Wednesday, December 5, 2012

EVERYONE is blogging

One of my students (thanks, Travis!) sent me this link to the U.S. government's announcement, on its blog, that the world is not ending on December 21, 2012. Good to know the government is on the case, but for me the most fascinating thing is to discover that the United States government actually has a blog. With open commenting! Many of the posts look interesting, so I was surprised to see the unusually large number of comments on the 2012 post. The number currently stands at 148, while most of the other posts just have a few. I scrolled through several pages of blog posts, and the second highest number of comments I saw was 6. So, the level of 2012 hysteria really is high.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Pictures of the lesula, the new species of monkey, courtesy of Kate Detwiler

 Fabulous drawing of the lesula by Kimio Honda. You don't often see scientific illustration taken to such artistic heights.

 Georgette with her lesula. Photo by John Hart.

Adult lesula. Photo by Maurice Emetshu.

 Juvenile lesulas. Photo by John Hart.

 Captive lesula. Photo by John Hart.

Lesula with marantaceae. Photo by John Hart.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

New Species of Monkey Found in the Congo, by my Neighbor

Exciting discovery of a cute and charismatic new species of monkey, Cercopithecus lomamiensis sp. nov. This doesn't happen every day.

Here's a link to the article in PLoS ONE:

Kate Detwiler, the corresponding author, sits in the office next to mine. I helped her gear up for the trip to the Congo, but the courage it took was all her own. I don't know if I'd go.

If you're not sure whether you want to plow through the peer-reviewed article, here's a link to a National Geographic article about the discovery.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

David Stuart's Review of "Cracking the Egyptian Code"

David Stuart has charmingly reviewed Andrew Robinson's Cracking the Egyptian Code: The Revolutionary Life of Jean-François Champollion in the Wall Street Journal. Evidently, when Champollion made his breakthrough, he cried out, "Je tiens mon affaire!" Google translates this as "I want my business," which seems like a strange thing for an epigrapher to yell.

Notwithstanding, sounds like a good book.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Proper Term of Venery for Archaeologists

I was recently flipping through the pages of James Lipton's famous An Exaltation of Larks, and I noticed that the venereal term for archaeologists, "an entrenchment," was quite possibility the weakest of all the thousands listed in that charming book. If you're not sure what a term of venery is, look at the title of the book. Some are familiar and sound today mundane:

a school of fish,
a gaggle of geese, and
a pride of lions.

But there are thousands of them, some ancient, others new, and many clever, quaint, or colorful.

A parliament of owls,
a murder of crows,
a party of jays, and
a crash of rhinoceroses.

You get the idea. At their best, they use synecdoche to parody a notorious or comical attribute of the thing to which they refer. A "wince of dentists" is one of my favorites.

Lipton made a game out of inventing them. He proposed many himself and publicized others contributed by friends or correspondents. One whom he credited was Ian Graham, the famous Maya archaeologist and founding editor of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions, published by the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard. 

As I will be going to the University graduation ceremony in my regalia tomorrow, I looked over the terms related to students:

An unemployment of graduates hardly seems funny at the moment, but the antiquity of the phrase may bring comfort to some, knowing that many generations have survived similar tribulations.

A vale of graduates is gentler, but how many today will understand the joke?

I'll be entering final grades for the semester tomorrow too, so "a failing of students" is a bit too literal.

These are touchingly true:

A fortitude of graduate students,
A doggedness of doctoral candidates, and
An angst of dissertations.

But, returning to the ostensible purpose of this post, I like "a tribe of anthropologists" and "a stratum of geologists" but "an entrenchment of archaeologists" is weak and labored.

Here are my suggestions:

A trench of archaeologists (better).
A trowel of archaeologists (doesn't sound like a quantity).
A typology of archaeologists (by far the most logical, but will not make sense to the layman).
A seriation of archaeologists (too technical?).
A debitage of archaeologists (too obscure and not mellifluous).
An assemblage of archaeologists (but the connection will not be obvious to the non-specialist).
A dust of archaeologists (my favorite).

My experience suggests that a "diarrhea of archaeologists" would be accurate but unappealing. Let's keep it clean.

Here are some other suggestions for anthropology:

a theory of anthropologists,
a kindred of anthropologists,
a clan (or lineage) of anthropologists (too obvious?).

Some new ones:

A shatter of lithic analysts.

A crack of flintknappers. 

A temper of ceramicists. Or a paste of ceramicists. Or, of course, a sherd of ceramic analysts

A skeleton of bioarchaeologists. Also, a "phalanx" but that could be applied to many occupations, including, most obviously, soldiers.

A bloom of paleoethnobotanists. (Not to be confused with a bloom of algae!)
How about "a flotation of paleoethnobotanists" or "a light fraction of paleoethnobotanists"?

I like "a menagerie of zooarchaeologists" but it seems heavy-handed.

Please comment on those you like best or suggest your own!

New Book: The Ancient Maya of Mexico hits the streets and newstands

The Ancient Maya of Mexico: Reinterpreting the Past of the Northern Maya Lowlands, edited by Geoffrey Braswell, is now available from the publisher, Equinox, and of course, like everything in the universe, from Amazon.

The volume emerged from symposia in honor of our doctoral dissertation advisor, E. Wyllys Andrews V. Congratulations to Geoff for producing such a handsome and intellectually distinguished volume.

Thanks for everything, Will!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Megafauna Extinction Caused by Overhunting

In last Friday's issue of Science, there's an article about the demise of the megafauna in Australia. Here's the reference:

Rule, Susan, Barry W. Brook, Simon G. Haberle, Chris S. M. Turney, A. Peter Kershaw, and Christopher N. Johnson (2012). The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia. Science 335:1483-1486.

In case you didn't know, I should mention that, like the Americas, Australia had megafauna during the Pleistocene, but instead of mammoths, mastadons, camels, horses, dire wolves, and sabre-toothed tigers, down under they had giant marsupials, such as things resembling huge kangaroos and giant wombats. As in the Americas, the Australian megafauna disappeared near the end of the Pleistocene, and in both places there is a scientific debate about the cause of these massive extinctions. The usual suspects are either climate change and over-hunting by the first human populations, although in North America there has also been a recent flurry of interest surrounding the unlikely hypothesis that a meteor impact caused the die-off. What makes the debate tricky in North America in particular is that humans seem to have arrived (granted that the archaeological dates of the event leave a lot to be desired) at a time of rapid climate change. Therefore, distinguishing between the two causes is difficult because of the chronological overlap. In Australia, the situation is different because human arrived much earlier, well over 40,000 years ago, although (again, like in the Americas) there has also been plenty of dissension about the precise date.

The new article in Science contributes significantly to the Australian debate. The authors studied two cores, analyzing charcoal, pollen, and spores of the Sporormiella fungus. The charcoal told them about the changing regime of fires, the pollen provided information about the vegetation, and the spores, which grew primarily in the dung of the megafauna, allowed them to pinpoint their extinction. The spores disappeared about 41,000 years ago, about the same time that the megafauna are believed to have died out based on a variety a paleontological evidence.

(The use of spores from a fungus growing on the dung may seem like a crazy way to study the megafauna, but it's not novel; it's done in North America too. I once talked to a paleoethnobotanist who was studying plant remains from mammoth dung recovered in the Mid-Atlantic states. I asked her about her sample sizes, and she said something like, "It's not a problem. Their coprolites are huge. We have a warehouse full of poop." I guess when a mammoth took a dump, it created quite a pile. Now imagine herds of them slowly pooping their way across the continent. The dung becomes an ecosystem.)

The importance of the recent article in Science is that the researchers can show, through a high resolution chronological analysis, that the vegetation changes and increased burning came after the extinction, not before, and therefore they were evidently responses to the extinction rather than being related to its cause. Moreover, at the time of the extinction in Australia, they found no evidence of significant climate change. It occurred instead during a period relative climatic stasis. And of course the same megafauna had previously survived much more severe episodes of climate change.

The study adds to the growing evidence that human over-hunting caused the extinction of megafauna in several parts of the world. (New Zealand is another example.) This was probably the case in the Americas as well.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Haiti--Lessons for Nonprofits

It's always uplifting to see one of your former students both doing well and making a difference. Isabelle Clérié is a prime example. She studied archaeology with me as an undergraduate and then got a Master's degree in nonprofit management. She has worked in her native Haiti, where she is one of the few people who has been alert to alarming degradation of archaeological and historical sites. She currently works for the Franklin Institute, a major science museum in Philadelphia.

Isabelle recently contributed an insightful essay about the work of nonprofits in Haiti to the blog of Michael Rosen. She explains the situation in Haiti as she has witnessed it, and she advocates three changes to the way most nonprofits have been operating there. She summarizes her points as follows:

  • Be an anthropologist!
  • Work together!
  • Go where the people need you!
Great advice and a very interesting article.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Citizen Science

Nice article on Citizen Science (a.k.a. "Open Science") in the Guardian. I had heard of some, but not all, of these projects. How can we do this in archaeology? Use Google Earth (or some other imagery data set) to find sites? Post pictures of artifacts and have volunteers classify them?

Your thoughts?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Police Destroy Classic Maya Mortuary Cave in Chiapas

A few days ago, my wife asked me if I had heard the news report on National Public Radio about a cave full of bodies found in Chiapas, Mexico. I hadn't, and my wife's account of the report seemed garbled and contradictory. So, I searched the NPR news site and found the text of the report, which turned out to be garbled and contradictory. Thus, my wife's account was an accurate rendition of what she had in fact heard on the radio. The obfuscatory problem was that they reported a lot bodies that were more than 50 years old but also implied that they might be the cadavers (or maybe skeletons; it wasn't clear) of murdered Central Americans. It all sounded very muddy and improbable.

Now the BBC is reporting that the cave was an archaeological site, and the skeletal remains--of 167 individuals--were prehistoric. Unfortunately, law enforcement apparently collected the remains haphazardly by dumping them into large plastic bags without recording much, if any, spatial or contextual information. That doesn't sound like the right way to conduct a forensic investigation. I can attest without fear of contradiction that it is the wrong way to recover archaeological materials and data. We have probably lost any hope of interpreting the ritual and religious function of the cave because those inferences usually rely to a great extent on the spatial organization of the materials in the cave (see, for example, Medina and Sánchez [2007] and Tiesler [2007]).

This is a shocking and extreme case of police destroying a hugely significant archaeological site, albeit unintentionally. But we should remember that this is a perennial issue in archaeology. Something similar happened with Ötzi, the "Ice Man" found in the Alps. The police manhandled him pretty roughly before they realized he was not old but truly ancient.

In most jurisdictions in the United States, for example, when you find human remains, regardless of how old you may think they are, you are required by law to contact police or the local medical examiner. If you are lucky, they are careful and professional enough not to mess up the site if it is archaeological. In my experience, law enforcement is usually respectful of an archaeologist's opinion, when one has actually found the remains. By the same token, law enforcement personnel probably fear, with some justice, that archaeologists might accidentally mess up a crime scene, and, somewhere, sometime, it probably has happened, although we surely all hope that archaeologists are by default meticulous enough to avoid doing too much damage to medico-legal evidence. I do know cases in which archaeologists on survey have found murder victims, or parts of them. I once worked with a young woman who seemed to be fated to always be the one who found the body parts from Mob hits.

Law enforcement agencies should have a plan in place to coordinate with appropriate archaeological authorities when there is any doubt about the age of remains. When I worked for the Navy in Washington, D.C., I was tasked with working out such protocols with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. (Yes, that is the same NCIS that is portrayed in the long-running television series starring Mark Harmon. Their building was right next to mine. Both are beautifully restored historic buildings at the Washington Navy Yard, which itself is a National Historic Landmark District. It's worth a visit if you're touring D.C.) The Navy was fortunate to have at that time some thoughtful and effective leaders who worried about such things.

I'm not aware of any guidance or policies promulgated by any body, such as professional societies for example, that deal with this issue. Do you know of policies or protocols for coordination between law enforcement and archaeologists? It's a more important issue than it may seem, as this newest incident in Chiapas sadly illustrates.

References cited

Medina Martín, Cecilia and Mirna Sánchez Vargas (2007) Posthumous Body Treatments and Ritual Meaning in the Classic Period Northern Peten: A Taphonomic Approach, in New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society, edited by Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina, pp. 102-119. New York: Springer.

Tiesler, Vera (2007). Funerary or Nonfunerary? New References in Identifying Ancient Maya Sacrificial and Postsacrificial Behaviors from Human Assemblages, in New Perspectives on Human Sacrifice and Ritual Body Treatments in Ancient Maya Society, edited by Vera Tiesler and Andrea Cucina, pp14-44. New York: Springer.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

More on the Collapse

Ironically, just as I was writing my last post, on the Classic Maya Collapse, the Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences was releasing online the articles in a special section devoted to historical collapses. It appears to have been organized by Karl Butzer, the doyen of environmental archaeology. The special feature includes two articles on the Maya:

Dunning, Nicholas P., Timothy P. Beach, and Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach (2012). Kax and Kol: Collapse and Resilience in Lowland Maya Civilization.

Luzzadder-Beach, Sheryl, Timothy P. Beach, and Nicholas P. Dunning (2012). Wetland Fields as Mirrors of Drought and the Maya Abandonment.

I haven't had the chance to read them yet, but the authors are at the top of the field and have already made major contributions to the research on the question, so I expect the articles to be both interesting and important.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Ancient Maya Droughts Caused Collapse of Journalism

Last Friday an article [1] came out in Science on the perennial issue of the role played by drought in the collapse of Classic Maya civilization. Medina-Elizade and Rohling present a quantitative model of precipitation changes using four paleoclimate proxy records from Yucatán: 1) the high resolution (1-yr) δ18O record from the Chaac stalagmite from the cave of Tzabnah in Tecoh; 2) the lacustrine δ18O record from Punta Laguna; 3) the lacustrine δ18O record from Lake Chichancanab; and 4) the sediment density record from Lake Chichancanab. They authors conclude that the Terminal Classic period droughts were somewhat less severe, in part because they were discontinuous, than previously thought. The discontinuities are apparent in the high-resolution data from the Chaac stalagmite but were masked by the coarser temporal resolution of the lacustrine data sets. It’s a nice article. It builds on Medina-Elizade’s impressive work on the Chaac stalagmite [2].

The article generated considerable buzz in the popular press, but the journalists seem to have gotten the message wrong. Most of the newspaper articles have headlines like “Maya Collapse Caused by Drought” when the central message of the article is that the droughts were less severe than previously thought. Moreover, Medina-Elizade and Rohling interpret the isotopic signal to imply that most of the decrease in precipitation resulted from a decrease in tropical storms and hurricanes. (Water from hurricanes has a slightly lighter isotopic content than regular precipitation. Fascinating, no?) While cyclones provide a significant percentage of the total rainfall in the Yucatán Peninsula, they are also deleterious to human settlements and the agricultural economy because they destroy houses and crops and are usually followed (the next year) by huge forest fires (from the dead trees knocked down by the storm) and also sometimes by plagues of locusts. So, not only were the droughts more intermittent than previously believed, but the reduction in cyclonic activity may have actually been beneficial to some degree. Finally, we need to remember than the collapse started before the Terminal Classic droughts, in the west and southwest Maya lowlands (Petexbatun region, Palenque, etc.), where there is essentially no evidence of drought.

An additional interesting observation: an article just came out in the journal Weather in which the authors analyze climate data drawn from Arabic historical documentary sources from Iraq for the period A.D. 816 to 1009 [3]. This period corresponds precisely to the Maya Terminal Classic period. The authors list seven droughts in this period, of which two (A.D. 897 and 913) are approximately contemporaneous with two of the major Maya droughts (A.D. 895 and 909), each of which lasted for several years [see Ref. 2].

So, I’m not saying there weren’t any droughts, but their relationship to the collapse is murky and uncertain. They probably weren’t the essential underlying cause of the collapse, which was almost certainly severe overpopulation that in turn created a critically unstable political, economic, and ecological regime, which was vulnerable to almost any kind of shock—war, drought, or environmental degradation.

References Cited

1. Medina-Elizalde, Martín and Eelco J. Rohling (2012). Collapse of Classic Maya Civilization Related to Modest Reduction in Precipitation. Science 335:956-959.

2. Medina-Elizade, Martín, Stephen J. Burns, David W. Lea, Yemane Asmerom, Lucien von Gunten, Victor Polyak, Mathias Vuille, and Ambarish Karmalkar (2010). High Resolution Stalagmite Climate Record from the Yucatán Peninsula Spanning the Maya Terminal Classic Period. Earth and Planetary Science Letters 298: 255-262.

3. Domínguez-Castro, Fernando, José Manuel Vaquero, Manuela Marín, María Cruz Gallego, and Ricardo García-Herrera (2012). How Useful Could Arab Documentary Sources Be for Reconstructing Past Climate? Weather 67(3): 76-82.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Domestication of Dogs Over 30,000 years ago

In the last couple of weeks, I have seen a stream of news reports gushing about new evidence for the domestication of dogs as long as 33,000 years ago. As far as I can tell, the research they are referring to is this article published in the prestigious open access journal PLoSOne. What seems strange to me is all the fuss about an article that, according to the journal, was published back in July 2011.

Having glanced at the article, I would say that the radiocarbon dating seems unassailable. The other important question is whether the remains are really of a dog or of some other animal. I cannot reliably judge their assertion that it is a dog because the argument is based on an analysis of the evolution of canine cranial physiology, about which I personally know nothing.

If there's another article out there that I missed, let me know. Or if you have any thoughts about how slow the press can be in picking up a story, which then spreads like an epidemic.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Guide for My Graduate Students

Here you will find a helpful guide to my attitudes. I urge you to consult it carefully.

A New and Curious Application of Fractal Mathematics to the Social Sciences

The number and variety of applications of fractals and power laws to the social sciences continues to increase.

Here's one on the power law behavior of the time intervals between murders committed by a Russian serial killer.

What's next? Your guess is as good as mine.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Public Lecture February 23rd at the Palm Beach County Archaeological Society

I will be giving a lecture to the Palm Beach County Archaeological Society entitled “Why Most of What We Think We Know About Archaeology Is Wrong, and What We Should Be Doing Instead.”

I thought about calling it "What I Think about in the Shower" but that seemed open to misinterpretation.

Date: Thursday, February 23rd, 2012
Time: 7:00 pm
Place: West Palm Beach Public Library
Room: 3rd Floor conference room
Address: 411 Clematis Street, West Palm Beach, Fla. 33401

View Larger Map

I will discuss the application to archaeology of the statistical issues raised by John Ioannidis’s famous paper “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”. I will then discuss the unintended consequences of confirmatory hypothesis testing research designs in archaeology and explain why we should focus our efforts, instead, on hypothesis-generating research. I will conclude with an unusual example that I'm keeping to myself for the moment.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Academic Social Networking Sites

I'm curious to find out what social networking sites other archaeologists are using. I've built a profile at, which seems to be well designed and quite active. There was an article in the New York Times today lauding the site. I have an account there too, which I created in response to "friend" requests from colleagues. I find the Researchgate site awkward and cumbersome to use.

There are clearly too many social networking sites out there. I must have profiles on at least half a dozen, and I obviously don't keep up with any of them as a result. What site(s) do you use?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Book Hot Off the Presses

Walter Witschey and I have published a new Historical Dictionary of Mesoamerica in Rowman and Littlefield's historical dictionary series. Yesterday I discovered that it had come out in print when I got a box containing my complimentary copies. Yeah! It's dated 2012, although in fact it must have been physically printed last year. It's a good-looking volume, thanks in part to Walter's skill as a photographer. His photo of the Caracol on the cover came out very nicely. Thanks, Walter, for your collaboration. It was fun!

Here's the URL for the book on the publisher's web site:, or you can click on the title above.

Here's the link to the book on

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Historic Map of the Laguna de Términos

I post below a scan of a historic map of the Laguna de Términos. Some years ago, I lived in Springfield, Virginia, near the Washington, D.C. Beltway. Around Christmas time, a dealer in old maps, prints, and etchings would set up shop at the local mall. I found there an old map of the Laguna de Términos in Campeche. It may be a German copy of Jacques Nicolas Bellin’s map from the eighteenth century. I bought it because it shows the location of an Indian village, apparently named Usumacinta (see detail). I wonder if Dampier mentions it? He was living there not too long before the map would have been made, and of course the map may include details copied from earlier maps. Click on the images to enlarge them. I can provide a higher resolution scan if anyone needs it for research.

Quadrantid Meteor Shower

Last night, I set my alarm clock for 2:15 am and laid out warm clothes for the morning. I was out looking for the Quadrantid meteors by 2:30 am this morning. After about 20 minutes, I hadn't seen a single one, and so I came into the office. Very disappointing! Probably too much light pollution where I live. I thought about driving out to the beach or out to the edge of the Everglades--either one would be much darker than my neighborhood--but I wasn't sure which would be better, and so I did neither.

The last time I saw a good meteor shower was around 1993, in the Yazoo Basin of Mississippi, with Lynn Berg.

Did anyone out there have better luck than I?

Strange first post for the new year. At least I didn't eat any strange brownies from friendly hippies, like the guys in the Big Bang Theory.