Anthro in the news 07/23/12

• Murder scene photos, journalism, and violating a taboo

Recently 12 black-and-white crime scene pictures of Michaela McAreavey appeared in the Mauritian Sunday Times. McAreavey was murdered in Mauritius while on her honeymoon in January 2012. Included were pictures the hotel room and bathroom where she was murdered and close-ups of the injuries to her. Sean Carey, anthropology works contributor, wrote for The Independent about how to understand the publication of the pictures. First, he points to a long-standing tradition of publishing gore in Mauritius by “la presse sensationnelle” to boost circulation. This factor may be particularly relevant for the Sunday Times which is a new entrant in an already crowded field. Carey points out that, “cultures differ in how pictures of the dead are perceived, but, by and large, murder victims are in a special category. Certainly from a mainstream European (and North American) perspective, graphic representations of the fatally injured or murdered are taboo. Even if available they are never published – witness the furore when the paparazzi photographed Princess Diana as she lay dying in a wrecked Mercedes in the Alma underpass in Paris in August 1997.” Second, he asks: who leaked the photographs?

• Very old bras

Turning from the present to the past, a discovery in Austria shows that 600 years ago, women wore bras very much like those of today. The University of Innsbruck said that archeologists found four linen bras dating from the Middle Ages in an Austrian castle. Fashion experts describe the find as surprising because the bra had commonly been thought to be only little more than 100 years old as women abandoned the tight corset. Instead, it appears the bra came first, followed by the corset, followed by the reinvented bra. Although the linen garments were unearthed in 2008, they did not make news until now says Beatrix Nutz, the archaeologist responsible for the discovery. [Blogger’s note: just wondering why it took four years to bring this finding to the public…]

• Pre-Roman olive trade and a fancy little pet dog

Britons were importing olives from the Mediterranean a century before the Romans arrived in 43 CE, according to archaeologists who have discovered a single olive stone from an excavation of a well Hampshire. Assuming that people did not import just one olive, more will likely be found. Professor Mike Fulford of Reading University, who is leading the excavation, reports another luxury import, the skeleton of a tiny dog: “It was fully grown, two or three years old, and thankfully showed no signs of butchery, so it wasn’t a luxury food or killed for its fur…It was found in the foundations of a very big house we are still uncovering…it may turn out to be the biggest iron-age building in Britain, which must have belonged to a chief or a sub chief, a very big cheese in the town.”

• Very old drought management

Excavations at the pre-Columbian city of Tikal, by a multi-university team led anthropologists at the University of Cincinnati, have identified landscaping and engineering feats, including the largest ancient dam built by the Maya of Central America. Findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The research sheds light on how the Maya conserved and used their natural resources to support a populous, highly complex society for over 1,500 years despite environmental challenges, including periodic drought. The paper is authored by Vernon Scarborough, UC professor of anthropology; archaeologist Kenneth Tankersley, UC assistant professor of anthropology; Brian Lane, former UC master’s student in anthropology now pursuing doctoral studies at the University of Hawaii; John Jones, associate professor of anthropology, Washington State University; Fred Valdez, professor of anthropology, University of Texas-Austin; and several other researchers. A CNN blog post highlights the study’s relevance to contemporary drought management.

• Very old statue

Archaeologists of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences have reconstructed a 5,300-year-old pottery statue from 65 fragments unearthed in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. The seated figure is 55cm high with bulging eyes, a high nose and vivid facial expression. According to Liu Guoxiang, leader of the first archaeology team of Inner Mongolia, “The statue may be of a wizard or leader in the famous Hongshan Culture period” (a Neolithic culture dating back 5,000-6,000 years).

• Calling Dr. Neanderthal

A study reveals that not only did Neanderthals eat plants, but some were roasted and may have been used medicinally. The finding comes from the El Sidrón Cave in northern Spain, where plaque analysis by Karen Hardy, an anthropologist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona and Stephen Buckley, an archaeological chemist at the University of York suggests that the Neanderthal diet at this time, and in northern Spain, included cooked vegetables and some bitter leafy greens that may have been consumed for medicinal purposes. The results are published in Naturwissenschaften.

• Neanderthal the home-maker

A study by researchers from Cambridge University suggests that Neanderthals spent substantial time doing tedious domestic chores. Many Neanderthal remains indicate that their right upper arm bone is as much as 50 per cent stronger than their left upper arm bone. In modern humans, the dominant arm is between five and 15 per cent stronger. The highly developed right arm in Neanderthals has been thought to be related to frequent spear throwing but experts now believe it was the result of repetitive domestic chores such as scrapping hide to make clothes. Dr Colin Shaw, from the PAVE research group and the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, said: “If we are right, it changes our picture of the daily activities of Neanderthals.” The research group’s paper is published in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) One.

• Interview with Chris Stringer

In the science section of The New York Times, an interview with Chris Stringer ranges from Stringer’s thoughts about what recent discoveries from DNA data mean for the story or human evolution to cloning extinct species, and whether or not human evolution is still ongoing. Stringer is a paleoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London. The interview was prompted by the publication of Stringer’s new book, Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth.

• Old bones a feast for paleoanthropologists

Business Day (South Africa) carried an extensive article about the rise of human evolution studies in South Africa. It leads off with a quotation from Professor Francis Thackeray, Director of the Institute for Human Evolution at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg:  “When I was appointed director of the Institute for Human Evolution in 2009…the vision was to make it one of the leading institutes of its kind in the world…And we’ve accomplished that.” Much of this success is can be attributed to the recent discovered of the nearly 2-million-year-old Australopithecus sediba fossils which have turned the country into a strategic geographic location for the study of human origins, attracting international researchers to the continent and forcing the government to review its funding of this type of research. The article highlights the role of Professor Lee Berger, also with the University of Witswatersrand, whose son discovered the fossils while chasing his dog near the Cradle of Humankind in 2008. Political changes are also important. Thackeray notes that during apartheid, teaching evolution in school was forbidden, whereas now it is part of the national school curriculum.

• Thinking about primate thinking

An article in the science section of the Washington Post presented recent research findings about nonhuman primate cognition. It draws on the work of several contemporary human thinkers who study nonhuman primates. including anthropologists Brian Hare of Duke University and Frans de Waal of Emory University.

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