Saturday, January 31, 2015

Symbolic Gestures: The Magical Thinking Of New Year's Resolutions

“I will definitely give up smoking – that’s my New Year’s resolution,” she stated emphatically as she thumped her fist on the table to underline her determination. “All very well”, I thought, as I sat opposite her in my medical consulting room in October.

What is it about New Year’s resolutions that we find so compelling?

Many of us make resolutions and many of them are broken by January 31st. Yet come the next New Year, we do it all over again, like some 365 “groundhog day” cycle we get trapped in. Why?

In my patient’s case, unfortunately, I suspect her New Year’s resolution provided her with the opportunity to procrastinate. Despite comprehensive development of a smoking cessation plan, and extensive knowledge about the dangers to her health, she just didn’t want to give up smoking.

Her New Year’s resolution bought her some time, gave her permission to keep smoking until January 1st. Logic dictates that if you want to change a habit or behavior, any time should be good enough to start the change process. Sure, some planning for the change is a good idea, but many of us excessively delay our proposed behavior change, and profess that we need a decent interval of time to ready ourselves. In actual fact, it is because we just want to hang on to our bad habits a bit longer and we build elaborate time justifications to assuage our guilt. Human beings are great at tying themselves into complex mental knots to diminish guilt, sometimes with dire consequences.

People love symbols, rituals and structure; obviously some need them more than others.

In our 21st-century lives, most of us do not live by the seasons, harvests or totally by available daylight hours. The calendar dictates the structure of our lives and within this, there are sub-calendars for business, work, school, anniversaries, birthdays and festivals.

Our Gregorian calendar clearly marks January 1 as the official beginning of a new year. Certainly many cultures consider other dates as the beginning of a new year. Equated with a new year is a new beginning. The symbolism of using a publicly-acclaimed date for a new beginning may make us feel as if we have the support of a whole population for our New Year’s resolutions.

There is a symbolic communal oath being taken by making a resolution on January 1, even if we make our resolutions silently and privately. Entwined in this symbolic gesture, is a mysterious human trait called “magical thinking”.

We all indulge in degrees of this, particularly when we were children. Have you ever read your horoscope, avoided walking under a ladder or bought a lottery ticket? These are all forms of magical thinking. We imbue events, dates, places and people with powers that defy logic but nonetheless give us comfort and hope.

January 1 is a “magical” date and a vow made on this day is much more powerful than one made on August 26, for example. (Unless, of course, August 26 holds special meaning for you.) Reparation often drives New Year’s resolutions. Coming hot on the heels of Christmas, the season of overindulgence, many of us make New Year’s resolutions to lose weight, stop or decrease alcohol intake, stop smoking, stop taking street drugs, decrease spending money, to spend more time with family, to work less or more in the New Year, and so on.

The list of resolutions matches the “bad” behavior expressed over Christmas. In this way the New Year’s resolution is a form of attempting to undo the excesses. The difficulty here is that some see the New Year resolution as forward permission to overdo it during December, believing we can expunge the consequences of our behavior by a bout of severe self-restraint in January.

This feast and famine approach to bad habits doesn’t work because both extremes are short-lived and do not necessarily cancel each other out.

Perhaps one of the deepest reasons to make a New Year’s resolution is embedded in our reactions to the end of the previous year. Maybe we see it as a loss and mourn the passage of time. After all, each year has its own personality, defined by the events of that year.

If we lose loved ones in a particular year, through death or other partings, then that year becomes intricately entangled with the loss.

In this situation, the New Year’s resolution is an important ritual combining both sadness and the positivity of a new start. Another patient once told me that every January 1, she repeats her wedding vows in memory of her husband who died five years ago and promises him that she will do her best for their children.

This ritual allows her to live her life, having reaffirmed that her husband is not forgotten. Such New Year’s resolutions are held with a deep conviction, mark the passage of time and lay out a course for the year ahead.

This year, we will again make New Year’s resolutions and, yet again, it is most likely we will break them. But we may get a little better with changing our behavior each time, and each year our resolutions could last a bit longer, allowing us to inch towards our goals.

Jayashri Kulkarni , Professor of Psychiatry at Monash University, receives funding from the NHMRC, The Stanley Medical Research Institute,Washington, the Department of Health, Victorian Government.Over the past 25 years she has received research funding from the pharmaceutical companies Janssen Cilag,Eli Lilly, Astra Zeneca, Pfizer, Hospira,Roche, Otsuka and Lundbeck. This article is her own personal opinion and has no funding or influence associated with it.
Kulkarni, Jayashri. 2015. “Symbolic Gestures: The Magical Thinking Of New Year's Resolutions”. Science 2.0. Posted: January 1, 2015. Available online:

Friday, January 30, 2015

Stoicism: Ancient Wisdom For The Modern World

Marcus Aurelius (121-180 BC) was emperor of Rome at the height of its influence and power.

One can only imagine the pressures that a person in his position might have experienced. The military might of the empire was massive, and much could happen in the fog of war. Conspiracies ran rampant through the imperial court. What might be lurking right around the corner seemed unforeseeable. Economies flourished and fell into ruin. Barbarians at the Gates! And if Marcus was stressed out, how much more might the ordinary Roman suffer from this uncertainty?

But, as we start 2015, is Marcus’s world really all that different from ours?

Today, global financial markets seem to move of their own accord as life savings vanish. Conflict around the world and violence at home seems hopelessly incomprehensible for most of us. US elections have seen some of their lowest voter turnout in recent memory, and the country seems more polarized than ever. The constant flow of information from the media and Internet can make one feel small and ineffectual.

If all these stresses push one into a state of despair, or at least a sense of futility, maybe we can follow Marcus’ advice and turn to philosophy. In particular, the philosophy of Stoicism.

The principles of Stoicism

Stoicism was founded in Athens around 300 BC, and had its zenith during the Roman Imperial period of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, in the writings of such thinkers as Seneca and Epictetus, as well as Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism promised that a good life is available to us even in the face of overwhelming circumstances, which might partly explain its attractiveness to even the mighty emperor of the most powerful empire of its time.

Central to this life, according to the Stoics, is a certain set of cognitive approaches to what goes on in the world around us.

First, we must recognize that the vast majority of circumstances and events are out of our control. What is in our control is how we react to them. Thus, what matters to having a good life is not what happens to us, but rather how we deal with it.

The second major point is that those things under our control -– our thoughts – are both the source of our suffering, and something that we can learn to control. When we learn to have the appropriate reactions and thoughts, we can then live a happy and fruitful life even in the face of enormous difficulties.

In the words of Epictetus:

If you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men. But if you think that only what is yours is yours, and that what is not your own is, just as it is, not your own, then no one will ever coerce you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, you will not accuse anyone, you will not do a single thing unwillingly, you will have no enemies, and no one will harm you, because you will not be harmed at all.

Stoicism applied to contemporary life

A growing number of deeply thoughtful people, from scholars to practicing therapists, are following Marcus’ advice today. For example, a group at the University of Essex in the UK has developed “Stoic Week,” and produced guidelines for anyone to participate in stoic practices for a week and share their experiences.

Having just concluded its third iteration, this experiment in stoic living has indicated that stoicism may in fact be a helpful tool in modern life. Preliminary results from the first stoic week suggest that the majority of participants had significant reductions in negative feelings associated with stress and anxiety, etc.

The practice of stoicism is also now being pursued in the US. The University of Wyoming hosts a Stoic Camp, first run in May of 2014, putting students and faculty together to live by stoic principles on a 24 hour basis.

Stoic camp in Wyoming

Based in the Snowy Range outside of Centennial, WY, the initial camp hosted only students from Wyoming, but further iterations will accept students from other universities.

On a typical day, campers rise early in order to practice meditation based in the ancient texts and use this practice to help structure the rest of the day. Each morning and afternoon, the camp breaks into groups to read and discuss portions of Marcus’s Meditations and consider how they reflected his stoic values and advice. By repeating this process, these ideas can become part of our cognitive equipment.

Campers also engaged in outdoor activities to emphasize our affinity with nature and the universe as a whole.

Some of the campers were deeply affected by their experience. One camper told me, “Stoic camp was a continual reminder that so little is under our control, and also that there is no reason to stress over it. The repetition made this realization longer lasting, and gave us tools to use in living life in the face of stressful situations.”

So, these cognitive realizations and tools may help us to live a happy, fruitful life. As the Stoics emphasize, however, such a life cannot consist in making the world bend to our will. Rather it must consist in making ourselves more fit to live well in the world as it is.

As Marcus says, “Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to live … while you have life in you, while you still can, make yourself good.”

Robert S. Colter , Academic Professional Lecturer, Philosophy at University of Wyoming, does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
Colter, Robert S. 2015. “Stoicism: Ancient Wisdom For The Modern World”. Science 2.0. Posted: January 2, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Mystery of Ancient Chinese Civilization's Disappearance Explained

An earthquake nearly 3,000 years ago may be the culprit in the mysterious disappearance of one of China's ancient civilizations, new research suggests.

The massive temblor may have caused catastrophic landslides, damming up the Sanxingdui culture's main water source and diverting it to a new location.

That, in turn, may have spurred the ancient Chinese culture to move closer to the new river flow, study co-author Niannian Fan, a river sciences researcher at Tsinghua University in Chengdu, China, said Dec. 18 at the 47th annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Ancient civilization

In 1929, a peasant in Sichuan province uncovered jade and stone artifacts while repairing a sewage ditch located about 24 miles (40 kilometers) from Chengdu. But their significance wasn't understood until 1986, when archaeologists unearthed two pits of Bronze Age treasures, such as jades, about 100 elephant tusks and stunning 8-feet-high (2.4 meters) bronze sculptures that suggest an impressive technical ability that was present nowhere else in the world at the time, said Peter Keller, a geologist and president of the Bowers Museum in Santa Ana, California, which is currently hosting an exhibit of some of these treasures.

The treasures, which had been broken and buried as if they were sacrificed, came from a lost civilization, now known as the Sanxingdui, a walled city on the banks of the Minjiang River.

"It's a big mystery," said Keller, who was not involved in the current study.

Archaeologists now believe that the culture willfully dismantled itself sometime between 3,000 and 2,800 years ago, Fan said.

"The current explanations for why it disappeared are war and flood, but both are not very convincing," Fan told Live Science.

But about 14 years ago, archaeologists found the remains of another ancient city called Jinsha near Chengdu. The Jinsha site, though it contained none of the impressive bronzes of Sanxingdui, did have a gold crown with a similar engraved motif of fish, arrows and birds as a golden staff found at Sanxingdui, Keller said. That has led some scholars to believe that the people from Sanxingdui may have relocated to Jinsha.

But why has remained a mystery.

Geological and historical clues

Fan and his colleagues wondered whether an earthquake may have caused landslides that dammed the river high up in the mountains and rerouted it to Jinsha. That catastrophe may have reduced Sanxingdui's water supply, spurring its inhabitants to move.

The valley where Sanxingdui sits has a large floodplain, with 4.3 miles (7 kilometers) of high terraced walls that were unlikely to have been cut by the small river that now flows through it, Fan said.

And some historical records support their hypothesis. In 1099 B.C., ancient writers recorded an earthquake in the capital of the Zhou dynasty, in Shaanxi province, Fan said. Though that spot is roughly 250 miles (400 kilometers) from the historic site of Sanxingdui, the latter culture didn't have writing at the time, so it's possible the earthquake epicenter was actually close to Sanxingdui — but it just wasn't recorded there, Fan said. Geological evidence also suggests that an earthquake occurred in the general region between 3,330 and 2,200 years ago, he added.

Around the same time, geological sediments suggest massive flooding occurred, and the later-Han dynasty document "The Chronicles of the Kings of Shu" records ancient floods pouring from a mountain in a spot that suggests the flow being rerouted, Fan said.  (Around 800 years later, Jinsha residents built a wall to prevent flooding.)

A river rerouted?

Together, the findings hint that a major earthquake triggered a landslide that dammed the river, rerouting its flow and reducing water flow to Sanxingdui, Fan said.

But if so, where did the river get rerouted? The team found clues high up in the mountains in the deep and wide Yanmen Ravine, at about 12,460 feet (3,800 meters) above sea level.

The modern-day river cuts through the ravine, which was carved by glaciers about 12,000 years ago. Yet the telltale signs of that glacial erosion — bowl-shaped basins known as cirques — are mysteriously absent for a long stretch of the ravine. The team hypothesizes that an earthquake spurred an avalanche that then wiped out some of the cirques about 3,000 years ago.

At this point, the theory is still very speculative, and additional geological data is needed to buttress it, Fan said.

And while the geological story is possible, Keller said, it doesn't answer the basic question: "What would motivate people to destroy their entire culture and bury it in two pits? And why didn't the culture reemerge at Jinsha?"
Ghose, Tia. 2015. “Mystery of Ancient Chinese Civilization's Disappearance Explained”. Live Science. Posted: December 24, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Using Your Body Language To Improve Listening And Creativity

How you talk, move and gesture can say a lot about you.

Now communication experts at Stanford University in California are studying body language in a whole new way.

“We’re trying to look at different aspects of states of mind," said Andrea Stevenson Won, a communications specialist at Stanford University.

Studies on body language have traditionally relied on scientists' individual observations. But now, researchers are looking at an automatic way to study body language.

“The nice thing about doing this automatically is we can remove the biases of the observer," said Won.

Researchers recorded participants' conversations and measured the movements of their bodies, limbs and heads.

“What we were tracking was the movement of these points that kind of roughly represent the joints of the body,” explained Won.

Scientists found that people working together on a project that had moved their heads and bodies the same way came up with more creative solutions.

“When people were in sync, they were working better together. They were generating more creative ideas together,” she said.

Another study looked at the way teachers and students interacted. It found that when teachers used extreme motions during their lessons the students did not perform as well.

“If you made huge sweeping gestures … that tended to be negatively correlated with your student’s score," said Won.

The data could help employers assign workers to more creative teams and may provide teachers with more productive teaching strategies in their classrooms. For now, it's an interesting way to observe how body language affects human performance.

“This is really valuable information," remarked Won.

Scientists say the next step in their research is to see if making a person aware of their body movements can cause a behavioral change that could increase their performance. The researchers are currently creating hardware and software to test this correlation. For example, they are designing sensors that could beep when a person's head and torso begin to move too much.
Lewis, Marsha. 2015. “Using Your Body Language To Improve Listening And Creativity”. Inside Science. Posted: December 19, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Research studies role native language plays in processing words in new languages

Research at the University of Kansas is exploring how a person's native language can influence the way the brain processes auditory words in a second language.

Because cues that signal the beginning and ending of words can differ from language to language, a person's native language can provide misleading information when learning to segment a second language into words. Annie Tremblay, an assistant professor of linguistics, is trying to better understand the kinds of cues second language learners listen for when recognizing words in continuous speech. She also is studying how adaptive adult learners are in acquiring these new speech cues.

Working with a group of international collaborators in the Netherlands, South Korea and France, Tremblay received a three-and-half year, $259,000 National Science Foundation grant for the research.

"The moment we hear a new language, all of a sudden we hear a stream of sounds and don't know where the words begin or end," Tremblay said. "Even if we know words from the second language and can recognize them in isolation, we may not be able to locate these words in continuous speech, because a variety of processes affect how words are realized in context."

For second language learners, some cues are easier to pick up than others, such as which consonants are common in starting and ending words. An example is the "z" sound, which is a common end to words in English but is not often found at the beginning of words.

Other cues, such as intonation, are harder to master and are more likely to be influenced by a speaker's native language. Tremblay points to English where a stressed syllable is a strong indication that a new word is beginning. But in French the opposite is true; prominent syllables tend to be at the end of words.

"This kind of information can't be memorized in a language such as French. It has to be computed. And this is where second language learners struggle," Tremblay said.

An example of confusion is the French phrase for cranky cat, which in French is "chat grincheux." For a brief second, the phrase can sound like the English pronunciation for "chagrin," a word with French origins.

"If you hear the 'cha' syllable as being prominent, it cannot come from the word chagrin in French because the first syllable of chagrin will not be stressed in French," Tremblay said.

With her international collaborators, Tremblay manipulates intonation cues similar to the example above to test how listeners use these cues to recognize words. In one experiment, participants hear a sentence containing a phrase such as 'chat grincheux,' see four word options on a computer screen such as chat, chagrin and two unrelated words, then are asked to click the correct word. An eye-tracking device determines when and how long the participant focuses on each word.

Another experiment has participants listen to an artificial, made-up language for 20 minutes. They are then asked to identify words in that language.

So far the research group has studied native English and Korean speakers who have learned French, and native French speakers who live in France or in the United States.

One of the more interesting findings is that when languages share more similarities but still have slight differences, it can be harder for second language learners to use the correct speech cues to identify words. For example, in French and Korean, prominent syllables tend to be at the end of words. However, there is one small difference: Korean intonation drops before the next word begins. In French, intonation drops during the first syllable of the next word.

"For English speakers, the differences between English stress and French prominence are so salient that it ought to be obvious and they ought to readjust their system," Tremblay said. "Whereas in Korean they think, 'Oh, this is just like Korean.' It sounds similar, and they don't readjust their use of this information."

Researchers also found that native French speakers who lived in France did better than native French speakers who lived in the United States at using French-like intonation cues to locate words in an artificial language. In fact, the longer a native French speaker lived in the United States, the worse they did at using the cues from their native language.

"This suggests that the speech processing system is extremely adaptive. Despite all the claims about the existence of a critical period for language learning, the speech processing system is actually very flexible; it might just take a long time to completely override the effects of the native language," Tremblay said.

The research group continues to collect data and plans to include native Dutch speakers who speak French.
EurekAlert. 2015. “Research studies role native language plays in processing words in new languages”. EurekAlert. Posted: December 16, 2014. Available online:

Monday, January 26, 2015

How information moves between cultures

Networks that map strength of connections between languages predict global influence of their speakers

By analyzing data on multilingual Twitter users and Wikipedia editors and on 30 years' worth of book translations in 150 countries, researchers at MIT, Harvard University, Northeastern University, and Aix Marseille University have developed network maps that they say represent the strength of the cultural connections between speakers of different languages.

This week, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they show that a language's centrality in their network -- as defined by both the number and the strength of its connections -- better predicts the global fame of its speakers than either the population or the wealth of the countries in which it is spoken.

"The network of languages that are being translated is an aggregation of the social network of the planet," says Cesar Hidalgo, the Asahi Broadcasting Corporation Career Development Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and senior author on the paper. "Not everybody shares a language with everyone else, and therefore the global social network is structured through these circuitous paths in which people in some language groups are by definition way more central than others. That gives them a disproportionate power and responsibility. On the one hand, they have a much easier time disseminating the content that they produce. On the other hand, as information flows through people, it gets colored by the ideas and the biases that those people have."

Plotting polyglots

Hidalgo and his students Shahar Ronen -- first author on the new paper -- and Kevin Hu, together with Harvard's Steven Pinker, Bruno Gonçalves of Aix Marseille University, and Alessandro Vespignani of Northeastern, included a given Twitter user in their data set if he or she had at least three sentence-long tweets in a language other than his or her primary language. That left them with 17 million of Twitter's roughly 280 million users. They had similar thresholds for Wikipedia users who had edited entries in more than one language, which gave them a data set of 2.2 million Wikipedia editors.

In both cases, the strength of the connection between any two languages was determined by the number of users who had demonstrated facility with both of them.

The translation data came from UNESCO's Index Translationum, which catalogues 2.2 million book translations, in more than 1,000 languages, published between 1979 and 2011. There, the strength of the connection between two languages was determined by the number of translations between them.

The researchers also used two different definitions of global fame. One was the measure that Hidalgo's group had used in its earlier Pantheon project, which also looked at global cultural production. Pantheon had identified everyone with (at the time) Wikipedia entries in at least 26 languages -- 11,340 people in all.

The other fame measure was inclusion among the 4,002 people profiled in the book "Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 BC to 1950," by the American political scientist Charles Murray. Murray's list was based on the frequency with which people's names were mentioned in 167 reference texts -- encyclopedias and historical surveys -- published worldwide.

Relative correlatives

There were, naturally, differences between the networks produced from the separate data sets and their correlations with the two fame measures. For instance, in the network produced from Wikipedia data, German is much more central than Spanish; in the Twitter network, the opposite is true.

Similarly, the network produced from UNESCO's translation data correlated better with Murray's fame index, which, as the subtitle of his book indicates, concentrated on science and the arts. The Wikipedia and Twitter networks correlated better with the Pantheon index, which included many more pop-culture figures.

But with both fame measures, at least one of the networks, taken in isolation, provided better correlation than the number of speakers of a language and the GDPs of the countries in which it is spoken. And when the networks were combined with population and income data, the correlations were higher still.

"We have to be very clear about what we're talking about," Hidalgo says. "This paper is not about global languages. All three networks are representative of elites. But those elites are the ones that drive the transfer of information across cultures."

"This thought-provoking paper expands the intersection between big-data network science and linguistics," writes Kenneth Wachter, a professor of demography and statistics at the University of California at Berkeley. "It offers reproducible criteria for a language to serve as a global hub and is likely to stimulate many alternative perspectives."
Science Daily. 2015. “How information moves between cultures”. Science Daily. Posted: December 16, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Discovery in Nara Prefecture suggests building linked to imperial family 13 centuries ago

Foundation holes for buildings have been found in the ruins of the nation's first full-fledged capital here, suggesting the area may have been home to a structure used by the imperial family more than 1,300 years ago.

The Nara National Research Institute for Cultural Properties announced Dec. 11 that 13 holes for foundation stones were found in the central area of the former site of Fujiwara-kyo, the nation's capital between 694 and 710.

At the time, cornerstones were used to build important structures such as palaces or temples.

Masashi Kinoshita, a professor emeritus of archaeology at Tokyo Gakugei University, called the discovery “groundbreaking.”

“When the capital was relocated to Fujiwara-kyo, the east side may have been dedicated to residential quarters for imperial family members or for other important purposes," he said. "The discovery could be a crucial turning point in research on Fujiwara-kyo.”

The holes, 1.2 meters to 2 meters across, were discovered in the Toho Kanga section, which is known as the district for government ministries. Toho Kanga was located 250 meters east of the ruins of Daigokuden hall, where the emperor performed important rituals.

Seven similar holes were found in a previous study two years ago.

Combined with the new finds, archaeologists now believe the holes were used to hold stones that propped up a structure about 8 meters by 11 meters comprising many posts.

They said the structure may have been a pavilion or a storehouse on stilts, and that part of the building’s roof may have been tiled.

A 4-centimeter-by-9.4-cm fragment of a bowl made of "sahari" copper and tin alloy also was discovered. The researchers said it may have been used by a high-level official.

Five square-shaped holes with rounded edges were also found at a site about 20 meters to the west of Toho Kanga. Each side measured between 1.5 meters and 1.9 meters.

It is believed these holes were used to build a large structure supported by posts sunk into the ground. The location of the two buildings suggest they were part of city planning, according to the researchers.
Tsukamoto, Kazuto. 2015. “Discovery in Nara Prefecture suggests building linked to imperial family 13 centuries ago”. The Asahi Shimbun. Posted: December 13, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Recent Luxor discoveries include tomb inside Ramesseum

Two important discoveries in Luxor by French archaeological missions were announced by the Egyptian antiquities ministry on Friday.

The first was at the Ramesseum temple on Luxor’s west bank, where the tomb of a divine royal wife called Karomama was accidently discovered within the walls of temple.

The ministry's head of Ancient Egyptian antiquities, Youssef Khalifa, told Ahram Online that the tomb includes a five metre-deep shaft leading to a burial chamber with a stone door. Inside the tomb excavators unearthed a collection of 20 ushabti funerary figurines of Karomama, and the remains of offerings.

According to Khalifa the discovery is important because it sheds more light on the queen, about whom little is known. The only previous funerary collection of Karomama includes 12 ushabti figurines, two canopic jars and a bronze statue now on display at the Louvre in Paris.

Until now, he said, the king she was married to has not been identified, but this information will be revealed after further studies of the tomb.

The second discovery was at Karnak temple, where the French mission unearthed a collection of Late Period artefacts, including three small bronze statuettes and a pot containing the remains of blue glue.

The ministry's director-general of Upper Egyptian antiquities, Abdel Hakim Karar, told Ahram Online that the statues were offerings to gods presented at the temple.

Two of these statuettes are carved in bronze and depict the god Osiris sitting wearing a wig and the double crown on his head. The third statuette depicts an as-yet unidentified god in a standing position, decorated with hieroglyphic text.

Excavators are cleaning the statuette in order to reveal the god’s name.
El-Aref, Nevine. 2015. “Recent Luxor discoveries include tomb inside Ramesseum”. Ahram. Posted: December 12, 2014. Available online:

Friday, January 23, 2015

Comparison of cultures and epochs: What discourses on weaknesses can trigger

German Research Foundation grants new Collaborative Research Centre to the Goethe University -- 7 million Euros for historians, ethnologists, philosophers and historians of law

Humanities scholars in Frankfurt can begin a mammoth project on 1 January 2015: Between 2015 and 2018, historians, ethnologists, philosophers and law historians will be able to draw on more than 6 million Euros in an attempt to shed light on a global historical issue that stretches from ancient times to the present day. The German Research Foundation (DFG) granted a Collaborative Research Centre (CRC), currently the only one of its kind in the Humanities faculty of the Goethe University. It is entitled: "Discourses on weaknesses and resource regimes". Over the next three years, some 50 scientists will collaborate in this research association, among them about 40 junior researchers.

What is the purpose of this CRC? Here is an example: Contemporary historian Prof. Dr. Christoph Cornelißen intends to examine the debate involving the political, economic and cultural decline of Europe, which raged throughout the entire 20th century. A number of players - politicians, business representatives, publishers and scientists - feared for Europe's position in the world; Advancing Americanisation and the Yellow Peril are just two key phrases. Europe, they believed, was no longer a match for the growing pressure in world markets, and was also losing ground in international education rankings. The discourses on weaknesses were regularly interspersed with calls to mobilise all existing resources, from people and raw materials to organisations and ideas. The idea was to set up a new political, economic and societal order to prevent Europe's decline, galvanising ideas of a unified Europe. This is just a rough outline of the thesis; the work will now involve taking a closer look at the players and establishing with greater precision how resources can be developed from weaknesses.

"Discourses on weaknesses crop up everywhere. Examples that are often discussed include the Late Roman Empire and China in the 19th century. Yet rather different ones also come to mind, such as situations where weak areas of knowledge initially prevailed, as demonstrated by the budding material sciences of the early 20th century", explained the spokesperson of the new Collaborative Research Centre, Prof. Dr. Hartmut Leppin. "We anticipate a high potential of insight from being able to compare such seemingly disparate topics at an appropriate level of abstraction." When diagnosing the deficits, the scientists will always keep an eye on the self-perception of the players and how they are perceived from a distance.

The fact that weaknesses can develop into strengths is often demonstrated when the discourse on weaknesses mobilises the search for resources. It is this interplay that captures the scientists' interest. The humanities scholars in Frankfurt are fully aware that resources do not equate to raw materials: "Rather, we are interested in what it means to perceive a shortage of raw materials, which then develops into a discourse on weaknesses while the search goes on for other resources", Leppin says. This involves very diverse resources, depending on the sub-project: science, kinship, sanctity, nationalism, information, economic calculations, to name a few. "The wide range of resources can only be dealt with from contrasting disciplinary and temporal perspectives. Our aim is to compare cultures and epochs, in order to be able to provide highly generalised findings", the CRC spokesman explained. Ethnologists and law historians are grouped around a heavily historical nucleus, here in cooperation with the Max-Planck-Institute for European Legal History.

The cooperating scientists also intend to establish an approximation between European history and the history of East and South East Asia as well as Latin America. By way of example, ethnologist Prof. Dr. Susanne Schröter, like Leppin a principal investigator at the Frankfurt cluster of excellence "The Formation of Normative Order", intends to address the question of why it is almost impossible to assert Western models of organisation, such as a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, in many post-colonial countries. The particular focus here will fall on Indonesia and the Philippines. For instance, which resources do indigenous groups generate that elude state control? Are acephalous peoples with their egalitarian societies, which are oriented towards achieving political and social equality for their members, perhaps the ones who are truly strong, despite their political weaknesses? Is their conduct more reasonable than that of societies produced by state regulation or which have willingly integrated into such? These are the questions ethnologists seek answers to on the ground.

The participants at the Collaborative Research Centre wish to contribute a humanist perspective to our society's self-reflection. "The question of how to treat resources, their shortage and protection, is discussed in what are at times very heated and politically influential discourses on weaknesses. We have known this since the famous Club of Rome report of 1972, if not before", explains Leppin. "I believe the shortage of resources is one of the key challenges facing us today. However, we must avoid focussing on material resources to the exclusion of all else." Other acting CRC spokespeople besides Susanne Schröter are sinologist Prof. Dr. Iwo Amelung and science historian Prof. Dr. Moritz Epple.

The President of Goethe University, Prof. Dr. Werner Müller-Esterl, views the grant to the Collaborative Research Centre, the ninth at Goethe University, as further evidence of the influence of Frankfurt humanities scholars, and its historians in particular. "The grant is another highlight in a very successful year; back in March, the historians were awarded the DFG research group on "Personnel Decisions in Key Sociopolitical Positions". I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Hartmut Leppin and his group on this successful application. It further underscores the profile of the Goethe University in the humanities."

Other projects of the historians and contributing humanities scholars are highly popular among sponsors. The Volkswagen Foundation deemed the Research Centre for Historical Humanities at Goethe University to be "original, innovative and exemplary", and in July 2014 provided it with a grant of 826,000 Euros.

In total the German Research Foundation (DFG) will be establishing eight Collaborative Research Centres (CRC), the authorising committee decreed in Bonn at its Autumn meeting yesterday. The Frankfurt Collaborative Research Centre is the only one of the eight to involve the humanities. The new CRCs are being sponsored with a total of 62 million Euros. There is an additional 20 per cent programme allowance for indirect costs arising out of research projects. Two of the eight centres are CRC/Transregios (TRR), which are distributed across several research locations.
EurekAlert. 2015. “Comparison of cultures and epochs: What discourses on weaknesses can trigger”. EurekAlert. Posted: December 4, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Uncovering one of humankind’s most ancient lineages

Scientists at Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) and Penn State University in the United States have successfully discovered one of modern humans' ancient lineages through the sequencing of genes.

A geneticist from NTU, Professor Stephan Christoph Schuster, who led an international research team from Singapore, United States and Brazil, said this is the first time that the history of humankind populations has been analysed and matched to Earth's climatic conditions over the last 200,000 years.

Their breakthrough findings are published today (4 Dec) in Nature Communications.

The team has sequenced the genome of five living individuals from a hunter/gatherer tribe in Southern Africa, and compared them with 420,000 genetic variants across 1,462 genomes from 48 ethnic groups of the global population.

Through advanced computation analysis, the team found that these Southern African Khoisan tribespeople are genetically distinct not only from Europeans and Asians, but also from all other Africans.

The team also found that there are individuals of the Khoisan population whose ancestors did not interbreed with any of the other ethnic groups for the last 150,000 years and that Khoisan was the majority group of living humans for most of that time until about 20,000 years ago.

Their findings mean it is now possible to use genetic sequencing to reveal the ancestral lineage of any ethnic group even up to 200,000 years ago, if non-admixed individuals are found, like in the case of the Khoisan. This will show when in history there have been important genetic changes to an ancestral lineage due to intermarriages or geographical migrations that may have occurred over the centuries.

"Khoisan hunter/gatherers in Southern Africa have always perceived themselves as the oldest people," said Prof Schuster, an NTU scientist at the Singapore Centre on Environmental Life Sciences Engineering (SCELSE) and a former Penn State University professor.

"Our study proves that they truly belong to one of mankind's most ancient lineages, and these high quality genome sequences obtained from the tribesmen will help us better understand human population history, especially the understudied branch of mankind such as the Khoisan.

"The new data gathered will also enable scientists to better understand how the human genome has evolved and hopefully lead to more effective treatment options for certain genetic diseases and illnesses."

Of the five tribesmen who were the oldest members of the Ju/'hoansi tribe and other tribes living in protected areas of northwest Namibia, two individuals were found to have a genome which had not admixed with other ethnic groups.

The Ju/'hoansi tribe was made famous in the 80s and 90s by the box-office hit movie series "The Gods Must Be Crazy." The main character of the series was a hunter/gatherer tribesman, played by Nǃxau, a bushman.

The research paper's first author, Dr Hie Lim Kim, a SCELSE senior research fellow, said "it was very surprising that this group apparently did not intermarry with non-Khoisan neighbours for thousands of years." This is because the Khoisan peoples and the rest of modern humanity shared their most recent common ancestor around 150,000 years ago.

The current Khoisan culture and tradition, where marriage occurs either among Khoisan groups or results in female members leaving their tribes after marrying non-Khoisan men, appears to be long-standing.

"A key finding from this study is that even today after 150,000 years, single non-admixed individuals or descendants of those who did not interbreed with separate populations can be identified within the Ju/'hoansi population, which means there might be more of such unique individuals in other parts of the world," added Dr Kim.

The Khoisan tribespeople participating in this study had parts of their genomes sequenced in an earlier study by the same team in 2010. The new study generated complete genome sequences at high quality, which enabled the analysis of admixture and population history. The availability of such high quality Southern African genomes will allow further investigation of the population history of this largely understudied branch of humankind at high resolution.

This research project involving six investigators was led by NTU and Penn State University. Other institutions participating in the study include the Ohio State University and Sao Paulo State University, Brazil.

Moving forward, Prof Schuster added that they will be looking to find more non-admixed individuals who are in the other parts of the world, such as in South Asia and South America, where uncontacted tribes still exist. The team will also be seeking more funding to further their research which will have large impact on the study of life sciences.
Science Daily. 2015. “Uncovering one of humankind’s most ancient lineages”. Science Daily. Posted: December 4, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ethnic inequalities mapped across the country with new online profiler

The lives of ethnic minorities across the country have been mapped by experts at The University of Manchester with a new profiler that allows you to explore standards of living in each area of England and Wales.

Academics and researchers at the University's Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE) have drilled down into Census data to rank districts by inequality, comparing the experience of minority groups to White British residents living side by side.

CoDE, in collaboration with race equality think thank the Runnymede Trust, has produced measures of ethnic inequalities in education, employment, health and housing for each local authority district in England and Wales, for 2001 and 2011.

The profiler is available for all to use and takes only a few seconds to generate a profile of ethnic inequalities in any chosen area.

Despite Britain continuing to diversify, differences in living standards for minorities and white British residents have remained persistent since 2000, according to the findings of the Local Ethnic Inequalities Area Profiler which launches today (WED). Left alone, the problem will not solve itself, the academics behind it warn.

The project ranks the 20 districts with highest levels of inequality and also shows that the problem is not unique to typically diverse urban areas, with more rural areas of Lancashire and East Staffordshire and parts of Kent, Somerset and Lincolnshire showing significant levels of inequality.

Other key findings:

Bradford, where 36% of the population identified connections to an ethnic minority group, stands out as one of the few success stories, managing to bridge the inequalities gap between residents since the turn of the millennium. In education, the number of ethnic minority 16-24-year-olds without qualifications is now in line with the number of white British young adults. This compares to 25% of ethnic minority 16-24-year-olds and 19% of White British in 2001.

In Tower Hamlets, London, 48% of Asian households and 43% of households from ethnic minority groups as a whole lived in overcrowded homes compared with 24% of White British households.

In Breckland, in rural East England, the minority population almost doubled from 5% to 9% between 2001 and 2011. Ethnic inequalities widened on all indicators in that time.

Dr Nissa Finney, lecturer in Social Statistics at The University of Manchester, said: "Ethnic inequalities are not only widespread in England and Wales, they are persistent. These inequalities are not, and will not, disappear of their own accord. This is particularly the case in employment and housing. For example, overcrowding was experienced by ethnic groups in every district over the past decade.

"The findings provide clear evidence that ethnic inequalities are a local concern, and that addressing inequalities is not purely an issue for authorities with diverse and poor populations.

"They also demonstrate that inequalities can be reduced and there are districts across the country that have achieved this over the 2000s."

Dr Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust, said: "This report contains a wealth of information that shows why ethnic inequalities are relevant in every village, town and city in England and Wales. The evidence also suggests that local and national policymakers and decisonmakers must act much more directly to ensure that a third generation doesn't continue to experience disadvantage because of their ethnic background."
EurekAlert. 2015. “Ethnic inequalities mapped across the country with new online profiler”. EurekAlert. Posted: December 3, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Scientists concerned that culture of research can hinder scientific endeavor

Aspects of the culture of research in UK higher education institutions (HEIs) can encourage poor research practices and hinder the production of high quality science, according to scientists who took part in a project exploring the ethical consequences of the culture of research led by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.

The findings of the project, which included a survey of almost 1000 scientists and others, suggest that scientists are motivated in their work to find out more about the world and benefit society, and that they believe collaboration, multidisciplinarity, openness and creativity are important for the production of high quality science.

However, in some cases, the findings suggest, the culture of research in HEIs does not support or encourage these goals or activities. For example, high levels of competition and perceptions about how scientists are assessed for jobs and funding are reportedly contributing to a loss of creativity in science, less collaboration and poor research practices, such as rushing to finish and publish research or employing less rigorous research methods.

"We were struck that while almost all participants in this project shared similar concerns about the culture of research, they all felt that the problems were caused by matters out of their control or that they were someone else's responsibility," says Professor Ottoline Leyser, Chair of the Steering Group for the project, Deputy Chair of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and Professor of Plant Development at the University of Cambridge. "We strongly believe that all those who play a role in the research system - including funders, research institutions, publishers and editors, researchers and professional bodies - have a collective obligation to ensure the culture of research supports good practice and the production of high quality science."

"There seem to be widespread misperceptions or mistrust among researchers about the policies and practices of those responsible for research quality assessment," said Professor Leyser. "For example, the Research Excellence Framework (REF) was felt to be a key driver of the pressure to publish in specific journals with high impact factors, despite the fact that REF panels were instructed not to use journal impact factors to assess research quality."

The Steering Group for the project included members of staff from the Royal Society, Academy of Medical Sciences, Institute of Physics, Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Biology.

The findings of the project include:

  • High levels of competition for jobs and funding in scientific research are believed both to bring out the best in people and to create incentives for poor quality research practices, less collaboration and headline chasing.
  • The pressure felt by scientists to publish in high impact factor journals is believed to be resulting in important research not being published, disincentives for multidisciplinary research, authorship issues, and a lack of recognition for non-article research outputs.
  • 58% of the survey respondents are aware of scientists feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards. 26% of respondents have themselves felt tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity and standards. Evidence was not collected on any behaviour associated with these findings.
  • 61% of the survey respondents think that the move towards open access publishing is having a positive or very positive effect overall on scientists in terms of encouraging the production of high quality research.

The report of the project concludes with suggestions for action for funding bodies, research institutions, publishers and editors, professional bodies and individual researchers. Key examples are:

  • Funders: ensure funding opportunities, strategies and policies, and information about past funding decisions, are communicated clearly to institutions and researchers.
  • Research institutions: cultivate an environment in which ethics is seen as a positive and integral part of research; and provide mentoring and career advice to researchers throughout their careers.
  • Publishers and editors: consider further the role of publishers in tackling ethical issues in publishing and in promoting openness and data sharing among scientists.
  • Researchers: when assessing the track record of fellow researchers, for example as a grant reviewer or appointments panel member, use a broad range of criteria without undue reliance on journal impact factors.
  • Learned societies and professional bodies: promote widely the importance of ensuring the culture of research supports good research practice and the production of high quality science.

Sir Paul Nurse, President, Royal Society, says: "We can't be complacent about maintaining the relationship between science and society, which is based on trust in science and scientists. The culture of research must support the production of good science - science which is open, honest and reliable."

Professor Sir John Tooke PMedSci, President, Academy of Medical Sciences, said: "The Academy of Medical Sciences welcomes the publication of this report and the issues it identifies. High quality impactful science relies on a positive and ethical culture and alignment of the right incentives as well as technical expertise and precision.

The Academy is a strong advocate for the benefits of a 'team science' approach to research, recognising that interdisciplinary collaborative activity is an essential means of tackling tough and complex questions. We believe there must be support for collaborative endeavour at all levels with appropriate skilling, mentoring and recognition of such contributions.

The Academy will consider the important issues raised in our current policy projects on team science and research reproducibility."

Professor Dame Jean Thomas, President, Society of Biology, said: "In this highly competitive academic system we need careful governance to nurture ambition and excellence. The survey shows that among researchers there is a clear ambition for the rigour, openness and collaboration that lead to high quality science. Leaders in science should capitalise on this by educating and empowering researchers to achieve these aspirations, and clearly communicating that they intend to evaluate research outcomes on the basis of valuable knowledge and real impact."

Dr Mindy Dulai, Senior Programme Manager, Environmental Sciences, Royal Society of Chemistry, says: "Sharing knowledge and theories sparks new ideas and innovation, yet there are mixed views on collaboration amongst the scientists we spoke to, with some saying increased collaboration has a positive effect on science while others felt that high levels of competition discourage it. As scientific knowledge is made increasingly open, the scientific community must address the perception that competition is a barrier to collaboration."

Previous work of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics brought to light concerns about the ethical consequences of the culture of scientific research in terms of its potential to affect research practices and the quality and direction of science. To explore these further, in 2013 the Council embarked on a series of engagement activities to promote debate and gather evidence about how scientists and other key stakeholders experience the culture of research. The project activities included: an online survey that received 970 responses mainly from researchers working in higher education institutions; a series of 15 discussion events at UK universities attended by around 740 people; and meetings with funding bodies, publishers and social scientists.
EurekAlert. 2015. “Scientists concerned that culture of research can hinder scientific endeavor”. EurekAlert. Posted: December 3, 2014. Available online:

Monday, January 19, 2015

Unearthed: hoard of Roman and Pictish silver found in Aberdeenshire field

The find, which contains more than 100 pieces including coins and jewellery, has been hailed as the most northern of its kind in Europe.

The discovery was made earlier this year by archaeologists from National Museums Scotland and the University of Aberdeen's Northern Picts project at an undisclosed location.

It will now become the subject of a programme of research involving detailed analysis and cataloguing through the Glenmorangie Research Project - a three-year sponsorship of National Museums Scotland to support the study of Early Medieval Scotland.

Dr Martin Goldberg, senior curator of early historic collections, said: "It is a hugely important discovery being Europe's most northerly Late Roman hacksilver hoard, and also containing otherwise unique Pictish silver.

"The research project will enable us to shed new light on the interaction between the Picts and the Late Roman world and reconsider what some older finds in our collection can tell us about Early Medieval Scotland."

Dr Gordon Noble, senior lecturer at the department of archaeology at the University of Aberdeen, led the fieldwork as part of the Northern Picts project.

He said: "This exciting new find is part of a broader phenomenon of hacksilver hoards which stretch across Europe from the fourth to sixth centuries AD, when the Western Roman Empire was in decline.

"Silver objects were chopped up into bullion and then used and exchanged as payment, bribes, tribute and reward. People buried their wealth to keep it safe, but many did not return to recover their hoard. "The new finds include late Roman coins, pieces of late Roman silver vessels, bracelet and brooch fragments and other objects that would have been highly prized objects in their day.

"Our work in north-east Scotland is increasingly showing that Pictish communities in this area were part of powerful kingdoms in the early medieval period."

Items from the hoard will be on display for the first time at the University of Aberdeen from January 20 to May 31.
Herald Scotland. 2015. “Unearthed: hoard of Roman and Pictish silver found in Aberdeenshire field”. Herald Scotland. Posted: December 3, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Domestic cereals in evidence 7,000 years ago in Sudan

Humans in Africa already exploited domestic cereals 7,000 years ago and thus several centuries earlier than previously known. Researchers have successfully verified ancient barley and wheat residues in grave goods and on teeth from two Neolithic cemeteries in North and Central Sudan.

The results of the analyses were recently published (online) in the journal PLoS ONE.

Dr. Welmoed Out from the University of Kiel was involved in the investigation. “With our results we can verify that people along the Nile did not only exploit gathered wild plants and animals but even crops of barley and wheat.”

These were first cultivated in the Middle East about 10,500 years ago and spread out from there to Central and South Asia as well as to Europe and North Africa – the latter faster than expected. “The diversity of the diet was much greater than previously assumed,” states Out and adds: “Moreover, the fact that grains were placed in the graves of the deceased implies that they had a special, symbolic meaning.”

The research team, coordinated by Welmoed Out and the environmental archaeologist Marco Madella from Barcelona, used a special high-quality light microscope as well as radiocarbon analyses for age determination. Mineral plant particles, so-called phytoliths, survive for a very long time, even when other plant remains are no longer discernible. In addition, calculus on the teeth provide evidence about the diet of these prehistoric humans due to the starch granules and phytoliths.

Read full paper here:
Past Horizons. 2015. “Domestic cereals in evidence 7,000 years ago in Sudan”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 26, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Carnegie Mellon researchers identify brain regions that encode words, grammar, story

Some people say that reading "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" taught them the importance of friends, or that easy decisions are seldom right. Carnegie Mellon University scientists used a chapter of that book to learn a different lesson: identifying what different regions of the brain are doing when people read.

Researchers from CMU's Machine Learning Department performed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of eight people as they read a chapter of that Potter book. They then analyzed the scans, cubic millimeter by cubic millimeter, for every four-word segment of that chapter. The result was the first integrated computational model of reading, identifying which parts of the brain are responsible for such subprocesses as parsing sentences, determining the meaning of words and understanding relationships between characters.

As Leila Wehbe, a Ph.D. student in the Machine Learning Department, and Tom Mitchell, the department head, report today in the online journal PLOS ONE, the model was able to predict fMRI activity for novel text passages with sufficient accuracy to tell which of two different passages a person was reading with 74 percent accuracy.

"At first, we were skeptical of whether this would work at all," Mitchell said, noting that analyzing multiple subprocesses of the brain at the same time is unprecedented in cognitive neuroscience. "But it turned out amazingly well and now we have these wonderful brain maps that describe where in the brain you're thinking about a wide variety of things."

Wehbe and Mitchell said the model is still inexact, but might someday be useful in studying and diagnosing reading disorders, such as dyslexia, or to track the recovery of patients whose speech was impacted by a stroke. It also might be used by educators to identify what might be giving a student trouble when learning a foreign language.

"If I'm having trouble learning a new language, I may have a hard time figuring out exactly what I don't get," Mitchell said. "When I can't understand a sentence, I can't articulate what it is I don't understand. But a brain scan might show that the region of my brain responsible for grammar isn't activating properly, or perhaps instead I'm not understanding the individual words."

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon and elsewhere have used fMRI scans to identify activation patterns associated with particular words or phrases or even emotions. But these have always been tightly controlled experiments, with only one variable analyzed at a time. The experiments were unnatural, usually involving only single words or phrases, but the slow pace of fMRI -- one scan every two seconds -- made other approaches seem unfeasible.

Wehbe nevertheless was convinced that multiple cognitive subprocesses could be studied simultaneously while people read a compelling story in a near-normal manner. She believed that using a real text passage as an experimental stimulus would provide a rich sample of the different word properties, which could help to reveal which brain regions are associated with these different properties.

"No one falls asleep in the scanner during Leila's experiments," Mitchell said.

They devised a technique in which people see one word of a passage every half second -- or four words for every two-second fMRI scan. For each word, they identified 195 detailed features -- everything from the number of letters in the word to its part of speech. They then used a machine learning algorithm to analyze the activation of each cubic centimeter of the brain for each four-word segment.

Bit by bit, the algorithm was able to associate certain features with certain regions of the brain, Wehbe said.

"The test subjects read Chapter 9 of Sorcerer's Stone, which is about Harry's first flying lesson," she noted. "It turns out that movement of the characters -- such as when they are flying their brooms - is associated with activation in the same brain region that we use to perceive other people's motion. Similarly, the characters in the story are associated with activation in the same brain region we use to process other people's intentions."

Exactly how the brain creates these neural encodings is still a mystery, they said, but it is the beginning of understanding what the brain is doing when a person reads.

"It's sort of like a DNA fingerprint -- you may not understand all aspects of DNA's function, but it guides you in understanding cell function or development," Mitchell said. "This model of reading initially is that kind of a fingerprint."

A complementary study by Wehbe and Mitchell, presented earlier this fall at the Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing, used magnetoencephalography (MEG) to record brain activity in subjects reading Harry Potter. MEG can record activity every millisecond, rather than every two seconds as in fMRI scanning, but can't localize activity with the precision of fMRI. Those findings suggest how words are integrated into memory -- how the brain first visually perceives a word and then begins accessing the properties of the word, and fitting it into the story context.
EurekAlert. 2015. “Carnegie Mellon researchers identify brain regions that encode words, grammar, story”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 26, 2014. Available online:

Friday, January 16, 2015

Mysterious Antikythera Mechanism Is Even Older Than We Thought

The 82 discolored, corroded bronze fragments of the Antikythera Mechanism may not look like much on their own. But assembled they reveal a complex mechanism, with 37 gears that track the sun and moon and predict eclipses. This astronomical calendar or calculator was discovered in a shipwreck off the coast of Crete in 1901 and is more than 2,000 years old.

This ancient device "predates other known examples of similar technology by more than 1,000 years," writes John Markoff for the New York Times. He says:

Archaeologists and historians have long debated where the device was built, and by whom. Given its sophistication, some experts believe it must have been influenced, at least, by one of a small pantheon of legendary Greek scientists — perhaps Archimedes, Hipparchus or Posidonius.

Now a science historian and a physicist have discovered one more clue about the device’s origin. The eclipse prediction calendar, a dial on the back of the mechanism includes a solar eclipse that happened May 12, 205 B.C. They published their findings in the Archive for History of Exact Sciences.

Researchers had previously subjected the mechanism to radiocarbon dating analysis and analyzed the Greek letters inscribed on the front and back to come up with a construction date of about 100 to 150 B.C., reports Ker Than for LiveScience. The new date pushes the origin back 50 years or even a century, Markoff writes, and indicates that the math the mechanism uses to predict eclipses is Babylonian arithmetic, not Greek trigonometry.

Archimedes probably wasn’t the creator: he made his home in Syracuse, where earlier analysis of the mechanism's inscriptions suggested it might have been made. But the device also includes an inscription that refers to an athletic competition held in Rhodes, the likely place of origin, experts told the Times.

The mechanism remains intriguing because regardless of the exact date of its creation, it was centuries ahead of its time. LiveScience's Than writes:

Previous reconstructions suggested the Antikythera Mechanism was about the size of a shoebox, with dials on the outside and a complex assembly of bronze gear wheels within. By winding a knob on its side, the positions of the sun, moon, Mercury and Venus could be determined for any chosen date. Newly revealed inscriptions also appear to confirm previous speculations that the device could also calculate the positions of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — the other planets known at the time.

Earlier this fall, an expedition returned to the site of the shipwreck—with the aid of "wearable submarine" suits—and brought back tableware, parts of the ship and a bronze spear. They plan to dive again in the spring. Findings from that trip may reveal more about this strangely advanced device.
Fessenden, Marissa. 2015. “Mysterious Antikythera Mechanism Is Even Older Than We Thought”. Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: November 26, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Mixed agriculture in northern China developed at similar time to the Near East

An international research team has found the earliest evidence for chicken domestication to date. Researchers obtained mitochondrial DNA sequences from up to 10,000 year old chicken fossils originating from northern China. At this age, the sequences are several thousands of years older than any other chicken ancient DNA sequences reported previously.

Michi Hofreiter, of the University of Potsdam in Germany and an Honorary Professor in York’s Department of Biology, led the research with Professor Xingbo Zhao from China Agricultural University in Beijing.

Genetic continuity

Despite their age, the northern Chinese chicken sequences already represent the three major groups of mitochondrial DNA sequences present in the modern chicken gene pool, suggesting genetic continuity between these oldest chicken bones known worldwide and modern chicken populations. The research is reported in PNAS.

Based on modern DNA sequences scientists had already suggested that chickens had been domesticated in different places in south and south-east Asia, but previously northern China had never been suggested as a location for chicken domestication.

Different climate and vegetation

Professor Xingbo Zhao said: “People argued that northern China did not provide suitable habitat for red jungle fowl, the wild ancestor of domestic chickens but they do not take into account that climate and vegetation were very different 10,000 years ago.”

The results not only suggest northern China as one of the earliest places for chicken domestication but also that the domestication of chicken, today the most important poultry species in the world, started as early as those of the other four agriculturally important animal species, cattle, pigs, goat and sheep. Moreover, the results provide further evidence for an early agricultural complex in northern China.

Professor Hofreiter, who is also an associate member of the University of York’s Palaeo research centre, added: “These are really exciting results as they suggest that societies with mixed agriculture developed in northern China around the same time they did so in the Near East”.
Past Horizons. 2015. “Mixed agriculture in northern China developed at similar time to the Near East”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 25, 2014. Available online:

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Mixed agriculture in northern China developed at similar time to the Near East

An international research team has found the earliest evidence for chicken domestication to date.

Researchers obtained mitochondrial DNA sequences from up to 10,000 year old chicken fossils originating from northern China. At this age, the sequences are several thousands of years older than any other chicken ancient DNA sequences reported previously.

Michi Hofreiter, of the University of Potsdam in Germany and an Honorary Professor in York’s Department of Biology, led the research with Professor Xingbo Zhao from China Agricultural University in Beijing.

Genetic continuity

Despite their age, the northern Chinese chicken sequences already represent the three major groups of mitochondrial DNA sequences present in the modern chicken gene pool, suggesting genetic continuity between these oldest chicken bones known worldwide and modern chicken populations. The research is reported in PNAS.

Based on modern DNA sequences scientists had already suggested that chickens had been domesticated in different places in south and south-east Asia, but previously northern China had never been suggested as a location for chicken domestication.

Different climate and vegetation

Professor Xingbo Zhao said: “People argued that northern China did not provide suitable habitat for red jungle fowl, the wild ancestor of domestic chickens but they do not take into account that climate and vegetation were very different 10,000 years ago.”

The results not only suggest northern China as one of the earliest places for chicken domestication but also that the domestication of chicken, today the most important poultry species in the world, started as early as those of the other four agriculturally important animal species, cattle, pigs, goat and sheep. Moreover, the results provide further evidence for an early agricultural complex in northern China.

Professor Hofreiter, who is also an associate member of the University of York’s Palaeo research centre, added: “These are really exciting results as they suggest that societies with mixed agriculture developed in northern China around the same time they did so in the Near East”.
2015. “Mixed agriculture in northern China developed at similar time to the Near East”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 25, 2014. Available online:

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Mysterious Roman God Baffles Experts

A sculpture of a mysterious, never-before-seen Roman deity has been unearthed in an ancient temple in Turkey.

The 1st century B.C. relief, of an enigmatic bearded god rising up out of a flower or plant, was discovered at the site of a Roman temple near the Syrian border. The ancient relief was discovered in a supporting wall of a medieval Christian monastery.

"It's clearly a god, but at the moment it's difficult to say who exactly it is," said Michael Blömer, an archaeologist at the University of Muenster in Germany, who is excavating the site. "There are some elements reminiscent of ancient Near Eastern gods, as well, so it might be some very old god from before the Romans."

The ancient Roman god is a complete mystery; more than a dozen experts contacted by Live Science had no idea who the deity was.

Cultural crossroads

The temple sits on a mountaintop near the modern town of Gaziantep, above the ancient city of Doliche, or Dülük. The area is one of the oldest continuously settled regions on Earth, and for millennia, it was at the crossroads of several different cultures, from the Persians to the Hittites to the Arameans. During the Bronze Age, the city was on the road between Mesopotamia and the ancient Mediterranean.

In 2001, when Blömer's team first began excavating at the site, almost nothing was visible from the surface. Through years of painstaking excavation, the team eventually discovered the ruins of an ancient Bronze Age structure as well as a Roman Era temple dedicated to Jupiter Dolichenus, a Romanized version of the ancient Aramean sky or storm god, who headed the Near Eastern pantheon, Blömer said.

During the second and third centuries A.D., the cult of Jupiter Dolichenus became a global religion likely because many Roman soldiers were recruited from the area where he was worshipped, and those soldiers took their god with them, said Gregory Woolf, a classicist at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, who was not involved in the excavation.

After the temple was destroyed, medieval Christians built the Mar Solomon monastery on the foundation of the site, and after the Crusades, the site became the burial place of a famous Islamic saint.

Blömer's team was excavating one of the old buttress walls of the Mar Solomon monastery when they discovered the relief, which had been plastered over.

The relief depicted a bearded man rising up out of a palm-type plant while holding the stalk of another. The bottom of the relief contains images of a crescent, a rosette and a star. The top of the relief was broken off but when it was complete it would have stood about the size of a human being.

"It was quite a big surprise when we saw the relief coming out of in this area of the site," Blömer told Live Science.

Unknown deity

The mysterious deity may have been a Roman spin on a local Near Eastern god, and the agricultural elements suggest a connection to fertility. But beyond that, the deity's identity has stumped experts.

The relief shows some elements associated with Mesopotamia. For instance, the rosette at the bottom may be associated with Ishtar, while the crescent moon at the base is a symbol of the moon god Sîn, Nicole Brisch, a Near Eastern studies expert at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, wrote in an email. (Brisch was not involved in the current excavation.)

"The bottom bits are from the Near East and the top bits are classical," Woolf told Live Science. "He looks to me like he was somebody from a native, very local pantheon."

The fact that he is rising out of a plant is reminiscent of the birth myths of some gods, such as the mystery cult god Mithras, who was born from a rock, or the Greek goddess Aphrodite, who was born out of sea foam, Woolf speculated.

Mashup god

Though the gods' identity is a mystery, the hybridization of gods isn't unusual for the time, Woolf said. "When the dominant style in the area is Greek and Roman, they give their gods a face-lift," Woolf told Live Science. For instance, the ancient Egyptian gods end up wearing the clothes of Roman legionaries, and ancient Mesopotamian gods, which were typically depicted as "betels" — stones or meteorites — get human faces, Woolf said.

The best chances of identifying this enigmatic deity is to find a similar representation somewhere with an inscription describing who he was, Woolf said. But getting the word out could also help. Sometimes findings get widely disseminated and "someone turns up a little object that they've had in their private collection and say, 'Do you know, I think this is the same person,'" Woolf said.
Ghose, Tia. 2015. “Mysterious Roman God Baffles Experts”. Live Science. Posted: November 25, 2014. Available online:

Monday, January 12, 2015

Mass Extinctions: What Humans Can Learn from the Past

From the space rock that killed the dinosaurs to the supervolcanoes that wiped out nearly 90 percent of the world's species, mass extinctions have occurred a handful of times throughout Earth's history. And if humans aren't careful, the planet may be due for another one.

"It's the ultimate destiny of every species to go extinct," said Anthony Barnosky, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Barnosky is one of the scientists featured in a new Smithsonian Channel special called "Mass Extinction: Life At The Brink," premiering Sunday (Nov. 30) at 8 p.m. ET (check local listings).

There have been five mass extinctions in the last half-billion years, Barnosky, author of the book "Dodging Extinction" (University of California Press, 2014), told Live Science.

Asteroids and volcanoes

The dinosaurs met their end when a giant 6-mile-wide (9.7 kilometers) asteroid or comet smacked into Earth in the Gulf of Mexico 66 million years ago, igniting fires and pumping ash and sulfur into the atmosphere, blocking out the sun. The impact caused about 71 to 81 percent of all species — including nonavian dinosaurs — to go extinct, though some scientists say dinosaur populations had been on the decline already for millions of years.

Before the reign of the dinosaurs, there was an even more deadly extinction at the end of the Permian Era, 252 million years ago. This one was triggered by massive volcanic eruptions, which produced enough lava to bury an area the size of the continental United States under 1,000 feet (305 meters) of lava, changing the chemistry of the atmosphere and the ocean. As much as 97 percent of species on Earth went extinct in the event, aptly named the Great Dying.

Scientists still don't agree on what caused the other three mass extinctions — the End-Ordovician (440 million years ago), the Late Devonian (375 million to 359 million years ago) and the End-Triassic (201 million years ago).

While the triggers of these deadly events have been different, they all have some things in common: changes in climate, and changes in atmospheric and ocean chemistry, Barnosky said.

"Those changes were rapid compared to what was normal, and that's exactly the same thing that's going on today," Barnosky said. "Today, we are very clearly at the beginning stages of a 6th mass extinction."

Change our ways

Humans have wiped out half of the world's wildlife population in the past 40 years, and fished out 90 percent of the planet's big fish, Barnosky said. "If we kept that up, we'd be destined to see the loss of about 75 percent of species we're familiar with within a couple of centuries," if not sooner, he added.

Barnosky doesn't think human beings will go extinct as a result of what we're doing, but rather our current way of life may not survive. Humanity depends on many other species, and their loss would lead to societal conflicts and economic crashes, Barnosky said. Furthermore, when mass extinctions happen, biodiversity crashes, and it takes hundreds of thousands of years for ecosystems to return to pre-crash levels.

But there's still hope. Only about 1 percent of the species on the planet have been lost in the past 12,000 years. And unlike the dinosaurs, humans can see the extinction coming and prevent it, said Sean Carroll, a biologist and science communicator at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Barnosky agreed. "Most of what we want to save is still out there to be saved, but we have to do things differently," he said.

First of all, society needs to confront climate change, which is subjecting many species to conditions they have never faced before, Barnosky said.

Secondly, he said, humans need to stop converting animal habitats to suit our own needs. Already, people have transformed about half of the planet's land to support humans, primarily for agricultural uses.

And lastly, humans need to start putting an economic value on nature. "We have to view nature as an investment account, where we don't touch the principal, and we live off the interest," Barnosky said.

Barnosky thinks that, if the message gets across to enough people, humanity could avert the coming catastrophe. "I'm guardedly optimistic," he said.
Lewis, Tanya. 2015. “Mass Extinctions: What Humans Can Learn from the Past”. Live Science. Posted: November 25, 2014. Available online:

Sunday, January 11, 2015

1,700-Year-Old Silk Road Cemetery Contains Mythical Carvings

A cemetery dating back roughly 1,700 years has been discovered along part of the Silk Road, a series of ancient trade routes that once connected China to the Roman Empire.

The cemetery was found in the city of Kucha, which is located in present-day northwest China. Ten tombs were excavated, seven of which turned out to be large brick structures.

One tomb, dubbed "M3," contained carvings of severalmythical creatures, including four that represent different seasons and parts of the heavens: the White Tiger of the West, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the Black Turtle of the North and the Azure Dragon of the East.

The M3 tomb also "consists of a burial mound, ramp, sealed gate, tomb entrance, screen walls, passage, burial chamber and side chamber" the researchers wrote in a report published recently in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

The cemetery was first found in July 2007 and was excavated by the Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, with assistance from local authorities. The research team, led by Zhiyong Yu, director of the Xinjiang Archaeological Institute, published the findings in Chinese in the journal Wenwu. The article was recently translated into English and published in the journal Chinese Cultural Relics.

Who was buried here?

The identity of the people buried in the cemetery is a mystery. The cemetery had been robbed in the past and no writing was found that indicates the names of those buried or their positions in life.

The seven large brick tombs were likely constructed for people of wealth, the researchers said.

But, when the skeletal remains were analyzed, the researchers found that the tombs had been reused multiple times. Some of the tombs contain more than 10 occupants, and the "repeated multiple burials warrant further study," the researchers wrote.

City on the Silk Road

The excavators think the cemetery dates back around 1,700 years, to a time when Kucha was vital to controlling the Western Frontiers (Xiyu) of China. Since the Silk Road trade routes passed through the Western Frontiers, control of this key region was important to China’s rulers.

"In ancient times, Kucha was called Qiuci in Chinese literature. It was a powerful city-state in the oasis of the Western Frontiers" the researchers wrote.

For the dynasties that flourished in China around 1,700 years ago "the conquest and effective governance of Kucha would enable them to control all the oasis city-states in the Western Frontiers," the researchers said.

In fact, one ancient saying was, "if you have Kucha, only one percent of the states in the Western Frontiers remain unsubmissive."

Chinese Cultural Relics is a new journal that translates Chinese-language articles, originally published in the journal Wenwu, into English. The discovery of the 1,700-year-old cemetery was included in its inaugural issue.
Jarus, Owen. 2015. “1,700-Year-Old Silk Road Cemetery Contains Mythical Carvings”. Live Science. Posted: November 24, 2014. Available online:

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Dizzying heights: Prehistoric farming on the 'roof of the world'

Animal teeth, bones and plant remains have helped researchers from Cambridge, China and America to pinpoint a date for what could be the earliest sustained human habitation at high altitude.

Archaeological discoveries from the 'roof of the world' on the Tibetan Plateau indicate that from 3,600 years ago, crop growing and the raising of livestock was taking place year-round at hitherto unprecedented altitudes.

The findings, published today in Science, demonstrate that across 53 archaeological sites spanning 800 miles, there is evidence of sustained farming and human habitation between 2,500 metres above sea level (8,200ft) and 3,400 metres (11,154ft).

Evidence of an intermittent human presence on the Tibetan Plateau has been dated to at least 20,000 years ago, with the first semi-permanent villages established only 5,200 years ago. The presence of crops and livestock at the altitudes discovered by researchers indicates a more sustained human presence than is needed to merely hunt game at such heights.

Professor Martin Jones, from Cambridge's Department of Archaeology, and one of the lead researchers on the project, said: "Until now, when and how humans started to live and farm at such extraordinary heights has remained an open question. Our understanding of sustained habitation above 2-3,000m on the Tibetan Plateau has to date been hampered by the scarcity of archaeological data available.

"But our findings show that not only did these farmer-herders conquer unheard of heights in terms of raising livestock and growing crops like barley and millet, but that human expansion into the higher, colder altitudes took place as the continental temperatures were becoming colder.

"Year-round survival at these altitudes must have led to some very challenging conditions indeed - and this poses further, interesting questions for researchers about the adaptation of humans, livestock and crops to life at such dizzying heights."

Professor Jones hopes more work will now be undertaken to look at genetic resistance in humans to altitude sickness, and genetic response in crop plants in relation to attributes such as grain vernalisation, flowering time response and ultraviolet radiation tolerance - as well as research into the genetic and ethnic identity of the human communities themselves.

Research on the Tibetan Plateau has also raised interesting questions about the timing and introduction of Western crops such as barley and wheat - staples of the so-called 'Fertile Crescent'. From 4,000-3,600 years ago, this meeting of east and west led to the joining or displacement of traditional North Chinese crops of broomcorn and foxtail millet. The importation of Western cereals enabled human communities to adapt to the harsher conditions of higher altitudes in the Plateau.

In order to ascertain during what period and at what altitude sustained food produced first enabled an enduring human presence, the research group collected artefacts, animal bones and plant remains from 53 sites across the late Yangshao, Majiayao, Qiija, Xindian, Kayue and Nuomuhong cultures.

Cereal grains (foxtail millet, broomcorn millet, barley and wheat) were identified at all 53 sites and animal bones and teeth (from sheep, cattle and pig) were discovered at ten sites. Of the 53 sites, an earlier group (dating from 5,200-3,600 years ago) reached a maximum elevation of 2,527m while a later group of 29 sites (dating from 3,600-2,300 years ago) approached 3,400m in altitude.

Professor Jones believes the Tibetan Plateau research could have wider and further-reaching implications for today's world in terms of global food security and the possibilities of rebalancing the 'global diet'; at present heavily, and perhaps unsustainably, swayed in favour of the big three crops of rice, wheat and maize.

He said: "Our current knowledge of agricultural foods emphasises a relatively small number of crops growing in the intensively managed lowlands. The more we learn about the rich ecology of past and present societies, and the wider range of crops they raised in the world's more challenging environments, the more options we will have for thinking through food security issues in the future."
EurekAlert. 2015. “Dizzying heights: Prehistoric farming on the 'roof of the world'”. EurekAlert. Posted: November 20, 2014. Available online:

Friday, January 9, 2015

First detailed study of Ancient Egyptians at Deir el-Medina

Ancient Egyptian workers in a village that’s now called Deir el-Medina were beneficiaries of what Stanford Egyptologist Anne Austin calls “the earliest documented governmental health care plan.”

The craftsmen who built Egyptian Pharaohs’ royal tombs across the Nile from the modern city of Luxor worked under gruelling conditions, but they could also take a paid sick day or visit a “clinic” for a free check-up.

For decades, Egyptologists have seen evidence of these health care benefits in the well preserved written records from the site, but Austin, a specialist in osteo-archaeology, led the first detailed study of human remains at the site.

A postdoctoral scholar in the Department of History, Austin compared Deir el-Medina’s well-known textual artefacts to physical evidence of health and disease to create a newly comprehensive picture of how Egyptian workers lived. Austin is continuing her research during her tenure as a fellow in the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in the Humanities.

In skeletal remains that she found in the village’s cemeteries, Austin saw “evidence for state-subsidised health care among these workers, but also significant occupational stress fuelled by pressure from the state to work.”

Daily work and payment records corroborate the physical evidence: Deir el-Medina’s men had uniquely comprehensive health care, but sometimes could not take advantage of it.

For example, Austin saw in one mummy evidence of osteomyelitis – inflammation in the bone due to blood-borne infection; the man clearly had been working while this infection was ravaging his body. “The remains suggest that he would have been working during the development of this infection,” Austin said. “Rather than take time off, for whatever reason, he kept going.”

The workers received paid sick leave, as we know from the written records, but they “nonetheless felt pressure to work through illness, perhaps to fulfil tacit obligations to the state to which they owed so much.”

“The more I learn about Egypt, the more similar I think ancient Egyptian society is to modern American society,” Austin said. “Things we consider creations of the modern condition, such as health care and labour strikes, are also visible so far in the past.”

Evidence in the bones

Deir el-Medina, an hour’s climb across the mountainside that looms above Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, housed workers primarily in the 19th and 20th dynasties (1292-1077 BCE). Its heyday is later than the valley’s best-known occupant, Tutankhamun, but contemporaneous with the Pharaoh who was arguably Egypt’s greatest, Ramesses II, and his long line of successors. Deir el-Medina’s skilled workers had considerable engineering knowledge and an uncommon degree of literacy. They left tens of thousands of written records – bills, personal letters, lawsuits and prayers, on shards of clay, stone flakes and scraps of papyrus. Burial sites at Deir el-Medina were excavated from 1922 to 1951 by the French Egyptologist Bernard Bruyère, but the science of osteology was then in its infancy, and Bruyère left many of the bodies unstudied in their tombs.

Austin visited these tombs in 2012 for her UCLA dissertation research, where she found them “crowded with bats, rats and mummies.” Many of the mummies were little more than skeletons, allowing Austin to clearly see the state of the people’s health as evidenced in their bones.

In many bodies Austin saw evidence of stress from the hard climb – today it’s a thousand stone steps – from Deir el-Medina to the Valley of the Kings and back again. As Austin found, incidence of arthritis in the knees and ankles of the men at Deir el-Medina was significantly higher than for working populations from other Egyptian cemeteries.

The bones also revealed clues that corroborate other scholars’ findings that severely disabled Egyptians were well cared for. “I found the remains of a man who died at the age of 19 or 20 and was born without a useful right leg, presumably because of polio or another neuromuscular disorder,” Austin said.

“To work in the royal tombs, which was the entire purpose of the village, he would have had to climb,” Austin said. But in examination of the young man’s skeleton, she saw “no signs of other health issues, or of having lived a hard life. That suggests to me that they found a role for him in this community even though the predominant role, of working in the tombs, could not be met.”

Relating to ancient ideas

Austin’s research into the history of social health care invites larger discussion about how ancient peoples viewed health and disease, as well as the link between affluence and social responsibility.

“A woman named Naunakhte had eight children,” Austin said. “In her will, she chastised and disinherited four of them for neglecting her in her old age.”

“At Deir el-Medina, we see two health care networks happening,” Austin said. “There’s a professional, state-subsidised network so the state can get what it wants – a nice tomb for the king. Parallel to this, there’s a private network of families and friends. And this network has pressure to take care of its members, for fear of public shaming, such as being divorced for neglect or even disinherited.”

Austin finds Egyptians’ ideas about health care particularly compelling and fruitful for discussion because, she argues, their ideas about disease were much like ours.

While the Greeks believed that disease stemmed from an imbalance of bodily fluids, she said, “Egyptians thought about it as a kind of contamination of the body. To get better, instead of balancing yourself, you had to purge yourself of the contaminant.”

For example, a doctor in the medical text known as the Edwin Smith Papyrus treats a patient with an open wound over a broken arm by placing ground ostrich-egg shell in the wound and pronouncing, “Repelled is the enemy that is in the wound; cast out is the evil that is in the blood.”

“It’s very similar to modern germ theory,” Austin said. “It shows an awareness of disease as being external.”

In March, she will return to Deir el-Medina in collaboration with Egyptologist Salima Ikram of the American University in Cairo to study more remains in hope of identifying specific diseases.

“Egypt has a complex civilisation, a written tradition and a long history of study,” Austin said. “The further away Egypt is and the more we learn, the more relatable it is and thus the more fascinating it is to me.” Austin and her students will be exploring our broader fascination with Egypt in her winter quarter course, Egyptomania! The Allure of Egypt over the Past 3,500 years.
Wilcox, Barbara. 2015. “First detailed study of Ancient Egyptians at Deir el-Medina”. Past Horizons. Posted: November 19, 2014. Available online: