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  • September 15, 2011
  • 10:59 AM

Foreign Women in Imperial Rome: the Isotopic Evidence

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

Just a short time ago, I had a paper at the European Association of Archaeologists meeting in Oslo.  I unfortunately couldn't attend the conference, so Rob Tykot presented it.  The paper was fun to write, though, and lays out the bioarchaeological evidence (albeit sparse at the moment) for women who immigrated to Imperial Rome.  Following is the complete presentation.  Comments are always welcome!

Foreign women in Imperial Rome: the isotopic evidence
K. Killgrove, Vanderbilt UniversityR. Tykot, University of South FloridaJ. Montgomery, Durham University
A significant amount of classical scholarship over the years has been dedicated to understanding the demographic make-up of the population of Imperial Rome.  Without a proper census, however, classical demographers lack several key pieces of information necessary for reconstructing the number of citizens, slaves, and foreigners at Rome (Noy 2000:16). 
Tombstones provide the most solid evidence of immigrants who died in Rome.  Here we have an example of the inscription on a tombstone of a soldier, noting he was from Noricum (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum vi 3225, translated in Noy 2011). For the most part, though, the epigraphic habit was largely the province of the wealthy, educated elite, leaving us with little information about the lower classes.  Demographic estimates of foreigners at Rome range from 5% to 35%, suggesting that as many as one out of every three people in Rome arrived there from elsewhere. Below is the inscription from a large tomb that a group of free slaves built in Rome (Année Epigraphique 1972, 14, translated in Noy 2011).  They all appear to have belonged to the same household (as they share a name and the designation C.L., “freed slave of Gaius”) yet came to Rome from various places: Greece, Asia Minor, and north Africa. The practice of commemorating one’s homeland is rare, though, and it is unclear how many slaves and free immigrants came from Italy or from further afield in the Empire (Morley 1996, p. 39).  Finally, the epigraphical record of immigrants to Rome is gender-biased, as the vast majority of inscriptions that mention immigrants are those of males (Noy 2000, p. 60). Part of this bias is attributable to the commemoration of soldiers, but males outnumber females three to one even in civilian immigrant inscriptions (Noy 2000, p. 61, Table 2). 
In order to learn more about female immigrants to the Imperial capital, we undertook a bioarchaeological study of human skeletal remains from Rome.  Through a combination of isotope analyses, palaeopathology, and burial style, we identified previously unknown female immigrants in the archaeological record of Rome and were able to reconstruct key aspects of their life histories.
Our skeletal material comes from the cemetery of Casal Bertone, which was located just 2 km from the center of Rome and was in use from the 2nd-3rd centuries AD (Musco et al. 2008). The majority of the graves were located within a simple necropolis, which included unmarked pit burials as well as burials a cappuccina.  An above-ground mausoleum that slightly postdates the necropolis was found as well, and it may have held people of higher social status.  Out of the 138 burials, we chose a stratified sample of 30 adults to subject to strontium, oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen isotope analyses – 19 males and 11 females.
This graph shows the strontium and oxygen isotope results for the first molars of adults from Casal Bertone.  The approximate isotope range of Rome is represented by a box comprising the upper and lower bounds of expected Sr and O values.  No other Sr studies in the Italian peninsula have been done on human skeletal remains, so the local range was estimated conservatively using geochemical modeling that took into account the fact that Rome was supplied by aqueducts that drew water from sources with distinctly different geology than is found in the volcanic Alban Hills (Killgrove 2010a, 2010b).  By combining Sr with an O range from previously published human skeletal data (Prowse et al. 2007), however, it is easier to see nonlocals.  Here, females T82A and T39 are fairly clearly immigrants to Rome because of low/high O isotopes and rather low Sr.  T42, on the other hand, is a borderline case since measurement error could put her within the local O range for Rome.  Clearly, though, isotope analysis of human skeletal remains is a viable way to identify female immigrants in the bioarchaeological record of Rome, particularly those who were not commemorated as such on tombstones.
Three of the 11 females we tested (27%) were probably immigrants to Rome.  Out of the 19 males studied, 6 were immigrants (32%).  More interesting, though, is the sex ratio in the immigrant population.  Whereas the sex ratio in tombstones that commemorate immigrants at Rome is 78% male versus 22% female, the ratio of immigrants discovered through skeletal evidence is 66% male versus 33% female.  This is, granted, a small sample but suggests that the bias towards male immigrants may in the future be rectified by studying skeletal data.
Epigraphy does occasionally tell us a little about the lives of female immigrants.  The tombstone of freedwoman Valeria Lycisca, for example, specifically notes that she came to Rome at age 12 (Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum vi 28228).  Isotope analysis of the skeleton can give us similar information, in that it can help narrow the window of time in which a person immigrated. Two of the Casal Bertone female immigrants – T39 and T82A – also had third molars that could be subjected to Sr isotope analysis.  Both produced M3 Sr values that were very close to their M1 values.  The difference between T39’s first and third molars is .00016, and the difference between T82A’s first and third molars is .00017.  Their M3 values still place them towards the low end of the calculated Sr range of Rome.  People in the low end were probably immigrants from an area with younger geology (such as the southern, volcanic areas of Italy); however, it is possible people in this range were locals who consumed a significant amount of Roman aqueduct water (roughly 90% of all water consumed) throughout childhood.  Oxygen isotope analysis on the M3s has not yet been done.  Based on the small differences between these women’s M1s and M3s, it is likely that both immigrated to Rome after the development of their M3s was complete.  Therefore, T39, a woman of about 15-17 years at the time of her death, likely died shortly after arrival in Rome.
... Read more »

K. Killgrove. (2010) Identifying immigrants to Imperial Rome using strontium isotope analysis. Journal of Roman Archaeology. info:/

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  

  • September 14, 2011
  • 02:44 PM

A Mousterian wooden spade from Abric Romani, Spain

by Julien Riel-Salvatore in A Very Remote Period Indeed

A group of researchers from the IPHES (Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social) reports on the discovery of a handheld wooden implement from Mousterian deposits at Abric Romaní, Spain. The tool was found in Level P which dates to about 56,000 years BP, and its morphology suggests that it might have been a small spade/shovel, or perhaps a poker, given its association to a hearth... Read more »

Vallverdú, J., Vaquero, M., Cáceres, I., Allué, E., Rosell, J., Saladié, P., Chacón, G., Ollé, A., Canals, A., Sala, R.... (2010) Sleeping Activity Area within the Site Structure of Archaic Human Groups. Current Anthropology, 51(1), 137-145. DOI: 10.1086/649499  

  • September 14, 2011
  • 01:12 PM

Neolithic Death & Paleolithic Life

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

It is well known that the modern world religions which trace their origins to the Axial Age are centrally concerned with death. Some might call this concern an obsession. Of these world religions, only Hinduism does not have Axial roots. This is not to say that “Hinduism” (which is neither singular nor unified) was unaffected [...]... Read more »

Blackburn, Stuart H. (1985) Death and Deification: Folk Cults in Hinduism. History of Religions, 24(3), 255-274. info:/

  • September 12, 2011
  • 11:24 PM

Test Tossed Tyrone

by zacharoo in Lawn Chair Anthropology

What's the secret to becoming a good father? What would William Cosby do?I for one have no idea BUT! a study published today in PNAS early edition finds an association between studly vs. paternal behavior, and levels of everyone's favorite hormone, testosterone (T).Using longitudinal data, researchers (Gettler et al. in press) found that, in general, a young guy with higher levels of circulating T is more likely than a guy with low T to become a father w/in a few years. MOREOVER! this erstwhile-high-T-and-now-father then experiences a relatively sharper decrease in T than would be expected simply because of aging. PLUS! fathers who interacted with their kids on a daily basis had lower T than fathers who didn't hang around their kids too often.One thing neat about this study is that it uses longitudinal instead of cross-sectional data.  A cross-sectional version of this study would've sampled a bunch of dudes (hopefully somewhat randomly) only once. This can be problematic because it's then hard to interpret the results in light of the many sources of variation between people. This study, on the other hand, sampled a tonne (n = 694) of guys at more than one occasion, so they can tell how individuals' testosterone levels tend to change in paternal vs. free-spirited circumstances.The last line of the paper is pretty intriguing: "[these results] add to the evidence that human males have an evolved neuroendocrine architecture shaped to facilitate their role as fathers and caregivers as a key component of reproductive success." (Gettler et al. in press: p. 5/6) This is especially interesting in light of the Ardipithecus ramidus-related evidence for a great antiquity of humans' paternal proclivity (Lovejoy 1981, Lovejoy et al. 2009). Just how and why testosterone responds to/mediates this fatherly 'reproductive strategy' is mysterious to me. And of course, linking this hormonal phenomenon with anything as old as Ardi is a challenge I'm certainly not up to. Still neat, though.My personal circulating T levels are consistently through the roof. So in the event that I become a father, it will be interesting to see if the subsequent, astronomical hormone drop, predicted by this study, won't cause my entire body to collapse in on itself.ReferenceGettler LT et al. in press. Longitudinal evidence that fatherhood decreases testosterone in human males. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences... doi: 10.1073/pnas.1105403108Lovejoy, C. (1981). The Origin of Man Science, 211 (4480), 341-350 DOI: 10.1126/science.211.4480.341Lovejoy CO (2009). Reexamining human origins in light of Ardipithecus ramidus. Science (New York, N.Y.), 326 (5949), 740-8 PMID: 19810200Photo credit: google (image) "Bill Cosby Fatherhood"... Read more »

Lovejoy, C. (1981) The Origin of Man. Science, 211(4480), 341-350. DOI: 10.1126/science.211.4480.341  

  • September 11, 2011
  • 03:08 PM

China as Neolithic Exemplar

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

The actor David Carradine may have led a troubled life but he experienced no such trouble as Kwai Chang Caine, a Buddhist monk on the move in the old American west. From 1972-1975, the Kung Fu series was must watch television for kids my age, even if we had no idea that Caine was a [...]... Read more »

Keightley, David N. (1978) The Religious Commitment: Shang Theology and the Genesis of Chinese Political Culture. History of Religions, 17(3/4), 211-225. info:/

  • September 10, 2011
  • 03:27 AM

The Mysterious Mimbres

by teofilo in Gambler's House

Inspired by my recent visit to the Gila Cliff Dwellings, I’ve been reading about the Mimbres Mogollon culture of southwestern New Mexico.  As I noted earlier, the cliff dwellings themselves aren’t actually Mimbres, instead belonging to the Tularosa Mogollon culture more common to the north, and they postdate the “Classic” Mimbres period (ca. AD 1000 [...]... Read more »

  • September 9, 2011
  • 04:07 PM

Non-Aging Plant Gets Better Every Century

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

Clinging to rock piles high in the Pyrenees, the plant Borderea pyrenaica has a modest lifestyle: It grows a new shoot every summer, flowers and fruits, then sheds its aboveground growth to survive the winter as a tuber. What's remarkable is how long this life lasts for. Individual plants have been known to live 300 years or more. Scientists headed up into the mountains to find out whether these plants, in all their years of living, ever actually get old.

"Senescence" is what we usually call aging--getting weaker and closer to death as we get on in years. To us humans, it seems like a fact of life. But some other animals are thought to be "negligibly senescent." Certain fish, turtles, and other sea creatures seem to be perfectly healthy and fertile at 100 or 200 years old; they're no more likely to die at that age than at any other. Some plants, and especially some trees, may have nearly unlimited lifespans.

Scientists--not to mention cosmetics companies--would love to know exactly why humans are stuck with senescence while organisms like the bristlecone pine just get more fabulous with age. Unfortunately, it's difficult for those of us with limited lifespans to study those without. To squeeze some secrets out of Borderea pyrenaica, scientists from Spain and Sweden studied two populations of the plant over the course of five years.

Because Borderea pyrenaica is left with a scar on its tuber when each year's growth dies back, researchers could count the scars to calculate an individual tuber's age. Each year, they counted and measured the leaves on each plant. They also counted the plants' flowers, fruits and seeds. Since the plants come in male and female versions, the researchers would be able to compare aging in both--would the metabolic effort of making fruits and seeds take a toll on female plants' lifespans? At the end of the study, the researchers dug up all the tubers, dried them and weighed them. (Aesop says: Don't be jealous of negligibly senescent organisms. If old age doesn't kill you, science will!)

The researchers were able to calculate the age of almost 750 plants that were up to 260 years old. They found that tubers grew in size each year, reaching their maximum size after 50 or 100 years (depending on the population). As the tubers grew, the shoots that they put out each year got bigger too. After they reached about 60 years old, the plants didn't seem any more likely to die with the passing years. If anything, survivorship seemed to increase in old age. There was no difference between male and female plants.

As they got bigger, both types of plants put out more flowers, giving them greater potential to contribute to the next generation. This meant that the plants' "reproductive value"--an individual's expected fertility from its current age onward--actually increased over their entire lifespan.

It seems unlikely that we'll one day tap into some biological secret that enables us to live forever. But further research into the plants and animals that don't deteriorate with age might help us solve the mysteries of our own mortality. We may not ever become ageless, but we could learn to age with some of the grace of a lobster, or a mountain tuber.

Garcia, M., Dahlgren, J., & Ehrlén, J. (2011). No evidence of senescence in a 300-year-old mountain herb Journal of Ecology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2011.01871.x

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  • September 9, 2011
  • 11:27 AM

3rd Roman Bioarchaeology Carnival

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

Between teaching, researching, and applying for jobs, I have not had as much time as I'd like to blog.  That partly explains the delay in this installment of the Roman bioarchaeology carnival, but the other reason for the delay is that, well, not much has happened in the past two weeks that I'd consider particularly Roman bioarchaeological.  I have, therefore, just a few offerings for this carnival...

TB or Not TB

Map of Poundbury Camp.  Fig. 1, Lewis 2011.
In the first ever issue of the International Journal of Paleopathology (which is dated March but didn't show up online until fairly recently), Mary Lewis discusses the evidence of tuberculosis in the skeletons of children from the Romano-British camp at Poundbury (Dorset, England).  Originally an Iron Age hillfort, in the Roman period (3rd-4th c AD), Poundbury Camp was the main burial site for people living in Durnovaria (modern Dorchester).* It is unclear what kind of environment people lived in at Durnovaria, such as conditions in the small urban settlement, kind of food consumed, and prevalence of diseases. Previous work by Lewis established that the children buried in this settlement were subjected to poor living conditions and malnutrition, as seen in the high frequencies of cribra orbitalia, porotic hyperostosis, rickets, and scurvy.

New bone formation on the visceral
surface of the ribs.  Fig 5, Lewis 2011.
For this study, Lewis investigated a sample of 165 subadults (individuals under the age of 17, the approximate age of biological maturity) for evidence of tuberculosis.  While tuberculosis is fairly well-known in the palaeopathological literature, only two cases of TB in children have been published in ancient Britain (with an additional 14 possible cases).  Ten subadults were found with probable tuberculid lesions, or about 6% of the population studied, although three of these could have had brucellosis which, like TB, is an infectious disease linked to animal domestication.

The presence of TB in children leads Lewis to conclude that the incidence in the adult population was probably higher, as children tend to get TB from adults and also tend to grow up to become adults with TB (if they survive, of course).  Whether the percentage of subadults with TB is 6% or 4%, this frequency is much higher than expected for Romano-British Poundbury.  The presence of TB in children in this sample suggests that people were living close together, and perhaps close to their animals as well.  Lewis concludes by suggesting that TB may well have been endemic in this population.

Roman Fishies

Mmm, tasty human. Grouper likee.
Bardo Nat'l Museum, Tunis
If you're a regular reader, you know that one of my research areas is the diet of Imperial Romans.  To that end, I've written quite often on this blog about the use and consumption of aquatic resources in the Roman world: Weaning and Freshwater Fish Consumption in Roman Britain and Bioarchaeology of Roman Seafood Consumption.  Although not technically Roman bioarchaeology, a press release this week mentioned a Stanford researcher who looked to Roman art to study issues of marine conservation.  Based on depictions of dusky groupers in hundreds of Etruscan, Greek, and Roman artworks, researchers have concluded that the species should be much larger and should be found in more shallow waters than it is today.  Of course, artistic depictions are not always true to life, but the preponderance of depictions of groupers as very large fish leads the researchers to conclude that today's 50- to 60-cm groupers are much smaller than they were in the past.  Further, Pliny and Ovid mention fishing for groupers from the shore, a practice that wouldn't work in modern times because groupers range in much deeper waters today.  The grouper population today seems to be shrinking, and researchers want to prevent people from fishing for them, in order to restore the population and prevent extinction.

I find it quite interesting that ancient mosaics have proven useful to conservation biologists.  In terms of diet, we need to think about what the aquatic species looked like in the past.  If groupers were large, tasty, and easy to catch, Romans may have eaten their fair share.  Assumptions about the kinds of aquatic resources consumed based on contemporary fish populations may therefore be wrong.

Roman Funerals in Gaul

Excavation at Epiedes-en-Beauce
A brief bit of news notes the discovery of a cemetery dated to 30AD in Epiedes-en-Beauce, in Loiret (north-central France).  Within a square enclosure, archaeologists found weapons, jewelry, and pottery, leading them to think the area was religious in nature.  But they also found burned ceramics, remnants of funerary meals, nails, and human and animal bone, suggesting it was a cemetery or other funerary area.  The abundance of material remains may indicate a high-status burial or burials.  The remains are currently being analyzed in the laboratory, so there is no additional information yet.

This discovery could be interesting, but I suspect that lots of little Roman-era burial sites are uncovered in France and other parts of the Empire.  Depending on the condition of the bones and teeth and the number of individuals recovered, though, the human remains could form a nice little dataset for understanding life in rural Gaul.

Well, hopefully in another two weeks' time, I'll have some more interesting Roman bioarchaeology news for you!

* See also news from the 1st Roman Bioarch carnival, on a child skeleton found at Durnovaria.

Ref... Read more »

M.E. Lewis. (2011) Tuberculosis in the non-adults from Romano-British Poundbury Camp, Dorset, England. International Journal of Paleopathology, 1(1), 12-23. info:/10.1016/j.ijpp.2011.02.002

  • September 9, 2011
  • 01:09 AM

Coming to terms with the female orgasm

by Greg Laden in Greg Laden's Blog

I think I know why science does not understand the female orgasm. It is because science excels when it breaks free of context, history, human complexities and anthropology, but when a topic requires one to grasp context, history, human complexities and anthropology, then science, especially the hard sciences, can fall short. Also, the nature of the female orgasm is a comparative question, but human sexuality is highly (but not entirely) derived; It is difficult to make a sensible graph or table comparing aspects of sexuality across mammals that usefully includes humans. It is not as impossible as making such a graph or table with "language" (which is entirely unique to humans) but still, it is difficult.

There is another problem as well. Female orgasm is actually a lot like male orgasm, and probably serves the same evolutionary role with one small but important difference. But, that one small but important difference, the ejaculation of seminal fluid by males, blinds researchers to any other function of male orgasms. Seminal fluid is distracting. Male ejaculation and female ovulation are rough homologues, but entirely different in their physiology and timing. Were it the case that female ovulation could only happen together with orgasm ... well, the human world would be a very different place but at least science would not be fumbling around in search of an answer for this enigma.

The reason I bring any of this up is because of a paper1, just published, that makes the claim that the "byproduct" theory of female orgasms is unsupported. So, I'd like to take a moment to explain the byproduct theory, to explain why this paper does not really address it let alone refute it, and then we'll get back to the question of what female orgasms really are for. The byproduct theory will not survive this discussion.

The byproduct theory originates with the following observations: Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »

  • September 8, 2011
  • 09:25 PM

More about the Gila Cliff Dwellings

by teofilo in Gambler's House

Despite their impressive preservation, the Gila Cliff Dwellings have gotten surprisingly little attention in the archaeological literature.  This is apparently because they were so thoroughly ransacked by pothunters early on that there wasn’t much left intact for archaeologists to study, and possibly also because the early establishment of Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in 1907 [...]... Read more »

  • September 8, 2011
  • 03:28 PM

Determining Labor Division in the Dead

by Katy Meyers Emery in Bones Don't Lie

Division of labor is a major part of understanding gender and class roles in historic populations. Without text, archaeologists depend on material and human remains for the answers. The physical stress (or lack thereof) from daily activities can leave markers … Continue reading →... Read more »

P. HAVELKOVA, S. VILLOTTE, P. VELEMINSKY, L. POLACEK AND M. DOBISIKOVA. (2011) Enthesopathies and Activity Patterns in the Early Medieval Great Moravian Population: Evidence of Division of Labor. International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, 487-504. info:/

  • September 7, 2011
  • 05:15 PM

Smashing Daniel Dennett’s Spell

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

Several years ago I read Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006). It wasn’t easy. This is not because Dennett’s ideas and arguments are difficult (they aren’t). It is because I don’t care for Dennett’s style. While I can overlook stylistic deficiencies if the substance is solid, in this case I [...]... Read more »

  • September 7, 2011
  • 12:13 PM

Whose Name Is It Anyway?

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy; Thou art thyself, though not a Montague. What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot, Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part Belonging to a man. O, be some other name! What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would [...]

... Read more »

Goldin, C., & Shim, M. (2004) Making a Name: Women's Surnames at Marriage and Beyond. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 18(2), 143-160. DOI: 10.1257/0895330041371268  

Noordewier, M., Horen, F., Ruys, K., & Stapel, D. (2010) What's in a Name? 361.708 Euros: The Effects of Marital Name Change. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 32(1), 17-25. DOI: 10.1080/01973530903539812  

  • September 6, 2011
  • 11:58 AM

Freedom to Riot: On the Evolution of Collective Violence

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

From London to the Middle East riots have shaken political stability. Are the answers to be found in human nature? Police cars were overturned and shops looted as the mob descended on the city’s central square. Rioters tore the police station’s outer door off its hinges and “used it as a battering ram” to break [...]

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Marco Lagi, Karla Z. Bertrand, & Yaneer Bar-Yam. (2011) The Food Crises and Political Instability in North Africa and the Middle East. New England Complex Systems Institute. arXiv: 1108.2455v1

  • 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:/

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