April 28, 2011

Bones - Season 6, Episode 20 (Review)

The Pinocchio in the Planter
Episode Summary

A terrible child actor falls into a planter at a new playground and finds a skeleton. Brennan, Booth, and Hodgins respond to the scene. Brennan estimates the sex as male based on a large and projecting mastoid process and the overall robusticity of the skeleton. Moderate osteoarthritis of the humeral head puts the man in his mid to late 40s. Hodgins notices a swarm of Necator americanus, hookworm. Based on the dispersal rate of hookworms - exactly 1 foot per day - Hodgins and Brennan conclude from a hookworm that is 3'4 1/16" away from the bowels that the victim died 3 days, 8 hours, and 45 minutes ago.

At the Jeffersonian, Wendell notices the victim had been beaten. Severe blunt force trauma at the coronal suture and across the sagittal ridge suggests cause of death. There is also an open fracture of the clavicle. Based on the smart car key found nearby, Angela discovers that the victim was Ross Dixon, who had been missing for four days. Remodelling of the facial bones indicates that, all in the last year, Dixon had been punched in the nose twice (fractured nasal bones), in the eye once (fractured left orbital socket), and punched in the jaw once (hairline fracture along the mental foramen). The trace element on the broken clavicle turns out to be titanium, and Hodgins and Wendell assume it's from a surgical implant that left a 37mm gap in a rib and osteitis around the fracture site.

Booth finds a videotape of Nicole Francuzzi assaulting Dixon after an award ceremony. In questioning, she admits the assault but notes that no one liked Dixon anymore. He had joined a club that trafficks in radical honesty called The Honesty Policy. By speaking the truth, the members feel they are freeing themselves of making a good impression. Booth, Brennan, and Sweets hop into her suh-weet ride with its auto-parallel-parking majik and meet the club's organizer, Burt Iverson, Esquire. The key suspect quickly becomes Toby Holcomb, the cranky clown (Andy Milder from Weeds). Back at the FBI, Holcomb admits he hung out with Dixon the night of the murder, but Dixon left to have dinner with someone.

Based on Dixon's stomach contents - goat cheese, tomatoes, truffles, and corn meal - Hodgins and Saroyan think that he ate fancy pizza shortly before his death. The truffle pizza is a particular luxury of Farini's, where a waiter named Jonah Hinkle was seen getting into a fight with Dixon. Hinkle, who happens to be Dixon's son, saw his dad for the first time in months that night and noticed him arguing with a woman wearing a neck brace and driving a car that had been in an accident.

Meanwhile, Wendell notices faint microfractures in a diagonal descending pattern anterolaterally on ribs 4-8, which Brennan guesses constituted a minor crushing injury from the seatbelt in a rear-end collision. And Hodgins finds that the piece of bone Wendell found is not bone at all but carbonized wood. Angela, though, points out the nerve fiber running through it, and Wendell thinks it's a new, cutting-edge, biocompatible piece of wood used in Dixon's rib fracture. This means that Dixon was indeed bludgeoned by something titanium. Hodgins and Angela find that the monkey bars at the new playground are coated in a titanium paint and suggest that one of the disassembled bars was the murder weapon.

Booth meanwhile questions Dorothy Emridge, the driver of the red convertible. She admits she was having an affair with Dixon and that he was in her car at the time of the accident. Her lawyer, Burt Iverson, shows up and insists that Emridge could not have committed the crime because she suffered a left laminar fracture of her sixth cervical vertebra. Brennan requests the xrays to confirm, and does see the fracture - but notices the pointed mental protuberance of the mandible, which indicates the xray was from a Caucasian individual, not Emridge, who is African-American. Booth gets a warrant to have the monkeybars disassembled, and Burt Iverson's fingerprints are found on the inside of one of the metal pipes. Dixon had found out about Iverson's plan to use Emridge to get a big settlement from the car accident. Dixon wanted to tell the truth, so Iverson killed him.

In the B and C stories, Angela and Hodgins mope about the possibility their baby will be blind, and Wendell tells the truth in order to score more hours at the Jeffersonian.

Forensic Comments

  • I'll buy a large mastoid as a quick estimator of sex, but using osteoarthritis to figure out age? I feel like a broken record, but any number of things can contribute to osteoarthritis of the humerus: playing tennis, rheumatoid or psoriatic arthritis, etc., can all cause bone degeneration beyond "normal" wear and tear.
  • I couldn't immediately find if there's any truth to the assertion that a hookworm can crawl exactly 1 foot per day. That seems insanely specific and convenient. But if there were worms with a known lifecycle present, why couldn't Hodgins just look at the mass of them in the bowels to tell the time of death? Why did the victim have hookworm anyway? I thought that would figure into the plot or solution somewhere along the line, but it didn't.
  • Brennan calls it the CORonal suture; while the dictionary agrees that is an accepted pronunciation, I've never heard it that way. Her "mental proTRUberance," on the other hand, is just flat out wrong.
  • Who reported Dixon missing? We're told that his wife left the country and he hasn't talked to his grown kids in six months. He no longer had a job, and the people in his honesty group didn't seem to know he was missing (and many didn't care).
  • I could do without the product placements in my crap TV shows, thankyouverymuch.
  • Wendell notes signs of osteitis around the rib fracture. Osteitis is a general inflammation of bone, and it would usually show up as proliferative lesions. The picture shown was hard to distinguish, but I saw no obvious evidence of osteitis.
  • You can't introduce Andy Milder as a guest star and then not have him do it. Disappointing.
  • I am happy Wendell said "anterolaterally" - not enough proper anatomical-directional terms are thrown out on the show - but thought until the third or fourth time rewatching that he had said "interlaterally."
  • The area around the nose is the most clearly diagnostic of "ancestry" of an individual. Is the mental protuberance even a valid way of estimating ancestry? (My books are out of reach at the moment and it's not like I use these features in my own research. But this site has a good list, and chin ain't on it.) There's just no good reason Brennan would key into the shape of the mandible when much of the nasal structure was on the xray.
  • I got nothing this week, even with the truth-telling experiment. Bland dialogue, bland drama.

Forensic Mystery - B. This episode was mostly focused on finding the killer, since it was pretty easy to ID the victim. I did think it would turn out to be the clown, so the writers managed to trick me.

Forensic Solution - C+. There were a bunch of fractures, the patterning of which was kind of interesting. And the bone-wood implant was interesting (even if the injury that warranted it was never explained). But the whole "telling race from the chin" was lame-o.

Drama - C-. I would have given this a straight up middling C, but the Angela-Hodgins storyline dropped it because of their pathological inability to be adults about their entire relationship.

Stab-happy Romans

BBC News is reporting on the skeleton of a 16- to 20-year-old female found in Kent (England), in a grave that has been dated based on random pottery fragments to about 50 AD. According to Paul Wilkinson, the director of the excavation (which seems to be salvage in nature rather than a large-scale dig), the trauma to the back of the young woman's head suggests she was stabbed while kneeling down. The skeleton was found in a shallow grave pit oriented north-south; she was buried face-down, with one arm underneath her and a foot seemingly outside of the dug pit (pic below via BBC).

First things first. A female in her late teens in Roman times was probably not a "girl." Depending on health, she may have gone through puberty already (Amundsen & Diers 1969), and depending on social status and ethnicity, she may have been married (Hopkins 1965). The head trauma is quite interesting (or would be if there were an actual picture of it), but there is no indication from the BBC report how the archaeologist concluded it was a sword wound, much less how he could tell it had been inflicted by a Roman sword. From the reported data, it does sound like she had been hastily buried, but I don't buy that grave orientation can tell you whether she was local or not.

