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  • July 26, 2011
  • 06:14 PM

The Pre-Clovis Debra L. Friedkin site

by Greg Laden in Greg Laden's Blog

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  

  • July 26, 2011
  • 11:05 AM

Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Will Industrialized Foods Be the End of Us?

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

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 [...]

... Read more »

  • July 23, 2011
  • 10:13 AM

Famed Farinelli's Flawed Frontalis

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

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 »

  • July 22, 2011
  • 01:35 PM

Viking Women Immigrated to England, but Were They Warriors or Wives?

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

Today's Daily Mail and Wednesday's USA Today have short articles summarizing a recently-published study by Shane McLeod, called "Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD."  It's an interesting little piece, in which McLeod takes issue with the assumption that the Viking "warriors" were only men, an assumption that has been based primarily on grave goods and our own preconceptions about men and women in antiquity.  Previous research into Viking graves has resulted in estimates of 80-85% males, and this has clearly affected how scholars viewed the Vikings and their contributions, writes McLeod.  It's hard to tease out McLeod's data in this paper, which was written for the journal Early Medieval Europe and is historical in bent, but he seems to have limited his sample to those burials from which sex could be estimated osteologically and which chemical analysis revealed were almost certainly Viking immigrants (Budd et al. 2003).  McLeod concludes:
The reappraisal of the burial evidence for Norse migrants in eastern England up to 900 has provided a different perception of the possible numbers of Norse women involved in the early settlement period. Based on jewellery finds and the notion of an undocumented secondary migration, it has been suspected by some scholars that substantial numbers of Norse women were involved in the settlements. But there has previously been little substantive evidence to validate this claim, leading other scholars to suggest that the Norse settlers were overwhelmingly male. Although the results presented here cannot be used to determine the number of female settlers, they do suggest that the ratio of females to males may have been somewhere between a third to roughly equal. Furthermore, there is osteologically sexed burial evidence of Norse women in England during the earliest campaigning period of the great army of 865. It is possible that with further advances in science more evidence is likely to appear, providing a larger sample to work with, and enabling similar reappraisals of burial evidence from other areas of Norse settlement. The present results suggest new ways of understanding Norse migration and acculturation in late ninth-century England.

Reconstruction of a Viking boat (credit)
While I like the fact that McLeod tackles old assumptions in this short article, there are a couple worrying aspects.  The part about "acculturation" is not well laid out, as McLeod and others are assuming that Viking men would have acculturated to local habits more easily with Anglo-Saxon wives, and that having Viking wives may make researchers reevaluate acculturation.  Attempting to figure out biocultural relationships between two groups of people who hadn't previously met is quite difficult.  Witness, as one example, the centuries of literature on "Romanization" in the provinces in the Roman Empire.  Only within the last decade has there been a backlash from scholars against a far too facile understanding of the bi-directional process of culture sharing.

The other worrying part is that McLeod uses terms like "wives" and "widowed" in his paper, which makes the assumption (and conveys the idea) that the Vikings were married in the contemporary sense.  I could point to the literature on the Roman army as a cautionary tale here.  It had been assumed for centuries that the Roman army was only composed of men and that women and children, if they were present, lived outside the fort.  Finally, new evidence is being found and old evidence is being reevaluated, suggesting previous scholars were simply seeing what they wanted to see: Roman soldiers weren't married, and women certainly didn't live in the fort, in spite of the massive amount of evidence to the contrary.  My point is, without further investigation, we don't know if the Viking men and women found were spouses - Could they have been siblings or other kin?  How about slaves? Could the women have been warriors themselves?  I don't know anything about Viking relationships, though, so perhaps the conclusion that the Viking women were wives is valid.  McLeod does note that the sample may be biased, and there may not have been a 50/50 ratio of males to females, but the Daily Mail article picked up on this concept of "wives" and pairs of Vikings.

Overall, though, a nice article.  It highlights how far we've come in archaeological and historical scholarship on issues of sex, gender, and cultural biases, but also shows how far we still need to go.  It demonstrates that bioarchaeological research - even quite technical papers - can be used by social scientists and humanists to support arguments and conclusions.  And it lets me mention the always-brilliant work of Budd, Chenery, Montgomery, and Evans, who do amazing things with isotopes in England.

(For more, see Katy Meyers' post at Bones Don't Lie. I'm woefully behind on my news feed at the moment and just noticed her summary of the article.)


P. Budd, C. Chenery, J. Montgomery, J. Evans, & D. Powlesland (2003). Anglo-Saxon Residential Mobility at West Heslerton, North Yorkshire, UK From Combined O- and Sr-Isotope Analysis Plasma Source Mass Spectrometry: Applications and Emerging Technologies, 195-208.

S. McLeod (2011). Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD Early Medieval Europe, 19 (3), 332-353.... Read more »

S. McLeod. (2011) Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD. Early Medieval Europe, 19(3), 332-353. info:/10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00323.x

  • July 22, 2011
  • 01:31 AM

Tools of Paleomicrobiology

by Michelle Ziegler in Contagions

Studying ancient microbes requires creativity. Contamination and  preservation are the primary problems, dealing with limited and degraded tissues. We don’t find corpses in permafrost every day! Most of the time tissue is confined to bones and mummies kept in a wide variety of environments. This post will review some of the major tools I have [...]... Read more »

Drancourt, M., & Raoult, D. (2005) Palaeomicrobiology: current issues and perspectives. Nature Reviews Microbiology, 3(1), 23-35. DOI: 10.1038/nrmicro1063  

  • July 21, 2011
  • 12:39 PM

Earliest Occupation of Crete May Date to 125,000 Years Ago

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

A recently published article in the Journal of Quaternary Science by Strasser and colleagues suggests new dates for stone tools discovered on the island of Crete.  Namely, the artifacts are associated with geological strata that date to the late Middle Pleistocene or early Late Pleistocene, meaning a terminus ante quem of 125,000 years ago.

An archaeological survey in the Plakias area of Crete between 2008-09 uncovered nine sites and over 400 artifacts.  The stone tools discovered were Acheulean in type, with bifaces, cleavers, cores, and flake tools made out of quartz, and are similar to tools found elsewhere on the Greek mainland:

Bifaces from Crete.  (Credit: Strasser and colleagues 2011, Figure 2)
Through an impressive array of geological and chemical analyses (which I don't have time to delve into at the moment), the authors conclude that these tools represent the earliest known occupation of Crete, placing it at around 125,000 years ago.  This date contradicts the assumption that Crete was not occupied until the advent of anatomically modern humans.  According to Strasser and colleagues:
The relatively large numbers of Palaeolithic artefacts found in this one small region (∼30 km2) – the first to be searched systematically for these materials and to be subjected to geological and chronostratigraphical analyses – suggest that a hominin presence on Crete may have been widespread and perhaps long lasting. This would indicate that early hominins were able to reach Crete from Greece, Turkey, the Near East or Africa by crossing open bodies of water. Only hominins with the technical means and cognitive skills required to build boats and to navigate among the islands would have been able to establish an enduring presence on the large and difficult-to-access island of Crete.This is a really interesting finding, and I hope it's only a matter of time until archaeologists start finding hominin fossils on Crete.


T. Strasser, E. Panagopoulou, C. Runnels, P. Murray, N. Thompson, P. Karkanas, F. McCoy, & K. Wegmann (2010). Stone Age seafaring in the Mediterranean: Evidence from the Plakias region for Lower Palaeolithic and Mesolithic habitation of Crete Hesperia, 79 (2), 145-190.

T. Strasser, C. Runnels, K. Wegmann, E. Panagopoulou, F. McCoy, C. Digregorio, P. Karkanas, & N. Thompson (2011). Dating Palaeolithic sites in southwestern Crete, Greece Journal of Quaternary Science, 26 (5), 553-560. DOI: 10.1002/jqs.1482.... Read more »

T. Strasser, E. Panagopoulou, C. Runnels, P. Murray, N. Thompson, P. Karkanas, F. McCoy, & K. Wegmann. (2010) Stone Age seafaring in the Mediterranean: Evidence from the Plakias region for Lower Palaeolithic and Mesolithic habitation of Crete. Hesperia, 79(2), 145-190. info:/

T. Strasser, C. Runnels, K. Wegmann, E. Panagopoulou, F. McCoy, C. Digregorio, P. Karkanas, & N. Thompson. (2011) Dating Palaeolithic sites in southwestern Crete, Greece. Journal of Quaternary Science, 26(5), 553-560. info:/10.1002/jqs.1482

  • July 20, 2011
  • 09:53 PM

Mick WIlkinson Part II: the sensitive sole of barefoot running

by mc in begin to dig (b2d)

For Dr. Mick Wilkinson barefoot running has got to have sole. More than just moving joints cuz their designed to move is to consider the surface of the foot, and what it's designed to do, and how that actually also needs to inform movement - and how movement is changed because of this feedback.... Read more »

Divert, C., Mornieux, G., Freychat, P., Baly, L., Mayer, F., & Belli, A. (2008) Barefoot-Shod Running Differences: Shoe or Mass Effect?. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 29(6), 512-518. DOI: 10.1055/s-2007-989233  

Lieberman, D., Venkadesan, M., Werbel, W., Daoud, A., D’Andrea, S., Davis, I., Mang’Eni, R., & Pitsiladis, Y. (2010) Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature, 463(7280), 531-535. DOI: 10.1038/nature08723  

Robbins SE, Gouw GJ, & Hanna AM. (1989) Running-related injury prevention through innate impact-moderating behavior. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 21(2), 130-9. PMID: 2709977  

  • July 20, 2011
  • 12:54 PM

New beef with boisei - maybe the dingo ate their babies?

by zacharoo in Lawn Chair Anthropology

Unfortunately, the title is not in reference to a study demonstrating that early hominids fell prey to wild dogs. But Elaine Benes would have appreciated it.
As part of my Latitudes Tour, I'm in Nairobi for a couple of days, hoping to spend some quality time with the young Australopithecus boisei kids at the Nairobi National Museum. Recall (that is, if I've mentioned it here?) that my dissertation research is on growth of the lower jaw, in Australopithecus robustus as compared to modern humans. The study of growth obviously requires analyzing individuals across different age groups (an "ontogenetic series" is the fancy term). Admittedly, then, the focus on A. robustus is chiefly because this species has the largest ontogenetic sample of any early hominid (tho at nearly 15 subadults, it's still not as large as one could hope). Also because A. robustus was totally badass.
Australopithecus boisei makes an important comparison for A. robustus, because the two species are allegedly evolutionary 'sisters' - the "robust" australopithecines (though I'm personally not convinced that these two are each other's closest relative). So their growth should be pretty similar. At the same time, though, A. boisei shows much greater adaptations to heavy chewing - they've been referred to as "hyper-robust." So comparing growth in these species should elucidate how their differences arise.
Problem is, there just aren't enough kids! It's like that song by Arcade Fire. Wood and Constantino (2007) published a pretty comprehensive review of A. boisei, including a 1.5-page table of the skulls and teeth attributed to the species. So far as I know, only 4 specimens in this table are subadult mandibles, and so far as I can tell, they're all about the same age (right around the age that the first permanent molar comes in). There are so many jaws of adult A. boisei (although many of these are abraded mandibular bodies lacking teeth) - so how can there be fewer subadults?!?!
A very preliminary observation of infant-child pairs in the two species suggests they both increase in size fairly dramatically between when they only have baby (a.k.a. "deciduous" or "milk") teeth and when the first permanent molar comes in. But this is just a preliminary observation based on 2 specimens of each species! Take with a grain of salt!
On second thought, maybe I'll propose the nearly untestable hypothesis that bone-eating hyenas ate the boisei babes, and that's why we don't have their jaws. What could have been nicely preserved subadult boisei bones are instead coprolites (fossilized poops). A little spectacular, yes, but it's also been hypothesized that many of the A. robustus fossils we know and love came to us as carnivores' scraps.
further reading:Wood, B., & Constantino, P. (2007). Paranthropus boisei: Fifty years of evidence and analysis American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 134 (S45), 106-132 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20732... Read more »

Wood, B., & Constantino, P. (2007) Paranthropus boisei: Fifty years of evidence and analysis. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 134(S45), 106-132. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.20732  

  • July 20, 2011
  • 04:26 AM

Speculation on Speciation

by Eric in APE

There is one topic which somehow touches almost every major debate in Paleoanthroplogy and this is the question about how speciation actually works. There were a lot of very smart people, who already wrote about this stuff, and I even read some of them. But a large proportion of what I’m going to say about this topic comes from my own thoughts on this topic. So if someone finds a mistake in my arguments, please let me know.When it comes to speciation, there are basically two different opinions on how speciation could work. The first one is sometimes called “punctualistic” or “phylogenetic” and says that speciation usually results in a split in which the ancestral species splits into two different “offspring-species” (there is probably a more suitable term for it, I just can’t remember the English translation).The second one is called “gradualistic” or “anagenetic” speciation and says that one species can, if there is enough time; evolve into another species without any form of splitting.Now although there are many species concepts out there, the main criterion to recognize a species is, if their members are able to interbreed with other animals. This means that no matter what type of speciation process we propose, at some point during this process there has to be some kind of “breeding barrier” (once again, I’ve no Idea how to translate this term), be it either geografical, behavioural or otherwise.Now let’s take a look on how this stuff actually works in case of a punctualistic speciation:Exdample for a punctualistic speciation: Assume a Species "A" lives in a certain habitat "X". Now due to some reasons (e.g. a geological event), a barrier arises in said habitat. This barrier changes the enviroment on both of its sides and furthermore prevents the now separated populations of "A" to exchange their genes. With time, those two sperate populations will adapt to their new enviroments and will become two distinct species.Ok, this was quite easy wasn't it? But how about gradualistic speciation? Her I'll have to admit that although I spent quite some time on this question, I just could come up with one scenario:1. Let’s assume the species we’re looking at is restricted to one habitat2. Let us further assume that all population of said species are able to exchange there genes with on another.3. Now the habitat of said species changes and due to the wonder of natural selection the species adapts to those changes.4. As time goes by the species within that habitat would differ significantly from the species we had before this process started, so that we could safely say that we have discovered a new species.There is only one big problem with this model. If we assume a constant gene flow between the seperate populations of our example species, than this means that there never was any kind of mating barrier at any point in time. So how can we be sure that the species we witnessed at the end of that process isn’t able to interbreed with the species we observed before this whole thing started? Sure, we could assume that since both “forms”, as I might call them right now, are so different that they probably wouldn’t have interbred, if they would’ve lived at the same time.This assumption is pretty similiar to the concept of a “Chrono-species” which defines species solely after their chronological appearances in the fossil record.The Problem here is that we’re not able to test, whether or not, those species really weren’t able to interbreed. It is as always when we have to deal with extinct species, we simply can’t be sure about it. In the end the only safe thing we can say is that every model on the evolution of a certain species, which relies on a gradualistic model of speciation, is highly speculative.There are two recent examples within Paleoanthropology where this Problem occurs. The first one is the possibility to draw a direct line from Australopithecus anamensis to Australopithecus afarensis (Kimbel et al. 2006, Haile-Selassie et al. 2010). The other one are the genetical evidences of interbreeding between modern Humans and Neandertals (Green ... 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  

  • July 19, 2011
  • 02:06 PM

SCT in an Imperial Roman Woman

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

In an early view article from the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, authors Rubini, Cerroni, and Zaio report on the earliest known case of spondylocarpotarsal (SCT) synostosis, found in a middle-aged woman from the Imperial period site of Grottaferrata, near Frascati in the Roman suburbs.  The skeleton was found within a large cemetery population (that is completely unpublished in English and, to my knowledge, is not published in Italian either), and the woman's bones were carbon dated to 50-125 AD.

40-45-year-old woman with

SCT syndrome, from Grottaferrata

(credit: Rubini and colleagues, IJOA)

Her skeleton showed immediate evidence of scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine.  The authors found atrophy of the left hand, with fusion of all carpals, several metacarpals, and the radius with the scaphoid.  There were also numerous segmentation defects in the spine, which they interpret as evidence of congenital scoliosis.  All of these bits of fusion and malformation combine to suggest a diagnosis of SCT, which is a rare, autosomal recessive condition.  SCT was first described in 1973, and there are only 30 known cases worldwide.

Because of the provenance of the find - the bioarchaeology of Imperial Rome is my wheelhouse, and when I work at Gabii, we stay quite near Grottaferrata - I was interested to learn more about this skeleton and the diagnosis.  I can't imagine I'll ever find something like this, since it's such a rare condition, but it was an interesting read.


Rubini M, Cerroni V, & Zaio P (2011). The Earliest Case of Spondylocarpotarsal Synostosis Syndrome (Roman Age—2nd Century AD). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology (Early View).... Read more »

M. Rubini, V. Cerroni, & P. Zaio. (2011) The Earliest Case of Spondylocarpotarsal Synostosis Syndrome (Roman Age—2nd Century AD). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. info:/

  • July 18, 2011
  • 09:30 AM

Communicating Meaning Online: A Digital Expression of Theory of Mind

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

The growth of email, instant messaging, texting, and various other digitally-mediated communicative tools (DMC) has been rapid and pervasive. The majority of people today are comfortable enough to use these communicative tools on a daily basis, particularly among younger generations. DMC appears to be a preferred means of communication. But the popularity of DMC forces [...]

... Read more »

Jack RE, Blais C, Scheepers C, Schyns PG, & Caldara R. (2009) Cultural confusions show that facial expressions are not universal. Current biology : CB, 19(18), 1543-8. PMID: 19682907  

Kindred J, Roper S. (2004) Making connections via instant messenger (IM): student use of IM to maintain personal relationships. Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 48-54. info:/

Wellman HM, & Liu D. (2004) Scaling of theory-of-mind tasks. Child development, 75(2), 523-41. PMID: 15056204  

  • July 16, 2011
  • 01:25 PM

Human Head Soup in Upper Paleolithic

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

Head cheese may not be for everyone but it has an intensely devoted following. Most head cheese recipes call for the removal of brain, eyes, and ears before preparation, but purists scoff at this and include everything except bones. It is doubtful that Upper Paleolithic humans made head cheese; it is too time consuming. It [...]... Read more »

Prat S, Péan SC, Crépin L, Drucker DG, Puaud SJ, Valladas H, Lázničková-Galetová M, van der Plicht J, & Yanevich A. (2011) The oldest anatomically modern humans from far southeast europe: direct dating, culture and behavior. PloS one, 6(6). PMID: 21698105  

  • July 16, 2011
  • 11:37 AM

La Signora di Introd, Contemporary of Oetzi?

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

Italian news is reporting the discovery of the Lady of Introd, a 5,000-year-old skeleton found near the town of Aosta in the Alps, about half-way between Geneva and Turin.  Not much has been said yet, and this appears to be the fullest extent of the reports (via La Stampa):

The Lady of Introd (credit: AostaOggi)
E' stata soprannominata la "Signora di Introd" e dopo 5000 anni la sua sepoltura è ancora perfetta. Lo scheletro di questa donna ancora misteriosa e ancora senza età, è stata ritrovato all’interno della propria tomba ad Introd, paese alpino di poco più di 600 abitanti, non lontano da Aosta. Rannicchiata sul fianco destro e con il capo rivolto a nord ovest, non ha attorno nessun oggetto di corredo funebre. I resti della signora sono già stati trasferiti in laboratorio, dove nei prossimi giorni saranno oggetto di analisi approfondite per determinarne l'età, le abitudini alimentari e la causa di morte. L’Assessore all’Istruzione e Cultura Laurent Viérin esprime“grande soddisfazione per questo importante ritrovamento, unico nel suo genere, che testimonia la ricchezza e la qualità del patrimonio archeologico valdostano e della nostra storia.” Il ritrovamento è avvenuto durante i sondaggi archeologici per l’ampliamento della scuola materna di Introd, vicino alla chiesa, al castello e all'antico granaio. Al termine delle indagini su tutta l'area, il ritrovamento dello scheletro non porrà comunque alcun ostacolo alla realizzazione del previsto ampliamento scolastico. Il Soprintendente, l' architetto Roberto Domaine, sottolinea che “il compito della Soprintendenza è quello di garantire una tutela capillare dei Beni culturali in modo da acquisire tutte quelle conoscenze storiche che poi diventano patrimonio dell’intera comunità”.For those of you who don't read Italian, the 5,000-year-old skeleton was discovered recently in the tiny town of Introd (pop: 618), during excavation work to create an addition to a school.  The skeleton has been assessed as female, and she was buried on her right side with her head facing west.  No grave goods accompanied the burial.  The skeleton has already been excavated and moved to a laboratory, where researchers propose to figure out age-at-death, diet, and possible causes or contributors to her death.

This area of the Italian Alps was occupied in historical times by the Salassi tribe.  They were defeated and enslaved by the Romans, and the town became Augusta Praetorium Salassorum (now Aosta) in 25 BC.  Prior to that, I don't know much about the area.  If this skeleton can indeed be carbon-dated to the 3rd millennium BC (nowhere does it say how they assessed the skeleton at five millennia old!), it makes the Lady of Introd relatively contemporaneous with Oetzi the Iceman in the late Neolithic.  A dietary analysis of the Lady of Introd would be quite interesting.  Various dietary analyses done on Oetzi - whose last meals were quite well preserved - indicate he dined on a lot of meat, as well as einkorn wheat and barley (Dickson et al. 2000).

As I'm putting the finishing touches on my article on isotope analyses of the Imperial Roman diet, I've become quite interested in the differential consumption of wheat/barley and millet.  Wheat and barley have a distinctly different carbon isotope signature than does millet, but few palaeodietary studies have been done to look at the prevalence of millet in the Italian peninsula and the differences among the populations that consumed it.  By the Bronze Age in Italy, people from the far north of the Italian peninsula were eating their fair share of millet, particularly compared to their contemporaries in southern Italy (Tafuri et al. 2009).  Even though quite a bit is known about the timing of the introduction of domesticated plants into Italy during the Neolithic, we still know little about the intensity of cultivation of various cereals.  The diets of Oetzi and the Lady of Introd are therefore quite interesting primarily because they can provide direct evidence for differences in cereal consumption in the Neolithic.  They are just two data points, but I hope the dietary analysis of the Lady of Introd reveals some interesting data to answer questions about Neolithic diets.

* Hat tip to Alessandra Cinti for posting this news story on Facebook.


Dickson JH, Oeggl K, Holden TG, Handley LL, O'Connell TC, & Preston T (2000). The omnivorous Tyrolean Iceman: colon contents (meat, cereals, pollen, moss and whipworm) and stable isotope analyses. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 355 (1404), 1843-9 PMID: 11205345.

Tafuri MA, Craig OE, & Canci A (2009). Stable isotope evidence for the consumption of millet and other plants in Bronze Age Italy. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 139 (2), 146-53 PMID: 19051259.... Read more »

Dickson JH, Oeggl K, Holden TG, Handley LL, O'Connell TC, & Preston T. (2000) The omnivorous Tyrolean Iceman: colon contents (meat, cereals, pollen, moss and whipworm) and stable isotope analyses. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 355(1404), 1843-9. PMID: 11205345  

  • July 15, 2011
  • 11:33 PM

On post-ejaculatory wiping

by Diapadion in Lord of the Apes

Stop monkeying around and pass me a leaf

Chimpanzees in Budongo Forest in Uganda regularly employ leaves as 'napkins' to wipe their penis after sex, researchers discovered

The authors of a study called High Frequency of Postcoital Penis Cleaning in Budongo Chimpanzees do not beat about the bush. "We report on postcoital penis cleaning in chimpanzees," they write. "In penis cleaning, leaves are employed as 'napkins' to wipe clean the penis after sex. Alternatively, the same cleaning motion can be done without leaves, simply using the fingers. Not all chimpanzee communities studied across Africa clean their penes and, where documented, the behaviour is rare. By contrast, we identify postcoital penis cleaning in Budongo Forest, Uganda, as customary."

My first thought: What about masturbation?

The Guardian doesn't mention it at all, but the paper does... once. Its little more than a passing acknowledgement, however, all mentions from there on out are specific to coitus, and the data included in their tables follow suit.

Masturbation is a behavior distinct from copulation. The two end in orgasm for the male, but the resemblances end there. The two activities serve entirely different purposes: coitus is for reproduction and social purposes, masturbation (in males) is for monitoring and controlling ejaculate output.

Which is not to say it is impossible that the two activities could have overlapping purposes. That's where this study starts to come into play, or could come into play. But, the paper chooses not to examine masturbation activities in this context. I'm not sure quite why, to be honest.

Take to the baboons: I've seen them almost always finger clean after they pluck the rooster, but I cannot think of a single copulation which involved cleaning. Granted, copulations are much messier affairs, but its the female who dart after sex. The male generally follows leisurely behind for a few paces, or sits down and starts grunting. That'd be an interesting behavior to compare to across species, and in the case of masturbation, it really should not be difficult at all to gather data.

Unless chimps aren't into jerking off as much as most other social primates. I really think I would have heard about it if that was the case.

A final aside: it would be great to see some, you know, significance statistics for the data in this paper. Otherwise, fun read!

Thanks to Pfeng or Retrochef or whatever she prefers to call herself these days for the tip on this paper.

O’Hara, S., & Lee, P. (2006). High Frequency of Postcoital Penis Cleaning in Budongo Chimpanzees Folia Primatologica, 77 (5), 353-358 DOI: 10.1159/000093700... Read more »

  • July 15, 2011
  • 04:04 AM

Violent Brains In The Supreme Court

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

Back in June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a Californian law banning the sale of violent videogames to children was unconstitutional because it violated the right to free speech.However, the ruling wasn't unanimous. Justice Stephen Breyer filed a dissenting opinion. Unfortunately, it contains a whopping piece of bad neuroscience. The ruling is here. Thanks to the Law & Neuroscience Blog for noticing this.Breyer says (on page 13 of his bit)Cutting-edge neuroscience has shown that “virtual violence in video game playing results in those neural patterns that are considered characteristic for aggressive cognition and behavior.”He then cites this fMRI study from 2006. It's from the same group as this one I wrote about recently.Breyer quotes this study as part of a discussion of the evidence linking violent video game use to violence. I have nothing to say about this, but I will point out than the fact that violent crime fell heavily in America after 1990, which is when the Super Nintendo and Sega Megadrive were invented.Anyway, does this study show that playing violent games causes aggressive brain activity? Not exactly. By which I mean "no".They scanned 13 young men playing a shooter game. The main finding was that during "violent" moments of the game, activity in the rostral ACC and the amygdala activity falls. At least this is the interpretation the authors give.OK, but even if this neural response is "characteristic for aggressive cognition and behavior", it only lasted a few seconds. There's no evidence at all that this causes any lasting effects on brain function, or behaviour.The real problem though is that the whole thing is based on the theory that violence is associated with reduced amygdala (and rACC) activity.The authors cite various studies to this effect, but they don't distinguish between reduced activity as an immediate neural response to violence, as in this study, and reduced activity in people with high exposure to violent media, in response to non-violent stimuli.This is rather like saying that because having a haircut reduces your total hair, and because bald people have no hair, haircuts cause baldness. Short-term doesn't automatically become long-term.Besides, the whole idea that amygdala deactivation = violence is a bit weird because they used to destroy people's amydalas to reduce violent aggression in severe mental and neurological illness:Different surgical approaches have involved various stereotactic devices and modalities for amygdaloid nucleus destruction, such as the injection of alcohol, oil, kaolin, or wax; cryoprobe lesioning; mechanical destruction; diathermy loop; and radiofrequency lesioning...Lovely. It even worked sometimes, apparantly. Although it killed 4% of people. You can't reduce the activity of a region much more than by destroying it, yet destroying the amygdala reduced violence, or at the very least, didn't make it worse.The truth is that aggression isn't a single thing. Everyone knows that there are two main kinds, "in cold blood" and "in the heat of the moment". Killing someone in a spontaneous bar brawl is one thing, but carefully planning to sneak up behind them and stab them is quite another.Just based on what we know about the rare cases of amygdala-less people, I would imagine that destroying the amygdala would reduce violence "in the heat of the moment", which is motivated by anger and fear. The kind of patients who got this surgery seem to have been that kind of violent person, not the cold calculating kind.So, even if violent video games reduced amygdala activity long term, that would probably reduce some kinds of violence.Weber, R., Ritterfeld, U., & Mathiak, K. (2006). Does Playing Violent Video Games Induce Aggression? Empirical Evidence of a Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Study Media Psychology, 8 (1), 39-60 DOI: 10.1207/S1532785XMEP0801_4... Read more »

  • July 13, 2011
  • 03:39 AM

Less than 1% of Amazonia is made of Terra Preta. Is that enough?

by Umberto in Up and Down in Moxos

I’ve just read a review written by William Balée (2010) about the book ‘Amazonian Dark Earths: Origins, Properties, Management’. Balée considers that the discovery of Terra Preta is proof that people in pre-Columbian Amazonia, rather than adapting to environmental conditions, ‘created’ the environment they inhabited. This allowed the development of complex societies in the region regardless of environmental constraints (such as poor soils, floods, lack of protein...). People overcame all these problems by creating Terra Preta. This is an extract from Balée’s introduction: “This contribution refutes, in essence, the adaptationist view of Amazonian indigenous societies […]. It is intriguing that this refutation takes place in light of what constitutes less than 1% of the forested part of the region’s surface soils (Woods and Denevan 3.1:1). That small fraction, nevertheless, like the difference in DNA between humans and chimpanzees, takes on profound significance in terms of understanding […] agriculture, population, and settlement in the prehistory of the region.”Can we really consider this 1% like the difference in the DNA between humans and chimpanzees?An answer to this question is given by Bush and Silman (2007): “The hypothesis of widespread Amazonian landscape management is based on analyses of archaeological sites and the assumption that there was a large pre-contact Amazonian population ( 10 million people). A caveat must be applied to these data, and indeed all of the data that we have to date about human disturbance in the Amazon, which is that they are derived from just a few locations, and do not represent either a systematic or a randomized sampling design. There is no ecological component predicting which forest was most likely to be occupied. Was disturbance spread evenly across all of Amazonia or concentrated near human habitation? Is it safe to extrapolate results from sites where we know human habitation occurred to the rest of Amazonia? Ecologists are familiar with problems of scale. […] extrapolating observations from dot maps can be dangerous, especially when the dots represent discrete activities of limited spatial extent (eg terra preta formation).”It is striking how scholars can have such differing views at such a basic methodological level! (-:Another interesting point is where that 1% is found: terra preta sites (the “dots” Bush and Silman are talking about) are found along the courses of the major Amazon rivers (fig. 1).Figure 1 Terra preta sites. From Glaser (2007)The preference for settling along rivers would seem to indicate that environmental conditions (in this case closeness to fish protein and waterways) did in fact condition the development of pre-Columbian societies. If we consider terra preta as evidence of the existence of large permanent settlements established by complex societies, then its spatial distribution along major rivers would suggest precisely that social complexity developed where environmental conditions were good. And, as so many archaeologists and anthropologists have stressed before me, there is no basis to infer that large permanent settlements were also established in other areas further away from rivers, where environmental conditions would have been tougher. William Balée (2010). Amazonian Dark Earths Tipití: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South AmericaBush, M., & Silman, M. (2007). Amazonian exploitation revisited: ecological asymmetry and the policy pendulum Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 5 (9), 457-465 DOI: 10.1890/070018Glaser, B. (2007). Prehistorically modified soils of central Amazonia: a model for sustainable agriculture in the twenty-first century Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 362 (1478), 187-196 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2006.1978... Read more »

William Balée. (2010) Amazonian Dark Earths. Tipit´ı: Journal of the Society for the Anthropology of Lowland South America. info:/

  • July 10, 2011
  • 12:57 PM

Beheading the “Snake God” at Rhino Cave

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

Indiana Jones would have loved it: 65,000 years ago, stone age hunters in Africa gathered at night in a hidden cave to worship the giant rock snake that seemed to move in the flickering firelight and hissingly promised fertility so long as the rituals were performed. They came to this place every year during when [...]... Read more »

Coulson, Sheila, Staurset, Sigrid, & Walker, Nick. (2011) Ritualized Behavior in the Middle Stone Age: Evidence from Rhino Cave, Tsodilo Hills, Botswana. PaleoAnthropology, 18-61. info:/10.4207/PA.2011.ART42

  • July 9, 2011
  • 12:23 PM

Depression: From Treatment to Diagnosis?

by Neuroskeptic in Neuroskeptic

In theory, medicine works like this. You get some signs or symptoms. You go to the doctor, and depending on those, you get a diagnosis. Your doctor decides on the best available treatment on that basis.The logic of this system depends upon the sequence. A diagnosis is meant to be an objective statement about the nature of your illness; treatments (if any) come afterwards. It would be odd if the treatments on offer influenced what diagnosis you got.An interesting paper just out suggests that exactly this kind of reverse influence has happened. The authors looked at what happened in the USA in 2003 when antidepressants were slapped with a "black box" warning, cautioning against their use in children and adolescents, due to concerns over suicide in young people.They used the data from the annual National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NAMCS) and the National Hospital Ambulatory Medical Care Survey (NHAMCS). These record data on the number of patients visiting their doctor regarding different illnesses, and what medications were prescribed if any.What happened? The warning led to a reduction in the use of antidepressants. No surprise there, but unexpectedly, this wasn't because teens who visited their doctor regarding depression, were less likely to get given these drugs.Actually, the proportion of depression visits, that were also antidepressant visits, was almost unchanged:The proportion of depression visits with an antidepressant prescribed, having risen from 54% in 1998–1999 to 66% in 2002–2003, remained stable in 2004–2005 (65%) and in 2006–2007 (64%)The difference was caused by a reduction in the number of teens getting diagnosed with depression - or rather, the number of visits where depression was mentioned; we can't tell if this meant doctors were less likely to diagnose, or patients were less likely to complain, or whatever.This graph shows the story. After 2003, both antidepressant visits and depression visits fall, while the proportion of "antidepressant & depression" visits to the total depression visits (purple line), is constant.The effect seen is just a correlation - it might have been a coincidence that all this happened after the black box warning in 2003. It seems very likely to be causal, though. Antidepressant use was rising steadily up until that point - and given that in adults, both depression and antidepressant visits rose after 2003.It's also dangerous to pile too many heavy conclusions on the back of one study. But having said that -In other words, getting diagnosed with depression - at least if you're a teenager in the USA - is not just a function of having certain symptoms. The treatments on offer are a factor in determining whether you're diagnosed.One alternative view, is that the fall in depression visits represents the fact that kids on antidepressants tend to have multiple visits - in order to monitor their progress, adjust dosage etc. So when antidepressant use fell, the number of visits fell. But if it were true, we'd presumably expect to see a fall in the proportion of visits that dealt with antidepressants, which we didn't.This is disturbing either way you look at it. If you think the pre-2003 diagnoses were appropriate, then after 2003, kids must have been going undiagnosed with depression. On the other hand, if you think post-2003 was a welcome move away from over-diagnosis of depression, then pre-2003 must have been bad.As to what happened to the kids who would have got a diagnosis of depression post-2003 were it not for the black box warning, we've got no way of knowing.Why did this happen? Psychologist Abraham Maslow famously said "It's tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." The history of psychiatry bears this out.Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis was essentially the theory that most mental disturbance was a 'neurosis' or 'complex' of the kind that's best treated by lying on a coach and talking about your dreams and your childhood, which as luck would have it, was exactly what Freud had just invented.Along came psychiatric drugs, and suddenly everything was a 'chemical imbalance'. I've previously suggested that the invention of SSRI antidepressants, in particular, may have changed the concept of depression into one which was most amenable to treatment with SSRIs.Recently, we're seeing the rise of the view that everything from psychosis to paedophilia is about 'cognitive biases' that can be treated by the latest treatment paradigm, CBT.We always think we've hit the nail on the head.Chen SY, & Toh S (2011). National trends in prescribing antidepressants before and after an FDA advisory on suicidality risk in youths. Psychiatric services (Washington, D.C.), 62 (7), 727-33 PMID: 21724784... Read more »

  • July 8, 2011
  • 07:13 PM

On the genetic structure of Afro-Indians

by Razib Khan in Gene Expression

The Pith: Afro-Indians are mostly African, with a substantial Indian minority ancestry. The latter is disproportionately female mediated. It also seems that that ancestry is more northwest Indian, and that natural selection has been operating upon them outside of the African environment.
Along the western coast of South Asia, from Makran in southwest Pakistan, down to the Konkan coast of southwest Iindia, there are isolated communities of Afro-Indians. They are called Siddis or Habshi. Their African origin is clear in their physical appearance, as well as aspects of their folk customs which tie them back to Sub-Saharan African. Nevertheless, they have assimilated to many Indian cultural traits. They generally speak the local language, and practice Islam, Hinduism, or Roman Catholic Christianity (in that order in proportion).
How and why did the Siddis arrive in India? The earliest date for their arrival almost certainly must be bounded by the period when Indo-Islamic polities rose to prominence in the early second millennium. The cosmopolitan melange of the armies of the Muslim warlords included diverse groups of Africans, some of whom took power, and established their own self-conscious Afro-Indian dynasties, set apart from the Turkish, Afghan, ...... Read more »

Anish M. Shah, Rakesh Tamang, Priya Moorjani, Deepa Selvi Rani, Periyasamy Govindaraj, Gururaj Kulkarni, Tanmoy Bhattacharya, Mohammed S. Mustak, L.V.K.S. Bhaskar, Alla G. Reddy.... (2011) Indian Siddis: African Descendants with Indian Admixture. American Journal of Human Genetics. info:/10.1016/j.ajhg.2011.05.030

Ankita Narang, Pankaj Jha, Vimal Rawat, Arijit Mukhopadhayay, Debasis Dash, Indian Genome Variation Consortium, Analabha Basu, & Mitali Mukerji. (2011) , Recent Admixture in an Indian Population of African Ancestry. American Journal of Human Genetics. info:/10.1016/j.ajhg.2011.06.004

  • July 8, 2011
  • 03:45 PM

Men Talk about Mars, Women Talk about Venus

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

Last month, a variety of parenting blogs were in an uproar over the story of a Canadian family that didn’t feel like sharing the sex of newborn Storm with the rest of the world. The media had a field day with the notion of raising a “genderless” child, even after Storm’s mother published an explanation making it clear that their goal was to buffer the child against the relentless gender stereotyping we foist on infants from day one. From garish pink onesies that proclaim “Daddy’s Little Girl” and powder blue “Little Man” t-shirts, to letting our girls’ hair grow out and cutting our boys’ hair short, to offering our girls a doll and our boys a ball, we indicate to our children through subtle and overt actions what their future role might be in society: girl or boy, woman or man.

Within this discussion about de-emphasizing gender norms for the most vulnerable members of our culture—those who are unable to think for themselves—a lot of attention has paid to bucking gendered trends in toys, clothing, and hair style, but only one news piece that I saw brought up the subject of language:
"It is very courageous to challenge [the world] on adjectives that you use on children," [Cheryl] Kilodavis [author of the children’s book My Princess Boy] tells ParentDish. "Instead of saying what a strong boy what a pretty girl, they are saying what a strong or beautiful child."Language is the most important tool that humans ever developed. It allows us to collate and categorize information to make sense of our world, and it allows us to pass on that information to succeeding generations. But language differs around the world – not only in the words used to describe something, but in the number of words used to describe something. That is, the words used by a group of people generally reflect the interests and concerns of those people – so people in cold climates have a larger range of words for cold-weather phenomena than do people living in warm climates, who may have a larger range of words related to their own environment.

This means that language can also differ along gender lines. In a paper that is often assigned in introductory anthropology courses, Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker discuss the reasons for “male-female miscommunication.” Rather than looking to psychological differences between the sexes to explain differences in communication styles, Maltz and Borker think we should be discussing sociolinguistic subcultures, or the culturally-influenced differences between men’s and women’s approaches to communication. They suggest that women tend to use language to negotiate and express relationships; we tend to use a lot of personal and inclusive pronouns, interject questions and comments in order to show interest; and we are concerned with making segues between topics. On the other hand, jokes and stories are highly valued in men’s speech; loud and aggressive speech is common; and put-downs and insults are normal ways of talking with friends.

What about actual gendered words and phrases? Sure, English, like many languages, has masculine and feminine pronouns, as well as gendered nouns for various relationships and occupations. But we also have more subtly gendered vocabulary, as illustrated in the quote above: we praise our strong boys and our pretty girls. Two researchers at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences at the University of Trento (Italy) recently decided to empirically test the question of whether there is a gender bias in what women and men talk about. Their goal was not anthropological, but rather computational - to find a way to model “common sense knowledge” as part of the eventual perfection of artificial intelligence (Herdağdelen & Baroni 2011):
Common sense knowledge consists of the simple facts that nearly every person knows but almost never states explicitly because of the very assumption that it is already shared by everyone. Some examples are that mountains are taller than buildings, grocery has a price, or rivers flow downhill. The assumption that common sense knowledge is shared is what allows us to communicate with other people and interact with our surroundings in an efficient and natural way. Therefore, an AI system needs to possess common sense if it aims to interact with people in a natural way.That is, we have all been enculturated into a particular way of life, and we expect people of different ages, occupations, and genders (among other qualities) to interact with us in different ways:
Prejudices and stereotypical knowledge present an intriguing aspect of common sense. As human beings, we rely on (and possibly suffer from) stereotypical expectations. Obviously, we would not want to engineer an AI with its own prejudices and stereotypes, but on the other hand, if an AI system is to relate to humans, it should know about the stereotypical expectations as well—whether it is right or wrong, an AI should know that (we expect that) women like shopping and men like football. Without an explicit knowledge of the stereotypes, such beliefs can be implicit, hidden, and intermixed with other “objective” facts in a knowledge base.The authors, Herdağdelen and Baroni, analyzed a data set consisting of over ten million tweets broadcast from the U.S. in English over Twitter from November 2009 to February 2010. Cross-referencing each Twitter user’s first name with the database of male and female infants’ first names put out by the U.S. Social Security Administration, the authors isolated 5.2 million tweets belonging to men and 5.9 million tweets belonging to women. And they did find gender bias in certain phrases. For example, “[want to] make money” ranked numbers one and three for “masculine” phrases. On the “feminine” side, they found “go [to] bed” and “feel like.” The coolest thing about this research, though, is that the authors set up a nifty online widget – at – where you can put in any word or phrase you want, to see how it falls along gender lines.

It’s generally assumed that women in American culture distinguish among more color words than men do, possibly as a result of the myriad colors in clothing and makeup. Our parents and our friends likely train us to be aware of these subtleties. Let’s examine this using Tweet-O-Life:

Whereas “red” is basically 50/50, slightly more women than men used the word “maroon” and many more used the word “scarlet.” It’s not a perfect test, of course – those women may be talking about the Scarlet Letter or Scarlet O’Hara. The brilliance of this widget is that you can click over to “detailed query” and find that, while the men are tweeting about “scarlet” with “red,” “knight,” “fever,” and “sin,” the women are tweeting about it with “letter.”

How about language relating to children and childcare? Our “common sense” tells us that women still do the majority of child-rearing.

The term “infant” is the only one that more men say than women, and “toddler” is disproportionately said by women. Interestingly, whereas men used the word “toddler” with words like “autism,” “grandmother,” and “craft,” women used the word with “bed,” “nap,” and “scream.” The diversity of names for children may not be split too heavily along gender lines, but the words used with “toddler” suggest that women may be the primary (naptime?) caregivers.

What if we try something like “computer”? As with “red”, we get basically a 50/50 split between men and women. The really interesting differences come in the detailed query:

Men talk about computers as if they’re actively engaging with them o... Read more »

A. Herdagdelen, & M. Baroni. (2011) Stereotypical gender actions can be extracted from web text. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. info:/

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