anthropology expertise at the University of Bristol.

With Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) funding, spines from up to 40 skeletons housed in museums and university anatomy collections are being analysed in the research.

The data generated, on different spine conditions and on how spines vary in size and shape, is playing a key role in the development of innovative computer models. This will enable the potential impact of new treatments and implant materials (such as keyhole spinal surgery and artificial disc replacements) to be evaluated before they are used on patients.

Ultimately, it will also be possible to use the models to pinpoint the type of treatment best suited to an individual patient.

Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said:

"Back pain is an extremely common condition, but everyone has a slightly different spine so developing new treatments can be a real challenge. This investment could significantly improve quality of life for millions of people around the world, so it's fantastic that the research is being carried out in the UK. It's also truly fascinating that old bones and very new technology can come together to deliver benefits for patients."

This is the first software of its kind designed for the treatment of back conditions. The research will also speed up the process of clinical trials for new treatments, which currently can take up to ten years.

The data provided by the old bones will be used to supplement similar data collected from bodies donated to science, which are limited in number and mainly come from older age groups.

"The idea is that a company will be able to come in with a design for a new product and we will simulate how it would work on different spines. The good thing about computer models is that we can use them over and over again, so we can test lots of different products on the same model", says Dr Ruth Wilcox, from the University of Leeds, who is leading the project. "If we were doing this in a laboratory we would need many new donated spines each time we wanted to test a treatment out".

This computer modelling breakthrough is possible thanks to recent advances in micro-CT (computed tomography) scanning, and to new techniques developed at the University of Leeds enabling data from micro-CT scans to be transformed into sophisticated computer models. Computed tomography (CT) scans use X-rays to build up 3-dimensional images from multiple cross-sectional pictures of body organs or tissues.

"The wider the pool of spinal data at our disposal, the more effective the computer models will be in terms of demonstrating the impact of treatments on different back conditions and back types," says Dr Kate Robson Brown from the University of Bristol's Archaeology and Anthropology Department. "The computer modelling software should be available for testing newly developed products and treatments in the next few years and along the way this cutting-edge research could even provide new insight into how our ancestors evolved!"

You can find out more about the research from the team involved in an audio slide show on the EPSRC YouTube channel.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Learning from old bones to treat modern back pain". EurekAlert. Posted: February 28, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Prehistoric Dog Lived, Died Among Humans

Remains of the Husky-like dog, buried 7,000 years ago in Siberia, suggest people saw it as a thinking, social being.

Burial remains of a dog that lived over 7,000 years ago in Siberia suggest the male Husky-like animal probably lived and died similar to how humans did at that time and place, eating the same food, sustaining work injuries, and getting a human-like burial.

"Based on how northern indigenous people understand animals in historic times, I think the people burying this particular dog saw it as a thinking, social being, perhaps on par with humans in many ways," said Robert Losey, lead author of a study about the dog burial, which has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

"I think the act of treating it as a human upon its death indicates that people knew it had a soul, and that the mortuary rites it received were meant to ensure that this soul was properly cared for," added Losey, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta.

For the study, Losey collaborated with excavation director Vladimir Bazaliiskii and researchers Sandra Garvie-Lok, Mietje Germonpre, Jennifer Leonard, Andrew Allen, Anne Katzenberg, and Mikhail Sablin. Bazaliiskii found the buried dog at the Shamanka cemetery near Lake Baikal, Siberia.

"Just like the humans in the cemetery, the dog was buried with other items, (such as) a long spoon made of antler," Losey said.

The dog was carefully laid to rest lying on his right side in a grave pit that, at other levels, also contained five partial human skeletons.

DNA and stable isotope analysis determined the animal was indeed a dog and that he ate exactly what humans at the site consumed: fish, freshwater seal meat, deer, small mammals, and some plant foods.

The canine's life, as well as that of the people, wasn't easy, though.

