Light Warlpiri, A Newly Discovered Australian Mixed Language


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Linguist Carmel O’Shannessy wrote to the journal Language of a newly discovered language, Light Warlpiri. Her correspondence, “The role of multiple sources in the formation of an innovative auxiliary category in Light Warlpiri, a new Australian mixed language,” documents 300 people in a remote desert community about 644 kilometres from Katherine, a town in Australia’s Northern Territory, speaking in a striking auxillary system. She believes it emerged in the 1970’s and 80’s.

The language draws on traditional Warlpiri, which is spoken by about 6,000 people in indigenous communities scattered throughout the Tanami Desert along with Kriol, an English-based Creole language spoken in various regions of Australia; and English. In the Warlpiri language, words can be placed in any order, and grammatical interpretations are based on suffixes that are attached to the nouns. And the imported words have changed meanings so that the structure of the auxiliary model is not the same as they were in the source languages. O’Shannessy explains,

“In Light Warlpiri, you have one part of the language that mostly comes from English and Kriol, but the other grammatical part, the suffixing, comes from Warlpiri.”

Another distinction of the newfound language is a word form that refers to both the present and past time, but not the future. For example, in English, “I’m: refers to “I” in the present tense, but Light Warlpiri speakers created a new form, such as “yu-m,” which means “you” in the present and past time, but not the future.

“That structure doesn’t exist in any of the languages that this new code came from, which is one of the reasons we see this as a separate linguistic system, even though it comes from other languages that already exist,

Here’s an interesting example. Blue words in this color are from Warlpiri, and those in that are red are from English or Kriol. Green colored words are for the creative auxiliary system and verbal structure.

De-m run back rarralykaji-kirra jarntu an yapa-wat ngapa-kujaku.
“The dog and the people run back to the car to get out of the rain.”

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Simulating The Social Brain Hypothesis


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An Oxford University team of two led by Tamás Dávid-Barrett published an open access paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B testing the social brain hypothesis. In a nutshell, the social brain hypothesis was created by the other author of this paper, Robin Dunbar, who theorized in 1993 with anthropologist Leslie Aiello, that intelligence among humans is a function of surviving and reproducing in large and complex social groups and not solving ecological problems.

Social Brain

In order to investigate their hypothesis, they looked at Encephalization Quotient is a measure of brain size relative to body size. The cat’s EQ of about 1, which is expected for its body size. But most primates have brains that are larger than expected for their body size. Chimps have an EQ of 2.5. Humans have almost three times as much, at around 7.5. Dolphins have an EQ of more than 5, and rats and rabbits are way down on the scale — below 0.4. Aiello and Dunbar published their findings, along with a run down in the fossil record, in the widely cited 1993 paper in Current Anthropology. They correlated that the larger a species’ group size, then the larger its brain—particularly the neocortex, the outer layers where most of the serious thinking goes on.

The current paper, “Processing power limits social group size: Computational evidence for the cognitive costs of sociality,” describes how the authors used agent-based modelling to serve up coordination problems to agents. Solving these problems required synchrony of behaviors, meaning each agent had to do the right thing and the right time in just the right way for the group to progress. In effect they simulated in computer models.

They found out that the viability of group size increased as calculation, or figuratively speaking cognitive, capacity increased. Furthermore, their simulations demonstrated the need for complex language through the situations where group size increased and the agents had to switch to deeper information processing strategies that allowed them to differentiate among their problems.

I like research like this, however I do not appreciate how it is digested and regurgitated in the press. The press is running headlines like “Big brains developed big brains to deal with society,” implying that evolution has some goal or some design. This is not true. It is true however, sociality is a selective pressure. And to be social required large frontal lobes, but is not the sole region for human intelligence.

What’s Wrong With Anthropology?


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In December, I linked up Ann Gibbons’ article in Science about anthropology’s poor reception in the scientific community. I forgot to mention that months before that, in August, Kiplinger named anthropology “the worst major for your career.” Two months later, Forbes followed suite and ranked “anthropology and archaeology,” as the No. 1 on its list of “worst college majors.”

Suffice to say, 2012 was a tough year for anthropology, but at least we were number #1 in something! But all kidding aside, increased discussion is a positive outcome from all this criticism. What needs to be done is to increase the worth of studying anthropology.

In April of this year, Ty Matejowsky and Beatriz M. Reyes-Foster, two anthropologists from the University of Central Florida, wrote a guest column in the Orlando Sentinel, on the issue of the lack of “cool” factor in cultural anthropology. They have an empowering message,

Anthropologists need to take better ownership of our brand. The complexity of anthropological concepts such as “culture,” “power” and the “global” should not dissuade anthropologists from engaging in meaningful public discourse.

A couple of days ago, Savage Minds tackled the Orlando Sentinel guest column, saying our problem with our field is not just due to how we sell or brand ourselves, but in actuality how we conduct our work.

And last week, in the AAA blog post Anthropology News continued this discussion. Jennifer Long wrote, “Anthropology’s Response to Finding Jobs for Its Undergraduates.” Her approach general cites that anthropology is rather incestuous. Often those interested in anthropology gain positions within universities as researchers, which creates a bubble. She advocates for an experiential approach, to branch out and apply our field elsewhere… Much like Robin Nagle, an anthropologist-in-residence at the New York City Department of Sanitation. Robin has recently written about trash and how our lives revolved around it. The book is titled, “Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City,” and Collector’s Weekly interviewed her about it and the NY Times covered a book review about it.

With all this discussion about what’s wrong with anthropology, I want to turn to you, the readers and hear what you think is wrong with the field. Please feel free to comment and let us know what you find issue with the field — is it a branding problem; is it a problem with branching out and how we work?


Chactún – A Newly Discovered Mayan City


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Last FridayIvan Sprajc led a group of researchers to a site in Campeche, a province in the western Yucatán peninsula, that he initially identified via stereoscopic aerial photographs. He and his group found the ruins of an enormous 54 acre (22 hectares) city, full of artifacts.

Archaeologist Ivan Sprajc led an international team of experts to study the Maya site. CREDIT: National Institute of Anthropology and History

Archaeologist Ivan Sprajc led an international team of experts to study the Maya site.
CREDIT: National Institute of Anthropology and History

The city is named Chactún. Chactún was occupied during the Late Classic Maya period, which spans roughly A.D. 600 until A.D. 900. Some interesting finds include three monumental complexes with the remains of pyramids — one 75 feet (23 meters) high. In addition, they’ve identified ball courts, plazas, homes, altars, bits of painted stucco and stone slabs known as stele. One stele refers to an apparent ruler named K’inich B’ahlam.

This image is from the southeast complex at the newfound Maya city called Chactún. CREDIT: National Institute of Anthropology and History

This image is from the southeast complex at the newfound Maya city called Chactún.
CREDIT: National Institute of Anthropology and History

Unlike other large Mayan cities, Chactún has never been studied by archaeologists before. I’m eager to see what comes from this city, and what insights it provides. Other interesting methods to find archaeological sites have been used in the past, which I’ve written about here, here and here.

A 120,000 Year Old Neandertal from Krapina who had Fibrous Dysplasia


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The internets are buzzing about the news of the earliest known bone tumor on record, predating others by more than 100,000 years. The tumor has been found on the left rib of a 120,000 year old Neandertal from Krapina, Croatia. The original paper is published under the title, “Fibrous Dysplasia in a 120,000+ Year Old Neandertal from Krapina, Croatia” in the journal PLoS ONE.

In the world of pathology, there are many terms to describe growth such as metaplasia, hypertrophy, neoplasia, hyperplasia and dysplasia. Dysplasia defines abnormal growth where cell differentiation is delayed. If a cell is committed to of one of the three germ lines, say ectodermal, a dysplastic cell of that lineage would then remain a ectodermal precursor and not differentiate into the nervous tissue or skin appendage it was programmed to become.

Bone is composed of two types of tissue, compact and trabecular. Compact bone is the dense, outside structure while trabecular or spongy bone is the fibrous layer that you often do not see. Fibrous dysplasia, therefore refers to the abnormal maturation of trabecular bone. Fibrous dysplasia is a benign, non-hereditary process. It was first described in the 1942 by Lichtenstein and Jaffe. The disease process may be localized to a single bone (monostotic) or multiple bones (polyostotic). Up to 80% of cases are monostotic.

Polyostotic fibrous dysplasia can occur as a part of McCune-Albright syndrome. McCune-Albright Syndrome often affects unilateral bones with ipsilateral café-au-lait spots on the skin, and endocrine disturbances such as precocious puberty. Fibrous dysplasia has also been reported in association with other endocrine dysfunctions such as hyperthyroidism, hyperparathyroidism, acromegaly, diabetes mellitus, and Cushing syndrome as well as an associated abnormality in Neurofibromatosis type II. Malignant transformation of fibrous dysplasia is very infrequent, with reported prevalences ranging from 0.4% to 4%.

We know that fibrous dysplasia is caused by a somatic mutation in the GNAS1 gene on chromosome 20q13.2-13.3. GNAS1 encodes the alpha subunit of the stimulatory G protein, Gsα. As a consequence of this mutation, there is a substitution of amino acid arginine in position 201 of the genomic DNA in the osteoblastic cells, by amino acid cysteine (R201C) or histidine (R201H). The abnormal G1 protein stimulates cAMP. Furthermore, proto-oncogene levels of C-fos and periostin are raised in fibrous dysplasia. Consequently, the osteoblasts expressing this mutation have a higher rate of DNA synthesis, leading to the formation of a disorganized fibrotic bone matrix with primitive bone formation, and lack of maturation to lamellar bone.

Figure 1. Krapina 120.71 in a caudal view (a). The large lesion is located above the tubercular facet and extends laterally. The trabeculae have been destroyed and the cortex appears expansive. The thin cortical bone forming the superior surface of the cavern was broken away postmortem. (b) Krapina 120.6 shows the normal pattern of bony trabeculae in the medullary space. The surface irregularities are post-mortem. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064539.g001

Figure 1. Krapina 120.71 in a caudal view (a).
The large lesion is located above the tubercular facet and extends laterally. The trabeculae have been destroyed and the cortex appears expansive. The thin cortical bone forming the superior surface of the cavern was broken away postmortem. (b) Krapina 120.6 shows the normal pattern of bony trabeculae in the medullary space. The surface irregularities are post-mortem.

The specimen is Krapina 120.71, a 3 cm long, left rib fragment containing about 2/3rds of the neck, most of the tubercular facet and a small section of the shaft. It is thought to be rib 3-6. It was first unearthed between 1899 and 1905 in a cave known as the Krapina rock shelter in Croatia. This site held more than 900 Neandertal bones dating back 120,000 to 130,000 years ago. Many of the bones display signs of trauma, and a few show post-mortem cutting marks, perhaps indicating cannibalism or some sort of ritual reburial.

In the 1980s, University of Pennsylvania researchers X-rayed the entire collection. They published a book in 1999 showing each radiograph. Most of those X-rays were quite high-quality, but one exception was found in a little rib fragment which appeared “burned out.” That prompted the authors to return to the specimen. They adequately describe an osteolytic abnormality and offer differentials of chondroma, post-traumatic lesion and chronic osteomyelitis, but remain confident with their radiographic diagnosis of fibrous dysplasia via microCT scanning.

Bone lesions in the fossil and archaeological record are extremely rare for several reasons. Without adjacent soft tissue, it is hard to compare normal to abnormal. Furthermore, the decomposition process alters bone dramatically. Previously, the oldest known tumors came from Egyptian mummies and dated back only 4,000 years or so and a 1,600-year-old tumor containing teeth was found in the pelvis of an ancient Roman corpse. So to find a 120,000 year old Neandertal with a osteolytic lesion in the rib is significant.

What I find wrong with this publication is the spin; too often in our world of paleoanthropology do I see issue with people trying to put a particular bend to sell their otherwise interesting story as a sensational headliner. The press is running quotes from the senior author like,

“… indicates that Neanderthals were susceptible to the same types of tumors modern-day humans get, despite living in a remarkably different environment.

‘They didn’t have pesticides, but they probably were sleeping in caves with burning fires,’ says David Frayer, an anthropologist at the University of Kansas and the co-author…”

The problem with the above quotes stem from the conclusion,

“Finally, it is recognized that environmental changes wrought by humans, compounded by population expansion, have resulted in an increase the types and the intensification of the pollutants within the environment, many of which are directly associated with neoplastic disease and were not part of environments in the past [35]. Given these factors, most argue that cases of neoplastic bone disease are rare in prehistoric human populations [27]–[28]. It is against this background that the identification of a 120,000+ year old Neandertal with a primary osteolytic lesion is surprising and one that provides insights into the nature and history of the association of humans to neoplastic disease.”

Putting an emphasis that Neandertals lived in “cleaner” environments and still had susceptibility to the same types tumors is extremely short-sighted. There are most definitely some tumors with strong associations to environmental mutagens, such as tobacco consumption with mouth, throat and lung cancer or asbestos with mesotheliomas… To which I’d venture a hefty bet that Neandertals were not suffering from as much as modern humans are. So to use words like same types of tumors, or phrases like, “lived their lives basically the same way we did and basically with the same problems that we have,” is a stretch.

As explained earlier, fibrous dysplasia is caused a somatic mutation of the GNAS1 gene. Somatic mutations are acquired before birth, in utero, early in fetal development where DNA replication occurs at a rapid rate and errors can be made all throughout. The authors fundamentally neglect a discussion that most mutations are inherent problems in DNA replication, repair, tautomerism, depurination, deamination, and slipped strand mispairing.  A one-sided discussion that one benign bone lesion in one individual is indicative that prehistoric humans contracted the same cancers we do, despite environment, and had the same problems we have is incomplete.

Can we agree to just focus on the science and not extrapolate a faulted connection?


Monge, J., Kricun, M., Radovčić, J., Radovčić, D., Mann, A., & Frayer, D. (2013). Fibrous Dysplasia in a 120,000+ Year Old Neandertal from Krapina, Croatia PLoS ONE, 8 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064539

The BH-1 Hominin from Balanica (Serbia)

Last week, PLoS One published a paper re-dating the BH-1 specimen from Balanica. The new dates are 397 and 525 ka. The new dates are at least 280,000 years older than the previously published study. At this time, Neandertal traits were distinct in Europe.

BH-1 Hominin Mandible Fragment

BH-1 Hominin Mandible Fragment

But the mandible fragment features a primitive prominent planum alveolare, and a thick mandibular corpus. The exomolar sulcus is wide. A flat rather than concave sublingual fossa is present. And there is poor definition of the submandibular fossa. Given the size of the mandibular body, and that the dentition is relatively small; there is a complete lack of derived Neandertal features. Ultimately, this specimen fits well with Middle Pleistocene European archaic Homo specimens like Kocabaş, Vasogliano and Ceprano.

With the dates pushed back via electron spin resonance combined with uranium series isotopic analysis and infrared/post-infrared luminescence dating, the authors aim to further their claim that this niche area of the Balkans offered refuge. Unlike their counterparts, these humans in southeastern Europe were never geographically segregated from Asia and Africa by the glaciations that isolated and ultimately speciated other European humans.

Rink, W., Mercier, N., Mihailović, D., Morley, M., Thompson, J., & Roksandic, M. (2013). New Radiometric Ages for the BH-1 Hominin from Balanica (Serbia): Implications for Understanding the Role of the Balkans in Middle Pleistocene Human Evolution PLoS ONE, 8 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054608

Anthropologists Are Lowest Paid & Least Respected Scientists In the United States

Ann Gibbons has a piece in today’s Science where she writes of the troubles the field faces,

“In the fall of 2011, Florida Governor Rick Scott proclaimed that his state didn’t need any more anthropologists, and that public money would be better spent educating scientists. Then in January, a study found that the unemployment rate among recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees in anthropology and archaeology was 10.5%, surpassed by few other majors, and that anthropology majors who did get jobs were also among the lowest paid. It’s been a tough year for anthropology, but don’t count out this field: Most said the bad press wasn’t fair, noting that the situation is very different for bachelor’s degree– and advanced degree–holders.”

I do not have access to the full text, unfortunately. I can tell, though, that the study cited in the abstract only focuses on undergraduates. So there is a bias in her report, just as she writes in the last sentence. Without a doubt, those with graduate degrees have better opportunities.

What I do understand from my experience is that I was offered outrageously low salaries upon graduating with my Bachelor’s in Anthropology. My life was unsustainable. For that reason, I focused my Master’s in Biology, as my prospects in that field offered more financial stability.

Furthermore, anthropology is also plagued by misunderstandings. Scientists and non-scientists often do not know what anthropology is and what the can be gained from this field. I believe this is one of the reasons why the field is not adequately compensated.

I will leave this thread open for discussion by you, the readers, on what you think can be done to increase the financial return and improving the perception of the field.

Gibbons, A. (2012). An Annus Horribilis for Anthropology? Science, 338 (6114), 1520-1520 DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6114.1520

There’s Always Next Year…


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Thanks to the Maya Long Count calendar, the year 2012 has become something of a pop culture phenomenon.  You’ve probably seen plenty of TV, movie, and internet references to the upcoming “end of the world” on December 21st or December 23rd (it depends).  It’s a real bummer because the hope of “next year” is the only thing that has sustained me as a lifelong Seattle sports fan; once the Mariners win a World Series, then the world can end!

But, seriously, Maya scholars are not worried about 2012 being Earth’s last year.  I’m neither a Maya scholar nor Maya descendant, so most of what I know about Maya calculations of time comes from popular sources like books, magazines, and documentaries.  In other words, despite being an anthropologist, I make no claims of being a Maya expert.

Here’s what I’ve learned: The Ancient Maya constructed elaborate calendars to mark the passage of time – everything from the length of a human pregnancy to the age of the universe.  Time was extremely important in Maya daily life and cosmology (the November/December issue of Archaeology Magazine – and final issue if the world does end this year – has a great summary of Maya calendars).  The Long Count calendar counts the number of days since the mythological date of Maya creation, and includes 1,872,000-day cycles called bak’tuns.  There are few known glyphs covering the 13th (current) bak’tun, but it is calculated to end on December 21st (or 23rd), 2012.

Obviously, most of us aren’t fearful about units of time coming to an end.  For example, seasons, decades, and centuries all end and new ones begin, usually without mass hysteria (Y2K was one recent exception).  It’s important to remember that the Long Count calendar marks the passage of time from a mythological date of creation.  This date is ritually significant, but we now know that time didn’t actually begin on August 11, 3114 BC (Maya date), October 23, 4004 BC (Ussher date), or any other date based on religious speculation.  Therefore, as Stephen Jay Gould wrote about Millennium panic in the year 2000, 2012 is an observance of a “precisely arbitrary countdown.”  Most of the end-of-the-world stuff comes from outside of the Maya world.  A recent AP article noted: “Such apocalyptic visions have been common for more than 1,000 years in Western, Christian thinking, and are not native to Maya thought.”

Modern Maya are excited about this year’s potential to spur interest in ancient Mesoamerica and archaeological tourism.  Guatemala has a great Bak’tun Route ad campaign which focuses on 2012 as a beginning, not an end.  Modern Guatemalan Maya communities still have “Daykeepers” who keep track of time: “’The world is going to die on December 23rd,’ says Christenson [Brigham Young University anthropologist], explaining that the Maya believe the world dies each day when the sun sets, or when crops are harvested.  ‘The world is constantly dying,’ he says, ‘and the role of the Daykeeper is to make sure they get things going again.’”

So, despite the end of the 13th bak’tun, I still have time to learn more about ancient Mesoamerica and, hopefully, enough time to see my Mariners win a World Series.  There’s always next year…

- Jay Fancher.  Originally posted at


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