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  • 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  

  • August 17, 2011
  • 03:46 PM

Hunter-gatherer populations show humans are hardwired for density

by Tim De Chant in Per Square Mile

This post originally appeared on Scientific American’s Guest Blog. High density living seems like a particularly modern phenomenon. After all, the first subway didn’t run until 1863 and the first skyscraper wasn’t built until 1885. While cities have existed for thousands of years—some with population densities that rival today’s major metropolises—most of humanity has lived [...]... Read more »

Hamilton, M., Milne, B., Walker, R., & Brown, J. (2007) Nonlinear scaling of space use in human hunter-gatherers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(11), 4765-4769. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0611197104  

  • August 17, 2011
  • 11:32 AM

Solving the Mystery of Conjoined Twins at Angel Mound

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

Conjoined twinning is a rare congenital abnormality.  We know of old historical cases, of course, like Chang and Eng, whose birthplace gives us the term Siamese twins.  Going back further, Moche ceramics seem to depict conjoined twins as early as the turn of the first millennium.  But even though conjoined twins undoubtedly existed in antiquity, no conclusive bioarchaeological evidence has ever been found.

In 1941, an archaeologist named Glenn Black and his crew of WPA workers uncovered an unusual single burial of two infants, both about three months old, at a Middle Mississippian site (11th-15th c AD) called Angel Mounds near Evansville, Indiana.  Because of the positioning of the skeletons, Black suggested the burial might be that of conjoined twins.

Diagram of skeletons W11A60 and W11A61 from Angel Mounds

In order to shed light on this mystery, Charla Marshall, Patricia Tench, Della Collins Cook, and Frederika Kaestle undertook aDNA analysis, with the idea that conjoined twins would share mitochondrial genotypes because they have the same mother.  In a brief communication to AJPA, Marshall and colleagues (2011) report that their DNA sequencing clearly showed no maternal relationship.  It is still possible the infants were related, but they were not twins, conjoined or otherwise.  The question remains: why were these two infants buried in this manner?

This study, of course, would have been more interesting had the authors found conjoined twins, but they showed that certain interpretations about burials are now better made in a laboratory setting through the addition of chemical analysis of osteological data.

Marshall C, Tench PA, Cook DC, & Kaestle FA (2011). Brief communication: Conjoined twins at Angel Mounds? An ancient DNA perspective. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Early View. PMID: 21834072.... Read more »

  • August 16, 2011
  • 08:10 AM

Free language choice?

by Ingrid Piller in Language on the Move

Pretty much everyone I know wants to learn English or improve their English – with the exception of those who consider themselves native speakers, obviously. What is more, everyone I know knows that everyone else wants to learn English (the … Continue reading →... Read more »

  • August 15, 2011
  • 05:28 PM

The Hidden Advantage of Twins

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

For humans and other animals that traditionally have just one baby at a time, twins are a gamble. Pregnancy is riskier for the mother and the fetuses. If the twins make it to birth, they're likely to be undersized. And even if she has two healthy babies, a mother must find twice as much food as usual to keep them that way--and must keep twice as many helpless, chubby morsels away from the lions. But if both kids survive to adulthood, the parents will have doubled their genetic contribution to the next generation.Presumably because it's an evolutionary trade-off with so many variables, the rate of twinning has evolved differently across human populations. This variation applies only to "dizygotic," or fraternal, twins. Identical (or "monozygotic") twins are more rare, and their frequency of about 0.4% stays fairly constant across populations. One embryo splitting into two seems to be a random accident. Dizygotic twinning, though, seem to result from genetic tendencies; some mothers are more likely to release two eggs simultaneously.One potential explanation involves hormones called insulin-like growth factors (IGFs). The IGF system may affect a mother's chances of releasing multiple eggs. It's been linked to twinning in a study of cattle (another mammal that usually sticks to one calf at a time). IGF hormones have also been linked to the growth of a fetus. This led a group of researchers in the UK to ask whether mothers who give birth to twins, thanks to the effect of IGF hormones, also give birth to larger non-twin babies.The researchers, led by Ian Rickard, used data collected from Gambian women between 1978 and 2009. These women had an average of about 7 children each. Researchers divided the women into those who gave birth to twins at some point, and those who never had twins. They found that "singleton" (non-twin) babies born to twinning mothers were significantly larger, on average, than babies born to non-twinning mothers. In other words, twinning mothers--when they're not having twins, which are usually small--give birth to heavier babies. This effect was independent of the mothers' BMI or height. It even held true for singleton babies that were born before their twin siblings: these babies were heavier at birth than singleton babies born to mothers who never had twins.The only time the effect didn't appear was when mothers were exposed to the "hungry season," the furthest time from the harvest, during their third trimester. With more limited resources during their pregnancies, twinning mothers gave birth to babies that were roughly as small as non-twinning mothers' babies.Though the dataset doesn't include information on IGFs or other hormones, it seems that some underlying factor causes mothers both to have twins (because they release two eggs at once) and to have large singleton babies. The researchers also don't know how many of these sets of twins were actually identical, or monozygotic (the less-common variety). But since monozygotic twinning seems to happen randomly, mothers of identical twins would presumably dilute the effect seen here. So if anything, the birthweight advantage in twinning mothers might be even greater than it seems.Whatever is underlying it, the study shows that there's an advantage to twinning--or, at least, that twinning is a side effect of an advantageous trait that makes for sturdier singleton babies. This might help to explain why twinning has evolved to be more common in some human populations than in others. Each population has its own pressures, and must strike its own balance between factors such as birthweight and survivorship. Thanks to the intricate mathematics of natural selection, twins are never just a twofer.Rickard, I., Prentice, A., Fulford, A., & Lummaa, V. (2011). Twinning propensity and offspring in utero growth covary in rural African women Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0598... Read more »

  • August 15, 2011
  • 12:13 AM

Scent of a Woman

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

At seventeen I discovered the perfume that would become my signature scent. It’s a warm, rich, inviting fragrance[i] that reminds me (and hopefully others) of a rose garden in full bloom. Despite this fullness, it’s light enough to wear all day and it’s been in the background of many of my life experiences. It announces [...]

... Read more »

  • August 12, 2011
  • 11:17 AM

Weaning and Freshwater Fish Consumption in Roman Britain

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

In the September issue of Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, O. Nehlich and colleagues use sulphur isotope analysis to investigate the diet of 83 individuals from three Roman-era sites in Oxfordshire, England.  Their hypothesis was that sulphur isotopes, in combination with carbon and nitrogen isotopes, would reveal an additional facet of the diets of people in the area.  Sulphur isotopes have started to gain in popularity, as they're useful for separating marine and terrestrial protein (much like nitrogen isotopes are), for indicating freshwater resource consumption (which C/N isotope analysis can miss), and for tracking migration (in a similar manner as oxygen isotope analysis).  Nehlich and colleagues also wanted to apply sulphur isotope analysis to infants.  It is well known that nursing infants have dramatically different nitrogen isotopes than adults, and there is growing evidence that carbon, oxygen, and strontium isotopes are also affected by nursing.

The carbon and nitrogen isotope data from these Roman Oxfordshire populations were previously reported by Fuller and colleagues (2006), showing that the people got most of their protein from herbivores and possibly also from freshwater resources, and their carbohydrates from C3 plants (e.g., wheat).  Nehlich and colleagues perform a sulphur isotope analysis on the same individuals Fuller and colleagues used, and they find that sulphur can indeed distinguish between terrestrial and freshwater aquatic resource consumption:

d34S values of bone collagen of animals and humans from Oxfordshire
(credit: Nehlich et al. 2011, Fig. 3)
It's not a particularly surprising result, since some of these individuals lived along the Thames River, but sulphur provided the researchers additional information about diet that the carbon and nitrogen isotopes couldn't tease out.

While the C and N data show a linear
pattern with age, the S data don't; they
may, however, be more like a curve.
(credit: Nehlich et al., 2011, Fig. 5)
The really interesting finding in this article, though, is that sulphur isotopes can provide additional information about patterns of breastfeeding and weaning.  The original study by Fuller and colleagues had found 13C-depleted values for infants in the range of 2-4 years, which the authors interpreted as a unique weaning diet composed mostly of C3 plants and terrestrial meat, and surprisingly variable d15N values suggesting weaning was a gradual process.  Sulphur, like nitrogen, has a small trophic effect, meaning infants consuming their mothers' tissues (in the form of breastmilk) typically have higher isotope values than the adult population.  However, Nehlich and colleagues didn't observe any striking patterns in 34S enrichment.  They conclude that the pattern Fuller and colleagues saw is actually the result of consumption of freshwater fish or other foods influenced by freshwater hydrology - such as grains that grew near freshwater sources.  Nevertheless, they also found that kids 8 years and older have more 34S-enriched values, suggesting they were eating mostly terrestrial protein.

As I just finished up the (hopefully) final draft of my article on carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses of the Imperial Roman diet, this sulphur study has been on my mind.  I've written before about the problem of aquatic resource consumption in the Roman diet - sometimes fish were seen as the lowest form of food, and sometimes they were highly prized (e.g., in the form of garum, a fish sauce).  Neither of my populations lived particularly near the Tiber River, but the people buried in the St. Callixtus catacombs also weren't that close.  The Callixtus palaeodiet reconstruction by Rutgers and colleagues (2009), though, suggests freshwater resource consumption because of the comparatively low carbon and high nitrogen isotope values.  The Callixtus skeletons would therefore be an ideal place to start a sulphur isotope study in Rome.  It might also be useful to do a sulphur isotope study on the infants buried in Isola Sacra, whose skeletons gave Prowse and colleagues (2004) quite a bit of information about weaning and diet.  Interestingly, the ages at weaning in Roman Oxfordshire and in Portus Romae seem to differ a bit: while Fuller and colleagues think weaning took place from 2-4 years old, Prowse and colleagues found that kids were fully weaned by 2.5-3 years of age.  Analyses of carbon and nitrogen isotopes are increasingly showing us that there was no monolithic Roman diet, and that consumption of resources varied by age, location, time period, and (probably) status and religious/ethnic group.

Isotope analysis isn't perfect, but it is a powerful technique for looking at palaeodiet, and I hope that these bioarchaeological findings start being incorporated into general treatises on the ancient Roman diet.  For example, the recent book Taste or Taboo (Beer, 2010) is excellent but mentions no biochemical analyses of the Roman diet.  Part of this disconnect between anthropology and classics is the fault of bioarchaeologists.  After all, we publish in journals that further our careers, like the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Journal of Archaeological Science, and Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta.  These aren't top on the list of journals that classicists want to read, and the language of the latter two is generally highly technical, which can be problematic when a classicist does attempt to delve into the scientific data (as I've written about here in the Journal of Roman Archaeology).  One of my goals for this blog is to widely disseminate bioarchaeological work and get it noticed by classicists, anthropologists, and the public alike.  But the classicists interested in diet, migration, and burial would also do well to start perusing anthropology journals, contacting article authors if the paper is too technical, to really understand what we can contribute to the study of the ancient Romans.


Beer, M.  (2010).  Taste or Taboo: Dietary Choices in Antiquity.  Prospect Books.

Fuller BT, Molleson TI, Harris DA, Gilmour LT, & Hedges RE (2006). Isotopic evidence for breastfeeding and possible adult dietary differences from Late/Sub-Roman Britain. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 129 (1), 45-54. PMID: 16229026.

Killgrove, K.  (2010).  Migration and mobility in ... Read more »

O. Nehlich, B. Fuller, M. Jay, A. Mora, R. Nicholson, C. Smith, & M. Richards. (2011) Application of sulphur isotope ratios to examine weaning patterns and freshwater fish consumption in Roman Oxfordshire, UK. Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, 75(17), 4963-4977. info:/10.1016/j.gca.2011.06.009

  • August 12, 2011
  • 12:02 AM

Ancient Remnants: Biomolecules in Paleomicrobiology

by Michelle Ziegler in Contagions

Ancient DNA is not the only method of detecting and identifying ancient pathogens. Survival challenges for ancient DNA place very real limitations on its usefulness and sensitivity as a detection method. The main advantage of aDNA is that it can be genotyped to compare with modern species. For archaeological purposes, other biomolecules may be detected [...]... Read more »

  • August 11, 2011
  • 03:36 PM

Equality in the Bedroom (and why it matters)

by eHarmony Labs in eHarmony Labs Blog

In the second of the female sexuality series, I ask, what part does equality play when it comes to a satisfying sex life? Read on to find out about the importance of equality with your partner and 7 Do's and Dont's to making the bedroom more harmonious.... Read more »

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