Was a "girl murdered by Roman soldiers," as the headline reads? The verb seems reasonable, but we can question the characterization of both the victim and the murderer. Maybe she was killed by a jealous lover and hastily buried? Seems equally as likely as having been killed by a Roman soldier, at least based on the evidence presented.

Wilkinson is further quoted as saying that "Now, for the first time, we have an indication of how the Roman armies treated people, and that large numbers of the local populations were killed. It shows how all invading armies act the same throughout history. One can only imagine what trauma this poor girl had to suffer before she was killed." Yup - this one skeleton shows that, in the long history of human warfare, all soldiers act the same. And this one skeleton unequivocally tells us that Roman soldiers brutalized the locals.

I'll leave this rather ridiculously aggrandizing story with a note of caution to archaeologists approached by the media, courtesy of Julien Riel-Salvatore, who just today wrote an excellent post on this topic in light of the gay caveman debacle: "It may be time for anthropologists and archaeologists to get some actual formal training in PR or media relations as part of their education."

UPDATE (5/3/11) - BBC now has a video, with a cool pan over the skeleton and a bit of talk-and-point with Paul Wilkinson. Wilkinson found the burial, suggested the woman was killed by Romans, and apparently also suggested that this is also evidence of the first Roman fort in Britain! Fortunately, BBC also talks to archaeologist Chris Sparey-Green, who craps all over Wilkinson's assertions (well, in a demure, British way). Watch the video here.


Amundsen DW, & Diers CJ (1969). The age of menarche in Classical Greece and Rome. Human biology, 41 (1), 125-32 PMID: 4891546

K. Hopkins (1965). The age of Roman girls at marriage Population Studies, 18 (3), 309-327 DOI: 10.2307/2173291

Artifacts... in Space!

The warship Mary Rose was fighting near the Isle of Wight on July 19, 1545 in the Battle of the Solent, part of the Italian Wars between the fleets of Francis I of France and Henry VIII of England. As the Mary Rose went into battle, she sank - probably because open gunports and a strong gust of wind caused the ship to flood (Stirland 2000). All but about 35-40 of her crew of around 415 died.

The wreck was salvaged in 1982 and has been called a Tudor-era time capsule because of the amazing preservation of over 26,000 artifacts: most of the ship (including sails and rigging), its armament (guns and other weapons), its skeletons (at least 179 individuals have been recovered), musical instruments, navigation tools (compasses, protractors, a logreel), and medical instruments from the cabin of the ship's barber-cum-surgeon.

My familiarity with this important archaeological find is primarily related to the 179 skeletons aboard the ship. While researching comparanda for my dissertation, I came across a variety of articles on the isotope analysis of a sample of the skeletons. Bell and colleagues (2009) used carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen isotope analyses of 18 individuals to show that at least one-third of this sampled population were not from Britain but rather had originated in warmer regions to the south. They concluded that these data were evidence of mercenaries on the ship, suggesting the Mary Rose may have sunk because a language barrier among the sailors caused poor communication leading to operator error. Millard & Schroeder (2010), however, quickly dismissed Bell and colleagues' findings, reinterpreting the isotope data to suggest that only 1 of the 18 individuals could credibly be shown to have originated elsewhere. The debate over the cause of the shipwreck continues, but the isotope data are providing great information about the people aboard.

Also providing information about the crew is the morphological analysis of the skeletal remains. There has been at least one forensic reconstruction done based on the skeleton of a man who was found with a whistle, possibly a boatswain (right, via BBC). Then at the Paleopathology Association meetings a few weeks ago, there was a presentation on occupational markers and trauma in an attempt to identify which individual performed which role on the ship. The ship's crew likely had a significant number of longbow archers, as suggested by the 300+ longbows found in the wreck, and the previous osteological analysis indicated that several of the crew had performed repetitive activities with their upper bodies (Stirland 2000).

I was interested to see in the Telegraph this morning that a piece of the Mary Rose - specifically, a parrel (seen here) - will be sent into space with the launch of the shuttle Endeavour on Friday. The wooden parrel bead was part of the sail rigging, and John Lippiett, CEO of the Mary Rose Trust, explains that "The Mary Rose was as revolutionary in technological advances 500 years ago as the space shuttle was in the early 1980s." Indeed, many of the navigational tools found on the Mary Rose predate the first written mention of them, including the logreel, which wasn't mentioned in historical records until three decades after the Mary Rose sank.

The unique history of the Mary Rose continues as she becomes the first shipwreck shot into space. I am hopeful this exposure will result in fundraising for the new Mary Rose Museum, which will allow the artifacts and the ship's hull to be reunited under one roof.

UPDATE (5/16/11) - The Endeavour launch was rescheduled for today. As the shuttle had a successful launch this morning, I suspect the parrel is happily bouncing through space now.


L. Bell, J. Lee-Thorp, & A. Elkerton (2009). The sinking of the Mary Rose warship: a medieval mystery solved? Journal of Archaeological Science, 36, 166-173 DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2008.08.006

A. Millard, & H. Schroeder (2010). 'True British sailors': a comment on the origin of the men of the Mary Rose. Journal of Archaeological Science, 37 (4), 680-682

A. Stirland (2000). Raising the dead: the skeleton crew of Henry VIII's great ship, the Mary Rose Wiley & Sons

April 27, 2011

Berries are pink, skies are blue...

Jezebel has a nicely sardonic post about the Daily Mail's coverage of a study by Chinese researchers published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences called, "Could sex differences in color preference and its personality correlates fit into social theories? Let Chinese university students tell you." The researchers interviewed 359 college students for a few minutes on their color preferences and used those answers to support their a priori conclusion that, because of an ancestral pattern of hunting and foraging, women have specialized brains for identifying ripe fruit and men key into blue because of the correlation between clear skies and good hunting. The abstract, in full (the article is behind a pay wall or library access):
The unclear picture of the sex difference in color preference might result from personality variations. We invited 359 Chinese university students (166 men and 193 women) to undergo a color preference test and the Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personality Questionnaire (ZKPQ), a five-factor model test. Depressive trends were measured by the Plutchik-van Praag Depression Inventory (PVP). There was no significant difference between men and women regarding either ZKPQ or PVP scale scores. However, men preferred blue and green significantly more, and their preference order of yellow was negatively correlated with ZKPQ Sociability. Women preferred purple, pink and white significantly more, their preference order of gray was positively correlated with Neuroticism-Anxiety, and the order of orange negatively with Aggression-Hostility. Our results suggest that, partly from a biological layout, men as hunters and women as gatherers prefer some different colors on the one hand, but from a social structural layout, they might try to adjust some personality traits by preferring other colors on the other, in order to attain a sex-equality but polychromatic world.

Jezebel has a nice take-down of the conclusions, but I want to offer two additional critiques: that a sample of 359 people is nowhere near large enough to draw conclusions about biological bases to color preference, and that a sample of college students is nowhere near representative of people in general and is a very specific cross-section of the population: namely, the young, economically well-off, educated portion. The use of college students as a research population has a long history, but the practice has been critiqued for decades (Gordon, Slade & Schmitt 1986, 1987; Peterson 2001). College students are an incredibly easy population to survey, but that doesn't mean they're the best population to survey.

Can a survey of a few hundred young adults in a contemporary, state-level society give us an insight into a possible biological basis for color preference? I'm gonna go out on a limb and say no, it cannot. Not unless you've convinced me that those color preferences weren't enculturated into those college students over the last two decades of their lives through parents, media, and strangers keen on reinforcing the notion that blue is for boys and pink is for girls, and keen on policing parents and children who don't conform. It's like that old nursery rhyme...

Berries are pink,
Skies are blue,
Perhaps there's a biological basis for color preference
But it's swamped by cultural ideas foisted on you.

  • Gordon, Slade & Schmitt. 1986. The "Science of the sophomore" revisited: from conjecture to empiricism. The Academy of Management Review 11(1): 191-207.
  • Gordon, Slade & Schmitt. 1987. Student guinea pigs: porcine predictors and particularistic phenomena. The Academy of Management Review 12(1): 160-3.
  • He et al. In press. Could sex difference in color preference and its personality correlates fit into social theories? Let Chinese university students tell you. Personality and Individual Differences.
  • R.A. Peterson. 2001. On the use of college students in social science research: insights from a second-order meta-analysis. The Journal of Consumer Research 28(3): 450-61.

April 21, 2011

Bones - Season 6, Episode 19 (Review)

Episode Summary

The title should have tipped me off. Bones titles are always "The X [preposition/conjunction] the Y." The episode started off with Booth and Brennan on a hydroplane skimming through the Florida Everglades, which are apparently the jurisdiction of the FBI. A body has been found, and Brennan immediately identifies it as a male in his 20s (no explanation as to how). There is an acrylic eye with a serial number on it, so Booth gets a positive ID before the opening credits. And that's when I knew I was in for an hour-long slog through spin-off territory.

The victim's name was Sam Nozak, and he worked as a security guard at a maritime history museum. The head curator, NevilleLambert Chaisson (maybe?), reported him missing a few days after security cameras caught Nozak on video taking a piece of nautical chart from a display case. The chart pinpoints the location where the (fictitious) Santa Esperanza sank in 1774. Sunken Spanish treasure is clearly a motive for murder.

Booth suggests they enlist the help of one of his colleagues from Iraq, Walter Sherman, nicknamed "The Finder" because he can track down anything you need. Sherman (played by Geoff Stults and seen here shirtless, which was the only good part of tonight's episode) has his own team of helpers: Leo Knox (Michael Clarke Duncan of Green Mile fame) and Ike Latulippe (Saffron Burrows, who sounds astoundingly like Russell Brand). They both apparently owe Sherman their lives. Leo talks a lot about jarnahula(?) and akashwani (because apparently he's Hindu?), and Ike makes annoying malapropisms (because apparently she's living in a Family Circus cartoon). Sherman goes to Nozak's house, takes off most of his clothes, and figures out what makes the guy tick while he drops a deuce in the dead man's toilet (seriously). He also has to make a lot of "thinking" or "Eureka!" faces that he can't pull off nearly as well as James Roday or Neil Patrick Harris (not a great one, but you know what I mean about Doogie's "thinking face").

Sherman and his Mod Squad track the chart fragment to a pawn shop, where they get information about Brittany Stevenson (Mini Anden, whose accent was definitely discernable), she of the "Do Not Resuscitate" tattoo. Sherman follows her back to a boat, the "Screw You" (IIRC), shares a kiss and is suddenly in love with her. He notices an antique sextant on the boat, but Brittany claims not to know what it is.

Back at the Jeffersonian - which isn't normal Jeffersonian set, or at least is lit really quite oddly - Brennan confirms for Sherman that the victim did indeed have health problems, as his mitral valve was nearly calcified. Additionally, three fingers were dislocated shortly before his death. Angela manages to reconstruct the map from the security camera footage. The navigator, Absalon Fidalgo, has noted the location of the Santa Esperanza as (N) 24º 4' 8" / (W) 92º 30' 6". Because of the Spanish phrase "Seguid vuestro jefe" (Follow your leader), Hodgins thinks the navigator was using St. Peter's Basilica in Rome as the prime meridian. The shipwreck would then be over near Key West.

Sherman goes to check out the coordinates and finds Brittany at the bottom of the ocean, dive equipment still on. He brings her body back to the Jeffersonian, where Saroyan finds the chart fragment and a human finger in her mouth. Sherman notices that the blood on the chart fragment has caused previously invisible icons to become visible: three nails. He asks a bishop friend, who says that the nails indicate Fidalgo was likely Jesuit and that Jesuits navigated based on a prime meridian at Copernicus' Observatory on Monte Mario. The Jeffersonian staff also comes to this realization, but later than Sherman does. He brings up the treasure and confronts NevilleLambert Chaisson - whose right hand is quite conspicuously bandaged. Sherman and his buds stuff Chaisson in a footlocker and dump him off on the side of some D.C. street while Brennan and Booth are walking along it. Sherman gives all the treasure to his bishop friend, save one Virgin Mary statue, the one Chaisson was oohing and aahing over.

Forensic Comments Ridiculous Things

  • Yeah, so... there was an eye with a serial number on it. Can't really screw that up.
  • Oh, right, and Brittany was killed, but she managed - while underwater without oxygen - to bite clean through someone's finger. Sure.
  • Chaisson is impressed by the Virgin figurine Sherman brings him and says that it proves it's the Santa Esperanza because it's 17th century in style. The Esperanza supposedly sank in 1744, which is the 18th century.
  • Why would Chaisson have needed an antique sextant to find the wreck? Modern GPS not good enough?
  • Anyone know if there exists an invisible ink that's revealed by bodily fluids (er, blood, semen, and breastmilk, which seem a motley combination)?
  • Anyone else know if the latitude and longitude on the chart are right? My google mapping for the coordinates gets me the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, but I don't know how to recenter to a different prime meridan.
  • I do have to admit that I did not know that charts reference water while maps reference land. That's actually good (if pedantic) information to have.
  • "Hogs got people teeth. I know a guy who got a set of dentures that way." - Random sheriff with undetermined accent
  • "I know someone who can do third degree polynomials in his head." - Brennan (I kind of wonder if I know someone who can - any of my CS friends read this?)
  • "G Man and Skeleton Babe!" - Ike

Forensic Mystery - F. There was absolutely no mystery as to who either of the victims was or what killed them.

Forensic Solution - A. There was an eye that gave them a positive ID, and the second victim was recognizable. Sooooo, forensics win?

Drama - D-. Sure, I like the Green Mile guy, and I wasn't too put off by his character, but Sherman and Ike are interminably annoying. And, well, this wasn't actually an episode of Bones.

Next week had better be half decent, or I may throw in the towel before the season is out.

April 20, 2011

Cavemen & Dinosaurs and Bert & Ernie

I ran across the following Sesame Street video, which shows Ernie and Bert in "caveman" days.

At least Ernie notes that cars haven't been invented yet, but "caveman" = tens of thousands of years old, not millions. Dinosaurs, though? And "ooga booga" talk? WTF, Sesame Street. I expect more from you.

(Make your own jokes in the comments about gay muppet cavemen.)

April 18, 2011

Bones - Season 6, Episode 18 (Review)

The Truth in the Myth
Episode Summary

A couple on a blind date in a forest in West Virginia stumble upon a corpse covered in silvery checkerspot butterflies. At the scene, Brennan notes that the angle of the mandible and the brow ridges indicate the victim was male, and wear on the mandibular teeth suggests he was 40-50 years old. Hodgins finds a goat tethered in a copse nearby, and Brennan notes a sulphur smell. Interestingly, all the blood has been drained from the man's body and there are non-human bite marks to the 2nd-6th ribs on the left side.

At the Jeffersonian, the team confirms that the heart is missing. Mr. Nigel-Murray shows an x-ray that indicates the victim's right ankle had a surgical implant and also shows that there is bone damage to the ribs from long, fang-like teeth. Nigel-Murray further notes that puncture marks normally result in pits in the cortical surface of the bone, which are not present on the victim's remains. The body also yields spiny bristles and reptilian skin cells from an animal that no one can recognize, so Nigel-Murray and Hodgins jump to the conclusion that the man was killed by a cryptid - specifically, a chupacabra.

Angela notices that the victim's clothes were basically brand-new, indicating he was not normally an outdoorsman. Booth circulates the victim's description to local hotels and finds out that Lee Coleman, the renowned myth buster, had been staying at the Pine Tree Manor in order to go in search of and debunk the myth of the chupacabra. Booth and Brennan check it out and meet Randy, the proprietor, and Melissa Lawson, the activities coordinator who helped Coleman on his adventures a few days prior. Booth questions Coleman's producer, who puts them on the trail of a pet psychic that Coleman once debunked, Miss Michaels, whom Sweets goes to question.

Meanwhile, Angela and Hodgins go in search of the hidden camera Coleman was using to not-catch the chupacabra, and Nigel-Murray finds triangular bite-marks made by one lower and two upper incisors. However, Hodgins quickly realizes from the GC mass spec analysis of the bite mark swab that the mixture of ingredients - bisphenol-A, dimethylpropane, and amorphous silicon - that it is not spit. The reptile cells are from a Mexican spiny-tailed iguana, and the needles are from a boar. All these point to a chupacabra hoax.

Coleman's producer comes to see Booth and puts him on the trail of Terry Beamis, a cryptozoologist whom Coleman got booted off the Wilderness Network. Beamis now runs his show, Seeing Is Believing, at 2am on a public access station. When Booth and Brennan arrive at the studio, Beamis is talking about the Bukit Timah Monkey Man, an immortal hominid that lives in the forests of Singapore. Meanwhile, Angela is isolating the background audio track in the video of Coleman. She finds the mating call of a white-tailed deer and some other sound. Nigel-Murray notices a uniform separation of both ankles, as well as separation of the cervical and lumbar vertebrae. Saroyan confirms that she found abrasions on the ankles as well, meaning the victim was hung upside down, the way one would drain blood from a deer. Hodgins identifies the mixture in the bite mark: Jaw Jelly, used on taxidermized animals. Brennan thinks that a tooth from a taxidermized bear was used to stage the injuries.

Brennan and Booth head to the Pine Tree Manor and find a stuffed bear head missing an incisor. They also find rope burns on Randy's hands and ropes in his closet covered in Coleman's skin cells. Randy admits to Sweets that he didn't kill Coleman but that he did stage it to look like a chupacabra attack in order to drum up business for his motel. Angela finally identifies the sounds: the deer mating call was man-made, and the second was an ATV. The killer was out hunting. Booth and Brennan confront Melissa Lawson with the bullet, which I guess they extracted from the heart that Randy buried somewhere. She puts up her hands, and the case is solved: Lawson accidentally shot Coleman because he wasn't wearing an orange vest, and when she told Randy, he staged the attack.

Forensic Comments

  • As usual, age and sex were glossed over. The body seemed pretty gooey. No genitalia present? Mandible was the best they could do? And dental wear? Ugh, don't get me started on the problems with using dental wear to estimate age (it's affected by diet, whether or not you grind your teeth, etc.). They didn't feel like confirming the victim's identity in any way... DNA, dentals, etc.?
  • Angela and Hodgins go to the forest to find a camera with no protection from the killer who's out there. And without blaze orange, which is kinda dumb. How did the police miss the camera right near the body? Would audio that Coleman missed have been picked up by a video camera?
  • Why was Lawson out hunting for deer at night? And why would her ATV have been caught on the audio of the tape right after Coleman turned it off? If she accidentally shot him, shouldn't the audio have picked up the shot? Did she ride up on her ATV, jump off, and shoot him accidentally? I'm confused about the sequence of events there.
  • Why did finding the bullet mean that Lawson had to surrender? I guess the bullet is traced to her (specific) rifle?
  • What was time of death estimated to be? It takes a concerted effort to stage a chupacabra attack - did Randy just have reptile skin, boar hairs, and other stuff on hand?
  • Booth: "Animal or psycho?" Brennan: "Probably."
  • Brennan: "I'm not familiar with the yada yada yada myth."
  • Brennan: "I do not accept the premise that cryptozoology is a science."
  • Nigel-Murray: "Did someone just drop a raisin into milk?"

Forensic Mystery - C. They figured out who the guy was immediately. From a vague description. Little forensics needed.

Forensic Solution - C. The bones gave the team some information about the bite marks, but there wasn't really any other forensic work in this episode.

Drama - C. No one liked Coleman, lots of people wanted him gone. There was no viewer investment in the character or in the people who were under suspicion. This episode was seriously boring, but at least there wasn't any dumb drama (I can't hate on Vincent, although I do wish they would write him the way they used to) or major issues with the few forensic techniques they showed.

Chupacabras now remind me of my favorite local Mexican restaurant, which has Tacos Chupacabras on the menu (it's a mix of steak, chicken, and chorizo). Mmmmm, now I want some chips and salsa.

Women and War

A mass grave recently uncovered at an Iron Age (440-390BC) hillfort in Derbyshire, England, hints at the context and history of pre-Roman warfare in the region [via BBC, Science & Environment News]. Archaeologists discovered "women, babies, a toddler, and a single teenage male" [pic below] in a 10m-long section of defensive ditch - and they think that hundreds more bodies may be found in future excavations. Click through the BBC link to see two brief videos about the site and the finds.

This announcement came on the heels of - for me, anyway - a very interesting and productive time at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists meeting last week in Minneapolis. And the Iron Age hillfort brought to mind Dawnie Steadman's talk at the AAPAs on violence at Orendorf, a late prehistoric Mississippian village in contemporary Illinois. Dr. Steadman's talk was titled "Why Kill Women?" but she quickly turned this around and suggested we instead ask, "Why not kill women?" I didn't take extensive notes, unfortunately, but Steadman suggested that our narratives of warfare in the past too often depict women as passive, objects to be captured because they pose no real threat to men. By showing especially the perimortem trauma on the female skeletons from Orendorf, Steadman argued that women were likely doing a significant share of the fighting, a significant share of the hand-to-hand combat that we typically think was only engaged in by men. In asking "Why not kill women?" Steadman is asserting the agency of women in past warfare and showing their importance in these critical periods of social unrest.

The role of women in past warfare, of course, has gone completely unnoticed by the folks over at the good ol' Daily Mail. Their version of the excavation [pic above] was just published this afternoon [click through if you dare]. The article starts off:
The screams must have been unbearable. High on the peaks of the Pennines, a terrified group of women, teenagers and children sat huddled in the half-finished ditches and walls of their hill fort, surrounded by gloating faces. The men were missing, either killed in battle or taken to one side to be pressed into military service or sold for slaves by their captors. But that left the less valuable women and children to be disposed of. Any pleas for clemency fell on death ears. Dozens, maybe even hundreds, of women, babies and children were stabbed or strangled, stripped of possessions and tossed into the ditch that encircled the fort.
I'm as much a fan as the next osteologist of personalizing the past and of telling stories or osteobiographies of a person or a group of people. But come on. Is there any evidence that Iron Age men were forced into military service or sold as slaves? (I honestly don't know.) From the reports, there's absolutely no skeletal evidence whatsoever that the women and children were stabbed or strangled. Crafting a possible life history based on biological evidence is an excellent way to get the public interested in bioarchaeology and to find out information about the past. Outright making up a story, on the other hand, does a major disservice to the work that my colleagues and I do by implying that we simply fabricate our osteobiographies.

The burials are quite interesting and have the potential to tell us a lot about Iron Age warfare and life in the pre-Roman period of England. But I'd appreciate it if the Daily Mail would just shut up for a while. Reiterating ages-old assumptions (or, worse, anachronistically applying modern concepts to the past) doesn't help us advance our findings about the past.

April 17, 2011

Chrysanthus & Daria

National Geographic reports on one of their TV programs (this seems to be increasingly common for them to do, which I find a bit odd) about the possible discovery of a pair of saints, Chrysanthus and Daria. The partial skeletons (300 bones) - one male in his late teens, one female in her 20s - were found in a cathedral vault in Reggio Emilia. Both skeletons show few indications of physical stress, and both have high levels of lead. Carbon dating returned a range of 80-340 AD.

Daria was apparently a Vestal Virgin, then converted to Christianity and married Chrysanthus, although both were celibate. Chrysanthus was the son of a rich senator. They were sentenced to prison (him) and prostitution (her) for daring to adopt Christianity, but miracles intervened for both, so they were sentenced to death by being buried alive in Rome. Legend has it their bodies were moved to Reggio Emilia hundreds of years later.

I doubt these bones represent these saints, mostly because of the leaps of faith we'd have to take in the taphonomy. When we see physical (biological) relics of saints in Rome, it's usually a few fingers, not a whole head or an entire skeleton. Archaeologists reportedly recovered 300 bones, which is nearly 75% of each one of them. Daria and Chrysanthus were moved, though, around 1000 AD and taken hundreds of miles north of Rome. Then reinterred. The likelihood that skeletons would be 75% complete after two burials, a long journey, and 2,000 years is really quite slim. And these bones (seen below, from the NatGeo article) are fantastically well preserved (and, honestly, the ones that supposedly represent Chrysanthus look female and quite gracile to me):

There's no differential given in the article: did they rule out all other male-female dyads from the cathedral records? DNA analysis of relatives? How did they tell they were - as the NatGeo title claims - buried alive? Thankfully, early in the piece, a palaeopathologist says that there's no way to know if these skeletons represent these historical people, and an anthropologist reiterates that "we can't be certain" the skeletons are those of Daria and Chrysanthus.

One final thing that's irritating me before I drop this:
By analyzing trace elements in the bones, the team also uncovered signs of lead poisoning—a uniquely aristocratic ailment in ancient Rome. The toxic metal was present in the city's plumbing system, which reached only the homes of the wealthy.
First, Rome's plumbing system did reach the houses of the wealthy. They could pay for a tap to be installed in their houses and get aqueduct water. But the people living along the aqueduct's route, particularly in the suburbs, also tapped into the water system - in a way analogous to tapping into a cable TV signal in the modern day. Taylor (2000, p. 39) estimates that unauthorized water delivery in the suburbs totaled around 89 million gallons of water a day, nearly the same amount as the estimated 100 million gallons of water that was being piped into the city of Rome. So having access to aqueduct water does not equal high status in any way.

Second, the idea that the Romans got sick from lead pipes has been thoroughly discredited (good list of sources here), mainly by showing that: a) the water flowed through the pipes and did not ever stop, meaning there was no opportunity for the lead to leech into the water; and b) the calcium concretions within the pipes from the water would have buffered it against direct contact with lead for much of the span of the plumbing. More germane to the idea that elite Romans had lead poisoning is information from ancient sources like Pliny's Historia Naturalis and Columella's de re Rustica, which note that people used lead utensils and cookware and sweetened their wine with powdered lead.

I do hope that the paragraph about lead in the skeletons was written by the NatGeo journalist and did not come from the anthropologists - lead could easily have seeped into the skeletons from groundwater, changing the original lead content of the bone (a phenomenon known as diagenesis), as we know that there were high levels of anthropogenic lead in Rome, particularly in areas of the suburbs where lead was being smelted. It annoys me when people assume the Romans were poisoned by their plumbing. Yes, the very word "plumbing" comes from the same root as the Latin for lead - plumbum (Pb) - but there is no evidence that lead pipes caused widespread lead poisoning.

The NatGeo article (and, I hope, the TV program) does admit the limitations of forensic archaeology - that is, of trying to associate a skeleton with a particular person - but also claims in the title that the study suggests these people were buried alive. I am not in the least convinced that these skeletons represent Chrysanthus and Daria, but I'm glad to see that many of the anthropologists aren't either.

Taylor, R. 2000. Public needs and private pleasures: water distribution, the Tiber River, and the urban development of ancient Rome. Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider.

April 16, 2011

AAPA 2011

Quick post. I did not see Bones on Thursday because I'm at the American Association of Physical Anthropologists meeting in Minneapolis. Those of you who are at the AAPAs, stop by my poster today in Session 42 (all day poster session), number 92. I'll be there around 2pm if you want to chat about the poster, my other research, the blog, gay cavemen, what have you. And do scan the QR code if you want more info - so far, 3 hours into the poster session, no one has scanned it according to analytics.

Update (4:15pm) - Well, so far only 3 people have used the QR code on my poster. And I think all of those people were my friends. C'est la vie. You can get a copy of my poster here if you missed it. I did see some QR codes scattered around, but only on papers of people I know through Twitter or Facebook. Hope their poster click-through fared better than mine!

April 12, 2011

RIP Lewis Binford

Every grad student entering the anthropology program at UNC hears the same possibly apocryphal story. In 1949, when Morehead Planetarium wanted a giant sundial in their rose garden out front, the archaeologists on campus help set it up, including a certain young undergraduate anthropology major by the name of Lewis Binford. On Monday, Binford - a giant in the world of archaeology - passed away.

My route to campus every day takes me on a diagonal path from the bus stop to the anthropology department. In the middle of this path, the gnomon of the sundial rises up, and the base makes me curve my steps on the bricks, so that I can read the inscriptions: "It is always morning somewhere in the world" if I veer right, and "Today is yesterday's tomorrow" if I break with tradition and veer left.

Binford's work left an indelible impression on the practice of archaeology as we know it. For me, the sundial is a tangible reminder of that fact, and I like walking by it before I start my day teaching the archaeologists of tomorrow.

Official or semi-official obituaries that I have found so far: World Archaeological Congress, Southern Methodist University, Chicago Sun Times, the Norfolk Pilot, the Wall Street Journal., and the New York Times. Or google around for various personal stories and obits, like this one on ArchaeoBlog. A new (5/17/11) obit by Clive Gamble in the UK's Guardian.

April 9, 2011

Were the Romans light in their sandals?

In all the craziness of the "gay caveman" this week, I seem to have missed this (from the Telegraph 4/8/11):
Roberto De Mattei, 63, the deputy head of the country's [Italy's] National Research Council, claimed that the empire was fatally weakened after conquering Carthage, which he described as "a paradise for homosexuals".

The fall of the Roman Empire was a result of "the effeminacy of a few in Carthage, a paradise for homosexuals, who infected the many.

"The abhorrent presence of a few gays infected a good part of the (Roman) people," Prof Mattei told Radio Maria, a Catholic radio station.

Thankfully, the report goes on,
The remarks prompted angry calls for his resignation, with critics saying his comments were homophobic, offensive and unbecoming of his position.

I'm not so sure about the use of the term "critics" - probably should have been "sane, reasonable people." The video of De Mattei's statement can be found here (in Italian, of course).

Over at Rogue Classicism, David Meadows has a good break-down of the story, and he points out that the coverage of De Mattei's remarks is much better than the media's coverage of the Corded Ware burial or the fake lead codices.

This certainly isn't the first time someone has put forth the idea that homosexuality led to the fall of the Roman Empire. For some light but surprisingly good reading on the topic, I'm actually going to recommend the wikipedia article on Homosexuality in Ancient Rome. Right in the second paragraph, it notes:

The term homosexuality is anachronistic for the ancient world, since there is no single word in either Latin or ancient Greek with the same meaning as the modern concept of homosexuality, nor was there any sense that a man was defined by his gender choices in love-making; "in the ancient world so few people cared to categorize their contemporaries on the basis of the gender to which they were erotically attracted that no dichotomy to express this distinction was in common use", James Boswell has noted.
If wikipedia authors can understand the anachronism of applying the label "gay" to the ancient Romans, why couldn't the English language news media figure this out in relation to the "gay caveman"?

At any rate, there wasn't one single thing that caused the collapse of the Roman Empire, a collapse that took a long time and was likely influenced by a number of factors. But if you want a good list of simple, reductionist theories for its fall, you can find a fairly comprehensive list of plausible and implausible causes here. My favorites are malaria and lead poisoning - there's no solid evidence for them, but they both can cause cool pathological changes in the skeleton.

April 7, 2011

Bones - Season 6, Episode 17 (Review)

The Feet on the Beach

Episode Summary

On the U.S.-Canadian border, nine pairs of feet are discovered by federal agents on patrol. Brennan and Booth go to the scene for some reason. Based on the size of one of them, Brennan suspects an adult male. The range of motion of the metatarsal-phalangeal joint puts that individual at 18-50 years of age.
Booth points out a pair of boots without any feet in them, and Brennan thinks they could be one of the victims' shoes. Dr. Douglas Philmore, a Canadian podiatrist who puts himself forth as a forensic podiatrist, arrives on the scene with a limp right arm, which hasn't worked since he read Brennan's caustic reply to his plea in a journal for forensic podiatry to be considered a subspecialty. Because of her callousness, Philmore takes possession of the Canadian feet, and Brennan sends the rest back to the Jeffersonian.

At the Jeffersonian, Hodgins and Angela are looking over the feet that Brennan sent back, even though neither of them has experience in osteology. Hodgins noted that the feet weren't cut off - they fell off already decomposing bodies in the water, and the shoes helped float them to the surface. He notices a rank smell in the boots and thinks they might not have been in the water. Hodgins extracts some sweat from the boots and does DNA analysis, which triggers a hit on a Canadian ex-con with mental health issues. Dr. Sweets talks to the ex-con, but finds out he switched his boots for a nice pair of sneakers he found at the scene.

Inside the shoes, Hodgins finds a sticky, insoluble protein that he recognizes as spider mite silk, leading him to conclude that the victims were all in the same location before being dumped. Based on the level of decomp, Dr. Philmore, who has arrived at the Jeffersonian with the remaining feet, and Dr. Brennan think the bodies have been decomposing for 1-3 months. Philmore further notes some striae on the superior aspect of the talus. Unlike the other feet, which disarticulated naturally, this one shows evidence of dismemberment while the victim was still alive. Angela checks rainfall and wind patterns and finds that the bodies likely originated near the St. Regis River, near the (nonexistent) University of Hogansburg in upstate New York. Brennan realizes that eight of the people originated at the body farm, but the ninth - who was dismembered perimortem - may have been a murder victim. The shoes the homeless guy took were worth $2,000 and had a serial number in them. Philmore asks Angela to make a wire frame image of the shoes and digitally project the victim's feet into them - the pattern of wear matches.

Back in NY, Booth and Brennan head over to the U of H's Body Farm, where they meet Prof. Peter Simpkins and Norman Hayes, a PhD candidate. The victim originated in the same location as the feet according to the spider mite silk Hodgins found on all of them. The serial number on the shoes is traced to Dylan McElroy, who was a grad student at U of H. Prof. Simpkins thought he'd dropped out of the program. Dylan's roommate Kent Durham also thought Dylan had just disappeared. He owed Kent two months' rent among other things, so Kent was selling off Dylan's shoes. Dylan got cash to fund his trips to Japan and elsewhere to buy shoes by selling marijuana. Hodgins finds that, along with the mite silk from Oligonychus ilicis, the SEM analysis also picked up Cannabis sativa pollen, meaning the weed was being grown at the Body Farm. Norman gives Booth and Brennan a tour, showing them the flooded areas and the place where Dylan was likely growing weed. Norman was at the University of Helsinki studying for a semester and got back a few weeks ago. Prof. Simpkins admits to knowing about the marijuana; he let Dylan grow it in exchange for free product.

At the Jeffersonian, Hodgins finds many more species of insect on the victim's feet than he would have expected, especially bugs from far away. He suspects that they came for a particularly interesting food, and he checks their stomachs, finding a food gel used by reptile breeders. There are traces of the gel on the sneakers, which means the victim's body was likely covered in the gel to speed decomp.

Dr. Philmore notices that the anterior aspect of the left navicular is 3mm less than the right. Angela is impressed, but Philmore insists he's not a podophile. He shows her that there is sharp trauma to the left navicular, where a blade shaved off a piece. The resulting striae and wall of the cut indicate it was made by a power tool or two. The tools from the Body Farm are magically transported to the Jeffersonian. Philmore doesn't need Angela to input all the dimensions, as he sees that the blows to the feet were made by two different blades. The blow to the talus cut the right foot horizontally, and the blow to the left navicular was vertical and parallel to the bone. They realize that the weapon was most likely a riding lawn mower. If the victim were standing up, the first blow to his right foot would have severed the plantar artery, and he would have bled out.

Booth and Brennan confront Norman with the fact that he bought 2 gallons of Gro-Fast bug food. They suspect that Norman was angry with Dylan for having contaminated his barren field - which was the basis of his doctoral dissertation - with marijuana. He was going to flunk out of grad school and had $60k in student loans. Norman took out the riding mower to get rid of the weed, but Dylan got in the way. Norman thought Dylan would yield, but he never did.

Oh, and there was other stuff. Saroyan lies and gets her daughter Michelle into Columbia. Michelle decides to take a year off. Sweets tries to psychoanalyze Philmore and eventually succeeds in getting his arm working by hitting him in the head with a metal projectile. Booth thinks Brennan should apologize to Philmore, and she does in her own way.

Forensic Comments
  • I was excited about the Body Farm episode, but boy did it disappoint. Chronologically...
  • There is an American Society of Forensic Podiatry. Not sure what exactly Philmore was fighting (in a peer-reviewed journal?) for recognition of.
  • Hey, the victim was a golfer. This was mentioned once. Based on nothing. And then never spoken of again.
  • If the feet disarticulated naturally, why is there at least one standing up with a severed fibula attached? Maybe the Body Farm was doing research on fractures and decomp?
  • Who puts a Body Farm in a place that floods? Simpkins did explain that the river hadn't flooded in 400 years, but still. Also, how are there not, you know, walls that prevent: a) living people from getting in, and b) dead people from getting out? A Body Farm's a serious and expensive research endeavor, not just a vast expanse of land where one can trip over rotting corpses. And then a body explodes in front of Booth and Brennan - but no researcher was watching it, taking notes, recording it on videotape?
  • If Dylan was getting Cs in grad school, how had he not been kicked out? There's generally a limit to the number you're allowed.
  • Prof. Simpkins should bear some responsibility for screwing up Norman's dissertation research. What kind of advisor completely hoses his student's project for a few buds of weed? His Body Farm funding should be pulled and he should not be advising students. Oh, and he should probably be fired for all this. Norman, however, wouldn't have flunked anything. You don't flunk a dissertation. I'd be pissed if someone screwed up my research, but I'd just have to do it again, not have to leave school.
  • I don't buy that the forensic podiatrist was all that essential. Brennan would have found sharp trauma to the navicular (or one of her interns - for whom Philmore was standing in this week - would have).
  • How did all the feet and tools from the Body Farm get to the Jeffersonian so damned quickly? Teleportation?
  • Why didn't anyone know whether Dylan had been gone 2 months or 2 weeks? Sure, he wasn't in touch with his roommate. But he had no parents? Or Facebook friends? Or cell phone records? If he had been around for 6 of those 8 weeks, there would have been some trace: airline ticket, etc.
  • Also, where was Dylan's body? Did Norman just leave it in the open because it was the Body Farm? Did it get washed away in the flood? Why didn't Booth and Brennan go looking for the rest of the corpses - I mean, there are now 9 decomposing corpses floating around upstate NY/Canada somewhere.
  • "You can't even walk without tripping over your own feet." "Those aren't my feet!" - Hilarious federal agents saying hilariously stupid things
  • "Xrays of his feet showed osteomorphosis of his metaspacial turtleicious." - Hodgins mocking Brennan
  • "The average increase in the protrusion of a woman's buttocks is 25% when wearing high-heeled shoes." - Dr. Philmore (not sure if it's true or apocryphal, but now I get to link to this awesome Reddit post)
  • "Feet are what separate us from less evolved hominids." "What about brains?" "I like to believe the fact that we walk upright is the reason our brains developed."
  • "The liquefaction of tissue is nearly finished. Anaerobic organisms from the gastrointestinal tract have started the microbial proliferation. Here's a decomp in garbage scenario. They must be establishing baseline timetables for decay in a damp setting with direct sunlight." - Brennan geeking out at the Body Farm
  • "Canadian... or afraid?" - Sweets (and a phrase I will now be using often)
  • "Apology is from the ancient Greek apologia meaning speech and defense. Contrite is from the Latin contritus meaning crushed by a sense of sin." - Brennan, on saying you're sorry

Forensic Mystery - B. The biggest mystery to me was why they mentioned the victim was a golfer.

Forensic Solution - B. Solution seemed reasonable. Not a lot of forensics going on: some sharp trauma and... foot reconstruction. Oh, and Hodgins got a bunch to do.

Drama - C-. The Body Farm was not in any way believable (horribly run, horrible security, horrible grading/siting), nor was the graduate program at the U of H. The super-nice Canadian was over the top and bordering on an ethnic caricature. Saroyan and Michelle ... zzzz.

This week's post may be link light for a while - too much to do, too little time to review Bones.

Update (4/8/11) - My esteemed Canadian colleague Sheri let me know that this episode was loosely based on a history of feet washing up on Canadian shores. A variety of news coverage can be found here, here, and here.

April 6, 2011

Gay Caveman! ZOMFG!

Seriously, news media. I don't have time to keep creating thoughtful blog posts to counteract your insane sensationalism. It's like the entire first week of this month is April Fool's.

The Telegraph and the Daily Mail are both carrying a "gay caveman" story in typically groan-worthy fashion: "First Homosexual Caveman Found" crows the Telegraph and the Mail insists, "5,000-year-old Is Outed by the Way He Was Buried." What I've learned in the past few months about these two publications specifically is that the important, scientific details are at the very end of the article. So I read the articles backwards to let the evidence sink in before I read the crazy conclusions the journalist reaches.

From the Telegraph (towards the bottom) and from the Mail (very last line):
"We believe this is one of the earliest cases of what could be described as a 'transsexual' or 'third gender grave' in the Czech Republic," archaeologist Katerina Semradova told a press conference on Tuesday.
OK, awesome, a person buried in an alternate way, that could suggest a third gender! Let's check out the evidence:
According to Corded Ware culture which began in the late Stone Age and culminated in the Bronze Age, men were traditionally buried lying on their right side with their heads pointing towards the west, and women on their left sides with their heads pointing towards the east.

Both sexes would be put into a crouching position.
The men would be buried alongside weapons, hammers and flint knives as well as several portions of food and drink to accompany them to the other side.
Women would be buried with necklaces made from teeth, pets, and copper earrings, as well as jugs and an egg-shaped pot placed near the feet.
"What we see here doesn't add up to traditional Corded Ware cultural norms. The grave in Terronska Street in Prague 6 is interred on its left side with the head facing the West. An oval, egg-shaped container usually associated with female burials was also found at the feet of the skeleton. None of the objects that usually accompany male burials - such as weapons, stone battle axes and flint knives - were found in the grave.
Well, I can't say I'm convinced from just this brief report that this was a third-gendered individual. Just because all the burials you've found to date are coded male and female based on grave goods doesn't mean there aren't alternate forms you haven't found and doesn't mean that the alternate form you have found has a lot of significance. But this is not my geographical or temporal specialty, so I'll buy that all of the evidence suggests something other than a shaman (thanks, Telegraph, for defining a shaman as a "latter-day witch doctor;" real helpful). So, neat, a possible third-gendered or transgendered individual.

Let's look back at the titles and at the first few paragraphs, the places the Telegraph and Mail journalists really like to editorialize:
The male body – said to date back to between 2900-2500BC – was discovered buried in a way normally reserved only for women of the Corded Ware culture in the Copper Age.
Differently gendered burial way back in the third millennium BC! Hold it - "caveman" is generally applied to either Neandertals or Cro-Magnon (the first early modern Homo sapiens). And both of those date to about 35,000 years ago. So, no, this person wasn't a caveman. Gotta make myself keep reading...
The skeleton was found in a Prague suburb in the Czech Republic with its head pointing eastwards and surrounded by domestic jugs, rituals only previously seen in female graves.
"From history and ethnology, we know that people from this period took funeral rites very seriously so it is highly unlikely that this positioning was a mistake," said lead archaeologist Kamila Remisova Vesinova.
"Far more likely is that he was a man with a different sexual orientation, homosexual or transsexual," she added.
There is, of course, no reporting on how the archaeologists estimated sex - or even a hint at the fact that sex can only be estimated, never determined conclusively without DNA testing. But assuming that the skeleton appears to be male (hard to tell from the pic), the fact that he was buried not only in a completely different way, but in a way that suggests a difference in gender identity, is incredibly interesting.

Anthropological studies of sex and gender often highlight people of alternate genders, such as the two-spirits (formerly known as berdache) among Native American groups and hjira in South Asia. These well-known trans-gendered individuals typically perform a feminine gender identity. However, it's important to note that biological sex, gender, and the choice of sexual partner are not interchangeable terms, as much as we interchange them in American culture. Most people are born into one of two sexes (male/female), but there are intersexed or third-sex individuals, sometimes people with chromosomal abnormalities. But people are conditioned by culture to perform a gender role (man/woman, masculine/feminine). And people generally choose to engage in sexual intercourse with: someone of the opposite sex (heterosexuality or "straight"), the same sex (homosexuality or "gay"), both sexes (bisexuality), or no one (asexuality).

In the Telegraph and Mail articles, then, all three of these terms are being conflated, sometimes by the archaeologists themselves. If this burial represents a transgendered individual (as well it could), that doesn't necessarily mean the person had a "different sexual orientation" and certainly doesn't mean that he would have considered himself (or that his culture would have considered him) "homosexual." Two-spirits, for instance, do engage in sexual acts with biological males, but also with biological females.

