Thursday, July 31, 2014

Gestures that speak

Gesticulating while speaking is not just a 'colorful' habit

Have you ever found yourself gesticulating – and felt a bit stupid for it – while talking on the phone? You're not alone: it happens very often that people accompany their speech with hand gestures, sometimes even when no one can see them. Why can't we keep still while speaking? "Because gestures and words very probably form a single "communication system", which ultimately serves to enhance expression intended as the ability to make oneself understood", explains Marina Nespor, a neuroscientist at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste. Nespor, together with Alan Langus, a SISSA research fellow, and Bahia Guellai from the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défence, who conducted the investigation at SISSA, has just published a study in Frontiers in Psychology which demonstrates the role of gestures in speech "prosody".

Linguists define prosody as the intonation and rhythm of spoken language, features that help to highlight sentence structure and therefore make the message easier to understand. For example, without prosody, nothing would distinguish the declarative statement "this is an apple" from the surprise question "this is an apple?" (in this case the difference lies in the intonation).

According to Nespor and colleagues, even hand gestures are part of prosody: "the prosody that accompanies speech is not 'modality specific'" explains Langus. "Prosodic information, for the person receiving the message, is a combination of auditory and visual cues. The 'superior' aspects (at the cognitive processing level) of spoken language are mapped to the motor-programs responsible for the production of both speech sounds and accompanying hand gestures".

Nespor, Langus and Guellai had 20 Italian speakers listen to a series of "ambiguous" utterances, which could be said with different prosodies corresponding to two different meanings. Examples of utterances were "come sicuramente hai visto la vecchia sbarra la porta" where, depending on meaning, "vecchia" can be the subject of the main verb (sbarrare, to block) or an adjective qualifying the subject (sbarra, bar) ('As you for sure have seen the old lady blocks the door' versus 'As you for sure have seen the old bar carries it'). The utterances could be simply listened to ("audio only" modality) or be presented in a video, where the participants could both listen to the sentences and see the accompanying gestures. In the "video" stimuli, the condition could be "matched" (gestures corresponding to the meaning conveyed by speech prosody) or "mismatched" (gestures matching the alternative meaning).

"In the matched conditions there was no improvement ascribable to gestures: the participants' performance was very good both in the video and in the "audio only" sessions. It's in the mismatched condition that the effect of hand gestures became apparent", explains Langus. "With these stimuli the subjects were much more likely to make the wrong choice (that is, they'd choose the meaning indicated in the gestures rather than in the speech) compared to matched or audio-only conditions. This means that gestures affect how meaning is interpreted, and we believe this points to the existence of a common cognitive system for gestures, intonation and rhythm of spoken language".

"In human communication, voice is not sufficient: even the torso and in particular hand movements are involved, as are facial expressions", concludes Nespor.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Gestures that speak”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 23, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Underwater Cave Full of Ancient Bones to Be Mapped in 3D

The bones of ground sloths, saber-toothed cats and other creatures of the Ice Age have been discovered in a deep underwater cavern on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, but the exploration of the site is actually happening on the surface, hundreds of miles away, in a lab in San Diego.

Spelunkers first discovered the cave, called Hoyo Negro, seven years ago, but it was accessible only to specially trained cave divers. Now, a technique that combines photos to create 3D maps is providing a way for archaeologists to get a good look inside, without making the dangerous descent into the depths of the cave.

"If we can document all the artifacts, make a photo map of the bottom of the pit and create a 3D visualization that puts the archaeologists and paleontologists there — without ever getting wet — those discoveries and interpretations are made possible," Dominique Rissolo, a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), said in a statement.

So far, explorers in this cave have discovered a human skeleton from the Ice Age, and remains of gomphotheres (ancient elephant-like animals), prehistoric ground sloths and saber-toothed cats. Archaeologists think Hoyo Negro holds more remains and could provide valuable insight into Native American history; they just need a way to get their hands on the bones.

Hoyo Negro — which, appropriately, means "Black Hole" — is part of the underwater labyrinth known as the Sac Actun cave system. The cave is more than 100 feet (30 meters) deep, and divers get only an hour of bottom time on each dive, further complicating the exploration of the site.

But researchers at the UCSD's Center of Interdisciplinary Science for Art, Architecture and Archaeology (CISA3) have come up with a solution: By tracking and lining up features in a series of photos of the cave taken by divers, researchers can create what are called 3D structure-from-motion models.

The imaging technique can even be used to create models of the artifacts in the cave. The dive team brought a a small mount into the cave and photographed the skull of the skeleton discovered there. Then, back on the surface, scientists at CISA3 stitched together the photos and created a 3D model for archaeologists to study.

"The in-depth post-expedition analysis happens digitally, in the form of 3D models that can be studied interactively and collaboratively, as well as precise physical replicas created on CISA3's 3D printers," Falko Kuester, director of CISA3, said in a statement. "Meanwhile, the original artifacts can remain undisturbed where they were originally discovered."

Even though the underwater cavern was discovered in 2007, the first study detailing what the cave holds was not published until this year. The biggest discovery is a 13,000-year-old skeleton of a Paleoamerican teenage girl that might provide some insight into the genetic history of Native Americans.

The archaeologists studying the site nicknamed the skeleton Naia, and believe she probably fell to her death while collecting water during the Pleistocene age, long before the cave filled with water. 

Scientists analyzed DNA from Naia's teeth and discovered that her genes came from an Asian lineage only seen before in Native Americans. The DNA supports the theory that Native Americans descended from a group of Siberians who entered America by crossing a land bridge that used to exist over the Bering Strait.

The team of researchers and divers exploring the cave are now considering ways to use acoustic mapping and imaging sensors to help create even more detailed visualizations of Hoyo Negro.

Dickerson, Kelly. 2014. “Underwater Cave Full of Ancient Bones to Be Mapped in 3D”. Live Science. Posted: Available online:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Egyptologist unravels ancient mystery

It is one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all times: the disappearance of a Persian army of 50,000 men in the Egyptian desert around 524 BC. Leiden University Professor Olaf Kaper unearthed a cover-up affair and solved the riddle.


It must have been a sand storm, writes the Greek historian Herodotus. He tells the story of the Persian King Cambyses, who entered the Egyptian desert near Luxor (then Thebes) with 50,000 men. The troops supposedly never returned; they were swallowed by a sand dune. A fantastic tale that was long the subject of many debates.

Long quest

Egyptologist Olaf Kaper never believed it: 'Since the 19th century, people have been looking for this army: amateurs, but also professional archaeologists. Some expect to find somewhere under the ground an entire army, fully equipped. However, experience has long shown that you cannot die from a sand storm, let alone have an entire army disappear.'

Petubastis III

Kaper is now putting forward an entirely different explanation. He argues that the army did not disappear, but was defeated. 'My research shows that the army was not simply passing through the desert; its final destination was the Dachla Oasis. This was the location of the troops of the Egyptian rebel leader Petubastis III. He ultimately ambushed the army of Cambyses, and in this way managed from his base in the oasis to reconquer a large part of Egypt, after which he let himself be crowned Pharaoh in the capital, Memphis.'

Spin doctor

The fact that the fate of the army of Cambyses remained unclear for such a long time is probably due to the Persian King Darius I, who ended the Egyptian revolt with much bloodshed two years after Cambyses' defeat. Like a true spin doctor, he attributed the shameful defeat of his predecessor to natural elements. Thanks to this effective manipulation, 75 years after the events, all Herodotus could do was take note of the sand storm story.

Pieces of the puzzle

Kaper made this discovery accidentally; he was not looking for it actively. In collaboration with New York University and the University of Lecce, he was involved for the last ten years in excavations in Amheida, in the Dachla Oasis. Earlier this year, he deciphered the full list of titles of Petubastis III on ancient temple blocks. 'That's when the puzzle pieces fell into place', says the Egyptologist. 'The temple blocks indicate that this must have been a stronghold at the start of the Persian period. Once we combined this with the limited information we had about Petubastis III, the excavation site and the story of Herodotus, we were able to reconstruct what happened.'

The discovery will be announced on Thursday at an international conference.

Science Daily. 2014. “Egyptologist unravels ancient mystery”. Science Daily. Posted: June 19, 2014. Available online:

Monday, July 28, 2014

Anthropocene 1000 BC: Mother Nature Not To Blame For Flooding Along The Yellow River

Nature gets a bad rap, according to a new paper. For thousands of years, fickle weather has been blamed for tremendous suffering caused by massive flooding along the Yellow River, long known in China as the "River of Sorrow" and "Scourge of the Sons of Han."

Not so, according to a new paper in the Journal of Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. Instead, the Anthropocene Epoch didn't start 150 years ago, or even in 2000 A.D. when it was coined and became the buzzword for environmentalists worldwide - it started 3,000 years ago.

The authors blame the river's increasingly deadly floods to a long-term and widespread pattern of human-caused environmental degradation and related flood-mitigation efforts that began changing the river's natural flow that began with ancient construction of large-scale levees and other flood-control systems in China.

"Human intervention in the Chinese environment is relatively massive, remarkably early and nowhere more keenly witnessed than in attempts to harness the Yellow River," said T.R. Kidder, PhD, lead author of the study and an archaeologist at Washington University. "In some ways, these findings offer a new benchmark for the beginning of the Anthropocene, the epoch in which humans became the most dominant global force in nature."

A catastrophic flood

It also suggests that the Chinese government's long-running efforts to tame the Yellow River with levees, dikes and drainage ditches actually made periodic flooding much worse, setting the stage for a catastrophic flood circa A.D. 14-17, which likely killed millions and triggered the collapse of the Western Han Dynasty.

"New evidence from China and elsewhere show us that past societies changed environments far more than we've ever suspected," said Kidder, the Edward S. and Tedi Macias Professor in Arts&Sciences and chair of anthropology at WUSTL. "By 2,000 years ago, people were controlling the Yellow River, or at least thought they were controlling it, and that's the problem."

Kidder's research, co-authored with Liu Haiwang, senior researcher at China's Henan Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, relies on a sophisticated analysis of sedimentary soils deposited along the Yellow River over thousands of years.

It includes data from the team's ongoing excavations at the sites of two ancient communities in the lower Yellow River flood plain of China's Henan province.

The Sanyangzhuang site, known today as "China's Pompeii," was slowly buried beneath five meters of sediment during a massive flood circa A.D. 14

Science 20. 2014. “Anthropocene 1000 BC: Mother Nature Not To Blame For Flooding Along The Yellow River”. Science 20. Posted: June 19, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, July 27, 2014

New method to identify inks could help preserve historical documents

The inks on historical documents can hold many secrets. Its ingredients can help trace trade routes and help understand a work's historical significance. And knowing how the ink breaks down can help cultural heritage scientists preserve valuable treasures. In a study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society, researchers report the development of a new, non-destructive method that can identify many types of inks on various papers and other surfaces.

Richard Van Duyne, Nilam Shah and colleagues explain that the challenge for analyzing inks on historical documents is that there's often very little of it to study. Another complication is that plant- or insect-based inks, as well as some synthetic ones, are composed of organic molecules, which break down easily when exposed to light. Current methods are not very specific or sensitive or can leave a residue on a document. To address these issues, the research team set out to develop a different way to analyze and identify historical inks.

They used the novel method, called tip-enhanced Raman spectroscopy (TERS), to analyze indigo and iron gall inks on freshly dyed rice papers. They also studied ink on a letter written in the 19th century. "This proof-of-concept work confirms the analytical potential of TERS as a new spectroscopic tool for cultural heritage applications that can identify organic colorants in artworks with high sensitivity, high spatial resolution, and minimal invasiveness," say the researchers.

The authors acknowledge funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Grainger Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

Science Daily. 2014. “New method to identify inks could help preserve historical documents”. Science Daily. Posted: June 18, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, July 26, 2014

When it comes to numbers, culture counts

American children learn the meanings of number words gradually: First they understand "one," then they add "two, "three," and "four," in sequence. At that point, however, a dramatic shift in understanding takes place, and children grasp the meanings of not only "five" and "six," but all of the number words they know.

Scientists have also seen this pattern in children raised speaking other languages, including Japanese and Russian. In all of these industrialized nations, number learning begins around age 2, and children fully understand numbers and counting by the age of 4 or 5.

A new study from MIT cognitive scientists finds the same developmental trajectory in children from a farming and foraging society in the Bolivian rainforest. But there, it occurs much later -- beginning around age 5, and finishing around age 8.

The findings suggest that number learning is a fundamental process that follows a universal pathway, says Edward Gibson, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT. However, the timing of the process depends on a child's environment -- specifically, how much exposure he or she has to numbers and counting.

"We were interested in exploring this in a language culture where numbers are not really a dominant component of that culture," Gibson says. "It appears they do go through exactly the same stages of learning number words, it's just way later."

Gibson is the senior author of a paper describing the findings in the journal Developmental Science. The paper's lead author is former MIT graduate student Steven Piantadosi, now an assistant professor at the University of Rochester. Julian Jara-Ettinger, an MIT graduate student, also contributed to the paper.

Less exposure to numbers

In the United States, most parents start teaching their children numbers as soon as they are able to talk. However, that is not true of the Tsimane', a society of about 13,000 people in the Amazon River basin, nor do Tsimane' children have exposure to toys or television shows that emphasize number learning. "Numbers are just not a big deal in their culture," Gibson says.

Most Tsimane' children start going to school around age 5, but education levels among adults vary widely, from zero to 12 years of schooling. Although the Tsimane' live in a fairly remote area, they do have some contact with Spanish speakers living nearby. The Tsimane' language has words for numbers up to 15, but their words for numbers larger than that are borrowed from Spanish, Piantadosi says.

During a 2012 trip to Bolivia, the researchers tested the counting ability of 92 Tsimane' children by giving each child eight pennies, then asking the children to hand them a certain number of pennies.

Based on each child's success rate with numbers one through eight, the researchers could classify them into different stages of number learning. Children were classified as knowing how to count if they performed perfectly or made only one mistake. Most of the remaining children fell into groups that knew only the number one, the numbers one and two, the numbers one through three, and a few that knew one through four -- the same breakdown seen in children in industrialized countries.

The results suggest that those counting stages are universal in child development, the researchers say.

"It easily could have been the case that stages that you see in U.S. kids are just some artifact of education or 'Sesame Street' or how parents talk to their kids here," Piantadosi says. "The more exciting possibility is that those stages are really fundamental to learning numbers. There's something about trying to acquire that conceptual linguistic system that pushes you through those different stages of knowledge."

The only difference seen in the Tsimane' children was that counting abilities developed much later. The researchers found true counting ability in Tsimane' children ranging from ages 5 to 11, but most 5- and 6-year-olds, as well as some children as old as 8, had not yet learned it.

The findings suggest that these stages of number-learning are a necessary part of the process of building number concepts, says Barbara Sarnecka, an associate professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California at Irvine who was not part of the research team.

"Basically, everyone seems to follow the same path to number knowledge, whether they are a preschooler in a highly industrialized, numerate society or a 12-year-old in a farming and foraging society in Bolivia. That tells us a lot about how number concepts are built in the mind," she says.

"Data-driven development"

Last year, Piantadosi, Josh Tenenbaum, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and former MIT postdoc Noah Goodman developed a computational model of how this number-learning process could work.

The model takes as its input a number word, such as "two," and contextual information, such as how many objects are present when the word "two" is heard. The model accumulates evidence and tries out different algorithms for counting objects and assigning a number to a set of objects. Those algorithms build on simple operations that can be performed on sets of objects, such as removing one object or combining two sets.

"It turns out the naturalistic data that parents would provide to kids should be enough to figure out how counting works without having to build in a lot of innate knowledge about counting," Piantadosi says. "You can construct a counting algorithm out of simpler set operations."

This suggests that data input is critical to learning to count, Piantadosi says. "Our explanation of what's going on with the Tsimane' kids is that it just takes them longer to get data. They go through the exact same stages, but it takes them two or three times as long to get an equivalent amount of data as a U.S. kid," he says. "It's a data-driven developmental process."

If they obtain permission from the Tsimane', the researchers are interested in studying whether educational strategies such as teaching preschool Tsimane' children to recite the numbers one through 10, as American parents often do with their young children, would enable them to learn to count earlier.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

Science Daily. 2014. “When it comes to numbers, culture counts”. Science Daily. Posted: June 18, 2014. Available online:

Friday, July 25, 2014

New archaeology survey maps Iraqi Kurdistan

Until recently the Kurdish region of Iraq was one of the most neglected area of the Near East. A guerilla war of Kurds against the central Iraqi government precluded any archaeological activities for several decades. After 2003 only three northeastern provinces of Iraq, controlled by former Kurdish guerillas, offered any semblance of safety and conditions that could allow fieldwork to take place. These opportunities have only really been exploited since 2010.

The Upper Greater Zab Archaeological Reconnaissance (UGZAR) project, launched in 2012, is one of several projects aimed at creating an archaeological map of the region as a pilot programme for archaeological exploration and heritage management of Kurdistan.


The Kurdish region of Iraq is now controlled by former peshmerga (Kurdish guerillas) after the region gained autonomy, and in contrast to the remaining part of Iraq, offers safe conditions for fieldwork.

An international conference held at Athens. Greece, in November 2013, demonstrated that there are presently more than 30 international archaeological projects under way in Iraqi Kurdistan. The survey coverage of the entire region in now an objective of primary importance.

Old Iraqi archaeological maps list only about 20% of actual sites, and provide information that is far from accurate. Many of those sites are now either damaged or lost to the rapid development of Iraqi Kurdistan; for example the area of the city of Erbil has increased 30-fold since 1970s, and is still rapidly expanding. Without an archaeological map of the country no reasonable heritage management is possible.

The UGZAR project, carried out by a team from the Institute of Prehistory, Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, is one of several projects focusing on preparation of a precise and up-to-date archaeological map.

3000 square kilometres of survey

The work permit covers an area of c. 3000 km2 located on both banks of the Greater Zab river. It encompasses various landscapes: deforested mountain ranges up to 2000 m a.s.l. high, and adjacent highland areas, mountain oases around springs hidden in deep valleys, rolling plains cut by numerous seasonal and a few perennial streams, the eastern part of the alluvial plain of Navkur, and the valley of the Greater Zab with recent and ancient river terraces. Historical remains in the region  consist of settlement mounds up to 30 m high, with settlement record covering several millennia, urban sites reaching 30 ha in area, as well as small prehistoric tells and flat settlement sites, castles, churches, monasteries and rock art.

The first phase of the work on the project scrutinised variable sources for information on already identified archaeological sites, and to enhancing this list by sites visible on the available satellite imagery.

Very little research has been previously done in the UGZAR area. The rock art at Gunduk was visited and copied by Austen Henry Layard in 1853, Walter Bachmann in 1914, Mahmud al-Amin in 1947 and, most recently, by Julian Reade and Julie Anderson in 2011.

Beside that, two caves and two flat sites in the area were visited by Robert Braidwood’s prehistoric mission in 1954 and 1955. The main source of information was “Atlas of Archaeological Sites in Iraq” published in Baghdad in 1976, providing archaeological maps covering nearly the entire area of Iraq. However, a study of the imagery of the CORONA spy satellite program (of 1967, kindly provided by Dr. Jason Ur, Harvard University, and of 1968, available at the web site of the CORONA Atlas of the Middle East, a project by the University of Arkansas) allowed to increase the number of likely sites more than twofold.

Provisional listing of sites

Having a provisional listing of archaeological sites at hand, the team embarked on the first field season in Kurdistan, but it soon become obvious that while the information from the “Atlas of Archaeological Sites” was in most cases accurate, quite a number of provisional identifications made on the basis of CORONA imagery was wrong. This was mainly because the monochrome imagery of the CORONA program proved to be more problematic on rolling plains and heights typical for the UGZAR area. Some of the topographic shadow signals turned out to indicate natural heights, while most of signals of the soil colour marked the presence of pebbles of eroded conglomerate rock, and not, as expected, layers of decomposed clay of dried bricks from ancient structures.

In this situation, the survey team had to rely on more traditional methods in the field, as interviews with local population, and field walking. Both turned out to be extremely efficient and led to the discovery of a number of sites, especially flat ones. As a result the number of known sites in the area surveyed in 2012 increased from 12 to 37, and in 2013, to 63 (in the area surveyed in 2013, which partly covered the alluvial Navkur plain, satellite imagery was considerably more efficient than other ways of identifying sites).

During two seasons of fieldwork about one third of the work permit area was surveyed, revealing more than 100 archaeological sites, 99 of which were fully recorded. The sites cover a wide range of periods from pre-Hassuna and Hassuna to pre-Modern (19th – early 20th century AD), providing an overarching timespan of approximately ten thousand years of the settlement history of the area.

Rock art of Gunduk

Some of the surveyed sites proved to be of much interest and potential for further research. The first among them is the site of rock art at Gunduk. Three panels were carved on the rock face on the left of a large rock shelter/cave opening in the side of the mountain range above the village. On the stylistic grounds they are dated to Early Dynastic III period (c. 2600-2350 BC – according to conventional Middle Chronology), being thus the most ancient example of this kind of monument in Mesopotamia. Unfortunately, two out of three relief panels fell victim to looters in 1996, who blew up the rock face, seriously damaging one of the representations, and entirely destroying the other.

The UGZAR team discovered two fragments of the completely shattered panel. On the basis of the recovered fragments and the drawings executed by earlier scholars, it was possible to reconstruct the whole scene, as well as to verify the accuracy of the drawings , allowing to disregard two of them as being far from precise. The destroyed scene depicted was probably the creation of human kind by gods Enki, Nintu and Ninmah.

It is all the more pity that the rock art has been destroyed as illustrations of mythological subjects are extremely rare in Mesopotamian iconography. The partly destroyed relief shows a person, possibly a ruler responsible for the execution of the work, hunting an ibex. The third panel depicts a seating deity and animals: a lion, an ibex, the Anzu bird, and an unidentified mammal feeding. It seems likely that the seating deity is Sumuqan/Šakkan, the lord of the mountain, protector of wild animals. The scene is unusual, though its elements are typical of the Mesopotamian art of the mid- 3rd millennium BC.

One of aims of the project was the evaluation of damage to heritage monuments in the UGZAR area and possible further threats. In contrast to other parts of Iraq, Kurdistan avoided disastrous looting which affected most of the large sites in the south of the country. Pits dug by looters were encountered on a few of the 99 surveyed sites, and appeared to be several years old.

Development threat

Very few sites suffered from installations of military character. However, a greater threat is posed by human activity to the sites located in the villages. These are usually cut or levelled to provide more space for new structures raised in the vicinity. In the most extreme case of site S055 (Girdi Keleke 3) the entire site, reputedly 3 m high, was levelled to make space for building three houses. Some higher sites in the vicinity of Daratu, on the western bank of the Greater Zab, which are located at a distance from settlements have suffered as a result of digging for clay. There is no doubt that the Kurdish authorities should increase efforts to monitor archaeological sites, and especially to raise the awareness among the local societies about the importance for preserving those places for the future.

The Project

Two out of three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan are presently surveyed by four teams cooperating in the framework of the Assyrian Landscape Working Group: the UGZAR project (Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań); Erbil Plain Archaeological Survey, directed by Dr. Jason Ur (Harvard University); Eastern Habur Archaeological Survey, directed by Professor Peter Pfälzner (Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen); and Land of Niniveh Regional Project, directed by Professor Daniele Morandi Bonacossi (the University of Udine). The group share similar research methodology, chronological determinations and reference collection of sherds used for identifying cultural periods in the aim to obtain easily comparable results.

Kolinski, Rafal. 2014. “New archaeology survey maps Iraqi Kurdistan”. Past Horizons. Posted: June 16, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Study examines religious affiliation and social class

Younger evangelical Protestants closing social-class gap with mainline Protestants; younger working-class increasingly unchurched

Younger generations are closing the social class gap between evangelical Protestants and mainline denominations, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln sociologist of religion has found.

And in what appears to be an important shift in the U.S. religious landscape, a growing number of younger-generation working-class Americans are not affiliated with any particular religious denomination.

"When lower-class Americans aren't choosing to be evangelical, they're increasingly choosing to be nothing," said Philip Schwadel, associate professor of sociology.

Schwadel's findings, published in the July edition of Social Science Research, could hold implications for the future role of conservative Christian groups in U.S. society and politics. Since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, evangelical Protestant groups have been significant players in the Republican Party.

"The results . . . show considerable change in the social-class hierarchy of religious traditions in the United States," he wrote. "In younger cohorts, differences between evangelical and liberal Protestants are greatly reduced, and evangelical Protestants no longer have lower levels of education and income than do affiliates of 'other' religions and the unaffiliated."

The underpinnings of Schwadel's study date to 1929, when theologian H. Richard Niebuhr identified what he called "Churches of the Disinherited" -- sects whose theology and worship style appeal to people of lower means and prestige. Based upon the history of other Christian denominations, Niebuhr theorized that such sects would evolve into mainstream denominations as their members became upwardly mobile, gaining more education, more income and more prestigious occupations.

Yet empirical research conducted since the 1970s has not found much change in social class differences across denominations in the United States.

"One major lack of finding is that evangelicals in most empirical research did not really change relative to other Americans," Schwadel said. "They didn't become more middle-class."

The difficulty researchers faced, Schwadel said, was measuring change by generation and not merely over time. Niebuhr's theory predicted generational change -- that the denominations would evolve as the original members' children and grandchildren gained more education, better jobs and more income.

Previous studies looked at change over time -- but the generational effect was masked by the large size of the Baby Boom generation as well as by the influence of age on religious attitudes. Those in their 70s often have a different perspective on religion than those in their 20s, Schwadel said.

Using a technique developed by other sociologists to measure changes over generations, Schwadel separated the responses of more than 31,000 white participants in the General Social Survey from 1973 to 2010 into five-year birth cohorts from 1900-1904 to 1975-79. He examined the correlations by cohort between religious affiliation and three measures of social class: income, education and occupational prestige.

He said he limited his study to white respondents because the relationship between religious affiliation and social class may vary by race.

Schwadel is among the first to apply the birth cohort approach to the sociological study of religion. He examined those identified as evangelical Protestant, liberal Protestant (Presbyterian, Episcopal and United Church of Christ), moderate Protestant, Pentecostal, nondenominational Protestant, Jewish, Catholic, other religions (such as Mormon, Hindu and Muslim) and the unaffiliated.

On the aggregate, evangelical Protestants continue to have lower education, income and occupational prestige levels than those in most other religious affiliations, he found. Yet the differences in occupation and income narrow considerably among younger generations of Protestants.

Schwadel said he found the result to be a combination of younger evangelical Protestants gaining social class status while the other affiliations lost status. The most significant reduction in social class difference occurred between evangelical Protestants and those who are unaffiliated.

Some of Schwadel's specific findings:

  • Only Pentecostals have lower levels of social class than white evangelical Protestants.
  • In younger cohorts, differences between evangelical and liberal Protestants are greatly reduced.
  • Differences between evangelicals and Catholics increase moderately across cohorts, with younger Catholic cohorts gaining social status.
  • Catholics are the "glaring exception" to the pattern of cohort-based declines in social class differences between evangelical Protestants and other white Americans. Catholics gained in income and education levels compared to evangelical Protestants.
  • Evangelicals also continue to be disproportionately lower class compared to moderate Protestants and Jews.
  • Those unaffiliated with a specific religion are no longer a small, elite social group, with relatively high levels of education, income and occupational prestige. Among younger generations, the education, income and occupations of the unaffiliated are comparable to those of evangelical Protestants.
"As Niebuhr's model predicts, white evangelical Protestants have become more similar to affiliates of some other religious traditions in terms of both education and family income, and this change occurs predominantly across birth cohorts," Schwadel wrote.

"In other words, evangelical Protestants no longer are necessarily the churches of the disinherited."

EurekAlert. 2014. “Study examines religious affiliation and social class”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 12, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

First atlas of Inuit Arctic trails launched

For centuries, indigenous peoples in the Arctic navigated the land, sea, and ice, using knowledge of trails that was passed down through the generations.

Now, researchers have mapped these ancient routes using archival and published accounts of encounters with Inuit stretching back through the 19th and 20th centuries, and have released it online for the public as an interactive atlas – bringing together hundreds of years of accrued cultural knowledge for the first time.

The atlas, found at, is constructed from historical records, maps, trails and place names, and allows the first overview of the "pan-Inuit" world that is being fragmented as the annual sea ice diminishes and commercial mining and oil drilling encroaches.

Researchers say the atlas is important not just for cultural preservation but to show the geographical extent and connectedness of Inuit occupancy – illustrating their historic sovereignty and mobility over a resource-rich area with important trade routes that are opening up due to climate change.

"To the untutored eye, these trails may seem arbitrary and indistinguishable from surrounding landscapes. But for Inuit, the subtle features and contours are etched into their narratives and story-telling traditions with extraordinary precision," said Dr Michael Bravo from Cambridge University's Scott Polar Research Institute, who co-directed the research with colleagues Claudio Aporta from Dalhousie University, and Fraser Taylor from Carleton University in Canada.

"This atlas is a first step in making visible some of the most important tracks and trails spanning the North American continent from one end to the other."

Over the course of centuries, Arctic peoples established a network of trails – routes across the sea ice in the winter, and across open water in the summer, that stretched for hundreds of kilometres, allowing them to follow the seasonal movements of sea and land mammals on which their lives depended.

The intricate network of trails also connected Inuit groups with each other. The atlas shows that, when brought together, these connections span the continent from Greenland to Alaska. Understanding the trails is essential to appreciating Inuit history and occupancy of the Arctic, say the researchers, for which the new atlas is a vital step. v "Essentially the trails and the atlas reduce the topology of the Arctic, revealing it to be a smaller, richer, and more intimate world," Bravo said. "For all that the 19th century explorers had military equipment and scientific instruments, they lacked the very precise indigenous knowledge about the routes, patterns, and timing of animal movements. That mattered in a place where the margins of survival could be extremely narrow."

The documents that form the foundation of the new atlas consist of accounts – both published and unpublished – of encounters with Inuit by explorers, scientists, ethnographers and other visitors seeking access to the traditional indigenous knowledge to unlock the geographical secrets of the Arctic.

The material has been digitised and organised geo-spatially, with trails mapped out over satellite imagery using global positioning systems. It constitutes the first attempt to map the ancient hubs and networks that have long-existed in a part of the world frequently and wrongly depicted as 'empty': as though an unclaimed stretch of vacant space.

This notion of emptiness is one that benefits those governments and corporations whose investments in shipping routes into the northern archipelago conveniently downplay the presence of the people that have lived there for centuries.

The atlas provides evidence of the use and occupancy patterns of coastal and marine areas that intersect and overlap with significant parts of the Northwest Passage – the focus of recent mineral exploration and potentially a major shipping route. Historical printed sources like those found in the atlas are important for understanding the spatial extent of Inuit sovereignty, say the team, as these records reflect well-established Inuit networks.

In fact, because the maps are the product of encounters between Inuit and outsiders, the new resource also shows patterns of non-Inuit exploration – Western desires and ambitions to map and, at times, possess the Arctic.

"Most of the Inuit trails and place names recorded by explorers and other Arctic visitors are still used by Inuit today. They passed this knowledge on for hundreds of years, indicating intensive and extensive use of land and marine areas across the North American Arctic," said co-director Claudio Aporta.

While much of the Arctic appears 'featureless' to outsiders, it's not – and the Inuit learned how to read the fine-grained details of this landscape. Knowledge of the trails was attained by remembering specific journeys they themselves had taken, or learning in detail instructions in the oral narratives passed on by others.

The Inuit were able to read the snow, the prevailing wind, the thickness of the ice, and the landscape as a whole. Over hundreds of years, their culture and way of life was, therefore, written into the landscape. The region became an intimate part of who they are.

"The trails are lived, remembered, and celebrated through the connections that ultimately reflect the Inuit traditions of sharing life while travelling," said Bravo.

"The geographical range of the atlas is a testimony to the legacy of the Inuit people, their remarkable collective memory built on practices of detailed observation, and motivated by an enduring sense of curiosity, as well as a set of ethical obligations to the living world they inhabit," he said.

EurekAlert. 2014. “First atlas of Inuit Arctic trails launched”. EurekAlert. Posted: Une 9, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Gestures research suggests language instinct in young children

Young children instinctively use a 'language-like' structure to communicate through gestures.

Research led by the University of Warwick suggests when young children are asked to use gestures to communicate, their gestures segment information and reorganise it into language-like sequences. This suggests that children are not just learning language from older generations, their preference for communication has shaped how languages look today.

Dr Sotaro Kita from Warwick's Department of Psychology led the study with Dr Zanna Clay at the University of Neuchatel, Ms Sally Pople at the Royal Hampshire Hospital and Dr Bruce Hood at the University of Bristol.

In the paper, published in the journal Psychological Science, the research team examined how four-year-olds, 12-year-olds and adults used gestures to communicate in the absence of speech. The study investigated whether their gesturing breaks down complex information into simpler concepts. This is similar to the way that language expresses complex information by breaking it down into units (such as words) to express a simpler concept, which are then strung together into a phrase or sentence.

The researchers showed the participants animations of motion events, depicting either a smiling square or circle that moved up or down a slope in a particular manner (eg jump or rolling). Each participant was asked to use their hands to mime the action they saw on the screen without speaking. The researchers examined whether the upward or downward path and the manner of motion were expressed simultaneously in a single gesture or expressed in two separated gestures depicting its manner or path.

Dr Kita said: "Compared to the 12-year-olds and the adults, the four-year-olds showed the strongest tendencies to break down the manner of motion and the path of motion into two separate gestures, even though the manner and path were simultaneous in the original event.

"This means the four-year-olds miming was more language-like, breaking down complex information into simpler units and expressing one piece of information at a time. Just as young children are good at learning languages, they also tend to make their communication look more like a language."

Dr Clay said: "Previous studies of sign languages created by deaf children have shown that young children use gestures to segment information and to re-organise it into language-like sequences. We wanted to examine whether hearing children are also more likely to use gesture to communicate the features of an event in segmented ways when compared to adolescents and adults."

The researchers suggest the study provides insight into why languages of the world have universal properties.

Dr Kita added: "All languages of the world break down complex information into simpler units, like words, and express them one by one. This may be because all languages have been learned by, therefore shaped by, young children. In other words, generations of young children's preference for communication may have shaped how languages look today."

EurekAlert. 2014. “Gestures research suggests language instinct in young children”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 5, 2014. Available online:

Monday, July 21, 2014

Multilingual or not, infants learn words best when it sounds like home

Growing up in a multilingual home has many advantages, but many parents worry that exposure to multiple languages might delay language acquisition. New research could now lay some of these multilingual myths to rest, thanks to a revealing study that shows both monolingual and bilingual infants learn a new word best from someone with a language background that matches their own.

While 1.5 year old babies are powerful word learners, they can have difficulty learning similar-sounding words (e.g., "coat" and "goat"). A string of previous studies had found unexplained differences in monolingual and bilingual children's ability to learn these types of similar-sounding words, sometimes suggesting a bilingual advantage, and other times suggesting a bilingual delay. Christopher Fennell from the University of Ottawa and Krista Byers-Heinlein from Concordia University, both in Canada, wanted to understand these differences between monolingual and bilingual word learning. They observed that these groups differ not only in how many languages they are learning, but often in whether they are raised by parents who themselves are monolingual or bilingual.

Adults raised bilingual sound subtly different to those from a monolingual environment. They posses a slight "accent" in both of their languages, so subtle that it is not usually detected by other adults. Yet, children are sometimes sensitive to differences that adults ignore. Fennell and Byers-Heinlein asked: would bilingual children learn words better from an adult bilingual and would monolingual children learn new words best from an adult monolingual?

To answer these questions, the researchers taught 61 English monolingual and English-French bilingual 17-month-olds two similar-sounding nonsense words. Infants sat on their parents' laps in front of a television monitor, where they were taught similar-sounding words for two novel objects: a clay crown-shaped object labelled with the word "kem", and a molecule from a chemistry set labelled with the word "gem". For half the babies, the label was produced by an adult who matched their language-learning environment (e.g., monolinguals heard a monolingual, and bilinguals heard a bilingual). For the other half, the label was produced by an adult who did not match their language-learning environment (e.g., monolinguals heard a bilingual, and bilinguals heard a monolingual). To determine whether children had learned the word, researchers presented an incorrect pairing (e.g. "kem" paired with the molecule"). Babies who have learned the words should be surprised at this wrong label, and stare at the mislabelled object more than when a correct label is presented. Babies who have not learned the words should look equally the object no matter if it is correctly or an incorrectly labelled.

Both monolingual and bilingual children could learn the words, but only from a speaker that matched their language-learning environment. Bilingual babies efficiently learned the words from the bilingual speaker, but not from the monolingual speaker. Conversely, monolingual babies effectively learned the words from the monolingual speaker, but not from the bilingual speaker. In other words, there was no overall bilingual advantage or a bilingual delay, but just a difference in which speaker the babies found easier to learn words from.

To further test their hypothesis, the researchers explored whether any of the bilinguals were able learn from the monolingual speaker. They found that bilinguals who were exposed to more English in their everyday environment were more successful at learning from the monolingual speaker than bilinguals with less English exposure. The researchers suspected the bilinguals who succeeded might be children of English-dominant parents who did not possess a bilingual accent in English (e.g., Mom grew up as an English monolingual, even if she was now bilingual).

"We found that all infants, regardless of whether they are learning one or two languages, learn words best when listening to people who sound like their primary caregivers," Fennell explains. "Monolingual infants succeeded with a monolingual speaker, bilingual infants with a bilingual speaker, but each group had difficulty with the opposite speaker."

The findings reveal that both monolingual and bilingual babies are highly tuned to their home language environments. The results contradict hypotheses that bilingual children are better able to deal with varied accents than monolinguals and that monolinguals have more solid word representations than bilinguals. All babies show similar strengths and weaknesses in their early word learning abilities.

Infants' ability to discern the subtle sound differences between words spoken by bilingual or monolingual speakers is striking. But this also makes a great deal of sense in the context of other evidence suggesting that infants' are uniquely tuned to their caregivers' voices. "Children seem to adapt to their language environments," says Byers-Heinlein. "This supports them in reaching their language milestones, no matter whether they grow up monolingual or multilingual."

Finally, these results have strong implications for other studies of bilingual infants and children, the authors say. If a researcher does not take in to account whether the speaker used in their experiment grew up monolingual or bilingual, as well as language dominance in a bilingual child's home, they could generate misleading results. They may "discover" that bilingual children have difficulty with some language task, when, in reality, some bilingual subgroups can succeed and others struggle depending on the language stimuli used.

EurekAlert. 2014. “Multilingual or not, infants learn words best when it sounds like home”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 4, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Chinese palaeolithic finds show distinctive development patterns

The Bahe River valley of central China is regarded as one of the most important hominin sites from the late Early Pleistocene to Middle Pleistocene. Homo erectus fossils were unearthed at the Gongwangling and Chenjiawo localities, and more than 30 Palaeolithic open-air sites were investigated in the 1960s in this region. However the age, features and assemblages of stone tools collected from the Lantian region were not well understood.

New research and new sites

Dr. Wang Shejiang from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (IVPP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and fellow researchers discovered eight new Palaeolithic open-air sites and collected 770 lithic artefacts between 2009 to 2011 in the Lantian area of the Bahe River valley.  According to a paper published in Chinese Science Bulletin 59(7), it is the first time that Acheulian-type large cutting tools from the late Pleistocene have been identified in this region. This study distinguishes age gaps between the Western world and East Asian Acheulian-type tools.

These eight newly discovered open-air sites are located on terraces of the Bahe River. The Diaozhai section on the second terrace was examined in detail and two samples were collected for optically stimulated luminescence dating (OSL). The OSL results suggest that a buried lithic artefact layer at the Diaozhai site spans a period of 40,000 years from approximately 70 to 30,000 years ago.

This new dating of artefact scatters, helps to better understand the Palaeolithic sequence and chronology of Homo erectus in the Lantian region, and accordingly extends the date range of early hominins’ activity from the Early and Middle Pleistocene to the later period of the Late Pleistocene.

The lithic assemblage analysis suggests that the stone artefacts were made of local pebbles/cobbles such as greywacke, quartz, sandstone and igneous rocks. The main percussion techniques that were used were direct hard hammer and bi-polar. The artefacts comprise hammer stones, cores, flakes, retouched tools and flaking debris. Acheulian-type large cutting tools such as hand-axes, picks and cleavers were identified in the Lantian region as well.

A divergent tradition

According to current archaeological research, the Acheulian complex originates in Africa approximately 1.7 million years ago and spreads to both Europe and Asia with the dispersal of Homo erectus, lasting until approximately 0.2 million years ago with the advent of Homo sapiens and the replacement by the Mousterian complex and associated blade technologies.

“Our new discoveries of hand-axes, picks and cleavers indicate that the Acheulian large cutting tools in the Lantian region lasted until the Late Pleistocene, which suggests that the Palaeolithic industry in East Asia had its own distinctive development pattern that perhaps differed from western Palaeolithic industry in terms of chronology,” said Wang Shejiang, lead author of the study.

He explains, “when the transition from the Acheulian complex to the Middle Stone Age (MSA) was accomplished and blade technology finally appeared with the emergence of modern humans in Africa and Europe, the Acheulian complex, including hand-axes, cleavers and picks continued in the Qinling Mountains area and, of course, in East Asia.“

Therefore, this new discovery in the Lantian region can be considered valuable for several reasons, including; identifying Palaeolithic industry characteristics in East Asia; the ability to compare between the west and east in terms of Palaeolithic culture; and finally a potential to re-examine behavioural technologies concerning modern human origins in East Asia.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Chinese palaeolithic finds show distinctive development patterns”. Past Horizons. Posted: June 3, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

3,200 year-old trousers found in Silk Road graves

A recent study of remarkable finds from the Silk Road appears to confirm the assumption that the development of modern day trousers was closely connected with the beginnings of horse riding.

Some years ago, an archaeological team discovered fragments of trousers contained within two separate tombs. The woollen fabric has been radiocarbon dated to between 1300-1000 BC.

Warrior horsemen

The Yanghai cemetery near the Turfan oasis, western China was discovered by local villagers in the early 1970s, and by 2003, more than 500 tombs had been excavated. The contents of two of these graves were of interest to this particular study; the first being a chamber containing a mummified body of a 40 year-old individual. Altogether, the burial contained 41 well preserved artefacts made of bronze, wood, gold, stone, shell, leather, and wool. A leather bridle decorated with bronze buttons and plaques and an attached wooden horse-bit hung from a stick near the interred individual’s head. Tell-tale indications that this was the grave of a warrior came from the battle axe and leather bracer that were included within the burial chamber.

A second tomb revealed another less well preserved pair of trousers that were similar in style. The deceased individual was again approximately 40 years of age at death and his grave goods included a whip, a decorated horse tail, bow sheath and bow.

Trouser construction

The trousers were made of three independently woven pieces of fabric; rectangular pieces for each leg spanning the whole length from waistband to ankle, and one stepped cross-shaped crotch-piece which bridged the gap between the two side-pieces. The cloth did not appear to be cut, but each part was made on the loom to the correct size in order to fit a specific person. The crotch-piece was made substantially wider than needed for a normal stride. Instead it was made to allow sideward movement of the legs in a wide arc, allowing the wearer maximum freedom to take big strides forward as well as to mount and straddle a horse.

Dating to around 3,200 years old, the trousers come from a time when the first warriors on horseback appeared in the steppes of Eurasia and represent the earliest modern type trousers found so far. As a comparison, the Xinjiang mummies from the Xiaohe burial site which pre-date the Yanghai finds by three to six centuries were dressed in string skirts, leather boots and felt hats, but not in trousers.

Silk Road fashion

The investigations are part of the project “Silk Road fashion: communication through clothing of the 1st millennium BC in Central Asia”.

The project aims to reconstruct techniques and body knowledge, social structures, resource availability and trade networks in Central Asia between 1200 BC and AD 300. Methods of archaeology, textile and leather research, dye analysis, ornament custom, cut analysis, paleopathology, vegetation and climate research, cultural anthropology and linguistics are applied to clothing and equipment.

“Clothes maketh the Man” – this saying is valid as much today as it was 3000 years ago, because, like a second skin, clothes envelop the human body and provide a method of identification, even before a word is spoken. Communication via clothing is a means of expressing lifestyle and thought; it is an indicator of union or isolation. The project “Silk Road Fashion” devotes itself to this subject by investigating textiles, some 3000 years old, uncovered in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwestern China. These extraordinary relics, which were naturally conserved due to the extremely arid climatic conditions prevailing in this region, are of great value in the investigation into the lives of the eastern central Asian population between 1000 BC and 300 AD.

The project analyses apparel that comprise approximately 100 finds and object groups. When, where and why did people wear a particular form of clothing and how was that clothing produced? Does it reveal gender, age or status specific features? If so, which technical methods were used to create those differentiations and can they be characterized as specialized fashions belonging to individual groups? An interdisciplinary group of five German and two Chinese partners, jointly co-operating, examines these questions for the first time.

Past Horizons. 2014. “3,200 year-old trousers found in Silk Road graves”. Past Horizons. Posted: June 7, 2014. Available online:

Friday, July 18, 2014

Speaking 2 languages benefits the aging brain

New research reveals that bilingualism has a positive effect on cognition later in life. Findings published in Annals of Neurology, a journal of the American Neurological Association and Child Neurology Society, show that individuals who speak two or more languages, even those who acquired the second language in adulthood, may slow down cognitive decline from aging.

Bilingualism is thought to improve cognition and delay dementia in older adults. While prior research has investigated the impact of learning more than one language, ruling out "reverse causality" has proven difficult. The crucial question is whether people improve their cognitive functions through learning new languages or whether those with better baseline cognitive functions are more likely to become bilingual.

"Our study is the first to examine whether learning a second language impacts cognitive performance later in life while controlling for childhood intelligence," says lead author Dr. Thomas Bak from the Centre for Cognitive Aging and Cognitive Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.

For the current study, researchers relied on data from the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, comprised of 835 native speakers of English who were born and living in the area of Edinburgh, Scotland. The participants were given an intelligence test in 1947 at age 11 years and retested in their early 70s, between 2008 and 2010. Two hundred and sixty two participants reported to be able to communicate in at least one language other than English. Of those, 195 learned the second language before age 18, 65 thereafter.

Findings indicate that those who spoke two or more languages had significantly better cognitive abilities compared to what would be expected from their baseline. The strongest effects were seen in general intelligence and reading. The effects were present in those who acquired their second language early as well as late.

The Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 forms the Disconnected Mind project at the University of Edinburgh, funded by Age UK. The work was undertaken by The University of Edinburgh Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology, part of the cross council Lifelong Health and Wellbeing Initiative (MR/K026992/1) and has been made possible thanks to funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Medical Research Council (MRC).

"The Lothian Birth Cohort offers a unique opportunity to study the interaction between bilingualism and cognitive aging, taking into account the cognitive abilities predating the acquisition of a second language" concludes Dr. Bak. "These findings are of considerable practical relevance. Millions of people around the world acquire their second language later in life. Our study shows that bilingualism, even when acquired in adulthood, may benefit the aging brain."

After reviewing the study, Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, an Associate Editor for Annals of Neurology and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Mass. said, "The epidemiological study by Dr. Bak and colleagues provides an important first step in understanding the impact of learning a second language and the aging brain. This research paves the way for future causal studies of bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention."

EurekAlert. 2014. “Speaking 2 languages benefits the aging brain”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 2, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Why Your Race Isn’t Genetic

DNA doesn’t determine race. Society does.

If you glanced around the room at a conference of geneticists, it would be easy to guess where in the world all the attendees’ ancestors came from. Using skin color, hair, facial features, and other physical traits, you could distinguish the East Asians from the South Asians and the Africans from the Europeans. Our broad racial categories appear to be founded on genuine biological differences between people from different geographical regions. And these differences seem to define a set of natural human groups, the product of the last 70,000 years or so when modern humans emerged from Africa to colonize the other continents, acquiring distinct physical traits as they adapted to new environments.

The concept of human races appears to be solidly grounded in present-day biology and our evolutionary history. But if you asked that conference of geneticists to give you a genetic definition of race, they wouldn’t be able to do it. Human races are not natural genetic groups; they are socially constructed categories.

Now, the truth of this claim is not obvious. The idea that humans fall naturally into racial groups is almost universally accepted in all societies. Sure, many people have mixed ancestry that crosses racial boundaries, but there are undeniable physical differences between people native to different parts of the world. Many of those physical differences reflect genetic differences, and over the past two decades, researchers have used those genetic differences to pinpoint the geographical origins of people’s ancestry with ever-increasing precision. Just last month, one group reported that they could use DNA to place Sardinians within 30 miles of their native village. On a larger scale, geneticists will frequently talk about the “populations” of general geographical areas, making these broad populations sound very much like races. And there are clear examples of recently evolved adaptations in different human populations, such as the high-altitude physiology in Tibetans and Andeans.

Genes certainly reflect geography, but unlike geography, human genetic differences don’t fall along obvious natural boundaries that might define races. As my Washington University colleague Alan Templeton has shown, by objective genetic definitions of race, human races don’t exist. Writing in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Templeton notes that “Human populations certainly show genetic differences across geographical space, but this does not necessarily mean that races exist in humans.” For an objective, biological definition of race, this genetic differentiation has to occur “across sharp boundaries and not as gradual changes.” Templeton examined two genetic definitions of race that are commonly applied by biologists to vertebrate species. In both cases, races clearly exist in chimpanzees, our nearest relatives, but not in humans.

One natural definition of race is a group whose members are genetically much more similar to each other than they are to other groups. Putting a number on what counts as “much more” is a somewhat arbitrary exercise, but Templeton found that the genetic differentiation between populations of chimpanzees is over seven times greater than the genetic differentiation between broad geographical populations of humans. Furthermore, the level of genetic differentiation between human populations falls well below the threshold that biologists typically use to define races in non-human species.

Races could also be defined by genetic branches on the family tree. For most of us, this is the most intuitive definition of race. It’s one that, at first glance, is consistent with recent human evolution: After originating in Africa, part of our species branched out first into Asia and Europe, and then to the rest of the world. We should thus expect different geographical populations to be distinct genetic limbs on our species’ recent evolutionary tree.

But as it turns out, our species’ family history is not so arboreal. Geneticists have methods for measuring the “treeness” of genetic relationships between populations. Templeton found that the genetic relationships between human populations don’t have a very tree-like structure, while chimpanzee populations do. Rather than a family tree with distinct racial branches, humans have a family trellis that lacks clear genetic boundaries between different groups.

These findings reflect our unusual recent evolutionary history. Unlike the distinct populations of chimps, humans continued to exchange both goods and genes with each other even as they rapidly settled an enormous geographical range. Those ongoing contacts, plus the fact that we were a small, genetically homogeneous species to begin with, has resulted in relatively close genetic relationships, despite our worldwide presence. The DNA differences between humans increase with geographical distance, but boundaries between populations are, as geneticists Kenneth Weiss and Jeffrey Long put it, “multilayered, porous, ephemeral, and difficult to identify.” Pure, geographically separated ancestral populations are an abstraction: “There is no reason to think that there ever were isolated, homogeneous parental populations at any time in our human past.”

Without natural genetic boundaries to guide us, human racial categories remain a product of our choices. Those choices are not totally arbitrary, biologically meaningless, or without utility. But because they are choices, we have some leeway in how we define and apply racial categories. We shouldn’t deceive ourselves; how we define race does not just reflect biology, it reflects culture, history, and politics as well.

White, Michael. 2014. “Why Your Race Isn’t Genetic”. Pacific Standard Magazine. Posted: May 30, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Who Were the Ancient Goths?

The Goths were a people who flourished in Europe throughout ancient times and into the Middle Ages. Referred to at times as “barbarians,” they are famous for sacking the city of Rome in A.D. 410.  Ironically, however, they are often credited with helping preserve Roman culture. After the sacking of Rome, a group of Goths moved to Gaul (in modern-day France) and Iberia and formed the Visigothic Kingdom. This kingdom would eventually incorporate Catholic Christianity, Roman artistic traditions and other aspects of Roman culture. The last Gothic kingdom fell to the Moors in A.D. 711.

Today, the meaning of the word "Goth" has evolved beyond any direct relationship to the ancient Goths. In the late Middle Ages, a style of architecture arose, characterized by large, imposing cathedrals and castles. The term "Gothic" was applied to the style as a critique, the word even at that time being a synonym for "barbaric."

During the 18th and 19th centuries, a genre of dark, romantic literature called "Gothic fiction" flourished. Characterized by novels such as Bram Stoker's "Dracula," Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and the works of Edgar Allen Poe, the genre got its name from the Gothic locations in which the stories took place — for example, Dracula's dark, foreboding castle.

In modern times, "Goth" has been used for a subculture with its own style of music, aesthetic and fashion. The dark, often gloomy Goth imagery was influenced by Gothic fiction, particularly horror movies.

From an island in the north?

Where exactly the ancient Goths came from is a mystery. In the sixth century A.D., the writer Jordanes (who was likely Gothic himself) wrote a history of the Goths. He claimed that the Goths came from a cold island called “Scandza,” possibly modern-day Scandinavia. When they would have lived there is unknown.

“Now from the island of Scandza, as from a hive of races or a womb of nations, the Goths are said to have come forth long ago under their king, Berig by name,” he wrote (translation by Charles Mierow). After a series of migrations south, they found themselves living close to the borders of the Roman Empire.

Our knowledge about the Goths before they interacted extensively with the Romans is limited. They had a written language of sorts that made use of runic inscriptions; however, few of these inscriptions have been found and those that survive are quite short. Their religion may have made use of shamans, people who could have acted as intermediaries between themselves and the gods.

Contact with Rome

In the third century A.D., the Goths launched a series of raids into the Roman Empire. “The first known attack came in 238, when Goths sacked the city of Histria at the mouth of the river Danube. A series of much more substantial land incursions followed a decade later,” writes Peter Heather, a professor at King’s College London, in his book “The Goths” (Blackwell Publishers, 1996).

He notes that in A.D. 268, a massive expedition of Goths, along with other groups also called barbarians, broke into the Aegean Sea, wreaking havoc. They attacked a number of settlements, including Ephesus (a city in Anatolia inhabited by Greeks), where they destroyed a temple dedicated to the goddess Diana.

“The destruction wrought by this combined assault on land and sea were severe, and prompted a fierce Roman response. Not only were the individual groups defeated, but no major raid ever again broke through the Dardanelles,” writes Heather.

The Goths' tumultuous relationship with Rome would continue into the fourth century. While Goths served as Roman soldiers, and trade took place across the Danube River, there was plenty of conflict.

Heather notes that a Gothic group called the Tervingi intervened in Roman imperial politics, supporting two unsuccessful claimants to the emperorship. In A.D. 321, they supported Licinius against Constantine, and in A.D. 365, they supported Procopius against Valens. In both instances this backfired, with Constantine and Valens launching attacks against the Tervingi after becoming emperor.

As contact with Rome intensified, a form of Christianity known as Arianism spread among the Goths.

“In the 340s, the Arian Gothic bishop Ulfilas or Wulfila (d. 383) translated the Bible into the Gothic language in a script based chiefly upon the uncial Greek alphabet and said to have been invented by Ulfilas for the purpose,” writes Robin Sowerby, a lecturer at the University of Stirling, in an article in the book “A New Companion to the Gothic” (Wiley, 2012).

In time, the Goths would adopt the Catholic form of Christianity that came to be used in Rome.

Pushed out by the Huns

This complicated relationship would be forever altered with the appearance north of the Danube of a new group, called the Huns, around A.D. 375. The Huns pushed the Goths into Roman territory.

The Goths, seeking refuge among the Romans, were treated poorly. Lacking food, they were forced to sell their children into slavery at humiliating prices.

“When the barbarians after their crossing were harassed by lack of food, those most hateful [Roman] generals devised a disgraceful traffic; they exchanged every dog that their insatiability could gather from far and wide for one slave each, and among these were carried off also sons of the chieftains,” wrote Ammianus Marcellinus who lived in the fourth century A.D. (translation by John C. Rolfe).

After being refused entry to the city of Marcianople, the Goths revolted, roaming across the Balkans, plundering Roman towns.

Emperor Valens, who ruled the eastern half of the Roman Empire, personally led an army into the Balkans to subdue the Goths. On August 9, A.D. 378, this army engaged the Goths near the city of Adrianople (also called Hadrianopolis). Valens underestimated the size of the Gothic force. As a result, his army was outflanked by the Goths and annihilated, the emperor himself killed.

“Just when it first became dark, the emperor being among a crowd of common soldiers, as it was believed — for no one said either that he had seen him, or been near him — was mortally wounded with an arrow, and, very shortly after, died, though his body was never found,” wrote Marcellinus (translation by C.D. Yonge).

Valens' successor, Theodosius, made a treaty with the Goths that lasted up until his death in A.D. 395.

Rise of Alaric

After A.D. 395, the treaty with Rome fell apart. A Gothic leader named Alaric rose to pre-eminence, leading the Goths into battle against both the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire. 

The conflict that followed was complicated. Alaric wanted to make a deal that would result in the Goths under his command getting good farmland and monetary rewards. He undertook raids to pressure the Romans. 

Heather writes that by A.D. 403, Alaric was in the Balkans, finding himself an “outlaw rejected by both halves of the Empire.” An attempt by Alaric to move the Goths into Italy had failed, and there had been a massacre of the Gothic inhabitants of Constantinople in A.D. 400. 

Fortunes changed for Alaric and the Goths when the Western Roman Empire began to crumble. The emperor Honorius faced rebellion among his army and a usurper named Constantine III amassed territory in Britain and Gaul. In the wake of these problems, Honorius had his general, Stilicho, killed in A.D. 408. 

Seeing weakness, Alaric advanced into Italy a second time, finding support from Stilicho’s former supporters as well as runaway slaves. He was camped outside of Rome by A.D. 410, using the city as a bargaining chip in an effort to get concessions from Honorius’ government. After a series of unsuccessful negotiations, Alaric sacked the city on Aug. 24. 

Two kingdoms

Alaric would die a few months after the sacking of Rome. During the fifth century A.D., as the Western Roman Empire faded, two Gothic kingdoms would rise up. In Iberia and southwest Gaul, the Visigothic Kingdom would be formed. This kingdom would last until A.D. 711, when it fell to an invasion by the Moors. However, they slowly regained control and in 718 founded the Kingdom of Asturias, which evolved into modern Portugal and Spain.

Meanwhile in Italy, the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths came into existence by the end of the fifth century A.D., eventually dominating the entire peninsula. This kingdom was short-lived, falling to Justinian I, emperor of the Byzantine Empire, within a few decades. 

As Europe entered the Dark Ages, the Visigothic Kingdom would help preserve many aspects of Roman culture including its religion and artistic traditions. It’s ironic that the Goths, the people who had sacked Rome in A.D. 410, helped carry Roman culture into the time to come. 

Jarus, Owen. 2014. “Who Were the Ancient Goths?”. Live Science. Posted: May 29, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Burial reveals complex origins of metallurgy

The origin of metallurgy in the ancient Near East is well attested in the southern Levant, with rich assemblages of copper artefacts from the Nahal Mishmar cave and the unique gold rings of the Nahal Qanah cave, confirming this as the main centre during the second half of the 5th millennium CalBC. However many important questions about Chalcolithic metallurgy in the southern Levant remain unanswered, such as, where do the materials used in the processes come from, where were the final goods produced, and what were the dynamics of production? New questions continue to arise as recent discoveries force previous interpretations to be reconsidered.

New evidence has come to light in the form of a copper awl from a Middle Chalcolithic burial at Tel Tsaf in the Jordan Valley, Israel, suggesting that cast metal technology was introduced to the region as early as the late 6th millennium CalBC.

Middle Chalcolithic phase

Tel Tsaf is an archaeological site  south-east of Beit She’an, and in 2004–2007 a large excavation project was conducted by Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Tel Tsaf is dated to ca. 5100–4600 CalBC, sometimes called the Middle Chalcolithic, a little-known period in the archaeology of the Levant, post-dating the Wadi Rabah phase and pre-dating the Ghassulian Chalcolithic phase.

The complex mud-brick architectural settings include courtyard buildings combining rectilinear, rounded rooms and grain silos, as well as a large number of cooking facilities. Four burials were uncovered, two of which were found inside grain silos. The silos uncovered in courtyard structures reached a storage capacity estimated at 15–30 tons of grain, far beyond the yearly needs of a family; a clear indication of the accumulation of surpluses on a scale unprecedented in the ancient Near East.

Tel Tsaf contained a rich assemblage of over 2,500 beads made of ostrich egg-shell, obsidian items originating in Anatolia or Armenia, four Ubaid pottery shards imported from either north Syria or Mesopotamia and a Nilotic shell from Egypt. These finds exhibit connections of unexpected distance and diversity.

A small find with greater implications

A paper presented in the Open Access journal PLOSone examines the chemical composition of the tiny copper awl and reviews its context for the first time.

The object was found in the grave of an articulated skeleton of an adult female who was approximately 40 years old. It is described as an elongated pin made of cast copper, with a rounded cross-section. It is 41 mm long with a maximum diameter (near the base and at the middle of its length) of 5 mm. The diameter near its tip is 1 mm. The colour of its exterior is green due to oxidization and corrosion, while the core is reddish. The narrower tip bears signs of rotational movement and remains of a wooden handle were noted on the base at the opposite end, suggesting its use as an awl. Unfortunately this artefact was completely corroded, so it was impossible to examine the structure of the metal and production technique, however, the composition was possible using Niton ED-XRF analysis.

High status trading family

The results indicate that it was made from a natural tin-copper and brought from a distant source, probably the Caucasus, and transported to the Jordan Valley via long-distance exchange networks, which also brought obsidian, groundstone items and other goods from Armenia, Anatolia and Syria through the Levantine Corridor. This infers a high status on the occupants of Courtyard Building I; a family or selected group within the community that quite possibly controlled local cultivation and storage of grain as well as long-distance trade.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Burial reveals complex origins of metallurgy”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 27, 2014. Available online:

Monday, July 14, 2014

Alice in Wonderland contributes to advances in linguistics

Annemarie Verkerk examined sentences that denote movement in 20 translations of Alice in Wonderland and two other novels. She used methods from evolutionary biology to analyse how linguistic descriptions of movement change over time. On 13 June, Verkerk will obtain her doctorate from Radboud University.

Until now linguists have divided sentences denoting movement into two construction types. In the first type, a verb expresses the way of moving and a preposition or adverb expresses the path of that movement ('walk across a bridge'). In the second type, a verb expresses the path of movement and the way of moving is omitted or placed in an adverb or clause ('to cross'). Traditionally, languages are divided into two classes, depending on which of the two constructions they most commonly use.

More constructions

However, 'There are more constructions for expressing movement than the two types on which we have focused until now', says Verkerk. 'Various languages in the Indo-European language family that I examined don't 'fit' within either of the two existing classes but in the spectrum in between. My research shows how the way that Indo-European languages indicate movement has changed through history.'

Alice in Wonderland and The Alchemist

Verkerk studied the novels Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and what Alice found there (both by Lewis Carroll) and The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. She selected 215 sentences in which characters move from one place to another. Translators worldwide helped her to further analyse these sentences from twenty different translations, from Russian to Hindi.

Collection of 'movement sentences'

Verkerk analysed the collection of 'movement sentences' using methods from evolutionary biology. 'You can use a family tree of languages, like they have in biology for animal species. This reconstructs the history of languages, as well as mapping out the relationships between specific characteristics of those languages. Take, for instance, the use of constructions and verbs: languages that commonly express the way of moving in verbs, have more of those verbs than languages that express the path of movement in verbs. The methods I used are useful for any research into the behaviour of language over time.'

Science Daily. 2014. “Alice in Wonderland contributes to advances in linguistics”. Science Daily. Posted: May 22, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire altered landscape development

Human activity resulting from the Spanish conquest had a profound effect on coastal change in northwestern Peru, according to researchers at the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute.

Daniel Belknap, a professor of Earth sciences, and Daniel Sandweiss, a professor of anthropology and Quaternary and climate studies, researched how demographic and economic effects of the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire altered landscape development on the Chira beach-ridge plain in northern coastal Peru.

The findings were documented in an article, “Effect of the Spanish Conquest on coastal change in Northwestern Peru,” which was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Sandy beach ridges

The researchers determined that human activity, specifically the disposal of mollusk shells, was essential to preserving the sandy beach ridges along the Chira River in Peru.

“This type of interdisciplinary research is a hallmark of the Climate Change Institute at UMaine and contributes to better understanding of the impacts of humans on coastal systems,” Belknap says.

The study illustrates the value of comparing historic, archaeological, climatic and geological data and demonstrates that human activity alters landscapes, as well as cultures. The research also provides evidence of a previously unrecognised consequence of the Spanish conquest.

“We show that humans had a clear effect on a coastal system that now appears to be an uninhabited, natural landscape, yet is the product of millennia of anthropogenic modification of the environment,” the researchers say.

Shells deposited by humans

The Chira River carries primarily sand at its inlet. The ridges, or narrow dunes that run for miles parallel to the shoreline, are built entirely of sand. Most ridges with sharp crests are covered by shells that are associated with fire-cracked rocks, fire pits and other artefacts that suggest the shells were deposited by humans. The shells act as armour, protecting the ridges from erosion caused by onshore winds, according to the researchers.

For more than 30 years, archaeologists and geologists have been studying beach ridges in northern Peru to better understand maritime economies, the influence of El Nino cycles and the effects of sea-level change and sediment supply on coastal systems.

Previous research has shown disposed shells are instrumental in holding sand ridges in place in the face of persistent winds. Belknap and Sandweiss, who conducted a field examination of the ridges in 1997, hypothesized that only the shell-armoured ridges are stabilised and would maintain their shape and prevent winds from blowing sand inland.

Direct effect of European presence

The studied region was the first area in Peru to experience the direct effect of European presence, according to the researchers. In 1532, Francisco Pizarro and his conquistadors moved to the Chira Valley, where they founded the first Spanish settlement in what is now Peru.

The Spanish conquest caused extreme depopulation of the Chira coast within a century, which drastically changed the economy and devastated traditional coastal shellfish harvesting. North of the Chira River, the changes affected the evolution of beach ridges.

The researchers found the last well-preserved ridge corresponds in age with the Spanish conquest of the region, and they correlate the devastation of the coastal population after European contact with a distinctly different geomorphology.

Population growth into the 19th and 20th centuries no longer resulted in shell waste on the coastal ridges because of mollusk exportation to interior markets. For the past 500 years, demographic decline and economic change have eliminated shell heaps on the coast, causing the newly formed dune ridges to dry up and eventually blow inland.

The researchers suggest there may have been more ridges than the nine documented dunes in the Chira beach-ridge plain, but for cultural and climatic reasons, there was no shell waste to stabilise them and some of the ridges may be composites of several events.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire altered landscape development”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 21, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Who Were the Druids?

Druids were people in ancient Britain and France who served a wide variety of roles — “philosophers, teachers, judges, the repository of communal wisdoms about the natural world and the traditions of the people, and the mediators between humans and the gods,” writes Barry Cunliffe in his book “Druids: A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2010). He notes that, curiously, the ancient texts don’t call them “priests” directly.

Almost everything we know about druids is second-hand knowledge. Surviving texts that mention them were written by non-druids, something that poses a problem to modern-day historians trying to understand who they were and how their role changed over time. Indeed, Julius Caesar, who conquered Gaul, is among the principal sources of information about druids. He wrote that druids preferred oral teaching to writing.

Regardless of who exactly the druids were, it is clear that they were often revered. Druids could be found in Britain and Gaul (modern-day France), as well as other parts of Europe and perhaps even in the Middle East. The writer Dio Chrysostom, who lived about 1,900 years ago, compared druids to the Magi and the Brahmans of India. The “Celts appointed those whom they call druids, these also being devoted to the prophetic art and to wisdom in general,” he wrote (translation courtesy University of Chicago website).

When did druidism begin?

When druidism began is unknown. Cunliffe, an emeritus professor of European archaeology at the University of Oxford, notes that the earliest written reference to them dates back about 2,400 years ago. While druidism surely goes back much earlier than this, how far back is unknown.

Ancient druidism continued up until around 1,200 years ago, gradually being supplanted by Christianity. There is a revival movement of modern-day druids; however, Cunliffe, among other scholars, is careful to point out that there is a gap of almost a millennium between the demise of the ancient druids and the appearance of this revival group.

People today often associate Stonehenge with druidism. However, Stonehenge was constructed mainly between 5,000 and 4,000 years ago whereas the earliest written reference to the druids dates back to about 2,400 years ago. So, again, there is a gap in time and the question of whether druidism existed when Stonehenge was built, and if so in what form, is an open one. 

Mistletoe and the moon Ancient sources provide some tantalizing hints to the things that the druids held in great importance.

In one passage, Pliny the Elder (who lived almost 2,000 years ago) talks about the importance of mistletoe and of the fifth day of the moon.

He said that mistletoe “is gathered with rites replete with religious awe. This is done more particularly on the fifth day of the moon, the day which is the beginning of their months and years, as also of their ages …” (translation by John Bostock). 

He also talks about the importance of animal sacrifice and fertility to the druids. They “bring thither two white bulls, the horns of which are bound then for the first time. Clad in a white robe the priest ascends the tree, and cuts the mistletoe with a golden sickle, which is received by others in a white cloak. They then immolate the victims" while offering prayers, wrote Pliny the Elder. “It is the belief with them that the mistletoe, taken in drink, will impart [fertility] to all animals that are barren, and that it is an antidote for all poisons.”

How widespread was druidism?

How widespread druidism was in the ancient world is also a mystery. It certainly flourished in the British Isles and Gaul. Julius Caesar claimed that druidism originally came from Britain, and those who wished to study it in depth traveled there.

“This institution is supposed to have been devised in Britain, and to have been brought over from it into Gaul; and now those who desire to gain a more accurate knowledge of that system generally proceed [to Britain] for the purpose of studying it.” (Translation courtesy Perseus Digital Library) 

Whether druidism truly originated in Britain is unknown. Additionally, it is possible that druids were found much farther afield. Druidism is often associated with a people known as the Celts, and their settlements have been found as far east as modern-day Turkey. Additionally, Celtic mercenaries served as far away as Egypt (during the reign of Cleopatra VII) and even Judaea.

Did the druids practice human sacrifice?

Today, it is often said that the druids practiced human sacrifice. This may not be accurate. Ancient sources indicate that druids served alongside several other classes that also performed spiritual functions. The identity and role of these other classes changed, depending on the culture and the time.

A man named Diodorus Siculus, who lived more than 2,000 years ago, said that while the druids were always present during a human sacrifice, it was another group known as the “vates” that carried out the sacrifice itself.

How widespread human sacrifice was among the cultures that the druids served is another mystery. It’s important to note that much of the writing that survives comes from Roman writers who could be hostile toward the druids and the cultures they served.

For instance, in A.D. 60 the druids joined a rebellion against the Romans on the island of Mona (modern-day Anglesey) in Wales. Cornelius Tacitus reported that after the Romans crushed the rebels they found widespread evidence of human sacrifice, a claim that may have been exaggerated to cast the druids in a negative light.

“A force was next set over the conquered, and their groves, devoted to inhuman superstitions, were destroyed. They deemed it indeed a duty to cover their altars with the blood of captives and to consult their deities through human entrails,” wrote Tacitus (translation courtesy Perseus Digital Library).

The end of druidism

As Christianity spread throughout Europe, druidism gradually faded away. Cunliffe notes that druids were still present in Ireland in the eighth century A.D. but in a much reduced form.

“Druids are now seen to be the makers of love-potions and casters of spells but little else,” Cunliffe writes. “The mood is captured by one 8th-century hymn that asks for God’s protection from the spells of women, blacksmiths and druids!”

Druidism would fade away during the Middle Ages, but would be revived in modern times, albeit about a millennium after the ancient form became extinct.

Jarus, Owen. 2014. “Who Were the Druids?”. Live Science. Posted: May 20, 2014. Available online:

Friday, July 11, 2014

Discovering the artists of the Eastern Sahara

Recently discovered rock art on the walls of a cave in the Egyptian Western Desert has been provisionally dated by a Cambridge University archaeologist as between 6,000 and 7,000 years old, created at least 1,000 years before the building of the pyramids. The drawings add weight to the argument that Egyptian culture drew on cultural influences from Africa and not only from the Near East.

Spotted by a tourist to Wadi el Obeiyid, north of Farafra Oasis, drawings of a giraffe, a bovid (cow-like mammal) and two boats, plus the outline of a human hand, were examined last month by Dr Giulio Lucarini who co-leads a team of archaeologists looking at the pathways, and timings, by which domestic animals and plants from the Levant arrived in Egypt. The engravings are thought to have been discovered in 2010. The onset of revolution in Egypt meant that they were not investigated for some time.

Based at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, Lucarini is an expert in the transition from foraging to farming in North Africa. With Professor Barbara Barich of ISMEO in Rome, he is co-director of a project (the Archaeological Mission in the Farafra Oasis) that has been studying the archaeology of this region of the Eastern Sahara since the late 1980s.

Earliest artistic evidence

The site of the newly-identified images – which are engraved into the white chalk surface – has been dubbed the Boats Arch, a reference to the shape of the shallow cave. The location is 600 km southwest of Cairo and 50 km into the desert from the nearest paved road at Farafra  – a journey across a desert track surrounded by beautiful sand dunes.

Boats Arch is about 3 km from another site – known as Wadi el Obeiyid Cave – where examples of rock art were first examined by Barich in 1995. The art in this first cave features representations of engraved boats and animals as well as painted hand stencils.  “What’s really exciting is that these drawings are among the earliest artistic evidence of the people who lived in the Farafra and possibly in the whole Eastern Sahara,” said Lucarini.

Rock art is notoriously tricky to date. “The marked similarity in style seen in the bovid, which is probably an oryx, and giraffe in the Boats Arch and the animals in Wadi Obeiyid Cave, dated to around 6000/5500 BC, suggests a similar period for the two sites. In style the boat images correlate to those found on decorated pots from Predynastic sites along the Nile Valley, dated around 3500 BC. But we can presume from the regrowth of calcite crystals along their engravings, possible under humid conditions, that they could be even older,” said Lucarini.

Farafra’s rock art sites are 600 km from the Red Sea, 400 km from the Mediterranean and 300 km from the Nile.

“The location is another important for another aspect of the find,” said Lucarini.  “Representations of boats in the Egyptian Western Desert are rare in comparison to those in the Eastern Desert, a region which connects the Nile valley with the Red Sea. They could have been created by people who were moving across very long distances and could have visited the sea or the Nile Valley. In the sites we investigated we did not find any faunal remains belonging to giraffe so, like the images of boats, the drawing of the giraffe may represent not a local element but something seen somewhere else and considered exotic.”

Building a picture of the transition

The Archaeological Mission in the Farafra Oasis is building a picture of the transition from foraging societies to communities based on the exploitation of domestic species. Today the Wadi el Obeiyid landscape is arid and characterised by white limestone formations and high sand dunes, but thousands of years ago the region was a savannah-like environment with grasslands offering subsistence to human groups and animals.

“Since 1987, we have had permission from the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities to survey some 10,000 square kilometres of desert. Our starting point in the research is the use of satellite images which enable us to identify past sources of water and therefore where settlements may have been located. We then carry out detailed walking surveys of these areas to try to locate the presence of old seasonal lacustrine basins, shallow pools, around which people used to live,” said Lucarini.

Over the past years Lucarini and team have been studying the remains of Sheikh el Obeiyid village, a slab structure site with stone circles that were once the foundations of huts made with animal skin and vegetation. “We’ve also found tumuli containing corridor structures. They weren’t dwellings, burials or storage spaces. They may have had a religious or symbolic function,” he said.

“In the past archaeologists have tended to see Africa as somehow lagging ‘behind’ Europe and the Near East, but our work shows that people living in the Eastern Sahara had a significant and developed culture – which fed into the development of the Pharaonic civilization and beyond.”

Lucarini is keen to develop training programmes for Egyptian Antiquities inspectors, teachers and school children in order to share the team’s research into the region’s archaeological and environmental significance and underline the importance of preserving the cultural heritage, which is, at present, vulnerable to damage.

Past Horizons. 2014. “Discovering the artists of the Eastern Sahara”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 19, 2014. Available online: