Since I'm gearing up for a new semester (finishing up syllabi, packing for a move, etc.), I haven't had as much time as I'd like to blog about the interesting reports and publications that have come out recently on the topic of Roman-era skeletons. So here's a carnival or round-up of links from the past few weeks, things I've wanted to talk about but haven't had the time to craft full posts about.
Roman Child Skeleton from Durnovaria
August 10 - Today's news brought a brief story about the discovery of a skeleton of a Roman child from what used to be Durnovaria (modern-day Dorchester, England). There's no osteological information in the report, but there is a nice little history of Durnovaria and this photo of the skeleton, which was found within the settlement (unclear if it was in a house). It's not unusual to find children buried outside of cemeteries - within houses, near walls, etc.
August 8 - On Monday, the BBC gave a bit more coverage to the discovery of nearly 100 infant skeletons in a Roman-era villa in Britain. Jill Eyers, who rediscovered the skeletons in a storeroom, put forth the idea last year that these infants were killed on purpose and that the villa was in use as a brothel. [Original BBC report here, bit of video here.] Dr. Eyers remains convinced of her theory, but scholars in both the classical and anthropological blogospheres are questioning that. Most notable are the posts by archaeologist Rosemary Joyce, who wrote a critique of the theory last year and wrote an updated post yesterday continuing to cast doubt on the whole brothel idea. Dr. Joyce's posts are well worth a read, as she delves into the historical and archaeological evidence of Roman brothels to bring a counter-point to the discussion of this interesting discovery.
August 8 - The American Journal of Physical Anthropology published an interesting paper on Monday by Becky Redfern and Sharon DeWitt (2011) on the effect of status on mortality risk in Roman-era Dorset, England. The authors looked at nearly 300 individuals dating to the 1st to 5th centuries AD and assigned them a status level based on burial type. Using models of mortality, they found that indeed higher-status individuals had lower mortality risk. This was especially true for children and for people who were buried (and presumably lived in) an urban environment. Interestingly, male mortality risk was higher than female mortality risk (I presume owing to warfare and other job hazards). Redfern and DeWitt conclude that, "...the cultural buffering afforded by being of high status enabled people to more effectively deal with urban environments and migration, with lower-status individuals having greater risk because of their forms of employment and living conditions." We can, of course, assume that individuals with higher status had better diets and overall health, and therefore lower mortality risk. But it's great to see researchers actually test that hypothesis. It's also interesting to see that urban denizens had lower risk of mortality; in many ancient societies, urbanism meant dramatic changes to health and wellbeing, but I've also been finding with my Romans that those who lived in or near the city were generally healthier than those from the suburbs and countryside.
Mummies arranged by age, sex, and occupation.
(credit: Panzer et al. 2010, Fig. 2)
Not Roman and not recent news, but still neat: last summer, S. Panzer and colleagues published a study of late 19th/early 20th century mummies from the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo, Sicily. The pictures in the article are astounding: the mummies are excellently preserved, and the radiographs show a variety of minor pathological conditions (e.g., healed fractures) in some of the mummies. The authors were able to learn a lot about embalming techniques and about the health of the people who were given this treatment after death.
Interactive Teaching ToolsAnd finally, this link has been sitting in my bookmarks for a while. I discovered the BBC's online video game Dig It Up: Romans through Katy Meyers' blog post (July 14, at Play the Past). It's cute, fun, and educational. Katy writes that, "not only does the game allow payers to see the different stages of archaeology, but it is all done in a cultural resource management with the threat of construction setting time limits." Unfortunately, I didn't find a skeleton when I played... just a lamp and an amphora. But the game shows that archaeologists need sampling strategies, that we don't always find every piece of an artifact, and that we don't always find anything of interest (ah, memories of Spam cans from my days excavating at Monticello). Go play it now! You know you need a break from work.
Panzer S, Zink AR, & Piombino-Mascali D (2010). Scenes from the past: radiologic evidence of anthropogenic mummification in the Capuchin Catacombs of Palermo, Sicily. Radiographics 30 (4), 1123-32. PMID: 20631372.
Redfern RC, & Dewitte SN (2011). Status and health in Roman Dorset: The effect of status on risk of mortality in post-conquest populations. American Journal of Physical Anthropology PMID: 21826637.... Read more »
Redfern RC, & Dewitte SN. (2011) Status and health in Roman Dorset: The effect of status on risk of mortality in post-conquest populations. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. PMID: 21826637
Frieze from Roman Philippopolis (3rd AD),
from left to right: Luna, Iaso, Telesphorus, Asclepius,
Panacea, Epione, Machaion, Padaleirios.
© Archaeological Museum in Plovdiv,
Bulgaria (RAM – Plovdiv)
Hellenic Polytheism is not just about the worship of the Twelve Olympians, but, on the contrary of a great number of divinities capable to have a straightforward and personal contact with the
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Martin P. Nilsson. (1945) Pagan Divine Service in Late Antiquity. The Harvard Theological Review, 63-69. info:/
Pearcy, L. (1988) Theme, Dream, and Narrative: Reading the Sacred Tales of Aelius Aristides. Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-), 377. DOI: 10.2307/284178
What do female baboons have in common with the Plastics from Mean Girls? A lot of aggression towards attractive female baboons that might pose a threat to their resources--but not in the typical way you might think.... Read more »
Huchard, E., & Cowlishaw, G. (2011) Female-female aggression around mating: an extra cost of sociality in a multimale primate society. Behavioral Ecology. DOI: 10.1093/beheco/arr083
Charles Darwin had more in common with chimpanzees than even he realized. Before he was universally known for his theory of natural selection, the young naturalist was faced with one of the great moral choices in the history of science. The decision he made has long been hailed as the type of behavior that fundamentally [...]
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Victoria Hornera,J. Devyn Cartera, Malini Suchaka, and Frans B. M. de Waal. (2011) Spontaneous prosocial choice by chimpanzees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. info:/10.1073/pnas.1111088108
Giving a name to a place is an important act. It says a place has meaning, that it should be remembered. For thousands of years, the way we kept track of place names—or toponyms—was by using our memory. Today, we’re not nearly so limited, and the number of toponyms seems to have exploded. Yet oddly [...]... Read more »
Hunn, E. (1994) Place-Names, Population Density, and the Magic Number 500. Current Anthropology, 35(1), 81. DOI: 10.1086/204245
Antipsychotics, originally designed to control the hallucinations and delusions seen in schizophrenia, have been expanding their domain in recent years. Nowadays, they're widely used in bipolar disorder, depression, and as a new paper reveals, increasingly in anxiety disorders as well.The authors, Comer et al, looked at the NAMCS survey, which provides yearly data on the use of medications in visits to office-based doctors across the USA.Back in 1996, just 10% of visits in which an anxiety disorder was diagnosed ended in a prescription for an antipsychotic. By 2007 it was over 20%. No atypical is licensed for use in anxiety disorders in the USA, so all of these prescriptions are off-label.Not all of these prescriptions will have been for anxiety. They may have been prescribed to treat psychosis, in people who also happened to be anxious. However, the increase was accounted for by the rise in non-psychotic patients, and there was a rise in the rate of people with only anxiety disorders.The increase was driven by the newer, "atypical" antipsychotics.Whether the modern trend for prescribing antipsychotics for anxiety is a good or a bad thing, is not for us to say. The authors discuss various concerns ranging from the side effects (obesity, diabetes and more), to the fact that there have only been a few clinical trials of these drugs in anxiety.But what's really disturbing about these results, to me, is how fast the change happened. Between 2000 and 2004, use doubled from 10% to 20% of anxiety visits. That's an astonishingly fast change in medical practice.Why? It wasn't because that period saw the publication of a load of large, well-designed clinical trials demonstrating that these drugs work wonders in anxiety disorders. It didn't.But as Comer et al put it:An increasing number of office-based psychiatrists are specializing in pharmacotherapy to the exclusion of psychotherapy. Limitations in the availability of psychosocial interventions may place heavy clinical demands on the pharmacological dimensions of mental health care for anxiety disorder patients. In other words, antipsychotics may have become popular because they're the treatment for people who can't afford anything better.These data show that antipsychotics were over twice as likely to be prescribed to African American patients; the poor i.e. patients with public health insurance; and children under 18.Comer JS, Mojtabai R, & Olfson M (2011). National Trends in the Antipsychotic Treatment of Psychiatric Outpatients With Anxiety Disorders. The American journal of psychiatry PMID: 21799067... Read more »
Comer JS, Mojtabai R, & Olfson M. (2011) National Trends in the Antipsychotic Treatment of Psychiatric Outpatients With Anxiety Disorders. The American journal of psychiatry. PMID: 21799067
The Yakut community of Eastern Siberia has gained some attention from anthropologists because it culturally stands out from other Siberian populations. Their Turkic language, unique burial practices, and horse-breeding culture is not native to Siberia. Recent genetic analysis of 58 bodies preserved in permafrost from the last five centuries and 166 current members of the [...]... Read more »
Thèves, C., Senescau, A., Vanin, S., Keyser, C., Ricaut, F., Alekseev, A., Dabernat, H., Ludes, B., Fabre, R., & Crubézy, E. (2011) Molecular Identification of Bacteria by Total Sequence Screening: Determining the Cause of Death in Ancient Human Subjects. PLoS ONE, 6(7). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021733
Crubézy E, Amory S, Keyser C, Bouakaze C, Bodner M, Gibert M, Röck A, Parson W, Alexeev A, & Ludes B. (2010) Human evolution in Siberia: from frozen bodies to ancient DNA. BMC evolutionary biology, 25. PMID: 20100333
My colleague Tiffiny Tung, whose courses I'll be teaching in a few short weeks at Vanderbilt while she's on leave, has a new article out today in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology with archaeochemist Kelly Knudson called "Identifying locals, migrants, and captives in the Wari heartland." They studied the strontium ratios from 31 burials and 18 trophy heads found at the site of Conchopata in the central Peruvian Andes (600-1000 AD). Out of the 31 proper burials, they found only two with non-local strontium signatures (an adult female and an infant), but out of the 18 trophy heads, 14 of them were from somewhere outside of Conchopata. Wari iconography suggests that they raided other peoples, captured individuals, and brought them back home, to be sacrificed and made into trophies. They conclude (Tung & Knudson, 2011, p. 259):
...not only was human sacrifice part of the Wari ritual repertoire, it appears that Wari state structures were used to facilitate and promote this ritual production and destruction of human bodies and trophy heads. These acts of violence against the body were not random or unplanned. Rather, they seem to have been well orchestrated acts that brought together military elites who obtained prisoners and heads, ritual specialists with supernatural and technical skills to transform humans into trophy heads, and master artisans that could portray elaborately dressed warriors and deities with prisoners and trophy heads on large, state-produced urns.
Adult female cranium covered in cinnabar.
From the Wari site of Conchopata.
(Credit: T. Tung's webpage)
Not only do Tung and Knudson engage in an excellent discussion of violence and warfare in ancient Peru, but they lay out a new technique for analyzing strontium isotope values. Now, strontium hasn't been as widely used by bioarchaeologists as, say, carbon and nitrogen isotope analyses, which means that in most areas of the world, we don't quite understand the relationship between human strontium ratios and the strontium ratios of the local geology and water. The Peruvian Andes, though, have been very well studied compared to other parts of the world (Germany and England are other areas of pretty good coverage). Still, there are overlapping strontium ranges for different sites in Peru, meaning it can be difficult to discriminate among the homelands of the non-locals, and sometimes to even tell whether a person was non-local or local.
To deal with this, Tung and Knudson use three techniques. First, they calculate a two sigma local range from the strontium values of small animals. Second, they look at the descriptive statistics (mean, median, standard deviation, etc.) and assume that those individuals on the tail ends of the normal distribution were likely foreigners. They then calculate the mean and range of strontium isotopes based on the trimmed data (Wright, 2005). And third, the authors introduce a new technique to identify outliers, wherein they basically zoom in on the spacing of the data to find a sectioning point between locals and nonlocals. In essence, when a gap between samples (arrayed in increasing value) gets large, it's possible that the people on either side of the gap were from different places. The authors note that this technique isn't absolute and therefore can't be used in isolation.
It's interesting to see their third technique in print, as it's what I had been doing visually in my strontium data from Roman sites:
(From Killgrove 2010)
You may expect to see a range of strontium values, as people living in the same place may have used slightly different water sources and had slightly different soil contents. In the graph of my Romans, there are very clear outliers on either end of the graph. The question that Tung and Knudson try to answer with their Wari data is, How do we find the hidden variation within a large data set?
This is a question that I am quite interested in answering as well, since Roman strontium ratios are greatly affected by the fact that there was a massive and intricate aqueduct system in the city and suburbs. Importantly, the aqueducts brought low-Sr water from the Monti Simbruini to the suburbs and city of Rome, which was built on the volcanic (high-Sr) soils of the Colli Albani. When you have two major strontium sources like this, another way of finding hidden variation is to plot the strontium isotope ratios versus the inverse of the strontium concentration (Montgomery et al. 2007):
(From Killgrove 2010)
From the above graph, you can see that the outliers are still outliers (T36 and F12A). And you can see a linear relationship in Line A, which I interpret as indicative of local Roman geology, with end-members of more or less seawater (.7092) and the volcanic geology of the Colli Albani (.710). I've created a line B with only three data points, so this may not be a valid relationship (although I hope to eventually get more data), but I interpret this as showing the people who lived on low-Sr geology - which could have been people living to the east in the Monti Simbruini or could have been people who, as children, consumed the majority (at least 70%) of their water from an aqueduct that was fed by springs in the Monti Simbruini.
Tung and Knudson's article gave me a lot to think about in terms of my own research - I'm excited to look into their new technique and apply it to the Romans as I write up my Sr/O isotope migration research as a journal article. But it also got me thinking about trophy heads in the Roman world. We know the Romans did this - Cicero was quite famously beheaded and impaled on the Rostrum, in the tradition of Marius and Sulla, who displayed their dead captives in the Forum. But I don't know the whole tradition of Roman trophy heads: were they usually foreign captives, much as they were with the Wari, or were locals (aside from Cicero) also given this treatment?
K. Killgrove (2010). Migration and mobility in Imperial Rome. PhD dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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J. Montgomery, J. Evans, & R. Cooper. (2007) Resolving archaeological populations with Sr-isotope mixing models. Applied Geochemistry, 22(7), 1502-1514. DOI: 10.1016/j.apgeochem.2007.02.009
T. Tung, & K. Knudson. (2011) Identifying locals, migrants, and captives in the Wari heartland: a bioarchaeological and biogeochemical study of human remains from Conchopata, Peru. Journal of Archaeological Anthropology, 30(3), 247-261. info:/10.1016/j.jaa.2011.06.005
Wright, L. (2005) Identifying immigrants to Tikal, Guatemala: Defining local variability in strontium isotope ratios of human tooth enamel. Journal of Archaeological Science, 32(4), 555-566. DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2004.11.011
Ember & Ember show that the degree of sonority in a language is related to the frequency of extramarital sex in its community. Could this be linked to why smaller communities have a smaller phoneme inventory?... Read more »
EMBER, C., & EMBER, M. (2007) Climate, Econiche, and Sexuality: Influences on Sonority in Language. American Anthropologist, 109(1), 180-185. DOI: 10.1525/aa.2007.109.1.180
MUNROE, R., & FOUGHT, J. (2007) Response to Ember and Ember's “Climate, Econiche, and Sexuality: Influences on Sonority in Language”. American Anthropologist, 109(4), 784-785. DOI: 10.1525/aa.2007.109.4.784
We’ve written a fair bit about the System of Rice Intensification, or SRI, and our most recent little piece sparked what passes for a vociferous debate over at Facebook (which of course I cannot now link to). As I recall it all seemed to hinge on whether there was one SRI or several different systems, [...]... Read more »
Shepherd, C., & McWilliam, A. (2011) Ethnography, Agency, and Materiality: Anthropological * Perspectives on Rice Development in East Timor. East Asian Science, Technology and Society, 5(2), 189-215. DOI: 10.1215/18752160-1262876
In Ars Poetica (“The Art of Poetry”), the great Roman lyricist Horace counsels against using gods to resolve thorny plots. The deus ex machina is simply too tidy and unbelievable. When gods swoop in to save the day, the mundane becomes sacred. Metaphysics to the rescue.
I was reminded of Horace’s enduring wisdom by two recent [...]... Read more »
Delton AW, Krasnow MM, Cosmides L, & Tooby J. (2011) Evolution of direct reciprocity under uncertainty can explain human generosity in one-shot encounters. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. PMID: 21788489
Mathew S, & Boyd R. (2011) Punishment sustains large-scale cooperation in prestate warfare. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(28), 11375-80. PMID: 21670285
This new article has gained substantial attention on the interwebs, and who can blame us? After all, knights, shining armor, it's what lots of people like to pretend to be (or pretend to be rescued by, goes both ways). Picture it if you would: a damsel in distress, inches from death in the maw of [...]... Read more »
Askew, G., Formenti, F., & Minetti, A. (2011) Limitations imposed by wearing armour on Medieval soldiers' locomotor performance. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0816
The Three Stooges was the source of an ongoing controversy between my parents. My dad introduced my brother and I to their antics and would often laugh along with us as we imitated their physical hijinks in front of the TV. But, for my mom, the Stooges’ fake violence and prat falls were simply ridiculous [...]
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Van Leeuwen, E., Zimmermann, E., & Ross, M. (2010) Responding to inequities: gorillas try to maintain their competitive advantage during play fights. Biology Letters. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0482
According to the BBC, a new study has found that northern peoples have bigger eyes - and bigger brains.Actually, the paper in question talked about eyes but didn't make much of the brain finding, which is confined to the Supplement. Nonetheless, they did find an effect on brain size too. Peoples living further from the equator have larger eye sockets and also larger total cranial capacity (brain volume), apparantly. The authors include Robin Dunbar of "Dunbar's Number" fame.Their idea is that humans evolved larger eyes because further from the equator, there's on average less light, so you need bigger eyes to collect more light and see well.They looked at 19th century skulls stored in museum collections, and measured the size of the eye sockets (orbits). They did this by filling them with a bunch of little glass balls and counting how many balls fit. They had a total of 73 "healthy adult" skulls from 12 different places, ranging from Scandinavia to Kenya.Latitude essentially meant northern-ness because only one population (Australian Aborigines) were from far south of the equator.Total brain size also increased with latitude, but eye size increased even faster, so the eye:brain ratio increased. They don't really discuss the brain size finding, except to suggest that it might be accounted for by increased visual cortex (though there's no direct evidence of that), but here it is, showing latitude vs. cranial capacity in ml.The idea that northern peoples are brainier unfortunately has a long history. For example, it's been suggested that the coldness of northern climes meant that life was harder, so people evolved to be smarter to survive.The heat of the Sahara was easy living compared to the deadly horrors of an English winter, in other words. Hmm.The idea that higher latitudes are darker, so you'd need bigger eyes, and then a bigger brain (at least the visual parts of the brain) to process what you see, is certainly more plausible than that theory. However, the data in this paper seem pretty scanty.Measuring skulls by filling them with little balls was cutting edge neuroscience in the 19th century. However, nowadays, we have MRI scanners. Although usually intended to image the brain, many MRI scans of the head also give an excellent image of the skull and eyes. Millions of people of all races get MRI scans every year.Nowadays, people have medical records, so we can tell exactly how healthy people are. The people who became these skulls in a museum were said to be healthy, but how healthy a 19th century Indian or Kenyan could hope to be, by modern standards, I'm not sure. Certainly there's an excellent chance that they were malnourished and I suspect this would make your eyes and skull smaller.Pearce, E., & Dunbar, R. (2011). Latitudinal variation in light levels drives human visual system size Biology Letters DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0570... Read more »
Pearce, E., & Dunbar, R. (2011) Latitudinal variation in light levels drives human visual system size. Biology Letters. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0570
Even if you stay free of Alzheimer's disease, the normal aging process is fairly destructive to your brain. Neurons disappear, connections lose their strength, protein gunk builds up, and the whole brain shrinks. Areas controlling learning and memory are among the hardest hit. A new study claims that our crumbling brains aren't just a fact of normal aging. Instead, they may be unique in the animal kingdom, the result of an evolutionary bargain our species has struck.Chet Sherwood at George Washington University led the study, which put humans and captive chimpanzees of various ages through MRI scanners. The humans ranged from ages 22 to 88. Chimps were between 10 and 45 years old, because 45 years is about as long as chimps can live in the wild (more on that in a moment).In humans, the researchers found a pattern of decreasing brain volume throughout life that accelerated into old age. That pattern was missing in chimpanzees, whose brains seemed to maintain a consistent size.Chimpanzees were used because they're our closest living relatives; we've been apart for only about 6 million years of evolution. The authors reason that because chimps' brains don't shrink as they age, our own brain degeneration must be a product of our recent evolution. We've developed brains that are big and energy-hungry, and to judge from our global population size, throwing our resources into our noggins seems to have been a good evolutionary strategy.Since splitting from our ape relatives, we've also evolved longer life spans. Women, in particular, are a curiosity because they can live decades past their fertile years. Evolutionary biologists have hypothesized that keeping infertile elderly women around is no accident, because these grandmothers can bolster the success of their own genes by helping to take care of their grandchildren. The authors of the chimp study suggest that these helpful grandmothers are to blame for our degenerating brains: we've evolved long lifespans and brains that can't quite keep up.The grandmother hypothesis, though, is hard to prove. And though 45 is elderly for a chimpanzee in the wild, the authors acknowledge that chimps under medical care in captivity can live into their 60s. Is a human today who lives into her 80s, thanks to medical care and disease prevention, comparable to a chimp in the wild? Or is a human "in the wild" better represented by someone in a southern African country with a life expectancy in the 30s or 40s?If this study included chimpanzees at the true upper end of their age potential, it might provide more insight. The authors acknowledge that some previous studies have shown different results; for example, a study of brain mass that included chimpanzees up to age 59 did find some shrinkage with age.The authors assume our damaging brain decline is a byproduct of evolution, but don't ask whether it might come from extending our life spans even further than evolution intended. Some perspective might come from studying another animal that no longer lives "in the wild": domestic dogs. Wolves live six to eight years in the wild, but many kinds of pet dogs can live for twice that long.Even though they're not close to us in evolutionary terms, dogs age much like humans do. Their brains shrink in old age, especially in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus--the same areas that are particularly vulnerable in humans. Dogs develop cognitive problems and behavioral changes. Their brains even accumulate deposits of amyloid-beta, the protein gunk that appears in humans and is linked to Alzheimer's disease. Maybe our aging brains are not only the result of our exceptional smarts, then, but also of our domestication.Sherwood, C., Gordon, A., Allen, J., Phillips, K., Erwin, J., Hof, P., & Hopkins, W. (2011). Aging of the cerebral cortex differs between humans and chimpanzees Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016709108... Read more »
Sherwood, C., Gordon, A., Allen, J., Phillips, K., Erwin, J., Hof, P., & Hopkins, W. (2011) Aging of the cerebral cortex differs between humans and chimpanzees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016709108
Daniel Tammet's second book, Embracing The Wide Sky (2009), is enthralling. In his own words, the book is "a personal and scientific exploration of how the brain works". To my great delight, I discovered that it even indirectly features my work on Siwu ideophones. In this post I set out a few things we learn from his invention of a new Siwu ideophone, pambalaa.
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Tammet, Daniel. (2009) Embracing the Wide Sky: A Tour Across the Horizons of the Mind. New York: Free Press. info:/
With Julia spending the summer and most of the fall in The Republic of Georgia, I've been thinking about various political and historical aspects of that country, and one of the things that is claimed to be true is that wine was first invented there. Recently, someone asked me (always ask the archaeologist esoteric stuff like this) where wine was first invented. And, recently, we scored some Concord Grapes, which are native to North America (presumably thanks to some bird a long time ago) as opposed to most grapes, and which provide the roots for most (nearly all?) wine grape stock. And, a paper on the genetics of wine came out recently and has been staring at me for a few weeks now. All these things together made me want to update my current knowledge of the origin of wine. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »
Myles, Sean, Boyko, Adam, Owens, Christopher, Brown, Patrick, Grassi, Fabrizio, Aradhya, Mallikarjuna, Prins, Bernard, Reynolds,Andy, Chia, Jer-Ming, Ware, Doreen.... (2011) Genetic structure and domestication history of the grape. PNAS. info:/
Butter Milk Creek is a Texas archaeological site and an archaeological complex located rather symbolically a couple of hundred miles downstream from the famous Clovis site in New Mexico. It is the most recently reported alleged manifestation of a "pre-Clovis" archaeological presence. The most important thing about this site is probably this: It is well dated (though the dates need to be independently verified or otherwise run through the gauntlet of criticism dates of important sites are always subjected to) and there are a lot of artifacts at the site. The importance of the number of artifacts is two-fold: It means that the site is unambiguously evidence of human activities and not of the activities of, say, a ground squirrel burrow into which a random artifact from a later time fell, and it means that researchers will be able to say something interesting about the lithic (stone tool) technology represented there.
In order to understand why a "pre-Clovis" site is interesting, one needs to understand the peculiar nature of American archaeology and its conceptions of prehistory. Read the rest of this post... | Read the comments on this post...... Read more »
Waters, M., Forman, S., Jennings, T., Nordt, L., Driese, S., Feinberg, J., Keene, J., Halligan, J., Lindquist, A., Pierson, J.... (2011) The Buttermilk Creek Complex and the Origins of Clovis at the Debra L. Friedkin Site, Texas. Science, 331(6024), 1599-1603. DOI: 10.1126/science.1201855
There’s a sign hanging in my local deli that offers customers some tips on what to expect in terms of quality and service. It reads: Your order: Can be fast and good, but it won’t be cheap. Can be fast and cheap, but it won’t be good. Can be good and cheap, but it won’t [...]
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Laudan, R. (2001) A Plea for Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love New, Fast, Processed Food. Gastronomica, 1(1), 36-44. DOI: 10.1525/gfc.2001.1.1.36
In 2006, archaeologists exhumed the remains of the legendary 18th century castrato, Carlo Maria Broschi, better known as Farinelli. As a boy, Farinelli showed talent as an opera singer and, when their father died young, his elder brother Riccardo made the decision to have Farinelli castrated, an illegal operation at the time, in order to preserve his voice. Farinelli became quite famous by the 1720s and sang daily until his death at the age of 78. An analysis of the bones has just been published in the Journal of Anatomy by Belcastro, Fornaciari, and Mariotti, with the most salient finding being that Farinelli's castration led to hormonal changes that likely caused him to develop internal frontal hyperostosis (or hyperostosis frontalis interna, depending on what side of the Atlantic you're from), a thickening of the frontal bone in the cranial vault that is found almost exclusively in postmenopausal women.
Farinelli's bones, circled
(credit: Belcastro et al., Fig. 1)
Crush fraction of an L vert
(credit: Belcastro et al., Fig. 5)
Farinelli's bones were eventually moved to the grave of his great-niece, Maria Carlotta Pisani, and placed at her feet (see photo). The bones were unfortunately not at all well-preserved. Belcastro and colleagues could only estimate sex based on the narrow sciatic notch and the absence of a preauricular sulcus. In terms of age, they found evidence of fused cranial sutures, porosity of the auricular surface, trabecular thinning, degenerative changes in the vertebrae, and a compression fracture of one of the lumbar vertebrae, all pointing to an advanced age for this individual. Interestingly, they noticed incomplete obliteration of the epiphyseal lines on the medial border of the left scapula and the left iliac crest. While epiphyseal lines can persist into adulthood, they almost never persist past about 35 years old. Based on the length of the right ulna, they estimate his stature at 6'3". Of the 14 teeth that could be properly examined, there was evidence of caries in two, leading them to conclude he had good oral hygiene.
Thickening of Farinelli's frontal bone
(credit: Belcastro et al., Fig. 8)
When Belcastro and colleagues reconstructed some of the cranial fragments, they discovered extreme thickening of the vault (see photo), up to 21mm at the thickest. As the area around the sagittal sulcus was unaffected, the authors conclude that the thickening is internal frontal hyperostosis rather than Paget's, acromegaly, fibrous dysplasia, or meningioma. The etiology of IFH is not actually very clear, but the fact that it's found almost exclusively in post-menopausal women and men with hormonal disturbances (e.g., Klinefelter's syndrome) points to a problem with the body's hormonal balance. Belcastro and colleagues succinctly review the clinical literature on IFH in men and conclude that Farinelli's IFH is most likely related to his castration. Interestingly, castration can also explain his height (due to delayed epiphyseal fusion) and the finding of unfused epiphyses in his skeleton.
It's no secret that I am not a fan of digging up famous dead Italians, but in this case, Belcastro and colleagues have published the only osteological analysis of a castrato or eunuch. Granted, the identification of this skeleton with Farinelli is not 100% clear because of the condition of the remains, but it's reasonable to assume that they did indeed find the man.
Portrait of Farinelli
(credit: Wikimedia commons)
The question remains, though, what effect IFH would have had on Farinelli's life, or on the lives of the numerous women who are also affected by this condition? The clinical literature suggests that IFH is basically asymptomatic - because the disease has such a slow progression, over the span of decades, even the most severe cases of cranial thickening are assumed to pose no problem for the individual, whose brain can compensate little by little to the change in skull shape. A short New Scientist piece, though, quotes Israel Hershkovitz as claiming that IFH is linked to "behavioral disorders, headaches, and neurological diseases like Alzheimer's." Because of this quote, New Scientist ran with the headline "Lack of testes gave castrato superstar headaches." Belcastro and colleagues, of course, didn't say anything about headaches, but apparently New Scientist thinks that discovering osteological evidence of a hormonal imbalance in the skeleton of a castrato isn't interesting enough for their readers.
I'll have to look into the claim that IFH does produce symptoms like headaches, though, as I'm quite interested in the pathology. IFH is often not noticed in a bioarchaeological population unless the skulls are broken in just the right places. Bioarchaeologists don't tend to have enough money to xray or CT hundreds of individuals as we collect data, so I suspect that we miss quite a few ancient cases of this condition. I looked at a couple hundred skeletons from Imperial Rome and found one case of IFH (below), and I looked at a couple dozen skeletons from Gabii and found another case.
IFH in an Imperial Roman woman in her early 40s
(credit: Killgrove 2010)
A project that I would like to undertake in the future deals with understanding the lives of post-menopausal women in Rome. These women were often seen as second-class citizens, even more so than women in general, because they were past their reproductive prime. Looking at the prevalence of IFH w... Read more »
MG Belcastro, G Fornaciari, & V Mariotti. (2011) Hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI) and castration: the case of the famous singer Farinelli (1705-1782). Journal of Anatomy. PMID: 21740437
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