So, what we've learned is that this skeleton was neither a caveman nor necessarily gay. (And what I've learned in googling for "gay caveman" is that there was apparently a rumor that Oetzi was gay.) I'd really appreciate it if tomorrow's news doesn't bring me a similarly anachronistic and anthropological-poor headline like, "Joan of Arc a Slut: Her Coccyx Tells the Tale of Too Much Tail."

Updates (4/7/11) - John Hawks also covers this on his blog, and Stephanie Pappas, a reporter for LiveScience, talks to me, Hawks, Joyce, and others about the overblown media coverage. It seems the original report/interview with the archaeologist (which you can see here) was completely taken out of context.

And here I'll point the interested reader at Rosemary Joyce's summary of the "Exploring Sex and Gender in Bioarchaeology" session at the SAAs last week, which unfortunately I could not attend. This topic has grown in complexity in the past decade, and any bioarchaeologist who thinks she's found a differently gendered burial would do well to read up on the literature. And a link to Joyce's take on the story.

Updates (4/9/11) - Some other journalists and bloggers have taken on the media hype and written awesome pieces. My favorites are by Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon and Margaret Hartmann at Jezebel. The "archaeologists react" story has also been covered in several other languages, including: Polish, Indonesian, German, Dutch, French, and what google translate tells me is Han Chinese.

Update (4/10/11) - CNN interviewed me and John Hawks about the media hype around the find, and the write-up can be found here.

Update (4/15/11) - Interesting piece by Eric M. Johnson in Wired (which also refers to Oetzi) that goes into more depth than Joyce's post about what "third gender" actually means and ethnographic examples thereof.

Update (4/16/11) - A fleshed-out article in Psychology Today by Rosemary Joyce on what she thinks the media should have focused on.

Update (5/9/11) - A few weeks back, a gay caveman character appeared on the show Chelsea Lately. He's got a Twitter account (@Real_GayCaveman) and occasionally posts "back in my day..." statuses. The odd thing? He defines his time period specifically as 2 BC. So, you know, the time when Romans had indoor plumbing... caveman times.

April 5, 2011

Update on the origins of the African in Avon

Back in January, I followed the breathless reporting of the skeleton of this supposedly African man found in Roman-era Stratford-on-Avon, and similar expressions of amazement came from the blogosphere. Today's news brings an update but, since it is again reported for the general public and not the osteological community, let's dissect this press release:
WARWICKSHIRE'S earliest known African resident, believed to have been living in Stratford some 1,700 years ago, has sparked the interest of boffins over the possible impact on British and European DNA. Earlier this year Warwickshire County Council’s Archaeology Warwickshire team revealed the skeleton of the African man had been found in a Roman cemetery in Tiddington, which revealed people of African descent had been living in the county for far longer than previously thought.
No, actually, the skeleton did not in any way reveal that a person (much less people) of African descent was in Avon. This "fact" was merely suggested - seemingly by the BBC reporter.
As a result of the subsequent press coverage Dr. Hannes Schroeder read the story and immediately contacted Malin Holst, the archaeologist who first identified the skeleton, hoping for further details. Dr. Schroeder is a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and is currently working on a project trying to identify the origins of enslaved Africans using ancient DNA and isotopes and thinks it possible that DNA from the Stratford skeleton might help his research.
Well, now I have to look up (and possibly email) Schroeder and see what he's done so far. The problem with identifying the origins of "enslaved Africans" (I assume here they mean in the ancient world and not modern times) is that there's no direct relationship between a person's origin and a person's sociolegal status in the Roman world. Unlike slavery in the American South, the status of servus in Rome was not necessarily a permanent one and slaves came from everywhere, not just Africa (free immigrants also came from different places and wandered all over the Roman Empire). Trying to find evidence of slavery in the bodies of individuals in the Roman world is going to be a really tough task; I'm curious to know more about Schroeder's work, but also cautious about the kinds of interpretations of ancient slavery we can draw based on DNA.
Archaeology Warwickshire’s Business Manager Stuart Palmer, who is studying the skeleton, said: “This is a very exciting and unexpected outcome. DNA analysis of the Roman skeleton could provide invaluable data concerning the DNA history of later populations and the ethnic origin of modern Britons.
One person's DNA is not likely to affect our understanding of the genetic composition of either ancient or modern Britons. Sure, it'll be interesting if DNA analysis reveals African ancestry, but the contribution of one person to a gene pool is pretty small.
“Dr. Schroeder has offered to provide the analysis for free and the work will also include isotope analysis. Oxygen strontium, lead, carbon and nitrogen have isotopic signatures which can survive in ancient teeth or bones and can provide clues as to where individuals originated, or give information on their diet’.”
This part I like: the use of Sr, O, Pb, C, and N as alternate and complementary lines of evidence, rather than just DNA analysis. For my future research, I'd like to do DNA analysis of the immigrants I found through Sr/O analysis, to see if the resulting data are correlated. On a larger scale than just this one individual, the combination of DNA, Sr, and O is a very powerful way of looking at mobility and immigration in the ancient world.
One theory is the man was a former Roman soldier who chose to retire in Stratford sometime in the third or fourth century. Mr. Palmer added: “African skeletons have previously been found in large Romano-British towns like York and African units are known to have formed part of the Hadrian’s Wall garrison, but we had no reason to expect any in Warwickshire and certainly not in a community as small as Roman Stratford.
As noted above, there's no direct link between African and slavery. That's a connection we make in the modern world (especially in the U.S.). This passage clearly indicates that there are other reasons a man of African descent could have been in England. And, honestly, I think the story of a man with origins in (or genes from) Africa who winds up dead in England is a far more interesting spin than the story of a slave. By labeling him a possible slave, we immediately take away any shred of personal agency he had (again, largely because of our modern perception of slavery), and it becomes difficult to think of this individual as someone whose life took him thousands of miles from his origin and to think of him as a full-realized person with individual experiences. (As you can probably tell, I'm a little worried that any bioarchaeology of ancient slavery would be too narrowly focused on the structure - economics, the military, demographics - rather than on the people themselves.)
“The skeletal remains revealed that the man was used to carrying heavy loads. Curved dental wear in the upper jaw was probably related to a task he regularly performed with his teeth. An injury to his shoulder must have been all the worse for his arthritis which was also evident in his hips and lower back. Before he died he suffered from a severe inflammation of the right shin and a painful infection from a dental abscess made his last moments a misery. His teeth showed that his childhood was plagued by disease or malnutrition, but there was no evidence for the cause of death.”
My guess from this paragraph is that the skeleton was robust (with musculoskeletal markers or enthesopathies indicating he carried heavy loads). Seems they also found some amount of extramasticatory wear of his anterior maxillary teeth (possibly task-related). Degenerative, arthritic changes are evident in the places you'd expect them (shoulders, hips, lower back). Periostitis of his right shin (shows injury before death) and a dental abscess suggest life was rough at his death, and (I assume) enamel hypoplasias are what show disease or malnutrition as a child. All of these pathologies add up to an interesting life history for this man, but (and I haven't seen an osteological report, of course) not one that screams "African" in any way.

The news report concludes with...
“This new research may well provide the evidence we need to determine his place of birth and whether he contributed to the nation's gene pool.”
I'm hopeful that they will find out more about this skeleton's geographical origin, but I'm clearly not optimistic that that origin will turn out to be African. The tendentious hypothesis about African ancestry seems unfounded, but skeletons of Africans have been found in England (and a rich woman, at that!), so I'll be interested to see what turns up.

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