Saturday, April 30, 2016

OU anthropologists reconstruct mitogenomes from prehistoric dental calculus

Using advanced sequencing technologies, University of Oklahoma anthropologists demonstrate that human DNA can be significantly enriched from dental calculus (calcified dental plaque) enabling the reconstruction of whole mitochondrial genomes for maternal ancestry analysis--an alternative to skeletal remains in ancient DNA investigations of human ancestry.

Christina Warinner and Cecil M. Lewis, Jr., professors in the Department of Anthropology, OU College of Arts and Sciences, collaborated with researchers from Arizona State University and Pennsylvania State University on the capture, enrichment and high-throughput sequencing of DNA extracted from six individuals at the 700-year-old Oneota cemetery, Norris Farms #36.

"We can now obtain meaningful human, pathogen and dietary DNA from a single sample, which minimizes the amount of ancient material required for analysis," said Warinner.

In recent years, dental calculus has emerged as an unexpected, but valuable, long-term reservoir of ancient DNA from dietary and microbial sources. This study demonstrates that dental calculus is also an important source of ancient human DNA. Very little dental calculus was required for analysis--fewer than 25 milligrams per individual. This makes it possible to obtain high quality genetic ancestry information from very little starting material, an important consideration for archaeological remains.

The results of this study provided high-resolution, whole mitochondrial genome information for the Oneota, a Native American archaeological culture that rose to prominence ca. AD 1000-1650, but declined sharply following European contact. "The analysis of mitochondrial DNA allows us to better understand the population history of ancient peoples," said Anne Stone, professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, Arizona State University.

Although dental calculus preserves alongside skeletal remains, it is not actually a human tissue. Dental calculus, also known as tartar, is a calcified form of dental plaque that acquires human DNA and proteins passively, primarily through the saliva and other host secretions. Once mineralized within dental calculus, however, human DNA and proteins can preserve for thousands of years. Dental calculus thus serves as an important non-skeletal reservoir of ancient human DNA.

Conventional techniques for recovering ancient human DNA typically require the destruction of bone or tooth tissue during analysis, and this has been a cause of concern for many Native and indigenous communities. Dental calculus represents an important alternative source of ancient DNA that does not damage or disturb the integrity of skeletal remains. In addition, because dental calculus is the richest known source of DNA in the archaeological record, it presents unique opportunities for investigating archaeological sites with preservation challenges.

"Dental calculus may enable researchers to retrieve ancient DNA from samples where bone or other biological tissues are too degraded for analysis. This is particularly exciting to those of us who work in tropical or extremely old contexts, where traditional sources of DNA may be poorly preserved or even non-existent," according to Maria Nieves Colón, Ph.D. candidate, Arizona State University.

The demonstration that whole mitochondrial genomes can be reconstructed from small samples of dental calculus represents an important technological advancement for paleogenomic investigations in prehistoric North America and other regions where destructive analysis of skeletal remains is difficult or controversial.

"We hope that this research on dental calculus from the Norris Farms site acts as the first step toward future paleogenomic investigations of prehistoric North American remains in a respectful and non-destructive way that interests and benefits both descendent communities and anthropologists," said Andrew Ozga, OU doctoral graduate, and currently postdoctoral candidate at Arizona State University.

EurekAlert. 2016. “OU anthropologists reconstruct mitogenomes from prehistoric dental calculus”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 28, 2016. Available online:

Friday, April 29, 2016

Novel collagen fingerprinting identifies a Neanderthal bone among 2,000 fragments

Scientists from the universities of Oxford and Manchester have used a new molecular fingerprinting technique to identify one Neanderthal bone from around 2,000 tiny bone fragments. 

All the tiny pieces of bone were recovered from a key archaeological site, Denisova Cave in Russia, with the remaining fragments found to be from animal species like mammoths, woolly rhino, wolf and reindeer. It is the first time that researchers have identified traces of an extinct human from an archaeological site using a technique called 'Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry' or ZooMS. From just a microscopic sample of bone, their analysis revealed the collagen peptide sequences in the bone that mark out one species from another. Their paper, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports, suggests that ZooMS has huge potential to increase our understanding of human evolution, including the amount of interbreeding that went on between our closely related cousins and modern humans.

The international research team was led by Professor Thomas Higham and his student Sam Brown of the University of Oxford, with the developer of the ZooMS method, Dr Michael Buckley from the University of Manchester; the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig; Cranfield University; and the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography, Russia. The sequences of collagen peptides in bone differ in tiny ways between different animal species. The team profiled the sequences using microscopic samples from 2,300 unidentified bone fragments from the site. They then compared the sequences obtained against a reference library of peptides from known animal species.

On discovering that one 2.5 cm-long piece of bone had a clear human fingerprint, Sam Brown said: 'When the ZooMS results showed that there was a human fingerprint among the bones I was extremely excited. After a lot of hard work, finding this tiny bone which yields so much information about our human past was just fantastic. The bone itself is not exceptional in any way and would otherwise be missed by anyone looking for possible human bones amongst the dozens of fragments that we have from the site.'

Study co-author Professor Svante Pääbo and his group from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig found that the bone belonged to a Neanderthal on the basis of its mitochrondrial genome. The results suggest that this Neanderthal was most closely related to other Neanderthals in the Altai region and more distantly related to those further to the west. The Neanderthal bone was also radiocarbon dated and shown to be more than 50,000 years old, as expected based on its deep position in the site. Acid etching on the surface of the bone also shows that it probably passed through the stomach of a hyaena for a short time before it was deposited in the cave sediments, says the paper.

Denisova Cave in the Russian Altai region is a key site for archaeologists wanting to understand the nature of evolution over the last 100,000 years. Its cold climate means that bones from the cave are often exceptionally well-preserved in their DNA and collagen, which is ideal for genetics and radiocarbon dating. In 2010, Pääbo and his team discovered a new species of human, the so-called 'Denisovans' at the site, using state-of-the-art genetic methods. His team have also found that Denisovans, Neanderthals and modern humans interbred periodically with one another in Eurasia and Europe.

During the Ice Age, there were periods when the cave was also occupied by carnivores such as hyaenas and wolves that crunched the bones into tiny pieces. This is why more than 95% of the bone fragments excavated were difficult to identify.

Professor Thomas Higham said: 'This is a real breakthrough, showing that we can now use bioarchaeological methods like ZooMS to search the archaeological record and find even tiny fossil remains, where there are proteins that survive. In the Palaeolithic period, where we have Neanderthals, Denisovans and modern humans, this is potentially very important because if the fragments that we recover are big enough then we can date and analyse the DNA from the same bone. One of the big challenges is in understanding what happened when modern humans and Neanderthals met. We want to know over what period of time and where this happened. Fossils are the key, but for modern humans they are extremely rare in archaeological sites. We hope that more work like this will yield more human bone remains.'
Reference: 2016. “Novel collagen fingerprinting identifies a Neanderthal bone among 2,000 fragments”. Posted: March 29, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The 'Not' Face Is Universal

Scholars have identified a single, universal facial expression that is interpreted across many cultures as the embodiment of negative emotion. That includes native speakers of English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese and American Sign Language (ASL).

We've all seen it. It consists of a furrowed brow, pressed lips and raised chin, and because we make it when we convey negative sentiments, such as "I do not agree." It is called the "not" face.

The paper in Cognition also reveals that our facial muscles contract to form the "not face" at the same frequency at which we speak or sign words in a sentence. That is, we all instinctively make the "not face" as if it were part of our spoken or signed language. Also intriguing, the researchers discovered that ASL speakers sometimes make the "not face" instead of signing the word "not"--a use of facial expression in ASL that was previously undocumented.

"To our knowledge, this is the first evidence that the facial expressions we use to communicate negative moral judgment have been compounded into a unique, universal part of language," said Aleix Martinez, cognitive scientist and professor of electrical and computer engineering at The Ohio State University.

"Where did language come from? This is a question that the scientific community has grappled with for a very long time," he continued. "This study strongly suggests a link between language and facial expressions of emotion."

Previously, Martinez and his team had used computer algorithms to identify 21 distinct emotional expressions--including complex ones that are combinations of more basic emotions. "Happy" and "disgusted," for instance, can be compounded into "happily disgusted," a face that we might make when watching a gross-out comedy movie or when an adorable baby poops in its diaper.

For this new study, the researchers hypothesized that if a universal "not face" existed, it was likely to be combination of three basic facial expressions that are universally accepted to indicate moral disagreement: anger, disgust and contempt.

Why focus on negative expressions? Charles Darwin believed that the ability to communicate danger or aggression was key to human survival long before we developed the ability to talk, Martinez explained. So the researchers suspected that if any truly universal facial expressions of emotion exist, then the expression for disapproval or disagreement would be the easiest to identify.

To test the hypothesis, they sat 158 Ohio State students in front of a digital camera. The students were filmed and photographed as they had a casual conversation with the person behind the camera in their native language.

The students belonged to four groups, which were chosen to represent a wide variety of grammatical structures. English is a Germanic language, while Spanish is based on Latin; Mandarin Chinese is a modern form of Middle Chinese that was formalized early in the 20th century. Like other forms of sign language, ASL combines hand gestures, head and body movements and facial expressions to communicate individual words or phrases.

The researchers were looking for a facial "grammatical marker," a facial expression that determines the grammatical function of a sentence. For example, in the sentence "I am not going to the party," there is a grammatical marker of negation: "not." Without it, the meaning of the sentence completely changes: "I am going to the party."

If the grammatical marker of negation is universal, the researchers reasoned, then all the study participants would make similar facial expressions when using that grammatical marker, regardless of which language they were speaking or signing. They should all make the same "not face" in conjunction with--or in lieu of--the spoken or signed marker of negation.

