Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Stone Age Skull Reveals Astonishing Human Diversity

A partial human skull found at a site in Kenya suggests early humans living in Africa were incredibly diverse.

The 22,000-year-old skull is not a new species and is clearly that of an anatomically modern human, but is markedly different from similar finds from Africa and Europe from the same time, the researchers said.

"It looks like nothing else, and so it shows that original diversity that we've since lost," said study co-author Christian Tryon, a Paleolithic archaeologist at Harvard University's Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It's probably an extinct lineage."

The same site also contained deposits that are more than twice as old as the skull, including 46,000-year-old ostrich eggshells that were used to make beads. The new finds could reveal insights about the shifts in human culture that took place starting when the ancestors of present-day humans left Africa, around 50,000 years ago.

Mysterious period

About 12,000 years ago, humans began farming, living in denser settlements and burying their dead, so skeletons younger than that are plentiful, said Stanley Ambrose, an African archaeologist and paleoanthropologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who was not involved in the study.

But relatively little is known about the people who came before them. Only a handful of human burials around the world date from about 12,000 to 30,000 years ago, Ambrose said.

To learn more about this lost period of human history, Tryon and his colleagues took a second look at specimens that were sitting in the collections of the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi. The artifacts were unearthed in the 1970s at rock shelters at Lukenya Hill, a granite promontory that overlooks the savanna in Kenya.

Among the finds was the top portion of an ancient skull. The team took several measurements of the skull, then compared it with skulls fromNeanderthals, several other fossil human skulls from the same time and other periods, as well as those of modern-day humans.

Though the skull clearly belonged to a Homo sapien who was anatomically modern, its dimensions were markedly different from those of both the European skull and the African skulls from the same time. In addition, the skull was thickened, either from damage, nutritional stress or a highly active childhood. (There is not enough evidence to say the fossil represents a subspecies of Homo sapien, Tryon said.)

By measuring the ratio of radioactive isotopes of carbon (or carbon atoms with different numbers of neutrons), the team concluded that the skull was about 22,000 years old. That means the ancient human would have lived during the height of the last ice age.

Modern-day Africans have greater genetic diversity than other populations. But the new findings suggest that during this early period of human history, Africa may have supported even greater human diversity, with small, offshoot lineages that no longer exist today, Tryon said.

Light switch moment

Collections from deeper at the site revealed ostrich eggshells, which were used to make beads, as well as tiny stone blades known as Levallois technology. Many of the artifacts were somewhere between 22,000 and 46,000 years old.

The finds come from a dramatic moment in human history.

Around this time, many scientists believe that "this light switch goes on and people get smarter all of a sudden," Tryon told Live Science.

During the period between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago, people began intensively using elaborate trading routes over vast distances, fashioned decorative beads, and made lightweight stone points, that were not much different from arrow blades found in Egyptian tombs dating to about 4,000 years ago, Ambrose said.

"They're very simple little segments of blades that are easy to make, but they're very small and lightweight and they fit into little slots on the ends and sides of arrows," Ambrose told Live Science. "We know that the Egyptian ones had traces of poison on them."

The rediscovery of fragments from Lukenya Hill are important because evidence of human culture from this critical juncture is incredibly rare, Ambrose said.

The Lukenya Hill artifacts were described on Monday (Feb. 16) in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Ghose, Tia. 2015. “Stone Age Skull Reveals Astonishing Human Diversity”. Live Science. Posted: February 19, 2015. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/49875-stone-age-skull-found.html

Monday, March 30, 2015

Tracing languages back to their common ancestors through the statistics of sound shifts

A team of researchers in the U.S. and U.K. has developed a statistical technique that sorts out when changes to words' pronunciations most likely occurred in the evolutionary history of related languages.

Their model, presented recently in the journal Current Biology, gives researchers a renewed opportunity to trace words and languages back to their earliest common ancestor or ancestors - potentially thousands of years further into prehistory than previous techniques can do with any statistical rigor.

Led by Santa Fe Institute Professor Tanmoy Bhattacharya and University of Reading Professor Mark Pagel, the technique detects historical "concerted sound changes" - a linguistic evolutionary phenomenon where a specific sound changes to another specific sound in many words simultaneously.

For example, the modern languages of English and Latin descended from a common predecessor called proto-Indoeuropean. In English, the words father and foot took on an initial f sound, but in Latin those words retained their p sound, as in pater and ped. This transition occurred across the English language in many words that had featured a p sound.

The researchers tested their new model on Turkic, a family of at least 35 languages spoken by Turkic peoples from Southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean to Siberia and Western China. Their computer analysis automatically considered and evaluated the likelihood (without the potentially biased input of humans) that more than 70 regular sound changes had occurred throughout the 2000-year history of the Turkic languages.

An example is the word pas (head in English) in the Khakassian language. In Turkish, Uzbek, and 16 other Turkic languages the initial sound is b instead, yielding baš. Similarly, pel- (meaning louse) in Khakassian is bil- or bel- in the other languages. The ubiquity of this sound difference strongly supports the hypothesis that a regular sound shift occurred.

"Computers so far have mainly used the presence or absence of words with a common origin in various languages to stitch together trees that describe the descent of the various languages from a common ancestor," say Bhattacharya. "This has left out the vastly richer data residing in sounds, primarily because sound changes in different words are not independent, as most mutations in genetics are, for example."

In the paper, the researchers developed the mathematics for detecting and evaluating hypotheses concerning concerted sound changes and showed that the technique provided vastly superior dated trees for the Turkic language family than previous methods. "Regular correspondences between sounds in different languages have long been an important test for establishing linguistic relatedness in traditional historical linguistics," Bhattacharya says. "Being able to detect them automatically and score them within a probabilistic framework is a major step forward. Such a probabilistic framework may be able to help us detect and evaluate signals of very old regular sound changes that are much weaker than what is possible to determine unambiguously in a manual fashion." "Our new method is another exciting step to understanding how languages and genes evolve," says Pagel. "It will allow us to go back in time further than before, making it possible to reconstruct ancient proto-languages, words that might have been spoken many thousands of years ago."

Science Daily. 2015. “Tracing languages back to their common ancestors through the statistics of sound shifts”. Science Daily. Posted: February 19, 2015. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150219133034.htm

Sunday, March 29, 2015

New insights into origins of the world's languages

Linguists have long agreed that languages from English to Greek to Hindi, known as 'Indo-European languages', are the modern descendants of a language family which first emerged from a common ancestor spoken thousands of years ago. Now, a new study gives us more information on when and where it was most likely used. Using data from over 150 languages, linguists at the University of California, Berkeley provide evidence that this ancestor language originated 5,500 - 6,500 years ago, on the Pontic-Caspian steppe stretching from Moldova and Ukraine to Russia and western Kazakhstan.

"Ancestry-constrained phylogenetic analysis supports the Indo-European steppe hypothesis", by Will Chang, Chundra Cathcart, David Hall and Andrew Garrett, will appear in the March issue of the academic journal Language. A pre-print version of the article is freely available from the Linguistic Society of America, the publishers of Language:


This article provides new support for the "steppe hypothesis" or "Kurgan hypothesis", which proposes that Indo-European languages first spread with cultural developments in animal husbandry around 4500 - 3500 BCE. (An alternate theory proposes that they diffused much earlier, around 7500 - 6000 BCE, in Anatolia in modern-day Turkey.)

Chang et al. examined over 200 sets of words from living and dead Indo-European languages; after determining how quickly these words changed over time through statistical modeling, they concluded that the rate of change indicated that the languages which first used these words began to diverge approximately 6,500 years ago, in accordance with the steppe hypothesis.

This is one of the first quantitatively-based academic papers in support of the steppe hypothesis, and the first to use a model with "ancestry constraints" which more directly incorporate previously discovered relationships between languages. In future research, methods from this study could be used to study the origins of other language families, such as Afro-Asiatic and Sino-Tibetan.

EurekAlert. 2015. “New insights into origins of the world's languages”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 18, 2015. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-02/lsoa-nii021815.php

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Almost 2000 Fatimid gold coins found in Caesarea ancient harbour

The largest hoard of gold coins ever discovered in Israel was found in recent weeks by a group of divers. The coins were found on the seabed of the ancient harbour at Caesarea National Park.

The discovery, exposed as a result of winter storms, was reported to the Marine Archaeology Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority, after which a metal detector was taken out to the find spot. Almost 2,000 gold coins were retrieved in different denominations: dinar, half dinar and quarter dinar, of various dimensions and weight.

According to Kobi Sharvit, director of the Marine Archaeology Unit, they intended to carry out salvage excavations in the near future. He said “The discovery of such a large hoard of coins raises several possibilities regarding its presence on the seabed, where there is probably a shipwreck. With such a value of coinage it was possibly an official treasury boat which was on its way to the central government in Egypt with taxes that had been collected, perhaps to pay the salaries of the Fatimid military garrison which was stationed in Caesarea and protected the city. Another theory is that the treasure was money belonging to a large merchant ship that traded with the coastal cities and the port on the Mediterranean Sea and sank there.”

Excellent state of preservation

According to Robert Cole, an expert numismatist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, “The coins are in an excellent state of preservation, and despite the fact they were at the bottom of the sea for about a thousand years, they did not require any cleaning or conservation intervention from the metallurgical laboratory. The coins that were exposed also remained in the monetary circulation after the Crusader conquest, particularly in the port cities through which international commerce was conducted. Several of the coins that were found in the assemblage were bent and exhibit teeth and bite marks, evidence they were “physically” inspected by their owners or the merchants. Other coins bear signs of wear and abrasion from use while others seem as though they were just minted.”

Kobi Sharvit praised the action of the divers, and said “The law says that all antiquities belong to the state and that not reporting or removing antiquities from their location, selling or trading them is an offence punishable by up to five years imprisonment. In this case the divers reported the find; but in many instances they take the objects home and that way extremely important archaeological information is lost forever, which cannot be recovered. Therefore the discovery of the treasure underscores the need to combine the development of the place as a tourism and diving site with restrictions that will allow the public to dive there only when accompanied by inspectors or instructors from the diving club.”

Historical background

The earliest coin from the hoard is a quarter dinar minted in Palermo, Sicily in the second half of the ninth century CE. Most of the coins though belong to the Fatimid caliphs Al-Ḥākim (996–1021 CE) and his son Al-Ẓāhir (1021–1036), and were minted in Egypt and North Africa. The coin assemblage included no coins from the Eastern Islamic dynasties and it can therefore be stated with certainty this is a Fatimid treasure.

The great value and significance of the treasure become apparent when viewed in light of the historical sources. For example, the description of the traveller and geographer Ibn Jubayr who writes that the Muslim residents of the settlements were required to pay the Fatimid government half their agricultural produce at harvest time, in addition to payment of a head tax of one dinar and five carats (twenty-four carats equal one dinar, hence the method used to measure gold according to carats).

Descriptions in the Cairo Geniza from the eleventh and twelfth century CE tell, among other things, of the redemption of prisoners, including Jewish captives from Ashkelon that were transferred to Egypt. According to the documents, the Jewish community paid a sum of about five hundred gold dinars to redeem and return them to Israel.

Past Horizons. 2015. “Almost 2000 Fatimid gold coins found in Caesarea ancient harbour”. Past Horizons. Posted: February 17, 2015. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2015/almost-2000-fatimid-gold-coins-found-in-caesarea-ancient-harbour

Friday, March 27, 2015

First-ever evidence of drastic climate change of Northern China region 4,200 years ago

Using a relatively new scientific dating technique, a Baylor University geologist and a team of international researchers were able to document -- for the first time -- a drastic climate change 4,200 years ago in northern China that affected vegetation and led to mass migration from the area.

Steve Forman, Ph.D., professor of geology in the College of Arts & Sciences, and researchers -- using a dating technique called Optically Stimulated Luminescence -- uncovered the first evidence of a severe decrease in precipitation on the freshwater lake system in China's Hunshandake Sandy Lands. The impact of this extreme climate change led to desertification -- or drying of the region -- and the mass migration of northern China's Neolithic cultures.

Their research findings appeared in a recent issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"With our unique scientific capabilities, we are able to assert with confidence that a quick change in climate drastically changed precipitation in this area, although, further study needs to be conducted to understand why this change occurred," Forman said. Between 2001 and 2014, the researchers investigated sediment sections throughout the Hunshandake and were able to determine that a sudden and irreversible shift in the monsoon system led to the abrupt drying of the Hunshandake resulting in complications for the population.

"This disruption of the water flow significantly impacted human activities in the region and limited water availability. The consequences of a rapid climatic shift on the Hunshandake herding and agricultural cultures were likely catastrophic," Forman said.

He said these climatic changes and drying of the Hunshandake continue to adversely impact the current population today. The Hunshandake remains arid and even with massive rehabilitation efforts will unlikely regrow dense vegetation.

"This study has far-reaching implications for understanding how populations respond and adapt to drastic climate change," Forman said.

Forman is the director of the Geoluminescence Dating Research Lab in the department of geology.

Science Daily. 2015. “First-ever evidence of drastic climate change of Northern China region 4,200 years ago”. Science Daily. Posted: February 16, 2015. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150216160005.htm

Journal Reference:

1. Xiaoping Yang, Louis A. Scuderi, Xulong Wang, Louis J. Scuderi, Deguo Zhang, Hongwei Li, Steven Forman, Qinghai Xu, Ruichang Wang, Weiwen Huang, Shixia Yang. Groundwater sapping as the cause of irreversible desertification of Hunshandake Sandy Lands, Inner Mongolia, northern China. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2015; 112 (3): 702 DOI:10.1073/pnas.1418090112

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Archaeologists find 700-year-old relics at Empress Place

A team of archaeologists digging at an excavation site in front of the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall have managed to haul up 400kg of artefacts in less than two weeks.

Most of these artefacts, which include Chinese ceramics, jars and figurines, are at least 700 years old, dating as far back as the Yuan dynasty period or 14th century.

These items were recovered from an archaeological excavation site that is currently being carried out at a 1,000 sq m large area - the size of 10 4-room HDB flats - at Empress Place.

This site, which separates the Asian Civilisations Museum and the Victoria Theatre and Concert Hall, is slated for redevelopment under the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) enhancement plans for the Civic District, which will be completed in July. Organised by the National Heritage Board, the archaeological excavation - which began on Feb 2 - hopes to recover artefacts and deposits dating from the Temasek period to Singapore's early colonial days before the upcoming enhancements are made to pave the area to create a more spacious lawn.

According to the National Heritage Board (NHB), this is the largest archaeological excavation ever undertaken in Singapore since the first excavation at Fort Canning in 1984.

An estimated two to three tonnes of artefacts are expected to be found here, said lead archaelogist Lim Chen Sian from the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (NSC-ISEAS).

"Empress Place was the location of a thriving port in the early days and any new discovery will hopefully advance our understanding of Singapore's earliest beginnings," said Mr Lim.

So far, relics from the Temasek era (1300s to 1600s) and colonial era (1800s to 1940s) have been found by the team, which comprises four full-time archaeologists and a group of student volunteers.

Some notable finds from the site include a headless Buddha porcelain figurine, a high quality 12th to late 13th century celadon bowl from Longquan, China, ancient Chinese copper coins, carnelian beads probably from South Asia and even a well-preserved old colonial brick drain, which is believed to be used to pump sewage waste into the Singapore river.

Other organic artefacts such as shells and fishbones were also unearthed.

According to Mr Lim, the Empress Place excavation site has yielded a huge amount of artefacts compared to other excavations. However, the story these artefacts will tell of Singapore's past will only be revealed after they are sent to the laboratory for further assessment, which will take a significant amount of time.

"As a general rule of thumb, one day of digging is equivalent to 21 days in the lab," said Mr Lim. Significant finds from this site will either be incorporated into the national collection, which currently has 3,000 items, or put on display in future exhibitions, said a spokesperson from NHB.- See more at: http://news.asiaone.com/news/singapore/archaeologists-find-700-year-old-relics-empress-place#sthash.NADKq4XK.dpuf

Lim, Karen. 2015. “Archaeologists find 700-year-old relics at Empress Place”. Asia One News. Posted: February 13, 2015. Available online: http://news.asiaone.com/news/singapore/archaeologists-find-700-year-old-relics-empress-place

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Stone Age skeleton judged Norway's oldest

The Stone Age skeleton found in Norway last summer could be as much as 8000 years old, archeologists now believe, making it by far the oldest ever discovered in the country.

“Brunstad man”, whose remains were found in Stokke, south of Oslo, is now believed to be from the Mesolithic period, which spans from 10,000BC-4000BC) 

“The discovery is sensational in Norwegian, and indeed even in a north European context,” Almut Schülke, an archaeologist working for the Museum of Cultural History at the University of Oslo, told Aftenposten journalists when they visited the laboratory where the find is being analysed on Monday. “It is very seldom that we find bones from the stone age.” 

The skeleton is in an extremely fragile condition, meaning researchers are painstakingly examining it tiny fragment by tiny fragment, documenting the location of everything as accurately as possible and feeding it into a 3-D computer model of the find. 

The archaeologists hope to learn the age of the man, his diet and the extent to which the people who found their way so far north had contact with other settlements around the Skagerrak and the Baltic Sea.

The skeleton was found lying in the fetal position, a typical stone-age burial position, in a pit which had been bricked in on the inside.

The researchers had to divide the skeleton and the surrounding soil into eight parts to remove it from the earth and bring it back to the archeological laboratory in Oslo. 

Schülke told the newspaper she hoped to find further evidence of human activity at the same site. 

“We do not know if Brunstad was a fixed settlement or whether it  was a place people went to pick up special resources, such as different types of stone,” she told the newspaper. “We do not know of other major tombs nearby, but it was not uncommon to add a single grave so close to a settlement, as they have done here.”

The Local. 2015. “Stone Age skeleton judged Norway's oldest”. The Local. Posted: February 16, 2015. Available online: http://www.thelocal.no/20150216/stone-age-skeleton-found-in-summer-judged-norways-oldest

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Skeletons in 6,000-Year-Old Embrace Found in Cave

A 6,000-year-old romance has been uncovered in a Greek cave as archaeologists unearthed the skeletons of an undisturbed Neolithic couple locked in an embrace.

Found in the Alepotrypa, or foxhole, one of the Diros caves in southern Greece, the prehistoric remains were positioned curled into the fetal position, as if spooning each other. The grave also contained broken arrowheads.

Although the pair was originally found in 2014 by a team of archaeologists and speleologists led by George Papathanassopoulos, the Greek Ministry of Culture announced the results of DNA and radio carbon tests on Thursday, just in time for Valentine’s Day.

Couple Held Hands for 1,500 Years

The skeletons were dated to 3800 B.C. and DNA analysis confirmed the remains belong to a man and a woman.

“Double burials in embrace are extremely rare,” the ministry said. “The skeletons of Diros represent one of the oldest, if not the oldest, found to this date,” it added.

Discovered in 1958, the Alepotrypa Cave was used between 6000 and 3200 B.C. and served as both a settlement and a cemetery.

Around 3200 B.C., the entrance collapsed because of a severe earthquake, burying the cave inhabitants alive.

Excavations in recent years have yielded the remains of adults, children and even embryos.

The archaeologists also discovered a 13-foot wide crypt, paved with a unique pebble floor. The burial contained dozens of skeletons, along with pottery, beads and a dagger.

The researchers have been so far unable to establish the cause of death of the 5,800-year-old couple. But the fact that they were buried together in such a position suggests they possibly died at the same time.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2015. “Skeletons in 6,000-Year-Old Embrace Found in Cave”. Discovery News. Posted: February 13, 2015. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/history/archaeology/skeletons-locked-in-6000-year-old-embrace-found-in-cave-150213.htm

Monday, March 23, 2015

Researchers use isotopic analysis to explore ancient Peruvian life

Mummies excavated nearly a century ago are yielding new information about past lifeways through work conducted in Arizona State University's Archaeological Chemistry Laboratory.

Using new techniques in bioarchaeology and biogeochemistry, a team of bioarchaeologists and archaeologists have been able to study the diets of 14 individuals dating back almost 2,000 years.

The findings were recently published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The mummies were unearthed from one of the most famous sites in Peru: the Paracas Necropolis of Wari Kayan, two densely populated collections of burials off the southern coast. The region has a rich archaeological history that includes intricate textiles and enormous geoglyphs, yet it has been relatively overlooked for bioarchaeological research.

With support from the National Science Foundation, ASU associate professor Kelly Knudson and her colleagues are attempting to rectify that.

In addition to Knudson, the team was made up by Ann H. Peters of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Elsa Tomasto Cagigao of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.

The researchers used hair samples - between two and 10 sequential samples for each mummy, in addition to two hair artifacts - to investigate the diets of Paracas' ancient people. They focused on carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis of keratin to determine what these individuals ate in the final stages of their lives.

Diet not only provides insight into health, but can also indicate where people lived and traveled, as well as offer clues about their daily lives by pointing to whether their foods were sourced from farming, fishing, hunting or gathering.

During the last months of their lives, the Paracas individuals appear to have eaten primarily marine products and C4 and C3 plants, such as maize and beans. Also, they were either geographically stable or, if they traveled between the inland highlands and coastal regions, continued to consume marine products.

"What is exciting to me about this research is that we are using new scientific techniques to learn more about mummies that were excavated almost 100 years ago. It is a great application of new science to older museum collections," says Knudson, who is in ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Knudson, who is affiliated with the school's Center for Bioarchaeological Research, explained why it is so important to learn about the lived experiences of people who existed long ago.

"By using small samples of hair from these mummies, we can learn what they ate in the months and weeks before they died, which is a very intimate look at the past," Knudson said.

When first discovered in 1927 by Peruvian archaeologist Julio Tello, each mummy was bound in a seated position, found with burial items like baskets or weapons, and wrapped in a cone-shaped bundle of textiles, including finely embroidered garments.

Since the sampled individuals were mostly male, Knudson and her colleagues suggest that future research may involve more females and youths. The researchers also plan to further examine artifacts and mortuary evidence to build context for their isotopic data.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Researchers use isotopic analysis to explore ancient Peruvian life”. EurekAlert. Posted: February 13, 2015. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-02/asu-rui021315.php

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Massive migration from the steppe is a source for Indo-European languages in Europe


We generated genome-wide data from 69 Europeans who lived between 8,000-3,000 years ago by enriching ancient DNA libraries for a target set of almost four hundred thousand polymorphisms. Enrichment of these positions decreases the sequencing required for genome-wide ancient DNA analysis by a median of around 250-fold, allowing us to study an order of magnitude more individuals than previous studies and to obtain new insights about the past. We show that the populations of western and far eastern Europe followed opposite trajectories between 8,000-5,000 years ago. At the beginning of the Neolithic period in Europe, ~8,000-7,000 years ago, closely related groups of early farmers appeared in Germany, Hungary, and Spain, different from indigenous hunter-gatherers, whereas Russia was inhabited by a distinctive population of hunter-gatherers with high affinity to a ~24,000 year old Siberian6. By ~6,000-5,000 years ago, a resurgence of hunter-gatherer ancestry had occurred throughout much of Europe, but in Russia, the Yamnaya steppe herders of this time were descended not only from the preceding eastern European hunter-gatherers, but from a population of Near Eastern ancestry. Western and Eastern Europe came into contact ~4,500 years ago, as the Late Neolithic Corded Ware people from Germany traced ~3/4 of their ancestry to the Yamnaya, documenting a massive migration into the heartland of Europe from its eastern periphery. This steppe ancestry persisted in all sampled central Europeans until at least ~3,000 years ago, and is ubiquitous in present-day Europeans. These results provide support for the theory of a steppe origin of at least some of the Indo-European languages of Europe.

Read the whole article online.

Haak, Wolfgang, Iosif Lazaridis, Nick Patterson, et al. 2015. “Massive migration from the steppe is a source for Indo-European languages in Europe”. Biorxiv. Posted: February 10, 2015. Available online: http://biorxiv.org/content/early/2015/02/10/013433

Saturday, March 21, 2015

F-bombs notwithstanding, all languages skew toward happiness: Universal human bias for positive words

In 1969, two psychologists at the University of Illinois proposed what they called the Pollyanna Hypothesis -- the idea that there is a universal human tendency to use positive words more frequently than negative ones. "Put even more simply," they wrote, "humans tend to look on (and talk about) the bright side of life." It was a speculation that has provoked debate ever since.

Now a team of scientists at the University of Vermont and The MITRE Corporation have applied a Big Data approach -- using a massive data set of many billions of words, based on actual usage, rather than "expert" opinion -- to confirm the 1960s guess.

Movie subtitles in Arabic, Twitter feeds in Korean, the famously dark literature of Russia, websites in Chinese, music lyrics in English, and even the war-torn pages of the New York Times -- the researchers found that these, and probably all human language¬, skews toward the use of happy words.

"We looked at ten languages," says UVM mathematician Peter Dodds who co-led the study, "and in every source we looked at, people use more positive words than negative ones."

But doesn't our global torrent of cursing on Twitter, horror movies, and endless media stories on the disaster du jour mean this can't be true? No. This huge study of the "atoms of language -- individual words," Dodds says, indicates that language itself -- perhaps humanity's greatest technology -- has a positive outlook. And, therefore, "it seems that positive social interaction," Dodds says, is built into its fundamental structure.

The new study, "Human Language Reveals a Universal Positivity Bias," appeared in the February 9 online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Above average happiness

To deeply explore this Pollyanna possibility, the team of scientists at UVM's Computational Story Lab -- with support from the National Science Foundation and The MITRE Corporation -- gathered billions of words from around the world using twenty-four types of sources including books, news outlets, social media, websites, television and movie subtitles, and music lyrics. For example, "we collected roughly one hundred billion words written in tweets," says UVM mathematician Chris Danforth who co-led the new research. From these sources, the team then identified about ten thousand of the most frequently used words in each of ten languages including English, Spanish, French, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean, Chinese (simplified), Russian, Indonesian and Arabic. Next, they paid native speakers to rate all these frequently-used words on a nine-point scale from a deeply frowning face to a broadly smiling one. From these native speakers, they gathered five million individual human scores of the words. Averaging these, in English for example, "laughter" rated 8.50, "food" 7.44, "truck" 5.48, "the" 4.98, "greed" 3.06 and "terrorist" 1.30.

A Google web crawl of Spanish-language sites had the highest average word happiness, and a search of Chinese books had the lowest, but -- and here's the point -- all twenty-four sources of words that they analyzed skewed above the neutral score of five on their one-to-nine scale -- regardless of the language. In every language, neutral words like "the" scored just where you would expect: in the middle, near five. And when the team translated words between languages and then back again they found that "the estimated emotional content of words is consistent between languages."

In all cases, the scientists found "a usage-invariant positivity bias," as they write in the study. In other words, by looking at the words people actually use most often they found that, on average, we -- humanity -- "use more happy words than sad words," Danforth says. Moby Dick vs. the Count of Monte Cristo

This new research study also describes a larger project that the team of fourteen scientists has developed to create "physical-like instruments" for both real-time and offline measurements of the happiness in large-scale texts -- "basically, huge bags of words," Danforth explains.

They call this instrument a "hedonometer" -- a happiness meter. It can now trace the global happiness signal from English-language Twitter posts on a near-real-time basis, and show differing happiness signals between days. For example, a big drop was noted on the day of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, but rebounded over the following three days. The hedonometer can also discern different happiness signals in US states and cities: Vermont currently has the happiest signal, while Louisiana has the saddest. And the latest data puts Boulder, CO, in the number one spot for happiness, while Racine, WI, is at the bottom.

But, as the new paper describes, the team is working to apply the hedonometer to explore happiness signals in many other languages and from many sources beyond Twitter. For example, the team has applied their technique to over ten thousand books, inspired by Kurt Vonnegut's "shapes of stories" idea. Visualizations of the emotional ups and downs of these books can been seen on the hedonometer website; they rise and a fall like a stock-market ticker. The new study shows that Moby Dick's 170,914 words has four or five major valleys that correspond to low points in the story and the hedonometer signal drops off dramatically at the end, revealing this classic novel's darkly enigmatic conclusion. In contrast, Dumas's Count of Monte Cristo -- 100,081 words in French -- ends on a jubilant note, shown by a strong upward spike on the meter.

The new research "in no way asserts that all natural texts will skew positive," the researchers write, as these various books reveal. But at a more elemental level, the study brings evidence from Big Data to a long-standing debate about human evolution: our social nature appears to be encoded in the building blocks of language.

Science Daily. 2015. “F-bombs notwithstanding, all languages skew toward happiness: Universal human bias for positive words”. Science Daily. Posted: February 9, 2015. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/02/150209161143.htm

Journal Reference:

1. Peter Sheridan Dodds et al. Human language reveals a universal positivity bias.PNAS, 2015 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1411678112

Friday, March 20, 2015

Amazing! Original Magna Carta Copy Found in Scrapbook

An original copy of the Magna Carta has been discovered in a scrapbook in Kent, England.

The tattered document dates back to 1300, 85 years after King John of England was compelled to sign the first agreement limiting the rights of kings. This version was issued by King Edward I (King John's grandson), who was under pressure from the church and the barons to reaffirm good governance, said Sophie Ambler, a research associate with the Magna Carta Project.

"Nobody knew it was there," Ambler said of the damaged document. "This Magna Carta had been stuck into a scrapbook by a Victorian official from the British Museum at the end of the 19th century."

Limiting the king

The copy was then placed in the Sandwich archive in Kent, where it was forgotten, Ambler told Live Science. Its rediscovery was sparked by the efforts of researchers with the Magna Carta Project, who are investigating the history of the Magna Carta in the lead-up to its 800th anniversary this year. The leader of the project, the University of East Anglia's Nicholas Vincent, asked a historian in Kent to look up Sandwich's Charter of the Forest, a complementary document to the Magna Carta. In the process, the historian found the forgotten edition of the Magna Carta.

Often considered a precursor to modern constitutional law, the Magna Carta was first affirmed on June 15, 1215, by a beleaguered King John, who faced an uprising by a group of powerful barons upset over taxation. The charter limited the king's power  and set limits on taxation, also establishing rights to justice. Four copies of the original 1215 Magna Carta survive, including a badly burnt document held at the British Library.  Reaffirmed charter

After King John, England's kings periodically reaffirmed and reissued the Magna Carta, as was the case with this version. The new copy brings the total number of surviving 13th-century versions to 24, Ambler said. The newly discovered edition is the seventh surviving copy from the year 1300. 

The charter is more than 1.6 feet (0.5 meters) long, but about one-third of the text is missing, according to the Magna Carta Project. Water damage has eaten away at the paper, and the royal seal is missing. Nevertheless, the date of issue survives at the bottom of the document, Ambler said. Determining the authenticity of the charter was relatively straightforward, she added: The layout, handwriting and text all match what would be expected from a Magna Carta of this time.

The document's discovery in Sandwich reveals that copies of the Magna Carta were distributed more widely than ever known, Ambler said. Sandwich was what is known as a "Cinque Port," a coastal town given exemptions from certain taxes and oversight in return for maintaining ships for the kingdom's defense needs.

"The fact that we had one [delivered] to the Cinque ports adds a whole other audience" for the Magna Carta, Ambler said.

The fate of the newly discovered Magna Carta is not yet known, but it is likely to stay in Kent, Ambler said. The county council hopes to display the document as a tourist draw, she added. The Magna Carta is currently being held at the Kent History and Library Centre in Maidstone, Murray Evans, spokesman for the Kent County Council, told Live Science.

Pappas, Stephanie. 2015. “Amazing! Original Magna Carta Copy Found in Scrapbook”. Live Science. Posted: February 9, 2015. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/49742-magna-carta-discovered-scrapbook.html

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Barley and wheat residues in Neolithic cemeteries of Central Sudan and Nubia

A research team successfully identified ancient barley and wheat residues in grave goods and on teeth from two Neolithic cemeteries in Central Sudan and Nubia, showing that humans in Africa were already exploited domestic cereals 7,000 years ago and thus five hundred years earlier than previously known. The results of the analyses were recently published in the open access journal PLOS ONE.

Barley and wheat crops

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

These types of crops 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, implemented, among other things, a special high-quality light microscope as well as radiocarbon analyses for age determination. Hereby, they were supported by the fact that mineral plant particles, so-called phytoliths, survive very long, even when other plant remains are no longer discernible. In addition, the millennia-old teeth, in particular adherent calculus, provide evidence on the diet of these prehistoric humans due to the starch granules and phytoliths contained therein.

Past Horizons. 2015. “Barley and wheat residues in Neolithic cemeteries of Central Sudan and Nubia”. Past Horizons. Posted: February 9, 2015. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2015/barley-and-wheat-residues-in-neolithic-cemeteries-of-central-sudan-and-nubia

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Iceland Building First Pagan Temple in 1,000 Years

For the first time in 1,000 years a new pagan temple is being constructed in Iceland’s capital city that will house a shrine to the Norse gods Thor, Odin and Frigg.

“We see this as so much part of our heritage,” said Hilmar Orn Hilmarsson, high priest of the Asatru religion.

The temple is ten years in the making and is currently under construction. The 4,000 square foot facility will overlook the Icelandic capital and be completed in 2016. It will give Icelanders the opportunity to publicly worship at the shrine to gods.

“Some people love the idea, they really want to go back to the Viking era,” Hilmarsson said.

Iceland was originally founded by pagan settlers. Asatru remained the sole religion of the country for over 100 years until it gave way to Christianity in the year 1000. Some Icelanders experienced religious conflicts with northern European countries.

“Some Icelanders converted to Christianity, but it was a business deicision because some business owners would not trade with pagans,” Hilmarsson said.

The high priest tells Foxnews.com Norse that paganism experienced a revival in Iceland beginning in the 1970s that has paved the way for the new temple.

The temple will serve as a place of worship, but it won’t be a lively or organized celebration.

“It’s more like coming together, sanctifying the movement, having a sacred space,” Hilmarsson said. “More close to Hindu ceremonies.”

Hilmarsson said Thor, Ordin and Frigg are important deities in the religion. Thor is the protector of mankind, Ordin is the god of wisdom and poetry, and Frigg is the goddess of domestic and love.

If names like Thor ring a bell, it might be because some Asatru gods have recently seen a surge in America thanks to Marvel’s blockbuster films about them.

“There is a skewed vision because the Marvel version is like a Shakespeare,” Hilmarsson said. “We certainly enjoy them but don’t see them as religious in any sense."

The priest said the gods are viewed as mystical and symbolic. Most modern worshipers don’t consider them to be living beings that are capable of flying down from the clouds.

“We don’t tend to be literal in our beliefs in Iceland, not even the Christian ones,” Hilmarsson said.

The Asatru religion might describe itself as poetic--but if some Christians, especially those in the Western hemisphere, were to take a literal look at the new altar to pagan gods they might consider it satanic. Hilmarsson says Norse is the opposite of devil worship.

“There is nothing remotely satanic or demonic in this,” Hilmarsson said. “This is a very gentle movement on how to be a good friend, good to your family and an honorable person.”

Hlynur Gudjonsson, the Consul General and Trade Commissioner of Iceland’s consulate in New York, tells Foxnews.com that most Americans might not understand what Asatru is, but those who do realize it’s a peaceful practice.

“I’ve never met anyone who has anything negative to say about it,” Gudjonsson said.

Finn, Matt. 2015. “Iceland Building First Pagan Temple in 1,000 Years”. Discovery News. Posted: February 8, 2015. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/history/religion/iceland-building-first-pagan-temple-in-1000-years-150208.htm

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Research continues into 3000 year-old Nok culture of sub-Saharan Africa

The scientific team of the Institute for Archaeological Sciences, which has been researching the Nok Culture in Nigeria since 2005, can continue its successful work: The German Research Foundation (DFG) will support the total 12-year duration of the planned long-term project for another three years with 1.6 million euros.

However, the study of the Nok Culture, which is the source of the oldest figurative art in sub-Saharan Africa at 2000 to 3000 years old, will not be able to proceed as planned, because of the political unrest in Nigeria, and in particular the attacks of the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram: “The security risk for the team is too great, so we need to postpone the field work in Nigeria and adjust to the situation, which will hopefully improve,” said Prof. Dr. Peter Breunig. The Frankfurt archaeologist has been making regular visits to the West African country since 1989.

In the meantime, the ten researchers are planning to evaluate the recent excavation sites and the current inventory of finds from 79 archaeological sites, and to undertake the processing, publication and internet presentation of extensive, previously collated data.

Looting continues

The Frankfurt results could soon represent the only and definitive knowledge about this Culture. Looters, who have been active in Nigeria for decades, are scarcely affected by the political unrest, and are continuing their business as usual: “The sculptures are very highly sought after on the international art market. In their search for these treasures, the looters systematically destroy one site after another”, laments Breunig.

In addition to the up-to one metre tall, over 2000-year-old terracotta figures found in many excavation sites, the scientists also encountered other finds such as pottery, stone tools, iron objects and plant remains, the evaluation of which will provide a comprehensive picture of the Nok Culture. On this topic, the Frankfurt archaeologist says: “For example, the ceramic vessels, which differ in form and decoration, allow us to identify developmental stages, which form a basis for the chronology of the Nok Culture.”

One particular portion of the project, led by archaeobotanist, Prof. Dr. Katharina Neumann, is dedicated to the plant remains that are regularly found in the excavation areas. They provide information about the environment and the economy. It is already apparent that only a small number of crops were used during the Nok Culture. “From the beginning, millet and a type of bean featured, along with various wild fruits; only after the end of the Nok Culture did oil palm and a grain called “fonio” also appear,” explains Neumann.

The societal development in the Nok Culture from small groups of hunter-gatherers to large communities with increasingly complex forms of human communal life is considered by archaeologists to be an overarching theme. “The Nok Culture, with its enigmatic use of the innumerable terracotta figures, represents a promising example of this development,” adds Breunig. From the context of the finds, the archaeologists conclude that at least some of the sculptures were probably associated with ancestor worship.

Iron smelting

The Frankfurt archaeological team wants to learn more about the settlement patterns and the economy, social organization, and the role played here by the advent of iron metallurgy as a major technological revolution. While the chronology and structure of the sites was the focus of the first two phases of the DFG funding, over the next three years the researchers will devote their efforts to the regional differences in the distribution area of the Nok Culture, which comprises an area nearly five times the size of the state of Hessen. The program will include, among other things, exemplary studies of a large settlement area, in which many Nok Culture sites are found and which promise an insight into the settlement habits of the people, as well as stations for iron smelting. The Nok Culture provides clues to the earliest iron in sub-Saharan Africa, which needs to be substantiated further.

The DFG also funded the successful major sculpture exhibition, which took place from October 2013 to March 2014 in cooperation with the Frankfurt Liebieghaus. Over 100 sculptures and fragments of the Nok Culture were on display, along with a summary of the research results to date. All objects from the exhibition in Frankfurt have now been returned to the relevant federal authority in Nigeria, where they are displayed in an exhibition in the state capital of Kaduna. They were only on loan for scientific analysis and the Frankfurt exhibition.

Past Horizons. 2015. “Research continues into 3000 year-old Nok culture of sub-Saharan Africa”. Past Horizons. Posted: February 8, 2015. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/02/2015/research-continues-into-3000-year-old-nok-culture-of-sub-saharan-africa

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mysterious Stone Carving May Contain Old Message

A weighty stone carved with a mysterious pattern that may be writing has been discovered in a garden in Leicester, England.

The hefty carving was up for sale as a garden ornament when archaeologist and TV presenter James Balme found it. The carving, which was very dirty, may have been plowed up many years ago, Balme said. Despite the carving's poor shape, he thought it was no ordinary ornament; so he purchased it and carefully cleaned it.

When he was done conserving it, Balme saw a stone carving with an extremely complex pattern that is difficult to describe. It's possible the "pattern carved may be some form of writing," Balme told Live Science in an email. The carving's use is unknown, though it could be "a keystone from an archway or indeed a vaulted ceiling," Balme said.

The carving, which weighs between 55 and 65 pounds (25 and 30 kilograms), appears to be made out of a hard form of sandstone, Balme said. It's wide at its base but get narrower toward the top. It stands about 18 inches (46 centimeters) high and is 5.5 inches (14 cm) thick. Its decorations are entirely on the front face "although it does have many chisel marks on the sides and back," he said. 

The date of the carving is uncertain. Balme says that it may date to the Anglo-Saxon period, which started in 410 when the Roman Empire abandoned Britain, and lasted until 1066, when a group called the Normans, led by William the Conqueror, invaded England.

During the Anglo-Saxon period several different groups migrated to England. These people created fine works of art such as complex stone carvings, some of which survive today. Literature also flourished at this time, the poem "Beowulf" being one of the most famous works from this period.

Although an Anglo-Saxon date for the stone carving is a distinct possibility, Balme cannot be certain. Questions also remain as to what exactly the carving was used for and whether the pattern may represent some form of writing. Balme has taken to Twitter, seeking help to unravel the carving's mysteries.

Garden ornament archaeology

"Garden ornament" may conjure up images of tacky gnomes or other modern-day items. However, over the past few years archaeologists studying garden ornaments have made several interesting discoveries. In 2009, the BBC reported on a garden ornament in Dorset that turned out to be an ancient Egyptian terracotta vase.

Another, more spectacular, example of garden ornament archaeology comes from the modern-day town of Migdal located near the Sea of Galilee in Israel. A team of archaeologists studied ancient architectural remains in Migdal that were being reused as garden ornaments or chairs. These remains aided them in discovering an ancient town, which would have flourished at the time of Christ.

So the next time you see an old garden ornament that seems out of place, remember, you may be looking at an interesting piece of history. 

Jarus, Owen. 2015. “Mysterious Stone Carving May Contain Old Message”. . Posted: February 6, 2015. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/49721-mysterious-stone-carving-discovered.html

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Newfound 'Gospel of the Lots of Mary' Discovered in Ancient Text

A 1,500-year-old book that contains a previously unknown gospel has been deciphered. The ancient manuscript may have been used to provide guidance or encouragement to people seeking help for their problems, according to a researcher who has studied the text.

Written in Coptic, an Egyptian language, the opening reads (in translation):

"The Gospel of the lots of Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, she to whom Gabriel the Archangel brought the good news. He who will go forward with his whole heart will obtain what he seeks. Only do not be of two minds."

Anne Marie Luijendijk, a professor of religion at Princeton University, discovered that this newfound gospel is like no other. "When I began deciphering the manuscript and encountered the word 'gospel' in the opening line, I expected to read a narrative about the life and death of Jesus as the canonical gospels present, or a collection of sayings similar to the Gospel of Thomas (a non-canonical text)," she wrote in her book "Forbidden Oracles? The Gospel of the Lots of Mary" (Mohr Siebeck, 2014). 

What she found instead was a series of 37 oracles, written vaguely, and with only a few that mention Jesus.

The text would have been used for divination, Luijendijk said. A person seeking an answer to a question could have sought out the owner of this book, asked a question, and gone through a process that would randomly select one of the 37 oracles to help find a solution to the person's problem. The owner of the book could have acted as a diviner, helping to interpret the written oracles, she said.

Alternatively, the text could have been owned by someone who, when confronted with a question, simply opened an oracle at random to seek an answer.

The 37 oracles are all written vaguely; for instance, oracle seven says, "You know, o human, that you did your utmost again. You did not gain anything but loss, dispute, and war. But if you are patient a little, the matter will prosper through the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

Another example is oracle 34, which reads, "Go forward immediately. This is a thing from God. You know that, behold, for many days you are suffering greatly. But it is of no concern to you, because you have come to the haven of victory."

Throughout the book "the text refers to hardships, suffering and violence, and occasionally one finds a threat. On the whole, however, a positive outlet prevails," Luijendijk wrote in her book.

Another interesting example, that illustrates the ancient book's positive outlook, is oracle 24, which reads, "Stop being of two minds, o human, whether this thing will happen or not. Yes, it will happen! Be brave and do not be of two minds. Because it will remain with you a long time and you will receive joy and happiness."

A 'gospel' like no other

In the ancient world, a special type of book, sometimes called a "lot book," was used to try to predict a person's future. Luijendijk says that this is the only lot book found so far that calls itself a "gospel" — a word that literally means "good news."

"The fact that this book is called that way is very significant," Luijendijk told Live Science in an interview. "To me, it also really indicated that it had something to do [with] how people would consult it and also about being [seen] as good news," she said. "Nobody who wants to know the future wants to hear bad news in a sense."

Although people today associate the word "gospel" as being a text that talks about the life of Jesus, people in ancient times may have had a different perspective.

"The fact that this is not a gospel in the traditional sense gives ample reason to inquire about the reception and use of the term 'gospel' in Late Antiquity," Luijendijk wrote.

Where did it come from?

The text is now owned by Harvard University's Sackler Museum. It was given to Harvard in 1984 by Beatrice Kelekian, who donated it in memory of her husband, Charles Dikran Kelekian. Charles' father, Dikran Kelekian (1868-1951), was "an influential trader of Coptic antiquaries, deemed the 'dean of antiquities' among New York art dealers," Luijendijk wrote in her book.

It is not known where the Kelekians got the gospel. Luijendijk searched the Kelekian family archive but found no information about where the text came from or when it was acquired.

It's possible that, in ancient times, the book was used by a diviner at the Shrine of Saint Colluthus in Egypt, a "Christian site of pilgrimage and healing," Luijendijk wrote. At this shrine, archaeologists have found texts with written questions, indicating that the site was used for various forms of divination.

"Among the services offered to visitors of the shrine were dream incubation, ritual bathing, and both book and ticket divination," Luijendijk wrote.

Miniature text

One interesting feature of the book is its small size. The pages measure less than 3 inches (75 millimeters) in height and 2.7 inches (68.7 millimeters) in width. The codex is "only as large as my palm," Luijendijk wrote.

"Given the book's small size, the handwriting is surprisingly legible and quite elegant," she wrote. The book's small size made it portable and, if necessary, easy to conceal. Luijendijk notes that some early church leaders had a negative view of divination and put in place rules discouraging the practice.

Regardless of why its makers made the text so small, the book was heavily used, with ancient thumbprints still visible in the margins. "The manuscript clearly has been used a lot," Luijendijk said.

Jarus, Owen. 2015. “Newfound 'Gospel of the Lots of Mary' Discovered in Ancient Text”. Live Science. Posted: February 3, 2015. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/49673-newfound-ancient-gospel-deciphered.html

Saturday, March 14, 2015

How Languages and Genes Evolve Together

Researchers have found that geography makes us who we are—genetically and linguistically.

As human populations disperse, the separation leads to changes both in genes and in language. So if we look at human DNA and languages over time, we should find that they differ along similar geographic lines.

It’s an intuitive theory, but difficult to prove. That is, until researchers decided to match large collections of geographic, linguistic, and genetic data on hundreds of human populations worldwide.

A new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, quantifies the complicated relationship between these three factors. Researchers compared the geographic presence of two things in human populations across the world: alleles (trait-defining stretches of DNA) and phonemes (the distinct units of sound that make up spoken language).

This map shows a broad picture of the geographic spread of alleles and phonemes, according to the study’s findings. The arrows show that, in most parts of the world, languages and genes occupy the same areas and even appear to have traveled along similar trajectories.

The scale of the research is impressive. “Our study directly compares the signatures of human demographic history in microsatellite polymorphisms from 246 worldwide populations and complete sets of phonemes for 2,082 languages,” the researchers write in their report. (Microsatellite polymorphisms are short DNA sequences that vary from person to person.) These data have been available for some time, but never examined in the same place. “The thing we’ve done that no one else has is match worldwide genetic populations to their languages, so that you’re looking at a comparable set,” said Nicole Creanza of Stanford University, one of the report’s authors.

Using this new dataset and novel statistical techniques, the researchers were able to scratch an itch linguists and demographers have struggled to reach, showing that language and genes do in fact share similar geographic fault lines.

Here’s a more specific picture of what the results show. In the chart below, languages that are geographically near to each other are grouped into a tree structure. A gray circle marks the presence of a phoneme—/ʈ/, the voiceless retroflex stop—in that language. Only one language, Assamese, fully breaks from the trend in its geographic group.

Credit: Creanza et al

This geographic relationship is no doubt compelling. But, as with any novel dataset, the analysis yielded several other thought-provoking results.

For example, according to the data, languages that are geographically close tend to share properties even if they are not linguistically related. “When two languages were geographically near, they tended to share more phonemes even if they were not closely related, suggesting a relationship between phonemes and geography both within and between language families,” the researchers wrote.

Another finding is related to isolation: When small populations separate from the gene pool, genetic diversity falls. In language, the opposite is true. The study shows that isolation leads to more diversity in phonemes. So while both are related to geography, biological and linguistic evolution operate at two very different speeds, with language being the much faster of the two.

Sonnad, Nikhil. 2015. “How Languages and Genes Evolve Together”. The Atlantic. Posted: February 3, 2015. Available online: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/02/how-languages-and-genes-evolve-together/385116/

Friday, March 13, 2015

Taj Mahal Gardens Found to Align with the Solstice Sun

If you arrived at the Taj Mahal in India before the sun rises on the day of the summer solstice (which usually occurs June 21), and walked up to the north-central portion of the garden where two pathways intersect with the waterway, and if you could step into that waterway and turn your gaze toward a pavilion to the northeast — you would see the sun rise directly over it. If you could stay in that spot, in the waterway, for the entire day, the sun would appear to move behind you and then set in alignment with another pavilion, to the northwest. The mausoleum and minarets of the Taj Mahal are located between those two pavilions, and the rising and setting sun would appear to frame them. Although standing in the waterway is impractical (and not allowed), the dawn and dusk would be sights to behold, and these alignments are just two among several that a physics researcher recently discovered between the solstice sun and the waterways, pavilions and pathways in the gardens of the Taj Mahal. The Taj Mahal is a mausoleum built by Mughal Dynasty emperor Shah Jahan (who lived from 1592 to 1666) for his favorite wife Mumtaz Mahal (who lived 1592-1631). Her name meant "the Chosen one of the Palace." The summer solstice has more hours of daylight than any other day of the year, and is when the sun appears at its highest point in the sky. The winter solstice (which usually occurs Dec. 21) is the shortest day of the year, and is when the sun appears at its lowest point in the sky. Amelia Carolina Sparavigna, a physics professor at the Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy, reported the alignments in an article published recently in the journal Philica. Gardens of Eden The Mughal dynasty built the gardens in the "charbagh" style, a system developed in Persia that involves dividing a garden into four sections, Sparavigna noted in her article. "It is well known that the Mughal gardens were created with the symbolic meaning of Gardens of Eden, with the four main canals flowing from a central spring to the four corners of the world," she wrote. Her research shows that solstice alignments can be found not only in the Taj Mahal gardens, but also in gardens built through time by different Mughal emperors.  Although the alignments at the Taj Mahal likely had symbolic meanings, it's also possible that the architects of the structure used the solstice sun to help build the Taj Mahal, which is precisely oriented along a north-south axis. [In Photos: A Walk Through Stonehenge] "In fact, architects have six main directions: two are joining cardinal points (north-south, east-west) and four are those given by sunrise and sunset on summer and winter solstices,"Sparavignawrote in her paper. Sparavigna told Live Science in an email that the alignments seen at the Taj Mahal, compared with solar alignments seen at other gardens, are particularly precise. In "the case of Taj Mahal, these gardens, which are huge, are perfect." New technologies Sparavigna made the discoveries by using an app called Sun Calc, which uses Google Earth satellite imagery to help calculate the direction at which the sun rises and sets on a given day and location. Over the past decade the availability of free, high-resolution Google Earth imagery, combined with the development of apps like Sun Calc and Sollumis, has made it easier for researchers to discover and study solar alignments at historical sites. "Before software and satellites, we had to use traditional maps or plans, obtained after local surveying, and equations to determine the solar [angles] and draw them on maps. In fact, the use of satellites [makes] this work very fast and visually attractive," Sparavigna told Live Science.

Jarus, Owen. 2015. “Taj Mahal Gardens Found to Align with the Solstice Sun”. Live Science. Posted: February 2, 2015. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/49660-taj-mahal-gardens-align-solstice-sun.html

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Bone bow and arrow wrist guard and pottery found with Bronze Age body in Drumnadrochit

DRUMNADROCHIT'S earliest-known resident, who lived around 4500 years ago, wore a stone guard on his wrist when using a bow and arrow and favoured geometric designs on his kitchenware.

Following the discovery last month of an early Bronze Age burial cist in the village, archaeologists have found shards of pottery and a wrist guard on the same site.

Now, work is ongoing to glean as much information as possible about the finds, and it is even hoped to determine the gender of the skeletal remains – though it is thought the archery equipment may provide a clue.

The cist and artefacts were uncovered during works preparing the site of the NHS Highland’s replacement Drumnadrochit Health Centre.

Heather Cameron, senior project manager with the health board, said: “We are particularly excited to have uncovered the pottery and wrist guard in what appeared to be a second grave next to the first, and I think we will be looking to mount a display on the finds somewhere in the new building when it opens at the end of the year.”

Mary Peteranna, of AOC Archaeology Group, has been working on what she described as “significant” finds for NHS Highland.

She said: “The shards are of around two-thirds of a beaker pot which will probably have been around 20-30cm high. What makes them particularly interesting is that there is some organic material adhering to the base of the pot, so we may find out something about its contents.

“The shards have a distinctive decoration which may have been made on the clay before firing in a stabbing movement with something like a feather quill.

“The wrist guard is also particularly exciting. It has holes so that it could be tied to the wrist with a leather strap, and may have been ornamental or functional.”

The skeletal remains, which may be of an adult or near adult, comprise of most of a person’s long bones along with part of the skull and a number of teeth. It is hoped to be able to determine scientifically the sex of the person, and perhaps even the cause of death.

The artefacts have been photographed, recorded and removed and will now be undergoing specialist, detailed analysis. A decision will then be taken about what to do with them.

Archaeologists have investigated a 4m x 4m area on the site, which lies just off the A82. NHS Highland said that, with ground clearance work having been completed, it is not planned at this stage to carry out further archaeological work there. However, with more construction work planned on the other side of the main road, where houses and retail units are to be built, further finds have not been ruled out.

The new, £1.5 million health centre is being built on a greenfield site near the existing health centre in Balmacaan Road. It will feature enhanced GP facilities, community services, additional clinical services and social work facilities. It has been designed to accommodate wider use by the general public out of working hours, and will have capacity for future expansion if needed.

Staff Reporter. 2015. “Bone bow and arrow wrist guard and pottery found with Bronze Age body in Drumnadrochit”. Inverness Courier. Posted: February 3, 2015. Available online: http://www.inverness-courier.co.uk/News/Bone-bow-and-arrow-wrist-guard-and-pottery-found-with-Bronze-Age-body-in-Drumnadrochit-03022015.htm

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Prehistoric Temples on Maui Reveal Origins of Island’s First Kingdom

The remains of small sea creatures are providing fresh insights into one of the most important periods in the history of pre-contact Hawaii, archaeologists say.

A new study of indigenous temples, or heiau, on the island of Maui has set out to identify when the island’s native population — initially spread out over several small chiefdoms — first came together under a single ruler.

The island’s sacred sites range from small shrines dedicated to deities of fishing and agriculture, to “monumental” temples whose foundations are still identifiable today, said Dr. Patrick Kirch of the University of California at Berkeley.

“[Maui] is one of the few places in the Hawaiian islands where the archaeological landscape of an entire ancient district is still intact, not disturbed either by plantation agriculture or modern tourism or housing developments,” Kirch said.

“Heiau vary tremendously in size and form; there were different kinds of heiau for different gods,” he explained.

“When in use, they had thatched buildings to hold temple paraphernalia, wooden images, wooden oracle towers, et cetera, but all of those perishable superstructures are now gone.

“What we see as archaeologists are the stone foundations — generally platforms or terraces, or sometimes walled enclosures.”

And with his colleagues, Kirch has been investigating these sites in search of a unique and durable artifact: pieces of a small, stony coral known as Pocillopora meandrina.

“The coral branches were placed as offerings on altars, and sometimes incorporated into the stone walls during construction,” Kirch explained.

“We do not know the exact ideology behind this, but there are hints in Hawaiian traditions that the corals may have represented the god Kane — the god of flowing waters, irrigation, and the taro plant — or possibly the god Lono, the god of dryland farming and the sweet potato.”

While their precise purpose remains unclear, the corals are nonetheless useful, because they can be scientifically dated. So although the heiau’s original structures have vanished, archaeologists can study the corals left there to determine when they were constructed and used.

And this can be a crucial clue in tracing the island’s political development, Kirch said.

Signs of a temple-building boom would likely indicate a period of political consolidation, as ancient Hawaiian rulers often ramped up their religious authority in order to also wield economic and political authority.

Often, this involved building shrines and temples near farmlands and other areas of food production. This strengthened the symbolic association between rulers and the gods who controlled nature’s bounty, and also made it easier for leaders to reap tributes from local growers.

“The Hawaiian polities were fundamentally based on agricultural production,” Kirch explained.

“The chiefs and kings extracted surplus production from the commoners and used this to underwrite their own interests, such as supporting craft specialists and warriors.”

But previous studies of this part of Maui have reached differing conclusions about when exactly its temple construction — and therefore its political consolidation — took place.

One study of charcoal from the heiau, for example, used radiocarbon dating to conclude that most of the temples were built between the years 1400 and 1650, a period that’s at least a century earlier and longer than traditional accounts of when Maui’s first island-wide kingdom was established.

But Kirch and his colleagues dated the sites using a different technique. Instead of analyzing carbon, they studied the corals’ levels of uranium, which decays into the element thorium at predictable rates.

Their analysis of 46 coral samples from 26 of the temple sites suggests that most of the heiau were built more recently and more rapidly, over a span of no more than 150 years, ending around the year 1700.

“First of all, the new dates are important just because of their high precision,” Kirch said.

“In the past we have had to use radiocarbon dating, which has much wider error ranges and calibration issues.

“With the uranium/thorium coral dating we are getting error ranges of about 2 to 10 years at two standard deviations. This is a huge advance in chronological precision.

“Second, the new results confirm … that the Maui temples were constructed in a relatively short period of time, with a duration of about 150 years at maximum, between circa 1550 to 1700.

“This is the same time during which the Hawaiian oral traditions indicate that Maui island was consolidated into a single kingdom, under the reigns of King Pi’ilani and his successors Kiha-a-Pi’ilani and Kamalalawalu.”

What’s more, the team’s results suggest that a peak of temple construction occurred between about 1572 and 1603, when eight temples were built farther inland.

This is consistent with the known settlement patterns of the region, Kirch noted, when most people lived and farmed in the uplands, where there was enough rainfall to grow sweet potatoes and taro.

“Many of the temples in the upland zone seem to be associated with the two main gods of agriculture: Kane and Lono,” Kirch said.

Building monuments to these gods in these agricultural areas likely sent a clear message from King Pi’ilani and his successors to the people of Maui, Kirch said.

“We conclude that rapid temple construction was part of the overall political strategy used by these rulers to consolidate power, control agricultural production, and extract surplus,” he said.

Reporting their findings in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Kirch and his colleagues write that their study “underscores the importance of monumental ritual architecture in the emergence of archaic states in ancient Hawai’i.”

De Pastino, Blake. 2015. “Prehistoric Temples on Maui Reveal Origins of Island’s First Kingdom”. Western Digs. Posted: February 2, 2015. Available online: http://westerndigs.org/prehistoric-temples-on-maui-reveal-origins-of-islands-first-kingdom/

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

How skeletons reveal gruesome secrets about our ancestors

What was life like for ordinary people in the Middle Ages? Since we can’t ask anyone who was around it’s a rather difficult question to answer. So what do we do, you ask? Easy, we dig up skeletons.

A new study of 822 medieval skeletons found in Denmark tell a cruel tale of the life of men in the Middle Ages. The scientists looked at fractured skulls and it looks as though men who survived a skull fracture faced six times the risk of meeting an earlier death than healthy men.

The study provides entirely new insight into what it was like to live with a fractured skull in the Middle Ages and can tell us about ordinary people's risk of dying.

"This is one of the first times in biological anthropology that we go behind the skeletons and reveal something about what it was like to live in that period. For many years we’e been able to say something about general mortality in the past and to relate something about the diseases which raged back then -- but this study is one of the first to say something about how mortality risk varied from one person to another," says study author Jesper Lier Boldsen, assistant professor at the Department of Anthropology (ADBOU) at the Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Southern Denmark.

The results have been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) and the method used by the scientists is entirely new. Another professor of forensic medicine sees many potential uses of the method -- which could provide us with even more information about the living conditions of people in medieval times.

"In my opinion the method is just as exciting as the results. The model they’ve used can be applied to other things -- and that's important. We’ll be able to study other skeletal fractures and their effects. I'm full of admiration," says Professor Niels Lynnerup of the Forensic Anthropology Unit at the Department of Forensic Medicine, Copenhagen University.

Study contributes to knowledge of life expectancy in medieval times

The scientists used a mathematical model along with knowledge of the skeletons' gender and age to calculate when the various individuals died. The model showed that injured men had an average age of 41, whereas men who had not sustained fractured skulls lived for an average of 42.7 years.

"If people's risk of sustaining a fractured skull follows this model, and we have determined the general mortality races the entire population, we can then deduce that people with fractured skulls are younger than one might expect. So the mortality risk for men with fractured skulls is greater," says Boldsen.

Lynnerup finds the study interesting because it contributes to our knowledge of how people lived in the Middle Ages.

"It's exciting in the sense that it seeks to answer the big question of how long people lived back then. Their [study authors] examination of skull fractures is elegant because it looks at something so specific. And although we’re only left with a skeleton they can still contribute to knowledge about how fragile mankind was," says Lynnerup.

Skeletons can tell our story

It may sound rather odd to examine several hundred year old skeletons for skull fractures but according to Boldsen, the skeletons are some of our only remaining sources when it comes to studying our history and ancestors.

"It stems from a desire to characterise society, taking the lives of ordinary people as our starting point. Ordinary people left practically no written sources. The people who become visible in written sources are those who were very rich, but what happened to the ordinary citizens of Odense and Jutland [regions in Denmark]? Nobody was interested in them -- so if we want to learn something about ordinary people's lives and their history we have to examine their skeletons. That's all we have available to us," says Boldsen.

He explains that a number of other projects have already begun and that the skeleton collection will also here contribute to more knowledge about what life was like for ordinary people in the Middle Ages.

"A lot of international research is looking at Danish history. One topic is how leprosy affected premature death. We’re also interested in finding out how much people moved around -- and it will also be possible to examine when children were weaned off their mother's breast milk and began to eat ordinary food. Now we have many opportunities to bring these historic populations to life," says Boldsen.

Lykkegaard, Anne Marie. 2015. “How skeletons reveal gruesome secrets about our ancestors”. Science Nordic. Posted: February 1, 2015. Available online: http://sciencenordic.com/how-skeletons-reveal-gruesome-secrets-about-our-ancestors

Monday, March 9, 2015

Prehistoric caves found in Papua

The Archaeology Office of Jayapura has in its research found prehistoric caves used to be inhabited by prehistoric people in the Karst hilly areas of Lake Sentani, Jayapura, Papua, a researcher said.

"The caves discovered are the Rukhabulu Awabu, Ifeli-feli and Ceruk Reugable caves," researcher Hari Suroto of the Jayapura Archaeology Office, said here on Sunday.

He said that their physical conditions and surroundings near a water source, where artifacts such as pottery, lake mollusc shells, marine mollusc shells and animal bones, indicated that the caves were used as human dwellings during the Neolithic age.

"The findings of the marine mollusc shells in the Reugable site and Cave Rukhabulu Awabhu, illustrate that in the past the inhabitants of the two sites have been consuming marine mollusks," he said.

This is very interesting because there is proof that the inhabitants of the caves had communications with the community members living in the coastal areas of the youtefa Bay.

"This indicates that the prehistoric men have already had communications with each other as proven by the findings of the sea mollusc shells in the caves," he said.

After all, the type of soil in the three caves are not suitable for producing potteries. Thus, it is concluded that the potteries found in the caves came from other places outside the cave areas.

"The black color found outside the potteries indicated that they were also used to cook," he said.

Lake Sentani is located in an area between the Jayapura city and the District of Jayapura with a width of 9,300 hectares. It is part of the Cyclops Nature Preserve.

Antara News. 2015. “Prehistoric caves found in Papua”. Antara News. Posted: February 1, 2015. Available online: http://www.antaranews.com/en/news/97610/prehistoric-caves-found-in-papua

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Scientists recreate ancient Siberian brain surgery techniques for first time

Experts undertake pioneering tests on skulls to finally understand how doctors carried out remarkable operations more than 2,300 years ago.

More details about the remarkable brain surgery techniques carried out by the earliest Siberians 2,300 years ago have been revealed by scientists.

Neurosurgeons have been working with anthropologists and archaeologists over the past year following the discovery of holes in the skulls of three ancient sets of remains in the Altai Mountains.

Evidence at the time suggested they were examples of trepanation – the oldest form of neurosurgery – with speculation it showed the early nomads had learned the skilful technique from the medical centres of the ancient world, or had uncovered it at the same time as prominent doctors in Greece and the Middle East.

Now, following a series of tests to recreate the ancient surgery, expert have uncovered more about the method and finally concluded how the early doctors carried out their work.

Among the findings made by the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, at the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Science, were that the surgeons were highly skilful with the operations carried out with only one primitive tool scraping at the skull.

In addition, it was clear that the ancient doctors adhered to the strict Hippocratic Corpus, the landmark declaration of medical ethics set down 5,000km away in Greece in 500BC.

Prominent Novosibirsk neurosurgeon Aleksei Krivoshapkin, who was asked to examine the skulls, said: 'Honestly, I am amazed. We suspect now that in the time of Hippocrates, Altai people could do a very fine diagnosis and carry out skilful trepanations and fantastic brain surgery.'

The skulls, belonging to two men and a woman, were found in the Altai Mountains and date back about 2,300 to 2,500 years ago.

Analysis last year showed one of the males, who was aged between 40 and 45, had suffered a head trauma and had developed a blood clot that likely left him suffering headaches, nausea, sickness and movement problems.

It was surmised that the trepanation would have been carried out to remove the haematoma, with evidence of later bone growth indicating the man survived the surgery and lived for years afterwards.

The second man had no visible traces of trauma but instead was suspected of having a congenital skull deformation that the ancient surgeon wanted to fix.

In both cases, a relatively small hole was made in the skull allowing surgeons to access the brain at an area where damage to joints and the membrane would have been minimised.

And while the actual technique and the implements used may have varied from those recommended in Ancient Greece, it was clear the care for the patient and the location of the hole showed a similar ethnical consideration.

In order to study the procedure in detail, a team of experts have spent the past year examining the skulls and carrying out a series of tests to recreate the 2,000 year old surgery.

The remains were first analysed under a microscope at the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography to find any markings that indicated the way the surgeons operated.

No trace of the way the doctors removed the skin was found, and given the good preservation of the skull surface it is assumed this was carried out with high precision.

It was found the trepanation was conducted in two stages. First, a sharp cutting tool removed the surface layer of bone carefully without perforating the skull itself. Then, with short and frequent movements a hole was cut into the skull.

Professor Krivoshapkin said: 'All three trepanations were performed by scraping. From the traces on the surface of the studied skulls, you can see the sequence of actions of the surgeons during the operations.

'It is clearly seen that the ancient surgeons were very exact and confident in their moves, with no traces of unintentionally chips, which are quite natural when cutting bone.'

Archaeologists have not yet uncovered any dedicated medical tools but in almost all graves from this epoch - regardless of social status - bronze knives were found.

The examination of the skulls showed that only one tool was used and it is suspected it could also be a bronze knife.

Professor Krivoshapkin tried testing a typical Tagar blade from the region, taken from the Minusinsk museum, on a skull but it was found to be unsuitable surgery.

A replica of a bronze knife from the time was then made using modern elements by archaeologist Andrei Borodovsky, a doctor of historical sciences at the Institute.

He said: 'I chose a brass alloy of copper, tin, and zinc after the failure with the Tagarsky knife, which turned to be too soft for such surgery. The blade just twirled. Our modern copy of brass alloy performed very well.

'I think it is important to remember that here in the 5th Century BC Altai was a big centre for bone cutting production. People here were very skilful in making different objects from animal bone.

'Working with the animal bones, they understood the main principles of working with such material and later it helped them to make such complicated surgeries.'

The final stage of the research was to recreate the surgical procedure using a modern-day skull. Copying the same techniques believed to have been used by the Altai surgeons, it took Professor Krivoshapkin 28 minutes to perform the technique.

While he said it 'required considerable effort', the hole in the skull was found to mirror those found in the ancient patients.

The last remaining unanswered question for the scientists, however, is what anaesthetic or painkiller the doctors used. Some speculate cannabis, but it may never be known.

Liesowska, Anna & Derek Lambie. 2015. “Scientists recreate ancient Siberian brain surgery techniques for first time”. The Siberian Times. Posted: January 29, 2015. Available online: http://siberiantimes.com/science/casestudy/features/f0054-scientists-recreate-ancient-siberian-brain-surgery-techniques-for-first-time/

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Is This Mummy Dead…Or Meditating?

Some Buddhists claim this well-preserved monk is in a deep meditative state

It’s weird enough to discover a mummy that’s been perfectly preserved in full lotus posture. But the story of a mummified monk found in Mongolia only gets stranger. Not only was the body discovered when a man tried to sell it on the black market, but some Buddhists claim that the mummified monk isn’t really dead at all.

The BBC reports that the mummy, which is being analyzed by forensics experts at the National Center of Forensic Expertise in Mongolia, was found wrapped in cattle skins and is remarkably well-preserved. That could be due to the freezing temperatures in far-flung Mongolia…or could something else be at play?

Barry Kerzin is a Buddhist monk himself and the physician to the Dalai Lama. He tells the Siberian Times that he thinks the mummy is in a state of “tukdam,” a deep meditative state that’s one step away from enlightenment:

I had the privilege to take care of some meditators who were in a tukdam state.

If the person is able to remain in this state for more than three weeks—which rarely happens—his body gradually shrinks, and in the end all that remains from the person is his hair, nails, and clothes. Usually in this case, people who live next to the monk see a rainbow that glows in the sky for several days. This means that he has found a 'rainbow body'. This is the highest state close to the state of Buddha.

So how long might this trance have lasted? Some speculate that the monk was the teacher of Lama Dashi-Dorzho Itigilov, a monk who was found mummified in 2002. Itigilov reportedly told his students he was going to die and ordered them to exhume his remains at a later date. He began meditating, died, and was found in pristine condition 88 years later.

The jury may be out on whether the Mongolian mummy is just dead or about to reach enlightenment, but one thing is clear: it’s not that weird to find bizarre human remains. From screaming mummies to bodies that still contain organs and blood thousands of years after they were buried, archaeologists find frightening remains all the time. Who knows what other mysteries lie buried beneath the earth?

Blakemore, Erin. 2015. “Is This Mummy Dead…Or Meditating?”. Smithsonian. Posted: February 6, 2015. Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/mummy-deador-trance-180954170/?no-ist

Friday, March 6, 2015

Obsidian artefacts help researchers understand historic land use on Easter Island

Long before the Europeans arrived on Easter Island in 1722, the native Polynesian culture known as Rapa Nui showed signs of demographic decline. However, the catalyst has long been debated in the scientific community. Was environmental degradation the cause, or could a political revolution or an epidemic of disease be to blame?

A new study by a group of international researchers, offers a different explanation and helps to clarify the chronological framework. The investigators expected to find that changes coincided with the arrival of the Europeans, but their work shows instead that the demise of the Rapa Nui culture began prior to that. Their findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“In the current Easter Island debate, one side says the Rapa Nui decimated their environment and killed themselves off,” said Chadwick, a professor in UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Geography and the Environmental Studies Program. “The other side says it had nothing to do with cultural behaviour, that it was the Europeans who brought disease that killed the Rapa Nui. Our results show that there is some of both going on, but the important point is that we show evidence of some communities being abandoned prior to European contact.”


Chadwick joined archaeologists Christopher Stevenson of Virginia Commonwealth University, Cedric Puleston of UC Davis and Thegn Ladefoged of the University of Auckland in examining six agriculture sites used by the island’s statue-building inhabitants. Their research focused mainly on the three sites for which they had information on climate, soil chemistry and land use trends as determined by an analysis of obsidian spear points.

The team used flakes of obsidian, a natural glass, as a dating tool. Measuring the amount of water that had penetrated the obsidian’s surface allowed them to gauge how long it had been exposed and to determine its age.

The study sites reflected the environmental diversity of the 63-square-mile island situated nearly 2,300 miles off the west coast of Chile. The soil nutrient supply on Easter Island is less than that of the younger Hawaiian Islands, which were also settled by the Polynesians around the same time, 1200 A.D.

The first site the researchers analysed was near the northwest coast. Lying in the rain shadow of a volcano, it had low rainfall and relatively high soil nutrient availability. The second study site, on the interior side of the volcanic mountain, experienced high rainfall but had a low nutrient supply; the third, another near-coastal are in the northeast, was characterized by intermediate amounts of rainfall and relatively high soil nutrients.

Abandoned areas before European contact

“When we evaluate the length of time that the land was used based on the age distribution of each site’s obsidian flakes, which we used as an index of human habitation, we find that the very dry area and the very wet area were abandoned before European contact,” Chadwick said. “The area that had relatively high nutrients and intermediate rainfall maintained a robust population well after European contact.”

These results suggest that the Rapa Nui reacted to regional variations and natural environmental barriers to producing sufficient crops rather than degrading the environment themselves. In the nutrient-rich centre where they could produce food well, they were able to maintain a viable culture even under the threat of external factors, including European diseases such as smallpox, syphilis and tuberculosis.

“The pullback from the marginal areas suggests that the Rapa Nui couldn’t continue to maintain the food resources necessary to keep the statue builders in business,” Chadwick concluded. “So we see the story as one of pushing against constraints and having to pull back rather than one of violent collapse.”

Past Horizons. 2015. “Obsidian artefacts help researchers understand historic land use on Easter Island”. Past Horizons. Posted: Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/01/2015/obsidian-artefacts-help-researchers-understand-historic-land-use-on-easter-island

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Learn to Count like an Egyptian

Last semester, I began my math history class with some Babylonian arithmetic. The mathematics we were doing was easy—multiplying and adding numbers, solving quadratic equations by completing the square—but the base 60 system and the lack of a true zero made those basic operations challenging for my students. I was glad that the different system shook them up a little, and got them thinking about things we take for granted, but some students seemed to draw the conclusion that Babylonian mathematics was awkward and silly. The class spent a lot of time thinking about the differences between the two systems but not as much thinking about the Babylonian system on its own terms. As children, we spend several years learning how to do arithmetic; it’s not really fair to judge an unfamiliar number system based on a few days of working with it.

Count like an Egyptian by David Reimer, published in 2014 by Princeton University Press, thoughtfully avoids that pitfall. The Egyptian number system, which has some profound differences from our own, is not presented as a sideshow or tourist attraction. In addition to explaining how the numbers were written and the basic arithmetic operations carried out, Reimer analyzes the logic behind the operations that seem unusual to us. He compares learning Egyptian math to learning a new language. “Spanish is stupid,” he told a junior high Spanish teacher after a run-in with an irregular verb. Irregular verbs can make a language seem arbitrary to an outsider. But of course English has more than its fair share of linguistic idiosyncrasies. Native speakers just don’t notice them until they’re pointed out. Reimer writes,

Egyptian mathematics has an alien feel to it. Most math historians refer to it as primitive or awkward. Even worse, many simply ignore it except for a passing reference. They look at this system and feel uncomfortable because it’s so different. They perceive apparent “flaws” and move on. They don’t understand Egyptian mathematics simply because they don’t do it enough to truly appreciate it. To someone who’s mastered it, Egyptian mathematics is beautiful. It scorns memorization and rote algorithms while it favors insight and creativity. Each problem is a puzzle that can be solved in many ways. Frequently, solutions will be surprising, something that never happens in the step-by-step drudgery that is modern computation.

Consider fractions. One of the first things you learn if you read a little bit about Egyptian mathematics is that with the exception of 2/3 and occasionally 3/4, Egyptians only used fractions with 1 in the numerator: 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, and so on. They would write other fractions as sums of unit fractions. For example, 7/24 could be written 1/4+1/24 or 1/6+1/8. (The Egyptians didn’t actually write their fractions with numerators and denominators; if your only numerator is one, it’s redundant to write it down every time. Instead, an Egyptian fraction would consist of a “mouth” symbol on top of the symbol of an integer. So 1/7 would be a mouth over a 7. To write a sum of two fractions, they would just write the second one after the first one.)

When I first read about Egyptian fractions, I dismissed them as awkward and inefficient. But Reimer points out that they aren’t so different from our decimal system. When we write the number 0.572, we’re just writing 5/10+7/100+2/1000 in a slightly different way. The denominators of those fractions follow a predictable pattern, unlike the Egyptian one, but we are still writing numbers as the sum of fractions with increasing denominators. One nice thing about our decimal system is that if we cut the number off after a few places, we have a pretty good idea of how big it is. The number 0.572 is pretty close to 0.5 and 0.57. Likewise in the Egyptian fraction system, 7/24 is pretty close to 1/4, the first term in one of the possible ways to write 7/24.

Egyptian fractions also have some advantages over decimals. For one, they will always terminate. We can’t even write 1/3 as a terminating decimal. Sticking rigidly to powers of ten in our denominators limits the numbers we can represent easily. Like our fractions, Egyptian fractions are exact but use only a finite number of terms. Reimer sees Egyptian fractions as a compromise between the best qualities of our fraction and decimal systems. They are just as precise as our fractions, but like our decimals, they also make approximation easy.

But Egyptian fractions can throw some curveballs. There isn’t necessarily just one way to write a number as an Egyptian fraction. For example, above I wrote 7/24=1/4+1/24 or 1/6+1/8. In that case, it is pretty clear that 1/4+1/24 is a better way to write it: 1/4 is a good approximation, while 1/6 is not. But in other cases, it isn’t so clear. In the book, Reimer gives the example of 4/15, which can be written as either 1/6+1/10 or 1/5+1/15. 1/5 is a better approximation than 1/6, but there may be other reasons to choose 1/6+1/10. Egyptians used doubling a lot when multiplying, and it’s easier to double fractions with even denominators than odd ones. So depending on the specific circumstance, 1/6+1/10 might be a better choice for computation. This is what Reimer is talking about when he says the system “scorns memorization and rote algorithms while it favors insight and creativity.” It seems strange to have so much leeway in how to represent numbers, but it shows that creativity can have a place even in simple arithmetic.

With insights like this, Reimer not only explains the logic of the Egyptian system but also encourage us to think about the whats, hows, and whys of our own mathematics techniques. “This book is a thinly disguised critique of modern mathematics,” Reimer writes. The last chapter, Judgment Day, is a “battle” between Egyptian and modern methods, but it’s not just about a winner and a loser. “We will consider which system is better and what exactly ‘better’ means.” As you might guess, it’s complicated.

Reimer sprinkles vignettes about Egyptian mythology and society throughout the book, and he also includes some historical information about the few Egyptian mathematical artifacts that still survive. (Papyrus generally doesn’t hold up very well for 3,000 years.) He also makes it clear when his mathematical commentary is backed by evidence from Egyptian papyri and when it is his own conjecture based on his mathematical intuition. Because I’m interested in the book from the perspective of a math history teacher, I do wish there had been a little bit more about exactly what mathematics is in what papyrus, but the book is not a scholarly history of Egyptian mathematics, and that information may have distracted from the mission of getting people to try Egyptian mathematics for themselves.

Count Like an Egyptian would make an excellent addition to math classrooms at many different levels. Reimer includes problems in the text and solutions in the back of the book, so the reader can practice techniques and get a feel for exactly how the system works as they go through the book. The mathematics is basic enough to be helpful for children learning fractions or multiplication for the first time, but it’s also different enough from the methods most of us know that adults will get a lot out of it as well. I used Egyptian multiplication and fractions on the first day of this semester’s math history class as a way to push students out of their comfort zone and get them thinking about some of the most basic building blocks of math in a new way. With more background on the rationale behind the system, I think it was an effective way to open the class up with some interesting discussion about what numbers should do for us.
Lamb, Evelyn. 2015. “Learn to Count like an Egyptian”. Scientific American Blogs. Posted: January 26, 2015. Available online: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/roots-of-unity/2015/01/26/count-like-an-egyptian-book-review/