Beakers found at Cahokia in the Midwest contain
traces of tea from the southeast
Some teas are not as soothing as others. “Black drink,” brewed from the holly Ilex vomitoria by Native Americans on what is now the southeastern coast of the United States, had the lovely side effect of inducing vomiting (though perhaps from ingredients other than the holly) and was a key part of a 16th-century religious purification ritual, according to European accounts. Researchers were recently surprised to learn, however, that it also seems to have traveled quite a bit: traces of black drink have now been found over 200 miles out of Ilex vomitoria’s coastal range at the site of Cahokia, an ancient city near modern-day St. Louis.
Lake Como, in Northern Italy
Sometimes, the collective knowledge of generations of locals is just as valuable as a network of high-tech sensors. That’s what scientists studying the fluid dynamics of Lake Como in the Italian Alps found, when they began to interview fishermen.
The team from the University of Western Australia had been studying the complex currents and temperature gradations in the Y-shaped lake for some time, using a system of floating sensors. Alongside them were the approximately 30 local fisherman who go out each night to string out their giant gill nets, as much as 2,300 feet long and 27 feet high. In the morning, the fishermen retrieve the nets and any fish—mostly shad and whitefish—that have swum into them overnight. Read More
In the search for life beyond our planet, astrophysicists and astronomers are usually the starring characters. Through SETI, they are listening for transmissions from aliens, and through telescopes like Kepler and research in arid regions of Earth they are studying what it might take for life to arise elsewhere. But those scientists are themselves being studied: by anthropologists. Wired has a thoughtful interview with Kathryn Denning, an anthropologist who specializes in understanding how people think about space exploration and alien life. Here’s one choice tidbit, in which she describes what she thinks of one common story of first contact: a signal from intelligent life electrifies humanity, which subsequently settles its differences and unites under a common banner.
Denning: One way to read that, in the most general sense, is that it’s a narrative that makes us feel better.
What’s the News: Rarely has a humble little sound aroused such interest as in the last few days, as a paper about a phenomenon called vocal fry, a creak in someone’s voice as they speak, has been propelled to web prominence. Though many outlets got some basic facts wrong—the new study doesn’t actually show that fry has become more common among young women, just that it was common in the small group surveyed—all recognized the opportunity to launch into something we wish we knew more about: why we make funny sounds when we talk.
How the Heck:
Early anthropologist Samuel George Morton, accused by
Gould of bias in his measurements of skulls, may finally
What’s the News: Harvard biologist and popular author Stephen Jay Gould was a well-known advocate for evolution and denouncer of scientific bias. But a new study shows that one of his most famous claims—that an early researcher unconsciously manipulated his measurements of skulls to make Caucasians seem smarter—is baseless.
The researcher actually made few errors, and it looks like Gould never bothered to measure the skulls himself, as the study’s authors did, before crying bias. “Ironically,” the authors write, “Gould’s own analysis…is likely the stronger example of a bias influencing results.”
Stock fantasy villains might like to drink from the skulls of their enemies, but the practice has its roots in historical reality. For thousands of years, humans have turned each others’ skulls into containers and drinking cups. Now, Silvia Bello from London’s Natural History Museum has found the oldest skull-cups ever recorded in a cave in Somerset, England.
These include three skull-cups that Bello recovered in excellent condition. Two belonged to adults and one to a 3-year-old child. All of them were made by the Magdelanian culture, a group of prehistoric people who lived in Western Europe. No one knows how they used the grisly cups, but it’s clear that they manufactured them with great control. They all bear a large series of dents and cut-marks that were precisely inflicted.
For plenty more on this gruesome find—including a step-by-step guide to crafting a skull cup of your own, if you’re so inclined—check out the rest of Ed Yong’s post at Not Exactly Rocket Science.
DISCOVER: The Dawn of Civilization: Writing, Urban Life, And Warfare
DISCOVER: Respect Your Elders, Human
80beats: Andean People Discovered Mercury Mining—and Mercury Pollution—in 1400 B.C.
Image: PLoS One
No offense, Lucy, but at three feet, six inches you were kind of short. Your diminutive, 3.2 million-year-old bones made it difficult to tell whether your species could even walk like us. Fortunately, researchers in Ethiopia have uncovered an older, bigger relative. As described in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, some researchers believe that these new bones show that members of Lucy’s species, Australopithecus afarensis, could walk like modern humans.
The paper’s authors call him Kadanuumuu (kah-dah-nuu-muu)–“big man” in the Afar language. Big Man still isn’t really that big by today’s standard: His 3.6 million-year-old bones show that he stood at around five feet.
The fossilized remains don’t include a head, but Big Man has many of the same bones as Lucy, and also others previously missing: a shoulder blade and a rib cage bits. Lead researcher Yohannes Haile-Selassie argues that Big Man’s skeleton upends previous beliefs about Lucy’s love of tree climbing and more primitive walk.
“This individual was fully bipedal and had the ability to walk almost like modern humans,” said Haile-Selassie. “As a result of this discovery, we can now confidently say that ‘Lucy’ and her relatives were almost as proficient walking on two legs as we are, and that the elongation of our legs came earlier in our evolution that previously thought.” [Cleveland Museum of Natural History]
When I was 9 years old I desperately wanted to be a paleontologist, but sadly, daydreams of unearthing dinosaurs led to no significant fossil finds in my backyard. So I must confess unending respect for Matthew Berger, who, at age 9, quite by accident made a stunning scientific find. In the journal Science this week, Matthew’s father paleoanthropologist Lee Berger describes the fossils of a brand-new hominid species that they turned up in South Africa: Australopithecus sediba, which dates back to between 1.78 and 1.95 million years and could offer new hints about that era of human evolution.
Matthew was chasing his dog near a site where his father had long hunted for fossils when he tripped over the find. The bones belong to a pre-teenage boy and a woman estimated to be in her late 20s or early 30s; the individuals died at about the same time, and before their remains had fully decomposed, they were entombed in an avalanche of sediment and nearly perfectly preserved deep in the Malapa cave north of Johannesburg, South Africa [TIME]. As a result, Lee Berger says, the bones are in an astonishing state for their nearly 2-million-year age.
As early as 1400 B.C., the people of the Andes dug deep to mine the mercury ore called cinnabar, which they crushed to produce a bright red pigment. The pigment, vermilion, was used in ancient Andean rituals and is frequently found adorning gold and silver ceremonial objects in ancient burials of kings and nobles in South America [National Geographic]. While obvious traces of those mines were obliterated by later mining operations run by the Incas and then the Spanish colonists, a clever new study used sediment samples from lake bottoms to uncover evidence of the ancient mining–and the accompanying mercury pollution.
Researchers found that the cinnabar mining started long before the Chavín culture—which Cooke described as “the cradle of complex Andean culture”—peaked, between 800 B.C. and 400 B.C. in central Peru. “The traditional thinking has been that large-scale mining and metallurgy only begins after you get the emergence of large-scale societies that have social stratification and people can specialize in different crafts,” Cooke said [National Geographic]. Instead, Cooke suggests that mining may have encouraged the rise of complex society, as a leader with access to vermilion could have held great sway over a large group of people.
Anthropologists have uncovered the remnants of a sophisticated network of settlements in the Amazon rainforest that date back to pre-Columbian days, and which challenge notions of what a complex and organized society can look like. The 28 towns and villages found thus far were tucked away in the forest and linked by roads, and may have supported as many as 50,000 people across an area slightly smaller than New Jersey. Says lead researcher Mike Heckenberger: “These are not cities, but this is urbanism, built around towns…. If we look at your average medieval town or your average Greek polis, most are about the scale of those we find in this part of the Amazon” [Reuters].
Researchers believe that these settlements were first occupied about 1,500 years ago, and say that indicates that the rainforest has been shaped by human habitation much more profoundly than previously realized. [T]he Western Amazon forest is not, strictly speaking, what could be called “virgin” forest. It is what took over after local cultures were wiped out by European settlers and their diseases and their towns and villages were left untended [New Scientist].