Sunday, July 31, 2016

Ancient 'Deep Skull' from Borneo full of surprises

A new study of the 37,000-year old remains of the "Deep Skull" - the oldest modern human discovered in island South-East Asia - has revealed this ancient person was not related to Indigenous Australians, as had been originally thought.

The Deep Skull was also likely to have been an older woman, rather than a teenage boy.

The research, led by UNSW Australia Associate Professor Darren Curnoe, represents the most detailed investigation of the ancient cranium specimen since it was found in Niah Cave in Sarawak in 1958.

"Our analysis overturns long-held views about the early history of this region," says Associate Professor Curnoe, Director of the UNSW Palaeontology, Geobiology and Earth Archives Research Centre (PANGEA).

"We've found that these very ancient remains most closely resemble some of the Indigenous people of Borneo today, with their delicately built features and small body size, rather than Indigenous people from Australia."

The study, by Curnoe and researchers from the Sarawak Museum Department and Griffith University, is published in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

The Deep Skull was discovered by Tom Harrisson of the Sarawak Museum during excavations at the West Mouth of the great Niah Cave complex and was analysed by prominent British anthropologist Don Brothwell.

In 1960, Brothwell concluded the Deep Skull belonged to an adolescent male and represented a population of early modern humans closely related, or even ancestral, to Indigenous Australians, particularly Tasmanians.

"Brothwell's ideas have been highly influential and stood largely untested, so we wanted to see whether they might be correct after almost six decades," says Curnoe.

"Our study challenges many of these old ideas. It shows the Deep Skull is from a middle-aged female rather than a teenage boy, and has few similarities to Indigenous Australians. Instead, it more closely resembles people today from more northerly parts of South-East Asia."

Ipoi Datan, Director of the Sarawak Museum Department says: "It is exciting to think that after almost 60 years there's still a lot to learn from the Deep Skull - so many secrets still to be revealed. "Our discovery that the remains might well be the ancestors of Indigenous Bornean people is a game changer for the prehistory of South-East Asia."

The Deep Skull has also been a key fossil in the development of the so-called "two-layer" hypothesis in which South-East Asia is thought to have been initially settled by people related to Indigenous Australians and New Guineans, who were then replaced by farmers from southern China a few thousand years ago.

The new study challenges this view by showing that - in Borneo at least - the earliest people to inhabit the island were much more like Indigenous people living there today rather than Indigenous Australians, and suggests long continuity through time.

It also suggests that at least some of the Indigenous people of Borneo were not replaced by migrating farmers, but instead adopted the new farming culture when it arrived around 3,000 years ago.

"Our work, coupled with recent genetic studies of people across South-East Asia, presents a serious challenge to the two-layer scenario for Borneo and islands further to the north," says Curnoe.

"We need to rethink our ideas about the region's prehistory, which was far more complicated than we've appreciated until now."
Reference: 2016. “Ancient 'Deep Skull' from Borneo full of surprises”. Posted: June 27, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Sign languages provide insight into universal linguistic short-cuts

Humans have a natural drive to reduce physical effort in nearly every activity, including using language. Instead of saying "goodbye," we often say "bye," getting the same message across with half the syllables. The ways that effort-reduction affect human language have been the subject of extensive research in the field of linguistics, though the overwhelming focus has been on spoken languages. By studying this effect in sign languages, two linguists from Swarthmore College have discovered a new way in which language is shaped by our innate drive to make physical activity easier.

In their paper published in the June 2016 issue of the scholarly journal Language, Nathan Sanders and Donna Jo Napoli report on their discovery of "reactive effort," which is used to keep an incidental body part stable while articulating language. For example, when using a sign language, movement of the arms can produce rotational force (torque) on the torso which would cause it to twist and rock if not counteracted by the reactive effort of using various stabilizing muscles.

In this work, "Reactive effort as a factor that shapes sign language lexicons," Sanders and Napoli analyze dictionary entries of three unrelated sign languages (Italian Sign Language, Sri Lankan Sign Language, and Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language), finding that certain classes of signs that produce torque on the torso are statistically underrepresented in comparison to signs that do not. That is, a sign language's vocabulary naturally avoids those signs which call for extra reactive effort. All three languages show nearly identical patterns in reactive effort reduction, which hints at a biological universal. Thus, this work opens up new lines of research, not just for sign languages, but for all languages, and perhaps many physical activities.

Additionally, reactive effort would likely have remained undiscovered if linguists studied only spoken languages, because the relevant body parts in speech are too small to produce significant movement elsewhere in the body. Thus, this work also demonstrates the importance of studying sign languages on their own terms, because they can reveal insights into language not easily observed in spoken languages.

Find the report at:

Science Daily. 2016. “Sign languages provide insight into universal linguistic short-cuts”. Science Daily. Posted: June 27, 2016. Available online:

Friday, July 29, 2016

Did the Gaels 'tame' the Vikings?

Detectives and archaeologists both piece together events by analyzing the evidence that is left behind.

"They even use the same tools," saysCameron Wesson, Lucy G. Moses Distinguished Professor in the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

"Forensic science is archaeology applied to recent sites," he adds.

Wesson and Niall Sharples, professor of archaeology at Cardiff University in Wales in the United Kingdom, are taking a team of students--including 12 from Lehigh--on a four-week archaeological expedition this summer in South Uist. The island is part of the Outer Hebrides--also known as the West Isles--just off the west coast of Scotland. Among the team's goals will be to piece together what happened when the Vikings arrived on the island more than 1,300 years ago.

An archaeological anthropologist, Wesson's primary research interests center on European colonization of the indigenous peoples of Eastern North America with a focus on sites in Alabama and Georgia.

The South Uist dig represents the first phase of a three- to five-year collaboration with Sharples to search for commonalities between the Viking occupation and the European colonization in parts of the American South. He is interested in what the data may reveal about common patterns of colonization--regardless of the time period or geography.

There is a particular urgency to excavating South Uist, says Wesson.

"Climate change has caused bigger and more violent storms. The rising sea level is accelerating soil erosion causing human remains to erode onto the shore. Artifacts that have been left untouched for more than a thousand years will soon be lost. Our team will be conducting 'salvage archaeology'--trying to excavate, preserve and record what's there before it's completely destroyed."

Wesson and Sharples gained permission to explore the region from the National Trust for Scotland, Scotland's largest conservation charity, which is seeking to rate the importance, or value, of particular sites. The duo will present a summary of their findings to the Scottish government next year.

Support from a Lehigh Mellon Digital Humanities Initiative grant will enable the group to share their findings with the wider community. Wesson and the students will take photographs, record 3-D images and upload real-time data from their excavations. One student will record footage for a documentary film about the expedition. The team has set up a website to distribute information. The students will host a live chat every evening during the dig to answer questions about the fieldwork and the nature of the project. The website can be accessed at

Common origins of colonization

Much of Wesson's work is focused on the nature of social, political, economic and environmental impacts of colonization.

"The motivation for colonization is often the same," says Wesson. "Back home the colonizers are running out of resources, usually land. Migration to other locales was often a consequence of primogeniture--the right of succession belonging to the firstborn child--a major source of inequality and poverty throughout history."

Primogeniture was a likely motivation for the Norse seafarers--popularly known as "the Vikings"--who "raided and traded" from their Scandinavian homelands across wide areas of northern and central Europe. It would likely have been the Norwegians who landed in South Uist around 800 A.D.

"If you were a second or third son you were not able to acquire land in your own community," says Wesson. "Pillaging your neighbor was not OK, but you were free to find land elsewhere."

The indigenous people the Norse encountered in South Uist were Gaelic fisher folk. Today, the island of about 1,700 inhabitants (according to the 2011 census) is among the last remaining strongholds of the Gaelic language in Scotland.

The Vikings as neighbors

Though a group of archaeologists surveyed the Hebrides Islands in the late 1990s, South Uist remains largely unexplored.

The Lehigh-Cardiff team will look for evidence of habitation such as stone used for house foundations, pottery, cooking utensils, storage vessels, fishing gear, fish hooks, iron nails, and fittings and riggings from ships. Wesson expects that in addition to human remains, the group will also find sheep bones as the inhabitants of the Hebrides have been sheep farmers for more than 1,000 years.

Using shovels, trowels and hand picks "we will dig until we find sterile sub-soils that don't show signs of human presence," says Wesson. According to Wesson, it's possible to uncover 300 to 400 years of occupation in three or four feet of soil.

The artifacts will be cleaned, studied and chemically analyzed, ultimately providing clues as to how the arrival of the Vikings changed the story--of the region, the indigenous people and the Vikings themselves.

"We want to answer the question 'What's it like to have the Vikings as your neighbors?'" says Wesson. "What happens when they move in or when it's time for their sons and daughters to be married off?"

Conquerors or immigrants?

Views of colonialism fall into one of two general categories, says Wesson.

"There is the idea that colonialism inherently involves violence, bloodthirsty conquerors and the cutting off of heads. Another theory says the process has often been more benign--there was land available and the inhabitants welcomed newcomers."

Cultural hybridization is the term anthropologists use to describe the phenomenon of cultures blending over time. The result, as Wesson puts it, is that "both groups become something different than they were before." A particular culture might also change through cultural imposition, the tendency of a group to impose its values and patterns of behavior onto others. In this model the indigenous population is threatened by the invading group.

"You either convert to our ways or you're going to get pushed out," says Wesson.

"Immigration has always been fraught," he adds. "For some, welcoming foreigners invites troubling questions: 'Will we lose our identities?' 'Will they change to be more like us? Or will they change us?' Others welcome the diversity and vibrancy that immigrant cultures bring."

So, did the Vikings conquer the Gaels, or did the Gaels "tame" them? "In the history of migration, few populations have moved to a new place and, by the second or third generation, remained unaffected," says Wesson.

Previous evidence has shown that the local people of the Hebrides "Christianized" the Norse seafarers into giving up their "raiding and trading" ways.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Did the Gaels 'tame' the Vikings?”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 22, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Cultural appropriation: when ‘borrowing’ becomes exploitation

The idea of “cultural appropriation” has recently entered mainstream debates about the ways in which African cultural creations are used, borrowed and imitated by others. In fashion, art, music and beyond, some people now argue that certain African cultural symbols and products are off-limits to non-Africans.

In March 2016, an African-American woman at San Francisco State University confronted a white student. She said he should cut his hair because dreadlocks belong to black culture. The incident went viral. Within a month, a YouTube video of the encounter had been watched more than 3.7 million times.

An online debate also erupted about whether it was appropriate for Canadian singer Justin Bieber to wear dreadlocks.

Debates about appropriation aren’t always limited to cross-racial borrowing. An online discussion about African-American appropriation of African cultural symbols also went viral. It began with journalist Zipporah Gene asking black Americans to stop appropriating African clothing and tribal marks. She argued this indicated “ignorance and cultural insensitivity”.

In these debates, the label of cultural appropriation is broadly applied to borrowing that is in some way inappropriate, unauthorised or undesirable. My argument is that borrowing may become appropriation when it reinforces historically exploitative relationships or deprives African countries of opportunities to control or benefit from their cultural material.

A history of extraction

During colonialism, colonial powers not only extracted natural resources but also cultural booty.

The contemporary cultural appropriation debate reflects a justified sensitivity about this historical legacy of extraction, evidence of which can be found in various museums outside of Africa.

The theft of the renowned Benin Bronzes is just one example of this cultural looting. These artefacts were seized by the British in 1897 during a punitive military expedition against the Kingdom of Benin. British soldiers invaded, looted, and ransacked Benin, setting buildings on fire and killing many people. They then deposed, shackled and exiled the Oba (king). This ultimately spelled the end of the independent Kingdom of Benin.

The punitive force looted an estimated 3,000 bronzes, ivory-works, carved tusks and oak chests. Benin’s cultural heritage was then sold in the private European art market to offset the cost of the expedition. Today the Benin Bronzes can be found in museums and collections worldwide. And, in 1990, one single Benin head was sold for US$2.3 million by a London-based auction house.

In 2010, a looted Benin mask with an estimated value of £4.5 million was withdrawn from sale by Sotheby’s auction house following protests concerning the sale. The mask was due to be sold by descendants of a participant in the punitive expedition.

In contrast, the descendant of one participant in the looting of Benin has returned looted artwork.

This colonial booty was taken without permission or compensation. Some people argue a similar dynamic exists in contemporary use of African cultural symbols, creations and products.

Cultural fluidity

Accusations of cultural appropriation raise important and complex questions about the nature of culture. The reality of human experience is that borrowing and cultural mixture are widespread. This is evident in language, religion, agriculture, folklore, food and other cultural elements.

The fairy tale Cinderella provides a good example. Versions of the story can be traced back to the Far East, Near East, Eastern Europe, Southern Europe and Northern Europe. By the mid-20th century, the Cinderella story could be found in India, North Africa, North America, the Western Sudan, Madagascar, Mauritius, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Cultural boundaries are fluid and shifting. Cultural systems may be significantly transformed by different forces and influences. This means that incomplete discussions of appropriation may fail to account for borrowing, diffusion, collaboration and other factors that lead to cultural material being shared.

Discussions of appropriation may also take insufficient account of the importance and benefits of borrowing. Borrowing has led to the international spread of denim, mathematics and even democracy.

When borrowing becomes appropriation

In some instances, a line is crossed and cultural borrowing can become exploitative. Crossing this line may turn acts of borrowing into cultural appropriation.

Context, particularly as it relates to power relationships, is a key factor in distinguishing borrowing from exploitative cultural appropriation.

For example, cultural borrowing from Africa must be considered in the context of historical power asymmetries between Africa and the rest of the world. This is particularly the case with European powers, which developed trading relationships and spheres of influence in Africa.

These later formed the basis for colonial territories. Relationships between African countries and the colonial powers were often extractive and included varied forms of cultural imperialism.

Examining past instances of borrowing can give guidance for future models. Continuing discussions and a lawsuit about the song The Lion Sleeps Tonight are noteworthy. This discussion draws attention to the Zulu musician Solomon Linda, who received little compensation for his song Mbube, recorded in 1939. Linda’s song became The Lion Sleeps Tonight, a global pop classic that has generated substantial money for others.

When patterns of borrowing fail to acknowledge their sources and compensate them, they can be categorised as cultural appropriation. This is particularly the case when cultural flows reflect, reinforce or magnify inequalities. Even in instances where sources receive compensation, later compensation does not always redress past inequities.

The Linda family did eventually receive compensation after filing suit. When Linda died in 1962, his widow could not afford to purchase a gravestone. His daughter died of AIDS-related illness in 2001 because she was unable to afford antiretroviral medication.

How to block exploitative practices

Understanding the context of borrowing is important for preventing exploitative cultural appropriation. An understanding of both borrowing and appropriation should be incorporated into legal, business and other institutional frameworks.

In fields such as intellectual property law, greater recognition of the power structures underlying borrowing in different contexts is important.

This can be an important starting point for blocking future exploitative cultural flows. And it can help prevent extraction of more cultural booty.

The Conversation. 2016. “Cultural appropriation: when ‘borrowing’ becomes exploitation”. The Conversation. Posted: June 20, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

What we can learn from an Indonesian ethnicity that recognizes five genders

On June 13, when a judge in Oregon allowed a person to legally choose neither sex and be classified as “nonbinary,” transgender activists rejoiced. It’s thought to be the first ruling of its kind in a country that, until now, has required that people mark “male” or “female” on official identity documents.

The small victory comes in the wake of a controversial new law in North Carolina that prevents transgender people from using public restrooms that do not match the sex on their birth certificates.

The conflict rooted in these recent policies is nothing new; for years, people have been asking questions about whether the “sex” we are born with should dictate things like which public facilities we can use, what to tick on our passport application and who’s eligible to play on particular sports teams.

But what if gender were viewed the same way sex researcher Alfred Kinsey famously depicted sexuality – as something along a sliding scale?

In fact, there’s an ethnic group in South Sulawesi, Indonesia – the Bugis – that views gender this way. For my Ph.D. research, I lived in South Sulawesi in the late 1990s to learn more about the Bugis' various ways of understanding sex and gender. I eventually detailed these conceptualizations in my book “Gender Diversity in Indonesia.”

Does society dictate our gender?

For many thinkers, such as gender theorist Judith Butler, requiring everyone to choose between the “female” and “male” toilet is absurd because there is no such thing as sex to begin with.

According to this strain of thinking, sex doesn’t mean anything until we become engendered and start performing “sex” through our dress, our walk, our talk. In other words, having a penis means nothing before society starts telling you that if you have one you shouldn’t wear a skirt (well, unless it’s a kilt).

Nonetheless, most talk about sex as if everyone on the planet was born either female or male. Gender theorists like Butler would argue that humans are far too complex and diverse to enable all seven billion of us to be evenly split into one of two camps.

This comes across most clearly in how doctors treat children born with “indeterminate” sex (such as those born with androgen insensitivity syndrome, hypospadias or Klinefelter syndrome). In cases where a child’s sex is indeterminate, doctors used to simply measure the appendage to see if the clitoris was too long – and therefore, must be labeled a penis – or vice versa. Such moves arbitrarily forced a child under the umbrella of one sex or the other, rather than letting the child grow naturally with their body.

Gender on a spectrum

Perhaps a more useful way to think about sex is to see sex as a spectrum.

While all societies are highly and diversely gendered, with specific roles for women and men, there are also certain societies – or, at least, individuals within societies – who have nuanced understandings of the relationship between sex (our physical bodies), gender (what culture makes of those bodies) and sexuality (which kinds of bodies we desire).

Indonesia may be in the press for terror attacks and executions, but it’s actually a very tolerant country. In fact, Indonesia is the world’s fourth-largest democracy, and furthermore, unlike North Carolina, it currently has no anti-LGBT policy. Moreover, Indonesians can select “transgender” (waria) on their identity card (although given the recent, unprecedented wave of violence against LGBT people, this may change).

The Bugis are the largest ethnic group in South Sulawesi, numbering around three million people. Most Bugis are Muslim, but there are many pre-Islamic rituals that continue to be honored in Bugis culture, which include distinct views of gender and sexuality.

Their language offers five terms referencing various combinations of sex, gender and sexuality: makkunrai (“female women”), oroani (“male men”),calalai (“female men”), calabai (“male women”) and bissu (“transgender priests”). These definitions are not exact, but suffice.

During the early part of my Ph.D. research, I was talking with a man who, despite having no formal education, was a critical social thinker.

As I was puzzling about how Bugis might conceptualize sex, gender and sexuality, he pointed out to me that I was mistaken in thinking that there were just two discrete sexes, female and male. Rather, he told me that we are all on a spectrum:

Imagine someone is here at this end of a line and that they are, what would you call it, XX, and then you travel along this line until you get to the other end, and that’s XY. But along this line are all sorts of people with all sorts of different makeups and characters.

This spectrum of sex is a good way of thinking about the complexity and diversity of humans. When sex is viewed through this lens, North Carolina’s law prohibiting people from choosing which toilet they can use sounds arbitrary, forcing people to fit into spaces that might conflict with their identities.

The Conversation. 2016. “What we can learn from an Indonesian ethnicity that recognizes five genders”. The Conversation. Posted: June 16, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

An Irish worker just found a 2,000-year-old lump of 'bog butter' that's still edible

A worker in Ireland recently uncovered a 2,000-year-old, 10-kilogram (22-pound) chunk of 'bog butter' - a cheese-like substance that people used to bury in bogs for preservation, or as an offering to the gods. According to scientists, it's still edible, even after all these years.

The butter was hiding roughly 3.6 metres (12 feet) below the ground, and was found in Ireland's Emlagh bog by turf cutter Jack Conway, who immediately took the specimen to the Cavan County Museum.

While bog butter isn’t that uncommon for researchers to find, this sample is unique, because it's quite large compared to others, meaning it was likely made or purchased by a wealthy individual.

It's also interesting because it was found in a place where three separate kingdoms met - a region known as Drakerath - which was pretty much a political no-man's-land during the time it was buried.

"These bogs in those times were inaccessible, mysterious places," Andy Halpin from the National Museum of Ireland told The Irish Times. "It is at the juncture of three separate kingdoms, and politically it was like a no-man’s-land - that is where it all hangs together."

Because of these conditions, and the fact that the butter was found without a wooden case around it - which was common for keeping butter safe for later consumption - the researchers studying it think it was buried as an offering to the gods or other spirits for protection.

In other words, no one simply forgot about their butter in the swamp. It was left intentionally, and was never meant to be unearthed.

When it wasn’t used as an offering to the gods, bog butter was typically buried to increase its shelf life. Some 2,000 years ago, people didn’t use salt or any other preservative in their butter, which meant that it would spoil quite easily, and burying it in a low-oxygen, cool environment helped to preserve it.

Though this seems like a very sketchy way of doing things compared to today's standards, the museum scientists who have done a preliminary surface study on the newly found chunk say it still smells pretty fresh.

"It did smell like butter, after I had held it in my hands, my hands really did smell of butter. There was even a smell of butter in the room it was in," the curator of Cavan County Museum, Savina Donoho, told Amy McCabe from UTV Ireland.

Despite the pleasant description, they haven't yet tested the composition fo the butter itself, and analysis is ongoing, so it may not be the best idea to chow down on the substance. "Theoretically the stuff is still edible - but we wouldn’t say it’s advisable," Halpin told The Irish Times.

While the newly found butter is exciting for many reason - like its location and lack of covering - it’s still not the oldest ever uncovered.

Back in 2009, peat workers spotted a 25 kilogram (77-pound) oak barrel full of bog butter in Gilltown bog in County Kildare, Ireland, which researchers estimate was buried about 3,000 years.

The bog butter is now residing at the National Museum of Ireland. There's no word yet if it will be put on display.

Hrala, Josh. 2016. “An Irish worker just found a 2,000-year-old lump of 'bog butter' that's still edible”. Science Alert. Posted: June 16, 2016. Available online:

Monday, July 25, 2016

'Badass Librarians' Foil al Qaeda, Save Ancient Manuscripts

Scholars used donkey carts, boats, and teenage couriers to smuggle a priceless collection out of Timbuktu.

In 2012, jihadists—armed to the teeth with weapons seized in Libya after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi—overran northern Mali and established a brutal, sharia regime in Timbuktu. Once a center of learning and culture, the city housed a priceless collection of manuscripts: volumes of poetry, encyclopedias, and even sexual manuals that invoked the name of Allah. Threatened with destruction, the manuscripts were spirited out of the city to safety in a thrilling, cloak-and-dagger operation.  

Speaking from his home in Berlin, Joshua Hammer, a former Newsweek bureau chief in Africa, recounts the tale of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts—and explains how the Timbuktu manuscripts disprove the myth that Africa had no literary or historical culture, why Henry Louis Gates had an epiphany when he saw them, and why the jihadists found them so threatening.

Timbuktu has become a byword for the farthest corner of the earth. But it was once an important cultural and artistic center. Put us on the ground during its golden age. 

Several of the great travelers of the Renaissance, in the 15th-16th centuries, passed through Timbuktu and described it as a thriving commercial center with camel caravans and traders on boats on the Niger River bearing everything from linens and teapots from England to slaves and gold out of the rain forests of Central Africa. At the same time, you had this academic tradition. So you had a thriving commercial center side by side with a Cambridge/Oxford-like atmosphere of fervent scholastic activity.  

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb swept to power in Mali. Talk about its rise—and its fanatical leader, Abou Zeid. 

Abou Zeid was one of a triumvirate of jihadists, probably the most brutal of them, who took over northern Mali between January and April in 2012. Another leader was Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian jihadist who had been hardened fighting in Afghanistan and fallen in with some of the most notorious international jihadists. He was also a cigarette smuggler, who made millions by dominating the cigarette trade across the Sahara up into North Africa. This earned him the nickname “Mister Marlboro.” 

In the chaos of the uprising against Qaddafi, the jihadists raided the armories of Libya, took the weapons into Mali, and quickly swept across the northern part of the country, occupying all of the major towns in the north, including Timbuktu. They imposed sharia law and began to destroy every symbol of moderate Sufi Islam that almost all residents of modern Timbuktu subscribe to. Shrines to Sufi saints were destroyed; whippings and amputations were carried out in the public squares of the city; and, of course, the manuscripts were threatened. 

The manuscripts were not kept in an archive, but by individual families. Explain this unusual provenance—and how it helped preserve them.

Timbuktu was a university town during its golden age. Many of the universities were operated out of mosques, so you had a lot of books and manuscripts being created for the scholars. At the same time, you had these wealthy families that valued learning. Because it had this long scholastic tradition, Timbuktu also had a great literary tradition: powerful Timbuktu families measuring their importance by the books they accumulated on Greek philosophy, poetry, love stories, guides to better sex, astronomy, traditional medicine, as well as the religious books. They would be copied by scribes and accumulated both in the universities and in private homes. So huge libraries were created, numbering in the thousands of volumes. Nobody knows how many manuscripts were in the city at its peak but it was almost certainly in the hundreds of thousands. 

The hero of your book is a man named Abdel Kader Haidara. Give us a character sketch and describe his extraordinary efforts to collect the manuscripts together. 

Abdel Kader Haidara is the son of a scholar from Timbuktu. His father ran an Islamic school in the oldest quarter of Timbuktu. So Abdel Kader grew up around these manuscripts. When he was 17, his father died. He had a dozen brothers and sisters but in the will his father made him the heir to the family book collection, which numbered in the thousands at that time. His father appreciated Abdel Kader’s scholarship and studiousness. He was also fluent in Arabic, which was essential if you were going to be in charge of these manuscripts as they were almost all written in Arabic.  

A few years later, the curator for the national library in Timbuktu called on Abdel Kader and asked him if he would take on a job, traveling around the countryside visiting villages and nomadic encampments, trying to track down some of the ancient manuscripts that had been disbursed into the desert. Timbuktu was conquered by the Moroccans in the 1590s and a lot of the books were spirited out of the city. Abdel Kader reluctantly took on the job—he wanted to be a businessman rather than a scholar working in a library—and began trudging around the countryside in camel caravans or taking boats along the Niger, trying to persuade these villagers to give up their precious family heirlooms and turn them all over to this national library in Timbuktu.  

He proved to be incredibly successful at this and also found that he loved the job. He built the national library into a great institution and turned his own family’s collection into a library in Timbuktu, raised money, and got other librarians involved. By the year 2000, Timbuktu had become a cultural boomtown that had recaptured some of the glory of its heyday in the 16th century, when it was the scholastic center of North Africa. He found manuscripts stashed away in dark storage rooms or caves in the desert. By the time of the jihadi invasion of 2012, he had assembled a collection of 377,000 manuscripts.  

You call the manuscripts “monumentally subversive.” Explain.

Because they posited a worldview that was anathema to the jihadists. There were celebrations of music, which the Salafist fundamentalists do not tolerate, and books about sex in which the reader was asked to invoke the name of Allah as a way of heightening his sexual prowess. Abdel Kader especially valued these things because they showed a more tolerant side of Islam.  

Henry Louis Gates came to Timbuktu to see the manuscripts in 1996. Why was the experience such an epiphany for him? 

Henry Louis Gates came to Timbuktu when he was a professor at Harvard and also making documentaries about African civilization. He’d grown up with the idea that Africans were savages. He recalled a Ripley’s Believe It or Not cartoon he’d seen as a small boy, which said that there had been libraries and universities in Timbuktu. When he finally got to Harvard and began making documentaries, one of the first things he wanted to do was go up to Timbuktu and tell the story of these universities to try to refute the cliché that Africans had no history or intellectual traditions. The argument was that blacks were inferior to Europeans because they had no written language. In Timbuktu, Gates went to see Abdel Kader Haidara, fell in love with the manuscripts, and ended up going back to the U.S. and raising almost $100,000 for Haidara to open the first private library in the city.  

The final rescue of the manuscripts by river to the capital, Bamako, was an amazing cloak-and-dagger operation. Set the scene for us. 

There were three stages of the operation. The first was after Abdel Kader became concerned that the jihadists might target the manuscripts. So they moved them out of the big libraries of Timbuktu into safe houses around the city. They did it at night, putting the manuscripts in boxes and moving them by donkey cart to people’s basements and storage rooms. In the second phase, a couple of months later, they moved them out of the city by vehicle: one vehicle after another, in constant motion, often escorted by teenage couriers, over 600 miles of desert, passing through checkpoints and bluffing their way all the way to Bamako, the capital in the south.  

The third phase, after the French Army invaded and it became too dangerous to move the books by road, involved taking them by boat up the Niger River toward Bamako, then offloading them from the boats and putting them into taxis. It was an elaborate and dangerous process that went on for months, right under the noses of the jihadists. 

The French were called “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” by proponents of the Iraq War. But their prompt and decisive military action in Mali rather disproved that moniker, didn’t it? 

There was no way the U.S. was going to go to war in Mali. There was no oil [laughs], and it was Francophone territory. So Obama was delighted when President Hollande announced he was going to send troops in, after the jihadists overreached and tried to take over the rest of the country.  

The showdown came at a place called Ametettai. A Foreign Legion officer, Captain Oudot de Danville, led a group of hardened paratroopers into battle. They traveled over many miles in the high desert of Mali to Ametettai, where they fought a fight to the finish against the jihadists, who were hunkered down inside caves in this very rocky, arid, brutally hot valley. There were also regular French and Chadian forces, who are really hardened badasses, as well. And they were able to pretty much wipe out the jihadists in one week of fighting.

You end the story in 2014, with the manuscripts still stored in Bamako. What's the current situation? And will they ever go back to Timbuktu?

Who knows? The manuscripts have all been collected in one large storage facility in Bamako, so they have been brought together under one roof. They are being digitized and those that were damaged in the course of the smuggling operation are being carefully restored. Meanwhile, Abdel Kader is keeping an eye on the situation in Timbuktu. He would love to take them back but he doesn’t think the time is right. I’m not really sure when that time will be. It’s already been three years, and I don’t think there’s any end in sight to this purgatory. Last November, there was an attack on the Radisson Hotel in Bamako, so the jihadists are infiltrating the southern part of the country, which they were never able to do at the height of their occupation in the north. I don’t think they will ever again be able to mount a major operation to seize territory. But they’re still out there.

Worrall, Simon. 2016. “'Badass Librarians' Foil al Qaeda, Save Ancient Manuscripts”. National Geographic News. Posted: June 12, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Decade of labor reveals philosopher's guide to the galaxy (Update)

When you're trying to fathom a mangled relic of very old hi-tech, it helps to have the manufacturer's instructions.

For over a century since its discovery in an ancient shipwreck, the exact function of the Antikythera Mechanism—named after the southern Greek island off which it was found—was a tantalizing puzzle.

From a few words deciphered on the twisted, corroded fragments of bronze gears and plates, experts guessed it was an astronomical instrument. But much more remained hidden out of sight.

After more than a decade's efforts using cutting-edge scanning equipment, an international team of scientists has now read about 3,500 characters of explanatory text—a quarter of the original—in the innards of the 2,100-year-old remains. They say it was a kind of philosopher's guide to the galaxy, and perhaps the world's oldest mechanical computer.

"Now we have texts that you can actually read as ancient Greek, what we had before was like something on the radio with a lot of static," said team member Alexander Jones, a professor of the history of ancient science at New York University.

"It's a lot of detail for us because it comes from a period from which we know very little about Greek astronomy and essentially nothing about the technology, except what we gather from here," he said. "So these very small texts are a very big thing for us."

The team says the mechanism was a calendar of the sun and the moon that showed the phases of the moon, the position of the sun and the moon in the zodiac, the position of the planets, and predicted eclipses. Nothing of the sort was known to be made for well over 1,000 years.

"It was not a research tool, something that an astronomer would use to do computations, or even an astrologer to do prognostications, but something that you would use to teach about the cosmos and our place in the cosmos," Jones said. "It's like a textbook of astronomy as it was understood then, which connected the movements of the sky and the planets with the lives of the ancient Greeks and their environment."

"I would see it as more something that might be a philosopher's instructional device."

The letters—some just 1.2 millimeters (1/20 of an inch) tall—were engraved on the inside covers and visible front and back sections of the mechanism, which originally had the rough dimensions of an office box-file, was encased in wood and operated with a hand-crank.

It wasn't quite a manual, more like a long label you would get on a museum to describe a display, according to another team member, Mike Edmunds, who is an emeritus professor of astrophysics at Cardiff University.

"It's not telling you how to use it, it says 'what you see is such and such,' rather than 'turn this knob and it shows you something,'" he said Thursday, during a presentation of the team's findings in Athens.

The mechanism's fragments were raised in 1901 from a mid-1st century B.C. shipwreck, and at first seemed like a scruffy footnote to a magnificent body of finds that included bronze and marble statues, luxury glassware and ceramics.

But the sediment-encrusted, compacted lumps soon attracted scientific attention, and were studied by successive teams over the next decades. While hypotheses were made as to the functioning of the gears and the use of the machine, it was for long impossible to read more than a few hundred characters of the texts buried on the inside of a multi-layered mechanism a bit like a big clock.

About 12 years ago, Jones' and Edmunds' team started to use x-ray scanning and imaging technology to analyze the 82 surviving fragments.

"The original investigation was intended to see how the mechanism works, and that was very successful," Edmunds said.

"What we hadn't realized was that the modern techniques that were being used would allow us to read the texts much better both on the outside of the mechanism and on the inside than was done before."

It was a painstaking process, as to read each of the tiny letters, researchers had to look at dozens of scans.

Edmunds said the style of the text—formal and detailed—implied that it was designed to be much more than a rich collector's plaything.

"It takes it to me out of the realm of executive toys—an executive wouldn't pay all that money to have all that waffle—it's more serious than a toy," he said.

It was probably made in Greece between 200 and 70 B.C., although no maker's signature has been found.

The team says they have read practically all the text on the surviving fragments. Their greatest hope is that archaeologists currently revisiting the shipwreck will uncover pieces overlooked by the sponge divers who found it a century ago—or even another similar mechanism.

The commercial vessel was a giant of the ancient world—at least 40 meters (130 feet) long—and broke into two as it sank, settling on a steep underwater slope about 50 meters (164 feet) deep.

Most of the inscriptions, and at least 20 gears that worked to display the planets, are still there.

Paphitis, Nicholas. 2016. “Decade of labor reveals philosopher's guide to the galaxy (Update)”. Posted: June 9, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, July 23, 2016

A circular prehistoric monument built by early Welsh farmers for ritual performance has been found in Wales

A circular prehistoric monument built by some of the earliest farmers in Wales has been discovered by archaeologists near a series of pits containing pottery and flint used by Neolithic people around 5,000 years ago.

Experts say people would have used the monument, spanning seven metres in diameter and defined by a shallow, flat-bottomed ditch dug into underlying limestone rock, as a place of ritual performance in the Vale of Glamorgan.

“The site is providing a remarkable opportunity to gain access to a large amount of data across a spread of prehistoric time periods,” said Dr Neil Phillips, the Director of the archaeological group APAC Ltd.

“Such an opportunity rarely happens and the surviving archaeology is rarely appreciated before it disappears.”

Housing developers have pledged artefacts from the grounds to National Museum Wales, whose Principal Curator for Prehistory, Adam Gwilt, called the discovery “important new evidence” of the early farming communities in the region.

Culture24. 2016. “A circular prehistoric monument built by early Welsh farmers for ritual performance has been found in Wales”. Culture24. Posted: June 9, 2016. Available online:

Friday, July 22, 2016

Surprising global origins for regional food favourites

Italy's tomatoes and Thailand's potent chillies, although closely associated with these nations, originate from elsewhere, a study shows.

The assessment of more that 150 key food crops shows how agriculture and diets rely on crops from other regions.

The authors say the results highlight the interdependence of food systems and the need for a united effort to ensure its resilience to future threats.

The findings appear in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The research by an international team of scientists assessed the diet and crop production of 177 counties, which accounted for 98% of the world's population.

Growing understanding

"For probably a hundred years or so, scientists have been bringing together information to know where crops came from, where they were domesticated by diverse agricultural cultures," said co-author Colin Khoury, a crop diversity specialist from the Colombia-based International Center for Tropical Agriculture.

"It has taken a lot of information to come together, including linguistics, genetics and archaeological data, in order to reach this level of understanding."

Dr Khoury said a major figure in the understanding of where our food came from was a Russian scientist called Nikolai Vavilov, "a character that would make Indiana Jones look like a bit of a wimp". He was jailed on numerous occasions by warlords during his expeditions across five continents.

The information Vavilov gathered during his travels allowed him to record the diversity of a wide range of crops, and where the plants were growing alongside their wild relatives.

This led to him proposing "centres of origin" for food crops, which included Central America, South America, the Mediterranean and the Near East, explained Dr Khoury.

Since then, scientists have debated and built upon this body of work, with "centres of diversity" replacing Vavilov's "centres of origin" hypothesis.

"A century later, people are still arguing about where exactly the crops come from but we know pretty well the regions where the diversity is richest," he added.

"This is important now for agriculture because that diversity is still used to breed pest and disease resistance, climate change tolerance and all kinds of other things."

Food web

Dr Khoury said his team's study was the first to look at where all the crops came from and to ask which areas where important in terms of modern food systems.

The team identified 23 food-producing regions, all of which were deemed to be important, highlighting the global interdependence of the food crops.

"The connections between where people grow and eat food and where they come from are incredibly extensive, nations generally connect to so many different regions around the world."

Dr Khoury said the findings - as well as confirming the importance of regions, such as the Near East, which were long believed to be key hubs for the origins of food crops - also highlighted that other regions were equally important, such as North America and West Africa.

Another main finding was that no country's diet consisted wholly of native food crops.

As the global food system is projected to come under increasing pressure from a rising human population and climate change, the findings also pointed to the need for an interconnected effort to ensure food production's resilience to future threats.

"It is very clear in science that genetic diversity is the biological base for being able to survive and adapt," Dr Khoury observed.

"So if I am a plant breeder and I want potatoes to be resistant to a new pest in Europe, where do I find that diversity? The quick answer is where the diversity is most diverse, where there is the most variation.

"The argument is that where the potatoes have been the longest, where they have spent hundreds or thousands of years being in contact with different pests, diseases and climates - they are going to be the most diverse.

"These are areas we call primary regions of diversity. It is not just the crops; it is also their wild and weedy cousins.

"The reality is that the diversity is out there in the wild but it is not very well collected, especially when it comes to the wild relatives."

As for the origins of Italy's tomatoes and Thailand's chilli's? "Both of those crops are from the new world, from the Americas. It was only after what is called the Columbian exchange," Dr Khoury explained.

This was the period following Christopher Columbus's 1492 arrival in South America that saw the transfer of animals, plants, culture and technology between Europe and southern America.

"They saw these crops and brought them back to Europe. It is surprising how quickly new foods were accepted and adopted as their own by cultures."

Kinver, Mark. 2016. “Surprising global origins for regional food favourites”. BBC News. Posted: June 8, 2016. Available online:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Research proves Aboriginal Australians were first inhabitants

Conflicting theories of Mungo Man debunked

Griffith University researchers have found evidence that demonstrates Aboriginal people were the first to inhabit Australia, as reported in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal this week.

The work refutes an earlier landmark study that claimed to recover DNA sequences from the oldest known Australian, Mungo Man.

This earlier study was interpreted as evidence that Aboriginal people were not the first Australians, and that Mungo Man represented an extinct lineage of modern humans that occupied the continent before Aboriginal Australians.

Scientists from Griffith University's Research Centre for Human Evolution (RCHE), recently used new DNA sequencing methods to re-analyse the remains of Mungo Man from the World Heritage listed landscape of the Willandra Lakes region, in far western New South Wales.

Professor Lambert, from RCHE, said it was clear that incorrect conclusions had been drawn in relation to Mungo Man in the original study.

"The sample from Mungo Man which we retested contained sequences from five different European people suggesting that these all represent contamination," he said.

"At the same time we re-analysed more than 20 of the other ancient people from Willandra. We were successful in recovering the genomic sequence of one of the early inhabitants of Lake Mungo, a man buried very close to the location where Mungo Man was originally interred.

"By going back and reanalysing the samples with more advanced technology, we have found compelling support for the argument that Aboriginal Australians were the first inhabitants of Australia."

Professor Lambert explained that the results proved that the more advanced genomic technology was capable of unlocking further secrets from Australia's human past.

"We now know that meaningful genetic information can be recovered from ancient Aboriginal Australian remains," he said.

"This represents the first time researchers have recovered an ancient mitochondrial genome sequence from an Aboriginal person who lived before the arrival of the Europeans."

The research, which has just been published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal, was planned and conducted with the support of the Barkindjii, Ngiyampaa and Muthi Muthi indigenous people.

There has been considerable debate in Australia and around the world about the origins of the first Australians since the publication in 1863 of Thomas Henry Huxley's Man's Place in Nature.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Research proves Aboriginal Australians were first inhabitants”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 6, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Romans ate porridge, pasta and bread, imported opium poppy and had fleas at a fort near Glasgow

Romans ate porridge and fruit and suffered from worm and flea invasions a few miles from the centre of Glasgow, according to archaeologists studying building remnants, insect remains and sewage at a former fort along the Antonine Wall.

The army occupied Bearsden for a generation, creating “complex” trade networks and a long-term infrastructure in the East Dunbartonshire town. Professor David Breeze, the author of a new book revealing decades of excavations and scientific analysis, says the plan and history of the fort were originally uncovered during the 1970s.

“The bath-house and latrine discovered at that time are now on public display and are an important part of the Antonine Wall World Heritage Site,” he says, discussing the 40-mile most northerly frontier of the once-mighty Roman Empire.

“We were very fortunate to discover sewage in a ditch which was analysed by scientists at Glasgow University and demonstrated that the soldiers used wheat for porridge and to bake bread, and possibly to make pasta.

“It also told us that they ate local wild fruits, nuts and celery as well as importing figs, coriander and opium poppy from abroad, and that they suffered from whipworm, roundworm and had fleas.”

The frontier was built as a physical barrier on the orders of the Emperor Antoninus Pius in the years following AD 140. “Despite their distance from Rome, the soldiers at Bearsden seem to have been far from detached from the rest of the empire,” says Dr Rebecca Jones, of research co-funders Historic Environment Scotland.

“Evidence shows they regularly received commodities like wine, figs, and wheat from England, Gaul and Southern Spain – as well as some locally gathered food.

“I’m sure that when the excavations were first taking place in the 1970s and 80s, nobody foresaw that the fort would become part of a World Heritage Site.”

Dr Jones describes the book as “essential reading for anybody interested in the Roman occupation of Scotland.” Its chapters also contain expert analysis of pottery, plant remains, soils and glass found in the trenches.

Culture24. 2016. “Romans ate porridge, pasta and bread, imported opium poppy and had fleas at a fort near Glasgow”. Culture24. Posted: June 6, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ice age bison fossils shed light on early human migrations

Scientists using evidence from bison fossils have determined when an ice-free corridor opened up along the Rocky Mountains during the late Pleistocene. The corridor has been considered a potential route for human and animal migrations between the far north (Alaska and Yukon) and the rest of North America, but when and how it was used has long been uncertain.

The researchers combined radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis to track the movements of bison into the corridor, showing that it was fully open by about 13,000 years ago. Their findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that the corridor could not account for the initial dispersal of humans south of the ice sheets, but could have been used for later movements of people and animals, both northward and southward.

Rocky Mountains corridor

In the 1970s, geological studies suggested that the corridor might have been the pathway for the first movement of humans southward from Alaska to colonize the rest of the Americas. More recent evidence, however, indicated that the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets coalesced at the height of the last ice age, around 21,000 years ago, closing the corridor much earlier than any evidence of humans south of the ice sheets. The initial southward movement of people into the Americas more than 15,000 years ago now seems likely to have been via a Pacific coastal route, but the Rocky Mountains corridor has remained of interest as a potential route for later migrations.

“The opening of the corridor provided new opportunities for migration and the exchange of ideas between people living north and south of the ice sheets,” said first author Peter Heintzman, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Santa Cruz who led the DNA analysis.

Previous work by coauthor Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, had shown that the bison populations north and south of the ice sheets were genetically distinct by the time the corridor opened. By analyzing bison fossils from within the corridor region, the researchers were able track the movement of northern bison southward into the corridor and southern bison northward.

Genetic analysis key

“The radiocarbon dates told us how old the fossils were, but the key thing was the genetic analysis, because that told us when bison from the northern and southern populations were able to meet within the corridor,” Heintzman said. The results showed that the southern part of the corridor opened first, allowing southern bison to start moving northward as early as 13,400 years ago, before the corridor fully opened. Later, there was some movement of northern bison southward, with the two populations overlapping in the corridor by 13,000 years ago.

“Bison fossils are the most widespread Quaternary mammal in western North America and of interest because they survived the extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene, unlike most other North American large mammals,” said coauthor Duane Froese of the University of Alberta. “We were able to sample bison fossils, largely from museum collections, including critical ones from central Alberta that dated to the initial opening of the corridor.”

According to Shapiro, archeological evidence suggests that human migration within the corridor was mostly from south to north. Sites associated with the Clovis hunting culture and its distinctive fluted point technology were widespread south of the corridor around 13,000 years ago and decline in abundance from south to north within the corridor region. A Clovis site in Alaska has been dated to no earlier than 12,400 years ago.

“When the corridor opened, people were already living south of there. And because those people were bison hunters, we can assume they would have followed the bison as they moved north into the corridor,” Shapiro said.

The steppe bison of the Pleistocene (Bison priscus) were much bigger than modern bison (Bison bison), she said. Before the corridor closed, prior to the last glacial maximum, they moved freely up and down between the ice-free regions in the north and grasslands south of the ice sheets. After the ice sheets coalesced, the population that was cut off to the south contracted, leaving one genetically distinct southern lineage.

The DNA analysis used in this study focused on mitochondrial DNA, which is easier to recover from fossils than the DNA in chromosomes, because each cell has thousands of copies of the relatively short mitochondrial DNA sequence. While Shapiro’s lab led the DNA analyses, Froese’s lab led the radiocarbon dating work.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Ice age bison fossils shed light on early human migrations”. Past Horizons. Posted: June 6, 2016. Available online:

Monday, July 18, 2016

Lucy had neighbors: A review of African fossils

If "Lucy" wasn't alone, who else was in her neighborhood? Key fossil discoveries over the last few decades in Africa indicate that multiple early human ancestor species lived at the same time more than 3 million years ago. A new review of fossil evidence from the last few decades examines four identified hominin species that co-existed between 3.8 and 3.3 million years ago during the middle Pliocene. A team of scientists compiled an overview that outlines a diverse evolutionary past and raises new questions about how ancient species shared the landscape.

The perspective paper, "The Pliocene hominin diversity conundrum: Do more fossils mean less clarity?" will be published June 6, 2016 as part of a Human Origins Special Feature in the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Authors Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie and Dr. Denise Su of The Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Dr. Stephanie Melillo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany provide an up-to-date review of middle Pliocene hominin fossils found in Ethiopia, Kenya and Chad. The researchers trace the fossil record, which illustrates a timeline placing multiple species overlapping in time and geographic space. Their insights spur further questions about how these early human ancestors were related and shared resources.

"It is now obvious that more than one species of early hominin co-existed during Lucy's time," said lead author Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, curator of physical anthropology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History. "The question now is not whether Australopithecus afarensis, the species to which the famous Lucy belongs, was the only potential human ancestor species that roamed in what is now the Afar region of Ethiopia during the middle Pliocene, but how these species are related to each other and exploited available resources."

The 1974 discovery of Australopithecus afarensis, which lived from 3.8 to 2.9 million years ago, was a major milestone in paleoanthropology that pushed the record of hominins earlier than 3 million years ago and demonstrated the antiquity of human-like walking. Scientists have long argued that there was only one pre-human species at any given time before 3 million years ago that gave rise to another new species through time in a linear manner. This was what the fossil record appeared to indicate until the end of the 20th century. The discovery ofAustralopithecus bahrelghazali from Chad in 1995 and Kenyanthropus platyops from Kenya in 2001 challenged this idea. However, these two species were not widely accepted, rather considered as geographic variants of Lucy's species, Australopithecus afarensis. The discovery of the 3.4 million-year-old Burtele partial foot from the Woranso-Mille announced by Haile-Selassie in 2012 was the first conclusive evidence that another early human ancestor species lived alongside Australopithecus afarensis. In 2015, fossils recovered from Haile-Selassie's ongoing research site at the Woranso-Mille area of the Afar region of Ethiopia were assigned to the new species Australopithecus deyiremeda. However, the Burtele partial foot was not included in this species.

"The Woranso-Mille paleontological study area in Ethiopia's Afar region reveals that there were at least two, if not three, early human species living at the same time and in close geographic proximity," said Haile-Selassie. "This key research site has yielded new and unexpected evidence indicating that there were multiple species with different locomotor and dietary adaptations. For nearly four decades, Australopithecus afarensis was the only known species -- but recent discoveries are opening a new window into our evolutionary past."

Co-author Dr. Denise Su, curator of paleobotany and paleoecology at The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, reconstructs ancient ecosystems. "These new fossil discoveries from Woranso-Mille are bringing forth avenues of research that we have not considered before," said Su. "How did multiple closely related species manage to co-exist in a relatively small area? How did they partition the available resources? These new discoveries keep expanding our knowledge and, at the same time, raise more questions about human origins."

Paleoanthropologists face the challenges and debates that arise from small sample sizes, poorly preserved prehistoric specimens and lack of evidence for ecological diversity. Questions remain about the relationships of middle Pliocene hominins and what adaptive strategies might have allowed for the coexistence of multiple, closely related species. "We continue to search for more fossils," said Dr. Stephanie Melillo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. "We know a lot about the skeleton of A. afarensis, but for the other middle Pliocene species, most of the anatomy remains unknown. Ultimately, larger sample sizes will be the key to sorting out which species are present and how they are related. This makes every fossil discovery all the more exciting."

EurekAlert. 2016. “Lucy had neighbors: A review of African fossils”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 6, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Arctic tomb preserves oldest known Inuit dress

Science in Greenland

In 1972, two hunters discovered a couple of stone covered graves in north west Greenland. Inside were the mummified remains of eight people that radiocarbon dates are expected to reveal, died, 500 years ago.

The discovery itself was a sensation, but the contents of the tombs also caused a stir. Inside, were clothes, which would later become known as the oldest examples of Inuit dress ever discovered in the Arctic.

The clothes were made of skin and fur, with no hint of the decorative pearls or colourful fabrics that are used in modern day Inuit dress, says curator Aviâja Rosing Jakobsen, from the Greenland National Museum, Nuuk.

Jakobsen has documented the transformation of the Greenlandic national costume from an everyday, practical style to the celebration dress that we know today.

Sewn with needles made from bird bones

The garments were likely made around 1485 CE. And were designed with both mobility and the Arctic climate in mind, which required a good deal of knowledge of sewing and the materials in question.

“All moisture from the body had to be able to escape, so the body didn’t become too cold from sweat. And it was really important that the skin could breath through the clothes when it was extremely cold--many minus degrees--otherwise you would die of cold,” says Jakobsen.

And these old clothes were perfectly suited to the task of everyday life in Greenland.

“The clothes have many layers. There is a layer of bird skin with the feathers still in place, where the feathers face inwards towards the body, and a layer of sealskin, also with the hairs facing inwards,” she says.

But the designers clearly had more that functionality in mind, says Jakobsen.

“They’ve created patterns so that it is both functional and beautiful to look at. And it’s really fantastic when you know that they used bird bones as needles,” she says.

European trends inspired national dress

Researchers do not know exactly when Greenlanders left these types of every day dress behind in favour of the more decorative dress in use today, but it was not until 1774 that the Royal Greenland Trade Department started to supply groceries to Greenland, along with fabrics and pearls.

European trends began to infiltrate, and slowly, the Greenlandic national costume that we recognise today began to take shape.

"There were some pioneering women who were inspired by European fashion and culture from the homes of Danish women. They kept up with [the trends of] lace, embroidery, and bloomers. And we can see that in the lace and embroideries used in national costumes today,” says Jakobsen.

The spread of Christianity also had an influence, as Greenlanders wanted clothes that were suitable for Church.

"People were inspired by what they heard in church. They were told to attend Church in ‘proper’ clothing and that you should be well groomed. They feared that God would not treat them well if they misbehaved or didn’t wear nice clothes to Church,” says Jakobsen.

National dress marks identity

Today, the national dress serves a number of different purposes.

It is primarily worn for celebrations, such as on the national day, baptisms, confirmations, and weddings. But it is also an expression of Greenlandic national identify, says Jakobsen.

"We like to highlight the fact that we are proud Greenlanders. It’s our identity. People want to show that they are proud to be who they are and that they continue a tradition started by their ancestors,” she says.

You can explore the costumes further in this digital archive.

Christiansen, Malene Sommer. 2016. “Arctic tomb preserves oldest known Inuit dress”. Science Nordic. Posted: June 3, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Dogs were domesticated not once, but twice ... in different parts of the world

Man's best friend may have emerged independently from two separate (possibly now extinct) wolf populations that lived on opposite sides of the Eurasian continent

The question, 'Where do domestic dogs come from?', has vexed scholars for a very long time. Some argue that humans first domesticated wolves in Europe, while others claim this happened in Central Asia or China. A new paper, published in Science, suggests that all these claims may be right. Supported by funding from the European Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council, a large international team of scientists compared genetic data with existing archaeological evidence and show that man's best friend may have emerged independently from two separate (possibly now extinct) wolf populations that lived on opposite sides of the Eurasian continent. This means that dogs may have been domesticated not once, as widely believed, but twice.

A major international research project on dog domestication, led by the University of Oxford, has reconstructed the evolutionary history of dogs by first sequencing the genome (at Trinity College Dublin) of a 4,800-year old medium-sized dog from bone excavated at the Neolithic Passage Tomb of Newgrange, Ireland. The team (including French researchers based in Lyon and at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris*) also obtained mitochondrial DNA from 59 ancient dogs living between 14,000 to 3,000 years ago and then compared them with the genetic signatures of more than 2,500 previously studied modern dogs.

The results of their analyses demonstrate a genetic separation between modern dog populations currently living in East Asia and Europe. Curiously, this population split seems to have taken place after the earliest archaeological evidence for dogs in Europe. The new genetic evidence also shows a population turnover in Europe that appears to have mostly replaced the earliest domestic dog population there, which supports the evidence that there was a later arrival of dogs from elsewhere. Lastly, a review of the archaeological record shows that early dogs appear in both the East and West more than 12,000 years ago, but in Central Asia no earlier than 8,000 years ago.

Combined, these new findings suggest that dogs were first domesticated from geographically separated wolf populations on opposite sides of the Eurasian continent. At some point after their domestication, the eastern dogs dispersed with migrating humans into Europe where they mixed with and mostly replaced the earliest European dogs. Most dogs today are a mixture of both Eastern and Western dogs -- one reason why previous genetic studies have been difficult to interpret.

The international project (which is combining ancient and modern genetic data with detailed morphological and archaeological research) is currently analysing thousands of ancient dogs and wolves to test this new perspective, and to establish the timing and location of the origins of our oldest pet.

Senior author and Director of Palaeo-BARN (the Wellcome Trust Palaeogenomics & Bio-Archaeology Research Network) at Oxford University, Professor Greger Larson, said: 'Animal domestication is a rare thing and a lot of evidence is required to overturn the assumption that it happened just once in any species. Our ancient DNA evidence, combined with the archaeological record of early dogs, suggests that we need to reconsider the number of times dogs were domesticated independently. Maybe the reason there hasn't yet been a consensus about where dogs were domesticated is because everyone has been a little bit right.'

Lead author Dr Laurent Frantz, from the Palaeo-BARN, commented: 'Reconstructing the past from modern DNA is a bit like looking into the history books: you never know whether crucial parts have been erased. Ancient DNA, on the other hand, is like a time machine, and allows us to observe the past directly.'

Senior author Professor Dan Bradley, from Trinity College Dublin, commented: 'The Newgrange dog bone had the best preserved ancient DNA we have ever encountered, giving us prehistoric genome of rare high quality. It is not just a postcard from the past, rather a full package special delivery.'

Professor Keith Dobney, co-author and co-director of the dog domestication project from Liverpool University's Department of Archaeology, Classics and Egyptology, is heartened by these first significant results. 'With the generous collaboration of many colleagues from across the world-sharing ideas, key specimens and their own data -- the genetic and archaeological evidence are now beginning to tell a new coherent story. With so much new and exciting data to come, we will finally be able to uncover the true history of man's best friend.'

EurekAlert. 2016. “Dogs were domesticated not once, but twice ... in different parts of the world”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 2, 2016. Available online:

Friday, July 15, 2016

How To Use Ethnographic Research To Help Your Business

As the president and CEO of a company that produces software-enabled solutions for other businesses, one of my biggest goals is to design products that create a compelling user experience. One strategy that I’ve found vital to achieve this goal, to which I directly attribute my company’s success, is the use of ethnographic research.

Stemming from anthropology, ethnographic research is the study of a something — in this case a business — in its own environment. My company uses it to meet with clients face-to-face and observe them in their normal environment. This allows us to view the real relationships between the business and its own clients, and as a byproduct, what the products or services they’re providing need to succeed.

Ethnographic research is without a doubt the largest part of achieving our user experience (UX) goals. However, it also can work for other types of businesses, whether you’re selling software like us, doing digital marketing, or offering a product like baby clothes.

How Ethnographic Research Can Help Your Business

My company UM Technologies is not the pioneer of this strategy. As Intel Research’s anthropologist Ken Anderson said, when he summed up the use of ethnographic research in Harvard Business Review, “Our goal is to see people’s behavior on their terms, not ours. While this observational method may appear inefficient, it enlightens us about the context in

An example of this in action: My firm completed work for a utility company’s platform in a market that had no existing systems to model from. We based our initial design on user observation and modified this based on user feedback about what features were important to them for running the business. The result was a focus on triggering alarms when things went wrong, without the need to review when things ran properly. Without having observed its natural business environment, we would not have been able to know what the company needed or been able to build a design tailored to the business.

Stiner, Scott. 2016. “How To Use Ethnographic Research To Help Your Business”. Forbes. Posted: Available online:

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Ancient Wari Empire likely did not cause large shifts in population genetic diversity

The imperial dominance of the ancient Wari Empire at the Huaca Pucllana site in Lima, Peru, was likely not achieved through population replacement, according to a study published June 1, 2016 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Guido Valverde from the University of Adelaide, Australia, and colleagues.

Successive pre-Columbian civilizations existed in the central Andes of South America since the pre-ceramic period 5.5 kya, and ancient empires such as the Wari Empire (600 - 1100 AD) may have been important in shaping the region's demographic and cultural profiles. To investigate whether Wari dominance in the Peruvian Central Coast was based on population replacement or cultural diffusion, the authors of the present study sequenced the complete mitochondrial genomes of 34 individuals from the Huaca Pucllana archaeological site in Lima, Peru, who lived before, during, and after the Wari Empire, and assessed how the population's genetic diversity changed over time.

The researchers found that genetic diversity may only have changed subtly over this period, indicating population continuity over time with only minor genetic impact from Wari imperialism. The subtle genetic diversity shift found at this site may not be representative for the entire Wari territory, and more research is needed to characterize the overall influence of the Wari Empire. Nonetheless, the authors suggest that the Wari Empire may have exerted influence in this area through cultural diffusion rather than by replacement of the pre-existing population.

Guido Valverde adds: "The Huaca Pucllana archaeological site in Peru's Central Coast represents a unique transect of three successive cultures - Lima, Wari and Ychsma. The site provides the exceptional opportunity to study a 1000 years of pre-Inca history, including the impact of the Wari imperialist expansion on Peru's Central Coast cities."
Reference: 2016. “Ancient Wari Empire likely did not cause large shifts in population genetic diversity”. Posted: June 1, 2016. Available online:

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How southeastern Mayan people overcame the catastrophic eruption of Ilopango?

Across the centuries, forming cooperative networks beyond cultural boundaries has been a way to overcome natural disasters.

A Nagoya University researcher and his leading international research group discovered a Great Platform built with different kinds of stone at the archeological site of San Andrés, El Salvador, and challenged the prevailing theory regarding the sociocultural development of Southeastern Maya frontier.

San Andrés is located in the Zapotitan Valley, El Salvador, known as Southeastern Maya zone. Archaeological investigation conducted during 40's and 90's has shown that San Andrés had long human occupation beginning from the Middle Preclassic (ca. 600 BC) until the Early Postclassic (ca. AD 1200), in which had role as political, economic and religious center during the Late Classic period (AD 600-900). As San Andrés has been affected by numerous explosive eruptions -- at least three or four -- during the past two millennia, archaeologists have been interested to understand the role of volcanic eruptions in human history.

Between February and May of 2016, the research group led by Assistant Prof. Akira Ichikawa of the Institute for Advanced Research and at the Graduate School of Letters, Nagoya University, made a new discovery that allowed them to reconsider the recovery process from the volcanic eruption of Ilopango (ca. AD 400-450), which was one of the greatest Holocene eruptions in Central America. Assistant Prof. Ichikawa explained: "We have discovered a masonry platform just above the ash caused by the Ilopango eruption in San Andrés, which could prove that people reoccupied in such a devastated area even immediately after the enormous disaster occurred."

He noted that the discovery of masonry architecture (4 tiered platform, measuring probably ca. 70 m north-south, 60 m east-west, and ca. 6 m) was conclusive in this study. In the Southeastern Maya periphery, especially present western El Salvador, monumental architecture had been principally constructed by earthen material during the Preclassic to Classic period (ca. 800 BC to AD 900). The type of platform mentioned above is very similar to that of Quelepa located in now eastern El Salvador and had other cultural affiliation in the Precolumbian era. This evidence indicates that San Andrés's new construction technology was introduced by external cultural connection.

Assistant Prof. Ichikawa speculated that the social group lived in the Quelepa may have given a hand to help the people in the fully devastated Zapotitan Valley soon after a volcanic eruption occurred. Since the Great Platform found in this study could be considered as a monumental architecture to commemorate the people in the affected area, people in these areas must have had some cooperative relations beyond their cultural boundaries.

San Andrés has been investigated in terms of its relations mainly with Copán, the representative Classic Maya center located in western Honduras. "In this study we opened the gate by broadening our perspectives to the peripheral border beyond the cultural boundaries," Assistant Prof. Ichikawa added. He expects that an understanding of the cultural development in peripheral areas will reveal the historical dynamism across multicultural societies.

EurekAlert. 2016. “How southeastern Mayan people overcame the catastrophic eruption of Ilopango?”. EurekAlert. Posted: June 1, 2016. Available online:

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Hermits in American culture

"Cultures of Solitude" is the title of Dr. Ina Bergmann's current research project. An associate professor at the Department of American Studies of the Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) Würzburg in Bavaria, Germany, she is studying a subject that is a recurring theme throughout US history. It is about solitude and seclusion from society as an extreme expression of the American values of freedom and individualism. Bergmann's main interest is how hermits and recluses are depicted in literature and culture.

For the project, the scientist was awarded a highly sought-after fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (USA) for 2015/16, giving her the opportunity to work as a fellow at the renowned Huntington Library in San Marino (California) in spring 2016.

Robert, the hermit of Massachusetts

In the library, the JMU researcher delved into rare writings from the 18th and 19th century such as "Life and Adventures of Robert, the Hermit of Massachusetts, Who has Lived 14 Years in a Cave, Secluded from Human Society: Comprising, an Account of his Birth, Parentage, Sufferings, and Providential Escape from Unjust and Cruel Bondage in Early Life, and His Reasons for Becoming a Recluse. Taken from his own mouth, and published for his benefit" (1829).

"This is the fascinating story of Robert, a hermit and former slave, who lost his freedom due to deceit and was separated by force from his family," Bergmann says. Robert chose solitude and became a hermit out of desperation and distress: "This narrative aptly demonstrates the impact of slavery in the US and the close link of solitude and freedom."

Work on two book projects

Bergmann intends to incorporate her work in the Californian library into a new book. Under the working title "A Cultural History of Solitude in the USA", the book will deal with the history of solitude phenomena and their by-products. However, the book also covers current aspects such as criticism of society and consumption, desire of freedom, environmentalism and newer lifestyle trends focused on deceleration and simplicity.

The gleanings from Huntington will also be included in a collection of essays which Ina Bergmann is preparing with Ph.D. student Stefan Hippler. The volume will comprise all presentations held at the "Cultures of Solitude" conference organised by Bergmann at the JMU in July 2015. Among the participants were scholars of literature, culture, media and historical science from the US, Canada, Ireland, France and Germany who have specialised in American Studies. Additionally, the collection set to be published in 2016 will include a number of other essays written specifically for this purpose.

Ina Bergmann

Since 1998, Ina Bergmann has been teaching at the University of Würzburg's Department of American Studies where she also did her PhD and qualified as a professor. Other milestones of her teaching career include State University of New York in Albany, the University of Vienna (Austria) and the University of Konstanz (Germany).

A specialist in American Studies, she has studied women's literature, short stories, historical novels, contemporary drama, musicals, films and television and other topics. Her current project on the cultures of solitude will continue positively for her -- with a fellowship from Trinity College Dublin (Ireland) that has recently nominated her "Trinity Long Room Hub Visiting Research Fellow" for 2016/17.

EurekAlert. 2016. “Hermits in American culture”. EurekAlert. Posted: May 4, 2016. Available online:

Monday, July 11, 2016

Reconstructing the evolution of vegetation on Gran Canaria

Thanks to the analysis of fossil pollen and charcoal remains, a team of scientists has been able to reconstruct the evolution of the vegetation from Gran Canaria between 4,500 and 1,500 years ago. The study reveals that the disappearance of forests in some parts of the island is in part due to the rise in fires and the cultivation of cereals. Both factors are closely related to the arrival of the first indigenous people to the island.

In recent years, fossil pollen remains found on the Canary Islands of Tenerife and La Gomera have helped researchers to learn about changes in the composition of these islands’ forests during the Holocene (starting around 9,600 years ago approximately), as well as how humans have influenced these variations.

Analysing fossil pollen

A team of scientists led by the University of La Laguna has now carried out the first study on the vegetation of Gran Canaria by analysing fossil pollen. This analysis has allowed them to study the dynamics of the vegetation before and after human colonisation of the island. The results of their study have been published in the journal The Holocene.

“We have brought to light the importance of thermophilous vegetation (in this case junipers and palms), in the northern part of the island for at least the last 4,500 years, where it was thought that the dominant vegetation prior to the arrival of humans was mainly laurel forests,” explains Lea de Nascimento, a researcher at the University of La Laguna (Tenerife) and the main author of the study.

This study was carried out at Laguna de Valleseco, located in the northern part of the island, where fossil pollen and charcoal remains were extracted, making it possible to determine the natural features of the area during a period of time from approximately 2550 B.C. to 450 A.D.

The decline of the forests

According to the study, about 4,500 years ago the most abundant plant growth in this area of northern Gran Canaria was thermophilous vegetation, whose forests prefer warm temperatures. Among the species, trees of the genus Juniperus and the Canary Island date palm (Phoenix canariensis) are notable.

Nevertheless, trees began to disappear about 2,300 years ago from the area that was studied, a period of time which coincides with a rise in the frequency of fires caused by volcanic eruptions or by human presence on the island. “Volcanism during that period of time was very low in intensity and probably did not affect the forests being studied,” stresses the researcher. Therefore, “[the fires] were most likely caused by humans,” she states.

Furthermore, according to the scientist, the data indicate that the earliest inhabitants of Gran Canaria would have arrived on the island a few centuries before the earliest date of human presence known on the island according to archaeological records (1,900 years ago).

From this time onwards, the presence of shrubs and herbaceous plants progressively increases, while other types of vegetation, such as pine and laurel forests, continue to maintain a relatively low presence. Another of the most significant pieces of data provided by the study is the increase in cereal cultivation -especially from the 2nd century A.D. onwards- a reflection of how this agricultural activity gradually developed on the island.

The cultivation of cereals remained stable from then on, while no recovery of trees -especially fire trees (Morella faya)- is observed until the final time period studied, i.e. between the 4th and 5th centuries.

Consequences of human actions

In addition to the pollen remains, fragments of charcoal have been found in the Laguna de Valleseco, a remnant of the fires that took place then. The researchers believe that the inhabitants of the island burned large areas of land in order to obtain new farmland.

De Nascimento points out that the situation in Tenerife was similar to that of Gran Canaria. The arrival of the indigenous people affected the vegetation on the island and led to the decrease or disappearance of some trees, as well as the expansion of shrubs and herbaceous plants. More fires also broke out and an increase in grasses was detected.

Nevertheless, the study of La Gomera did not reveal any significant change in the composition of the forest following the arrival of humans, which could be explained by the fact that it is a small island that was colonised more recently, about 1,800 years ago, and thus had a smaller population.

“The only way to approximate the original state of the vegetation in the area studied would be to plant the plant species that existed there before the arrival of humans, and to eliminate those that are currently present as a result of human activity,” says de Nascimento.

At present, the scientists continue to work in Gran Canaria and Tenerife and are also analysing samples from Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. Outside of Spain, their new research focuses on other islands of Madeira and Cape Verde..

“Our main goal is to reconstruct the dynamics of the vegetation on the islands of Macaronesia over time and to link possible changes in the vegetation with climate change and human impact. Furthermore, we strive to integrate the palaeoecological information into the conservation and management of the nature of the islands,” concludes de Nascimento.

Past Horizons. 2016. “Reconstructing the evolution of vegetation on Gran Canaria”. Past Horizons. Posted: May 5, 2016. Available online:

Sunday, July 10, 2016

New Nazca Geoglyph Found in Peru

A new Nazca geoglyph has been uncovered by Japanese scientists in Peru, and it could be linked to a major ceremonial center.

Measuring 98-feet long, the geoglyph is located within the central area of the Nazca pampa, a large, flat, arid region of Peru between the Andes and the coast. The line drawing is of an animal, with many legs and spotted markings, sticking out its tongue.

“It certainly represents an imaginary or mythical creature,” Masato Sakai at the Yamagata University in Japan, said.

Last year a team lead by Sakai discovered dozens of new geoglyphs of animals in the same area using to 3-D scans of the ground.

This time, the researchers just spotted the new lines when walking on the Nazca plateau.

“Because the geoglyph is located on the slopes, it can easily be identified on the ground level,” Sakai told Discovery News.

Mostly known for their massive desert images of animals and birds, the Nazca flourished in Peru between the first century B.C. and the seventh century A.D. and slid into oblivion by the time the Inca Empire rose to dominate the Andes.

The new geoglyph is estimated to date back to the Late Paracas Period (400 B.C. to 200 B.C.). The dating comes from earlier versions of the motifs previously found on the pampa, which are believed to have been created at the Late Paracas period.

The geoglyph features a different technique than most famous Nazca lines. Typical of the Late Paracas Period, the technique relies on the white ground which lies underneath the black oxidized pebbles of the pampa.

“This new animal drawing was created by removing dark surface stones and exposing the underlying whitish ground,” Sakai said. ”The removed stones were then piled up to shape the animal image like a relief.”

He believes the animal drawing might be linked to the vast ceremonial center of Cahuachi, which contains about 40 mounds topped with adobe structures.

“We discovered another geoglyph in 2011, not far from the newly found one,” Sakai said. “It was created using the same technique and showed a pair of anthropomorphic figures in a scene of decapitation.” Decapitation was a popular activity within the Nazca civilization, which was obsessed over trophy heads. They seem to have used the human heads for their ceremonial activity.

Both geoglyphs were located on the slopes, so that they could easily be identified on the ground level.

“Between these two geoglyphs, there is an ancient path leading to the ceremonial center of Cahuachi,” Sakai said.

He believes the geoglyphs were probably related to the pilgrimage to Cahuachi.

“They seem to make the path worth walking,” he added.

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2016. “New Nazca Geoglyph Found in Peru”. Discovery News. Posted: May 3, 2016. Available online:

Saturday, July 9, 2016

New data improve techniques for determining whether a jaw bone comes from a man or woman

Researchers at UGR and the Spanish National Research Council have discovered that the differences between the jaw bones of males and females are different between meso-, dolico- or braqui-facial patterns—the three types of anthropometric profiles. As a result, before determining the gender of skeletal remains, it is necessary to establish the vertical facial pattern.

Scientists at the University of Granada and the National Museum of Natural Science (of the CSIC) have applied a new, more accurate technique to analyze the differences in mandible size and shape linked to gender. The new technique will be useful for determining whether a bone comes from a man or a woman.

Their study, published in the Journal of Comparative Human Biology, perfects the technique currently used to identify a subject's gender by analyzing the jaw bone. The results are of great importance to the field of biological anthropology and have further implications for paleoanthropology, paleodemographics, forensic science, orthodontics and other disciplines.

The head author of the study, José Antonio Alarcón Pérez of the Department of Stomotology at the University of Granada, says, "The dolico and braqui-facial subjects present specific patterns of sexual dimorphism in the mandible. These differences could be attributed to the different physiological demands and the difference in the size of the nasal cavity between women and men. Men present higher daily energy expenditures, higher air intake from breathing and differences in body composition compared to women."

A study of 187 jaw bones

The UGR and CSIC study analyzed how the differences linked to gender in the size and shape of the jaw bone varied in function of the vertical and sagittal patterns of the face. Vertical patterns are classified as meso-, braqui- and dolico-facial; sagittal patterns are classified as class I (normal maxillomandibular relationship), class II (mandibular retrognathism versus maxillary prognathism) and class III (mandibular prognathism versus maxillary retrognathism).

In carrying out their study, the authors analyzed the jaw bones of 187 adult subjects (92 men and 95 women) from Granada using lateral teleradiography of the cranium. The size and shape of the jaw bones were studied using specific geometric morphometric techniques.

They found statistically significant differences in the size and shape of the bones between men and women. This sexual dimorphism can be clearly observed in all the patterns, both vertical and sagittal, that were analyzed. The male jaw bone is bigger across all subgroups.

2016. “New data improve techniques for determining whether a jaw bone comes from a man or woman”. Posted: May 2, 2016. Available online: