Saturday, May 31, 2008

Think Indiana Jones - in a dumpster!

MSNBC has a feature on the "10 worst jobs in science" available online. And lo and behold, an archaeological subfield made the cut:

No. 4: Garbologist

Think Indiana Jones—in a Dumpster

Archaeologists usually pick through ancient garbage. But William Rathje of Stanford University won't wait. Since 1973 the self-termed "garbologist" has sifted through at least 250,000 pounds of refuse to analyze modern consumption patterns and how quickly waste breaks down. He typically drills 15 to 20 "wells" to the bottom of a landfill, some 90 feet deep, and pulls 20 to 30 tons of material from each well, which he and his students then catalog. What he's learned: Dirty diapers make up less than 2 percent of landfills, while paper accounts for 45 percent. Hot dogs can last up to 24 years in a dump, and there is a correlation between cat ownership (litter) and National Enquirer readers (discarded copies). Rathje looks at other trash, too. One project involved scouring garbage cans in Tucson, Arizona, cataloging candy wrappers and used dental floss, toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes to compare survey claims about dental health with reality. The conclusion: There's far more junk out there than ways to get it off your teeth.

It comes in right behind elephant vasectomist, hazmat diver and... oceanographer?!

Friday, May 16, 2008

The Paleolithic of the Middle East

If you're interested in the Paleolithic archaeology of the Middle East and surrounding regions, I'd like to point you towards the web site of a recent conference that addressed specifically that topic. The symposium was entitled "The Lower and Middle Palaeolithic in the Middle East and Neighbouring Regions" and was hosted by the Institute for Prehistory and Archaeological Science of the University of Basel (Switzerland). The program and abstracts are available online and emphasize the range of interesting research that is currently going on in that part of the world.

Hat tip: F. Biglari.

Why I should watch less TV...

By chance, I caught the last segment of last night’s installment of “The Hour” on CBC, where one of the guests was Ben Stein promoting his recent anti-evolution movie Expelled. When I’ve watched it, I’ve generally liked “The Hour” and the irreverent tone struck by its host, George Stroumboulopoulos. But what I saw yesterday was a real let-down, I have to say. There were essentially no substantive questions about anything in the movie and what the basis is for the latest mouture of creationism, so-called intelligent design. Given Stroumboulopoulos’ penchant for pop culture references, I at least expected some pointed questions about how the film illegally used clips of songs by John Lennon and The Killers, but nope, not even that! And, in contrast to the notion that the movie’s been well-received in the US, check out a compilation of reviews of it on Rotten Tomatoes - less than stellar, especially if you compare it to other movies released on the same day, and to other documentaries.

Instead, the interview consisted of softball questions, and really focused on Stein’s status as a minor pop culture reference. This is perhaps not surprising given the show’s generally chummy attitude towards its guests (which is nice, overall, don’t get me wrong), but still. That’s not an absolution from asking questions that actually matter and objectively addressing an ongoing controversy. Anyway, in the few minutes of the interview actually devoted to the film, Stein was allowed to spout off nonsense about how evolutionary theory (what he calls ‘Darwinism’) is directly linked to the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis, how there is ample evidence that everything in the universe is intelligently designed, and how people who espouse this newfangled form of creationism (recognized as such as a result of the Dover trial) have systematically been booted from academic positions because of that belief.

The 4-5 minutes devoted to the film were so dizzyingly choke-full of disinformation and outright lies about evolutionary theory that it’s hard to know where to start. Frankly, I was embarrassed that such a concentrate of lies was allowed to be shown on the English-language version of Canada’s national public broadcaster. To show just how warped Stein’s understanding of science is, let me just us emphasize here that he has recently stated that “science leads to killing people.” Really? Science has nothing good to offer? In contrast, to him, religion just leads to a very glorious place – as we all know, there are no documented instances of religion leading to killing people…

Since the movie isn’t, as far as I know, distributed in Canada (and certainly not in Montréal), let me just point interested readers to the Expelled Exposed website (created by the US National Center for National Education), since it contains a wealth of information that directly address, correct and refute the many, many of the incorrect claims that constitute the backbone of this film. You might also want to watch this video on YouTube to get an idea of the rest of Stein's ideas in this day and age.

Friday, May 09, 2008

This is kinda cool...

Nothing at all to do with anthropology/archaeology, but this is a pretty cool idea: This UK band (The Get Out Clause) was kinda strapped for cash when time came around to make a video for their first single. So what did they do? They stood in front of ca. 80 CCTV cameras located in various public locations around Manchester and played out the song. Then, they requested the footage, using a clause in the Data Information Act that grants people access to such footage, did a few nips, tucks, and cobbles (and apparently interspersed a couple other shots of their own - the stuff that doesn't have id info at the bottom), and voilà, a videoclip. The song itself leaves me neither hot nor cold (well maybe just a bit more hot than cold), but it's a neat idea and an equally neat, if backhanded, commentary about the increasing surveillance our lives are being subjected to. Kind of old news, based on when this was posted to the YouTube, but good stuff nonetheless!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Four Stone Hearth #40 @ Remote Central

The new Four Stone Hearth blog carnival is up now, and you can get to it by clicking here! It's being hosted by Tim Jones at Remote Central, and if the anthro bug bites ya in the next two weeks, feel free to submit an entry by stopping by the FHS web page!

New pierced shells from Grotte des Pigeons


It appears, that they have found yet more pierced Nassarius gibbosulus shells in Grotte des Pigeons (near Taforalt, Morocco) during excavation conducted in March and April 2008. That would be 20 more shells, to be precise, which may be as old as 85,000 years BP, or slightly older than the ones Bouzouggar et al. (2007) published last year.


From the news report:

In 2007, Bouzouggar and Barton discovered 14 perforated shells in the same cave.

"This discovery shows that the making and use of objects of finery is very anchored in the traditions of Morocco's prehistoric people," said Bouzouggar, in whose opinion the country is the original centre of artistic and symbolic creation.

Objects of finery discovered in Morocco are "now considered to be even more ancient than those discovered in Algeria, South Africa and in Palestine", said the culture ministry.

Well, I don't know that these new finds do anything to establish that the practice of piercing and wearing shells is older in Morocco than it is at Skhul (ca. 100-135kya), but we can't say without seeing more information on the finds. From what I gather from a press release by the Moroccan Ministry of Culture (in French), this claim may be based on an assessment that the two shells from Skuhl cave (which I talked about here) "are difficult to date due to uncertainties about the context in which they were found," in part because they were recovered so long ago, in the 1930's. If you buy this, then the earliest shell beads would, in fact, be from Morocco.

The burials of five children dated to at least 12kya were also apparently found during the same field season. The children's remains were covered in ochre, buried under stone blocks with animal bones. Can't wait to hear more about these finds!

Friday, May 02, 2008

Paglicci Cave in risk of collapse

Terrible news from Italy, where a section of the the exterior wall of Paglicci Cave (aka Grotta Paglicci, whose Gravettian and Aurignacian assemblages I discussed previously) has collapsed, thus threatening the integrity of the cave as a whole:

The report includes some comments by Annamaria Ronchitelli and Vincenzo Pazienza:

President of the Paglicci Study Centre, Vincenzo Pazienza, made an urgent appeal to incoming premier Silvio Berlusconi and Puglia region president Nichi Vendola for funds to secure the cave after a section of its exterior wall collapsed on Tuesday.

''It's extremely important to safeguard the cave for research to proceed: if the wall collapses completely it will obstruct the entrance to the grotto,'' he said.

His plea was backed by Annamaria Ronchitelli of Siena University, who leads a team that has worked in the cave for the last 40 years.

''If we're going to continue excavations in the cave, the structure needs to be safe and and we need to guarantee that the archaeologists will be unharmed,'' she said.

I hope the responsible authorities find a way to intervene and stabilize the cave as soon as possible, as it is, quite literally, the only one of its kind in Italy. Beyond having yielded several Paleolithic burials (some of whom have yielded some of the earliest modern human DNA samples), the site is among a handful in Italy to have yielded parietal art. In addition of that, it has yielded the oldest dated proto-Aurignacian assemblage in southern Italy, part of a nearly continuous sequence of archaeological remains spanning the Late Pleistocene, and very probably more. Here's a video of the cave (in Italian) which shows the cave, along with the stratigraphy and footage of excavations at the site, including the uncovering of one of the Gravettian burial.

It'd certainly provide a golden opportunity for Berlusconi to endear himself to archaeologists, were he to promptly intervene in this matter. I'll be sure to keep readers updated with any developments on this story.

Other links:

"Per la grotta dei graffiti imminente rischio di crollo" - La Repubblica, newsreport with a bit more on the history of safety issues at the cave.

"Stone Age cave risks collapse" - Life in Italy

"Historic Italian cave may collapse" - United Press International

"Historic Italian cave may collapse" - Daily

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Pod Mrcaru - High Rates of Selective Change in Italian Wall Lizards

In class today, I referred to a recent report on very fast rates of evolution in allochtonous Italian wall lizards (Podarcis sicula) introduced from a neighboring island to the Croatian island of Pod Mrcaru in 1971. It appears that, on top of outcompeting the indigenous lizard population, they have undergone extremely rapid morphological change in less than 40 years, evolving new gut adaptation (i.e., cecal valves, to slow down the passage of food through the gut, to favor digestion of plant matter) and a squatter, more robust skull better suited to chewing plants, which constitute the main source of lizard food on the island. The report, perhaps a bit exaggeratedly, refers to this as "fast track evolution."

The rapid physical evolution also sparked changes in the lizard's social and behavioral structure, he said. For one, the plentiful food sources allowed for easier reproduction and a denser population.

The lizard also dropped some of its territorial defenses, the authors concluded.

Such physical transformation in just 30 lizard generations takes evolution to a whole new level, Irschick said.

It would be akin to humans evolving and growing a new appendix in several hundred years, he said.

"That's unparalleled. What's most important is how fast this is," he said.

Neat stuff. The report includes some cautionary statements by a McGill biology professor (Andrew Hendry), but overall's he seems on board with the gist of the study. The article version of the study can be found by clicking here, and some good comments were provided on several blogs, including Pharyngula and GrrrlScientist.

Welcome ANTH 203C: Human Evolution!

I've started teaching the summer installment of our introductory "Human Evolution" course today, and might thus be shifting the focus of AVRPI some for the coming weeks to deal more with general issues in human evolution and evolutionary theory. If you've come here from the 203C WebCT, welcome and feel free to explore a bit!