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  • September 5, 2011
  • 05:25 PM

No Bull: The Mithras Cult & Christianity

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

In his 1880 Hibbert Lecture on the history of early Christianity, Ernest Renan commented: “I sometimes permit myself to say that, if Christianity had not carried the day, Mithraicism would have become the religion of the world.” While it is doubtful that a Persian-influenced mystery cult that appealed primarily to Roman soldiers, officials, and aristocrats [...]... Read more »

  • September 3, 2011
  • 04:34 PM

DNA of the Black Death at East Smithfield, London

by Michelle Ziegler in Contagions

It seems as though every couple of months a new paper is published reporting Yersinia pestis DNA from ancient remains. This week brought the latest installment from London’s East Smithfield Black Death cemetery. This cemetery holds a special place in the scientific investigations of the Black Death because it is so well documented as being [...]... Read more »

Schuenemann, V., Bos, K., DeWitte, S., Schmedes, S., Jamieson, J., Mittnik, A., Forrest, S., Coombes, B., Wood, J., Earn, D.... (2011) PNAS Plus: Targeted enrichment of ancient pathogens yielding the pPCP1 plasmid of Yersinia pestis from victims of the Black Death. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1105107108  

  • September 1, 2011
  • 06:27 AM

Testing the meaning of the Calatagan pot inscriptions

by nath in Imprints of Philippine Science

In my previous post I have presented the ‘tentative’ reading of the Calatagan pot inscription by Guillermo and Paluga [1]. In this post, I write the authors’ test that made them endorse their reading.

The authors think that the reading should be tested by the following: 1) lexical coherence and simplicty; 2) historical emplotment; and 3) sociological mapping or embeddedness.... Read more »

  • September 1, 2011
  • 03:06 AM

Men, Women and Spatial Intelligence

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Do men and women differ in their cognitive capacities? It's been a popular topic of conversation since as far back as we have records of what people were talking about.While it's now (almost) generally accepted that men and women are at most only very slightly different in average IQ, there are still a couple of lines of evidence in favor of a gender difference.First, there's the idea that men are more variable in their intelligence, so there are more very smart men, and also more very stupid ones. This averages out so the mean is the same.Second, there's the theory that men are on average better at some things, notably "spatial" stuff involving the ability to mentally process shapes, patterns and images, while women are better at social, emotional and perhaps verbal tasks. Again, this averages out overall.According to proponents, these differences explain why men continue to dominate the upper echelons of things like mathematics, physics, and chess. These all tap spatial processing and since men are more variable, there'll be more extremely high achievers - Nobel Prizes, grandmasters. (There are also presumably more men who are rubbish at these things, but we don't notice them.)The male spatial advantage has been reported in many parts of the world, but is it "innate", something to do with the male brain? A new PNAS study says - probably not, it's to do with culture. But I'm not convinced.The authors went to India and studied two tribes, the Khasi and the Karbi. Both live right next to other in the hills of Northeastern India and genetically, they're closely related. Culturally though, the Karbi are patrilineal - property and status is passed down from father to son, with women owning no land of their own. The Khasi are matrilineal, with men forbidden to own land. Moreover, Khasi women also get just as much education as the men, while Karbi ones get much less.The authors took about 1200 people from 8 villages - 4 per culture - and got them to do a jigsaw puzzle. The quicker you do it, the better your spatial ability. Here were the results. I added the gender-stereotypical colours.In the patrilineal group, women did substantially worse on average (remember that more time means worse). In the matrilineal society, they performed as well as men. Well, a tiny bit worse, but it wasn't significant. Differences in education explained some of the effect, but only a small part of it.OK.This was a large study, and the results are statistically very strong. However, there's a curious result that the authors don't discuss in the paper - the matrilineal group just did much better overall. Looking at the men, they were 10 seconds faster in the matrilineal culture. That's nearly as big as the gender difference in the patrilineal group (15 seconds)!The individual variability was also much higher in the patrilineal society, for both genders.Now, maybe, this is a real effect. Maybe being in a patrilineal society makes everyone less spatially aware, not just women; that seems a bit of a stretch, though.There's also the problem that this study essentially only has two datapoints. One society is matrilineal and has low gender difference in visuospatial processing. One is patrilineal and has a high difference. But that's just not enough data to conclude that there's a correlation between the two things, let alone a causal relationship; you would need to study lots of societies to do that. Personally, I have no idea what drives the difference, but this study is a reminder of how difficult the question is.Hoffman M, Gneezy U, List JA (2011). Nurture affects gender differences in spatial abilities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 21876159... Read more »

Hoffman M, Gneezy U, & List JA. (2011) Nurture affects gender differences in spatial abilities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PMID: 21876159  

  • August 31, 2011
  • 04:40 PM

How old is the Acheulian tool industry and why does it matter?

by zacharoo in Lawn Chair Anthropology

Two views of an Acheulian handaxe adorn the cover of this week's Nature (right). Always happy to see paleoanthropology stuff be classy, front-page news. The cover highlights Christopher Lepre's and colleagues' announcement of what may be the oldest Acheulian tools known.
To recap stone tools: The first good evidence of tool use by humans' ancestors are the Oldowan lithics from the 2.6 million year old site of Gona in Ethiopia (Semaw et al. 2003). McPherron and others (2010) reported 2 possibly-cut-marked animal bones from the 3.4 million-year old site of Dikika; but this latter evidence is a bit too scant for us to really be sure our ancestors had adopted technology this early. Anyway, the Oldowan was a very basic tool industry, consisting largely of crude flakes taken off cobbles. It may sound lame, but even the most basic stone-tool-making requires some skills, trust me, it's kinda hard. So stone tools appear roughly 2.5 million years ago, which is also about the time that we have fossils that might document the earliest members of our genus Homo. Sweet.
The legend goes that the next technological revolution doesn't come until about 1 million years later - until around 1.5 million years ago, stone tools were quite basic. But after a while we start seeing these "handaxes" or "bifaces" (cuz flakes are removed from both of the core's faces; see above) that have become kind of the hallmark of what's termed the Acheulian industry. I'm sure there are other key indicators but what do I know, I'm not an archaeologist. Arguably, the rise of the Acheulian from its humble Oldowan beginnings is a milestone in human cognitive evolution - a more complex tool should require a more complex brain, right? Lepre and team announced today that they have some Acheulian handaxes from the Kenyan site of Kokiselei-4, dating to 1.76 million years ago. The authors draw two conclusions: 1) the Acheulian (and thereby more advanced cognition) is a few hundred thousand years older than previously thought, and 2) the co-occurrence of Acheulian and Oldowan tools at this time indicates the presence of contemporaneous human species with different cognitive capabilities.
Now what's a bit odd here is that the presence of handaxes among otherwise Oldowan assemblages is not a new or unique thing. In her archaeological research at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania, Mary D Leakey distinguished some assemblages as "Developed Oldowan." Here's a relevant blurb from a study by Y. Kimura (2002: 292-293):"Leakey recognized two distinctive industries, Oldowan and Acheulian, from Bed I through Bed III at Olduvai. The former was characterized by the presence of various choppers and attributed to Homo habilis sensu lato, whereas the latter was traditionally defined to contain bifaces more than 40-60% of the tools, and attributed to H. erectus sensu lato.The Oldowan was then classified into Oldowan (1.87-1.65 mya) and Developed Oldowan (1.65-0.6 mya) based on the increased light-duty tools, spheroids and bifaces in the latter. The Developed Oldowan coexisted with Acheulian" (emphasis mine)So the co-occurrence of Oldowan (i.e. choppers) and Acheulian (some handaxes) is known from other sites, albeit not until around 1.5 million years ago. Too bad I'm not an archaeologist nor know more about lithics, because I wish I could put the new Kokiselei-4 assemblage into this context - just how is it different from "Developed Oldowan"? As John Hawks pointed out before I did, "developed Oldowan" doesn't appear in the Lepre et al. discussion. Hrm. Then they make this statement:"Homo erectus is traditionally thought to be the first hominin to disperse from Africa, yet the oldest known out-of-Africa fossil hominin sites lack stone tools or preserve only Oldowan-style artefacts. ... Our data indicate that the earliest development of the Acheulian occurred in Africa at 1.76 [million years] ago and was contemporaneous with or perhaps pre-dated the earliest hominin dispersals into Eurasia (Lepre et al. 2011: 84).They then go on to suggest that two contemporaneous species lived in Africa in the early Pleistocene - one of these species invented the Acheulian and stayed in Africa, while the other species was too dumb to make anything beyond Oldowan, and instead these dullards left Africa to colonize the rest of the world. This silly scenario seems to stem from an under-appreciation of what Dmanisi demonstrates (possibly since the recent dating paper by Reed Ferring and others only came out a few months ago, probably after the Lepre et al. paper was in press). The Dmanisi fossils establish that hominins more primitive than later Homo erectus (Rightmire et al. 2006) had dispersed into Eurasia by around 1.85 million years ago (if not earlier), with mere Oldowan technology (Mgeladze et al. 2010, Ferring et al. 2011). So Lepre et al.'s claim that the earliest Acheulian "was contemporaneous or perhaps pre-dated" the first out-of-Africa dispersals just isn't true. And without that, there's no support for the silly scenario of a smart, techno-savvy but stationary species being contemporaneous with a colonizing but less crafty-and-cunning species.
It's really cool if the Kokiselei-4 tools truly represent the earliest record of the Acheulian. But, it should be clear by now that we can't simply equate technology and taxonomy. So how old is the Acheulian and why does it matter? I'm fine with a 1.76 million year date, but I also don't think it matters too much. (sorry to be so Dmanisi-centric)

ReferencesFerring, R., Oms, O., Agusti, J., Berna, F., Nioradze, M., Shelia, T., Tappen, M., Vekua, A., Zhvania, D., & Lordkipanidze, D. (2011). From the Cover: Earliest human occupations at Dmanisi (Georgian Caucasus) dated to 1.85-1.78 Ma Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (26), 10432-10436 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1106638108
Kimura, Y. (2002). Examining time trends in the Oldowan technology at Beds I and II, Olduvai Gorge Journal of Human Evolution, 43 (3), 291-321 DOI: 10.1006/jhev.2002.0576
Lepre, C., Roche, H., Kent, D., Harmand, S., Quinn, R., Brugal, J., Texier, P., Lenoble, A., & Feibel, C. (2011). An earlier origin for the Acheulian Nature, ... Read more »

Ferring, R., Oms, O., Agusti, J., Berna, F., Nioradze, M., Shelia, T., Tappen, M., Vekua, A., Zhvania, D., & Lordkipanidze, D. (2011) From the Cover: Earliest human occupations at Dmanisi (Georgian Caucasus) dated to 1.85-1.78 Ma. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(26), 10432-10436. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1106638108  

Lepre, C., Roche, H., Kent, D., Harmand, S., Quinn, R., Brugal, J., Texier, P., Lenoble, A., & Feibel, C. (2011) An earlier origin for the Acheulian. Nature, 477(7362), 82-85. DOI: 10.1038/nature10372  

Semaw, S., Rogers, M., Quade, J., Renne, P., Butler, R., Dominguez-Rodrigo, M., Stout, D., Hart, W., Pickering, T., & Simpson, S. (2003) 2.6-Million-year-old stone tools and associated bones from OGS-6 and OGS-7, Gona, Afar, Ethiopia. Journal of Human Evolution, 45(2), 169-177. DOI: 10.1016/S0047-2484(03)00093-9  

  • August 31, 2011
  • 02:30 PM

Mesopotamian Religion: Prelude to Axial Age

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

Between 800 and 200 BCE, a remarkable series of sages, mystics, and thinkers gave rise to the transcendental traditions that are known today as “world religions.” In 1949, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers identified several themes common to these traditions and described this  six hundred year period as the Axial Age: “These movements were ‘axial’ [...]... Read more »

Jacobsen, Thorkild. (1963) Ancient Mesopotamian Religion: The Central Concerns. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 107(6), 473-484. info:/

  • August 30, 2011
  • 05:59 PM

Multimillennial Neanderthal occupation at La Cotte de St. Brelade

by Julien Riel-Salvatore in A Very Remote Period Indeed

The BBC has a brief news story about some of the results of new excavations conducted at the site of La Cotte St. Brélade (Jersey, Channel Islands). The site is perhaps most famous for having yielded clear evidence for the systematic slaughter of mammoths and wooly rhinos by Neanderthals, which prompted a reevaluation of their hunting abilities (Scott 1980). That analysis, however, suggested that... Read more »

  • August 27, 2011
  • 03:34 PM

The Zoroastrian Ethic & Spirit of Modernity

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber sought to correct or temper Karl Marx’s view that religion was always a reflection or epiphenomenon of the economic base. Although Marx’s understanding of religion was considerably more complicated and drew heavily on Ludwig Feuerbach’s idealist critique in The Essence of Christianity (1841), [...]... Read more »

Kennedy, Jr., R. (1962) The Protestant Ethic and the Parsis. American Journal of Sociology, 68(1), 11. DOI: 10.1086/223262  

  • August 26, 2011
  • 08:50 AM

Penis Spines, Pearly Papules, and Pope Benedict’s Balls

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

Author’s note: The following originally appeared as a guest post at A Primate of Modern Aspect and subsequently formed the basis for a technical comment published by Nature co-authored with John Hawks. This post is also notable in that it began my collaboration with artist Nathaniel Gold. There is very little known about the reign [...]

... Read more »

McLean, C., Reno, P., Pollen, A., Bassan, A., Capellini, T., Guenther, C., Indjeian, V., Lim, X., Menke, D., Schaar, B.... (2011) Human-specific loss of regulatory DNA and the evolution of human-specific traits. Nature, 471(7337), 216-219. DOI: 10.1038/nature09774  

  • August 25, 2011
  • 07:30 PM

170,000 year-old human skull fragment found at Lazaret

by Julien Riel-Salvatore in A Very Remote Period Indeed

A couple of weeks ago (Aug. 13, to be precise), part of a hominin frontal skull fragment was found during excavations at Grotte du Lazaret, near Nice, France. The find was first reported in a series of French media outlets, but it wasn't removed until just a couple of days ago, after it was apparently given time to dry, as reported in the first English-language report I've seen about the find. ... Read more »

  • August 25, 2011
  • 04:51 PM

Bioarchaeology of Women's Health in the Roman Empire

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

Rebecca Redfern's talk at the Museum of London was recorded and posted on Vimeo a few hours ago.  In it, she discusses what bioarchaeology can tell us, why we need to study skeletons even in an age that produced loads of historical records, and specifically how women's health was affected by living in the Roman Empire.  Unfortunately, it appears that the Museum couldn't show all the images, so the video is definitely lacking in interesting illustrations:

The bioarchaeology of women's health in the Roman Empire from Museum of London on Vimeo.
Redfern does great work on the bioarchaeology of Roman Britain, and I highlighted one of her articles in the 1st Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival.  Of course, I've also been critical of her interpretations about the health status of people living in Imperial Rome, as I talked about in my presentation at the Paleopathology Association meeting back in April.  In short, the disease ecology of Imperial Rome was quite diverse, with some skeletal populations showing high frequencies of diseases, and others showing quite low frequencies.  So we can't put all the blame for disease on urbanism, nor can we praise Roman toilets for excellent health.

I should note that this video appears to be at least a year old.  Redfern refers to "just in" data on the Ivory Bangle Lady, noting that she came from Rome, just after saying that there isn't any isotope work coming out of Italy.  This isn't true, of course, since Tracy Prowse did an oxygen isotope study at Isola Sacra in 2007 looking at migration, and I have already published one paper on migration to Rome based on the strontium isotopes from my 2010 dissertation, plus co-authored a paper on lead isotopes in Rome and Britain.  (And, yes, still need to get my Sr/O article out to a peer-reviewed journal...)

Still, it's a good primer on bioarchaeology and the kinds of questions Redfern, I, and others are currently asking about life in the Roman world.


Killgrove K. 2010. Migration and Mobility in Imperial Rome. Ph.D. Dissertation, Department of Anthropology, University of North Carolina. [PDF] 

Killgrove K. 2010. Identifying immigrants to Imperial Rome using strontium isotope analysis. In Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire, H. Eckardt ed. Journal of Roman Archaeology supplement 78, Chapter 9, pp. 157-174.  [PDF]

Montgomery J, J Evans, S Chenery, V Pashley, K Killgrove. 2010. “Gleaming, white and deadly”: lead exposure and geographic origins in the Roman period. In Roman Diasporas: Archaeological Approaches to Mobility and Diversity in the Roman Empire, H. Eckardt ed. Journal of Roman Archaeology supplement 78, Chapter 11, pp. 199-226.

Prowse TL, Schwarcz HP, Garnsey P, Knyf M, Macchiarelli R, & Bondioli L. 2007. Isotopic evidence for age-related immigration to imperial Rome. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 132 (4), 510-9. PMID: 17205550.... Read more »

Prowse TL, Schwarcz HP, Garnsey P, Knyf M, Macchiarelli R, & Bondioli L. (2007) Isotopic evidence for age-related immigration to imperial Rome. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 132(4), 510-9. PMID: 17205550  

  • August 25, 2011
  • 02:40 PM

Visions of Ruth Benedict

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

When it comes to classic anthropology, Margaret Mead may garner the lionesses’ share of attention but Ruth Benedict remains the matriarch. Although Benedict today is dismissed by some as a quaint relic of the “culture and personality” school of anthropology, such demurrals  underestimate the theoretical sophistication and continuing relevance of Benedict’s work.
Those who understand Patterns [...]... Read more »

Benedict, R. (1922) The Vision in Plains Culture. American Anthropologist, 24(1), 1-23. DOI: 10.1525/aa.1922.24.1.02a00020  

  • August 24, 2011
  • 07:41 PM

2nd Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

I'm back with some Roman bioarchaeology related links from the last two weeks.  Not a whole lot to choose from for this carnival, so feel free to email me about recent articles.

Excavations at the Tomb of the Queen
New Finds
August 15 - The necropolis at Tarquinia, dating to the 7th century BC, revealed in 2010 a previously unknown room in the Tumulo della Regina (Tomb of the Queen).  It's being reported that the tomb has now been opened and that it has quite a number of impressive frescoes, which is interesting because the tomb is thought to pre-date the widespread use of frescoes. I suspect we'll be hearing more about this find soon. [Lots of photos here and below.]

Old Finds, New Analyses

Gary Staab making casts
The Sept/Oct issue of Archaeology magazine has a story on "Pompeii's Dead Reimagined."  Artist Gary Staab reinterprets the 150-year-old casts of four denizens of Pompeii who were killed in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.
August 19 - In 2008, archaeologists discovered the tomb of Marcus Nonius Macrinus, the man who inspired the movie Gladiator, along the via Flaminia, near the Tiber River.  Last week, an essay was published in the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero by Fernando Acitelli, who complains quite poetically about the state of disrepair of the tomb and the lack of signage for tourists.
Varia on Roman Bodies

Hobnail footprint from Isca
(credit: @CaerleonDig)
August 18 - Quick Twitpic of a hobnail footprint posted by @CaerleonDig (Twitter feed for the excavation of Roman Isca in Britain).  I love footprints - from the ones made at Laetoli by Australopithecus afarensis to the ones found in fresh mud and wet tiles in the Roman world - and some day I dream of doing a bioanthropological study of the scores of shoes found at Vindolanda.  Footprints and shoes can tell you an enormous amount about a person's gait, and they're understudied in the Roman world, if you ask me.
August 20 - Caroline Lawrence, who writes the Roman history kids' books The Roman Mysteries, has a short piece on the ancient Roman approach to dieting.  Yes, body shaming was alive and well two millennia ago, and the 2nd century Greek philosopher Celsus recommended bulimia and anorexia among his tips for getting and staying slim.
Journal ArticlesAugust 12 - I posted on this blog about a sulphur isotope study into the diet of Roman-era people in Oxfordshire, England.  If you missed it, you can find it here under "Weaning and freshwater fish consumption in Roman Britain."
October - The Journal of Archaeological Science has published an article on migration to Apollonia Pontica, a Greek colony on the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria.  The study involves oxygen isotope analysis of skeletal remains from the 5th-3rd centuries BC, so this doesn't exactly fall under Roman bioarchaeology.  But the authors, Keenleyside, Schwarcz, and Panayotova (2011), do great work in the field of isotope analysis in the Greco-Roman world, so I wanted to mention this one.  They found that 5 out of the 60 people whose first and third molars they studied were from elsewhere, possibly further south in the Aegean region.  Of those 5, the authors found both males and females, suggesting migration to Apollonia Pontica involved children of both sexes, maybe as a family group, maybe as slaves.  They leave the possibility open for future strontium isotope analyses, which I for one would like to see.
Italian ArchaeologyAugust 15 - In Italy, I am called an antropologa, simply an anthropologist, which is someone who studies the human body.  I think cultural anthropologist (which is what comes to mind when someone in the US says "anthropologist") is antropologa culturale or something similar.  So a bioarchaeologist is somewhat distinct from an archaeologist (archeologa) in Italy, at least in my experience.  Regardless, even though archaeologists are usually the ones in the field and anthropologists are the ones in the lab, they work together and face similar job prospects.  A brief news item posted last week by English-language Chinese news agency CNTV outlines just how dire the situation is for Italian archaeologists to find and keep a job.  In an area of the world with so much cultural heritage that needs to be dealt with as modern infrastructure encroaches on it, it's a shame that archaeology in Italy isn't better funded.  Watch the video here.

I'll be back in two weeks' time with another collection of links more or less related to Roman bioarchaeology. As mentioned above, feel free to email me anything you think may be of interest to the carnival!

Keenleyside, A, Schwarcz, H, & Panayotova, K (2011). Oxygen isotopic evidence of residence and migration in a Greek colonial population on the Black Sea. Journal of Archaeological Science, 38 (10), 2658-2666.... Read more »

Keenleyside, A, Schwarcz, H, & Panayotova, K. (2011) Oxygen isotopic evidence of residence and migration in a Greek colonial population on the Black Sea. Journal of Archaeological Science, 38(10), 2658-2666. info:/

  • August 24, 2011
  • 05:13 PM

Back to the backbone of Homo erectus

by zacharoo in Lawn Chair Anthropology

Of course the title is referring to all of the back bones. An alternate title may be "The backbone's connected to the - what bone?" but that's also kinda lame. I'll do better next time.
Martin Hausler and colleagues (in press) report on newly identified vertebral fragments of the WT 15000 Homo erectus skeleton, perhaps the most complete of an early hominid (this one ~1.5 million years ago). This skeleton, and other early hominids (i.e. Australopithecus africanus), were described as having six lumbar (lower back) vertebrae; the modal number in humans is 5, and 3-4 in the great apes. The issue of vertebral formula (the number of cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and sacral verts) in hominids is interesting because it is unclear what the ancestral condition is: was ancestral pattern to have more lumbars (like australopiths) from which humans and apes lost verts, or is ape pattern is ancestral, and lumbars were gained then lost over the course of human evolution.
The fragments found by Hausler and team establish that the WT 15000 individual - and presumably all H. erectus - possessed only 5 lumbar vertebrae. In the past, the only evidence of the 6th-to-last pre-sacral vertebra was the vertebral body. It was unclear whether this vertebra would have had articular facets for ribs (like a thoracic vertebra) or not (like a lumbar vertebra). The pedicle fragments identified by Hausler and colleagues (figure to the right) have a rib facet, and so indicate that the 6th-to-last vertebra of this skeleton was thoracic. Thus, WT 15000 - and again presumably all Homo erectus - had a modern-human-like vertebral formula.
The evolution of the hominid spinal column is interesting. Hausler and team's results don't refute the hypothesis that the ancestral vertebral formula was higher than in modern great apes. The hypothesis of 5 lumbars in the great ape-human common ancestor, which became reduced independently in the Great ape lineages. The evo-devo of the spinal column is especially interesting because it seems to me that it may not be so outlandish to identify and test hypotheses about how spinal column development (segmentation) changed over the course of hominid and ape evolution. I need to think on this a bit, I'll hafta get back to you . . .* figures are from Hausler et al. in press
ReferenceMartin Haeusler, Regula Schiess, Thomas Boeni (2011). New vertebral and rib material point to modern bauplan of the Nariokotome Homo erectus skeleton Journal of Human Evolution : 10.1016/j.jhevol.2011.07.004... Read more »

Martin Haeusler, Regula Schiess, Thomas Boeni. (2011) New vertebral and rib material point to modern bauplan of the Nariokotome Homo erectus skeleton. Journal of Human Evolution. info:/10.1016/j.jhevol.2011.07.004

  • August 23, 2011
  • 07:35 PM

A Visayan reading of a Luzon artifact

by nath in Imprints of Philippine Science

It is quite difficult to write on something which everybody claims to be an expert at. As a matter of fact, this post has been in my dashboard for more than 4 months already.  It has never been touched since I prepared the image on the lower right. There is a resurgence of interest on [...]... Read more »

  • August 23, 2011
  • 02:20 PM

Chinese Religion Redux

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

As Cold War propaganda in the West would have it, communist states were to be despised because they were atheist and Godless. The reality, however, was quite different. In the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church never went away and popular belief was often at odds with official state doctrine. It is doubtful that the [...]... Read more »

  • August 22, 2011
  • 03:10 PM

Boyz Turning 2 Men Sooner than Ever

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Despite how it may have seemed when you came back from summer vacation to start eighth grade and every boy's voice had changed at once, the age of human adolescence isn't set in stone. A German demographic researcher says that the age of sexual maturity in males has been steadily decreasing since the mid-eighteenth century. And he reached this conclusion based on the rate at which young men get themselves killed.Human males have an unfortunate tendency to die in early adulthood. Recklessness and violence aren't just traits of young males in the modern era. Even in earlier centuries, when young men had to satisfy their adrenaline cravings with buggy racing, dueling, or hanging around smallpox patients, they were more likely to die than women of the same age.This leads to a phenomenon called the "accident hump." Both sexes have a relatively high risk of dying as an infant, but that risk plummets throughout childhood. Mortality bottoms out in older kids, when the threat of childhood disease recedes and adult ailments are still far in the future. As adolescent girls move into adulthood, their risk of death slowly and steadily climbs. Each adult year that you're alive has a greater chance of being your last. But for males, the mortality rate takes a sudden leap above females in early adulthood. This is the accident hump. As men get a little older and leave behind their risky or violent behaviors, their risk of death smooths out again to match the steady climb of female mortality.Joshua Goldstein, at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, says that the accident hump has been shown to coincide with sexual maturity, the time when male bodies are cranking out their highest levels of testosterone. Other studies have shown that female sexual maturity, measured by the age when menstruation starts, has come earlier and earlier over the past few centuries. As humans have developed better medicine and nutrition, our bodies have been able to grow bigger and mature sooner. Has sexual maturity also been arriving earlier for males?To find out, Goldstein looked at death data from several European countries with thorough records. The dataset began in the mid-1700s. In each decade, he determined the age at which the accident hump peaked; this would roughly represent the average age of male sexual maturity.He found that throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the accident hump came about 0.2 years earlier in each decade. In the late 1800s, young European men were dying most often around age 21. In 2000, that age was closer to 18.So at the same time that humans were getting bigger and healthier, the peak of males' dangerous behavior was getting earlier. Has the onset of male adolescence also grown earlier? Goldstein says there's other evidence beside mortality rates. A study of boys' choirs found that in a choir lead by J. S. Bach in mid-eighteenth-century Germany, boys' voices didn't change until they were 18 years old, on average. But in twentieth-century London choirs, boys' voices changed much earlier, around age 13.Earlier sexual maturity might mean teenagers are driven to try risky behaviors (and girls are able to get pregnant) at increasingly younger ages. Goldstein wonders how brain development, which continues into early adulthood, compares to sexual development. If the timing of brain maturation has stayed the same while physical maturation has grown earlier, does this make for an increasing gap between physical and mental adulthood? Goldstein also points out that in the past half-century or so, cultures around the world have seen the milestones of adulthood--marriage, financial independence, parenthood--pushed to later in life. Essentially, though most of us would have cringed to hear it in seventh grade, we may all be living out a longer adolescence.Goldstein, J. (2011). A Secular Trend toward Earlier Male Sexual Maturity: Evidence from Shifting Ages of Male Young Adult Mortality PLoS ONE, 6 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0014826... Read more »

  • August 22, 2011
  • 12:32 PM

Secondary Burial and the Post-mortem Manipulation of the Dead

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

We here in the U.S. tend to think of death and burial as little as possible.  Someone dies, and we bury them.  Perhaps we visit the person's grave or other sacred space on occasion, but that's the extent of our interaction with the dead.  In other places and in other times, people weren't so squeamish about death and had a continuing relationship with the dead bodies of their compatriots.

Secondary burial is usually defined as anything other than putting a dead body in the ground/tomb and sealing it up (which is primary burial).  Cremation can count as secondary burial, as the dead body is manipulated (in this case by fire) and then disposed of.  But what's always been really interesting to me is the practice of post-mortem manipulation of the dead, the extended burial rituals that are generally held to indicate a sort of ancestor worship, for lack of a better term, or a way of honoring the dead and keeping them among the living.

Bronze Age mummy
(credit: BBC)
Monday's news brought word of prehistoric mummies from Scotland that show evidence of post-mortem manipulation.  Four bodies discovered in 2001 in the Outer Hebrides dating to the Bronze Age were deliberately mummified: an infant, a young female, a female in her 40s, and a male.  These sex and age estimations were based on the bones, but recent testing showed that one of the females (based on the pelvis) had a male skull and that the male mummy was also a composite of people.  The BBC talked to Mike Parker Pearson, who literally wrote the book on the Archaeology of Death and Burial, who noted that "These could be kinship components, they are putting lineages together, the mixing up of different people's body parts seems to be a deliberate act."  Bioarchaeologists studied the bones further, and the extent of demineralization suggested the bodies were placed in a bog for about a year, then removed and manipulated, finally ending up in the flexed position we see in the photograph.

deBry's engraving "The Tombe of their
Werovvans or Chieff Lordes" based on
Thomas Hariot's 1588 book on Algonkinans
in Virginia.  (Credit:
The secondary burials I've worked with are of Native Americans from the Late Woodland period (c. 800-1600 AD) in North Carolina (Killgrove 2002, 2009).  Among the Algonkians of the northern coastal plain, people of high social standing (called werowances in the ethnographic writing of the day) were typically skinned, cleaned, and stuffed to resemble a corpse, then placed on a wooden scaffold within a temple or tomb.  The common people were generally placed in ossuaries - large burials mounds - but archaeologists generally see a mix of primary and secondary burials in them (Ward & Davis 1999).  The Tuscarora occupied the inner coastal plain of North Carolina in the Late Woodland, and we have a detailed description of their burial ritual from John Lawson, the British Surveyor-General of North Carolina, at the turn of the 18th century.  One day after death, the body was wrapped in reeds.  Mourning took place over a few days' time.  Tuscarora village chiefs were then treated similarly to the Algonkian chiefs: being placed in a quiocosin, a mortuary or charnel house like the Algonkian one pictured.  Lawson also recorded the burial practices of the Siouan groups on the southern coastal plain of NC, in which the deceased was placed on a scaffold, the body was anointed and covered in bark, and eventually the flesh was removed and the bones were cleaned.  All the bones eventually made it to a quiozogon or ossuary-type burial mound.  Later, Siouan burial style switched to accretional ossuaries, with primary burials stacked up and covered with sand.

Skulls of the Toraja
(credit: National Geographic)
Post-mortem manipulation of the dead is an ancient practice but one that extends into the present day as well. In Indonesia, many anthropologists have studied the Toraja, a group that lives in the mountain region of the island of Sulawesi.  High-status individuals in this culture may not be buried until months or years after death, until a massive funeral can be held.  Eventually, when enough money has been raised, a large feast occurs and the dead is conveyed to the burial site in a specially-carved casket, interred in a cliffside grave, and represented by a statue.  In many cases, the dead are revisited after several years.  Their corpses are cleaned and dressed in new clothes, and the statues or effigies are also attended to.  In central Sulawesi, among the Pamona people, corpses are buried but later unearthed, with their flesh removed by ritual specialists.  The bones are wrapped in bark, put in baskets, and dressed and fed as if they were dolls (Hutchinson & Aragon 2002).  After a week of feasting, the jewelry, masks, and clothes are removed from the bone bundles, which are reinterred.  I couldn't find a link to the excellent video I've seen (and shown in class) of Pamona mortuary ritual, but National Geographic has several nice clips of Toraja mortuary ritual - such as here and here.

It's been quite a long time since the extended funeral was a part of American burial tradition - since we switched from displaying the bodies of loved ones in the parlor for a viewing and making memento mori photographs to a mechanized form of burial that distances us from the pollution of death (nicely critiqued in the first episode of HBO's Six Feet Under, when Nate refuses to use the sanitary dirt shaker on his father's grave, preferring to get his hands dirty).  And yet just as there is a movement in this country to bring birth back into the home, there is a movement to bring death back as well, as shown in A Family Undertaking, a 2004 PBS movie I showed one semester to my Bioarchaeology class.

Various cultures' continued relationships with the dead fascinate me and many other anthropologists, and it's important to remember that our own Western, Judeo-Christian views about death likely influence our interpretations of funerary practices around the world.  Learning about practices in other cultures, especially seeking out ethnographic parallels in contemporary funerary practice, will help bioarchaeologists interpret secondary burials and post-mortem manipulation of the dead.

... Read more »

Killgrove, K. (2009) Rethinking taxonomies: skeletal variation on the North Carolina coastal plain. Southeastern Archaeology, 28(1), 87-100. info:/

  • August 21, 2011
  • 07:37 AM

eFfing Fossil Friday (another late edition)

by zacharoo in Lawn Chair Anthropology

I'm sitting at a cafe in Tbilisi, departing at 4:00 am tomorrow for America. Readers will notice that I've been MIA while working with the second annual Dmanisi Paleoanthropology Field School. I hate to say it but I'm glad I was too busy to blog all the goings-on (though sorry if it disappointed anyone). All in all it was another great year, and we found some great fossils (about which I don't think I have permission to say anything at all). Here's this year's class with their certification of badassery at the site on the last day:But Dmanisi won't be the subject of this belated eFfing Fossil Friday. I'd like instead to turn to the question of just what fossils are good for. I'm told that in China, fossil teeth were once interpreted as dragons' teeth, and so pulverized and sold as medicine. But what good are they to non-medical science? My recent research interests have come to focus on the relationship between evolution and development. Evolutionary developmental biology ("evo-devo") research has been dominated by studies of genes, gene expression, and model organisms like fruit flies and mice. In such an environment, the question of the relevance of fossils is especially poignant.
But this morning, while planning a human evo-devo course I hope to teach next summer, I stumbled upon a review paper by Rudolf Raff, titled "Written in Stone: Fossils, genes and evo-devo" (2007). I think the abstract sums things up pretty well:Fossils give evo-devo a past. They inform phylogenetic trees to show the direction of evolution of developmental features, and they can reveal ancient body plans. Fossils also provide the primary data that are used to date past events, including divergence times needed to estimate molecular clocks, which provide rates of developmental evolution. Fossils can set boundaries for hypotheses that are generated from living developmental systems, and for predictions of ancestral development and morphologies. Finally, although fossils rarely yield data on developmental processes directly, informative examples occur of extraordinary preservation of soft body parts, embryos and genomic information.It seems often that fossils are falling by the wayside. There's a sentiment that there's not much information to be gotten from fossils - they're too incomplete, too few, too inconvenient, at least as compared with extremely high-output data such as that coming from genomics. But Raff is right - we need fossils. Beyond the excellent points Raff raises in the review, I'm working on getting the most out of these seemingly data-poor fossil samples. Because modern computers are so powerful nowadays, I'm using their sheer processing power to test hypotheses about growth and development in fossil samples. These battered bunches of bones are too tiny to be analyzed by traditional methods. But one thing I think is important to take away from this computer-crazy Information Age, is that we now have machines that can handle almost any kind of question one can think to ask, and it's really inspiring. The sequencing and analyses of ancient Neandertal and Denisova genomes (Green et al. 2010, Reich et al. 2010) are excellent examples of the amazing research that can be done with computers and creativity (and probably also a horde of hard-working math majors).
So this eFFF (or Sunday) is not dedicated to any specific fossil or set of fossils, but rather to all fossils, even the crappy fragments. Gaumarjos, fossils: your secrets are not safe from us.
ReferenceGreen, R., Krause, J., Briggs, A., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., Patterson, N., Li, H., Zhai, W., Fritz, M., Hansen, N., Durand, E., Malaspinas, A., Jensen, J., Marques-Bonet, T., Alkan, C., Prufer, K., Meyer, M., Burbano, H., Good, J., Schultz, R., Aximu-Petri, A., Butthof, A., Hober, B., Hoffner, B., Siegemund, M., Weihmann, A., Nusbaum, C., Lander, E., Russ, C., Novod, N., Affourtit, J., Egholm, M., Verna, C., Rudan, P., Brajkovic, D., Kucan, Z., Gusic, I., Doronichev, V., Golovanova, L., Lalueza-Fox, C., de la Rasilla, M., Fortea, J., Rosas, A., Schmitz, R., Johnson, P., Eichler, E., Falush, D., Birney, E., Mullikin, J., Slatkin, M., Nielsen, R., Kelso, J., Lachmann, M., Reich, D., & Paabo, S. (2010). A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome Science, 328 (5979), 710-722 DOI: 10.1126/science.1188021
Raff, R. (2007). Written in stone: fossils, genes and evo–devo Nature Reviews Genetics, 8 (12), 911-920 DOI: 10.1038/nrg2225
... Read more »

Green, R., Krause, J., Briggs, A., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., Patterson, N., Li, H., Zhai, W., Fritz, M.... (2010) A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome. Science, 328(5979), 710-722. DOI: 10.1126/science.1188021  

Reich D, Green RE, Kircher M, Krause J, Patterson N, Durand EY, Viola B, Briggs AW, Stenzel U, Johnson PL.... (2010) Genetic history of an archaic hominin group from Denisova Cave in Siberia. Nature, 468(7327), 1053-60. PMID: 21179161  

  • August 19, 2011
  • 01:34 PM

Chinese Religion: Worship Thy Parents

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

There are many ways in which China remains a cipher for Westerners, most of whom labor under the misapprehension that “modern civilization” originated in ancient Greece and spread slowly outward, eventually reaching “backwards” China and even then only in attenuated fashion. This of course ignores parallel and in some ways more spectacular developments in Neolithic [...]... Read more »

Holzman, D. (1998) The Place of Filial Piety in Ancient China. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 118(2), 185. DOI: 10.2307/605890  

Underhill, A. (1997) Current issues in Chinese Neolithic archaeology. Journal of World Prehistory, 11(2), 103-160. DOI: 10.1007/BF02221203  

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