Thursday, December 31, 2015

Skeletons of 200 Napoleonic troops found in Germany

The skeletons of 200 Napoleonic soldiers have been found during construction work in the German city of Frankfurt, officials said Thursday.

"We estimate that about 200 people were buried here," said Olaf Cunitz, head of town planning for the city, at a press conference at the site in Frankfurt's western Roedelheim district.

"According to our preliminary estimate, they are soldiers from the Great Army in 1813", who were on the way back from Napoleon's Russian campaign.

They had fought battles that claimed 15,000 lives in areas near Frankfurt in October 1813, said Cunitz. The soldiers probably died from battle wounds or succumbed to a typhus epidemic that decimated their army at the time, said Cunitz. He said this was yet to be scientifically verified.

It was certain that the "tombs were erected in an emergency," said Andrea Hampel, heritage and historic monuments director in Frankfurt.

The soldiers were buried in coffins, which kept the skeletons well-preserved.

They were aligned in a row, without funeral articles, in a north-south orientation, not an east-west axis as was common for European Christians at the time, suggesting they were buried in haste, said Hampel.

Over 30 skeletons have been excavated and work to dig up the rest was expected to take four to six weeks, said site manager Juergen Langendorf.

Phys.Org. 2015. “Skeletons of 200 Napoleonic troops found in Germany”. Phys.Org. Posted: September 17, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Data analysis yields striking maps of human expansion in North American Holocene

The Holocene began approximately 11,700 years ago, and encompasses the entire history of human civilization, all known written records, the epochs of human migrations, and the development of modern urban civilization. In the absence of written records from deep human history, paleohistorians have only the archaeological record to establish the spread of humanity across time and space, and there are known gaps in our knowledge of human expansion. Some of those gaps in the historical record occurred around the time that the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets retreated and allowed human colonization of North America.

Recently, a group of paleoclimatologists and anthropologists analyzed data recorded in the Canadian Archaeological Radiocarbon Database (CARD), which aggregates 35,905 radiocarbon samples from archaeological sites across the North American continent, and was created by Dr. Richard Morlan of the Canadian Museum of History. By applying a kernel density estimation method to the data, the researchers produced the first maps of temporally distinct paleo-demographic trends that correspond well to existing evidence of human expansion across North America in the Holocene. They've published their results in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which include paleo-demographic insights across a 13,000-year span.


Radiocarbon frequency population estimates (RFPEs) fluctuate steadily across the entire investigated span, as expected—Alaska was the location of repeated migrations into the Americas. These estimates peaked in Northern and Central Alaska around 11,500 years ago, corresponding with the rise of technologies characteristic of Paleoindian groups in the archaeological record. The development of Thule culture coincides with the occupation of the majority of the Alaskan region around 1,000 years ago.

Canadian Arctic

RFPEs support recent genetic evidence of human activity in the region 6,000 years ago. By 4,000 years ago, the researchers find signs of human occupation all across the region. They note that the map data produces a population site in Nunavut around 9,500 years ago that was known to be glaciated at the time, and that this is a product of the chosen resolution of their data: "The spatial extent of this population is a product of the kernel radius chosen (600 km); a larger radius would merge this population with its Western neighbor. Although these dates seem inconsistent with the ice extent (which is, however, based on radiocarbon data), it is reasonable to hypothesize that humans were found along the edge of the ice at this time."

British Columbia and the Ice-Free Corridor

It was 13,500 years ago, as the Pleistocene began yielding to the Holocene, that the ice-free corridor opened between the Laurentide and Cordilleran ice sheets, allowing human migration via an interior route for the first time. Around 11,500 years ago, RFPEs along the west coast of British Columbia increase, corresponding with archaeological evidence of maritime communities in the region. At 5,500 years ago, the maps show a spike of human populations, perhaps corresponding with the stabilization of coastal sea levels and the development of new trap and tool technologies east of the Rockies.

Eastern U.S.

A number of archeological studies indicate a strong presence of Paleoindians in the southeast starting around 9,500 years ago; indeed, the current study produces increased RFPEs in the region, which grew larger and expanded northward and westward during this span. "Estimates fluctuated until 4.9 ka when populations grew to the east and west of the Appalachians as well as in the Middle Atlantic and New England regions," the authors write.

They conclude, "These results illustrate the value in applying advanced statistical methods to aggregate 14C data from archaeological databases... These results suggest that the CARD is a highly useful archive of paleodemographic data that can be used to investigate subjects such as migration routes into and across North America as well as a valuable tool for studies linking anthropogenic impacts with post-ice age faunal extinctions, ecosystem decline, and changing environmental and climatic conditions."

Packham, Chris. 2015. “Data analysis yields striking maps of human expansion in North American Holocene”. Phys.Org. Posted: September 16, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Why the Tuareg People of the Sahara Are Aligning with ISIS


2015. Discovery News. “Why the Tuareg People of the Sahara Are Aligning with ISIS”. Discovery News. Posted: September 16, 2015. Available online:

Monday, December 28, 2015

Forensic Anthropology Testimony In Haiti's Raboteau Massacre Digitized At Duke University

For the first half of the 1990s, Haiti was ruled by paramilitary forces after a coup d’état ousted the country’s first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The coup years in Haiti were brutal and oppressive, marked by violence against civilians and, in particular, pro-democracy activists. This civic unrest is epitomized by an attack on a pro-Aristide shantytown called Raboteau that occurred on April 22, 1994, when paramilitary forces broke into homes to beat, torture, and kill civilians. Families were not allowed to collect the bodies of the dead, which were buried in unmarked, shallow graves on the nearby beach.

It was not until late 2000 that military leaders were tried for their roles in the Raboteau Massacre. The entire six-week trial was covered by Radio Haiti, the first independent radio station in the country, and includes the testimony of forensic anthropologist Karen Ramey Burns, a specialist in using skeletal remains as evidence of human rights abuses. The full archives of Radio Haiti were given to Duke Universityin April of 2014, and since that time, researchers and staff at the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library have been digitizing the nearly 3,500 recordings from ¼-inch magnetic reels and cassettes, which date between 1957 and 2003. The beginning of the end for Radio Haiti came early in 2000, when the station’s outspoken director, Jean Dominique, was assassinated; the case has never been solved.

Anthropologist Laura Wagner, the project archivist, has spent years living in and studying the culture of Haiti. She explains that “ the Raboteau trial recordings are, as far as we know, a unique set of in-depth documents of one formal attempt to seek justice for victims of political violence .”  They represent the kind of coverage Radio Haiti was known for, and the station itself was “a space in which the Haitian poor, long denied freedom of expression, long excluded from national discourse, long regarded as passive and apolitical, could express their experiences of injustice and oppression in their own national language.” Radio Haiti was the voice of democracy and human rights, particularly in a political era that had neither.

The October 18, 2000 testimony of forensic anthropologist Karen Ramey Burns on the Raboteau Massacre can be heard at the Radio Haiti Archives on Soundcloud (starting around 16 minutes into part one and part two). Affiliated with the University of Georgia at the time, Burns gives testimony in English to the court with the assistance of a Haitian Creole translator. This recording gives a fascinating glimpse into how forensic anthropologists present evidence in a court of law. Burns had previously worked on genocide cases in Guatemala, Iraq, Kurdistan, Colombia, Sudan, and Tunisia before joining the Interamerican Team TISI +% of the Truth Commission convened to investigate deaths that occurred during the military regime in Haiti, and her testimony is clear and measured — an excellent example of how forensic professionals interact with the international judicial system.

After being asked stating her name, address, professional background, and religion, Burns is invited to discuss her involvement in the forensic-archaeological exhumation and examination of the skeletal remains. She starts by asking rhetorically, “What can a person tell just by looking at a group of bones?” and answering with basic explanations of assessing sex, age-at-death, stature, and traumatic injuries.

In the audio recording, Burns presents to the jury a pelvic bone with a bullet wound. She testifies about one of the individuals, “This is a—the entrance wound of a bullet. It’s a very high-powered, large-caliber bullet. This entered from behind and exited into the abdominal cavity. Something this high-powered would have also exited the body, essentially blowing out the abdomen. The person would not die immediately; they would die slowly, in pain, from loss of blood.”

Although Burns does not present the results of DNA testing, which were done by another specialist to help confirm identity of the individuals murdered at Raboteau, she answers a series of questions about her testimony, clarifying her methods and the conclusions that she can reach from bone evidence. Through questioning, it becomes clear that positive identification of the deceased could be made through skeletal evidence, DNA tests, and artifacts found with the bodies.

This was the trial of the century in Haiti – a landmark case in which high-ranking perpetrators of political violence during the military regime were held accountable for human rights violations. Thanks in part to the testimony of Karen Ramey Burns, a total of 53 people were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison at the end of the trial.

By 2005, however, most of the people who had been imprisoned had escaped, and the Haitian Supreme Court overturned the ruling. Unsurprisingly, Amnesty International condemned the high court’s decision that “the Criminal Tribunal of Gonaïves, having been established with the assistance of a jury, was not competent to rule the case,” calling the reversal “politically motivated.” But in spite of the court’s reversal and the sad history of Radio Haiti, its archives remain for us to learn from. For Wagner, who is helping preserve the physical recordings and transcribe and translate the audio, the archive represents the remains of “an active, living struggle. I think of how far these clean cardboard storage boxes and quiet, temperature-controlled spaces are from the sting of tear gas, the stickiness of blood, the smell of burning tires, the crack of gunfire, the heat and noise, the laughter and fury of Haiti.” Just as the bones of the Raboteau victims spoke to Burns, the archive of Radio Haiti is for Wagner “one place where the dead speak.”

Burns’ testimony demonstrates one of the more mundane sides of forensic anthropology: court testimony. This aspect is rarely dramatized in television shows like FOX’s Bones, as the show’s protagonist, Dr. Temperance Brennan, is too busy analyzing bones and chasing criminals. Yet Burns’ statement – and her life’s work – was imperative for bringing murderers to justice and for bringing closure to victims’ families .  Similarly, “salvaging and preserving” the Radio Haiti archive of the trial is “part of the struggle,” Wagner says. “Remembering is, itself, a political act.”

Karen Ramey Burns died in early 2012, but she will be remembered from her work in Haiti and elsewhere as a scientist who used her knowledge of bones to advocate for international human rights.

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “Forensic Anthropology Testimony In Haiti's Raboteau Massacre Digitized At Duke University”. Forbes. Posted: September 16, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Ancient Script Spurs Rethinking of Historic ‘Backwater'

Sophia Paatashvili, a third-year graduate student in archaeology at Ivane Javakashvili Tbilisi State University, was excavating an ancient temple at an Iron Age site called Grakliani last month when she noticed something strange: a series of marks carved into a stone slab just below the temple’s collapsed altar.

Unlike inscriptions found in other temples at Grakliani, these didn’t show animals or people, nor were they random decorative elements.

Instead, says Vakhtang Licheli, who heads the university’s archaeology institute and has led excavations at Grakliani during the past eight years, they may be the oldest example of a native alphabet in the Caucasus—fully a thousand years older than any indigenous writing previously found in the region.

“This discovery is not just important for the history of Georgia,” Licheli says, “but in the history of the development of writing.”

The excavated portion of the inscription—some 31 by 3 inches—features at least five curved shapes hollowed out in deep chasms in the stone.

The script as a whole bears no relation to any other alphabet, although Licheli detects similarities to letters in ancient Greek and Aramaic.

He says there’s no doubt that the carvings are part of an alphabet rather than a decorative pattern.

“In a decoration you see repetition every two, four, six times. Here there’s no repetition.” He notes the skill of the carver in smoothing the design. “He was very comfortable doing this—this was not his first time.”

Licheli says it’s reasonable to assume that the writing dates to the seventh century B.C., when the temple is believed to have been built.

Shards of pottery found at the site are emblematic of that period. Their color, material, and design, Licheli says, resemble those from similar sites in Georgia, leaving little doubt as to their age.

No Longer A Backwater

These few letters in stone upend traditional historical narratives about the native population of the region the Greeks and Romans called Iberia (not to be confused with the modern-day Iberian Peninsula), which bordered the Georgian coast of the Black Sea.

Archaeologists have long known that literate civilizations were present there as long ago as the fourth millennium B.C.—excavations throughout Georgia have unearthed coins, beads, and pottery from Assyria, Greece, and Persia.

Until now, though, no trace of Iberian literacy from as long ago as the Iron Age, which in the Caucasus lasted from about the late second millennium B.C. to the fifth century B.C., has been found. (The earliest known Georgian and Armenian scripts date from the fifth century A.D., shortly after these cultures converted to Christianity.)

Ancient Iberia, Licheli says, has been seen by Georgian and international archaeologists as a backwater, unworthy of study on its own terms, especially during the middle years of the first millennium B.C., when foreign conquerors (notably the Greeks and Persians) made their mark.

A Wealth of Objects

Licheli’s initial excavations surfaced a wealth of objects: children’s toys made of carved stone, imitation Persian pottery, and a fifth-century B.C. stone temple that blended ancient Persian Zoroastrian altar architecture with ram sculptures representing Caucasian folk gods.

To Licheli, these finds suggested that Iron Age Iberians were an advanced and complex culture, in close contact with the “highly developed” societies of the age—not only Greece and Persia but also Mesopotamia and Egypt. “We even found a Egyptian scarab beetle here,” he says, showing off the carving.

But one question kept nagging at him: How could the Iberians have such cultural richness—but no written language? It didn’t make sense.

Licheli wasn’t the first to suspect that the Iberians had writing long before the fifth century A.D. Medieval Georgian chronicles from the 11th century refer to an ancient Georgian script. In the early 1900s the Georgian historian Ivane Javakhashvili—excavating the Iron Age Armaziskhevi site just outside Tbilisi— put heart and soul into a vain attempt to prove its existence.

Another question that intrigues Licheli is why three letters carved on one corner of a stone altar in the temple, also newly discovered, seem to bear no relation to the letter on the stone slab.

“Maybe there were two languages in one temple,” he conjectures—two ethnically related Iberian groups, each with its own script, living side by side. “This is very unusual, not just for Georgians but in the whole world.”

Slow Progress

Although Grakliani itself was first identified as a site of potential importance during the 1950s, excavations proper didn’t start till 2007.

“During the Soviet era, we were very closed,” Licheli says. There was little opportunity to work with other scholars or to keep up with international methodological and technological developments.

And during the chaotic early days after Georgia’s independence, in 1991, it was even worse. There was no academy to train new archaeologists, and the few existing ones were overextended, unable to investigate the country’s wealth of ancient sites.

Even today, Licheli says, there’s a “generation gap”—Soviet-trained archaeologists in their sixties and a new young generation of eager archaeologists-in-training but no one in between.

But Licheli places his hope in the new generation—as does the nationalist Georgian government.

Two years ago then Minister for Education Giorgi Margvelashvili, now the country’s president, made governmental stipends available for students studying Georgian archaeology.

These days, for the first time, Licheli says he has “more than enough” students to do the work on his agenda. Plus, he adds, “the government has doubled our research budget.”

Meanwhile, a new paved pathway is being built from the highway to the Grakliani site to make it more accessible to curious visitors.

The script offers the confirmation Licheli has long sought that Georgia should be considered among the world’s “highest developed societies. For Georgians,” he says, “cultural knowledge is very important. Now at last they’re able to ascribe that knowledge to their ancestors.”

With a bigger budget, governmental support, and a wider platform for their research, Licheli reasons that more inscriptions will come to light.

“Somewhere,” he grins, “we can find another.”

Burton, Tara Isabella. 2015. “Ancient Script Spurs Rethinking of Historic ‘Backwater'”. National Geographic. Posted: Available online:

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Not all rhythmic skills are related, which may have implications for language ability

Tapping to a beat and remembering rhythms may not be related skills, which may also have implications for language ability, according to a study published September 16, 2015 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Adam Tierney and Nina Kraus from Northwestern University.

Rhythms, or patterns of sound and silence in time, may play a vital role in both speech and music. However, not knowing how rhythm skills relate to each other has limited researchers' understanding of how language relies on rhythm processing. In particular, it is unknown whether all rhythm skills are linked together, forming a single broad rhythmic competence, or whether there are multiple separate rhythm skills. Using a battery of two beat tapping and two rhythm memory tests, the authors of this study recruited over 60 teenage participants to investigate whether beat tapping and rhythm memory/sequencing form two separate clusters of rhythm skills.

The researchers found that tapping to a metronome and the ability to adjust to a changing tempo while tapping to a metronome seem to be related skills. The ability to remember rhythms and to drum along to repeating rhythmic sequences may also be related. However, the authors found no relationship between beat tapping skills and rhythm memory skills, and they suggest that these may actually be separate skills. The authors also hope that this discovery will inform future research disambiguating how distinct rhythm competencies track with specific language functions.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Not all rhythmic skills are related, which may have implications for language ability”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 16, 2015. Available online:

Friday, December 25, 2015

Santa Traditions Around the World

Earlier this week, I shared a link on Twitter to a piece on Brain Pickings on how anthropologist Margaret Mead suggested we talk to children about Santa Claus:

Belief in Santa Claus becomes a problem mainly when parents simultaneously feel they are telling their children a lie and insist on the literal belief in a jolly little man in a red suit who keeps tabs on them all year, reads their letters and comes down the chimney after landing his sleigh on the roof. Parents who enjoy Santa Claus—who feel that it is more fun talk about what Santa Claus will bring than what Daddy will buy you for Christmas and who speak of Santa Claus in a voice that tells no lie but instead conveys to children something about Christmas itself—can give children a sense of continuity as they discover the sense in which Santa is and is not “real.”

Mead says that her own parents often talked with her about different Santa traditions around the world, and that seemed like a good exercise to try as many of us scramble with our last minute holiday preparations, so we’re going to take a walk around the globe today and follow the many forms of Santa.

In much of the Western world, Christmas is celebrated on December 25th. For Christians this is the day recognized as Christ’s birthday, but we know that this date is questionable. It was likely selected by Roman church officials to coincide with existing solstice festivals to help with the adoption and acceptance of Christianity. As a result, Christmas has a blended past that marries pagan traditions with religious observances and—today—commercial practices.

Santa Claus, or St. Nicholas, with his red suit and jolly demeanor also has a bit of a mixed origin. He is a combination of the Dutch Sinterklaas and the British Father Christmas—both of whom appear to be rooted in the real life Saint Nicholas of Myra. Nicholas of Myra was a saint and a Bishop with a reputation for secret gift giving. He was known for putting coins in shoes left out for him, and one legend has him throwing bags of gold coins through the window of a poor man’s home to help provide a dowry for his three daughters, saving them from prostitution. The tradition of Saint Nicholas’ Day (Dec. 6) spread to many countries, and on the eve of this festivity which marks Saint Nicholas’ death, presents are exchanged.

The Dutch Sinterklaas appears to make the distinction between good and bad children (although in practice, all children receive gifts). He has a helper named Zwarte Piet, whose black skin has made him a source of controversy in recent years. His role is primarily to punish bad children by taking them away in a sack. Tradition requires that children leave their shoes by the fireplace with some hay or a carrot for Sinterklaas’ horse, and in return he leaves them chocolate coins or some other token. A sack is also often placed outside of the house or in the living room with presents for the family. Father Christmas on the other hand had nothing to do with gifts—he represents the Spirit of Christmas as the personification of good cheer.

While St. Nicholas seems to have a pretty far reach, there are instances where the role of the holiday gift-giver and spreader of goodwill and cheer is fulfilled by characters who may only vaguely resemble the red-robed holiday archetype:

In Japan, a Buddhist monk named Hoteiosho visits families on New Year’s Eve to deliver gifts. He allegedly has eyes in the back of his head, and is also depicted as rotund and jolly as Santa Claus.

La Befana is a friendly witch in Italy who leaves candies, figs, and other goodies for good children, and dark candy for bad ones. Parents leave her a glass of wine instead of cookies and milk.

In Sweden there’s tell of a a gnome who travels with the aid of goats to deliver presents. He is small, old, bearded, and wears a red cap, much like Santa Claus. He’s derived from the legacy of house gnomes that has filtered through from Scandanavia, and in his holiday form, he’s known as Jultomten. The goats he is associated with are derived from the Yule Goats, who visited homes, knocked on the doors and left presents.

On January 5th, an old woman named Babouschka visits Russian children to leave them presents. The legend associated with her says that she received the wrong directions to Bethlehem, and could not get to Christ in time to give him a present as the Three Kings did. She delivers presents on the 5th in the hopes that one of them will be Jesus and she’ll be forgiven.

Russia also has a legend of Grandfather Frost, who travels with his daughter, Snow Girl. They plan New Year’s Eve parties for children where they hand out presents.

There are some interesting observances that arise from these representations of the season that resonate with Mead’s advice. All of these characters leave presents or offer some sort of goodwill toward the people they visit, even while they might “know” that not everyone they visit has been “good.” Sociologist Emile Durkheim wrote of a moral sensibility that governs the social collective. This sensibility keeps order to permit the continuation of society. In some ways the social order that governs our individual societies is “watching.” These holiday representations may be extensions of this moral sensibility by virtue of the power we assign them, which is why they have insights into our behavior and the means to reward behavior that will support the social order.

There’s also an interesting discussion to be had here about gender roles and expectations. In the masculine form, the spirit of the season has a heroic, generous quality to him. Saint Nicholas of Myra saves three young girls bound for prostitution. His generosity makes him a benefactor to all. While in the two female forms shared above, there’s an element of reconciliation. Generosity exists, but it’s marked by remorse. In light of Mead’s suggestion, these are also important things to talk about as we try to help children understand the world around them and the representations that exist.

Whether Santa or Saint Nick has a place in your holiday, you’ll probably spend this time with friends and family and reaffirm the ties that connect you. So tell us, what does your gift exchange look like?
D'Costa, Krystal. 2015. “Santa Traditions Around the World”. Scientific American. Posted: December 24, 2014. Available online:

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Oldest, Longest Ancient Egyptian Leather Manuscript Found

The oldest Egyptian leather manuscript has been found in the shelves of the Egyptian museum in Cairo, where it was stored and forgotten for more than 70 years.

Dating from the late Old Kingdom to the early Middle Kingdom (2300-2000 B.C.), the roll measures about 2.5 meters(8.2 feet) and is filled with texts and colorful drawings of the finest quality.

“Taking into account that it was written on both sides, we have more than 5 meters (16.4 feet) of texts and drawings, making this the longest leather roll from ancient Egypt,” Wael Sherbiny, the Belgium-based independent scholar who made the finding, told Discovery News.

The first Egyptian to obtain his PhD in Egyptology in 2008 from the Leuven University in Belgium, Sherbiny specializes in the ancient Egyptian religious texts and is preparing the full publication of the unique leather roll.

He announced the finding at the recent International Congress of Egyptologists in Florence.

Nothing is known about the manuscript’s origins. The French Institute of Oriental Archaeology in Cairo bought it from a local antiquities dealer sometime after the WWI. Later it was donated to the Cairo Museum, where it was unrolled shortly before the outbreak of the WWII.

“Since then it was stored in the museum and fell completely into oblivion,” Sherbiny said.

Basically a portable religious manuscript, the more than 4,000-year-old roll, contains depictions of divine and supernatural beings which predate the famous drawings found in the Book of the Dead manuscripts and the so-called Netherworld Books from the New Kingdom onwards (1550 B.C. onwards).

Religious spells, formulated in the first person singular, also abound there.

“They were likely recited by a priest,” Sherbiny said.

It is known that priests used to carry leather rolls to reference while reciting sacred texts during religious rituals.

Only six other portable manuscripts have survived from ancient Egypt and could possibly share a close date with the Cairo leather roll. All of them are papyri.

“Leather was considered a very precious writing material in ancient Egypt. It was the principal writing medium to record holy texts and great historic events as it was more practical than papyrus due to its flexibility and durability,” Sherbiny said.

Such prestigious leather rolls, kept in the libraries and archives of temples, were also used as master copies from which cheaper copies were reproduced on papyrus. While papyri were preserved by Egypt’s dry climate, leather objects quickly perished.

The Cairo roll was no exception: part of it was fragmented into very tiny pieces. Like in a jigsaw puzzle, Sherbiny pieced them all together.

The pieces formed a large pictorial-textual segment from the so-called Book of Two Ways, which is an illustrated composition containing temple rituals later adapted for the funerary use.

This composition is known to Egyptologists as it occurs on the floorboard of Middle Kingdom coffins (2055-1650 B.C.) from the necropolis of Hermopolis in Upper Egypt.

“Amazingly, the roll offers an even more detailed iconography than the Hermopolitan coffins in terms of texts and drawings,” Sherbiny said.

According to the scholar, the roll shows that parts of this composition were already known before their appearance on the Hermopolis coffins.

“It suggests that several segments of the composition were probably not the creation of Hermopolitan theologians, but had rather longer history of transmission before they were chosen to be used as coffin decorations,” Sherbiny said.

He noted the leather roll also features religious drawings which had not been seen in coffins nor in any other monument until now.

“It shows that there was a large body of both religious iconography and texts, but unfortunately they did not reach us,” Sherbiny concluded.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2015. “Oldest, Longest Ancient Egyptian Leather Manuscript Found”. Discovery News. Posted: September 14, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ancient campfires show early population numbers

Radio carbon data from prehistoric occupation sites are providing insights into Australia's fluctuating human population levels tens of thousands of years ago.

ANU archaeologist Alan Williams used radio carbon dating technology to examine charcoal dates from more than 1000 prehistoric campfires and based on this he says populations appear to have increased steadily until 25,000 years ago.

He did this by examining the isotope Carbon 14 (14C), which is absorbed by all living things from the atmosphere. Their remains then lose the isotope at a steady rate after they die, and Carbon 14 levels provide reliable dates for any organic matter up to about 35,000 years old.

Dr Williams compared these dates with climatic change profiles provided by a recent synthesis of Australia's palaeoclimate from the OZ-INTIMATE (Australasian INTegration of Ice core, Marine and TErrestial records) project. Co-author UWA archaeologist Winthrop Professor Peter Veth says Dr Williams' comparison showed a clear correlation between datasets.

"Demographic models suggest populations may have been quite high before the last ice age," W/Prof Veth says. After this initial increase, he says, population levels remained steady or even declined from 25,000 years ago, during the more arid Last Glacial Maximum (25,000 to 13,000 years ago) when temperatures were about ten degrees cooler. This included archaeological "silences"—or lack of occupation data—within Australia's arid zone during the Last Glacial Maximum.

"There are really only smaller bioregions in the arid zone where their occupation ceases to be registered," W/Prof Veth says. "Then with the restructure in population and possibly lower carrying capacity for large portions of the continent that became more arid, population levels of demography may have actually become more negative."

Northern wet season drew more early human residents

Campfire numbers began to grow again 13,000 years ago when the northern wet season re-emerged. In the west Pilbara's Chichester Range, for example, radiocarbon dating shows people started to use rock shelters that had been unoccupied since the late Pleistocene (up to 11,700 years ago). Prof Veth says while population levels, occupation patterns and overall climate trends correlated strongly from 35,000 until about 5,000 years ago, things then became less predictable.

He says Aboriginal people had started to embrace technologies and cultural practices that appear to have made their behaviour less dependent on easily available resources. For example, they spent more time wet-milling grass and acacia seeds to prepare damper and seed cakes which allowed people to remain more sedentary as opposed to having to travel to hunt for food.

Phys.Org. 2015. “Ancient campfires show early population numbers”. Phys.Org. Posted: September 14, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Stonehenge Myths and Conspiracies

With the news earlier this week about the discovery of a “super-Stonehenge” circling one of the world’s most famous monuments, attention has once again focused on the Wiltshire marvel. There are thousands of ancient stone circles across Europe, of which Stonehenge is by far the best known and most impressive.

While there are many genuine historical mysteries about Stonehenge — such as who built it and for what purpose — there are just as many fabricated ones trading in myth and conspiracy.

In his book “British Folklore” historian Marc Alexander notes that “Theoretical explanations for Stonehenge are plentiful and varied. Ley hunters — those who research imaginary lines claimed to connect important sites around the world such as the Great Pyramid — find great significance in its geographical relationship to other sites. UFOlogists gleefully point to the usual number of flying saucers reported over Wiltshire and draw obvious conclusions, and those who believe in ‘earth forces’ see it as a gigantic ‘battery’ for storing ‘terrestrial energy.’”

Others claim that the stones are designed to be some sort of cosmic portal, perhaps to other dimensions or realities; as one speculative commenter noted, “It’s said that Stonehenge is a sound resonator that when a sound is played at the right frequency and the right placement it’s supposed to have an effect. Maybe a portal to another dimension or a (alien) base.”

Stonehenge Conspiracies

Ironically some of the most outlandish conspiracies about Stonehenge were created by attempts to preserve it. When most people see the monument they believe (or assume) that they’re seeing more or less what has always been there. And indeed that’s the story promoted in guidebooks: the idea that what today’s visitors see is what has stood for thousands of years.

But that’s not quite true; in fact most of Stonehenge has been moved at one point or another. It’s not the result of a hoax, fraud, or deception, but instead merely early attempts to preserve and restore the site — for example reinforcing the stones with concrete.

Over the millennia some stones have fallen into the soft earth, and it’s not known whether they fell straight back or twisted slightly at an angle, and so on. At least a dozen of the stones were straightened and re-erected between 1900 and 1960, and early depictions of Stonehenge (such as artist John Constable’s 1835 painting) look quite different than what is seen today. Those restoring the area made an effort to give a sense of what Stonehenge might have been like thousands of years ago, but in fact no one really knows what it originally looked like — or was supposed to look like.

For most visitors, of course, whether a given stone was originally 10 or 20 degrees off kilter to one side or another is irrelevant: Just being among the immense stones is awe-inspiring enough.

However for others such details may be crucially important. If the monument was designed to cast a shadow or serve as some sort of astronomical calendar corresponding with celestial bodies, for example, a difference of a few degrees could lead to vastly different interpretations about its role or significance.

Many mystics and paranormal buffs have carefully analyzed the exact positions and angles of the Stonehenge rocks, hoping to glean some information left behind four millennia later that might reveal clues to its meaning. The layout of Stonehenge — as it is now, not as it was created — has been subjected to countless crank theories, ranging from numerology to astrology to calculating lunar eclipses.

Because the restoration work at Stonehenge is not widely known, it has generated conspiracy theories. Some have even suggested that the monument dates back less than a century, created to spur tourism profits or for other unknown — and possibly nefarious — reasons.

Mick West, a British researcher who writes for the Metabunk web site, has visited the site several times and investigated such conspiracy claims. “The idea that Stonehenge is a relatively modern construction is appealing to a certain type of conspiracy theorist who has fallen far down the rabbit hole,” West told Discovery News. “Images appearing to show the construction of Stonehenge with cranes and concrete are an intellectual delight to them. No particular reason is needed for Stonehenge to be faked, because in their mind everything is faked, and this is simply pleasant circular confirmation that they were right all along.”

West notes that “By the 1800s Stonehenge had fallen into ruin. Several stones had fallen over and others were leaning perilously. Some large sarsen stones were so eroded by thousands of years of inclement British weather that they were in danger of falling to pieces. Numerous restoration projects were carried out between 1901 and 1963, and of course many photos and film clips of these restorations exist.

“It’s easy to take these images out of context and present them as construction when they are actually just restoration. This concrete can be seen in several places today, and a modern visitor to Stonehenge (unaware of the restorations) might be forgiven for thinking they have discovered some evidence of forgery or hoax.”

Stonehenge fell out of use around 1500 B.C., and has stood as a mute mystery ever since. However one by one several of the mysteries of Stonehenge have been solved. Last year, for example, a new analysis of some of the stones determined that many of them had been quarried in a place called Carn Goedog, several miles further away than previously believed.

In her article “Secrets of Stonehenge” National Geographic writer Caroline Alexander reminds us that “There are no texts to explain Stonehenge. Secure in its wordless prehistory it can thus absorb a multitude of ‘meanings’: temple to the sun — or the moon for that matter; astronomical calendar; city of the ancestral dead; center of healing; stone representations of the gods; symbol of status and power,” as well as more paranormal and New Age explanations.

While the mechanics of Stonehenge will likely be determined through further research and discoveries, the purpose of the monument will likely forever remain a mystery.

Discovery News. 2015. “Stonehenge Myths and Conspiracies”. Discovery News. Posted: September 11, 2015. Available online:

Monday, December 21, 2015

Our environment shapes our language

"Previous studies indicate that when people are asked to represent simple events using only gestural signs, they show a strong preference for SOV order (subject -- object -- verb), even when they are native speakers of an SVO language such as English," explains Peer Christensen, the lead author of the paper and a PhD at the University of Lund.

"However, we show that by manipulating specific environmental and social-interactional factors we can influence whether participants will spontaneously produce SOV or SVO for communicating events."

The role of material and social surroundings

Study participants were asked to communicate stimuli depicting simple events to each other using only their hands. In response to events in which human agents manipulated objects, participants consistently used SOV to string together individual signs. However, when presented with object construction events, they instead used SVO. The researchers argue that the two syntactic patterns are motivated by iconicity, whereby the syntactic structure reflects inherent structural properties of the two event types.

"However, our environment is not simply the material surroundings about which we communicate: the communicative situation itself plays a crucial role too" Kristian Tylén, associate professor at the B.Sc. in Cognitive Science in Aarhus, adds.

"Indeed, we show that the way our interlocutors communicate constitutes a second constraint. If your interlocutor has just used a SVO structure, you are more likely to adapt and follow her lead, no matter what type of event you are talking about."

The third factor investigated was the frequency of different events that the participants had to gesture about.

The paper demonstrates how we can use simple lab experiments where participants solve dialogical tasks to inform foundational discussions about the evolution of communication systems such as language. "Our findings" Riccardo Fusaroli, IMC researcher, concludes "provide experimental evidence that we develop languages and signs to speak to each other about the world in a coordinated fashion, and that their structure is, to some extent, a reflection of the world and how we verbally interact."

Science Daily. 2016. “Our environment shapes our language”. Science Daily. Posted: September 30, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Wiccan Religion's Rituals and Practices


Discovery News. 2015. “NOW PLAYING:The Wiccan Religion's Rituals and Practices”. Discovery News. Posted: September 9, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Ancient genomes link early farmers to Basques

An international team led by researchers at Uppsala University reports a surprising discovery from the genomes of eight Iberian Stone-Age farmer remains. The analyses revealed that early Iberian farmers are the closest ancestors to modern-day Basques, in contrast previous hypotheses that linked Basques to earlier pre-farming groups.

The team could also demonstrate that farming was brought to Iberia by the same/similar groups that migrated to northern and central Europe and that the incoming farmers admixed with local, Iberian hunter-gather groups, a process that continued for at least 2 millennia.

The study is published today, ahead of print, in the leading scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, PNAS.

Most of the previous studies about the transition from small and mobile hunter-gatherer groups to larger and sedentary farming populations have focused on central and northern Europe, however much less in known about how this major event unfolded in Iberia. This time, the research team investigated eight individuals associated with archaeological remains from farming cultures in the El Portalón cave from the well-known Anthropological site Atapuerca in northern Spain.

"The El Portalon cave is a fantastic site with amazing preservation of artefact material," says Dr. Cristina Valdiosera of Uppsala University and La Trobe University, one of the lead authors.

"Every year we find human and animal bones and artifacts, including stone tools, ceramics, bone artefacts and metal objects, it is like a detailed book of the last 10,000 years, providing a wonderful understanding of this period. The preservation of organic remains is great and this has enabled us to study the genetic material complementing the archaeology," Dr. Cristina Valdiosera continues.

From these individuals who lived 3,500-5,500 years ago, the authors generated the first genome-wide sequence data from Iberian ancient farmers and observed that these share a similar story to those of central and northern Europe. That is, they originate from a southern wave of expansion, and also admixed with local hunter-gatherer populations and spread agricultural practices through population expansions. The authors noticed that although they share these similarities with other European farmers, this early Iberian population has its own particularities.

"We show that the hunter-gatherer genetic component increases with time during several millennia, which means that later farmers were genetically more similar to hunter-gatherers than their forefathers who brought farming to Europe," says Dr. Torsten Günther of Uppsala University and one of the lead authors.

"We also see that different farmers mixed with different hunter-gatherer groups across Europe, for example, Iberian farmers mixed with Iberian hunter-gatherers and Scandinavian farmers mixed with Scandinavian hunter-gatherers." Dr. Cristina Valdiosera adds.

The study also reports that compared to all modern Spanish populations, the El Portalón individuals are genetically most similar to modern-day Basques. Basques have so far - based on their distinct culture, non-indo-European language, but also genetic make-up - been thought of as a population with a long continuity in the area, probably since more than 10,000 years ago.

"Our results show that the Basques trace their ancestry to early farming groups from Iberia, which contradicts previous views of them being a remnant population that trace their ancestry to Mesolithic hunter-gatherer groups," says Prof. Mattias Jakobsson of Uppsala University, who headed the study.

"The difference between Basques and other Iberian groups is these latter ones show distinct features of admixture from the east and from north Africa." he continues.

These findings shed light into the demographic processes taking place in Europe and Iberia during the last 5,000 years which highlights the unique opportunities gained from the collaborative work of archaeologists, anthropologists and geneticists in the analysis of ancient DNA.

"One of the great things about working with ancient DNA is that the data obtained is like opening a time capsule. Seeing the similarities between modern Basques and these early farmers directly tells us that Basques remained relatively isolated for the last 5,000 years but not much longer," says Dr. Torsten Günther.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Ancient genomes link early farmers to Basques”. EurekAlert. Posted: September 7, 2015. Available online:

Friday, December 18, 2015

Stone-age people were making porridge 32,000 years ago

Going on the palaeo diet? Don’t put down your porridge just yet. Hunter-gatherers ate oats as far back as 32,000 years ago – way before farming took root.

This is the earliest known human consumption of oats, say Marta Mariotti Lippi at the University of Florence in Italy and her colleagues, who made the discovery after analysing starch grains on an ancient stone grinding tool from southern Italy.

The Palaeolithic people ground up the wild oats to form flour, which they may have boiled or baked into a simple flatbread, says Mariotti Lippi.

They also seem to have heated the grains before grinding them, perhaps to dry them out in the colder climate of the time. Mariotti Lippi notes that this would also have made the grain easier to grind and longer-lasting.

This multi-stage process would have been time consuming, but beneficial. The grain is nutritionally valuable, and turning it into flour would have been a good way to transport it, which was important for Palaeolithic nomads, she says.

Cereal fuel

To see the benefits of a plant-based diet, you only need to know that society has been largely fuelled by processed grains for the last 10,000 years, says archaeologist Matt Pope of University College London. “There is a relationship there to be explored between diet, experimentation with processing plant food and cultural sophistication.” This is another example of the advances made by Europe’s Gravettian culture, which produced technology, artwork and elaborate burial systems during the Upper Palaeolithic era, says Erik Trinkaus at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. “These people were described 15 years ago as ‘Hunters of the Golden Age’, and the details of that are still being filled out.”

Mariotti Lippi’s team hopes to continue studying ancient grinding stones to find out more about the Palaeolithic plant diet. Grinding stones go back a long way, says Trinkaus, and people may well have been pounding and eating various wild grains even earlier than 32,000 years ago.

“We’ve had evidence of the processing of roots and cattails,” but here we’ve got a grain, and a grain that we’re very familiar with,” says Pope. “If we were to look more systematically for ground stone technology we would find this is a more widespread phenomenon.”

New Scientist. 2015. “Stone-age people were making porridge 32,000 years ago”. New Scientist. Posted: Available online:

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Linguists use the Bible to develop language technology for small languages

If you speak English or another big language, you can talk to your mobile phone, use search engines, and get machine translation systems to do your translations for you. This has been made possible because English is a huge language with a great number of resources that linguists employ to develop language technology. People who speak Faroese, Welsh or Galician are less fortunate.

"When we develop machine translation systems and search engines, we usually feed huge amounts of manually annotated texts that contain information about the function and meaning of individual words into a computer. For historical reasons, these texts have primarily been newspaper articles in English and other big languages. We do not have access to similarly annotated texts in smaller languages like Faroese, Welsh, Galician and Irish, or even a major African language like Yoruba which is spoken by 28 million people," says Professor Anders Søgaard from the University of Copenhagen.

Anders Søgaard and his colleagues from the project LOWLANDS: Parsing Low-Resource Languages and Domains are utilising the texts which were annotated for big languages to develop language technology for smaller languages, the key to which is to find translated texts so that the researchers can transfer knowledge of one language's grammar onto another language:

"The Bible has been translated into more than 1,500 languages, even the smallest and most 'exotic' ones, and the translations are extremely conservative; the verses have a completely uniform structure across the many different languages which means that we can make suitable computer models of even very small languages where we only have a couple of hundred pages of biblical text," Anders Søgaard says and elaborates:

"We teach the machines to register what is translated with what in the different translations of biblical texts, which makes it possible to find so many similarities between the annotated and unannotated texts that we can produce exact computer models of 100 different languages - languages such as Swahili, Wolof and Xhosa that are spoken in Nigeria. And we have made these models available for other developers and researchers. This means that we will be able to develop language technology resources for these languages similar to those which speakers of languages such as English and French have."

Anders Søgaard and his colleagues have recently presented their results in the article '"If you all you have is a bit of the Bible' at the prestigious conference Annual Meeting of the Association of Computational Linguistics.

Wikipedia as universal dictionary

The user-driven online encyclopaedia Wikipedia has also proved to be a highly useful source for the researchers who use its texts to develop language resources for languages where people do not have access to the new language technologies. Wikipedia contains over 35 million articles, but it is the fact that as many as 129 languages are represented by more than 10,000 articles each that the researchers find interesting as many articles concern the same concepts and topics.

"This allows us to do what we call 'inverted indexing' which means that we use the concept that the Wikipedia articles is about to describe the words used in the articles on the concept in different languages. We usually use the words to describe the concept but here we do it in reverse order," Anders Søgaard explains and continues:

"If the English word 'glasses' appears in the English Wikipedia entry on Harry Potter, and the German word 'Brille' is used in the equivalent German entry, it is very likely that the two words will be represented in a similar fashion in our models which form the basis of e.g. machine translation systems. And the advantage of this model is that it can be applied to 100 different languages at the same time, including many languages that have previously been denied the language technology resources that we use every day."

The method is described in the article 'Inverted indexing for cross-lingual NLP' which Anders Søgaard wrote together with researchers from Google London. The article was also presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Computational Linguistics.

EurekAlert. 2015. “Linguists use the Bible to develop language technology for small languages”. EurkeAlert. Posted: September 7, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Stonehenge archeologists find huge neolithic site

The buried remains of a mysterious giant prehistoric monument have been discovered close to Britain's famous Stonehenge heritage site, archaeologists said Monday.

Up to 90 standing stones, some originally measuring 4.5 metres (15 feet) and dating back some 4,500 years, are believed to have been buried under a bank of earth and remained hidden for millenia.

Archaeologists using multi-sensor technologies discovered the "C-shaped arena" at Durrington Walls—a so-called "superhenge" located less than three kilometres (1.8 miles) from Stonehenge, in southwestern England. "Durrington Walls is an immense monument and up till this point we thought it was merely a large bank and ditched enclosure, but underneath that massive monument is another monument," Vincent Gaffney told the BBC. The discovery was made by the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, an international collaboration between the University of Birmingham and the Vienna-based Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology (LBI ArchPro).

The newly discovered stones, which have yet to be excavated, are thought to have been toppled over, with the bank of the later Durrington Walls henge built over them. The neolithic henge, or monument, which is a part of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, is one of the largest known henges, measuring 500 m in diameter and more than 1.5 km in circumference.

Project initiator Wolfgang Neubauer described the latest discovery as a "very important and fantastic finding" and said the monument could originally have comprised up to 200 stones.

"The missing stones might be the stone material which was used later on to build Stonehenge," he explained, adding that those left in place were probably broken during attempts to move them.

Although none of the stones have yet been excavated, archaeologists believe they may be locally sourced stones similar to a single standing stone, known as "The Cuckoo Stone", in an adjacent field.

The earthwork enclosure at Durrington Walls was built about a century after Stonehenge, a ring of standing stones believed to have been erected between 3,000 and 2,000 BC.

Archeologists say the new stone row could date back to the same period, or even earlier.

"This discovery of a major new stone monument, which has been preserved to a remarkable extent, has significant implications for our understanding of Stonehenge and its landscape setting," said Gaffney.

"Not only does this new evidence demonstrate a completely unexpected phase of monumental architecture at one of the greatest ceremonial sites in prehistoric Europe, the new stone row could well be contemporary with the famous Stonehenge sarsen circle or even earlier."

Phys.Org. 2015. “Stonehenge archeologists find huge neolithic site”. Phys.Org. Posted: September 7, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ten bonehead interpretations of ancient skeletons

You know the story.  That clickbaity story about an ancient skeleton that seems like it could be true, but you’re not sure because you saw it on Facebook and the photo is grainy and the write-up confusing.  What’s up with those skeletons?  Are they totally fake, or is there some semblance of truth to the story?  I’ve collected — and debunked — the 10 weirdest skeleton stories I could find to help you out the next time a distant acquaintance or long-lost cousin shows them to you as true ancient history facts.

1) Deformed Alien Skulls. Every so often, a news item pops up about skulls so misshapen and conical that they simply must be evidence of aliens. They’re almost always from Peru, which should raise concerns: if all the so-called alien skulls are found in the same place, could it be that there is a better, cultural explanation rather than “aliens”?  Many ancient cultures in South America practiced cranial vault modification (CVM). Infants’ heads were wrapped with cloth or placed on boards, and as the heads grew, their shape changed compared to the shape that normally occurs without binding.  In extreme cases of CVM, the head appears long and narrow, almost conical or cylinder-like. And yes, almost like those crystal skulls from the lastIndiana Jones movie.  CVM has a very long history throughout the world, but particularly in places like ancient Peru, so these skulls are certainly human. Whether the deformation caused any neurological problems is, however, still debated.  And before you think that this is a strange practice, we do still artificially shape our children’s heads,using helmets to help fix infant skull flattening.

2) Ancient Egyptian Dental Bridge. This image of two lower central incisors wired together to make a dental bridge is usually attributed to an Egyptian mummy, sometimes as being 2000 years old and sometimes as dating to 2000 BC.  While the Egyptians did have rudimentary dentistry, it was extremely rare. The most recent scholarly article on Egyptian dentistry shows the two bridges that have been found, and in both, a tooth has simply been tied to another one or two teeth, presumably to stop it from falling out.  The clean drill holes in this pictured example could not have been created in ancient Egypt with the technology that was available.  So where does the image come from? The National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore. The “treatment” in the mandible shown here was done at the turn of the 20th century by Dr. Vincenzo Guerini, who wrote A History of Dentistry and who made models of ancient dentistry examples he supposedly saw in his travels. So this example is only 115 years old, not 2000 years old, and definitely not Egyptian.  Whether Dr. Guerini actually saw an Egyptian mummy with this sort of dental appliance is still unknown, as such a mummy does not currently exist.

3) Extraterrestrial Bones. So maybe there aren’t alien bones, but how about Martian bones?  As more people have become interested in space since the Mars Rover landed and started beaming back pictures, there have been more reports of images with objects that look suspiciously like bones in them.  Well, they look like bones to the untrained eye.  But the purported “femur” on Mars looks nothing like the tube-like thigh bone that has an unmistakeable ball for the hip socket joint.  And the purported “hip bone” doesn’t look like the unmistakeably bowl-shaped pelvis that is a hallmark of our transition to two-legged creatures.  There is absolutely no evidence of mammalian life on Mars, but there is plenty of evidence that the human brain mistakes unfamiliar sights with familiar ones — a phenomenon called pareidolia.

4) Pygmies in Tennessee. In the early 1800s, newspapers in Tennessee were awash with rumors of a small-stature, throwback “pygmy race” based on the discovery of hundreds of small, stone-lined burials. The graves were roughly 1 foot wide and 1.5 feet long and contained human skeletal material. Euro-Americans of the time could recognize that many of the bones were those of adults, but they mistakenly assumed the small graves represented small Native people who were buried in an extended, laid-out position.  Rather, the bones were from Native Americans but represent instead a different kind of burial ritual: one in which the body is not immediately buried. Some time after death, the body is flexed, often with its knees drawn up to its chin, and then buried in the small, stone-lined graves. This tradition is often called secondary burial and was common among many ancient Native American tribes. While you might think contemporary research has settled the issue of pygmies in Tennessee, the recent discovery of Homo floresiensis, a “hobbit” hominin species in Indonesia, has revived some people’s claims that pygmies roamed the Earth not too long ago.

5) Evil Twins. The horror genre would be decidedly less scary without evil twins, but do they have a basis in reality?  The medical term ‘teratoma’ literally means ‘monstrous tumor’ and often contains different types of cells that can grow into things that look like bones and teeth. Teratomas are usually present at birth, but not discovered until much later in life when they grow and cause pain in an organ. These tumors are rare, but occur all over the world and even in horses and dogs. A recently published teratoma from Colonial-era Peru included fragments of bone and tissue that looked like really weird teeth. Because of their presence since birth and their ability to form skeleton- and organ-like material, teratomas have occasionally been called “evil twin” tumors.

6) Alien Babies. Speaking of evil twins present since birth, many people believe this skeleton represents the remains of an alien baby.  The Atacama skeleton, or Ata for short, was found in 2003 in Chile. The 6-inch mummy changed hands many times, and in 2013 it was the subject of a UFO docu-drama called ‘Sirius.’ But Ata is not an alien, even if it looks bizarre. It is definitely human, as DNA tests have proven. The question is somewhat open, though, as to why Ata looks the way it does.  Some experts think Ata was born prematurely and then mummified shortly thereafter.  Others think Ata may have had a more dramatic condition incompatible with life, like oxycephaly, severe dwarfism, or other anatomical anomalies. Answers to this question may be found as DNA analysis gets better and genes for more diseases are isolated.

7) Romeo and Juliet Skeletons. Occasionally, archaeologists will find double-burials, with two people in one grave.  This was perhaps more common in the past, as epidemics ravaged populations and could claim several members of one family in the days before modern medicine.  Male and female skeletons with intertwined arm and hand bones are often interpreted as the remains of a loving couple.  There are, of course, alternate explanations that should be considered. How do we know that they were lovers and not, for example, brother and sister, father and daughter, friends, or even strangers? Depending on the burial, the hand-holding part may be less clear: were two bodies crammed into a grave, or were they purposefully placed there?   It’s not unreasonable to think, though, that the bodies were arranged this way by the people who buried them to communicate the deceased’s affection for one another, reflecting in death a sentiment that was present in life.

8) Vampires, Zombies, and Witches. Quite a few news stories have crowed about the discovery of a vampire, zombie, or witch skeleton.  These skeletons are, of course, from regular humans, but the way they were buried is always… irregular.  Collectively, skeletons of people who were buried with iron stakes, stones in their mouths, or face-down are often called ‘revenants.’  The idea is that, in a particular time or culture, a person who was considered different or evil was buried in a strange way, often to prevent that person from haunting or hurting the living. Strange and anomalous burials date back thousands of years, but the ones that are most frequently pointed out are those from Eastern Europe, where vampire lore began. One of the primary explanations for these revenant burials in Medieval times, though, is pretty simple: people didn’t understand diseases very well, and some of these strange burials may have been the living’s way of trying to prevent the spread of an epidemic by ensuring the dead stayed in their graves.

9) Transvestite Priest and Gay Caveman.  Burials that are different from the norm are sometimes sensationalized because of assumptions of gender-bending, but usually simply reflect our modern assumptions inaccurately deployed to explain the past. For example, the rich burial of a woman in Vix, France, in 500 BC has some hallmarks of “masculine” graves in this time period, like the inclusion of alcohol and a chariot. Some have questioned whether the bones are actually those of a woman and prefer to interpret the burial as a male “transvestite priest” rather than as the powerful woman she probably was. Similarly, when male skeletal remains are found with “feminine” grave goods, speculation about gender abounds. A burial in the Czech Republic dating to 2500 BC fits this description, where a biological male was buried with pottery characteristic of the graves of biological females. An archaeologist suggested it was an example of a “transsexual or third gender” grave, and the news media exploded with headlines about the “gay caveman.”  It’s always interesting when a burial is anomalous and doesn’t conform to what we expect to find, but there’s a big leap from that to assumptions about past gender or sexual identity, which are not necessarily the same as modern gender or sexual identity.

10) “Caucasian” Chinese Mummies and a Lost Roman Legion. A series of mummies found in the Tarim Basin in northwest China look very different from what Westerners usually expect eastern Chinese people to look like.  The mummies are tall, many with wavy reddish or dark blonde hair, and with facial features like eye orbits and noses that seem more Caucasian rather than Asian. Are these the descendants of a lost Roman legion that found its way into China in the 1st century BC? The Romans and the Chinese knew about one another, but there was only sporadic contact between them in the early centuries AD. Besides that, most of the mummies significantly pre-date the Romans, with the earliest ones dated to 1800 BC.  From DNA, it seems the people who ended up mummified in the Tarim Basin had ancestors in Europe, Mesopotamia, and India. These early mummies reveal that nearly four thousand years ago, northwestern China was a melting pot of people.

These ten skeletons are most certainly not aliens or vampires, and are probably not transvestite priests either.  The real story behind these ancient bones, though, is far more complex and fascinating.

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “Ten bonehead interpretations of ancient skeletons”. Forbes. Posted: September 6, 2015. Available online:

Monday, December 14, 2015

What Archaeologists Really Think About Ancient Aliens, Lost Colonies, And Fingerprints Of The Gods

It’s no secret that far more people watch TV shows like the History Channel’s ‘Ancient Aliens’ than attend lectures by professional archaeologists and historians.  Millions of people tune in to watch TV series and docu-dramas with a questionable grip on facts about the past.  The stories spun by producers and writers may have some basis in truth, but they’re largely stories — they’re compelling stories, though, and they’re aimed at a general audience the way that most academic output isn’t.

People are also reading books about ancient aliens and other forms of pseudoarchaeology, according to archaeologist Donald Holly. He starts a recent open-access book review section in the journal American Antiquity by asking archaeologists to entertain the idea of pseudoarchaeology — just for a little bit — so that we can create better teachable moments, whether we’re talking to students or to anyone interested in our jobs.  People who read these books are not ignorant or obstinate, he points out, but rather undecided about alternative archaeological explanations and clearly interested in understanding the past.  ”It’s time we talk to the guy sitting next to us on the airplane,” Holly asserts.  In collecting nine reviews of popular-on-Amazon pseudo-archaeology books by professional archaeologists, Holly hopes that this will both “offer the silent and curious majority that is interested in these works a professional perspective on them” and give archaeologists unfamiliar with the books a pseudoarchaeology primer.

The article starts out with two reviews of books whose main premise is that we need advanced humans — or nonhumans — to make sense of past developments. First up, Graham Hancock’s Fingerprints of the Gods: The Evidence of Earth’s Lost Civilization, reviewed by Ken Feder, an archaeologist famous for his anti-pseudoarchaeology book Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries:Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology. The gist of Fingerprints is that an extraordinarily advanced civilization roamed the seas thousands of years ago, giving advice to the people they found in places like Egypt and Peru and helping them establish their own civilizations. In return, these advanced peoples were treated as gods, particularly after some cataclysmic event wiped them out. Feder’s main problems with Hancock’s book include the fact that he cherry-picked his data, not bothering to address all the evidence; that he relies on very old and discredited fringe thinkers; and that he can’t conceive of cultural evolution.

In the second review, The Ancient Alien Question, archaeologist Jeb Card points out, as does Feder, that the origins of this idea lay in Victorian mysticism and Theosophy, a movement that “blended hermetic magic, spiritualism, Western curiosity abut Eastern religion, colonial racism, and misconceptions of evolution into a worldview of root races, lost continents, and ascended masters who originated on Venus or other worlds.” The author of The Ancient Alien Question, Philip Coppens, was a regular on the Ancient Aliens TV series and presents academic research as if science itself is mysterious. Most problematic, Card finds, is Coppens’ invokation of “the destruction of the Library of Alexandria and other book burnings as suppression of ancient truth without recognizing his own call for the destruction of the scientific order, replacing scientific investigation with a new history of mysticism and myth.”

Other books in the review section focus on specific sites or cultures and illustrate that the popular author has artificially selected which information to present.  Andrew Collins’ book Göbekli Tepe: Genesis of the Gods, reviewed by archaeologist Eric Cline, deals with the Neolithic site in Turkey that Collins tries to connect to the biblical Garden of Eden by treating the Bible as incontrovertible fact. Black Genesis: The Prehistoric Origins of Ancient Egypt by Robert Bauval and Thomas Brophy, reviewed by archaeologist Ethan Watrall, misunderstands both astronomy and the Bible to show that the Egyptian state was “black African” yet also manages to accurately point out that academic archaeology has for a long time ignored sub-Saharan Africa.

The southwestern U.S. is covered by Gary David’s Star Shrines and Earthworks of the Desert Southwest, reviewed by archaeologist Stephen Lekson. While Lekson admits that David is on to something with his “loose, journalistic style,” the “content [of the book] is fantastic, it is phenomenal, it is flabbergasting, it is… a mish-mash.” Archaeologist Kory Cooper tackles Iron Age America Before Columbus by William Conner, which suggests that there is evidence of iron smelting sites in prehistoric North America. Cooper’s highest praise is that it “would make a useful reference for an Introduction to Logic course because the book is a veritable catalogue of logical fallacies.” And archaeologist Benjamin Auerbach reviews The Ancient Giants Who Ruled America: The Missing Skeletons and the Great Smithsonian Cover-Up by Richard Dewhurst, who uses old newspaper articles to claim that not only were the skeletons of giants found in the U.S., but that the most well-known science museum in the country tried to hide the evidence. Auerbach points out that he personally has studied many of the skeletons Dewhurst mentions and “none had statures over six feet.” The selective evidence in these books is clearly problematic, but not as problematic as the motif underlying many pseudoarchaeology books.

The primary theme among these popular pseudoarchaeology books that professionals have a major problem with is ethnocentrism, or the idea that we can judge other cultures based on the yardstick of our own. But racism figures in here too.  Archaeologist Larry Zimmerman reviews The Lost Colonies of Ancient America by Frank Joseph, who insists that mainstream archaeologists are the ones ignoring information on transoceanic voyages and that any number of past civilizations may have colonized the New World first. Zimmerman, though, notes that “Joseph echoes half a millennium of speculation geared toward inventing a deep Old World history in the Americas, thereby challenging the primacy of American Indians in the hemisphere, or at least implying their inferiority, their poor stewardship of the land, and the need to civilize them, all in the service of Manifest Destiny and justification for taking their land.” Similarly, John Ruskamp’s Asiatic Echoes: The Identification of Chinese Pictograms in Pre-Columbian North American Rock Writing, reviewed by archaeologist Angus Quinlan, puts forth the idea that pictograms found in North American rock art are Chinese script characters left by an otherwise archaeologically invisible trip across the Pacific. The similarity is substantial, Ruskamp insists, but Quinlan calls it “another illustration of deductive thinking at its worst.” Further, Quinlan points out that these sorts of interpretations that try to shoehorn in foreign visitors to explain New World culture are “disrespectful of the Native American cultures that used rock art in their sociocultural routines.”

Archaeologists are trained as anthropologists to recognize and celebrate the diversity of humanity, both today and in the past.  Eric Cline succinctly explains this in his review, noting “pseudoarchaeologists cannot accept the fact that the mere humans might have come up with great innovations such as the domestication of plants and animals or built great architectural masterpieces such as the Sphinx all on their own; rather, they frequently seek or invoke divine, or even alien, assistance to explain how these came to be.”

Pseudoarchaeology books are problematic for archaeologists for a number of reasons.  First, of course, they tend to present misinformation, cherry-picked from legitimate (and not-so-legitimate) sources that is often taken as fact because it’s presented as fact. Archaeologists, as scientists, can no more select what data to consider than a chemist can select which laws of chemistry to follow. Second, pseudoarchaeology seems like a legitimate body of scholarship because authors tend to cite one another, creating a body of information that, however outlandish it sounds, fits together. Archaeology also does this, but as scientists, we are invested in improving our understanding of the past rather than in protecting our own theories the way pseudoarchaeologists do.

But these books are perhaps most problematic for archaeologists because, as Lekson notes, “alternative archaeology is more interesting than the stuff we write… more interesting to more people, that is.”  Academic archaeologists are not trained to write readably, which means there is a large opening for authors to connect with the “guy on the airplane.” Archaeologists like Brian Fagan who do write more approachable books have to walk a fine line between making data interesting and not making extraordinary claims.

Unfortunately, tales of ancient aliens and extraordinary humans creating the Pyramids as a communication device are often more fascinating than slow cultural change.  We as archaeologists need to find a way to showcase the humanity of the past and get across the idea that ancient humans were intelligent, capable, and innovative — that those of us alive today are the product of that long history of innovation, and that we are continuing the tradition of our early ancestors by inventing cars, computers, and, yes, even pseudoarchaeology.

Killgrove, Kristina. 2015. “What Archaeologists Really Think About Ancient Aliens, Lost Colonies, And Fingerprints Of The Gods”. Forbes. Posted: September 3, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, December 13, 2015

3D printing revives bronze-age music

An archaeologist has 3D-printed a replica of an iron-age artifact to revive a rich musical culture in ancient Ireland

Billy Ó Foghlú, from The Australian National University (ANU), has found evidence that the artifact may have been a mouthpiece from an iron-age horn and not a spear-butt as previously thought.

When Mr Ó Foghlú used the replica artifact as a mouthpiece, the ancient Irish horn had a richer, more velvety tone.

"Suddenly the instrument came to life," said the ANU College of Asia-Pacific PhD student.

"These horns were not just hunting horns or noisemakers. They were very carefully constructed and repaired, they were played for hours. Music clearly had a very significant role in the culture."

Complex bronze-age and iron-age horns have been found throughout Europe, especially in Scandinavia. However, the lack of mouthpieces in Ireland suggested the Irish music scene had drifted into a musical dark age.

Mr Ó Foghlú was convinced mouthpieces had existed in Ireland, and was intrigued by the so-called Conical Spearbutt of Navan.

Although he could not gain access to the original bronze artifact, Mr Ó Foghlú used the exact measurements to produce a replica using 3D-printing and try it out with his own horn.

The addition of a mouthpiece would have given greater comfort and control to ancient horn players, and may have increased the range of their instruments.

However, few mouthpieces have been found. The dearth of them may be explained by evidence that the instruments were ritually dismantled and laid down as offerings when their owner died, said Mr Ó Foghlú.

"A number of instruments have been found buried in bogs. The ritual killing of an instrument and depositing it in a burial site shows the full significance of it in the culture," he said.

"Tutankhamen also had trumpets buried with him in Egypt. Contemporary horns were also buried in Scandinavia, Scotland and mainland Europe: they all had integral mouthpieces too."

Science Daily. 2015. “3D printing revives bronze-age music”. Science Daily. Posted: September 2, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Language acquisition: From sounds to the meaning

Do young infants know that words in language 'stand for' something else?

Without understanding the 'referential function' of language (words as 'verbal labels', symbolizing other things) it is impossible to learn a language. Is this implicit knowledge already present early in infants? 

The word "apple," as we pronounce it, is a sequence of sounds (phonemes) that we use whenever we want to refer to the object it indicates. If we did not know that a referential relationship exists between the sound and the object it would be impossible for us to use, and learn, a language. Where does this implicit knowledge come from, and how early in human development does it manifest? This is the question Hanna Marno and her SISSA colleagues Marina Nespor and Jacques Mehler in a collaboration with Teresa Farroni, from the University of Padova, attempted to answer in a study just published in Scientific Reports.

"A sensitivity to speech sounds is already present in newborns. These types of sounds are in fact perceived as special starting from the first days of life, and they are processed differently from other types of auditory stimuli. What makes this type of stimulus so special for the newborn?" asks Marno. "There's definitely a 'social' saliency: speech sounds signal interaction between conspecifics, which is important for the survival of the infant. But there is also another important aspect, i.e., referentiality: words are symbols that carry meanings and convey messages. If infants didn't know this, albeit implicitly, they wouldn't be able to acquire language."

"Try to imagine an infant who, on several occasions, sees his mother holding up a cup while uttering the word 'cup'," explains the researcher. "He could just think that this is something his mum would do whenever holding the cup, a strange habit of hers. But instead in a short while he will learn that the word refers to that object, as if he were 'programmed' to do so."

To test this hypothesis, Marno conducted experiments with infants (4 months old). The babies watched a series of videos where a person might (or might not) utter an (invented) name of an object, while directing (or not directing) their gaze towards the position on the screen where a picture of the object would appear. By monitoring the infants' gaze, Marno and colleagues observed that, in response to speech cues, the infant's gaze would look faster for the visual object, indicating that she is ready to find a potential referent of the speech. However, this effect did not occur if the person in the video remained silent or if the sound was a non-speech sound.

"The mere fact of hearing verbal stimuli placed the infants in a condition to expect the appearance, somewhere, of an object to be associated with the word, whereas this didn't happen when there was no speech, even when the person in the video directed the infant's gaze to where the object would appear, concludes Marno. "This suggests that infants at this early age already have some knowledge that language implies a relation between words and the surrounding physical world. Moreover, they are also ready to find out these relations, even if they don't know anything about the meanings of the words yet. Thus, a good advice to mothers is to speak to their infants, because infants might understand much more than they would show, and in this way their attention can be efficiently guided by their caregivers. This doesn't only facilitate the task of acquiring a language, but also helps to learn about their surrounding world."

Science Daily. 2015. “Language acquisition: From sounds to the meaning”. Science Daily. Posted: September 2, 2015. Available online:

Friday, December 11, 2015

Disappearing Ancient Texts Could Be Saved by Solar-Powered Device

A 13th-century text recording the discoveries of a medieval polymath, a handwritten dictionary that may help decipher ancient texts, a magical text dating back hundreds of years and writings etched on palm leaves that record centuries of history. All of these and many more are in danger of being lost to the elements.

In this race against time, a team of engineers and archivists are developing a solar-powered device to safeguard historical treasures in India.

These documents are written on organic materials that become increasingly fragile over time. Exposure to humidity, sunlight and insects can ravage the texts, while storing them at temperatures that are too high or low can speed up the documents' decay.

What librarians, archivists and conservators try to do is preserve the most fragile texts in areas where humidity and temperature can be easily controlled, taking them out briefly to be put on display or for study. However for facilities in the developing world this can be a problem as the energy needed to power dehumidifiers and air-conditioning equipment may not be available or affordable.  The new solar-powered device that researchers are developing may help solve this problem. The machine itself is remarkably simple: Texts are placed in an insulated container with a dehumidifier and temperature-control mechanism. Solar cells power the equipment, while batteries store power when there isn't enough sunlight.

Additionally, when conditions in the container are just right, the device will automatically power down, conserving energy so that it can automatically turn on when the humidity and temperature rise.

"As long as the documents aren't accessed all day long, the power requirements aren't that hefty," said Harrison King-McBain, an engineering graduate student from the University of Toronto.  

India treasures

Colin Clarke, the director of the Canadian Centre for Epigraphic Documents, said he became aware of the need for such a device during a trip to Kerala, India, last September. A professional librarian, Clarke had been invited to the Eighth World Syriac Conference hosted by the St. Ephrem Ecumenical Research Institute, which is part of the Mahatma Gandhi University. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, and was used by Christians throughout Asia, as far east as China. While in Kerala, Clarke examined historical text collections in local churches and monasteries.

The libraries had palm-leaf documents, dating back hundreds of years and written in Malayalam, a Classical Indian language widely used in the area. There were also manuscripts written in Syriac. One text that Clarke is particularly excited about dates to the 13th century and may have been written by a man named Bar Hebraeus, a polymath who wrote about literature, science, philosophy, religion, history and medicine, Clarke said. 

"The 13th-century manuscript may have been written by Bar Hebraeus himself," Clarke said. "Bar Hebraeus was one of the greatest thinkers of his day. This is like having a manuscript written in Aristotle's own hand. Definitely, this would be a world treasure, if the attribution is correct."

Providing humidity and temperature control is challenging. A corepiscopa (a country bishop) in charge of a large manuscript repository told Clarke that even if the repository had the equipment, the owners would not be able to afford the energy needed to operate it.

Clarke promised to help. When he returned to Canada, he contacted King-McBain and Michael Cino, a graduate student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada. The team has constructed a "proof of concept" device that shows how the device will work, demonstrating it at the University of Toronto on Aug. 19. 

The team has also found a place in Kottayam, Kerala, India, to build the solar units. Clarke said that a solar technology firm is now needed to finish development and help with construction. Clarke asks anyone who can help to contact him through the CCED website.

Help required

The solar-powered device requires no fuel  and is designed so that it needs little or no maintenance, said King-McBain. The team kept the design as simple as possible, using off-the-shelf components to keep costs down. The device has no moving parts that can easily break down.

The unit will cost between roughly $3,000 and $5,000, an amount that Clarke said would be difficult for facilities in developing countries to afford. The Canadian Centre for Epigraphic Documents is trying to raise enough funds so that a few of these devices can be constructed and installed at facilities in India, Clarke said.

There are ways in which the device can be improved. One problem is that texts made of different materials often require different temperature and humidity levels. This means that one device may only be able to preserve texts made of one type of material.

Often a repository will have texts made of different materials that require different environmental settings. Installing two or more units with different environmental settings in these facilities is an option, but that would raise the cost, Clarke said. Another option would be for the container to have different compartments, the environment in the compartments configured to hold texts made with different materials. However, this would make the design more complex.

"The team is working against time and cost," Clarke said. "Irreplaceable texts are in danger of being lost through environmental factors. We have the solution. Now we need the support to fix this problem," Clarke said.

Jarus, Owen. 2015. “Disappearing Ancient Texts Could Be Saved by Solar-Powered Device”. Live Science. Posted: September 1, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Denali, Ongtupqa, and Other Native American Names for Landmarks

Mount McKinley was recently renamed Denali, but it's not the only one with a Native American name

Since 1917, the tallest mountain in North America has been known as “Mount McKinley” on official maps and registers. But on August 28, the Department of the Interior declared that the 20,237-foot peak would once again be officially known as “Denali,” the name it held for thousands of years.

“This name change recognizes the sacred status of Denali to many Alaska Natives,” Secretary Jewell said in a statement. “The name Denali has been official for use by the State of Alaska since 1975, but even more importantly, the mountain has been known as Denali for generations.”

Meaning “the great one” or “the high one,” Denali plays a central role in the creation myth of the Koyukon Athabascans, a Native Alaskan group that has lived in the region for centuries, Julie Hirschfeld Davis writes for The New York Times. The mountain first became known as Mount McKinley in 1896, when a gold prospector emerged from the wilderness to learn that William McKinley, a defender of the gold standard, had just been nominated as a presidential candidate. While McKinley was assassinated just six months into his first term and never set foot in Alaska, the name stuck.

Denali is one of the most high-profile cases of official mapmakers disregarding the names given to natural landmarks by Native Americans but it is far from the only one. Here are a few of the United States’ natural wonders that had names for centuries before Europeans set foot in the Americas:

The Grand Canyon

The second-most visited national park in the country and one of the United States’ most iconic natural landmarks, the Grand Canyon has been continuously inhabited by Native American groups for almost 12,000 years, according to the National Parks Service. The canyon was called "Ongtupqa" in the Hopi language and was considered a holy site and a passageway to the afterlife.

Mount Rushmore

The cliffside that bears the likenesses of George Washington, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln changed several times during the 19th century. The Black Hills of South Dakota, where the presidential carvings loom, was originally Sioux holy land, with the mountain itself known as “The Six Grandfathers,” Nick Kirkpatrick writes for The Washington Post. While the land was promised to the Sioux by an 1868 treaty, it was taken back by the federal government in 1877. The mountain was officially named “Mount Rushmore” in 1930 after a New York lawyer who liked to hunt in the area.

The Everglades

Once covering over 11,000 square miles of Florida’s marshland, the Everglades were home for several Native American groups, including the Calusa, Seminole and Miccosukee tribes for more than 3,000 years. Originally called Pa-hay-Okee, meaning “grassy river” in the Seminole language, the marshes were dubbed “the Everglades” by the first Englishmen to visit the region, according to the National Parks Service.

Mount Washington

The tallest mountain in the northeast, New Hampshire’s Mount Washington was once called Agiocochook, or "Home of the Great Spirit," by the local Abenaki people. The mountain was first referred to as Mount Washington in 1784 in honor of the then-general’s military service, but was officially named by the group of mountaineers who designated New Hampshire’s Presidential Range in 1820, according to the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Lewis, Danny. 2015. “Denali, Ongtupqa, and Other Native American Names for Landmarks”. Smithsonian. Posted: September 1, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Reading emotions in a second language

When reading, we 'embody' less than in our mother tongue

In the "NeverEnding Story," Bastian feels so involved in the narration that he experiences the same emotions as the characters (and in the end he really enters the book). What happens to the main character of Micheal Ende's book is exactly what happens to each of us when we read a novel or a short story: we literally replicate the physiological processes and emotions of the characters described in the text. Francesco Foroni, research scientist at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste, already demonstrated this phenomenon a few years ago in a study published inPsychological Science (2009). In a new study, published in Brain and Cognition, he now shows what happens when we read in a second language learnt in adulthood.

"The interpretation of these phenomena," explains Foroni, "is accounted for by the theory of embodiment: when we process emotional information, our body 'mimics' the specific emotion by enacting those physiological states that are typical of the emotion." This means, he explains, that when we read about a happy person we smile, whereas if the character is angry we frown (in most cases, these expressions are imperceptible and we are not necessarily aware of them).

"The phenomenon is very intense when we read in our native language but, according to the new study, if we read in a second language learnt after our mother tongue, then this physiological response, while not disappearing completely, is drastically lessened."

Foroni measured the facial expressions (by electromyography, a technique that records muscle activation) of 26 subjects reading texts in English. The subjects were Dutch native speakers who had learnt English at school after the age of twelve. Differently from what was observed in their mother tongue, the facial expressions recorded in response to emotional content were much blander.

The result is in bearing with the embodiment theories: in fact, this view states that we normally learn emotional words "first hand" in emotional contexts (our mother smiling as she asks us to smile at her, for example), whereas a second language is normally acquired in less emotional environments and using formal methods, as occurs, for example, at school. This way, the association between the word representing the emotion and the experience of the emotion itself is looser, "hence, the far milder responses I observed in my study."

The finding has several implications. "Think, for example, of situations in which individuals have to make decisions" explains Foroni. "The literature reports that when we are influenced by emotions we tend to be less rational and make decisions that are not based on an accurate assessment of the problem. It's possible that finding oneself in a context implying the use of a second language may affect the types of decisions we make, by limiting the potential negative impact of emotions."

Science Daily. 2015. “Reading emotions in a second language”. Science Daily. Posted: September 1, 2015. Available online: