30 March 2012

Botanists ditch Latin

It happened at the first of the year: botanists no longer have to describe new plant species in Latin. Per Scientific American:
While some schoolchildren daydream about crushes during class, delicately inscribing their names in paper margins, others instead yearn to one day discover and name their own species for the cute boy at the corner desk. But they know little about the excess work involved in plant discovery. Even after discovering and confirming a new species of plant, which is trying enough itself, botanists have to submit a description in Latin — even if they had never studied the language before — and ensure that said description is published in a journal printed on real paper.
That is until New Years Day 2012, when new rules passed at the International Botanical Congress in Melbourne, Australia this July, take effect: the botanists voted on a measure to leave the lengthy and time-consuming descriptions behind. Additionally, the group released their concerns about the impermanence of electronic publication, and will now allow official descriptions to be set in online-only journals.
“Probably in 1935 [when the Latin requirement was instated], most people who got serious university degrees were required to take Latin,” says botanist Jim Miller from the New York Botanical Garden, who published an accompanying paper in the journal PhytoKeys in July. “But it has become less true that Latin is universally accessible. "
True dat. The Latin they were writing, moreover, was a disservice to a beautiful language. "Arbor ad 8 alta, raminculis sparse pilosis, trichomatis 2-2.5 mm longis."  That's just English transcribed into Latin for the obfuscation of the masses. Boooooooring. The issue of permanent publication, however, is still legit: how long does the average server last?

Read the rest here at SciAm.

Where will we be in 100,000 years?

New Scientist brings us a smart look at our chances for the next 100,000 years (via The Awl):

They're optimistic about survival. I am too. I'm sure the world will look nothing like we're used to then, but humans are hard to kill off. We'll be here, probably wrapped in a mix of stupid and awesome that we have always been. The question is, can we tip it far enough toward 'awesome' to make sure we all have a decent quality of life?

Mummy Poop: Weight Loss Secret

"The Secret of Weight Loss May be in 3,000-year-old Mummy Poop"

I think Gizmodo might have just taken the crown for best archaeopop headline ever. Via New Scientist.
Scientists may have found one of the keys to weight loss hiding in the poop of 3,000-year-old mummies. The bacterial DNA found in their guts is very different from our modern intestinal flora.
The reason: chlorinated water and antibiotics.
That's the first hypothesis of Dr. Cecil Lewis. According to Lewis—who is leading a team of scientist hunting for bacterial DNA samples in mummy guts and cave soil across North and South America—these two factors "fundamentally changed human microbiomes."
Lewis believes that "the association between antibiotics and obesity is important to explore." Indeed, there's already research that indicates a link between the use of these medicines and obesity.
So the secret to fight obesity may go through the recuperation of these 3,000-year-old bacteria. We don't know yet, however. According to Lewis "it's too early to tell if it's a good idea to repopulate our guts with bacteria. But it's certainly an important idea that requires investigation."
So they're going to start treating obesity with archaeological bacteria from mummies? Sign me up!

20 March 2012

Welcome to the family, Red Deer Cave People

Fantastic news this week of the discovery of yet another archaic hominin, this time in southwest China and shockingly recent (via The Guardian):
The fossilised remains of stone age people recovered from two caves in south west China may belong to a new species of human that survived until around the dawn of agriculture.
The partial skulls and other bone fragments, which are from at least four individuals and are between 14,300 and 11,500 years old, have an extraordinary mix of primitive and modern anatomical features that stunned the researchers who found them.
Named the Red Deer Cave people, after their apparent penchant for home-cooked venison, they are the most recent human remains found anywhere in the world that do not closely resemble modern humans. The individuals differ from modern humans in their jutting jaws, large molar teeth, prominent brows, thick skulls, flat faces and broad noses. Their brains were of average size by ice age standards.
"They could be a new evolutionary line or a previously unknown modern human population that arrived early from Africa and failed to contribute genetically to living east Asians," said Darren Curnoe, who led the research team at the University of New South Wales in Australia.
At work in Red Deer Cave (Livescience)
The full article is at the Public Library of Science. The fossils were found by geologists in 1979, but they were encased in rock and not analyzed until 2008. When Ji Xueping and his collaborator Curnoe analyzed the fossils, they were stunned by the combination of unusual anatomical features and its extremely recent age (derived from C14 dates from charcoal deposited within the skull). These people were contemporaneous with the oldest known temple complexes at Göbekli Tepe, and lived a few thousand years after people settled South America. They outlived Neanderthals by several millenia.
Artist's reconstruction (Livescience)
Suddenly the world of early humans is diverse and complex. In the last few years we've learned about the "Hobbits" of the Indonesian island of Flores, the Denisovans (who got around all over Eurasia), an unnamed African hominin, and now the Red Deer Cave people. There's probably more out there somewhere waiting for us. I call them 'humans' because a lot of modern people are their descendants. Eurasian people get 1-4% of their DNA from Neanderthals, Melanesians 4-6% from Denisovans, and African people 2% from an as-yet-unnamed hominin (see this article and this article for more). The Red Deer Cave people and - who knows? - even the Hobbits could be in the mix somewhere too.

We can't talk about 'us' and 'them' anymore: we're all descended from some of these early human variants. This is despite the technical genetic difficulties involved: one estimate is that perhaps only 2% of Neanderthal-modern human liaisons produced children. Getting so much DNA into the gene pool must have required some mating persistence. Racists beware: in the long run, physical differences are no match for the human sex drive. This image of richness and complexity in human origins is a beautiful thing.

For more on archaic sexy time, read: A Third Archaic Human Population: and Yes, We Bonked Them 

19 March 2012

China's deserted fake Disneyland

No way I can improve on the reporting from Reuters' David Gray, so I'm going to shamelessly reprint. Original article here. More of Gray's China reporting here.
Along the road to one of China’s most famous tourist landmarks – the Great Wall of China – sits what could potentially have been another such tourist destination, but now stands as an example of modern-day China and the problems facing it.

Situated on an area of around 100 acres, and 45 minutes drive from the center of Beijing, are the ruins of ‘Wonderland’. Construction stopped more than a decade ago, with developers promoting it as ‘the largest amusement park in Asia’. Funds were withdrawn due to disagreements over property prices with the local government and farmers. So what is left are the skeletal remains of a palace, a castle, and the steel beams of what could have been an indoor playground in the middle of a corn field.

Pulling off the expressway and into the car park, I expected to be stopped by the usual confrontational security guards. But there was absolutely no one to be seen. I walked through one of the few entrances not boarded up, and instantly started coughing. In front of me were large empty rooms and discarded furniture, all covered in a thick layer of dust, along with an eerie silence that gave the place a haunted feeling – an emotion not normally associated with a children’s playground.

Once outside again, I came across some farmers who originally owned the land and are now using it to once again to grow their crops. Their tracks and plantations can be seen running through and surrounding the uncompleted buildings. Walking further, I came across a rather farcical sight of some farmers digging a well next to a castle; a moment I will always savor as a photographer in a place like China where castles are not in huge supply. I explained this to the farmers and they just shrugged their shoulders, oblivious to a photographer’s happiness. I asked them what happened, and they simply answered the developers ran out of money, and they are getting back to doing what they do best. They are even slowly starting to plant trees and build shelters near the buildings, adding they think it is now safe to think the developers are never coming back. This I can believe, as the absence of any security (something very rare in China) leads one to think that even the developers have given up on what is already there.

All these structures of rusting steel and decaying cement, are another sad example of property development in China involving wasted money, wasted resources and the uprooting of farmers and their families. It is a reflection of the country’s property market which many analysts say the government must keep tightening steps in place. The worry is a massive increase in inflation and a speculative bubble that might burst, considering that property sales contribute to around 10 percent of China’s growth.

18 March 2012

Greek archaeology under fire: support heritage against the Troika and IMF

Greece's new role as Europe's impoverished debt slaves has serious implications for archaeology and museums. In 2010, 10% of staff at the Ministry of Culture were laid off, followed by a 35% cut in wages in archaeological service in late 2011. A new hire now makes just €670 ($900) a month after taxes. On top of this, the parliament this week is proposing further cuts of 30-50% across the Ministry of Culture. Cuts in things like museum security have consequences: last month armed robbers stole over 60 artifacts from the museum at Olympia, and we can expect such things to become more common as the whole country descends further into poverty.

On Wednesday the Greek Association of Archaeologists launched an appeal for support in the face of these draconian cuts:
If monuments had a voice of their own, they would tell us what has been going on in Greece in the past two years. In the name of the global economic crisis and with the IMF acting as a Trojan Horse, austerity measures have been undermining public services, welfare State and social cohesion. Democracy and national dignity are under attack.

Monuments have no voice, they have us
We, the 950 Greek Archaeologists, civil servants working in the Hellenic Ministry of Culture, are fighting against the destruction of both our country and our cultural heritage, because of the policies dictated by the IMF and the Troika.

The Greek Archaeological Service is not overstuffed, nor are we being overpaid. We serve in order to protect our cultural heritage and monuments, all over Greece, facing constant lack of funding and personnel, dedicated to the pursuit of scientific knowledge and to access to culture as a public good. Our scientific work has won international recognition. For more than 170 years we have been organizing excavations, studying Greek civilization, organizing Museums not with stolen antiquities but with well-documented exhibits, restoring monuments, organizing educational programs and helping bringing together Ancient culture and modern art.
As civil servants we have neither sought after luxury or over-spending, nor have we been accused of corruption, in sharp contrast the practices of the government and the political system that today promises to “save our country”.
As archaeologists in the land that inherited democracy to the world we are perfectly aware of the dangers associated with the suppression of democracy. We are struggling to preserve the memory and the material traces of the past, because we know that a people without memory are condemned to repeat the same mistakes again and again.

Monuments have no voice. They must have yours!
We are making an urgent appeal to our colleagues, to scholars and citizens all over Europe and the whole world, all the people expressing their solidarity and support to the Greek people, to defend cultural heritage and historical memory. The peoples of Europe share the same destiny. The same austerity packages and authoritarian measures, that are currently tearing apart Greece and its monuments, are going to be imposed across Europe.
They're asking people to spread the word and add support at their Facebook group. Reuters has video. "Greek museums today, tomorrow the Louvre."

Greek Culture Under Threat
Reuters, via Global Post

The appeal includes some important figures about the infrastructure for archaeology and museums in Greece. There are:
  • 66 Ephorates (local departments) of Antiquities.
  • 210 museums and collections of pre-historic, classical and Byzantine antiquities 
  • 250 organized archaeological sites
  • 19.000 declared archaeological sites and historical monuments (http://listedmonuments.culture.gr/search_declarations.php)
  • 366 projects co-funded with the European Union, with a budget of €498 million
  • Hundreds of excavations that are currently in progress
To deal with this there are: "7000 employees of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism which include 950 archaeologists, civil servants, and 2000 guards and night-guards" plus 3500 seasonal employees. That's already grim math. 460 sites and museums open to the public plus 19,000 listed sites and monuments, with only 2000 guards for the lot. 2000 guards is barely enough for the stuff open to the public. And research? Only 950 archaeologists on staff in the whole country! We're talking about Greece here!

So, what happens if they cut another 30-50%? As Despina Koutsoumba says in the video above, further cuts will mean widespread closures, with museums and sites turned into nothing more than guarded warehouses. It will certainly mean an increase in looting and theft, since there will be no one to prevent it - or so few guards that a couple robbers can easily overpower them, as at Olympia.

Koutsoumba is right: destroying wages, living standards, and the public sector is the IMF's plan for Europe as a whole. With European politics captured by the unelected mandarins from Goldman Sachs, reducing the population to slaves the banks' balance sheets is the only policy courseCulture, heritage, and museums are unnecessary luxuries that distract people from their duty to fatten the bankers' pockets, so they have to go.

Austerity, privatization, and budget cuts has failed to create growth everywhere it's been tried (think Latin America in the 1980s or Russia in the 1990s). It leads to low growth and high poverty. (See also this superb report about Europe's future in austerity.) But lets be frank: behind the bankers' propaganda this is a feature of the system, not a bug. Weak governments, fire-sale privatizations, and the destruction of civil society create an criminogenic environment where corporate crime, crony capitalism, and looting public assets is much easier. Looting antiquities is just one of the depressing implications

14 March 2012

Amazon Land Carvings

I've argued before on this blog that the dichotomy between nature and culture is unfounded, that in fact the whole earth is an archaeological site and looking for somewhere 'pristine' is an exercise in human self-delusion (or even self-hatred). The evidence continues to mount, per the Grey Lady:
The deforestation that has stripped the Amazon since the 1970s has also exposed a long-hidden secret lurking underneath thick rain forest: flawlessly designed geometric shapes spanning hundreds of yards in diameter.
Alceu Ranzi, a Brazilian scholar who helped discover the squares, octagons, circles, rectangles and ovals that make up the land carvings, said these geoglyphs found on deforested land were as significant as the famous Nazca lines, the enigmatic animal symbols visible from the air in southern Peru.
“What impressed me the most about these geoglyphs was their geometric precision, and how they emerged from forest we had all been taught was untouched except by a few nomadic tribes,” said Mr. Ranzi, a paleontologist who first saw the geoglyphs in the 1970s and, years later, surveyed them by plane.
For some scholars of human history in Amazonia, the geoglyphs in the Brazilian state of Acre and other archaeological sites suggest that the forests of the western Amazon, previously considered uninhabitable for sophisticated societies partly because of the quality of their soils, may not have been as “Edenic” as some environmentalists contend.

Geoglyph in the Amazon (Diego Gurgel-Projeto Geoglifos/Divulgação [via Globo Amazônia])

Instead of being pristine forests, barely inhabited by people, parts of the Amazon may have been home for centuries to large populations numbering well into the thousands and living in dozens of towns connected by road networks, explains the American writer Charles C. Mann. In fact, according to Mr. Mann, the British explorer Percy Fawcett vanished on his 1925 quest to find the lost “City of Z” in the Xingu, one area with such urban settlements.
As a result of long stretches of such human habitation, South America’s colossal forests may have been a lot smaller at times, with big areas resembling relatively empty savannas.
Such revelations do not fit comfortably into today’s politically charged debate over razing parts of the forests, with some environmentalists opposed to allowing any large-scale agriculture, like cattle ranching and soybean cultivation, to advance further into Amazonia.
Scientists here say they, too, oppose wholesale burning of the forests, even if research suggests that the Amazon supported intensive agriculture in the past. Indeed, they say other swaths of the tropics, notably in Africa, could potentially benefit from strategies once used in the Amazon to overcome soil constraints.
“If one wants to recreate pre-Columbian Amazonia, most of the forest needs to be removed, with many people and a managed, highly productive landscape replacing it,” said William Woods, a geographer at the University of Kansas who is part of a team studying the Acre geoglyphs.
“I know that this will not sit well with ardent environmentalists,” Mr. Woods said, “but what else can one say?”
One can say that it's not a choice between humans and the environment, or culture and nature: instead, our paradigm has to be people AND forest, humanity AND nature, rather than separating the two. It's not so much a moral issue as a practical and technological one. We can learn from how ancient Amazonians managed their terrible soils to support large populations. In fact, we need this knowledge given galloping climate change, dessication, and soil degradation.

This is also a good moment to point out the continuing power of origin myths in Western culture: see how this article infers that the "original state" of the Amazon is somehow the "correct" one that should be recreated. If the forest is not "pristine", it loses its moral authority, and thus its value (never mind that the real value of these forests is in biodiversity and ecosystem services). Instead, the "managed, highly productive landscape" becomes the point of origin that we might "recreate" at some point. These findings will piss off environmentalists because they lean on the argument from temporal priority: preserve the Amazon because it is original and timeless. This mode of thinking, however deeply ingrained, is useless. We long to find a remnant Eden, but it never existed and never will. Time doesn't have a beginning or an end, and neither does the story of humanity. There is only what we're doing now, which we need to justify not in terms of origin myths, but by how it enhances the life of people living today.1 The sooner we can expunge this neurosis from our culture, the better.

To see more geoglyphs, click through to Globo Amazonia's Google Maps interface, or download their Google Earth kml file.

(1) Before someone tears my head off about being an anthropocentrist, I should point out that I think maximizing human utility and maximizing environmental utility are exactly the same thing: people are happier, healthier, and safer when they have complex ecological settings and a relatively stable climate. Human creativity is just one aspect of life's great fight against entropy. Biodiversity is good for you.

More Ancient Map Madness: Omnes Viae

Following on last week's post, more fun with old maps. Today, the amazing work of René Voorberg, who's created a mashup of an ancient Roman road map - the Tabula Peutingerana - and the Google Maps API. It works as a route planner: you put in your point of origin and your destination, and it gives you the shortest route on the Roman road network. Here's the results for an itinerum from London to Bologna.
741 miles (DCCXLI milia passuum) and 50 days (L dies) of travel. Whoa. Makes me appreciate Ryanair.

As you can see, the interface has some cute features, like being in Latin (iter vestrum means 'your route', iter brevissimum means 'the shortest route'). The icons for towns, rivers, and mountains used on the Peutinger Map are reproduced in the left sidebar and on the map itself. The author spent a ton of time geolocating over 2000 ancient place names on the modern map, so you can use either ancient or modern names (Londinium or London, say). Here's how Istanbul and the Sea of Marmara look.
The Peutinger map is an amazing artifact. It's the only road map to survive from the Roman Empire, as a medieval copy of an original map prepared somewhere around 400 AD but incorporating older information (Pompeii, for example, is still on the map). It's the last survivor of a sophisticated 500-year tradition of Roman surveying and mapping, and shows the system of Roman public roads, with mileage and natural features. 

The map itself, though, looks awfully funny to the modern eye:

That's Europe all right: but it's stretched east to west and smooshed north to south, so that the whole continent fits into the height of a parchment scroll. This is not so much a bug as a feature: the map is meant to show a series of linear itineraries along well-built roads. A close-up:
That's Noricum (Croatia and Bosnia) on top, central Italy in the middle, and Tunisia down at the bottom. The red lines are different routes, with a slight jog marking minor place names. Once you get over the tyranny of our own cartographic conventions it's actually quite practical. (Though I still find the Google Maps API a little easier to use.

The literal book on the map was written by Richard Talbert, whose data is the main source for Voorberg's Omnes Viae. Talbert has his own scholarly treatment of the map up online, with GIS layers you can use to highlight different features.  (It's a companion to his book, Rome's World.) Another online version of the map can be found here (nicer to look at).

09 March 2012

Old Maps Online

I think I just mortgaged a few months of my life. Old Maps Online, launched last week, lets you browse a Google Maps-based interface for historical maps of places you like, anywhere in the world. A thrilling and dangerous proposition for us historical map obsessives.

So if I want, say, an old map of Emilia-Romagna (where I live) I can zoom into northern Italy, then choose from the list of maps on the right sidebar.
Say I want to go hiking in the hills above Bologna, but with a 17th-century map? I click on the map of the 'Parte Alpestre del Territorio Bolognese' to get some info about it.

Hm, 1620s sounds about right. Clicking through takes me to the site of the Moravian Library (Czech Republic), where I can zoom around the digital version of the map itself and plan my walk, maybe to a village that no longer exists!

The concept is fantastically simple: link existing digital map collections in obscure libraries around the world with a simple interface that everyone knows how to use. The execution is great, too - the site is easy to use and feels intuitive. The project is a collaboration between The Great Britain Historical GIS Project based at The University of Portsmouth, UK and Klokan Technologies GmbH, Switzerland and funded by the UK government.

They plan to expand to other libraries' holdings, and are offering assistance in digitizing collections and georeferencing already-scanned maps. A crowdsourcing project to georeference maps in the British library using Klokan's cloud-hosted software took only 4 days. Keep your eyes out for more opportunities to help build this historical resource/incredible time suck. And pity me as I turn into a drooling map wretch.

08 March 2012

The Topless Mayan Calendar

The Topless Maya Calendar! Mildly titillating end-of-the-world-sploitation! "Printed on genuine coffee stained paper, assembled by the weathered hands of a bearded man in a windowless room and tied together with bits of twine. Get yours before time runs out."

Not strictly historically accurate, but somehow captures the sexual tension inherent in virgin sacrifice. Via Digging the Dirt.

02 March 2012

Live like a cave man - in Dick Clark's Flintstones house

Dick Clark had a caveman house in Malibu? And it's for sale?! Time to dust off those Flintstones fantasies. Yours for only $3.5 million. Per the LA Times:
The unusual architectural retreat sits on a mountaintop within a nearly 23-acre site. Free-form walls punctuated with expanses of glass bring in ocean views. The one-bedroom, two-bathroom custom house, which has the interior ambience of a bright cave, has vaulted ceilings in the living and dining rooms, a fireplace and a wine cellar.
The 'paleo lifestyle' doesn't get any better than this. Drink in the pictures. 

Faces of Meth: Archaeology Edition

USA Today reports that methamphetamine users now make up a substantial proportion of archaeological looters in the United States:

Alone among survey respondents, U.S. archaeologists described methamphetamine addicts as often responsible for looting, in 18 states. A 2005 Bureau of Land Management report has noted "many" suspects arrested for thefts from federal archaeological sites also ran meth "labs". And Archaeology Magazine in 2009 noted more reports of meth lab operators stealing Anasazi relics. In the survey, Proulx collected comments such as "Meth nuts are the relic collectors," from one Arkansas researcher, as well as similar ones in California, Oregon and Southeastern states.
"The survey started to get these comments from U.S. archaeologists, just popping out of the responses," Proulx said. She suggests that since meth labs are often found in isolated areas, just like archaeological sites, geographical coincidence may explain the complaints. Meth addicts are known for repetitive behavior and may find digging at sites soothing, she adds in the study.

Digging is "soothing" to the tweaker. I like that. USA Today is reporting research by Blythe Proulx in the Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice (November 2011), which found that North American archaeologists reported high incidences of drug-related looting and crime at archaeological sites (the whole issue, which focuses on antiquities crimes, is worth a look - if you have access).

The research confirms other reporting, like this piece in Boing Boing from as far back as 2005.  Archaeology Magazine reported a similar story in 2009. Drugs, gun-running, and antiquities looting go together in the American west, but not all the crimes are equally punished:

The involvement with drugs is a mixed bag for officers who specialize in cultural resource crime. On one hand, meth makes the looters careless and more likely to make mistakes (though paranoia may temper that). But once a suspect is caught, looting offenses take a back seat to drugs charges--violators of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act face two years in prison, but only if the value of the artifacts exceeds $500, while drugs and firearms carry much steeper penalties. Bowman and others also wonder how well-equipped narcotics officers are to notice, assess, or know what to do with antiquities they find. Some, especially federal agents in the Southwest, know to call in specialists. That is not always the case. 
Drug cases can make it easier to recover artifacts--suspects relinquish them more easily when they have drug cases hanging over them--- --but also encourage prosecutors to plead out or simply drop looting cases. The result is that there is little additional risk for a tweaker or drug dealer to diversify into the antiquities trade. Furthermore, the looting-meth connection is difficult to quantify--looting alone is nearly impossible to assess accurately--complicating policy-making. And many still see looting as a victimless crime.

For some of the gory 'faces of meth' photos made famous by the Multnomah County Sherriff's Department, click here or here. Today's tweakers, tomorrow's looters!

Blogina Lente

I've been on a bit of a blog holiday this winter. After a few years of regularly tending the garden I needed a few months to let the weeds grow. 'Blogina lente', one might say, after the Latin festina lente ('make haste, slowly').

Blogging is a strange form of writing, since it's amenable to so many paces of writing. In a newspaper a change in volume of an order of magnitude would be unthinkable. But I've seen blogs with 3 posts a year, 30, 300, or even 3000 (that's 4 orders of magnitude!). As an author, it's a strange kind of pressure knowing that in some sense the volume of your output is what keeps the readers coming back. This blog still feels personal enough that churning out posts simply to have more posts feels wrong. Yet I feel a tension between the intimacy of the blog-space and my responsibility to the readers who are kind enough to come back, and tell me that they enjoy what goes up here.

Anyhow, I hope I haven't lost any of you regulars. Many interesting things are in the pipeline. Come back soon!