Thursday, May 31, 2012

Forensic sleuth probes fate of royal lovers and lion hearts

The French media like to call him the "Indiana Jones of the graveyards", but perhaps a better tag would be the Sherlock Holmes of forensic science.

With powerful microscopes and hi-tech diagnostics that tease out chemical signatures and DNA telltales, pathologist Philippe Charlier pores over centuries-old remains to probe the riddles of history.

He has determined that Vatican-authenticated bone fragments said to have come from Joan of Arc were in fact from a cat and an Egyptian mummy.

He has confirmed that a mummified heart came from the uncrowned boy king Louis XVII.

He has crushed the folklore that said Napoleon was poisoned to death by his perfidious English captors.

And in Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of King Henri II of France, Charlier made the shocking discovery that the 66-year-old had drunk an elixir of gold in what was apparently a desperate bid to keep her youth.

Now the scientist has turned his attentions to Richard the Lionheart, hoping to use what is left of his famous ticker to learn more about the legendary 12th century English monarch.

Speaking to AFP at an exhibition on his work, Charlier referred to his ancient subjects as "patients" for which a forensic scientist gradually develops a doctor-like relationship.

"One does tend to get attached," he said.

Charlier used 3-D imaging of a preserved skull to bring to life the face of French King Charles VII's lover Agnes Sorel, the first woman in French history to hold the title of official mistress.

She died at the age of 28 in 1450. But her death mask belied the pixie-like beauty for which she was famed in life.

"Looking at it realistically, it's ugly," Charlier said of the mask, with its bulging forehead, small cheekbones and scrunched-up nose.

The scientist's analysis determined that Sorel had died of poisoning with mercury, an important ingredient of medical salts of the era.

Charlier's lab is at the University Hospital Raymond Poincare in Garches, south of Paris.

In 2010, it confirmed that a severed head long thought to belong to Henri IV, murdered in 1610 by a Catholic fanatic, was indeed his -- a finding that is disputed by some.

Henri's remains had been taken, along with those of other French nobles from their tombs in the royal chapel at Saint-Denis in 1793 by revolutionaries who tossed the remains in a pit.

The scientist is now examining a small sample of the heart of Richard I, who ruled England from 1189 to his death in 1199, apparently from blood poisoning after he was shot with an arrow.

Housed in the Gothic cathedral of Rouen, northern France, the relic comprises just a sprinkling of decomposed dust.

Charlier has taken "one or two milligrams" of the precious remains and is carrying out chemical tests on them. The results are likely to be unveiled in the next three months, according to the French press.

The goal is to find out more about 12th-century embalming -- the practise was carried out by barbers or even cooks -- and perhaps identify the germ that killed the warrior-king.

"We know virtually nothing about the (embalming) techniques of that time," Charlier told the Parisien daily. "It is a forensic challenge. We want to get the maximum information from the smallest possible sample."

Richard is often described in the schoolbooks as a pious leader, brave soldier and a dashing man of letters, but historians say this version masks a life of brutality, bloodshed and religious intolerance.

He led the Third Crusade of the Christian world against Muslims who had captured Jerusalem in the 12th century. He died at the age of 42 after being shot with a crossbow during a siege of the castle of Chalus-Chabrol in the Limousin region.

Martinache, Veronique. 2012. "Forensic sleuth probes fate of royal lovers and lion hearts". PhysOrg. Posted: May 24, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Tongue Analysis Software Developed at MU Uses Ancient Chinese Medicine to Warn of Disease

For 5,000 years, the Chinese have used a system of medicine based on the flow and balance of positive and negative energies in the body. In this system, the appearance of the tongue is one of the measures used to classify the overall physical status of the body, or zheng. Now, University of Missouri researchers have developed computer software that combines the ancient practices and modern medicine by providing an automated system for analyzing images of the tongue.

“Knowing your zheng classification can serve as a pre-screening tool and help with preventive medicine,” said Dong Xu, chair of MU’s computer science department in the College of Engineering and study co-author. “Our software helps bridge Eastern and Western medicine, since an imbalance in zheng could serve as a warning to go see a doctor. Within a year, our ultimate goal is to create an application for smartphones that will allow anyone to take a photo of their tongue and learn the status of their zheng.”

The software analyzes images based on the tongue’s color and coating to distinguish between tongues showing signs of “hot” or “cold” zheng. Shades of red and yellow are associated with hot zheng, whereas a white coating on the tongue is a sign of cold zheng.

“Hot and cold zheng doesn’t refer directly to body temperature,” said Xu, who is also on the faculty of the Bond Life Sciences Center. “Rather, it refers to a suite of symptoms associated with the state of the body as a whole.”

For example, a person with cold zheng may feel chills and coolness in the limbs and show a pale flushing of face. Their voice may have a high pitch. Other symptoms of cold sheng are clear urine and loose stool. They also may prefer hot foods and drinks and desire warm environments.

In Chinese traditional medicine both hot and cold zheng can be symptoms of gastritis, an inflammation of the stomach lining frequently caused by bacterial infection.

For the study, 263 gastritis patients and 48 healthy volunteers had their tongues analyzed. The gastritis patients were classified by whether they showed infection by a certain bacteria, known as Helicobacter pylori, as well as the intensity of their gastritis symptoms. In addition, most of the gastritis patients had been previously classified with either hot or cold zheng. This allowed the researchers to verify the accuracy of the software’s analysis.

“Our software was able to classify people based on their zheng status,” said study co-author Ye Duan, associate professor of computer science at MU.

“As we continue to work on the software we hope to improve its ability,” Duan said. “Eventually everyone will be able to use this tool at home using webcams or smartphone applications. That will allow them to monitor their zheng and get an early warning about possible ailments.”

The study “Automated Tongue Feature Extraction for ZHENG Classification in Traditional Chinese Medicine” was accepted for publication in the journal Evidence Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The study’s first author was doctoral student Ratchadaporn Kanawong and the second author was post-doctoral researcher Tayo Obafemi-Ajayi.

Wall, Timothy. 2012. "Tongue Analysis Software Developed at MU Uses Ancient Chinese Medicine to Warn of Disease". MU News Bureau. Posted: May 24, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Relatively speaking: Researchers identify principles that shape kinship categories across languages

Different languages refer to family relationships in different ways. For example, English speakers use two terms — grandmother and grandfather — to refer to grandparents, while Mandarin Chinese uses four terms. Many possible kinship categories, however, are never observed, which raises the question of why some kinship categories appear in the languages of the world but others do not.

A new study published in Science by Carnegie Mellon University's Charles Kemp and the University of California at Berkeley's Terry Regier shows that kinship categories across languages reflect general principles of communication. The same principles can potentially be applied to other kinds of categories, such as colors and spatial relationships. Ultimately, then, the work may lead to a general theory of how different languages carve the world up into categories.

For the study, Kemp and Regier used data previously collected by anthropologists and linguists that specify kinship categories for 566 of the world's languages. Kemp and Regier used a computational analysis to explore why some patterns are found in the data set but others are not. In particular, they tested the idea that the world's kinship systems achieve a trade-off between the two competing principles of simplicity and informativeness.

"A kinship system with one word referring to all relatives in a family tree would be very simple but not terribly useful for picking out specific individuals," said Kemp, assistant professor of psychology within CMU's Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences and lead author of the study. "On the other hand, a system with a different word for each family member is much more complicated but very useful for referring to specific relatives. If you look at the kinship systems in the languages of the world, you can't make them simpler without making them less useful, and you can't make them more useful without making them more complicated. There is a tradeoff between these two explanatory principles."

Kemp and Regier found that this trade-off explains why languages use only a handful of the vast number of logically possible kinship categories.

"The kinship systems that are used by languages lie along an optimal frontier, where systems achieve a near perfect trade-off between the competing factors of simplicity and usefulness," Kemp said. "English — with two terms to refer to grandparents — is more simple than Mandarin Chinese, but arguably a little less useful."

"Interestingly, very similar principles explain cross-language variation in color categories and spatial categories, as well as kinship categories," said Regier, associate professor of linguistics and cognitive science at Berkeley, and an author on the earlier work on color and space. "It's rewarding to see similar principles operating across such different domains."

EurekAlert. 2012. "Relatively speaking: Researchers identify principles that shape kinship categories across languages". EurekAlert. Posted: May 24, 2012. Available online:

Monday, May 28, 2012

Researchers develop new genetic method to pinpoint individuals' geographic origin

UCLA-Tel Aviv University team models genetic variation in 2-D, 3-D space

Understanding the genetic diversity within and between populations has important implications for studies of human disease and evolution. This includes identifying associations between genetic variants and disease, detecting genomic regions that have undergone positive selection and highlighting interesting aspects of human population history.

Now, a team of researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, UCLA's Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and Israel's Tel Aviv University has developed an innovative approach to the study of genetic diversity called spatial ancestry analysis (SPA), which allows for the modeling of genetic variation in two- or three-dimensional space.

Their study is published online this week in the journal Nature Genetics.

With SPA, researchers can model the spatial distribution of each genetic variant by assigning a genetic variant's frequency as a continuous function in geographic space. By doing this, they show that the explicit modeling of the genetic variant frequency — the proportion of individuals who carry a specific variant — allows individuals to be localized on a world map on the basis of their genetic information alone.

"If we know from where each individual in our study originated, what we observe is that some variation is more common in one part of the world and less common in another part of the world," said Eleazar Eskin, an associate professor of computer science at UCLA Engineering. "How common these variants are in a specific location changes gradually as the location changes.

"In this study, we think of the frequency of variation as being defined by a specific location. This gives us a different way to think about populations, which are usually thought of as being discrete. Instead, we think about the variant frequencies changing in different locations. If you think about a person's ancestry, it is no longer about being from a specific population — but instead, each person's ancestry is defined by the location they're from. Now ancestry is a continuum."

The team reports the development of a simple probabilistic model for the spatial structure of genetic variation, with which they model how the frequency of each genetic variant changes as a function of the location of the individual in geographic space (where the gene frequency is actually a function of the x and y coordinates of an individual on a map).

"If the location of an individual is unknown, our model can actually infer geographic origins for each individual using only their genetic data with surprising accuracy," said Wen-Yun Yang, a UCLA computer science graduate student.

"The model makes it possible to infer the geographic ancestry of an individual's parents, even if those parents differ in ancestry. Existing approaches falter when it comes to this task," said UCLA's John Novembre, an assistant professor in the department of ecology and evolution.

SPA is also able to model genetic variation on a globe.

"We are able to also show how to predict the spatial structure of worldwide populations," said Eskin, who also holds a joint appointment in the department of human genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "In just taking genetic information from populations from all over the world, we're able to reconstruct the topology of the global populations only from their genetic information."

Using the framework, SPA can also identify loci showing extreme patterns of spatial differentiation.

"These dramatic changes in the frequency of the variants potentially could be due to natural selection," Eskin said. "It could be that something in the environment is different in different locations. Let's say a mutation arose that has some advantageous property in a certain environment. So you can imagine then that a kind of force for genetic selection would make this mutation more common in that environment."

The research team began to examine all of the genes, and for each gene they computed how sharp of a change there was in the frequencies. They soon discovered that the genes which had the largest and most extreme changes are the ones that are known to have experienced selection in the recent past.

"So this is a new method for finding genes that are also undergoing selection in humans," Yang said.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Researchers develop new genetic method to pinpoint individuals' geographic origin ". EurekAlert. Posted: May 23, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Modern dog breeds genetically disconnected from ancient ancestors

Cross-breeding of dogs over thousands of years has made it extremely difficult to trace the ancient genetic roots of today's pets, according to a new study led by Durham University.

An international team of scientists analysed data of the genetic make-up of modern-day dogs, alongside an assessment of the global archaeological record of dog remains, and found that modern breeds genetically have little in common with their ancient ancestors.

Dogs were the first domesticated animals and the researchers say their findings will ultimately lead to greater understanding of dogs' origins and the development of early human civilisation.

Although many modern breeds look like those depicted in ancient texts or in Egyptian pyramids, cross-breeding across thousands of years has meant that it is not accurate to label any modern breeds as "ancient", the researchers said.

Breeds such as the Akita, Afghan Hound and Chinese Shar-Pei, which have been classed as "ancient", are no closer to the first domestic dogs than other breeds due to the effects of lots of cross-breeding, the study found.

Other effects on the genetic diversity of domestic dogs include patterns of human movement and the impact on dog population sizes caused by major events, such as the two World Wars, the researchers added.

The findings are published today (Monday May 21) in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS). The Durham-led research team was made up of scientists from a number of universities including Uppsala University, Sweden, and the Broad Institute, in the USA.

In total the researchers analysed genetic data from 1,375 dogs representing 35 breeds. They also looked at data showing genetic samples of wolves, with recent genetic studies suggesting that dogs are exclusively descended from the grey wolf.

Lead author Dr Greger Larson, an evolutionary biologist in Durham University's Department of Archaeology, said the study demonstrated that there is still a lot we do not know about the early history of dog domestication including where, when, and how many times it took place.

Dr Larson added: "We really love our dogs and they have accompanied us across every continent.

"Ironically, the ubiquity of dogs combined with their deep history has obscured their origins and made it difficult for us to know how dogs became man's best friend.

"All dogs have undergone significant amounts of cross-breeding to the point that we have not yet been able to trace all the way back to their very first ancestors."

Several breeds, including Basenjis, Salukis and Dingoes, possess a differing genetic signature, which previous studies have claimed to be evidence for their ancient heritage, the research found.

However the study said that the unique genetic signatures in these dogs was not present because of a direct heritage with ancient dogs. Instead these animals appeared genetically different because they were geographically isolated and were not part of the 19th Century Victorian-initiated Kennel Clubs that blended lineages to create most of the breeds we keep as pets today.

The study also suggested that within the 15,000 year history of dog domestication, keeping dogs as pets only began 2,000 years ago and that until very recently, the vast majority of dogs were used to do specific jobs.

Dr Larson said: "Both the appearance and behaviour of modern breeds would be deeply strange to our ancestors who lived just a few hundred years ago.

"And so far, anyway, studying modern breeds hasn't yet allowed us to understand how, where and when dogs and humans first started this wonderful relationship."

The researchers added that DNA sequencing technology is faster and cheaper than ever and could soon lead to further insights into the domestication and subsequent evolution of dogs.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Modern dog breeds genetically disconnected from ancient ancestors". EurekAlert. Posted: May 21, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, May 26, 2012

New approach to 'spell checking' gene sequences

A PhD student from CSIRO and the University of Queensland has found a better way to 'spell check' gene sequences and help biologists better understand the natural world.

The student, Lauren Bragg, has contributed to the May issue of the prestigious journal Nature Methods highlighting her new approach and its software implementation called Acacia.

Acacia analyses the output of next-generation gene sequencing instruments which read the four-letter alphabet of As, Cs, Ts and Gs – the 'bases' that code for DNA and spell out the genes of different living organisms. Acacia specifically applies to important parts of microbe genes called amplicons.

Just as a computer spell checker finds typing errors in words, so Acacia finds errors in the DNA code of amplicon sequences produced during gene sequencing.

Acacia shows clear improvements over the two error-correction tools currently used by biologists for amplicon sequences and it's easier for biologists to use.

Ms Bragg's development of Acacia is part of the field of bioinformatics, a blend of computer science, statistics and biology. Despite her surname, however, she is modest about her achievements.

"It's exciting to be published in a journal like Nature Methods but I get more satisfaction from hearing how my software is helping biologists fix sequencing errors." she said.

Machine errors in the long lengths of A, C, G and T code can cause biologists to misinterpret which genes are there, or which microbial species might exist in a environmental samples from, say, a waste water treatment plant or from the ocean or even our guts.

Acacia works by using the statistical theory of likelihoods to analyse the code for DNA bases which may have been mistakenly added or deleted – common errors in gene sequencing.

"The Nature article is our way of telling the international biology community that there's a new software tool they can use for error-correcting that's pretty easy to use, quick and reliable".

"That way, they won't think they've discovered a new microbe species when they haven't or overlooked one they should have found", she said.

The method, or algorithm, that Acacia uses took 18 months for Ms Bragg to fully develop and test.

Now it's nose to the grindstone to get the thesis done.

CSIRO. 2012. "New approach to 'spell checking' gene sequences". CSiro. Posted: May 18, 2012. Available online:

Paper: 'Fast, accurate error-correction of amplicon pyrosequences using Acacia', Lauren Bragg, Glenn Stone, Michael Imelfort, Philip Hugenholtz and Gene W Tyson, Nature Methods correspondence, Nature Methods 9, 425-426 (2012) doi:10.1038/nmeth.1990

Friday, May 25, 2012

A Mummy Switcheroo

Min, the ancient Egyptian god of phallus and fertility, might have brought some worldy advantages to his male worshippers, but offered little protection when it came to spiritual life.

Researchers at the Mummy Project-Fatebenefratelli hospital in Milan, Italy, established that one of Min's priests at Akhmim, Ankhpakhered, was not resting peacefully in his finely painted sarcophagus.

"We discovered that the sarcophagus does not contain the mummy of the priest, but the remains of another man dating between 400 and 100 BC," Egyptologist Sabina Malgora said.

According to the researchers, the finding could point to a theft more than 2000 years ago. The relatives of the mysterious man may have stolen the beautiful sarcophagus, which dates to a period between the 22nd 23rd Dynasty (about 945-715 BC), to assure their loved one a proper burial and afterlife.

"It's just an hypothesis. However, this was a rather common practice, especially during periods of economical and political crisis, when the necropolis were left without much surveillance," Malgora, co-director of the Mummy Project with Luca Bernardo, director of Maternal and Child Unit Operations at the Fatebenefratelli hospital, told Discovery News.

Indeed, by the end of the 20th Dynasty, tomb robbery was such a serious problem at Thebes (the modern Luxor) that royal mummies and their relatives were secretly moved to a secure hidden tomb in Deir el-Bahri, now known as Theban Tomb (TT) 320.

Discovered near the end of the 19th century, the Deir el-Bahri cache revealed an extraordinary array of mummified remains belonging to more than 50 kings, queens and nobility.

Kept at the Archaeological Museum in Asti, where it arrived in 1903 from a private collection, the sarcophagus boasted a mysterious history -- it is not known how it arrived to Italy -- and a puzzling mummy.

"It had a simple bendage with no amulets at all. We know that a high priest would have been buried differently," Malgora said.

Finally, CTscan images revealed that inside the wrappings rested a skeleton placed on a reed support. This suggests that the body was recovered some time after the death, placed on a kind of stretcher and then wrapped.

While the fate of Ankhpakhered's mummy remains unknown, Malgora and colleagues have managed to shed new light on the man that for more than two millennia usurped the priest's coffin.

He did not use drugs, did not suffer from any particular disease, and did not die from any violent or traumatic event.

Some 2950 images from the CT scan made it possible to reconstruct a 3D life size image of his skull. Carried by Jonathan Elias, director of the Akhmim Mummy Studies Consortium, the subsequent face reconstruction revealed a man with a prominent nose, a slightly asymmetric eye and eyebrow and a slightly hollow left cheek, caused by the lack of some teeth.

"He had nothing to do with a high priest. He was a hard worker. His knees show signs of wear and tear, as if he was carrying weight or stones," Malgora said.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2012. "A Mummy Switcheroo". Discovery News. Posted: May 15, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"Body Jars," Cliff Coffins Are Clues to Unknown Tribe

Photo by: John Miksic

Skulls and other human bones poke from large ceramic jars at Khnorng Sroal, one of the newly dated mountainside burials in southwestern Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains.

The bones were placed in the 20-inch-tall (50-centimeter-tall) body jars only after the bodies had decomposed or had been picked clean by scavenging animals, according to the study, which is published in the latest issue of the journal Radiocarbon.

"The Cardamom highlanders may have used some form of exposure of the body to de-flesh the bones, like the 'sky burials' known in other cultures," study leader Beavan said.

Placing the sky-high burials couldn't have been easy, according to Beavan. Systems of ropes and bamboo baskets may have been used to raise or lower the urns and coffins to some of the trickier sites, she speculated.

Visit the site to see more of the fabulous photos. There is more to the story under each photo. It's well worth the trip.

National Geographic News. 2012. ""Body Jars," Cliff Coffins Are Clues to Unknown Tribe". National Geographic News. Posted: May 15, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Engravings of Female Genitalia May Be World's Oldest Cave Art

Since their discovery in 1994, the spectacular paintings of lions, rhinos, and other animals in southern France's Chauvet Cave have stood out as the oldest known cave art, clocking in at about 37,000 years old.* But there have been occasional sightings of other cave art that is equally ancient, although its dating has been more uncertain. Now a team working at another site in the south of France claims to have discovered what appear to be engravings of female genitalia that are as old as or older than Chauvet, possibly making them the world's most ancient cave art.

Homo sapiens first colonized Europe from Africa around 40,000 years ago. But until the early 1990s, there was little firm evidence that our species engaged in sophisticated artistic activity that early. Many archaeologists assumed that modern humans developed their artistic skills only gradually, culminating in spectacular galleries like the 15,000-year-old painted caves at Lascaux in France and Altamira in Spain. The discovery of Chauvet changed all that and convinced most researchers that early artists had brought their skills with them from Africa.

Yet for years Chauvet seemed to stand alone, leading some archaeologists to question whether its dating—based in large part on radiocarbon samples taken directly from its charcoal paintings—was correct. Nevertheless, evidence for other art of about the same age continued to accumulate. At Fumane Cave in Italy, for example, archaeologists found depictions of animals and what appeared to be a half-human, half-beast figure, dated to about 37,000 years ago or even older, although the error ranges for the dates were fairly wide.

Since 1994, the year of Chauvet's discovery, a team led by archaeologist Randall White of New York University in New York City has been working at the Abri Castanet, a rock shelter (a shallow cave usually at the base of a cliff) in southern France's Vezere valley. Originally excavated in the early 20th century, the Abri Castanet has long been considered one of the earliest modern human sites in Europe, with occupation layers dated back to nearly 40,000 years ago. White's excavations have uncovered considerable evidence of symbolic and artistic activity at the site, including hundreds of pierced snail shells apparently used as ornaments and three limestone blocks adorned with engravings, including one the team interprets as a vulva. But the blocks, which came from the shelter's collapsed roof, were impossible to date because they do not contain the kind of organic matter necessary for radiocarbon analysis.

In 2007, however, the team began excavating another large block that had fallen from the roof and directly onto a segment of the cave floor once occupied by prehistoric humans. As White and his colleagues broke the stone slab into sections and lifted them out, they discovered that the underside had been engraved with another vulva-like image (see photo). When they sent the bones of reindeer and other animals from the cave floor to the University of Oxford's radiocarbon dating lab for analysis, the dates clustered tightly between 36,000 and 37,000 years ago. And because there was no accumulation of sediments or other deposits between the archaeological layer and the stone slab, the team argues that the painted cave ceiling must be at least as old as the bones.

That would mean that the artworks at Abri Castanet are also at least as old as those at Chauvet, White and co-workers conclude in a paper published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Because these images of vulvas are very different from the charcoal and ochre drawings at Chauvet, the team thinks that regional differences in artistic traditions were already established in Europe by that time, even at sites like Chauvet and Abri Castanet that are only a few hundred kilometers apart.

One key difference, White says, is that whereas the paintings at Chauvet are hidden deep within that cave and away from living areas, the depictions at Abri Castanet were on the rock shelter ceiling right above the spaces where prehistoric humans slept and ate, making them a kind of everyday and public art.

Harold Dibble, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says the team's dating of the vulva engraving appears sound because it cannot be any younger than the surface onto which it fell and might even be older. "The context of the find is quite clear," Dibble says. As for the long-standing tradition among archaeologists working in France of interpreting such images as vulvas, Dibble says, "Who the hell knows" what they really represent? Dibble adds that such interpretations could be colored by the worldview of Western archaeologists whose culture probably differs greatly from that of prehistoric peoples. "Maybe it's telling us more about the people making those interpretations" than the artists who created the images, Dibble says. On the other hand, he says, the repeated use of this image at other sites in the Vezere valley suggests that it was some sort of "shared iconography" that might identify specific groups of people. Indeed, archaeologists have also identified differences in the styles of personal ornaments and other artifacts that might also reflect different groups or tribes, much as people express their group identities by the way they dress today.

Paul Pettit, an archaeologist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, agrees that the new work "provides admirable independent verification of the age of the Castanet rock art that has been suspected for decades." What's more, argues Pettit, a leader of a small but vocal group of archaeologists who have questioned the dating of the Chauvet paintings, the discovery at Abri Castanet helps make their case that the Chauvet art is too sophisticated to be 37,000 years old. "The only other examples of convincingly dated rock art in this period are the painted block from Fumane, which in terms of technical achievement is similar to the Castanet examples," he says. The reason there are so many stylistic differences between the spectacular Chauvet paintings and the relatively simple engravings at Abri Castanet, he insists, is that the Chauvet images are much younger.

*All radiocarbon dates in this story are calibrated to account for differences in the amount of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere between prehistoric times and today.

Balter, Michael. 2012. "Engravings of Female Genitalia May Be World's Oldest Cave Art". Science. Posted: May 14, 2012. Available online:

Nepal's mystery language on the verge of extinction

Gyani Maiya Sen, a 75-year-old woman from western Nepal, can perhaps be forgiven for feeling that the weight of the world rests on her shoulders.

She is the only person still alive in Nepal who fluently speaks the Kusunda language. The unknown origins and mysterious sentence structures of Kusunda have long baffled linguists.

As such, she has become a star attraction for campaigners eager to preserve her dying tongue.

Madhav Prasad Pokharel, a professor of linguistics at Nepal's Tribhuwan University, has spent a decade researching the vanishing Kusunda tribe.

Professor Pokharel describes Kusunda as a "language isolate", not related to any common language of the world.

"There are about 20 language families in the world," he said, "among them are the Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan and Austro-Asiatic group of languages.

"Kusunda stands out because it is not phonologically, morphologically, syntactically and lexically related to any other languages of the world.

'Very sad'

He warns that if the Kusunda language becomes extinct, "a unique and important part of our human heritage will be lost forever".

Even if some of the lofty intellectual arguments for preserving the Kusunda language are lost on Ms Sen, she is acutely aware of how its demise affects her personally.

"Fortunately I can also speak Nepali, but I feel very sad for not being able to speak my own language with people from my own community," she said.

"Although there are still other people from the Kusunda tribe still alive, they neither understand nor speak the language.

"Other Kusunda people... can only speak a few Kusunda words, but can't communicate [fully] in the language."

Ms Sen fears there will be no-one to speak the Kusunda language after her death.

"The Kusunda language will die with me," she reflects, while lamenting the failure of the government and academics to help transfer the language to the next generation.

Although no detailed figures are available, the Central Bureau of Statistics says that only about 100 Kusunda tribespeople remain - but only Ms Sen can speak the language fluently.

A few years ago, there were two other people - from a mid-western Nepalese village - who spoke the Kusunda language fluently.

They were Puni Thakuri and her daughter Kamala Khatri.

But since then Puni Thakuri has died and Kamala has left the country in search of a job.

Ms Sen - despite her age - still ekes out a living as a stone-crusher. But outside of the workplace she finds that she is increasingly in demand from linguistics students wanting to learn the Kusunda language with her help.

They are documenting it in a bid to keep this rare language alive.

Researchers have so far identified three vowels and 15 consonants in the Kusunda language.

Threat to tribe

The Kusunda tribe to which Ms Sen belongs is nomadic. As hunters and gatherers, they live in huts in the jungle and carry bows and arrows to hunt wild animals.

While the males of the tribe hunt, women and children stay at home and search for wild fruits.

The Kusunda - a short and sturdy people - refer to themselves by the word "myak" in their language. They kill monitor lizards ("pui") and wild fowls ("tap").

Linguists and tribal campaigners are now demanding that the government introduce specific programmes to uplift the Kusunda tribe and protect their language.

But no such policy is on the cards, at least in immediate future.

"We do not have any specific programme to preserve this language," admitted Narayan Regmi, spokesperson of the Ministry of Culture.

The National Ethnographic Museum had meanwhile conducted a study on 10 different Nepalese ethnic groups including the Kusunda.

Its research has reached a grim conclusion. The entire Kusunda tribe is on the verge of disappearing along with its last fluent speaker in Nepal.

Gautam, Bimal. 2012. "Nepal's mystery language on the verge of extinction". BBC News. Posted: May 12, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Study links biodiversity and language loss

The decline of linguistic and cultural diversity is linked to the loss of biodiversity, a study has suggested.

The authors said that 70% of the world's languages were found within the planet's biodiversity hotspots.

Data showed that as these important environmental areas were degraded over time, cultures and languages in the area were also being lost.

The results of the study have been published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

"Biologists estimate annual loss of species at 1,000 times or more greater than historic rates, and linguists predict that 50-90% of the world's languages will disappear by the end of the century," the researchers wrote.

Lead author Larry Gorenflo from Penn State University, in the US, said previous studies had identified a geographical connection between the two, but did not offer the level of detail required.

Dr Gorenflo told BBC News that the limitation to the data was that either the languages were listed by country or there was a dot on the map to indicate the location.

"But what you did not know was if the area extended two kilometres or 200 kilometres, so you really did not get a sense of the extent of the language," he explained.

"We used improved language data to really get a more solid sense of how languages and biodiversity co-occurred and an understanding of how geographically extensive the language was."

He said the study achieved this by also looking at smaller areas with high biodiversity, such as national parks or other protected habitats.

"When we did that, not only did we get a sense of co-occurrence at a regional scale, but we also got a sense that co-occurrence was found at a much finer scale," he said.

"We are not quite sure yet why this happens, but in a lot of cases it may well be that biodiversity evolved as part-and-parcel of cultural diversity, and vice versa."

In their paper, the researchers pointed out that, out of the 6,900 or more languages spoken on Earth, more than 4,800 occurred in regions containing high biodiversity.

Dr Gorenflo described these locations as "very important landscapes" which were "getting fewer and fewer" but added that the study's data could help provide long-term security.

"It provides a wonderful opportunity to integrate conservation efforts - you can have people who can get funding for biological conservation, and they can collaborate with people who can get funding for linguistic or cultural conservation," he suggested.

"In the past, it was hard to get biologists to look at people.

"That has really changed dramatically in the past few years. One thing that a lot of biologists and ecologists are now seeing is that people are part of these ecosystems."

Kinver, Mark. 2012. "Study links biodiversity and language loss". BBC News. Posted: May 12, 2012. Available online:

Monday, May 21, 2012

Ancient Egyptians Tracked Eclipsing Binary Star Algol

Turn your telescope to the constellation of Perseus and you might note an unusual star called Algol, dubbed the "Demon Star" or the "Raging One." You wouldn't notice anything much different at first, unless you happened to be looking during a window of a few hours -- every 2.867 days -- when Algol's brightness visibly dims.

This unusual feature was first noticed back in 1667 by an astronomer named Geminiano Montanari, and later confirmed -- with a proposed possible mechanism -- in 1783 by John Goodricke, who precisely measured the period of variability: it dims every 2.867 days.

But a new paper by researchers at the University of Helsinki, Finland, claims that the ancient Egyptians may have recorded Algol's periodic variability 3000 years ago, based on their statistical analysis of a bit of papyrus known as the Cairo Calendar.

This isn't the first time people have hypothesized that Algol's variable nature was known prior to its discovery in the 17th century. Certainly it was a familiar object, prominent in mythology and lore. In the second century, Ptolemy referred to Algol as the "Gorgon of Perseus," and associated it with death by decapitation. (In Greek mythology, the hero Perseus slays the snake-headed Gorgon, Medusa, by chopping off her head.)

Other cultures also associated the star with violence and bad fortune. It's no coincidence that H.P. Lovecraft marked the onset of his final battle in the 1919 short story, "Beyond the Wall of Sleep," with the appearance of a nova near Algol.

But the Helsinki researchers go beyond mythology and conjecture and provide a solid statistical analysis, based on historical documentation.

Goodricke proposed that Algol's periodic variability was due to an eclipsing factor: namely, an orbiting dark body occasionally passed in front of the star, dimming its brightness temporarily.

Alternatively, he suggested that Algol itself had a darker side that turned toward the Earth every 2.687 days.

His hypothesis wouldn't be confirmed until 1881, when Edward Charles Pickering discovered that Algol is actually a binary star system: there were two stars circling together, Algol A and Algol B.

Even more intriguing: it was an "eclipsing binary," i.e., one in which the dimmer star in the system occasionally passes in front of its brighter sibling, dimming the latter according to predictable periods. Goodricke's hypothesis was correct.

Actually, astronomers now know that Algol is a triple-star system, with a third star, Algol C, located a bit further out from the main pair, with a larger orbit.

All of this is necessary background for understanding the conclusions of the Helsinki scientists. The whole point of tracking the heavens so meticulously, for the Egyptians, was to make predictions about the future, dividing the calendar into "lucky" and "unlucky" days. The Cairo Calendar, while badly damaged, nonetheless contains a complete list of such days over a full year, circa 1200 B.C.

How did the Egyptians decide how to rate specific days? That's a mystery. But the Finnish team took the raw data and reassembled it into a tie series, then used statistical techniques to determine the cycles within it. There were two significant periodic cycles. One was 29.6 days, very close to current estimates of a lunar month (29.53059 days).

The second periodic cycle was 2.85 days. Lead author Lauri Jetsu and her colleagues argue that this corresponds to Argol's variable period. It's suspiciously close to the 2.867 period Goodricke measured back in 1783.

Close, yes, but it's not a precise match, which is problematic. The Egyptians weren't known to be sloppy in their astronomical calculations. They should have been able to pinpoint a value much closer to Goodricke's -- unless, say, Algol's period changes over time.

There is some evidence that this might be the case, possibly due to the presence of the third star in the Algol system. Calculating the behavior of a two-body system is one thing; grappling with the dreaded "three-body problem" is quite another, particularly since astronomers are only working with roughly 300 years of data. Algol looks like it's living up to its "Demon Star" moniker.

That's where Jetsu et al's paper might prove to be more than just an intriguing historical oddity. It provides some missing data from 3000 years ago, which could help astronomers further constrain their models for Algol's variable behavior.

Ouellette, Jennifer. 2012. "Ancient Egyptians Tracked Eclipsing Binary Star Algol". Discovery News. Posted: May 2, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Archaeology: Date with history

By revamping radiocarbon dating, Tom Higham is painting a new picture of humans' arrival in Europe.

Beside a slab of trilobites, in a quiet corner of Britain's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, lies a collection of ochre-tinted human bones known as the Red Lady of Paviland. In 1823, palaeontologist William Buckland painstakingly removed the fossils from a cave in Wales, and discovered ivory rods, shell beads and other ornaments in the vicinity. He concluded that they belonged to a Roman-era witch or prostitute.

“He did a good job of excavating, but he interpreted it totally wrong,” says Tom Higham, a 46-year-old archaeological scientist at the University of Oxford's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit. Buckland's immediate successors did a little better. They determined that the Red Lady was in fact a man, and that the ornaments resembled those found at much older sites in continental Europe. Then, in the twentieth century, carbon dating found the bones to be about 22,000 years old1 and, later, 30,000 years old2 — even though much of Britain was encased in ice and seemingly uninhabitable for part of that time. When Higham eventually got the bones, his team came up with a more likely scenario: they were closer to 33,000 years old and one of the earliest examples of ceremonial burial in Western Europe.

“It is another sobering example of cocked-up dates,” says Higham, whose laboratory is leading a revolution in radiocarbon dating. By developing techniques that strip ancient samples of impurities, he and his team have established more accurate ages for the remains from dozens of archaeological sites. In the process, Higham is rewriting European history for around 30,000–50,000 years ago — a time referred to as the Middle-to-Upper Palaeolithic transition — when the first modern-looking humans arrived from Africa and the last Neanderthals vanished. Higham thinks that better carbon dating will help to resolve debates about whether the two ever met, swapped ideas or even had sex. It might even explain why humans survived and Neanderthals did not.

“I admire him,” says Paul Mellars, an archaeologist from the University of Cambridge, UK, and an expert on this period in Europe, for “the sheer doggedness and sense of vision” he has for improving radiocarbon dating of the Palaeolithic. That vision sometimes clashes with other scientists' views, but Higham makes no apologies for his interpretations as long as the dates are solid. “I want to know the truth” is something he says a lot.

A woolly field

If you Google 'archaeologist' and 'Higham', the first hit is likely to be Charles Higham, a 72-year-old professor who has charted the origins of agriculture and government in southeast Asia. Tom was born in Cambridge, where his father was based until 1966. Charles then moved the family and nine-month-old Tom to New Zealand's rugged south island to start an archaeology department at the University of Otago in Dunedin. As a teenager, Tom spent summers at Ban Na Di, a study site in northeastern Thailand, where his duties included helping with human excavations and brewing tea for the crew.

Tom didn't originally plan to follow his father's path. As a child he was obsessed with the history of the American West. At university, he planned to study geography and glaciology, but switched to archaeology after excelling in an introductory course taught by his father that he had signed up for on a whim. But his enthusiasm soon waned. “I got less and less interested in archaeology because it was so subjective and woolly.”

The reasons for that woolliness were partly technical and partly historical, dating back to before the Highams' time. Archaeology before carbon dating relied on two principles: older things are buried beneath younger things, and people with cultural ties make similar-looking objects, such as stone tools. But dates were hard to come by. In the early nineteenth century, the Danish historian Rasmus Nyerup wrote that most of early human history was “wrapped in a thick fog”3. “We know that it is older than Christendom,” he wrote, “but whether by a couple of years or a couple of centuries or even by more than a millennium, we can do no more than guess.”

The fog began to lift in the middle of the twentieth century, when US chemist Willard Libby and his colleagues4 showed that all formerly living things bear a clock powered by radioactive carbon-14. Organisms incorporate tiny amounts of this isotope as they grow, and they maintain a constant ratio between it and other, non-radioactive, carbon isotopes throughout their lives. After death, the carbon-14 decays with a half-life of about 5,730 years, and the dwindling ratio serves as a time stamp. Libby's team proved the accuracy of this 'clock' on objects of known age, such as Egyptian mummy tombs, and bread from a house in Pompeii, Italy, that was burned during the eruption of Vesuvius. Libby earned the 1960 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work.

The clock gets less accurate as the samples age, however; cruelly, it begins to fail at one of the most interesting times of human history in Europe. Within 30,000 years, 98% of the already vanishingly small quantities of carbon-14 in bone is gone. And carbon-14 molecules from surrounding soil start to seep into the fossils. Collagen, the part of bone that contains the most carbon suitable for dating, sops up contaminants like a sponge, creating a false record. If just 2% of the carbon atoms are contemporary, then a 44,000-year-old bone will return a carbon date of 33,000 years old, Higham calculates.

Most of the thousands of carbon dates from archaeological sites from the Middle-to-Upper Palaeolithic era are wrong, say scientists, perhaps even as many as 90%. As a result, archaeologists can agree on the history of this era only in the broadest of brushstrokes.

Tom found himself drawn to the quantitative side of archaeology to help fill in those details. His father had counselled that if he wanted a future in the field, Tom ought to join the push to make it a more rigorous science, emphasizing testable theory, experiment and statistics. So, at his father's urging, Tom applied for and completed a PhD at the University of Waikato's Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory in Hamilton, then did a postdoc there. And when a faculty position became available at a better-funded lab at the University of Oxford in 2000, he moved back to his birth country.

Any idea that archaeology hasn't gone in the direction that Charles predicted is dispelled by a visit to his son's workplace. Its centrepiece is a giant £2.5-million (US$4-million) particle accelerator, which is used to tot up the number of radioactive carbon molecules in a sample.

Similar machines have been used for carbon dating since the 1970s and have allowed scientists to date smaller samples with more precision than before. But they have also produced their share of erroneous dates. “People used to take bones, grind them up and date them, and you got all kinds of dates because no one bothered to check if there was collagen or not,” says Ofer Bar-Yosef, an archaeologist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And rather than damage valuable human bones or animal bones marked with cuts from stone tools, scientists tended to date fragments of unidentified animal bones found alongside human remains, assuming, not always correctly, that they coincided with human occupation. “It just breaks your heart to see what people have dated before. They've basically dated pieces of shit,” Higham says.

To continue reading this article, visit the site.

Callaway, Ewan. 2012. "Archaeology: Date with history". Nature. Posted: May 3, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Study finds emotion reversed in left-handers' brains

Holds new implications for treatment of anxiety and depression

The way we use our hands may determine how emotions are organized in our brains, according to a recent study published in PLoS ONE by psychologists Geoffrey Brookshire and Daniel Casasanto of The New School for Social Research in New York.

Motivation, the drive to approach or withdraw from physical and social stimuli, is a basic building block of human emotion. For decades, scientists have believed that approach motivation is computed mainly in the left hemisphere of the brain, and withdraw motivation in the right hemisphere. Brookshire and Casasanto's study challenges this idea, showing that a well-established pattern of brain activity, found across dozens of studies in right-handers, completely reverses in left-handers.

The study used electroencepahlography (EEG) to compare activity in participants' right- and left hemispheres during rest. After having their brain waves measured, participants completed a survey measuring their level of approach motivation, a core aspect of our personalities. In right-handers, stronger approach motivation was associated with greater activity in the left hemisphere than the right, consistent with previous studies. Left-handers showed the opposite pattern: Approach motivation was associated with greater activity in the right hemisphere than the left.

A New Link Between Motor Action and Emotion

Most cognitive functions do not reverse with handedness. Language, for example, is mainly in the left hemisphere for the majority of right- and left-handers. However, these results were not unexpected.

"We predicted this hemispheric reversal because we observed that people tend to use different hands to perform approach- and avoidance-related actions," says Casasanto. Approach actions are often performed with the dominant hand, and avoidance actions with the nondominant hand.

"Approach motivation is computed by the hemisphere that controls the right hand in right-handers, and by the hemisphere that controls the left hand in left-handers," says Casasanto. "We don't think this is a coincidence. Neural circuits for motivation may be functionally related to circuits that control hand actions – emotion may be built upon neural circuits for action, in evolutionary or developmental time."

The authors caution that these data show a correlation between emotional motivation and motor control, and that further studies are needed to establish a causal link.

Implications for the treatment of depression and anxiety disorders

To treat depression and anxiety disorders, brain stimulation is used to increase neural activity in the patient's left hemisphere, long believed to the "approach hemisphere." "Given what we show here," says Brookshire, "this treatment, which helps right-handers, may be detrimental to left-handers – the exact opposite of what they need." The discovery that approach motivation reverses with handedness may lead to safer, more effective neural therapies for left-handers, according to Brookshire, "it's something we're investigating now."

EurekAlert. 2012."Study finds emotion reversed in left-handers' brains". EurekAlert. Posted: May 2, 2012. Available online:

Friday, May 18, 2012

Anthropologists Discover New Research Use for Dental Plaque: Examining Diets of Ancient Peoples

While we may brush and floss tirelessly and our dentists may regularly scrape and pick at our teeth to minimize the formation of plaque known as tartar or dental calculus, anthropologists may be rejoicing at the fact that past civilizations were not so careful with their dental hygiene.

University of Nevada, Reno researchers G. Richard Scott and Simon R. Poulson discovered that very small particles of plaque removed from the teeth of ancient populations may provide good clues about their diets. Scott is chair and associate professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts. Poulson is research professor of geological sciences in the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering.

Scott obtained samples of dental calculus from 58 skeletons buried in the Cathedral of Santa Maria in northern Spain dating from the 11th to 19th centuries to conduct research on the diet of this ancient population. After his first methodology met with mixed results, he decided to send five samples of dental calculus to Poulson at the University's Stable Isotope Lab, in the off chance they might contain enough carbon and nitrogen to allow them to estimate stable isotope ratios.

"It's chemistry and is pretty complex," Scott explained. "But basically, since only protein has nitrogen, the more nitrogen that is present, the more animal products were consumed as part of the diet. Carbon provides information on the types of plants consumed."

Scott said that once at the lab, the material was crushed, and then an instrument called a mass spectrometer was used to obtain stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios.

"It was a long shot," he said. "No one really thought there would be enough carbon and nitrogen in these tiny, 5- to 10- milligram samples to be measurable, but Dr. Poulson's work revealed there was. The lab results yielded stable carbon and nitrogen isotope ratios very similar to studies that used bone collagen, which is the typical material used for this type of analysis."

Scott explained that the common practice of using bone to conduct such research is cumbersome and expensive, requiring several acid baths to extract the collagen for analysis. The process also destroys bone, so in many instances, it isn't permitted by museum curators.

As for using hair, muscle and nails for such research, Scott said, "They are great, when you can find them. The problem is, they just don't hold up very well. They decompose too quickly. Dental calculus, for better or for worse, stays around a very long time."

Scott said that although additional work is necessary to firmly establish this new method of using dental calculus for paleodietary research, the results of this initial study indicate it holds great potential.

"This is groundbreaking work," Scott said. "It could save a lot of time and effort, and also allow for analysis when things like hair, muscle and nails are no longer available."

2012. "Anthropologists Discover New Research Use for Dental Plaque: Examining Diets of Ancient Peoples". Science Daily. Posted: May 2, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, May 17, 2012

ScienceShot: World's Oldest Blood Cells Found on Iceman

When Ötzi the Iceman was alive 5300 years ago, eating ibex and deer and traipsing over the Alps, his veins pulsed with blood. But when Ötzi's frozen, mummified body was discovered in 1991, his vessels were empty; scientists assumed his blood had degraded over time. Now, a team of researchers has zoomed in on two spots on the Iceman's body: a shoulder wound found with an embedded arrowhead and a hand lesion resembling a stab wound. The scientists used atomic force microscopy, a visualization method with resolution of less than a nanometer, to scan the wounds for blood residue. They discovered red blood cells (inset)—the oldest in the world to be found intact—as well as fibrin, a protein needed for blood to clot, they report today in Journal of the Royal Society Interface. The presence of fibrin indicates that Ötzi didn't die immediately after being wounded. Next, the researchers plan to study the blood cells for changes in molecular structure due to dehydration and aging. Such analyses could help forensic experts pick up on more subtle changes that reveal the age of younger blood cells, such as those from crime scenes.

Williams, Sarah C.P. 2012. "ScienceShot: World's Oldest Blood Cells Found on Iceman". Science. Posted: May 1, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Bilingualism fine-tunes hearing, enhances attention

Dual language speakers better able to encode basic language sounds and patterns

A Northwestern University study that will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) provides the first biological evidence that bilinguals' rich experience with language in essence "fine-tunes" their auditory nervous system and helps them juggle linguistic input in ways that enhance attention and working memory.

Northwestern bilingualism expert Viorica Marian teamed up with auditory neuroscientist Nina Kraus to investigate how bilingualism affects the brain. In particular, they looked at subcortical auditory regions that are bathed with input from cognitive brain areas. In extensive research, Kraus has already shown that lifelong music training enhances language processing, and an examination of subcortical auditory regions helped to tell that tale.

"For our first collaborative study, we asked if bilingualism could also promote experience-dependent changes in the fundamental encoding of sound in the brainstem -- an evolutionarily ancient part of the brain," said Marian, professor of communication sciences in Northwestern's School of Communication. The answer, according to their study, is a resounding yes.

The researchers found that the experience of bilingualism changes how the nervous system responds to sound. "People do crossword puzzles and other activities to keep their minds sharp," Marian said. "But the advantages we've discovered in dual language speakers come automatically simply from knowing and using two languages. It seems that the benefits of bilingualism are particularly powerful and broad, and include attention, inhibition and encoding of sound."

Co-authored by Kraus, Marian and researchers Jennifer Krizman, Anthony Shook and Erika Skoe, "Bilingualism and the Brain: Subcortical Indices of Enhanced Executive Function" underscores the pervasive impact of bilingualism on brain development. The article will appear in the April 30 issue of PNAS.

"Bilingualism serves as enrichment for the brain and has real consequences when it comes to executive function, specifically attention and working memory," said Kraus, Hugh Knowles Professor at Northwestern. In future studies, she and Marian will investigate whether these results can be achieved by learning a language later in life.

In the study, the researchers recorded the brainstem responses to complex sounds (cABR) in 23 bilingual English-and-Spanish-speaking teenagers and 25 English-only-speaking teens as they heard speech sounds in two conditions.

Under a quiet condition, the groups responded similarly. But against a backdrop of background noise, the bilingual brains were significantly better at encoding the fundamental frequency of speech sounds known to underlie pitch perception and grouping of auditory objects. This enhancement was linked with advantages in auditory attention.

"Through experience-related tuning of attention, the bilingual auditory system becomes highly efficient in automatically processing sound," Kraus explained.

"Bilinguals are natural jugglers," said Marian. "The bilingual juggles linguistic input and, it appears, automatically pays greater attention to relevant versus irrelevant sounds. Rather than promoting linguistic confusion, bilingualism promotes improved 'inhibitory control,' or the ability to pick out relevant speech sounds and ignore others."

The study provides biological evidence for system-wide neural plasticity in auditory experts that facilitates a tight coupling of sensory and cognitive functions. "The bilingual's enhanced experience with sound results in an auditory system that is highly efficient, flexible and focused in its automatic sound processing, especially in challenging or novel listening conditions," Kraus added.

EurekAlert. 2012. "Bilingualism fine-tunes hearing, enhances attention". EurekAlert. Posted: April 30, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Ancient American Skeletons Safe From Reburial, But Only for the Moment

A federal court judge in San Francisco granted a temporary restraining order Friday to prevent the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), from handing over 9000-year-old human bones to Native Americans, in the latest twist in an unusual custody battle for two human skeletons that are among the earliest found in the Americas. Three University of California professors filed a lawsuit last week to prevent UCSD from transferring the bones, which have been described as better preserved than those of the Kennewick Man, another ancient skeleton that has been the center of debate and lawsuits.

The restraining order will be in effect until Friday, 11 May, when Judge Richard Seeborg of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California will decide whether to extend it until the case is settled, according to Jim McManis, an attorney in San Jose, California, who represents the professors pro bono.

Meanwhile, in anticipation of the professors' lawsuit, members of the Kumeyaay tribes filed their own lawsuit in federal court in San Diego on 13 April demanding transfer of the skeletons. The bones were discovered in 1976 during an excavation at University House in La Jolla, which is the traditional home of the UCSD chancellor. The Kumeyaay, representing 12 federated tribes, have been seeking the remains for reburial, claiming that they were found on their traditional lands. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, museums and other institutions must repatriate remains and artifacts that can be traced to a tribe. A controversial rule concerning this law, issued in 2010 by the Department of the Interior, gives tribes a way to recover even remains that cannot be linked to specific groups. The new lawsuits may test that rule.

After years of legal dispute, UCSD officials were preparing to give the bones to representatives of the Kumeyaay, against the advice of a UCSD scientific advisory committee and a separate system-wide UC research committee that reviewed the claims. The professors, anthropologist Margaret Schoeninger of UCSD, paleoanthropologist Robert Bettinger of UC Davis, and paleoanthropologist Tim White of UC Berkeley, filed the lawsuit to block the repatriation, saying that there is no evidence that these bones are related to the Kumeyaay, and in fact, the evidence suggests otherwise. The scientific advisory committee found that the Kumeyaay language moved into the region 2000 years ago, and that the Kumeyaay traditionally cremated their dead rather than burying them. Moreover, Schoeninger's lab's analysis of stable isotopes from samples of the skeletons indicated that they ate a diet of marine mammals and offshore fish—a coastal adaptation that contrasts with the desert origins of the Kumeyaay. Anthropologists who study the bones and DNA of Paleoindians also agree that the remains are probably too old to have any affiliation, cultural or otherwise, with tribes living in southern California today.

Because of their great antiquity, the bones are important for exploring the mystery of the identity of the first people to migrate from the Old World to the New World. They also should be saved for future scientific analysis, the lawsuit argues, because new methods are being developed to extract and study ancient DNA and to analyze the diet and lifestyles of ancient people.


Gibbons, Ann. 2012. "Ancient American Skeletons Safe From Reburial, But Only for the Moment". Science. Posted: May 1, 2012. Available online:

Monday, May 14, 2012

Skeletons Found at Mass Burial Site in Oxford Could Be 10th-Century Viking Raiders

Thirty-seven skeletons found in a mass burial site in the grounds of St John's College may not be who they initially seemed, according to Oxford researchers studying the remains.

When the bodies were discovered in the grounds of the college in 2008 by Thames Valley Archaeological Services, archaeologists speculated that they could have been part of the St Brice's Day Massacre in Oxford -- a well documented event in 1002, in which King Aethelred the Unredy ordered the killing of 'all Danes living in England'.

However, a new research paper, led by Oxford University, has thrown up a new theory -- that the skeletons may have been Viking raiders who were captured and then executed.

The skeletons were found in the ditch of a previously unknown Neolithic henge monument during excavations. They are mostly of men aged between 16 and 25 who were robust and taller than average. There is evidence that each individual was stabbed many times shortly before he died and severe wounds show they were brutally slaughtered. Some of the men also appear to have older scars, which could suggest that they were professional warriors. There is also evidence of charring on some of the skeletons, showing they may have been exposed to burning before burial.

Researchers from the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at the University of Oxford carried out a chemical analysis of collagen from the bones and the teeth of some of the individuals and concluded that they had had a substantial amount of seafood in their diet. It was higher in marine protein than that found in the local Oxfordshire population, as recorded in existing data.

Testing was done using strontium isotope analysis of tooth enamel, a technique which provides evidence of where an individual lived when the tooth formed. Strontium, a naturally occurring element in rocks and soils, is absorbed by plants and animals, and can be found in trace amounts in mammalian teeth. Strontium isotopes reflect the particular geological conditions so even small traces can be revealing of that individual's location.

They also looked at data relating to previous research in which an isotopic analysis of dismembered skeletons found in a burial pit at the Weymouth Ridgeway in Dorset identified the individuals as Scandinavian Viking raiders. The decapitated skeletons in Dorset, dated at between 890 and 1030 AD, and were thought to be a group of young men from different countries across Scandinavia. The isotopic analysis of the Dorset group and the individuals found in the mass burial site at St John's College show similarities.

Lead author Professor Mark Pollard, Director of the Research Laboratory in the School of Archaeology, said: 'Our latest research suggests that it is possible that the grisly remains at St John's College are the outcome of the documented massacre at St Frideswide's Church in AD 1002. Evidence of knife wounds and the burning of the bodies are consistent with the story of the burning of the church. However, following the chemical analysis of the teeth and bones, we are presented with an alternative interpretation: that they could have been a group of professional warriors, rather than a group of residents of Danish origin who were later rounded up and massacred.'
_____________ References:

Science Daily. 2012. "Skeletons Found at Mass Burial Site in Oxford Could Be 10th-Century Viking Raiders". Science Daily. Posted: May 1, 2012. Available online:

A. Pollard, P. Ditchfield, E. Piva, S. Wallis, C. Falys, S. Ford‘sprouting Like Cockle Amongst the Wheat’: The St Brice's Day Massacre and the Isotopic Analysis of Human Bones from St John's College, Oxford. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 2012; 31 (1): 83 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0092.2011.00380.x

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Formula follows the evolution of writing styles

Few novelists today would have a character say, "It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known." That is not only because few modern characters ponder death by guillotine, but also because writing styles have changed dramatically since Charles Dickens wrote A Tale of Two Cities in 1859. So how does literary style evolve? Surprisingly, clues lie in words with seemingly little meaning, such as "to" and "that".

By analysing how writers use such "content-free" words, mathematician Daniel Rockmore and colleagues at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, were able to conduct the first, large-scale "stylometric" analysis of literature.

Content-free words are indicative of writing style, Rockmore says. While two authors might use the same words to describe a similar event, they will use content-free "syntactic glue" to link their words in a different way.

Using the Project Gutenberg digital library, Rockmore's team analysed 7733 English language works written since 1550, tracking how often and in what context content-free words appeared. As you might expect, they found that writers were strongly influenced by their predecessors.

They also found that as the canon of literature grew, the reach of older works shrank. Authors in the earliest periods wrote in a very similar way to one another, the researchers found, probably because they all read the same small body of literature. But approaching the modern era, when more people were writing and more works were available from many eras and numerous styles, authors' styles were still very similar to those of their immediate contemporaries. "It's as if they find dialects in time," says Alex Bentley of the University of Bristol, UK, who was not involved in the study. "Content is what makes us distinctive, but content-free words put us in different groups."

That writers should be most influenced by their contemporaries rather than the great works of the past is interesting, Rockmore says, because it challenges the reach of "classic" literature. When it comes to style at least, perhaps we aren't so strongly influenced by the classics after all.

Reardon, Sara. 2012. "Formula follows the evolution of writing styles". New Scientist. Posted: May 1, 2012. Available online:

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Bones4Culture: The history of ordinary people

A new project has begun to analyse population, life, health and culture of the people that lived in the German-Danish border lands during the Middle Ages (AD 1050 – 1536).

The Interreg-project Bones4Cultures will allow researchers from Denmark and Germany to examine skeletons of people who lived in the city of Schleswig as well as other parts of the border region during this period.

Learning about identity

The purpose of the project is to provide information about the identity of the medieval and renaissance population of Schleswig town. Historically Schleswig has been both German and Danish and therefore has experienced a turbulent history both ethnically and politically. However, the the area is now one of the most peaceful borders in Europe.

The project aims to show how people lived in this region and where they came from. Were they born and raised in Schleswig town – or were they more mobile coming from other parts of Germany, Denmark or even farther afield?

A knowledge gap

There is a knowledge gap concerning the identity and history of the ordinary people of the Duchies from the early Middle Ages up to the end of the Renaissance.

In Denmark there has been a focus on Danish identity and history and similarly in Germany. There has never been research and dissemination of the identity of populations in the border area. The new research intends to fill this gap in history with a focused effort that uses a completely new technology which will be developed in cooperation between leading research and intermediary institutions in the region.

Researchers from both countries will examine the skeletal remains of approximately 1000 human skeletons during the three year project period and samples will be taken from 350 skeletons for a more detailed chemical and physical analysis.

Conflicts common in the region

From the 6th century onwards ethnic and political conflicts were common in the region. In the medieval context the conflict was accentuated when Schleswig was made a Duchy – demanding increasing independence from the supremacy of the Danish king.

So, from this period onwards the region was increasingly influenced by German culture. Schleswig and its environs remained an area of conflict between Germans and Danes until after the 1st World War when a referendum in 1920 made the northern half Danish and the remainder German. From this point onwards the region has been peaceful and it has acted as an example of good ethnic relations in a mixed region.

In-depth analysis

Project leader, Professor Jesper Boldsen of SDU: “The First step in the Bones4Culture was to create a basis for all the analysis by anthropologically identifying and examining all skeletons excavated in five Schleswig cemeteries. It creates a basis for selecting skeletons for the in depth chemical analyses, and secondly, it creates a database of anthropological knowledge about the medieval population of the city. The database has already provided important knowledge about age and sex composition of the samples; and even more importantly, it has facilitated an analysis of the occurrence of the most dreaded disease in the Middle Ages: leprosy. It appears that leprosy was a very common disease and that the prevalence of the disease declined through from the early to the late Middle Ages. This means that the first step of the project has successfully been completed and that it has produced new insights into the population of the region.”

The selected bone samples will undergo new chemical analyses for detecting strontium, lead and mercury. “Even small amounts of the latter are toxic. Nevertheless, mercury was used to heal certain diseases, lead was part of ceramic glaze of everyday house ware”, explains Professor Kaare Lund Ras-mussen of SDU. The detection of these elements will make it easier for the scientists to study common diseases in the Middle Ages, their treatment and the heavy metal contamination at that time.

Performing a strontium/calcium-analysis, which may be conducted on samples taken from dental matter, can answer questions concerning common diet. “We wish to know who lived on a predominantly vegetarian diet and who ate meat. The strontium isotopes will also give us information on mobility and sedentary lifestyles, because they differ due to regional occurrences”, says Professor Anton Eisenhauer with GEOMAR.

Radiocarbon-dating will be done in order to place the remains into a historical timeline, analysis of the carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen ration (δ15N) will complement the research on diet.

Past Horizons. 2012. "Bones4Culture: The history of ordinary people". Past Horizons. Posted: April 30, 2012. Available online:

Friday, May 11, 2012

The bright side of death: Awareness of mortality can result in positive behaviors

Contemplating death doesn't necessarily lead to morose despondency, fear, aggression or other negative behaviors, as previous research has suggested. Following a review of dozens of studies, University of Missouri researchers found that thoughts of mortality can lead to decreased militaristic attitudes, better health decisions, increased altruism and helpfulness, and reduced divorce rates.

"According to terror management theory, people deal with their awareness of mortality by upholding cultural beliefs and seeking to become part of something larger and more enduring than themselves, such as nations or religions," said Jamie Arndt, study co-author and professor of psychological sciences. "Depending on how that manifests itself, positive outcomes can be the result."

For example, in one study American test subjects were reminded of death or a control topic and then either imagined a local catastrophe or were reminded of the global threat of climate change. Their militaristic attitudes toward Iran were then evaluated. After being reminded of death, people who were reminded of climate change were more likely to express lower levels of militarism than those who imagined a local disaster.

"The differences seen in this study resulted from the size of the group with which the test subjects identified," said Ken Vail, lead author and psychology doctoral student. "In both cases, they responded to the awareness of mortality by seeking to protect the relevant groups. When the threat was localized, subjects aggressively defended their local group; but when the threat was globalized, subjects associated themselves with humanity as a whole and became more peaceful and cooperative."

After real catastrophes, such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing, people's heightened fear and awareness of death had both positive and negative effects.

"Both the news media and researchers tended to focus on the negative reaction to these acts of terrorism, such as violence and discrimination against Muslims, but studies also found that people expressed higher degrees of gratitude, hope, kindness and leadership after 9/11." Vail said. "In another example, after the Oklahoma City bombing, divorce rates went down in surrounding counties. After some stimuli escalates one's awareness of death, the positive reaction is to try to reaffirm that the world has positive aspects as well."

In their personal lives, people also were influenced to make positive choices after their awareness of death was increased. Studies found that conscious thoughts of death can inspire intentions to exercise more. Other studies found that keeping mortality in mind can reduce smoking and increase sunscreen use.

Even subconscious awareness of death can more influenced behavior. In one experiment, passers-by who had recently overheard conversations mentioning the value of helping were more likely to help strangers if they were walking within sight of cemeteries.

"Once we started developing this study we were surprised how much research showed positive outcomes from awareness of mortality," said Arndt. "It seems that people may be just as capable of doing the opposite and 'looking on the bright side of death,' as the Monty Python song says."

EurekAlert. 2012. "The bright side of death: Awareness of mortality can result in positive behaviors". EurekAlert. Posted: April 30, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Hunting for the world's oldest decorated eggs

South Africa’s Richtersveld coastal desert is a thirsty place. Some rain falls in winter – but not much. Most of the year plants and animals depend on the coastal fogs that develop as the warm desert air meets the cool upwelled waters of the southern Atlantic. To work there, we needed to take all our food with us and relied on a 500-litre plastic water drum strapped to our 4×4, driving two hours to the nearest town to refill it every ten days. It’s an environment populated by a huge variety of reptile and insect life, including cockroaches the size of Amazon’s Kindle.

Surviving marginal environments

Yet hunter-gatherers survived in this and other arid regions of southern Africa for tens of thousands of years without conveniences like Land Rovers or plastic containers. How did they do it? This is what our team of archaeologists from the Universities of Cambridge and Toronto travelled to Sub-Saharan Africa to find out: how early members of our species, and perhaps even earlier hominins, colonised and made a living in marginal environments like the sub-arid Richtersveld.

The answers lie in the fragments of ostrich eggshell buried in 60,000 years’ worth of silty archaeological deposits trapped by the natural rock-shelter – called Spitzkloof A – that we excavated. Each day we uncovered hundreds of pieces of shell. Ethnographic research teaches us that recent and modern hunter-gatherers in another arid environment of southern African – the Kalahari Desert – use ostrich eggshells as water flasks.

Kalahari Bushmen gather eggs from ostrich nests (a risky exercise given the speed, strength and notoriously foul temper of these largest birds on earth). They empty the contents of the egg through a hole drilled in one end and use this opening as the spout through which to pour water for drinking, transport and storage. Ostrich eggshells are brilliant flasks – they’re robust, not too large (1 litre on average) and breathable, so water stays cool. As such, they were valued objects for both Kalahari Bushmen and prehistoric groups.

Clusters of whole ostrich eggshell flasks (with grass or beeswax stoppers to prevent spillage) have been found stashed in the arid landscapes of southwest Africa and, as at Spitzkloof, fragments are found in the earliest archaeological deposits to occur in these areas. Although spout rim fragments are rare, it is probable that the innovation of using ostrich eggshells as water flasks allowed humans to live in sub-Saharan Africa’s driest areas, such as the Richtersveld.

Decorated eggs

Flasks were sometimes decorated with patterns engraved or painted on their surfaces. In the Kalahari this typically denotes ownership, but over the great depths of prehistoric time these patterns may have held many meanings. Once the flasks had broken, fragments were ground down and perforated to form beads (or pendants) to be strung as necklaces and bracelets and sewed onto clothing. Among Kalahari Bushmen, these beads become the focus of intricate and often long-distance exchange networks that bound people together in an uncertain landscape.

Ostrich eggshell beads made their appearance in the southern African archaeological record some 40,000 years ago, but decorated eggshell fragments have an even older pedigree. The Spitzkloof fragments, including those from the earliest levels, came in many colours, including black, beige, yellow, orange, teal and even bright red. Much of this discolouration was certainly unintentional, but some may have been purposeful.

At a site called Diepkloof, about 500 km south of Spitzkloof, archaeologists have uncovered 60,000 year-old ostrich eggshell flask fragments with clear engravings. Precisely what they meant for their makers is unknown, but together with 60–90,000-year-old finds from other African sites, these eggshell fragments are among the world’s earliest evidence for abstract thought, and thus ways of behaving that resemble our own.

People were decorating for eggs long before Easter, and Kindle-sized cockroaches or not, we’ll keep hunting for them.

Visit the site to see some informative videos and pictures.

Past Horizons. 2012. "Hunting for the world's oldest decorated eggs". Past Horizons. Posted: April 29, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Eastbourne ancestors: A story from bones

The Eastbourne Borough Council Museum Service has been awarded a confirmed grant of £72,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) for its exciting new project ‘Eastbourne Ancestors’ which will be the first of its kind in the UK. Over 300 skeletons.

There are over 300 skeletons in the Eastbourne Museum Service collection, most of them Anglo-Saxon from around 1500 years ago but some are possibly Neolithic, over 4000 years old. The aim of ‘Eastbourne Ancestors’ is to give an osteo-biography or story from the bones for each individual in the collection. This will involve detailed scientific analysis which will not only confirm the gender, age and size of each individual but could also tell us about their health, diet, social status, regional (or national) origins and perhaps how they died.

Eastbourne Ancestors is a project that will prove groundbreaking to the Borough Council, Eastbourne Museum Service, the wider archaeological/museum community and most importantly the public.

The results will be collated and form the basis for a fascinating exhibition that will include reconstructions but along the way there will be a series of education programmes and public participation in some of the processes. This is the first time such an extensive analysis has taken place on one collection and the discoveries will have an impact on the work of the Museum Service for years to come.

Training for volunteers

High quality training will be offered to the 150 or so volunteers who will work with Eastbourne Museum Service on this project and the training and learning opportunities for all elements of the project have attracted and engaged a broad cross section of the community.

To carry out the analysis, working partnerships with universities in Bournemouth, Kent and Durham have been confirmed and there has also been interest from Bradford and Exeter. These are institutions with some of the best reputations for their osteoarchaeological teaching and analysis in the country.

Jo Seaman, Museum Officer who conceived the idea for the project said: “I am so grateful to the HLF for backing us as I believe that we will now learn so much about the actual people who lived in and around Eastbourne in the past. A lot of archaeology is focussed on objects and structures and rightly so, but this gives us an opportunity to learn about individuals who’s bones may tell us some very tangible truths about their lives and ultimately deaths. It helps us relate to the past in a different way from an object such as a pot sherd that can tell us about a culture but not an individual person.”

Eastbourne Ancestors will also be working with local schools and colleges, ESCC, Archeological Units and Eastbourne Natural History and Archaeological Society (ENHAS).

Temporary lab

During the project schools, colleges and the public will be invited to a temporary lab, which will be set up in Eastbourne Town Hall, to take part in artefact conservation and environmental sampling processes alongside staff and volunteers.

Some of the finest practitioners of forensic facial reconstruction will also be on the team to produce the centrepieces of a stunning and thought-provoking exhibition at the end of the project. DNA could even be used to link local families to the people discovered!

The ‘Meet the Eastbourne Ancestors’ exhibition will feature 3D and 2D forensic reconstructions so that people can see ‘in the flesh’ individuals from Eastbourne’s distant past. The exhibition will show what can be discovered about people from their bones and try to give these long dead people at least a little of their life story.

Past Horizons. 2012. "Eastbourne ancestors: A story from bones". Past Horizons. Posted: April 29, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

What the kula traders of New Guinea can teach us about financial markets

An anthropological perspective on how bankers function can help challenge our reliance on discredited neoliberal economics In his recent column, Aditya Chakrabortty observes that the current financial crisis should represent a crisis of legitimacy for the "narrow, straitened form of economics" that both helped to create the meltdown and failed to see it coming. But in contrast to previous crises, other voices have failed to make themselves heard, leaving the field free for the reassertion of neoliberal economic perspectives that were roundly discredited only five years ago. To an extent this criticism of non-economists is justified. Fiddling while Babylon burns, much of anthropological debate remains dominated by such pressing concerns as the "relationship between cosmological deixism and perspectivism", or whether "glaciers can listen". Such examples might appear to be suggestive of a discipline revelling in its own irrelevance, but thankfully they do not tell the whole story. Karen Ho's work on the culture of Wall Street has been widely picked up by the mainstream media in the US, while Gillian Tett has been hailed as "the most powerful woman in newspapers" on the back of being pretty much the only financial journalist to sound the alarm about the developing crisis. Tett consistently argues that it was her training as an anthropologist that helped her to spot the signs that were overlooked by her colleagues. And here on Comment is free, the anthropologist Joris Luyendijk explained how the City works from the perspective of those inside it. These writers build upon a long tradition within anthropology that has challenged the over-simplified assumptions underpinning many economic models. Take for example, Bronislaw Malinowski's analysis of the kula exchange of New Guinea, conducted nearly a century ago. Kula traders engaged on lengthy and dangerous canoe voyages in order to exchange shell necklaces and armbands. But far from seeking to maximise their gains, as conventional economic theory might predict, kula valuables were not accumulated. Instead a man only gained renown by passing them along the chain. Such behaviour might have appeared economically irrational, but made perfect sense in a context where a man's power and renown was measured by the number of social relationships that he could maintain through exchange. Malinowski's conclusion was that one has to start from the wider sociocultural context within which people act in order to understand their actions. This remains important, not least because people often develop powerful attachments to particular cultural habits even if logic tells us that these patterns might not be the best way of proceeding in new situations. Take for example the trend in the early 2000s towards the construction of collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) out of mortgage backed securities (MBSs) that was a major factor behind the crash of 2007. As both Tett and sociologist Donald Mackenzie observe, practitioners in these two fields had developed different methods to calculate their exposure to defaults. During the development of CDOs in fields such as corporate debt in the 1990s, its practitioners had become attached to highly complex mathematical models. By contrast, those involved in MBSs relied more upon specialist knowledge and research into particular areas of the market. The two groups had developed different cultural traditions regarding risk management. Yet when they came together, the numerical CDO model was applied in a context where it proved to be less appropriate. Many factors might explain why this was the case: hubris, a culture of short-term thinking, and a fashion for faith in the magical power of markets were doubtless powerful factors. Even the relative power and influence of groups and factions within investment banks play a part in how such decisions are made. The point is that even in this age of automated trading by algorithms, the numbers that flash across computer screens are ultimately produced, received and acted upon by real people who operate within particular social networks and whose actions are more than the simple expression of abstract economic rationality. The manner in which financial instruments such as CDOs and MBSs are traded differs wildly in many respects from that of the kula. But like kula necklaces, these financial instruments are cultural artifacts and their circulation and use can likewise only be fully understood if this is taken as our starting point. _________________ References: Martin, Keir. 2012. "What the kula traders of New Guinea can teach us about financial markets". The Guardian. Posted: April 23, 2012. Available online:

Monday, May 7, 2012

Speech lab: Unlocking the secrets of the human voice

It's an unusual performance. As James Wilkes reads aloud one of his poems, he slurs, stutters and stammers, struggling to get the words out. It's a far cry from his usually fluent readings of the material he knows so well. But today, James is taking part in an experiment at University College London's Speech Communication Lab. As he reads, his voice is played back to him through headphones just a fraction of a second later. And it is remarkably disruptive. He says: "It's a very, very odd experience. "It's like you are not saying words you have just said, so you are waiting for them to come. "The concentration involved is huge." Two cultures The writer has just taken up a poet-in-residence role at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience where the speech lab is based. He is hoping to get a creative insight into the science behind speech. "Everyone speaks, but it is something that is also really complex and strange," he explains. "The work they are doing at the lab is shedding some kind of light on that complexity and strangeness. And as a poet I really want to be part of that." The experiment that James has just taken part in is called Delayed Auditory Feedback (DAF), which is also known as speech jamming. Professor Sophie Scott, who heads the research group, says that it's a simple test that is helping to identify the mechanisms of speech. She explains: "What this is telling us is that when we speak, we make a noise, and if we fiddle around with that noise, it can make speech production difficult. "So it is telling us something interesting about how we use the sound of our own voice to guide speech output." Brain waves How we produce - and perceive - speech is the focus of research at the lab. Professor Scott says: "Speech is incredibly complex. "In fact, as a sound, speech or the human voice talking is comfortably the most complex sound you encounter on a day-to-day basis." She explains that just by hearing a few words, you start to build up an image of what a person might be like. "Our voices convey an awful lot of information about us, whether we want them to or not," she says. "If you couldn't see me, but hear me, you'd probably have a good guess at my sex, my age, where I come from, aspects of my mood and my socio-economic status - all of this is expressed in my voice. "But all sorts of other stuff too, like my aspirations and my hopes and what I'd like you to think of me. "I can guarantee to you that I sound different to talking to you here because I am trying to come across like a serious academic than if I was buying something a the market." The team is investigating the science behind speech in a variety of ways, from comparing recordings from around the world to see how communication varies across continents, to MRI scans that allow the researchers to identify which parts of the brain are activated as volunteers speak and listen to speech. And of course, as with any self-respecting cognitive neuroscience lab, behavioural experiments such as speech jamming feature too. In another test, Professor Scott asks James to read a text with her, out loud. It seems deceptively simple, but as they begin to read they have to synchronise everything: pauses, rhythm and even breathing to keep in time. Prof Scott explains that the simple experiment helps to reveal more about the complexities that exist in conversations. She says: "If you actually look at people together, they will start to coordinate their behaviour a lot to make conversation. "People will start to pronounce words in the same way, they'll coordinate their breathing. "Speech is actually a very, very complex social behaviour." James, who is spending several months with the speech team, is organising performances and events, such the Voices series of talks that will take place at UCL in April and May, to share what he is learning at the lab. But he also thinks it will have an impact on his own poetry. "[With speech jamming ] I found it changed the texture and the surface of what I was doing. I was slurring and stuttering, and those extra bits are really interesting to me as a poet," he explains. "It's something that is disruptive, it's unnecessary, excessive - and that to me is the material I want to work with." Prof Scott also thinks the poet's presence could have an impact on the way her team approaches their research. "You always learn something new from working with people who've got a different perspective," she says. "Psychologists tend to deal with speech as a disembodied language system, but the actual sounds of your language are incredibly important and have a lot to do with how you understand and interpret what people are saying to you. "And I think poets have a great deal of insight into that and a lot to say about the way we deal with the sounds people make around us." ________________ References: Morelle, Rebecca. 2012. "Speech lab: Unlocking the secrets of the human voice". BBC News. Posted: April 23, 2012. Available online: