Thursday, October 20, 2016

Capuchin monkey flaking creates flaky editorial in the journal Nature

In an article posted on the journal Nature website yesterday, a team of scientists reported that Capuchin monkeys in Brazil engage in a kind of percussion with quartz pebbles that results in the creation of split cobbles and flakes that are sometimes conchoidal (Proffitt et al. 2016). The purpose of the behavior is mysterious, but the monkeys can bee seen liking the stones or the debitage from them.

It's an interesting article, but what really caught my attention was a strange editorial about the research, which was published in the current issue of the journal (Anonymous 2016). It's common, of course, for Nature to publish commentaries on major articles. They are written by experts in the field and are designed, I suppose, to provide both context for and insight into research, especially for readers who are not specialists in the field. Those commentaries are attributed to their respective authors (i.e., signed) and published in a section entitled "News and Views." The commentary on the flaking-monkey article, however, was published anonymously as an editorial before the appearance of actual article in print.

Editorials in Nature, as in other similar journals, normally address matters of science policy and ethics. I can't remember seeing an editorial that commented on an article in the issue unless there was some policy or ethical issue related to the article.  This seemed so strange to me that I flipped back through several issues to check my memory, and I couldn't find another instance like this one.

What, you ask, did the editorial say? I find it hard to pin down main point of the little essay, but perhaps the penultimate line summarizes it: "In the end, the activity of banging rocks together should be seen as precisely that, and not as the first, proleptic step towards the stars." That statement and similar ones could be read as an attempt to diminish the significance of the findings. I don't know if that was the intent of the editor, but I note that the editor did not say anything laudatory about the research.

Again strangely, the title of the editorial is different in the html and pdf versions of the journal. In the html version it is "One sharp edge does not a tool make:Capuchin monkeys have been observed smashing stones to produce flakes ­ — but why they do so remains a mystery." In the pdf it reads, "Sharp Practice: Monkeys can make tool-like objects, but that doesn't mean they know what they are doing."

What a mix of enigmatic weirdness! All in all, it is peculiar, perhaps extraordinary, that the editor of a journal, especially such a prestigious and prominent one, would publish such a vague, rambling, ambiguous, and possibly unflattering commentary on a research article published in their own journal. 

Anonymous (2016). Sharp Practice: Monkeys can make tool-like objects, but that doesn't mean they know what they are doing. Nature 538:290.

Proffitt, Tomos, Lydia V. Luncz, Tiago Falótico, Eduardo B. .Ottoni, Ignacio de la Torre, and Michael Haslam (2016). Wild Monkeys Flake Stone Tools. Nature doi:10.1038/nature20112.

Monday, October 17, 2016

A new reason to boycott Elsevier

There are lots of good moral reasons to boycott Elsevier journals, from unconscionable open access fees to high subscription charges. I can add another, less moral than selfish, but a new reason nonetheless.

I have grown increasingly frustrated with the monumentally complex Elsevier manuscript management system that the company has used to manipulate authors and reviews. I have had to create multiple profiles, and then went through hell to consolidate them into one system. I finally had the courage to complain to a journal editor about it, and he was very rude about it, so much so that I fear that I have foreclosed my opportunity to contribute to the journal, which is particularly unfortunate because it is one of the most highly ranked journals in the field. Even more unfortunate, two of the four top journals in my part of archaeology are published by Elsevier. Take a look at the Archaeology Journal Ranks page on this blog and click through to see who publishes what.

So as not to burn all of my bridges, I agreed to review an article for another Elsevier journal and it turns out they have instituted yet another new document management system and they old accounts didn't roll over to it. So, I had to start the registration process again, and create a new account. I really couldn't believe it. I mean, really, what could the executives at Elsevier possibly be thinking? It's truly astonishing the horrendous disregard that they seem to have for all their clients, the authors, editors and reviewers without whom Elsevier cannot exist.

If one could actually communicate with any of the executives of Elsevier, I suspect they would give the typical corporate answer, that they changed the software for our convenience, as when your bank tells you that they moved all the ATM machines to Malaysia "to serve you better."

So, Elsevier has a disproportionate influence on archaeological publishing. They publish the Journal of Archaeological Science and the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology (via Academic Press). We probably can't do anything about the latter, but we might be able to change the publisher of the Journal of Archaeological Science. It is published by the Society for Archaeological Science, and so we could try to get together and pressure them to change their publisher when their current contract ends. I'd rejoin the Society just for that. How about you?

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Piedras Pintadas, Icalupe, Somoto, Nicaragua

I don't want to leave my devoted readers hanging, so I'll start by saying that Hurricane Matthew had little to no effect on Boynton Beach. The big headline was that one of the restaurants on the Intracoastal Waterway got a few inches of water in the parking lot.

Now, to the point of this post: a much delayed description of the petroglyphs at Piedras Pintadas.

Near the end of our last field season, Jorge Zambrana very kindly took us up to Somoto to see the Cañon de Somoto and the petroglyphs at Piedras Pintadas. Somoto itself is a lovely old town in the highlands, cool, picturesque, and pacific. (Most of the photos in this post were taken by Kelsey Willis.)

Somoto in the northern highlands

Colonial church in Somoto during Sunday mass

The first day, we visited the museum and took photos of some of the pieces in municipal museum. They have some interesting artifacts, including Ulua Polychrome, Campana Fine Line Polychrome, Usulutan ware, Segovias fine supports, and an Ulua-style marble vase.    

 In the evening, we drove to the Parque Ecológico Municipal Piedras Pintadas in Icalupe. It's a huge doline or perhaps an uvala high in the pine-clad hills. On one sheer wall, where is slightly undercut, there is a whole field of petroglyphs, in many places daubed with red and blue paint.

Pine-clad hills around Piedras Pintadas

First view into the doline where the petroglyphs are located

The limestone strata are clearly visible

The first petroglyphs you see as you come down the path

More petroglyphs

The red paint is noteworthy in this section

And yet more...

I like the blue wading bird

Do you see the crab?

Very interesting petroglyphs. There have been some studies of the iconography, but I doubt the subject has been exhausted.

There are some artifacts scattered about. We saw a couple of sherds of Segovias.

Deymins, the archaeologist who acted as our guide and who knows the site well, told me there are caves about, including at least one in the park.


The next day we went to the Cañon de Somoto. It was indescribably beautiful, but we have no pictures because we couldn't carry them in the inner tubes. It is truly spectacular and merits a visit.

 Later in the day, Deymins took us to another petroglyph site near Somoto. The first set of carvings occur in a small rock shelter formed by a group of fallen boulders. I don't remember the name of the site, and I apparently did not write it down.

Petroglyphs in rock shelter near Somoto

Another petroglyph at the entrance to the rockshelter
As I was about to kneel to crawl into the rockshelter, I saw a snake. Deymins said it was a tamagás, one of the deadliest vipers in the region.  I killed it with my new machete. (My old machete was "detained" by Customs, even though I bought it in Nicaragua.)  Unfortunately, the new sheath was not up to its job, and the machete cut through it and halfway through my belt.

Dead tamagás

We visited one more set of petroglyphs nearby and went back to Somoto. If you look on a map, you can see that the northern Chinandega borders of the Department of Madriz, where Somoto is located. In fact, the town of Somoto is located only 27 kilometers from the Chinandega border, but since there is no road that way, you have to go east at least as far as Leon and the north, all of which takes many hours.

The visit was truly lovely and unforgettable. The area will well reward a visit by anyone who enjoys a beautiful landscape or archaeological remains.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Hurricane Matthew

Well, well, the first bands of clouds from Hurricane Matthew are now passing over my house in Boynton Beach, Florida. One current forecast has the eye of the storm hitting the coast about 15 kilometers north of me, in West Palm Beach,  and then skimming the coast north and east to the Carolinas. Of course, 15 km is nothing to a hurricane like this. One tiny jiggle, and I could take a direct hit.  It is quite a powerful storm. It's currently a strong Category 3 with winds of 125 miles per hour (mph), but it's forecast to strengthen to a Category 4 before coming ashore.

I've been through six or seven hurricanes, not counting those I successfully dodged through evacuation, so I know that a Category 3 or 4 is no fun. I've never thought that hurricanes were a blast, but a major hurricane, Category 3 or higher, is a different beast from a Category 1 or 2. There's a world of difference between a 75 mph wind and a 150 mph wind. The difference is that, while a Category 1 storm may harm buildings, the damage is usually light, whereas a Category 4 can wreck, ruin, flatten, and totally destroy houses and other structures. The contrast is described in the Saffir-Simpson scale as "some damage" (Category 1) versus "catastrophic damage" (Category 4). Here's how NOAA describes a Category 4 hurricane:

"Well-built framed homes can sustain severe damage with loss of most of the roof structure and/or some exterior walls. Most trees will be snapped or uprooted and power poles downed. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."

The only good news is that the coast will be on the weak side of the storm--provided it doesn't come fully ashore--and also the storm is fairly compact--so that the very high winds only extend 30 or 50 miles from the eye. 

The bad news is that the storm surge is expected to be very powerful and dangerous. The storm has the potential to scour archaeological sites off the beaches from here to the Carolinas. In this region, the coastal sites, or what survives of them, are highly significant and, of course, already imperiled by sea-level rise. 

No small number of my students live north of me in the zones of greatest danger, from West Palm to Jupiter to Vero Beach. If you read this, seek shelter and stay safe. As the emergency folks say, you should be rushing your emergency preparations to completion.

I'm happy that my wife is out of town and safe. I'm supposed to fly out of Miami International Airport tomorrow afternoon to join her. Last time I checked, my flight was not eligible for a free rebooking. I have no idea whether the airport will be open tomorrow, and even if it is, who knows whether I will be able to get there. If my house is gone, I may have more important things to do. 

Of course, the Weather Channel is tuned to such an intensely unrelenting pitch of hysterical fear-mongering that I don't know how they can talk when they are panting so hard. If their voices get any higher, only dogs will be able to hear them. CNN is, naturally, giving them a run for their money.

It took me quite a few hours last night and this morning to get my inadequate hurricane shutters locked down. I hadn't lowered them in at least 6 or 7 years, and several of them were welded or rusted in place. I had to buy new parts and tools, and I ultimately had to cut some parts with a hacksaw to lower them, and even drilled new bolt holes to fasten them. Fortunately, as a bit of cave archaeologist, I had a great headlamp that I was able to use to work in the dark. It was quite a relief to finally get the the shutters in place. I've packed up most of our essential papers and other stuff just in case the roof blows off toward Tampa, and I need to jump in the car. 

Get under cover and stay safe!

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Rosetta observes fluffy fractal particles from the early solar system in comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenk

I haven't written anything about fractals in this space in a long time, but this news item deserves mention.

A news brief in today's Science magazine (Clery 2016) reports that the European Space Agency's (ESA) Rosetta spacecraft has observed a population of fluffy fractal particles in the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenk, which it is studying. The particles were observed at a wide range of magnifications, from ~ 1mm to 1 µ, using three different instruments on the probe. The shapes are statistical fractals that might have formed through the gentle agglomeration of particles. They are thought to have formed in the early solar system.

You can watch to parts of the relevant presentation that was apparently lived streamed from the ESA. The discussion by Thurid Mannel starts around 28:51, but it is continually interrupted by periods during which the signal was lost.

Fluffy fractal particles from the origins of the solar system! Hot stuff!

I have embedded the video below for your convenience.

Reference cited

Clery, Daniel (2016). Rostta ends 2-year comet mission with final descent. Science 353(6307): 1482-1483.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

First conviction for destruction of cultural properties at the International Criminal Court

National Public Radio (here in the United States) and many other news outlets are reporting that Ahmed al-Faqi al-Mahd, the first individual tried in the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes involving the destruction of cultural properties, has been sentenced to nine years in prison. He had previously pleaded guilty to orchestrating attacks on mausoleums and other buildings in Timbuktu (a World Heritage Site) while that city was occupied by a militant group associated with Al-Qaida. Such war crimes are hardly crimes of passion, but rather well-planned, deliberate tactics designed for political ends. Therefore, prosecution and punishment may well serve as a deterrent.

The destruction of cultural property appears to fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC because it is included in the Rome Statute under which the Court operates and presumably other states were unable or unwilling to prosecute. For example, in Article 8, "War Crimes," Section 2, paragraph b(ix), reads in part,
“Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives;” (emphasis added)
Similar language appears in other places in the treaty.

Let us hope that this successful prosecution serves as a salutary lesson for others who would attack and destroy the common heritage of humanity.

News discussion of consultation under the National Historic Preservation Act

The American Indian protests over the Dakota Access Pipeline have been in news a lot recently, and I've been discussing it with my public archaeology class. On National Public Radio yesterday morning, there was a news report about litigation over whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers properly consulted as required by the National Historic Preservation Act. This link will take you to a transcript and recording of the news report that discusses the Standing Rock Sioux's lawsuit against the Corps. It is rare to hear these kinds of technical issues discussed in such a broad public forum, but it is a good thing because, it seems to me, marginalization and discrimination thrive in the shadows when peoples are ignored or forgotten.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The 2016 Season in Chinandega

The 2016 season in Chinandega was a success! We were able to offer significant logistical support to Hector Neff and Fred Lange. It was also a pleasure to provide aid and comfort to Marie Kolbenstetter from the University of Leiden in her Choluteca project. We enjoyed visits from Jason Paling and Justin Lowry's field school and Patrick Werner and Edgar Espinoza's team from the Canal project.

In addition to those extra-curricular activities, we also succeeded in studying the ancient pottery of Chinandega, which was the reason we were there.  In fact, I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that we have succeeded in creating the outline of a ceramic sequence that runs from the beginning of the Late Preclassic through at least the Early Postclassic, an interval of more than 1,000 years. We have identified materials from all of the periods comprehended by those dates, and, perhaps more important, we think we have identified the ordinary, local pastes and wares corresponding to the major intervals, which will become the key to dating most sites.

I use the term "outline" advisedly because we are still missing most of the details that would convert the sequence from a sketch into a vivid portrait. While we have identified materials from each major period, i.e., Late Preclassic, Early Classic, Late Classic, and Early Postclassic, we only have a pure deposit of ceramics from the earliest phase, the Late Preclassic. The other materials mostly come from mixed deposits and are therefore more difficult to sort out. So, some of our chronological attributions are supported by less than overwhelming evidence, which will need to be shored up in the future. For almost all our materials, the sample sizes are too small to permit the kinds of descriptions we would really prefer to develop. Ideally, one needs an array of whole vessels as well as lots of sherds to be able to describe vessel forms and ranges of variation. We lack most of that information. We can only hope that future excavations will supply the samples necessary to develop those descriptions.

This sequence comes from the coastal plain region, the least known part of the Department of Chinandega. In the northern part of the Department, in the foothills of the highlands, the pottery is very different, but fortunately, it appears closely related to better-known materials in the Segovias region to the north. We started analyzing the northern pottery this year, but almost everything remains to be done.

We had a really great team this year, and I sincerely thank everyone who helped.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Climbing the Cosigüina Volcano with guide Marvin Meléndez

A couple of weeks ago, we took Sunday off and climbed Cosigüina, the westernmost volcano of the Maribio chain. Forming the end of long peninsula that juts out into the Pacific, it creates a looming headland that guards the entrance to the grand Bay of Chorotega. It's a large, complex shield volcano capped with a  low stratocone.

In 1835, Cosigüina exploded. According to Briffa et al. (1998), the volcanic explosivity index of the eruption was 5, making it one of the most powerful in recorded history. The violence of the eruption demolished part of the cone and changed the contour of the mountain forever. Today the cone is lower, about 900 m, and it encircles a deep crater over a kilometer across which harbors a beautiful lake.

Some friends introduced us to a great guide, Marvin Meléndez. He is director of rescue operations for the municipality. He said that when people get lost on the mountain, they call him, so why not cut out the middleman? He was a very genial companion as well as a very professional guide who put safety first. He knows every inch of the mountain and is very experienced. I recommend him highly. His number is 8775-5594. Don't climb Cosigüina without a guide. Every year, people get lost on the mountain, and sometimes they die, usually from dehydration. If you go, bring much more water than you think you'll  need, and then throw some Gatorade in your backpack.

It's a lovely climb, steep towards the end. The young and sprightly will enjoy it. Those who, like me, are older and more sluggish, will struggle, but the end is worth the effort. The view is spectacular. Even from the eastern rim of the crater, you can see west across the mouth of the Bay to El Salvador, where the volcano Conchagua  stands watch upon the other headland.  You can see the Honduras across the Bay to the north.

Looking back toward Nicaragua, you can see the whole length of the Peninsula of Cosigüina lying as a road leading back to El Viejo and Chinandega. You can see from the Bay and the magestic Estero Real to the Pacific on the other side.

It's very beautiful.

Cosigüina crater lake

The Estero Real from the rim of Cosigüina

The Estero Real to the left and the Pacific to the right.

The Gulf of Chorotega

Marvin Meléndez

Reference cited

Briffa, K. R., P. D. Jones, F. H. Schweingruber, and T. J. Osborn (1998). Influence of volcanic eruptions on Northern Hemisphere summer temperature over the past 600 years. Nature 393:450-455.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Two more fieldwork rules

1. If you run out of drinking water, don't brush your teeth with Gatorade.
2. You can dehydrate while cooking, so keep drinking or you could pass out.

Never ask me how I know these things.

Do you have rules on your project? Send them in!