Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sound trumps meaning in first language learning

A new study reveals that four-to-seven-year-old children rely on the sounds of new nouns more than on their meaning when assigning them to noun classes, even though the meaning is more predictive of noun class in the adult language. This finding reveals that children's sensitivity to their linguistic environment does not line up with objective measures of informativity, highlighting the active role that children play in selecting the data from which they learn language.

The study, "Statistical Insensitivity in the Acquisition of Tsez Noun Classes," was published in the March, 2014 issue of the scholarly journal Language. A pre-print version of the article may be found at:

The article examines children's acquisition of Tsez, a language spoken by approximately 6000 people in Dagestan, in the Russian Caucasus. The authors, Annie Gagliardi of Harvard University and Jeffrey Lidz of the University of Maryland, recorded the speech that two children heard at home, then analyzed this speech to see what kinds of nouns the children heard and what was common among the members of each noun class (grammatical gender). They found that both semantic and phonological characteristics helped to organize the nouns into classes, though the semantic cues were more highly predictive. For example, all animals are in Class Three (e.g., cat, dog, sheep…) and about half of the words starting with 'r' are in Class Four. But, when the researchers had children classify new words, the children relied on the less predictive phonological features than on the more predictive semantic features.

Tsez speakers use a noun's category to determine the form of verbs and adjectives in sentences. For example, the same adjective (e.g., igu = 'good') will have a different form depending on the category of the word it is modifying (bigu k'e'tu = 'good cat' vs. rigu čorpa = 'good soup'). Gagliardi and Lidz taught adult and child Tsez speakers new nouns, without revealing their class, and elicited sentences containing these new nouns. The form of the verb that the speakers used revealed the noun class that the Tsez speakers assigned to the new nouns. The new nouns consisted of three types: nouns that had highly predictive features (e.g. animals), less predictive features (e.g. beginning with 'r'), and a combination of features that made conflicting predictions (e.g. an animal that began with 'r'). The authors found that adult speakers put the nouns in the class predicted by the features, and when the features conflicted, they preferred to put the noun in the class associated with the more highly predictive feature (e.g. the class for animals when the noun was both an animal and began with 'r'). Young children, however, showed a different pattern, preferring to put the nouns in the class associated with the less predictive phonological information.

The children's behavior is surprising relative to previous research on children's sensitivity to their linguistic environment. Much recent work has emphasized how exquisitely sensitive children are to distributional features of the language they are acquiring and the role this sensitivity plays in guiding learning. The current work suggests that children play a more active role in filtering the data that they learn from. As a result, they do not always rely on the most predictive information available when learning their first language. Instead, children disproportionally value the phonological information. This preference could stem from the fact that phonological information is available earlier in development or because it's more reliably identified when a new word is learned. These findings help us understand the interaction between children's abilities to extract information from the environment and their initial expectations about language structure.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Sound trumps meaning in first language learning”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 12, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ancient 'Ritual Wand' Etched with Human Faces Discovered in Syria

Archaeologists have unearthed an ancient staff carved with two realistic human faces in southern Syria.

The roughly 9,000-year-old artifact was discovered near a graveyard where about 30 people were buried without their heads — which were found in a nearby living space.

"The find is very unusual. It's unique," said study co-author Frank Braemer, an archaeologist at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in France.

The wand, which was likely used in a long-lost funeral ritual, is one of the only naturalistic depictions of human faces from this time and place, Braemer said.

Ancient site

Researchers first uncovered the wand during excavations in 2007 and 2009 at a site in southern Syria called Tell Qarassa, where an artificial mound made from the debris of everyday human life gradually built up in layers over millennia. (Though many stunning archaeological sites have been looted or bombed since the onset of the Syrian Civil War, this site is in a fairly peaceful area and has so far escaped damage.)

Other archaeological evidence from the site suggests the ancient inhabitants were amongst the world's first farmers, consuming emmer (a type of wheat), barley, chickpeas and lentils, and herding or hunting goats, gazelles, pigs and deer, the authors write in the March issue of the journal Antiquity.

Mysterious wand

After the skeletons and wand were buried, someone seems to have dug up and removed the skulls, placing them in the inhabited portion of the settlement.

The bone wand was likely carved from the rib of an auroch, the wild ancestor of cows, and was about 4.7 inches (12 centimeters) long. Two natural-looking faces, with eyes closed, were carved into the bone, though the wand was intentionally broken at both ends, with more faces likely originally adorning the staff.

The relic's purpose and symbolism remain a mystery.

"It's clearly linked to funerary rituals, but what kind of rituals, it's impossible to tell," Braemer told Live Science.

The find marks a transition in culture toward more interest in the human form. Older artifacts typically showed stylized or schematic representations of humans, but realistic depictions of animals. Art unearthed in what is now Jordan and Anatolia from the same time period also employs delicate, natural representations of the human form, suggesting this trend emerged simultaneously in regions throughout the Middle East, Braemer said.

The artistic innovation may have been tied to the emerging desire to create material representations of identity and personhood, the authors write in the paper.

Exactly why someone dug up the skulls and placed them within the living areas of the settlement is also unclear. But archaeologists unearthed similar finds in Jericho, Israel, dating to around 9,000 years ago, where the skulls of ancestors were covered with plaster and painted with facial features, then displayed in living spaces.

One possibility is that the practice was a form of ancestor worship, in which the human faces represented the living presence of supernatural beings in a humanized form.

It's also possible the heads on display were trophies from vanquished enemies, Braemer told Live Science.

Ghose, Tia. 2014. “Ancient 'Ritual Wand' Etched with Human Faces Discovered in Syria”. Live Science. Posted: March 11, 2014. Available online:

Monday, April 28, 2014

Secrets of Chinese Terra-Cotta Warrior Weapons Revealed

One of the most astounding archaeological discoveries of the 20th century is arguably the life-size terra-cotta army buried alongside China's first emperor. Now, scientists have figured out how the bronze triggers for the crossbows of the 8,000 terra-cotta warriors were manufactured.

Teams of craftspeople worked in small groups to produce the bronze pieces in batches for the tomb of ancient Emperor Qin Shi Huang, according to a new study detailed in the March issue of the journal Antiquity.

Historical documents suggest that soon after Emperor Qin Shi Huang ascended to the throne in 246 B.C., he began work on his tomb near Xi'an, China. When the tomb was first unearthed in the 1970s,it revealed thousands of lifelike terra-cotta statues of artisans, musicians, officials, horses and soldiers. The epic effort conscripted 700,000 laborers, many of whom were convicts or people who were in debt to the empire, said study co-author Xiuzhen Janice Li, an archaeologist who was at the University College London at the time of the new work and is now at the Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum in China.

The massive undertaking had an important goal: ensuring the emperor's military power and resources in the afterlife.

As part of the huge project, craftspeople sculpted about 8,000 colorful warriors — likely using real human beings as inspiration — and those warriors wore stone armor and "wielded" lances, swords and crossbows.

But it wasn't clear exactly how these ancient weapons were made. The crossbows were made of wood or bamboo that rotted long ago, and only the tips and triggers for the bows remained, Li told Live Science.

Small workshops

To learn more about how the massive trove was built, Li and her colleagues visually inspected and measured about 216 of the five-part crossbow triggers from the mausoleum.

The lack of wear on the metal pieces suggests the weapons were never used in actual battle, but were instead built solely for the tomb, the researchers said.

In addition, the team analyzed the spots where triggers were found in the tomb, as well as the variation in the size and shape of the pieces.

The pieces were mostly uniform, suggesting the interlocking trigger parts were made in the same or nearly-identical molds and produced in small batches. Each batch of the trigger pieces was likely then assembled in small cells, or workshops, perhaps headed by an overseer.  That model contrasts with the "assembly line" hypothesis that some archaeologists thought might have been used.

Mirror of society

The organization into small workshops was similar to the structure the emperor imposed on the rest of society in ancient China, said study co-author Marcos Martinón-Torres, an archaeologist at the University College London.

"He abolished any privileges inherited by blood, and the population was divided in small groups that were collectively responsible for their adherence to imperial laws," Martinón-Torres wrote in an email to Live Science. "For example, if someone in one of these groups committed a crime, all of them were held responsible, unless they reported the culprit and allowed them to be punished."

The manufacturing technique used in the workshop also may have been used by weapon makers for the Emperor of Qin's real armies, though that's just speculation, Martinón-Torres said.

"The cellular workshop model we postulate for the weapons manufacture in the mausoleum would have also offered useful flexibility for armies on the move," he said.

Ghose, Tia. 2014. “Secrets of Chinese Terra-Cotta Warrior Weapons Revealed”. Live Science. Posted: March 11, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Mongol Empire rode wave of mild climate, says study

But warming now may be tipping region into unparalleled drought

Researchers studying the rings of ancient trees in mountainous central Mongolia think they may have gotten at the mystery of how small bands of nomadic Mongol horsemen united to conquer much of the world within a span of decades, 800 years ago. The rise of the great leader Genghis Khan and the start of the largest contiguous empire in human history was propelled by a temporary run of nice weather.

The rings show that exactly when the empire rose, the normally cold, arid steppes of central Asia saw their mildest, wettest weather in more than 1,000 years. Grass production must have boomed, as did vast numbers of war horses and other livestock that gave the Mongols their power. But the tree rings, spanning 1,112 years from 900 to 2011, also exhibit an ominous modern trend. Since the mid-20th century, the region has warmed rapidly, and the rings show that recent drought years were the most extreme in the record—possibly a side effect of global warming. In a region already pressed for water, the droughts have already helped spark a new migration in a vast region where people until now have lived the same way for centuries, moving herds from place to place and living in tents. Now, those herders are being driven rapidly into cities, and there could be greater future upheavals. The study appears in this week's early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Before fossil fuels, grass and ingenuity were the fuels for the Mongols and the cultures around them," said lead author Neil Pederson, a tree-ring scientist at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. "Energy flows from the bottom of an ecosystem, up the ladder to human society. Even today, many people in Mongolia live just like their ancestors did. But in the future, they may face serious conditions."

In the late 1100s, the Mongol tribes were racked by disarray and internal warfare, but this ended with the sudden ascendance of Genghis (also known as Chinggis) Khan in the early 1200s. In just a matter of years, he united the tribes into an efficient horse-borne military state that rapidly invaded its neighbors and expanded outward in all directions. Genghis Khan died in 1227, but his sons and grandsons continued conquering and soon ruled most of what became modern Korea, China, Russia, eastern Europe, southeast Asia, Persia, India and the Mideast. The empire eventually fragmented, but the Mongols' vast geographic reach and their ideas—an international postal system, organized agriculture research and meritocracy-based civil service among other things--shaped national borders, languages, cultures and human gene pools in ways that resound today. Genghis Khan's last ruling descendants ran parts of central Asia into the 1920s.

Some researchers have postulated that the Mongols expanded because they were fleeing harsh weather at home--but Pederson and colleagues found the opposite. In 2010, Pederson and coauthor Amy Hessl, a tree-ring scientist at West Virginia University, were studying wildfires in Mongolia when they came across a stand of gnarled, stunted Siberian pines growing out of cracks in an old solid-rock lava flow in the Khangai Mountains. They knew that on such dry, nearly soil-less surfaces, trees grow very slowly, are exquisitely sensitive to yearly weather shifts, and may live to fantastic ages.

In a series of expeditions, Pederson, Hessl and colleagues sampled the pines' rings, sawing cross-sections from dead specimens, and removing harmless straw-like cores from living ones. They found that some trees had lived for more than 1,100 years, and likely could survive another millennium; even dead trunks stayed largely intact for another 1,000 years before rotting. One piece of wood they found had rings going back to about 650 B.C. These yearly rings change with temperature and rainfall, so they could read past weather by calibrating ring widths of living trees with instrumental data from 1959-2009, then comparing these with the innards of much older trees. The trees had a clear and startling story to tell. The turbulent years preceding Genghis Khan's rule were stoked by intense drought from 1180 to 1190. Then, from 1211 to 1225—exactly coinciding with the empire's meteoric rise--Mongolia saw sustained rainfall and mild warmth never seen before or since.

"The transition from extreme drought to extreme moisture right then strongly suggests that climate played a role in human events," said Hessl. "It wasn't the only thing, but it must have created the ideal conditions for a charismatic leader to emerge out of the chaos, develop an army and concentrate power. Where it's arid, unusual moisture creates unusual plant productivity, and that translates into horsepower. Genghis was literally able to ride that wave." (Each Mongol warrior had five or more horses, and ever-moving herds of livestock provided nearly all food and other resources. The rest probably depended on the Mongols' brilliant cavalry skills, smart political maneuvering and savvy adaptions of urbanized peoples' technologies.)

The tree rings show that after the empire's initial expansion, Mongolia's weather turned back to its more normal dryness and cold, though with many ups and downs over the hundreds of years since. The 20th and early 21st centuries are the exception. In the last 40 years, temperatures in parts of the country have gone up by as much 4.5 degrees F—well over the global mean rise of 1 degree. And, since the 1990s, the country has suffered a series of devastating summer droughts, often followed by a dzud—an unusually long, cold winter. The tree rings show that the most recent drought, from 2002-2009, compares in length and paucity of rainfall only to those of the pre-empire 1120s and 1180s. Perhaps more important: the drought of the 2000s was the hottest in the entire record. The heat evaporated water stored in soil, lakes and vegetation, and, in combination with repeated dzuds, devastated livestock. The last dzud alone, in 2009-10, killed at least 8 million animals and destroyed the livelihoods of countless herders. Now, displaced Mongol herders have formed a new invasion force—this time all headed to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, which has swollen to hold nearly half the country's population of 3 million.

Climate models predict that as the world warms, heat in inner Asia will continue to rise substantially faster than the global mean. Pederson says this means that droughts and other extreme weather will probably worsen and become more frequent. This could further reduce livestock and hurt the few crops the region grows (only 1 percent of Mongolia is arable land). New mining ventures and other industrial activities may employ some of the many people fleeing the countryside—but these also consume water, and it is not clear where that will come from.

"This last big drought is an example of what may happen in the future, not just in Mongolia but in a lot of inner Asia," said Pederson. "The heat is a double whammy—even if rainfall doesn't change, the landscape is going to get drier."

Previous studies by others have advanced the idea that climate swings can change history. These include events such as the disappearance of the Maya, the expansion and fall of Roman imperial power, and, in a separate Lamont-led study, the 13th-century collapse of southeast Asia's Angkor civilization. Most focus on droughts, floods or other disasters that arguably have cut off empires; the new study is one of the few to explore the more complex question how climate might have invigorated one.

The researchers "make a compelling argument that climate played a role in facilitating the Mongol migration," said David Stahle, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Arkansas who has studied the mysterious disappearance of the English Roanoke colony off North Carolina, coinciding with what tree rings show was a disastrous drought. "But," said Stahle, "we live in a sea of coincidence—something like that is hard to prove. There could be a lot of other factors. They've provided an incredibly important climate record, and put the idea out there, so it will stimulate a lot of historical and archeological research."

The tree-ring study is the first in a related series by a larger interdisciplinary team working with Pederson and Hessl. Hanqin Tian, an ecologist at Auburn University in Alabama who studies modern grasslands, is working on models to correlate ancient grass production with the tree-ring records of weather. In coming months, team member Avery Cook Shinneman, a biologist at the University of Washington, plans to analyze sediments taken from the bottoms of Mongolian lakes. These can be read somewhat like tree rings to estimate the abundance of livestock over time, via layers of fungal spores that live in the dung of animals; this would confirm whether animal populations did indeed boom. The conquering Mongols left very few written records of their own, but Nicola Di Cosmo, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey and coauthor of the current paper, will study accounts of the time left in China, Persia and Europe that might provide further clues.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Mongol Empire rode wave of mild climate, says study”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 10, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Ask a grown-up: what was the first language?

The simple answer is that no one knows. People used to think God wrote the Bible, and because the first part of the Bible is in Hebrew, that must have been the first language. Few people think that now.

Our knowledge of language only goes back to the first writing. At the moment, archaeologists think the earliest writing systems were developed more or less at the same time, about 5,000 years ago, by people in the countries that are now Iraq and Egypt. The languages of this oldest writing were Sumerian (probably) and ancient Egyptian.

But humans developed language maybe 100,000 years before anything was written down. Because many languages have changed in regular and predictable ways, some scientists try to learn about prehistoric languages by working backwards. It's more than guesswork, but without finding a caveman, their results are hard to prove.

George, Andrew. 2014. “Ask a grown-up: what was the first language?”. The Guardian. Posted: March 8, 2014. Available online:

Friday, April 25, 2014

Areas of the brain process read and heard language differently

The brain processes read and heard language differently. This is the key and new finding of a study at the University Department of Radiology and Nuclear Medicine at the MedUni Vienna, unveiled on the eve of the European Radiology Congress in Vienna. The researchers have been able to determine the affected areas of the brain using speech processing tests with the aid of functional magnetic resonance tomography (fMRT).

The results of the study, published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, offer the field of radiology new opportunities for the pre-operative determination of areas that need to be protected during neurosurgical procedures -- for example the removal of brain tumours -- in order to maintain certain abilities. With regard to the speech processing parts of the brain in particular, individual mapping is especially important since individuals differ in terms of the location of their speech processing centres. "This also gives radiologists a tool with which they can decide whether it makes more sense during testing to present the words in visual or audible form," says Kathrin Kolindorfer who, together with Veronika Schöpf (both from the University Department of Radiology and Nuclear Medicine at the MedUni Vienna), headed up the study.

Personalised planning of radiological investigations

For the test design, the healthy test subjects were played simple nouns via headphones or shown them on a screen. They then had to form matching verbs from them. Says Kolindorfer: "Depending on whether the words were heard or seen, the neurons fired at different locations in the network."

"Our results therefore show that the precise and personalised planning of radiological investigations is of tremendous importance," says Schöpf. Following this investigation, the best proposed solution is then drawn up within the multidisciplinary team meetings with the patient.

The study falls within the remit of the Medical Neurosciences and Medical Imaging research cluster at the MedUni Vienna. There are five research clusters in total. These specialist areas are increasingly focusing on fundamental and clinical research at the MedUni Vienna. The other three research clusters are Immunology, Cancer Research / Oncology and Cardiovascular Medicine.

Science Daily. 2014. “Areas of the brain process read and heard language differently”. Science Daily. Posted: March 7, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Ancient Egyptian Soldier's Letter Home Deciphered

A newly deciphered letter home dating back around 1,800 years reveals the pleas of a young Egyptian soldier named Aurelius Polion who was serving, probably as a volunteer, in a Roman legion in Europe.

In the letter, written mainly in Greek, Polion tells his family that he is desperate to hear from them and that he is going to request leave to make the long journey home to see them.

Addressed to his mother (a bread seller), sister and brother, part of it reads: "I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind," it reads.

"I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you ..." (Part of the letter hasn't survived.)

Polion says he has written six letters to his family without response, suggesting some sort of family tensions.

"While away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger," he writes. "I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother …"

Found in an ancient Egyptian town

The letter was found outside a temple in the Egyptian town of Tebtunis more than a century ago by an archaeological expedition led by Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt. They found numerous papyri in the town and did not have time to translate all of them.

Recently Grant Adamson, a doctoral candidate at Rice University, took up the task of translating the papyrus, using infrared images of it, a technology that makes part of the text more legible. His translation was published recently in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists.

Adamson isn't sure if the soldier's family responded to his pleas, or if Polion got leave to see them (it's unlikely), but it appears this letter did arrive home.

"I tend to think so. The letter was addressed to and mentions Egyptians, and it was found outside the temple of the Roman-period town of Tebtunis in the Fayyum not far from the Nile River," Adamson wrote in an email to Live Science.

Polion, who lived at a time when the Roman Empire controlled Egypt, was part of the legio II Adiutrix legion stationed in Pannonia Inferior (around modern-day Hungary)

He may have volunteered for the pay and food legions got. However, that doesn't mean Polion knew that he was going to be posted so far away from home.

"He may have volunteered and left Egypt without knowing where he would be assigned," writes Adamson in the journal article. According to the translation, Polion sent the letter to a military veteran who could forward it to his family.

An ancient soldier, a modern problem

The situation seen in this letter, a young man serving as a volunteer in a military unit far away from home, facing tensions with his family and seeking leave to see them sounds like something that happens in modern-day armed forces.

Although soldiers today have an easier time communicating and traveling back home (Polion would have had to travel for a month or more to reach Tebtunis from his posting in Europe), there are some themes that connect both ancient and modern soldiers, Adamson said.

"I think that some aspects of military service belong to a common experience across ancient and modern civilizations — part of our human experience in general really. Things like worry and homesickness."

The letter is now in the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jarus, Owen. 2014. “Ancient Egyptian Soldier's Letter Home Deciphered”. Live Science. Posted: March 5, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

New insights into ancient Pacific settlers' diet: Diet based on foraging, not horticulture

Researchers from New Zealand's University of Otago studying 3000-year-old skeletons from the oldest known cemetery in the Pacific Islands are casting new light on the diet and lives of the enigmatic Lapita people, the likely ancestors of Polynesians.

Their results -- obtained from analysing stable isotope ratios of three elements in the bone collagen of 49 adults buried at the Teouma archaeological site on Vanuatu's Efate Island -- suggest that its early Lapita settlers ate reef fish, marine turtles, fruit bats, free-range pigs and chickens, rather than primarily relying on growing crops for human food and animal fodder.

The findings are newly published in the journal PLOS ONE. Study lead author Dr Rebecca Kinaston and colleague Associate Professor Hallie Buckley at the Department of Anatomy carried out the research in collaboration with the Vanuatu National Museum and researchers from the University of Marseilles and CNRS (UMR 7269 and UMR 7041) in France and The Australian National University, Canberra.

Dr Kinaston says the study is the most detailed analysis of Lapita diet ever undertaken and provides intriguing insights into the socio-cultural elements of their society.

"It was a unique opportunity to assess the lifeways of a colonising population on a tropical Pacific island," she says.

The researchers analysed the isotopic ratios of carbon, nitrogen and sulphur in adult human bone collagen and compared these with ratios in ancient and modern plants and animals from the location, which provided a comprehensive dietary baseline.

"Examining these ratios gave us direct evidence of the broad make-up of these adults' diets over the 10-20 years before they died, which helps clear up the long-running debate about how the Lapita settlers sustained themselves during the early phases of colonising each island during their eastward drive across the Pacific."

Dr Kinaston says it appears that the new colonists, rather than relying mainly on a "transported landscape" of the crop plants and domesticated animals they brought with them, were practicing a mixed subsistence strategy.

"The dietary pattern we found suggests that in addition to eating pigs and chickens, settlers were also foraging for a variety of marine food and consuming wild animals -- especially fruit bats -- and that whatever horticultural food they produced was not heavily relied on," she says.

Isotopic analysis of the ancient pig bones found at the site also suggests that they were free-ranging rather than penned and given fodder from harvested crops.

Study of the human bones revealed a sex difference in diet compositions, showing that Lapita men had more varied diets and greater access to protein from sources such as tortoises, pigs and chicken than women did.

"This may have resulted from unequal food distribution, suggesting that males may have been considered of higher status in Lapita society and treated preferentially," Dr Kinaston says.

Science Daily. 2014. “New insights into ancient Pacific settlers' diet: Diet based on foraging, not horticulture”. Science Daily. Posted: March 5, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

New Texts Found in 'Dead Sea Scroll' Caves

An archaeologist says he discovered nine tiny scrolls with biblical text from the Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were unearthed, according to news reports.

The newfound scrolls, which date back to about 2,000 years ago, were hidden inside three leather tefillin cases, also known as phylacteries, traditionally carried by observant Jewish men, Italian news agency Ansa Mediterranean reported. These cases were first pulled out of the caves in the 1950s, but their contents apparently were not examined until now.

Starting in the 1940s, the remains of more than 900 manuscripts were found in 11 caves near the site of Qumran in the West Bank. This collection Hebrew Bible texts, which came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, included copies of Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, Kings and Deuteronomy.

"'It's not every day that you get the chance to discover new manuscripts," archaeologist Yonatan Adler told Ansa Mediterranean. "It's very exciting."

The nine new documents have not been fully examined yet and it's not yet clear what's written in the text. Adler announced his findings at an international conference on Qumran and the Dead Sea Region at Lugano, Switzerland.

Gannon, Megan. 2014. “New Texts Found in 'Dead Sea Scroll' Caves”. Live Science. Posted: March 3, 2014. Available online:

Monday, April 21, 2014

Native American city on the Mississippi was America's first 'melting pot'

New evidence establishes for the first time that Cahokia, a sprawling, pre-Columbian city situated at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, hosted a sizable population of immigrants.

Cahokia was an early experiment in urban life, said Thomas Emerson, who led the new analysis. Emerson is Illinois state archaeologist and the director of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey at the University of Illinois.

Researchers have traditionally thought of Cahokia as a relatively homogeneous and stable population drawn from the immediate area, he said. "But increasingly archaeologists are realizing that Cahokia at AD 1100 was very likely an urban center with as many as 20,000 inhabitants," he said. "Such early centers around the world grow by immigration, not by birthrate."

The new analysis, reported in the Journal of Archaeological Research, tested the chemical composition of 133 teeth from 87 people buried at Cahokia during its heyday. The researchers looked specifically at strontium isotope ratios in the teeth and in the remains of small mammals from the same area.

"Strontium isotope ratios in rock, soil, groundwater and vegetation vary according to the underlying geology of a region," the researchers wrote. "As an animal eats and drinks, the local strontium isotope composition of the water, plants and animals consumed is recorded in its skeletal tissues." Strontium signatures may not be unique to a location, Emerson said, but the ratios in a person's teeth can be compared to those of plants and animals in the immediate environment.

"Teeth retain the isotopic signature of an individual's diet at various periods of life depending on the tooth type sampled, ranging from in utero to approximately 16 years of age," the researchers wrote. The strontium signature in the teeth can be compared to that of their place of burial, to determine whether the person lived only in that vicinity. Early teeth and later teeth may have different strontium signatures, an indication that the person immigrated.

By analyzing the teeth of those buried in different locations in Cahokia, Emerson, state archaeological survey bioarchaeologist Kristin Hedman and graduate student Philip Slater discovered that immigrants formed one-third of the population of the city throughout its history (from about AD 1050 through the early 1300s).

"This indicates that Cahokia as a political, social and religious center was extremely fluid and dynamic, with a constantly fluctuating composition," Emerson said.

The findings contradict traditional anthropological models of Cahokian society that are built on analogies with 19th-century Native American groups, Emerson said.

"Cahokia, because it was multiethnic and perhaps even multilingual, must have been a virtual 'melting pot' that fostered new ways of living, new political and social patterns and perhaps even new religious beliefs," he said.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Native American city on the Mississippi was America's first 'melting pot'”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 3, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, April 20, 2014

You're more biased than you think – even when you know you're biased

When it comes to the important issues, I’m pretty sure my opinions are just right. Of course I am: if I thought they were wrong, I’d trade them in for some different ones. But in reality, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that we’re all at least somewhat subject to bias – that my support for stricter gun control laws here in the US, for example, is partly based on wanting to support my team. Tell Republicans that some imaginary policy is a Republican one, as the psychologist Geoffrey Cohen did in 2003, and they’re much more likely to support it, even if it runs counter to Republican values. But ask them why they support it, and they’ll deny that party affiliation played a role. (Cohen found something similar for Democrats. Maybe I mentioned Republicans more prominently because I’m biased?)

Surely, though, if you tell people you’re giving them biased information – if you specifically draw their attention to the risk of being led astray by bias – they’ll begin to question their own objectivity? Nope: even then, they’ll insist they’re reaching an unbiased conclusion, if a new paper by five Princeton researchers (which I found via Tom Jacobs at Pacific Standard) is anything to go by.

Emily Pronin and her colleagues asked Princeton students, and other people recruited online, to look at 80 paintings, and to give each a score from 1 to 10 based on their artistic merit. Half of the subjects weren’t told the artists’ identities. The other half were allowed to see a name, purportedly that of the painter of each picture. In fact, those names were a mixture of famous artists and names pulled from the phone book. As you’d predict, those who saw the names were biased in favour of famous artists. But even though they acknowledged the risk of bias, when asked to assess their own objectivity, they didn’t view their judgments as any more biased as a result.

Even when the risk of bias was explicitly pointed out to them, people remained confident that they weren’t susceptible to it; indeed, they actually rated their performance as more objective than they’d predicted it would be at the start of the test. “Even when people acknowledge that what they are about to do is biased,” the researchers write, “they still are inclined to see their resulting decisions as objective.”

This is more evidence for the “bias blind spot”, a term coined by Pronin which refers to the head-spinning fact that we have a cognitive bias to the effect that we’re uniquely immune to cognitive biases. Take the famous better-than-average effect, or Lake Wobegon effect, whereby the majority of people think they’re above average on any number of measures – their driving skills, their popularity, the quality of their relationship – when clearly they can’t all be right. It turns out the bias also applies to bias. In other words, we’re convinced that we’re better than most at not falling victim to bias. We seem to imagine we’re transparent to ourselves: that when we turn our attention within, we can clearly see all the factors influencing our decisions. The study participants “used a strategy that they thought was biased,” the researchers note, “and thus they probably expected to feel some bias when using it. The absence of that feeling may have made them more confident in their objectivity.”

This helps explain, for example, why it’s often better for companies to hire people, or colleges to admit students, using objective checklists, rather than interviews that rely on gut feelings. As Jacobs notes, it’s also why some orchestras ask musicians to audition from behind screens, so that only their music can be judged. It’s no good relying on the judges’ sincere confidence that they’d never let sexism or other biases get in the way. They may really believe it – but they’re probably wrong. Bias spares nobody. Except me, of course.

Burkeman, Oliver. 2014. “You're more biased than you think – even when you know you're biased”. The Guardian. Posted: February 28, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Talking Neanderthals challenge the origins of speech

We humans like to think of ourselves as unique for many reasons, not least of which being our ability to communicate with words. But ground-breaking research by an expert from the University of New England shows that our 'misunderstood cousins,' the Neanderthals, may well have spoken in languages not dissimilar to the ones we use today.

Pinpointing the origin and evolution of speech and human language is one of the longest running and most hotly debated topics in the scientific world. It has long been believed that other beings, including the Neanderthals with whom our ancestors shared Earth for thousands of years, simply lacked the necessary cognitive capacity and vocal hardware for speech.

Associate Professor Stephen Wroe, a zoologist and palaeontologist from UNE, along with an international team of scientists and the use of 3D x-ray imaging technology, made the revolutionary discovery challenging this notion based on a 60,000 year-old Neanderthal hyoid bone discovered in Israel in 1989.

"To many, the Neanderthal hyoid discovered was surprising because its shape was very different to that of our closest living relatives, the chimpanzee and the bonobo. However, it was virtually indistinguishable from that of our own species. This led to some people arguing that this Neanderthal could speak," A/Professor Wroe said.

"The obvious counterargument to this assertion was that the fact that hyoids of Neanderthals were the same shape as modern humans doesn't necessarily mean that they were used in the same way. With the technology of the time, it was hard to verify the argument one way or the other."

However advances in 3D imaging and computer modelling allowed A/Professor Wroe's team to revisit the question.

"By analysing the mechanical behaviour of the fossilised bone with micro x-ray imaging, we were able to build models of the hyoid that included the intricate internal structure of the bone. We then compared them to models of modern humans. Our comparisons showed that in terms of mechanical behaviour, the Neanderthal hyoid was basically indistinguishable from our own, strongly suggesting that this key part of the vocal tract was used in the same way.

"From this research, we can conclude that it's likely that the origins of speech and language are far, far older than once thought."

Science Daily. 2014. “Talking Neanderthals challenge the origins of speech”. Science Daily. Posted: March 2, 2014. Available online:

Friday, April 18, 2014

Candelabra found in Ibiza waters offers clues about medieval navigation routes

The history of medieval navigation on the Iberian peninsula is a great mystery. In the 1970s, a recreational diver found a bronze candelabra in Ibiza which Marcus H. Hermanns, a scientist from the German Archaeological Institute in Madrid, has now unveiled. It is a unique piece from the 10th century which could provide clues on sea routes in the period.

The scientist Marcus H. Hermanns from the German Archaeological Institute in Madrid works on research projects on underwater Spanish archaeological heritage.

He has just finished the catalogue of archaeological sites and pieces found to date underwater off the Balearic coast. "The list is part of the National R&D&I Plan to have an inventory of cultural heritage submerged under the waters of all coastal regions," Hermanns explains.

This collection has involved several years of archiving work, but also diving to check the state of shipwrecks and underwater archaeological sites. "These diving checks were made with the Spanish Guardia Civil's (Civil Guard's) Special Group for Underwater Activities (GEAS in Spanish) of the Ibiza division, and certain locations -- which are now being published -- caught our attention. We also carried out other, more detailed projects, such as analysing a bronze candelabra from the Middle Ages that is unique to the region," the archaeologist adds.

This piece, a description of which is published in the journal Archivo Español de Arqueología (Spanish Archaeology Archive), is unusual because there are not many similar models in the world. It is also unique to the Balearic region and dates back to the 10th century, an era in which marine activities on the Pityusic Islands (Ibiza and Formentera) are widely unknown.

"However, as it belongs to a private collection -- a diver in Ibiza found it in the 1970s -- it is quite a challenge gaining information about it," Hermanns remarks.

From Ibiza to the Muslim colony of Fraxinetum

Archaeologists know the location of the underwater site where the candelabra was found, so a diving check was carried out. It yielded no results, however. As the scientist explains, "the majority of the sea beds around the island, from 30 metres deep, are sandy and there is depth movement. You can be unlucky because the site could be covered on the day you are diving. We conducted several tests to find out the dynamics of the sea floor and the state the site was in."

This candelabra is noteworthy because the seaways that went along Ibiza to get to Mallorca are unknown. Moreover, on the route where it was found, several shipwrecks from the same period were also found in southern France.

"There was a link between the Iberian peninsula and the south of France at least, with a Muslim colony named Fraxinetum, according to the Latin documents preserved. There is also a group of sunken vessels that attest to it; this must have been a supply system for the colony from the south of the peninsula," the scientist claims.

Heermanns stresses that cases like these, in which objects currently held in private collections maintain well-documented account of the archaeological context in which it was found, are rare.

"There are few exceptions. This demonstrates the immense value that could be derived at institutional level, for example in diving federations, from raising awareness among recreational divers about underwater archaeology and the considerable cultural heritage to be found underwater," he emphasises. This candelabra is a unique piece, but coming from a location with no archaeological context, it is hard to imagine what use it had or any possible ritual implications.

"It belongs to the Caliphate era. We are uncertain of its symbology and precise use. For instance, it shows no traces of burning, among other reasons because it was restored differently from those found in investigations. However, it was worthwhile to make the study known to the scientific community because it might give clues on the importance of Ibiza in navigation routes," he concludes.

Science Daily. 2014. “Candelabra found in Ibiza waters offers clues about medieval navigation routes”. Science Daily. Posted: February 26, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The pain of social exclusion

'Social' pain hurts physically, even when we see it in others

We would like to do without pain and yet without it we wouldn't be able to survive. Pain signals dangerous stimuli (internal or external) and guides our behaviour. Its ultimate goal is to prioritize escape, recovery and healing. That's why we feel it and why we're also good at detecting it in others. Pain in fact protects not only the individual but also his social bonds. The brain contains circuits related to the more physical aspects of pain and others related to affective aspects. As observed in a study just published by Giorgia Silani, Giovanni Novembre and Marco Zanon of the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, social pain activates some brain circuits of physical pain whether we feel it personally or when we experience it vicariously as an empathic response to other people's pain.

The study by Silani and colleagues is innovative since it adopted a more realistic experimental procedure than used in the past and compared behaviours and the results of functional magnetic resonance imaging in the same subjects, during tests involving both physical and social pain. "Classic experiments used a stylized procedure in which social exclusion situations were simulated by cartoons. We suspected that this simplification was excessive and likely to lead to systematic biases in data collection, so we used real people in videos".

The subjects took part in the experimental sessions simulating a ball tossing game, where one of the players was deliberately excluded by the others (condition of social pain). The player could be the subject herself or her assigned confederate. In another series of experiments the subject or her confederate were administered a mildly painful stimulus (condition of physical pain). When the subject was not personally the target of the stimulus, she could witness the entirety of her confederate's experience.

"Our data have shown that in conditions of social pain there is activation of an area traditionally associated with the sensory processing of physical pain, the posterior insular cortex", explains Silani. "This occurred both when the pain was experienced in first person and when the subject experienced it vicariously".

"Our findings lend support to the theoretical model of empathy that explains involvement in other people's emotions by the fact that our representation is based on the representation of our own emotional experience in similar conditions" concludes Silani.

EurekAlert. 2014. “The pain of social exclusion”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 27, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Is Music a Language?

Listen to a few minutes of John Coltrane and Stan Getz trading saxophone licks, and there’s no denying that music is a form of conversation: The two jazz legends riff on each other’s melodies and build to a cat-and-mouse climax that is basically the musical equivalent of Shakespearean repartee.

But how the brain processes musical discourse is not well-understood. Is music a language? If not, how can we still use it to communicate?

At Johns Hopkins University, a team of researchers recently came up with a way to study the neurological basis of musical exchange by watching the brain activity of jazz improvisors. In one way, they found, music is exactly like language, but in another, it’s not similar at all.

The musicians, 11 male pianists, had to put up with a little less comfort than they’re accustomed to on the stage of a hip club. Each slid supine into an MRI machine with a custom built all-plastic keyboard on his lap and a pair of mirrors arranged overhead for him to see the keys. For 10 minutes, he was asked to jam with another musician in the room by trading fours—swapping solos every four bars of the beat—as the MRI machine recorded the sparks flying in their heads.

The results took a big step toward describing the complexity of music’s relationship to language. During the improvisations, the syntactic areas of players’ brains—that is, the areas that interpret the structure of sentences—were super active, as if the two players were speaking to each other. Meanwhile, the semantic areas of their brains—the parts that process language’s meaning—totally shut down. The brain regions that respond to musical and spoken conversation overlapped, in other words, but were not entirely the same.

This distinction has two big implications. First, because our brains don’t discriminate between music and language structurally, we may in fact understand the structures of all forms of communication in the same way. Secondly, the way we understand the actual meaning of a conversation, though—the message its lines deliver to us—appears to depend on the medium of communication.

“Meaning in music is fundamentally context-specific and imprecise, thereby differing wholly from meaning in natural language,” writes Charles Limb, the study’s lead author (who’s also an accomplished musician; check out his TED talk on the the science of improvisation). “This study underscores the need for a broader definition of musical semantics,” he concludes later.

Music is not a language, but it certainly doesn’t lack meaning, the study shows. We rely on something beyond language to fully comprehend it.

Bisceglio, Paul. 2014. “Is Music a Language?”. The Pacific Standard Magazine. Posted: February 26, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Anglo-Saxon cemetery results question violent invasion theory

The early fifth century transition from Roman Britain to Anglo-Saxon England is a poorly understood period in British history. Historical narratives describe a brutal conquest by Anglo-Saxon invaders with nearly complete replacement of the indigenous population, but aspects of the archaeological record contradict this interpretation leading to competing hypotheses.

A new study, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, suggests a more peaceful process, according to Dr Andrew Millard, from Durham University, one of the paper’s lead authors.

‘The main controversy over the years has centred on how many Anglo-Saxons came across the North Sea,‘ he says, ‘Was it a mass invasion, where the existing population was wiped out completely or forced back into Wales, or was it a small band of elites whose ways were then adopted very quickly?’  The evidence the researchers have gathered favours the second option.

Early Anglo-Saxon cemetery

Much of the evidence comes from the early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Wally Corner, Berinsfield in the Upper Thames Valley, Oxfordshire. The site was first identified from cropmarks on aerial photographs taken by Major Allen in June 1934, although its true nature was unknown.

In 1960, Oxford University Archaeological Society carried out an excavation in the area and discovered Romano-British ditches dating from the first to fourth centuries. In 1974 and 1975, Oxford Archaeological Unit (now Oxford Archaeology) excavated the Wally Corner gravel pit at Berinsfield prior to gravel extraction and uncovered the Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

Most of the burials contained grave-goods including weapons, knives, jewellery, spindlewhorls, buckets and pottery which suggested the cemetery was in use for about 150 years from the early/mid 5th century to the early 7th century. This was exactly the right period to examine the the population origin of the interned individuals.

Locals or immigrants?

Were they local people who had adopted Saxon lifestyles and culture or were they immigrants from the continent?

From the skeletal remains, 30 male and 32 female adults were identified. The burials contained about 70 adults, 9 adolescents and 25 children, with most adults ranging between the ages of 20-45. Some of the graves were arranged in groups, suggesting families or households.

According to this newly evaluated evidence, rather than replacement of the local population, either a much smaller group of Germanic immigrants settled in England as part of the social, religious, and political turmoil happening in western Europe at this time; or a rapid acculturation took place in the vacuum of Roman abandonment, with little genetic contribution from Germanic immigrants.

As the number of Anglo-Saxon immigrants arriving in Britain is one of the focal issues of this debate, strontium and oxygen isotopic ratios, with their ability to identify immigrants in a burial population, offered a technique to test competing hypotheses. The researchers examined these ratios in the tooth enamel of 19 individuals from the cemetery at Berinsfield.

Background values from local fauna material and soil samples allowed the scientists to characterize the regional fingerprint for the oxygen and strontium isotopes. In addition, the diet of the burial community as a whole was analysed and cross related against the sex, age and grave goods of the individuals.

The balance of particular chemicals in our teeth can give clues about where most of our food and drink has come from. Scientists can then use this information to work out where people were born, and where they lived in childhood. Had there been a mass invasion, the graves would be expected to contain at least 20 per cent immigrant remains. But only five per cent of the buried individuals seem to have come from out-with the local area.

‘Oxfordshire is quite some distance from the landing point of any invasion, but it seems that there was not a mass invasion everywhere,’ says Millard.

It is true to say that the broader question is still open to debate, and evidence is being gathered, but at the moment it favours a scenario where there was no wholesale replacement of the population, but a strong cultural shift.


While dietary variability was found in all the sub-groups tested, it was still able to identify an apparent distinction between the average diets of individuals classified as “wealthy” and “intermediately wealthy” and those classified as “poor”.

A notable absence of a ‘dietary difference’ between males and females at Berinsfield, indicated that sex-based societal division did not significantly influence access to the various food sources. These additional conclusions drawn from  isotopic data are of use in adding to the picture of daily life and social structure in early Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Of course there is still much more study required to investigate if this was an isolated case or a more general picture of cultural change as opposed to population replacement, but this research forms the basis for these further investigations.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Anglo-Saxon cemetery results question violent invasion theory”. Past Horizons. Posted: February 26, 2014. Available online:

Monday, April 14, 2014

Impact on mummy skull suggests murder

Analysis of archived mummy reveals murdered young female with Chagas disease

Blunt force trauma to the skull of a mummy with signs of Chagas disease may support homicide as cause of death, which is similar to previously described South American mummies, according to a study published February 26, 2014 in PLOS ONE by Stephanie Panzer from Trauma Center Murau, Germany, and colleagues, a study that has been directed by the paleopathologist Andreas Nerlich from Munich University.

For over a hundred years, the unidentified mummy has been housed in the Bavarian State Archeological Collection in Germany. To better understand its origin and life history, scientists examined the skeleton, organs, and ancient DNA using a myriad of techniques: anthropological investigation, a complete body CT scan, isotope analysis, tissue histology, molecular identification of ancient parasitic DNA, and forensic injury reconstruction.

Radiocarbon dated to around 1450 - 1640 AD, skeletal examination indicated that the mummy was likely 20-25 years old at the time of her death, and her skull exhibits typical Incan-type skull formations. Fiber from her hair bands appear to originate from South American llama or alpaca. Isotope analysis of nitrogen and carbon in her hair reveal a diet likely comprising maize and seafood, which, along with other evidence suggest South American origin and a life spent in coastal Peru or Chile. The mummy also showed significant thickening of the heart, intestines, and the rectum, features typically associated with chronic Chagas disease, a tropical parasitic infection. DNA analysis of parasites found in rectum tissue samples also support chronic Chagas disease, a condition she probably had since early infancy. The skull structure where a massive skull and face trauma occurred, suggests the trauma was acquired prior to death, and indicates massive central blunt force. The young Incan may have been victim of a ritual homicide, as has been observed in other South American mummies.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Impact on mummy skull suggests murder”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 26, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Humans have a poor memory for sound

Study finds truth to the old saying 'in one ear and out the other'

Remember that sound bite you heard on the radio this morning? The grocery items your spouse asked you to pick up? Chances are, you won't.

Researchers at the University of Iowa have found that when it comes to memory, we don't remember things we hear nearly as well as things we see or touch.

"As it turns out, there is merit to the Chinese proverb 'I hear, and I forget; I see, and I remember," says lead author of the study and UI graduate student, James Bigelow.

"We tend to think that the parts of our brain wired for memory are integrated. But our findings indicate our brain may use separate pathways to process information. Even more, our study suggests the brain may process auditory information differently than visual and tactile information, and alternative strategies – such as increased mental repetition – may be needed when trying to improve memory," says Amy Poremba, associate professor in the UI Department of Psychology and corresponding author on the paper, published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

Bigelow and Poremba discovered that when more than 100 UI undergraduate students were exposed to a variety of sounds, visuals and things that could be felt, the students were least apt to remember the sounds they had heard.

In an experiment testing short term-memory, participants were asked to listen to pure tones they heard through headphones, look at various shades of red squares, and feel low-intensity vibrations by gripping an aluminum bar. Each set of tones, squares and vibrations was separated by time delays ranging from one to 32 seconds.

Although students' memory declined across the board when time delays grew longer, the decline was much greater for sounds, and began as early as four to eight seconds after being exposed to them.

While this seems like a short time span, it's akin to forgetting a phone number that wasn't written down, notes Poremba. "If someone gives you a number, and you dial it right away, you are usually fine. But do anything in between, and the odds are you will have forgotten it," she says.

In a second experiment, Bigelow and Poremba tested participants' memory using things they might encounter on an everyday basis. Students listened to audio recordings of dogs barking, watched silent videos of a basketball game, and, touched and held common objects blocked from view, such as a coffee mug. The researchers found that between an hour and a week later, students were worse at remembering the sounds they had heard, but their memory for visual scenes and tactile objects was about the same.

Both experiments suggest that the way your mind processes and stores sound may be different from the way it process and stores other types of memories. And that could have big implications for educators, design engineers and advertisers alike.

"As teachers, we want to assume students will remember everything we say. But if you really want something to be memorable you may need to include a visual or hands-on experience, in addition to auditory information," says Poremba.

Previous research has suggested that humans may have superior visual memory, and that hearing words associated with sounds – rather than hearing the sounds alone – may aid memory. Bigelow and Poremba's study builds upon those findings by confirming that, indeed, we remember less of what we hear, regardless of whether sounds are linked to words.

The study also is the first to show that our ability to remember what we touch is roughly equal to our ability to remember what we see. The finding is important, because experiments with non-human primates such as monkeys and chimpanzees have shown that they similarly excel at visual and tactile memory tasks, but struggle with auditory tasks. Based on these observations, the authors believe humans' weakness for remembering sounds likely has its roots in the evolution of the primate brain.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Humans have a poor memory for sound”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 26, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Geologist who unearthed Mungo Man fights for 40,000-year-old remains

Forty years after his discovery in the sand dunes of western NSW, Jim Bowler wants repatriation of the remains speeded up

Forty years after Mungo Man was unearthed in the dunes of western New South Wales, the geologist who made the discovery is urging the NSW government to speed up repatriation of the remains.

Professor Jim Bowler said the process of returning the remains dated at more than 40,000 years old, whose 1974 discovery confirmed that Indigenous Australians belonged to the world’s oldest continuing culture, had “stalled”, and needed to be “dealt with quickly, and dealt with authoritatively by [NSW environment minister] Robyn Parker”.

Bowler said the World Heritage-listed Willandra Lakes region, where the remains where found, was being improperly managed and could soon “fall into a stage that we would regret, unless moves are made to put management into a better, more efficient level of operation”.

It had been hoped that the repatriation would take place on Wednesday, 40 years to the day since Bowler made his famous find. But obstacles meant it would still be “some weeks” before Mungo Man was returned to country, he said.

“We’re waiting on the protocols to be worked through. But we’re using the anniversary to highlight the relevance of Mungo Man, and to speed up his repatriation.”

Long-term plans to commemorate the discovery include building a mausoleum near the site, “as we have built for Australian soldiers in [the first world war battleground] Fromelles”, Bowler said. “The remains we hope will be put in a crypt with appropriate dignity, in a place that’s in keeping with their sacred nature and their national and international importance.”

Mungo Man is currently housed at the Australian National University in Canberra, where his remains have been intensely scrutinised. The ancient bones have been Cat-scanned and thoroughly documented at a local hospital. But the research has long since been exhausted, and Mungo Man now sits “incarcerated in a cardboard box in Canberra”, Bowler said. “The time has come now for the bones to come back to country.”

Bowler discovered Mungo Man (though some local Aboriginal elders insist it was the other way around) while conducting geological research in the dried-up lake basins of far-western NSW. The rich sands had, five years before, yielded the 20,000-year-old remains of a woman, dubbed Mungo Lady, whose bones showed signs of ritualistic cremation and burial, evidence she had belonged to a developed culture.

That afternoon, heavy rain had battered the dunes, forcing the geologist to take shelter. When he emerged, he spotted a patch of bone glinting in the shore of a then unnamed lake. He brushed away the sand to reveal an intact jawbone. Archaeologists would soon unearth Mungo Man, the oldest skeleton ever discovered in Australia. Dated at 41,000 years old, it more than doubled previous estimates of the length of human settlement in Australia.

Mungo Lady was returned to what is now called Lake Mungo national park in 1991, and is awaiting reburial.

Bowler said he hoped to forge an agreement with the local Aboriginal people to allow scientists future access to both her and Mungo Man. He was also working to “develop a forum with scientists, Aboriginal people and the community, to discuss the incredible significance of this turning point in Australian history”.

“There will be a national dialogue about the contribution of these remains. They are the iconic foundations for the World Heritage area. They have defined the almost sacred nature of Aboriginal connections with land,” he said.

“It puts the Australian cultural context right at the forefront of the international story of what it means to be human.”

Parker said in a statement: “The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and the Aboriginal community at Mungo are in discussion about how to best manage the repatriation of remains to Mungo national park, including those of Mungo Man.

“These discussions and associated planning is now occurring while the current keeping place at Mungo national park is being upgraded to improve its cultural appropriateness in readiness.

“While we are committed to the repatriation as soon as possible, the decision as to what will occur with the ancestral remains rests with the traditional owners – members of the Mutthi Mutthi, Ngiyampaa and Paakantji tribal groups, and those discussions are continuing.”

Safi, Michael. 2014. “Geologist who unearthed Mungo Man fights for 40,000-year-old remains”. The Guardian. Posted: February 25, 2014. Available online:

Friday, April 11, 2014

Pointing is infants' first communicative gesture

Catalan researchers have studied the acquisition and development of language in babies on the basis of the temporary coordination of gestures and speech. The results are the first in showing how and when they acquire the pattern of coordination between the two elements which allows them to communicate very early on.

A new study carried out by two researchers from the Pompeu Fabra University of Barcelona analyses the temporary coordination between gestures and speech in babies during the very early stages of language development, from the babbling period until the production of their first words.

The results, published in the journal Speech Communication, are the first to show how and when babies acquire the coordination between gesture and speech.

"There are now more and more investigations that show that the study of language and human communication can not be carried out only with an analysis of speech," Núria Esteve Gibert, one of the authors, explained to SINC.

In fact, in communicative interactions meanings and emotions are transmitted through speech and non-verbal elements (hand gestures, facial expressions or body position).

"Our analysis indicates that it is during the transition between the babbling period and first words (that is to say, before the infant is capable of producing two joined words, one after the other), that the gestural system and system of speech are already closely linked," affirmed Esteve Gibert.

According to the authors, this study demonstrates the vision that speech and body language are two elements required for studying human communication, as there are more and more indications that both modes are developed at the same time and that they are closely coordinated, both semantically and temporarily.

The aim of this pioneering work was to investigate the process of acquisition and development of language in relation to the temporary coordination of gestures and speech.

In order to do so, the researchers filmed four babies, born into Catalan-speaking families, while they played with their parents at home, from when the children were aged 11 to when they reached 19 months old.

"These recordings were used to investigate when children started to combine gesture and speech in the same way as adults and if when they combine the two modes, the patterns of temporary coordination between gesture and speech are appropriate," Gibert continued.

In total, more than 4,500 communicative acts produced by the babies across the analysed months, through 24 hours of recordings, were obtained, which have been studied from the point of view of the gestures and of the acoustic properties of the vocalisations produced by the children.

"Special importance has been given to the analysis of the temporary coordination between speech and the act of pointing, because this gesture is crucial in the linguistic and cognitive development of language since it represents the first communicative gesture that babies are capable of understanding and producing," the expert pointed out.

Moreover, it is noted that the correct development of the coordination is closely linked with the future linguistic abilities of the child at a more advanced stage.

Combination of gesture and speech

During the babbling stage babies still produce many gestures without combining them with vocalisations. However, from the beginning of the period in which they start to produce their first words (four words during half an hour of recording), babies produce the majority of hand gestures in combination with vocalisations, the same as adults.

Furthermore, on analysing the combinations of gesture and vocalisation that the babies produce at this early age we see that most of the gestures that they combine with vocalisations are deictic gestures (pointing and reaching) with a declarative communicative intention (to inform) more than a commanding intention (to achieve that object).

"Already in the first combinations of gesture with vocalisation, the pattern of temporary coordination of both modes (which consists in synchronising the interval of time more prominent in the deictic gesture with the interval of time more prominent in the vocalisation) is very similar to that of adults," concluded Esteve Gibert.

Science Daily. 2014. “Pointing is infants' first communicative gesture”. Science Daily. Posted: February 24, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Early Christians in Viking Denmark

Excavations at the Domskirke in Ribe, Denmark began in 2008 and analysis of the results lend new insight into early Christianity, where this may have been one of the first places in the country where a small enclave of Christians worshipped and died.

Studies have now shown that there may have been Christian Vikings in Ribe around AD865. Denmark officially became a Christian country around the year AD965 when Harald Bluetooth announced his deed on the Jelling stone (see below). It now seems possible that 100 years before this countrywide conversion, Christian Danish Vikings were living, dying and being buried in Ribe.

Early Christian burials

In the excavations conducted by the Southwest Jutland Museums between 2008-2012 around the Domskirke, the archaeologists found over 70 burials from the earliest period of activity. The tombs provide a unique insight into the early Christian burial customs, and have become be a major source of debate in Denmark.

Pagan Vikings were buried with grave goods such as weapons, food, animals, slaves, etc., and their social rank was often marked with pit construction. The burials found at the Cathedral site had no grave goods and were without any indication of social rank. In addition, the dead had been buried east-west and both children and adults were found in the graves surrounded by a cemetery ditch. All this evidence points to the graves being Christian.

Additional examination of the skeletal material using isotope analysis revealed that the vast majority of the buried were local Jutes or newcomers from Zealand/Skåne region. They were interred in this enclosed area during a period between AD 850 years to AD 1050 – making the earliest burials of great significance.

Jelling stone

The large Jelling stone is sometimes referred to as “The Birth Certificate of Denmark”. It has many Christian symbols contained in it such as a Christ figure and Harold Bluetooth erected it around 965 in memory of Gorm the Old, and Thyra Danebod. The figure of Christ on the stone shows that the new faith had finally come to Denmark. Up until then, the Church frequently sent envoys to the Danish kings, but not until Harold became King in 958 did the church see a major result. However, the Ribe excavations show that Christianity may have taken root in small enclaves earlier than previously thought.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Early Christians in Viking Denmark”. Past Horizons. Posted: February 23, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

11,000-Year-Old Settlement Found Under Baltic Sea

Evidence of a Stone-Age settlement that may have been swallowed whole by the Baltic Sea has resurfaced near Sweden, revealing a collection of well preserved artifacts left by nomads some 11,000 years ago.

Dubbed by the local press “Sweden's Atlantis” after the fabled island which according to Greek philosopher Plato sank around 9600 B.C. in the Atlantic Ocean, the newly discovered site was in fact some sort of a dump in which nomadic Swedes discarded objects, according to a report by the Swedish daily The Local.

Buried 52 feet below the surface at Hanö, a sandy bay off the coast of Skane County in Sweden, the items include wood pieces, flint tools, animal horns, ropes, a harpoon carving made from an animal bone and the bones of an aurochs and an ancient cattle which became extinct in the early 1600s.

There's wood and antlers and other implements that were thrown in there," project leader Björn Nilsson, archaeology professor at Södertörn University, told the Local.

Amazingly, the artifacts have been perfectly preserved because of the abundant oxygen-consuming“gyttja” -- a black, gel-like sediment which is formed when peat begins to decay.

"Around 11,000 years ago there was a build up in the area, a lagoon or sorts ... and all the tree and bone pieces are preserved in it. If the settlement was on dry land we would only have the stone-based things, nothing organic," Nilsson said.

Nilsson’s team is continuing to excavate the area, looking for a potential burial site.

“What we have here is maybe one of the oldest settlements from the first more permanent sites in Scania and in Sweden full stop," Nilsson said.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2014. “11,000-Year-Old Settlement Found Under Baltic Sea”. Discovery News. Posted: February 22, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

How Bones Can Reveal Child Abuse

By the time relatives found 19-month-old DeVarion Gross concealed inside an 18-gallon storage container in his mother's closet, his body was too decomposed for investigators to determine how he had died.

They did, however, find other damning evidence that contributed to his mother's 2010 conviction in North Carolina: DeVarion had three rib fractures at different stages of healing — evidence of a history of abuse.

"If he hadn't been decomposed, we probably would not have seen any of them," said Ann Ross, an anthropologist at North Carolina State University who examined DeVarion's remains. "Most likely they would not have shown up on regular X-ray."

Rib fractures indicate abuse, since children DeVarion's age rarely suffer this injury in any other way, Ross said.

With fellow anthropologist Chelsey Juarez, Ross has published an overview of forensic research on child abuse and starvation with a focus on skeletal injuries. The goal: justice for victims and protection for others, whose abuse can be identified and stopped before the child arrives on an autopsy table.

About 9.2 children per 1,000 in the United States were victims of child abuse in 2012, while 2.1 per 100,000 lost their lives to it in 2011, according to annual data. But some researchers think these numbers don't tell the whole story.

Child abuse and neglect can be difficult for doctors and forensic investigators to catch. For instance, bone injuries like DeVarion's are difficult to diagnose, particularly in young children, because these injuries heal quickly. What's more, abused children usually don't get medical attention until they are seriously injured, and, if they do get treatment, a doctor must determine if a caretaker's explanation is plausible given the injuries, Ross said.

DeVarion's rib fractures fit into one of the common abuse patterns — thoracic, or upper torso, injuries — described by Ross and Juarez. Rib fractures in children under 3 years old are rare, partly because a young child's thoracic region is extremely flexible. As a result, rib fractures in young children are a strong sign of abuse.

For DeVarion, two rib fractures had nearly healed and one was in a very early state of healing. These injuries would likely have escaped X-ray detection while he was still alive, and an X-ray scan done after the discovery of his body, while it was still covered in plastic bags, did not reveal any acute injury. But the advanced state of decomposition of his body allowed Ross to examine his bones directly, where she found the three healing fractures.

Another common pattern, called shaken baby syndrome, is associated with bleeding and swelling of the brain as well as hemorrhages in the retina at the back of the eye. However, there is a controversy over shaken baby syndrome; some argue that shaking alone cannot produce these injuries and that some other form of impact must also be a factor, according to Ross.

In addition to violence, the researchers address another form of abuse: neglect, specifically starvation. This kind of abuse typically accompanies so-called medical neglect. As a result, children suffering these abuses almost never show up in doctors' offices.

Ross and Juarez recommend using bone mineral-density scans, in which X-rays measure how much calcium and other minerals a section of bone contains, to determine if a child experienced starvation before dying. Bone mineral density normally increases with age, but malnourishment reduces bone density.

As a forensic anthropologist and a mother, Ross finds children's cases completely consuming. "These are little, innocent children that didn't have a choice. They didn't have a choice on who their mother was. They didn't have a choice on their circumstances," she said. An investigator's job is to present the facts, "so you are speaking for that innocent" child.

Ross and Juarez's work was published online Jan. 28 in the journal Forensic Science, Medicine and Pathology.

Parry, Wynne. 2014. “How Bones Can Reveal Child Abuse”. Live Science. Posted: February 19, 2014. Available online:

Monday, April 7, 2014

Frequent flyers, bottle gourds crossed the ocean many times

Bottle gourds traveled the Atlantic Ocean from Africa and were likely domesticated many times in various parts of the New World, according to a team of scientists who studied bottle gourd genetics to show they have an African, not Asian ancestry.

"Beginning in the 1950s we thought that bottle gourds floated across the ocean from Africa," said Logan Kistler, post-doctoral researcher in anthropology, Penn State. "However, a 2005 genetic study of gourds suggested an Asian origin."

Domesticated bottle gourds are ubiquitous around the world in tropical and temperate areas because, while they are edible when young, the mature fruit make ideal lightweight, waterproof, liquid-carrying vessels. They were popular in areas either before development of ceramics or where ceramics never developed.

The 2005 study looked only at targeted sequence markers that turned out not to be informative on the population level, said Kistler. Now we can do sequencing of the large single copy area of the plastid genome, which is about 86,000 base pairs of DNA, he added.

Unlike animals, which have two types of DNA -- nuclear and mitochondrial -- plant cells have three types of DNA -- nuclear, mitochondrial and plastid. Animal mitochondrial DNA is often used in genetic studies because it is completely inherited from the mother and changes very slowly, but in plants, mitochondrial DNA is prone to structural rearrangements, while often carrying a slow mutation rate. The DNA found in plastids such as the organelles that perform photosynthesis and create starch or pigments, is a better choice for plants because it does not recombine, but it mutates fast enough for population-level studies.

The researchers, who report their results in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at 36 modern samples of bottle gourd and 9 ancient samples. They found that all the ancient bottle gourds from the Americas that were tested fell within the normal variation of the African bottle gourds and not the Asian bottle gourds.

"The best explanation for this is that they came directly from Africa," said Kistler. "However, we wanted to test the possibility that gourds did float from Africa to form New World populations."

Previous studies found that gourds do float in the oceans and that after long periods of time in the ocean they still have viable seeds. The researchers developed an ocean-current drift model that showed that wild African gourds could have simply floated across the Atlantic during the Late Pleistocene. They suggest that large mammals like the mammoth helped naturalized populations establish in the neotropics, because these large mammals were known to eat various members of the family that includes gourds. The seeds are found in ancient deposits of large mammal dung.

Bottle gourds in Africa exist today mostly in the domesticated form, with only small populations of the wild variety in Kenya and Zimbabwe. In the ocean drift model, the researchers looked at realistic, unrealistically conservative and optimistic scenarios. They divided the western coast of Africa by latitude and simulated 12 years of gourd release where one gourd per month entered the ocean in each latitude division. The shortest amount of time it took for a gourd to arrive was 100 days, with an average arrival time of about nine months.

According to the researchers, it is feasible that gourds did float across the Atlantic Ocean frequently. This is especially true of gourds growing near rivers that flow into the ocean.

"It wasn't one gourd that came over and gave rise to all New World gourds," said Kistler. "Populations show up in Florida and Mexico around 10,000 years ago and in Central America a little later."

EurekAlert. 2014. “Frequent flyers, bottle gourds crossed the ocean many times”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 18, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Minority Languages Fight for Survival in the Digital Age (Op-Ed)

This article was originally published at The Conversation.

Language is about much more than just about talking to each other; it’s one of the bases of identity and culture. But as the world becomes increasingly globalised and reliant on technology, English has been reinforced once again as the lingua franca.

The technological infrastructure that now dominates our working and private lives is overwhelmingly in English, which means minority languages are under threat more than ever.

But it might also be true that technology could help us bring minority languages to a wider audience. If we work out how to play the game right, we could use it to help bolster linguistic diversity rather than damage it. This is one of the main suggestions of a series of papers, the most recent of which looks at the Welsh language in the digital age.

Welsh was granted official status in Wales by the Welsh Language Measure 2011. This builds on previous legislation that sought to ensure that bodies providing a service to the public in Wales – even those that are not actually based in Wales – must to provide those services in Welsh.

As more public services go online, the language in which those services are presented is all important. At the European level, around 55 million speak languages other than one of the EU’s official languages. In the UK, the total speakers of Welsh, Cornish, Scottish Gaelic and Irish number hundreds of thousands.

Language technology advances mean it will be possible for people to communicate with each other and do business with each other, even if they don’t speak the same language.

Technology fail

These language technology and speech processing tools will eventually serve as a bridge between different languages but the ones available so far still fall short of this ambitious goal. We already have question answering services like the ones you find on shopping sites, and natural language interfaces, such as automated translation systems, but they often focus on the big languages such as Spanish or French.

At the moment, many language technologies rely on imprecise statistical approaches that do not make use of deeper linguistic methods, rules and knowledge. Sentences are automatically translated by comparing a new sentence against thousands of sentences previously translated by humans.

This is bad news for minority languages. The automatic translation of simple sentences in languages with sufficient amounts of available text material can achieve useful results but these shallow statistical methods are doomed to fail in the case of languages with a much smaller body of sample material.

The next generation of translation technology must be able to analyse the deeper structural properties of languages if we are to use technology as a force to protect rather than endanger minority languages.

Chit chat to survive

Minority languages have traditionally relied on informal use to survive. The minority language might be used at home or among friends but speakers need to switch to the majority language in formal situations such as school and work.

But where informal use once meant speaking, it now often means writing. We used to chat with friends and family in person. Now we talk online via email, instant messaging and social media. The online services and software needed to make this happen are generally supplied by default in the majority language, especially in the case of English. That means that it takes extra effort to communicate in the minority language, which only adds to its vulnerability.

Enthusiasts are live to this problem and crowdsourced solutions are emerging. Volunteers have produced a version of Facebook’s interface in Welsh and another is on the way for Twitter, so who knows what might be next?

It’s also possible for language technologies to act as a kind of social glue between dispersed speakers of a particular language. If a speaker of a minority language moved away from their community in the past, the chances of them continuing to speak that language would have been dramatically reduced. Now they can stay in touch in all kinds of ways.

More and more, communities are developing online around a common interest, which might include a shared language. You can be friends with someone who lives hundreds of miles away based on a shared interest or language in a way that just wasn’t possible 20 or even ten years ago.

Unless an effort is made, technology could serve to further disenfranchise speakers of minority languages. David Cameron is already known to be keen on an iPad sentiment analysis app to monitor social networks and other live data, for example. But if that app only gathers information and opinions posted in English, how can he monitor the sentiments of British citizens who write in Welsh, Gaelic or Irish?

On the cultural side, we need automated subtitling for programmes and web content so that viewers can access content on the television and on sites like YouTube. With machine translation, this could bring content in those languages to those who don’t speak them.

All this is going to be a big job. We need to carry out a systematic analysis of the linguistic particularities of all European languages and then work out the current state of the technology that supports them. But it’s a job worth doing.

Evas, Jeremy Colin. 2014. “Minority Languages Fight for Survival in the Digital Age (Op-Ed)”. Live Science. Posted: February 18, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Fantastic Photos of Chechen Culture From a Young Phenom

See the photos at:

If young photographers want to succeed, they would do well to heed this word of advice from acclaimed photographer Diana Markosian: Get as far away from the photo herd as possible. Go your own way.

“Part of what helps is not being in New York,” says Markosian, 24. “When you surround yourself with people doing the same thing as you, you’ll get trapped in the headspace of gossip, of being competitive, and of cliques. It’s kind of like high school, and I’m not interested in any of that.”

This epiphany came to her while working for a wire service covering the aftermath of a January, 2011, terrorist bombing in Moscow. Surrounded by seasoned wire photographers with the latest gear, she knew she couldn’t compete. She worked out that hard news wasn’t her thing. “I realized I sucked at news photography,” Markosian says with a laugh. “I needed to do what I was good at. I went to Chechnya two weeks later.”

The move paid off. When the name of the bombing suspect, Magomed Yevloyev, came to light, Russian authorities closed his village to outsiders and journalists. Markosian was undeterred, even after a photographer was arrested attempting to photograph the bomber’s family. At 6 a.m. one morning, as security guards prayed at the mosque, she slipped in, located the bomber’s mother Roza Yevloyev, made a portrait that became a Reuters photo of the year, and slipped away.

“The portrait got some recognition but more than that I realized this is what I had to do,” says Markosian. “I couldn’t be where everyone else was. I can’t be where everyone else is.”

She soon began her project Goodbye, My Chechnya about Muslim girls coming of age in Chechnya. It established her reputation.

Markosian’s work of emotional and political significance appears in news outlets across the globe. For all her talk of being an outsider, her resumé reads like that of someone annointed by the phototocracy. She’s picked up a Burn 2013 Emerging Photographer Grant, attended in the prestigious invite-only World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass, and recently got a nod at the Aftermath Project Grant.

She’s traveled to Armenia, followed the ancient Silk Road, and trekked overland into northeastern Afghanistan. In recent months, in her adopted home Burma, she has been making portraits of the energetic and diverse youth shaping the future of a nation in the early throes of democracy. Editors she once begged to take her calls now root for her success. She cites James Estrin of The New York Times as particularly supportive.

“They want to see you grow. They’re taking there time to look at your work and they want you to succeed,” says Markosian, who appreciates the straight feedback photo editors deliver. Estrin once told her he could publish a series of 10 photos that would work for him, but not for her. In other words, it wasn’t her best. So she returned to the field to flesh out the project, making it stronger. Another editor’s intervention brought her out of a post-break-up depression and inspired her to confront her most difficult assignment: Finding her estranged father. At the age of seven, Markosian’s mother brought her and her older brother to the United States from Armenia, an effort to end the pain caused by her absent husband.

Markosian flew with her older brother David to Yerevan, Armenia. When they knocked on her father’s door Markosian’s grandfather opened it. His son wasn’t home. They spent the longest hour of their lives sitting on the couch. When he finally returned, they spent another half hour convincing him they actually are his children. Once convinced, Markosian’s father, a writer, asked why they had not come sooner. That was in January, 2012. By June, Markosian moved to Armenia to rebuild her relationship. It was two months before she picked up her camera. Not just because she was sorting out her own head but because she was negotiating her mother and father’s feelings too.

“I didn’t want my father to feel I had betrayed him, but he saw how difficult it was for me. The first thing he said to me was, ‘I want you to feel comfortable doing what you feel comfortable doing. Do not worry about what I or your mother is going to think,’” says Markosian. “That allowed me to create from the heart.”

And so began a year of learning and self-examination that would result in My Father, the Stranger.

“I didn’t go in there thinking I’d do a project, I went in there to find my father,” she says. “I noticed myself slow down. Not shooting images every day. Not even caring about shooting. I’d lost my father and didn’t know anything about him. It was a gift to be next to him. There’s no image for that.”

Through her lens, Markosian came to terms with her loss; a loss that welled deep. The project resonated far and wide. Fathers wrote to Markosian describing their relationships with their daughters. Her father cried upon seeing the final edit. The photo industry responded as well, with the New York Times and Photo District News picking up the work. Markosian says it’s changed the way she operated.

“I don’t care about producing as quick; it could take a year or two to make something that matters to me.”

A willingness to embrace the unknown persists. Relocating to Burma was, at first glance, a strange choice — Markosian couldn’t relate to the people around her, couldn’t speak their language and didn’t relate to their history. It took a friendly English speaker her own age to ease her into the culture and drag her out of depression and self-doubt. Her new friend introduced her subjects ranging from political prisoners to the Lady Gaga of Burma.

“I’m meeting people my age who are actually doing things to change their country,” she smiles. “I care a lot more about people than I do about my images. I look at my images from Chechnya and they don’t even reflect how much joy that went into the work.”

Markosian’s short career has been one of stalking a subject and then ceding some control. She’s lucky that natural beginnings and ends for each of her projects have presented themselves. She’s allowing her life to dictate the images, rather than images dictate her life. As a youngster Markosian was a talented ballet dancer but a serious injury forced her out of the art. After that she decided she wouldn’t let one thing define her. Hedging her bets, she writes and teaches too.

“I don’t have the calling that I must just be a photographer,” she says. “I understand that this is what I’m interested in right now and that could change in five years and I’d be fine with that. Maybe I’m sounding like I have my shit together. Maybe I don’t? Maybe these portraits in Burma are no good? I’m actually excited about what’s happening. There’s so much opportunity to define photography. You do it first for yourself and then for a broader audience. Honestly, I don’t care where the industry is going. I care much more about where I am going.”

Brook, Pete. 2014. “Fantastic Photos of Chechen Culture From a Young Phenom”. Wired. Posted: February 17, 2014. Available online: