Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Punishment of egoistic behavior is not rewarded

People do not like to be observed when they cause harm to others

The heated debate surrounding the German "state Trojan" software for the online monitoring of telecommunication between citizens shows that the concealed observation of our private decisions provokes public disapproval. However, as a recent experimental study has revealed, observing and being observed are integral components of our social repertoire. Human beings show a preference for social partners whose altruistic behaviour they have been able to confirm for themselves. Scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Plön and the University of Cologne have discovered that people select future social partners on the basis of their cooperative behaviour and not according to whether they punish the egoism of others. This finding is surprising as it shows that people identify particularly altruistic partners in this way and could benefit from their behaviour. Consequently, people conceal uncooperative behaviour. However, it remains a mystery as to why people would like to conceal occasions when they punish others for their self-interest, despite the fact that they have no sanctions to fear.

Cooperative behaviour is generally associated with personal disadvantage. Scientists have therefore long been unable to explain why, despite this, altruism exists in nature. However, altruistic behaviour can be successful if organisms improve their reputation through unselfish behaviour and can benefit from it at a later stage: those who give receive; but those who refuse to lend support cannot expect help in an emergency. Solidarity is also the outcome of social evolution in humans. However, altruism can only enhance an individual's reputation and prevail if the corresponding behaviour is known to others.

Thus, people behave more cooperatively when they are observed. Accordingly, as soon as they are aware that they are being observed, egoists try to conceal their behaviour and pretend to act cooperatively. The observer, in turn, would like to prevent this and tries to conceal his or her attention. The researchers from Cologne and Plön discovered this interaction with the help of public goods games, in which the participants could benefit from egoistic behaviour. Their experiments showed that external observers prefer people who show solidarity as future game partners. Moreover, they are willing to pay to conceal their observation of another player. The players were also willing to pay to conceal egoistic behaviour. "A kind of 'arms race' thus arises between the two parties. They both want to keep their intentions secret from the other," says Manfred Milinski from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology.

Interestingly, observers seldom select people who punish others for egoistic behaviour. In effect, such sanctions are an expression of altruistic behaviour, as they are associated with personal costs incurred for the general good. "A person who observes other people with a view to finding cooperative partners would be expected to take punishment behaviour into account. The finding that people do not use this information raises important new research questions," says Bettina Rockenbach from the University of Cologne.

The researchers also observed that people prefer to hide the fact that they have punished others for egoistic behaviour. This is also surprising as punishments can be justified in terms of concern for the general good. Despite this, people apparently fear for their reputation if they punish others severely for egoistic behaviour. This finding is all the more unexpected as the tests showed that observers do not attach any importance to this information.

The researchers analysed three variants of a public goods game in their study. In all three games, the participants were accompanied by an observer who, after 15 rounds of the game, could remove a random or specific player and play himself; the replacement of a specific player incurred a cost. The observer could also conceal which players he or she was observing at a cost. The players, in turn, could pay to ensure that the observer did not find out anything about a decision.

In the simple variant of the game, a group of four participants merely had to decide between uncooperative and cooperative behaviour. They were given an actual sum of money and could decide whether to pay part of it into a shared kitty or keep all of it for themselves. At the end of the round, the sum in the group kitty was doubled and distributed evenly among the participants. The more players that paid into the kitty, the more they all benefited from it - however, the egoists profited most at the cost of the altruists. Under these conditions, egoistic behaviour prevailed after a few repetitions of the game.

In contrast, altruistic behaviour could prove a successful strategy in the other two variants of the game. Each of the participants was able impose punishments on the other players upon completion of a round of the public goods game. The punishments were withdrawn from the account of the individual in question and he or she also had to contribute something for the punishment. In the third variant, having been informed about the contributions received and made by the potential recipient, each of the participants was able to make contributions to one of the other players and receive them from another depending on whether he or she had improved his reputation by paying into the group kitty.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Punishment of egoistic behavior is not rewarded". EurekAlert. Posted: November 14, 2011. Available online:

Original publication:

"To qualify as a social partner, humans hide severe punishment, although their observed cooperativeness is decisive" Bettina Rockenbach, and Manfred Milinski
PNAS, November 08, 2011,vol. 108(45): 18307-18312 (doi: 10.1073/pnas.1108996108)

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Archeologists Discover Huge Ancient Greek Commercial Area On Island of Sicily

The Greeks were not always in such dire financial straits as today. German archeologists have discovered a very large commercial area from the ancient Greek era during excavations on Sicily.

Led by Professor Dr. Martin Bentz, archeologists at the University of Bonn began unearthing one of Greek antiquity's largest craftsmen's quarters in the Greek colonial city of Selinunte (7th-3rd century B.C.) on the island of Sicily during two excavation campaigns in September 2010 and in the fall of 2011.

The project is conducted in collaboration with the Italian authorities and the German Archaeological Institute. Its goal is to study an area of daily life in ancient cities that has hitherto received little attention.

"To what extent the ancient Greeks already had something like 'commercial areas' has been a point of discussion in expert circles to this day," said Bonn archeologist Dr. Gabriel Zuchtriegel, a research associate who coordinates the Selinunte project together with Dr. Jon Albers from the Institut für Klassische Archäologie der Universität Bonn at the Chair of Prof. Dr. Martin Bentz. "A concentration of certain 'industries' and craftsmen in special districts does not only presuppose proactive planning; it is also based on a certain idea of how a city should best be organized -- from a practical as well as from a social and political point of view, e.g., who will be allowed to live and work where?" The University of Bonn excavations are now contributing to finding a new answer to such questions.

Huge kilns, used communally

Concentration in a certain city district applied primarily to potteries in Selinunte, which were massed on the edge of the settlement in the very shadow of the city wall. "Consequently, their smoke, stench and noise did not inconvenience the other inhabitants as much," explained Dr. Zuchtriegel. "At the same time, this allowed several craftsmen to use kilns and storage facilities together." The excavations showed that the potters joined cooperatives that shared in the use of gigantic kilns with a diameter of up to 7 meters. The craftsmen's district in Selinunte probably stretched for more than 600 meters along the city walls and is thus among the largest ones known today. The excavations are in the hands of faculty and students from Bonn and Rome -- and they are exhausting. For excavations go on in August and September, when the heat reaches its peak -- but in exchange, there is very little rain.

"This work is a challenge for all involved," commented dig manager Bentz. "This is no camping trip." But for students, it is a great opportunity to learn archeological methods by doing. The Bonn researchers were surprised to find even older remnants of workshops under the 5th c. kilns. While these finds have not been completely excavated yet, indications are -- so the archeologists -- that pottery workshops existed in the same location during the city's early phase in the 6th century B.C. This means that craftsmen were probably intentionally housed on the edge as early as during the design of the city, which was -- like many colonies -- planned on the drawing board.

Reconstructing the past

The finds from the craftsmen's district are not exactly treasures, but they are still valuable for reconstructing the past. In the early phase, widely ranging finds of clay vessels, tiles and bronzes -- among them also imports from Athens and Sparta -- indicate that living and work quarters were housed together. Over the course of the 5th century, the two areas were separated increasingly.

"We hope to improve our understanding of that in future," said Prof. Bentz. But so far, he continued, little was known about the social conditions prevailing during the founding of a colony. What was certain is that often, it was hunger and need that drove settlers to emigrate and found a new city. Why and under what conditions some of them became potters, other farmers, and others yet rich landowners who could afford to participate in the Olympic games -- these are questions that the excavations can shed some light on.

Science Daily. 2011. "Archeologists Discover Huge Ancient Greek Commercial Area On Island of Sicily". Science Daily. Posted: November 14, 2011. Available online:

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving's Cultural Cousins

A little extra something.

Traditions celebrating the harvest bring families together around the world.

Autumn festivals, including American Thanksgiving, East Asian Mid-Autumn Festival and Jewish Sukkot, celebrate family and the Earth's bounty in similar ways despite cultural differences.

Of those three, Thanksgiving is the newcomer.

The Pilgrims celebrated a harvest festival with the Native Americans in 1621. And their ancient Anglo-Saxon ancestors also celebrated autumn harvest festivals.

"Our word 'harvest' is a direct reflex of the Old English, or Anglo-Saxon, word 'hærfest,' which ... only meant 'autumn.' By extension, the word came to refer to the fruits of the field, brought home for processing," John Niles, emeritus professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison told Discovery News.

But Thanksgiving wasn't an official annual event until 1863 when president Abraham Lincoln proclaimed, "...set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."

Thanksgiving was new, but may have had an ancient inspiration in Leviticus, a holy book to both Jews and Christians. In Leviticus 23:39, God commanded the ancient Israelites to observe the Feast of Booths, Sukkot in Hebrew, "after you have gathered the crops of the land."

"The Pilgrims were avid Bible readers and Thanksgiving may have been inspired by Sukkot," Miriam Rinn, communications manager for the Jewish Community Center Association, told Discovery News.

"Sukkot is certainly a harvest festival, but also has greater religious significance," said Rinn.

"Thanking God for food (after eating) is a mitzvah, a religious obligation. Like all other Mitzvoth it connects man with God and enhance[s] the spiritual proximity between the two, a sense of mutual love," Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom in Columbia, Missouri told Discovery News.

During sukkot, celebrated this year from Oct. 12-19, observers worship, eat and even sleep in a sukkah, a flimsy booth representing the temporary structures the Israelites used after fleeing Egypt.

"You cannot appreciate ... protections availed by your home unless you experience being removed from these protections if only briefly and temporarily," said Feintuch.

"The sukkah also represents the transience and fragility of life," said Rinn.

The celebration of the Mid-Autumn, or Moon Festival in China, Taiwan, Vietnam and other East Asian countries, also involves food and family and friends.

"During the Mid-Autumn festival people come back home to be with their family. It's one of the biggest holidays," said Gene Cheung, multicultural coordinator of the Asian Affairs Center as the University of Missouri.

The tradition took on special significance for Cheung and his family in 1999, after an earthquake damaged their home in Nantou, Taiwan. They celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival that year visiting with his father's five brothers and six sisters. This year the festival fell on Sept. 12.

And like Thanksgiving's turkey and cranberries, Cheung and his family look forward every year to a special harvest meal that includes the Mid-Autumn Festival moon cake. Traditional moon cakes are soft, sweet pastry with an egg yolk and red bean paste inside, said Cheung.

"When you cut them open, it looks like a half-moon," said Cheung.

The shorter days and longer nights of the harvest season bring about more opportunities to star-gaze and watch the phases of the moon.

Wall, Tim. 2011. "Thanksgiving's Cultural Cousins". Discovery News. Posted: November 21, 2011. Available online:

Big, little, tall and tiny: Words that promote important spatial skills

Research shows learning words about size and shape improve readiness for STEM education

reschool children who hear parents use words describing the size and shape of objects and who then use those words in their day to day interactions do much better on tests of their spatial skills, a University of Chicago study shows.

The study is the first to demonstrate that learning to use a wide range of words related to shape and size may improve children's later spatial skills, which are important in mathematics, science and technology.

These are skills that physicists and engineers rely on to take an abstract idea, conceptualize it and turn it into a real-world process, action or device, for example.

Researchers found that 1- to 4-year-olds who heard and then spoke 45 additional spatial words that described sizes and shapes saw, on average, a 23 percent increase in their scores on a non-verbal assessment of spatial thinking.

"Our results suggest that children's talk about space early in development is a significant predictor of their later spatial thinking," said University of Chicago psychologist Susan Levine, an author of a paper published on the research in the current issue of Developmental Science.

Shannon Pruden of Florida International University and Janellen Huttenlocher, also of University of Chicago, coauthored the paper with her. A video interview with Levine about this research can be found on the University of Chicago website.

"In view of findings that show spatial thinking is an important predictor of STEM achievement and careers, it is important to explore the kinds of early inputs that are related to the development of thinking in this domain," Levine and colleagues write in the article, "Children's Spatial Thinking: Does Talk about the Spatial World Matter?"

STEM--Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics--education is seen as vitally important for the next generation of science and technology innovators in the 21st century. In fact, a 2007 report issued by the National Science Board argues that to succeed in a new information-based and highly technological society, all students need to develop their capabilities in STEM to levels much beyond what was considered acceptable in the past, and enhancing spatial thinking is an important component of achieving this goal.

"This study is important because it will help parents and caregivers to better recognize and to seek opportunities that enhance children's spatial learning," said Soo-Siang Lim, director for the Science of Learning Centers Program at the National Science Foundation, which partially funded the study. "Study results could also help spatial learning play a more purposeful role in children's learning trajectories."

For the study, the research team videotaped children between ages 14 and 46 months and their primary caregivers, who were mainly the children's mothers. Researchers videotaped the caregivers as they interacted with their children in 90 minute sessions at four-month intervals. Caregivers and children were asked to engage in their normal, everyday activities.

The study group included 52 children and 52 parents from an economically and ethnically diverse set of homes in the Chicago area.

The researchers recorded words that were related to spatial concepts used by both children and their parents. They noted the use of names for two and three dimensional objects, such as circle or triangle. They also noted words that described size, such as tall and wide and words descriptive of spatial features such as bent, edge and corner.

The researchers found a great variation in the number of spatial words used by parents. On average parents used 167 words related to spatial concepts, but the range was very wide with parents using from 5 to 525 spatial words.

Among children, there was a similar variability, with children producing an average of 74 spatial related words and using a range of 4 to 191 words during the study period--composed of nine, 90 minute visits. The children who used more spatial terms were more likely to have caregivers who used those terms more often.

Moreover, when the children were four and a half years old, the team tested them for their spatial skills, to see if they could mentally rotate objects, copy block designs or match analogous spatial relations.

The researchers found that the children who were exposed to more spatial terms as part of their everyday activities and learned to produce these words themselves did much better on spatial tests than children who did not hear and produce as many of these terms. Importantly, this was true even controlling for children's overall productive vocabulary.

The impact was biggest for two of the tasks--the spatial analogies task and the mental rotation task. On the spatial analogy task, children, ages four and a half, were shown an array of four pictures and asked to select which picture "goes best" with a target picture--the one that depicted the same spatial relation.

On this nonverbal spatial analogies matching test, for every 45 additional spatial words children produced during their spontaneous talk with their parents, researchers saw a 23 percent increase in scores. Children who produced 45 more spatial words saw a 15 percent increase on a separate test assessing their ability to mentally rotate shapes.

The increased use of spatial language may have prompted the children's attention to the depicted spatial relations and improved their ability to solve spatial problems, the researchers said. The language knowledge may also have reduced the mental load involved in transforming shapes on the mental rotation task, they added.

In addition to NSF's Science of Learning Centers Program award to the Spatial Intelligence and Learning Center, the research was supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

EurekAlert. 2011. "Big, little, tall and tiny: Words that promote important spatial skills". EurekAlert. Posted: November 9, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Western perspectives mean that Aboriginal contemporary art is misunderstood

The Western art world interprets art from a Western perspective. Australian Aboriginal art is therefore often displayed in Stockholm's Museum of Ethnography, while in Australia it is regarded as contemporary art and is displayed in art museums and sold in galleries. This is shown in a thesis from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

In her research, Beatrice Persson questions what contemporary art actually is, and whether the global art world really is global. By studying how Australian contemporary art is defined by art historians, cultural experts and curators in Australia, she has been able to distinguish four categories within contemporary art in Australia. Two of these categories consist of Aboriginal art: so-called traditional Aboriginal art and city-based Aboriginal art.

"Traditional Aboriginal art is art that is created by Aboriginal artists who live traditionally and work in remote communities, in territories with a connection to their ancestors' creation stories, or Dreamings," she explains. "City-based Aboriginal art, on the other hand, is created by Aboriginal artists who live in urban environments and have studied at Western art schools."

The other two categories are "young" Australian art, which is created by young Australian artists, and Asian-Australian art, which is created by artists from Asia who have immigrated to Australia.

Persson then studied the four categories in relation to the concept of cross-culture, which is illustrated on the basis of how primitive art, and non-Western art in general, has been viewed since the end of the 19th century, revealing a history of colonialism in which culture clashes have made influences and changes possible within art, but where the Western World has had the power to decide what constitutes art, and contemporaneity or "simultaneousness", a concept that can be understood as an attempt to structure different artistic expressions that are created at the same time in different closely connected but mutually incomparable cultures.

"In my research I try to use these concepts to embrace both Western and non-Western art and art that crosses the divide between different cultures – art that can be said to depict the spirit of our times."

The results of this research show that the globalised art world is still lacking a non-Western interpretation perspective.

"The fact that this interpretation perspective is missing means that we are unable to understand the significance that non-Western art has in its native cultures. This makes it impossible for Western observers to understand and interpret this art on its own terms. And if we don't know what we're seeing when looking at art, how can we view it on the same terms as Western art?"


EurekAlert. 2011. "Western perspectives mean that Aboriginal contemporary art is misunderstood". EurekAlert. Posted: November 8, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher – review


An exuberant book, rich in anecdote, instance and oddity, about the curious interactions between language and perception

In April 2002, the great journal Lloyd's List gave shipping a sex change, switching the nautical pronoun to "it". According to Guy Deutscher, "'she' fell by the quayside." There, in half a sentence, you have the delight of this book: pertinent anecdote, relaxed wit and an uneasy sense that the author is always one jump ahead.

As a reporter who once covered the waterfront, I loved Lloyd's List. Its closely printed pages recorded so much of the world's shipping traffic and its tragedies (in its berths and deaths columns, so to speak). But editorial fiat couldn't change the thinking of a generation that metaphorically pushed the boat out, or waited for their ship to come in; that caught the tide or sailed against the wind; that grew up with Captain Marryat, C S Forester and Joseph Conrad. To such people, English ships display feminine grace, not because a bulk carrier, barge or battleship is innately female, but because some linguistic convention ensured that for a thousand years after the Norman Conquest, the English language retained "she" for shipping even as it neutered almost every other inanimate thing, including trees.

Put like that, the logic is obvious: of course a language that confers masculinity on a pine tree but femininity on a palm would be able to play with imagery that might make no sense in translation to a language that did not. Deutscher's book begins with a promise to demolish the intellectual clichés, and subvert glib anecdotal demonstrations of the way our mother tongue defines or limits our thought, and then confirms that in very limited instances, it almost certainly does shape the way we see the world. The book is a joyous and unexpected intellectual journey through the strange interaction between language and the world that language attempts to describe.

At its heart is an old conundrum. Why was Homer's sea "wine-dark"? Did the Greeks have no word for blue? William Ewart Gladstone, already an ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer but not yet a prime minister, published in 1849 a 1,700-page, three-volume work on the poet of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and ended it with a chapter on Homer's perception and use of colour.

According to Deutscher, this profoundly affected "the development of at least three academic disciplines" and triggered a war over the linguistic link between culture and nature that, 150 years on, is still being fought. For Gladstone was inclined to think that because the Greek language offered such a limited visual palette, then perhaps colour perception had not evolved: perhaps ancient Greeks saw the world more in black and white than in Technicolour.

This hypothesis could – up to a point – be tested: perhaps other "primitive" cultures maintained the same handicap? Imperialist Europe and expansionist America were not short of subjects for research.

The question was: does not having a word for blue (or green) mean that people don't see that colour? Tests showed quickly enough that colour-blindness is not common, and is evenly distributed everywhere. So could there be something about the language that dictated a particular group's perception of or attention to colour? Or something about the demands of the local environment that necessarily shaped the tribal language?

The journey to a not-quite-cut-and-dried conclusion draws on history, ethnography and psychology as well as a little physiology, and delivers from the mix an exuberant book, rich in anecdote, instance and oddity. Great names flit across the pages; great stories, too, about the astonishing variety of human speech and the riches of even the most supposedly primitive, vanishing languages. The speakers of Guugu Yimithirr, for example, would never advise a motorist to take the second left: all their conversation is in exquisitely precise geographic coordinates. They even, says Deutscher, dream in cardinal directions.

This is a book written in blissful English, by someone whose mother tongue is Hebrew, who is an expert in near-Eastern languages and who can no doubt talk his way confidently around Europe and far beyond: a living rebuke to the obdurate Anglo-Saxon monoglot.

Radford, Tim. 2011. "Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutscher – review". Guardian. Posted: November 8, 2011. Available online:

Friday, November 25, 2011

Castles in the desert - satellites reveal lost cities of Libya

Fall of Gaddafi lifts the veil on archaeological treasures

Satellite imagery has uncovered new evidence of a lost civilization of the Sahara in Libya's south-western desert wastes that will help re-write the history of the country.

The fall of Gaddafi has opened the way for archaeologists to explore the country's pre-Islamic heritage, so long ignored under his regime.

Using satellites and air-photographs to identify the remains in one of the most inhospitable parts of the desert, a British team has discovered more than 100 fortified farms and villages with castle-like structures and several towns, most dating between AD 1-500.

These "lost cities" were built by a little-known ancient civilisation called the Garamantes, whose lifestyle and culture was far more advanced and historically significant than the ancient sources suggested.

The team from the University of Leicester has identified the mud brick remains of the castle-like complexes, with walls still standing up to four metres high, along with traces of dwellings, cairn cemeteries, associated field systems, wells and sophisticated irrigation systems. Follow-up ground survey earlier this year confirmed the pre-Islamic date and remarkable preservation.

"It is like someone coming to England and suddenly discovering all the medieval castles. These settlements had been unremarked and unrecorded under the Gaddafi regime," says the project leader David Mattingly FBA, Professor of Roman Archaeology at the University of Leicester.

"Satellite imagery has given us the ability to cover a large region. The evidence suggests that the climate has not changed over the years and we can see that this inhospitable landscape with zero rainfall was once very densely built up and cultivated. These are quite exceptional ancient landscapes, both in terms of the range of features and the quality of preservation," says Dr Martin Sterry, also of the University of Leicester, who has been responsible for much of the image analysis and site interpretation.

The findings challenge a view dating back to Roman accounts that the Garamantes consisted of barbaric nomads and troublemakers on the edge of the Roman Empire.

"In fact, they were highly civilised, living in large-scale fortified settlements, predominantly as oasis farmers. It was an organised state with towns and villages, a written language and state of the art technologies. The Garamantes were pioneers in establishing oases and opening up Trans-Saharan trade," Professor Mattingly said.

The professor and his team were forced to evacuate Libya in February when the anti-Gaddafi revolt started, but hope to be able to return to the field as soon as security is fully restored. The Libyan antiquities department, badly under-resourced under Gaddafi, is closely involved in the project. Funding for the research has come from the European Research Council who awarded Professor Mattingly an ERC Advanced Grant of nearly 2.5m euros, the Leverhulme Trust, the Society for Libyan Studies and the GeoEye Foundation.

"It is a new start for Libya's antiquities service and a chance for the Libyan people to engage with their own long-suppressed history," says Professor Mattingly.

"These represent the first towns in Libya that weren't the colonial imposition of Mediterranean people such as the Greeks and Romans. The Garamantes should be central to what Libyan school children learn about their history and heritage."

EurekAlert. 2011. "Castles in the desert - satellites reveal lost cities of Libya". EurekAlert. Posted: November 7, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, November 24, 2011

How to Shrink a Head

Don't try this at home!


Live Science. 2011. "How to Shrink a Head". Live Science. Posted: N/D. Available online:

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Scientists Find Evidence of Ancient Megadrought in Southwestern U.S.

A new study at the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research has revealed a previously unknown multi-decade drought period in the second century A.D. The findings give evidence that extended periods of aridity have occurred at intervals throughout our past.

Almost 900 years ago, in the mid-12th century, the southwestern U.S. was in the middle of a multi-decade megadrought. It was the most recent extended period of severe drought known for this region. But it was not the first.

The second century A.D. saw an extended dry period of more than 100 years characterized by a multi-decade drought lasting nearly 50 years, says a new study from scientists at the University of Arizona.

UA geoscientists Cody Routson, Connie Woodhouse and Jonathan Overpeck conducted a study of the southern San Juan Mountains in south-central Colorado. The region serves as a primary drainage site for the Rio Grande and San Juan rivers.

"These mountains are very important for both the San Juan River and the Rio Grande River," said Routson, a doctoral candidate in the environmental studies laboratory of the UA's department of geosciences and the primary author of the study, which is upcoming in Geophysical Research Letters.

The San Juan River is a tributary for the Colorado River, meaning any climate changes that affect the San Juan drainage also likely would affect the Colorado River and its watershed. Said Routson: "We wanted to develop as long a record as possible for that region."

Dendrochronology is a precise science of using annual growth rings of trees to understand climate in the past. Because trees add a normally clearly defined growth ring around their trunk each year, counting the rings backwards from a tree's bark allows scientists to determine not only the age of the tree, but which years were good for growth and which years were more difficult.

"If it's a wet year, they grow a wide ring, and if it's a dry year, they grow a narrow ring," said Routson. "If you average that pattern across trees in a region you can develop a chronology that shows what years were drier or wetter for that particular region."

Darker wood, referred to as latewood because it develops in the latter part of the year at the end of the growing season, forms a usually distinct boundary between one ring and the next. The latewood is darker because growth at the end of the growing season has slowed and the cells are more compact.

To develop their chronology, the researchers looked for indications of climate in the past in the growth rings of the oldest trees in the southern San Juan region. "We drove around and looked for old trees," said Routson.

Literally nothing is older than a bristlecone pine tree: The oldest and longest-living species on the planet, these pine trees normally are found clinging to bare rocky landscapes of alpine or near-alpine mountain slopes. The trees, the oldest of which are more than 4,000 years old, are capable of withstanding extreme drought conditions.

"We did a lot of hiking and found a couple of sites of bristlecone pines, and one in particular that we honed in on," said Routson.

To sample the trees without damaging them, the dendrochronologists used a tool like a metal screw that bores a tiny hole in the trunk of the tree and allows them to extract a sample, called a core. "We take a piece of wood about the size and shape of a pencil from the tree," explained Routson.

"We also sampled dead wood that was lying about the land. We took our samples back to the lab where we used a visual, graphic technique to match where the annual growth patterns of the living trees overlap with the patterns in the dead wood. Once we have the pattern matched we measure the rings and average these values to generate a site chronology."

"In our chronology for the south San Juan mountains we created a record that extends back 2,200 years," said Routson. "It was pretty profound that we were able to get back that far."

The chronology extends many years earlier than the medieval period, during which two major drought events in that region already were known from previous chronologies.

"The medieval period extends roughly from 800 to 1300 A.D.," said Routson. "During that period there was a lot of evidence from previous studies for increased aridity, in particular two major droughts: one in the middle of the 12th century, and one at the end of the 13th century."

"Very few records are long enough to assess the global conditions associated with these two periods of Southwestern aridity," said Routson. "And the available records have uncertainties."

But the chronology from the San Juan bristlecone pines showed something completely new:

"There was another period of increased aridity even earlier," said Routson. "This new record shows that in addition to known droughts from the medieval period, there is also evidence for an earlier megadrought during the second century A.D."

"What we can see from our record is that it was a period of basically 50 consecutive years of below-average growth," said Routson. "And that's within a much broader period that extends from around 124 A.D. to 210 A.D. -- about a 100-year-long period of dry conditions."

"We're showing that there are multiple extreme drought events that happened during our past in this region," said Routson. "These megadroughts lasted for decades, which is much longer than our current drought. And the climatic events behind these previous dry periods are really similar to what we're experiencing today."

The prolonged drought in the 12th century and the newly discovered event in the second century A.D. may both have been influenced by warmer-than-average Northern Hemisphere temperatures, Routson said: "The limited records indicate there may have been similar La Nina-like background conditions in the tropical Pacific Ocean, which are known to influence modern drought, during the two periods."

Although natural climate variation has led to extended dry periods in the southwestern U.S. in the past, there is reason to believe that human-driven climate change will increase the frequency of extreme droughts in the future, said Routson. In other words, we should expect similar multi-decade droughts in a future predicted to be even warmer than the past.

Routson's research is funded by fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Science Foundation Arizona and the Climate Assessment of the Southwest. His advisors, Woodhouse of the School of Geography and Development and Overpeck of the department of geosciences and co-director of the UA's Institute of the Environment, are co-authors of the study.

Science Daily. 2011. "Scientists Find Evidence of Ancient Megadrought in Southwestern U.S.". Science Daily. Posted: November 6, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Fall of Gaddafi opens a new era for the Sahara's lost civilisation

Libyan leader showed no interest in ancient culture of Garamantes, but now archaeologists hope to unearth neglected slice of history

A painting, thought to show a Garamantes war chariot, found in southern Algeria. Photograph: Robert Estall/Alamy

The late Muammar Gaddafi was fond of insisting on the links between his republic and sub-Saharan Africa. He was less interested, however, in celebrating the black African civilisation that flourished for more than 1,500 years within what are now Libya's borders, and that was barely acknowledged in the Gaddafi-era curriculum.

Now, however, researchers into the Garamantes – a "lost" Saharan civilisation that flourished long before the Islamic era – are hoping that Libya's new government can restore the warrior culture, mentioned by Herodotus in his Histories, to its rightful place in Libya's history.

For while the impressive Roman ruins at Sabratha and Leptis Magna – both world heritage sites – are rightly famous, Libya's other cultural heritage, one that coexisted with its Roman settlers, has been largely forgotten.

It has been prompted by new research – including through the use of satellite imaging – which suggests that the Garamantes built more extensively and spread their culture more widely than previously thought.

The research has confirmed the view of Herodotus –not always the most reliable of chroniclers of his world, often supplying a good yarn when hard facts were hard to come by – that the Garmantes were a "very great nation".

Inhabiting an area around the busiest of the ancient trans-Saharan crossroads, the Garamantes were settled around three parallel areas of oases known today as the Wadi al-Ajal, the Wadi ash-Shati and the Zuwila-Murzuq-Burjuj depression with its capital at Jarmah.

They were tenacious builders of underground tunnels like Gaddafi. But while Gaddafi dug down to build huge complex bunkers, the Garamantes mined fossil water with which to irrigate their crops.

The Garamantes relied heavily on labour from sub-Saharan Africa, in the shape of slaves, to underpin their civilisation. Indeed, it is believed that they traded slaves as a commodity in exchange for the luxury goods that they imported in return.

Describing the recent finds as "extraordinary" in a paper co-authored for the journal Libyan Studies, Professor David Mattingly of the University of Leicester argues that the discoveries demonstrate that substantial trade across the Sahara long pre-dated the Islamic era.

Despite the increasing awareness of the importance of Libya's long-lost civilisation, Gaddafi was not much interested in these developments.

"We know that the material we produced for the Libyans ended up on Gaddafi's desk," said Mattingly, who has spent much of the last decade researching the archaeology of the Garamantes.

"But nothing ever happened. He wasn't interested and there was no mention of the Garamantes in the Libyan school curriculum."

All this, Mattingly hopes, will change amid emerging new evidence of both the scale and importance of the Garamantes' civilisation.

Occupying an area of some 250,000 square miles, the Garamantes, whom Herodotus described colourfully as herding cattle that "grazed backwards" and hunting Ethiopians from their chariots, are now known to have practised a sophisticated form of agriculture, occupying villages set around square forts or qasrs.

The very existence of the desert culture, however, was based on their use of underground water extraction tunnels – known as foggara in Berber, one of the peoples from whom the Garamantes were descended – whose construction was highly labour-intensive, requiring the acquisition of large numbers of slaves.

The Garamantian civilisation was unique. Its foundation is believed to have marked the first time in history when a riverless area of a major desert was settled by a complex urban society which planned its towns and imported luxury goods.

Indeed the sophistication of Garamantian building design – not least of its fortifications – may have been copied by the Romans, some of whose forts in north Africa are strikingly similar in appearance.

"Our latest work using satellite technology has identified hundreds of new villages and towns. It is pretty breathtaking," said Mattingly.

"The important thing to realise is that this was an urban and sedentary agricultural culture that existed in the middle of the Sahara.

"Uncovering the extent of it is like stumbling across the network of English medieval castles today. We know that the Garamantes traded. There were caravans of hundreds of camels every year."

Mattingly believes that, if the Garamantes' place in African history was under-recorded by the ancients, despite being mentioned by both Tacitus and Pliny, it is explicable by a Romano-centric colonial view of ancient history that persisted.

And while Mattingly's research has benefited from satellite imagery commissioned by the oil industry for exploration which has become available to academics, he is concerned that as Libya opens up again after its war – to tourism, building development and oil extraction – important Garamatian sites will need to be protected.

During the Nato air war against Gaddafi, Mattingly and his fellow researchers supplied coordinates of key archaeological sites to protect them from bomb damage.

So what happened to the Garamantes? In the end, like the Easter Islanders, the Anasazi, the Greenland Norse and the Maya – all civilisations whose downfall was studied by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse – it appears the Garamantes outgrew their ability to exploit the environment around them.

In the six centuries that they thrived, the Garamantes extracted, it is estimated, in the region of 30 billion gallons of water through the foggara system of subterranean tunnels.

In about the fourth century, however, the water started to run out, and to have dug deeper and further in search of it required more slaves than the Garamantes' military power could successfully deliver.

They reached what might be called a "peak water" moment. When they had passed peak water, the Garamantes – the "very great nation" — were doomed to decline.

Beaumont, Peter. 2011. "Fall of Gaddafi opens a new era for the Sahara's lost civilisation". Guardian. Posted: November 5, 2011. Available online:

Monday, November 21, 2011

Ancient Chinese Coin Brought Good Luck in Yukon

A 17th-century coin was found in Canada's Yukon territory and was likely traded before gold became the hot commodity.

The discovery of a puzzling 340-year-old coin etched with traditional Chinese characters in Canada's Yukon territory suggests that the area was already aflurry with trading even before the Gold Rush.

Minted during the Qing Dynasty reign of Emperor Kangxi, the coin is 60 percent copper and 40 percent zinc. It was cast between 1667 and 1671 -- long before the 1898 gold rush, when people from all over the world headed to Dawson City and the Klondike gold fields.

The coin adds to an intriguing small collection of ancient Chinese coinage discovered in Yukon near gold rush trails.

"Overall, three Chinese coins have been found in the Yukon Territory," expedition leader James Mooney, from Ecofor Consulting Ltd., told Discovery News.

While one dates from 1724 and 1735, a third coin, unearthed in 1993 near a gold rush trail by Beaver Creek, is surprisingly older.

"This coin was thought to date from 1880 to 1910 and to be associated with a Klondike era use of a trading trail," Mooney said.

But fact-checking following the new discovery revealed that the coin dated from between 1403 and 1424.

"This age overlaps with a controversial theory of worldwide exploration by Chinese explorers, and only begs more questions," Mooney said.

The three ancient Chinese coins are round with a square hole in the center, but the newly found coin has four additional small holes above each corner of the central square.

"The vast majority of these Chinese 'cash coins' did not have additional holes drilled into them," Gary Ashkenazy, an expert in old Chinese coins, told Discovery News.

However, coins of certain emperors were considered to be particularly auspicious and were treated as amulets or charms.

"Additional holes were drilled in these coins so that they could be attached to a house ridgepole, door or gate in order to provide protection. They were also sewn onto clothing as a means to protect a person from ghosts and evil spirits," Ashkenazy said

The Yukon coin was likely used this way since it was cast during the long reign of Emperor Kangxi.

"These coins are considered lucky because kang means health and xi means prosperous. Also, Emperor Kangxi reigned for more than 60 years so his name is associated with longevity," Ashkenazy said.

Chinese people collected coins cast from each of the 20 mints which operated during the reign of Emperor Kangxi. Put on a string in a certain order to form a sort of poem, the coins were carried as amulets for good luck.

A Ming Dynasty coin unearthed in 1993 in a travel corridor near a Yukon gold trail, may have also been a good luck charm, according to Ashkenazy. Cast between 1403 and 1424 during the reign of Emperor Cheng Zu, it featured the inscription yong le tong bao, meaning "happiness forever."

Although it cannot be ruled out that the ancient coins were brought into Yukon by gold diggers who carried them as family amulets, Mooney believes that they are evidence of extensive pre-gold rush trading.

Found at a spot overlooking a river that would have made a good campsite, the 17th-century coin likely reached the remote wilderness of Yukon through "Russian and coastal Tlingit trade intermediaries," Mooney said.

The coin would have been brought back by Russians when they traded furs from North American wildlife to the Chinese in exchange for their goods.

Known to have occurred as early as the mid-1700s, Russian trade along the Pacific Northwest also involved the native Tlingit people.

The Russians traded glass beads, silk, coinage and other goods from China with the Tlingit in exchange for furs, such as sea otter, seal, beaver, fox and marten.

The Tlingit, in turn, traded the exotic goods with the Athapaskan First Nations people.

They fiercely defended their control over coastal-interior trading through the famed Chilkoot Pass, a 33-mile trail through the Coast Mountains which was climbed by thousands of stampeders during the gold rush.

Mooney suggests the Tlingit traders may have used the Chinese coins as armor -- sewing them onto leather in overlapping patterns. In recovered artifact, over 200 coins were used in a single chest armor piece.

"This is a very rare and exciting time period when foreign items, materials, and influences make their way to a people without written documentation of their culture," Mooney said.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2011. "Ancient Chinese Coin Brought Good Luck in Yukon". Discovery News. Posted: November 4, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Ultimate Weapon: Knowing a War Zone’s Culture

The U.S. military is paying more attention to the culture of the places where it fights, putting a new weapon in its arsenal, according to both soldiers and academics.

When U.S. soldiers first went into Afghanistan and Iraq a decade ago, the military gave little thought to how an understanding of regional language, values, and norms could ease the interaction between troops and the locals they encountered.

“There was this early period there when we invaded Iraq, in particular, where we just thought that this was a military endeavor,” said Rochelle Davis, an assistant professor of anthropology at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “If you go back and look at how we talked about it and the things we did, culture just wasn’t even considered.”

The military’s attitude has changed considerably since then, as culture and language training have shifted from the purview of a few specialists to a central tool in any service member’s arsenal. Maj. Gen. David Hogg, head of the Adviser Forces in Afghanistan, has even suggested the military more broadly think of “culture as a weapon system.”

A new report from the Government Accountability Office suggests that the Army and Marines still need to do a better job of tracking and assessing exactly who receives cultural training, assigning them where their training will be most useful, and following up so their newly acquired language skills don’t go stale. Nonetheless, the military is doing a much better job today, Davis says, than it did 10 years ago in applying insights from anthropology (without, that is, the problematic pursuit of bringing anthropologists on board in battle zones).

The military’s evolving approach to culture may be one of the legacies of the post-Sept. 11 era. After the early days in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army and Marine Corps established cultural training centers in 2005, the Air Force in 2006, and the Navy in 2007. Some of the signposts since then: The GAO report found that the military had spent about $12 million sending 800 soldiers through 16 weeks of Afghan language training between 2010 and the summer of 2011. Hundreds of thousands of other troops who’ve cycled through those war zones have been given “smart cards” detailing topics like the five pillars of Islam, local religious celebrations, and cultural customs.

“When General Hogg says we need to think of culture as a weapon system, that’s in some ways appealing to people who say, ‘Culture is touchy-feely; we want to be able to accomplish the mission with guns and might,’” Davis said. “He’s trying to say, ‘No, we need to think of culture as another weapon system just as guns and other things are – it can be part of us winning these wars.’”

Davis, whose area of expertise focuses on the Arab world, has conducted interviews with soldiers who’ve returned from Iraq about their cultural training and interaction with locals.

“When I ask a lot about their interactions with Iraqis, they basically talk about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ they don’t really talk so much about ‘Iraqis,’” she said. “They don’t say ‘al-Qaeda,’ or ‘Saddam Hussein’s cronies.’ They say ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ because the bad guys have shifted over time.”

And the same thing has happened in Afghanistan. Davis suspects that the confusion soldiers feel in this shifting landscape underscores the importance to the military of cultural knowledge. When enemies aren’t readily identifiable, cultural clues can help in navigating local communities.

Still, the military hasn’t exactly produced the material that a team of regionally expert Ph.D.s might come up with. Davis says the Iraq smart cards offer some useful information (as well as striking parallels to the advice the military gave soldiers posted to Iraq during World War II). But other information, she says, has been factually inaccurate or potentially harmful.

One panel on the Iraq smart card, for example, explains the long-running conflict between the country’s sectarian groups.

“It’s all about who hates who, who is oppressed by who, who fights who,” Davis said. “When you’ve read that, the takeaway is that these people will never get along, they’ll always hate each other.”

And this is probably a counterproductive bias for soldiers who’ve been asked to help build a unified Iraqi democracy. The newer smart cards for Afghanistan don’t repeat this mistake, Davis said, and she points to that example as one of the ways in which the military has grown more sophisticated not just in its understanding of cultural differences, but of the concept of culture itself.

“To codify it in these kinds of ways — Afghans are this way, Iraqis are this way, Kurds are this way — and to say ‘this is how you should behave,’ as if it’s a military system,” Davis said, “completely divorces culture form the dynamism that is culture.”

Military researchers, however, have begun to suggest that soldiers need to learn “cross-cultural competence” skills that can be applied in any setting, rather than specific cultural trivia about individual communities that can fit on a flip card and grow outdated with time. This, too, represents an evolution in thinking from an institution that not long ago thought little about this topic.

Davis accepts that there will be some missteps along the way. She often presents images of the Iraqi smart cards to audiences deeply familiar with the local culture. One panel, explaining the significance of different-colored headdresses, doesn’t quite get things right. “I can make people laugh,” Davis said, “just by showing them that card.”

But, she adds, “I would rather they at least try. Nobody’s going to do anything perfect the first time.”

I have issues with the human terrain systems that the US military uses. However, I want to present articles that present different points of view.

Badger, Emily. 2011. "Ultimate Weapon: Knowing a War Zone’s Culture". Miller-McCune. Posted: November 4, 2011. Available online:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

11/11/11: Anthropologist debunks doomsday myths

University of Kansas anthropologist and Maya scholar John Hoopes and his students are watching predicted doomsday dates such as 11/11/11 and Dec. 21, 2012, with considerable skepticism.

Hoopes is regarded as one of the major go-to guys to separate fact from fiction about the Maya calendar and a prediction that the world would end Dec. 21, 2012.

He has written scholarly articles debunking the 2012 myth, including a chapter in "2012: Decoding the Counterculture Apocalypse," edited by Joseph Gelfer and scheduled for release this month by Equinox Publishing. In addition, Hoopes contributes to Wikipedia as a 2012 skeptic and is featured in at least three documentaries on the topic ("Apocalypse 2012" airing on CNBC, and two more scheduled for release next year). In his fall course on Archaeological Myths and Realities – An Introduction to Critical Thinking, the 2012 myth works as a dynamic teaching tool.

This fall, Hoopes and his students have watched two predicted cataclysmic dates — Oct. 21 and 28 — come and go with little fanfare. Oct. 21 was a date selected by California evangelist Harold Camping after his original May 21, 2011, prediction passed without calamity. Swedish pharmacologist, self-help advocate and self-taught Maya cosmologist Carl Johan Calleman was among those predicting that Oct. 28 would usher in a worldwide unified consciousness.

The next big date to consider is 11/11/11, when many in the New Age movement plan celebrations to receive emerging energies in preparation for a transformation of consciousness on Dec. 21, 2012.

Whether these dates mark a time for transformation of consciousness or a catastrophic end, they are part of a 2012 eschatological myth that originated with Christopher Columbus and Franciscan missionaries, not the ancient Maya calendar, Hoopes emphasizes.

In a paper presented in January at the Oxford IX International Symposium on Archaeoastronomy in Lima, Peru, Hoopes tracks the 2012 Maya myth origins through various revivals into the 21st century. The myth is rooted in an early 16th-century European combination of astrological and biblical prophecies to explain the new millennium. Columbus believed that his discovery of the world's "most remote land" would lead to Spain's re-conquest of Jerusalem and fulfill world-end events described in the Book of Revelations.

To validate his convictions, Columbus wrote his own Book of Prophecies that included an account of his interview with a "Maia" leader in 1502. The reference inspired early speculation by explorers and missionaries, indirectly influencing crackpots as well as scholars to link ancient Maya — before any contact with Europeans — with the astrological and religious beliefs popular in Europe in the 1500s.

Misinterpretations and distortions flowed with each revival of interest in Maya culture. In the 1960s, the myth re-flowered as the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, enjoyed a resurgence in Y2K and thrives today. Hoopes adds that the Occupy Wall Street movement clearly reflects a nostalgia for the progressive culture of the 1960s.

More than 1,000 books have been published on the 2012 myth, not to mention a plethora of Web sites on the topic. Hoopes expects the hype won't hit its peak until well into 2012. Fear and fantasy both sell well, especially in uncertain times, he notes.

End-of-the-world and transformative beliefs are found in many ancient cultures but have been a fundamental part of modern times since 1499, Hoopes point out. They are also fundamentally American, he adds.

"The United States has always embraced religious freedom. Peculiar religious sects, including occult beliefs, have always been part of America," he says.

Astrology, Ouija boards, séances, channeling, spiritualists, extraterrestrial life and a host of pseudosciences all have had acceptance in parts of America, he adds. Mary Todd Lincoln used séances to contact her son. Nancy Reagan consulted astrologists.

Wishful or magical thinking help perpetuate myths and beliefs that have no basis in science. Hoopes uses the 2012 myth and others to teach students to think critically and learn to distinguish science and myth.

"If a narrative has a moral message, then it probably is not a scientific story. Stories based in science ideally should be objective, not subjective," Hoopes says.

The persistence of the 2012 myth may reflect a fear of mortality that has nagged ancient and modern civilizations.

"It's much easier to discuss mortality when we're all in the same boat," Hoopes said. "Creating a concerned community allays people's fears and allows us to project individual morality onto the world."

Hoopes' interest in the 2012 phenomenon began as an academic hobby and has evolved into an anthropological study of contemporary American culture. At the very least, he says, the 2012 phenomenon "has made a huge audience aware of Maya calendrics and the winter solstice."

EurekAlert. 2011. "11/11/11: Anthropologist debunks doomsday myths". EurekAlert. Posted: November 3, 2011. Available online:

Friday, November 18, 2011

Bones reveal 18th and 19th-century breastfeeding fads

Trends for breastfeeding come and go. Right now, women are told to breastfeed exclusively for six months, while in the early 1970s, just 22 per cent of women breastfed. So it's interesting to hear that breastfeeding was also subject to swings in popularity during the 18th and 19th centuries.

We know this because researchers have analysed the bones of children buried in Spitalfields, London, using a technique called stable isotope analysis to work out their feeding habits before they died.

Isotope analysis involves looking at the relative amounts of carbon and nitrogen isotopes in bone, which relate to the types of food and drink the individual consumed when they were alive. For example, when infants are born, levels of the isotope 15N in their bones are similar to those of the mother, but as they breastfeed and effectively consume their mother's tissue, levels of this isotope rise. When they are weaned onto solid foods, levels of this isotope fall again. Changes in 13C are also known to correlate with the type of food a person consumes.

Erika Nitsch at the University of Oxford and her colleagues analysed ribs from 164 skeletons recovered from a graveyard in Spitalfields, including 92 adults and 72 children. By comparing levels of 15N in the 32 children who died before their second birthday with average levels in women, they concluded that 18 were being exclusively breastfed, while the rest were either not breastfeeding at all, or were being fed a mixture of breast milk and a nutritionally poor substitute, such as flour and water.

Because the year of death was known for a large proportion of the children, the team were also able to see that differences existed between practices in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

"Not all individuals at Spitalfields were breastfed, and there may not have been a single uniformly practiced weaning scheme," writes Nitsch. "There is, however, more evidence for prolonged breastfeeding during the 19th century than the 18th century."

One reason for this may be the onset of industrialisation in the UK during the 18th century, resulting in many more women going out to work.

"Women who were employed away from home were more likely to wean their infants earlier than previous generations, or to not breastfeed at all," writes Nitsch.

In wealthier households, wet-nurses were sometimes employed to breastfeed infants, but a variety of milk substitutes are also known to have been offered to babies at this time. These included pap, a mixture of flour or bread crumbs cooked in milk or water, a bread broth called panada, and milk flavoured with spices, sugar, or eggs.

"Artificially fed infants had higher mortality rates than breastfed infants in the first six months of life," writes Nitsch. "The mortality of infants who were dry fed from birth was estimated to be particularly high, usually above 50 per cent and sometimes reaching as high as 90 per cent, due to earlier exposure of the infant to pathogens from contaminated foods, a higher risk of malnutrition, and the loss of immunological protection."

Geddes, Linda. 2011. "Bones reveal 18th and 19th-century breastfeeding fads". New Scientist. Posted: November 3, 2011. Available online:

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Long Pilgrimages Revealed in Ancient Sudan Art

Excavations of a series of medieval churches in central Sudan have revealed a treasure trove of art, including a European-influenced work, along with evidence of journeys undertaken by travelers from western Europe that were equivalent to the distance between New York City and the Grand Canyon.

A visit by a Catalonian man named Benesec is recorded in one of the churches, along with visits from other pilgrims of the Middle Ages, according to lead researcher Bogdan Zurawski of the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures of the Polish Academy of Sciences.

The discoveries were made at Banganarti and Selib, two sites along the Nile that were part of Makuria, a Christian kingdom ruled by a dynasty of kings throughout the Middle Ages.

The art there tells stories of kings, saints, pilgrims and even a female demon, said Zurawski, who presented his findings recently at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

Inside medieval churches

Zurawski said the most recent of the churches uncovered in Banganarti, built nearly 1,000 years ago, is unique. "It has no parallel in Nubia and elsewhere," he said. [See images of Banganarti church discoveries]

The church contains 18 square rooms, two staircases and, at its center, a domed area that probably contained holy relics. The team believes the building was dedicated to the archangel Raphael and was used for healing rituals. "The multitude of inscriptions addressed to this archangel are more than suggestive" that the church was dedicated to him, Zurawski said.

Beneath this building lies a structure, built about 300 years earlier, which also appears to have been dedicated to Raphael. This lower church, as the archaeologists refer to it, contains a ninth-century mural depicting "the Harrowing of Hell," which shows Jesus visiting the underworld to rescue the firstborn. [See images of the lower church]

A Catalonian journey

The team uncovered numerous inscriptions at the two sites, many left by pilgrims visiting the churches in hopes of being healed.

One of the inscriptions at Banganartiis written in Catalonian and appears to have been inscribed sometime in the 13th or 14th century by the man named Benesec. It reads: "When Benesec came to pay homage to Raphael."

Zurawski told LiveScience that "Benesec" was a very popular name in 13th- and 14th-century southern France. This particular Benesec had probably traveled some 2,300 miles (3,700 kilometers) from southern France or northern Spain. The journey took him east across the Mediterranean Sea and far up the Nile into the interior of Africa.

The inscription and a Catalonian playing card found downriver by another team, which may or may not have been left by Benesec, were the only traces found of these visitors from Europe.

Zurawski said Benesec may have been a trader who, along with other Catalonians, received permission from the Mamluk rulers of Egypt to pass through their territory. "The Catalonians were granted trade privileges, trade rights, to exchange goods and to trade with Egypt, and apparently they also came to Nubia," he said.

Krzysztof Grzymski, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, said at the symposium that evidence of contact between central Sudan and the Mediterranean world goes back to antiquity. At the site of Meroë, which reached its peak around 2,000 years ago, Grzymski said, he studied the sculpture of a head that has Greek traits. "This head is clearly Hellenistic or Hellenized, and yet it certainly was made by local artists from Meroë."

The Harrowing of Hell

The team uncovered numerous works of art at Banganarti, among them the ninth-century painting of "the Harrowing of Hell."

"The masterpiece of lower-church painting, decoration, is this 'Harrowing of Hell'; it is absolutely unusual," said Zurawski. It shows "Jesus Christ just descended to hell to trample Hades, liberating the firstborn, who are shown naked. Also, the common dead are shown naked."

The dead are also shown in anguish. "The common dead [are] screaming, crying with outstretched fingers," said Zurawski. He said that the emotion of the dead, and the depiction of them and the firstborn being naked, were very odd.

"That is purely a European way of inscribing the Harrowing of Hell," he said. "In Byzantine tradition, the firstborn and the dead in the harrowing scene are shown in stiff hieratic postures, totally clothed."

King David … of Nubia

There are many other features of art and architecture at these two holy sites.

Banganarti contains several images of kings, most of them anonymous because of the lack of an accompanying inscription.

However, one exception shows a 13th-century ruler known as King David, possibly named after the biblical figure. An inscription, found nearby, reads: "O God of Michael [or "O Saint Michael"], cause Arouase to live through the savior of King David." Arouase appears to be a reference to a person.

Another work of art is an image of St. Damianos, a third-century physician who, with his brother Cosmas, practiced in Cilicia in southeastern Turkey. They were known asanargyroi, doctors who treated patients for free. During a series of Christian persecutions brought about by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, they were rounded up, tortured and beheaded.

Zurawski said the saint appears to have been held in particularly high regard at this site. For instance, one inscription mentions a wealthy person named Teita who came to Banganarti to mark Damianos' life.

The church image of Damianos' brother did not survive.

A female demon

The artwork is rich in both religious and mythological lore. For instance, at the same church the team discovered a depiction of Sideros, a female demon, naked and bound up while being trampled by St. Abbakyros, a medical saint, on a horse.

Sideros in medieval mythology was a demon that preyed on women during childbirth.

Another scene at Banganarti depicts the legend of a third-century Roman soldiernamed Mercurius who converted to Christianity and was executed for it.

"The Passio recounts that Mercurius lived under the emperors Decius and Valerian. ... He saw in a vision an angel who presented him with a sword, promising him victory and telling him not to forget his God," writes Christopher Walker in the book "The Warrior Saints in Byzantine Art and Tradition" (Ashgate publishing, 2003). (Passio is a Latin word for passion.)

When he refused the emperor's invitation to make an offering to Artemis, Mercurius refused, professing his new faith. He was tortured and killed.

According to the picture discovered at Banganarti, Mercurius reappeared as a sort of spirit almost 100 years later, after Christianity had been declared legal throughout the Roman Empire.

At the time Rome had an emperor, Julian, who made offerings to the old Roman gods instead of observing Christian rites. The emperor was campaigning in the Middle East against the Persians when, according to legend, Mercurius appeared and stabbed him with a spear, killing him.

"On the south wall [at Banganarti there is] a very interesting mural representing Saint Merkurios killing Emperor Julian the Apostate," said Zurawski. An image of the praying Virgin Mary is also shown in the scene.

A blind visitor

Another interesting image is that of an apparently blind individual who visited Banganarti in hopes of a cure, possibly because the church was dedicated to the archangel known to be a patron of the blind.

"One of the ophthalmological patients who came to Banganarti with eye problems was not Christian but was Muslim," Zurawski said.

His name was written as "Deif Ali," Arabic for "Ali the guest." In a drawing of him in the church, he is shown with a walking stick and what looks like a bag. He wears a kilt-like dress and appears to be struggling to get his footing right. “His blindness is shown in the way he was painted,” said Zurawski.


A few miles to the east of Banganarti is Selib, which holds four churches, built one on top of the other. They date from the sixth century, a time when people in Nubia were beginning to convert to Christianity, and the buildings were in use throughout the Middle Ages. [See images of medieval church Selib]

There are also remains of Meroitic columns and reliefs dating to around 2,000 years ago, when the city of Meroë was the center of an empire that stretched from southern Egypt to central Sudan.

Work at the site began in 2008 and resumed, after a brief hiatus, in 2010. Much remains to be done, but the team already has unearthed some interesting finds, among them a baptistery dating back nearly 1,500 years.

The team also found an inscription that indicates that one of the churches was built by a seventh-century king named Zacharias. It reads, "Zacharias basileus Mena hagios," which means that the king dedicated the church to St. Mena, a third-century Egyptian hermit.

Nearby, the team encountered an intriguing mystery. The archaeologists excavated a well and found the bottom to be beautifully decorated.

"At the depth of 5 meters, the regular bond of brick, the so-called English bond, is interrupted," said Zurawski during his museum lecture. In place "a zig-zag pattern made with oven-fired bricks" appears.

"There is no technical, structural reason for such a changing of the pattern of the brick. The only reason is aesthetical, but what aesthetics stand for in a well at the depth of five meters, I cannot ascertain," he said.

Only a few miles east of Banganarti, the inhabitants apparently decided that even the bottom of a well should be beautiful.

Jarus, Owen. 2011. "Long Pilgrimages Revealed in Ancient Sudan Art". Live Science. Posted: November 3, 2011. Available online:

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Viewing Illegal Immigration Through Desert Debris

In the litter scattered across the desert floor, professor Jason De León finds truths about the miserable business of illegal immigration.

We don’t see or hear the border patrol agents until they’re almost on top of us. There are two of them, both white; one older and wiry, the other young and beefy. They are dressed in olive drab uniforms. The wiry one gives our little group of four the once-over. “We thought we might get some action today,” he says, “but you guys look all right.” He sounds just a touch disappointed.

“What are you all up to?” the beefy one asks.

“We’re out for a hike,” says Jason De León.

De León, 34, is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan and the founder of an undertaking called the Undocumented Migrant Project. Since 2008, he has been studying illegal migration from Mexico into southern Arizona. He doesn’t volunteer that information, though. It’s more trouble than it’s worth.

“Seen anyone out here?” the wiry one asks.

“Not yet,” says Bob Kee. Kee is a volunteer in the Tucson Samaritans, a group whose members hike the most heavily used stretches of desert in search of migrants who might need food, water, or urgent medical attention. The Samaritans focus on preventing deaths and try to avoid either assisting or impeding the migrants on their trek. Covering Kee’s backpack is a large red T-shirt emblazoned with a white cross and the word “Samaritanos.” It is not subtle.

“You guys OK for water and food?” the wiry one asks.

“We have enough,” Kee says. “How about you? Do you guys need any water or anything?”

“We’re fine,” the wiry one answers. A few beats pass in silence. “Well, we’d best be gettin’ on,” he finally says. “You folks have a nice hike.”

As the two agents start to leave, the beefy one turns back. “If you find anything that might interest us, you be sure to tell us,” he says.

We murmur that we will. The agent grins at us. He knows that we won’t.


For de león, the subject of migration across the southern border is both broadly American and narrowly personal. He is the grandson of an illegal immigrant, and he grew up in the border states of Texas and California. His parents were in the U.S. Army (his father was a staff sergeant, his mother a warrant officer), and being an army brat meant he moved a lot. “It creates a disposition toward understanding cultural differences,” he says.

In 1995, De León started his undergraduate education at UCLA and immersed himself in anthropology and archaeology. “I’d always been interested in archaeology,” he recalls, “even before I knew what it was.” After graduating in 2001 with a major in anthropology, he moved across the country, enrolling at Pennsylvania State University for his graduate education. He earned his doctorate in 2008, having completed a dissertation titled “The Lithic Industries of San Lorenzo-Tenochtitlán: An Economic and Technological Study of Olmec Obsidian.” It concerned the trade of obsidian blades (that is, blades made from volcanic glass). As part of his research, he had to pick through thousands of tiny rocks. “It was sometimes a struggle to stay excited,” he says.

After De León earned his Ph.D., he decided to take a break from archaeology and accepted an offer to be a lecturer in anthropology at the University of Washington in Seattle. The job gave him the leeway to be an academic without having to bore into his immediate specialty. He embraced it, and taught, among other things, a popular course on the anthropology of rock ’n’ roll. Since he had been the singer and songwriter for a punk band called Youth in Asia in the 1990s (and currently sings in an alt-country band called The Wilcox Hotel), the work tapped into something appealing and immediate.

Yet archaeology stayed with him. In 2007, while a graduate student, he had helped to excavate an Olmec site in Mexico. Many of the people working on the project had been migrants to the U.S., and he got to hear their stories. “I started to see that there was a lot more going on with migration than people knew,” he says.

Then, some archaeologists who were working in southern Arizona mentioned to De León that they frequently had to dig through piles of what they saw as trash that migrants had left behind. “They said that I should do an archaeological study on that stuff,” he says. “They were probably joking.”

But he took their advice seriously and headed to the Coronado National Forest. He found sites littered with a few plastic water bottles under bushes or cactuses, and then others with hundreds of discarded shoes, clothes, backpacks. What was trash to others was, to him, the archaeology of undocumented migration — the visible remnants of a largely invisible phenomenon.

So he launched the Undocumented Migrant Project in 2009. Combining ethnographic research (in the form of collecting oral histories) and archeological research (combing through modern-day sites), it would be a long-term study of people and their cultures, through their artifacts. “I needed to find a way to get back to archaeology that I found personally meaningful,” De León says. “This was also a way for it to be relevant to contemporary issues.”

• •  • • • • • • • • • • • • •

We are standing in the coronado national forest, about 10 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. Off to the northwest, Baboquivari Peak rises out of a distant mountain range. “Migrants make sure to keep it on their left as they walk,” De León says. “If it’s on the left, they know they’re going north.”

Each summer, De León travels to this part of Arizona to do field work. Today, we are just four, but De León often brings a larger group. In 2010, he became an assistant professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and he often has students with him. They stay in Arivaca, a small town about 11 miles north of the border. From there, they hike out to map sites and collect artifacts — a process that frequently includes hauling out pounds of smelly debris in garbage bags. De León catalogs the items, trying to get a sense of the gender and age of the person carrying this camouflage backpack, or who wore through the sole of that knock-off Nike Air Jordan.

The artifacts are part of an evolving story. In the past, most migrants came to the United States through border cities, not through the wilderness. At the point of entry between San Diego and Tijuana, migrants often made what local Border Patrol agents called “banzai runs” — frantic dashes across the border, sometimes in groups as large as 50, into oncoming traffic on Interstate 5. But the number of agents has more than doubled since 2004, from 10,000 to 21,370, of which 18,000 are deployed along the U.S.-Mexico border. So, illegal attempts to cross the border are happening in increasingly remote areas.

Today, almost half of all migrants try to cross in the Sonoran Desert. It’s prodigiously dry (less than 2 inches of rain annually in parts) and prodigiously hot (120 degrees Fahrenheit is not uncommon). Since 2001, more than 2,100 migrants have died here; last year was one of the worst on record, with 249 deaths. This, says De León, is one of the details lost in the recent spate of stories on the decline of illegal migration: fewer people may be crossing, but proportionally more of those who do cross are dying.

As we make our way through the desert, we come across countless empty packets of ephedrine pills and cans of energy drinks along with the water bottles. These are provided by coyotes (smugglers of migrants) in order to hurry people across the terrain. The water bottles are black, because migrants think that black will make the containers harder to detect. “There’s a real lack of understanding of the true capacity and practices of the Border Patrol,” De León says. “Agents use ground sensors now, aerial drones, thermal imaging — and the migrants still paint their bottles black.”

When it comes to U.S. efforts to control the border, numbers don’t always mean what they appear to mean, and rumors and misconceptions are rife. “Archaeology has been really helpful in demystifying the process,” he says. The sites tell him a lot about how the migrants travel, providing details that interviews do not. Similarly, the interviews he conducts often clear up mysteries that emerge when De León is cataloging a site. The ethnography and archeology, he says, “feed back into each other very well.” For example, De León knows through interviews why the water bottles are painted black. He also knows that six factories in Mexico make water bottles that are specially designed for desert crossings — gallon jugs the size and shape of Clorox bottles. And several of those companies have started to sell their bottles made from black plastic. This is a change that has occurred within the past two years. “The objects themselves say a lot about the migration process,” De León says. One company even puts an outline of Baboquivari Peak on its label. As De León points out, wryly, it’s hard to get more obvious than that.

The factory-blackened bottles, camouflage clothes, and backpacks — all likely found in the well-stocked stalls in the Mexican border towns of Nogales and Altar — attest to an unmistakable professionalization in the border-jumping business. For De León, to see these products as discarded artifacts reminds him of the humanity beneath the politics.“I want to have a good data set,” he says. “But I also want to understand the real costs that migrants have to pay, so that their lives are less anonymous.”

We are about 20 yards above the trail, where there is a small, makeshift shrine: two branches tied together with rope to make a cross, leaning among a small pile of stones. Kee tells De León that he re-wrapped the cross with duct tape. The rope was fraying. “Technically,” De León tells me later, “when he did that, he changed an archaeological site.” He shrugs. “It happens.” Of course, by entering it into the record as is, one could add that instead of just being a migrant’s lonely gesture, it became evidence that an American was moved by his encounter, sufficiently so that he tried to preserve it.

“As archaeologists, we can sometimes be a little esoteric, or not very good at connecting our research to broader issues that everyday people can understand,” De León says. He is thrashing through a tangle of spindly ocotillo plants, also known as the devil’s coach whip. Each is more than 10 feet tall and leafy from recent rains. Two months ago, Kee found several human bones here, scattered about the hillside. He has been back several times, each time finding a few more bones. He collects them and takes them to a coroner, on the off chance that one day they might be identified. The four of us pick through the rocks and vegetation, gathering whatever bone chips and fragments lie next to the trail. De León finds a bicuspid. I find a 4-inch section of rib. It is a morbid search.

Such is the challenge of archaeology of the unfolding present. If this were purely a study site, De León would have laid a grid over the hillside. He would have had us go over the site on our hands and knees, square by square. Each bone we found would have been meticulously cataloged, its position noted with GPS. But we are in a more fluid space — not quite archaeological, not quite crime scene, not quite garbage dump, not quite wilderness. Kee brings out a small Ziploc, so that our bits and pieces can be added to the already gathered remains. We drop them in. They fill roughly half the bag.

Wagner, Eric. 2011. "Viewing Illegal Immigration Through Desert Debris". Miller-McCune. Posted: November 1, 2011. Available online:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Shared Genes With Neanderthal Relatives: Modern East Asians Share Genetic Material With Prehistoric Denisovans

During human evolution our ancestors mated with Neanderthals, but also with other related hominids. In this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Uppsala University are publishing findings showing that people in East Asia share genetic material with Denisovans, who got the name from the cave in Siberia where they were first found.

"Our study covers a larger part of the world than earlier studies, and it is clear that it is not as simple as we previously thought. Hybridization took place at several points in evolution, and the genetic traces of this can be found in several places in the world. We'll probably be uncovering more events like these," says Mattias Jakobsson, who conducted the study together with Pontus Skoglund.

Previous studies have found two separate hybridization events between so-called archaic humans (different from modern humans in both genetics and morphology) and the ancestors of modern humans after their emergence from Africa: hybridization between Neanderthals and the ancestors of modern humans outside of Africa and hybridization between Denisovans and the ancestors of indigenous Oceanians. The genetic difference between Neandertals and Denisovans is roughly as great as the maximal level of variation among us modern humans.

The Uppsala scientists' study demonstrates that hybridization also occurred on the East Asian mainland. The connection was discovered by using genotype data in order to obtain a larger data set. Complete genomes of modern humans are only available from some dozen individuals today, whereas genotype data is available from thousands of individuals. These genetic data can be compared with genome sequences from Neandertals and a Denisovan which have been determined from archeological material. Only a pinky finger and a tooth have been described from the latter.

Genotype data stems from genetic research where hundreds of thousands of genetic variants from test panels are gathered on a chip. However, this process leads to unusual variants not being included, which can lead to biases if the material is treated as if it consisted of complete genomes. Skoglund and Jakobsson used advanced computer simulations to determine what this source of error means for comparisons with archaic genes and have thereby been able to use genetic data from more than 1,500 modern humans from all over the world.

"We found that individuals from mainly Southeast Asia have a higher proportion of Denisova-related genetic variants than people from other parts of the world, such as Europe, America, West and Central Asia, and Africa. The findings show that gene flow from archaic human groups also occurred on the Asian mainland," says Mattias Jakobsson.

"While we can see that genetic material of archaic humans lives on to a greater extent than what was previously thought, we still know very little about the history of these groups and when their contacts with modern humans occurred," says Pontus Skoglund.

Because they find Denisova-related gene variants in Southeast Asia and Oceania, but not in Europe and America, the researchers suggest that hybridization with Denisova man took place about 20,000-40,000 years ago, but could also have occurred earlier. This is long after the branch that became modern humans split off from the branch that led to Neandertals and Denisovans some 300,000-500,000 years ago.

"With more complete genomes from modern humans and more analyses of fossil material, it will be possible to describe our prehistory with considerably greater accuracy and richer detail," says Mattias Jakobsson.

Science Daily. 2011. "Shared Genes With Neanderthal Relatives: Modern East Asians Share Genetic Material With Prehistoric Denisovans". Science Daily. Posted: October 31, 2011. Available online:

Journal Reference:

1. Pontus Skoglunda and Mattias Jakobssona. Archaic human ancestry in East Asia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2011 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1108181108

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Viking Sunstone Revealed?

To avoid getting lost on their voyages across the North Atlantic 1000 years ago, Vikings relied on the sun to determine their heading. (This was long before magnetic compasses were available in Europe.) But cloudy days could have sent their ships dangerously off course, especially during the all-day summer sun at those far-north latitudes. The Norse sagas mention a mysterious "sunstone" used for navigation. Now a team of scientists claims that the sunstones could have been calcite crystals and that Vikings could have used them to get highly accurate compass readings even when the sun was hidden.

The trick for locating the position of the hidden sun is to detect polarization, the orientation of light waves along their path. Even on a cloudy day, the sky still forms a pattern of concentric rings of polarized light with the sun at its center. If you have a crystal that depolarizes light, you can determine the location of the rings around the hidden sun.

Calcite is such a crystal. It has a property called birefringence: Light passing through calcite is split along two paths, forming a double image on the far side. The brightness of the two images relative to each other depends on the polarization of the light. By passing light from the sky through calcite and changing the crystal's orientation until the projections of the split beams are equally bright, it is theoretically possible to detect the concentric rings of polarization and thus the location of the sun.

Theory is one thing, practice is another. To see if calcite is accurate enough for navigation, a team led by Guy Ropars, a physicist at the University of Rennes 1 in France, built a sunstone. They used a chunk of calcite from Iceland spar, a rock familiar to the Vikings, and locked it into a wooden device that beams light from the sky onto the crystal through a hole and projects the double image onto a surface for comparison. They then used it over the course of a completely overcast day. They took the measurements from a point on land where they knew the sun's exact trajectory.

If the Vikings were clever enough to use calcite as a sunstone, it would have enabled them to navigate on cloudy days, the researchers report today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A. Their sunstone came within 1% of the true location of the sun even after it had dipped below the horizon. Ropars cautions that archaeologists have yet to find a sunstone among Viking shipwrecks or settlements.

The study reveals "an ingenious solution to the problem of open-sea navigation," says John Phillips, a biologist who studies animal navigation at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, adding that birds may also use polarization to navigate. But even if it is possible, using such a sunstone on a rolling Viking ship at sea would have been a challenge, he says. "Perhaps [they used it] when the Viking sailors encountered islands or ice packs during their travels."

Bohannon, John. 2011. "The Viking Sunstone Revealed?". Science. Posted: November 1, 2011. Available online:

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mysterious 'Copiale Cipher' cracked

The mysterious cryptogram, bound in gold and green brocade paper, reveals the rituals and political leanings of an 18th-century secret society in Germany. The manuscript seems straight out of fiction: a strange, handwritten message in abstract symbols and Roman letters meticulously covering 105 yellowing pages hidden in the depths of an academic archive.

A role in revolution?

The rituals detailed in the document indicate the society had a fascination with eye surgery and ophthalmology, though it seems members of the society were not eye doctors.

“This opens up a window for people who study the history of ideas and the history of secret societies,” said computer scientist Kevin Knight of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, part of the international team that finally cracked the cipher. “Historians believe that secret societies have had a role in revolutions, but all that is yet to be worked out, and a big part of the reason is because so many documents are enciphered.”

To break the cipher, Knight and colleagues Beáta Megyesi and Christiane Schaefer of Uppsala University in Sweden tracked down the original manuscript, which was found in the East Berlin Academy after the Cold War and now is in a private collection. They transcribed a machine-readable version of the text, using a computer program created by Knight to help quantify the co-occurrences of certain symbols and other patterns.

“When you get a new code and look at it, the possibilities are nearly infinite,” Knight said. “Once you come up with a hypothesis based on your intuition as a human, you can turn over a lot of grunt work to the computer.”

The approach — presented to the Association for Computational Linguistics in a paper called The Copiale Cipher (PDF) — treated the encrypted text as a foreign language and used techniques similar to those employed by Babelfish and Google Translate to derive the text.

The secret of the Roman and Greek letters

With the cipher, the code-breaking team began not even knowing the language of the encrypted document. But because they had a hunch about the Roman and Greek characters distributed throughout the manuscript, they isolated these from the abstract symbols and attacked it as the true code.

“It took quite a long time and resulted in complete failure,” Knight said.

After trying 80 languages, the cryptography team realized the Roman characters were “nulls” intended to mislead the reader. It was the abstract symbols that held the message.

The team later tested the hypothesis that abstract symbols with similar shapes represented the same letter or groups of letters. Eventually, the first meaningful words of German emerged: “Ceremonies of Initiation,” followed by “Secret Section.”

The plaintext letters of the message were found to be encoded by accented Roman letters, Greek letters and symbols, with unaccented Roman letters serving only to represent spaces. The researchers found that the first 16 pages describes an initiation ceremony for an unidentified secret society.

The document describes an initiation ritual in which the candidate is asked to read a blank piece of paper, and on confessing inability to do so, is given eyeglasses and asked to try again, and then again after washing the eyes with a cloth, followed by an “operation” in which a single eyebrow hair is plucked.

What next?

Knight now is targeting other coded messages, including ciphers sent by the Zodiac Killer, a serial murderer who sent taunting messages to the press and has never been caught. Knight also is applying his computer-assisted code-breaking software to other famous unsolved codes such as the last section of “Kryptos,” an encrypted message carved into a granite sculpture on the grounds of CIA headquarters, and the Voynich Manuscript, a medieval document that has baffled professional cryptographers for decades.

Past Horizons. 2011. "Mysterious 'Copiale Cipher' cracked". Past Horizons. Posted: October 28, 2011. Available online: