Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Four Stone Hearth 87 is live

Editon #87 ("Cabin Fever Edition"!) of the Four Stone Hearth anthropology blog carnival is up at Anthropology in Practice. Krystal did a bang-up job of it, so don't waste another instant and go check it out for the latest, freshest and neatest in anthro/archaeo blogging!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Winter and the life archaeological, part III

What is it about archaeologists and blogging pictures of their excavations in the snow?!

First, me, then an anonymous correspondent from Pittsburgh, and now Martin at Aardvarchaeology! Must be some kind of pathology you develop in grad school, or something...

Relics fail!

This exchange between William of Baskerville and Adso of Melk, in The Name of the Rose seems pretty timely...

“Some time ago, in the Cathedral of Cologne, I saw the skull of John the Baptist at the age of twelve”

“Really?” I exclaimed, amazed. Then, seized by doubt, I added, “But the Baptist was executed at a more advanced age!”

“The other skull must be in another treasury,” William said, with a grave face.

I say timely because last week, a study reporting the results of genetic and radiocarbon assays on the putative skulls of St. Bridget (of Sweden) and her daughter Catherine was published (Nilsson et al. 2010). And, lo and behold, it turns out that the skulls apparently belong to unrelated female individuals. And because the genetic tests indicated that the two skulls displayed different degrees of DNA degradation, which ResearchBlogging.orgsuggested that they might be of significantly, radiocarbon dates were also obtained for them: the skull thought to be the saintly relic yielded a calibrated age of 1215–1270 AD, while the one thought to be the saintly daughter rung in at 1470–1670 AD. Since St. Bridget lived from 1303-1373, these dates essentially confirm that the skulls held at Vadstena Abbey are not those of the saints.

It's always better to have mutually reinforcing lines of evidence when trying to answer an archaeological question. This is an elegant demonstration of why. At first glance, it may appear that simply dating the skulls would have been sufficient to demonstrate that they did not belong to who they were claimed to belong to, but then again, issues of contamination could have been raised, so the results of both the genetic and the radiocarbon analyses complement one another nicely in this case.

I've always wondered why relics exert such fascination on believers, especially when the vast majority of them is unlikely to be real, as succinctly encapsulated by another great quote about relics from The Name of the Rose:"... don't succumb too much to the spell of these cases. I have seen many other fragments of the cross, in other churches. If all were genuine, our Lord's torment could not have been on a couple of planks nailed together, but on an entire forest." As concerns specifically human remains used as relics, I've always wondered how some of the more observant faithful would feel about knowing that the similar practices of ritualized handling of bits of dead people have considerable antiquity stretching all the way back to the Pleistocene. As I summarized in a previous post, there's some suggestive evidence that at least as far back as the Middle Stone Age, in distinctly non-Christian contexts, people handled both human teeth and crania in a likely ritual manner.


Nilsson, M., Possnert, G., Edlund, H., Budowle, B., Kjellström, A., & Allen, M. (2010). Analysis of the Putative Remains of a European Patron Saint–St. Birgitta PLoS ONE, 5 (2) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008986

Friday, February 19, 2010

2010 Paleoanthropology Society preliminary program

The preliminary program of the 2010 annual meeting of the Paleoanthropology Society (which will take place in St. Louis on April 13-14, 2010, just prior to the Society for American Archaeology's 75th annual meeting) is now up on their web site. Looks like it'll be a good one, with lots of Paleolithic archaeology presentations, as is usual when the Paleo's are held in conjunction with the SAAs.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Winter and the life archaeological, redux

Last year, I posted a wintertime picture showing a tell-tale sign that an archaeologist might be living close to you in a city that receives regular snowfall. Well, it's been snowing lightly for two days in Denver, but it's nothing compared to the recent Snowmaggedon (a worse name I could not come up with even if I tried) in the eastern US. However, I've received a 'life archaeological' dispatch from one of my partners in crime currently stranded near Pittsburgh, that comprised the following picture and caption:

"It's hard to tell, but that's a perfect 1m trench with a beautiful profile
that I dug. No lithics though. Just snow."

It's reassuring to know it's not just me, sometimes!

Creationism, Sopranos-style

I love The Sopranos. Not only did the show feature great acting and compelling storylines, it also is riddled with seemingly pointless lines that actually capture the essence of some current societal tensions. To wit, this exchange between Tony and Christopher that neatly encapsulates the creationist world view (from the episode "The Fleshy Part of the Thigh").

Tony: "Get this... It says here that if the history of the planet was represented by the Empire State Building, the time that human beings have been on earth would only be a postage stamp at the very top. You realize how insignificant that makes us?"

Chris (pauses for a sec and then): "I don't feel that way."

There you have it!

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Denver beat

I've already talked about some of the stuff I love about Denver. Having now had several months to settle in, I have to say that my appreciation just keeps growing. For one thing, there's a lot of interesting archaeological activity going on in the city and the immediate area (including M. Glantz's talk on Neanderthal biogeography this Friday in the UC Denver department of anthropology!). And, while to the south of us Colorado Springs is apparently doing its best to emulate the fine urban model of Bartertown, in Denver the Museum of Nature and Science just received the largest donation in its 109 year long history.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has received the largest donation in its 109-year history, an $8 million gift from the Morgridge Family Foundation for the construction of a new Science Engagement Center on the south side of the Museum building.

The 40,000-square-foot, three-story Science Engagement Center will feature two floors of innovative, high-tech science activity facilities designed for preschool through 8th grade children, as well as their teachers, parents, and other caregivers. The center will provide a dynamic, hands-on learning environment and deliver programs that will have a profound impact on children’s understanding of science. The third floor of the building will contain a large, new temporary exhibition gallery.

“We want to change the way people think about science education here at the Museum,” said George Sparks, the Museum’s president and CEO. “Our goal is to complement what children learn at school by offering the types of memorable experiences they can only have at our great Museum. We want to give these kids the inspiration they need to become lifelong fans of science and learning, and we are grateful to the Morgridge Family Foundation for making a significant contribution to the fulfillment of this vision.”

Fostering an appreciation of science and the natural world from an early age is a noble goal indeed! Just one more reason to appreciate the fine work the DMNS is doing.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Neanderthals news - Feb. 1 edition

Some interesting Neanderthal tidbits in the news today:

  • First, there's a report of the first Neanderthal remains to be found in Poland, indeed in all of Eastern Europe north of the Carpathians Mountains. The remains consist of three teeth thought to date to ca. 100-80,000 BP and found associated with abundant faunal and lithic material. I'll be writing about this report in detail very soon.

  • Second, an analysis of the TAS2R38 gene in the El Sidrón 1253 Neanderthal sample, indicates that Neanderthals, like modern H. sapiens, were able to taste the bitter chemical phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) found in certain green vegetables and some poisonous plants. That the gene could be expressed similarly (thought not always, which is very intriguing) in modern humans and Neanderthals "indicates that variation in bitter taste perception predates the divergence of the lineages leading to Neanderthals and modern humans." The actual study (available free, btw) has been out for a while, but had somehow slipped by my attention, hence its inclusion in today's Neanderthals tidbits.
  • Neanderthal toothpicking - 100,000 year-old evidence from Poland

    There's an interesting newsreport that summarizes a recent paper on the discovery, context and characteristics of three Neanderthal teeth recovered from Stajnia Cave, ResearchBlogging.orgin southern Poland. Urbanowski et al. (2010) suggest that, on the basis of the associated fauna, which comprises mostly reindeer as well as some red deer, horses and ibex, as well as some cut-marked cave bear bones, the most likely age for these remains falls towards the end of Oxygen Isotope Stage 5, somewhere between 80-100,000BP, which doesn't contradict the results of an infinite AMS radiocarbon date of >49,000BP. The report mentions three teeth, all of which are described has displaying a majority of features usually found in Neanderthal teeth, but only one (S5000) is described in detail in the paper. The supplementary evidence provided with the paper on the Naturwissenschaften web page provides solid information on the provenience of the teeth and their association with Micoquian stone tool assemblages.

    This find is significant for a number of reasons, the first being that it represents the first set of hominin remains north of the Carpathians in Eastern Europe. Previously, while many Mousterian assemblages had been found in Poland, no human fossils had been associated with any of them.

    Second, S5000, a permanent upper second molar, shows a degree of abrasion that, when the potentially faster Neanderthal enamel formation rate is factored in, suggests an age at death estimate of ca. 20 years or maybe a tad older for this individual. What DNA they were able to collect from the sample also indicates that the individual was a male, although it was too fragmentary to definitely establish that it similar to other Neanderthal mtDNA patterns.

    Third, S5000 bears a "mesial interproximal groove" similar to that found on many other Neanderthal posterior teeth. The authors report that the morphology of the groove "was probably made by thin, stiff and hard objects used as toothpicks" (Urbanowski et al. 2010: 4). Long-time readers of AVRPI may remember a post I wrote on the discovery of two Neanderthal molars at Pinilla del Valle, Spain that also bore groove indicative of habitual toothpicking. Now, as I argued then, there is strong evidence that toothpicking may go back as far as 1.8 million years BP, based on the presence of a similar groove on the Omo L 894-1 RP3 specimen (Hlusko 2003). Further, and perhaps more interesting with regards to Neanderthals, Agger et al. (2004) pointed out that the reason people toothpick is that the teeth and gum are very sensitive to small irritants that get lodged between them mainly because the nerves critically important to the fine lingual control necessary for speech are located just below them. Thus, evidence of toothpicking in Neanderthals may represent circumstantial evidence of their capacity for speech.

    Beyond this, the study is also interesting in that it briefly mentions the presence of tools and Levallois products made on "high quality flint form the southern part of the Polish Jura" (Urbanowski et al. 2010:2), which is interesting since the cave also apparently yielded "dozens of flint nodules" collected up to 12km away from the cave. This strongly suggests that raw material stockpiling was going on at the site, and that the site was used for prolonged periods of time, as suggested also by the density of artifacts recovered. Likewise, the presence of exotic, high quality raw material reinforces what is known about Neanderthal long-distance lithic raw material procurement patterns at certain sites. Unfortunately, not enough information is presented in the paper to assess the proportional importance of this behavior. Finally, and very intriguingly, the supplementary information to the paper underscores that bone technology might have been important for the occupants of Stajnia Cave, which is rarely associated with Neanderthals.

    "The bone artefacts are now under taphonomical study, which reinforces the preliminary impression about the great importance of bone working in the Stajnia LMP assemblage. Numerous cut-marks have been revealed along with rich traces of reindeer antler processing." Urbanowski et al. 2010: Supp. 6)

    Again, however, this is mentioned, with no additional provided, which forces one to take this with due caution until more thorough analyses are published. That said, both in terms of human paleontology and archaeology, this new site is yielding very important information that, it seems, will be very important in understanding Neanderthals and their behavior at the northern edge of their range.


    Agger, W. A., T. L. McAndrews, and J. A. Hlaudy. 2004. On Toothpicking in Early Hominids. Current Anthropology 45:403-404.

    Hlusko, L. J. 2003. The Oldest Hominid Habit? Experimental Evidence for Toothpicking with Grass Stalks. Current Anthropology 44: 738-741.

    Urbanowski, M., Socha, P., Dąbrowski, P., Nowaczewska, W., Sadakierska-Chudy, A., Dobosz, T., Stefaniak, K., & Nadachowski, A. (2010). The first Neanderthal tooth found North of the Carpathian Mountains Naturwissenschaften DOI: 10.1007/s00114-010-0646-2