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  • 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:/

  • July 7, 2011
  • 12:00 PM

Shifting Stigmas: The Act of Crying in Public

by Krystal D'Costa in Anthropology in Practice

Jimmy Dugan firmly established that there’s no crying in baseball. But what about in public? In New York City, at some point or another you’re going to encounter a crying person—in fact, you could even be the crier. A few weeks ago, I boarded the subway for a short trip uptown. It was the middle [...]

... Read more »

Borgquist, Alvin. (1906) Crying. The American Journal of Psychology, 17(2), 149-205. info:/

Ross, C., & Mirowsky, J. (1984) Men Who Cry. Social Psychology Quarterly, 47(2), 138. DOI: 10.2307/3033942  

  • July 7, 2011
  • 03:34 AM

Marry far and breed tall strong sons

by Razib Khan in Gene Expression

The Pith: When it comes to the final outcome of a largely biologically specified trait like human height it looks as if it isn’t just the genes your parents give you that matters. Rather, the relationship of their genes also counts. The more dissimilar they are genetically, the taller you are likely to be (all things equal).
Dienekes points me to an interesting new paper in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Isolation by distance between spouses and its effect on children’s growth in height. The results are rather straightforward: the greater the distance between the origin of one’s parents, the taller one is likely to be, especially in the case of males. These findings were robust even after controlling for confounds such as socioeconomic status. Their explanation? Heterosis, whether through heterozygote advantage or the masking of recessive deleterious alleles.
The paper is short and sweet, but first one has to keep in mind the long history of this sort of research in the murky domain of human quantitative genetics. This is not a straight-forward molecular genetic paper where there’s a laser-like focus on one locus, and the mechanistic issues are ...... Read more »

Sławomir Kozieł, Dariusz P. Danel, & Monika Zaręba. (2011) Isolation by distance between spouses and its effect on children's growth in height. American journal of physical anthropology. info:/10.1002/ajpa.21482

  • July 5, 2011
  • 03:55 AM

Throwing Rocks From the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean

by Eric Michael Johnson in The Primate Diaries

I’m teaching my son to think like a scientist. He is two years old. We frequently go for walks together through the woods and along the coastlines of British Columbia where I allow his curiosity to run free. His current research project is throwing rocks into the ocean (this is just the exploratory phase mind [...]... Read more »

Michael Elazar. (2011) Projectile Motion and the Rejection of Superposition. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, 169-187. info:/10.1007/978-94-007-1605-6_16

  • July 4, 2011
  • 03:09 PM

Trench Fever in German Mass Burial

by Michelle Ziegler in Contagions

Trench fever seems to be all the rage these days in paleomicrobiology. It seems as though every time Bartonella quintana is added to a panel of pathogens for aDNA screening its found at some level. So far its been found in in a tooth from 4000 before present, in late medieval Venice, 14th century France, [...]... Read more »

  • July 4, 2011
  • 12:23 AM

The Stars Bursting in Air

by teofilo in Gambler's House

Happy Fourth of July, everyone.  The Fourth is actually a pretty important date for the study of Chaco, but in a roundabout (and somewhat controversial) way.  It all has to do with a very famous pictograph panel below Peñasco Blanco at the west end of the canyon.  While the interpretation of this panel is a [...]... Read more »

Pauketat, T., & Emerson, T. (2008) Star Performances and Cosmic Clutter. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 18(1), 78-85. DOI: 10.1017/S0959774308000085  

  • July 3, 2011
  • 12:59 PM

Mortimer, the Infamous Skeleton of Grumbles Alley

by Kristina Killgrove in Powered By Osteons

Down in Selma, Alabama, a large, robust skeleton nicknamed Mortimer sits on a barrel in Grumbles Alley restaurant.  His origin is unclear.  Local legend has it that Mortimer was dug up a century ago by a farmer, who bartered the skeleton to the town doctor for medical services.  The skeleton is notable because of his stature - Mortimer may have been a 7-foot-tall Indian, according to stories told to a former restaurant worker.  Or perhaps he was Montgomery pediatrician John Sumner's great-great-great-grandfather, John Ellis Sumner, a minister who was rumored to have stood at 6'6" and died in Selma in 1856.  Sumner was supposedly exhumed and studied because of his extraordinary height, and the family doesn't know what happened to his body.

Mortimer made news over the last couple of weeks because a nurse named JoEllen Roberson travelled to Selma from her home in Columbia, South Carolina, to study the skeleton:

Mortimer, sitting in his usual
spot at Grumbles Alley
(credit: AP photo)
From the video and a photo of the skeleton (right), the skull has all the hallmarks of a male individual: very large mastoid processes, mental eminence, heavy brows, square orbits.  There aren't very good pictures of the pelvis, unfortunately, but overall this individual is quite robust and very likely to have been male.  Based on what I can see of the nose, this person may have been Caucasian.  There's a high, straight nasal bridge and a tear-drop-shaped opening.  Still, the cheekbones give me pause, as they're quite high and flared.  From the pictures and the low-quality video, I can't rule out Native American.

There's no detail in the video or the news reports on how Roberson "analyzed" the skeleton.  It appears that she used a measuring tape and a straight edge(!) to estimate Mortimer's living height.  But she didn't use any of the formulas we osteologists use to approximate living stature.  Roberson admits that Mortimer may have been taller with flesh on him but for some reason only estimates 1/2" extra (where she got that figure, I have no idea).  She doesn't appear to have tried to figure out sex, age-at-death, or age of the skeleton.  However, she did take (break?) a toe bone in order to find someone to do a DNA analysis for her, but this hasn't yet been done.  My guess is she thought a DNA test would be inexpensive (as it is for living people), but if this bone is from someone who died over 100 years ago and was treated as a medical skeleton (the bones look shellacked or something), DNA may be quite difficult to isolate.

The weirdest part of this story to me is that Roberson sent her measurements (which are not in any way precise, since she didn't use calipers or other osteological equipment) to the Centre for Fortean Zoology, which had apparently expressed an interest in the skeleton of the "giant."  The CFZ's trade is primarily in cryptozoology - you know, chupacabras and yetis.  I can't imagine these people do actual science, although I can imagine they'd be interested in a skeleton with greater-than-average height.  I tried to find an email for Roberson, so that I could ask her for her measurements, but I could only find her business phone number.  Maybe I'll call after the holiday, since I'm curious how and what she measured.

At any rate, I'm not sure why Roberson or the owners of Grumbles Alley didn't call a local biological anthropologist - Keith Jacobi at the University of Alabama, perhaps?  I'm going to bug my colleagues who work in Alabama and see if someone is interested in checking out the skeleton.  Or maybe I'll take a nice little road-trip when I move to Nashville, since Selma is only about 5 hours away.  If this skeleton is of a Native American, there are several provisions of NAGPRA that will need to be legally met.  If this is a medical (study) skeleton, it's probably legal for Grumbles Alley to own, but it's rather in poor taste to display it and dress it up for holidays and other events.

Mortimer is not the first skeleton to be handed down over the decades, but he would provide some enterprising graduate student or professor with an opportunity to do a case-study to discriminate among forensic, historic, and ancient contexts.  A great place to start is Dawnie Steadman's article "The Pawn Shop Mummified Head" in her edited volume Hard Evidence: Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology.  It's a great read - students in my forensic anthropology course liked it - and useful for those of us who normally work in one context (I work in "ancient," for example) but are called upon to look at skeletons from the other two contexts.

Finding old skeletons with unknown or unclear provenance is not unusual, particularly as doctors trained in a bygone era pass along the skulls they were required to purchase in med school to their children and grandchildren along with the rest of their estate.  It would be great if there were a way the public could alert a local biological anthropologist of the human remains in their possession.  Perhaps an enterprising graduate student could set up some kind of clearinghouse of information (particularly on the legality of owning human skeletal remains) and/or a list of biological anthropologists interested in these isolated cases.  A website to this effect would be quite useful for people who are unsure what to do with human bones.  Or perhaps people should just contact the police, no matter the seeming antiquity of the bones?  I'd be interested to hear what my readers think the best course of action is.


... Read more »

D.W. Steadman. (2003) The pawn shop mummified head: discriminating among forensic, historic, and ancient contexts. Hard Evidence: Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology, 212-226. info:/

  • July 2, 2011
  • 12:21 PM

Community & Kinship at Catalhoyuk

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

Strange things are afoot at Catalhoyuk (7400-5600 BCE), one of the earliest and most important Neolithic (i.e., sedentary and agricultural) sites known to archaeology. As I noted in Bones, Burials and Ancestors, mortuary practices at Catalhoyuk were unusual and often involved secondary burial in the floors of homes.

The assumption has always been that these were [...]... Read more »

Pilloud, Marin A., & Larsen, Clark Spencer. (2011) “Official” and “practical” kin: Inferring social and community structure from dental phenotype at Neolithic Çatalhöyük, Turkey. American Journal of Physical Anthropology. info:/10.1002/ajpa.21520

  • June 30, 2011
  • 05:11 PM

Twisted Saga of “World’s Oldest Ritual”

by Cris Campbell in Genealogy of Religion

In 2006, University of Oslo archaeologist Sheila Coulson gave an open lecture about her work at a small cave in the Tsodilo Hills of northern Botswana. Although her lecture focused on Middle Stone Age tools recovered from the cave and an unusual rock formation that looked to her like a snake or python, she also [...]... Read more »

Robbins, Lawrence, Campbell, Alec, Brook, George, & Murphy, Michael. (2007) World’s Oldest Ritual Site? The “Python Cave” at Tsodilo Hills World Heritage Site, Botswana. Nyame Akuma, 67(June), 2-6. info:/

  • June 29, 2011
  • 04:18 PM

Through the Language Glass (Part 2) [reposted]

by Chris in The Lousy Linguist

This is part 2 of my review of Guy Deutscher's new book Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. This covers The Language Lens (129-249). Part 1 is here. This review will cover the scientific evidence that Deutscher reviews suggesting that language affects thought, and will end with a shocking proposal.To sum up my review of part one: meh. Okay, we've established that culture can influence language. This is a lot less controversial than Deutscher makes it seem and he spent a large amount of text defending that position. Okay, whatever, time to move on. In part 2 he again begins with historical review explaining why he thinks Whorf was a con man, but also why he thinks the core insights of early linguist relativity deserve closer, honest investigation. He complains that based his Hopi claims on just one lonely informant (p142). We'll see later that Deutscher himself falls for the same trap. He replaces Whorf with the Boas-Jakobson principle that languages differ in what they must convey, not what they may convey” (151). I respect Deutscher for making this a central theme in his book because I think he's right. To parrot his own recitation of Humbolt: any thought can be expressed in any language. It is what our native language forces us to foreground that makes linguistic relativity an interesting topic.Deutscher spends most of the second part of the book reviewing three areas of language that have provided evidence that language affects thought: spatial coordinates, grammatical gender, and color terms (familiar from part 1). The general point I want to make about his evidence is that it is far weaker than he maintains. But is is interesting. A brief set of reactions:Spatial Coordinates -- everything is embodiedMost of his argumentation about the affect of spacial coordinate terms on thought stems from Levinson's evidence from speakers of the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr which is famous for giving us the word “kangaroo.” Speakers of GY do not generally use ego-centric terms like "right" and "left" but rather use cardinal direction terms like "east" and "west." As a result, Deutscher claims, they remember information about situations differently than speakers of English. They have, so the argument goes, a perfect pitch for direction and they are always attuned to where north is. Deutscher's claim is that only the linguistic repetition of such terms can possibly account for this. Hence, their language affects what they pay attention to and what they remember, hence language affects thought.I've never found this line of research all that convincing regarding linguistic relativity and Deutscher does not really add much to the debate. Like Deutscher's complaint above regarding Whorf's one lonely Hopi speaker, it turns out there are not many native speakers of Guugu Yimithirr left and haven't been for a while. These experiments on directional language involve very few speakers, and most of them have both cardinal direction and ego-centric direction in their dialect. If we're going to complain about Whorf's restricted subject pool, we must complain about Levinson's too.But more to the point, I believe all direction terms are ultimately ego-centric insofar as they are embodied. The terms "north" and "south" are not magically universal. They are based on a human being's body and orientation (i.e., ego-centric). Don't believe me, ask yourself, what does "north" mean in space? What does "north" mean to an amoeba? Mostly what Deutscher does in his discussions of direction terms is reiterate the point he belabored in Part 1: culture affects language. Yeah, we got that already.The rise of similarity judgmentsThat is until he discusses the table experiments. These experiments show subjects tables with objects on them and ask them to arrange them in accordance with a target. Basically, they ask for similarity judgement. How can you make this table arrangement similar to the previous table. This methodological paradigm has become prominent in psycholinguistics and cognitive linguistics, especially studies testing linguistic relativity. In fact, all of the studies Deutscher discusses are similarity judgment studies of one sort or another. The point is that I show you one target thing, then two test things and ask, which test is MORE SIMILAR to the target than the other? Ultimately Deutscher himself problematizes spatial coordinate terms so much, they fall flat and remain unconvincing as a base of evidence for linguistic relativity.Grammatical GenderMost languages have terms for classifying things. Some languages have more elaborate classifier systems than others. In German, the term for the fork is die Gabel, marked by feminine die. Ultimately, most languages with elaborate classifiers have systems that can be described as incoherent in so far as most things given one classification have no inherent properties that signify that classification (there is nothing inherently feminine about a fork). However, Deutscher provides evidence that speakers of languages with grammatical gender will evoke properties of things in keeping with their gender classifier, suggesting that the classifier is causing them to imagine a fork would speak with a female voice, for example. But these experiments mainly test vague associations of imagination, not linguistic causality, as Deutscher admits.Color TermsIt is not until chapter 9 Russian Blues that Deutscher really delivers the goods. It is this chapter which provides the most interesting evidence for the effect of language on thought. Pity it is only about 15 pages of the book. The whole book should have been more like this. The facts he discusses involve the basic point that the brain sees what it wants to see. It turns out our perception of color has little to do with any objective feature of the thing we're looking at (he explains this fact brilliantly in the Appendix which I highly recommend, and frankly, should have been the first chapter, not relegated to the attic of an appendix). The point is that our brains change the input. As our eyes take in objective photons, our brain photoshops the input (a great analogy from Deutscher which really brings the point home).The experimental results Deutscher discusses involve more similarity judgements, albeit with a twist. Instead of relying solely on the similarity judgments, researchers studied the more objective reaction time. They showed people different color patches and asked them to judge the sameness. Despite the various and clever variations on this theme, they all relied on subjective judgements of similarity. And this is where they fail to extricate themselves from the problem of strategizing.Unfortunately they all share the critical flaw that making a similarity judgment is a logical reason act and may be mitigated by strategizing. Deutscher discusses this fact, but doesn't realize that none of the fixes work. A similarity judgment is always a logical process susceptible to the effects of strategizing. This will be a major issue in my Shocking Proposal at the end. You see, regardless of how clever the test, as long as you are basically asking a subject to make a similarity judgment, you are asking them to reason about the task. So your results will be tinged by the strategizing of human subjects as they logically try to game the system. This is well known in psycholinguistics and difficult to avoid. So how do you objectively test what colors a person considers blue?A Shocking ProposalThe paradigm already exists. How can you objectively prove that English speakers really do consider aspirated /kh/ and unaspirated /k/ both the same phoneme? You condition them to fear aspirated /kh/ by shocking them every time they hear it (measuring their galvanic skin response). Once they are conditioned, you then play them unaspirated /k/ (with no shock) and check to see if you get the same GSR spike (in anticipation).Okay, now apply this to color terms. Condition subjects to fear center of the category blue, then show them gradations. What causes the GSR spike? That's what they consider blue. now do that with speakers of 40 different languages.If the hippies on the human subjects review board let you do it, there's your dissertation.... Read more »

Guy deutscher. (2010) Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. Metropolitan Books. info:/

  • June 29, 2011
  • 07:00 AM

Old Germs, or Paleomicrobiology

by Michelle Ziegler in Contagions

This will be the first in a series of posts looking at the technical and practical aspects of studying ancient pathogens, or paleomicrobiology. First let’s look at why its worth spending time, money and a lot of creativity on old germs. There are many reasons why directly studying ancient microbes is worthwhile. From a historical [...]... Read more »

  • June 29, 2011
  • 12:33 AM

Chaco before Chaco: The Basketmaker III Period

by teofilo in Gambler's House

The Basketmaker III period (ca. AD 500 to 750) is a very important time for understanding the prehistoric Southwest.  Maize agriculture had been introduced earlier, although exactly how early is still a matter of debate, and it was definitely well-established by the immediately preceding Basketmaker II period, but Basketmaker III saw the introduction of beans, [...]... Read more »

  • June 28, 2011
  • 06:16 PM

JAMA on 60s Psychedelic Drug Culture

by The Neurocritic in The Neurocritic

An amusing semi-anthropological study was published in JAMA by Ludwig and Levine in 1965. It was based on extensive interviews with 27 "postnarcotic drug addict inpatients" who were treated at a hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. The specific drugs of interest included peyote (from the peyotl cactus plant), mescaline, LSD, and psilocybin. The current availability of each drug, most popular methods of intake, slang terms, psychoactive properties, and subcultural norms were discussed. Hallucinogens were sometimes combined with narcotics, barbituates, amphetamines, or marijuana, depending on the specific demographic group. Basically, there were the junkies, the potheads, and the psychonauts:There appear to be three main patterns of hallucinogenic drug use. First, there are the people who are primarily and preferentially narcotic drug addicts who have used the hallucinogenic agents on one or several occasions mainly for "kicks" or "curiosity." They seldom seek these drugs and tend to use them infrequently, as for example when these agents come their way through a friend or at a party. Rarely do they take the hallucinogenic agent alone but tend to take it after a "fix" with heroin, hydromorphone hydrochloride, morphine, or some other narcotic drug to which they are addicted at the time.The next group sounds like your everyday 1960s hippie stereotype:Second, there are the group of people, aptly described by one of the informants as the "professional potheads," who have had extensive experience with various drugs. The most commonly used drug by this group of people is marijuana (hence the name "potheads"), but amphetamines and barbiturates are also popular. Many have had some experience with the narcotic drugs, but on the whole they tend to avoid the opiates. "Creative" and "arty" people, such as struggling actors, musicians, artists, writers, as well as the Greenwich Village type of "beatnik," tend to fall in this category. The "frustrated," "curious," "free thinkers," "nonconformists," and "young rebels," who are seeking a temporary escape also comprise this class of hallucinogenic users, according to our informants. Although the "professional potheads" enjoy the euphoric effects produced by smoking marijuana, they also tend to relish and seek out the feelings of greater insight, inspiration, and sensory stimulation and distortions which the hallucinogens may produce. They are in constant search of agents to rouse them from their apathy, to make life more meaningful, to overcome social inhibitions, and to facilitate meaningful conversations and interpersonal relationships.Especially enjoyable was the description of the drug parties frequented by these types:Hallucinogenic agents are used by these people mainly on weekends (often "four-day weekends") or on special occasions, such as parties. It is rare for users to take drugs alone. They are mainly taken with friends or at intimate gatherings of people. The parties are of all varieties. Frequently, little conversation takes place while people are under the influence of these drugs, but they claim to experience a greater closeness and rapport with the other members of the group. One patient described having attended "basket weaving" and "lampshade making" parties where all members, under the influence of these drugs, squatted on the floor and silently attended to their tasks. At another type of party, overt sexual activities were carried out. Folk singing was also common. To quote another patient, "Mostly the people sit around trying to dig each other . . . everybody is sitting around and waiting, like on New Year's Eve, for something to happen."Finally were a small number of hard core exclusive users of hallucinogens in search of an expanded consciousness, whether it be religious, spiritual, or cosmic:Third, there are a small number of people who take the hallucinogenic agents repeatedly over a sustained period of time to the exclusion of all other drugs. The frequency of drug use during these periods of time is variable. One patient took peyote four times a day over a two-year period, while another patient took it two out of every three days over a three-month period. One patient took mescaline every day for two separate 15-day periods, while another took mescaline every two to three days over a six-month period...Generally, these patients seemed different from those in the second group, who primarily smoke marijuana. They did not take these drugs in a group for social purposes but used them mainly as a means of attaining some personal, esoteric goal. One patient talked of having achieved an increased sensitivity to nature and a greater insight into himself after prolonged peyote usage. While living by himself on Big Sur in California, he claimed to have achieved a "Christ-like state of mind" and a greater feeling of altruism. Another patient stated that as he kept taking mescaline, he was able to control his experience and attained a state of mind in which "every little thing is projected large," where he was able to see the negative and positive aspects of everything, and where "everything is real." A third patient, of Mexican extraction, kept taking peyote to "find God."In the last several months, there have been a spate of articles on the return of psychedelics for psychotherapeutic purposes. Maia Szalavitz has covered some of the most recent developments: 'Magic Mushrooms' Can Improve Psychological Health Long Term and A Mystery Partly Solved: How the 'Club Drug' Ketamine Lifts Depression So Quickly.Last year, a Neurocritic post (Ketamine for Depression: Yay or Neigh?) was part of a Nature Blog Focus on hallucinogenic drugs in medicine and mental health, inspired by the Nature Reviews Neuroscience paper, The neurobiology of psychedelic drugs: implications for the treatment of mood disorders, by Franz Vollenweider & Michael Kometer. For more information on this Blog Focus, see the Table of Contents.The secret history of psychedelic psychiatry was discussed over at Neurophilosophy. Neuroskeptic covered ... Read more »

LUDWIG AM, & LEVINE J. (1965) PATTERNS OF HALLUCINOGENIC DRUG ABUSE. JAMA : the journal of the American Medical Association, 92-6. PMID: 14233246  

  • June 28, 2011
  • 01:55 AM

How Old Is Pueblo Bonito?

by teofilo in Gambler's House

The “Chacoan era” is a period of about 100 years in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries AD during which Chaco Canyon was at the center of some sort of system that covered a large portion of the northern Southwest.  The exact nature and exact extent of that system are endlessly debated, but the period [...]... Read more »

  • June 27, 2011
  • 04:41 PM

Jungle Geometry: Who Needs Euclid?

by Elizabeth Preston in Inkfish

At some point in your teenage years, you probably kept a compass and straightedge in your backpack, learned the ways to prove two triangles are congruent, and knew what a secant was. It all had a taste of the classical about it: Euclid, Archimedes and Pythagoras had figured everything out and passed it down to us. But geometry may be more democratic than it seems. As a group of native Amazonians showed, you don't need to go to school to explain Euclid.French researcher Veronique Izard and her colleagues wanted to know if an understanding of Euclidean geometry is intuitive. It makes sense for humans and other animals to have a basic sense of shapes and distances, so we can find reachable fruits and flee approaching predators. But our eyes often deceive us. So do children, or remote tribespeople, instinctively understand that two parallel lines never cross? Or how many points define a line?The researchers traveled to the Amazon and recruited children (ages 7 to 13) and adults from a group called the Mundurucu. They had no education in geometry, and their language doesn't include any words to describe concepts such as parallel lines or right angles. But the Mundurucu face challenging navigational tasks every day, just moving around their environment. The researchers quizzed them on basic Euclidean tenets.Instead of points and lines, researchers described villages and straight paths. They asked two sets of questions, one concerning the geometry of a plane (described as a flat world that extends forever) and the other about a sphere (a "very round world"). For a visual aid, they used either a tabletop or a half a calabash.Participants were also shown two corners of a triangle and asked to demonstrate, with their hands, what the missing corner would look like and where it would be.The Mundurucu did great on their geometry quiz. The children performed just as well as the adults, and overall the Mundurucu did almost as well as American adults and French children that took the same quiz. All groups did better on questions about a flat plane than questions about the surface of a sphere, maybe because the former is more similar to what we observe in our daily lives.To find out whether this kind of knowledge is truly innate, or something that develops over time, the researchers repeated the quiz with American kids just 5 and 6 years old. The kids did OK, but not as well as older children or adults. They especially had difficulty completing the triangles.The results suggest that we're not born with an understanding of geometry. Rather, we learn as we grow how angles and lines work in the world. It would be interesting to see how another untrained group, one with less navigational experience than the Mundurucu, would handle the same questions. If a person grows up in a static and unchallenging environment, does he or she have a less intuitive grasp of distances and perspectives? Might the laws of the world be a little more mysterious?Some of the questions the Mundurucu correctly answered had to do with abstract ideas, such as infinitely extending lines. This showed that they weren't just describing basic physical relationships they'd observed, but extending their knowledge of the world to larger mathematical concepts. Euclid may have come up with the terms and the postulates, but the Mundurucu show that anyone at all, using their eyes and their understanding, could have invented geometry.Izard, V., Pica, P., Spelke, E., & Dehaene, S. (2011). From the Cover: Flexible intuitions of Euclidean geometry in an Amazonian indigene group Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (24), 9782-9787 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016686108... Read more »

Izard, V., Pica, P., Spelke, E., & Dehaene, S. (2011) From the Cover: Flexible intuitions of Euclidean geometry in an Amazonian indigene group. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(24), 9782-9787. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016686108  

  • June 27, 2011
  • 04:08 PM

Bloodsport in Australopithecus africanus?

by zacharoo in Lawn Chair Anthropology

A few months ago in a post about the ilium and cannibals, I relayed a quote by Dr. Raymond Dart who was the first to recognize (and name) the hominid genus Australopithecus, back in 1925. I'd also mentioned that he was described [in a reference that escapes me] as "blood-thirsty." This macabre descriptor came to mind again, as I'm reading his (1948) description of the MLD 2 mandible, of a juvenile A. africanus from Makapansgat cave in South Africa (figure is from the paper):"[Individuals represented by MLD2 and another skull fragment] met their death by manually applied violence. The fractures exhibited by the mandible show that the violence, which probably occurred in fatal combat, was a localized crushing impact received by the face slightly to the left of the midline in the incisor region, and administered presumably by a bludgeon... this youth probably met his fate at the hands of a kinsman more expert than himself in the accurate application of directed implements" (p. 393-394)This rather fanciful hypothesis may reflect Dart's alleged bloodlust, and the condition of the fossil likely reflects damage that occurred after death during the sometimes abusive process of fossilization.
ReferenceDart, R. (1948). The adolescent mandible of Australopithecus prometheus American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 6 (4), 391-412 DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330060410... Read more »

Dart, R. (1948) The adolescent mandible of Australopithecus prometheus. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 6(4), 391-412. DOI: 10.1002/ajpa.1330060410  

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