"The dog's skeleton, particularly its vertebrate spines, suggests that it was repeatedly used to transport loads," Losey explained. "This could have included carrying gear on its back that was used in daily activities like hunting, fishing, and gathering plant foods and firewood. The dog also could have been used to transport gear for the purposes of relocating settlements on a seasonal basis."

Additional fractures suggest the dog suffered numerous blows during its lifetime, possibly from the feet of red deer during hunting outings. The researchers cannot rule out that humans hit the dog, but its older age at burial, food provisions, and more suggest otherwise.

From the same general time period, the scientists also found a wolf burial at a site called Lokomotiv near the Irkut and Angara rivers in Siberia.

The wolf, which did not consume human-provided foods, appears to have died of old age. Its remains were found wrapped around a human skull. There is no evidence the wolf interacted with the person when alive.

"Perhaps the burial of the wolf with the human head placed between its feet was done to send the spirit or soul of the wolf with this particular human to the afterlife, perhaps as its protector," Losey said.

Susan Crockford, adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Victoria and author of the book "A Practical Guide to In Situ Dog Remains for the Field Archaeologist" (2009), told Discovery News that she was "surprised to see the description of the wolf/human internment," she added. "That is definitely unusual."

Crockford isn't supporting any particular interpretation of the burials just yet, however, since she said, "There can be many reasons for the ritual treatment of dogs, including ones we might never imagine."

Viegas, Jennifer. 2011. "Prehistoric Dog Lived, Died Among Humans". Discovery News. Posted: February 28, 2011. Available online:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Gibbon songs have regional accents, says new study

Call of the wild has different accents

Washingtonians who live close to the National Zoo know all too well about gibbon songs. The small apes begin calling out to one another every morning at dawn and again throughout the day whenever they switch locations, get a lot of visitors or just feel like hollering.

It turns out that some of those songs might have distinctive characteristics similar to accents, according to a recent study in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology.

After analyzing samples from more than 400 gibbon songs, researchers at the German Primate Center in Goettingen found that the calls can be used to identify which species of gibbon is singing as well as the area it's from. The scientists were able to distinguish the sounds of apes from various parts of the dense rain forests of Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, where gibbons live in the wild.

However, people living near the zoo won't be able to detect the regional differences without sophisticated sound analysis software; not even Lisa Stevens can do that, and she's been working with the zoo's gibbons for 33 years. Stevens, the zoo's curator of primates, says the songs of the six gibbons living there are very similar. The zoo has four white-cheeked gibbons: two males that were born there and two females that were brought in from the wild, probably from Vietnam. The females are "geriatric" now at ages 41 and 43, Stevens says. They came to the United States in the late 1960s or early 1970s from markets in Southeast Asia where people were selling them as pets.

The zoo also has two siamangs from the Malay peninsula.

Stevens was not surprised at the study's results, because regional variation in color and pattern of gibbon coats has already been established. She expects that there are also behavioral differences among gibbons from different regions. Gibbons sing to define their territory and to find mates, but Stevens suspects there's more content than that. "We're just scratching the surface of the information that they're communicating in gibbon calls," she said.

Saslow, Rachel. 2011. "Gibbon songs have regional accents, says new study". Washington Post. Posted: February 28, 2011. Available online:

Picture: Mehgan Murphy / National Zoo

Sunday, March 13, 2011

In Maya Burials, Unsettling Clues

Two weeks ago we found our first burial. Anastasiya Kravtsova, the Russian student from Siberia who joined us for this field season and is working with me in the East Court, was understandably excited. Finally, we had something other than rocks. I said, “Be careful what you wish for.”

As exciting as this find may be, it also slows down the excavations significantly, because we painstakingly have to clean the bones, take photographs and draw the burial. And our goal for this season is to reach bedrock in this area.

True to my prediction, we found a second burial five days later and have just removed the last bones. We carefully cataloged all the bones before we finally took them to our field lab, where Anastasiya continued the work at night because the skulls had to be cleaned before the soil hardened too much.

We were often closely observed by a curious family of howler monkeys that hovered right over our excavation. When the howlers lurk, you’d better wear a hat, because your excavation may easily turn into their bathroom. This will also mess up your soil phosphate data. Instead of a signature for ancient Maya trash, you may have measured recent monkey dung.

We found the burials in front of a structure dating to the middle part of the Preclassic (600 to 300 B.C.) in a 4-by-5-meter excavation area that extends the original 2-by-2-meter Harvard project test pit dug in the 1960s. The burials consisted of two relatively small but deep pits that had been cut through six floors.

It turned out that the buried individuals had not been treated very well. The person in the first burial was a teenager, less than 17 years old, who appears to have been dismembered and then put into the pit. The lower jaw was missing. In the second burial we found a baby and maybe another person’s head, so again we may have some evidence for some ritual treatment of one of the bodies. We still need to find out when exactly those people were buried. They may date to the later occupation of the court and were probably put there as offerings during the construction of a building that dates to the Late Classic (A.D. 600 to 850).

The next steps in analyzing the remains will be the closer examination of the bones by our physical anthropology colleagues. Juan Manuel Palomo, one of our graduate students in the Ph.D. program at the University of Arizona, will look at the bones to see if he can find actual cut marks and to assess how healthy the individuals were. (Judging from the teeth that we did find, the teenager looks pretty healthy). He will also reconstruct their original height and get a better approximation of their age. Dr. Lori Wright at Texas A&M University, who supervises Juan Manuel’s work and is our physical anthropologist on the project, will conduct isotope analysis to find out what and how well they ate and whether they were born and raised at Ceibal. We may also date the bones themselves by radiocarbon to find out when they were buried. These data will continue to contribute to our knowledge about population movements and changing ritual practices through the 2,000 years of occupation at Ceibal.

Triadan, Daniela. 2011. "In Maya Burials, Unsettling Clues". New York Times. Posted: February 28, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Trading Places: Blind People Use Visual Brain Region for Language

A person who is born blind may be able to recruit the unused brain regions related to vision for language-related tasks, a new study has found.

"This suggests that brain regions that didn't evolve for language can nevertheless participate in language processing," said lead researcher Marina Bedny of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "This kind of plasticity is very dramatic: from vision to language."

In these "early blind" people, the visual areas of the brain, called the occipital cortex, are able to take on language-processing tasks, such as understanding sentences.

"Humans learn language. This is an important part of the human experience," Bedny said. "Certainly that's part of the reason why this part of the brain is involved in language."

Learning language

There are regions of the brain that have a special structure for processing language. These regions are similar in people who speak different languages (including sign language), and many researchers believe this structure must have specifically evolved to give us the ability to process language. So they assume other parts of the brain would have a more difficult time performing those functions.

Past studies showed that individuals who have never been able to see still have activity in the brain regions that process visual stimuli. The researchers noticed that these regions responded to sounds, specifically to spoken words. What they didn't know was whether the visual cortex was actually participating in language processing or was working in other ways, like forming long-term memories.

To test this, the researchers watched the brain activity of congenitally blind people while they listened to various different spoken sounds, including sentences, jabberwocky (sentences made with non-words like florp), lists of words, and sentences played backwards. After hearing each stimulus, the participants were tested with a word, and asked if it was something they had just heard to not.

Though the backward speech and jabberwocky are more difficult to process than a sentence of normal speech, the visual cortex in these congenitally blind people reacted more to plain-English sentences, meaning it was processing things it understood as language. "This is not a generalized difficulty effect," Bedny said. "It's really sensitive to high-level linguistic structure."

Evolving from experience

The experience of being blind changes these brain areas, Bedny said. "The brain is organized as a result of experience, and experience plays a huge role in determining the functionality of different parts of the brain," she said. "The function of parts of the brain can change in ways we didn't realize."

It's possible that this additional language processing area gives these early blind people additional language abilities, though the everyday effect might be small, Bedny said."You don't see such a profound effect that it comes out in every day behavior, but if you push it you might see it," she said.

The researchers aren't sure how the brain adapts these visual regions to language processing, but there may be changes to the types of brain cells and composition of different types in that region, or changes to the architecture, or how the neurons are connected, that make the area better suited for language.

The study is a "very nice contribution" to the field, said Krish Sathian of Emory University, who wasn't involved in the research.

"Linguistic tasks do indeed recruit visual cortical activity in the early blind (but not the sighted), independent of task difficulty," Sathian told LiveScience in an e-mail.

Bedny would like to test whether this area can compensate for the loss of the classic language regions. By using magnetic stimulation to turn down the activity of the classic language regions, researchers should be able to see if the visual cortex can perform as a language center independently.

"Our prediction is that a blind individual would be more resilient to brain damage to classic language regions," Bedny said.

Welsh, Jennifer. 2011. "Trading Places: Blind People Use Visual Brain Region for Language". Live Science. Posted: February 28, 2011. Available online:

Friday, March 11, 2011

Deb Roy: The birth of a word

MIT researcher Deb Roy wanted to understand how his infant son learned language -- so he wired up his house with videocameras to catch every moment (with exceptions) of his son's life, then parsed 90,000 hours of home video to watch "gaaaa" slowly turn into "water." Astonishing, data-rich research with deep implications for how we learn.


2011. "Deb Roy: The birth of a word". Ted. Posted: March, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, March 10, 2011

When despots fall, religion plays key role in rebuilding societies: expert

"One Sunday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, a remarkable scene occurred during the 18-days of protest that ended the despotic rule of Hosni Mubarak," said Rashied Omar, Research Scholar of Islamic Studies and Peacebuilding at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. "Thousands of Muslims protectively encircled the square while Coptic Christians conducted a prayer service to honor the victims of the brutal security crackdowns."

Omar says religion can play a key role in rebuilding societies after despots fall and violent, oppressive governments are toppled, as happened in Egypt and Tunisia.

“In the midst of the worst kind of barbarism, people of different faith traditions found solace and healing in their own faiths and in interreligious solidarity,” Omar says. “Now the scene in Tahrir Square is being duplicated all across North Africa and the Middle East.

“Recently in the Libyan capital of Tripoli, Rev. Daniel Farrugia, a senior Roman Catholic priest at St. Francis Catholic Church, refused to be evacuated, choosing instead to stay and serve with ‘our sisters,’ nearly 100 nuns working in hospitals and health centers treating the sick and injured,” he says.

Religion and religious people, so often considered part of the problem, according to Omar, can instead play key roles in rebuilding society.

“In my own country of South Africa, black Christians, Muslims and many people of faith struggling against apartheid played a central role in transforming their society from racial oppression and dehumanization towards hope and justice,” Omar says. “In the midst of the ‘Tunisami’ now sweeping away despotic rulers across North Africa and the Middle East, ordinary people can collect the threads of peace and justice that are at the heart of both Islam and Christianity to transform their bleak worlds of indignity and dehumanization into freedom, democracy and justice.”

Omar’s research and teaching focus on religion, violence and peacebuilding, especially the Islamic ethics of war and peace and interreligious dialogue. He spends half of each year at Notre Dame and the other half serving as the coordinating Imam at the Claremont Main Road Mosque in Cape Town, South Africa. He also is an international trustee emeritus of the Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions.

As a young man, Omar was jailed as a student activist against apartheid. Since then, he says, “My struggle has been how to build a bridge between my faith commitment and my participation in protest against racism and apartheid.” As an imam in Cape Town, before and after the transition to democracy, he has insisted on being part of civil society, separate from the state, and on speaking truth to power and not being part of any political party.

Chapla, Shannon. 2011. "When despots fall, religion plays key role in rebuilding societies: expert". PhysOrg. Posted: March 4, 2011. Available online: