Monday, February 29, 2016

No fairy tale: Origins of some famous stories go back thousands of years

“Beauty and the Beast” is practically “a tale as old as time.” So are a few other folktales, new research shows.

Statistical ties between a set of folktales and languages from parts of Europe and Asia have helped researchers date the origins of some stories to thousands of years ago. The roots of the oldest one — a folktale called “The Smith and the Devil” — stretch back to the Bronze Age. The findings, reported January 20 in Royal Society Open Science, may dispel the thought that some well-known folktales such as “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Beauty and the Beast” are recent inventions.

“These stories are far older than the first literary evidence for them,” says coauthor Jamie Tehrani, an anthropologist at Durham University in England.  

When linguists study a language’s evolution, they trace grammatical and phonetical structure through time. “What we were interested in doing is seeing if you could do that for other elements of culture,” Tehrani says.

Tehrani and Sara Graça da Silva of the New University of Lisbon in Portugal studied 275 magic-based stories from a database of more than 2,000 types of folktales. Magic stories include beings or objects with supernatural powers and are the largest folktale group. Statistical analyses of the relationship between the folktales and language, as well as between the folktales and how they may have been shared by neighboring peoples, left the team with 76 stories that they thought were strong candidates for accurately estimating folktale age. Family trees, or phylogenies, of Indo-European languages throughout Asia and Europe helped the researchers investigate how the region’s language history related to these folktales.

“What these methods allow us to do is to trace back really important dimensions of human culture … much further back than the physical evidence would allow us to do,” says Tehrani, who has also studied the origins of “Little Red Riding Hood” (SN Online: 11/22/13).

Four tales had a high probability of being associated with the structure of the Proto-Indo-European language — an ancient common language that dates to around 6,000 years ago and is a precursor to such language families as Romance and Germanic. Only one tale held up to the strictest statistical scrutiny, though.

“‘The Smith and the Devil’ is the one we feel absolutely confident as being a Proto-Indo-European tale,” Tehrani says.

The story is about a blacksmith who makes a deal with an evil supernatural being for the power to weld any material together. Since the tale is associated with Proto-Indo-European language and includes a character who typically works with metal, the researchers park its origins around 6,000 years ago, in the Bronze Age.

The team also found that early versions of “Rumpelstiltskin” (then called “The Name of the Supernatural Helper”) and “Beauty and the Beast” first appear with the emergence of modern Indo-European language subfamilies. The language-story pairings suggest that the tales originated between 3,000 and 4,000 years ago.

Not everyone is convinced. John Lindow, a folklorist at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that the Proto-Indo-European vocabulary for working with metal was limited and the word smith might not have existed. If true, that would mean the version of “The Smith and the Devil” used in the study may not be that old, he says.

Tehrani says the researchers remain confident in their findings. They treated the stories like genetic information, passed from generation to generation. “We don’t invent culture anew every generation,” Tehrani says. “We inherit a lot of our culture.”

Samoray, Chris. 2016. “No fairy tale: Origins of some famous stories go back thousands of years”. Science News. Posted: January 19, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Learning a second language may depend on the strength of brain's connections

Learning a second language is easier for some adults than others, and innate differences in how the various parts of the brain "talk" to one another may help explain why, according to a study published January 20 in the Journal of Neuroscience.

"These findings have implications for predicting language learning success and failure," said study author Xiaoqian Chai.

The various regions of our brains communicate with each other even when we are resting and aren't engaged in any specific tasks. The strength of these connections -- called resting-state connectivity -- varies from person to person, and differences have previously been linked to differences in behavior including language ability.

Led by Chai and Denise Klein, researchers at McGill University explored whether differences in resting-state connectivity relate to performance in a second language. To study this, the group at the Montreal Neurological Institute scanned the brains of 15 adult English speakers who were about to begin an intensive 12-week French course, and then tested their language abilities both before and after the course.

Using resting state functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), the researchers examined the connectivity within the subjects' brains prior to the start of the French course. They looked at the strength of connections between various areas in the brain and two specific language regions: an area of the brain implicated in verbal fluency, the left anterior insula/frontal operculum (AI/FO), and an area active in reading, the visual word form area (VWFA).

The researchers tested the participants' verbal fluency and reading speed both prior to the course and after its completion. To test verbal fluency, the researchers gave subjects a prompt and asked them to speak for two minutes in French. The researchers counted the number of unique words that were used correctly. To test reading speed, the researchers had participants read French passages aloud, and they calculated the number of words read per minute.

Participants with stronger connections between the left AI/FO and an important region of the brain's language network called the left superior temporal gyrus showed greater improvement in the speaking test. Participants with greater connectivity between the VWFA and a different area of the left superior temporal gyrus language area in the left temporal lobe showed greater improvement in reading speed by the end of the 12-week course.

"The most interesting part of this finding is that the connectivity between the different areas was observed before learning," said Arturo Hernandez, a neuroscientist at the University of Houston who studies second-language learning and was not involved in the study. "This shows that some individuals may have a particular neuronal activity pattern that may lend itself to better learning of a second language."

However, that doesn't mean success at a second language is entirely predetermined by the brain's wiring. The brain is very plastic, meaning that it can be shaped by learning and experience, Chai said.

The study is "a first step to understanding individual differences in second language learning," she added. "In the long term it might help us to develop better methods for helping people to learn better."

Science Daily. 2016. “Learning a second language may depend on the strength of brain's connections”. Science Daily. Posted: January 20, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Harmful mutations have accumulated during early human migrations out of Africa

Modern humans (Homo sapiens) are thought to have first emerged in Africa about 150'000 years ago. 100'000 years later, a few of them left their homeland travelling first to Asia and then further east, crossing the Bering Strait, and colonizing the Americas. Excoffier and his colleagues developed theoretical models predicting that if modern humans migrated as small bands, then the populations that broke off from their original African family should progressively accumulate slightly harmful mutations - a mutation load. Moreover, the mutational load of a population should then represent a way of measuring the distance it has covered since it left Africa. In a nutshell: an individual from Mexico should be carrying more harmful genetic variants than an individual from Africa.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers used next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology to sequence the complete set of coding variants from the genomes of individuals from seven populations within and outside Africa, i.e. from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Algeria, Pakistan, Cambodia, Siberia and Mexico. They then simulated the spatial distribution of harmful mutations according to their theory. And their findings coincided: the number of slightly deleterious mutations per individual does indeed increase with distance from Southern Africa, which is consistent with an expansion of humans from that region.

The main reason for a higher load of harmful mutations in populations established further away from Africa is that natural selection is not very powerful in small populations: deleterious mutations were purged less efficiently in small pioneer tribes than in larger populations. In addition, selection had less time to act in populations that had broken away from their African homeland and thus settled far later.

"We find that mildly deleterious mutations have evolved as if they were neutral during the out-of-Africa expansion, which lasted probably for more than a thousand generations. Contrastingly, very harmful mutations are found at similar frequencies in all individuals of the world, as if there was a maximum threshold any individual can stand," says Stephan Peischl, a SIB member from Bern, and one of the main authors of the study.

"It's quite amazing that 50 thousand year-old migrations still leave a mark on current human genetic diversity, but to be able to see this you need a huge amount of data in many populations from different continents. Only 5 years ago, this would not have been possible," concludes Laurent Excoffier.
Reference: 2016. “Harmful mutations have accumulated during early human migrations out of Africa”. Posted: January 18, 2016. Available online:

Friday, February 26, 2016

Human sounds convey emotions clearer and faster than words

It takes just one-tenth of a second for our brains to begin to recognize emotions conveyed by vocalizations, according to researchers from McGill. It doesn't matter whether the non-verbal sounds are growls of anger, the laughter of happiness or cries of sadness. More importantly, the researchers have also discovered that we pay more attention when an emotion (such as happiness, sadness or anger) is expressed through vocalizations than we do when the same emotion is expressed in speech.

The researchers believe that the speed with which the brain 'tags' these vocalizations and the preference given to them compared to language, is due to the potentially crucial role that decoding vocal sounds has played in human survival.

"The identification of emotional vocalizations depends on systems in the brain that are older in evolutionary terms," says Marc Pell, Director of McGill's School of Communication Sciences and Disorders and the lead author on the study that was recently published in Biological Psychology. "Understanding emotions expressed in spoken language, on the other hand, involves more recent brain systems that have evolved as human language developed."

Of nonsense speech and growls

The researchers were interested in finding out whether the brain responded differently when emotions were expressed through vocalizations (sounds such as growls, laughter or sobbing, where no words are used) or through language. They focused on three basic emotions: anger, sadness and happiness and tested 24 participants by playing a random mix of vocalizations and nonsense speech, e.g. The dirms are in the cindabal, spoken with different emotional intent. (The researchers used nonsense phrases in order to avoid any linguistic cues about emotions.) They asked participants to identify which emotions the speakers were trying to convey and used an EEG to record how quickly and in what ways the brain responded as the participants heard the different types of emotional vocal sounds.

They were able to measure:

  • how the brain responds to emotions expressed through vocalizations compared to spoken language with millisecond precision;
  • whether certain emotions are recognized more quickly through vocalizations than others and produce larger brain responses; and
  • whether people who are anxious are particularly sensitive to emotional voices based on the strength of their brain response.

Anger leaves longer traces -- especially for those who are anxious

The researchers found that the participants were able to detect vocalizations of happiness (i.e., laughter) more quickly than vocal sounds conveying either anger or sadness. But, interestingly, they found that angry sounds and angry speech both produced ongoing brain activity that lasted longer than either of the other emotions, suggesting that the brain pays special attention to the importance of anger signals.

"Our data suggest that listeners engage in sustained monitoring of angry voices, irrespective of the form they take, to grasp the significance of potentially threatening events," says Pell.

The researchers also discovered that individuals who are more anxious have a faster and more heightened response to emotional voices in general than people who are less anxious.

"Vocalizations appear to have the advantage of conveying meaning in a more immediate way than speech," says Pell. "Our findings are consistent with studies of non-human primates which suggest that vocalizations that are specific to a species are treated preferentially by the neural system over other sounds."

EurekAlert. 2016. “Human sounds convey emotions clearer and faster than words”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 18, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, February 25, 2016

4,000 artifacts stored at Oregon refuge held by armed group

Thousands of archaeological artifacts—and maps detailing where more can be found—are kept inside the national wildlife refuge buildings currently being held by an armed group of protestors angry over federal land policy.

Ryan Bundy, one of the leaders of the group occupying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, says they have no real interest in the antiquities. Still, their access to the artifacts and maps has some worried that looters could take advantage of the situation.

"There's a huge market for artifacts, especially artifacts that have provenance, where you can identify where they came from," said Carla Burnside, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's refuge archeologist.

More than 300 recorded prehistoric sites are scattered across the refuge, including burial grounds, ancient villages and petroglyphs. Some of the artifacts—including spears, stone tools, woven baskets and beads—date back 9,800 years. The artifacts and remains came from ancestors of the Burns Paiute Tribe. Chairwoman Charlotte Rodrique says she feels helpless knowing that her tribe's cultural heritage is now in the hands of the armed group.

"As far as I'm concerned, our history is just another hostage," Rodrique said.

The tribe has sent a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. attorney for Oregon, Billy Williams, asking that members of the armed group be prosecuted if any artifacts or maps are damaged or missing.


About 7,000 artifacts and samples from the refuge are kept at a museum in Eugene, Oregon. But 4,000 more are kept at the refuge for research.

Only Burnside has a key to the room containing the artifacts and the maps. She's since seen pictures of the occupiers in her office, adjacent to the room where the artifacts are stored. The group has been looking through government files at the site, but it is unclear if they've gone through the room with the artifacts. Bundy told The Associated Press that he's seen the artifacts and lots of maps, but he didn't know what the maps illustrated.

The artifacts and maps are legally protected by the 1979 Archeological Resources Protection Act and other federal laws. Rodrique said she doesn't know if members of the group have disturbed the artifacts but wants the artifacts and documents catalogued as the occupation continues and once it comes to an end.

"If the occupiers disturb, damage, remove, alter or deface any archaeological resource on the refuge property, the Tribe requests that the United States bring criminal charges," Rodrique wrote in her letter to federal officials.


Bundy said they're not interested in the artifacts and would turn them over to the Burns Paiute Tribe, if asked. "If the Native Americans want those, then we'd be delighted to give them to them," he said.

Rodrique said the tribe is not going to legitimize the armed group's occupation of the refuge by negotiating with them. "That's our history, our ancestors' possessions and remains," Rodrique said. "It's hard to explain, as a native person, what that means to us. That's the very proof of our existence in this country."

Bundy said he didn't think it was likely that anyone would use the maps to loot the site. "We haven't really been thinking along those lines," Bundy said.

Removing artifacts from federal property without a permit is illegal.


Scientists are also worried about unintentional damage that could be done to the prehistoric sites by cattle, vehicles and heavy equipment.

The group at the ranch has driven road graders and other large construction equipment around the refuge headquarters buildings, but Bundy said Thursday they haven't used the machinery to move any earth. He wouldn't rule out that possibility, however.

In 2014, Ryan Bundy and supporters of the Bundy family rode ATVs on federal land closed to motorized vehicles in Utah as part of a protest. Their route took them along an illegal trail that crossed through Native American archeological sites.


While well-known petroglyphs or other prehistoric sites are occasionally publicized for public viewing, federal land managers often go to great lengths to keep such locations secret when they can't be safely protected from vandals and looters. Looting has long been a problem at the refuge, with the first documented instance recorded in 1979, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service's comprehensive conservation plan.

"It's a huge problem in Oregon, especially in the southeast portion of the state," said Dennis Griffin, the state's archaeologist. "More often than not, when they are caught, it's connected to drug running or seeking quick money on eBay." An online search of "great basin artifacts for sale" yields arrowheads, stone pestles and other items, many priced at hundreds of dollars each.


Burnside said the artifacts are part of the ancestry of the Burns Paiute Tribe and are priceless to science. "There's so much you can gain from looking at one artifact: Where the stone came from, how far they traveled, how it was used, the skill of the person who made it," she said.

The tribe works extensively with federal officials on the archeology projects. In her letter, Rodrique said the tribe knows it's a difficult time for Burnside and other refuge employees, and thanked the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for its cooperation and help.

"All I want is that our past be respected, that things don't go by the wayside, that they're not destroyed by cattle," Rodrique said in a phone interview.

"Their history is being hijacked by these people," said Donald Grayson, an anthropologist and archeology expert at the University of Washington.


Bundy said people interested in archeology are welcome to explore the refuge, but that cattle ranchers and loggers should have priority when it comes to land use.

"Before white man came, so to speak, there was nothing to keep cattle from tromping on those things," Bundy said. Though some countries had domesticated cattle 10,000 years ago, the animals came to the United States with European settlers.

"We also recognize that the Native Americans had the claim to the land, but they lost that claim," Bundy said. "There are things to learn from cultures of the past, but the current culture is the most important."

Boone, Rebecca. 2016. “4,000 artifacts stored at Oregon refuge held by armed group (Update)”. Posted: January 15, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Genetic data does not support ancient trans-Atlantic migration, professor says

A few recent publications and documentaries have hypothesized about an ancient trans-Atlantic migration that possibly could mean ancient Europeans or ancient Israelites contributed to the population of Native Americans, often called an "Ice Age Columbus."

However, Jennifer Raff, a University of Kansas assistant professor of anthropology, said mitochondrial and genomic data that scientists have recovered don't support such an early wave of migrants.

"That hypothesis is only held by a very tiny minority of the archaeological community, but nevertheless it gets a lot of attention from people who have a casual interest in American archaeology," said Raff, lead author of a recent article in the journal PaleoAmerica on the issue. "When we summarize the genetic results we have, we find nothing that's consistent with these hypothesized trans-Atlantic migrations."

Raff and co-author Deborah Bolnick, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin, published the article that evaluated these hypotheses in light of current genetic evidence from ancient and present-day Native Americans. They concluded that genetic data scientists have recovered to date only supports a migration from Siberia into the Americas and does not show evidence of earlier migrations from ancient Israelites or inhabitants of what is now Europe. Within the next month, the journal article will available to the public via open access, Raff said.

The genetic piece of one recent argument for a trans-Atlantic migration—known as the Solutrean hypothesis—contended that the presence of mitochondrial haplogroup X2a in Native American populations provided evidence for ancient gene flow from Europe or the Middle East into North America. The hypothesis suggested that the North American Clovis culture dated roughly 13,000 years ago was directly descended from the Solutrean culture of southwestern Europe dated roughly 23,000 years before present.

However, Raff and Bolnick said in analyzing all recent genetic studies of the earliest Native Americans they didn't find anything consistent with a possible early trans-Atlantic migration. For example, the recent publication of the complete genome from the 8,500-year-old Kennewick Man, found in Washington state in 1996, showed that he belonged to haplogroup X2a but had no indication of recent European ancestry throughout the rest of his genome. Michael Crawford, head of KU's Laboratory of Biological Anthropology and a professor of anthropology, was a co-author on that genetic project.

Raff said it was significant that Kennewick Man was on the West Coast, as it put the oldest and most ancestral lineage of X2a ever recovered in a geographic region more consistent with a migration from Siberia across the land bridge known as Beringia, which no longer exists between Alaska and Siberia, than a migration across the Atlantic. Prior to the sequencing of his genome, Kennewick Man had been used as an argument to support non-Siberian ancestry, because his skull looked different from those of later Native Americans. But his genome, and that of other ancient Americans with distinctive skull shapes, showed that was not true.

"When you look at the complete genome of ancient Native Americans up until now, we see no evidence for ancient European ancestry," she said.

Proponents of an early trans-Atlantic migration typically point to a similarity in the tools used by Clovis people—ancient Native Americans—with the early Solutrean hunter-gatherer people in Europe, Raff said.

However, most anthropologists and archaeologists consider that a coincidence, especially because the genetic evidence thus far doesn't seem to support the early trans-Atlantic migration. Raff said it was important to accurately examine the populating of the Americas, especially because many times in American history those who favor the idea of a European influence upon Native Americans have used that to take away from their tribal sovereignty and cultural achievements.

"That is really troubling not just because it's bad science, but also because it's trying to disassociate contemporary Native Americans from their history," Raff said. "Even though I don't believe authors of the Solutrean hypothesis intended it this way, it's just another facet of that move to separate Native Americans from their ancestors."

Diepenbrock, George.2016. “Genetic data does not support ancient trans-Atlantic migration, professor says”. Posted: January 15, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Forensic research on modern child abuse can shed light on past cultures

Biological anthropologists look at skeletal remains of past cultures to gain insight into how earlier peoples lived, and forensic anthropologists work with modern-day law enforcement to decipher skeletal evidence and solve crimes. Forensic experts at North Carolina State University have now published guidance on how research into modern-day forensic analysis of child-abuse victims can be used to shed light on how children of earlier cultures were treated.

"Unfortunately, we have a lot of experience in studying the skeletal remains of children in criminal investigations to determine how they were treated and how they died," says Ann Ross, a professor of anthropology at NC State and lead author of a paper describing the work. "We can use what we've learned in modern populations to provide insight into the behavior of historic and prehistoric populations -- particularly in regard to child labor, child abuse and child murder."

The skeletons of children are vastly different from those of adults; they're not just smaller. In their paper, the researchers draw on decades of research to explain how the biomechanics and healing of child skeletons change, depending on the child's age.

The researchers pay particular attention to how anthropologists can differentiate between accidental and intentional injuries in children.

"For example, some combinations of injuries are highly indicative of abuse, such as multiple rib fractures at different stages of healing," Ross says. "That's a red flag."

The researchers also include a modern-day case study as an example of how difficult it can be to interpret the skeletal evidence. In this case, what first looked like a case of physical abuse turned out to be a case of child neglect -- with some of the skeletal abnormalities being caused by rickets and scurvy.

"This sort of neglect, or absence of care, is still abuse," Ross says. "But it's important, in a criminal context, for us to understand what happened. It's also important for us to understand these differences if we want to learn more about the behavior of earlier societies and cultures.

"Our goal here is to give biological anthropologists clinical methods to help them interpret skeletal remains based on the best scientific data."

Science Daily. 2016. “Forensic research on modern child abuse can shed light on past cultures”. Science Daily. Posted: January 14, 2016. Available online:

Monday, February 22, 2016

Here's how genetics helped crack the history of human migration

Over the past 25 years, scientists have supported the view that modern humans left Africa around 50,000 years ago, spreading to different parts of the world by replacing resident human species like the Neanderthals. However, rapid advances in genetic sequencing have opened up a whole new window into the past, suggesting that human history is much more complicated.

In fact, genetic studies in the last few years have revealed that since our African exodus, humans have moved and mixed a lot more than previously thought – particularly over the last 10,000 years. The technology Our ability to sequence DNA has increased dramatically since the human genome was first sequenced 15 years ago. In its most basic form, genetic analysis involves comparing DNA from different sets of people, whether between people with or without a particular type of cancer, or individuals from different regions of the world. The human genome is 3 billion letters long, but as people differ at just one letter in every thousand, on average, we don't have to look at them all. Instead, we can compare people where we know there are these differences, known as genetic markers. Millions of these markers have been discovered and, together with a genetic sequencing technology that allows us to cheaply look at these markers in lots of people, there has been an explosion in the data available to geneticists. But while these analyses have shed light on different genetic associations, they have been unable to fully explain the genetic architecture of disease. It is becoming increasingly clear that rare genetic variants with small effects are likely to play a key role in genetic susceptibility to disease. And, because they are rare, finding these variants requires a whole-genome's worth of sequence.

For that reason, the last ten years has also seen huge innovation in the technology available to read every letter of a genome. Today's genome sequencing technologies typically work by breaking up DNA into billions of little pieces and then sequencing each of them separately but simultaneously in order to combine them into a full genome.

Out of Africa … and back

In addition to their use in medical genetics, these data are providing us with an increasingly sophisticated view of human history. When living things die, their DNA doesn't disappear immediately; it slowly degrades over time. This means that the DNA of long dead people can still be found in fossils and skeletons, but it will be have been broken down into small pieces, perfect for modern sequencing technologies.

Take the "out of Africa" theory as an example. Based on archaeology and limited genetics, the established view was that humans left Africa at some point within the last 100,000 years, spreading out to eventually inhabit the rest of the world, replacing older resident species of humans. While more advanced genetics has confirmed this to be roughly the case, it has also shown that it is not the full story.

Ancient DNA sequenced from fossils has taught us that, following the initial expansion out of Africa, the ancestors of non-Africans lived side-by-side and interbred with Neanderthals some 37,000 to 42,000 years ago, rather than just pushing them out. We also know that the ancestors of some Asian groups interbred with a different group of archaic human – known only from their DNA – called the Denisovans.

Ancient DNA also allows us to directly view the genomes of past populations. For example, we now know that in Europe, the farming revolution some 8,000 years ago was accompanied by the movement of people and was not just the spread of a clever idea. There was a subsequent mass migration of people into central Europe from the Russian Steppe which potentially brought Indo-European languages into the continent. A recent genetic study found that the ability of modern Europeans to digest the lactose in milk into adulthood may be traced to these migrants from Russia. It also traced blue eyes in modern Europeans back to European hunter gatherers of the Mesolithic period (10,000-5,000BC), while light skin may have come from migrants from the Middle East.

Further ancient population mixing happened in Africa when a significant movement of Eurasian people spread back into the continent within the last 3,000 years. In fact, one study estimated that between 4-7% of most African genomes may have come from this gene flow.

Analyses of modern-day human populations have shown that a lot of mixing has happened within the last 2,000 years, with populations moving both within and between continents. For example, during their expansions in the 13th century, the Mongols left a trail of DNA across Asia and into Eastern Europe, and towards the end of the first millennium AD, Arabs brought North and West African DNA into southern Europe. In effect, this means that populations did not extend to the far reaches of the world and remained in isolation. Once settled, these groups continued to share their DNA.

What this tells us is that our history is messy: we are all the product of a tangled bush of genetic relationships between different ancient and modern human groups. Our genes demonstrate that none of us can claim to have ancestry from just a single region or place, as people have been on the move throughout history. Food for thought indeed when migration is so high on the political agenda.
Reference: 2016. “Here's how genetics helped crack the history of human migration”. Posted: January 14, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Teenagers' role in language change is overstated, linguistics research finds

If you're too "basic" to "YOLO" or think that slang is never "on fleek," fear not: How teenagers speak IRL is not ruining the English language, according to Kansas State University linguistics research.

In fact, teenagers may not be causing language change the way that we typically think, said Mary Kohn, assistant professor of English. Kohn studies language variation and how language changes over time.

Kohn's latest research found that teenagers are not solely causing language change. Rather, language changes occur throughout a lifetime and not just during the teenage years.

"Our research has shown teens are being dynamic with language, but not necessarily in a consistent way," Kohn said. "We aren't eliminating the possibility that teenagers are driving sound change, but we might be grossly overstating the role of teenagers."

Kohn found there was not a consistent language path that a person took from childhood through adolescence and into adulthood. Language change is more individualistic and varies for each person, she said.

"Very commonly, people think that teenagers are ruining language because they are texting or using shorthand or slang," Kohn said. "But our language is constantly developing and changing and becoming what it needs to be for the generation who is speaking it. As a linguist, I find this really exciting because it shows me that our language is alive."

Kohn used the Frank Porter Graham project, which is a database that followed 67 children from infancy to their early 20s. The database includes audio and interview recordings from nearly every year of the children's lives and also has recordings of family members, friends and teachers -- all valuable information for understanding how language changes as individuals grow up, Kohn said.

Using this database, Kohn studied sound waves -- a precise measurement of how people pronounce words. She focused on 20 individuals during four different time periods: fourth grade, eighth grade, 10th grade and post-high school at age 20. Kohn measured pronunciations to see if the participants dramatically changed during the teenage years. Her longitudinal approach offered a before and after look at linguistic pronunciation during the teenage years.

"The teenager subgroup did not stand out as a group from the rest of the subgroups, meaning there was nothing special about being a teenager," Kohn said. "Just because you are a teenager doesn't mean you will change your language. Perhaps our stereotypes about how teenagers speak are often based on subgroups of teenagers that stand out to us as most distinct. We notice the kids who make bold fashion statements, so we also might notice the kids who are making dramatic linguistic changes."

Other subgroups experience language change, Kohn said, and she suggests that sources of language change may happen in younger children. Children turn away from adult influence when they get to school, which may be the crucial point when language starts to shift.

During high school, teenagers often explore their own identities and may again choose to change their pronunciations and use language as a part of their identities. When these teens grow up and graduate from college or get a job, they may change their language again to sound more professional and meet the demands of their jobs and pressures of the workplace, Kohn said.

"All languages, throughout history, change as generations grow up and move through life," Kohn said. "As long as there are people who are living and breathing and speaking, we're going to invent new words. We're going to invent new ways of speaking."

Kohn recently published the research in a monograph, "The way I communicate changes but how I speak don't." The research was a collaboration with researchers at North Carolina State University, including Walt Wolfrom, Janneke Van Hofwegen, Charlie Farington and Jennifer Renn.

Science Daily. 2016. “Teenagers' role in language change is overstated, linguistics research finds”. Science Daily. Posted: January 14, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Mammoth injuries indicate humans occupied Arctic earlier than thought

The carcass of a frozen mammoth with signs of weapon-inflicted injuries suggests humans were present in the Eurasian Arctic ten millennia earlier than previously thought. These results, which provide perhaps the oldest known story of human survival in the Arctic region, date human presence there to roughly 45,000 years ago, instead of 35,000 years ago, as previously thought. Paleolithic records of humans in the Eurasian Arctic are scarce. In 2012, a team led by Alexei Tikhonov excavated a partial carcass of a male woolly mammoth from frozen sediments in a coastal bluff on the eastern shore of Yenisei Bay, in the central Siberian Arctic. Through radiocarbon dating of the animal's tibia bone and surrounding materials, the researchers dated it at 45,000 years old. The mammoth's bones exhibited a number of unusual injuries on the ribs, right tusk and mandible. Tikhonov, Vladimir Pitulko and colleagues analyzed these injuries. They include dents likely from sharp weapon tips such as thrusting spears and damage to the tusk suggestive of human attempts to separate the outside of the tusk by chopping. These findings leave no doubt, say the study's authors, that people were present in the central Siberian Arctic by about 45,000 years ago. Advancements in mammoth hunting probably allowed people to survive and spread widely across northernmost Arctic Siberia at this time, the researchers say, representing an important cultural shift - one that likely facilitated the arrival of humans in the area close to the Bering land bridge, providing them an opportunity to enter the New World before the Last Glacial Maximum.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Mammoth injuries indicate humans occupied Arctic earlier than thought”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 14, 2016. Available online:

Friday, February 19, 2016

Ötzi’s maternal genetic line originated in the Alps and is now extinct

A recent study on the DNA of Helicobacter pylori, the pathogen extracted from the stomach of Ötzi, the ice mummy who has provided valuable information on the life of Homo Sapiens. New research at the European Academy of Bolzano/Bozen (EURAC) further clarifies the genetic history of the man who lived in the Eastern Alps over 5,300 years ago.

In 2012 a complete analysis of the Y chromosome (transmitted from fathers to their sons) showed that Ötzi’s paternal genetic line is still present in modern-day populations. In contrast, studies of mitochondrial DNA (transmitted solely via the mother to her offspring) left many questions still open. To clarify whether the genetic maternal line of the Iceman, who lived in the eastern Alps over 5,300 years ago, has left its mark in current populations, researchers at the European Academy of Bolzano/Bozen (EURAC) have now compared his mitochondrial DNA with 1,077 modern samples. The study concluded that the Iceman’s maternal line — named K1f — is now extinct.

A second part of the study, a comparison of genetic data of the mummy with data from other European Neolithic samples, provided information regarding the origin of K1f: researchers postulate that the mitochondrial lineage of the Iceman originated locally in the Alps, in a population that did not grow demographically.

The study, which also clarifies Ötzi’s genetic history in the context of European demographic changes from Neolithic times onwards, was published in Scientific Reports (open access).

“The mummy’s mitochondrial DNA was the first to be analysed, in 1994.” says Valentina Coia, a biologist at EURAC and first author of the study. “It was relatively easy to analyse and — along with the Y chromosome — allows us to go back in time, telling us about the genetic history of an individual. Despite this, the genetic relationship between the Iceman’s maternal lineage and lineages found in modern populations was not yet clear.”

The most recent study regarding the analysis of Ötzi’s complete mitochondrial DNA, conducted in 2008 by other research teams showed that the Iceman’s maternal lineage — named K1f — was no longer traceable in modern populations. The study did not make clear, however, whether this was due to an insufficient number of comparison samples or whether K1f was indeed extinct. Valentina Coia explains further: “The first hypothesis could not be ruled out given that the study considered only 85 modern comparison samples from the K1 lineage — the genetic lineage that also includes that of Ötzi — which comprised few samples from Europe and especially none from the eastern Alps, which are home to populations that presumably have a genetic continuity with the Iceman. To test the two hypotheses, we needed to compare Ötzi’s mitochondrial DNA with a larger number of modern samples.” The EURAC research team, in collaboration with the Sapienza University of Rome and the University of Santiago de Compostela, thus compared the mitochondrial DNA of the Iceman with that from 1,077 individuals belonging to the K1 lineage, of which 42 samples originated from the eastern Alps and were for the first time analysed in this study. The new comparison showed that neither the Iceman’s lineage nor any other evolutionarily close lineages are present in modern populations: the researchers therefore lean towards the hypothesis that Ötzi’s maternal genetic branch has died out.

It remains to be explained why Ötzi’s maternal lineage has disappeared, while his paternal lineage– named G2a–still exists in Europe. To clarify this point, researchers at EURAC compared Ötzi’s mitochondrial DNA and Y chromosome with available data from numerous ancient samples found at 14 different archaeological sites throughout Europe. The results showed that the paternal lineage of Ötzi was very common in different regions in Europe during the Neolithic age, while his maternal lineage probably existed only in the Alps.

Putting together the genetic data on the ancient and modern samples, namely those already present in the literature and those analysed in this study, researchers have now proposed the following scenario to explain the Iceman’s genetic history: Ötzi’s paternal lineage, G2a, is part of an ancient genetic substrate that arrived in Europe from the Near East with the migrations of the first Neolithic peoples some 8,000 years ago. Additional migrations and other demographic events occurring after the Neolithic Age in Europe then partially replaced G2a with other lineages, except in geographically isolated areas such as Sardinia. In contrast, the Iceman’s maternal branch originated locally in the eastern Alps at least 5,300 years ago. The same migrations that have replaced only in part his paternal lineage caused the extinction of his maternal lineage that was inherited in a small and demographic stationary population. The groups from the eastern Alps in fact significantly increased in size only from the Bronze Age onwards, as evidenced by archaeological studies conducted in the territory inhabited by the Iceman.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Ötzi’s maternal genetic line originated in the Alps and is now extinct”. Past Horizons. Posted: January 14, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Archaeologists Find World’s Oldest Tea in the Tomb of a Han Dynasty Emperor

Archaeologists exploring a nearly 2,200-year-old Chinese tomb belonging to an emperor of the Han Dynasty recently stumbled on a treasure: the oldest tea ever found. This new find not only provides new evidence that ancient Chinese royalty drank tea, but could reveal new details about the history of the Silk Road.

The ancient tea was discovered in the Han Yang Lin Mausoleum, a tomb built for the ancient Han emperor Jing Di near the modern-day city of Xi’an in western China. When the tomb was excavated during the 1990’s, archaeologists discovered many treasures, including pottery figures, weapons, and even several chariots complete with horses.

Alongside these relics, the researchers also discovered a mass of partially-decomposed plants. Some of these 2,150-year-old remains were preserved so well that researchers could identify grains like millet and rice. But it took a team of scientists armed with specialized equipment decades to realize that this mysterious brick of plant matter was actually ancient tea, Sarah Laskow reports for Atlas Obscura.

“The discovery shows how modern science can reveal important previously unknown details about ancient Chinese culture,” Dorian Fuller, Director of the International Center for Chinese Heritage and Archaeology in London, who was not involved in the study, tells David Keys for the Independent. “The identification of the tea found in the emperor’s tomb complex gives us a rare glimpse into very ancient traditions which shed light on the origins of one of the world’s favorite beverages.”

Archaeologists exploring a nearly 2,200-year-old Chinese tomb belonging to an emperor of the Han Dynasty recently stumbled on a treasure: the oldest tea ever found. This new find not only provides new evidence that ancient Chinese royalty drank tea, but could reveal new details about the history of the Silk Road.

The ancient tea was discovered in the Han Yang Lin Mausoleum, a tomb built for the ancient Han emperor Jing Di near the modern-day city of Xi’an in western China. When the tomb was excavated during the 1990’s, archaeologists discovered many treasures, including pottery figures, weapons, and even several chariots complete with horses.

Alongside these relics, the researchers also discovered a mass of partially-decomposed plants. Some of these 2,150-year-old remains were preserved so well that researchers could identify grains like millet and rice. But it took a team of scientists armed with specialized equipment decades to realize that this mysterious brick of plant matter was actually ancient tea, Sarah Laskow reports for Atlas Obscura.

“The discovery shows how modern science can reveal important previously unknown details about ancient Chinese culture,” Dorian Fuller, Director of the International Center for Chinese Heritage and Archaeology in London, who was not involved in the study, tells David Keys for the Independent. “The identification of the tea found in the emperor’s tomb complex gives us a rare glimpse into very ancient traditions which shed light on the origins of one of the world’s favorite beverages.” In the study, published in Nature’s open access journal, Scientific Reports, the researchers note that although the first unambiguous written reference to tea dates back to 59 B.C., the exact origins of one of the world’s most popular beverages is still a mystery.

It’s popularity among the western Uighur people and northern Chinese is generally attributed to the Tang Dynasty that ruled during the 7th and 8th centuries A.D., and the previous oldest sample of tea remains dates back to about 1,000 years ago.

The researchers identified the remains as tea leaves by examining the tiny crystals on their surface, according to the study. This showed that the tea was likely a particularly fine one made from young, unopened tea buds and dates back to around 141 B.C., when Emperor Jing Di died and was sealed in his tomb.

This discovery not only indicates that Jing Di was a big tea drinker, but suggests that tea was already being exported to Tibet along trade routes that may have helped blaze the trail for the Silk Road, which starts in Xi’an, Laskow reports. But while these details help paint a clearer picture of how tea became so popular, for now, its origins are still shrouded in mystery.

Lewis, Danny. 2016. “Archaeologists Find World’s Oldest Tea in the Tomb of a Han Dynasty Emperor”. Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: January 13, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Plague may have persisted in Europe during 300-year period, including 'Black Death'

The bacteria that causes plague, Y. pestis, may have persisted long-term in Europe from the 14th to 17th century in an unknown reservoir, according to a study published January 13, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Lisa Seifert from Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany, and colleagues.

Not all researchers agree about the role Yersinia pestis played in the second plague pandemic which occurred from the 14th to 17th century. Some suggest it may have been a result of a viral disease; however, most recent research on ancient plague demonstrates that the deadly disease existed thousands of years earlier than previously thought. In this study researchers recovered and analyzed ancient DNA from 30 plague victims of the second plague pandemic. They were excavated from two different burial sites in Germany, and spanning more than 300 years.

Of 30 skeletons tested, eight were positive for Yersinia pestis-specific nucleic acid. All positive individuals genetic material were highly similar to previously investigated plague victims from other European countries and had identical Y. pestis genotype. The author suggest that in addition to the assumed continuous reintroduction of Y. pestis from central Asia in multiple waves during the second pandemic, it's also possible that Y. pestis persisted long-term in Europe in a yet unknown reservoir host.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Plague may have persisted in Europe during 300-year period, including 'Black Death'”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 13, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Stone Tools Point to Mysterious Neighbor of Flores ‘Hobbit’

Stone tools found on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi predate the arrival of modern humans to the area by more than 60,000 years—but researchers aren’t sure who made them.

The perplexing artifacts, announced on Wednesday in Nature, are most likely between 118,000 and 194,000 years old, though some may be even older. The keen-edged flakes of stone were excavated from an ancient river floodplain in southwest Sulawesi, near the present-day village of Talepu. Some even bear telltale signs of being hammered into shape.

But today’s best evidence indicates that modern Homo sapiens didn’t arrive on neighboring islands until about 50,000 years ago, well after the mysterious toolmakers left their wares behind. The find further indicates that some earlier form of human was more successful at traversing the south Pacific’s island networks than previously believed.

“It’s an excellent paper,” says paleoanthropologist Russell Ciochon of the University of Iowa, who wasn’t involved with the study. “It establishes for certain that an archaic human was living in Sulawesi ... And that’s an exciting finding.”

Gerrit van den Bergh of the University of Wollongong in Australia, the study’s lead author, says that the tools likely were made by Homo erectus, an ancient hominin that lived on nearby islands beginning at least 1.5 million years ago. It’s also possible that the toolmakers are yet-undiscovered relatives of Homo floresiensis, a “hobbit” hominin found on the island of Flores, just south of Sulawesi, between 18,000 and 95,000 years ago, if not earlier.

But the team can’t say for sure which ancient human made the tools. The flakes—crafted from broken riverbed cobbles—aren’t distinctive enough to point to any particular toolmaker: For more than three million years, numerous species of ancient humans made tools using similarly simple methods.

And Homo erectus and the meter-tall Homo floresiensis used tools of various sizes, making it impossible to use the tools’ dimensions to determine their owners’ stature.

“Tiny hominins with tiny hands might still have used outsized artifacts, and vice-versa,” says Adam Brumm of Griffith University in Australia, a co-author of the study and an expert on Homo floresiensis tools.

Early Arrivals, Early Departures

The find underscores that ancient humans were surprisingly mobile, proliferating across the South Pacific long before the arrival of seafaring modern humans—a fact advanced by University of New England archaeologist Michael Morwood, the co-discoverer of Homo floresiensis and the study’s senior author. (Morwooddied unexpectedly in 2013.)

Prior to Morwood and others’ work, scientists had surmised that ancient humans couldn’t have crossed the powerful ocean currents between Flores and the islands to the west without boats, preventing the island’s habitation until Homo sapiens arrived between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago.

But finds on Flores clearly show that ancient humans lived for hundreds of thousands of years on the island, perhaps descended from Homo erectus individuals washed eastward atop tsunami debris. Some Flores tools have even been dated to more than a million years old.

Morwood’s team then turned its focus to Sulawesi, where researchers had been stumbling across stone tools since at least the 1970s. But these artifacts had not been found in a geological context that would assign them a date.

Researchers finally struck pay dirt in 2007, when van den Bergh walked along a newly built road in Talepu with a member of the local cultural heritage department—and spotted stone tools in the exposed hillside. “There were so many artifacts, we just had to dig there,” says van den Bergh. “We were quite lucky, I guess.”

The team excavated the site from 2007 to 2012. At the time, Morwood was confident that the tools they found were at least as old as the Flores remains. In a 2010 interview with The Guardian, Morwood teased that the Sulawesi tools could be up to two million years old, a find that, if it held, would further upend anthropologists’ understanding of when humans arrived in the south Pacific.

But Talepu’s complicated geochemistry stymied efforts to date the tools until Bo Li of the University of Wollongong employed a laborious, state-of-the-art dating method, called MET-pIRIR, on mineral grains found with the tools. When he combined the mineral dating with other data, Li determined that the tools were most likely between 118,000 and 194,000 years ago, and no more than 780,000 years old.

Morwood died before he received confirmation of the tools’ ancient origins. His colleagues, however, are keeping his vision alive, and plan to return to Sulawesi to hunt for fossils of the enigmatic humans who left behind the riverside tools.

When asked how Morwood would have proceeded after publishing this study, Brumm says: “...with a twinkle in his eyes, he would have said, ‘So where shall we dig next? He was not one to bask in glory. There was always another, more interesting hominin fossil to find. And he badly wanted to find it.”

Morwood’s team then turned its focus to Sulawesi, where researchers had been stumbling across stone tools since at least the 1970s. But these artifacts had not been found in a geological context that would assign them a date.

Researchers finally struck pay dirt in 2007, when van den Bergh walked along a newly built road in Talepu with a member of the local cultural heritage department—and spotted stone tools in the exposed hillside. “There were so many artifacts, we just had to dig there,” says van den Bergh. “We were quite lucky, I guess.”

The team excavated the site from 2007 to 2012. At the time, Morwood was confident that the tools they found were at least as old as the Flores remains. In a 2010 interview with The Guardian, Morwood teased that the Sulawesi tools could be up to two million years old, a find that, if it held, would further upend anthropologists’ understanding of when humans arrived in the south Pacific.

But Talepu’s complicated geochemistry stymied efforts to date the tools until Bo Li of the University of Wollongong employed a laborious, state-of-the-art dating method, called MET-pIRIR, on mineral grains found with the tools. When he combined the mineral dating with other data, Li determined that the tools were most likely between 118,000 and 194,000 years ago, and no more than 780,000 years old.

Morwood died before he received confirmation of the tools’ ancient origins. His colleagues, however, are keeping his vision alive, and plan to return to Sulawesi to hunt for fossils of the enigmatic humans who left behind the riverside tools.

When asked how Morwood would have proceeded after publishing this study, Brumm says: “...with a twinkle in his eyes, he would have said, ‘So where shall we dig next? He was not one to bask in glory. There was always another, more interesting hominin fossil to find. And he badly wanted to find it.”

Greshko, Michael. 2016. “Stone Tools Point to Mysterious Neighbor of Flores ‘Hobbit’”. National Geographic News. Posted: January 13, 2016. Available online:

Monday, February 15, 2016

Stone Age Horror! Pit Filled with Severed Limbs Uncovered

An ancient pit filled with severed human arms, hands and fingers has been unearthed in France.

The nearly 6,000-year-old pit was found near the village of Bergheim, which sits near the border with Germany.

"The discovery of Bergheim is the witness of a very violent event, which took place at a specific time," said study co-author Fanny Chenal, an archaeologist at the University of Strasbourg in France. "Its unique and extraordinary nature does not allow or help us to better understand the daily life of these people."

And though Chenal and her colleagues don't know exactly what spurred people to such gory acts, the likeliest explanation is a violent skirmish or war, the researchers speculate in the December 2015 issue of the journal Antiquity. 

Grisly find

Like many of Europe's archaeological treasures, the pit was discovered in 2012 by chance. An archaeological surveying company was overseeing excavations in advance of property development in Bergheim when they uncovered a 5-acre (2 hectares) area pockmarked with ancient pits called silos. All told, the team uncovered 60 silos, 14 of which contained human bones, the researchers wrote in the paper.

One silo, called pit 157, was utterly unlike the rest. The pit, about 5 feet (1.5 meters) in diameter and 6.5 feet (2 m) deep, was filled almost completely with human bones. 

The oldest deposit, dating to about 5,335 years ago, contained at least seven severed upper limbs, including severed and dismembered hands, fingers and arms. One of the seven limbs came from a child between 12 and 16 years old. All of the bones show cut or amputation marks, made either with a knife or an axe.

Soon after discarding the severed limbs in the pit, someone had tossed the bodies of seven other people into the pit. Those bodies included two adults and four children, including one tiny infant not more than a year old. The remains at the bottom of the pit belonged to a middle-aged man who had his arm cut off. He had also sustained several blows, including a head wound that likely killed him, the researchers wrote.  

Long after the bottom layers of boneshad settled over time, around 5,245 years ago, someone put the body of a woman into the pit. Unlike the badly disfigured bones below, this body showed no signs of violence or trauma. The pits differ dramatically from the surrounding pits, which contain bodies with little sign of violence, the researchers wrote.

"Judicial sentence and war are the two main hypotheses for explaining the amputations," Chenal told Live Science in an email.

While the team can't formally exclude the idea that Neolithic peoplewere meting out a brutal form of justice, comparisons to other, similar finds and historical data suggest war is a likelier explanation, she added.

Extraordinary event

The people who met such violent deaths were likely farmers who also herded animals and lived in villages, Chenal said. While in the past, archaeologists painted a picture of Neolithic life as idyllic and egalitarian, newer finds paint a far darker picture.

"Neolithic societies are stratified societies and 'war' (armed conflicts) were probably very common," Chenal said. "Furthermore, we have other clear evidence of violence for the time, when the limbs and bodies were deposited."

Still, the extraordinarily gruesome find is fairly unique, and no other pits from the time show such levels of extreme violence. As such, there's no way to know whether such ultraviolence was an isolated incident, she said.

Ghose, Tia. 2016. “Stone Age Horror! Pit Filled with Severed Limbs Uncovered”. Live Science. Posted: January 12, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, February 14, 2016

A cultural look at moral purity: Wiping the face clean

Moral people have a pure heart. Immoral acts feel dirty. Expressions that describe morality in terms of purity abound in English and numerous other languages. The idea is rooted in religions around the world as well. For example, ritual purification of the physical body symbolizes moral purification, from baptism of Christianity and mikvah of Judaism, to ablution of Islam and Buddhism, to bathing in the Ganges of Hinduism and amrit of Sikhism. Across human societies, bodily purity seems deeply intertwined with morality. Does it imply that the morality-purity link is a universal psychological phenomenon?

The answer turns out to be Yes and No--it depends on what exactly we want universal to mean, according to a new study by Prof. Spike W. S. Lee of the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and colleagues Jin Wan of the University of Groningen, Honghong Tang and Chao Liu of Beijing Normal University and Xiaoqin Mai of Renmin University of China.

"If by universal we mean, 'Does the general link between morality and purity exist across cultures?', then yes, it appears to. But if by universal we mean, 'Does the link manifest itself in identical ways across cultures?', then no, it doesn't," says Prof. Lee.

Consider East Asians. Cultural psychologists have long observed that East Asians care a lot about their "face," or the public image of one's self. It is evident in their tendency to avoid "losing face," which happens when they are seen acting selfishly, disloyally, or inappropriately, and in their keenness to "gain face" by moving up the social hierarchy so that others "give face" to them. Psychologists call them a "face" culture.

Given East Asians' special emphasis on the face as a representation of public self-image, Prof. Lee and his colleagues hypothesized that facial purification might have particularly powerful moral effects among members of a face culture. They conducted several experiments to find out.

In one experiment, after people recall their immoral behavior, whereas hands-cleaning effectively reduces guilt and regret against a Western backdrop, face-cleaning is more effective against an East Asian backdrop. Face-cleaning frees East Asians from the urge to engage in guilt-driven compensatory prosocial behavior. In the wake of their immorality, East Asians find a face-cleaning product especially appealing and spontaneously choose to wipe their face clean.

These results suggest that moral purity is both universal and culturally variable. Its existence is found East and West. But the specific form of purification may differ from one culture to another. Whether people should wipe their hands or face clean--or rinse their mouth, or shampoo their hair, or wash their feet--is likely to depend on the cultural meanings attached to each body part.

Eurkalert. 2016. “A cultural look at moral purity: Wiping the face clean”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 12, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, February 13, 2016

New digital tools could help speed up cultural heritage work

The EU-funded PRESIOUS project has developed software tools that could help improve the efficiency of the work of European archaeologists at a time when funding is tight , and shown that computer simulation can play a key role in assisting researchers across a range of disciplines, including the preservation of cultural heritage artefacts. Once the project is completed, these tools will be made freely available for archaeologists to download, while the consortium's industry partner has used some of the advances made.

'We set out to address some of the challenges that archaeologists face in their everyday work,' explains project coordinator Professor Theoharis Theoharis from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

'In order to better understand what monuments will look like under certain erosive conditions for example, we built simulation software – within the timescale and resources available – that enables an archaeologist to scan a stone object and estimate erosion patterns under different conditions.'

A second aim was to develop simulation software to help archaeologists piece together fragmented findings, like solving a 3D puzzle. 'During a dig, archaeologists will often come across thousands of fragments,' says Theoharis. 'Piecing these together involves quadratic complexity, which we computing scientists fully understand.' The second tool developed by the project team automatically proposes possible fits based on the digitised fragments.

The third solution involved developing software capable of filling in gaps in archaeological objects with symmetry. Once fragments have been painstakingly reconstructed, final artefacts are often still missing pieces. The new software tool works by recognising symmetries and geometric patterns in the artefact, and from this information, offers logical suggestions to fill in the gaps, to aid restoration.

'But in order to develop these technologies, we had to address a key bottleneck – the expense and labour intensive nature of digitisation,' says Theoharis. 'We found that it took a trained operator two and a half hours to scan just one fragment. So the fourth thing we did was speed up the digitisation process with our industrial partner.'

This was achieved through the development of predictive scanning, which uses predictions based on 3D object retrieval from repositories of previously digitised objects in order to speed up the scanning process. This technique is useful for applications where cost reductions are imperative and precision scanning is not necessarily the end goal, as is the case for some archaeological applications.

'We did discuss the possibility of commercialising our software, but the academic project partners understood that our end users – archaeologists – work under harsh funding constraints,' says Theoharis. 'So these tools will go live free once the project ends (in January 2016). In addition, we have a great deal of data and research results that we intend to make available online. There were many related cultural heritage issues that we would have liked to tackle, so we hope that by making this information available, the research work will continue.'

Feedback from the archaeological community at various conferences, seminars and demonstrations has been very positive, and Theoharis is confident that the PRESIOUS tools will directly contribute to the preservation of European cultural heritage.
Reference: 2016. "New digital tools could help speed up cultural heritage work”. Posted: January 11, 2016. Available online:

Friday, February 12, 2016

Prosthetic Leg with Hoofed Foot Discovered in Ancient Chinese Tomb

The 2,200-year-old remains of a man with a deformed knee attached to a prosthetic leg tipped with a horse hoof have been discovered in a tomb in an ancient cemetery near Turpan, China.

The tomb holds the man and a younger woman, who may or may not have known the male occupant, scientists say.  

"The excavators soon came to find that the left leg of the male occupant is deformed, with the patella, femur and tibia [fused] together and fixed at 80 [degrees]," archaeologists wrote in a paper published recently in the journal Chinese Archaeology.

The fused knee would have made it hard for the man to walk or ride horses without the prosthetic leg, the researchers found. The man couldn't straighten his left leg out so the prosthetic leg, when attached, allowed the left leg to touch the floor when walking. The horse hoof at the bottom of the prosthetic leg acted like a foot.

The prosthetic leg was "made of poplar wood; it has seven holes along the two sides with leather tapes for attaching it to the deformed leg," the archaeologists wrote. "The lower part of the prosthetic leg is rendered into a cylindrical shape, wrapped with a scrapped ox horn and tipped with a horsehoof, which is meant to augment its adhesion and abrasion."

"The severe wear of the top implies that it has been in use for a long time," they added.

Radiocarbon dating indicates that the tomb in Turpan (also spelled Turfan) dates back around 2,200 years. The only other known prosthetic leg in the world that dates to that time is part of a bronze leg found in Capua, Italy. That leg was destroyed in a bombing raid during World War II. Prosthetic toes, dating to earlier times, have been found in Egypt.

Who used it?

Two other studies, published in the journals Bridging Eurasia and Quaternary International, provide more details about the man who used the hoofed leg. Researchers estimate that the man was about 5 feet 7 inches (1.7 meters) tall, and between 50 and 65 years old when he died.

What caused the odd fusion of his left knee joint? "Different causes, like inflammation in or around the joint, rheumatism or trauma, might have resulted in this pathological change," archaeologists wrote in the journal Bridging Eurasia.

Researchers found evidence that the man was infected with tuberculosis at some point in his life. They think that inflammation from the infection may have resulted in a bony growth that allowed his knee to fuse together. "The smooth surface of the bones affected by the ankyloses [joint fusion] suggests the active inflammatory process stopped years before death," the researchers wrote in Bridging Eurasia.

The man appears to have been a person of modest means, as he was buried with nonluxurious items: ceramic cups and a jar, a wooden plate and wooden bows, the archaeologists found. Sometime after he died, his tomb was reopened, and the body of a 20-year-old woman was put in, disturbing the man's bones. What relationship the man and woman had (if any) is unknown. The tomb was one of 30 that archaeologists excavated in the cemetery. 

Gushi people

Based on the results of the radiocarbon dating, "the occupants of the cemetery might have belonged to the Gushi [also spelled Jushi] population," archaeologists wrote in the Chinese Archaeology article. Little is known about these people. Ancient Chinese texts suggest that the Gushi had a small state. "As recorded in the Xiyu zhuan (the Account of the Western Regions) of the Hanshu (Book of Han, by Ban Gu), during the middle of the Western Han, there lived in the Turfan Basin the Gushi population, who constitutes one of the 'Thirty-six States of the Western Regions' of the Qin and Han Dynasties," the archaeologists wrote.

The Gushi state was conquered by China's Han Dynasty during a military campaign in the first century B.C., according to ancient records. "Given that the study of the Gushi culture is yet at its nascent stage, the [cemetery] provides valuable new materials," the archaeologists wrote.

Excavations at the cemetery were conducted between 2007 and 2008 by scientists at the Academia Turfanica, a research institute. A paper reporting their findings was published in 2013, in Chinese, in the journal Kaogu. That paper was recently translated and published in the journal Chinese Archaeology.

The papers reporting the study of the man's skeleton were published in 2014 in the journal Bridging Eurasia and in 2013 in the journal Quaternary International.

Jarus, Owen. 2016. “Prosthetic Leg with Hoofed Foot Discovered in Ancient Chinese Tomb”. Live Science. Posted: January 11, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Interaction during reading is key to language development

Next time you read to your baby, pay attention to his babbling and respond.

Interaction, not just the sound of words being read from a page, is the key to language development during reading.

That's according to a new study from the University of Iowa that looked at how mothers responded to their 12-month-olds during book reading, puppet play, and toy play. What researchers found is the babies made more speech-like sounds during reading than when playing with puppets or toys. They also discovered mothers were more responsive to these types of sounds while reading to their child than during the other activities.

The findings might explain why book reading has been linked to language development in young children.

"A lot of research shows that book reading even to infants as young as six months of age is important to language outcomes, but I'm trying to explain why by looking at the specifics, which could be responding to speech-like sounds," says Julie Gros-Louis, assistant professor of psychology at the UI and corresponding author on the study, published in January inLanguage Learning and Development.

"If we know what specific interactions are occurring between caregiver and child and we can link that to language outcomes, then it wouldn't just be telling parents, 'Read a lot of books to your kids,'" Gros-Louis adds. "That would definitely be important to tell them, but you could also identify specific behaviors to do during book reading."

The study also found that no matter the context, mothers' responses to speech-like sounds were often imitations or an expansion of the sound. For example, if the baby said, "Ba," the mother would respond with "Ba-ba" or "Ball," even if it had nothing to do with the story being read. Mothers frequently provided labels during reading, too.

Gros-Louis says she used mothers and their babies for this study because their interactions have been studied more than those between fathers and their children. Thus, she could more readily compare her findings to past studies.

In this case, researchers observed the interactions of 34 mothers and their 12-month-olds during three 10-minute periods of different activities: puppet play, toy play, and book reading. The hand puppet was a cloth monkey; the toy was a Fisher-Price barn with manipulative parts, such as buttons to push and knobs to turn; and the books had bright pictures and simple sentences rather than single words or labels. The babies were seated in a high chair to control proximity to their mothers and to prevent them from getting up and moving around the play room.

Researchers then coded each child's vocalizations and his or her mother's responses. Vocalizations included any sound the baby made except distress cries and fusses, hiccups, coughs, and grunts. Mothers' responses were coded for verbal content in the following categories: acknowledgments ("mmm-hmm," "uh-huh"); attributions ("it's pretty"); directives ("push that"); naming ("it's a ball"); play vocalizations ("getcha!"); questions; and imitations/expansions.

"The current findings can contribute to understanding how reading to preverbal infants is associated with language outcomes, which is not well understood in contrast to reading interactions with older toddlers," according to the study.

This isn't the first time Gros-Louis has studied how mothers respond to the babbling of their infants. In a study published in 2014, she and researchers from Indiana University found mothers who consciously engaged with their babbling 8-month-olds could accelerate their children's vocalizing and language learning.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Interaction during reading is key to language development”. EurekAlert. Posted: January 8, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Humans Leave a Telltale Residue on Earth

Evidence for a new geologic epoch continues to accumulate, like layers of sediment that over time harden into strata. Although those who study the branch of geology known as stratigraphy—the study of those strata and their resolution into Earth's vast geologic time scale—will continue to debate the idea of the Anthropocene for what may seem like eons, the record in the rock continues to pile up.

"This Anthropocene signal is global, it is sharp and all the signs are big," argues geologist Jan Zalasiewicz of Leicester University, chair of the group tasked with making a formal recommendation on the potential for a human-made, future-looking epoch. Twenty-four members of that working group, including Zalasiewicz, have just published their compilation of the gathering evidence in the January 8 Science. "A real geological phenomenon is taking place, it is still going on. In many respects, it's accelerating even as we speak."

The present geologic epoch is known as the Holocene, or "entirely recent," stretching back 11,700 years before 1950 to when the last ice age began to melt and raised sea levels by roughly 120 meters over a few millennia. During that transition, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere increased by roughly one part per million per century. More recently, however, CO2 levels have been increasing by two ppm per year, and rather than slowly returning to an ice age the world has become ever warmer, melting more ice. The rapid increase in excess CO2 comes from the fossil fuel burning and land use of one species that first appeared approximately 200,000 years ago: Homo sapiens.

In fact, rapid development of technology, swelling population and growing consumption of resources from crops to metals have expanded humanity's impacts, particularly after 1950 or so, an inflection point some have dubbed the "Great Acceleration." People have created long-lasting new materials, ranging from copper alloys to plastics that will form long-lived, so-called "technofossils." Enough concrete has been made by now to cover every square meter of the world in a kilogram of the building material. Sufficient plastic is currently manufactured each year to weigh as much as all seven billion–plus humans on the planet. People move nearly three times as much rock and dirt via mining than the amount that travels with water through all the world's rivers. Modern chemistry has even liberated civilization from the natural nitrogen cycle that has prevailed for the last 2.5 billion years. And tiny soot particles left over after burning coal, oil and natural gas now can be found in sediments from tropical lakes to the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a permanent smudge on the geologic record.

As a result, the study authors argue, Earth has entered a new epoch that is "functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene," in the words of the paper laying out the case. Humanity has even reconfigured the course of future evolution by shifting plants and animals around the globe or eliminating certain species—the same biological markers known as index fossils and used to define most of the time intervals that divide the last 540 million years, an eon known as the Phanerozoic.

Key questions remain, however, such as when specifically this new epoch began—whether it is old and pegged to the advent of farming or widespread burning of landscapes by ancient ancestors or is very new. In fact, some, including Zalasiewicz, have proposed a very precise start date for the Anthropocene: July 16, 1945, the date of the first test of an atomic bomb at Alamogordo, N.M., and the beginning of the spread of rare radioactive elements like plutonium around the globe. The roots of the Anthropocene may reach back into the Pleistocene but the most evident signs point to a new epoch that began around 1950 when human population and many other signals like bomb testing really took off, leaving manufactured radionuclides that will be detectable for at least 100,000 years.

The real hard work of Anthropocene stratigraphy has yet to be conducted or even attempted. For example, examining the strata forming off the California coast to look for plutonium and soot. "That is science that will need some organization and some money," Zalasiewicz notes, adding that one could also look for the shells of microscopic animals waxing and waning in the most recent strata or when rat teeth begin to appear on different islands. "Yes, the signal is pretty big but correlating Anthropocene deposits between Florida and Pennsylvania, let alone the coast of Papua New Guinea and Patagonia, using fossils requires detailed successions," he adds. "Generations of geologists sweated over that for Jurassic ammonites and Silurian graptolites."

And there is not even agreement within the working group itself on whether to propose formalizing the epoch, let alone its beginning, several participants note. "Many find it difficult to accept that an epoch that is so short in duration can be adequately recognized in geological successions, let alone the utility of it being formalized," says stratigrapher Colin Waters of the British Geological Survey, lead author of the new analysis.

The Anthropocene may be a new name but it is not a new idea, and has been called everything from the upper Holocene to the Poubellian (from the French for garbage can). Not everyone in the geologic community or the wider world is convinced the new epoch is a good idea. Some note hubris or a tendency to overestimate human influence, others think the big changes like mass extinctions or climate change have yet to happen, still others wonder whether geologists should learn more from archaeologists to determine whether the Anthropocene might supersede much of the Holocene, given large-scale human impacts that stretch back thousands of years.

At base, however, the core argument is whether and how the historical and geologic records might merge. At some point in time, whether it is the beginning of the Anthropocene, the end of the Holocene or some other arbitrary date, the record in the rock and in human history match up. To record geologic events going forward it seems sensible to switch over to the human timescale tied to some crossover point that can be found in recent rocks of "radical change to the entire Earth system," in Waters's words. On the other hand, the Anthropocene may exist, but what is it good for in terms of geology?

"The Anthropocene is a young science and we are working on this like a cottage industry, in bits of time in the evening," Zalasiewicz adds. "We are putting together ideas and then hoping to gather responses from people who can give us some sensible feedback from which we can eventually develop our formal recommendation."

Biello, David. 2016. “Humans Leave a Telltale Residue on Earth”. Live Science. Posted: January 8, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Big-Eared Statues Reveal Ancient Egyptian Power Couple

Six ancient statues of Egyptians, some with round faces and big ears, have been found near the Nile River in Upper Egypt.

The statues, which were once sloughed off their original bluff in an earthquake and buried in Nile silt, are of a man named Neferkhewe and his family. Neferkhewe bore the titles of chief of the Medjay (northern Sudan) and overseer of the foreign lands some 3,500 years ago, during the reign of Pharaoh Thutmose III. The statues, and the carved alcove in which they reside, had been open to the elements for at least 1,500 years before being buried, but the carvings are in incredible condition, said John Ward, the assistant director of the Gebel el Silsila Survey Project that uncovered the statues.

"To be there when their faces look back at you after 2,000 years of being covered with silt is an experience that can't be put into words," Ward told Live Science "It's just a pure honor."

Ancient ritual

The newly discovered statues sit inside two cenotaphs, or "false tombs." Thirty-two cenotaphs line the Nile River at the Gebel el Silsila site, which is also where many of the sandstone blocks used to build Egypt's temples were quarried over the centuries.

Such quarrying would have been rough, industrial work, and the Gebel el Silsila cenotaphs are a somewhat mysterious example of elegance and beauty in this environment. These carved alcoves were a bit like memorials for certain elite families, Ward said. No one was buried in them, but family members or well-wishers could come to leave offerings to the dead, to perform rituals and perhaps to grieve.

"We don't know why these 32 families chose Silsila to place their cenotaphs here," Ward said. The two newly discovered cenotaphs contain the most well-preserved statues ever found at the site, he said. In one, the cenotaph owner and his wife sit side by side on a chair, the man wearing a shoulder-length wig and posing with his arms crossed over his chest — a pose known as the "Osirian" position after Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife. The man's wife has one arm on her husband's back and the other on her own abdomen.

The second cenotaph holds four statues and carvings identifying the patriarch as Neferkhewe. He is flanked by his wife Ruiuresti and two children, but the couple must have had more kids, Ward said, because other children are depicted in carvings bringing offerings to their parents.

Personal history

For Neferkhewe and his family, the re-discovery of their names would have been an event of great religious significance.

"To preserve one's name, it's pivotal to the religion," Ward said. "Without a name you wouldn't have an identity in the afterlife, so you wouldn't exist."

Speaking Neferkhewe's name out loud for the first time in at least 2,000 years "gives him the immortality that he dreamed of," Ward said.

"We bring them to life again," said Maria Nilsson, the survey project's mission director.

The discovery helps personalize Silsila in other ways. The statues hint at what the family may have looked like, with their round-cheeked faces and large ears. With further work, it may be possible to find the actual tombs of the family or their relatives in Luxor or Thebes, Ward said.

"It's like a window into their life," he said.

Ritual was important at Silsila, which also boasts a stunning rock-cut temple called a "speos," constructed with solar and lunar alignment in mind, Ward said. An annual Nile festival once celebrated at the site would have involved thrusting the book of the Nile god Hapi into the river to bring the nutrient-rich floodwaters to Egypt. While excavatingmummies and pyramids is "very exciting," Ward said, day-to-day life is closer to the surface at Silsila. 

The researchers said they plan to continue cleaning and translating the reliefs carved into the two new cenotaphs. They said they're hoping to learn the names of Neferkhewe's other children. The excavations are funded in part by the nonprofit Friends of Silsila.

Pappas, Stephanie. 2016. “Big-Eared Statues Reveal Ancient Egyptian Power Couple”. Live Science. Posted: January 7, 2016. Available online:

Monday, February 8, 2016

Does Religion Always Lead To Violence?

Take any religion that claims to be about peace and it will have a violent history. And while Islam is the most violent religion claiming to be peaceful today, Christians commit plenty of hateful acts - and Buddhists have extremists in their ranks as well.

Extremists against religion are exploiting tragedies like the Paris and California terrorist attacks for their own ends, arguing that faith-based beliefs that consider themselves the right way are going to motivate aggressive behavior due to group loyalty and devaluing non-believers. But that is too simplistic, argues a new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), which has increasingly became the premier place to read sociology and psychology instead of science. Scholars from the New School for Social Research and Carnegie Mellon University examined how Palestinian youth made moral choices, from their own perspectives and from the perspective of Islam. Surveys found that Muslim-Palestinians believed that Allah preferred them to value the lives of Muslim-Palestinians, Muslim-Israelis and Jewish-Israelis more equally, raising the possibility that beliefs about God can mitigate bias against other groups and reduce barriers to peace.

"Our findings are important because one precursor to violence is when people believe that the lives of members of their group are more important than the lives of members of another group. Here, we show that religious belief -- even amidst a conflict centered on religious differences -- can lead people to apply universal moral principles similarly to believers and non-believers alike," said Jeremy Ginges, associate professor of psychology at the New School for Social Research.

For the study, 555 Palestinian adolescents between the ages of 12 and 18 were presented with a classic "trolley dilemma" that involved a Palestinian man being killed to save the lives of five children who were either Jewish or Muslim. The participants responded from their own perspective and from Allah's perspective. The results showed that although Muslim-Palestinian participants valued their own group's lives over Jewish lives, they believed that Allah preferred them to value the lives of members of both groups more equally. Thinking from Allah's perspective decreased the bias toward their own group by almost 30 percent.

"Beliefs about God seem to encourage an application of universal moral rules to believers and non-believers alike, even in a conflict zone. Thus, it does not seem to be beliefs about God that lead to outgroup aggression," said Nichole Argo, a research scientist in engineering and public policy and social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon.

Science 2.0. 2016. “Does Religion Always Lead To Violence?”. Science 2.0. Posted: January 7, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, February 7, 2016

CSI Medieval: Researchers to uncover forensic secrets of Britain's historic wax seals

Historical research using forensic fingerprinting techniques on the wax seals of thousands of medieval documents will reveal new insights into 12th to 14th century British society, help determine how unique fingerprints truly are, and uncover medieval crime.

Modern forensic analysis will be paired with detailed historical research to reveal new insights into medieval British society hidden within the wax seals of thousands of historic documents.

The unique research project, called Imprint, will examine fingerprints and palm prints left behind on the wax seals of documents dating from the 12th to the 14th centuries. These seals, attached to documents such as land transactions, business contracts, and financial exchanges were the medieval equivalents of modern-day signatures and credit cards.

The three-year study is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and led by Professor Philippa Hoskin from the University of Lincoln, UK, and co-investigator Dr Elizabeth New from Aberystwyth University. They will work with historical materials in the cathedrals of Exeter, Hereford and Lincoln, the National Library of Wales and Westminster Abbey.

The aim is to reveal more about medieval social structures, networks of authority, and the bureaucracies and protocols behind the authentication and security of documents in medieval England and Wales. The results will also help to answer questions about administrative and legal changes, including how the identification of the sealer with their seal changed over time – a practice known as the ‘performative act of sealing’.

Fingerprints retrieved during the archival research will be compared with modern prints stored on automated fingerprint identification systems (AFIS) to see if close matches can be found across such distant periods. This will contribute to understanding of the uniqueness of prints, advancing the science of hand mark identification.

That same analysis will also cross-reference all the medieval prints recorded by the project. This has the potential to solve medieval crimes of fraud – for example, if prints found on suspected forgeries can be identified with prints on genuine documents. Imprint's forensic advisers, Forensic Focus, will present the data gathered at conferences and workshops for professional investigators.

Professor Hoskin, Professor of Medieval Studies at the University of Lincoln, said:  “By the 12th century almost all administrative documents were sealed with wax, impressing a seal matrix to leave a distinctive impression. Some were bespoke and some bought off the shelf – but all were necessary to validate any legal document with which the seal’s owner was connected.

“These wax seals have the potential to give us so much information about medieval people, but they are often set aside as less important than the document itself. This will be the first time that the information the handprints found on those seals will be examined, and it could really offer historians new understanding of the period.

“The study will also contribute important information to current debates in forensics on the uniqueness of fingerprints, and not only that, but potentially uncover medieval crime.”

The prints will be collated into an online archive alongside detailed information about the seal impressions and documents. This resource will be made available to researchers, archivists, and the general public.

As the study progresses there will also be workshops for heritage professionals and specialist classes for students, to share knowledge with current curators and the next generation of those caring for sealed documents.

Example stories from the project’s work will be showcased through the website being developed by the Humanities Research Institute at University of Sheffield. There will also be workshops for members of the public, offering a vivid insight into medieval life.

Dr Elizabeth New, Senior Lecturer in Medieval History at Aberystwyth University, comments that: “Hand prints on wax seals bring us close to medieval people in a very tangible way. It is important to remember that seals were not just the preserve of kings and great nobles: men and women from all levels of society also set their seals on documents.

“Medieval seals contained a variety of images and words, providing strong statements of identity and very valuable sources of information about people, culture and society.

“The images can tell us what things actually looked like, and provide glimpses of humour, piety and family pride. They also enabled otherwise illiterate men and women the means to ‘write’ their name.

“These small objects have always had great significance, and are rich time-capsules that can open exciting windows into past lives. Examining the hand prints left – both accidentally and deliberately – in the wax along with impressions of seal matrices provides further important opportunities to deepen our understanding of our medieval ancestors.”

Science Daily. 2016. “CSI Medieval: Researchers to uncover forensic secrets of Britain's historic wax seals”. Science Daily. Posted: January 4, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Did This Extinct Human Species Commit Homicide?

“Fossil First: Ancient Human Relative May Have Buried Its Dead” (Reuters). “Why Did Homo naledi Bury Its Dead?” (NOVA Next). These are just two of the many hyped headlines that appeared last September in response to a paper purporting the discovery, in a cave in South Africa, of a new species by paleoanthropologist Lee R. Berger of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. There were reasons for skepticism from the get-go.

The age of the fossils is undetermined, and it is not yet known where in the hominin lineage the fossils fit. Their hands, wrists and feet are similar to small modern humans, and their brain volume is closer to that of the small-brained australopithecines, like Lucy. Researchers are debating whether these and other traits constitute a new species or a variation on an existing species. Instead of publishing in Science orNature, the prestigious journals in which major new fossil human finds are typically announced, the authors unveiled their discovery in eLIFE (, an open-access online journal that fast-tracks the peer-review process. And instead of meticulously sorting through the 1,550 fossils (belonging to at least 15 individuals) for many years, as is common in paleoanthropology, the analysis was published a mere year and a half after their discovery in November 2013 and March 2014.

What triggered my skepticism, however, was the scientists' conjecture that the site represents an example of “deliberate body disposal,” which, as the media read between the lines, implies an intentional burial procedure. This, they concluded was the likeliest explanation compared with four other hypotheses.

Occupation. There is no debris in the chamber, which is so dark that habitation would have required artificial light, for which there is no evidence, and the cave is nearly inaccessible and appears never to have had easy access. Water transport. Caves that have been inundated show sedimentological layers of coarse-grained material, which is lacking in the Dinaledi Chamber, where the specimens were uncovered.Predators. There are no signs of predation on the skeletal remains and no fossils from predators. Death trap. The sedimentary remains indicate that the fossils were deposited over a span of time, so that rules out a single calamitous event, and the near unreachability of the chamber makes attritional individual entry and death unlikely.

Finally, the ages of the 13 individuals so identified—three infants, three young juveniles, one old juvenile, one subadult, four young adults and one old adult—are unlike those of other cave deposits for which cause of death and deposition have been determined. It's a riddle, wrapped in sediment, inside a grotto.

While the authors had given it consideration, I believe they are downplaying an all too common cause of death in our ancestors—homicide in the form of war, murder or sacrifice. Lawrence H. Keeley, inWar Before Civilization (1996), and Steven A. LeBlanc, in Constant Battles (2003), review hundreds of archaeological studies showing that significant percentages of ancestral people died violently. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker aggregates a data set of 21 archaeological sites to show a violent death rate of about 15 percent. In a 2013 paper in the journal Science, Douglas P. Fry and Patrik Söderberg dispute the theory that war was prevalent in ancient humans by claiming that of the 148 episodes of violence in 21 mobile foraging bands, more than half “were perpetrated by lone individuals, and almost two-thirds resulted from accidents, interfamilial disputes, within-group executions, or interpersonal motives such as competition over a particular woman.”

Whatever you call it—war or murder—it is violent death nonetheless, and further examination of the Homo naledi fossils should again consider violence (war or murder for the adults, sacrifice for the juveniles) as a plausible cause of death and deposition in the cave. Recall that after 5,000-year-old Ötzi the Iceman was discovered in a melting glacier in the Ötztal Alps in the Tyrol in 1991, it took a decade before archaeologists determined that he died violently, after he killed at least two other people in what appears to have been a clash between hunting parties. It's a side of our nature we are reluctant to admit, but consider it we must when confronted with dead bodies in dark places.

Shermer, Michael. 2016. “Did This Extinct Human Species Commit Homicide?”. Scientific American Magazine. Posted: January 1, 2016. Available online: