Friday, November 30, 2012

Coral files reveal time of first Polynesian settlements

High-precision techniques estimate first settlers arrived in Tonga almost 2,900 years ago

Polynesia was one of the last places on Earth to be settled by humans, and new techniques reveal that this settlement first occurred within a 16 year window nearly 3000 years ago. The research, published November 7 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by David Burley and colleagues from Simon Fraser University, Canada, reveals that the first human settlers lived in a founder colony on the islands of Tonga between 2830 to 2846 years ago.

To arrive at this precise figure, the researchers used a high-precision technique to estimate the age of coral files that early settlers used to sculpt and smooth wood and shell surfaces. As Dr. Burley states, "This degree of precision is impossible using radiocarbon and other dating techniques. It provides significant new opportunities for our understanding of the exploration and settlement of the far distant islands spread across the South Pacific."

EurekAlert. 2012. “Coral files reveal time of first Polynesian settlements”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 7, 2012. Available online:

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Help save the cultural heritage of Afghanistan

Brent Huffman, a documentary film-maker and professor at Northwestern University, USA, first visited the ancient Buddhist city of Mes Aynak in June of 2011 and immediately fell in love with the site. From that point onwards he has campaigned tirelessly to bring the plight of Mes Aynak into the public consciousness so that it can be saved for future generations of Afghans and the international community.

Environmental devastation

In addition to destroying one of Afghanistan’s most important archaeological findings, the copper mine that is due to start operating on the site will almost certainly devastate the environment by polluting the land and water supply in Logar province and kill all life in the area.

Raising money to raise awareness

Brent Huffman is now in the process of raising money through crowd funding to go towards completing a documentary film that will help create international awareness to both try to save Mes Aynak and prevent similar destruction from happening to other cultural sites in Afghanistan located on or near mineral resources.

The site of Mes Aynak

Mes Aynak (meaning “little copper well”), a desert region 25 kilometres southeast of Kabul, is an enormous archaeological treasure trove 400,000 square feet in size.

An ancient Buddhist monastery complex, extensive wall frescos, massive devotional temples, and more than 200 life-sized Buddha statues comprise a discovery of immense global importance.

At the same time, Mes Aynak is home to the largest undeveloped copper reserve in the world.  Directly beneath the Buddhist site lie mineral deposits worth an estimated $100 billion.

The fate of the ancient Buddhist artefacts hangs in the balance as the Chinese begin planning their destructive open-pit style copper mine.

Under immense international pressure, in early 2009 the Chinese company gave archaeologists three years to excavate and move the artefacts before the copper mine gets underway.

But with extremely limited resources, the dedicated archaeologists have made little progress. “We have only discovered the tip of the iceberg, a mere 10% of the site,” says French specialist Philippe Marquis, who believes this could easily be a thirty-year excavation project.

The documentary

The Buddhas of Mes Aynak is the story of a race against time. This documentary follows an international team of archaeologists as they fight to save a 2,600-year-old Buddhist city in volatile Logar province, Afghanistan.

Led by Philippe Marquis of DAFA, the French Archaeological Delegation in Afghanistan, the specialists attempt to document Mes Aynak before its imminent destruction in December 2012.

The location, hailed as one of the most important archaeological discoveries in Asia, will be demolished by a Chinese government-owned mining company (MCC), who will exploit the location for over 100 billion dollars worth of copper located directly beneath the Buddhist temples.

The film will also examine the cultural and historical significance of the Mes Aynak complex and show in vivid detail what life was like for the Buddhist monks and nuns who lived, worked and worshipped there.

Story summary

The Buddhas of Mes Aynakwill be a feature-length documentary examining the volatile debate between cultural preservation and economic opportunity from all sides. This documentary will rely on the personal narratives of a diverse array of constituents in order to tell a multifaceted narrative.

The documentary will follow several main characters to tell this dramatic and multi-layered story. Philippe Marquis, a French archaeologist, is leading the effort to document and preserve the Buddhist statues. Dr. J. Mark Kenoyer, an American archaeologist and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is trying to raise international awareness about the site. Abdul Qadeer Temore, a leading Afghan archaeologist trained in France, is working to protect his cultural heritage. And finally Zhenguo Liu, a Chinese manager working for China Metallurgical Group Corporation in the compound at Mes Aynak is frustrated with the discovery of the archaeology site.

The film will also have a well-rounded cast of supporting characters including Buddhist scholars, Afghan politicians and citizens in support of Chinese investments, U.S. military strategists and Chinese veteran businessmen living and working in Afghanistan.

Cultural significance

The Buddhas of Mes Aynak will in particular examine the cultural and historical significance of the Mes Aynak Buddhist site.

Archaeologists believe that Mes Aynak flourished for centuries as a cultural crossroads of trade and Buddhism along the Silk Road. Developed around the first century AD, the site is a trove of Buddhist monastic ruins, statues, and stupas attesting to the seminal role that Afghanistan played in the proliferation of Buddhism in Central and East Asia.

Buddhists, who began settling the area almost two millennia ago, were drawn by the availability of copper at the site.  Monks, who lived and worshipped there, once exploited the lucrative copper deposits to make relics, statues and coins for trade.

Historians are particularly excited by the prospect of learning more about the early science of metallurgy and mining done at Mes Aynak. The site is known to contain coins, glass and tools for making these, going back thousands of years. Archaeologists have also unearthed manuscripts in scroll form that may provide evidence of the presence of Alexander the Great´s troops.

Huffman, Brent. 2012. “Help save the cultural heritage of Afghanistan”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 7, 2012. Available online:

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Humans Smell Fear, and It's Contagious

Humans can smell fear and disgust, and the emotions are contagious, according to a new study.

The findings, published Nov. 5 in the journal Psychological Science, suggest that humans communicate via smell just like other animals.

"These findings are contrary to the commonly accepted assumption that human communication runs exclusively via language or visual channels," write Gün Semin and colleagues from Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

Most animals communicate using smell, but because humans lack the same odor-sensing organs, scientists thought we had long ago lost our ability to smell fear or other emotions.

To find out, the team collected sweat from under the armpits of 10 men while they watched either frightening scenes from the horror movie "The Shining" or repulsive clips of MTV's "Jackass."

Next, the researchers asked 36 women to take a visual test while they unknowingly inhaled the scent of men's sweat. When women sniffed "fear sweat," they opened their eyes wide in a scared expression, while those smelling sweat from disgusted men scrunched their faces into a repulsed grimace. (The team chose men as the sweat donors and women as the receivers because past research suggests women are more sensitive to men's scent than vice versa.)

The findings suggest that humans can communicate at least some emotions by smell, which could prove useful in crowded places, the authors suggest.

"Our research suggests that emotional chemo-signals can be potential contributors to emotional contagion in situations involving dense crowds," the authors write in the stud

Ghose, Tia. 2012. “Humans Smell Fear, and It's Contagious”. Live Science. Posted: November 6, 2012. Available online:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Humans, chimpanzees and monkeys share DNA but not gene regulatory mechanisms

Research presented at American Society of Human Genetics 2012

Humans share over 90% of their DNA with their primate cousins. The expression or activity patterns of genes differ across species in ways that help explain each species' distinct biology and behavior.

DNA factors that contribute to the differences were described on Nov. 6 at the American Society of Human Genetics 2012 meeting in a presentation by Yoav Gilad, Ph.D., associate professor of human genetics at the University of Chicago.

Dr. Gilad reported that up to 40% of the differences in the expression or activity patterns of genes between humans, chimpanzees and rhesus monkeys can be explained by regulatory mechanisms that determine whether and how a gene's recipe for a protein is transcribed to the RNA molecule that carries the recipe instructions to the sites in cells where proteins are manufactured.

In addition to improving scientific understanding of the uniqueness of humans, studies such as the investigation conducted by Dr. Gilad and colleagues could have relevance to human health and disease.

"Through inter-species' comparisons at the DNA sequence and expression levels, we hope to identify the genetic basis of human specific traits and in particular the genetic variations underlying the higher susceptibility to certain diseases such as malaria and cancer in humans than in non-human primates," said Dr. Gilad.

Dr. Gilad and his colleagues studied gene expression in lymphoblastoid cell lines, laboratory cultures of immortalized white blood cells, from eight humans, eight chimpanzees and eight rhesus monkeys.

They found that the distinct gene expression patterns of the three species can be explained by corresponding changes in genetic and epigenetic regulatory mechanisms that determine when and how a gene's DNA code is transcribed to a messenger RNA (mRNA) molecule.

Dr. Gilad also determined that the epigenetics process known as histone modification also differs in the three species. The presence of histone marks during gene transcription indicates that the process is being prevented or modified.

"These data allowed us to identify both conserved and species-specific enhancer and repressor regulatory elements, as well as characterize similarities and differences across species in transcription factor binding to these regulatory elements," Dr. Gilad said.

Among the similarities among the three species were the promoter regions of DNA that initiated transcription of a particular gene.

In all three species, Dr. Gilad's lab found that transcription factor binding and histone modifications were identical in over 67% of regulatory elements in DNA segments that are regarded as promoter regions.

EurekAlert. 2012. “Humans, chimpanzees and monkeys share DNA but not gene regulatory mechanisms”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 6, 2012. Available online:

Monday, November 26, 2012

Qumran & the Dead Sea Scrolls

The site of Khirbet Qumran (a modern Arabic name) is located in the West Bank, near the northern edge of the Dead Sea, and is the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in nearby caves.

The first settlement was created during the Iron Age, but was abandoned about 2,600 years ago, long before the scrolls were made.

Archaeological work indicates that a second settlement existed between roughly 100 B.C. and A.D. 68, when it was captured by the Roman army and destroyed in a fire. The heat was so intense that modern-day archaeologists have found glass vessels “melted down” by it. It is in this settlement that many scholars believe at least some of the Dead Sea Scrolls were written before being hidden away.

Discovery of the scrolls

Explorers first came across Qumran in the 19th century, and the site took on new importance with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The scrolls were first found in 1946 or 1947 (accounts of the exact date vary) when a young shepherd by the name of Muhammed Edh-Dhib was looking for a stray goat. At one point “he was amusing himself by throwing stones. One of these fell into a small hole in the rock and was followed by the sound of the breaking of pottery,” writes researcher Geza Vermes in his book "The Story of the Scrolls" (Penguin Books, 2010). “Muhammed climbed in and found several ancient manuscripts in a jar. Altogether seven scrolls were subsequently removed from the cave.”

Over the next decade, local Bedouin and scientific researchers would discover the remains of more than 900 manuscripts in 11 caves (12 if you consider that cave four had two separate sections in antiquity). Each cave is located near Qumran, the furthest one being just over one mile (1.6 km) to the north of the site.

The scrolls found include copies of Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Kings and Deuteronomy, among other canonical works from the Hebrew Bible. They also include calendars, hymns, psalms, apocryphal (non-canonical) biblical works and community rules. One scroll is made of copper and describes the location of buried treasure. There were no New Testament gospels found in the caves.

Study of the letter styles of the scrolls, along with carbon-14 dating, indicates that they were penned between roughly 200 B.C. and A.D. 70, the copper scroll being written perhaps a few decades later. Vermes writes that the vast majority of the scrolls are written in Hebrew with a smaller number in Aramaic and only a few in Greek (although Greek was a popular language at the time). Most of the scrolls were composed on leather (sheep and goat skin in particular).

Recent analysis of textiles found with the scrolls shows that the textiles were originally used as clothing. They are all made of linen (even though wool was the more popular garment at the time) with most of them undecorated. The researchers argue that according to historical accounts these textiles are similar to what people belonging to an ancient sect called the Essenes wore.


The settlement of Qumran is very small and never grew much larger than one acre. Its population may have been no higher than a few dozen people.

Recent archaeological work by Yitzhak Magen and Yuval Peleg of the Israel Antiquities Authority indicates that around 100 B.C. a Hasmonean military outpost with a watchtower and stables was constructed at Qumran. The Hasmoneans were a dynasty of Jewish rulers that controlled a state centered in modern-day Israel.

In an interview with the website Heritage Key, Peleg stressed that this outpost was a modest structure. “It’s a small site with small units. All its purpose was was to see that no enemy army was coming to the Dead Sea shores, climbing the cliffs towards Jerusalem.”

In 63 B.C., the Romans took control of the Hasmonean Kingdom, and archaeological work indicates that Qumran transitioned to civilian use. Magen and Peleg write that around this time the site’s water supply was “tripled” with the construction of an aqueduct and additional pools. Altogether, Qumran had eight stepped pools that some researchers believe to be ritual baths known as mikveh.

Why the water supply was increased is a matter of debate. A priest named Roland de Vaux, who excavated at Qumran about 50 years ago and first noted the stepped water pools, argued that the site’s population was increasing and the water system expansion was needed for drinking and baths.

Magen and Peleg argue that this is unlikely. Their excavations show that residential space at Qumran did not increase and that only two or three of the stepped pools were ritually suited to be used as mikveh. The researchers argue that pottery production was the reason for Qumran’s water system expansion. They point out that “tens of thousands of pottery fragments” were found at Qumran and their excavations reveal that at least one large pool had a thick layer of potter’s clay.

The people at Qumran apparently engaged in writing. De Vaux’s excavations revealed a room that he called the “scriptorium,” which had two inkwells along with plastered benches or tables. It could have been used for writing scrolls and/or business records, depending on how the site is interpreted.

Qumran’s cemeteries

Qumran has three cemeteries, the main burial ground located just to the east of the site. It’s estimated that 1,000 tombs are located in them, some dating to the time of Qumran but others (such as those made by local Bedouin) dating to much later.

Dating the burials at the cemetery is a difficult problem, writes Brian Schultz, of Bar Ilan University, in a 2006 article in the journal "Dead Sea Discoveries." Researchers have to rely on artifacts found in the tombs, the orientation of the burials (the Jewish burials are more likely to face north-south) and radiocarbon dating.

So far, 46 tombs have been excavated and published says Schultz, out of which 32 can be dated to the time of Qumran, most of them adult men. Schultz writes that the complete lack of children and the presence of (at most) only five women suggest that a monastic group composed mainly of men lived at Qumran.

Qumran and the scrolls

The relationship between the scrolls and Qumran is a source of great scholarly debate. Some researchers, such as de Vaux, have argued that the scrolls were deposited in the caves by the Essenes, who in turn lived at Qumran. On the other hand, some scholars, such as Magen and Peleg, argue that the site itself has no relationship to the scrolls, the manuscripts being deposited by refugees, likely from Jerusalem, fleeing the Roman army.

Robert Cargill, now a professor at the University of Iowa, has created a virtual model of Qumran, giving researchers a tool to help reconstruct its architecture.

He argues that multiple groups (including people from Qumran) could have been putting scrolls into the caves. This theory offers an explanation as to why there are scrolls written in three languages and why the copper scroll (discussing treasure) may date to after Qumran’s destruction.

Jarus, Owen. 2012. “Qumran & the Dead Sea Scrolls”. Live Science. Posted: November 6, 2012. Available online:

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Prince Charles in Papua New Guinea: how to speak pidgin English like a royal

The 'nambawan pikinini bilong Mises Kwin' spoke the local creole language as he and the Duchess of Cornwall began a tour to mark the Queen's diamond jubilee year. Here's a vocabulary lesson for beginners

Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were given a warm welcome on Saturday as they arrived in Papua New Guinea to begin a two-week Antipodean tour to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee.

The Prince of Wales spoke in the local language called Tok Pisin as he introduced himself as the "nambawan pikinini bilong Misis Kwin" – the number one child belonging to Mrs Queen. Similarly, when the Duke of Edinburgh visits he is addressed as "oldfella Pili-Pili him bilong Misis Kwin".

Tok Pisin is a creole language and is the most widely spoken in Papua New Guinea with between one and two million exposed to it as a first language. Tok is derived from the English word talk and Pisin from pidgin. Much of its vocabulary has a charm of its own, as the following testify:

  • liklik box you pull him he cry you push him he cry – an accordion
  • bigfella iron walking stick him go bang along topside – a rifle
  • skru bilong han (screw belong arm) – elbow
  • gras bilong het (grass belong head) – hair
  • maus gras (mouth grass) – moustache
  • gras bilong fes (grass belong face) – beard
  • bel hevi (belly heavy) – the heavy sinking feeling that often accompanies extreme sadness
  • magimiks bilong Yesus (Magimix belong Jesus) – helicopter
  • pen bilong maus (pen belong mouth) – lipstick
  • bun nating (bone nothing) – a very thin person
  • tit i gat windua bilong em (teeth have window belong him) – a broken-off tooth
  • sikispela lek (six legs) – man with two wives
  • susok man (shoe sock man) – urbanite
  • frok-bel (frog belly) – obese person
  • pato-lek (duck legs) – waddling person
  • emti tin (empty tin) – person who speaks nonsense
  • flat taia (flat tire) – exhausted person
  • smok balus (smoke bird) – jet airplane
  • poket bruk (pocket broken) – out of money
  • bagarap (bugger up) – broken, to break down
  • haus moni (house money) – bank
  • haus sik (house sick) – hospital
  • belhat (belly hot) – angry

    de Boinod, Adam Jacot. 2012. “Prince Charles in Papua New Guinea: how to speak pidgin English like a royal”. The Guardian. Posted: November 5, 2012. Available online:

  • Saturday, November 24, 2012

    Up in Smoke part 3: spreading the message among farmers

    In this final video in a three-part series based around the documentary Up in Smoke on a way of halting slash-and-burn farming in the Honduran rainforest, we look at how farmers who have tried a sustainable and organic method of farming are spreading the message to their community, and demonstrating the benefits of the new technique.


    The Guardian. 2012. “Up in Smoke part 3: spreading the message among farmers”. The Guardian. Posted: November 7, 2012. Available online:

    Friday, November 23, 2012

    Up in Smoke part 2: Honduran farmers transform families' fortunes

    In this second video of a three-part series of short films based around the documentary Up In Smoke, we look further into how a sustainable way of agriculture might replace slash-and-burn farming, which is destructive to the rainforest. An organic method of farming might also provide greater financial security for small farmers and revitalise the ecosystem in which it is implemented.


    The Guardian. 2012. “Up in Smoke part 2: Honduran farmers transform families' fortunes”. The Guardian. Posted: November 6, 2012. Available online:

    Thursday, November 22, 2012

    Up in Smoke part 1: the beginning of the end for slash-and-burn farming?

    This series looks at the devastating consequences to the Honduran rainforest of slash-and-burn farming, and the science that impels its continuation. In the first of a three-part series of short films based around the documentary Up In Smoke, farmers are presented with a unique method to help stop and reverse it


    The Guardian. 2012. “Up in Smoke part 1: the beginning of the end for slash-and-burn farming?”. The Guardian. Posted: November 5, 2012. Available online:

    Wednesday, November 21, 2012

    Climate Modeler Identifies Trigger for Earth's Last Big Freeze

    For more than 30 years, climate scientists have debated whether flood waters from melting of the enormous Laurentide Ice Sheet, which ushered in the last major cold episode on Earth about 12,900 years ago, flowed northwest into the Arctic first, or east via the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to weaken ocean thermohaline circulation and have a frigid effect on global climate.

    Now University of Massachusetts Amherst geoscientist Alan Condron, with Peter Winsor at the University of Alaska, using new, high-resolution global ocean circulation models, report the first conclusive evidence that this flood must have flowed north into the Arctic first down the Mackenzie River valley. They also show that if it had flowed east into the St. Lawrence River valley, Earth's climate would have remained relatively unchanged.

    "This episode was the last time the Earth underwent a major cooling, so understanding exactly what caused it is very important for understanding how our modern-day climate might change in the future," says Condron of UMass Amherst's Climate System Research Center. Findings appear in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Events leading up to the sharp climate-cooling period known as the Younger Dryas, or more familiarly as the "Big Freeze," unfolded after glacial Lake Agassiz, at the southern edge of the Laurentide ice sheet covering Hudson Bay and much of the Canadian Arctic, catastrophically broke through an ice dam and rapidly dumped thousands of cubic kilometers of fresh water into the ocean.

    This massive influx of frigid fresh water injected over the surface of the ocean is assumed to have halted the sinking of very dense, saltier, colder water in the North Atlantic that drives the large-scale ocean circulation, the thermohaline circulation, that transports heat to Europe and North America. The weakening of this circulation caused by the flood resulted in the dramatic cooling of North America and Europe.

    Using their high resolution, global, ocean-ice circulation model that is 10 to 20 times more powerful than previously attainable, Condron and Winsor compared how meltwater from the two different drainage outlets was delivered to the sinking regions in the North Atlantic. They found the original hypothesis proposed in 1989 by Wally Broecker of Columbia University suggesting that Lake Aggasiz drained into the North Atlantic down the St. Lawrence River would have weakened the thermohaline circulation by less than 15 percent.

    Condron and Winsor say this level of weakening is unlikely to have accounted for the 1,000-year cold climate event that followed the meltwater flood. Meltwater from the St. Lawrence River actually ends up almost 1,900 miles (3,000 km) south of the deep water formation regions, too far south to have any significant impact on the sinking of surface waters, which explains why the impact on the thermohaline circulation is so minor.

    By contrast, Condron and Winsor's model shows that when the meltwater first drains into the Arctic Ocean, narrow coastal boundary currents can efficiently deliver it to the deep water formation regions of the sub-polar north Atlantic, weakening the thermohaline circulation by more than 30 percent. They conclude that this scenario, showing meltwater discharged first into the Arctic rather than down the St. Lawrence valley, is "more likely to have triggered the Younger Dryas cooling."

    Condron and Windor's model runs on one of the world's top supercomputers at the National Energy Research Science Computing Center in Berkeley, Calif. The authors say, "With this higher resolution modeling, our ability to capture narrow ocean currents dramatically improves our understanding of where the fresh water may be going."

    Condron adds, "The results we obtain are only possible by using a much higher computational power available with faster computers. Older models weren't powerful enough to model the different pathways because they contained too few data points to capture smaller-scale, faster-moving coastal currents."

    "Our results are particularly relevant for how we model the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice sheets now and in the future. "It is apparent from our results that climate scientists are artificially introducing fresh water into their models over large parts of the ocean that freshwater would never have reached. In addition, our work points to the Arctic as a primary trigger for climate change. This is especially relevant considering the rapid changes that have been occurring in this region in the last 10 years."

    Science Daily. 2012. “Climate Modeler Identifies Trigger for Earth's Last Big Freeze”. Science Daily. Posted: November 5, 2012. Available online:

    Tuesday, November 20, 2012

    Asia's newest megacity offers model for urban growth as populations swell worldwide

    Malaysia's low carbon Iskandar offers planning template for a planet with an urban population expected to double by 2050

    Iskandar Malaysia, the first "smart metropolis" of Southeast Asia founded on principles of social integration as well as low carbon emissions thanks to a green economy and green technologies, is a potential template for urban development in emerging countries with burgeoning populations, international experts say.

    Malaysia's ambition for the massive new Iskandar development: a model of sustainable development and an economic hub in league with Hong Kong and neighboring Singapore.

    And Iskandar is already a powerful magnet for foreign investment, exemplified by openings of expansive new facilities of the UK-based Pinewood Film Studios, Asia's first Legoland theme park, and remote campuses of several western universities (including the UK's Newcastle University, Southampton University and Marlborough College, co-located in Iskandar's 140-hectare "edu-city").

    Ongoing creation of the new metropolis is the focus of special meetings of Malaysia's Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council (GSIAC) -- a unique assembly of all-star national and international experts created to inform and assist the nation's sustainable development. GSIAC is chaired by its founder, Prime Minister Dato' Seri Najib Tun Razak.

    Iskandar has been planned since its 2006 inception as an environment-friendly, socially-responsible metropolis, demonstrating innovations many international experts consider essential for meeting the growing challenge of 21st century urbanization.

    Separated by the Strait of Johor from Singapore and three times the area of that city state, Iskandar covers 2,217 square km of land on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula -- comparable in size to the African island nation of Mauritius or Luxembourg in Europe.

    Iskandar's population of 1.3 million people in 2010 is expected to reach 3 million by 2025.

    "We envisage in Iskandar Malaysia a mixture of skyscrapers, high rises as well as low-carbon, self-contained cities, townships, villages and neighbourhoods," says Datuk Ismail Ibrahim, Chief Executive Iskandar Regional Development Authority.

    By 2025, he adds, the anticipated GDP of Iskandar will be US $93.3 billion, a 465% increase from 2005, and a per capita GDP of $31,100, a 210% increase.

    Datuk Seri Zakri Abdul Hamid, Joint Chairman of Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High Technology (MIGHT) and science advisor to the Prime Minister, says Malaysia is determined to become a high-income country in an environmentally-responsible way through the creation of "smart" urban areas and villages.

    Says Ellis Rubinstein, President and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS): "Malaysia's Iskandar 'smart metropolis' seeks to offer a model to countries needing to accommodate the social and economic needs of fast-rising populations and environmental challenges."

    Together, Dr. Zakri and Mr. Rubinstein head the GSIAC secretariat.

    "Seldom has any country ever had the opportunity to create a complete urban metropolis of this size virtually from scratch," adds Dr. Zakri. "This massive Malaysian project is benefitting from the best proven ideas in sustainable development shared by renowned world experts via the country's unique Global Science and Innovation Advisory Council."

    MIGHT President Mohd Yusoff Sulaiman notes that over 600 initiatives are being pursued under more than 20 blueprints so far ( covering every aspect of Iskandar's development, including environmental planning, energy efficiency, land use, housing, community safety, social infrastructure, education, tourism, business development, communications, road design, public transportation, maintenance, and solid waste, stormwater and shoreline management. The Low Carbon Society blueprint is scheduled for launch at the 18th Conference of Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change next month in Qatar.


    The United Nations estimates that the human population will grow from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, of which more than 6 billion will live in urban environments, almost double today's number. The increase necessitates building the equivalent of a city of 1 million every week until 2050, experts calculate.

    The environmental stress caused by this intense urban growth is immense. Over 70% of CO2 emissions today relate to city needs. Anticipated urban CO2 emissions by 2030: 36.5 billion metric tonnes, assuming business as usual. This represents more than double the urban emissions of 1990.

    Planners have placed livability and sustainability at the heart of the Iskandar development, with a goal of achieving low carbon society status -- emitting greenhouse gases no greater in volume than levels that can be absorbed by nature.

    The Iskandar region is the focus of a major research project, "The Development of Low Carbon Scenarios for Asian Regions," that will contribute to the goal of reducing by 50% the intensity of regional greenhouse gas emissions per unit of production by 2025 (base year 2005).

    The project will create an Asian showcase of best low carbon practices, involving closely intertwined socio-economic, environmental, energy system, waste management, land use, transportation, and consensus-building factors.

    With the benefit of insights provided by international experts, Iskandar planners have designed a low carbon metropolis based on:

  • Reduced use of petroleum and coal in favour of natural gas, biomass, solar power, and an increase in energy efficiency
  • Construction of low-carbon buildings that require low energy and natural resources and produce zero or low greenhouse gasses
  • A "smart" transportation system for public and private vehicles, as well as transit oriented development, including mixed-use residential or commercial areas designed to maximize access to public transport, which often incorporate features to encourage transit ridership
  • Social and economic inclusion


    Establishment of the first "smart metropolis" of Southeast Asia is attracting "smart money" from investors around the world. From 2006 up to June 2012, Iskandar has drawn $31.2 billion in committed investments, 38% of that from foreign sources. More than 10% of the new investment was committed in the first six months of 2012.

    In September 2012, the first Legoland theme park of Asia opened in Iskandar in a 31-hectare park with 40 rides and attractions. It is expected to attract more than 1.5 million annual visitors. A water park will open in 2013 and a themed hotel within the grounds will open in 2014.

    Meanwhile, UK-based Pinewood Studios is marketing Iskandar as a destination for film-making, in particular for Indian movies. The 20-hectare Pinewood Studios complex opening in early 2013 in the heart of Iskandar will be the largest independent integrated studio facility in Southeast Asia, offering state-of-the-art film stages, TV studios and post-production suites.

    Pinewood will have two television studios, both 1,115 sq meters in area, with seating capacities of 600 and 800 people, respectively. In addition, there will be five film stages covering a total of 9,300 sq meter: two 1,850 sq meter stages, two 1,400 sq meter stages and a 2,800 sq meter stage.

    Internationally renowned educational institutions establishing Iskandar campuses include UK's Newcastle University, the University of Southampton and Marlborough College, and Singapore's Raffles University, with several additions planned.

    Says Prime Minister Najib: "At a GSAIC meeting in New York in June 2011, we agreed to showcase Iskandar Malaysia as a smart city template -- protecting the environment, promoting equitable development and addressing urban development challenges."

    "The collaboration of MIGHT, IRDA and the GSAIC in the creation of smart, livable urban communities will yield an improved quality of life for thousands of citizens, with safer, cleaner, healthier, more affordable and more vibrant neighborhoods, serviced by more efficient and accessible transportation systems -- great destinations for businesses."

    "The smart community projects connect with an inclusive socioeconomic approach to growth based on the New Economic Model and Vision 2020 agenda."

    In addition to the "smart metropolis" of Iskandar, Malaysia is creating "smart villages" and "eco-towns" consisting of affordable homes, high-tech educational, training and recreational facilities, and a creative, closed-loop agricultural system providing villagers with food and supplementary income (see:

    EurekAlert. 2012. “Asia's newest megacity offers model for urban growth as populations swell worldwide”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 2, 2012. Available online:

  • Monday, November 19, 2012

    Scientists launch international study of open-fire cooking and air quality

    Expanding its focus on the link between the atmosphere and human health, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is launching a three-year, international study into the impact of open-fire cooking on regional air quality and disease.

    Researchers will combine newly developed sensors with computer and statistical models to look at what happens to human health when traditional cooking methods are used. They will also evaluate whether newer, more efficient cookstoves could reduce disease and positively affect regional air quality.

    The project brings together a diverse team of pollution, climate, and health experts from NCAR, the University of Colorado Boulder, University of Ghana School of Public Health, and Ghana Health Services. Funding comes from the National Science Foundation, NCAR’s sponsor.

    The researchers will focus primarily on northern Ghana, where they will examine possible links between air pollutants and such diseases as meningitis. Their findings are expected to provide information to policymakers and health officials in other developing countries where open-fire cooking or inefficient stoves are common.

    “Often when you visit remote villages in Ghana, they’re shrouded in haze for many miles from all the fires used for cooking,” says NCAR scientist Christine Wiedinmyer, an atmospheric chemist overseeing the project. “Given that an estimated three billion people worldwide are cooking over fire and smoke, we need to better understand how these pollutants are affecting public health as well as regional air quality and even the climate.”

    Wiedinmyer and her colleagues will use a novel combination of local and regional air quality measurements—including specialized smartphone applications that are more mobile than traditional air quality sensors—and cutting-edge computer models of weather, air quality, and climate. The researchers and student assistants will also survey villagers to get their views on possible connections between open-fire cooking and disease as well as their interest in adopting different cooking methods.

    Cooking fires in developing countries are a leading source of carbon monoxide, particulates, and smog. These can cause a variety of symptoms, ranging from relatively mild ailments, such as headaches and nausea, to potentially life-threatening conditions, including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

    The fires also emit carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that, when mixed into the global atmosphere, can affect weather patterns and warm the climate. As regional temperatures warm, that in turn can act to increase the level of air pollution, thereby potentially leading to greater health risks.

    The project builds on other NCAR projects studying links between the atmosphere and human health. These include the development of specialized forecasts of weather conditions associated with the beginning and end of outbreaks of meningitis in Africa.

    “We’re excited about the opportunity to continue working with our collaborators in Ghana and to help alleviate a major health problem across the Sahel of Africa,” says NCAR’s Mary Hayden, a medical anthropologist. “Bringing together an international transdisciplinary team of social scientists with climatologists, atmospheric chemists, and engineers to tackle the problem is the first step in addressing these complex human-environmental problems.”

    NCAR/UCAR. 2012. “Scientists launch international study of open-fire cooking and air quality”. NCAR/UCAR Atmos News. Posted: November 1, 2012. Available online:

    Sunday, November 18, 2012

    Jamaican teen immigrants do better when they retain strong ties to original culture

    Many young Jamaican immigrants are succeeding in the United States precisely because they remain strongly tied to Jamaican culture, said University of Illinois professor Gail M. Ferguson.

    "Although many of these youths have forged a unique tricultural identity that draws from their Jamaican culture, African-American culture, and mainstream European American culture, the important factor in their academic and behavioral success is retaining strong ties to their Jamaican background," she said.

    To learn how Jamaican immigrant teens were adjusting to life in their new country, the study surveyed 473 adolescent–mother dyads from Jamaican immigrant families in the United States, comparing their well-being with teens from families on the island and from white and black American families.

    The researchers asked mothers and teens about the teens' culture, grades, behavior, friendships, home life, community involvement, and character traits.

    "Overall, Jamaican immigrant teens were doing just as well as their American peers in terms of grades and positive behavior. Older immigrant teens, in particular, were actually doing a little better than Jamaican teens in the Caribbean," she said.

    However, immigrant teens who had shed their Jamaican culture in favor of either or both American cultures had much lower grades and less positive behavior than those who had kept a strong ethnic affiliation, Ferguson said.

    But the study also found that adapting to life in their new country could depend on affiliating, at least to some extent, with two American cultures. That's a new finding and an important piece of the puzzle, she said.

    Why? "It shows us that identifying with certain subcultures can be important for success in school. And assimilation, depending on where immigrants are from and the subculture into which they are assimilating, can also be disadvantageous, as when Jamaican immigrant teens assimilate into a subculture that doesn't value education," she added.

    Many black Jamaican immigrants naturally gravitate toward African-American culture, usually prompted by ethnic consumer needs such as getting their hair done or looking for a familiar worship experience. "Those connecting points are important to black immigrants' adjustment," she said.

    Ferguson emphasized the importance of encouraging immigrants to retain some of their own cultural values and practices, including a strong priority on family and education because these are protective factors in their adjustment.

    "Many immigrant teens who were doing well had the ability to gain things from both African-American and mainstream American cultures, then combine what they'd learned with their own strong attachment to Jamaican culture," she said.

    Tridimensional Acculturation and Adaption Among Jamaican Adolescent–Mother Dyads in the United States appears in the September-October 2012 issue of Child Development. Co-authors are Gail Ferguson, formerly of Knox College, now a U of I professor; Marc H. Bornstein of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development; and Audrey M. Pottinger of the University of the West Indies.

    EurekAlert. 2012. “Jamaican teen immigrants do better when they retain strong ties to original culture”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 31, 2012. Available online:

    Saturday, November 17, 2012

    Sustainable cities must look beyond city limits

    Cities leaders aspiring to transform their cities into models of sustainability must look beyond city limits and include in their calculation the global flow of goods and materials into their realm, argue researchers in the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences journal Ambio.

    Many cities are now developing sustainable strategies to reduce pollution and congestion, improve the quality of life of their citizens, and respond to growing concern about human impact on climate and the environment. But sustainable city initiatives often ignore the environmental footprint from imported goods and services such as food, water, and energy to cities: sustainability, it seems, stops at the city limits.

    Ultimately, this will not add up to a planet able to support over nine billion people.

    “The sustainability of a city can no longer be thought of in isolation from the combined resource use and impacts of cities globally.” Urbanization is no longer a local issue, say Earth-system researchers in a new paper, Planetary stewardship in an urbanizing world: beyond city limits, published October 2012.

    Instead, the team proposes that cities analyse how resources consumed within a city are sourced, produced and transported. They suggest one solution could be that cities with viable sustainability strategies link together to create a vast system of cities. A feature of such a system would be an awareness of the global resource use of cities combined. The benefits of a network of this kind could be twofold, contributing to “planetary stewardship” whilst providing long-term resource security for cities.

    “Urban areas drive much of the global changes we see, whether in energy use, food supply, resource depletion or land-use change,” says lead author Dr. Sybil Seitzinger, Executive Director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, based in Stockholm Sweden.

    The world has urbanized rapidly. In 2011, the United Nations announced humanity had passed a major landmark: over half the population of the planet now lives in urban areas. Urbanization is set to continue at pace throughout this century with most growth taking place in Africa and Asia.

    The total urban area is expected to triple between 2000 and 2030, while urban populations are expected to nearly double, increasing from 2.84 to 4.9 billion, during this period, according to a recent publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

    “On this kind of trajectory, more than 15,000 football fields (FIFA accredited) will become urban every day during the first three decades of the 21st century. In other words, humankind is expected to build more urban areas during the first thirty years of this century than all of history combined,,” says Professor Karen Seto an urbanization expert from Yale University and co-author on the paper.

    A system of sustainable cities will require adequate information on resource flows and their impacts, preferably in near-real-time and on a global scale. “Digital technologies are now putting this kind of information within our grasp,” says Dr. Seitzinger.

    Recently, cities across the globe have joined forces in alliances to curb greenhouse gas emissions, for example through the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the World Mayor’s Council for Climate Change. This approach allows cities to learn from one another. Good ideas can spread through the network while poor ideas can be ditched quickly.

    However, these efforts may not focus explicitly on non-urban regions that often provide resources to urban areas. The notion of a partnership between “sustainable” cities and between cities and non-urban regions discussed in the paper is novel but untested. The new approach could harness existing partnerships and provide the foundations for a more sustainable approach to urbanization and urban living this century.

    The new research is the outcome of a three-day international workshop on planetary stewardship organised by the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 13-15 June 2011.

    I recommend that you visit the source page for more information.

    Global IGBP Change. 2012. “Sustainable cities must look beyond city limits”. Global International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme Change. Posted: October 31, 2012. Available online:

    Friday, November 16, 2012

    Genes, depression and life satisfaction

    Vulnerability to major depression is linked with how satisfied we are with our lives. This association is largely due to genes.

    This is the main finding of a new twin study from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health in collaboration with the University of Oslo. The researchers compared longitudinal information from identical and fraternal twins to determine how vulnerability to major depression is associated with dispositional (overall) lifetime satisfaction.

    Previous studies have systematically shown that life satisfaction is considerably stable over time. People who are satisfied at any one point in life are often also satisfied at other times in their lives. This stability—the dispositional life satisfaction—is often said to reflect an underlying positive mood or a positive disposition. Previous studies have also shown that people with such a positive disposition are less depressed, but very few studies have examined the mechanisms behind this relationship.


  • • Both men and women who met the criteria for lifetime major depression (15.8% and 11.1% respectively) reported lower life satisfaction.
  • • 74% of the relationship between major depression and life satisfaction could be explained by genes.
  • • The remaining association (26%) could be explained by unique environmental factors.
  • • The researchers also calculated the heritability of dispositional life satisfaction and major depression separately. The heritability of dispositional life satisfaction, which has not previously been reported, was estimated to be 72%. In other words, it is largely genes that explain why we differ in our tendency to be satisfied and content with our lives.
  • • Major depression had a heritability of 34%, which is highly consistent with previous studies.

    “The stable tendency to see the bright side of life is associated with lower risk of major depression because some genetic factors influence both conditions”, says researcher Ragnhild Bang Nes from the Division of Mental Health. Genes involved in satisfaction and positivity thus give protection against major depression. Nes is the main author of the study that was recently published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.

    Susceptibility to both depression and overall life satisfaction is partly influenced by the same set of genes, but is also influenced by genes that are unique to each.

    “The heritability figures mean that 72% of the individual differences in overall satisfaction, and 34% of the differences in depression, are caused by genes. These figures do not provide information on the importance of specific genes for an individual's life satisfaction or risk of major depression. Traits and propensities like dispositional life satisfaction and vulnerability to major depression are not heritable in themselves. Heritability refers to the importance of genes for explaining the differences between people and the estimates may vary across time and place”, explains Nes.

    Although the heritability of major depression was lower than that of life satisfaction, this does not necessarily mean that life satisfaction is far more heritable than depression. The researchers used questionnaire data from two time points to measure dispositional life satisfaction, and a single clinical interview to measure the prevalence of lifetime major depression. The use of only a single assessment to measure depression may partly explain why the heritability of depression is so much lower than life satisfaction.

    Can we prevent depression by promoting life satisfaction?

    “We found that depression and life satisfaction did not share as many environmental factors as genetic factors. This means that environmental factors of importance to life satisfaction (for example, activities and interventions that make you happy and content) only to a small extent protect against depression”, says Nes.

    “Although our underlying disposition to life satisfaction and positivity appears to be relatively stable, small actions in our daily lives may provide temporary pleasures, and these are also important. How we spend our time is tremendously important for our happiness and well-being. It is therefore important to encourage and follow up on activities that make us happy”.

    Nes adds:

    “To some extent, positive experiences may also accumulate over time and create favorable conditions for our quality of life”.

    About the study

    The analyses were based on approximately 1500 twin pairs (both identical and fraternal) from the NIPH twin panel. Identical twins share 100% of the genetic material, while fraternal on average share 50% of their genes —meaning that they are genetically like other siblings and first-degree relatives. By comparing how similar identical and fraternal co-twin are in life satisfaction and risk of major depression, scientists can determine the extent to which variation and covariation is due to genes and environmental influences. The resulting figures reflect the importance of genetic and environmental influences on differences between individuals and do not provide information about the exact relationship between depression and life satisfaction in individuals. At the individual level genetic and environmental factors are dependent on one another in a complex interaction.

    Norwegian Institute of Public Health. 2012. “Genes, depression and life satisfaction”. Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Posted: October 24, 2012. Available online:,4549:1:0:0:::0:0&MainLeft_5895=5954:0:15,4549:1:0:0:::0:0&Area_5954=5825:99897::1:5955:1:::0:0

    Journal Reference:

    Nes, R.B., Czajkowski, N.O., Røysamb, E., Ørstavik. R.E., Tambs, K., Reichborn-Kjennerud, T. (2012) “Major depression and life satisfaction: A population-based twin study”. Journal of Affective Disorders. DOI:

  • Thursday, November 15, 2012

    Lucy and Selam's species climbed trees

    The most comprehensive analysis to date of Australopithecus afarensis shoulder blades indicates a partially arboreal lifestyle

    Australopithecus afarensis (the species of the well-known “Lucy” skeleton) was an upright walking species, but the question of whether it also spent much of its time in trees has been the subject of much debate, partly because a complete set of A. afarensis shoulder blades has never before been available for study. For the first time, Midwestern University Professor David Green and Curator of Anthropology at the California Academy of Sciences, Zeresenay Alemseged, have thoroughly examined the two complete shoulder blades of the fossil "Selam," an exceptionally well-preserved skeleton of an A. afarensis child from Dikika, Ethiopia, discovered in 2000 by Dr. Alemseged. Further preparation and extensive analyses of these rare bones showed them to be quite apelike, suggesting that this species was adapted to climbing trees in addition to walking bipedally when on the ground. "The question as to whether Australopithecus afarensis was strictly bipedal or if they also climbed trees has been intensely debated for more than thirty years," said Dr. Green. "These remarkable fossils provide strong evidence that these individuals were still climbing at this stage in human evolution." The new findings are published in the October 26 issue of the journal Science.

    Dr. Alemseged, assisted by Kenyan lab technician Christopher Kiarie, spent 11 years carefully extracting the two shoulder blades from the rest of the skeleton, which was encased in a sandstone block. "Because shoulder blades are paper-thin, they rarely fossilize--and when they do, they are almost always fragmentary," said Dr. Alemseged. "So finding both shoulder blades completely intact and attached to a skeleton of a known and pivotal species was like hitting the jackpot. This study moves us a step closer toward answering the question 'When did our ancestors abandon climbing behavior?' It appears that this happened much later than many researchers have previously suggested."

    Selam was a three-year-old A. afarensis girl who lived about 3.3 million years ago, and she represents the most complete skeleton of her kind to date. After freeing the shoulder blades from the surrounding rock, Green and Alemseged digitized them using a Microscribe, and then took detailed measurements to characterize their shape and function, comparing them to the rare shoulder fossils of other early human relatives: Homo ergaster ("Turkana Boy"), Homo floresiensis ("The Hobbit"), A. africanus, and two adult specimens of A. afarensis. They also made comparisons with an extensive modern sample of juvenile and adult chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, and human specimens.

    The analysis of the shape and function of the bones revealed that A. afarensis shoulder blades are apelike, indicating a partially arboreal lifestyle. Drs. Green and Alemseged also found that, like living apes, the shoulder anatomy of juvenile and adult representatives of A. afarensis were quite similar. "Human scapulae change shape throughout ontogeny in a significantly different manner than closely related apes," said Dr. Green. "When we compared Selam's scapula with adult members of Australopithecus afarensis, it was clear that the pattern of growth was more consistent with that of apes than humans." At the same time, most researchers agree that many traits of the A. afarensis hip bone, lower limb, and foot are unequivocally humanlike and adapted for upright walking. "This new find confirms the pivotal place that Lucy and Selam's species occupies in human evolution," said Dr. Alemseged. "While bipedal like humans, A. afarensis was still a capable climber. Though not fully human, A. afarensis was clearly on its way."

    EurekAlert. 2012. “Lucy and Selam's species climbed trees”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 25, 2012. Available online:

    Wednesday, November 14, 2012

    Grandmas made humans live longer

    Computer model: Chimp lifespan evolves into human longevity

    Computer simulations provide new mathematical support for the "grandmother hypothesis" – a famous theory that humans evolved longer adult lifespans than apes because grandmothers helped feed their grandchildren.

    "Grandmothering was the initial step toward making us who we are," says Kristen Hawkes, a distinguished professor of anthropology at the University of Utah and senior author of the new study published Oct. 24 by the British journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

    The simulations indicate that with only a little bit of grandmothering – and without any assumptions about human brain size – animals with chimpanzee lifespans evolve in less than 60,000 years so they have a human lifespan. Female chimps rarely live past child-bearing years, usually into their 30s and sometimes their 40s. Human females often live decades past their child-bearing years.

    The findings showed that from the time adulthood is reached, the simulated creatures lived another 25 years like chimps, yet after 24,000 to 60,000 years of grandmothers caring for grandchildren, the creatures who reached adulthood lived another 49 years – as do human hunter-gatherers.

    The grandmother hypothesis says that when grandmothers help feed their grandchildren after weaning, their daughters can produce more children at shorter intervals; the children become younger at weaning but older when they first can feed themselves and when they reach adulthood; and women end up with postmenopausal lifespans just like ours.

    By allowing their daughters to have more children, a few ancestral females who lived long enough to become grandmothers passed their longevity genes to more descendants, who had longer adult lifespans as a result.

    Hawkes conducted the new study with first author and mathematical biologist Peter Kim, a former University of Utah postdoctoral researcher now on the University of Sydney faculty, and James Coxworth, a University of Utah doctoral student in anthropology. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Australian Research Council.

    How Grandmothering Came to Be

    Hawkes, University of Utah anthropologist James O'Connell and UCLA anthropologist Nicholas Blurton Jones formally proposed the grandmother hypothesis in 1997, and it has been debated ever since. Once major criticism was that it lacked a mathematical underpinning – something the new study sought to provide.

    The hypothesis stemmed from observations by Hawkes and O'Connell in the 1980s when they lived with Tanzania's Hazda hunter-gatherer people and watched older women spend their days collecting tubers and other foods for their grandchildren. Except for humans, all other primates and mammals collect their own food after weaning.

    But as human ancestors evolved in Africa during the past 2 million years, the environment changed, growing drier with more open grasslands and fewer forests – forests where newly weaned infants could collect and eat fleshy fruits on their own.

    "So moms had two choices," Hawkes says. "They could either follow the retreating forests, where foods were available that weaned infants could collect, or continue to feed the kids after the kids are weaned. That is a problem for mothers because it means you can't have the next kid while you are occupied with this one."

    That opened a window for the few females whose childbearing years were ending – grandmothers – to step in and help, digging up potato-like tubers and cracking hard-shelled nuts in the increasingly arid environment. Those are tasks newly weaned apes and human ancestors couldn't handle as infants.

    The primates who stayed near food sources that newly weaned offspring could collect "are our great ape cousins," says Hawkes. "The ones that began to exploit resources little kids couldn't handle, opened this window for grandmothering and eventually evolved into humans."

    Evidence that grandmothering increases grandchildren's survival is seen in 19th and 20th century Europeans and Canadians, and in Hazda and some other African people.

    But it is possible that the benefits grandmothers provide to their grandchildren might be the result of long postmenopausal lifespans that evolved for other reasons, so the new study set out to determine if grandmothering alone could result in the evolution of ape-like life histories into long postmenopausal lifespans seen in humans.

    Simulating the Evolution of Adult Lifespan

    The new study isn't the first to attempt to model or simulate the grandmother effect. A 1998 study by Hawkes and colleagues took a simpler approach, showing that grandmothering accounts for differences between humans and modern apes in life-history events such as age at weaning, age at adulthood and longevity.

    A recent simulation by other researchers said there were too few females living past their fertile years for grandmothering to affect lifespan in human ancestors. The new study grew from Hawkes' skepticism about that finding.

    Unlike Hawkes' 1998 study, the new study simulated evolution over time, asking, "If you start with a life history like the one we see in great apes – and then you add grandmothering, what happens?" Hawkes says.

    The simulations measured the change in adult longevity – the average lifespan from the time adulthood begins. Chimps that reach adulthood (age 13) live an average of another 15 or 16 years. People in developed nations who reach adulthood (at about age 19) live an average of another 60 years or so – to the late 70s or low 80s.

    The extension of adult lifespan in the new study involves evolution in prehistoric time; increasing lifespans in recent centuries have been attributed largely to clean water, sewer systems and other public health measures.

    The researchers were conservative, making the grandmother effect "weak" by assuming that a woman couldn't be a grandmother until age 45 or after age 75, that she couldn't care for a child until age 2, and that she could care only for one child and that it could be any child, not just her daughter's child.

    Based on earlier research, the simulation assumed that any newborn had a 5 percent chance of a gene mutation that could lead to either a shorter or a longer lifespan.

    The simulation begins with only 1 percent of women living to grandmother age and able to care for grandchildren, but by the end of the 24,000 to 60,000 simulated years, the results are similar to those seen in human hunter-gatherer populations: about 43 percent of adult women are grandmothers.

    The new study found that from adulthood, additional years of life doubled from 25 years to 49 years over the simulated 24,000 to 60,000 years.

    The difference in how fast the doubling occurred depends on different assumptions about how much a longer lifespan costs males: Living longer means males must put more energy and metabolism into maintaining their bodies longer, so they put less vigor into competing with other males over females during young adulthood. The simulation tested three different degrees to which males are competitive in reproducing.

    What Came First: Bigger Brains or Grandmothering?

    The competing "hunting hypothesis" holds that as resources dried up for human ancestors in Africa, hunting became better than foraging for finding food, and that led to natural selection for bigger brains capable of learning better hunting methods and clever use of hunting weapons. Women formed "pair bonds" with men who brought home meat.

    Many anthropologists argue that increasing brain size in our ape-like ancestors was the major factor in humans developing lifespans different from apes. But the new computer simulation ignored brain size, hunting and pair bonding, and showed that even a weak grandmother effect can make the simulated creatures evolve from chimp-like longevity to human longevity.

    So Hawkes believes the shift to longer adult lifespan caused by grandmothering "is what underlies subsequent important changes in human evolution, including increasing brain size."

    "If you are a chimpanzee, gorilla or orangutan baby, your mom is thinking about nothing but you," she says. "But if you are a human baby, your mom has other kids she is worrying about, and that means now there is selection on you – which was not on any other apes – to much more actively engage her: 'Mom! Pay attention to me!'"

    "Grandmothering gave us the kind of upbringing that made us more dependent on each other socially and prone to engage each other's attention," she adds.

    That, says Hawkes, gave rise to "a whole array of social capacities that are then the foundation for the evolution of other distinctly human traits, including pair bonding, bigger brains, learning new skills and our tendency for cooperation."

    EurekAlert. 2012. “Grandmas made humans live longer”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 23, 2012. Available online:

    Tuesday, November 13, 2012

    Gender discrimination a reason why females choose careers outside the hard sciences

    Both male and female scientists view gender discrimination as a major reason women choose to pursue careers in biology rather than physics, according to new research from Rice University.

    "Gender Segregation in Elite Academic Science," which appears in the October issue of Gender and Society, reveals differences in the way male and female scientists view disparities in the proportion of women in some science disciplines. The study surveyed 2,500 biologists and physicists at 30 elite institutions of higher education in the United States. Researchers also interviewed a smaller scientific sample of 150 scientists one on one about the reasons they believe there are gender differences in scientific disciplines.

    "The distribution of women and men across various science-related occupations has long drawn both popular and scholarly attention," said lead study author and principal investigator Elaine Howard Ecklund, an associate professor of sociology. "In our research, we're interested in how scientists explain the different proportions of men and women in biology and physics.

    "We know from various pieces of research that people's perceptions of the way things are really influence how they act with other people," she said. "When mentoring students, they might pass these views along. This makes their opinions extremely important, as they can have a significant impact on future scientists and research."

    The study's key finding is that both male and female scientists view gender discrimination as a factor in women's decision not to choose a science career at all or to choose biology over physics. However, the two sexes still have differences in opinion about when discrimination occurs.

    "During interviews, men almost never mentioned present-day discrimination, believing that any discrimination in physical science classes likely took place early in the educational history (primary school), which they believe explains women's predisposition to biological sciences," Ecklund said. "However, female scientists believe that discrimination is still occurring in present-day universities and departments."

    Regardless of gender or discipline, approximately half of all the scientists interviewed thought that at some point in women's educational lives, they are discouraged from pursing a career in physics.

    Other reasons scientists gave to explain the different numbers of women that pursue biology when compared with physics include mentorship of students in the fields of biology and physics and "inherent differences between men and women."

    One female scientist said, "I think women … want to have more of a sense that what they are doing is helping somebody. Maybe there are more women in … biology (because) you can be like, 'Oh, I am going to go cure cancer.'"

    Whereas women often explained sex differences between the disciplines using reasons of emotional affinity, men stressed neurological differences as being responsible for personal choices. One male scientist suggested that there are "some brain differences between men and women that explain (the gender differences between the disciplines)."

    Ecklund said, "It's extremely important to understand how scientists at the kind of top research universities we studied feel about this topic, as they train the next generation of researchers and leaders in the sciences and will pass on their ideas to these young scholars."

    EurekAlert. 2012. “Gender discrimination a reason why females choose careers outside the hard sciences”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 22, 2012. Available online:

    Monday, November 12, 2012

    New Stanford analysis provides fuller picture of human expansion from Africa

    A comprehensive analysis of the anthropological and genetic history of humans' expansion out of Africa could lead to medical advances.

    A new, comprehensive review of humans' anthropological and genetic records gives the most up-to-date story of the "Out of Africa" expansion that occurred about 45,000 to 60,000 years ago.

    This expansion, detailed by three Stanford geneticists, had a dramatic effect on human genetic diversity, which persists in present-day populations. As a small group of modern humans migrated out of Africa into Eurasia and the Americas, their genetic diversity was substantially reduced.

    In studying these migrations, genomic projects haven't fully taken into account the rich archaeological and anthropological data available, and vice versa. This review integrates both sides of the story and provides a foundation that could lead to better understanding of ancient humans and, possibly, genomic and medical advances.

    "People are doing amazing genome sequencing, but they don't always understand human demographic history" that can help inform an investigation, said review co-author Brenna Henn, a postdoctoral fellow in genetics at the Stanford School of Medicine who has a PhD in anthropology from Stanford. "We wanted to write this as a primer on pre-human history for people who are not anthropologists."

    This model of the Out of Africa expansion provides the framework for testing other anthropological and genetic models, Henn said, and will allow researchers to constrain various parameters on computer simulations, which will ultimately improve their accuracy.

    "The basic notion is that all of these disciplines have to be considered simultaneously when thinking about movements of ancient populations," said Marcus Feldman, a professor of biology at Stanford and the senior author of the paper. "What we're proposing is a story that has potential to explain any of the fossil record that subsequently becomes available, and to be able to tell what was the size of the population in that place at that time."

    The anthropological information can inform geneticists when they investigate certain genetic changes that emerge over time. For example, geneticists have found that genes that allowed humans to tolerate lactose and gluten began to emerge in populations expanding into Europe around 10,000 years ago.

    The anthropological record helps explain this: It was around this time that humans embraced agriculture, including milk and wheat production. The populations that prospered – and thus those who survived to pass on these mutations – were those who embraced these unnatural food sources. This, said Feldman, is an example of how human movements drove a new form of natural selection.

    Populations that expand from a small founding group can also exhibit reduced genetic diversity – known as a "bottleneck" – a classic example being the Ashkenazi Jewish population, which has a fairly large number of genetic diseases that can be attributed to its small number of founders. When this small group moved from the Rhineland to Eastern Europe, reproduction occurred mainly within the group, eventually leading to situations in which mothers and fathers were related. This meant that offspring often received the same deleterious gene from each parent and, as this process continued, ultimately resulted in a population in which certain diseases and cancers are more prevalent.

    "If you know something about the demographic history of populations, you may be able to learn something about the reasons why a group today has a certain genetic abnormality – either good or bad," Feldman said. "That's one of the reasons why in our work we focus on the importance of migration and history of mixing in human populations. It helps you assess the kinds of things you might be looking for in a first clinical assessment. It doesn't have the immediacy of prescribing chemotherapy – it's a more general look at what's the status of human variability in DNA, and how might that inform a clinician." The study is published in the current edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and was co-authored by Feldman's longtime collaborator, population geneticist Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza of Stanford and the Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele in Italy.

    Carey, Bjorn. 2012. “New Stanford analysis provides fuller picture of human expansion from Africa”. Stanford University News Service. Posted: October 22, 2012. Available online:

    Sunday, November 11, 2012

    Complete mitochondrial genome sequences of ancient New Zealanders

    In a landmark study, University of Otago researchers have achieved the feat of sequencing complete mitochondrial genomes for members of what was likely to be one of the first groups of Polynesians to settle New Zealand and have revealed a surprising degree of genetic variation among these pioneering voyagers.

    The Otago researchers' breakthrough means that similar DNA detective work with samples from various modern and ancient Polynesian populations might now be able to clear up competing theories about the pathways of their great migration across the Pacific to New Zealand.

    Results from the team's successful mapping of complete mitochondrial genomes of four of the Rangitane iwi (tribe) tupuna (ancestors) who were buried at a large village on Marlborough's Wairau Bar more than 700 years ago will be published online in the prestigious US journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

    Study director Professor Lisa Matisoo-Smith explains that mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is only inherited through the mother's side and can be used to trace maternal lineages and provide insights into ancient origins and migration routes.

    "We found that three of the four individuals had no recent maternal ancestor in common, indicating that these pioneers were not simply from one tight-knit kin group, but instead included families that were not directly maternally related. This gives a fascinating new glimpse into the social structure of the first New Zealanders and others taking part in the final phases of the great Polynesian migration across the Pacific."

    The researchers discovered that the four genomes shared two unique genetic markers found in modern Maori while also featuring several previously unidentified Polynesian genetic markers. Intriguingly, they also discovered that at least one of the settlers carried a genetic mutation associated with insulin resistance, which leads to Type 2 diabetes.

    "Overall, our results indicate that there is likely to be significant mtDNA variation among New Zealand's first settlers. However, a lack of genetic diversity has previously been characterised in modern-day Maori and this was thought to reflect uniformity in the founding population.

    "It may be rather that later decimation caused by European diseases was an important factor, or perhaps there is actually still much more genetic variation today that remains to be discovered. Possibly, it may have been missed due to most previous work only focusing on a small portion of the mitochondrial genome rather than complete analyses like ours."

    Professor Matisoo-Smith and colleagues including ancient DNA analysis expert Dr Michael Knapp used Otago's state-of-the-art ancient DNA research facilities to apply similar techniques that other scientists recently employed to sequence the Neanderthal genome.

    "We are very excited to be the first researchers to successfully sequence complete mitochondrial genomes from ancient Polynesian samples. Until the advent of next generation sequencing techniques, the highly degraded state of DNA in human remains of this age has not allowed such genomes to be sequenced," she says.

    Now that the researchers have identified several unique genetic markers in New Zealand's founding population, work can begin to obtain and sequence other ancient and modern DNA samples from Pacific islands and search for these same markers.

    "If such research is successful, this may help identify the specific island homelands of the initial canoes that arrived in Aotearoa/New Zealand 700 years ago," she says.

    This research is the most recent output from the Wairau Bar Research Group, a collaboration between Otago researchers and Rangitane-ki-Wairau. The Otago research team is led by archaeologist Professor Richard Walter (Department of Anthropology and Archaeology), and biological anthropologists Associate Professor Hallie Buckley and Professor Matisoo-Smith (Department of Anatomy).

    Background information

    First excavated over 70 years ago, the Wairau Bar site is one of the most important archaeological sites in New Zealand because of its age and the range of material found there.

    It is the site of a fourteenth century village occupied by some of the first generations of people who settled New Zealand. The material excavated from the site, most of which is now cared for in the collections at Canterbury Museum, provided the first conclusive evidence that New Zealand was originally settled from East Polynesia.

    This discovery was first reported to the New Zealand public in 1950 by the late Dr Roger Duff, Director of Canterbury Museum, in his ground breaking book The Moahunter Period of Maori Culture. The principal evidence for his conclusions was in the artefacts found; however, the site also contained a large number of human burials.

    Between 1938 and 1959 a total of 44 graves were excavated from the site and the grave contents taken to Canterbury Museum for study. For many years Marlborough Iwi (tribe), Rangitane, sought to have the remains repatriated so they could be reburied in the site and an agreement was reached with Canterbury Museum.

    The reburial took place in April 2009, following earlier archaeological investigations of the site undertaken in collaboration with Rangitane.

    A University of Otago-led multidisciplinary team of scientists have been analysing tooth samples recovered from the koiwi tangata (human remains) of the Rangitane iwi tupuna (ancestors) prior to their reburial. This work includes studies of the diet and health of the tupuna.

    A 2009 article about aspects of the archaeological and biological anthropology research can be read here:

    Of the 19 burials screened for DNA preservation, four provided sufficient sequence data for inclusion in the current study. These included the remains of two young to middle-aged females, a young adult male and a young adult female.

    The researchers will now proceed with discussions with Rangitane about further genetic studies based on the samples already processed.

    EurekAlert. 2012. “Complete mitochondrial genome sequences of ancient New Zealanders”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 22, 2012. Available online:

    Saturday, November 10, 2012

    The voices in older literature speak differently today

    When we read a text, we hear a voice talking to us. Yet the voice changes over time. In his new book titled Poesins röster, Mats Malm, professor in comparative literature at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, shows that when reading older literature, we may hear completely different voices than contemporary readers did – or not hear any voices at all.

    'When we read a novel written today, we hear a voice that speaks pretty much the same language we speak, and that addresses people and things in a way we are used to. But much happens as a text ages – a certain type of alienation emerges. The reader may still hear a voice, but will not understand it fully and therefore risks missing important aspects,' says Mats Malm.

    In his book, Mats Malm has chosen to focus on a number of examples from different time periods and language areas, and addresses a number of aspects of voices in poetry. In all studied cases, he shows how the voices of the texts have changed.

    He spends one whole chapter analysing Swedish poet Georg Stiernhielm's poem Hercules from the mid-1700s, which is well-known among modern readers for its enjoyable language. The language was enjoyable also in the 1600s, but what the modern reader misses is that the language used was associated with bodily pleasures and immoral conduct.

    'Back in the day, the language used in Hercules was also perceived as dangerous and even appalling. Stiernhielm and his contemporaries heard an entirely different voice than we do,' says Malm.

    Thus, the reason why we do not perceive the language in a poem like Hercules as problematic is that our notions of morality and language are different today than in the 1600s. But the voices of poetry can also change when a new edition is published.

    One example is Anna Maria Lenngren's poem Några ord til min k. Dotter, i fall jag hade någon, where it has been discussed whether or not the advice given in the text is expressed with irony. 'In several modern editions, the poem is clearly written with irony – it's almost sarcastic. But if we study the original text from 1798, a completely different voice emerges, despite the fact that the wording is the same. The explanation is that, compared to the modern edition, the original text had few exclamation marks and typographically marked pauses but a large number of semicolons, giving the text a peaceful and rational touch where the irony is more ambiguous.

    In the book, Malm also addresses the fact that people often read texts aloud until the late 1700s, even when they were alone. So the recommendation to read older literature aloud in order to understand it better is given for good reason.

    'We who are more accustomed to silent reading are not as sensitive to the tone of voice as people were in the past. We simply cannot hear the voice very well. But the voice of a text is always important, just think of all the smileys we have started using to add clarity to texts,' says Malm.

    Mats Malm is also the author of the book The Soul Of Poetry Redefined.

    EurekAlert. 2012. “The voices in older literature speak differently today”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 15, 2012. Available online:

    Friday, November 9, 2012

    The tomboy in manga for teens: Kaleidoscopic bodily styles

    Ylva Sommerland, from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, has studied the tomboy in manga, a girl manoeuvring in masculine situations. The study concerns sports manga and fantasy manga for teens – genres that offer plenty of tomboy stories.

    The study focuses on a tomboy found in Mitsuru Adachi's sports manga Cross Game. Sports manga is immensely popular in Japan, and Mitsuru Adachi is one of the most well-known artists in this genre. He has been active since the 1970s.

    "My analyses for example show that his character Aoba uses her entire female body when playing baseball, which contradicts the stereotype of "throwing like a girl". Depicting a girl as stronger than all the boys in a male-dominated sport such as baseball is also in a way humorous," says Ylva Sommerland.

    She also discusses the tomboy motif using examples from fantasy manga. Princess Utena in Revolutionary Girl Utena decides to become a prince, and therefore represents, as implied by the title, a revolt against conventions.

    "Here the tomboy is depicted as a girl who takes on the role of a prince and thereby mocks the conventional masculinities and femininities linked to the prince and princess motif."

    Sommerland's results also show that there are variations on the tomboy theme. She describes one as an inverted superhero. The main character Sena in Eyeshield 21, a sports manga with an American football theme, flees from a couple of boys who are both larger and stronger than him. When they see that he can run extremely fast, he is recruited to their school's football team against his will.

    "Instead of attacking his tormentors like the stereotypical male superhero would, he runs away from them. But he's nevertheless the hero of the story since he becomes a football star against all odds."

    The thesis also includes an introduction to the history of manga, which reveals that it has developed through the interaction of different cultures both in Japan and abroad.

    "I hope that my thesis will lead to a more nuanced view of what manga is and that it will spark an interest in more studies on the topic. It would for example be interesting to find out who the readers of manga are," says Ylva Sommerland.

    EurekAlert. 2012. “The tomboy in manga for teens: Kaleidoscopic bodily styles”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 15, 2012. Available online:

    Thursday, November 8, 2012

    The worst noises in the world: Why we recoil at unpleasant sounds

    In a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience and funded by the Wellcome Trust, Newcastle University scientists reveal the interaction between the region of the brain that processes sound, the auditory cortex, and the amygdala, which is active in the processing of negative emotions when we hear unpleasant sounds.

    Brain imaging has shown that when we hear an unpleasant noise the amygdala modulates the response of the auditory cortex heightening activity and provoking our negative reaction.

    "It appears there is something very primitive kicking in," says Dr Sukhbinder Kumar, the paper's author from Newcastle University. "It's a possible distress signal from the amygdala to the auditory cortex."

    Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL and Newcastle University used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to examine how the brains of 13 volunteers responded to a range of sounds. Listening to the noises inside the scanner they rated them from the most unpleasant - the sound of knife on a bottle – to pleasing - bubbling water. Researchers were then able to study the brain response to each type of sound.

    Researchers found that the activity of the amygdala and the auditory cortex varied in direct relation to the ratings of perceived unpleasantness given by the subjects. The emotional part of the brain, the amygdala, in effect takes charge and modulates the activity of the auditory part of the brain so that our perception of a highly unpleasant sound, such as a knife on a bottle, is heightened as compared to a soothing sound, such as bubbling water.

    Analysis of the acoustic features of the sounds found that anything in the frequency range of around 2,000 to 5,000 Hz was found to be unpleasant. Dr Kumar explains: "This is the frequency range where our ears are most sensitive. Although there's still much debate as to why our ears are most sensitive in this range, it does include sounds of screams which we find intrinsically unpleasant."

    Scientifically, a better understanding of the brain's reaction to noise could help our understanding of medical conditions where people have a decreased sound tolerance such as hyperacusis, misophonia (literally a "hatred of sound") and autism when there is sensitivity to noise.

    Professor Tim Griffiths from Newcastle University, who led the study, says: "This work sheds new light on the interaction of the amygdala and the auditory cortex. This might be a new inroad into emotional disorders and disorders like tinnitus and migraine in which there seems to be heightened perception of the unpleasant aspects of sounds."


    Rating 74 sounds, people found the most unpleasant noises to be:

  • 1. Knife on a bottle
  • 2. Fork on a glass
  • 3. Chalk on a blackboard
  • 4. Ruler on a bottle
  • 5. Nails on a blackboard
  • 6. Female scream
  • 7. Anglegrinder
  • 8. Brakes on a cycle squealing
  • 9. Baby crying
  • 10. Electric drill


  • 1. Applause
  • 2. Baby laughing
  • 3. Thunder
  • 4. Water flowing

    EurekAlert. 2012. “The worst noises in the world: Why we recoil at unpleasant sounds". EurekAlert. Posted: October 12, 2012. Available online:

  • Wednesday, November 7, 2012

    tudy challenges assumptions on wartime sexual violence

    A new study by the Simon Fraser University-based Human Security Report Project (HSRP), released today at the United Nations headquarters in New York, finds that there is no compelling evidence to support a host of widely held beliefs regarding wartime sexual violence.

    The study, presented by HSRP director Andrew Mack, disputes the common assumption that conflict-related sexual violence is on the rise, and argues that the experience of a small number of countries afflicted by extreme levels of sexual violence is not the norm for all war-affected countries. Key findings include:

    In more than half of the years in which countries around the world experienced conflict between 2000-2009, levels of reported conflict-related sexual violence were low to negligible.

    There is no evidence to support frequent claims that rape as a "weapon of war" is widespread, nor that its incidence has been growing. Domestic sexual violence victimizes far more women in war-affected countries than does the conflict-related sexual violence that is perpetrated by combatants. Recent studies show that male victims and female perpetrators may be more numerous than generally believed. The study also finds that the mainstream view of the impact of war on children's education as highly damaging is incorrect, and that educational outcomes in war-affected countries improve over time despite fighting, even in regions most affected by war.

    EurekAlert. 2012. “Study challenges assumptions on wartime sexual violence”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 10, 2012. Available online:

    Tuesday, November 6, 2012

    Women react to and recollect negative news more than men do

    Women who read negative news remember it better than men do, and have stronger stress responses in subsequent stress tests, according to new research published Oct 10 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Sonia Lupien and colleagues from the University of Montreal, Canada.

    The researchers exposed groups of men and women to a succession of headlines drawn from recent newspaper articles. One group viewed only 'neutral' news, while the other group was shown news perceived as 'negative'. After reading the news, participants performed a standard psychological stress test. Researchers monitored participants' stress levels during the process by measuring salivary levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

    The authors found that, though reading negative news did not increase stress for any of their subjects, women exposed to negative news had higher cortisol levels after the psychological stress test exposure than did men who saw the same negative news, and also higher than either men or women who saw 'neutral' news. In addition, one day later the women were more likely than the men to remember and experience emotional responses to the negative news they had viewed the previous day, according to the results of this study.

    Though previous studies have assessed the role of continuous exposure to mass media as a stress factor, this is the first research that questions the effects of exposure to negative news coverage on stress reactivity and later recall of the news. The results of this study suggest that gender differences underlying the processes of stress and memory may play a role in how we react to negative news in the media.

    EurekAlert. 2012. “Women react to and recollect negative news more than men do”. EurekAlert. Posted: October 10, 2012. Available online:

    Monday, November 5, 2012

    When Leaving Your Wealth to Your Sister's Sons Makes Sense

    To whom a man's possessions go when he dies is both a matter of cultural norm and evolutionary advantage.

    In most human societies, men pass on their worldly goods to their wife's children. But in about 10 percent of societies, men inexplicably transfer their wealth to their sister's sons -- what's called "mother's brother-sister's son" inheritance. A new study on this unusual form of matrilineal inheritance by Santa Fe Institute reseacher Laura Fortunato has produced insights into this practice.

    Her findings appear October 17 in the online edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

    "Matrilineal inheritance is puzzling for anthropologists because it causes tension for a man caught between his sisters and wife," explains Fortunato, who has used game theory to study mother's brother-sister's son inheritance. "From an evolutionary perspective it's also puzzling because you expect an individual to invest in his closest relatives -- usually the individual's own children."

    For decades research on the practice of matrilineal inheritance focused on the probabilities of a man being the biological father of his wife's children -- probabilities that lie on a sliding scale depending on the rate of promiscuity or whether polyandrous marriage (when a woman takes two or more husbands) is practiced.

    Of special interest has been the probability value below which man is more closely related to his sister's children than to his wife's children. Below this "paternity threshold" a man is better off investing in his sister's offspring, who are sure to be blood relatives, than his own wife's children.

    In her work modeling the evolutionary payoffs of marriage and inheritance strategies, Fortunato looked beyond the paternity threshold to see, among other things, what payoffs there were for men and women in different marital situations -- including polygamy.

    "What emerges is quite interesting," says Fortunato. "Where inheritance is matrilineal, a man with multiple wives 'wins' over a man with a single wife." That's because wives have brothers, and those brothers will pass on their wealth to the husband's sons. So more wives means more brothers-in-laws to invest in your sons.

    The model also shows an effect for women with multiple husbands. The husband of a woman with multiple husbands is unsure of his paternity, so he may be better off investing in his sister's offspring.

    "A woman does not benefit from multiple husbands where inheritance is matrilineal, however," Fortunato explains, "because her husbands will invest in their sisters' kids." Family structure determines how societies handle relatedness and reproduction issues, Fortunato says. Understanding these practices and their evolutionary implications is a prerequisite for a theory of human behavior.

    Science Daily. 2012. “When Leaving Your Wealth to Your Sister's Sons Makes Sense”. Science Daily. Posted: October 16, 2012. Available online: