Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Jungle graveyard mystifies experts

Over a hundred "burial jars" and a dozen coffins arranged on a ledge in an remote Cambodian jungle have for centuries held the bones – and secrets – of mysterious people who lived alongside with the Angkor era.

Why the bones were placed in jars on a cliff some 100m high in the Cardamom Mountains, or indeed whose remains they are, has long puzzled experts.

For seven years Nancy Beavan, an archaeologist who specialises in carbon dating, has been looking for an answer, painstakingly piecing together clues left by the enigmatic people at 10 sites dotted across the area in southwestern Cambodia.

Tests show some of the bone fragments are six centuries old, according to the New Zealander.

"Why put these bones in jars? This was a practice that was not observed in any other part of Cambodia," she said.

Ten jars, dating from the 15th to the 17th centuries, and twelve coffins – the earliest from the 14th century – have been found at the Phnom Pel site.

Some are believed to have come from the kingdom of Siam, now Thailand. Others, a minority, date back to the powerful kingdom of Angkor, which ruled for six centuries and built the famous Angkor Wat temple complex further to the north.

But experts remain mystified as to why the bones were preserved in a Buddhist country where cremation is – and was – a key religious custom.

Tep Sokha, an expert in Cambodian ceramics, said the jars are of the "highest ceramic quality" and the number indicates that "this was a sacred and widely practiced ritual."

If villagers living near the cliff were aware of the jars, they have stayed away, allowing foreigners to study the relics at their leisure. And the whole study has been left to Beavan's team.

They are picking through the evidence, often left to guess the origins of the artifacts they find including 12 coffins lined up on a rock that are so small they could not even hold a child's body but which contain the bones of men and women.

"These coffins are unique. There is no other example in the history of Cambodia. They are relics that have never been disturbed," Beavan adds.


Among her theories is that the bones belonged to Khmer tribesmen who lived deep in the mountains far from the influence of the Angkor kingdom, which spanned Southeast Asia from the ninth to 15th centuries, but perhaps failed to reach this corner.

"They have nothing to do with the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Angkor but lived in his shadow," she said. "Who knows, maybe they were also slaves fleeing the Angkor kingdom."

The search for answers took a leap forward in 2005 when fisherman off Koh Kong province found the same Siamese jars in their nets, prompting the discovery of a 15th century wreck containing ivory, Chinese porcelain and Siamese and Angkorian jars.

The discovery provided the first scientific evidence of how Siamese jars could have been brought to the Cardamoms. Beavan believes the ship came from the Siamese empire to trade jars for ivory and precious wood.

Despite the importance of the find, conservation remains a problem.

In Koh Kong, hundreds of objects salvaged from the wreck have been left in a back room of the Provincial Court since 2007, despite Cambodia being one of the few Asian countries to have signed up the UN Convention on the preservation of underwater cultural heritage.

But the discovery has led local authorities to consider establishing a museum for the artifacts which would preserve a long-neglected part of the nation's heritage.

They hope it could become a valuable tourist attraction and spur proposals to protect the region.

In 2012, the province recorded 100 000 local and foreign tourists, drawn to the beauty of the Cardamom Mountains, home to stunning waterfalls and one of the region's most biodiverse forests.

For all its natural bounty, the Cardamom region has seen some species gradually disappear as its precious wood forests fall prey to loggers and hunters plundering its rare species.

For two years, Unesco has been building a case to list the mountain range as a key "biosphere reserve". The ship wreck, the sacred jars and the coffins add a cultural dimension that could boost the case for listing the area.

"To do nothing would be a crime," according to Anne Lemaistre, the director of Unesco in Cambodia.

Time may be running out with many industrial projects, some Chinese-linked, tearing through the heart of the forest and compounding the damage to the ecosystem caused by hunters and loggers.

"The scale of development in the Cardamom scares us a little," added Lemaistre.

News 24. 2013. “Jungle graveyard mystifies experts”. News 24. Posted: July 2, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

First Ottoman mint to be renovated

Bursa Metropolitan Municipality has started work to restore the royal mint where the first coin of the Ottoman Empire was printed in the 1300s during the reign of Orhan Gazi.

“We are very happy to present another historical trace that was the first of the Ottomans in Bursa,” said Mayor Recep Altepe following a visit to the historical mint before the beginning of the restoration work.

“Bursa is very special in term of having the first marketplace, Turkish bath, hospital, public house and dervish lodge in the Ottoman era. This mint is another example of historical heritage found in Bursa in which the first money of the Ottomans was minted,” the mayor said.

The mint had been allowed to fall into ruin due to neglect over the years, necessitating the restoration process.

A culture center

“The nationalization of the building has been completed and, after a great effort, the royal mint building on Maksem Street is now in the possession of the municipality,” he said.

“The building has a great importance in terms of the identity of the town,” he said, adding the time had now come to launch the renovation work. “We aim to complete the renovation by October and make the building as it was in its original.”

The building is slated to become a center for the hosting of social and cultural activities, although there will be a section displaying money that has been minted since the Ottoman era.

Aziz Elbas, the Bursa Metropolitan Municipality historical and cultural heritage projects coordinator, also visited the site along with Altepe.

Hurriyet Daily News. 2013. “First Ottoman mint to be renovated”. Hurriyet Daily News. Posted: July 3, 2013. Available online:

Monday, July 29, 2013

SIUE Archaeological Dig Provides Insight Into Ancient Cultures

On the west side of the SIUE campus, history is literally unearthed every summer. Anthropology students uncover Hopewell pottery, figurines, axes, arrowheads and more that were left behind by Native Americans as long ago as 10,000 years.

In a 35-acre farm field on the west side of the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville campus, history is literally unearthed every summer. Amidst the growing corn, anthropology students dig well-defined, carefully smoothed holes in the ground. In these holes, students and faculty have found axes, arrowheads, Hopewell pottery, figurines and more that were left behind by Native Americans as long ago as 10,000 years.

Since 2009, SIUE anthropology professors have worked alongside students during these digs. This opportunity is part of the field school program, which offers anthropology students the chance to gain hands-on experiences in their areas of study. Because of the importance of their discoveries, the field was taken out of agricultural production and dedicated solely to archeological digs.

Each summer, 10 students interested in archaeology get the opportunity to excavate the soil in search of Native American artifacts and structure locations. Students spend their time delving into the earth under their professor’s direction and supervision, sifting soil through screens, mapping the dug areas and washing artifacts in the lab. Each finding has led them and anthropology faculty to learn more about the culture of people who once inhabited what is now the Metro East.

Anthropology professor Dr. Julie Holt led the five-week summer 2013 archaeological dig. “Since we began digging in this area in 2009, we have found more than 30,000 artifacts,” said Holt. “We have found items that are common to the period and location, as well as more rare pieces, like mica and a ‘Casper the Ghost’ style figurine.”

The dig findings are mostly from the Woodland and Mississippian periods. The Woodland period lasted from 1000 BCE to 1000 CE and involved hunter-gatherer and agricultural Native Americans. Mississippian culture thrived from 1000 CE to 1400 CE and is centered on mound-building Native Americans, like the Cahokians. Artifacts from earlier periods have also been found – perhaps as much as 10,000 years old.

During the 2013 archaeological gig, anthropology senior and Edwardsville native, Courtney Reiter, found the figurine and mica. Mica is a shiny mineral that Holt believes could have been used for ceremonial objects, and the figurine is a small ceramic doll. Reiter participated in the archaeological dig as part of her undergraduate requirement but also because she plans to be an archaeologist.

“Finding the figurine was really exciting,” Reiter said. “Going on this dig has made me even more enthusiastic about pursuing my career.”

What makes both the mica and the figurine especially unique is that they are not common for the southwestern Illinois area. Holt says the figurine is 2,000 years old and that only one other “Casper” style figurine has been found in the American Bottom. Mica is also not locally found. Holt believes the mineral was brought to the site from the Carolinas.

“These finds tell us that the people who lived here may have migrated,” said Holt. “They may have come for a winter hunting trip. However, if they had mica and other ‘fancy’ pottery or ceremonial objects, they may have stayed here longer.”

McIlhagga, Doug. 2013. “SIUE Archaeological Dig Provides Insight Into Ancient Cultures”. PRWeb. Posted: July 4, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, July 28, 2013

First Person: Save a Language, Save a Culture

Grassroots initiative seeks to revive threatened languages of Bangladesh.

Of the world's 6,000-plus languages, half are expected to be extinct by the end of the century.

I knew nothing about this linguistic catastrophe until four years ago, when more or less by accident I began carving the alphabets of endangered languages.

I'd spent my life as a nonfiction writer, with no pretensions to be a visual artist, when one Christmas I decided to make gifts for my family by carving their names in boards of Vermont maple, with the bark still on and a beautiful ripple in the grain.

These came out surprisingly well, and in casting around for something else to carve, I stumbled on, an online encyclopedia of the world's hundred or more writing systems.

Their range and variety were amazing. Some were alphabets with symbols to represent all the vowels and consonants. Some were syllabaries, in which each symbol represented a syllable, and some were abjads, consisting mostly or entirely of consonants.

Some were astonishingly graceful and fluid (the Balinese script looks like a flock of birds), while others were minimal, ornate, or downright exotic: The Dongba script used by the Naxi people in China includes baffling pictograms that look like folding chairs and jellyfish.

My most striking and disturbing discovery, though, was that fully a third are in danger of extinction.

I decided to carve some of the scripts to draw attention to the problem of language loss and cultural erosion. The carvings have since been exhibited in schools, libraries, and universities across the United States and Europe.

Working with a set of gouges and a paintbrush, I created several dozen pieces depicting words, phrases, sentences, or poems in vanishing alphabets from all over the world, including three scripts of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh: the Mro, Marma, and Chakma.

At the time I had no idea I would meet a member of the Marma people, a remarkable man named Maung Nyeu, and that we would collaborate on a preservation project that may become a model of how to reverse linguistic decline and the cultural collapse that goes with it.

Why Do Scripts Matter?

"Scripts are a hugely important aspect of culture," write Martin Raymond and Lorna Evans of ScriptSource, the world's leading authority.

Writing is intimately associated with cultural identity. Each writing system tells the tale of its culture's history, its evolving technology, even its deeply embedded values.

In sub-Saharan Africa alone, more than a dozen scripts have been formulated for indigenous languages since 1900.

"The N'Ko script," Raymond and Evans note, "was originally created in 1949 for Bambara, one of the Manding languages of Mali, which, at that time, was written using the Latin script.

"N'Ko script was adopted by other Manding language groups because, unlike Latin, it was seen as a script of their culture. N'Ko has become one of the most widely used indigenous African scripts, and it has strengthened the Manding cultural identity."

If scripts are vital to a society, why do they die?

For the same reason languages die. One culture is dominated by another (economically, militarily, politically, and/or technologically), sometimes with extreme consequences: Shong Lue Yang was assassinated by Laotian troops for creating a script for the Hmong.

Suppression of indigenous peoples is happening right now in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.

Bangladesh's Imperiled Cultures

I must confess that when I started my project, my interest in carving and exhibiting scripts was a little theoretical—after all, I couldn't actually read or write what I was carving, and I had never seen language or script endangerment up close.

All that changed in June 2012, when I first met Maung Nyeu, in Boston.

He had stumbled on my website and seen, to his amazement, that someone not only knew about the threatened languages of the Hill Tracts but had actually carved them.

The Hill Tracts, a forested upland area in southeastern Bangladesh, are home to more than a dozen indigenous peoples who are distinct from the majority Bengali population in language, culture, and religion.

Over the past two decades, the region has become increasingly militarized, and traditional farmlands have been given to Bengali settlers.

According to Amnesty International, the Bangladeshi government's failure to address legal rights to traditional lands in the eastern Chittagong Hill Tracts has left tens of thousands landless.

Local people are trapped in a cycle of violent clashes with Bengali settlers.

Villages and temples have been burned, and indigenous women and girls have been abducted to be sold into the sex trade. Massacres have been documented.

Lack of education and language collapse are pernicious threats: More than half of the indigenous people of the Hill Tracts have no formal schooling.

For those who start school, fewer than 8 percent complete primary education, and only 2 percent secondary.

This isn't surprising, because instruction is in Bangla, which most Hill Tracts children don't understand.

Adding injury to insult, indigenous children are often abused by teachers and students from the country's largest ethnic group, Bengalis. Maung himself suffered mistreatment.

In a single generation, Maung said, he has seen his people go from living as self-sufficient farmers on ancestral lands to being vagrant day laborers scattered across Bangladesh and into India and Myanmar.

Language Nurturer

Remarkably, Maung flouted the norm, earning a degree in engineering at the University of Hawaii, then an MBA from the University of Southern California.

He returned to the Hill Tracts to build the Padamu Residential Education Center, a school on the grounds of a Buddhist temple, so the children of the Hill Tracts could be educated in their own languages.

Classes began in 2008. Change was immediately apparent: Children who had seemed destined to be domestics or day laborers announced their intention to be doctors and teachers.

But most of the students could no longer speak their own ethnic language.

So Maung came back to the U.S., to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to learn how to create a culturally relevant curriculum that would revive the dying languages of the Hill Tracts.

At the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he sought out the advice of the philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky.

"He was very kind and very attentive," Maung said. "His recommendation was that it is possible to preserve a language, but it needs to start with the children, preferably as part of their curriculum."

For Maung, a culturally relevant curriculum must be taught in the language the child speaks at home—the language the child is already learning and is using to find out about the world.

Also, the material being taught must be familiar. Maung remembered that at school he had to learn by heart William Wordsworth's poem "Daffodils."

"I had never seen a daffodil!" he laughed. "I had no idea what it looked like. We have all sorts of plants and flowers, but I never saw a daffodil until I came to the United States!"

Maung has collected more than 40 stories passed down in the villages of the Hill Tracts. The stories involve mountains and trees and animals the children already know—tales they may have heard from their parents and grandparents.

He is beginning the process of having them translated into Mro, Marma, and Chakma, writing them out, getting them illustrated in a visual idiom familiar to the children, and getting them published.

He faces an additional challenge. Most people in these groups still speak their traditional languages, but very few can now read and write their unique scripts.

That's where I came in.

In June 2012 Maung and I set up a partnership to create and publish his schoolbooks and, we hope, to help save the languages that sustain the cultures of the Hill Tracts.

I recruited a calligrapher at Louisiana State University to take the handwritten forms of the scripts and turn them into works of art.

I enlisted a typographer from Anglia University in England to make Mro, Marma, and Chakma fonts so that the books can be digitally printed.

I hand-carved texts in each of the three languages.

A friend, using a laser, experimented with burning the scripts into mahogany boards. Some are now on display in community centers in the Hill Tracts.

One of Maung's fellow Harvard students created illustrations for the first book.

This fall, students of mine from Champlain College, in Burlington, Vermont, will help write, edit, design, and illustrate the next books bound for Padamu.

Signs of Revival

Reversing the decline of a language is a Herculean task, and there are no guarantees that Maung will succeed.

But there are signs that the tide of globalism that has been eroding indigenous cultures and their languages may be turning.

Some of the same multinational corporations that are creating a global online culture recognize that they can play a positive part.

Apple and Google in particular have shown an interest in endangered languages. One example: Macs, iPhones, Google, and Gmail now recognize the Cherokee syllabary.

And in the Philippines, where the pre-Spanish script called Baybayin was widely believed to be extinct, the government has now adopted Baybayin symbols on its banknotes as an anti-counterfeiting device.

So there is hope—but there is also urgency.

"In medicine," Maung explained, "there is a window of time—maybe a few minutes to two hours, called the golden hour—where if the person can get to the ER, the chance of survival increases. For our children, their golden hour is between the ages of four or five and twelve. If we don't get them in school during this time, we won't get them at all."

Brookes, Tim. 2013. “First Person: Save a Language, Save a Culture”. National Geographic News. Posted: June 28, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, July 27, 2013

How a bowl of porridge transformed mankind

When determining the greatest invention in human history, one would usually consider the wheel, the Internet or even sliced bread.

But one academic, an expert in the study of DNA, has found it was something far simpler - a humble bowl of porridge.

Alistair Moffat, who has studied the development of early humans through his research into DNA markers, has argued the move of hunter-gatherer societies into farming was pivotal to the building of nations.

Speaking at the Chalke Valley History Festival, he said the "greatest revolution in our history" came from the development of farming, which in turn brought porridge.

Before porridge, he claimed, women were compelled to breast feed their children until the age of four or five years, because fragile milk teeth could not cope with the meat and vegetation enjoyed by hunter-gatherers.

The action of breast feeding, a natural contraceptive, as well as the necessity of carrying babies around as they moved, meant women often had long intervals between giving birth.

Mr Moffat, whose next book is entitled "The British: A Genetic Journey", claimed feeding children porridge left women free to have more children, who then went on to populate the Earth.

Speaking at the Chalke Valley Festival this week, he told an audience: "This is true.

"The greatest revolution of our history wasn't the invention of the iPad, it wasn't the invention of the steam engine, it wasn't all the things you might might lay your mind to.

"The great invention, the greatest revolution in our history was the invention of farming. Farming changed the world because of the invention of porridge."

Mr Moffat, whose company Britain's DNA recently found Prince William had Indian ancestry, added: "Hunter-gatherer bands were mobile, they had to be because they ended to move between ranges.

"And they could not carry infants - more than one infant - around with them at a time. Imagine North American Indians with a papoose.

"It couldn't be the case that hunter-gatherer bands had lots of children at the one time.

"They ensured that this could not be the case in one particular manner; nursing. Breast-feeding makes it very difficult for a woman to conceive.

"In hunter-gatherer societies, infants were breast fed for much much longer until the age or four or five years old. The reason for that is that mother's milk was their sole source of class one protein, because of the softness of their teeth.

"Their teeth simply could not cope with the roots, fruits and berries and so on that we're the staple of the hunter-gatherer diet.

"When farming was invented and cereals were grown, charred, ripened and mashed into a pulp - porridge - it could be spooned into the mouths of infants and was extremely nourishing. And it allowed women to stop breast feeding after one or two years and so the birth interval halved and the population rocketed.

"Farming also involved not mobility but stability; the ability to nurture land and make it production, to look after your domesticated animals and so on. And as populations expanded they had to move. All of these surplus children had to move.

"And you watch a particular chromosome marker rippling across Europe at this time."

Furness, Hannah. 2013. “How a bowl of porridge transformed mankind”. The Telegraph. Posted: June 28, 2013. Available online:

Friday, July 26, 2013

The 3D model of Mary, Queen of Scots is the face of a historical divide

Portraits from the past reveal that medicine plus the consumer society remade human beings in the 1960s

Their faces look back at us out of portraits, marble busts and old photographs. The people of the past are as human as we are, maybe more so, and yet their noses are longer, their faces thinner, the skin more sallow or dry or scarred. This is not just a product of different artistic styles, but a glimpse of a great divide in history.

A newly released 3D modelling of the face of Mary, Queen of Scots reveals how strange 16th-century portraits look if we see them as real faces: Mary, as in her paintings, has bags under her eyes and less-than-dewy skin. Her portrait is part of a recent vogue for revisiting portraiture in digital exercises of wildly varying scientific value, from medical reconstructions of faces to people who are descended from Napoleon and Cromwell being inserted into ancestral portraits to dressing classical statues in hipster outfits.

When the body of Richard III was discovered by archaeologists in a Leicester car park, one of the studies conducted on it was a facial reconstruction of the 15th-century king based on his skull. His living descendant Michael Ibsen posed beside the model: the picture was a snapshot of two worlds. The gaunt and severe face of Richard III contrasts with the plump and well-kept features of a 21st-century middle-aged man. It's as if we are more relaxed in our skins, yet also less striking and characterful, than our ancestors.

There was another remarkable thing about Richard III's scientifically modelled face: it looks just like his Renaissance portraits. Far from being invented by Tudor portraitists, the image of Richard III that has come down through history – long nose, hard features – is historically accurate. It is conventional to think of portraits before the age of photography as unreliable images, either idealising or occasionally demonising their subjects. But accuracy was highly prized.

It's not only Richard III's portraits that appear to be grimly truthful. When King Henry VII, who won the crown from the slaughtered Richard at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, came to the end of his own reign he had his portrait taken by the Italian artist Pietro Torrigiano: I say "taken" because Torrigiano's terracotta bust is an accurate replica of Henry's appearance, made by moulding a death mask on the real face. In fact, it looks very akin to a modern facial reconstruction.

Faces from the past are often depicted with this kind of scrupulous accuracy in portraits, either from death masks or by acute observation, and the results are unsettling. People look less healthy, less primped, less beautified than westerners tend to appear today. Hans Holbein's portrait A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling shows a 16th-century English woman with bad skin, fat under her chin and traces of blackheads on her nose. A bust of Michelangelo reveals the battered face of old age. Rembrandt's wife Saskia looks ill – and would die young.

In general, faces look less fleshed out and smaller, and more wizened. This is not just a quality of Renaissance and Baroque art but very visible in early photographs. The camera came along in time to capture the strange, dark-eyed face of Abraham Lincoln: are there any faces today like his? The brilliance of Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as the venerated president – and that of his make-up artists – was to recreate this totally archaic-looking human being.

Does anyone today look like George Orwell? Orwell was ill, and the dividing line between the present and the past that faces reveal is a gulf defined by modern medicine, health systems and an abundance of food. It is a gulf that Europeans crossed in the 60s, although North Americans got there a bit sooner. Christine Keeler in 1963 still looks modern. Mick Jagger at Glastonbury in 2013 can still live on how he looked half a century ago. Faces from the past reveal that medicine plus the consumer society remade human beings in the 60s – and are still remaking us.

Jones, Jonathan. 2013. “The 3D model of Mary, Queen of Scots is the face of a historical divide”. The Guardian. Posted: June 28, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Ancient African Coins Spark International Treasure Hunt

Can a handful of ancient African coins, discovered almost 70 years ago by a lone soldier on a remote island, rewrite history?

A weathered, hand-drawn map, with an "X" marking the spot on the Australian island where the African coins were discovered, might help an international team of researchers, who will travel to the island this summer, answer that question.

The story begins over a thousand years ago, when the city of Kilwa was the richest trading center on the eastern coast of Africa.

A bustling harbor, a glittering mosque decorated with Chinese porcelain and the Husuni Kubwa palace (famed for its octagonal swimming pool) made Kilwa a premier destination for wealthy merchants, who traded African gold and ivorty for spices and perfume from the Far East.

A dazzling era ends

But the city's eminence ended when Portuguese traders, intent on controlling commerce throughout the Indian Ocean, sacked the port in the 16th century.

"The Portuguese destroyed Kilwa in the 1500s, burnt it to the ground and looted everything," Ian McIntosh, a professor of anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), told Australian broadcaster ABC.

The deserted, crumbling ruins of Kilwa — now a UNESCO World Heritage site located near Zanzibar in modern-day Tanzania — are all that remains of the city's former splendor.

A handful of coins

Centuries later and thousands of miles away, an Australian soldier named Maurie Isenberg was operating a World War II radar station on one of the uninhabited Wessel Islands off Australia's northern shore, CNN reports.

One day, during his off-hours, Isenberg went fishing down at the remote island's beach, where he discovered a few old, copper coins with exotic markings embedded in the sand. Isenberg tossed the coins in a tin container, where they stayed for decades.

But before he forgot about his discovery, on a map of the island hand-drawn by a fellow soldier, Isenberg drew an "X" showing where he found the coins.

In 1979, Isenberg sent the coins off for appraisal. He was astonished to discover their origin: Four of the coins were from the Dutch East India Company — a trading company founded by the Dutch in the early 17th century — and one of those coins dated from the late 1600s, according to CNN.

But five of the coins were minted in Kilwa and are believed to be about 1,100 to 1,200 years old (from about A.D. 900), ABC reports.

"It's a very fascinating discovery," McIntosh told CNN. "Kilwa coins have only ever been found outside of the Kilwa region on two occasions.

"A single coin was found in … Zimbabwe, and one coin was found in the Arabian Peninsula, in what is now Oman, but nowhere else," McIntosh said. "And yet, here is this handful of them in northern Australia — this is the astonishing thing."

Will 5 coins rewrite history?

The Eurocentric view of history holds that Australia, populated by Aboriginal settlers for some 60,000 years, was "discovered" by European explorers in 1606.

But since the discovery of the ancient coins, which came to the attention of McIntosh before Isenberg died in 1991, that history may need to be rewritten. McIntosh also has the old map showing where the coins were discovered.

This July, McIntosh will carry that map back to the Wessel Islands, where he's leading an international team of researchers intent on solving the mystery of how the coins found their way to a remote beach in Australia.

"We have five separate hypotheses we're looking to test about how these coins got there — each one quite different from the other," McIntosh told CNN.

Some speculate that the Portuguese sailed along Australia's northern shores much earlier than was previously known. Another hypothesis suggests that African sailors from Kilwa were hired by merchants from the Far East to navigate the seas of China.

"Once you shift from the Eurocentric focus — and this is how it could change Australian history — you start seeing north Australia as part of this ancient trading network which links southern Africa, Arabian Persia, India, the Spice Islands and China," McIntosh told ABC.

A cave of treasures

Adding to the adventure's appeal is an Aboriginal legend that mentions a hidden cave, located near where the coins were found, that holds a treasure of doubloons and weaponry from an ancient era, according to a news release from IUPUI.

Despite their rich history, the old copper coins — now in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney — have limited financial value.

"If you bought these coins in a shop in Kilwa, you could probably get them for a few dollars," McIntosh told CNN. "But in northern Australia, these are priceless in terms of their historical value."

Lallanilla, Marc. 2013. “Ancient African Coins Spark International Treasure Hunt”. Live Science. Posted: June 26, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Can home-culture images impair second-language skills?

Researchers at Columbia Business School say that reminders of your heritage culture can trigger troubles in your second language

A newly transferred associate from the Shanghai office nails his presentation to Mr. Smith from Chicago but stumbles in his pitch to Mr. Chen from San Francisco. A visiting professor from Taiwan lectures fluently about a slide of a Grecian urn, but falters and struggles to recall the word "translucent" when discussing a Ming vase. What is it about seeing a Chinese face or even a Chinese vase that can disrupt a Chinese immigrant's fluency in English?

Research on how cultural knowledge operates in the mind increasingly focuses on the dynamics through which our cultural frames are evoked by particular situations. One dynamic is "frame-switching"— the shifts in judgment that bicultural individuals make as they move between settings governed by different cultural norms. A new immigrant may speak Chinese at home, for example, but will speak English and adopt Western mannerisms when in school.

As new research from Columbia Business School Professor Michael Morris and Postdoctoral Research Scholar Shu Zhang shows, the automaticity of frame-switching means that it sometimes interferes with — rather than helps — our performance. Specifically, it can disrupt performance in a second language.

A team of researchers under Morris's lead ran a series of experiments in the Columbia Business School Behavioral Research Laboratory to explore this disruption in more detail. In the first experiment, which simulated a conference call, they found that Chinese immigrants speak English less fluently when speaking to a Chinese versus a Caucasian face. The second found the same effect from exposure to images of Chinese culture such as a Buddha statue or the Great Wall, versus of American culture, such as the Statue of Liberty or Mount Rushmore.

To test that primes cause Chinese-language concepts to interfere with English-language processing, several experiments used naming tasks. Chinese immigrants exposed to visual icons of Chinese culture became more likely to name pictured objects with literal translations from Chinese (e.g. labeling pistachios as "happy nuts" or a bulldozer as an "earth moving machine"). Another experiment found that Chinese cultural priming evoked resulted in faster recognition of these literal translations, indicating heightened cognitive accessibility.

The results were published this month in PNAS, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study builds on Morris's decade of research on the cognitive dynamics that enable people to operate effectively in multiple cultures. Cultural knowledge can be thought of as lenses for interpreting events and scripts for guiding actions. "Our cultural lenses and scripts activate automatically in response to cultural cues in the setting — sights, sounds, and even aromas that are highly associated with a given cultural tradition," he says. "But in culturally complex or mixed settings, this cultural chameleon-like response doesn't always serve us well."

In related projects, Morris has identified priming effects on social behaviors that differ between East Asian and Western cultures, such as modesty versus self-enhancement in taking credit for projects. Priming that induces East Asian immigrants to speak less fluently and behave less "Western" can hinder their promotion. Knowing how cultural cues in a setting affect people is important for firms seeking to develop their managerial talent.

EurekAlert. 2013. “Can home-culture images impair second-language skills?”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 26, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Circumcised women uncritical of the ritual

Women who have been subjected to genital cutting are too rarely critical of what they have undergone.

Two different strategies to prepare girls for circumcision have been observed. One gives the girls some preliminary information and the other shrouds the ritual in secrecy.

The two approaches affect the girls disparately, but neither strategy offers sufficient awareness or leads to critical reflection.

These approaches were analysed by researchers at the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies (NKVTS).

Eighteen women participated. Most had Somali or Gambian backgrounds. In lengthy interviews they were asked about their experiences with the circumcision ritual.

Jon-Håkon Schultz and Inger-Lise Lien, who conducted the study, recommend that programmes aiming at preventing such genital mutilation should provide education promoting critical reflection about the tradition.

Traditions and prejudices

Head of communications at NKVTS, Geir Borgen, says it’s a paradox that women who have undergone circumcision, and who have moved to a Western country and gained new insights, still want to circumcise their daughters.

A considerable mental leap is needed to change positions rooted in one’s own traditions.

“It’s hard to change a centuries-old tradition,” says Borgen.

“This tradition has deep roots in culture and is for some people an imperative. Quite a lot of prejudices are involved in the circumcision ritual ― that women become pregnant more easily when they are circumcised, and that the clitoris can grow huge if they have not been circumcised..”

Somali born Safia Abdi is a nurse who has participated in the Norwegian Government’s Action Plan for Combating Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

She says women maintain the tradition primarily to pass on their identity to the next generation.

“They don’t know why it’s done and many think this is the way things should be. Just like Norwegians don’t circumcise their children because it isn’t the tradition in Norway.”

“Norwegians used to have chastity belts but that ended as more knowledge was acquired,” says Abdi.

“There are really no arguments for female genital mutilation. No religion decrees that girls must be circumcised or subjected to forced marriage. Interpretations are involved. It hinges on ignorance.”

“Many do it with an eye to the future. They do it because they want to marry off their daughters and it’s in the best interests of their children,” says Abdi.

Social pressure

She thinks it’s not just a question of women changing their outlook regarding the tradition. Society as a whole must transform its position.

“When a woman is circumcised in order to be wed, society around her is making demands. The woman’s future husband wants control of what she has done prior to marriage, whether she is a ‘good girl’,” explains Abdi.

“The ritual can also be carried out at puberty to mark the onset of adulthood. In Norway the division between childhood and adulthood has been marked by confirmation. In other countries this is marked with a knife,” says Abdi.

High-level initiative

Female circumcision has been illegal in Norway since 1995 after the problem was discovered among immigrants.

According to the NKVTS, preventive measures here are primarily targeted at keeping mutilation from being performed, and secondarily at limiting the damage if it has occurred.

Measures such as information, work at changing attitudes and criminalization by law involve the public health services, schools, kindergartens, the child care services and the police. 

“Norway is one of the countries that fight violence against women on a very high level,” says Abdi.

“That said, we who work among the people experience a lack of continuity. Gaps in the efforts occur every time a new government is elected. New people are placed in key positions and often their approaches and way of thinking can differ.”

Abdi thinks, however, that preventive efforts are effective.

“Norway needs stronger countermeasures. But I would give kudos for the changes that have been made now. We need to be optimistic on behalf of new generations.”

Ringstad, Linda Karoline. 2013. “Circumcised women uncritical of the ritual”. Science Nordic. Posted: June 25, 2013. Available online:

Monday, July 22, 2013

Royal Rhynie focus of Pictish excavation

A team from the University of Aberdeen commenced digging at Rhynie, Aberdeenshire in Scotland – a site famous for its impressive collection of carved Pictish standing stones.

Knowledge of the Pictish kingdoms, which developed between the 5th and 11th centuries, is relatively poor with the standing stones some of the only relics remaining of the once powerful people.

Rhynie boasts eight such stones, including the Craw Stone, which is thought to have been the centre point of an elaborate fortified settlement of the 5th-6th centuries AD.

A very royal place

“Since 2011 Aberdeen and Chester universities have been uncovering dramatic evidence concerning the stones at Rhynie”, explained project leader Dr Gordon Noble of the University of Aberdeen. “Rhynie derives from ‘rhynnoid’, which means ‘a very royal place’, which is fitting considering what’s been uncovered there over the last few years.

“After just two small-scale seasons of evaluation, it is clear how important this site is. It includes exceptional material including the northernmost European examples of Mediterranean Late Roman Amphorae (large, usually ceramic vessels, for carrying wine and oil) imports, which lie far outside the normal distribution of Mediterranean wares in Britain and Ireland in the early medieval period. The imports are of a type only found on high status, normally royal, sites in western Britain and Ireland.

“Other finds from the site include the only confirmed early medieval metalworking tongs known from Scotland and moulds for making precious metal objects – metalworking was another indicator of power in early medieval Scotland. The imports along with the presence of evidence for fine metalworking, suggest that Rhynie is an extremely unusual site, and illustrate a picture of long-distance contacts and a sophisticated Pictish power centre.”

A community focus

The Pictish symbol stones remain something of a mystery as they have never been translated, with interpretations of their meanings many and varied.

The dig team will return to Rhynie on June 24 for two weeks to undertake further work on the archaeology of the village and the early medieval landscape. They will be focussing the excavation on two square enclosures on the outskirts of the village near where a number of symbol stones were found and could be associated with cist burials found in the village in the 19th century.

“This excavation will involve members of the public and students working alongside the University academics,” explained Dr Noble. “The community focus is of utmost importance this year and locals and visitors will be invited to attend a café event where they can see further information on the project and the artefacts. There will also be daily tours of the dig site, after school Pictish arts and crafts workshops, a souvenir exchange arts project and a public talk”.

Past Horizons. 2013. “Royal Rhynie focus of Pictish excavation”. Past Horizons. Posted: Available online:

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mysterious Mummy Statue Spins on Its Own

An ancient statue in a British museum has been caught on camera turning in its locked display case, and it’s unnerving many people. According to an article in the “Manchester Evening News,”

An ancient Egyptian statue has spooked museum bosses — after it mysteriously started to spin round in a display case. The 10-inch tall relic, which dates back to 1800 BC, was found in a mummy’s tomb and has been at the Manchester Museum for 80 years. But in recent weeks, curators have been left scratching their heads after they kept finding it facing the wrong way. Experts decided to monitor the room on time-lapse video and were astonished to see it clearly show the statuette spinning 180 degrees – with nobody going near it.

What’s going on? Because the piece is in a museum display about ancient Egypt, some have suggested a curse or ghost. It is certainly mysterious: If the video is to be believed — and there’s little reason to doubt it — then the statue is indeed moving independently inside a closed case, untouched by human hands.

A few clues about the nature of this mystery movement can be gleaned from the video and suggest another explanation. First, note that the video is a time-lapse covering about a week. Though at first glance it seems to turn both day and night, a closer look reveals that it almost always turns when people are present. Second, contrary to descriptions of the statue as “spinning,” it doesn’t actually spin at all but instead rotates once about 180 degrees, or a half-turn. This also means it’s turning very, very slowly.

A Scientific Explanation

The favored scientific explanation is simply that the statue is rotating in response to vibrations from museum visitors. Without closely examining the base of the statue it’s impossible to know exactly what’s going on, but the most likely explanation is that the base bulges out very slightly, creating a convex surface. It doesn’t need to be obvious, or even noticeable — just a millimeter or two of a protruding bump somewhere near the middle of the piece is enough. This is common in hand-crafted items such as those made of wood, stone, plaster and other materials not cut to perfect right angles on modern machinery.

Usually this bump on the bottom remains unnoticed or is ignored. But in some rare cases, if the object is placed on a smooth surface (glass in this case) with very little friction to hold it in place — and unless the glass case, and the floor underneath it, is perfectly level — the statue will turn. As with the bump on the bottom of the statue, the tilt does not need to be noticeable to be effective. The statue is housed in an ordinary glass museum case, not a laboratory platform scientifically calibrated to maintain perfect level and resist vibrations. This would also explain why the statue rotates on its axis, turning more or less in one spot instead of wandering around the display case like a lost child looking for its mummy.

The fact that the statue merely rotates half a turn is important because it conforms exactly to what we’d expect if it’s simply shifting its weight in response to vibrations. If this is the correct explanation — and it certainly seems far more likely than a ghost, a curse, or even a cursed ghost — then the phenomena will stop because the statue has found its lowest center of gravity. If the security camera catches the statue completing its turn back to its original position, then this explanation can be ruled out.

Though museum visitors are the most obvious source of vibrations, there are others, including those that occur after hours and at night including closing doors, traffic from a nearby road, and possibly even micro tremors which happen routinely around the world but which are so slight that seismometers are needed to detect them.

Some have questioned the vibration explanation, asking why the other statues in the same display case don’t rotate the same way. Perhaps their bases are either flat or concave, preventing the figures from rotating. But there’s another clue: Close observers may notice something else different about the one moving statue as compared to its three stationary cousins: It is much taller. This means that the cursed statue has a high center of gravity and thus is less stable than the others, if only slightly.

Let’s be honest: If the mysterious action truly is caused by a supernatural phenomenon, it’s pretty lame. In centuries past ancient curses used to be serious business, allegedly causing serious illnesses, accidents and even the sort of violent deaths you might see in a “Saw” or “Final Destination” movie. These days they can’t do more than rotate a statue a few centimeters each day.

Radford, Benjamin. 2013. “Mysterious Mummy Statue Spins on Its Own”. Discovery News. Posted: June 24, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The man who kept the Lakota language alive

Albert White Hat, a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe died recently, but his work helped the Lakota language remain in existence. Here are a few words …

The Native American teacher and author Albert White Hat died recently. He was a member of the Rosebud Sioux tribe who dedicated himself to preserving the endangered Lakota language, even helping with the translation for the Lakota conversation in Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves. Most of the few thousand remaining speakers are elderly and the fear is that Lakota may join the roll call of dead languages, which is increasing at the rate of one a fortnight. Yet it is a language with a rich, varied and fascinating vocabulary all of its own ...

Iwaktehda: to go home in triumph having taken scalps.
Akaspa: to be provoked beyond endurance.
Waśihdaka: one who gets angry at everything.
Wićawokha: a man who lives with his wife's relations (literally, a buried man).
Naptakhpaya: to lie on one's belly resting on one's arms.
Kaiyotan: to fall in attempting to sit down.
Khpa: to be wet or clogged, as a mosquito's wings with dew.
Akaska: to eat after one is full.
Wakhedan: the places from which squirrels dig up food.
Bohnaskinyan: to make an animal crazy or furious by shooting.
Hangyetuw: the moon (literally, the night sun – while anpetuwi is the day sun).
Kixansiksuya: to know by one's feelings that unpleasant weather is imminent.
Khmungha: to cause sickness or death in a supernatural way.

de Boinod, Adam Jacot. 2013. “The man who kept the Lakota language alive”. The Guardian. Posted: June 23, 2013. Available online:

Friday, July 19, 2013

Cultural Anthropology through Netflix

A couple years back, my wife and I dropped Dish Network for Netflix.  Dish had hundreds of channels, but we only really watched about six or seven of them, and it was expensive.  Netflix was (especially then) a bargain by comparison.  But along with the entertainment value of Netflix, there is a cultural anthropological value as well.  Netflix has many older television shows available, and some of these shows can be quite valuable for understanding American culture and values, especially if you exercise some care in evaluating them.

Obviously, you can't assume that every show from the 1950s and 1960s shows you the reality of American life.  At best, Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best were highly idealized views of white American suburban life.  But other shows are, within the limits of what network practices allowed, attempts at realism.  The revival of Dragnet (1967-1970) may seem campy or even incomprehensible when watched by Americans under 30 (or even under 40), but I grew up in the Los Angeles that Dragnet portrays, and I remember those years in considerable detail.  The way people dressed, the signs, the buildings, the gas station chains that no longer brings back bittersweet memories.

Dragnet may seem incredibly conservative by modern standards: many episodes clearly show disdain for drug abuse, the hippie counterculture, homosexuality, and divorce, and producer Jack Webb was quite open that his goal was to promote a positive view of police.  Yet these were largely mainstream liberal values at the time, as were the other values that Dragnet preached (sometimes a little clumsily): the importance of racial equality, freedom of speech.  While it is subtle, some Dragnet episodes also showed some discomfort with civilian gun ownership -- a mainstream liberal value to this day.

Other shows from this period are less realistic but still provide fascinating insights into American culture of the period.  The original Mission: Impossible series ran from 1966 to 1973, with nearly every episode opening with the chief of the Impossible Missions Force receiving his instructions on a vinyl record or magnetic tape that ends with the warning, "This recording will self-destruct." Mission: Impossible always had technology that was just a bit beyond what was actually possible then...but seems positively antique by modern standards.

Some of the plots will surprise you, because they seem like fairly modern concerns: slavery and blood diamonds, for example.  Like with Dragnet, there is a racial equality in Mission: Impossible that was more an aspirational goal than a statement of how America was back then: Greg Morris played electronics expert and general all-around technogeek, Barney Collier.  George Takei played a microbiologist who was part of the IMF team in the first season (at the same time that he was starring in Star Trek).

The show reflected what were mainstream liberal values in 1966: a belief that totalitarian societies were evil, that the U.S. was the leader of the free world, that democracy was the path towards progress for the entire world, that we sometimes had to engage in secret, deniable missions to achieve those goals.  By mid-run, these values were not mainstream liberalism in America, and you could see the change in the plot mix.  Increasingly, Mission: Impossible episodes involved organized crime and other domestic criminal enterprises, where the IMF had to be careful not to break too many laws, while manipulating the bad guys into killing each other.

To the credit of the writers, while our side was definitely wearing white hats, sometimes their opponents were wearing shades of gray: people who believed in what they were doing but were simply wrong or deceived.  One episode involves the son of two American nuclear physicists executed for spying for the Soviets in the 1950s.  The IMF must convince him that a Soviet nuclear attack on the United States has taken place to get him to reveal critical information -- and in the process, they expose that his parents really were guilty, and that a mutual friend caused them to be sacrificed for the propaganda value.

Even television series of the period that seem completely irrelevant to understanding the 1960s are surprisingly instructive.  If you want to see how attitudes about women changed during the 1960s, watch the 1964 pilot for Star Trek (starring Jeffrey Hunter as Captain Christopher Pike).  Then watch the portrayal of women in the episodes made from 1966 to 1968.  As much as you might find the uniforms worn by the women really ridiculous, it was a logical extension (or is that shortening?) of the trends in hemlines that were then in play.

More importantly, women played important roles on Captain Kirk's Enterprise.  The first season episode, "Tomorrow Is Yesterday," has the Enterprise thrown back to the 1960s by a close encounter with a black hole, leading to them beaming a U.S. Air Force pilot aboard -- and the pilot is utterly shocked that there are women serving on a warship.  When that episode was first broadcast in 1967, that would indeed have been shocking -- an idea too radical for anyone to take seriously in American society.  Not today, of course.

The last episode of the original Star Trek series is "Turnabout Intruder."  Captain Kirk meets up with an old girlfriend, Dr. Janice Lester, who uses an alien device to exchange bodies.  While Dr. Lester is mentally unbalanced, we find that her reason for this action is that she has long resented that, being a woman, she could never be considered to be a starship captain -- a role reserved for men, even in the enlightened 23rd century.  Today, this seems utterly unimaginable -- but it tells you a lot about what was considered enlightened, liberal thinking in 1969.

There is much to learn from watching 1960s television shows.  You may find much of it laughable today -- but you may also find yourself wondering if we lost quite a bit as well.

Cramer, Clayton E. 2013. “Cultural Anthropology through Netflix”. American Thinker. Posted: June 23, 2013. Available online:

Thursday, July 18, 2013

New signs of language surface in mystery Voynich text

A mysterious and beautiful 15th-century text that some researchers have recently deemed to be gibberish may not be a hoax after all. A new study suggests the text shares quantifiable features with genuine language, and so may contain a coded message.

That verdict emerges from a statistical technique that puts a figure on the information content of elements in a text or code, even if their meaning is unknown. The technique could also be used to determine whether there is meaning in genomes, possible messages from aliens or even the signals between neurons in the brain.

The Voynich manuscript has baffled and captivated researchers since book dealer Wilfred Voynich found it in an Italian monastery in 1912. It contains illustrations of naked nymphs, unidentifiable plants, astrological diagrams and pages and pages of text in an unidentified alphabet.

Although the patterns of word lengths and symbol combinations in the text are similar to those in real languages, several recent studies have suggested that the book was a clever 15th-century hoax designed to dupe Renaissance book collectors, and that the words have no meaning. One study showed that techniques known to 16th-century cryptographers would have allowed someone to create these patterns using a nonsense set of characters. Another study concluded that the statistical properties of the script are consistent with gibberish.

Word entropy

Now Marcelo Montemurro of the University of Manchester in the UK and colleagues have analysed the text using a technique that pulls out the most meaningful terms. "We decided that's ideal to use in this mysterious manuscript," Montemurro says. "People have been discussing and quarrelling for decades about whether it's a hoax. This would be a new approach."

Their results support the idea that Voynich text really does contain a secret message.

Rather than looking for patterns in the words themselves, Montemurro's method looks for more global patterns in the frequency and clustering of words that might indicate meaning. "The results that we get looking at these things cast a new light on the content of the volume," Montemurro says.

The method uses a formula to find the entropy of each term – a measure of how evenly distributed it is. For a given term, the researchers determined its entropy in both the original text and in a scrambled version. The difference between the two entropies, multiplied by the frequency of the word, gives a measure of how much information it carries.

The method recognises that words that are particularly important will appear more frequently, as well as making a distinction between low-information words like and, which you would expect to be sprinkled evenly throughout, and high-information ones like language, which might only appear in sections dealing with that topic.

Relatedness score

Back in 2009, the entropy approach homed in on meaningful words in famous texts across several languages. In On the Origin of Species, for example, the top 10 most informative words identified by the formula included species, varieties, hybrids, forms and genera. In Moby Dick, one of the most important words, according to the formula, was whale.

When applied to Voynich, the formula picked out several high-entropy words that seemed to be specific to different sections of the manuscript.

The team also applied a further analysis that deduces how related unknown words are, based on how related words cluster in known languages. Then they used this relatedness score to compare different sections of the manuscript.

They found that the high-entropy terms in what the manuscript's illustrations would suggest are the pharmaceutical and herbal sections of the book were more likely to be related to each other than to terms in sections apparently about astrology, biology and recipes.

"They're the strongest connected linguistically and also at the level of their pictorial representations – they're the only two sections that have these plants," Montemurro says. "Our analysis is the first one that actually links these sections only by their linguistic structure."

Word clusters

The technique also measured the optimal way to cluster related words so as to maximise their information value. In novels or chapters that pertain to a certain topic, clusters of related, high-entropy terms tend to be fairly large, containing several hundred words. By contrast, on books that are simply a list of citations, say, with no connection to each other at all, clusters of related words – known as scale domains – would be much smaller.

Montemurro and colleagues compared the scale domains of the Voynich manuscript to those in texts of similar lengths in several languages: On the Origin of Species (in English), Records of the Grand Historian (Chinese), The Confessions of St. Augustine (Latin), plus computer code in the Fortran programming language and sections of yeast DNA.

The scale domain of the human languages was between 500 and 700 words in size, while Fortran's was around 300 and yeast's more like 10. For "Voynichese", it was around 800.

"We wanted to see whether the structure that emerged from the analysis would be consistent or not with a real language," Montemurro says. "Should we have found something like the yeast, then it would cast more doubts on the nature of the Voynich manuscript. But given the value we obtained, we say we cannot disregard that it is language."

Proponents of the hoax hypothesis are still not convinced. In 2004, computer scientist Gordon Rugg of Keele University in the UK proposed a low-tech method for a smart trickster to create the entire Voynich manuscript without first inventing a secret language.

Feasible hoax

The hoaxer could first have written down a table of gibberish syllables containing the roots, prefixes and suffixes found in Voynichese, and then covered the table with a piece of card containing three holes, moving it over the table to read off new "words". Using different cards with different arrangements of holes would produce text that looked like language, even though it wasn't.

"The hoax would be perfectly feasible," Rugg says, and could produce several of the features that Montemurro found in the distribution of words in the Voynich manuscript. "A complex surface structure does not have to be produced by complex deep structure. You can have very simple processes that produce very complex outputs."

He adds that this effort might well have been warranted given the sophistication of the book collectors of the time, who might well have run some linguistic tests on a text before purchasing it.

Rugg also points out that manuscript shows no evidence of any errors having been corrected as it was written. "If the Voynich manuscript contained a real language, either the person who wrote it didn't care about having mistakes in it, or he wrote 200 pages without making a mistake," he says. "That's unlikely."

Montemurro now hopes to analyse other information-carrying sequences that are not necessarily language, such as DNA or perhaps even neural signals. This might help geneticists home in on the most valuable stretches of DNA and reveal whether different parts of the brain "speak" to each other in a code.

"But [the Voynich manuscript] does have a fascination, because for one thing, there's no closure," Rugg admits. "It's like the most interesting whodunnit ever, and somebody's ripped out the last three pages."

Grossman, Lisa. 2013. “New signs of language surface in mystery Voynich text”. New Scientist. Posted: June 21, 2013. Available online:

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Pre-Hispanic Chiefs in Panama Were Born to Rule

New discovery provides evidence for inherited power, points to complex culture.

Archaeologist Julia Mayo works at a site called El Caño near the Pacific coast 90 miles southwest of Panama City. During five years of excavation, she has uncovered the burials of gold-laden chiefs from a still-unnamed civilization that flourished for several centuries before the Spanish arrived in the early 1500s.

Now she can say how the chiefs got their power.

The Spanish conquistadores who described this region told of great chiefs who warred almost constantly among themselves, leading their armies into battle to acquire territory and capture enemy warriors who would serve as their slaves.

But how did those leaders move into a position of authority? Did they earn power through years of fierce fighting? Did they have to defeat the ruling chief? Or was power passed down through the generations of a dynasty?

Mayo, a National Geographic research grantee, had those questions in mind as she began to excavate a large circular funerary pit from the pre-Hispanic era.

She's exhumed more than three dozen individuals, and three offered an answer: Boys in this culture seem to have enjoyed rank and privilege from the moment of their birth.

Glimmer of Gold

Her first clue came with a glimmer of gold that appeared in 2009. It was a tiny disk, almost foil thin, bearing the raised image of a crab-shaped creature with a forked tongue and a crocodile's claws. Beneath it lay two crushed cylinders, each embossed with what looked like a plumed serpent.

Mayo was puzzled. She thought she was excavating a cemetery of warrior chiefs from A.D. 700 to 900, but she couldn't imagine how the three miniature pieces of gold might fit in. "At first I said, 'Oh, what bad luck! That disk is so small,'" she remembers.

As Mayo surveyed the deepening excavation one day, the meaning of the artifacts suddenly came to her: They were so small because they belonged to a baby. A boy who was born to rule.

He had been buried face down wearing the regalia of a chief—a breastplate and two cuffs that covered wrists crossed beneath a tiny chin. Clearly he hadn't lived long enough to earn his status, so wealth and power must have been handed down from father to son.

But there was one problem: no bones. The boy must have been so young that his fragile remains hadn't survived in the acidic soil.

As in a court of law, Mayo needed to produce proof of a body—habeas corpus—so she kept digging.

Body of Evidence

In 2011 she found a similar group of gold ornaments—three breastplates, four arm cuffs, and two earrings—as well as a beaded necklace of green stones. But again, no bones.

Finally, during Mayo's most recent field season, which ended late last month, she found the evidence she needed: gold arm cuffs, inscribed with images of the culture's crocodile god, which adorned the skeleton of someone young—a 12-year-old male, according to physical anthropologist Aioze Trujillo of the Universidad Complutense in Madrid.

Close by lay the remains of a supreme chief. Discovered in 2011, he wore gold breastplates, beads, bells, mysterious figurines in fantastical shapes, and arm cuffs also inscribed with images of the crocodile god.

Father and son? Mayo plans to do genetic tests to find out.

But she's already convinced that the pair attests to inherited power. This has great implications for El Caño. "One of the characteristics of complex chiefdoms is that social status is passed down from father to son," she explains. That means this cemetery represents a society that was much more sophisticated than previously believed.

It also means that this site helps build the case for the existence of complex pre-Hispanic cultures in the forests of Central America and northern South America. Unlike the Maya to the north and the Inca to the south, though, these cultures left no monumental stone architecture. Most of their material culture was biodegradable—houses of wood and wattle, roofs of thatch, baskets, mats, animal skins, feathers. But in this place, at least, people worked gold with great skill, and its shimmer endures as a testament to their centuries of prosperity and accomplishment.

Williams, A.R. 2013. “Pre-Hispanic Chiefs in Panama Were Born to Rule”. National Geographic News. Posted: June 20, 2013. Available online:

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Snails Reveal Ancient Human Migrations

Eight thousands years ago, people brought snails from Spain to Ireland, suggests a new study, which used DNA analysis to identify a snail species that lives today only in Ireland and the Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain.

In both places, the snails have large, white-lipped shells. And, according to the new work, the two groups also share genetic markers that are extremely rare elsewhere in Europe.

Along with other evidence, the findings offer a new window into ancient human migrations.

"It's interesting to use snail genetics to find out how snails colonize, and it also maybe gives us a little insight into what humans were doing, too," said Angus Davison, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom.

"One really neat thing about this study is that, if we accept that humans transported snails, it really gives us a unique insight into an individual journey 8,000 years ago, and it gives us evidence of that from a source you might not imagine."

For more than 150 years, biologists have been puzzling over an Irish mystery: A number of wildlife species that live in Ireland are absent from the rest of Britain but are found in Iberia, the peninsula that includes modern-day Spain, Portugal and parts of France.

Research into this so-called "Irish question" has failed to produce a single theory that explains how and when various species covered hundreds of miles from one place to the other.

To see if they could add any new understanding to the Irish question, Davison and colleague Adele Grindon focused on a distinctive-looking snail that had the same one-inch long shells in both locations. According to fossil evidence, the snails first showed up in Ireland about 8,000 years ago. The mollusks had lived in southern Europe for tens of thousands of years before that.

First, the researchers enlisted volunteers to help collect nearly 900 snails from both parts of its range. Then, they extracted mitochondrial DNA, which is passed directly from mother to offspring, and they looked at specific areas of the genome that are known to vary from snail species to snail species.

The genetic material they analyzed was essentially identical between the two regional groups, the researchers report today in the journal PLOS ONE. The team was also surprised to find that they could trace the Irish population of snails directly back to a population in a specific region of the Pyrenees. The species lives nowhere in between.

The findings argue against a gradual move from one place to another, Davison said, and instead suggest that the snails migrated from Spain to Ireland in one step. He thinks it unlikely that birds transported the mollusks, partly because there are no known birds that migrate along that route that would have been large enough to carry the snails.

More likely, Davison suspects, people brought the snails with them as they moved. Ancient people may have intentionally brought the snails as a source of food on the trip. Alternatively, the snails may have hitched a ride in the grassy fodder packed for other animals.

In the early 2000s, some studies proposed a connection between Ireland and the Pyrenees, but those studies were later shown to be too small and flawed to be convincing, said Allan McDevitt, a geneticist at University College Dublin, who specializes on questions about the colonization of Ireland. The new research is far more robust.

"I think this study is important in that it does conclusively show that there is some link with Spain based on this snail," McDevitt said. "It's the most definitive proof yet that this is actually a very real migration that was happening."

Still unclear is how people made the trip. At least some of the journey would have been by sea, as Ireland was separated from the mainland by 15,000 years ago. But evidence of primitive canoe-like boats remains scant. Using new genetic tools to investigate unlikely creatures may be key to uncovering a better understanding of the past.

"Ireland has always been a very controversial topic, both in how people reached it there and how animals reached it there," McDevitt said. "We're finding a lot of things by looking at small animals. They actually do tell us a lot about how humans were moving."

Sohn, Emily. 2013. “Snails Reveal Ancient Human Migrations”. Discovery News. Posted: June 19, 2013. Available online:

Monday, July 15, 2013

New language discovery reveals linguistic insights

A new language has been discovered in a remote Indigenous community in northern Australia that is generated from a unique combination of elements from other languages. Light Warlpiri has been documented by University of Michigan linguist Carmel O'Shannessy, in a study on "The role of multiple sources in the formation of an innovative auxiliary category in Light Warlpiri, a new Australian mixed language," to be published in the June, 2013 issue of the scholarly journal Language.

The people who live in a small community in the Tanami Desert speak a traditional language, Warlpiri. It is spoken by about 4,000 persons and is highly endangered. In one community called Lajamanu, however, speakers readily switch between languages — from Warlpiri to English and Kriol (an English-based creole). In the 1970s and 1980s, children internalized this switching as a separate linguistic system, and began to speak it as their primary code, one with verb structure from English and Kriol, and noun structure from Warlpiri as well as new structures that can be traced to Warlpiri, English and Kriol, but are no longer the same as in those source languages. As these children grew up they taught the new language to their own children, and it is now the primary code of children and young adults in the community.

Light Warlpiri is one of a small number of 'mixed languages,' ones which typically consist of combinations of elements from two languages, although the combinations can be of different types. For example, most of the words come from one language and most of the grammar from the other. It is rare to find the structures of the verb system and noun system from different languages, as in Light Warlpiri, as is the fact that more than two languages were involved in the creation.

One striking innovation involves taking word forms from English, for example, I'm 'I-present tense,' and creating new forms such yu-m 'you-nonfuture,' (that is, the present and past but not the future). There were no structures in Warlpiri, English or Kriol, however, that meant 'nonfuture time.'

This creation of new meanings from old sources also occurs in pidgin and creole languages, and in languages in the Balkan linguistic area. Perhaps the common factor between these and Light Walpiri is that each of them arose from combining elements from several languages. The wide separation of these codes suggests that this innovative combining may be an unusual but widely available human language phenomenon.

EurekAlert. 2013. “New language discovery reveals linguistic insights”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 18, 2013. Available online:

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Ancient Toilet Reveals Parasites in Crusader Poop

Intestinal parasites have been found lurking in ancient poop in the toilet of a medieval castle in western Cyprus, scientists report.

The findings paint a less than pretty picture of the health and hygiene of crusaders stationed on the Mediterranean island 800 years ago. Poor sanitation likely meant that food and water supplies were contaminated by fecal material, allowing parasitic infections to spread, the study suggests.

Short-lived latrine

Researchers from the University of Cambridge dug into the pit of dried-out waste under a latrine in the remains of Saranda Kolones (Greek for "Forty Columns") at Paphos, a city at the southwestern tip of Cyprus and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Overlooking Paphos harbor, and next to a complex of Roman villas with remarkably intact floor mosaics, Saranda Kolones was long thought to be a temple because of the granite columns that littered its ruins. But excavations in the 1950s revealed that it was actually a short-lived concentric castle.

English King Richard the Lionheart sold the island of Cyprus to the Frankish crusader Guy de Lusignan in May 1192. Archaeologists believe the Franks built Saranda Kolones to defend Paphos harbor soon after their occupation of the island began. But in 1222, the city was rocked by a powerful earthquake thought to be at least 7.0 in magnitude. Much of the fortress was left in ruins, never to be rebuilt, but the latrines on its lower floors survived.

These toilets were carved to fit the human form, with a half moon-shaped hole in the seat leading to a sewer below. Cambridge researchers Evilena Anastasiou and Piers Mitchell, who study ancient parasites, collected samples from one of those cesspools, rehydrated the waste and strained it through a micro-sieve to catch parasite eggs, each smaller than a tenth of a millimeter.

Worms in the waste

Under a microscope, the researchers saw that the samples contained the eggs of two of the world's most common and widespread intestinal parasites: whipworms (Trichuris trichiura), which cause the infection known as trichocephalus, and giant roundworms (Ascaris lumbricoides), the largest of the nematodes found in human intestines, with adults that can grow to more than 1 foot (30 centimeters) long.

People with a light load of these worms may experience no symptoms. But when whipworms and giant roundworms heavily colonize the digestive tract, they compete with their hosts for food, siphoning off the nutrients that would normally be absorbed in the intestines. Eggs of the parasites pass through the feces and spread to other hosts by ingestion (say, when a human doesn't wash their hands and spreads the parasite to food or other objects that get consumed). That means infections are most common in places with poor hygiene and sanitation as well as areas where human waste is used as fertilizer or where people defecate in the soil.

Mitchell has estimated that during a two- or three-year crusade expedition, noblemen and clergy were just as likely to die in battle as they were to succumb to malnutrition and disease. Presumably, the risk of malnutrition would have been even worse for poor foot soldiers with fewer resources. The new study suggests that parasites likely contributed to the demise of many soldiers who died of starvation or disease.

"In these circumstances [it] is quite likely that medieval soldiers with a heavy parasite load would have been at increased risk of death from starvation during famine episodes such as long sieges or expeditions when supplies ran out," the researchers wrote. "This is because they would have had to share the limited available food with their parasites."

Studying feces is a rather unglamorous but useful way for archaeologists to reconstruct the diets, health and lifestyle of ancient people. The parasites described in this study are hardly the oldest ever found in Cyprus. A recent analysis of human waste up to 10,000 years old revealed roundworms, whipworms and tapeworms at the Neolithic Cypriot sites of Khirokitia and Shillourokambos.

The research was detailed in the International Journal of Paleopathology.

Gannon, Megan. 2013. “Ancient Toilet Reveals Parasites in Crusader Poop”. Live Science. Posted: June 18, 2013. Available online:

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ancient Chinese Murals Saved From Tomb Robbers

A colorful, well-preserved "mural tomb," where a military commander and his wife were likely buried nearly 1,500 years ago, has been uncovered in China.

The domed tomb's murals, whose original colors are largely preserved, was discovered in Shuozhou City, about 200 miles (330 kilometers) southwest of Beijing. Researchers estimate that the murals cover an area of about 860 square feet (80 square meters), almost the same area as a modern-day bowling lane.

Most of the grave's goods have been looted, and the bodies are gone, but the murals, drawn on plaster, are still there. In a passageway leading into the tomb, a door guard leans on his long sword watching warily. Across from him, also in the passageway, is a guard of honor, supported by men on horses, their red-and-blue uniforms still vivid despite the passing of so many centuries.

Four men blow into long horns at the entranceway into a 1,500-year-old tomb chamber, located on the south wall. The mural tomb likely held a military commander and his wife in what is now Shuozhou City, China.

A colorful, well-preserved "mural tomb," where a military commander and his wife were likely buried nearly 1,500 years ago, has been uncovered in China.

The domed tomb's murals, whose original colors are largely preserved, was discovered in Shuozhou City, about 200 miles (330 kilometers) southwest of Beijing. Researchers estimate that the murals cover an area of about 860 square feet (80 square meters), almost the same area as a modern-day bowling lane.

Most of the grave's goods have been looted, and the bodies are gone, but the murals, drawn on plaster, are still there. In a passageway leading into the tomb, a door guard leans on his long sword watching warily. Across from him, also in the passageway, is a guard of honor, supported by men on horses, their red-and-blue uniforms still vivid despite the passing of so many centuries.

Inside the tomb itself, the man and woman who had been interned are depicted enjoying a banquet while sitting under a canopy. A man plays a tall harp while two other musicians hold windpipe instruments. At the tomb's entranceway, another mural shows four men blowing into long horns.

In addition to the commander's wife there are a number of females depicted in the tomb. Some of them are attendants and a few appear to be musicians (one of them carrying a windpipe instrument). The archaeologists note that all the females, including the wife, are depicted with their hair in the shape of a "flying bird."

Another scene features a tall red horse ready to be mounted. In another scene is a carriage pulled by a tan ox and driven by two men, each with black hair and curly beards (possibly foreigners).

And then there is the dome itself, which shows how the ancient Chinese viewed the heavens.

"The domed ceiling is painted uniformly in dark gray color to signify the infinite space of the sky. The Silver River (representing the Milky Way) flows across the sky from the southwest to the northeast, and inside the river are fine fish-scale patterns representing waves in the water," wrote archaeologist Liu Yan, who reported the discovery, in translated English, in the most recent edition of the journal Chinese Archaeology. A longer version of the article, written in Chinese, was published earlier in the journal Wenwu.

Yan notes that, on either side of this Silver River, white dots represent the stars, alongside representations of the moon and sun, with the sun bearing a "gold crow" at its center. Supernatural beings and zodiac animals are depicted below this sky map.

Tomb raiders

The tomb was uncovered in a salvage excavation in 2008. Yan said that the tomb had been robbed three times before he got to it, and most of the grave goods, including the bodies, were gone. In fact, the thieves were making preparations to steal the murals, too, but the authorities arrived just in time to stop the theft.

"Tomb robbers had already made preparations for removing the murals. The blue lines that were drawn to divide the murals into sections for cutting and the gauze fabric used for reinforcing the murals before detachment still remain on the surface of the walls," Yan wrote.

When authorities discovered the tomb, a team of scholars from several Chinese antiquities institutions began excavating the site and conserving the murals. Based on these murals and the tomb design, along with a few remaining grave goods, the scientists determined the tomb dates back nearly 1,500 years, to the Northern Qi Dynasty.

A military commander

Archaeologists believe the couple buried at the site consisted of a military commander, in charge of the Shuozhou City area, and his wife. This makes sense given the date of the tomb.

Historians know that at the time this couple lived, three rival dynasties battled for control of China. The buried commander served the Northern Qi, a short-lived dynasty that lasted between A.D. 550 and 577, when it was conquered by another group of rulers known as the "Northern Zhou."

Needless to say, military leaders were in high demand at this time, and military experience was the key to obtaining power.

"The Zhou and Qi states both exemplified military dynasticism," Stanford University professor Mark Edward Lewis wrote in his book "China Between Empires: The Northern and Southern Dynasties" (Harvard University Press, 2009). "Their rulers had risen through military service and based their powers on a central army," he writes.

In such an environment, it appears, a local military commander could afford a finely decorated tomb for the afterlife.

Jarus, Owen. 2013. “Ancient Chinese Murals Saved From Tomb Robbers”. Live Science. Posted: June 17, 2013. Available online:

Friday, July 12, 2013

Inside India’s Perna Caste, Where Women Are Routinely Prostituted by Their In-Laws

Attention in India is finally being directed at gender relations following what’s now widely known as the Delhi Incident, but the outrage is still class-based, and women like Rani, a 30-year-old whose husband is also her pimp, see little hope for change.

On a recent sunny day before the monsoons began, a thin woman settled to the floor in the cool shade of a nondescript apartment building in Dharampura, where a Perna community lives on the outskirts of Delhi. Rani is not normally awake in the afternoon; the Perna practice a form of inter-generational sex work, which is a strangely polite way of saying that women here expect to be prostituted by their husbands.

Rani’s daily routine rarely changes: she “goes for prostitution” around 2:00 a.m., taking an auto-rickshaw with other Perna women to public places. “Anywhere that’s crowded is good,” she says. “Bus stations, taxis.” In nearby Delhi, women with the means to do so make their plans for the evening early and don’t leave the house without a male escort after dark. Rani, who goes out every night on her own, says she dreads the moment when the group of women inevitably separates: “You have to do the work alone.” She tries to avoid the police. Rather than providing her protection, they ask for free sex and take her money. On good nights she might service as many as five customers, bad nights are the ones when she can’t find a john. She comes home around 7:00 a.m., makes her six children and her husband breakfast, washes clothes, takes a nap, cooks dinner, sometimes steals another few hours of sleep, and then gets up to start the day all over again. She met her husband on the day of her wedding, becoming his second wife at the age of 17, and two years later, his prostitute. “I knew it would happen, it’s very normal,” she said. “I do it to earn for my family.”

Dr. Aparajita Gogoi, founder of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood/India, explained that women in India have historically not had the same status as men. “There’s a saying here that you’re lucky if your wife dies and not your cow,” Gogoi said. In a culture where sons provide for their parents and daughters provide for their in-laws, Indian families traditionally invested in their male progeny the way Western families invest in a 401K. It’s just simple economics. In marginalized communities like the Perna, a formerly nomadic tribe stigmatized in the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, women’s lives tend to be worth even less; there’s a very human need, even or perhaps especially within minorities, to be the oppressor rather than the oppressed.

“It happens to every girl,” says Horbai, another Perna woman. “You get used to it.” Horbai was studying to be a tailor until her parents died, and her aunt and uncle married her to a stranger. She returned to Dharampura as a young widow, and with no other form of income, joined the other women as a prostitute. But Horbai has a surprisingly positive take. “My life before [my marriage] was very difficult,” she said. “My life after was very difficult. But coming on my own now, I’m happy, because I’m able to give my daughters an education.” This is the state of gender affairs in Dharampura today: Horbai is happy that her pimp outlasted her husband. “Maybe if my husband was alive, my daughters would be restricted,” Horbai said. On her own, she’s able to support her family and send her children to school. “So I’m happy for them, but not myself.”

Horbai’s 12-year-old daughter wants to be a journalist, and she watches shyly from the corner as our interview takes place. Her 10-year-old sister is not at all shy; she wants to be an actress, and vamps happily in front of my Nikon. “I would never let my daughters go into sex work,” Horbai said. “That’s why I want them to be educated.” Horbai’s daughters are lucky. They are taking classes with a non-profit advocacy organization, Apne Aap, that works with the Perna and other communities where sex work is common, trying to provide the children of prostitutes alternative skills.

Many of the women here are emphatic that they would never let their daughters go into sex work. In fact, this is often the giveaway of their true feelings about their profession. Scared of stirring up trouble with their husbands, the women have learned to say that the sex is “with their consent.” But everyone I talked to during my stay was adamant that they don’t want their daughters to follow in their stead. Unfortunately, the women have little control over what will happen after their daughters are married, traditionally at very young ages. Unless the girls have another way to earn money for their new families, they will likely follow a now well-worn path.

It was the drastic lack of options in the lives of prostitutes that led Rukshira Gupta to found Apne Aap. “Women in India are in danger from the time they are conceived until the time they die,” Gupta said. “They could be victims of sex-selective abortion, if they are born they may be left out to die, if they survive they’ll get less food than their brothers, be pulled out of school to help with chores at home, be married early, risk death during pregnancy, be sold into prostitution, or die begging as widows.”

Gupta has short spiky hair and, once she gets on a roll, can hold forth at great length on gender issues in India. She has all the passion of an accidental advocate, falling into the role during the course of researching a story in Nepal as a journalist. “I came into rows of villages that didn’t have any, I mean any, girls, from 15 to 45,” she said. “I asked some of the men sitting around and they were sheepish, and then finally someone told me, ‘Don’t you know? They’re all in Bombay.’” This was in a village two hours from a road, Gupta said, but there was a whole supply chain in place. Families would be paid for their daughters, sometimes as little as $50, and the girls taken by a series of transporters across the border to agents in Calcutta and Bombay, where they were handed over to pimps and priced based on their beauty and age. The pimps gave them to brothel managers for “seasoning”—repeated rape—and the girls, many between nine and 13 years old, were then kept in bonded labor, expected to service 10 or more customers a night for an average of $3 each.

“You’re told you’re devalued because you’ve been used sexually, so you can’t go home,” Gupta said. The brothel owners, who are one part of a broad network of organized crime, “condition the girls’ minds as well as use physical restraint.” The documentary she made of life in these red light districts won an Emmy, but she quit journalism the night she received the award. “As a journalist, I’d covered war, but I’d never seen this kind of exploitation of one human by another,” Gupta said.

Since 1997, Gupta’s organization, Apne Aap—which means “self-empowerment” in Hindi—has worked with prostitutes across India, including denotified tribes like the Perna, helping the women to set up micro-finance groups, trying to get their children enrolled in schools, and lobbying for government policies that protect their rights. Abhilasha Kumari, director of Apne Aap Worldwide, explained that after what has become known as the “Delhi Incident”—last December, a 23-year-old coming home from a movie with a male companion was beaten and brutally gang-raped on a bus, later dying from her injuries—there’s been a rare burst of attention to women’s rights. “If rape happens in Delhi, everyone gets excited,” Kumari said. “But these women are raped every day,” she says of the country’s prostitutes.

Kumari was among the organizers at Apne Aap who took 200 prostitutes to one of the many protests following the Delhi Incident. “They were shouting slogans, clapping,” Kumari said. “For the first time, they felt like they mattered, like they could make a difference.” Someone was finally paying attention.

Manita, one of the inter-generational prostitutes from Dharampura, attended the rally, her first act of protest. “Rape was always happening,” she said. “Now it’s just the media is paying attention. But what’s the point of being aware of what’s happening unless there’s strict laws?” She attended the demonstration to demand that India’s laws regarding rape and sexual exploitation be changed. “Someone must have heard my voice as well,” she said.

Even though gender-based violence is finally in the spotlight, Kumari explains that as feminism gains a new cache in India, it’s important to keep the cultural context in mind. “People from socially liberal places need to understand that prostitution is not a moral issue,” Kumari said. “The gay movement is equating its own sexual freedom with women’s freedom to be prostitutes, and what they don’t understand is that these women aren’t articulating their sexuality, they’re being bought and sold.” The common argument made in countries like Norway, where the novel policy question is not whether to punish traffickers of underage children but whether to make adult prostitution legal, is that women should have a right to make a living however they please. “But if you are forced into sex work when you’re 10 years old and then told you can’t leave, exactly what choice are you exercising?” Kumari asked.

Caveats aside, Kumari’s cautiously optimistic that women’s rights might be slowly changing in India. “Momentarily, there’s excitement,” she said. But she cautioned that hope was too strong a word. “Hope is too reality driven, and it takes time to make change.”

After the gang-rape in December, India passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, which more clearly defines rape; increases the possible sentencing for sexual violence to include the death penalty; and makes stalking, sexual harassment, and “eve-teasing” illegal. But in Delhi, a rape is reported every 18 hours, suggesting the actual number of rapes is even higher. At the end of April, the city saw another popular outcry as demonstrations renewed to protest the recent kidnapping, rape, and torture of a five-year-old girl. When the girl’s parents reported the crime, the police offered the family 2,000 rupees—about $37—if they would drop the case. A few days later, a mustachioed police officer hit a female demonstrator across the face, sparking India’s version of the uproar over Anthony Bologna.

Rashida Manjoo, special rapporteur for the United Nations on violence against women, recently came out with a statement lamenting the Criminal Law, saying it does “not go far enough,” failing to “establish a substantive and specific equality and non-discrimination rights legislative framework for women.” After meeting with government figures and civil society around Delhi, Manjoo believes this “stems from a government’s inability and/or unwillingness to acknowledge and address the core structural causes of violence against women.” In non-U.N. speak, it’s not enough just have a new law on the books—both law enforcement and the judicial system need to enforce it.

Back in Dharampura, Rani squinted as the sun dropped into the window, suddenly flooding the dark room. “No one wants to do this work,” she said quietly. “It’s always without choice. But who would I go to complain to?” All she wants for the future, she says, is for her daughter to be someone society recognizes.

On my flight leaving India, a small column in the complimentary in-flight newspaper gave an inch of space to a four-year-old rape victim from Madhya Pradesh. She died after a week in a coma on life support. No one was protesting for her.

Parshley, Lois. 2013. “Inside India’s Perna Caste, Where Women Are Routinely Prostituted by Their In-Laws”. Pacific Standard. Posted: June 17, 2013. Available online: