Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Lapita colonised Tonga within two generations

It only took a generation or two for the first settlers of Polynesia to spread from their original colonisation site in Tonga, a new study has found. The rapid spread could have been driven by resource depletion and sibling rivalry, says archaeologist Professor Marshall Weisler of the University of Queensland.

"We now have a precise chronology for the settlement of Tonga and the radiating out and occupying the islands of Tonga," says Weisler.

"Within one human generation or so the first settlers explored the rest of the archipelago and put down additional daughter communities."

In 2012, Weisler worked with Professor David Burley of Simon Fraser University to establish that the first humans to colonise the Pacific arrived at Nukuleka, on the Tongan island of Tongatapu, around 2838 years ago.

Their conclusions were based on uranium isotope dating of coral abraders used by the Lapita people to make fish hooks, ornaments and tools.

Now, in a paper published in PLOS ONE, Weisler and colleagues have got a picture of how long it took the Lapita to spread to other islands in Tonga, and how long daughter populations stayed in touch with the founder population.

The researchers dated 65 samples (including coral abraders, animal bones, shell tools and charcoal from ovens) from 20 Lapita sites across the Tongan archipelago.

They combined uranium- and radiocarbon-dating techniques in a so-called 'Bayesian model' to get the most precise chronology of early Polynesian movement.

The chronology was also aided by an analysis of pottery styles, which changed over time.

Rather than taking hundreds of years before occupying the rest of Tonga, the findings suggest it only took the early settlers 20 or 50 years, says Weisler.

"The process of settlement is far more rapid than we thought before," he says. "It's generational."

Weisler says archaeological evidence suggests that there was some depletion of resources at the original site, which could have been one reason why some people went in search of new homelands.

But, he says, sibling rivalry could possibly also have contributed to the split.

"In Polynesian societies, the first-born male inherits the good stuff. They become the head of their lineage in time, they inherit property," says Weisler.

"If you're second-born it's not good because you don't get any of these things. This creates a tension between siblings."

Weisler says another factor is the Lapita's long-standing tradition of seafaring. In other words, they may have dispersed just because they were adventurers.

In a separate study Weisler and colleagues have found evidence that daughter populations in other parts of Polynesia tended to stay in contact with their parent population for about 300 years before breaking off completely.

The findings are a result of analysing the chemical fingerprints of stone adzes, which were essential tools for early Polynesians.

Weisler and colleagues now plan to investigate reasons for the break off between daughter and parent communities.

Salleh, Anna. 2015. “Lapita colonised Tonga within two generations”. ABC Science. Posted: April 29, 2015. Available online: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2015/04/29/4211318.htm

Monday, June 29, 2015

Human hunting weapons may not have caused the demise of the Neanderthals

Technological innovation may not have led to the colonization of Europe by anatomically modern humans, suggests new study

The demise of Neanderthals may have nothing to do with innovative hunting weapons carried by humans from west Asia, according to a new study published in the Journal of Human Evolution. The researchers, from Nagoya University and The University of Tokyo, Japan, say their findings mean that we may need to rethink the reasons humans survived Neanderthals - and that we may not have behaved as differently as we thought.

The researchers looked at innovative stone weapons used by humans about 42,000-34,000 years ago. Traditionally, anthropologists believed that innovation in weapons enabled humans to spread out of Africa to Europe. However, the new study suggests that the innovation was not a driving force for humans to migrate into Europe as previously thought - they were no better equipped than the Neanderthals.

"We're not so special, I don't think we survived Neanderthals simply because of technological competence," said Dr. Seiji Kadowaki, first author of the study from Nagoya University, Japan. "Our work is related to the processes behind the global spread of modern humans, and specifically the cultural impact of the modern humans who migrated to Europe."

Anatomically modern humans expanded the geographic area they inhabited out of Africa during a period of time 55,000-40,000 years ago - this event made a huge impact on the biological origin of people living today. There are other theories for the geographical spread of anatomically modern humans, but this is generally accepted as a major event in human history.

Previous models assumed that anatomically modern humans - our direct ancestors - were special in the way they behaved and thought. These models considered technological and cultural innovation as the reason humans survived and Neanderthals did not.

There has always been a big question around the demise of the Neanderthals - why did they disappear when humans survived? We have a similar anatomy, so researchers traditionally thought there must have been differences in the way Neanderthals and humans behaved. The new study suggests that humans moved from west Asia to Europe without a big change in their behavior.

The researchers studied stone tools that were used by people in the Early Ahmarian culture and the Protoaurignacian culture, living in south and west Europe and west Asia around 40,000 years ago. They used small stone points as tips for hunting weapons like throwing spears. Researchers previously considered these to be a significant innovation - one that helped the humans migrate from west Asia to Europe, where Neanderthals were living.

However, the new research reveals a timeline that doesn't support this theory. If the innovation had led to the migration, evidence would show the stone points moving in the same direction as the humans. But at closer inspection, the researchers showed the possibility that the stone points appeared in Europe 3,000 years earlier than in the Levant, a historical area in west Asia. Innovation in hunting weapons can be necessary, but it's not always associated with migration - populations can spread without technological innovations.

"We looked at the basic timeline revealed by similar stone points, and it shows that humans were using them in Europe before they appeared in the Levant - the opposite of what we'd expect if the innovation had led to the humans' migration from Africa to Europe," said Dr. Kadowaki.

"Our new findings mean that the research community now needs to reconsider the assumption that our ancestors moved to Europe and succeeded where Neanderthals failed because of cultural and technological innovations brought from Africa or west Asia."

By re-examining the evidence, the researchers showed that the comparable stone weapons appeared in Europe around 42,000 years ago, and in the Levant 39,000 years ago. They believe the timings imply several new scenarios about the migration of modern humans into Europe. For example, they are likely to have migrated to Europe much earlier, and developed the tools there.

"We're very excited about our new model. We think the causes of human evolution are more complicated than just being about technology. Now that we've re-examined the traditional model about the northern migration route to Europe, we are planning to re-evaluate the model on the southern migration route - from East Africa to South Asia" said Dr. Kadowaki.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Human hunting weapons may not have caused the demise of the Neanderthals”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 28, 2015. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-04/e-hhw042815.php

Sunday, June 28, 2015

How "Operation Mummy’s Curse" is Helping Fight Terrorism

How "Operation Mummy’s Curse" is Helping Fight Terrorism

After six years, an Egyptian sarcophagus is finally making it’s way home after federal agents found it stashed in a Brooklyn garage.

The coffin, which was inscribed with the name “Shesepamutayesher,” is just one of several artifacts recovered in a 2009 raid that are now being returned to their rightful owners, writes Kathleen Caulderwood for the International Business Times. In recent years, federal investigators have seized $2.5 million in stolen antiquities as part of an investigation called Operation Mummy’s Curse.

The global trade in stolen artifacts isn’t fueled by an Indiana Jones like quest for adventure: in addition to plundering the cultural heritage of countries in strife, the money made by selling ancient treasures on the black market sometimes helps to fund groups like the Islamic State.

“During a time of war people take advantage of the lack of security,” art and cultural heritage lawyer Leila Amineddoleh tells Caulderwood. “The problem is that there’s a market for these objects. If there wasn’t a market there wouldn’t be sale or demand.”

It’s unclear exactly how much money smugglers make from selling looted objects, but according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement selling illicit relics is the third most profitable wing of the black market, after drugs and weapons. When civil war broke out in Syria in 2013, investigators noticed a sharp rise in antiquities imported from the war-torn country — about $11 million, or a 134 percent rise from the year before. But despite some successes, Operation Mummy’s Curse is an uphill battle.

Even when a smuggler is caught red-handed like antiques dealer Mousa “Morris” Khouli was with a mummy in his garage, sentences tend to be relatively light, writes Caulderwood. Khouli and his accomplices could have gotten up to 20 years in prison each. But none of them served time. While Khouli received the harshest sentence of the bunch, he left the courtroom with only one year of probation, six months of house arrest and 200 hours of community service.

But since the Islamic State group began publicizing its habit of demolishing and looting historical sites for sale on the black market, politicians have begun to take the issue more seriously. Last month, several members of Congress introduced the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act, which would direct the president to restrict importing archaeological items from Syria.

For now, though, there’s no need to fret about Shesepamutayesher’s Curse: her sarcophagus was finally returned to Egyptian authorities during a recent ceremony, sparing Brooklyn from this particular mummy’s revenge.

Lewis, Danny. 2015. “How "Operation Mummy’s Curse" is Helping Fight Terrorism”. Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: April 28, 2015. Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/smart-news/federal-agents-are-fighting-terrorism-tracking-down-missing-mummies-180955113

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Not much size difference between male and female Australopithecines

Lucy and other members of the early hominid species Australopithecus afarensis probably were similar to humans in the size difference between males and females, according to researchers from Penn State and Kent State University.

"Previous convention in the field was that there were high levels of dimorphism in the Australopithecus afarensis population," said Philip Reno, assistant professor of anthropology, Penn State. "Males were thought to be much larger than females." Sexual dimorphism refers to differences between males and females of a species. These can show up, for example, in body size and weight or in the size of the canine teeth. For Australopithecines, canines of males and females are about the same size, but it was assumed their body sizes differed. Other primates have varying degrees of sexual dimorphism. Gorillas are highly dimorphic, with males weighing as much as 200 pounds more than females. Chimpanzees are only moderately sexually dimorphic with males weighing about 18 pounds more than females on average. Humans are moderately sexually dimorphic. Previously, researchers assumed that A. afarensis was similar to or even more dimorphic than gorillas in sexual size differences.

Lucy is probably the most famous example of A. afarensis, a supposed female who measures 3.5 feet in height. Also often used as an example of this species is A.L. 128/129, another small specimen assumed to be female. However, A. afarensis existed long before brains in the human line became large enough to require the alteration in the pelvic structure that both allows for large-headed baby births and easy identification of female specimens. "There is no reason why Lucy, if female, would have the wide notched pelvic bone of a human female," said Reno. "We can't really sex Australopithecines."

While Lucy may not be female, she is the earliest discovered and most well preserved example of A. afarensis and so has been used as a model for the study of other specimens. Recently, another reasonably intact A. Afarensis, Kadanuumuu, was uncovered and he stood 5 to 5.5 feet tall. Reno and C. Owen Lovejoy, distinguished professor of human evolutionary studies, Kent State, developed the Template Method to compare different skeletons and determine the range and dimorphism of A. Afarensis. They report their results in today's (Apr. 28) issue of PeerJ.

The pair used both Lucy and Kadanuumuu as templates for the method, which compares similar parts of the skeleton from partial remains to the nearly complete remains of the template. For example, the researchers compared the size of 41 specimens from different parts of the skeleton to that of Lucy. By determining the ratio of these specimens to Lucy, they could then calculate the relative size of partial bones from incomplete skeletons and better determine the size variation in the species.

Another method of determining sexual dimorphism is the Geometric Mean Method, which uses 11 characteristics to estimate size. Unfortunately, in this method, because Lucy is so complete a skeleton, she supplies seven or eight of the metrics; A.L. 128/129 supplies an additional three. So two very small individuals supply ten of the eleven metrics.

"In essence, Lucy is counted multiple times in the Geometric Mean Method, which gives her a skewed impact on the size of individuals," said Reno. "In our method, Lucy is weighted only once. The range shows intermediate moderate levels of sexual dimorphism, A. afarensis is within the human dimorphic range."

Another problem in comparing various A. afarensis skeletons is that except for those found in A.L. 333—a geologically contemporaneous group—individuals could be 10 thousand to 100 thousand years apart in age. During that time, the overall size of the species could have changed. Neither method can accommodate this potential time warp, but the researchers acknowledge that the time range is another variable that must be considered. Because Lucy was the first discovered specimen, it was easy to assume that she was a typical size specimen, but it now appears that Lucy is at the lower edge of A. afarensis size and that Kadanuumuu may be an outlier at the upper edge of the range with many intermediate sized specimens between the two, according to Reno.

Phys.org. 2015. “Not much size difference between male and female Australopithecines”. Phys.org. Posted: April 28, 2015. Available online: http://phys.org/news/2015-04-size-difference-male-female-australopithecines.html

Friday, June 26, 2015

Cremated human bones in pot found in Crossrail dig suggest gruesome ritual

Almost 2,000 years ago somebody neatly packed cremated human bones into an old cooking pot, put the lid on, and set it by the banks of a smelly little urban river, the Walbrook in London. The discovery has deepened the mystery of scores of Roman skulls found nearby, polished till they gleam by tumbling among the pebbles of the riverbed.

It had been suggested that the skulls ended up in the river – which vanished into culverts centuries ago – by accident, eroded out of a Roman cemetery and washed downstream until they came to rest at bends in the bank. The new finds suggest a grimmer explanation.

Jay Carver, Crossrail’s lead archaeologist on the site yards from the bustling commuters at Liverpool Street station, said the thrifty reuse of the old pot, and its deliberate placing by the river, will force archaeologists to look again at the skulls found in this excavation and generations of previous digs around the river. “We now wonder again if the skulls were deliberately placed on the banks. Certainly no river ever carried off the cooking pot with its cremated bones which was unquestionably deliberately placed here. And the horse skull we found with one of the skulls didn’t come out of some equine graveyard, that was clearly also placed there,” he said.

The finds are now beginning to suggest gruesome ritual deposits of skulls, set along the river bank as offerings and boundary markers. Scientific tests are continuing on both the cremated remains and the skulls, and may confirm an early theory that most are the heads of young men who may have been executed criminals and rebels. Some could even be from the major rebellion Boudicca, queen of the Iceni tribe, led in the first century of Roman rule.

“I think we now have to look back at earlier finds in this area – we have found 40 human and two horse skulls, but if you add them up over the last two centuries you’re talking hundreds of skulls in a very small area – and try and work out what is actually going on,” Carver said.

This one small site, part of a massive archaeology programme as Crossrail carves its route across the capital and through two millennia of its history, has produced a mass of Roman and medieval objects, as well as thousands of skeletons from a 17th-century burial ground which became the last resting place of thousands of victims of the last great plague of London in 1665.

Finds include 15 Roman iron horseshoes, more than from any other London site – expensive objects which the archaeologists assume were accidentally shed and then trampled into the surface of the road. “They would have been expensive to make and expensive to replace, but they were obviously clunky, clumsy affairs – and clearly they hadn’t perfected the technique of getting them to stay on,” Carver said.

A little gilt bronze phallus, a valuable lucky charm, was probably lost when the ring holding it to a belt or garment broke, and a shackle just the right size to secure an ankle is a reminder that slavery was a pillar of the Roman empire. The road leading to the river was an excellent example of Roman engineering, part of what Carver describes as the North Circular passing all the main gates in the city walls. It was heavily used, regularly repaired, and completely resurfaced at least three times, preserving cart ruts several layers below the final surface. For more than 1,000 years the site was a grotty, smelly bit of working-class London outside the city walls, a place where no travellers on the Roman road would have wanted to linger. On Thursday, a digger punched through the floor of what was a 19th-century underground lavatory, releasing a pungent reek of marsh gas and Victorian sewage. The buildings were shoddy structures, probably workshops. Rubbish dumps yielded skiploads of evidence of medieval industries including leather tanning, a notoriously smelly trade.

The land became the gardens and orchards of a medieval monastery complex which became the famous Bedlam mental hospital, the oldest in the world. It was still open land when in 1569 a two-acre plot was bought for a new burial ground because the small city church graveyards were full to bursting. The Bethlem burial ground took its name from the hospital which had recently moved to nearby Moorfields and held not just poor unclaimed inmates of the asylum, but people of all classes from across the capital. It was in use from 1569 until 1738, and so eventually held thousands of victims of the great plague, the last major outbreak which devastated London in 1665.

The archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology worked all the hours of daylight to excavate the remains, eventually recovering more than 2,500 skeletons, far more than expected from a swimming pool sized site. During the worst plague months, they found people were being buried seven or eight to each pit.

Volunteers are attempting to compile a complete burial list for the cemetery, but when the excavation began Carver was not optimistic about identifying any individuals, as the records were scattered across all the original parishes of the dead.

To his surprise they have found tiny nails from the decayed wood of several coffins which spell out initials and dates. Several broken tombstones have also been found reused in a Georgian wall, including that of Mary Godfree who died at the height of the plague in September 1665. One small section remains to be excavated this summer, so Carver has not given up all hope of finding two of the most famous people known to have been buried there, the Levellers and Cromwellian soldiers John Lilburne and Robert Lockyer. Lockyer was executed by firing squad in 1649 for his radical political beliefs.

“I’ve had to warn the Levellers Association that our site is only about 20% of the original burial ground. But if he was buried in our section, more than 4,000 people are said to have followed his funeral procession – I can’t believe he would have gone into his grave without something to identify his coffin. We might yet find him.”

Kennedy, Maev. 2015. “Cremated human bones in pot found in Crossrail dig suggest gruesome ritual”. The Guardian. Posted: Sunday 26, 2015. Available online: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/apr/26/cremated-human-bones-in-pot-found-in-crossrail-dig-suggest-gruesome-ritual

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Ancient figurine of African elephant unearthed at Tarighat

Unearthing of terracotta figurines of elephant at 2,500-year-old Tarighat site at Durg district is being believed as another indication that complements connection of Chhattisgarh's ancient traders with South Africa. Archaeologists claim Tarighat was one of the richest international trading centres in central India. 

They feel that the shape of elephant figurine is indisputably like those found in South Africa. 

However, with Indo-Scythian and Indo-Greek coins excavated, the site is said to be not only one of the richest trading centres of import-export in Chhattisgarh, but also a hotspot of affluent lifestyle. Earlier, figurines of Giraffe-like animal and women with unique-knotted hairstyle excavated from the site supported the idea of traders having some connection with South Africa.

Excavation director and archaeologist JR Bhagat said, "The elephant has large ears and spine bones visible on its back, identical to elephants found in Africa. Elephants of that physique can't be found in Asia. Tarighat has indicated at being a trading market during 2nd and 3rd century BC." 

Bhagat said that archaeology is a deep and argued subject, hence, scope for more research is always possible. "Chhattisgarh might have had affluent and glorious past but I am yet to find clearer links of Tarighat to international market," he said. 

Partially buying the idea, anthropologist (retd) Ashok Tiwari, former curator, Museum of Man, Bhopal said, "The elephant figurine's anatomy isn't like that of an Indian elephant rather it looks similar to African breed which has slant forehead, large ears and spinal column visible on the back. Few may argue that elephants in those times would have looked that way." 

Tiwari explained that ancient traders might have travelled to Africa and would have made figurines after returning for decorative purpose. 

Another archaeologist CL Raikwar said, "Elephant figurine is small-sized and looks like a country art (lok kala). Country art often is result of artists' imagination, though it's also argued that ancient artists engraved what they saw in their surrounding." 

Tarighat site resumed excavation recently after getting renewal of licence for excavation by Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). Chhattisgarh archaeology department director Rakesh Chaturvedi pronounced the site as one of the most important ones in state.

Drolia, Rashmi. 2015. “Ancient figurine of African elephant unearthed at Tarighat”. Times of India. Posted: April 24, 2015. Available online: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/raipur/Ancient-figurine-of-African-elephant-unearthed-at-Tarighat/articleshow/47033137.cms

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

From sticks to stones—getting a grip on the human genus

2015 has already been an amazing year for human evolution science.

We've witnessed an uncanny convergence of discoveries on the beginnings of the human genus,Homo, and all that it implies for understanding the evolution of a range of human characteristics, including culture and tool making.

Yet, the implications of this research run much deeper than most people would immediately think. Let me explain.

50 years of dogma

This year's major discoveries touch on a number of major historical themes in human origins research, spanning decades of investigation. The implications are broad, involving one of the key theoretical pillars of human origins that explains, among other things:

  • The arrival of fully committed terrestrial locomotion (or obligate bipedalism),
  • Enlargement and reorganization of the brain,
  • Speech and language,
  • Beginnings of human like culture and complex tool manufacturing,
  • A hunting and gathering lifestyle,
  • Endurance running linked perhaps to the "persistence hunt",
  • Regular consumption of meat, and
  • Use of fire and cooking.

Many elements of this 'package' of anatomical and behavioural traits probably began with the emergence of Homo around 2.3 million years ago. Actually, the discovery of a new Homo jaw from Ethiopia dated 2.8 million years old, which I wrote about in March, pushes this back a further half million years.

If we're honest, I guess, we should have expected the deconstruction of this central pillar of human evolution theory any time now, as there have been hints it was coming for quite a while.

2015 just happens to be the year when momentum has reached a point, through serendipitous discoveries, where its time to reassess the old model and forge ahead with a new one.

Homo the "handy-man"?

Ever since 1964, when Louis Leakey, Phillip Tobias and John Napier announced Homo habilis, and in so doing, redefined Homo, our genus has been linked to culture and tool making.

The nomen habilis was suggested by Raymond Dart, as it means "able, handy, mentally skillful or vigorous" in Latin.

Stone tool making, indicating the beginnings of culture, a fine 'precision grip' of the hand, and the start of a long-term trend in brain enlargement, were all linked to Homo and its then newest earliest member, Homo habilis.

Before this time, membership of the human genus was based mostly on the idea of a "cerebral Rubicon" in which a species had to have an estimated brain size of 700 cubic centimetres or more to belong.

Some features have been added to the package since 1964, such as the use of fire and cooking, and endurance running.

Deconstructing the Homo package

Ever since tool making was linked exclusively to Homo there have been dissenters.

At Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, the Leakey's themselves found tools, dubbed the "Oldowan" Industry, associated with the "Nutcracker Man" or Paranthropus bosiei as well as Homo habilis.

In the 1960s, one of Leakey's own protégés, Jane Goodall, showed that chimpanzees also used tools in the wild.

Only last week, Jill Pruetz at Iowa State University and her team reported that chimpanzees in Senegal used wooden spears for hunting, being the only example of a living non-human species to do so.

Over the last couple of decades we've also learnt that very different kinds of animals use tools, from ants to octopuses, crows to otters, and dolphins to monkeys and apes.

In South Africa, stone tools have also been recovered from various ancient cave sites along side 2 million year old Homo and Paranthropus fossils.

Studies of the hand bones of Paranthropus by Randy Susman in the 1980s showed their anatomy was similar to humans: although, we have no idea if they had the motivation, need or smarts to make tools.

In 2010, cut-marks on large mammal bones made by early hominins using stone tools were reported from Ethiopia, dating to 3.39 million years ago, by Shannon McPherron and her team.

This pushed tool use well beyondHomo and Paranthropus to Kenyanthropus or even Australopithecus.

Last week, Sonia Harmand and her team at Stony Brook University announced at a conference in California that they'd found stone tools on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya dating to around 3.3 million years old.

This discovery pushes the oldest tools back a whopping 800,000 years!

This new tool industry differs from the Oldowan in being much chunkier, including tools weighing as much as 15 kilograms: according to a report in this week's Nature by Ewen Calloway (the work has yet to be published in a scientific journal).

And, just this week, a new study published by Thomas Feix from Yale University and co-investigators proposed that the East African species Australopithecus afarensis living between roughly 3 and 4 million years ago may also have had a human-like hand grip.

This follows on from research reported in January by Matthew Skinner from the University of Kent and his team showing that the southern African species, Australopithecus africanus, may also have routinely made and used tools.

All of these discoveries call into question the whole Homo package: if tools were made by hominins like Australopithecus, then they can't be associated with obligate bipedalism, brain enlargement, speech and language or the use of fire.

These are features we associate only with members of Homo.

A cultured ape?

Over the last few decades, the surprising finding of tool use by arthropods, molluscs and many species of chordate (including birds and mammals), has thrown a massive spanner in the works for scientists wrestling with the notion of "culture." In one camp – normally biologists – the definition of culture has been expanded to include most or all instances of non-human tool use.

In the other – comprising mostly archaeologists – it has been narrowed to include only behaviours seen in Homo sapiens and some of our early ancestors.

But, are there any unique features in the way humans, and our extinct biped relatives, made and used stone tools?

We humans stand out in making an extraordinary diversity of tools, including ones that are highly complex, comprising many components that interact in complicated ways, with some tools based in experimental research or deep insights about nature. Just think about your car or smart phone as an example of high-tech tool.

Archaeologists have had a hard time wrestling with the problem of the uniqueness of human culture, especially in the face of the complexity of ape cultures, but as well as the use of tools across very diverse kinds of animals.

For example, passerine birds and most primates are known to use similar numbers of tools and in similarly complex situations. Yet, humans do things differently.

The archaeologists Iain Davison, from the University of New England, and William McCrew, Cambridge University, believe they have pinned down from a behavioural perspective what humans do that is so distinctintive.

They believe we are far more creative, generating new kinds of behaviours from those learned from other people, and that human stone tool making has provided a "niche" for the coopting of tools and tool-making procedures across different contexts.

Such ideas prove extremely difficult to test from archaeology alone though.

Uniqueness reassessed

We now seem to be at the point in scientific history where the package of features normally associated with the beginnings of Homo no longer seems valid, after 50 years of their use.

Many of the hallmarks of the human genus have been convincingly found with other, much more ancient hominin species, and some even with other kinds of animals.

At the same time, finding the evolutionary origins of the very real 'gulf' that exists between us and other life – one that is admittedly getting smaller each year – seems to be an increasingly difficult challenge for science.

Curnoe, Darren. 2015. “From sticks to stones—getting a grip on the human genus”. Phys.org. Posted: April 24, 2015. Available online: http://phys.org/news/2015-04-stonesgetting-human-genus.html

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Archaeologists to reconsider origins of industrial era obesity and cancer by scanning Museum of London skeletons

Some of London’s most important skeletons will be digitally x-rayed and scanned in a new archaeological investigation linking “man-made” diseases with the industrialisation of the city.

More than 1,000 adult men and women from the industrial revolution period, as well as 500 more from the medieval metropolis, will be used in quest to find out how the era affected the population at the Museum of London’s Centre for Human Bioarcheology. The latest clinical techniques will help to create an interactive online database for the public.

“The most tangible evidence we have for the long-term consequences of the industrialisation process upon us is, quite simply, written in our bones,” says Jelena Bekvalac, the leader of a research team who plan to begin their work immediately.

“Modern health trends have seen a shift towards increasing life expectancy but we want to look again at what are often thought of as ‘man-made’ conditions like obesity and cancer. 

“Given today’s more sedentary lifestyles, far removed from the physically active and natural existence of most of our forebears, there are some big questions about the origins of these diseases and how they relate to the modern environment.” 

Bekvalac hopes to publish her team’s findings as soon as possible and deliver a series of lectures about the work.

Miller, Ben. 2015. “Archaeologists to reconsider origins of industrial era obesity and cancer by scanning Museum of London skeletons”. Culture 24. Posted: April 24, 2015. Available online: http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/archaeology/art525239-archaeologists-to-reconsider-origins-of-industrial-era-obesity-and-cancer-by-scanning-museum-of-london-skeletons

Monday, June 22, 2015

How Settlers Wiped Out the Caribbean’s Rodents of Unusual Size

The loss of some large rodents may seem like something to cheer about rather than mourn, but recently scientists uncovered the story of the giant rats that used to live on the islands of the Lesser Antilles. After years of combing through the vaults of museums, researchers have recently managed to scrape together enough DNA to uncover the story of the Caribbean’s giant rats. And what they've found is that these rodents represented one of a handful of surprisingly diverse species of rice rats, Jonathan Amos for BBC News reports.

European settlers apparently thought the so-called "rice rats" were pests that threatened coconut plantations. So to keep them at bay, settlers introduced the fierce mongoose deliberately to keep their crops free of snakes and other pests. The predators, along deforestation and competition with black and brown rats that likely arrived as stowaways, drove the rice rats to extinction. The last ones died in the early 20th century, Amos explains:

Today, researchers regard what happened in the Caribbean as one of the largest mammal extinction events in the past few thousand years. Its magnitude rivals even that seen in Australia where settlers removed a great many mammals, including the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger as it is commonly called.

"The rice rat extinction is itself a major extinction event, but it is only a component of the wider loss of mammals across the entire Caribbean basin," Sam Turvey, of the Zoological Society of London told BBC News. Turvey and his colleagues recently published the results of their genetic analysis in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Based on the DNA they could gather, their work shows that rice rats arrived in the Lesser Antillean island chain in two distinct waves from South America. The furry newcomers probably floated in on vegetation rafts that had washed down rivers. After a while, the rats on three islands — St. Eustatius, St. Kitts and Nevis — became so genetically distinct that they might be considered different species. "This only goes to underline the scale of biodiversity loss that was initiated when human settlers arrived from Europe," Amos writes.

"It's hard to know exactly how many species disappeared across the Caribbean Basin as a whole, but there were probably in the order of over 100 different, distinct island populations of endemic mammals, of which there are maybe 7-10 left," Turvey told Amos. "A tremendous loss of mammalian biodiversity."

Today, there are several claimants to the "largest rat" title. The most commonly cited African pouched rats are in the same family as mice and rats but they come from a different branch. Still, like true rats they are smart and trainable. The kitten-sized rodents help sniff out land mines and even detect tuberculosis.

Those animals are far more useful and less terrifying than the lumbering, ferocious "Rodents of Unusual Size" that attack Buttercup and Westley in the 1987 movie The Princess Bride. There aren’t any accounts online that recall the temperament of the extinct Caribbean rice rats, but other, still-living large rats tend to be much more pleasant than their fictional counterparts.

Fessenden, Marissa. 2015. “How Settlers Wiped Out the Caribbean’s Rodents of Unusual Size”. The Smithsonian. Posted: April 24, 2015. Available online: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/europeans-wiped-out-caribbeans-cat-sized-rats-180955096/

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Giant Easter Island 'Hats' Rolled Into Place, Study Says

The distinctive headgear worn by some of the famous Easter Island statues may have been rolled up ramps to reach those high perches, a new study suggests.

A simple analysis of the physics suggests that rolling the headwear — bulky cylindrical shapes that look like Russian fur hats — would have been a relatively easy matter, said study co-author Sean Hixon, an undergraduate student in archaeology and geology at the University of Oregon, who presented his findings here on April 16 at the 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology.

"It seems like a relatively small number of people could have done it, either by levering or rolling," Hixon said.

In addition, other features, such as indentations at the bases of the hats, line up with the rolling theory of placement, Hixon said.

Easter Island hats

Since Europeans arrived at the location in the 1700s, people have wondered how the residents of Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, off the coast of Chile, raised their majestic statues. Some scientists have speculated that the statues were walked into place. Others have argued that the native islanders chopped down the island's forests to roll the stone behemoths across the landscape, leading to environmental devastation and the collapse of the Easter Island civilization.

Some of these Easter Island statues, or moai, are topped by large red headgear. About 100 of these "hats," made from red volcanic rock called scoria, have been found, with many strewn along ancient paths on the island.

Historians and ethnographers proposed that these "hats" were everything from feathered diadems, to turbans, to wigs, to elaborate hairdos. Nowadays, most scholars think the ornaments were meant to represent hair, and the Rapa Nui word for them, "pukao," means topknot, Hixon said. The pukaos for the biggest statues could be roughly 6.5 feet (2 meters) in diameter and weigh 12 tons, he added.

No one knows exactly what the hats signified, though their red color suggests they may have had a ritual significance, Hixon said. Because the hats were carved separately, archaeologists have questioned how people got the ornaments atop the moai, as the biggest of the statues could weigh 75 tons and stand a staggering 40 feet (12 meters) high.

Rolling, rolling, rolling

Hixon and his colleagues used simple physics to model the force and torque required to place the pukao atop the moai via different techniques, such as rolling the objects up a ramp to the top of the statues, building a giant tower and using a pulley system, or erecting the pukao and moai simultaneously.

The mostly oblong cross-section of the pukao meant that rolling up a ramp would have taken relatively little energy, and could have been done with fewer than 10 people, Hixon found. The oblong shape would have an advantage over a circular cross-section: it would prevent the pukao from rolling down the ramp by accident, HIxon said.

In addition, many of the statues have a small lip at the base. These indentations are about 0.78 inches (2 centimeters) thick, and "they pretty much fit the heads of the moai," Hixon told Live Science.

"The base indentation isn't really necessary for the hat once it's on the statue. The hats are pretty massive. It's not like they're going to fall off without the base indentation," Hixon said. Instead, these indentations might have helped prevent the pukao from tipping over during placement, if the statues themselves happened to tilt forward a bit, Hixon said.

Many of the pukao also exhibit ring-shaped indentations and vertical scratches around the sides, which could have provided traction as the headgear was rolled up a ramp, Hixon said.

Still, the research is far from definitive. Any of the proposed methods for raising the hats are theoretically possible with enough people, Hixon said. And erosion and damage have altered the sides of the pukaos, so it's difficult to determine whether the scratches on the outer surface were deliberately placed, Hixon said.   

Ghose, Tia. 2015. “Giant Easter Island 'Hats' Rolled Into Place, Study Says”. Live Science. Posted: April 24, 2015. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/50617-easter-island-hats-rolled.html

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Calculating how the Pacific was settled

Using statistics that describe how an infectious disease spreads, a University of Utah anthropologist analyzed different theories of how people first settled islands of the vast Pacific between 3,500 and 900 years ago. Adrian Bell found the two most likely strategies were to travel mostly against prevailing winds and seek easily seen islands, not necessarily the nearest islands.

The study - published in this month's issue of the journal American Antiquity - suggests early Pacific seafarers "weren't just drifting around," says Bell, the study's first and senior author. "It suggests they had a strategy for the best way to discover new places: movement across the ocean in a less risky fashion - often meaning into the wind - and moving to places that were more easily visible."

The study found no evidence that other theories explained how the 24 major island groups of the Pacific Ocean were settled by speakers of Austronesian languages in double-hulled and outrigger canoes between 3,500 and 900 years ago:

  • Distance wasn't a factor, since relatively nearby New Zealand was settled long after more distant parts of the Pacific. That suggests people already were adept at long-distance ocean travel when settlement of the Pacific began.
  • Habitat quality and abundance of resources didn't matter in determining which islands were settled first.
  • Nor was there evidence that social class differences or a desire to escape despotic rulers launched lower-class people on voyages of exploration, though a thorough test of this hypothesis requires more data.

The study didn't consider all theories that might explain why Pacific islands were settled in the sequence they were, but statistically analyzed some major theories to show how a new statistical approach can provide more rigorous examination of exploration of the Pacific than what has been done before.

"The colonization of small islands in the vast expanse of the Pacific is one of the most remarkable chapters of human history," the study says. "The fundamental nature of such processes and the decades of research on settlement strategies demand a better analytical approach and data. Here we have demonstrated how we can go beyond the construction of plausible narratives and ad hoc interpretations of archaeological information in order to develop explicit models of different colonization strategies and rigorously test them against the data."

Studying how the Pacific was colonized is important because "migration is a key driver of human cultural and genetic evolution," the researchers add.

Bell conducted the study with geology and geophysics doctoral student Christopher Bradbury of the University of Utah; anthropologist Thomas Currie of the University of Exeter, U.K.; and archaeologist Geoffrey Irwin of the University of Auckland, New Zealand.

Mathematically modeling humans 'infecting' islands

The study involves expansion of Lapita people, who emerged from Southeast Asia, inhabited the Bismarck and Solomon islands east of New Guinea about 3,500 years ago and then pushed south and east to become the first people to settle the remote Pacific. They were the ancestors of many Melanesians and Micronesians and all Polynesians.

Bell and colleagues developed a model or simulation of how colonization happened in 24 major island groups. It was adapted from an epidemiological model of how diseases spread from among people or other animals. Instead of using individual characteristics to assess the probability of infection, the model's variables were such factors as island size, distances from other islands, prevalent wind directions and the inferred level of social hierarchy among people living on the island.

"We model ocean migrants as 'infecting' uninhabited islands," the study says.

The computer modeling involved a math equation that "is like a clock that is ticking through time, and with each ticktock we calculate a probability of an island either being colonized or not," Bell says. "We use the dates we know for roughly when islands were colonized. So as the model moves forward in time, it will suggest some islands to be colonized first rather than others. How well it matches up with the data will distinguish which model comes out on top."

The results held up even when Bell artificially increased uncertainties in the times when specific islands were colonized.

The findings

Bell analyzed four theories or models for how the Pacific might have been colonized, and variations of those models:

1. An outward "wave of advance" from a central point, like ripples spreading from a rock dropped in a pond. Yet mathematical analysis showed "distance between islands wasn't a factor in whether an island would be settled or not," Bell says.

What did fit the colonization data - and did so better than anything - was if the wave of advance concept of distance was modified by the "angle of target" - a single number representing an island's visibility based on its height, width and distance.

High volcanic islands have a larger angle of target and are more likely to be spotted than low coral atolls. Yet a single large island might have a lower angle of target and be less likely to be discovered than a long archipelago of small islands.

2. Mathematical analysis showed the second-most likely colonization strategy was "risk-minimizing" by "heading into the prevailing wind on outward, exploratory journeys, allowing for safer return [with the wind] from failed searches," the study says.

Bell says there has been debate: Did early explorers travel east only during periods when the prevailing easterly-southeasterly winds were interrupted by westerlies, or "were early seafarers sophisticated enough to direct their boats against the wind?" The study indicates the latter, which "suggests fairly sophisticated canoe technology."

3. The study neither ruled out nor confirmed the hierarchy model - the concept that people were pushed to explore by a hierarchal social structure, either to escape a despotic ruling class that dominates resources, or to become founders of new societies.

The researchers used data showing relationships among 21 Austronesian languages and data about the level of hierarchy that existed at the time of contact with Europeans, and then applied a statistical method to estimate the likely form of social organization when various islands were settled. But they lacked enough data to test with certainty whether or not social hierarchy helped drive settlement of the Pacific.

4. The calculations ruled out the habitat-quality model - the idea that people settled high-quality islands first.

"The fact that habitat quality was not a major reason for going somewhere suggests the actual act of moving across the ocean was the major factor in settling the Pacific," says Bell. "Crossing and exploring was the driving force rather than skipping an island and looking for a better island."

'A sea of islands'

Bell - whose mother is Tongan and whose father is a European-born New Zealander - believes the early seafarers saw the vast Pacific as small.

"The bottom line is islanders may have viewed the Pacific as more of a sea of islands - places to go - rather than islands that are far away and separated by huge obstacles," he says. "You can look at this large ocean, which is bigger than many continents, and say, 'Wow, look at how separated these islands are.' But from another perspective you can say, 'Look at all these islands out there for us to explore.'"

"The idea that distance didn't matter for founding early Pacific societies - there is some continuity with today's island societies, where distance is not a big factor in maintaining interactions among close family groups," Bell says. He notes that many Pacific Islanders today don't bat an eyelash at traveling thousands of miles for weddings and other family occasions "so family relations are maintained across the ocean."

EurekAlert. 2015. “Calculating how the Pacific was settled”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 21, 2015. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-04/uou-cht042115.php

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Viking age began in Denmark

New study changes our understanding of how and where the Viking age began.

The story of the Vikings begins in the year 793 AD, after Norwegian Vikings landed in England on the first official Viking raid. To this day, these fierce raids are the most famous of Viking stories.

Now, a new study suggests a more peaceful start to Viking seafaring -- and it all began in Denmark.

Three archaeologists from the University of Aarhus (Denmark) and the University of York (UK) have shown that maritime voyages from Norway to Ribe, the oldest commercial centre in Denmark, occurred long before the Viking age officially began.

The study shows that early Vikings travelled to Ribe in South Denmark as early as 725 AD.

The researchers discovered deer antlers in the oldest archaeological deposits of Ribe’s old marketplace and they turned out to be the remains of Norwegian reindeer.

"This is the first time we have proof that seafaring culture, which was the basis for the Viking era, has a history in Ribe. It's fascinating," says Professor Søren Sindbæk, one of the authors of the new study, which has just been published in the European Journal of Archaeology.

Norwegian professor Dagfinn Skre from the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo speaks positively about the research.

"I was happy when I read it for it's something that archaeologists have believed for many years -- but now it has been demonstrated," says Skre. "It's absolutely wonderful and it's a tremendously persuasive study."

Archaeologists divided into two camps

The question of whether Ribe was central to the early Viking culture, had divided archaeologists into two camps. A connection between the biggest Nordic commercial centre of the day and the beginning of the Viking voyages seemed obvious, but there was no evidence to confirm it.

The reindeer antlers are the first archaeological evidence that Ribe really did play a central role. Commercial trips between Norway and Denmark allowed them to develop the maritime skills and geographical knowledge needed for future raids.

"It is a nice example of archaeology providing solid data that goes directly to the heart of major debates. It’s one thing to have a qualified idea of how something should be, it's another to show it," says archaeologist Morten Søvsø, curator for Museums of Southwest Jutland in Denmark. He was not involved in the new study, but thinks that it fits with current research.

Vikings developed their maritime expertise sailing between Denmark and Norway

Seafaring was central to the Vikings and their long sea voyages were unique for their day. The unsuspecting English had no idea of what was about to hit them, when the first Vikings set off from Western Norway in 793 AD to strike the Lindisfarne monastery in northern England.

"The Viking Age becomes a phenomenon in Western Europe because the Vikings learned to use maritime mobility to their advantage. They learned to master sailing to such an extent that they get to the coast of England where the locals don't expect anything. They come quickly, plunder the unprepared victims, and leave again -- a sort of hit and run," says Sindbæk.

The Vikings did not become adept mariners overnight. According to Sindbæk it took a lot of time, effort, and resources before the first Norwegian sailors had enough knowledge and technology to make these long and dangerous voyages.

"We can see for the first time why they started to invest in ships and develop the technology. It's interesting that when we have two such significant developments and changes -– urbanisation and raids across open water -- we can then say that they were in fact connected."

What came first, the raiders or the merchants?

The new results show that long voyages were underway early in the 8th century AD, with the establishment of a marketplace in Ribe. What was to become history's famous Viking expeditions can be directly linked to the development of Ribe as a town and commercial centre.

"We can now show that the famous Scandinavian sea voyages, which eventually led to the discovery of Iceland and Greenland, have a history of some commercial travel, not just raids. Previously we were inclined to say that yes, once you can sail across open water, you can also sail to the commercial towns -- now we can turn the equation around and say that trading towns may have been an important part of the drive behind developing new technologies, "says Sindbæk.

"The peaceful exchanges -- trading -- will take up more of the story, and the military voyages, which are also important, must now share the space," he says.

The 'missing link' between Viking raids and urbanisation

These new findings do not just tell us when the Viking age began. Discovery of this early trade also tells us something about the development of Ribe, the earliest Viking town in Scandinavia.

Deer antlers were popular in comb manufacturing, one of the earliest known industries, and were often used to produce needles and other tools. It was not difficult to obtain enough antler material for a typical household, but it could be difficult for a professional comb maker to find sufficient quantities locally.

The new study shows that the early Vikings from Norway exploited the readily available commodity, and could easily have sold reindeer in large quantities to Denmark.

"Someone up in Norway knew that they must make an expedition and assemble a large number of these antlers, which for them was a waste product, and go to Ribe where they could sell them. They know that there is a purpose to the journey, and that it can be done safely without being robbed or the market suddenly closing," says Sindbæk. “In this way, one can say that the activities in the high mountains are a part of urban development."

According to Søren Sindbæk, Ribe is generally perceived as the centre of the southern Jutland region and at the forefront of development within Scandinavia - simply trading within the region. Although Sindbæk does not believe this himself.

"There are some, including me, who have suggested that contrary to this view, distant contacts travelled from far away to meet in Ribe. However, we have not previously seen evidence of these links to the rest of Scandinavia, which is strong evidence against this interpretation. If you cannot see the evidence for such links then it is hard to explain what Viking raids from Norway have to do with the rise of towns in Denmark. This study gives us the missing link," says Sindbæk.

Vikings did not know they were Vikings

Not everyone agrees that the study clearly shows how Viking towns improve our understanding of when the Viking era began.

In a study from 2008, the archaeologist James Barrett concluded that urbanisation and trade were not a decisive marker, and he is still not convinced that the development of towns such as Ribe actually helped to kick start the Viking age.

"It's solid research, and the results are really exciting. Soren and his colleagues argue that a town is in fact a network, and there are many things, such as merchants from Norway, that make the town possible. Where we do not necessarily agree entirely, is in the perception of whether towns and trade also helped to start the Viking age," says Barrett, who specialises in medieval archaeology at Cambridge University, UK.

Barrett admits that the role of towns would be central to the initiation of the Viking age if you look at the it from the perspective of a trading society, rather than focusing on military matters such as raids.

Sindbæk agrees.

"Now we can prove that shipping between Norway and the market town of Ribe was established prior to the Viking era, and trade networks helped to create the incentives and the knowledge of the sea, which made the Viking raids possible. It is the first time that we can clearly link two very important phenomena, the lock and key if you like, of the Viking Age," he says.

Ultimately, the researchers agree that the discussion of when the Viking era began is also one of semantics. It all depends on what you mean by Vikings. Morten Søvsø from Southwest Jutland Museums suggests that we should be careful with the labels with give to people who lived in the past.

"They didn’t go around knowing they were Vikings. If you want to argue that the Viking age in fact started when they had contact with the wider world, then this study supports this view - but it will always be a rationalisation," says Søvsø.

Persson, Charlotte Price. 2015. “The Viking age began in Denmark”. Science Nordic. Posted: April 23, 2015. Available online: http://sciencenordic.com/viking-age-began-denmark

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Turning Ethiopia's desert green

A generation ago Ethiopia's Tigray province was stricken by a famine that shocked the world. Today, as Chris Haslam reports, local people are using ancient techniques to turn part of the desert green.

In the pink-streaked twilight, a river of humanity is flowing across Tigray's dusty Hawzien plain. This cracked and desiccated landscape, in Ethiopia's far north, occupies a dark corner of the global collective memory. Thirty years ago, not far from here, the BBC's Michael Buerk first alerted us to a biblical famine he described as "the closest thing to hell on earth".

Then Bob Geldof wrote Do They Know It's Christmas? - a curious question to ask of perhaps the world's most devoutly Christian people - and thereafter the name Tigray became synonymous with refugees, Western aid and misery. The Tigrayan people were depicted as exemplars of passive suffering, dependent on the goodwill of the rest of the planet just to get through the day without dying.

But here, outside the village of Abr'ha Weatsbaha, I'm seeing a different version. From all directions, streams of people are trickling into that human river. You hear them before you see them - some chatting excitedly, others singing hymns - as they converge on a viciously steep valley at the edge of the plain. They were summoned before dawn by horns, an Old Testament echo calling every able-bodied man and woman over 18 years of age to report for the first of 20 days of compulsory community labour. Their job, quite simply, is to tame the desert.

"This is how the Axumite kings got stuff done 2,000 years ago," says my guide Zablon Beyene. "With the same tools, too."

By 10 in the morning, some 3,000 people have turned up. Using picks, shovels, iron bars and their bare hands, they will turn these treacherous slopes into neat staircases of rock-walled terraces that will trap the annual rains, forcing the water to percolate into the soil rather than running off in devastating, ground-ripping flash floods.

"Sisters are doing it for themselves," says Kidane, a pick-wielding Amazon whose arched eyebrow suggests I might want to put down my camera and do some actual work. Brothers, too: from strapping, sweat-shiny youths to Ephraim, a legless old man who clearly ignored the bit about being able-bodied and sits on his stumps, rolling rocks downhill to the terrace builders.

Overseeing this extraordinary effort is 58-year-old Aba Hawi, Abr'ha Weatsbaha's community leader. Short, pot-bellied and bearded, he darts from one side of the valley to the other, barking orders into his mobile phone, slapping backs and showing the youngsters the proper way to split half-ton boulders. Rumour has it that Aba Hawi once took up arms to fight for Tigrayan independence, but these days he prefers to describe himself as "just a farmer".

Either way, his tireless leadership has brought a miraculous transformation to this sun-blasted land. In just a decade, entire mountains have been terraced. Once you had to dig 50ft (15m) down to find water. Now it's just 10ft, and 94 acres (38 hectares) of former desert have been transformed into fertile fields. Families are now reaping three harvests a year from fields of corn, chillis, onions and potatoes. Free-range grazing for sheep, goats and cattle has been banned, allowing new forests of eucalyptus and acacias to take root, and Aba Hawi is particularly keen to show me what he's done with the deep flash-flood canyons that rive the plain.

We take a long, hot hike to a vast pool of cool, green water held back by a huge hand-built dam. "We've built 85 of these check-dams so far," says Aba Hawi, "and you can see how they work. These mini-reservoirs fill up during the rains and are fed by groundwater in times of drought. Now, every farmer has a well." He tosses a handful of dust into the wind. "Ten years ago, that was our land." Then he points at a shimmering blue flash in the reeds. "Now look: we've got malachite kingfishers living in the desert."

But success brings its own problems. Abr'ha Weatsbaha is now facing an immigration problem as people from neighbouring valleys clamour for their share of Aba Hawi's oasis.

"They shouldn't need to come here," he says. "Every district in Tigray is supposed to be using compulsory community labour for terracing but, well…" he shrugs with just a tad of false modesty… "not all community leaders are so, er, committed."

And as fear of starvation fades, Aba Hawi faces new demands.

"People want electricity now," he sighs.

I'm interested in his views of where God comes into all this. After all, this valley was once the physical definition of the term "Godforsaken."

Aba Hawi disagrees. "God was here when the land was bad," he says. "And he's still here. But God will only help those who help themselves."

BBC News. 2015. “Turning Ethiopia's desert green”. BBC News. Posted: April 20, 2015. Available online: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-32348749

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Digging Up the Root of Carbon Dating

The discovery of the principle behind carbon dating was reported in The New York Times two years before its remarkable implications were widely understood.

On Dec. 28, 1947, in a roundup of the year’s events in atomic physics, Waldemar Kaempffert wrote that “Prof. Willard F. Libby and his colleagues discovered that radioactive carbon 14 is produced by cosmic rays and that there is enough of it in all living matter to constitute one of the most important sources of radiation to which the human body is exposed.”

Two years later, the importance of the discovery had become clear. “Scientist Stumbles Upon Method to Fix Age of Earth’s Material” read the headline of an unsigned article on Page 29 of The Times on Sept. 6, 1949, marking the first time that readers learned of radiocarbon dating.

The article said that Dr. Libby, a 40-year-old chemistry professor at the University of Chicago, “stumbled on the technique two years ago when studying cosmic ray action on the atmosphere.” Then it offered a brief explanation of the method, saying that living materials contain radioactive carbon that decays after death at a known rate, and that this rate can be used to determine with great accuracy when a plant or animal died.

“We have reason to believe that ages up to 15,000 to 20,000 years can be measured with some accuracy,” Dr. Libby told The Times.

On Dec. 31, 1951, the newspaper reported that J. Laurence Kulp hadimproved the technique, so that it could be used to date materials as old as 30,000 years. Two years later, The Times reported that Canadian researchers were able to extend the range to 40,000 years with “liquid scintillation,” still used to test the radioactivity of low-energy isotopes.

Through the 1950s, The Times reported on the use of radiocarbon dating to discover the age of the Pyramid of the Sun in Mexico, the wood in a 4,600-year-old Egyptian coffin, sandals found in a cave in Oregon and the wooden floor of an ancient Syrian palace. Today, the technique continues to be refined, and dates of prehistoric objects and events are sometimes modified. As recently as last summer, Kenneth Chang reported that the newest techniques and equipment had been used to revise the dates of the period that Neanderthals and modern humans lived together in Europe.

But all of this depends on the principle that Dr. Libby was the first to elucidate, and his contribution did not go unnoticed. As The Times reported on Nov. 6, 1960, Dr. Libby was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The Nobel Committee cited him “for his method to use carbon 14 for age determination in archaeology, geology, geophysics and other branches of science.”

Bakalar, Nicholas. 2015. “Digging Up the Root of Carbon Dating”. The New York Times. Posted: April 20, 2015. Available online: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/21/science/digging-up-the-root-of-carbon-dating.html?_r=0

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Deep national history of immigration predicts wide cultural comfort displaying emotion

If your home country is historically heterogeneous and you know it, crack a smile.

People who live in countries built on centuries of migration from a wide range of other countries are more emotionally expressive than people in more insular cultures, according to research led by University of Wisconsin-Madison psychology Professor Paula Niedenthal.

The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, compared several social and demographic variables to the way people describe the rules for displaying emotion in dozens of countries.

Countries most comfortable with wearing their hearts on their sleeves are likely to also score high in "historical heterogeneity," a measurement created by a group of Brown University economists to describe the breadth of a country's migration sources over the last 500 years.

"We think an absence of shared language and shared culture would push people toward greater nonverbal expression of emotion," Niedenthal says. "Because otherwise you wouldn't know what the other person was feeling or thinking or liking or disliking. And you need to be able to communicate those things to facilitate commerce and government, to survive and prosper together."

The United States sits high up on the measure of historical heterogeneity, with Canada, Australia, Brazil and Uruguay. The homogenous end of the spectrum includes Greece, Japan, Poland and Nigeria, confounding a geographic interpretation of the cultural differences in emotional displays.

"So many places other than the United States have a long history of migration -- many in South America, places like Israel -- and that creates an idea about who should be similar or dissimilar that isn't one we currently look at," Niedenthal says. "The dominant way to think about culture right now in industry and organizational settings and academia is the notion of collectivism versus individualism, and that's basically West versus East."

Apparently, shaping emotional culture takes time. The researchers compared their emotional expressivity results to another demographic measure of immigration -- the sheer number of home countries represented by immigrants living in each of 32 countries in 2013 -- and found little correlation.

"In many countries, today's diversity involves a lot of minority influx," Niedenthal says. "Those people are often arriving at the bottom of the social ladder, hoping to find work, and people in those positions don't immediately influence the culture. It takes time and generations and standing for that to happen."

The economists behind historical heterogeneity were looking for a way to predict income inequality, and Niedenthal believes the influence of long-term migration should turn out to be important in many kinds of social behaviors and even public policy.

"The important issue is imagining all the ways in which cultures created by multiple source countries rather than few source countries differ," says Niedenthal, whose work is funded by the National Science Foundation. "For example, they may be more or less willing to pay for universal health care, because they empathize differently with in-group and out-group members."

The researchers also found that despite migratory makeup, relative individualism, residential mobility or ethnic fractionalization, people the world round identify the same three kinds of smiles -- reward, affiliation and dominance -- and that the frequency with which the three are deployed also vary in neat parallel with a country's historical heterogeneity.

"Two of the main tasks you could imagine being important to a group of people with mixed cultural backgrounds are affiliation, creating and maintaining social bonds, and reward -- telling people what's good and what's bad," Niedenthal says. "In homogenous cultures, they have hierarchies that have been established over the course of many, many generations, and they tend to view dominance smiles as more frequent or important."

EurekAlert. 2015. “Deep national history of immigration predicts wide cultural comfort displaying emotion”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 20, 2015. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-04/uow-dnh041715.php

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Cult of Amun

In the epic rivalry between ancient Egypt and Nubia, one god had enduring appeal

In its 3,000-year history as a state, ancient Egypt had a complicated, constantly changing set of relations with neighboring powers. With the Libyans to the west and the Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, and Persians to the northeast, Egypt by turns waged war, forged treaties, and engaged in mutually beneficial trade. But Egypt’s most important and enduring relationship was, arguably, with its neighbor to the south, Nubia, which occupied a region that is now in Sudan. The two cultures were connected by the Nile River, whose annual flooding made civilization possible in an otherwise harsh desert environment. Through their shared history, Egyptians and Nubians also came to worship the same chief god, Amun, who was closely allied with kingship and played an important role as the two civilizations vied for supremacy.

During its Middle and New Kingdoms, which spanned the second millennium B.C., Egypt pushed its way into Nubia, ultimately conquering and making it a colonial province. The Egyptians were drawn by the land’s rich store of natural resources, including ebony, ivory, animal skins, and, most importantly, gold. As they expanded their control of Nubia, the Egyptians built a number of temples to Amun, the largest of which stood at the foot of a holy mountain called Jebel Barkal. This the Egyptians declared to be the god’s southern home, thereby conceptualizing Egypt and Nubia as a unified whole and justifying their rule of both. After Egypt’s New Kingdom collapsed around 1069 B.C., the kingdom of Kush rose in Nubia, with its court based in Napata, the town adjacent to Jebel Barkal. The Egyptian colonizers may have been gone, but their religious legacy lived on, as the Kushite rulers were by this time fervently devoted to Amun. Just as the Egyptians had used the god to validate their conquest of Nubia, the Kushites now returned the favor. During a period of discord in Egypt, the Kushite king Piye first secured Amun’s northern home, in Karnak, Egypt. Then, claiming to act on the god’s behalf to restore unified control of Nubia and Egypt, he conquered the rest of Egypt and, in 728 B.C., became the first in a line of Kushite pharaohs who ruled Egypt for around 70 years.

The cult of Amun remained central to religion—and politics—in Nubia for centuries to come. This has been illustrated by the findings of an excavation in Dangeil, a royal Kushite town on the banks of the Nile south of Napata. The excavation, which has been carried out since 2000 with support from Sudan’s National Corporation for Antiquities and Museums, the British Museum, and the Nubian Archaeological Development Organization (Qatar-Sudan), has turned up evidence of what may have been a series of temples to Amun that stood on the same location for around a thousand years in all—from the period when Kushite pharaohs ruled Egypt to the first few centuries A.D., when Kushite civilization entered a new golden age and Egypt served as a Roman colony.

Continue reading the article here

Weiss, Daniel. 2015. “The Cult of Amun”. Archaeology. Posted: April 17, 2015. Available online: http://www.archaeology.org/issues/174-1505/features/3146-sudan-nubia-dangeil-cult-of-amun-ra

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Archaeologists discover Pictish fort near Stonehaven landmark

Archaeologists believe they have uncovered a Pictish fort off the coast of Aberdeenshire.

The team are excavating a remote sea stack near Stonehaven – and believe their discovery could have been a “precursor” to Dunnottar Castle.

The castle is about a quarter of a mile north of the Dunnicaer sea stack.

It is the first time anyone has investigated the site since the 19th century, when a group of young gold diggers found some Pictish stones.

Last night Gordon Noble, senior lecturer in archaeology at Aberdeen University, said he was delighted his team had found more clues pointing to the Picts.

“In the 1830s, a bunch of local youths from Stonehaven came up the sea stack, at great risk to themselves, after a local gold digger told them he had dreamt there was gold at the top of it,” he said.

“They started digging looking for this gold. They didn’t find it, unluckily for them, but they found a low stone wall on the sea stack.

“Now we’ve refound the stone wall, and it looks like part of a small fort.”

The team of six archaeologists has also found remains of a house, a hearth and ramparts.

Mr Noble added: “It shows that people, for at least part of the year, were living on the sea stack which is quite remarkable.

“There were quite a lot of forts on the coastline and in Moray, control of the sea seems to be a big part of power to the Picts.

“It’s very interesting.

“Was this a precursor to Dunnottar Castle, or a one series of Pictish forts along this coastline?”

Mr Noble said the sea stack was the most “inaccessible” site he had worked on, and that there were signs the 65ft by 39ft stone had eroded over the years.

The team have accessed the site with the help of professional climber Duncan Paterson.

Mr Paterson, of North East Mountaineering, said: “This is the first time I’ve worked with archaeologists specifically.

“I don’t think any of them have much experience of this kind of terrain, so it’s been a big challenge. Beating the tide was also a challenge, and then I set up a tension rope – some would call it a zip wire – to get them across the water and then they were roped up to climb the stack.”

Carbon samples have been taken from the discoveries, and will be analysed to determine if they are from the Pictish era. The team may then return later in the summer or next year for further excavations.

Gossip, Shona. 2015. “Archaeologists discover Pictish fort near Stonehaven landmark”. Press and Journal. Posted: April 17, 2015. Available online: https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/aberdeen/551758/archaeologists-discover-pictish-fort-near-stonehaven-landmark/

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Evidence of Pre-Columbus Trade Found in Alaska House

Bronze artifacts discovered in a 1,000-year-old house in Alaska suggest trade was occurring between East Asia and the New World centuries before the voyages of Columbus.

Archaeologists found the artifacts at the "Rising Whale" site at Cape Espenberg.

"When you're looking at the site from a little ways away, it looks like a bowhead [whale] coming to the surface," said Owen Mason, a research associate at the University of Colorado, who is part of a team excavating the site.

The new discoveries, combined with other finds made over the past 100 years, suggest trade items and ideas were reaching Alaska from East Asian civilizations well before Christopher Columbus arrived in the Caribbean Sea in 1492 archaeologists said.

"We're seeing the interactions, indirect as they are, with these so-called 'high civilizations' of China, Korea or Yakutia," a region in Russia, Mason said.

Bronze and obsidian

The Rising Whale discoveries include two bronze artifacts, one of which may have originally been used as a buckle or fastener. It has a piece of leather on it that radiocarbon dates to around A.D. 600 (more tests will take place in the future). The other bronze artifact may have been used as a whistle.

Bronze-working had not been developed at this time in Alaska, so archaeologists think the artifacts would have been manufactured inChina, Korea or Yakutia, and made their way to Alaska through trade routes.

Also inside that house, researchers found the remains of obsidian artifacts, which have a chemical signature that indicates the obsidian is from the Anadyr River valley in Russia.

Trade routes

The recent discoveries at the Rising Whale site add to over a century of research that indicates trade routes connected the Bering Strait (including the Alaskan side) with the civilizations that flourished in East Asia before Columbus' time.

In 1913, anthropologist Berthold Laufer published an analysis of texts and artifacts in the journal T'oung Pao in which he found that the Chinese had a great interest in obtaining ivory from narwhals and walruses, acquiring it from people who lived to the northeast of China. Some of the walrus ivory may have come from the Bering Strait, where the animals are found in abundance.

Additionally, a number of researchers have noted similarities in design between the plate armor worn by people in Alaska and that worn in China, Korea, Japan and eastern Mongolia.

For instance, in the 1930s, Smithsonian Institution archaeologist Henry Collins undertook excavations at St. Lawrence Island, off the west coast of Alaska. In his book "The Archaeology of St. Lawrence Island" (Smithsonian, 1937), he wrote that plate armor started appearing on the island around 1,000 years ago. It consisted of overlapping plates made of ivory, bones and sometimes iron.

Plate armor similar to this was developed in several areas of East Asia, including Manchuria (in China), eastern Mongolia and Japan, Collins wrote. The use of plate armor, he said, spread north from these areas, and was eventually introduced to Alaska from across the Bering Strait.

Genetic evidence

Recent genetic research also sheds light on interactions between people from East Asia and the New World. Many scientists say that humans first arrived in the New World around 15,000 years ago by crossing a land bridge that had formed across the Bering Strait. This land bridge was flooded about 10,000 years ago.

However, a recent genetic study suggests there were also movements of people from East Asia to the New World at a later date. Those who lived at the Rising Whale site may be part of what scientists refer to as the "Birnirk" culture, a group of people who lived on both sides of the Bering Strait and used sophisticated skin boats and harpoons to hunt whales.

The genetic study indicates that people from the Birnirk culture are the ancestors of a people called the "Thule," who spread out across the North American arctic as far as Greenland. The Thule, in turn, are ancestors of the modern-day Inuit.

Long before Columbus

The Bering Strait wasn't the only area where interactions between people from the Old World and New World occurred before Columbus' arrival. By 1,000 years ago, the Vikings had explored parts of Canadaand had even established a short-lived settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.

Research also indicates that, around this time, the Polynesians had reached South America, bringing sweet potatoes back to Polynesia and possibly bringing chickens to South America.

Many other hypotheses have been put forward suggesting that people reached the New World before Columbus. One idea that has received a lot of attention in popular media is that Chinese mariners sailed directly to the New World, although this idea lacks scholarly support.

Mason and his team will present their research on the Rising Whale site at the Canadian Archaeological Association annual meeting in St. John's Newfoundland, Canada, between April 28 and May 2.

Jarus, Owen. 2015. “Evidence of Pre-Columbus Trade Found in Alaska House”. Live Science. Posted: April 16, 2015. Available online: http://www.livescience.com/50506-artifacts-reveal-pre-columbus-trade.html

Friday, June 12, 2015

Mapping language in the brain

The exchange of words, speaking and listening in conversation, may seem unremarkable for most people, but communicating with others is a challenge for people who have aphasia, an impairment of language that often happens after stroke or other brain injury. Aphasia affects about 1 in 250 people, making it more common than Parkinson's Disease or cerebral palsy, and can make it difficult to return to work and to maintain social relationships. A new study published in the journal Nature Communications provides a detailed brain map of language impairments in aphasia following stroke.

"By studying language in people with aphasia, we can try to accomplish two goals at once: we can improve our clinical understanding of aphasia and get new insights into how language is organized in the mind and brain," said Daniel Mirman, PhD, an assistant professor in Drexel University's College of Arts and Sciences who was lead author of the study.

The study is part of a larger multi-site research project funded by grants from the National Institutes of Health and led by senior author Myrna Schwartz, PhD of the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute. The researchers examined data from 99 people who had persistent language impairments after a left-hemisphere stroke. In the first part of the study, the researchers collected 17 measures of cognitive and language performance and used a statistical technique to find the common elements that underlie performance on multiple measures.

They found that spoken language impairments vary along four dimensions or factors:

  • Semantic Recognition: difficulty recognizing the meaning or relationship of concepts, such as matching related pictures or matching words to associated pictures.
  • Speech Recognition: difficulty with fine-grained speech perception, such as telling "ba" and "da" apart or determining whether two words rhyme.
  • Speech Production: difficulty planning and executing speech actions, such as repeating real and made-up words or the tendency to make speech errors like saying "girappe" for "giraffe."
  • Semantic Errors: making semantic speech errors, such as saying "zebra" instead of "giraffe," regardless of performance on other tasks that involved processing meaning.

Mapping the Four Factors in the Brain

Next, the researchers determined how individual performance differences for each of these factors were associated with the locations in the brain damaged by stroke. This procedure created a four-factor lesion-symptom map of hotspots the language-specialized left hemisphere where damage from a stroke tended to cause deficits for each specific type of language impairment. One key area was the left Sylvian fissure: speech production and speech recognition were organized as a kind of two-lane, two-way highway around the Sylvian fissure. Damage above the Sylvian fissure, in the parietal and frontal lobes, tended to cause speech production deficits; damage below the Sylvian fissure, in the temporal lobe, tended to cause speech recognition deficits. These results provide new evidence that the cortex around the Sylvian fissure houses separable neural specializations for speech recognition and production.

Semantic errors were most strongly associated with lesions in the left anterior temporal lobe, a location consistent with previous research findings from these researchers and several other research groups. This finding also made an important comparison point for its opposite factor -- semantic recognition, which many researchers have argued critically depends on the anterior temporal lobes. Instead, Mirman and colleagues found that semantic recognition deficits were associated with damage to an area they call a "white matter bottleneck" -- a region of convergence between multiple tracts of white matter that connect brain regions required for knowing the meanings of words, objects, actions and events.

"Semantic memory almost certainly involves a widely distributed neural system because meaning involves so many different kinds of information," said Mirman. "We think the white matter bottleneck looks important because it is a point of convergence among multiple pathways in the brain, making this area a vulnerable spot where a small amount of damage can have large functional consequences for semantic processing."

In a follow-up article soon to be published in the journalNeuropsychologia, Mirman, Schwartz and their colleagues also confirmed these findings with a re-analysis using a new and more sophisticated statistical technique for lesion-symptom mapping.

These studies provide a new perspective on diagnosing different kinds of aphasia, which can have a big impact on how clinicians think about the condition and how they approach developing treatment strategies. The research team at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute works closely with its clinical affiliate, the MossRehab Aphasia Center, to develop and test approaches to aphasia rehabilitation that meet the individualized, long-term goals of the patients and are informed by scientific evidence.

According to Schwartz, "A major challenge facing speech-language therapists is the wide diversity of symptoms that one sees in stroke aphasia. With this study, we took a major step towards explaining the symptom diversity in relation to a few primary underlying processes and their mosaic-like representation in the brain. These can serve as targets for new diagnostic assessments and treatment interventions."

Studying the association between patterns of brain injury and cognitive deficits is a classic approach, with roots in 19th century neurology, at the dawn of cognitive neuroscience. Mirman, Schwartz and their colleagues have scaled up this approach, both in terms of the number of participants and the number of performance measures, and combined it with 21st century brain imaging and statistical techniques. A single study may not be able to fully reveal a system as complex as language and brain, but the more we learn, the closer we get to translating basic cognitive neuroscience into effective rehabilitation strategies.

Science Daily. 2015. “Mapping language in the brain”. Science Daily. Posted: April 16, 2015. Available online: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/04/150416113248.htm

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Newly-discovered remains redraw path of Great Wall

Archaeologists have discovered ruins of the Great Wall along the border of northwest China's Ningxia Hui autonomous region and Gansu province, dispelling a common belief that there were no sections of the wall in this area.

The remains, nine sections with a total length of more than 10 km, are believed to be part of the Great Wall built during the Qin Dynasty (221 BC-206 BC), according to Zhou Xinghua, former curator of the Museum of Ningxia Hui autonomous region and a Great Wall expert.

The findings, made in March and April by Zhou and other researchers, give historians fresh insight into where the wall was built. "Finally, we're able to see the whole picture of the Qin Great Wall," said Zhou.

Among the ruins, six sections, constructed with stones or loess, stretch about 10 km between Nanchangtan Village of Ningxia and Jingyuan County of Gansu on the southern bank of the Yellow River. Because of flooding and natural degradation, the height of these sections of the Great Wall has been reduced to one to five meters.

The other three loess-made sections are located in Damiao region of Jingyuan County. They are 50 meters long in total and five meters high.

To prevent foreign invaders from crossing the Yellow River when it was frozen, the Qin state, which defeated other powers during the Warring States Period (475-221 BC) and later established the Qin Dynasty, built fortifications along the valley beside the river, according to Zhou.

The Great Wall was listed as a World Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. The central government spent more than 500 million yuan (about 81.6 million U.S. dollars) on protecting the wall during the 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010).

China Daily. 2015. “Newly-discovered remains redraw path of Great Wall”. China Daily. Posted: April 15, 2015. Available online: http://europe.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2015-04/15/content_20441162.htm

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

ASU team unlocks clues in unidentified human remains

Like something out of "CSI" or "Bones," researchers at Arizona State University are working to solve the mysteries of unidentified human remains - and just as on those TV shows, science plays a key role.

Gwyneth Gordon, an associate research scientist in ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration, will soon be making a trip to academia's most distinctive research facility: the University of Tennessee's Anthropological Research Facility, the original "Body Farm."

At the facility's open-air crime labs, decomposing corpses are left out in the elements, some on the ground and others in shallow graves. Gordon will collect samples from the cadavers and samples of soil and groundwater; in May, she'll do the same thing at Texas State University in San Marcos.

With funding from the Department of Justice's National Institute of Justice, Gordon and professors Kelly Knudson and Ariel Anbar will study how various isotopes in the human body behave during decomposition in different environments. These techniques have long been used in the anthropologic study of migration and lifestyle of ancient peoples, but only recently have begun to be used in modern cases of homicide, mass graves and unidentified migrants.

With some 10,000 open cases of unidentified human remains in the U.S. today, the research's results will have real-life implications for law enforcement, medical examiners and families looking for answers.

"Can our technique unravel a human story that was previously lost to history? That's what we're trying to find out," Gordon says. "The donor histories provide premortem travel and geographic life histories, and we'll see if our analyses match their life histories."

Unlocking clues hidden in bones

Every molecule in our bodies is made up not just of different elements, but of different ratios of stable isotopes of those elements. They leave an isotopic signature that can speak for the dead, revealing diet, birthplace and travel history.

Samples collected at the body farms - including hair, tooth enamel and skeletal elements - will be analyzed at ASU for oxygen and hydrogen isotopes to determine latitude; carbon and nitrogen to obtain dietary history; and strontium and lead isotopes and trace elements to establish the type of bedrock where the deceased was born or lived.

Sample preparation will occur both in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and in collaboration with the Archaeological Chemistry Laboratory under the supervision of archaeological chemist Kelly Knudson, associate professor in ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change and affiliated with the Center for Bioarchaeological Research.

Knudson uses biogeochemistry and bioarchaeology to answer anthropological research questions. She is a world expert on the application of isotopes to archaeological sites and individuals.

"As an archaeologist, I am more used to working with people who died hundreds or thousands of years ago. Applying my knowledge to forensics applications and, eventually, to helping to solve modern cases is one of the things that really appeals to me about our research project," Knudson says.

Finding migrants' birthplace

The sites of the two body farms have very different climates and soil types. Tennessee - very wet - is similar to significant portions of the United States, while the dry Texas site is similar to the U.S.-Mexico border.

"We chose that site explicitly because of the large number of undocumented immigrants who die in the desert while trying to get to the U.S. These individuals often have no identification on them, and their families never know what happened to them," Gordon says. "There's also commonly no DNA to match them to. If we can get a better idea where they were from using isotopes, the search for their families would be significantly easier."

According to Knudson, archaeologists have been using isotopic data to figure out people's diets for more than 30 years, while using that data to determine someone's birthplace has been common only in the past 15 years.

"These techniques haven't been used quite as much in forensic anthropology, despite what you may see on 'CSI' or 'Bones,' " she says.

While stable isotopes have proven themselves useful, they aren't staples of forensic science - yet. However, a number of case studies have demonstrated that these types of information can narrow the search and help discover a person's identification.

"What I think is great about this research is that we are doing the kinds of baseline research into how these isotopes act during decomposition so that the forensics community can use them," Knudson says.

EurekAlert. 2015. “ASU team unlocks clues in unidentified human remains”. EurekAlert. Posted: April 15, 2015. Available online: http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2015-04/asu-atu041515.php

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Researcher casts doubt on sea peoples theory

University of Tübingen doctoral candidate Jesse Millek has been honoured for his research, which questions the controversial theory of the “sea peoples”.

Mr. Millek has been awarded the Sean W. Dever Memorial Prize by the William F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem for a paper presenting his findings on the topic. He has been studying the control of resources during the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age in the Southern Levant. The research focuses on the fall in trade at the end of the Late Bronze Age in what is now Israel and Jordan.

The award winning work is entitled, “Sea Peoples, Philistines, and the Destruction of Cities: A Critical Examination of Destruction Layers ‘Caused’ by the ‘Sea Peoples,” and deepens the understanding of what caused the decline of the Southern Levant at the end of the Bronze Age.

More complex

Until now, an inscription in the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III – Medinet Habu – has been said to be evidence of an invasion by the “sea peoples”. The engraving, dating back to 1180 BCE, became the basis for the much-discussed theory which blamed the invasion for the collapse of the neighbouring Levantine kingdoms and the collapse of interregional exchange. Mr. Millek’s recent findings, however, indicate that the causes for a sharp decline in trade are much more complex and likely to have been related to internal, revolutionary processes of social change and an altered approach to handling resources.

Critical examination of 16 sites

Mr. Millek critically examined 16 sites in the Southern Levant said to have been destroyed by the “sea peoples” in a Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 1070 paper. One example is the city of Lachish. Located 44 kilometres southwest of Jerusalem, it is one of the largest and most significant archaeological sites in the Southern Levant.

During early excavations, archaeologists uncovered the charred remains of a temple and building in the Late Bronze Age Destruction of Level 7. Subsequent research interpreted these finds as evidence of a military conflict with the “sea peoples.” However, a critical reassessment of the excavation reports indicates that several significant factors were missed in the initial interpretations.

Jesse Millek says that, “The Late Bronze Age building in Area S was most likely destroyed by a kitchen fire, as the area around the hearth showed the most destruction and was very likely the source of the fire. Even in the past, buildings could be destroyed and preserved in the archaeological record by a common place event like a kitchen fire. Moreover, the Fosse Temple appears to have been ritually terminated as all valuable or cultic items were removed from the temple before it was burned and there were no signs of vandalism. Additionally, the site remained sacred after it was burned as no later people built on top of it, or dug into its remains, which would again indicate the temple was ritually terminated.” The orderly de-consecration of sacred sites points towards changed handling of spiritual resources and a cultural reorganization of values within the society. Continuing research should determine in how far the fall in trade is linked to this change in values.

The head of project A06, Professor Jens Kamlah, emphasizes the significance of disproving the “sea peoples” theory. He says, “The goal of our research is to disprove the evidence supporting this old, extremely simplified, model. Mr. Millek’s work represents a significant contribution to this effect. The time period we are investigating is crucial for the rise of the Israel we know from the Old Testament of the Bible. Demonstrating the different reasons and complex economic relationships behind the decline in trade can provide new insights into this key epoch.”

Past Horizons. 2015. “Researcher casts doubt on sea peoples theory”. Past Horizons. Posted: April 14, 2015. Available online: http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/04/2015/researcher-casts-doubt-on-sea-peoples-theory