Sunday, July 31, 2011

'Extraordinary' genetic make-up of north-east Wales men

Experts are asking people from north-east Wales to provide a DNA sample to discover why those from the area carry rare genetic make-up.

So far, 500 people have taken part in the study which shows 30% of men carry an unusual type of Y chromosome, compared to 1% of men elsewhere the UK.

Common in Mediterranean men, it was initially thought to suggest Bronze Age migrants 4,000 years ago.

Sheffield University scientists explain the study at Wrexham Science Festival.

'Quite extraordinary'

A team of scientists, led by Dr Andy Grierson and Dr Robert Johnston, from the University of Sheffield is trying to find out how and why this has come about.

Dr Grierson is leading the talk at Glyndŵr University on Tuesday and wants to speak to people with ancestry in the region to discover what is known about their family history - and to provide them with an opportunity to contribute a DNA sample to the project.

"The number of people in north-east Wales with this genetic make-up is quite extraordinary," he said.

"This type of genetic make-up is usually found in the eastern Mediterranean which made us think that there might have been strong connections between north-east Wales and this part of Europe somewhere in the past.

"But this appears not to be the case, so we're still looking to find out why it's happened and what it reveals about the history of the region."

Early into the study in 2009, the academics were hoping to link the migration of men in the Bronze Age to the discovery of copper.

The metal was found at both Parys Mountain on Anglesey, and on the Great Orme at Llandudno, Conwy.

Participants who come from the same area as their paternal grandfather are asked to give a cheek swab sample for genetic analysis. It is anonymous.

Dr Grierson leads research investigating the molecular basis of neurological disorders, including motor neuron disease and Alzheimer's disease.

He said he became interested in north Wales because of the unique genetic make-up, and because it offered an opportunity to investigate the history of the area using genetics.

"It provides a novel opportunity to look at past populations," he said.

"History and archaeology depend on surviving manuscripts and objects/landscapes. So it can be very limited.

"Genetics allows us to look at the historic population through their living descendants."

The Genetic Legacy of Medieval Society in north-east Wales takes place at Glyndŵr University's Wrexham campus from 1800 BST on Tuesday 19 July.

BBC News. 2011. "'Extraordinary' genetic make-up of north-east Wales men". BBC News. Posted: July 19, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, July 30, 2011

All Non-Africans Part Neanderthal, Genetics Confirm

If your heritage is non-African, you are part Neanderthal, according to a new study in the July issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution. Discovery News has been reporting on human/Neanderthal interbreeding for some time now, so this latest research confirms earlier findings.

Damian Labuda of the University of Montreal's Department of Pediatrics and the CHU Sainte-Justine Research Center conducted the study with his colleagues. They determined some of the human X chromosome originates from Neanderthals, but only in people of non-African heritage.

"This confirms recent findings suggesting that the two populations interbred," Labuda was quoted as saying in a press release. His team believes most, if not all, of the interbreeding took place in the Middle East, while modern humans were migrating out of Africa and spreading to other regions.

The ancestors of Neanderthals left Africa about 400,000 to 800,000 years ago. They evolved over the millennia mostly in what are now France, Spain, Germany and Russia. They went extinct, or were simply absorbed into the modern human population, about 30,000 years ago.

Neanderthals possessed the gene for language and had sophisticated music, art and tool craftsmanship skills, so they must have not been all that unattractive to modern humans at the time.

"In addition, because our methods were totally independent of Neanderthal material, we can also conclude that previous results were not influenced by contaminating artifacts," Labuda said.

This work goes back to nearly a decade ago, when Labuda and his colleagues identified a piece of DNA, called a haplotype, in the human X chromosome that seemed different. They questioned its origins.

Fast forward to 2010, when the Neanderthal genome was sequenced. The researchers could then compare the haplotype to the Neanderthal genome as well as to the DNA of existing humans. The scientists found that the sequence was present in people across all continents, except for sub-Saharan Africa, and including Australia.

"There is little doubt that this haplotype is present because of mating with our ancestors and Neanderthals," said Nick Patterson of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University. Patterson did not participate in the latest research. He added, "This is a very nice result, and further analysis may help determine more details."

David Reich, a Harvard Medical School geneticist, added, "Dr. Labuda and his colleagues were the first to identify a genetic variation in non-Africans that was likely to have come from an archaic population. This was done entirely without the Neanderthal genome sequence, but in light of the Neanderthal sequence, it is now clear that they were absolutely right!"

The modern human/Neanderthal combo likely benefitted our species, enabling it to survive in harsh, cold regions that Neanderthals previously had adapted to.

"Variability is very important for long-term survival of a species," Labuda concluded. "Every addition to the genome can be enriching."

Viegas, Jennifer. 2011. "All Non-Africans Part Neanderthal, Genetics Confirm". Discovery News. Posted: July 18, 2011. Available online:

Friday, July 29, 2011

Kiki or bouba? In search of language's missing link

Before reading this article, you might like to try our test: Which of these words sounds bigger?

Through the looking glass, Lewis Carroll's Alice stumbles upon an enormous egg-shaped figure celebrating his un-birthday. She tries to introduce herself:

"It's a stupid name enough!" Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently. "What does it mean?"

"Must a name mean something?" Alice asked doubtfully.

"Of course it must," Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: "My name means the shape I am - and a good handsome shape it is, too. With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost."

PURE whimsy, you might think. Nearly 100 years of linguistics research has been based on the assumption that words are just collections of sounds - an agreed acoustic representation that has little to do with their actual meaning. There should be nothing in nonsense words such as "Humpty Dumpty" that would give away the character's egg-like figure, any more than someone with no knowledge of English could be expected to infer that the word "rose" represents a sweet-smelling flower.

Yet a spate of recent studies challenge this idea. They suggest that we seem instinctively to link certain sounds with particular sensory perceptions. Some words really do evoke Humpty's "handsome" rotundity. Others might bring to mind a spiky appearance, a bitter taste, or a sense of swift movement. And when you know where to look, these patterns crop up surprisingly often, allowing a monoglot English speaker to understand more Swahili or Japanese than you might imagine (see "Which sounds bigger?" at the bottom of this article). These cross-sensory connections may even open a window onto the first words ever uttered by our ancestors, giving us a glimpse of the earliest language and how it emerged.

More than 2000 years before Carroll suggested words might have some inherent meaning, Plato recorded a dialogue between two of Socrates's friends, Cratylus and Hermogenes. Hermogenes argued that language is arbitrary and the words people use are purely a matter of convention. Cratylus, like Humpty Dumpty, believed words inherently reflect their meaning - although he seems to have found his insights into language disillusioning: Aristotle says Cratylus eventually became so disenchanted that he gave up speaking entirely.

The Greek philosophers never resolved the issue, but two millennia later the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure seemed to have done so. In the 1910s, using an approach based in part on a comparison of different languages, he set out a strong case for the arbitrariness of language. Consider, for instance, the differences between "ox" and "boeuf", the English and French words for the same animal. With few similarities between these and other such terms, it seemed clear to Saussure that the sounds of words do not inherently reflect their meanings.

The world of linguistics was mostly convinced, but a few people still challenged the status quo. While the German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler was staying in Tenerife, he presented subjects with line drawings of two meaningless shapes - one spiky, the other curved - and asked them to label the pictures either "takete" or "baluba". Most people chose takete for the spiky shape and baluba for the curvy one. Though Kohler didn't say why this might be, the observation strongly suggested that some words really might fit the things they describe better than others. His work, first published in 1929, did not attract much attention, and though others returned to the subject every now and then, their findings were not taken seriously by the mainstream. "They were considered a curiosity and never properly explored," says Gabriella Vigliocco, professor of the psychology of language at University College London.

The turning point came in 2001, when Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Edward Hubbard, both then at the University of California, San Diego, published their investigations into a condition known as synaesthesia, in which people seem to blend sensory experiences, including certain sounds and certain images (Journal of Consciousness Studies, vol 8, p 3). As many as 1 in 20 people have this condition, but Ramachandran suspected that cross-sensory connections are in fact a feature of the human brain, so that in practice we all experience synaesthesia at least to a limited extent. To explore this idea, he and Hubbard revisited Kohler's experiment to find out whether average people, and not just synaesthetes, might automatically link two different sensations.

Using similar shapes to those in the original experiment, but changing the names of the invented terms slightly, they found that an astonishing 95 per cent of people labelled the spiky object as "kiki" and the curvy one as "bouba". One possible explanation is that this might be down to the shapes of the lips as we form the vowels in these words; in "bouba" they are more curved than in "kiki".

Continue reading the article at the site.

Robson, David. 2011. "Kiki or bouba? In search of language's missing link ". New Scientist. Posted: July 19, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Human history recorded in a single genome

WANT to know the history of your ancestors? Look no further than your genome. It seems every one of us carries in our genes a million-year record of past human population size.

Analysing the ways that mitochondrial DNA sequences differ across a large number of living people has helped to establish prehistoric population trends, but this record stretches back only 200,000 years to the point where all humans alive today shared a common female ancestor. That's because mitochondrial DNA passes down from mother to child.

Richard Durbin of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, and Heng Li at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, can push the record back five times as far by reading a single genome.

Taking advantage of the handful of complete human genome sequences now available, the pair looked at how alleles - the two copies of each gene we inherit from our parents - differ within a genome. Many differences between the two copies suggest that they separated some time ago, while similar copies have a more recent separation date.

By reading thousands of alleles and estimating mutation rates, the duo can work out the separation date for each allele and calculate past population sizes. For instance, evidence that many alleles share the same separation date suggests the population was small and genetically similar at the time.

Durbin and Li analysed seven complete sequences: one each from China and Korea, three of European origin and two from west Africa. The pair concludes that European and Chinese populations both suffered a severe bottleneck between 10,000 and 60,000 years ago, while African populations endured a milder bottleneck at that time (Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature10231).

"The idea that each human genome contains information about the history of its ancestors' population size has been known theoretically, but we have never had the data or methods to pull out that information until now," says John Novembre of the University of California, Los Angeles.

Ryan Gutenkunst of the University of Arizona in Tucson is also impressed by the study. "The method is really spectacular. Previous methods have taken averages across the genome, but here they are looking at variation from one location to another location and getting good results from even a single individual."

Jabr, Ferris. 2011. "Human history recorded in a single genome ". New Scientist. Posted: July 13, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tsunamis Buried Ancient Olympics Site

A series of devastating tsunamis -- not an earthquake -- might have swept away the birthplace of the Olympic Games in ancient Greece nearly 1500 years ago, according to new findings.

Scholars have long assumed that Olympia, located at the confluence of the Kladeos and Alpheios rivers in the western Peloponnese, was destroyed by an earthquake in 551 AD and later covered by flood deposits of the Kladeos river.

Indeed the site where the first Olympic Games took place in 776 BC, was rediscovered only some 250 years ago, buried under 26 feet of sand and debris.

Systematic excavations by the German Archaeological Institute, which began in 1875, brought to light the remains of some of the finest works of classical art and architecture, such as the huge temple of Zeus. It boasted a now lost 40-foot statue of the god made of gold and ivory that was numbered among the Seven Wonders of the World.

According to Andreas Vött of the Institute of Geography of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, Germany, the burial of ancient Olympia "is one of the most interesting geoarchaeological mysteries in the Mediterranean world."

It is hard to explain how the tiny Kladeos River could first have buried Olympia under several meters of sediment, only to subsequently get eroded by 10 to 12 meters (33 to 40 feet) down to the flow level used in ancient times.

Vött, who is investigating the paleotsunamis that occurred along the coastlines of the eastern Mediterranean over the last 11,000 years, carried sedimentological, geophysical, geochemical and microfaunal analyses by drilling 22 vibracores at the site.

"Both the composition and thickness of the sediments we find in Olympia do not go with the hydraulic potential of the Kladeos river and the geomorphological inventory of the valley,” said Vött.

Strong evidence for repeated tsunamis came from the presence of molluscs, snail shells and the remains of abundant foraminifera (marine protozoa). The sediments were transported inland at high speed and energy, reaching Olympia although the site lies some 108 feet above sea level.

"In earlier times, Olympia was not 22 kilometers (13.6 miles) away from the sea as it is today. Back then, the coastline was located eight or perhaps even more kilometers further inland," said Vött.

In this scenario, tsunamis came in from the sea and rushed into the narrow valley of Alpheios, into which the Kladeos River flows, forcing their way over the saddles behind which Olympia is located.

Further supporting the Olympia tsunami hypothesis, is the fact that identical high-energy sediments of tsunamigenic origin were found on the sea facing side of the hills.

"Olympia documents at least four phases of high-energy flood events that obviously affected the whole valley bottom," Vött and colleagues wrote in a paper to be presented in September 2011 at an international academic conference in Corinth, Greece.

One of the high-energy flood deposits encountered near Olympia was dated to 585-647 AD. This fits "well with the earthquake in 551 AD during which Olympia is reported to have been destroyed," wrote the researchers.

According to Vött, more evidence against the earthquake hypothesis lies in the fallen fragments of the columns of the Temple of Zeus, which do not lie directly on top of each other, as expected after an earthquake impact, but are "floating" in sediment.

Mainly the result of extensive seismic activities along the Hellenic Arc, tsunamis are a frequent occurrence in the eastern Mediterranean.

The most recent mega-tsunami in the Mediterranean occurred in 1908 and was related to a devastating earthquake in the Straits of Messina in southern Italy, where than 100,000 people died.

A 30 meter-high tsunami wave was recorded in the southern Aegean in 1956.

"The evaluation of historical accounts has shown that in western Greece there is one tsunami every eight to 11 years on average," said Vött.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2011. "Tsunamis Buried Ancient Olympics Site". Discovery News. Posted: July 12, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Ethiopian lake reveals history of African droughts

A new survey of Lake Tana in Ethiopia – the source of the Blue Nile – suggests that drought may have contributed to the demise of the Egyptian Old Kingdom, around 4200 years ago.

A team led by the University of Aberystwyth used seismic surveys and sediment cores to work out how the lake's water levels has varied over the past 17,000 years and linked this to evidence for global climate change.

Understanding how and why rainfall patterns change is particularly important for sub-Saharan Africa, where prolonged droughts have such serious social and economic consequences.

The climate here is dominated by the African-Asian monsoon and the movements of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). This is an area of erratic weather patterns, where winds from the northern and southern hemispheres meet close to the equator: sailors know it as the Doldrums.

Seasonal movements of the ITCZ can affect the strength of the monsoon. A strong monsoon leads to higher lake levels, and this can be traced in ancient lake sediments. Lake Tana is particularly good for this kind of research because it's close to the northern limit of the ITCZ so even slight a southward movement of the ITCZ is reflected in the lake's geological history.

Fleshing out the detail of the region's rainfall history and linking it to past climate change can improve predictions of future rainfall. The detail enables scientists to check the ability of their climate models to accurately 'predict' past climate change; this fine tuning means they can be more confident of the models' accuracy when predicting future events.

There was already strong evidence for an abrupt drought in Africa around 16,500 years ago, linked to changes in the Earth's climate. The researchers wanted to understand the region's subsequent climate history, including finding any evidence for a dry period around 4200 years ago, when the Egyptian Old Kingdom declined.

'We were looking for evidence for long-term drought events to provide a historical context to data modellers,' says Dr Michael Marshall from Aberystwyth University, a lead author of the research paper published in Global and Planetary Change. 'We wanted to find out when and how quickly drought has come about in the past.'

The researchers used seismic (sound) survey and cores taken through the bottom of the lake, to get a picture of the stratigraphy or layers of sediment that have been carried into the lake by 17,000 years of rainfall.

They then used chemical and magnetic analysis to determine the conditions under which the sediments were deposited, giving them a picture of periods of relatively dry or wet weather. By carbon dating the layers the researchers then tied these wet/dry phases to existing evidence for climate change events – like movements in the ITCZ.

This let them align periods of sub-Saharan drought to periods of global climate change.

The Blue Nile is the main tributary of Egypt's Nile river and it delivers most of the sediment to the Nile's floodplain. These fertile soils were the bedrock of ancient Egyptian civilisation, so long-term changes in the flow of the Nile would have had a profound effect on Egyptian society.

'Finding a distinct dry period around the time of decline of the Old Kingdom is complicated by the fact that the climate was becoming drier overall during that time anyway,' explains Marshall.

Nevertheless, the researchers' analysis of the sediments did reveal a distinct dry episode around 4200 years ago. This would have lowered water levels in Lake Tana and reduced the flow of the Nile, interrupting the regular supply of fertile sediment to the Nile delta. Archaeological evidence shows that the Old Kingdom was already beginning to wane; reduced Nile flow could have contributed to its demise.

Rackley, Adele. 2011. "Ethiopian lake reveals history of African droughts". Planet Earth online. Posted: July 12, 2011. Available online:

Journal References:

Late Pleistocene and Holocene drought events at Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile. Michael H Marshall, Henry F Lamb, Dei Huws, Sarah J Davies, Richard Bates, Jan Bloemendal, John Boyle, Melanie J Leng, Mohammed Umer & Charlotte Bryant. doi: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2011.06.004

Monday, July 25, 2011

Copper mining will crush ancient Afghan site

Teams in Afghanistan scramble to save artifacts before a Chinese company starts mining work at Mes Aynak, an area filled with the ruins of 5th century Buddhist monasteries.

The ruins poke out of a monotonous stretch of scrub and beckon the world to visit Afghanistan as it was more than 1,400 years ago, when Buddhist monasteries dotted the landscape.

An ancient citadel juts from a tall crag, standing sentinel over what once was a flourishing settlement. The monastery sits largely preserved, as does a series of reliquaries adorned with schist arches and shelves.

But few people today will have a chance to see these ruins, which French and Afghan archaeologists are unearthing.

Sometime soon, perhaps in as little as 14 months, the sprawling, 9,800-acre Mes Aynak site will be crushed by Chinese bulldozers hunting for copper — a clear choice of economic development over historic preservation in a country trying to overcome decades of war, religious extremism and occupation.

"As an archaeologist, of course I'm worried about this," said Khair Muhammad Khairzada, a researcher at the Afghan Institute of Archaeology, which is overseeing the dig. "I want all of the archaeological sites to be saved. But at the same time, Afghanistan's economy is also important. It needs to grow."

And so, a dozen archaeologists and 100 Afghan laborers are working like army ants to finish the dig. Many valuable relics were looted long ago, and the archaeologists won't be able to save the ancient edifices from the mining company. But they can remove the statues, pottery and gold and silver coins still buried within the buildings.

"We don't know exactly how much time we have to excavate the site. Sometimes the deadline is 14 months and sometimes it's two years. It will depend on the Chinese," said Nicolas Engel, a young French archaeologist with James Joyce spectacles.

"That big mountain over there, that's where copper ore is located," he said, gesturing toward a long, scrub-covered ridge. "So inside of that mountain, the Chinese want to do an open pit mine, which means this whole area will be destroyed."

The race to salvage whatever they can of Afghanistan's ancient, storied past is the latest in a long line of ordeals that Afghan historians and archeologists have had to face.

The country was roiled by an insurgent war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s and a civil war that followed the Soviets' departure. Statues and other depictions of the human form were anathema to the Islamist Taliban regime, and when it ruled Afghanistan it systematically defaced or destroyed anything it deemed un-Islamic. The Taliban's most notorious act of vandalism occurred in 2001, when it blew up the two towering, 1,500-year-old Buddha statues of Bamian valley. Western and Afghan troops are now seeking to defeat a Taliban insurgency.

Looters have been as destructive as war, pouncing on sites filled with centuries-old statues and coins long before archaeologists arrive. Most of the looted relics find their way to Pakistan and from there to the international black market.

Today, the promise of mining wealth overshadows the treasured ruins of Mes Aynak. Afghanistan's untapped mineral wealth is staggering, estimated by U.S. geologists at nearly $1 trillion. Reserves include large amounts of copper, gold, cobalt, lithium and other metals.

The untapped copper deposits in the Lowgar province mountains are believed to be one of the world's largest reserves of the ore. China has been scouring the world for raw materials to feed its industrial growth, and the Afghan government in 2007 awarded China Metallurgical Group Corp. the contract to mine at Mes Aynak, a $2.9-billion endeavor that makes it Afghanistan's largest development project.

Afghan archaeologists say they recognize the potential that mining holds for their country's economy. But they also want to preserve a heritage that encompasses conquests by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan, and periods when Buddhism was the dominant religion.

"Preserving our heritage is so important," said Abdul Khalid Khorshid, an Afghan archaeologist working on the Mes Aynak dig. "The relics we find don't just belong to the Afghans — they belong to the world."

The road from Kabul, the capital, to Mes Aynak, through the badlands of Lowgar province, reminds visitors that archaeology in Afghanistan is risky business.

Along the way, members of an Afghan de-mining unit lumber across the desert in bulky bomb squad gear, planting small flags in the dirt as they move from one quadrant to the next. The Taliban remains active in Lowgar; on June 25, a suicide bomber killed 37 people at a hospital about 25 miles from Mes Aynak.

On a recent sun-scorched morning, Engel's diggers worked at a furious pace, kicking up billowing clouds of dust as their spades and pick-axes exposed a large reliquary that housed red-painted Buddha statues.

Rodriguez, Alex. 2011. "Copper mining will crush ancient Afghan site". Los Angeles Times. Posted: July 12, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Pipeline archaeology will re-write history of Central Africa

In May this year, researchers from around the world gathered in Yaounde the capital of the west African country of Cameroon, for the International Conference on Rescue Archaeology.

At the conference, archaeologists introduced new findings from the book: “Kome-Kribi: Rescue Archaeology Along the Chad-Cameroon Oil Pipeline; 1999-2004“. Archaeologists say the results have marked a major breakthrough that will begin a rewrite of the history of Cameroon and the rest of Central Africa.

The fieldwork was carried out as construction took place along the line of the underground petroleum pipeline from Chad to the port of Kribi, Cameroon.

A new history of the region

Artefacts from hundreds of archaeological sites from southern Chad to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean in Cameroon have begun to suggest a new history to the region.

According to Professor Scott MacEachern, a specialist in African archaeology at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine (USA), 472 archaeological sites were found along the 1000 kilometre pipeline – some dating back 100,000 years.

The researchers have urged governments in central Africa to use the new documents as a basis for re-interpretation.

The governments agree that knowledge of a people’s cultural past and historical evolution is key to a present day cultural identity. Pierre de Maree a professor of anthropology and archaeology who has been involved for decades in archaeological fieldwork across Africa explains that, “ We’re starting to see what was going on about 3,000 years ago around Yaounde.”

“This is very interesting because what we see is more and more evidence of a very sophisticated culture settling the forest 3000 years ago. When I started to work in Cameroon almost 40 years ago, people had the idea that Cameroonians were not from here. In fact, archaeology proves that the current [culturally] different groups have been living in the same place for thousands of years,” Maree says.

A time for action on cultural heritage

Officials at Cameroon’s Ministry of Culture pledged to act on recommendations of the archaeologists – including the creation of a national commission on cultural heritage, which would work to avoid the destruction of further archaeological sites during major infrastructure projects, the construction of a national museum, and the strengthening of laws on the conservation of cultural artefacts.

Raymond Asombang, a lecturer in the Department of Archaeology at the University of Yaounde, said that until the national museum is ready and the recommendations implemented, the artefacts will be taken care of. “We will keep them in museums where people can come to see them.” He added, “We need to know that in civilisation, you are only adding your own contribution to the contributions of other people.”

Past Horizons. 2011. "Pipeline archaeology will re-write history of Central Africa". Past Horizons. Posted: July 12, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Free-diving Indian Ocean nomads under threat

The Bajau Laut, or Bajo, are marine nomads thought to come from the Philippines, who for centuries have lived out their lives almost entirely at sea. In dugout canoes known as lepa lepa they ply the ocean between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, fishing with nets and lines.

They are also expert free divers, as can be seen in this image, taken in the waters off Wakatobi, south Sulawesi.

But their way of life is under threat. The WWF is working with the Wakatobi National Park Authority to prioritise marine conservation in the area. "The WWF is doing excellent work in creating a maritime park," commented Cliff Sather, author of The Bajau Laut. "Otherwise, the environmental situation is a disaster."

Local people are abandoning traditional fishing methods and turning to homemade fertiliser bombs and sodium cyanide to stun the fish. This damages coral reefs and can lead to loss of life.

"We have come across cyanide fishing in the Wakatobi islands, particularly for the grouper trade, and also some bomb fishing," comments Tim Coles of Operation Wallacea, an academic network that backs conservation efforts.

Unfortunately, they are not the only problems facing the reefs, he adds. "You could wipe out cyanide and bomb fishing and the reef fishery in the Wakatobi Islands would continue to collapse because of overfishing by techniques such as fish fences, bubu traps, gill nets, seine nets and so on."

The good news is that the Wakatobi reef fishery has a maximum sustainable yield that, potentially, is significantly higher than current catches. However, it needs time to recover.

To reduce the pressure on this marine ecosystem, The Operation Wallacea Trust, funded by the Darwin Initiative and Operation Wallacea, has been registering the fishers and their boats and plans to buy their fishing licences and compensate them with shares in a factory.


Highfield, Richard. 2011. "Free-diving Indian Ocean nomads under threat". New Scientist. Posted: July 11, 2011. Available online:

Friday, July 22, 2011

Even before language, babies learn the world through sounds

It's not just the words, but the sounds of words that have meaning for us. This is true for children and adults, who can associate the strictly auditory parts of language— vowels produced in the front or the back of the mouth, high or low pitch—with blunt or pointy things, large or small things, fast-moving or long-staying things.

Do the same principles apply for young infants, and not just to things, but also to abstractions? A new study by Marcela Peña, Jacques Mehler, and Marina Nespor, working together at the International School for Advanced Studies, in Trieste, Italy and Catholic University of Chile, says yes. For the first time ever, the researchers have demonstrated that these physical properties of speech are associated, very early in life, with abstract concepts—in this case, larger and smaller. The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

The researchers worked with 28 four-month-old babies from Spanish-speaking homes. The babies sat on their parents' laps (the parents were visually masked) in a soundproof room, into which were piped nonsense syllables composed of consonants followed by the vowels I or O, or E or A. The babies were simultaneously shown larger and smaller versions of circles, ovals, squares, or triangles, in different colors. Using an eye tracker, experimenters recorded which object the infants looked at first and how long they gazed at each object.

In previous research, adults reared in many different languages have shown an association of I and E sounds with small objects and O and A with large ones. In this study, the babies were shown objects that were larger or smaller in comparison to one another.

From the very start and almost 100 percent of the time, the babies directed their gaze first and looked longer at the smaller objects when they heard syllables using I or E, and at the larger ones with O or A.

"We don't know if this is something we are born with or something we have to learn —but it is a very early capacity," says Peña. She stresses that "the baby is not learning the word—bigger, smaller, ball, triangle—itself." Rather, she or he is "exploiting the physical properties of a sound to help categorize another [abstract] property of the environment."

Why is this important? "Early cognitive development is highly unknown. We want to understand how the infant very early in life can have a notion of the conceptual." The findings "suggest that a part of [language learning] is based on the physical property of the stimulus itself, not just on a symbolic mind."

The study gives researchers new methodologies to investigate the process of language and conceptual development —and to look at some of the persistent questions in cognitive psychology and linguistics: "What is the nature of language? Is everything symbolic or arbitrary?" Peña asks. "Or are there particular physical aspects of learning that we exploit" to begin to make sense of a large, complex, and—for a tiny infant—brand-new world.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Even before language, babies learn the world through sounds". EurekAlert. Posted: July 11, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Copan warriors found in chiapas

Two Prehispanic limestone sculptures that represent war captives and a pair of tableaux that marked the Ballgame, were found by Mexican archaeologists at Tonina Archaeological Zone, Chiapas. The discovery confirms the alliance between the Lordships of Copan, in Honduras, and Palenque, in Mexico at the war that Palenque fought against Tonina for 26 years (688 to 714 AD) to control the Usumacinta river.

Sculptures of the prisoners of Copan and both tableaux, of an approximate age of 1300 years, were found buried in late May 2011, to the south of the Ballgame Court. “All the pieces were found broken: the tableaux in more than 30 fragments, one sculpture in 20 pieces and the other was found complete but presents 3 fractures”, said director of excavations, Dr. Juan Yadeun.

Evidence to confirm alliance between Palenque and Tonina

“The sculptures – which are 1.5 metres high – are representations of Maya warriors made prisoners by ancient inhabitants of Popo (today Tonina), placed in the 4 corners of the court while still alive. After that, their depiction was placed there permanently to remind that the ruler had won the war against the Maya cities of Palenque and Copan, as revealed by inscriptions found during excavations of the Ballgame Court”, explained Dr. Yadeun.

The INAH specialist declared that “both sculptures have hieroglyphic inscriptions on the chest and loincloth that tell us that these men were subjects of lord K’uy Nic Ajaw, from the lordship of Copan, during the rule of Uaxaclajuun Ub’aah K’awiil (18 Rabbit), in the Epi Classic period (680-800 of the Common Era).”

The discovery of the two captives is physical evidence that confirms the alliance that Copan had with Palenque to fight Tonina, a struggle that went on for over two decades.

“Inscriptions mention that captives were offered with fire and copal smoke during a ceremony related to the Ballgame Court; we think it might have occurred during the inauguration of the second decorative stage of the court at the Maya reign of Popo, around 695 AD,” explained Dr. Yadeun.

He added that ancient Mayans believed that temples had their own life and they were born when inaugurated; possibly prisoners from Copan were part of the ritual.

The INAH archaeologist said that the warrior sculpture found almost complete represents a semi naked man with cloth stripes hanging from his ears; this element is found in prisoners’ representations, which were stripped of their ear ornaments.

“Between Maya peoples, hair was tied before decapitation; both prisoners appear seated with their legs crossed and their hands tied behind their backs,” he explained.

A catastrophe for Tonina

From 688 to 714 AD different battles between Tonina and Palenque took place, in order to control water in the region. Around 688 Yuhkno´m Wahywal, lord of Tonina, was captured and probably murdered by the firstborn son of Kinich Janaahb’ Pakal, ruler of Palenque, as inscriptions in Palenque point out. This catastrophe must have changed the ideology and world vision of the inhabitants of Tonina.

“For this reason they destroyed iconography of several temples and the ballgame court; they destroyed the 6 markers with the form of the celestial serpents’ head, dated from the first constructive stage of the site and linked to the stars’ movement, the cosmos, cult to mountains and struggle between the lords of light (or heaven) and the lords of darkness (or the underworld, Xibalba), to constantly create and destroy the universe,” declared Yadeun.

Victory over her enemies

He went onto explain, “In 688 AD, K’inich Baak Nal Chaahk, the lord of Popo, defeated Palenque and took several prisoners. Between 695 and 714 AD the second constructive stage at the court took place, which was dedicated to the victories of Tonina over their enemies, and where wars between the light and the darkness were represented.

“It was during this second stage that new markers were created, corresponding to the tableaux found recently, which inscriptions mention the dynastic title of the lord of Copan, K’uy Nik Ajaw”

See the video interview.

Past Horizons. 2011. "Copan warriors found in chiapas". Past Horizons. Posted: July 10, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Bringing ancient rock art into the digital age

A new digital media project at Newcastle University is proving that academic thought is not set in stone. Through the use of a modern-day tablet – the mobile phone – Northumberland’s ancient rock art is being exposed to a new generation of enthusiasts.

Archaeologists have worked side-by-side with digital media experts on this International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies project, using new technology to share information about the famous stones.

During their research, it emerged that people were often left frustrated because they couldn’t find the rock art easily, which can be tricky to locate even with a GPS, as most of the markings are flat and often difficult to spot in thick vegetation and overcast conditions.

“Some of the stones are quite weathered and it’s not obvious unless you know where to look. You could be standing right next to it and not see it,” explained Dr Aron Mazel, who led the project.

The resulting mobile website, with clear, simple navigation, should now enable anyone to find the rock art panels. Annotated drawings, recorded commentary and photographs can also be downloaded to a mobile phone to enable visitors to see the patterns more easily.

The research initiative covers three significant locations in Northumberland: Dod Law and Weetwood Moor, near Wooler, and Lordenshaw, near Rothbury, and makes use of mobile phone barcodes, known as QR codes, which link into an interactive mobile website.

Visitors can either type in the website address found on signs at each location, or scan the QR barcode to be taken to the site automatically.

“I’ve been talking to the public about rock art for about 30 years, but this is a very different approach for me,” said Dr Aron Mazel. “I’m not the most technical person, so it has been a real learning curve to work with people who understand new technology so well.”

Dr Mazel said the fact that the geometric patterns were still such a mystery was perfect for engaging people in the project.

“If you look at rock art in many other parts of the world you can identify animals and humans and obtain a sense of what was going on,” he said. “But this is entirely geometric. It’s been here for about 6,000 years and we’re still no nearer to working out exactly what it’s all about and that’s what’s so exciting.”

The team, which consisted of Dr Mazel, Dr Areti Galani, and research associates Dr Debbie Maxwell and Dr Kate Sharpe, carried out five workshops in Rothbury and Wooler in September 2010 and March 2011 to discuss the project with local people and rock art enthusiasts and to develop design ideas. They also worked with the same group of people to test and refine the prototypes.

“We wanted to move away from the ‘guided tour’ experience, instead giving people the means they need to explore for themselves,” said Dr Areti Galani, co-leader of the project and a digital heritage expert.

“The people who took part in our workshops showed us that one of the most important things for them was speculation and space to make up their own minds – they didn’t want to be told what to think about it. This is the reason why we adopted a conversational tone in the content of the mobile website.”

There were initial concerns about mobile signals being patchy, but extensive testing of different phones and networks revealed that, although it may be poor in the car parks, once on the paths the signal improves significantly.

This project breathes new life into Stan Beckensall’s extensive archive, which was digitized by Newcastle University as part of the AHRC funded Northumberland Rock Art Project six years ago.

The team applied for a £150,000 AHRC Digital Equipment and Database Enhancement for Impact grant in late 2009 to enable them to take the previous project forward.

“We’ve worked really well together as a team to produce a fantastic product and all the landowners and management bodies have been really supportive,” said Dr Mazel. “Some of them have even offered to put the signs up for us. It’s a fantastic example of people working together rather than against each other.”

Past Horizons. 2011. "Bringing ancient rock art into the digital age". Past Horizons. Posted: July 9, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch? Earth Has Entered New Age of Geological Time, Experts Say

The term Anthropocene is becoming more and more popular in usage. The term and concept was described by Nobel-prize winning scientists from Australia and Britain. It is only gradually gaining notice in North America.

Geologists from the University of Leicester are among four scientists- including a Nobel prize-winner -- who suggest that Earth has entered a new age of geological time.

The Age of Aquarius? Not quite -- It's the Anthropocene Epoch, say the scientists writing in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

And they add that the dawning of this new epoch may include the sixth largest mass extinction in Earth's history.

Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams from the University of Leicester Department of Geology; Will Steffen, Director of the Australian National University's Climate Change Institute and Paul Crutzen the Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist of Mainz University provide evidence for the scale of global change in their commentary in the American Chemical Society's' bi-weekly journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The scientists propose that, in just two centuries, humans have wrought such vast and unprecedented changes to our world that we actually might be ushering in a new geological time interval, and alter the planet for millions of years.

Zalasiewicz, Williams, Steffen and Crutzen contend that recent human activity, including stunning population growth, sprawling megacities and increased use of fossil fuels, have changed the planet to such an extent that we are entering what they call the Anthropocene (New Man) Epoch.

First proposed by Crutzen more than a decade ago, the term Anthropocene has provoked controversy. However, as more potential consequences of human activity -- such as global climate change and sharp increases in plant and animal extinctions -- have emerged, Crutzen's term has gained support. Currently, the worldwide geological community is formally considering whether the Anthropocene should join the Jurassic, Cambrian and other more familiar units on the Geological Time Scale.

The scientists note that getting that formal designation will likely be contentious. But they conclude, "However these debates will unfold, the Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined, so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other. Geologically, this is a remarkable episode in the history of this planet."

2011. "Dawn of the Anthropocene Epoch? Earth Has Entered New Age of Geological Time, Experts Say". Science Daily. Posted: March 26, 2010. Available online:

Journal Reference:

Zalasiewicz et al. The new world of the Anthropocene. Environmental Science & Technology, 2010; 100225131929071 DOI: 10.1021/es903118j

Monday, July 18, 2011

Archaic Texan Rock Art Reveals Prehistoric Culture

Thousands of years ago, Native American groups painted art under cliff overhangs along the Rio Grande. The arid climate preserved hundreds of these vivid pieces. Archaeologist Solveig Turpin discusses what the art reveals about changes in climate and the social structure of early Americans, and why it has become difficult to study.

The following is a transcript of the podcast. If you would like to listen or download the podcast, visit the site.

IRA FLATOW, host: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I am Ira Flatow.

When you think of the Texas-Mexico border, you probably think about the desert, the border fence, immigration. But does art ever come to mind? Well, in today's debates about the border, you don't often hear about this. But the borderlands are a treasure trove of archaeological history. Along the Rio Grande, the river that separates Texas and Mexico, in hidden rock shelters, under cliff overhangs, you can find hundreds of mysterious drawings of humans and animals. The area has one of the highest concentrations of archaic rock art in all of North America. I bet you didn't know that.

But the people who painted them were not the tribes we think from the old Westerns and history class. They lived in the area long before the Comanches or the Apaches ever came through. The art is not hundreds, but thousands of years old. And my next guest says this is some of the oldest religious art in North America. And archaeologists on both sides of the border are studying these sites to piece together who created the art and why.

Let me introduce my guest. Dr. Solveig Turpin is a retired archaeologist who has studied the rock art in the region for decades. She's a former director of the Borderlands Archaeological Research Unit at the University of Texas at Austin. She's author of the book "The Indigenous Art of Coahuila," about rock art in Northern Mexico. She joins us here at the Witte Museum in San Antonio, which has a terrific collection of the artwork in the museum. If you're coming to San Antonio, stop at the Witte and take a look at it. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. SOLVEIG TURPIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: I don't think people have ever heard about this, outside of your work, you know?

TURPIN: Well, it's become more - better known over the years. About 20 years go, we had a world conference here at the Witte Museum, and people came from all over the world. And it provided the first exposure...


TURPIN: the greater world.

FLATOW: Well, I was up at the Witte in the second floor, and I invite everybody to go up there and take a look at it. And I was looking at the artwork, and it's hard to - as a layperson, I can't describe it. So how would you describe what the artwork looks like?

TURPIN: Well, there's various styles of artwork out there, which is one of our great boons, that we have a lot of rock art in a relatively contained area. And you can detect four prehistoric styles that are relatively stacked one upon each other, and then a historic one that comes after that, which is obvious, because of the European - in fact, longhorns, to get back to our subject...

FLATOW: The panels(ph) show up there.

TURPIN: Yes, yes.


TURPIN: They had a great fascination with domestic animals. And so the longhorn was perpetuated on rock shelter walls.

FLATOW: And, often, I noticed in the early style, they show a medicine man or a religious figure in there.

TURPIN: The focus of the earliest rock art - which we assume is between three to 4,000 years old - is a religious practitioner. And he's commonly called a shaman, and that's created great sturme und drang in the art world because there's arguments over whether it is or isn't. But for convenience sake, it's a central figure. He's endowed with animal attributes, and he's armed with weapons like spear throwers. It's a - he's in the process of becoming an animal, or the animal - acquiring animal attributes. And so he's an animistic figure.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Some of these figures are on our website at, if you'd like to take a look at them before you get to the Witte. There's also what seems to be a crucifix, but it's not, is it, there?

TURPIN: No, it's not. It's the ascending figure, with his arms spread out in that classic pose that seems to denote a religious transformation for - in many religions outside of this. So when they're showing that, it's the human with his outspread arms.

FLATOW: Interesting. So when I looked through enough of them, some of those figures looked like they had, you know, fuzz on them like they might be - what do you call the cacti that grow with the arms...

TURPIN: Prickly pears?

FLATOW: No, the cacti with the arms on them.

TURPIN: Oh, saguaros.

FLATOW: Saguaros. Almost like that were incorporated into some of those figures.

TURPIN: But we don't have saguaro cactus.

FLATOW: Yeah. I think it looks like it could have been.

TURPIN: Actually, what that fuzz probably is is fur that's showing the animal transformation, because the human is growing. He's got panther ears. He'll have a tail, wings, feathers, fangs, claws. It's just showing that he is in that mid-zone between human and animal.

FLATOW: And how has the art survived for all these thousands of years there?

TURPIN: Well, it's got a great deal to do with the climate and the fact that they paint them in dry rock shelters, where they're sheltered by the curvature of the rock. But - this is a pretty obvious statement, but limestone is porous. And when the water seeps down and comes to the surface and evaporates, it leaves a film, and that film covers the pigment, and so it's actually preserved behind a cloudy film of mineral.

FLATOW: Oh, so we don't see that? We don't see that...

TURPIN: You will in a cross-section. We have cross-sectioned pieces and you can see.

FLATOW: Yeah. We have a gentleman in the audience who'd like to ask a question.

JAY BROWN: Yes. Thank you. I'm Jay Brown, and I live in Shiner, Texas. And I'm really interested in your topic. I'm wondering, have you found or are you aware of any other sites besides just the trans-Pecos area, the Big Bend area? Is there anything, like, maybe in central Texas or east Texas or north Texas, the rock part?

TURPIN: There's a few site in central Texas. There's hardly any in east Texas because the climate just isn't conducive to their preservation. There's quite a few in the panhandle, but most of those are petroglyphs as opposed to paintings. So there's a lot of rock art just outside the lower Pecos. There's a great enclave out around El Paso that you may know, Hueco Tanks State Park.

BROWN: Right, right. Sure, Sure. Right.

FLATOW: Well, thank you for that question.

BROWN: Yeah. Thank you.

FLATOW: The ones that were talking about on the Rio Grande, are these the same people, are they different people who migrated in and out to create the drawings?

TURPIN: They're sequences done by different people, and that what makes it such an interesting archeological problem because you can see the changes in world view. The early people are very ornate and decorative and religious and ritualistic, and the ones that follow are much more mundane. They're showing everyday life. And so you see that the object of the art was different.

FLATOW: Right. So, do we know what happened to these people (unintelligible)?

TURPIN: We have some pretty good ideas, if we look at a great climatic model that's been developed for the area, that there were movements of people in and out in front of different climatic waves. And they - people used to say, they disappeared as well. All of a sudden, these people just vanished.

FLATOW: Like the Anasazi.


FLATOW: They fled somewhere. We don't know where they went.

TURPIN: Yeah. But most of the time, I think that as the climate became drier, they moved south into Mexico. And, as it became more climate, they moved back north into Texas.

FLATOW: Very interesting. Yes, we have open microphones here in the audience if you'd like to come up and share your views about the art. Maybe you've seen it. Are these sites open to the public?

TURPIN: There are some sites that are open. There's Seminole Canyon State Historical Park. The Rock Art Foundation, which is based here in San Antonio, takes tours to various sites out there. And the Texas Parks and Wildlife is just now acquiring a lot of land on the Devils River that will be open for scheduled tours.

FLATOW: And do we know how they actually painted the stuff?

TURPIN: Oh, yeah.

FLATOW: Because some of them is pretty big, isn't it?

TURPIN: Yeah. We have a pretty - we have got shells that they use as a little palette that are stained with paint. We know they ground mineral paints to make the pigments. They're made of hematite, limonite. And we have brushes that have pigment on them that they used to apply it. Sometimes they finger-painted. You can tell the designs in the finger painting. Other times, they held it up and blew dry a pigment around it to make a negative image.

FLATOW: No kidding.

TURPIN: So they had a lot of ways of painting.

FLATOW: But, so they were having fun with this stuff. The serious shaman stuff, some of it was interesting, experimental stuff.

TURPIN: Well, I think it was an information system, not unlike radio or television or newspapers are today. So, yeah, it had an entertainment quality to it.

FLATOW: Is there any evidence that kids were doing any of this stuff?

TURPIN: No, I don't believe so. I think it was much more of a - even though some it looks rather humorous to us, I don't think it was - they considered it funny.

FLATOW: Interesting. Yes, sir.

CHRISTOPHER BROWN: Hi. Christopher Brown, San Antonio. You mentioned about migratory patterns and possible relationships, and I was wondering if we could take that a step further. Did these people associate or become or live at the same time as, say, Mayans and Aztecs or other Indian tribes in Mexico and Central and South America?

TURPIN: Well, they were definitely contemporaneous with the forerunners, of course, of it, but direct contact is probably not the answer to the similarities between the styles. I mean, people see similarities between the emphasis on, perhaps, a feline character, and that'll appear in Olmec art and it'll appear in the art of Chavin in Peru, just like it appears on the Lower Pecos. But these are the outpourings of a basic religious system, and they don't necessarily mean that there was any kind of contact between the people.

BROWN: Okay. Thank you.

FLATOW: And how widespread along the river would this be?

TURPIN: It runs about 90 miles.

FLATOW: 90 miles. Could there be other undiscovered places that...

TURPIN: I don't think so. It's been pretty intensive on the north side of the river. On the south side of the river in Mexico, yes, there's hundreds of sites that haven't been recorded over there.

FLATOW: Because?

TURPIN: The terrain is extremely difficult. There aren't roads. You can't do your normal walk around looking for them. So most of what we know has been reported to us by cavers, ranchers, cowboys, people that have a familiarity with the land.

FLATOW: And I'm sure they're afraid to go to these places because of the violence in the regions there now.

TURPIN: Well, everything that we did that's reported, we did during a time when there was still easy access or relatively easy access. Research now has come to a complete halt. Nobody is brave enough or foolish enough...

FLATOW: Really?

TURPIN: go over there. So there is no work going on at all in the north of Mexico.

FLATOW: Wow. So, there's all this stuff waiting to be discovered that no one can get to.

TURPIN: Yes. And then there are difficulties, too, now with the Homeland Security approaches because you can't just go over there. You have to have a passport. For a Mexican student to come to the United States, they have to have a passport. So there's a lot of bureaucratic paperwork that's now put between it and the research itself.

FLATOW: It wasn't like the old days.

TURPIN: No. Never is, is it?

FLATOW: No. Long pause. Yes, ma'am?

NANCY: I'm Nancy from San Antonio. And I wish you would tell about how in more modern times, fast forwarding, a local photographer was hunting and discovered the rock art. And I was wondering if before that time, the rock art was known to anyone but the property owners?

TURPIN: Yes. It began actually being publicized in the 1930s. There was a super draftsperson, Forrest Kirkland, who took upon himself the task of recording all the rock art in Texas. And his work was published in increments and finally in a book by the University of Texas Press. And then there was another book in 1938 called "The Rock Art" or the "Picture-Writing of Texas Indians." So it's out there, but it didn't really hit the newsstands, so to speak...

FLATOW: Right.

TURPIN: ...until Forrest Kirkland and Bill Newcomb put out "The Rock Art of Texas Indians" in 1967.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. As I say, you can see a slideshow of a lot of his art work on our website at This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Dr. Solveig Turpin, who is a retired archaeologist and author of "The Indigenous Art of Coahuila." I'm pronouncing that correctly...

TURPIN: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: ...I hope, because I never get any name right. So it wouldn't be a gift if I got your name right here in this program. And it's rock art in northern Mexico. And it's quite interesting - can you give us an idea what it's like to be an archaeologist out there? What, you know, I hear stories of other archaeologists, and it's almost like you got to be nuts to go out into the badlands here.

TURPIN: Well, yeah. You probably might say eccentric.

FLATOW: OK. I give you eccentric.

TURPIN: Eccentric.


TURPIN: It's a very liberating thing.

FLATOW: Liberating. It sounds like...

TURPIN: Yeah. There is very little contact with, quote, "civilization," at least in those days, and you'd go camp out, so you had all the things that people like to do on vacation. Let's go camping at the park. That was what we did in our work. So we were having our vacation while we were working.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And is it basically on your back looking around, digging up? I mean, or do you have to open up caves, boulders, push them aside? How do you get into these things?

TURPIN: A lot - it's a lot of climbing.


TURPIN: An awful lot of climbing because that rock shelter will be up there and somebody will see it and say, oh, look over there. And you'll go, oh no.

FLATOW: No, you look over there.



TURPIN: You go up there and holler if there's anything.

FLATOW: And take this stick to get those mosquitoes or whatever...

TURPIN: And some of the pictures that are on exhibit upstairs here in the Witte Museum were gotten in Mexico with tremendous burdens, hauled up hills for Jim Zintgraff, who was the Witte photographer at the time. And he loved old equipment, heavy old tripods, none of this...

FLATOW: He had to take them with him.

TURPIN: Yeah, flash bulbs. And so all of this would be in a pack and be carried up there so he could take his pictures.

FLATOW: Right. Thought he was Ansel Adams...


FLATOW: Yes. One quick question here. Hello. I was wondering when one group would leave and another group would come, would they, like, incorporate what was previously drawn and sort of add to it or they just do away and say our style is better, so we're just going to draw something over your art?

TURPIN: In the beginning with the very ornate art that is so impressive, I mean, the figures can be 12 feet tall and reach 18 feet off the ceiling. They're monumental, and they're impressive. And rarely did anybody who came after that do anything to damage them. It was though they were created by the ancients, and we're going to revere them. But they did sometimes use them as a background. And it's almost comical because they will - you will have a, quote, "shaman" figure with a hollow body and inside it will be six little dancers.

It won't have damaged the older painting, but it will have used it as a framing mechanism. But the later style - also, there is a great deal of scraping off of paint pigment from a lot of these. And it isn't necessarily vandalism because they would take this paint and mix it into their puberty ceremonies and to drinks and things to gain the power of the ancestor.

FLATOW: Wow. Wow. Thank you very much for sharing this with us. And as I say, it's right here in the Witte. If you want to go up to the second floor and see this great exhibit over the artwork that they have collected over the years, you're more than welcome to do that. Dr. Solveig Turpin is the former director of the Borderlands Archaeological Research Unit at the University of Texas at Austin. Thank you again.

TURPIN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Yeah. And as I say, go to our website and see a slideshow of the photo of the rock art until you can get here to the Witte.

2011. "Archaic Texan Rock Art Reveals Prehistoric Culture". NPR. Posted: July 8, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, July 17, 2011

'Language Protein' May Help Build Brain Circuits

A protein in the brain that has been linked to the development of human language may push developing neurons to reach out and touch someone—or, at least, other brain cells, according to a new study. Such early links could organize the cell-to-cell connections critical for learning complex tasks later in life, including reciting Dr. Seuss, researchers say.

Researchers first identified the FOXP2 gene and its protein in 2001. The study involved a family that had difficulty pronouncing and understanding words, and since then scientists have suspected that the gene may have played a role in the evolution of human language. It even appears to be important to "speech" in other animals: zebra finches with low levels of the FOXP2 protein, for example, can't learn the songs that other birds sing.

Most studies of FOXP2 have focused on its effects post-birth, says Simon Fisher, a neurogeneticist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, Netherlands. So scientists have been unclear about its role in very early brain building.

To tease this out, Fisher and colleagues turned to embryonic mice. The team screened thousands of known genes in whole mice brains, looking for those switched on or off by the FOXP2 protein. In brain tissue bathed in high concentrations of FOXP2, the protein kicked about 160 genes into gear. Another 180 genes in these cells slowed down protein production. All of this suggests that FOXP2 is a "hub in a network of genes which might be important," Fisher says.

FOXP2 casts a wide net and also disproportionately oversees genes involved in brain cell organization and growth, most notably the growth of neuronal neurites, appendages that reach out to other neurons. In fact, many neurons in the brains of mice lacking functional FOXP2 proteins had noticeably stubbier appendages, Fisher's team reports online today in PLoS Genetics.

Such appendage stretching could be critical for learning. Early brain cells tend to chat with too many other neurons initially, explains Peter Carlsson, a developmental biologist at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, who was not involved with the study. But when animals learn, those excess limbs get lopped off until only a few critical connections remain. Without FOXP2, it's possible that "you have less starting material for that pruning or adaptation," he says.

Still, the study doesn't fully explain how FOXP2 regulates human speech, says Sridhar Hannenhalli, a computational biologist at the University of Maryland, College Park. "Neurite growth in any arbitrary neuron, it's not going to lead to language development."

The answer may lie more in motor than language skills, Fisher says. Mice lacking the FOXP2 protein have trouble completing basic movement tasks, such as running on a rodent wheel. And as anyone who's read Dr. Seuss's There's a Wocket in My Pocket! aloud knows, speaking is a taxing feat, involving complex lip pursing and tongue undulations: "It's one of the most challenging things we do."

Strain, Daniel. 2011. "'Language Protein' May Help Build Brain Circuits". Science. Posted: July 7, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Linguists examine obstacles to native-like proficiency in foreign language acquisition

The use of English as a second and foreign language is steadily increasing, and although English and German have common roots, even advanced German learners of English find it difficult to achieve a native-like level of proficiency in English. "It appears that many of the obstacles that advanced learners find difficult to overcome are related to linguistic variation, to contexts in which fixed grammatical rules are not available, and several alternatives of expression are possible," explains Professor Marcus Callies of the Department of English and Linguistics at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). He investigates the specific linguistic phenomena that advanced students of English in particular experience as difficult, and is convinced that the outcome of his research will not only help improve the training of university students who will become teachers of English at German high schools, but also assist early-career researchers to further develop their academic writing skills.

"So far, comparatively little research has been carried out with regard to the distinct challenges and the remaining obstacles that advanced learners face when trying to attain native-like competence in English," says Callies, Professor at the Department of English and Linguistics. "For example, we do not know how several well-known determinants of language variation operate in foreign language acquisition and to what extent such linguistic knowledge is transferred from the native to the foreign language." One example is the order of elements in a sentence with regard to their complexity (or "weight") and information content. In German as well as in English, weighty, complex elements that tend to contain new information are usually placed at the end of the sentence. However, despite these parallels, even advanced learners still tend to have considerable problems in this area, possibly because they are not aware of the existence and effects of syntactic weight as a determinant of variation, and thus, cannot make use of their knowledge to benefit learning.

Callies is currently compiling an electronic text corpus that will be used as a database for research on lexico-grammatical variation in advanced learner varieties. He already presented the "Corpus of Academic Learner English (CALE)" project at a conference in Oslo in June 2011. Since September 2010, academic texts produced by students of English at Mainz University are being collected for CALE. The texts are classified into seven academic text types such as research papers, reading reports, reviews, and abstracts. The texts are submitted in electronic format, pre-processed, and then annotated with linguistic metadata and student biodata. The corpus is being continuously enlarged, and it is planned to extend it to approximately one to two million words. There is currently no comparable corpus that allows research into academic writing in advanced foreign language learning. Thanks to the theoretical and methodological combination of second language acquisition and learner corpus research, CALE will facilitate the quantitative and qualitative investigation of patterns of lexico-grammatical variation in advanced learners.

Moreover, the project has some major implications for foreign language teaching because the research findings will be used to provide recommendations for foreign language teachers and learners by developing teaching materials and suggestions for teaching units in practical language courses (e.g. "Academic Writing"). Thus, the outcome is particularly relevant to the training of foreign language teachers, as the majority of students will ultimately work as teachers of English and pass on the skills they have acquired. It is also planned to provide support for other students and academics: "Unlike the Anglo-American education system, German secondary schools and universities do not usually provide courses in academic writing in the students' mother tongue, so that first-year students have basically no training in academic writing at all," notes Callies. While the scientific community expects research findings to be published in English, the appropriate skills need to be acquired by the individual researcher in a process of learning by doing. Courses in academic writing skills are only rarely offered. "This is why we want to provide suggestions for the improvement of curricula and develop concepts for academic writing courses," says Callies.

There are plans to extend the project and form an international research network, first within Europe and later possibly with partners outside Europe. There is already collaboration with universities in Portugal, Spain, and China. Researchers will then be able to determine whether native speakers of German, Spanish, or Chinese share the same problems in advanced foreign language acquisition. In June 2011, Maria Belen Diez-Bedmar, an expert in the field of learner corpus research from the University of Jaen in Spain, visited the Callies team to exchange experiences and discuss future collaborations.

Callies' team is still looking for partners to contribute to the corpus. These can originate from any field of study, including the humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, and economics. "We would like to incorporate other disciplines and will be happy to accept English texts that were not produced at university," says Callies. Contributors should have advanced English skills, i.e. nine years of school English and preferably additional English training.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Linguists examine obstacles to native-like proficiency in foreign language acquisition". EurekAlert. Posted: July 6, 2011. Available online:

Friday, July 15, 2011

Interaction Is Critical for the Evolution of the Language

An international research group, including of the Department of Artificial Intelligence of the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid's Facultad de Informatica, has concluded that collaboration and interaction are essential elements in the evolution of language. They also have shown that the most effective forms of communication can propagate in a community in a similar way to a virus.

The results of this research were published in the academic journal Cognitive Science.

This work provides evidence that supports a collaborative theory of the evolution of language, one in which language evolves out of the coordinated activity of communicators. It also offers evidence for an alternative to present theories that explain the evolution of language based upon the passing of language from one generation to another much as genes are passed from a parent to her offspring.

New experiment on communication

In this work, researchers from the University of Western Australia, the University of Glasgow and the UPM used a novel communication experiment, one that prohibited participants from using their existing language, to create a context in which human subjects could develop simple communication systems in a laboratory setting.

The participants were grouped in communities of eight people, or micro-societies, and participated in a graphical communication game similar to "Pictionary." The representations that subjects created and used to communicate evolved from simple iconic representations to more symbolic and abstract representations, like words in today's spoken languages.

The main result of this work is evidence that supports one of the alternative theories explaining the evolution of language, in which collaboration and interaction are critical. Also, it was shown that the most effective ways of communicating can spread through a community like a virus from person to person.

New light on an old debate

At present, very little is known regarding how spoken language evolved. This is largely due to the lack of evidence regarding how early humans communicated. Written language does give some clues regarding how language developed, but our earliest written texts date from thousands of years ago, while it is believed that humans have had linguistic capacities for more than a hundred thousand years.

Thus, despite a great deal of philosophical speculation regarding the evolution of spoken languages, very few facts exist to validate these accounts. This research sheds new light on this old debate.


Science Daily. 2011. "Interaction Is Critical for the Evolution of the Language". Science Daily. Posted: July 5, 2011. Available online:

Journal Reference:

Nicolas Fay, Simon Garrod, Leo Roberts, Nik Swoboda. The Interactive Evolution of Human Communication Systems. Cognitive Science, 2010; 34 (3): 351 DOI: 10.1111/j.1551-6709.2009.01090.x

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Origins of Archery in Africa

It is well understood that projectile weapons allow lethal killing power at a safe distance and their use is near universal among human groups. Before the firearm began it’s rise to prominence over the last 500 years the most popular projectile weapons systems were the atlatl (spearthrower/dart) and the bow and arrow.

Most researchers consider these as ‘‘true’’ projectile technologies, distinguishing them from thrown spears, throwing sticks and other hurled weapons. There is considerable archaeological consensus that projectile weapons were in use by the Late Palaeolithic at least 30,000 years ago. However, last year, anthropologist Marlize Lombard of South Africa’s University of Johannesburg and her colleagues, reported in the journal Antiquity, that arrows were dated to at least 64,000 years old, and were discovered not in Europe, but in South Africa. This was based on a single bloodstained quartz arrowhead recovered from the the Sibudu Cave site.

In the new Journal of Archaeological Science study, Lombard reports more arrowheads and more evidence to push back the age of the bow and arrow. This adds more weight to a bone point, that could have been an arrow tip that was also excavated from the same site and published in 2008 by Lucinda Backwell and colleagues from the University of the Witwatersrand.

The real importance of these finds is what it represents in terms of cognitive archaeology. The concepts of complex thought that are required and the methodology of thought may provide further clues into the minds of our distant ancestors and what prepared them for their spread across the globe.

“Although the existence of bow and arrow technology (more than 60,000 years ago) may have far-reaching consequences for hypotheses about human behavioural evolution and adaptation, it is by no means easy to establish,” Lombard says at the beginning of her study which looks in microscopic detail at 16 quartz blades.

Her study concludes that some of these hafted points might have been launched from bows. While “most attributes such as micro-residue distribution patterns and micro-wear will develop similarly on points used to tip spears, darts or arrows” and “explicit tests for distinctions between thrown spears and projected arrows have not yet been conducted” the researchers find “contextual support” for the use of these points on arrows: a broad range of animals were hunted, with an emphasis on taxa that prefer closed forested niches, including fast moving, terrestrial and arboreal animals which would be difficult to hunt with anything other than an bow and arrow.

Expanding further, this is also an argument for the use of traps, including snares with the associated comprehension for the use of cords and knots which would also have been adequate for the production of bows. The employment of snares would also demonstrate a practical understanding of the latent energy stored in bent branches, the main principle of bow construction.

Despite a body of literature focusing on the functionality of modern and stylistically distinct projectile points, comparatively little attention has been paid to quantifying the functionality of the early stages of projectile use. Previous work identified a simple ballistics measure, the Tip Cross-Sectional Area, as a way of determining if a given class of stone points could have served as effective projectile.

The new study adds an alternate measure, the Tip Cross-Sectional Perimeter, a more accurate proxy of the force needed to penetrate a target to a lethal depth. The current study discusses this measure and uses it to analyse a collection of measurements from African Middle Stone Age pointed stone artefacts. Several point types that were rejected in previous studies are statistically indistinguishable from ethnographic projectile points using this new measure.

The researchers wrote in their paper: “Hunting with a bow and arrow requires intricate multi-staged planning, material collection and tool preparation and implies a range of innovative social and communication skills.”

Dr Lombard explained that her ultimate aim was to answer the “big question“: When did we start to think in the same way that we do now?

Past Horizons. 2011. "The Origins of Archery in Africa". Past Horizons. Posted: July 4, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Bioarchaeology helps identify origins of a people

Christopher Stojanowski “reads” bones to understand the past and its peoples and the Arizona State University bioarchaeologist, who specialises in dental anthropology, is able to extract information from human remains that tell a great deal about that person’s life, as well as his or her cause of death. Inherited physical features, injuries, disease and nutrition are among the facets Stojanowski deciphers when examining a skeleton.

Expanding that approach to a collection of remains, he is able to piece together the origin and “life-path” of an entire people.

“Ethnogenesis – the emergence of a people – is a complex topic and not typically considered in bioarchaeology,” said Stojanowski, who is an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Stojanowski focused his work in two areas: North Africa and the Southeast United States. He promotes the fact that evolutionary research does not have to be historical and descriptive. He explained,“You can use evolutionary analyses to say something a bit more humanistic about the human past”

Recently his research on the early Christianised indigenous peoples of the American Southeast is beginning to attract attention; this is a subject he was first drawn to after working on a field school at a Spanish Mission outside Tallahassee, Florida.

His research in this arena forms the basis of his latest book, “Bioarchaeology of Ethnogenesis in the Colonial Southeast,” awarded the 2011 Southern Anthropological Society’s James Mooney Prize, which recognizes distinguished research on the American South and its peoples.

The book revolves around data Stojanowski gathered from cemetery remains and then analysed to trace the evolving social identities of Native Americans living in Florida’s Spanish missions during the 17th century.

Applying biological, social and historical lenses to the material, he brings to light patterns of epidemic disease and population decline, slave raiding and fugitivism from the Spanish missions. He makes the case for native Catholic populations of Florida being subjected to prejudice by the Spanish and English, as well as England’s indigenous allies, which led to the forging of a common social experience and gave rise to the development of a Seminole identity during the 18th century.

Stojanowski now intends to use the same methodology and concentrate on the people of North Africa. “While working with historic populations has been interesting, I can’t help but think about the fact that most of human existence was spent in smaller hunter-gatherer societies, and my work in North Africa focuses on these peoples,” he stated.

Though his specialisation is in the Americas, Stojanowski notes that his research in one region informs the other. “Much of the work on Spanish colonial Florida relates to declining health with agriculture and Spanish contact,” he said. “In North Africa, there is a nice parallel where the shift from food collecting to food production entailed increasing mobility and a focus on cattle pastoralism rather than settled agricultural villages, as in the Near East.”

Stojanowski continues to work on refining methods of analysis with respect to inherited features of the bones and teeth. He teaches courses on a number of topics, from human evolution to forensic and dental anthropology.

He continues to work on the short and long-term effects of microevolution and demography on human community formation, manifestations of identity and ethnicity and transformation in community organization. His research focuses on both colonial period processes of tribal ethnogenesis and long-term relationships between cultural and biological variation. Stojanowski’s interest in modelling long-term relational processes requires use of archaeological data.

For more information:

  • Christopher Stojanowski
  • Stojanowski, C.M. (2010). Bioarchaeology of Ethnogenesis in the Colonial Southeast. University of Florida Press.
  • Knudson, K.J. & Stojanowski, C. M. (editors) (2009). Bioarchaeology and Identity in the Americas. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.
  • Stojanowski, C. M. & Duncan, W.N. (2008). Anthropological Contributions to the Cause of the Georgia Martyrs. Occasional Papers of the Georgia Southern Museum, Macon,GA: Georgia Southern Museum.
  • Ethnogenesis (Wikipedia)


    Past Horizons. 2011. "Bioarchaeology helps identify origins of a people". . Posted: June 30, 2011. Available online:
  • Tuesday, July 12, 2011

    Baby's Brain Wired for Human Sounds

    Even when they're only 3 months old, infants can recognize human sounds like coughing or laughing. And if the sounds are negative in nature, the babies' brains show activity in areas involved in emotion.

    "It is probably because the human voice is such an important social cue that the brain shows an early specialization for its processing," said Anna Blasi of King's College London, one of the researchers in a study involving scanning the brains of babies between 3 months and 7 months old. "This may represent the very first step in social interactions and language learning."

    While the babies were sleeping in the scanner, the researchers played neutral humans sounds, such as coughing or yawning, and compared the babies' brain reactions with those produced when the babies heard sounds of water or toys.

    The part of the brain that in adults reacts to human vocalizations lit up when the researchers played the neutral human sounds, the researchers said in a statement.

    "We were very surprised to find that the area of the temporal cortex that responded to the human voice more than to environmental sounds was so similar in its location to the adult area showing the same specialization," study researcher Evelyne Mercure of University College London said.

    When the little participants heard sad sounds such as crying, there was an increase in brain activity in regions associated with emotional processing in adults, which could mean babies are already able to empathize and understand different emotional states.

    "We are now carrying out more research in this area to help us understand how differences in brain development arise, if we can use these to accurately identify babies who will go on to suffer from disorders such as autism, and if they can be used to help measure the effectiveness of interventions," added study author Declan Murphy, also of King's College London.

    Welsh, Jennifer. 2011. "Baby's Brain Wired for Human Sounds". Live Science. Posted: June 30, 2011. Available online:

    Monday, July 11, 2011

    Archaeologists follow the evolution of a french town

    For over six years French archaeologists have carried out excavations in the town of Bondy – situated close to the capital, Paris – discovering occupational evidence spanning 800 years (3-11 centuries AD).

    Successive funerary spaces

    Between the 3rd and the 5th centuries AD, a vast necropolis was established on the site. With more than 400 graves, it has now been partially excavated. The deceased were placed in coffins of which archaeologists have occasionally found traces of wood and nails.

    Brought to light in 2007, seven stone sarcophagi, aligned on a north-south axis, marked the limit of the necropolis. An eighth sarcophagus is at present being excavated.

    During the Merovingian era (6-8 centuries AD), funeral practices evolved and the necropolis moved towards the south-west. Early in the 7th century, one of the most ancient textual sources, the Testament of Ermentrude, relates the presence of a church in Bondy, around which the cemetery was created. Previous excavations revealed the presence of plaster sarcophagi, sometimes decorated. The deceased were found to be dressed, and adorned with belt plates and pins to fasten the clothes.

    In 2007, the excavation at the foot of the church revealed graves of plague victims. The deceased, sometimes in groups of five, were placed in multiple graves. This discovery of victims of the terrible 1348 plague is exceptional in the Île-de-France region. Genetic and carbon 14 dating have confirmed this discovery.

    A Carolingian village

    Presently, archaeologists are excavating an important Carolingian village of the 9-11 centuries AD. Numerous post holes have been found indicating imposing buildings and outlining Bondy’s urban organization. Also present are the remain of small huts, some containing evidence for weaving looms. Ovens, grain silos and drainage ditches are also apparent.

    2011. "Archaeologists follow the evolution of a french town". Past Horizons. Posted: June 27, 2011. Available online:

    Sunday, July 10, 2011

    Hope for endangered language in Spain

    The endangered language Caló is spoken by Romani people in Spain. Yet the future holds promise for the language since there is a great deal of interest in preserving it, for example among young Romanies. This is one conclusion reached in a new doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg.

    Caló is one of the about 5,400 languages that researchers believe will become extinct before the end of this century. It belongs to a group of languages called Para-Romani, where the vocabulary is mainly from Romani but the grammar, morphology, phonology and syntax, in the case of Caló, come from Spanish.

    'In Spain there is considerable interest in reintroducing Caló by letting young Romanies learn the language in school. The potential for success is largely determined by the future speakers' attitudes to the language and its speakers,' says the author of the thesis Pierre Andersson.

    Andersson studied the attitudes of both Romanies and non-Romanies to Caló and its speakers – a type of study that has never been conducted before. A total of 230 adolescents aged 14-15 years participated in the study, which was conducted in the Andalusian cities Seville, Jerez de la Frontera and Fuengirola. The subjects for example listened to recordings of voices speaking Spanish and Caló at the same time as they wrote down their impressions of the voices. They also answered a set of questions regarding the voices.

    'The results show that the adolescents, who claim to belong to the ethnic group Romanies, have positive attitudes to both Caló and Caló speakers. The same can be said about those who have frequent contact with the language, meaning that it is spoken by somebody in their household.'

    Moreover, girls are more positive than boys. The teenagers' knowledge of some Caló words was also tested, and it was found that the most knowledgeable were also the most positive towards the language.

    'The fact that young individuals have positive attitudes to Caló and its speakers implies good prospects for a Caló reintroduction project,' says Andersson.

    He emphasises the importance of projects where young people get to learn the language, in order to increase the number of speakers.

    'These reintroduction projects are very important to minority groups, since they may mark the end of a long history of discrimination and they facilitate appreciation of and respect for these people's ethnic heritage, both among themselves and in other groups in society. In addition, the projects help build bridges between minority and majority groups in countries, leading to improved relations.'

    EurekAlert. 2011. "Hope for endangered language in Spain". EurekAlert. Posted: June 27, 2011. Available online:

    Saturday, July 9, 2011

    Deep History of Coconuts Decoded: Origins of Cultivation, Ancient Trade Routes, and Colonization of the Americas

    he coconut (the fruit of the palm Cocos nucifera) is the Swiss Army knife of the plant kingdom; in one neat package it provides a high-calorie food, potable water, fiber that can be spun into rope, and a hard shell that can be turned into charcoal. What's more, until it is needed for some other purpose it serves as a handy flotation device.

    No wonder people from ancient Austronesians to Captain Bligh pitched a few coconuts aboard before setting sail. (The mutiny of the Bounty is supposed to have been triggered by Bligh's harsh punishment of the theft of coconuts from the ship's store.)

    So extensively is the history of the coconut interwoven with the history of people traveling that Kenneth Olsen, a plant evolutionary biologist, didn't expect to find much geographical structure to coconut genetics when he and his colleagues set out to examine the DNA of more than 1300 coconuts from all over the world.

    "I thought it would be mostly a mish-mash," he says, thoroughly homogenized by humans schlepping coconuts with them on their travels.

    He was in for a surprise. It turned out that there are two clearly differentiated populations of coconuts, a finding that strongly suggests the coconut was brought under cultivation in two separate locations, one in the Pacific basin and the other in the Indian Ocean basin. What's more, coconut genetics also preserve a record of prehistoric trade routes and of the colonization of the Americas.

    The discoveries of the team, which included Bee Gunn, now of the Australian National University in Australia, and Luc Baudouin of the Centre International de Recherches en Agronomie pour le Développement (CIRAD) in Montpellier, France, as well as Olsen, associate professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis, are described in the June 23 online issue of the journal PLoS ONE.

    Morphology a red herring

    Before the DNA era, biologists recognized a domesticated plant by its morphology. In the case of grains, for example, one of the most important traits in domestication is the loss of shattering, or the tendency of seeds to break off the central grain stalk once mature.

    The trouble was it was hard to translate coconut morphology into a plausible evolutionary history.

    There are two distinctively different forms of the coconut fruit, known as niu kafa and niu vai, Samoan names for traditional Polynesian varieties. The niu kafa form is triangular and oblong with a large fibrous husk. The niu vai form is rounded and contains abundant sweet coconut "water" when unripe.

    "Quite often the niu vai fruit are brightly colored when they're unripe, either bright green, or bright yellow. Sometimes they're a beautiful gold with reddish tones," says Olsen.

    Coconuts have also been traditionally classified into tall and dwarf varieties based on the tree "habit," or shape. Most coconuts are talls, but there are also dwarfs that are only several feet tall when they begin reproducing. The dwarfs account for only 5 percent of coconuts.

    Dwarfs tend to be used for "eating fresh," and the tall forms for coconut oil and for fiber.

    "Almost all the dwarfs are self fertilizing and those three traits -- being dwarf, having the rounded sweet fruit, and being self-pollinating -- are thought to be the definitive domestication traits," says Olsen.

    "The traditional argument was that the niu kafa form was the wild, ancestral form that didn't reflect human selection, in part because it was better adapted to ocean dispersal," says Olsen. Dwarf trees with niu vai fruits were thought to be the domesticated form.

    The trouble is it's messier than that. "You almost always find coconuts near human habitations," says Olsen, and "while the niu vai is an obvious domestication form, the niu kafa form is also heavily exploited for copra (the dried meat ground and pressed to make oil) and coir (fiber woven into rope)."

    "The lack of universal domestication traits together with the long history of human interaction with coconuts, made it difficult to trace the coconut's cultivation origins strictly by morphology," Olsen says.

    DNA was a different story.

    Collecting coconut DNA

    The project got started when Gunn, who had long been interested in palm evolution, and who was then at the Missouri Botanical Garden, contacted Olsen, who had the laboratory facilities needed to study palm DNA.

    Together they won a National Geographic Society grant that allowed Gunn to collect coconut DNA in regions of the western Indian Ocean for which there were no data. The snippets of leaf tissue from the center of the coconut tree's crown she sent home in zip-lock bags to be analyzed.

    "We had reason to suspect that coconuts from these regions -- especially Madagascar and the Comoros Islands -- might show evidence of ancient 'gene flow' events brought about by ancient Austronesians setting up migration routes and trade routes across the southern Indian Ocean," Olsen says.

    Olsen's lab genotyped 10 microsatellite regions in each palm sample. Microsatellites are regions of stuttering DNA where the same few nucleotide units are repeated many times. Mutations pop up and persist pretty easily in these regions because they usually don't affect traits that are important to survival and so aren't selected against, says Olsen. "So we can use these genetic markers to 'fingerprint' the coconut," he says.

    The new collections were combined with a vast dataset that had been established by CIRAD, a French agricultural research center, using the same genetic markers. "These data were being used for things like breeding, but no one had gone through and systematically examined the genetic variation in the context of the history of the plant," Olsen says.

    Two origins of cultivation

    The most striking finding of the new DNA analysis is that the Pacific and Indian Ocean coconuts are quite distinct genetically. "About a third of the total genetic diversity can be partitioned between two groups that correspond to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean," says Olsen.

    "That's a very high level of differentiation within a single species and provides pretty conclusive evidence that there were two origins of cultivation of the coconut," he says.

    In the Pacific, coconuts were likely first cultivated in island Southeast Asia, meaning the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and perhaps the continent as well. In the Indian Ocean the likely center of cultivation was the southern periphery of India, including Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and the Laccadives.

    The definitive domestication traits -- the dwarf habit, self-pollination and niu vai fruits -- arose only in the Pacific, however, and then only in a small subset of Pacific coconuts, which is why Olsen speaks of origins of cultivation rather than of domestication.

    "At least we have it easier than scientists who study animal domestication," he says. "So much of being a domesticated animal is being tame, and behavioral traits aren't preserved in the archeological record."

    Did it float or was it carried?

    One exception to the general Pacific/Indian Ocean split is the western Indian Ocean, specifically Madagascar and the Comoros Islands, where Gunn had collected. The coconuts there are a genetic mixture of the Indian Ocean type and the Pacific type.

    Olsen and his colleagues believe the Pacific coconuts were introduced to the Indian Ocean a couple of thousand years ago by ancient Austronesians establishing trade routes connecting Southeast Asia to Madagascar and coastal east Africa.

    Olsen points out that no genetic admixture is found in the more northerly Seychelles, which fall outside the trade route. He adds that a recent study of rice varieties found in Madagascar shows there is a similar mixing of the japonica and indica rice varieties from Southeast Asia and India.

    To add to the historical shiver, the descendants of the people who brought the coconuts and rice are still living in Madagascar. The present-day inhabitants of the Madagascar highlands are descendants of the ancient Austronesians, Olsen says.

    Much later the Indian Ocean coconut was transported to the New World by Europeans. The Portuguese carried coconuts from the Indian Ocean to the West Coast of Africa, Olsen says, and the plantations established there were a source of material that made it into the Caribbean and also to coastal Brazil.

    So the coconuts that you find today in Florida are largely the Indian ocean type, Olsen says, which is why they tend to have the niu kafa form.

    On the Pacific side of the New World tropics, however, the coconuts are Pacific Ocean coconuts. Some appear to have been transported there in pre-Columbian times by ancient Austronesians moving east rather than west.

    During the colonial period, the Spanish brought coconuts to the Pacific coast of Mexico from the Philippines, which was for a time governed on behalf of the King of Spain from Mexico.

    This is why, Olsen says, you find Pacific type coconuts on the Pacific coast of Central America and Indian type coconuts on the Atlantic coast.

    "The big surprise was that there was so much genetic differentiation clearly correlated with geography, even though humans have been moving coconut around for so long."

    Far from being a mish-mash, coconut DNA preserves a record of human cultivation, voyages of exploration, trade and colonization.

    2011. "Deep History of Coconuts Decoded: Origins of Cultivation, Ancient Trade Routes, and Colonization of the Americas". Science Daily. Posted: June 24, 2011. Available online: