Skeletons in the Closet



Skeletons in the Closet

Photographer Klaus Pichler spent three years photographing the depots, cellars, and storage rooms of various museum departments for his Skeletons in the Closet series, giving us a behind the scenes views of the Museum of Natural History in Vienna and captured the exhibits while they aren’t on display. I particularly like this one.

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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

The Diversity of the African Genome & Traces of an Unknown Hominin


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The most comprehensive look at the genome of Africans is published in the journal Cell today. The paper titled, “Evolutionary History and Adaptation from High-Coverage Whole-Genome Sequences of Diverse African Hunter-Gatherers,” focused on three hunter-gatherer populations; Pygmies from Cameroon and two groups from Tanzania, the Khoesan-speaking Hadza and Sandawe. The publication covered each of the genomes of five individuals from these groups over 60 times. The paper ultimately outlines some interesting findings, such as a new understanding on the extent of genetic diversity, and mysterious admixture.

We already have known that genetic diversity of people in Africa is greater than anywhere else on Earth. This knowledge plays into the concept of the the founder effect), where as we sample populations out of Africa, along the paths of migration of early Homo sapiens, we find that human populations tend to become more and more genetically similar the farther from the continent we go.

But just how diverse are some of the oldest living populations within Africa?

The authors discovered over 3.4 million genetic variants, or SNPs, of which a staggering 5-million of these variants are novel to us. Some of the loci give insight into adaptive changes in immunity, metabolism, olfactory and taste perception, reproduction, and wound healing. Interestingly, the Pygmy population, has multiple highly differentiated loci on genes on chromosome 3 which function in growth and anterior pituitary function and are associated with height.

We sequenced the whole genomes of five individuals in each of three different hunter-gatherer populations at >60× coverage and identify 13.4 million variants, substantially increasing the set of known human variation. We found evidence of archaic introgression in all three populations, and the distribution of time to most recent common ancestors from these regions is similar to that observed for introgressed regions in Europeans.

Of particular interest is that some of these SNPs aren’t found in any modern-day populations. This leads to the question if they originated due to ancient interbreeding between H. sapiens and an as-yet unidentified species of hominid. Lead author, Joseph Lachance, remarked how outstanding this is. Co-author Joshua Akey supports with,

Fossils degrade fast in Africa so we don’t have a reference genome for this ancestral lineage… one of the things we’re thinking is it could have been a sibling species to Neanderthals.

In the paper, the authors outline the great lengths they’ve taken show that the genetic traces resemble neither human nor Neanderthal DNA, and additionally document that none of the sequences taken from outside of Africa show any evidence of the foreign SNPs. All of which, has sparked Richard Klein to state that this conclusion to be as “irresponsible” particularly because there is no fossil evidence to support this mysterious sibling species.

Joseph Lachance, Benjamin Vernot, Clara C. Elbers, Bart Ferwerda, Alain Froment, Jean-Marie Bodo, Godfrey Lema, Wenqing Fu, Thomas B. Nyambo, Timothy R. Rebbeck, Kun Zhang, Joshua M. Akey, & Sarah A. Tishkoff (2012). Evolutionary History and Adaptation from High-Coverage Whole-Genome Sequences of Diverse African Hunter-Gatherers Cell : 10.1016/j.cell.2012.07.009

Moving The Moai


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The Cover of National Geographic Magazine for July 2012

The July 2012 edition of the National Geographic magazine features a cover story on Easter Island’s statues and how these enormous 33 feet tall and 80 ton statues or moai came to existence. Just how the moai were constructed, transported and erected on Easter Island remains a mystery, one leading to a lot of speculation.

To my count, there have been five or so earlier theories on just how the moai were moved. In 1955, Norwegian ethnographer Thor Heyerdahl lead an experiment on Rapa Nui where he and 180 men tried to erect a 13 foot, 10 ton moai on a tree trunk and drag it. A Rapa Nui onlooker informed him how, “totally wrong,” he was.  He published two large volumes of scientific reports titled Reports of the Norwegian Archaeological Expedition to Easter Island and the East Pacific and later Heyerdahl added a third to the collection, The Art of Easter Island.

William Mulloy, an American anthropologist, theorized in 1970 the erection of the maoi using a desktop model. He thought he could swing the moai forward in steps while hanging the statue by the neck from an inverted wooden V structure. A photo of his model in deployment can be found on the Wikipedia page outlining his time on Rapa Nui. Sixteen years later, in 1986, Czech engineer Pavel Pavel along with Heyerdahl and 17 assistants walked on of the real 13 foot, 9 ton moai by using a twisting motion, and not a rocking motion. In doing so, they damaged the base, but the Wikipedia page on his efforts indicate success.

Within a year of Pavel’s trials, archaeologist Charles Love showed much more success. He and a team of 25 people stood up a replica 13 foot, 9 ton on a wooden sledge and then hauled it on rollers. In two short minutes they moved the replica 148 feet. Another American archaeologist, Jo anne Van Tilburg, gave it a shot in 1998. She and her team of 40 volunteers laid a 13 foot, 10 ton replica also on a wooden sledge. They were able to move the statue 230 feet, using a Polynesian wood ladder.

In the cover story, If They Could Only Talk, archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo bring up a new theory one that is potentially plausible; three small groups of people balanced the statues on its base and transported it by guiding and waddling it along with ropes.

© Photo by Sheela Sharma
Three teams, one on each side and one in the back, manage to maneuver an Easter Island statue replica down a road in Hawaii, hinting that prehistoric farmers who didn’t have the wheel may have transported these statues in this manner. The experiment was led by archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo and is reported in the July 2012 issue of National Geographic magazine.

The video below shows just how they do it:

The article also offers up a larger context and reinterpretation of the Easter Islanders, one which describes them as adaptable and sustainable,

“…based on their own archaeological survey of the island, they think its population grew rapidly after settlement to around 3,000 and then remained more or less stable until the arrival of Europeans.

Cleared fields were more valuable to the Rapanui than palm forests were. But they were wind-lashed, infertile fields watered by erratic rains. Easter Island was a tough place to make a living. It required heroic efforts. In farming, as in moai moving, the islanders shifted monumental amounts of rock—but into their fields, not out. They built thousands of circular stone windbreaks, called manavai, and gardened inside them. They mulched whole fields with broken volcanic rocks to keep the soil moist and fertilized it with nutrients that the volcanoes were no longer spreading.”

Additionally, Hunt & Lipo describe how the Rapanui people were the victims of genocide, decimated by disease introduced by Western explorers and 19th century slave trading, an idea that resonates with many other indigenous populations. Both ideas are at odds with the prevalent idea that the Rapa Nui people are one of the prime examples of ecocide, by exploiting their environment to the point of no return, as explained by Hunt himself in 2005 and supplemented by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and his later work, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.

These new ideas are thought-provoking and will fuel the discussion for years to come. If you would like to read more, be sure to pick up a copy of the article or check it out online. There is also an iPad app where you can read the paper and interact with multimedia features.

Google Supports The Endangered Languages Project


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On this site, we’ve covered endangered languages before, and in doing so we discussed the challenges faced in trying to preserve these priceless forms of cultural heritage and expression. It is a daunting task. I am happy to announce that Google has decided to help out the cause by funding and launching the Endangered Languages Project.

Screenshot of the Endangered Languages Project website

Screenshot of the Endangered Languages Project website

The Endangered Languages Project will act as a hub for interested groups and people to collaborate on research with the aim at documenting & preserving over 3,000 languages that are under threat of being lost to time. Google writes that the site will host resources to help keep some of those alive, such as high-quality recordings of people speaking the languages, copies of historical manuscripts, e-learning options, and even niche-language social networking opportunities, in addition to research and other documentation. They also write about long-term goals,

“…for true experts in the field of language preservation to take the lead. As such, in a few months we’ll officially be handing over the reins to the First Peoples’ Cultural Council (FPCC) and The Institute for Language Information and Technology(The LINGUIST List) at Eastern Michigan University. FPCC will take on the role of Advisory Committee Chair, leading outreach and strategy for the project. The LINGUIST List will become the Technical Lead. Both organizations will work in coordination with the Advisory Committee.”

Again, I am happy to see this initiative deployed. But I will hold with bated breath if this will truly benefit collaboration between linguistic academics or this is just a bit of nice PR like last year, when Google added Cherokee to its list of languages supported in search, though that option doesn’t seem to exist anymore. You can learn more about the project by watching this promotional video:

Were Paleolithic European Cave Paintings Made By Neanderthals?


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A new paper in the journal Science questions if it were Neanderthals or humans who created the oldest known artworks found in the caves of Europe. The lead author is Alistair W.G. Pike who worked with Joao Zilhao and nine other authors on this study.

Alistair W.G. Pike taking speleothems samples from a cave site in Spain for uranium-thorium (U-Th) dating.

The authors addressed this question in, “U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain,” by not dating the material of the painting themselves, but rather through dating mineral deposits known as speleothems (commonly known as stalagmites and stalactites, which can also be solid sheets of rock) that are found directly adjacent to the material. They analyzed the speleothems for the uranium to thorium ratios of over 50 pieces of cave art from 11 caves throughout Spain, of which three results were particularly intriguing.

The study relies on the concept that mineral forming rock flows over the walls of the caves covered in paleolithic art work. In doing so, it forms a sort of time capsule, meaning that anything encased within the flowstone is older than the flowstone itself. By comparing the ratio of atoms in the minerals deposited nearest the cave wall, the team was able to calculate the lower limit on the age of the art that lies just beneath.

U-Th ratios indicate that the red disk was made at least 40,800 years ago and the hand stencils were made 37,300 years ago.

The results show that cave art began in the Early Aurignacian period, at about 40,800 years ago for a red disk and 37,300 years ago for the hand stencil which is pictured above and 35,600 years for the claviform-like symbol pictured blow.

U:Th ratios indicate this calviform symbol was made at least 35,600 years ago.

If the earliest cave paintings appeared at around or before 40,800 years ago, then this the cave art coincides with the arrival of modern humans in western Europe which is thought to be 41,500 years ago. But since 40,800 is a minimum age for the earliest cave paintings, it cannot be ruled out that the cave paintings are works of Neanderthals who we know were in Spain at least 42,000 years ago… To know for sure we need samples dating older than 42, 43, 44,000 years ago.

Pike, A., Hoffmann, D., Garcia-Diez, M., Pettitt, P., Alcolea, J., De Balbin, R., Gonzalez-Sainz, C., de las Heras, C., Lasheras, J., Montes, R., & Zilhao, J. (2012). U-Series Dating of Paleolithic Art in 11 Caves in Spain Science, 336 (6087), 1409-1413 DOI: 10.1126/science.1219957

The Role Of Endorphins In Long Distance Human Endurance & Evolution


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One of the unique physical attributes of humans is the ability to travel for long distances. Special populations outline this ability, such as the high landers of Kenya and Ethiopia, who can out run about 90% of the rest of the humanity. This observation has lead many a discussion over the role nature versus nurture of this phenomenon.

Long-distance runners train in the high-altitude village of Iten, Kenya

Evelyn Hockstein for Long-distance runners train in the high-altitude village of Iten, Kenya.

So just what is it that rewards us to exercise — Why do we get that “runner’s high” after a long work out? A recently published paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology, lead by anthropologist David A. Raichlen, investigated the blood of humans, dogs and ferrets before and after 30 minutes of exercise. It was observed that an endocannabinoid, or endorphin, named anandamide spiked in humans and dogs, but not in ferrets.

Among the many roles of the anandamide neurotransmitter, the role of it in neural generation of motivation and pleasure in particularly important. In previous studies, anandamide injected directly into the forebrain reward-related brain structure nucleus accumbens enhanced the pleasurable responses of rats. Raichlen writes,

“These results suggest that natural selection may have been motivating higher rather than low-intensity activities in groups of mammals that evolved to engage in these types of aerobic activities.”

A co-author, Greg Gerdeman, adds,

“The experimental results prove that “anandamide-inspired motivation to run was the evolution of an ‘endurance athlete phenotype’ that played a major role in the survival and reproductive success of our Homo sapiens ancestors…”

Raichlen, D., Foster, A., Gerdeman, G., Seillier, A., & Giuffrida, A. (2012). Wired to run: exercise-induced endocannabinoid signaling in humans and cursorial mammals with implications for the ‘runner’s high’ Journal of Experimental Biology, 215 (8), 1331-1336 DOI: 10.1242/jeb.063677

The Uphill Climb of Time for the Yupno of Papua New Guinea


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For many of us, the concept of time is linear. Whether French or Iraqi, the past is referred as behind oneself; the future as the far out expanse ahead. The metaphor seemed to stay constant and the embodied cognition of time was once thought to be universal. We now understand it to be strictly cultural.

This shift in paradigm was brought about in 2006, when researchers studying the Aymara of the Andes, reported of their unique concept of time in the journal Cognitive Science. The past is known and has been seen, and thus lies in front. The future remains unknown and unseen, and is relinquished to be behind the ego. This remains one opposing understanding of time to what we thought as the de facto standard.

To supplement the above, a 2010 paper in the journal Cognition aimed at understanding time among Mandarin speakers. The results were fascinating. Mandarin speakers set the context time differently from people speaking Western languages. In fact, the past is referred as above the speaker. And the future referred to as below the speaker.

A similar paper was published also in 2010, in the journal Psychological Science. An aboriginal group, the Pormpuraawans of Australia also refer to time differently. These people leave references of oneself out of the context of time. Regardless of the directionality of the speaker, time always flows from east or the past to west or the future.

These three recent examples nix the assumption that time is envisioned the same way by all people, a form of cultural relativism in itself. Another unique example was recently published in the journal Cognition by the same authors who studied the Aymara. Rafael Núñez of UCSD and two other colleagues documented the concept of time for the Yupno peoples of Papua New Guinea. The Yupno have had limited contact to outsiders.

The Yupno refer to time not based upon cardinal directions or relative locations. Rather, time is a topographical concept, time winds its way up and downhill. Analyzing films captured of 27 interviewed speakers of the villagers of Gua, the team observed that gestures liked pointing downhill referred to the past, towards the mouth of the local river. The future, meanwhile, was described as pointing upwards towards the river’s source, which lies uphill from Gua.

Yupno River Timeline

The topography of the Upper Yupno valley surrounding the village of Gua. (A) Shows the approximate directions of the source and mouth of the Yupno river. (B) Shows a detail of the Gua area with mean pointing directions for past- and future-category gestures produced outdoors, including 95% confidence cones (based on 1000 parametric bootstrap estimates). The past points downhill through the elevation lines towards the mouth of the river

Núñez and team believe that this understanding is based upon their collective history as a group. The Yupno’s ancestors arrived by sea to their corner of eastern Papua New Guinea and climbed up the 2500m mountain valley. So to them, the lowlands may represent the past, and time flows like how they climbed uphill to their high valley homes.

Yupno Yesterday & Tomorrow

Future is uphill; past is downhill. A participant outdoors produces a backward gesture associated with the Yupno word for “yesterday” when facing uphill (A) and a frontward gesture when facing downhill (B). He produces contrasting, upward gestures associated with “tomorrow” (C, D).

Within their homes, the Yupno point towards the doorway when talking about the past, and away from the door to represent the future, regardless of the orientation of the home. Núñez says that entrances are always raised, one has to have to climb down – towards the past – to leave the house, so each home has its own timeline. The most remarkable aspect of the Yupno timeline metaphor is its shape. The river that supplies the context to the villagers of Gua does not rest a straight line, but instead the timeline is kinked.

You can read more about their study at this press release.

Núñez, R., & Sweetser, E. (2006). With the Future Behind Them: Convergent Evidence From Aymara Language and Gesture in the Crosslinguistic Comparison of Spatial Construals of Time Cognitive Science, 30 (3), 401-450 DOI: 10.1207/s15516709cog0000_62

Boroditsky, L., Fuhrman, O., & McCormick, K. (2011). Do English and Mandarin speakers think about time differently? Cognition, 118 (1), 123-129 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2010.09.010

Boroditsky, L., & Gaby, A. (2010). Remembrances of Times East: Absolute Spatial Representations of Time in an Australian Aboriginal Community Psychological Science, 21 (11), 1635-1639 DOI: 10.1177/0956797610386621

Núñez, R., Cooperrider, K., Doan, D., & Wassmann, J. (2012). Contours of time: Topographic construals of past, present, and future in the Yupno valley of Papua New Guinea Cognition, 124 (1), 25-35 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2012.03.007

Neolithic Class Divisions of Central Europe


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This week PNAS published evidence of social stratification and hereditary inequality from over 7,000 years ago in Central Europe. Lead author, R. Alexander Bentley and team took strontium 86/87 isotope ratios of the enamel of teeth of over 300 early Neolithic humans from seven different sites (Aiterhofen, Ensisheim, Kleinhadersdorf, Nitra, Souffelweyersheim, Schwetzingen, and Vedrovice). The ratio of strontium isotopes are a geological signature of the location where an individual was raised.

The researchers found less variance in the strontium ratios among males than we find among females, indicating females moved around more than males. This is not a surprising find, as many cultures often “ship off” females. We even have an anthropological term for it, patrilocality. However for people from 5,5000 BCE, this sheds some light into division of labor and gender roles.

An adze unearthed at the site. (Dr. Britta Ramminger)

An adze unearthed at the site. (Dr. Britta Ramminger)

One fascinating result is there was less variance  noted among male who were buried with their stone adzes than burials of men without such adzes. Furthermore, those buried with adzes had more isotopes associated with fertile loess — a type of sediment that often yields high agricultural return. This means that those men with the tools stayed and cultivated their lands.

This data provides some of the earliest prehistorical archaeological evidence to infer community differentiation and kinship, two cultural concepts… Where women moved for marriage, and families of men stayed in the same place, retaining access to, and inheriting, the same lands. Neolithic peoples of Central Europe were maintaining the wealth and land of their forefathers, and it shows it was happening long before lavish burials for wealthy people made it obvious.

Bentley, R., Bickle, P., Fibiger, L., Nowell, G., Dale, C., Hedges, R., Hamilton, J., Wahl, J., Francken, M., Grupe, G., Lenneis, E., Teschler-Nicola, M., Arbogast, R., Hofmann, D., & Whittle, A. (2012). Community differentiation and kinship among Europe‘s first farmers Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1113710109


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