The tests went like this: The students either memorized and recited negative sentences that the researchers had written for them ahead of time, or the students were prompted with questions that were likely to illicit disagreement, such as "A study shows that tuition should increase 30 percent. What do you think?"

In all four groups--speakers of English, Spanish, Mandarin and ASL--the researchers identified clear grammatical markers of negation. The students' answers translated to statements like "That's not a good idea," and "They should not do that."

The researchers manually tagged images of the students speaking, frame by frame, to show which facial muscles were moving and in which directions. Then computer algorithms searched the thousands of resulting frames to find commonalities among them.

A "not face" emerged: the furrowed brows of "anger" combined with the raised chin of "disgust" and the pressed-together lips of "contempt." Regardless of language--and regardless of whether they were speaking or signing--the participants' faces displayed these same three muscle movements when they communicated negative sentences.

Computer analysis also compared the tempo at which the students' facial muscles moved.

Here's why: Human speech typically varies between three to eight syllables per second--that is, 3-8 Hz, or hertz, a measure of frequency. Researchers believe that the human brain is wired to recognize grammatical constructs that fall within that frequency band as language.

Martinez and his team reasoned that if all the students' facial muscles moved to make the "not face" within that same frequency band, then the face itself likely functions as a universal grammatical marker of language.

In the tests, native English speakers made the "not face" at a frequency of 4.33 Hz, Spanish at 5.23 Hz, and Mandarin speakers at 7.49 Hz. Speakers of ASL made the face at a frequency of 5.48 Hz. All frequencies were within the 3-8 Hz range of spoken communication, which strongly suggests that the facial expression is an actual grammatical marker, Martinez said.

Also, something truly unique emerged from the studies of the ASL-signing students. They utilized the facial expression a different way--as if it were the unique grammatical marker in the signed sentence.

People sometimes signed the word "not." Other times, they just shook their head "no" when they got to the part of the sentence where they would have signed "not." Both are accepted ways to communicate negation in ASL.

But sometimes, speakers didn't make the sign for "not," nor did they shake their head. They just made the "not face," as if the face itself counted explicitly as a marker of negation in the sentence.

This the first time researchers have documented a third way that users of sign language say "not": just by making the face.

"This facial expression not only exists, but in some instances, it is the only marker of negation in a signed sentence," Martinez said. "Sometimes the only way you can tell that the meaning of the sentence is negative is that person made the 'not face' when they signed it."

Manual analysis of the facial expressions was painstaking, Martinez admitted, but now that he and his team have shown that the experiment works, they hope to make the next phase of the project fully automatic, with new algorithms that will extract and analyze facial movements without human help. They're building those algorithms now.

Once they finish, they will take a "big data" approach to further explore the origins of language. First, they'll analyze 1,000 hours of YouTube video of people talking, which corresponds to around 100 million still frames. Ultimately, they want to amass 10,000 hours of data, or 1 billion frames.

Science 2.0. 2016. “The 'Not' Face Is Universal”. Science 2.0. Posted: March 28, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ancient burial ground discovered at the Plain of Jars

Researchers are a step closer to unravelling one of the great prehistoric puzzles of South East Asia, after discovering an ancient burial ground, including human remains, at the Plain of Jars in central Laos.

The discoveries were made during excavations conducted in February 2016 and led by a team of Australian and Lao researchers including Dr Louise Shewan from the Monash Warwick Alliance and Centre for Archaeology and Ancient History, Dr Dougald O'Reilly from the Australian National University and Dr Thonglith Luangkhoth of the Lao Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism.

The field work is part of a five-year project, funded by the Australian Research Council, aimed at uncovering the mysteries surrounding the 90-plus jar sites, including who made the jars, what they were used for and how the sites came into existence.

The sites, located in the central Lao province of Xieng Khouang, comprise large carved stone jars of varying sizes – some as big as two metres in diameter and three metres high. Initially brought to the attention of science by French researcher Madeleine Colani in the 1930s, the sites have remained largely unstudied due to the huge quantity of unexploded bombs in the area - the result of heavy bombing during the 'Secret War' in Laos in the 1970s.

The recent excavations – the first major excavations in nearly two decades - uncovered an ancient burial ground in an area known as 'Site 1', and revealed various burial methods including the internment of whole bodies, the burying of bundled bones and bundled bones placed inside ceramic vessels and then buried.

Dr Shewan, who is analysing teeth found at the burial ground, says the project has the potential to ascertain who these people were and where they lived.

"My research involves the measurement of strontium isotopes in human dental enamel to shed light on the home environment of the individual," Dr Shewan says. "Teeth mineralise at different ages, so by analsying different teeth we are able to ascertain where an individual lived during their childhood."

The results of the project will be showcased in the CAVE2 facility with support from the Monash Immersive Visualisation Platform.

"To visualise all our research findings, including excavation data, remote sensing data and drone imagery in the CAVE2 environment is going to greatly assist our analysis and interpretation and provides a unique opportunity to conduct 'virtual fieldwork' in areas that are inaccessible by foot. From the drone imagery we may also be able to identify potential occupation areas. At present there are no known occupation sites. No one knows where these people lived," Dr Shewan said.
Reference: 2016. “Ancient burial ground discovered at the Plain of Jars”. Posted: March 24, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

These Are Europe’s Eight Most Endangered Cultural Landmarks

In Europe, cultural heritage—often dating back thousands of years—seems to be around every corner in the guise of well-preserved and beautifully curated landmarks that bring the continent’s history to vivid life. But not every landmark in Europe is in as good of shape as, say, the Eiffel Tower or getting the attention that ancient Pompeii is now receiving. If you look closely enough, you can see places that are crumbling or actively endangered. In a bid to draw attention to those cultural landmarks—and preserve them for future generations—Europa Nostra, a European heritage organization, recently named seven cultural landmarks and a special eighth “most-endangered” location as Europe’s most on-the-brink sites. Europa Nostra's list crosses regions and even millennia. It was put together by a group of international advisors with expertise in everything from history and preservation to finance. Though the organization notes that the list is aimed “to serve as a catalyst for action and promote ‘the power of example’”, it is not a funding program. That doesn’t mean that the sites won’t receive funding and attention, however. Now that the list has been released, Europa Nostra has assembled a board of heritage and financial experts who will undertake what they call “rescue missions” to each of the seven sites. Each mission will result in an action plan to preserve the site for future generations, no matter what its condition now. And organizations like Unesco are taking note as well. For every place that’s nominated for intervention, there are thousands more that go unnoticed and unattended. In a release, Europa Nostra cites everything from funding cuts to a lack of preservation expertise for the gaps that seriously threaten the continent’s rich cultural heritage. Regardless of the reason, the program sheds light on sites that might otherwise be ignored. Here are the sites declared most endangered in 2016: Venice Lagoon (Venice, Italy) Shocked to see one of Europe’s most familiar sights at the top of the most-endangered list? Don’t be. The bridges and buildings of the city of Venice are threatened by rising seas, and the lagoon is in danger, too. The stretch of water doesn’t just contain the famous canals—much of the 212-square-mile lagoon is made up of sand banks and muddy wetlands, indeed, it holds the distinction of being Europe’s largest wetland. The lagoon is under threat from climate change, industrial fishing and a steady traffic of cruise and container ships. Europa Nostra cites a local project to turn the lagoon into a commercial port as a particular threat. It’s so important (and threatened) that the organization gave it a “special nomination,” bringing the count of endangered landmarks to eight instead of its usual seven. Ererouk and Ani Pemza (Armenia) Located near the border of Turkey and Armenia, the basilica of Ererouk dates back to the fourth century and has been in a state of collapse for centuries. The church’s remote location, as well as the devastating earthquakes it has faced has contributed to its current dilapidated condition. According to Europa Nostra, the once-important church is now “at risk of being lost before it has been comprehensively studied and documented.” Also at risk is the village of Ani Pemza a few miles away, which has been completely abandoned since a nearby mine closed in 1994. In 1820, Tsar Nicholas I commissioned a sea fortress that would serve as a brutal prison once Soviet Russia came into being. Both Estonian Jews and Soviet political prisoners were interrogated, tortured and killed. “That is the reason why this building has a particularly sad and horrible reputation and why it is difficult to find a new use for it,” writes an Estonian heritage organization. The prison wasn't closed down until 2005. Rather than find a use for it, it’s simply been abandoned and is now filled with graffiti and crumbling architecture. “If no emergency actions are taken to stop the rapid decay,” writes Europa Nostra, “the buildings will be irreparably lost.” Helsinki-Malmi Airport (Helsinki, Finland) In 1940, Helsinki was scheduled to host the Olympic Games—but World War II got in the way, and the grand airport built to accommodate all of those visitors who never materialized was never used for its intended purpose. These days, the airport is Finland’s second busiest, but a development project that proposes it be shut down and rezoned for residential use threatens its pre-war runways and functionalist architecture. Colbert Swing Bridge (Dieppe, France)  Back in the day, movable “swing” bridges, which pivot to allow water traffic were the height of modern innovation. But they’ve gradually fallen out of fashion, and today the Colbert Bridge, which is Europe’s last and the longest of its kind, has fallen into disrepair. Built in 1886, the bridge still works just fine, but now it is endangered by shoddy maintenance and plans to destroy it. However, the danger doesn’t keep thousands of pedestrians and cars from using the bridge every day—the bridge is a lifeline between central Dieppe and the city’s Le Pollet quarter. Kampos of Chios (Chios, Greece) Think of Kampos as the lavish historic suburb of this lush Greek island. The area, which is within the limits of the island’s main city, was once home to more than 200 fancy estates and fabulous garden orchards packed with citrus fruit. Vineyards, nut orchards and silk trading rounded out the rich economy of Kampos as the area changed hands between Genoese nobles and the Ottomans. But things changed in the 19th century, when a Turkish massacre drove many Chians from the island and a citrus freeze ruined the local economy. More recently, the beautiful area has been in decline due to what Europa Nostra calls “the inability of the owners to maintain the properties” and the gradual disintegration of the area’s historic architecture. Convent of St. Anthony of Padua (Extremadura, Spain)  St. Anthony has a special relationship with Spain—not only is he the patron saint of lost and stolen articles, but his feast day on January 17 is a kind of national holiday when people bring their pets to church to be blessed. It’s not surprising, then, that a convent in western Spain would take the saint’s name. But the once lovely Renaissance building has been on the decline since Spain expelled the Franciscan priests who ran the convent and monastery and sold the building. It’s been repurposed ever since, and is now in danger of simply falling apart. Ancient City of Hasankeyf (Turkey)  Located on the banks of the Tigris River, this ancient city is 12,000 years old. Though to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, it’s been home to over 20 cultures over the millennia. And it shows: Hasankeyf is so packed with archaeological treasures that Europa Nostra calls it “a living museum of epic proportions.” But that may not be enough to keep the city safe: Despite legal battles, the Turkish government plans to displace Kurdih locals and move forward with a controversial hydroelectric dam project that will flood 74,000 acres of the precious city. br> _________________

Blakemore, Erin. 2016. “These Are Europe’s Eight Most Endangered Cultural Landmarks”. Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: March 24, 2016. Available online:

Monday, April 25, 2016

Ecological collapse circumscribes traditional women's work in Iraq's Mesopotamian marshes

As the land at the heart of the cradle of civilization dries out, an ancient culture is being lost with the unique ecosystem that sustains it

For thousands of years, the marshes at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern day Iraq were an oasis of green in a dry landscape, hosting a wealth of wildlife. The culture of the Marsh Arab, or Ma'dan, people who live there is tightly interwoven with the ecosystem of the marshes. The once dense and ubiquitous common reed (Phragmites australis) served as raw material for homes, handicrafts, tools, and animal fodder for thousands of years. Distinctive mudhif communal houses, built entirely of bundled reeds, appear in Sumerian stonework from 5,000 years ago. Now that culture is drying up with the marshes. 

Recent decades have brought extreme change to the fertile lands famous for the birth of agriculture and the rise of some of the world's earliest cities. The sphere of daily life for Marsh Arab women has shrunk as the natural resources they traditionally cultivated have vanished, reports an international team of researchers in "Effects of Mesopotamian Marsh (Iraq) desiccation on the cultural knowledge and livelihood of Marsh Arab women," published today in the March 2016 issue of Ecosystem Health and Sustainability, a joint journal of the Ecological Society of America and Ecological Society of China.

The study is the first effort to specifically document Marsh Arab women's cultural relationship to marsh ecological services.

"Imagine the Everglades. The Marsh Arabs used to live in the middle of the water, surrounded by everything green. The fields, the reeds, and the water buffalo were around them. Now they have to walk five, ten kilometers to reach resources. The land is dry and brown," said study author Nadia Al-Mudaffar Fawzi, an Iraqi marine ecologist who returned from New Zealand to the city of her birth in 2009 to teach and conduct research at the University of Basrah.

Al-Mudaffar Fawzi studies the impact of climate change on biodiversity in the marshes, the Persian Gulf, and the Shatt al-Arab river which connects them. Rising temperatures, falling water volume in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and groundwater pumping is causing the salt water in the Gulf to extend up the Shatt al-Arab, which is formed by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates. Basrah, now the second largest city in Iraq, is on the Shatt al Arab about 70 kilometers downstream of the confluence.

"When I came back in 2009, I knew there were lots of problems with drying of the system. We knew there was big impact on fish production, on water quality in the Shatt al-Arab, and in the north of the Gulf," said Al-Mudaffar Fawzi.

In her investigations of the water systems, she also grew interested in the social impact of environmental change, and in people's understandings of the effects of the environment on their lives. Iraq did not have environmental laws until the change of government in 2003, and they remain a low priority in the current chaotic conditions in the country.

"The whole situation in the marshes is completely different from what I saw before, in the '70s and early '80s," she said. "Women used to play a role in the ecological system. They used to work with men in gathering reeds and in fishing, and we would see them in the market when they come and sell their produce, like the fish, and the milk from the buffalo, the cheese and the yogurt that they make."

Al-Mudaffar Fawzi and her colleagues designed a survey to more formally ask Marsh Arab women about their lives and activities. With the exception of women living on the edge of the Mesopotamia Marshland National Park, created in 2013, where restoration efforts have seen some success, Marsh Arab women reported that their daily lives had narrowed to domestic tasks in the home. Very few women today go out to gather reeds or care for buffalo.

"The older women who were adults before the war would tell us, 'back then I was out making dung patties, collecting reeds, taking care of buffalo,'" said author Kelly Goodwin, who works with the international NGO Millennium Relief and Development Services. "They say, 'now I'm just at home'."

Goodwin interviewed 34 women, ranging in age from teenagers to more than 70 years, in the Hammar Marshes north of the city of Basrah in December 2013-February 2014. More than half the interviewees were over 50. These older women were born and grew to adulthood before the war in the 1980s and destruction of the 1990s. Nearly 60 percent of younger women under 40 described their days as exclusively "domestic."

We are not teaching our daughters, older women told the researchers, because the water is gone, the ground is dry and there are no reeds to gather. The water is too salty for our buffalo.

Although men and women have separate roles in Marsh Arab culture, traditional women's work took women outside the home and brought supplementary income to the family through market sales. Women cared for water buffalo and gathered reeds to weave into mats, baskets, pigeon cages and other tools. Women turned high-fat buffalo milk into dairy products, dung into fuel, and raise chickens, cattle, and sheep. They helped cultivate rice, wheat, and dates. Usually women, not men, took fish, dairy, and handicrafts to sell in city markets.

 "The marshes were a cultivated landscape, shaped by selective harvest, hunting, fishing, and burning to promote the natural resources that the Marsh Arabs used--much like the precolonial landscape was cultivated by native peoples here in California," said author Michelle Stevens, a professor California State University in Sacramento. Also like California, Stevens said, climate change modeling predicts a future of hotter summers, accentuated droughts, and shrinking winter snowpacks in Turkey's Taurus Mountains, where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers arise.

In Iraq, war and ongoing political instability have magnified the problems besieging marshes worldwide, particularly in arid landscapes: pollution and too many demands on the water that sustains them. The marshes enjoyed a burst of recovery the mid-2000s after drying up nearly completely in the previous decade. The influx of water, and resulting dramatic greening, can be seen in images from NASA's Terra satellite, captured between 2000 and 2010. The resilient reeds returned quickly as the marshes rehydrated.

In the 1990s, former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein deliberately drained the marshes to facilitate oil discovery and to retaliate against tribes that participated in uprisings against his government. Marsh Arabs who had not already fled the front line fighting during the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, were forced to leave as the land became barren and dry.

After the Second Gulf War removed Hussein from power, Iraqis tore down the water diversions and returned water to the marshes. Many Marsh Arabs returned to their homeland. The apparent resilience of the ecosystem and the culture of the marshes masked fragility, however. The researchers fear that the Marsh may be approaching a threshold of no return, as the older generation with the wealth of skills needed to flourish in the marshes yields to a younger generation that never had the opportunity for hands-on learning.

Water in the Tigris and Euphrates has dropped to 20 percent of the pre-war volume. The remaining water carries so much salt that it is often undrinkable. Drought in 2007 hit the region hard, reversing many of the restorative gains for the ecosystem. The generation of Marsh Arabs that grew up outside the marshes had no practical experience of living in the marshes, and struggled to adapt to the lifestyle of their parents' youth.

Goodwin describes the tapwater in Basrah as so salty that a filigree of crystals forms on the surface of dishes as they dry. Increased dependence on groundwater is worsening saltwater intrusion from the Gulf.

Although the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow across the length Iraq, the water comes from outside its borders. Iraq is at the mercy of the water policies of its upstream neighbors Turkey, Syria, and Iran, all of which have intensified water development projects in recent years. The current political instability makes effective diplomacy on water issues difficult.

Recovery of the ecosystem and culture of the marshes will likely depend on diplomatic efforts to secure sufficient water, Al-Mudaffar Fawzi says. In Mesopotamia Marshlands National Park, Iraq's first national park, restoration practices are emerging that appear to successfully restore social and ecological systems, and could be used as templates for restoration in other areas of the Mesopotamian Marshes. But this cannot be done without water.

The authors recommend that programs be implemented to preserve traditional skills, to develop a market for handicrafts to support women and their families, and to support cultural knowledge. Otherwise, with the passing of the older generation, these remnants of ancient Sumerian knowledge systems and traditional ways of life will soon be lost.

"It was extremely sobering sometimes to see the circumstances some people are living in," said Goodwin. "Much of the land near Basrah city is desertified." But visits to the marshes could also be thrilling, she said, and the visit to the restored region was almost magical.

"I really consider it was a privilege to sit with these women, drink tea, and hear their stories," said Goodwin.  "I would have loved to have tangible solutions to take back to them that could encourage the retention of cultural traditions and secure ecological restoration. I think they feel they are forgotten and overlooked. I wish I could tell them that they are not forgotten."

EurekAlert. 2016. “Ecological collapse circumscribes traditional women's work in Iraq's Mesopotamian marshes”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 24, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Who were the first Norwegian crusaders?

Several thousand Norwegians answered the call of the Pope to undertake the perilous journey to Jerusalem.

What would eventually be known as the Crusades began in 1095 in Europe, at the unwitting behest of Pope Urban II.  The Pope asked Christians in Western Europe to help the Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe. The empire was under pressure from Seljuk Turks, who controlled their own vast empire in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.

Pope Urban II’s call for help was presented at a church council in Clermont, France, and the message spread like wildfire. But this was not just about saving the Byzantine Empire. Jerusalem, the holiest city in the world, was also the target of this radical new form of pilgrimage—the First Crusade.

The first Norwegian believed to have set out on the long journey in response to the Pope’s call was Skofte Ogmundsson, who was said to have left from Norway’s west coast with five ships in 1101.

But who were Ogmundsson and his ilk, and what do we know about them?

The Crusades begin

In the years after Pope Urban II’s call for help, thousands of people from all walks of life—nobles, knights, priests, monks, the poor, sick and old—undertook the journey to Jerusalem. The First Crusade ended in success when Jerusalem was conquered in 1099.

This was the beginning of a Latin kingdom in the Middle East, which held sway until 1291.

But Norway, the little windswept country at the edge of Europe, was also involved in what became a huge European joint effort.

Pål Berg Svenungsen is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Bergen who has tried to collect what we know about Norway and the Crusades from 1050 and 1350.

“Although research on the Crusades is extremely popular in Europe, there has been very little research on the topic in Norway,” he said.

A pilgrimage, not a crusade

The Crusades were originally seen as pilgrimages. In the centuries before the Crusades there was a religious resurgence in Europe. Pilgrimages were an important part of religious life.

Initially these journeys were both short and local, but during the 11th century they became more extensive and lengthy. One important goal was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Many Scandinavians set off on pilgrimages to show their devotion to God. The most popular destinations in Europe were Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the tomb of the apostle James was supposed to be. Rome was also a central goal, but Jerusalem became increasingly important over the course of the 11th century.

Although there are very few sources that shed light on the number of Scandinavian pilgrims and where they were going, about 750 Scandinavian names were recorded in the register of a German monastery in the 11th and 12th centuries, which noted these visitors were pilgrims passing through.

“Norwegian participation in the Crusades should be seen as a continuation of the tradition of making a pilgrimage,” Svenungsen said, with one important difference: These pilgrims had weapons.

Unreliable sagas

There are not many sources from which the story of Scandinavians in the Crusades can be pieced together, Svenungsen says.

“I've read everything I can get my hands on,” he said.

The most famous Norwegian crusader is King Sigurd I Magnusson. He was also called Jorsalfare, in recognition of the fact that he had travelled to Jerusalem.

But the first Norwegian credited with making the journey was Skofte Ogmundsson, a rich magnate from Giske in western Norway who was said to have gone to Jerusalem in 1101, two years after the city had been conquered by the first Crusaders.

Exactly why Skofte decided to take this trip is unclear, and the only source is Snorri Sturluson’s Old Norsk saga, Heimskringla, Svenungsen said.

It may be that Skofte was exiled by because of a dispute with King Magnus Barefoot over an inheritance or treasure, but Snorri’s accounts are somewhat unreliable, especially since they were written more than 100 years after Skofte’s journey.

Skofte never made it to Jerusalem, because he died in the Mediterranean on the journey there. But some of the people who travelled in the five ships he was said to have brought with him returned with news about the religious city, which in turn spurred the well-known journey of Sigurd in 1108.

Sigurd and the 60 ships

“Part of what is so interesting about Sigurd is that we have multiple, concurrent sources about his journey to Jerusalem,” Svenungsen said.

Sigurd, who shared the throne with two half-brothers, launched a much larger expedition than Skofte, with a total of 60 ships that sailed from Norway in 1108.

Various historians have estimated that anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 men were on the ships, Svenungsen said.

Sigurd helped Baldwin I, King of Jerusalem, to consolidate his position in the Middle East, and he participated in the siege of Sidon in 1110. Sidon is located in today’s Lebanon, and the city was besieged by Sigurd from the sea and by Baldwin from the land.

But this was also a pilgrimage, and Sigurd visited all the holy places while he was there. He returned to Norway in 1111. Sigurd donated all his ships to the emperor Alexeios I of Constantinople, today's Istanbul, and then travelled along country roads through Europe to return home.

Subsequently, the Earl of Orkney, Ragnvald Kale Kollsson, embarked for the Holy Lands in 1153. The magnate Erling Skakke travelled there between 1153 and 1155.
But why did they go?

“Many of those who went from both Norway and Europe were not poor, they were among Europe's most powerful and richest men. They had much more to lose than to win,” Svenungsen said.

But seen in the larger context of religious movements across Europe, the Crusades make sense, he said.

“A crusade became a kind of alternative to entering a monastery, and knights could thus serve God in other ways,” he said.

Bazilchuk, Nancy. 2016. “Who were the first Norwegian crusaders?”. Science Nordic. Posted: March 22, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, April 23, 2016

3,000-year-old Chinese oracle bones go 3-D

The earliest-known example of Chinese writing – written more than 3,000 years ago on the bones of an ox – has become the world's first Chinese oracle bone to be scanned and printed in 3D.

Cambridge University Library, which is celebrating its 600th anniversary this year, holds 614 Chinese inscribed oracle bones in its collection. They are the oldest extant documents written in the Chinese language, dating from 1339-1112 BCE. Inscribed on ox shoulder blades and the flat under-part of turtle shells, they record questions to which answers were sought by divination at the court of the royal house of Shang, which ruled north central China at that time.

The inscriptions on the bones provide much insight into many aspects of early Chinese society, such as warfare, agriculture, hunting, medical problems, meteorology and astronomy.

Among the latter is a record of a lunar eclipse dated to 1192 BCE, one of the earliest such accounts in any civilisation. Charles Aylmer, Head of the Chinese Department at Cambridge University Library, said: "Some of the bones have already been included in the Cambridge Digital Library but now new technology provides readers around the world an even closer look at these precious artefacts.

"In what is believed to be a world first, one of the bones (which features in the 600th anniversary exhibition Lines of Thought) has been digitised in 3D thanks to the work of archaeologist Professor Dominic Powlesland, one of the leading pioneers in this area." The high-resolution image of the bone, which measures about 9x14 cm, knits together 1.3 million aspects to allow a seamless view of its entire surface.

The image brings into sharp focus not only the finely incised questions on the obverse of the bone, but also the divination pits engraved on the reverse and the scorch marks caused by the application of heat to create the cracks (which were interpreted as the answers from the spirit world). These can be seen more clearly than by looking at the actual object itself, and without the risk of damage by handling the original bone.

In collaboration with the Media Studio of Addenbrooke's Hospital (part of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus), the scanned data were used to make what is believed to be the first 3D print of an oracle bone.

The print was made with a printer whose main function in the hospital is to assist in planning maxillofacial and orthopaedic surgery. The print comprises 350 superimposed layers of a fine powdered plaster compound hardened with cyanoacrylate (superglue). 3D prints such as this enable students and researchers to obtain a 'hands-on' impression otherwise impossible for conservation reasons. It is hoped to create images of more bones from the Library's collection as funding permits.

Aylmer added: "The oracle bones are three-dimensional objects, and high-resolution 3D imagery reveals features which not only all previous methods of reproduction (such as drawings, rubbings and photographs) have been unable to do, but which are not even apparent from careful examination of the actual items themselves.

"In particular, the reverse sides of the bones, which are crucial to understanding the process of divination but have hitherto been neglected because of the difficulty of representing them adequately, can now be studied in detail thanks to this new technique. "To hold a 3D print of an oracle bone is a very special experience, as it provides the same sensory impression as that obtained by the people who created them over three thousand years ago, but without the risk of harm to the priceless originals."

Cambridge UL Oracle Bone CUL.52 Hi Res by Professor Dominic Powlesland on Sketchfab

Reference: 2016. “3,000-year-old Chinese oracle bones go 3-D”. Posted: March 22, 2016. Available online:

Friday, April 22, 2016

Rare Viking Crucifix Found with Metal Detector

A rare Viking crucifix pendant has emerged from a Danish field, brought to light by an amateur metal detectorist two weeks before Easter.

The small gold object, made in the shape of a man with outstretched arms — the image of Christ on the cross — is estimated to be Denmark’s oldest crucifix.

Dating from the first half of the 900s (10th century), the pendant has shed new light on Christianity in Denmark, according to experts at the Viking Museum at Ladby, where the crucifix is now kept.

“It’s older than Harald Bluetooth’s runic stone in Jelling,” the museum said in a statement.

The stones in the town of Jelling feature a figure on the cross and commemorate Harald Bluetooth’s conversion of the Danes to Christianity.

Until now, the massive runestones, estimated to date from 965 A.D., were believed to be the earliest depiction of Jesus on a cross in Denmark.

Representing the best-known religious symbol of Christianity, the newly found crucifix would show that Danes embraced Christian faith earlier than previously thought.

The precious object was found by amateur metal detectorist Dennis Fabricius Holm in the fields around a church in the village of Aunslev, on the Danish island Funen.

“It’s pure luck that the little jewelry has survived the last 1,100 years in the earth,” the museum said.

The figure measures 1.6 inches in height and weighs 0.45 ounces. While the back surface is smooth, the front is made of finely articulated goldthreads and tiny fillagree pellets. At the top a small eye for a chain is mounted.

“The cross looks a lot like the gilded silver cross found in 1879 in Birka near Stockholm in Sweden, in a female grave from the Viking Age,” the museum said.

Silver fragments of similar crosses were found in female graves dating to the first half of the 10th century, but the Aunslev cross is the first Danish specimen in full figure.

“It was probably worn by a Viking woman, but it cannot yet be decided, whether the cross was to show that she was a Christian Viking or was just a part of a pagan Viking’s bling-bling,” the museum said.

According to Swedish archaeologist Martin Rundkvist, who first announced the findings on his blog, the crucifixes are too similar for more than one or two people to have been making them.

“The first crucifix was found at Birka near Stockholm. But the second, third and fourth one have been found near Hedeby in Denmark. That is probably were they were made,” Rundkvist told Discovery News.

“Birka, Hedeby and a group of other towns in northern Europe shared an itinerant population of traders and craftspeople,” he said.

The Aunslev cross will be on exhibit at the Viking Museum in Ladby until the Easter holiday, then it will sent to a lab for preservation.

In the summer it will be part of an exhibition in the museum that will show some recent Viking Age finds made in eastern Funen with metal detectors.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2016. “Rare Viking Crucifix Found with Metal Detector”. Discovery News. Posted: March 18, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Facts on Tutankhamun's tomb

Specialists believe two rooms might be hidden inside the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun, which was built some 3,300 years ago in the Valley of the Kings in Luxor.

Here are key facts about the site.

Untouched treasure

In November 1922, British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered the tomb along with its treasure of more than 5,000 objects, many in solid gold. The tomb was nearly intact and it took Carter six years to excavate, with funding from Britain's Lord George Carnarvon.

The treasure was laid out in five rooms and included thrones, statues, furniture and arms.

The walls of the chamber in which Tutankhamun lay were covered in gold, and his coffin was a three-piece sarcophagus of which the outermost was in red quartzite and the innermost was 110 kilograms (240 pounds) of solid gold.

The pharaoh, who died in 1324 BC at the age of 19, had a funeral mask that was also made from gold, inlaid with lapis lazuli. Its eyes were made of obsidian and quartz. The mask has become one of the world's most widely-recognized Egyptian artifacts.

It took Carter 10 years to complete his exploration of the tomb and catalogue the thousands of objects that he found. Lord Carnarvon died In April 1923 in mysterious circumstances, fuelling speculation that the fabled "curse of the pharaohs" had struck one of those responsible for violating "King Tut's" tomb.

A child pharaoh

The discovery made Tutankhamun, who died after just nine years on the throne, one of Egypt's best-known pharaohs. In 2010, a study of DNA tests and CT scans concluded that he suffered from an often-fatal form of malaria and a club foot that caused him to walk with a cane.

Tutankhamun's reign coincided with a troubled time in Egyptian history known as the Amarna period, during which the pharaoh Akhenaten tried to radically transform religion to focus on just one god, Aton.

The DNA tests showed that Tutankhamun was Akhenaten's son, but not that of Nefertiti, an influential wife of the pharaoh celebrated for her beauty.

In fact, his mother is now believed to have been Akhenaten's sister.

Tutankhamun sired two children, both girls, but they died in the womb, the study found. King Tut's mummy is now on display in Luxor.

What's in the two rooms?

Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mamduh al-Damati told reporters Thursday that preliminary scans of Tutankhamun's tomb revealed "two hidden rooms behind the burial chamber" of the boy king that appeared to contain "some organic and metal material".

British archaeologist Nicholas Reeves believes that Nefertiti's tomb might be in a secret chamber adjoining that of King Tut.
Reference: 2016. “Facts on Tutankhamun's tomb”. Posted: March 17, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Goths vs. Greeks: Epic Ancient Battle Revealed in Newfound Text

Fragments of an ancient Greek text telling of an invasion of Greece by the Goths during the third century A.D. have been discovered in the Austrian National Library. The text includes a battle fought at the pass of Thermopylae.

Researchers used spectral imaging to enhance the fragments, making it possible to read them. The analysis suggests the fragments were copied in the 11th century A.D. and are from a text that was written in the third-century A.D. by an Athens writer named Dexippus.

During Dexippus' life, Greece (part of the Roman Empire) and Rome struggled to repel a series of Gothic invasions.

“Warding off the battle columns”

Lecturers Christopher Mallan, of Oxford University, and Caillan Davenport, of the University of Queensland in Australia, recently translated one of the fragments into English. The translated text, detailed in the Journal of Roman Studies, describes the Thermopylae battle: At the start of the fragment, "battle columns" of Goths, a people who flourished in Europe whom the Romans considered barbarians, are attacking the Greek city of Thessalonica. 

"Making an assault upon the city of the Thessalonians, they tried to capture it as a close-packed band," Dexippus wrote of the attack, as translated by Mallan and Davenport. "Those on the walls defended themselves valiantly, warding off the battle columns with the assistance of many hands."

Unable to capture Thessalonica, the Goth force turned south towardAthens, "envisioning the gold and silver votive offerings and the many processional goods in the Greek sanctuaries, for they learned that the region was exceedingly wealthy in this respect," Dexippus wrote.

A Greek force assembled at the narrow pass of Thermopylae in an attempt to stop the Gothic advance. "Some [of the Greeks] carried small spears, others axes, others wooden pikes overlaid with bronze and with iron tips, or whatever each man could arm himself with," Dexippus wrote. "When they came together, they completely fortified the perimeter wall and devoted themselves to its protection with haste."

“Terrifying to the enemy”

In the text, Dexippus said the commander of the Greek force, a general named Marianus, tried to raise morale by reminding the Greeks of the battles their ancestors had fought at Thermopylae in the past, including the famous fifth-century B.C. battle between the Persians and a Spartan-led force.

"O Greeks, the occasion of our preservation for which you are assembled and the land in which you have been deployed are both truly fitting to evoke the memory of virtuous deeds," Marianus' speech to his troops reads, as translated from the fragment. "For your ancestors, fighting in this place in former times, did not let Greece down and deprive it of its free state.

"In previous attacks, you seemed terrifying to the enemies," said Marianus. "On account of these things, future events do not appear to me not without hope …"

The fragment ends before the completion of Marianus' speech, and the outcome of the battle is uncertain, researchers said.

Marianus may well have given a speech (or speeches) to the troops, the researchers said; however, the speech recorded in this text was likely invented by Dexippus, something ancient historians often did.

Though no one has an exact date for the Thermopylae battle, it was likely fought in the 250s or 260s, researchers said.

An emperor fights

The Thermopylae fragment is one of several written by Dexippus, discovered in the Austrian National Library book, that discuss the invasion of Greece by the Goths. The Thermopylae battle fragment was first published in 2014 in German in the journal Wiener Studies by Gunther Martin and Jana Grusková, researchers at the University of Bern and Comenius University in Bratislava, respectively.

Martin and Grusková have published several articles in German and English on the other fragments. Some of the fragments tell of an attempt by the Roman Emperor Decius (who lived A.D. 201-251) to stop the Gothic forces, as described by Martin and Grusková in 2014 in the journal Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies. In those fragments, Dexippus wrote that Emperor Decius suffered a series of setbacks, losing territory and men.

Like Marianus, Emperor Decius also supposedly gave a speech to raise morale among his troops. "Men, I wish the military force and all the provincial territory were in a good condition and not humiliated by the enemy," Emperor Decius told his troops (translation by Martin and Grusková).

"But since the incidents of human life bring manifold sufferings … it is the duty of prudent men to accept what happens and not to lose their spirit, nor become weak."

Again, this speech may have been invented by Dexippus.

Jars, Owen. 2016. “Goths vs. Greeks: Epic Ancient Battle Revealed in Newfound Text”. Live Science. Posted: March 18, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Uncovering the mystery of very early humans in New Mexico

Shaggy, heavy-shouldered bison have grazed the wide open spaces of the American Southwest for thousands of years. They made a tempting target for the hunters who walked the empty landscape between 9,000 and 13,000 years ago. The bison were attracted to a lush landscape west of Socorro, New Mexico where wetlands created by mountain runoff stretched across hundreds of acres. The hunters were attracted to the bison.

In 2000, archeologist Robert Dello-Russo was hired by the Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center (EMERTC) at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology to survey land where they wanted to build a new observation facility for their explosives research. He contracted to look for archeological sites on the state-owned land, and found much more than anyone expected. "We found the Water Canyon Paleo-Indian site and a lot of other early Holocene sites because we were right at the edge of this big alluvial fan so there were other sites eroding out and basically, we said well if you are going to build this, you are going to have to move it some place that is not littered with archeological sites," said Dello-Russo.

EMRTC is internationally famous for the quality of its research and a welcoming spirit that brought the television show Myth Busters back repeatedly to blow up all sorts of things. The EMRTC scientists didn't realize an obscure part of their 14-square-mile field laboratory was a major archeological site.

In the years since he discovered the site at Water Canyon Dello-Russo and his colleagues have returned to the site repeatedly to explore the scope of the ancient wetlands, finding more and more evidence that the best documented earliest humans, known as Paleo-Indians on the North American continent hunted here. EMERTC has helped wherever possible, supplying water, lending a backhoe for a major excavation and generously allowing the access Dello-Russo needed.

He is now the director of the Office of Contract Archeology at the University of New Mexico. OCA operates as a division of the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology at UNM and functions as a team of professional archaeologists that can be hired to do research.

Students and OCA staff work under contract to various state and federal agencies and with private companies in need of surveys and reports on archeological sites. The work ranges from excavating artifacts to helping the U.S. National Park Service build their history exhibits to assisting pipeline companies find routes that won't damage historical treasures. Depending on the ebb and flow of contracts, Dello-Russo hires dozens of students to work in the field and in the laboratory.

At Water Canyon Dello-Russo and his collaborators have found spear and/or atlatl (throwing stick) points from the Clovis people, who hunted here more than 13,000 years ago, from the Folsom people who hunted here more than 12,000 years ago, from the Cody Complex hunters who butchered bison and left the bones around 10,800 years ago, and from the late Paleo-Indian people who hunted across this landscape around 9,200 years ago, and also left bones from butchered bison. Dello-Russo and his collaborators have also found gypsum points from the Middle to Late Archaic people.

They don't yet know precisely how many generations of hunters found prey at this spot. As a historical comparison, the Paleo-Indian hunters roamed the landscape between 12,000 and 8,000 years before the Ancestral Native Americans built Chaco Canyon, another famous archeological site in the state. It's still a mystery whether the hunters stayed for some time at Water Canyon, or whether they killed and ate bison and moved on, although current evidence suggests the later.

Blackwater Draw or the Clovis Site, in eastern New Mexico is the first site in the state where it could be documented that generations of Paleo-Indian hunters successfully hunted and killed their prey at one place on the landscape, and then returned to the place again and again. Water Canyon, west of Socorro appears to be the second.

One possibility this particular archaeological site may offer is the opportunity to understand how bison evolved. "There is this evolutionary trajectory from the late Pleistocene where bison go from being Bison antiques, which is a species that was 10 to 20 percent larger than modern day bison, to the Holocene when they became the smaller, modern bison or Bison bison," said Dello-Russo.

The bones from the two known bison bone beds at the site are different ages and potentially different sizes. Dello-Russo says they still have to answer the question about whether they are seeing different species of bison or whether they are seeing differences in gender or age in the bison remains. It's the kind of puzzle that fascinates archaeologists, and students in the University of New Mexico Anthropology Department will hopefully have the opportunity to help put the pieces together.

Last summer Dello-Russo conducted a field school for undergraduate archaeology students at the site. The students learned how to document and catalog what they excavated, and heard from visiting experts about a wide range of related topics, including the finer points of how to trace the stone in tools found at Water Canyon back to a prehistoric stone quarry from which it came. Dello-Russo is searching now for graduate students to take back to Water Canyon to learn more about those quarries.

Preserved prehistoric vegetation as an archeological treasure

Dello-Russo also found something at the Water Canyon site called a "black mat" – a buried, but intact layer of sediment with a high degree of organic matter that represents the remains of the prehistoric wetland. It includes decomposed plants, pollen, snails and other wetland related materials.

Over the centuries, the landscape became dryer and sediment slowly covered the former wetlands. The scope of the black mat wasn't immediately obvious, but it is clear now that it covers hundreds of acres.

The black mat tells the story of the landscape and the climate that brought the bison to this spot. "Today this land is what's called a juniper savannah. A very dry grassland. It gets about 8 inches of rain a year, maybe," Dello-Russo said. "Back then they probably got triple that amount of moisture. There was probably standing water in some places, flowing in other places. The vegetation included things that we don't have there today, such as versions of maple trees and birch, cherry. We used to think it was like a forest of actual trees, but we are beginning to think it was a more shrub-like environment."

Wentworth, Karen. 2016. “Uncovering the mystery of very early humans in New Mexico”. Posted: March 18, 2016. Available online:

Monday, April 18, 2016

The linguistics of signifying time: The human gesture as clock

A new scientific study documenting the linguistic practices of the Northwestern Amazonian peoples uncovers an unusual method of communicating the human concept of time. The study, "Modally hybrid grammar? Celestial pointing for time-of-day reference in Nheengatú", by Simeon Floyd of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands, was published in the March, 2016 issue of the scholarly journal Language. A pre-print version of the article may be found at:

The article examines how the Nheengatú language includes both auditory and visual components to express the time of day, even though it does not have any numerical or written system for telling time. Speakers of Nheengatú talk about time of day by pointing at where the sun would be in the sky at that particular time. For speakers of Nheengatú, this is the same as saying things like "nine o'clock" in English. This practice is notable because many linguists have assumed that users of auditory languages would not also develop visual language like that seen in sign languages, but this phenomenon shows that this is not necessarily the case.

When humans conceive of grammar we might think of categories like nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs that people communicate by vocalizing. Research with speakers of Nheengatú reveals that this is not always the case, however, and that in some languages it is possible to communicate some of these concepts, by combining movements of the hands and body with speech in systematic ways. In this case visual elements play a role comparable to that usually played by spoken adverbs, adding information about time to the verbs they occur with.

These Nheengatú physical expressions are the type of visual language we expect to see in sign languages, but for spoken languages it is often assumed that all of the words should be audible, not visual, and that the gestures that come along with speech only give extra, peripheral meanings, and not the main information about the topic of talk. These practices seen in small communities in the Amazon have the potential to change how scientists think about the modalities in which language is expressed, because they show that humans don't necessarily have to choose between speaking and signing and are capable of doing both simultaneously.

Nheengatú time reference is just one of the types of combinations of spoken and visual language that some linguists are beginning to suspect may be more common than is currently known; since historically many languages have been studied only based on written words and audio recordings, future scientific studies of video recordings may find new and unexpected types combinations of spoken and visual language that may have been previously invisible.

EurekAlert. 2016. “The linguistics of signifying time: The human gesture as clock”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 17, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Material that can grow when stretched is inspired by Islamic art

It’s utility from beauty. A new class of futuristic materials that grow when stretched get their abilities from the geometries of ancient Islamic art, and they could be useful in medical devices and satellites.

Pull on most materials – be they t-shirts, rubber bands or pieces of plastic – and they stretch in one direction and become thinner in the other. But some metamaterials, engineered to have properties not found in nature, can do the opposite – they grow wider when stretched.

This property comes from their geometric substructure, which when stationary looks like a series of connected squares. When the squares turn relative to each other, however, the material’s density lowers but its thickness increases, allowing it to grow when stretched.

But this twisting means that the materials lose their original shape as they expand. So Ahmad Rafsanjaniand  Damiano Pasini of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, set out to create a material that would grow when stretched yet keep its form.

To do this, they turned to a beautiful kind of geometry.

“There is a huge library of geometries when you look at Islamic architectures,” says Rafsanjani. The team picked their design from the walls of the Kharraqan towers, two mausoleums built in 1067 and 1093 in the plains in northern Iran.

These walls are decorated with roughly 70 different designs, two of which fit the bill nicely. Their repeated patterns of alternating shapes, separated by either circular or parallel cuts, allowed them to expand into a larger version of the original by leaving regular spaces between the shapes.

After finding the perfect geometry, they fashioned the metamaterial from natural rubber. “I introduced some cuts and some hinges, but the pattern is exactly the same,” says Rafsanjani. He presented the work at a meeting of the American Physical Society in Baltimore, Maryland, on 15 March.

The ability of the material could make it useful for an array of applications, such as inserting medical devices inside veins and arteries, or deploying new satellites that unfold in space.


Hall, Shannon. 2016. “Material that can grow when stretched is inspired by Islamic art”. New Scientist. Posted: March 16, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Science shed new light on the life and death of medieval king Erik

The saint's legend speaks of a king who died a dramatic death in battle outside the church in Uppsala, Sweden, where he had just celebrated mass. But what can modern science tell us about his remains? A joint research project headed by Uppsala University now reveals more of the health condition of Saint Erik, what he looked like, where he lived and what the circumstances of his death were.

No contemporary sources mention Erik Jedvardsson, the Swedish king who was later sainted. The only account of his life is the saint's legend, in its preserved form written in the 1290's. Such legends are often unreliable. The Erik legend is, however, based on an older legend which has been lost, and this longer legend may have been much older.

The preserved legend says that Erik was chosen to be king, ruled fairly, was a devoted Christian, led a crusade against Finland, and supported the Church. He was killed in 1160, in his tenth year of rule, by a Danish claimant to the throne. His remains have rested in a reliquary since 1257.

A thorough analysis of the skeleton in the reliquary was conducted in 1946, but the availability of new methods of analysis motivated a new examination in 2014. On 23 April 2014, the reliquary was opened at a ceremony in Uppsala Cathedral. After this, researchers from several scientific disciplines set to work running tests on the remains in an attempt to learn more about the medieval king. Now, the first results of these examinations are made public.

'The interdisciplinary research collaboration on the analysis of the skeletal remains of Saint Erik provides extensive information about his health condition (orthopaedists and radiologists), genealogy (aDNA analysis), diet (isotopanalys), and his death (forensic medicine)', says project leader Sabine Sten, professor of osteoarchaeology at Uppsala University.

The reliquary contains 23 bones, seemingly from the same individual. They are also accompanied by an unrelated shinbone. The radiocarbon values measured in the bones are consistent with a death in 1160. The osteological analysis shows that the bones belong to a man, 35-40 years old and 171 cm tall.

Examinations of the bones using computer tomography at the University Hospital in Uppsala found no discernible medical conditions. DXA- and pQCT measurements conducted at the same hospital found that Erik did not suffer from osteoporosis, or brittleness of the bones. Quite the opposite, as he had a bone density about 25 percent above that of the average young adult of today. King Erik was well-nourished, powerfully built and lived a physically active life.

The isotope analysis points to a diet rich in freshwater fish, which indicates that the king obeyed the church rules on fasts, i.e. days or period when the consumption of meat was forbidden. Stable isotopes also imply that he did not spend his last decade in the expected Uppsala area but rather in the province of Västergötland further south. These conclusions should however be considered very preliminary, as there are as of yet very few other studies to compare the isotope values to.

The opening of the reliquary also saw DNA samples taken. It is hoped that these will produce results that will shed new light on questions of genealogy. This analysis has not yet been completed, and is expected to take another year. The researchers can, however, reveal that the samples have yielded DNA information.

The cranium in the reliquary is dented by one or two healed wounds that may have been due to weapons. The legends say that Erik led a crusade against Finland, which is thought to be a possible explanation of the injuries.

The saint's legend says that in the king's final battle, the enemy swarmed him, and when he fell to the ground they gave him wound after wound until he lay half dead. They then taunted him and finally cut off his head. The remaining bones have at least nine cuts inflicted in connection with death, seven of them on the legs. No wounds have been found on the ribs or the remaining arm bone, which probably means that the king wore a hauberk but had less protected legs. Both shin bones have cuts inflicted from the direction of the feet, indicating that the victim lay on his front.

A neck vertebra has been cut through, which could not have been done without removing the hauberk, i.e. not during battle. This confirms that there was an interlude, as described by the taunting in the legend, between battle and decapitation. At no point do the documented wounds gainsay the account of the fight given by the much later legend.

The research results will be published in an upcoming article in the scientific journal Fornvännen.

Science Daily. 2016. “Science shed new light on the life and death of medieval king Erik”. Science Daily. Posted: March 16, 2016. Available online:

Friday, April 15, 2016

Charcoal burning platforms of the Atlantic woods of Scotland

Analysis of finds from the archaeological excavation of a series of presumed charcoal burning platforms and a lithic scatter at the western end of Loch Doilean in Lochaber in Argyll has revealed new evidence for activities during the Mesolithic, Iron Age, Medieval and post-medieval periods on the west coast of Scotland.

In January 2014, Clare Ellis of Argyll Archaeology undertook an archaeological evaluation of a Mesolithic flint scatter and five platforms on behalf of Forestry Commission Scotland, in advance of a new forest road.

An extraordinary spread of radiocarbon dates were recovered from the various platforms and associated deposits, demonstrating a complex and unexpected picture of land use: from the chance survival of deposits from the Mesolithic, through the middle Bronze Age and into the late Iron Age, over which medieval house platform stances were constructed, and finally later eighteenth or early nineteenth century charcoal burning platforms were built.

An assemblage of lithics was recovered from a raised terrace, dating to the Mesolithic period (c. 8500-4000 BC) and based on the exploitation of quartz and flint, supplemented by some bloodstone and other raw materials. The composition of the small tool assemblage suggests a broad range of activities to have taken place at the site, including functions such as hunting (microliths), drilling (meche de foret), scraping (scrapers) and cutting (truncated pieces/knives).

‘The most interesting aspect of this small lithic assemblage,’ noted lithic specialist Torben Ballin, ‘is its inclusion of relatively large numbers of bloodstone artefacts (50 pieces). Although the largest assemblages of Rum bloodstone are known from the Isle of Rum itself, assemblages have also been recovered from mostly Mesolithic sites up to c. 90 km away. It is thought that the area around Rum, with its bloodstone-bearing early prehistoric sites, may define a Mesolithic social territory and its associated exchange network.‘

This is one of an increasing corpus of late Mesolithic sites recorded on the west coast of Scotland. The lack of structural remains, the relatively small size of the assemblage and the small number of tools may indicate that the terrace was utilised for very short period of times, probably during hunting/gathering expeditions when a few new tools were fashioned and existing ones repaired. ‘It is probably no coincidence that the site is located near to Loch Doilean and next to the River Pollach, up which salmon still run to spawn,’ said Clare Ellis.

Radiocarbon dates indicate that two of the platforms were utilised between the eleventh and twelfth centuries AD, one with a central hearth and the other as a stance for a post-built roundhouse. Four other recessed platforms in Argyll have yielded eleventh to thirteenth century AD radiocarbon dates. However, the platform at Loch Doilean contains the remains of a timber post-built roundhouse that would normally be expected to be Bronze Age or Iron Age in date. This roundhouse appears to have burnt to the ground; this may have been the result of a deliberate act as there were no finds from the ‘floor’ level, implying that all useful and precious items had been removed.

Two of the other platforms were built in the late eighteen or early nineteenth century AD specifically for the purpose of producing charcoal. The remaining platform was in fact a natural terrace and upon which burning had taken place in the late fourth century AD.

Neither of the medieval platforms at Loch Doilean was re-used as charcoal production platforms; indeed, they were proportionately smaller than the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century charcoal production platforms.

It is clear from the results of the evaluation of the five purported charcoal burning platforms at the west end of Loch Doilean that neither the previous contention that the majority of the platforms recorded in Argyll and Lochaber were originally constructed as stances for roundhouses, nor the more recent assertion of many professional archaeologists that the majority were constructed specifically for the production of charcoal can be accepted without additional research centred on the excavation and evaluation of many more of these monuments.

The full results of this research, ARO20: Activities in the woods: platforms and a lithic scatter, Loch Doilean, Sunart, Lochaber by Clare Ellis, and funded by Forestry Commission Scotland, has just been published and is now freely available to download from the ARO website – "" \n _blankArchaeology Reports Online.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Charcoal burning platforms of the Atlantic woods of Scotland”. Past Horizons. Posted: March 15, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Ancient Memphis site to undergo regeneration

A team of archaeologists from the University of York is playing a pivotal role in a major project to give a new lease of life to the ruins of the capital of Ancient Egypt. They are working with Dr. Mark Lehner and a team of archaeologists from Ancient Egypt Research Associates (AERA), the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities (MoA), and with Dr David Jeffreys, director of the Survey of Memphis, to regenerate the site at Memphis which for many centuries was Egypt’s ancient capital.

Memphis is a UNESCO World Heritage site but for the last three decades its spectacular monuments have been under increasing threat from urban expansion.  However thanks to a £1 million grant from USAID, the two-year project will create an Ancient Memphis Walking Circuit at Mit Rahina as part of a wider heritage, outreach and training programme.

The Memphis Circuit will link eight key sites including the western gate and hypostyle hall of the Great Ptah Temple, which was excavated in the 19th century, and the White Walls Chapel, a unique monument containing a group of three seated statues – the deity Ptah flanked by two female deities, now identified as Tjesmet and Menefer. The project involves students documenting and interpreting an endangered area within the Memphis precinct as well as employing 120 local people to clean and stabilise it.

Dr Sara Perry is heading a team from the University of York’s Department of Archaeology who are developing a fully integrated heritage interpretation and outreach training program for the Memphis project.

The project has established a field school — the thirteenth AERA-run field school in Egypt — to train a total of 80 Ministry of Antiquities inspectors and related Egyptian professionals in cultural heritage management and outreach over two years. The inspectors, who play a key role in supervision at historic sites, will use these skills to enhance the management of other important locations across Egypt. Nearly 50 per cent of teaching staff in AERA field schools are women. Once the first set of students have completed their training, some will become instructors for the next set, in an effort to make the school sustainable locally.

The aim is also to work in partnership with the local population in helping to protect excavated sites, reduce incursions and stop their use as rubbish dumps. Locally-run businesses will also benefit from an increase in tourism resulting from the improvements.

Dr Perry said: “Memphis is a truly phenomenal site which is already well known in the popular imagination, but now has the potential to become an internationally renowned cultural destination. The temples at Memphis were among the most important in Ancient Egypt and only Luxor is comparable in political, religious and economic importance.  The creator god Ptah was associated with Memphis and it is here that he had one of the largest temples ever built in his name in the New Kingdom. In fact, this is where Egypt actually got its name: Memphis was referred to as Hikuptah (The temple of the ka of Ptah) which the Greeks pronounced as Aigyptos, and which we now translate as ‘Egypt’.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Ancient Memphis site to undergo regeneration”. Past Horizons. Posted: March 14, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Site of 1503 shipwreck tied to Vasco da Gama found off Oman

The 500-year-old wreckage of Portuguese ship piloted by an uncle of explorer Vasco da Gama has been found off the coast of Oman, archaeologists said Tuesday, a discovery that included the recovery of an incredibly rare coin.

The Esmeralda sank during a  HYPERLINK ""violent storm near al-Hallaniyah Island in the Indian Ocean in May 1503, killing commander Vicente Sodre and all those aboard.

Beginning in 2013, a team from the British company Blue Water Recoveries and the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture explored a site in the island's Ghubbat ar Rahib Bay. They later determined the debris found there came from the long-missing ship, one of two lost in the storm from da Gama's second voyage to India.

Among the stone shot, ceramics, a bell and other debris, divers discovered an incredibly rare silver coin called an Indio, of which only one other is known to exist today, said David L. Mearns, the director of Blue Water Recoveries. The coins were forged in 1499 after da Gama's first voyage to India, which helps date the wreckage, he said.

"That was an amazing discovery," Mearns said. "It was like a thing you read about in a Hollywood story."

The archaeologists announced their findings in an article published Tuesday by The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology.

Ayoub al-Busaidi, the supervisor of marine archaeology at the Oman Ministry of Heritage and Culture, said this marked the first underwater excavation carried out by his country. He said it inspired officials to continue to explore the waters around the sultanate for other finds.

"Oman is now looking at outside archives to read about the relationships and trade between Oman and the outside" world, al-Busaidi said.


Gambrell, Jon.. 2016. “Site of 1503 shipwreck tied to Vasco da Gama found off Oman”. Posted: March 15, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Sardinian professor fighting to save Gaelic – and all Europe’s minority tongues

Speaking more than one language is better for children – and for those who are at risk of dementia, say researchers heading bilingualism project

It is an impending extinction that will change the world and how people communicate: within 20 years, half of all the planet’s languages will be dead.

Experts agree that nothing can stop it happening but one academic is trying her hardest to slow it down, to help preserve what may be part of a golden ticket for our brains. Professor Antonella Sorace – a Sardinian who was discouraged from learning her own dying language in favour of “proper” Italian – is one of a growing number who believe learning a second language has enormous untapped benefits for the human brain. This is true not only for young children but also for adults and people at risk from dementia, where research consistently shows that learning a new language could delay the onset of the disease for four to five years – a better result than with any medication to date. It is those benefits of bilingualism that should encourage us to preserve and protect Britain’s minority languages – Gaelic, Manx, Welsh, Irish, Cornish and Ulster Scots, she says.

“All minority languages are declining,” said Sorace, professor of developmental linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. “If a language is not learned by children then that language is bound to die. There are big forces out there that help to speed this process along. Eventually Gaelic will die, Welsh and Sardinian will die. Many of these are languages that are still relatively healthy; others are being actively suppressed or stigmatised.

“We are trying to contribute to slowing that decline. We know linguistic diversity is important because it makes us human. We lose that and we lose an essential part of what it means to be human.”

Already her work and the project she founded three years ago in Edinburgh, Bilingualism Matters – now expanding across Europe and in the US – have convinced the Scottish government to introduce languages to primary schools. From 2020 all Scottish children will be learning a language other than English in their first year at school, with two other languages being introduced later.

“It’s all about the teaching, but young children are adept at picking up tones, so tonal languages, like Mandarin for example, are a lot easier for children than for adults,” she said.

Just as disappearing forests take with them secrets of undiscovered medicines, disappearing languages can take the key to a longer and better quality of life. The first battle is to unpick the popular myth that bilingualism might damage children’s brains. There were even suggestions it could encourage schizophrenia. Already her work and the project she founded three years ago in Edinburgh, Bilingualism Matters – now expanding across Europe and in the US – have convinced the Scottish government to introduce languages to primary schools. From 2020 all Scottish children will be learning a language other than English in their first year at school, with two other languages being introduced later.

“It’s all about the teaching, but young children are adept at picking up tones, so tonal languages, like Mandarin for example, are a lot easier for children than for adults,” she said.

Just as disappearing forests take with them secrets of undiscovered medicines, disappearing languages can take the key to a longer and better quality of life. The first battle is to unpick the popular myth that bilingualism might damage children’s brains. There were even suggestions it could encourage schizophrenia. There is also the question of how long English can hold its dominance, not only because of the possibility of leaving the EU but also because of China’s emergence as an economic force.

The British are notoriously poor at languages, and interest in taking the subject among schoolchildren has been waning for years – encouraged, Sorace thinks, by parents who do not understand their value. “Monolingualism is a privilege, but also a limitation. Why is Chinese emerging as a powerful language? Because the economy is. The pace is much more rapid than it used to be, so who knows how long it might take for Mandarin to overtake English?”

The Scottish schools language initiative is expected to include Chinese as one of the three languages that will be introduced to primary curriculums.

The refugee crisis is throwing up another concern for Sorace. Many people arriving in new countries are encouraged to take up the language of their new home instead of – rather than alongside – their own. “It is true that some families feel their home language is a problem. They want their child to fully integrate and they think their language will hold them back. This is sometimes the message that comes from the school..

“Even in the Netherlands, a bilingual country, there is this message, you should speak Dutch as soon as possible. Yes of course you must learn to integrate, but don’t speak Dutch to your child. Unfortunately we have this perception that there is a good kind of bilingualism and a bad kind. There is no bad kind.” Her colleague and research collaborator, Thomas Bak, a reader in human cognitive neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh, agrees: “It is the most important change in our understanding of the brain in recent times. Now we know the brain is not static, a set of drawers where things are stored, it has an elasticity, a cerebral elastic. Now we know that brains adapt and adjust all our lifetime. If you start a sport late you may not get to the Olympics, but it will still impact positively on your health. That’s how I look at it. Linguistics meets neuroscience.”

Bak also grew up “protected” from what were then perceived as the dangers of bilingualism. “As a son of a Polish-speaking father and German-speaking mother in Kraków, my parents took a considered decision to not teach me German, to protect me. They were educated people but thought they were doing what was best.” In the 1960s there were academics linking a “foreign language at home” to “mental retardation”.

But is taking up French really necessary to stave off dementia, as opposed to doing crosswords and sudoku?

“Yes, to use the sports analogy, the fact that swimming is good for you is not to say tennis isn’t,” said Bak. “But with language it’s not just words, its about sounds, social interaction, cultural interaction.” He said there was already some early language research suggesting that the prevalence of dementia may already be declining.

“Maybe we are starting to see the first effects of people trying to avoid the risk factors. Bilingualism doesn’t make you immortal, it doesn’t cure dementia but it delays it. In stroke patients twice as many people in the bilingual group recovered their cognitive abilities completely after a stroke than monolinguals. The bilingual brain is better equipped to cope with the damage.”


  • The Bo language became extinct in January 2010 with the death of its last speaker Boa Sr in the Andaman Islands. She had spent years unable to converse with anyone in her 65,000-year-old mother tongue.
  • Pan Jin-Yu valiantly tried to teach younger people the Pazeh language of Taiwan but it vanished when she died in October 2010.
  • Gaulish was spoken by the Celtic tribes of what is now Belgium and France but died out soon after the Romans converted Asterix and his Gaul friends to Latin.
  • Weyto was spoken by the hippopotamus hunters of Ethiopia and first noted by travellers in 1770 but reported gone by 1965.


McVeigh, Tracy. 2016. “The Sardinian professor fighting to save Gaelic – and all Europe’s minority tongues”. The Guardian. Posted: March 13, 2016. Available online:

Monday, April 11, 2016

Hemp Walls Saved India's Ancient Ellora Caves”

Buddhist monks who prayed in India’s Ellora Caves were surrounded by hemp, as plaster covering the shrines’ painted walls and ceilings was made of a mixture of cannabis, clay and lime, a new study has revealed.

The earthen mix turned out to be a blessing, since the cannabis played a key role in preserving the World Heritage site.

According to Manager Rajdeo Singh, an archaeological chemist of the Archaeological Survey of India’s science branch (western region), and Milind M. Sardesai, who teaches botany at Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Marathwada University, the mixture prevented the plaster from degrading for over 1,500 years.

The Ellora caves were built between the 6th and 11th centuries, A.D. in the western state of Maharashtra. They are made up of a group of 34 temples carved out of stone and are dedicated to the three main religions of India — Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism.

The structure runs in a north–south direction for about 1.2 miles. At the southern end are 12 Buddhist caves, in the north are six Jain caves and in between lie 17 Brahmanical caves.

“The caves are breathtaking examples of rock-cut architecture that stands testimony to the imagination and artistry of its creators,” Singh and Sardesai wrote in the journal Current Science.

They analyzed the clay plaster of Buddhist cave no. 12, a remarkable three-storied building.

Using a scanning electron microscope, infrared spectroscopy and stereomicroscopic studies, the researchers were able to isolate specimens of cannabis from the clay plaster.

The remains of cannabis, popularly known as ganja or bhang in India, suggest that it was used in the clay and lime mixture mainly as an insulating agent and to provide added strength to the plaster.

“The cannabis fiber appears to have a better quality and durability than other fibers. Moreover, the cannabis’ gum and sticky properties might have helped clay and lime to form a firm binder,” Sardesai told Discovery News. Called hempcrete, the concrete-like substance used for plastering provided “a healthy, comfortable and aesthetically pleasing living environment to the Buddhist monks to stay,” the researchers said.

“As the hemp plaster has the ability to store heat, is fire-resistant and absorbs about 90 percent of airborne sound, a peaceful living environment for the monks has been created at Ellora Caves,” they added.

Studies in Europe have estimated that hempcrete can last 600–800 years. In the Ellora caves the life span doubled despite damaging environmental factors, such as a growing humidity inside the caves during rainy seasons.

“Ellora has proved that only 10 percent of cannabis mixed with clay or lime in the plaster could last for over 1,500 years,” Singh told The Times of India.

In contrast, hemp wasn’t used in the neighboring Ajanta, another World Heritage site consisting of about 30 rock-cut Buddhist structures dating back to the 2nd century BC.

There, “rampant insect activity has damaged at least 25 percent of the paintings,” Singh said.

According to the researchers, properties of hemp fibers such as the ability to regulate humidity inside the cave, pest resistance, fire-retardant, non-toxicity, high vapor permeability, hygroscopic properties, were known to the inhabitants of Ellora in the 6th century AD.

“Unfortunately in India cannabis has gained a bad name because of its narcotic properties. But the ancient artists knew its good sides,” Sardesai said.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2016. “Hemp Walls Saved India's Ancient Ellora Caves”. Discovery News. Posted: March 11, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Syntax is not unique to human language

The Japanese great tits 'speak' in phrases too

Human communication is powered by rules for combining words to generate novel meanings. Such syntactical rules have long been assumed to be unique humans. A new study, published in Nature Communications, show that Japanese great tits combine their calls using specific rules to communicate important compound messages. These results demonstrate that syntax is not unique to humans. Instead, syntax may be a general adaptation to social and behavioural complexity in communication systems.

Language is one of humans' most important defining characteristics. It allows us to generate innumerable expressions from a finite number of vocal elements and meanings, and underlies the evolution of other characteristic human behaviours, such as art and technology. The power of language lies in combining meaningless sounds into words that in turn are combined into phrases. Research on the communication systems of non-human primates and birds suggests that the ability to combine meaningless vocal elements has evolved repeatedly, but the evolution of syntax (i.e. combining different words to form more complex expressions) was so far considered to be unique to human language.

A recent study by researchers from Japan, Germany and Sweden challenges this view, demonstrating that the Japanese great tit, known for its diverse vocal repertoire, have evolved syntax. This small bird species experiences a number of threats, and in response to predators, they give a variety of different calls. These calls can be used either alone or in combination with other calls. Using playback experiments, Dr. Suzuki and colleagues could demonstrate that ABC calls signifies "scan for danger", for example when encountering a perched predator, whereas D calls signify "come here", for example when discovering a new food source, or to recruit the partner to their nest box. Tits often combine these two calls into ABC-D calls such as when approaching and deterring predators. When these two calls are played together in the naturally occurring order (ABC-D), then birds both approach and scan for danger. However, when the call ordering is artificially reversed (D-ABC), birds do not respond.

'This study demonstrates that syntax is not unique to human language, but also evolved independently in birds. Understanding why syntax has evolved in tits can give insights into its evolution in humans', says David Wheatcroft, post doc at the Department of Ecology and Genetics at Uppsala University and co-author of the study.

Japanese great tits use different calls to coordinate a variety of social interactions, each of which requires specific behavioural responses. Syntax provides rules for combining the elements from a small vocabulary to generate novel meanings that can be readily recognized. These rules may be an adaptation to social and behavioural complexity in communication systems, such as in human language.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Syntax is not unique to human language”. EurekAlert. Posted: March 8, 2016. Available online: