Africa the Birthplace of Human Language, Analysis Suggests

Psychologists from The University of Auckland have just published two major studies on the diversity of the world's languages in the journals Science and Nature.

ScienceDaily (Apr. 15, 2011)


The first study, published in Science by Dr Quentin Atkinson, provides strong evidence for Africa as the birthplace of human language.

An analysis of languages from around the world suggests that, like our genes, human speech originated -- just once -- in sub-Saharan Africa. Atkinson studied the phonemes, or the perceptually distinct units of sound that differentiate words, used in 504 human languages today and found that the number of phonemes is highest in Africa and decreases with increasing distance from Africa.

The fewest phonemes are found in South America and on tropical islands in the Pacific Ocean. This pattern fits a "serial founder effect" model in which small populations on the edge of an expansion progressively lose diversity. Dr Atkinson notes that this pattern of phoneme usage around the world mirrors the pattern of human genetic diversity, which also declined as humans expanded their range from Africa to colonise other regions.

In general, the areas of the globe that were most recently colonised incorporate fewer phonemes into the local languages whereas the areas that have hosted modern humans for millennia (particularly sub-Saharan Africa) still use the most phonemes.

This decline in phoneme usage cannot be explained by demographic shifts or other local factors, and it provides strong evidence for an African origin of modern human languages -- as well as parallel mechanisms that slowly shaped both genetic and linguistic diversity among humans.

The second study, published in Nature by University of Auckland researchers Professor Russell Gray and Dr Simon Greenhill and their colleagues Michael Dunn and Stephen Levinson at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands challenges the idea that the human brain produces universal rules for language.

"The diversity of the world's language is amazing," says Professor Gray. "There are about 7,000 languages spoken today, some with just a dozen contrastive sounds, others with more than 100, some with complex patterns of word formation, others with simple words only, some with the verb at the beginning of the sentence, some in the middle, and some at the end."

"Our work shows that the claims some linguists have made for a really strong role of the innate structure of the human mind in shaping linguistic variation have been hugely oversold," he says.

Using computational methods derived from evolutionary biology, Gray and his team analysed the global patterns of word-order evolution. Instead of universal patterns of dependencies in word-order features, they found that each language family had its own evolutionary tendencies.

"When it comes to language evolution, culture trumps cognition," Gray observes.


Journal References:

1.                      Q. D. Atkinson. Phonemic Diversity Supports a Serial Founder Effect Model of Language Expansion from AfricaScience, 2011; 332 (6027): 346 DOI:10.1126/science.1199295

2.                      Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Stephen C. Levinson, Russell D. Gray. Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals.Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature09923


Carbon dating identifies South America's oldest textiles

Public release date: 13-Apr-2011

Contact: Kevin Stacey



University of Chicago Press Journals


Textiles and rope fragments found in a Peruvian cave have been dated to around 12,000 years ago, making them the oldest textiles ever found in South America, according to a report in the April issue of Current Anthropology.


The items were found 30 years ago in Guitarrero Cave high in the Andes Mountains. Other artifacts found along with the textiles had been dated to 12,000 ago and even older. However, the textiles themselves had never been dated, and whether they too were that old had been controversial, according to Edward Jolie, an archaeologist at Mercyhurst College (PA) who led this latest research.


The cave had been disturbed frequently by human and geological activity, so it was possible that the textiles could have belonged to much more recent inhabitants. What's more, the prior radiocarbon dates for the site had been taken from bone, obsidian, and charcoal—items that are known to sometimes produce inaccurate radiocarbon ages. According to Jolie, charcoal especially can produce dates that tend to overestimate a site's age.


"By dating the textiles themselves, we were able to confirm their antiquity and refine the timing of the early occupation of the Andes highlands," Jolie said. His team used the latest radiocarbon dating technique—accelerated mass spectrometry—to place the textiles at between 12,100 and 11,080 years old.


The textile items include fragments of woven fabrics possibly used for bags, baskets, wall or floor coverings, or bedding. They were likely left by settlers from lower altitude areas during "periodic forays" into the mountains, the researchers say. "Guitarrero Cave's location at a lower elevation in a more temperate environment as compared with the high Andean [plain] made it an ideal site for humans to camp and provision themselves for excursions to even higher altitudes," Jolie and his colleagues write.


These early mountain forays set the stage for the permanent settlements that came later—after 11,000 years ago—when the climate had warmed, glaciers receded, and settlers had a chance to adapt to living at higher altitudes.


Jolie's research also suggests that women were among these earliest high altitude explorers. Bundles of processed plant material found in the cave indicate that textile weaving occurred on site. "Given what we know about textile and basket production in other cultures, there's a good possibility that it would have been women doing this work," Jolie said.


"There's an assumption that these early forays into the mountains must have been made exclusively by men," he added. "It appears that might not be the case, though more work needs to be done to prove it."


Edward A. Jolie, Thomas F. Lynch, Phil R. Geib, and J. M. Adovasio, "Cordage, Textiles, and the Late Pleistocene Peopling of the Andes." Current Anthropology 42:2 (April 2011).



Southern Methodist University’s Lewis Binford left legacy of change, innovation

The most influential archaeologist of his generation

April 13, 2011


DALLAS (SMU) – Lewis R. Binford, SMU Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, died April 11 in Kirksville, Mo. During his 40-year career as an archaeologist, Binford transformed scientists’ approach to archaeology, earning a legacy as the “most influential archaeologist of his generation,” according to Scientific American.


Binford first gained attention in 1962 as an assistant professor at the University of Chicago when he wrote a path-breaking article in American Antiquity proposing that archaeologists abandon their emphasis on cataloguing artifacts and instead study what the artifacts revealed about prehistoric cultures. The proposition launched what is now known as “New Archaeology.”


“Lewis Binford led the charge that pushed, pulled and otherwise cajoled archaeology into becoming a more scientific enterprise,” says David Meltzer, Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory at SMU. “The impact of his work was felt not only here in America, but around the world. Much of how we conceptualize and carry out archaeology in the 21st century is owed to Lew’s substantial legacy.”


From Alaska to Australia, Binford conducted research throughout the world, focusing much of his attention on the archaeology of hunting and gathering. He spent 20 years in remote areas of Africa, Alaska and Australia conducting research on cultural patterns of contemporary hunter-gatherers and reviving the practice of ethnoarchaeology – the study of living societies to better understand societies of the past.


"Lewis Binford led the charge that pushed, pulled and otherwise cajoled archaeology into becoming a more scientific enterprise."

— David Meltzer, Henderson-Morrison Professor of Prehistory at SMU. He wrote 18 books and more than 130 articles, book chapters and reviews. His most recent book, Constructing Frames of Reference: An Analytical Method for Archaeological Theory Building Using Ethnographic and Environmental Data Sets. (California: 2001) is considered a landmark in the study of hunter-gatherer populations.

His honors included membership in the National Academy of Sciences, the Huxley Memorial Medal from the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain, the Montelius Medal from the Swedish Archaeological Society and the Centennial Medal from the Portuguese Archaeological society. He received in 2008 the Society for American Archaeology’s Lifetime Achievement Award.


 The International Astronomical Union named an asteroid for Binford in 2010 in honor of his contributions to the improvement of the study of archaeology.


Binford earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology in 1957 from the University of North Carolina and a master’s degree in 1958 and Ph.D. in 1964 from the University of Michigan. He served on the faculties of the University of Chicago, the University of California at Santa Barbara and the University of California at Los Angeles before joining the faculty at the University of New Mexico. He remained a member of the faculty there from 1968 through 1991 when he joined SMU.


“Any time a university can add a National Academy of Science-quality person to its faculty is a major gain for the university and the region,” says James Brooks, who played an important role in bringing Binford to SMU. Brooks is SMU provost emeritus and chair of the SMU’s Institute for Study of Earth and Man. “Binford brought distinction to SMU, to Dallas and the Southwest.”


Binford is survived by his wife, Amber Johnson, and his daughter, Martha Binford. Memorial contributions may be made to the Lewis R. Binford Fund for Teaching Scientific Reasoning in Archaeology through the Society for American Archaeology (900 Second Street NE #12, Washington, D.C. 20002-3560).



Antiquities chief Zahi Hawass sentenced to one year in jail

Zahi Hawass was sentenced to one year in jail Sunday for declining to fulfill a court ruling

Hatem Maher , Sunday 17 Apr 2011


Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs Zahi Hawass has been sentenced to one year in jail on Sunday for refusing to fulfill a court ruling over a land dispute.


The Egyptian criminal court also said Hawass must be relieved of his governmental duties and ordered him to pay a LE1000 penalty.


Hawass failed to adhere to a ruling in favour of his opponent over a land dispute when he was in charge of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA).


The SCA appealed the court ruling, arguing that the land includes monuments and therefore should be treated as government-owned land.


Hawass was recently re-appointed as antiquities chief in the newly-formed cabinet of Prime Minister Essam Sharaf.



Who killed the hill fort nine? Mystery find shakes our iron age assumptions

Gruesome discoveries in Peak District dig challenge accepted wisdom about 'peaceful' life in Ancient Britain

Martin Wainwright

guardian.co.uk,          Monday 18 April 2011 14.49 BST


Fond hopes that ancient Britain enjoyed a golden age of peace before Roman and other invasions have been shaken by a gruesome discovery in a Derbyshire hill fort's defensive ditch.


For the first time in the UK, archaeologists have found carelessly-buried iron age skeletons which suggest a selective massacre of women and children.


The tumble of scattered bones has come as a surprise to those taking part in one of the biggest community digs in recent British archaeology.


More than 400 schoolchildren joined specialist archaeologists and local volunteers to research Fin Cop in the Peak District, which dates from between 440BC and 390BC.


The finds include the skeleton of a pregnant woman crushed beneath a collapsed stone wall, one of a number of defences which appear to have been built hastily before some kind of catastrophe.


The remains of a teenage boy were discovered huddled at the bottom of the ditch, along with seven more skeletons, all women or children.


Dr Clive Waddington, who directed the two-year dig for Archaeological Research Services, said: "In recent years there has become an almost accepted assumption that warfare in the British iron age is largely invisible.


"Hill forts have been seen as displays of power, prestige and status rather than places with a serious military purpose.


"The gruesome discoveries at Fin Cop have reopened the debate on the purpose of hill forts. For the people living here, the hurriedly constructed fort was evidently intended as a defensive work in response to a very real threat."


The strength of the theory depends in part on further excavations yet to be completed, with only 10 metres of the 400 metre-long ditch so far investigated.


Team members believe the remains of hundreds more victims may lie in the neighbouring stretch.


There could be gentler explanations for the deaths: none of the nine skeletons show signs of violence, suggesting death would have been from flesh wounds or suffocation – or possibly disease.


Explanations could include a disastrous plague or the punishment of a household by the rest of the community.


The absence of adult male remains in the ditch is also a puzzle, especially as traces of cattle, sheep and pigs were found, along with horse bones, which suggest that Fin Cop's inhabitants included people of high status.


Archaeologists are now debating whether men might have been enslaved or pressed into military service by the victors in a battle.


The absence of similar finds at other British hill forts may be due to geology – animal remains decay more slowly in Fin Cop's limestone than in the sandstone which underlies most other significant sites.


But Jon Humble, English Heritage inspector of ancient monuments for Derbyshire, said: "There are many more mysteries out there in the Peak District that have yet to be solved."


Local people, who provided more than 100 volunteers for the dig, are keen to find out more.


Ann Hall of Longstone history group said: "Locals have always viewed the hill as a peaceful spot. Now we have uncovered sad evidence of an ancient massacre and learned that our well-loved landmark may also be a prehistoric war grave".



Golden Phallic Find in Norfolk


A Roman pendant of unmistakable shape was the subject of a Treasure Trove inquest in Norfolk, England. Made of gold and fashioned into the distinctive shape of a phallus, the pendant was found by metal detectorist Kevin Hillier earlier this year and reported through the Portable Antiquities Scheme who confirmed it as a treasure find.


Finders of gold and silver objects and groups of coins from the same location – over 300 years old -  have a legal obligation in England and Wales to report such items under the Treasure Act 1996.  In addition, prehistoric base-metal assemblages found after 1 January 2003 also qualify as Treasure.


The pendant is described by Erica Darch, a Finds Liason Officer from Norfolk:


“as being hollow, formed from sheet metal soldered together lengthways, rounded at the terminal with a small aperture left open at either end. A loop formed from triple ribbed sheet is soldered into position at the top, with separately applied solid globular testicles to either side. Separately applied wire with irregular transverse grooves on the underside (perhaps to act as keying for the solder) defines the edge of the foreskin.”


What is interesting about this little golden find is that its concept is not unique, as many similar – but cast bronze pendants – have been found in this area of England.


Phallic objects which have been found – the majority of which are pendants – have been discussed by Jude Plouviez in her article; ‘Whose good luck? Roman phallic ornaments from Suffolk’ 2005 157-164.


The pendants were possibly owned by Roman soldiers, and may have acted as good luck charms to protect the wearer from harm. They are apparently not indigenous in character and many have been found on sites with an early Roman, often military, presence.




Unsigned article on p521 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:

A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.


FASCINUM. (βασκανία), fascination, enchantment. The belief that some persons had the power of injuring others by their looks, was as prevalent among the Greeks and Romans as it is among the superstitious in modern times. The φθαλμς βάσκανος, or evil eye, is frequently mentioned by ancient writers (Alciphr. Ep. I.15; Heliod. Aethiop. III.7; compare Plin. H. N. VII.2). Plutarch, in his Symposium (V.7), has a separate chapter περ τν καταβασκαίνειν λεγομένων, κα βάσκανον χειν φθαλμόν. The evil eye was supposed to injure children particularly, but sometimes cattle also; whence Virgil (Ecl. III.103) says,


"Nescio quis teneros oculos mihi fascinat agnum."

Various amulets were used to avert the influence of the evil eye. The most common of these appears to have been the phallus, called by the Romans fascinum, which was hung round the necks of children (turpicula res, Varr. De Ling. Lat. VII.97, ed. Müller). Pliny (H. N. XIX.19 §1) also says that Satyrica signa, by which he means the phallus, were placed in gardens and on hearths as a protection against the fascinations of the envious; and we learn from Pollux (VIII.118) that smiths were accustomed to place the same figures before their forges with the same design. Sometimes other objects were employed for this purpose. Peisistratus is said to have hung the figure of a kind of grasshopper before the Acropolis as a preservative against fascination (Hesych. s.v. Καταχήνη.)


Another common mode of averting fascination was by spitting into the folds of one's own dress (Theocr. VI.39; Plin. H. N. XXVIII.7; Lucian, Navig. 15 vol. III p259, ed. Reitz).


According to Pliny (H. N. XXVIII.7), Fascinus was the name of a god, who was worshipped among the Roman sacra by the Vestal virgins, and was placed under the chariot of those who triumphed as a protection against fascination; by which he means in all probability that the phallus was placed under the chariot (Müller, Archäol. der Kunst, § 436.1, 2; Böttiger, Klein. Schr. III. p111; Becker, Charikles, vol. II pp109, 291).



Uncovered: The remains of two Roman soldiers

1:00pm Thursday 14th April 2011

By James Calnan »


ARCHAEOLOGISTS believe they have uncovered the remains of two Roman soldiers beneath one of Colchester’s former barracks.


The remains of two spearmen, laid to rest on their backs with their weapons and armour, have been discovered in a cemetery beneath the former Hyderabad Barracks.


The Colchester Archaeological Trust believes they could have been Saxon soldiers hired in the 4th or 5th century AD – the final days of the Roman empire.


Trust director Philip Crummy said one strong theory is the spearmen were related to 4th century remains found buried in a similar style near the Roman chariot circus.


Many men from the continent were hired by the Romans and posted at frontier towns and cities like Colchester to act as limitanei – lightly armed soldiers who were given land in return.


Some then turned on their masters and paved the way for the conquest of much of eastern Britain by their own kind from across the North Sea.


The recently-discovered bodies were buried with their shields on their chests and spears by their sides, while one had a dagger held in a belt around his waist.


The wooden parts of the weapons have largely decayed, but the ironwork shield bosses, spear heads and dagger remain.


The trust, which is carrying out the excavations for developer Taylor Wimpey, plans to carry out tests later this year to discover whether the soldiers lived at the end of the Roman era, or during the subsequent Anglo-Saxon period.


The excavations at the Hyderabad and Meanee barracks mean there is little left of the former Roman Garrison area for archaeologists to explore, as it is being turned into a major housing development.


While the highlight was the discovery of the starting gates of the Roman chariot circus in the gardens of the sergeants’ mess, Mr Crummy said plenty more of interest had been found. He said: “Taylor Wimpey deserves huge credit for the very significant archaeological successes of recent years on the Garrison site including, of course, the discovery of the Roman circus.


“Nothing would have been achieved without the company’s continued support and funding.”



Exclusive: Early Christian Lead Codices Now Called Fakes

Natalie Wolchover, Life's Little Mysteries Staff WriterDate: 11 April 2011 Time: 02:00 PM ET


Seventy metal books allegedly discovered in a cave in Jordan have been hailed as the earliest Christian documents. Dating them to mere decades after Jesus' death, scholars have called the "lead codices" the most important discovery in archaeological history, and leading media outlets have added fuel to the fire surrounding the books in recent weeks.


"Never has there been a discovery of relics on this scale from the early Christian movement, in its homeland and so early in its history," reported the BBC.


Slowly, though, more and more questions have arisen about the authenticity of the codices, whose credit-card-size pages are cast in lead and bound together by lead rings. Today, an Aramaic translator has completed his analysis of the artifacts, and has found what he says is incontrovertible evidence that they are fakes.


"I obtained photos of all the text that was available, and spent the past week looking over them," said Steve Caruso, a professional Aramaic translator and teacher who is consulted by dealers of antiquities to analyze inscriptions on ancient artifacts.


"I noticed there were a lot of Old Aramaic forms that were at least 2,500 years old. But they were mixed in with other forms that were younger, so I took a closer look at that and pulled out all the distinct forms that I could find," Caruso told Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. "It was very, very odd — I've never seen this kind of mix before." The youngest scripts he identified, called Nabatean and Palmyrene, date from the second and third centuries, proving the documents could not possibly have been written during the dawn of Christianity, Caruso said.


Even the oldest scripts were written by someone who didn't know what he was doing, the new analysis shows. "There were inconsistencies in how they did the stroke order, which you would never have seen. Scribes had very specific ways of doing things," Caruso said. Furthermore, several characters appeared "flipped" — a mistake that would imply they were hastily copied rather than original.


Caruso's new analysis of the text corroborates the recent findings of a Greek archaeologist at Oxford, who said the images appearing in the codices, including one of Christ on the cross, are anachronistic. "The image they are saying is Christ is the sun god Helios from a coin that came from the island of Rhodes. There are also some nonsense inscriptions in Hebrew and Greek," Peter Thonemann told the press. He believes the codices were forged within the past 50 years.


One scholar who continues to believe in the authenticity of the codices is David Elkington, described by the BBC as a scholar of ancient religious archaeology. For months, Elkington has been trying to help the Jordanian government retrieve the codices from Israel, where they were smuggled.


Elkington and his team have argued that the codices show images of Jesus with God, as well as a map of Jerusalem, and text discussing the coming of the Messiah. Furthermore, they say the books were found near where early Christian refugees are thought to have camped.


The team even identified a fragment of text reading "I shall walk uprightly," a possible reference to Jesus' resurrection.


However, Elkington's credentials may not have been questioned thoroughly enough by the media outlets that gave him a platform. "The 'British archaeologist' who is named as apparently trying to get these things into a Jordanian museum and who is one of the few who has actually seen them, one David Elkington, is not an archaeologist," said Kimberley Bowes, a Greek and Roman archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania.


"He doesn't seem to occupy any post or other academic position, and his writings on how acoustic resonance is responsible for major world religions wouldn't be accepted by any academic or scholar I know," Bowes told Life's Little Mysteries.


Just in time for Easter


"I was a little bit surprised that they did take on as much media coverage as they did," Caruso said. "The media took the press release hook, line and sinker without doing serious investigation. If they had they would have found that David Elkington, who brought them to the forefront, is in the fringe of academia."


Some good photos and good timing probably gave the artifacts a boost. "I think there were a lot of really, really good photos, and the whole thing seemed convincing on the surface. People are looking for something to write about in the Easter season and this is something that would make great news."


Fake Christian relics are relatively common, Bowes said. "Modern people's urge to find material evidence from the first two centuries of Christianity is much stronger than the actual evidence itself. This is because the numbers of Christians from this period was incredibly small — probably less than 7,000 by 100 A.D. — and because they didn't distinguish themselves materially from their Jewish brethren."


Caruso is regularly asked to analyze antiquities. "I've actually found a lot more gibberish or fakes than actual artifacts, which is the sad part," he said.


This article was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover



Bones of Leper Warrior Found in Medieval Cemetery

Stephanie Pappas, LiveScience Senior WriterDate: 07 April 2011 Time: 11:46 AM ET


The bones of a soldier with leprosy who may have died in battle have been found in a medieval Italian cemetery, along with skeletons of men who survived blows to the head with battle-axes and maces.


Studying ancient leprosy, which is caused by a bacterial infection, may help scientists figure out how the infectious disease evolved.


The find also reveals the warlike ways of the semi-nomadic people who lived in the area between the sixth and eighth centuries, said study researcher Mauro Rubini, an anthropologist at Foggia University in Italy. The war wounds, which showed evidence of surgical intervention, provide a peek into the medical capabilities of medieval inhabitants of Italy.


"They knew well the art of war and also the art of treating war wounds," Rubini told LiveScience.


Buried horses and bashed-in skulls


The cemetery of Campochiaro is near the central Italian town of Campobasso. Between the years 500 and 700, when the cemetery was in use, Rubini said, the area was under the control of the Lombards, a Germanic people who allied with the Avars, an ethnically diverse group of Mongols, Bulgars and Turks. No signs of a stable settlement have been found near Campochiaro, Rubini said, so the cemetery was likely used by a military outpost of Lombards and Avars, guarding against invasion from the Byzantine people to the south.


So far, Rubini said, 234 graves have been excavated, many containing both human and horse remains. Burying a man with his horse is a tradition that hails from Siberia, Mongolia and some Central Asian regions, Rubini said, suggesting that the Avars brought their death rituals with them to Italy.


Rubini and his colleague Paola Zaio detailed three of these bodies in an article to be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The first man was about 55 when he died, the researchers found. They aren't sure what killed him, but they do know what he managed to survive: a blow to the head that tore a 2 inch (6 centimeter) hole in his skull. The pattern of the wound and the size of the hole suggest a Byzantine mace as the weapon, Rubini said.


Almost as alarming, the man probably went through the medieval equivalent of brain surgery. The margins of the wound are smooth and free of fragments, Rubini said.


"Probably the margins were polished with an abrasive instrument," he said.


Whatever happened, the man survived his wound. The bone had begun to heal and grow before the man died, Rubini said.


A leper warrior?


Body No. 2, another man of 50 or 55, painted a similar forensic picture. Judging by the shape of the wedge-shaped dent in the man's skull, Rubini said, he probably got in the way of a Byzantinian battle-ax. Like his comrade with the hole in the head, this man survived for a long time after he was wounded.


The third soldier wasn't so fortunate, the researchers suspect. First of all, his bones show the telltale wasting and mutilation of leprosy, now known as Hansen's disease. In ancient times, leprosy sufferers were often banished from society. Apparently the Lombards and Avars took a more tolerant approach, Rubini said, because this man, who died around age 50, was buried in the cemetery along with the other dead. [Read: Earliest Known Case of Leprosy Unearthed]


The leprosy sufferer's skull bears the mark of what Rubini and Zaio indentify as a sword slash. It may not have killed him, but the wound shows no signs of healing, suggesting the man died within hours of sustaining it.


"The Avar society was very inflexible militarily, and in particular situations all are called to contribute to the cause of survival, healthy and sick," Rubini said. "Probably this individual was really a leper warrior who died in combat to defend his people against the Byzantinian soldiers."


Whoever he was, the mysterious leper may help researchers understand how the disease evolved over time. Rubini and other researchers are working to extract the DNA of the bacteria that causes leprosy from bones found in the cemetery. The goal is to compare the medieval version of the disease to the bacteria alive today, Rubini said: "We study the past to know the present."



Italian researchers hope to dig up remains of the real Mona Lisa

Excavators in Florence are searching for the bones of Lisa Gherardini, thought to be the model for Leonardo's painting

Associated Press in Rome

The Guardian,            Tuesday 5 April 2011


Researchers hope the excavation of a convent in Florence will lead them to the bones of the woman who posed for Leonardo da Vinci's painting. Photograph: Amel Pain/AP

Italian researchers are planning to dig up bones in a Florence convent to try to identify the remains of a Renaissance woman believed to be the model for the Mona Lisa. If successful, the research might help ascertain the identity of the woman depicted in Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece – a mystery that has puzzled scholars and art lovers for centuries and generated countless theories.


The project aims to locate the remains of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a rich silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. Tradition has long linked Gherardini to the painting, which is known in Italian as La Gioconda and in French as La Joconde. Giorgio Vasari, a 16th-century artist and biographer, wrote that Leonardo painted a portrait of del Giocondo's wife.


Gherardini was born in 1479. A few years ago, an amateur Italian historian said he had found a death certificate showing she died on 15 July 1542, and her final resting place was the Convent of St Ursula in central Florence. That is where the digging will begin later his month, said Silvano Vinceti, an art historian and the project leader.


The project is part of a trend of employing CSI-like methods in art history, for example to find out about an artist's technique, discover details hidden in a painting or even learn about an artist's life or death. The group led by Vinceti has already reconstructed the faces of some Italian artists on the basis of their skulls, and last year it said it had identified the bones of Caravaggio and discovered a possible cause of death, 400 years after the artist died in mysterious circumstances.


The Mona Lisa project uses some of the same techniques applied to the Caravaggio investigation.


First, the researchers will use ground-penetration radar to search for hidden tombs inside the convent. Then they will search the bones to identify ones that are compatible with Gherardini's – bones that belonged to a woman who died in her 60s in the period in question. The group will also look for specific characteristics such as traces of possible diseases or bone structure to match what is known of Gherardini's life.


If such bones are identified, the researchers will conduct carbon dating and extract DNA, which will be compared to that extracted from the bones of Gherardini's children, some of whom are buried in a basilica also in Florence.


Finally, if skull fragments are found, depending on how well-preserved they are, the group might attempt a facial reconstruction. This step will be crucial to ascertain whether Gherardini was indeed the model for the Mona Lisa and thus the owner of that famous smile.