July 29, 2011

So you want to be a Roman bioarchaeologist...

Along with hundreds of other people, I created a post for the Day of Archaeology, a collaborative online effort to document the vast range of things that archaeologists do in their jobs.  Mine's titled "So you want to be a Roman bioarchaeologist..." and starts off:
If you're anything like me, you've wanted to dig up the bones of dead Romans for as long as you can remember.  (Well, except for that brief period where I wanted to dig up dinosaurs and the even briefer one where I thought I might become a mathematician.)  But if you live in the southern U.S. like I do, you're certainly not discovering Roman skeletons in your garden all the time.  What does a Roman bioarchaeologist do every day?  Generally, teach, research, and talk to colleagues and the public about teaching and research.
Click through to read the rest of my essay.  And do poke around the site to read about a day in the life of some other really awesome archaeologists.

July 26, 2011

Cervantes, Cerveza y Cirrhosis

The forensic archaeologists are at it again!  This time, some Spanish ones want to dig up Cervantes.  Their goals are: 1) to "reconstruct the face of a man only know from a picture... painted some 20 years after his death"; and 2) figure out if he did indeed die of cirrhosis of the liver, according to historian Fernando Prado.

Cervantes de La Mancha (credit)
No one's quite sure where Cervantes' remains are buried, although they're most likely in a convent in Madrid.  If they do find remains that match his age-at-death and sex, though, archaeologists think that it will be easy to identify Cervantes, since "He received a blast from a harquebus in the chest and another wound that left him unable to use one hand," during a naval battle in 1571, according to Prado.  It does seem reasonable that these wounds could identify Cervantes, but it sounds like they'll have to dig up the entire convent to find the bones.  Prado hopes the work will be carried out by 2016.

I feel like a broken record, but facial reconstruction to see the "true face" of someone who died hundreds of years ago is just absurd (q.v. Mona Lisa and Shakespeare [who, incidentally, was Cervantes' contemporary]). As far as Cervantes' love for the cerveza, alcoholism does seem to predispose people to bone degeneration, and longstanding liver disease like cirrhosis could very well have affected the quality of his bone.  But osteoporosis and osteopenia are certainly not pathognomonic for cirrhosis or alcoholism and could be related to a variety of things, like vitamin D deficiency (rickets/osteomalacia).  There's no way to say for sure that Cervantes died from liver disease, even if they find a perfect skeleton - and the chances of that happening (especially if he had low bone density!) are fairly low.

Well, I could keep writing about how silly it is to do forensic reconstructions of 400-year-old people, or I could jump on the "Digging Up Celebrities" bandwagon.  All the cool kids are doing it, after all, and they're getting far more press than my average-Julii from Rome.  Now it's just a matter of digging up all of Rome to find an emperor...

* Hat tip to @TLockyer for the link!

July 25, 2011

LaTeX and Bioanthropology Journals

I write all my major papers in LaTeX.  For the uninitiated, LaTeX is a document preparation system that involves text mark-up, in kind of the same way that HTML does.  I started using LaTeX when I wrote my first master's thesis, mostly because I didn't want to keep track of which citations I'd used and didn't want to create a table of contents myself.  With BibTeX, I could create a centralized, annotated database of references, and with one command, an article would be given a parenthetical citation in my text and would be sure to show up, properly formatted, in my bibliography.  LaTeX is also excellent at typesetting complex formulae, which I needed for my thesis on biological distance, and it has great support for odd fonts, which is quite useful if you're using Ancient Greek, for example.  It produces postscript and PDF as its output, and my documents always look very nice and are small relative to comparable output from Word.

LaTeX involved a pretty steep learning curve for me, and I scoured the bookstore looking for a guide that would make me less reliant on the help of my computer scientist husband.  I ended up with The LaTeX Companion, which I highly recommend for humanists and social scientists who want to learn LaTeX, in spite of the fact that it wasn't particularly useful for some of the things I needed to do.  (Seriously, you can get it used for under $1.)  For the better part of two years at the turn of the millennium, I actually ended up using Linux as my OS the majority of the time, electing to type up class notes and short papers in LaTeX.  I moved from that to running LaTeX in a virtual machine, but that was super slow.  Now I'm not as much of a purist, and I need to use PowerPoint for teaching and Word for editing, so I run TexMaker natively in Windows.

LaTeX is primarily used by scholars in the hard sciences - physics, chemistry, computer science, etc.  Because it's such a widespread assumption that LaTeX is the typesetting program of choice, journals in these fields have created style files for both the text and the bibliography.  Using these style files along with standard markup language means that with one click of the mouse, the same article can be reformatted from one journal style to another.  No futzing with bibliography entries or changing the font of headings.  When I wrote my master's thesis in 2002, my husband helped me create my own style file that would conform to ECU's standards.  Fortunately, intrepid grad students at UNC created a style file years ago, so it took just a little tweaking to get my 2005 thesis and 2010 dissertation into proper format.

Now I'm at the point where I want to publish articles from my dissertation, and I'd assumed that there were few anthropology journals that would accept LaTeX.  Fortunately, I was wrong - among the top tier anthropology journals, about half accept LaTeX, and the other half demand a Word .doc.  This list isn't exhaustive, so I encourage you to add sites or journals or other resources in the comments.
So, cheers to Elsevier for allowing LaTeX submissions for most of their bioanth journals and to CA, which I didn't at all expect to number amongst the LaTeX-friendly.  Jeers to Wiley for nearly complete lack of support for LaTeX, particularly in AJPA.

July 23, 2011

Famed Farinelli's Flawed Frontalis

In 2006, archaeologists exhumed the remains of the legendary 18th century castrato, Carlo Maria Broschi, better known as Farinelli.  As a boy, Farinelli showed talent as an opera singer and, when their father died young, his elder brother Riccardo made the decision to have Farinelli castrated, an illegal operation at the time, in order to preserve his voice.  Farinelli became quite famous by the 1720s and sang daily until his death at the age of 78.  An analysis of the bones has just been published in the Journal of Anatomy by Belcastro, Fornaciari, and Mariotti, with the most salient finding being that Farinelli's castration led to hormonal changes that likely caused him to develop internal frontal hyperostosis (or hyperostosis frontalis interna, depending on what side of the Atlantic you're from), a thickening of the frontal bone in the cranial vault that is found almost exclusively in postmenopausal women.

Farinelli's bones, circled
(credit: Belcastro et al., Fig. 1)
Crush fraction of an L vert
(credit: Belcastro et al., Fig. 5)
Farinelli's bones were eventually moved to the grave of his great-niece, Maria Carlotta Pisani, and placed at her feet (see photo).  The bones were unfortunately not at all well-preserved.  Belcastro and colleagues could only estimate sex based on the narrow sciatic notch and the absence of a preauricular sulcus. In terms of age, they found evidence of fused cranial sutures, porosity of the auricular surface, trabecular thinning, degenerative changes in the vertebrae, and a compression fracture of one of the lumbar vertebrae, all pointing to an advanced age for this individual.  Interestingly, they noticed incomplete obliteration of the epiphyseal lines on the medial border of the left scapula and the left iliac crest.  While epiphyseal lines can persist into adulthood, they almost never persist past about 35 years old.  Based on the length of the right ulna, they estimate his stature at 6'3".  Of the 14 teeth that could be properly examined, there was evidence of caries in two, leading them to conclude he had good oral hygiene.

Thickening of Farinelli's frontal bone
(credit: Belcastro et al., Fig. 8)
When Belcastro and colleagues reconstructed some of the cranial fragments, they discovered extreme thickening of the vault (see photo), up to 21mm at the thickest.  As the area around the sagittal sulcus was unaffected, the authors conclude that the thickening is internal frontal hyperostosis rather than Paget's, acromegaly, fibrous dysplasia, or meningioma.  The etiology of IFH is not actually very clear, but the fact that it's found almost exclusively in post-menopausal women and men with hormonal disturbances (e.g., Klinefelter's syndrome) points to a problem with the body's hormonal balance.  Belcastro and colleagues succinctly review the clinical literature on IFH in men and conclude that Farinelli's IFH is most likely related to his castration.  Interestingly, castration can also explain his height (due to delayed epiphyseal fusion) and the finding of unfused epiphyses in his skeleton.

It's no secret that I am not a fan of digging up famous dead Italians, but in this case, Belcastro and colleagues have published the only osteological analysis of a castrato or eunuch.  Granted, the identification of this skeleton with Farinelli is not 100% clear because of the condition of the remains, but it's reasonable to assume that they did indeed find the man.

Portrait of Farinelli
(credit: Wikimedia commons)
The question remains, though, what effect IFH would have had on Farinelli's life, or on the lives of the numerous women who are also affected by this condition?  The clinical literature suggests that IFH is basically asymptomatic - because the disease has such a slow progression, over the span of decades, even the most severe cases of cranial thickening are assumed to pose no problem for the individual, whose brain can compensate little by little to the change in skull shape.  A short New Scientist piece, though, quotes Israel Hershkovitz as claiming that IFH is linked to "behavioral disorders, headaches, and neurological diseases like Alzheimer's."  Because of this quote, New Scientist ran with the headline "Lack of testes gave castrato superstar headaches."  Belcastro and colleagues, of course, didn't say anything about headaches, but apparently New Scientist thinks that discovering osteological evidence of a hormonal imbalance in the skeleton of a castrato isn't interesting enough for their readers.

I'll have to look into the claim that IFH does produce symptoms like headaches, though, as I'm quite interested in the pathology.  IFH is often not noticed in a bioarchaeological population unless the skulls are broken in just the right places.  Bioarchaeologists don't tend to have enough money to xray or CT hundreds of individuals as we collect data, so I suspect that we miss quite a few ancient cases of this condition.  I looked at a couple hundred skeletons from Imperial Rome and found one case of IFH (below), and I looked at a couple dozen skeletons from Gabii and found another case.

IFH in an Imperial Roman woman in her early 40s
(credit: Killgrove 2010)
A project that I would like to undertake in the future deals with understanding the lives of post-menopausal women in Rome.  These women were often seen as second-class citizens, even more so than women in general, because they were past their reproductive prime.  Looking at the prevalence of IFH within Imperial Roman cemeteries will help me understand post-menopausal women better, but it would be quite interesting for another reason: if Belcastro and colleagues are right that castration in men can lead to IFH, then it might be possible to find skeletons of eunuchs from Rome.  Anyway, I'll have to find a serious amount of funding first so that I can scan all the skulls.

