Science Journal:

Caveman crooners may have aided early human life

Friday, March 31, 2006

By Sharon Begley, The Wall Street Journal


In Steven Mithen's imagination, the small band of Neanderthals gathered 50,000 years ago around the caves of Le Moustier, in what is now the Dordogne region of France, were butchering carcasses, scraping skins, shaping ax heads -- and singing.


One of the fur-clad men started it, a rhythmic sound with rising and falling pitch, and others picked it up, indicating their willingness to cooperate both in the moment and in the future, when the group would have to hunt or fend off predators. The music promoted "a sense of we-ness, of being together in the same situation facing the same problems," suggests Prof. Mithen, an archaeologist at England's Reading University. Music, he says, creates "a social rather than a merely individual identity." And that may solve a longstanding mystery.


Music gives biologists fits. Its ubiquity in human cultures, and strong evidence that the brain comes preloaded with musical circuits, suggest that music is as much a product of human evolution as, say, thumbs. But that raises the question of what music is for. Back in 1871, Darwin speculated that human music, like bird songs, attracts mates. Or, as he put it, prelinguistic human ancestors tried "to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm."


Some scientists today share that view. "Music was shaped by sexual selection to function mostly as a courtship display," Geoffrey Miller, of the University of New Mexico, argued in a 2001 paper. But like Darwin, he bases that conclusion on the belief that music has "no identifiable survival benefits." If a trait doesn't help creatures survive, then it can persist generation after generation only if it helps them reproduce.


Studies in neuroscience and anthropology, however, suggest that music did help human ancestors survive, particularly before language. In "The Singing Neanderthals," which Harvard University Press is publishing Friday, Prof. Mithen weaves those studies into an intriguing argument that "language may have been built on the neural underpinnings of music."


He starts with evidence that music is not merely a side effect of intelligence and language, as some argue. Instead, recent discoveries suggest that music lays sole claim to specific neural real estate. Consider musical savants. Although learning-disabled or retarded, they have astounding musical abilities. One savant could hardly speak or understand words, yet he played flawlessly a simple piano melody from memory despite hearing it only once. In an encore, he added left-hand chords and transposed it into a minor key.


"Music," says Prof. Mithen, "can exist within the brain in the absence of language," a sign that the two evolved independently. And since language impairment does not wipe out musical ability, the latter "must have a longer evolutionary history."


In the opposite of musical savantism, people with "amusia" can't perceive changes in rhythm, identify melodies they've heard before or recognize changes in pitch. Since they have normal hearing and language, the problem must lie in brain circuits that are music-specific.


More evidence that the brain has dedicated, inborn musical circuits is that even babies have musical preferences, finds Sandra Trehub of the University of Toronto. They listen longer to perfect fifths and perfect fourths, and look pained by minor thirds.


If music is indeed an innate, stand-alone adaptation, then evolution could have nursed it along over the eons only if it helped early humans survive. It did so, Prof. Mithen suggests, because "if music is about anything, it is about expressing and inducing emotion."


Particular notes elicit the same emotions from most people, regardless of culture, studies suggest. A major third (prominent in Beethoven's "Ode to Joy") sounds happy; a minor third (as in the gloomy first movements of Mahler's Fifth) provokes feelings of sadness and even doom. A major seventh expresses aspiration. The absence of a third seems unresolved, loose, as if hanging, adds jazz guitarist Michael Rood, 17 years old.


The fact that listeners hear the same emotion in a given musical score is something a Neanderthal crooner might have exploited. Music can manipulate people's emotional states (think of liturgical music, martial music or workplace music). Happy people are more cooperative and creative. By fostering cooperation and creativity among bands of early, prelanguage human ancestors, music would have given them a survival edge. "If you can manipulate other people's emotions," says Prof. Mithen, "you have an advantage."


Music also promotes social bonding, which was crucial when humans were more often hunted than hunter and finding food was no walk on the savannah. Proto-music "became a communication system" for "the expression of emotion and the forging of group identities," argues Prof. Mithen.


Because music has grammar-like qualities such as recursion, it might have served an even greater function. With music in the brain, early humans had the neural foundation for the development of what most distinguishes us from other animals: symbolic thought and language.



Italians find ancient Ur tablets

 Writings could lead to buried library


(ANSA) - Rome, March 28 - Italian archeologists working in Iraq have found a trove of ancient stone tablets from the fabled civilisation of Ur .


The tablets bear around 500 engravings of a literary and historical nature, according to team leader Silvia Chiodi .


"This is an an exceptional find," she said, noting that the area in question had previously only yielded prehistoric artefacts .


She said the tablets, made of clay and bitumen, were discovered by chance at an archaeological site not far from the location of the ancient city .


"I was looking for a wall structure spotted by an airborne photo when I spotted a small inscription on bitumen and then realised it wasn't the only one" .


An expert on Sumerian civilisation, Giovanni Pettinato, said the finds probably dated back to one of Ur's most prosperous periods .


"The most surprising thing is the time span the tablets cover, ranging from 2,700 BCE, the First Dynasty of Ur, to 2,100 BCE, the Third Dynasty," Pettinato said .


"The place where the tablets were found, not far from the surface, leads one to suppose they contain information from a library," he said .


"There could be thousands of them down there" .


Chiodi said the tablets would probably occupy a prominent place in a new Virtual Museum of Iraq which Italy is building to show people what Baghdad's celebrated museum of antiquities looked like before it was looted in the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq .


About a half of 40 star attractions of the museum have yet to be retrieved .


Of the 15,000 items taken from storeooms, 8,000 have not been returned despite an amnesty .


Ur, near the southern Iraqi city of Nassiriya, is cited in the Bible as the birthplace of the prophet Abraham .


It was the religious hub of Sumerian civilisation at the start of a series of dynasties that ruled Mesopotamia from around 4000 BCE .


Long before the Egyptians, the Sumerians invented the wheel and developed the first mathematical system .


The most famous classic of ancient literature, Gilgamesh, was written at Ur .


The most prominent monument at the site is the best preserved ziggurat, or stepped pyramid, in the Arab world .


It was built by the Sumerians around 4000 BCE and restored by Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BCE .



Archaeologists unearth Pharaonic hall in Egypt

March 31, 2006


CAIRO --  Archaeologists have found a hall in a Pharaonic tomb in the southern city of Luxor that they said could yield important information on how ancient Egyptians dug their tombs.


The Egyptian-Spanish team discovered the hall at Zira Abu Al Naga on the west bank of the Nile, as it was excavating the tomb site, the secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, said on Thursday.


They believe that the tomb belonged to an official responsible for temple and tomb decorations during the rein of 18th dynasty (1580-1314 BC) Queen Hatshepsut, Hawass said.


The hall showed "more clearly how cemeteries were built during this dynasty - considered one of the most important of the new kingdom - compared to finds on the walls of other cemeteries".


The antiquities chief said that the 34-meter (112-foot) long hall, which opens into the tomb area, was one of the longest such rooms unearthed to date.


He added that the team found inscriptions on its walls and scenes that explain religious rituals practiced by ancient Egyptians and show how they dug tombs.


Tombs of the 18th dynasty kings, mostly concentrated in the Valley of the Kings on the west bank of the Nile, are unique in that they are carved out deep into the mountains, a practice copied by 19th dynasty rulers.



Palace of Homer's hero rises out of the myths

From John Carr in Athens


ARCHAEOLOGISTS claim to have unearthed the remains of the 3,500-year-old palace of Ajax, the warrior-king who according to Homer’s Iliad was one of the most revered fighters in the Trojan War.

Classicists hailed the discovery, made on a small Greek island, as evidence that the myths recounted by Homer in his epic poem were based on historical fact.


The ruins include a large palace, measuring about 750sq m (8,000sq ft), and believed to have been at least four storeys high with more than thirty rooms.


Yannos Lolos, the Greek archaeologist who made the discovery, said he was certain that he had come across the home of the Aiacid dynasty, a legendary line of kings mentioned in the Iliad and the Classical Greek tragedies. One of the kings, Ajax (or Aias), was described by Homer as a formidable fighter who, at one point in the Trojan campaign, held off the Trojans almost singlehandedly while his fellow Greek Achilles sulked in his tent because his slave-girl had been taken away from him.


The city of Troy is believed to have fallen about 1180BC — at about the same time, according to Mr Lolos, that the palace he has discovered was abandoned and left to crumble. Ajax, therefore, would have been the last king to have lived there before setting off on the ten-year Trojan expedition.


“This is one of the few cases in which a Mycenaean-era palace can be almost certainly attributed to a Homeric hero,” Mr Lolos said.


Fellow archaeologists said that they believed that the ruins were indeed those of a Mycenaean palace. Curtis Runnels, Professor of Archaeology at Boston University, said: “Mr Lolos has really delivered the goods.”


The Mycenaean ruins appear to be at the site where Homer records a fleet of ships setting out to take part in the war on Troy. The Iliad is believed to portray conditions at the close of the dominance of Mycenae, the prime Greek power of the second millennium BC.


The ruins have been excavated over the past five years at a site near the village of Kanakia on the island of Salamis, a few miles off the coast of Athens.


The palace was built in the style of those of the period, including the vast acropolis at Mycenae.


“The complex was found beneath a virgin tract of pine woods on two heights by the coast,” Mr Lolos said. “All the finds so far corroborate what we see in the Homeric epics.”


Homer compares Ajax to a wall and describes him carrying a shield made of seven layers of thick oxhide. Unlike other heroes, he fights without the aid of deities or the supernatural. According to Sophocles, who wrote 800 years after the Trojan War, Ajax committed suicide after the fall of Troy without seeing his homeland again.


Several relics of oriental and Cypriot origin were found at the site at Kanakia, such as bronze armour strips stamped with the emblem of Pharaoh Rameses II of Egypt, indicating trade or possible war in the 13th century BC.


Salamis became famous as the site of a sea battle in 480BC in which the Greek navies destroyed the invasion fleet of the Persian king Xerxes and put paid to the Persian threat.


The other main site where archaeologists claim to have discovered relics of places recounted in the Iliad is at the castle of Pylos in southeastern Greece, believed to be the home of King Nestor.





Discovery of Roman clunch dig


TWO Roman quarries have been discovered by archaeologists on the site of a cement works.


Chalk has been excavated from Barrington quarry for around 80 years - but it now seems our Roman ancestors had the same idea nearly 2,000 years ago.


An archaeological team from Cambridge University made the discovery after they were called in by Cemex, which owns the quarry and adjacent cement works.


The firm was required by planning regulations to bring in the team before extracting chalk in a new part of the quarry.


Archaeologists identified two dark areas among the clean white chalk which turned out to be ancient, beehive-shaped, small-scale Roman quarry workings.


Fragments of pottery found enabled archaeologists to date the workings back to Roman times.


They believe machinery was used to excavate a local hard chalk building stone, known as clunch, before backfilling the site with soil.


Clunch would probably have been used for use in building foundations.


The team also found evidence that tools such as chisels had also been used.


A spokeswoman from Cemex said: "While it is well-known that chalk has been excavated in Barrington as long as cement has been produced here - for nearly 80 years - it now seems likely that the tradition of excavating chalk for building materials on-site was started by our predecessors 1,800 years ago.


"Although there is no evidence in Barrington quarry of any substantial ancient structures, this recent Roman find is consistent with other finds, such as drainage and boundary ditches, that archaeologists have unearthed in other parts of South Cambridgeshire.


"It enhances our knowledge of local history and shows that Barrington has long been a rich source for building materials."


n Cemex UK Operations announced earlier this month it was suspending an application to build a new cement plant at its site because of uncertainty over the future of CO2 strategy in the UK.



Archaeological survey set at former slave-sale site




A sorrowful chapter in Richmond's past will be reopened Monday when an archaeological survey begins at the former site of Lumpkin's Jail in Shockoe Bottom. It was there that thousands of black men, women and children were sold into slavery.


 April 3 holds special significance for some in the city's black community who celebrate it as "Emancipation Day."


On April 3, 1865, Richmond the capital of the Confederacy fell to invading Union troops, ending for many slaves a lifetime of bondage.


The archaeological survey is a concerted effort of the City of Richmond, the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods and businesses in Shockoe Bottom.


Researchers say the former site of Lumpkin's Jail is now part of a parking lot bordered by Main Street Station's Train Shed, East Main and East Broad streets and Interstate 95.


The goal of the archaeological survey is to determine if there are any remains of Lumpkin's Jail below ground. The jail building was demolished in the 1870s, and further disturbances to the site have occurred since then.


But brick foundation walls could possibly remain, along with other features that might warrant further study.


Archaeologists with the James River Institute for Archaeology will conduct the survey, which will include digging a series of test trenches.


Richmond Councilwoman Delores L. McQuinn, who is also chairwoman of the Richmond Slave Trail Commission, said yesterday that she hopes the survey will shed new light on the slaves who lived and suffered -- and were sold.


"We owe it to them," she said.


Contact staff writer Gary Robertson at grobertson@timesdispatch.com or (804) 649-6346.



Argentina unearths forgotten past 

By Daniel Schweimler

BBC News, Buenos Aires 


Workers renovating a plaza in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, have stumbled across a forgotten cemetery. It was used by early immigrants in the first half of the 19th Century.


The bodies have rested under what today is a neighbourhood plaza


It was called the dissident cemetery since it was used by the Protestant and Jewish communities who were not allowed to bury their dead in the Roman Catholic cemeteries used by the majority of the population.


The find has excited experts keen to learn more about their country's early days.


The dead had lain undisturbed under this plaza in the heart of Buenos Aires for more than 100 years when builders laying drainage pipes exposed them to the light.


Here lay the bones of men, woman and children surrounded by the remains from their simple funerals: pieces of rotten wood from coffins, metal coffin handles, nails and broken bottles.


Archaeologists are carrying out a full investigation into what they might find. Leading the search is archaeologist Marcelo Wiesel, who says a rich history lies under Buenos Aires.


This is a hugely important find - cemeteries and rituals surrounding death tell us a great deal about how each community lived


Silvia Fajre, Buenos Aires council's culture department


"We hope this will help to tell us how Buenos Aires transformed itself so fast," he says.


Perhaps the greatest discovery so far is a gravestone found two metres underground, marking the spot where a 10-month old German girl was buried in 1886.


City restorer, Josefina Crepy, says it was in almost perfect condition - there were a couple of dents, probably caused by the builders who found it.


The work she and her colleagues are doing will provide one piece of an emerging story.


Argentina saw huge waves of immigration in the early part of the 19th Century, hoping to take advantage of the lush pastures in the interior of the country and the opportunities in Buenos Aires, which at the time was one of the fastest growing cities in the world.


Most came from Italy and Spain. But large numbers also arrived from across Europe - Germans, British, Hungarians, French and Scandinavians.


An unearthed gravestone from 1886 written in German


Most of these north European immigrants were Protestant and Jewish, and found there was no place for them to bury their dead in the Roman Catholic cemeteries inside the city.


So they established burial grounds outside city limits which became known as dissident cemeteries.


The second of these was in the area of Buenos Aires now called Once... still a place which draws immigrants, now mostly from East Asia. It was called the Victoria Cemetery and soon became crowded.


The only alternative was to throw corpses in the river.


As these non-Catholic immigrants established themselves they recognised the need to find a more permanent, fitting place to bury their dead.


  Nearly 200 years later the dissident dead are beginning to tell their stories to a new generation of Argentines


They found that in a corner of Chacarita, one of the biggest cemeteries in Buenos Aires which today boasts a very well tended German and alongside it, an equally beautiful British burial ground.


A huge operation was put in place to move the remains from the Victoria dissidents' cemetery to their new resting place.


But contact with some families had been lost and others simply did not want to finance the move. Those bodies have rested in peace under what today is a neighbourhood plaza. The question arises of what to do with them.


Yellow fever epidemic


The head of the city council's culture department, Silvia Fajre, says that according to the evidence they have so far, many hundreds of bodies remained in the dissidents' cemetery and many months of archaeological work will be necessary before they know exactly what they have got.


"This is a hugely important find," she says.


"We understand that cemeteries and rituals surrounding death tell us a great deal about how each community lived... also what they ate, their illnesses, the ceremonies they practised."


A lot of information was lost in the rush to build a new nation 


The local residents have, for the time being, lost their green space.


The city authorities say they are keen to include them in the work, talking to schools and probably, when the operation is completed, establishing some kind of memorial to those who died in the early days of the new Argentina.


One of those watching with interest is the Reverend David George of the Anglican cathedral in Buenos Aires. That community has just celebrated 175 years in Argentina.


Rev George holds the births, marriages and death records from those early days in a vault at the cathedral. They show that those early pioneers came from all walks of life: Accountants, coopers, blacksmiths, fishermen, bar-keepers and saddlers.


And they died for a range of reasons: "Fell off horse, died in fight, bad liver, found dead for no apparent reason, drowned."


Thousands were killed by the yellow fever epidemic of 1871. Most never reached the age of 40 and what the records tell us without doubt is that building the new Argentina was not easy.


In the rush to build a new nation, a lot of information was lost and little was recorded about how ordinary people struggled, lived, loved and died.


But it was not lost forever, and nearly 200 years later the dissident dead are beginning to tell their stories to a new generation of Argentines.



Latin teacher's suspension over quotes draws criticism

March 31, 2006

By J.C. MYERS Times Argus Staff


DUXBURY — It's supposedly a dead language, but a Latin course at Harwood Union has stirred up a very live controversy.


A Harwood Union High School Latin teacher appears to have been suspended and then reinstated — administrators will not confirm whether she was disciplined or not — for presenting her class with what one parent called "mildly risqué" quotes of graffiti from the walls of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.


The disciplinary action, and the ensuing lack of public information from administrators about the issue, is drawing fire from some community member and has raised issues of academic freedom.


"This is not a personnel issue, it's about who gets to decide what is taught in the classroom," said Susan Taub of Waitsfield, whose children recently graduated from Harwood, and who is herself a teacher.


According to John Cluett of Fayston, whose daughter attends the Latin class, language arts teacher Tami Munford was suspended in early March after she had distributed to her students quotations of ancient graffiti in Latin and English, instructing them to match the originals to the translations. Cluett said one of the students in the class was disturbed by the off-color nature of the quotations and went to the principal to complain.


Cornelia Cluett, 16, who attends Munford's class, said, "The graffiti was pretty mild. You could find the same thing on Comedy Central after midnight." She said some of the students in the class commented afterward that the material was "a little iffy," but no one seemed very offended at the time.


"I think it was an addition to the class," she said. "It keeps the students interested."


Her father, John Cluett, wondered where it would end.


"This material has academic value," John Cluett said. "What will we not allow next? Huckleberry Finn because it uses (a racial slur)?' Romeo and Juliet because it deals with premarital sex? Classical painting because the subjects are naked?"


Phillip Ambrose, the chair of the classics department at the University of Vermont, defends the use of the quotations, arguing they have academic value. Ambrose said he was on the national board that established the standards for teaching Latin in secondary schools under the Clinton administration, and that "the consensus of the report was that the full range of the literature of antiquity, everything we can read, from high literature to everyday vulgar material, should be used."


"Anyone who has taken even French 1, and not learned something off-color, has been deprived," he said.


Principal David Driscoll, Washington West Supervisory District Superintendent Bob MacNamara, and school board chairman Scott Mackey all declined to comment on the situation, even to confirm that Munford had been suspended, saying they could not discuss personnel issues.


Munford also did not return calls.


Parents and students report that Munford had been missing from the class during the week of March 13, and that she had been reinstated the following week. They said no explanations about the teacher's absence were offered to parents or students. Parents said they learned from their kids that Munford had been temporarily removed.


Harwood School Board members were advised by the chairman not to because they might have to deal with it later as a personnel issue.


Jim Boylan of Waitsfield, whose daughter attends Munford's class, said, "The principal got a lot of response supporting Tami."


Boylan said he could not understand why a teacher would be suspended for using the graffiti quotations from Pompeii.


"I went to a Catholic high school, and I remember those quotations. Brother Shannon put them out there, we all had a laugh, and we moved on," he said.


Taub also said she believes "the suspension was extremely heavy handed."


"The principal over-reacted," she said. "To remove this teacher from the classroom as if she had a long record of misconduct, or as if she were some threat to do harm to the students, is outrageous."


Taub also objects to the administration's and the school board's refusal to discuss their justification for taking the action.


"They heard from the people who were unhappy (when the complaint was made) why not hear from the people who approve?" she asked.


Angelo Dorta, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, said the administrators' silence on the issue could very well have been appropriate.


Taub said that the school administration's refusal to discuss the incident reminds her of the controversial suspension of popular Harwood guidance counselor Peter duMoulin in 2004, which resulted in a tumultuous public meeting attended by 300 community members and ultimately the resignation under pressure of principal Robin Pierce.


Silence from the administration about that suspension was named as a cause of the public outcry. Harwood parent Robert Yerks was quoted in a Feb. 2 article from 2004 as saying, "Essentially (it's) not knowing why he was asked to leave the school, the complete silence that shut everyone out that was completely upsetting to everyone."


But Cluett sees the current situation as being very different from the duMoulin affair.


"In the duMoulin case no one knew what he was accused of doing. In this case everyone knows what she did, because the kids told the parents," he said. "This is a question of academic freedom. They teach Huckleberry Finn, and Romeo and Juliet, and no teacher is strung up because of that," Cluett said.