Sunday, February 27, 2011

Maggie Koerth-Baker on better scientific communication

I just got done watching a video of a recent talk by Maggie Koerth-Baker (science editor at Boing Boing) entitled "Six things scientists can learn from science journalists" which she recently gave at the University of Wisconsin. It's about an hour long, and I found it to be a really lucid overview of strategies scientists of all stripes should be using when talking about their research to the public at large and to reporters. The key points she makes are focused on the need to:
  1. present your work in an engaging way through the use of examples or analogies your audience can relate to or use to remember what you're saying; 
  2. develop a dialogue with your audience to understand where they're coming from and what their background on a topic is; 
  3. try to put yourself in the shoes of someone who has no background in your field; 
  4. relate given findings to broader issues to underscore their relevance; 
  5. be forthcoming about potential issues with your own research; and 
  6. write and talk in an accessible way instead of wrapping yourself in disciplinary technicality.
It may look as thought I've summarized the talk, but I really haven't - it's like saying that you've had dinner by looking at the menu. So click on over and treat yourself, there's a ton of really good info on how to put some of these concepts into practice.If you're at all interested in how to make science accessible to a broader audience, even if you're not a scientist yourself, you'll be doing yourself a major service by watching this video.

To me, the most significant point she makes had to do with relating scientific research to concerns outside of a narrow scientific interests, and to try to seize on issues of general interest as an anchor of sorts for your research. By doing this (one example she gives is research on overeating resonating better with people by linking it toThanksgiving), it becomes easy to underscore the significance of even minor developments and, most importantly, make people care about them. I really loved this sentence that encapsulates her general feeling:

"Science is bigger than single discoveries and if we can make people understand that, they're going to trust scientists a lot more and they're going to be a lot more interested in science."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Neanderthals and ornaments, birds of a feather?

M. Peresani and colleagues (2011) report on the discovery of cut-marked bird bones from the latest Mousterian levels at Grotta di Fumane, located in the Veneto region of NE Italy. They interpret the fact that these cutmarks are almost exclusively found ResearchBlogging.orgon wing bones of only a subset of the 22 species of birds found at Fumane as evidence that Neanderthals there specifically targeted wings and feathers to be used in the manufacture of ornaments (check out Cutrona's fantastic picture of what they may have looked like just above).

Alert readers will remember that I've talked about Fumane before on this blog, mainly in reference to its early Aurignacian art and its transitional industry that's been likened to the Uluzzian. This new finding makes Fumane even more remarkable by providing strong evidence for Neanderthal use of personal ornamentation. Equally important, in my view, is that Neanderthals were somehow able to procure birds, a topic I'll return to below.

But first, let's talk ornamentation. The authors claim that a decorative use of the feathers targeted by Neanderthals is the most likely interpretation. Specifically, they rule out the use of these feathers in fletching since Neanderthal spears would not have benefited from it. Likewise, they rule out an alimentary interpretation since the cut mark are found almost only on wing bones, which yield relatively little meat. They also emphasize that some of the birds whose feathers were sought were raptors which are rarely consumed by humans. They therefore rule out the two main alternative interpretations of their findings.

To sum up, Neanderthals clearly were collecting feathers, specifically remiges, the long and sturdy flight feathers of four main types of birds, including bearded lammergeiers, red-footed falcons, common wood pigeons, and Alpine choughs. A cutmarked bone of the European black vulture was also found in a lower Mousterian level (A9) at the site. What is interesting here is that the collected feathers create a visual palette of colors that include gray, blue-gray, orange-slate gray, and black. These are visually striking but certainly more subdued colors than the reds and orange recently identified in ochres used by slightly older (ca. 50kya) Neanderthals in southern Spain (Zilhao et al. 2010), which I discussed in an earlier post and that would have been complemented by the hues of seashells. The reason why the Fumane color scheme is interesting is that it is very different from that identified for southern space. From there, it is only one step to start thinking that maybe these color preferences had some kind of cultural meaning, especially considering the much wider range of birds available around Fumane than the five species from which remiges were collected.

To expand on that idea a bit, the use of feathers as parts of ornaments at Fumane also indicate that the behavior of decorating one's body among Neanderthals was fairly flexible. Up to now, we only had evidence of coloring minerals like the ochre I just mentioned but also including manganese in SW France and of shells being used as bodily decorations. By adding feathers to the roster of items used by Neanderthals to adorn themselves, the Fumane evidence suggests that Neanderthals were able to use a fairly broad range of materials to embody and visually broadcast some dimension(s) of their identity. The fact that you see some regional variability in what material were used in what region also suggest that maybe these choices reflect social conventions bound by the resources available in specific region, maybe even in a way that anticipates similar decisions about what kinds of materials to manufacture beads from during the Aurignacian (Vanhaeren and d'Errico 2006). Admittedly, this is speculative, but the ever widening array of materials used by Neanderthals to decorate themselves certainly suggests that this was a well ingrained behavior that was filtered by locally available resources. In this, it severely undermines the credibility of the idea that Neanderthals were only able to pick up the idea of personal ornamentation from modern humans during the Transition Interval, a point Peresani et al. (2011) themselves emphasize in their conclusions.

Another thought-provoking question raised by the ca. 660 bird bones recovered from these Mousterian deposits is just how Neanderthals caught them. By all appearances, most of their hunting technology would have been, quite literally, overkill for hunting birds. Heavy spears could have also damaged the feathers that were the ultimate goal of the Neanderthals. The authors suggest that maybe they collected dead birds, though the amount of processing manifest on the bones suggests to me that this is unlikely, as all of these birds would have had to be extremely fresh if they had been scavenged, which seems a bit unrealistic. So this opens the possibility that Neanderthals were actively procuring birds, though exactly how is still very much an open question. If I had to venture a guess, I'd say it's likely that Neanderthals had some form of cordage, and that maybe they were able to fashion nets out of it.

Now, why does it matter if Neanderthals directly procured birds? It matters a great deal in the context of recently proposed views that state that Neanderthals lacked sexual division of labor (Kuhn and Stiner 2006). In large part, that view is based on the apparent lack in Neanderthal sites of plants and fast-moving small game that could reflect the labor of one segment of the population as opposed to the large game hunting practice by the other, presumably male segment. Well, if Neanderthals procured birds, that provides some fairly clear evidence of small game hunting, and when you consider the recent direct evidence for Neanderthals having consumed (and cooked!) a diverse array of plants (Henry et al. 2010), you've got some data that could be used to challenge the view of Neanderthals as lacking sexual division of labor.

And to think, all of this from some cutting, scraping and snapping marks on bird bones!


Henry, A., Brooks, A., & Piperno, D. (2010). Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets (Shanidar III, Iraq; Spy I and II, Belgium) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (2), 486-491 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016868108

Kuhn, S., & Stiner, M. (2006). What’s a Mother to Do? The Division of Labor among Neandertals and Modern Humans in Eurasia Current Anthropology, 47 (6), 953-981 DOI: 10.1086/507197

Peresani, M., Fiore, I., Gala, M., Romandini, M., & Tagliacozzo, A. (2011). Late Neandertals and the intentional removal of feathers as evidenced from bird bone taphonomy at Fumane Cave 44 ky B.P., Italy Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1016212108

VANHAEREN, M., & DERRICO, F. (2006). Aurignacian ethno-linguistic geography of Europe revealed by personal ornaments Journal of Archaeological Science, 33 (8), 1105-1128 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2005.11.017

Zilhao, J., Angelucci, D., Badal-Garcia, E., d'Errico, F., Daniel, F., Dayet, L., Douka, K., Higham, T., Martinez-Sanchez, M., Montes-Bernardez, R., Murcia-Mascaros, S., Perez-Sirvent, C., Roldan-Garcia, C., Vanhaeren, M., Villaverde, V., Wood, R., & Zapata, J. (2010). Symbolic use of marine shells and mineral pigments by Iberian Neandertals Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107 (3), 1023-1028 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0914088107