Since I'm gearing up to teach a palaeopathology class in the fall, I'm thinking of making internal frontal hyperostosis a topic of an assignment, to see what the students can find out about the pathology.  I'm particularly interested in whether anyone's looked at a large population for frequency of IFH, or if the reported cases from archaeological sites are just individuals whose skulls happened to be broken in just the right way.

UPDATE (7/25/11) - Past Horizons is carrying this essay, which I modified slightly for them, so do click through.

UPDATE (9/1/11) - Rossella Lorenzi wrote up this story for Discovery News.  A French news site also has a summary of the piece.


MG Belcastro, G Fornaciari, & V Mariotti (2011). Hyperostosis frontalis interna (HFI) and castration: the case of the famous singer Farinelli (1705-1782). Journal of Anatomy PMID: 21740437.

K Killgrove (2010).  Migration and mobility in Imperial Rome.  PhD Dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

July 22, 2011

Virtually Dissect a Google Body

I discovered Google Body just in time for Google Labs to be axed.  It's a neat application where you can sort of virtually dissect the human body - both male and female.  I'm guessing the developer didn't put a whole lot of effort into it (as it's someone's 20% project), since the figures are quite pixellated.  But you can zoom in and out, spin the body around, and investigate whole systems (e.g., skeletal, muscular, nervous), particularly by using the double slider feature (left-hand toolbar):

Creepy Skeleton-Woman (with inexplicable mammary glands)

As a Google product, you can even "map" the body, placing pins in it (ouch!).  The pin-placement tool is pretty cool, because you can then choose to "highlight" the pin, so you can investigate a whole bone more closely and at tons of weird angles:

You always wanted to look at a patella from this angle, didn't you?

I'm not sure if I would use Google Body for a class like Human Osteology.  It's unclear if they've rendered the skeleton with any sexual dimorphism.  I couldn't see any, even in the pelvis.  That's a bit unfortunate, since they seem to have presented the muscles pretty well.

Playing with this tool makes me feel a bit like Angela from Bones, except that I haven't figured out how to program the Google Body to die in innumerable unnatural and implausible ways.  Go play around with it yourself until Google Labs shuts down.  And also be sure to check out the NGram Viewer, which is unfortunately meeting a similar fate.

Viking Women Immigrated to England, but Were They Warriors or Wives?

Today's Daily Mail and Wednesday's USA Today have short articles summarizing a recently-published study by Shane McLeod, called "Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD."  It's an interesting little piece, in which McLeod takes issue with the assumption that the Viking "warriors" were only men, an assumption that has been based primarily on grave goods and our own preconceptions about men and women in antiquity.  Previous research into Viking graves has resulted in estimates of 80-85% males, and this has clearly affected how scholars viewed the Vikings and their contributions, writes McLeod.  It's hard to tease out McLeod's data in this paper, which was written for the journal Early Medieval Europe and is historical in bent, but he seems to have limited his sample to those burials from which sex could be estimated osteologically and which chemical analysis revealed were almost certainly Viking immigrants (Budd et al. 2003).  McLeod concludes:
The reappraisal of the burial evidence for Norse migrants in eastern England up to 900 has provided a different perception of the possible numbers of Norse women involved in the early settlement period. Based on jewellery finds and the notion of an undocumented secondary migration, it has been suspected by some scholars that substantial numbers of Norse women were involved in the settlements. But there has previously been little substantive evidence to validate this claim, leading other scholars to suggest that the Norse settlers were overwhelmingly male. Although the results presented here cannot be used to determine the number of female settlers, they do suggest that the ratio of females to males may have been somewhere between a third to roughly equal. Furthermore, there is osteologically sexed burial evidence of Norse women in England during the earliest campaigning period of the great army of 865. It is possible that with further advances in science more evidence is likely to appear, providing a larger sample to work with, and enabling similar reappraisals of burial evidence from other areas of Norse settlement. The present results suggest new ways of understanding Norse migration and acculturation in late ninth-century England.
Reconstruction of a Viking boat (credit)
While I like the fact that McLeod tackles old assumptions in this short article, there are a couple worrying aspects.  The part about "acculturation" is not well laid out, as McLeod and others are assuming that Viking men would have acculturated to local habits more easily with Anglo-Saxon wives, and that having Viking wives may make researchers reevaluate acculturation.  Attempting to figure out biocultural relationships between two groups of people who hadn't previously met is quite difficult.  Witness, as one example, the centuries of literature on "Romanization" in the provinces in the Roman Empire.  Only within the last decade has there been a backlash from scholars against a far too facile understanding of the bi-directional process of culture sharing.

The other worrying part is that McLeod uses terms like "wives" and "widowed" in his paper, which makes the assumption (and conveys the idea) that the Vikings were married in the contemporary sense.  I could point to the literature on the Roman army as a cautionary tale here.  It had been assumed for centuries that the Roman army was only composed of men and that women and children, if they were present, lived outside the fort.  Finally, new evidence is being found and old evidence is being reevaluated, suggesting previous scholars were simply seeing what they wanted to see: Roman soldiers weren't married, and women certainly didn't live in the fort, in spite of the massive amount of evidence to the contrary.  My point is, without further investigation, we don't know if the Viking men and women found were spouses - Could they have been siblings or other kin?  How about slaves? Could the women have been warriors themselves?  I don't know anything about Viking relationships, though, so perhaps the conclusion that the Viking women were wives is valid.  McLeod does note that the sample may be biased, and there may not have been a 50/50 ratio of males to females, but the Daily Mail article picked up on this concept of "wives" and pairs of Vikings.

Overall, though, a nice article.  It highlights how far we've come in archaeological and historical scholarship on issues of sex, gender, and cultural biases, but also shows how far we still need to go.  It demonstrates that bioarchaeological research - even quite technical papers - can be used by social scientists and humanists to support arguments and conclusions.  And it lets me mention the always-brilliant work of Budd, Chenery, Montgomery, and Evans, who do amazing things with isotopes in England.

(For more, see Katy Meyers' post at Bones Don't Lie. I'm woefully behind on my news feed at the moment and just noticed her summary of the article.)

P. Budd, C. Chenery, J. Montgomery, J. Evans, & D. Powlesland (2003). Anglo-Saxon Residential Mobility at West Heslerton, North Yorkshire, UK From Combined O- and Sr-Isotope Analysis Plasma Source Mass Spectrometry: Applications and Emerging Technologies, 195-208.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org
S. McLeod (2011). Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 AD Early Medieval Europe, 19 (3), 332-353.

July 21, 2011

International Journal of Paleopathology

The official journal of the Paleopathology Association (PPA) has finally been launched.  The first issue of the new International Journal of Paleopathology was published by Elsevier in March, but the entire issue is now open-access here via ScienceDirect.  The journal is helmed by the grand doyenne of bioarchaeology, Jane Buikstra, and the list of associate editors reads like a who's who in palaeopathology.

I haven't had time to pore through the issue yet, but I'm particularly excited about Mary Lewis's "Tuberculosis in the non-adults from Romano-British Poundbury Camp, Dorset, England."  Hopefully after I get my isotope articles out, I'll find some time to write up my Roman with rheumatoid arthritis for the IJPP.

Earliest Occupation of Crete May Date to 125,000 Years Ago

A recently published article in the Journal of Quaternary Science by Strasser and colleagues suggests new dates for stone tools discovered on the island of Crete.  Namely, the artifacts are associated with geological strata that date to the late Middle Pleistocene or early Late Pleistocene, meaning a terminus ante quem of 125,000 years ago.

An archaeological survey in the Plakias area of Crete between 2008-09 uncovered nine sites and over 400 artifacts.  The stone tools discovered were Acheulean in type, with bifaces, cleavers, cores, and flake tools made out of quartz, and are similar to tools found elsewhere on the Greek mainland:

Bifaces from Crete.  (Credit: Strasser and colleagues 2011, Figure 2)
Through an impressive array of geological and chemical analyses (which I don't have time to delve into at the moment), the authors conclude that these tools represent the earliest known occupation of Crete, placing it at around 125,000 years ago.  This date contradicts the assumption that Crete was not occupied until the advent of anatomically modern humans.  According to Strasser and colleagues:
The relatively large numbers of Palaeolithic artefacts found in this one small region (∼30 km2) – the first to be searched systematically for these materials and to be subjected to geological and chronostratigraphical analyses – suggest that a hominin presence on Crete may have been widespread and perhaps long lasting. This would indicate that early hominins were able to reach Crete from Greece, Turkey, the Near East or Africa by crossing open bodies of water. Only hominins with the technical means and cognitive skills required to build boats and to navigate among the islands would have been able to establish an enduring presence on the large and difficult-to-access island of Crete.
This is a really interesting finding, and I hope it's only a matter of time until archaeologists start finding hominin fossils on Crete.


T. Strasser, E. Panagopoulou, C. Runnels, P. Murray, N. Thompson, P. Karkanas, F. McCoy, & K. Wegmann (2010). Stone Age seafaring in the Mediterranean: Evidence from the Plakias region for Lower Palaeolithic and Mesolithic habitation of Crete Hesperia, 79 (2), 145-190.

T. Strasser, C. Runnels, K. Wegmann, E. Panagopoulou, F. McCoy, C. Digregorio, P. Karkanas, & N. Thompson (2011). Dating Palaeolithic sites in southwestern Crete, Greece Journal of Quaternary Science, 26 (5), 553-560. DOI: 10.1002/jqs.1482.

July 19, 2011

SCT in an Imperial Roman Woman

In an early view article from the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, authors Rubini, Cerroni, and Zaio report on the earliest known case of spondylocarpotarsal (SCT) synostosis, found in a middle-aged woman from the Imperial period site of Grottaferrata, near Frascati in the Roman suburbs.  The skeleton was found within a large cemetery population (that is completely unpublished in English and, to my knowledge, is not published in Italian either), and the woman's bones were carbon dated to 50-125 AD.

40-45-year-old woman with
SCT syndrome, from Grottaferrata
(credit: Rubini and colleagues, IJOA)
Her skeleton showed immediate evidence of scoliosis, an abnormal curvature of the spine.  The authors found atrophy of the left hand, with fusion of all carpals, several metacarpals, and the radius with the scaphoid.  There were also numerous segmentation defects in the spine, which they interpret as evidence of congenital scoliosis.  All of these bits of fusion and malformation combine to suggest a diagnosis of SCT, which is a rare, autosomal recessive condition.  SCT was first described in 1973, and there are only 30 known cases worldwide.

Because of the provenance of the find - the bioarchaeology of Imperial Rome is my wheelhouse, and when I work at Gabii, we stay quite near Grottaferrata - I was interested to learn more about this skeleton and the diagnosis.  I can't imagine I'll ever find something like this, since it's such a rare condition, but it was an interesting read.


Rubini M, Cerroni V, & Zaio P (2011). The Earliest Case of Spondylocarpotarsal Synostosis Syndrome (Roman Age—2nd Century AD). International Journal of Osteoarchaeology (Early View).

July 16, 2011

La Signora di Introd, Contemporary of Oetzi?

Italian news is reporting the discovery of the Lady of Introd, a 5,000-year-old skeleton found near the town of Aosta in the Alps, about half-way between Geneva and Turin.  Not much has been said yet, and this appears to be the fullest extent of the reports (via La Stampa):
The Lady of Introd (credit: AostaOggi)
E' stata soprannominata la "Signora di Introd" e dopo 5000 anni la sua sepoltura è ancora perfetta. Lo scheletro di questa donna ancora misteriosa e ancora senza età, è stata ritrovato all’interno della propria tomba ad Introd, paese alpino di poco più di 600 abitanti, non lontano da Aosta. Rannicchiata sul fianco destro e con il capo rivolto a nord ovest, non ha attorno nessun oggetto di corredo funebre. I resti della signora sono già stati trasferiti in laboratorio, dove nei prossimi giorni saranno oggetto di analisi approfondite per determinarne l'età, le abitudini alimentari e la causa di morte. L’Assessore all’Istruzione e Cultura Laurent Viérin esprime“grande soddisfazione per questo importante ritrovamento, unico nel suo genere, che testimonia la ricchezza e la qualità del patrimonio archeologico valdostano e della nostra storia.” 
Il ritrovamento è avvenuto durante i sondaggi archeologici per l’ampliamento della scuola materna di Introd, vicino alla chiesa, al castello e all'antico granaio. Al termine delle indagini su tutta l'area, il ritrovamento dello scheletro non porrà comunque alcun ostacolo alla realizzazione del previsto ampliamento scolastico. Il Soprintendente, l' architetto Roberto Domaine, sottolinea che “il compito della Soprintendenza è quello di garantire una tutela capillare dei Beni culturali in modo da acquisire tutte quelle conoscenze storiche che poi diventano patrimonio dell’intera comunità”.
For those of you who don't read Italian, the 5,000-year-old skeleton was discovered recently in the tiny town of Introd (pop: 618), during excavation work to create an addition to a school.  The skeleton has been assessed as female, and she was buried on her right side with her head facing west.  No grave goods accompanied the burial.  The skeleton has already been excavated and moved to a laboratory, where researchers propose to figure out age-at-death, diet, and possible causes or contributors to her death.

This area of the Italian Alps was occupied in historical times by the Salassi tribe.  They were defeated and enslaved by the Romans, and the town became Augusta Praetorium Salassorum (now Aosta) in 25 BC.  Prior to that, I don't know much about the area.  If this skeleton can indeed be carbon-dated to the 3rd millennium BC (nowhere does it say how they assessed the skeleton at five millennia old!), it makes the Lady of Introd relatively contemporaneous with Oetzi the Iceman in the late Neolithic.  A dietary analysis of the Lady of Introd would be quite interesting.  Various dietary analyses done on Oetzi - whose last meals were quite well preserved - indicate he dined on a lot of meat, as well as einkorn wheat and barley (Dickson et al. 2000).

As I'm putting the finishing touches on my article on isotope analyses of the Imperial Roman diet, I've become quite interested in the differential consumption of wheat/barley and millet.  Wheat and barley have a distinctly different carbon isotope signature than does millet, but few palaeodietary studies have been done to look at the prevalence of millet in the Italian peninsula and the differences among the populations that consumed it.  By the Bronze Age in Italy, people from the far north of the Italian peninsula were eating their fair share of millet, particularly compared to their contemporaries in southern Italy (Tafuri et al. 2009).  Even though quite a bit is known about the timing of the introduction of domesticated plants into Italy during the Neolithic, we still know little about the intensity of cultivation of various cereals.  The diets of Oetzi and the Lady of Introd are therefore quite interesting primarily because they can provide direct evidence for differences in cereal consumption in the Neolithic.  They are just two data points, but I hope the dietary analysis of the Lady of Introd reveals some interesting data to answer questions about Neolithic diets.

* Hat tip to Alessandra Cinti for posting this news story on Facebook.

UPDATE (7/20) - Rossella Lorenzi at Discovery News is the first to post in English about this find: Iceman's 'Girlfriend' Found.  Coverage in other languages:  La Tercera (Spanish); MMC (Slovenian).


ResearchBlogging.orgDickson JH, Oeggl K, Holden TG, Handley LL, O'Connell TC, & Preston T (2000). The omnivorous Tyrolean Iceman: colon contents (meat, cereals, pollen, moss and whipworm) and stable isotope analyses. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 355 (1404), 1843-9 PMID: 11205345.

Tafuri MA, Craig OE, & Canci A (2009). Stable isotope evidence for the consumption of millet and other plants in Bronze Age Italy. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 139 (2), 146-53 PMID: 19051259.

July 12, 2011

How to Section Teeth

In preparation for a visit to my friendly geochemistry lab bright and early tomorrow morning, I had to section two teeth this evening.  They're both third molars from female immigrants to Rome, and I'll be processing them for strontium isotope ratios this week.  Since the first molars only told me these two individuals immigrated to Rome some time after birth, I'm hoping that the third molars will either narrow down the age at which they immigrated or will show that they immigrated somewhere else before arriving at Rome.  This is all in service of a paper I'm writing for this year's EAA conference with archaeological chemists Rob Tykot and Janet Montgomery.

So I thought I'd reprise a post that I wrote almost exactly three years ago: a how-to (with video!) for sectioning teeth using a Buehler saw.  If you have this amazingly expensive saw and some archaeological teeth lying around (or your kid's baby teeth, whatevs), read on to learn how to cut them into pieces without reducing them to dust.

The first thing I have to do in order to prepare the ancient Roman teeth for strontium analysis is to section them. So I learned from Lee Boushell at the Dental School at UNC how to use a saw to do this - without having to embed each tooth in plastic or resin. The point of obtaining a thick section from the middle of the tooth is that I can theoretically get at the "good" enamel - the stuff at the dento-enamel junction, and therefore the stuff that will help me tell if an individual was originally from Rome or not. Once I get the middle section, I have to affix it to a slide and use a dental drill to get 5-10mg of enamel. Since I was sectioning some teeth today, I documented my afternoon.

I decided to make a video demonstration of sectioning ancient teeth using the spiffy saw I found a couple weeks ago. This is my first attempt at stitching together several smaller movies into one big movie - complete with title slide and credits - so let me know what you think (but be nice!). It's about 7.5 minutes long and includes an audio narration by me (plus the appearance of my ugly elbow and giant hands). So the next time you find yourself cozied up to a lab saw with 200 old, dry teeth and seven days to kill, you too can cut them into thirds. Without further ado, allow me to present to you, "How to use a Buehler Isomet 1000 to section teeth." Break out the popcorn and enjoy!

(If it doesn't play, drop me a line - it may mean that Google video no longer works.)

July 8, 2011

Men Talk about Mars, Women Talk about Venus

Last month, a variety of parenting blogs were in an uproar over the story of a Canadian family that didn’t feel like sharing the sex of newborn Storm with the rest of the world. The media had a field day with the notion of raising a “genderless” child, even after Storm’s mother published an explanation making it clear that their goal was to buffer the child against the relentless gender stereotyping we foist on infants from day one. From garish pink onesies that proclaim “Daddy’s Little Girl” and powder blue “Little Man” t-shirts, to letting our girls’ hair grow out and cutting our boys’ hair short, to offering our girls a doll and our boys a ball, we indicate to our children through subtle and overt actions what their future role might be in society: girl or boy, woman or man.

Within this discussion about de-emphasizing gender norms for the most vulnerable members of our culture—those who are unable to think for themselves—a lot of attention has paid to bucking gendered trends in toys, clothing, and hair style, but only one news piece that I saw brought up the subject of language:
"It is very courageous to challenge [the world] on adjectives that you use on children," [Cheryl] Kilodavis [author of the children’s book My Princess Boy] tells ParentDish. "Instead of saying what a strong boy what a pretty girl, they are saying what a strong or beautiful child."
Language is the most important tool that humans ever developed. It allows us to collate and categorize information to make sense of our world, and it allows us to pass on that information to succeeding generations. But language differs around the world – not only in the words used to describe something, but in the number of words used to describe something. That is, the words used by a group of people generally reflect the interests and concerns of those people – so people in cold climates have a larger range of words for cold-weather phenomena than do people living in warm climates, who may have a larger range of words related to their own environment.

This means that language can also differ along gender lines. In a paper that is often assigned in introductory anthropology courses, Daniel Maltz and Ruth Borker discuss the reasons for “male-female miscommunication.” Rather than looking to psychological differences between the sexes to explain differences in communication styles, Maltz and Borker think we should be discussing sociolinguistic subcultures, or the culturally-influenced differences between men’s and women’s approaches to communication. They suggest that women tend to use language to negotiate and express relationships; we tend to use a lot of personal and inclusive pronouns, interject questions and comments in order to show interest; and we are concerned with making segues between topics. On the other hand, jokes and stories are highly valued in men’s speech; loud and aggressive speech is common; and put-downs and insults are normal ways of talking with friends.

What about actual gendered words and phrases? Sure, English, like many languages, has masculine and feminine pronouns, as well as gendered nouns for various relationships and occupations. But we also have more subtly gendered vocabulary, as illustrated in the quote above: we praise our strong boys and our pretty girls. Two researchers at the Center for Mind/Brain Sciences at the University of Trento (Italy) recently decided to empirically test the question of whether there is a gender bias in what women and men talk about. Their goal was not anthropological, but rather computational - to find a way to model “common sense knowledge” as part of the eventual perfection of artificial intelligence (Herdağdelen & Baroni 2011):
Common sense knowledge consists of the simple facts that nearly every person knows but almost never states explicitly because of the very assumption that it is already shared by everyone. Some examples are that mountains are taller than buildings, grocery has a price, or rivers flow downhill. The assumption that common sense knowledge is shared is what allows us to communicate with other people and interact with our surroundings in an efficient and natural way. Therefore, an AI system needs to possess common sense if it aims to interact with people in a natural way.
That is, we have all been enculturated into a particular way of life, and we expect people of different ages, occupations, and genders (among other qualities) to interact with us in different ways:
Prejudices and stereotypical knowledge present an intriguing aspect of common sense. As human beings, we rely on (and possibly suffer from) stereotypical expectations. Obviously, we would not want to engineer an AI with its own prejudices and stereotypes, but on the other hand, if an AI system is to relate to humans, it should know about the stereotypical expectations as well—whether it is right or wrong, an AI should know that (we expect that) women like shopping and men like football. Without an explicit knowledge of the stereotypes, such beliefs can be implicit, hidden, and intermixed with other “objective” facts in a knowledge base.
The authors, Herdağdelen and Baroni, analyzed a data set consisting of over ten million tweets broadcast from the U.S. in English over Twitter from November 2009 to February 2010. Cross-referencing each Twitter user’s first name with the database of male and female infants’ first names put out by the U.S. Social Security Administration, the authors isolated 5.2 million tweets belonging to men and 5.9 million tweets belonging to women. And they did find gender bias in certain phrases. For example, “[want to] make money” ranked numbers one and three for “masculine” phrases. On the “feminine” side, they found “go [to] bed” and “feel like.” The coolest thing about this research, though, is that the authors set up a nifty online widget – at www.TweetOLife.com – where you can put in any word or phrase you want, to see how it falls along gender lines.

It’s generally assumed that women in American culture distinguish among more color words than men do, possibly as a result of the myriad colors in clothing and makeup. Our parents and our friends likely train us to be aware of these subtleties. Let’s examine this using Tweet-O-Life:

Whereas “red” is basically 50/50, slightly more women than men used the word “maroon” and many more used the word “scarlet.” It’s not a perfect test, of course – those women may be talking about the Scarlet Letter or Scarlet O’Hara. The brilliance of this widget is that you can click over to “detailed query” and find that, while the men are tweeting about “scarlet” with “red,” “knight,” “fever,” and “sin,” the women are tweeting about it with “letter.”

How about language relating to children and childcare? Our “common sense” tells us that women still do the majority of child-rearing.

The term “infant” is the only one that more men say than women, and “toddler” is disproportionately said by women. Interestingly, whereas men used the word “toddler” with words like “autism,” “grandmother,” and “craft,” women used the word with “bed,” “nap,” and “scream.” The diversity of names for children may not be split too heavily along gender lines, but the words used with “toddler” suggest that women may be the primary (naptime?) caregivers.

What if we try something like “computer”? As with “red”, we get basically a 50/50 split between men and women. The really interesting differences come in the detailed query:

Men talk about computers as if they’re actively engaging with them or at least bragging about them. They tweet about their processors, the gigabytes they have, the operating system they’re running, and how skillfully they can manipulate them. Women, on the other hand, talk about computers just as often, but mention their aesthetic appeal and express defeat at technology they can’t control. Even a seemingly gender-neutral word like “computer” is not, as men and women describe it differently.

I tasked some of my friends with finding the most “masculine” and “feminine” words possible. One tried “drywall” and “chainsaws” (per The Oatmeal ) to no avail. After some trial and error, this is what we came up with:

Only 10% of the tweeted mentions of the operating system Linux were by women, and only 11% of the tweets that mention Justin Bieber were written by men. (If you can find a word that is more gender-biased, please leave it in the comments!)

With such strongly gendered words in evidence, how could NPR ask on June 23 if we’re nearing “The End of Gender?” The article ends with a quote from neuroscientist Lise Eliot, who suggests that:
if parents did not buy into the gender stereotyping of children's toys and clothes, kids would stay open-minded longer during childhood. The goal is to keep girls physically active, curious and assertive, and boys sensitive, verbal and studious.
Pink and blue onesies are problematic, as are marketing campaigns aimed at encouraging a strict gender division in kids’ toys – as one of my favorite blogs, Sociological Images, is often pointing out -- but refusing to buy gendered toys and clothes only goes so far when we still call our girls “pretty” and our boys “strong,” or praise our boys for not crying and our girls for being quiet.

The way we speak is conditioned in our society by geographical area, education level, race, class, ethnicity, status, and gender. We’ve been trained since before birth to pick up on these differences, as they give us a world of information about the person we’re talking to. One of the salient conclusions of the Herdağdelen and Baroni study is that men and women on Twitter tend, by and large, to tweet about what we expect them to tweet about. They perform the gender roles we expect of them, and their language reveals that.

The question remains, why do men talk about Linux and women talk about Bieber? Is language informing our outlook on the world, or is culture informing our linguistic patterns? The answer is probably a bit of both.

A. Herdagdelen & M. Baroni (2011). Stereotypical gender actions can be extracted from web text. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology.

Maltz, D. & R. Borker. 2007. A cultural approach to male-female miscommunication. In: A Cultural Approach to Interpersonal Communication, Essential Readings, L. Monaghan and J. Goodman, eds., Ch. 20, pp. 161-178. Blackwell Publishing.

July 5, 2011

Second Lead Sarcophagus Found at Gabii

The Italian news site Libero reported today on the newest lead sarcophagus from the site of Gabii, an archaeological site located in the Roman suburbs.  In 2009, the team found the first lead sarcophagus - a unique style in the Roman world, as it was folded over like a burrito (see below).  No pictures have yet been released of the newest discovery.  As the bioarchaeologist of the Gabii Project, I'm super cheesy excited.  More news to come, I hope!

The original lead burrito:
Imperial-period tomb from Gabii
(photo by Jeff Becker, hosted at NatGeo)

July 3, 2011

Mortimer, the Infamous Skeleton of Grumbles Alley

Down in Selma, Alabama, a large, robust skeleton nicknamed Mortimer sits on a barrel in Grumbles Alley restaurant.  His origin is unclear.  Local legend has it that Mortimer was dug up a century ago by a farmer, who bartered the skeleton to the town doctor for medical services.  The skeleton is notable because of his stature - Mortimer may have been a 7-foot-tall Indian, according to stories told to a former restaurant worker.  Or perhaps he was Montgomery pediatrician John Sumner's great-great-great-grandfather, John Ellis Sumner, a minister who was rumored to have stood at 6'6" and died in Selma in 1856.  Sumner was supposedly exhumed and studied because of his extraordinary height, and the family doesn't know what happened to his body.

Mortimer made news over the last couple of weeks because a nurse named JoEllen Roberson travelled to Selma from her home in Columbia, South Carolina, to study the skeleton:

Mortimer, sitting in his usual
spot at Grumbles Alley
(credit: AP photo)
From the video and a photo of the skeleton (right), the skull has all the hallmarks of a male individual: very large mastoid processes, mental eminence, heavy brows, square orbits.  There aren't very good pictures of the pelvis, unfortunately, but overall this individual is quite robust and very likely to have been male.  Based on what I can see of the nose, this person may have been Caucasian.  There's a high, straight nasal bridge and a tear-drop-shaped opening.  Still, the cheekbones give me pause, as they're quite high and flared.  From the pictures and the low-quality video, I can't rule out Native American.

There's no detail in the video or the news reports on how Roberson "analyzed" the skeleton.  It appears that she used a measuring tape and a straight edge(!) to estimate Mortimer's living height.  But she didn't use any of the formulas we osteologists use to approximate living stature.  Roberson admits that Mortimer may have been taller with flesh on him but for some reason only estimates 1/2" extra (where she got that figure, I have no idea).  She doesn't appear to have tried to figure out sex, age-at-death, or age of the skeleton.  However, she did take (break?) a toe bone in order to find someone to do a DNA analysis for her, but this hasn't yet been done.  My guess is she thought a DNA test would be inexpensive (as it is for living people), but if this bone is from someone who died over 100 years ago and was treated as a medical skeleton (the bones look shellacked or something), DNA may be quite difficult to isolate.

The weirdest part of this story to me is that Roberson sent her measurements (which are not in any way precise, since she didn't use calipers or other osteological equipment) to the Centre for Fortean Zoology, which had apparently expressed an interest in the skeleton of the "giant."  The CFZ's trade is primarily in cryptozoology - you know, chupacabras and yetis.  I can't imagine these people do actual science, although I can imagine they'd be interested in a skeleton with greater-than-average height.  I tried to find an email for Roberson, so that I could ask her for her measurements, but I could only find her business phone number.  Maybe I'll call after the holiday, since I'm curious how and what she measured.

At any rate, I'm not sure why Roberson or the owners of Grumbles Alley didn't call a local biological anthropologist - Keith Jacobi at the University of Alabama, perhaps?  I'm going to bug my colleagues who work in Alabama and see if someone is interested in checking out the skeleton.  Or maybe I'll take a nice little road-trip when I move to Nashville, since Selma is only about 5 hours away.  If this skeleton is of a Native American, there are several provisions of NAGPRA that will need to be legally met.  If this is a medical (study) skeleton, it's probably legal for Grumbles Alley to own, but it's rather in poor taste to display it and dress it up for holidays and other events.

Mortimer is not the first skeleton to be handed down over the decades, but he would provide some enterprising graduate student or professor with an opportunity to do a case-study to discriminate among forensic, historic, and ancient contexts.  A great place to start is Dawnie Steadman's article "The Pawn Shop Mummified Head" in her edited volume Hard Evidence: Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology.  It's a great read - students in my forensic anthropology course liked it - and useful for those of us who normally work in one context (I work in "ancient," for example) but are called upon to look at skeletons from the other two contexts.

Finding old skeletons with unknown or unclear provenance is not unusual, particularly as doctors trained in a bygone era pass along the skulls they were required to purchase in med school to their children and grandchildren along with the rest of their estate.  It would be great if there were a way the public could alert a local biological anthropologist of the human remains in their possession.  Perhaps an enterprising graduate student could set up some kind of clearinghouse of information (particularly on the legality of owning human skeletal remains) and/or a list of biological anthropologists interested in these isolated cases.  A website to this effect would be quite useful for people who are unsure what to do with human bones.  Or perhaps people should just contact the police, no matter the seeming antiquity of the bones?  I'd be interested to hear what my readers think the best course of action is.


This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

D.W. Steadman (2003). The pawn shop mummified head: discriminating among forensic, historic, and ancient contexts. In: Hard Evidence: Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology, pp. 212-226. Prentice Hall.

Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha