Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Online Archaeology Job Hunting Seminar

The Society for American Archaeology (SAA) is sponsoring a FREE online seminar for students about how to get a job. In an e-mail, they write,

"Get Hired!" is a one-hour online seminar that will help both graduate and undergraduate archaeology students and recent graduates in their transition from student to a career. It’s led by Ms. Carol J. Ellick, Director of Archaeological and Cultural Education Consultants, one of the leading experts in archaeological education and the development of public programs.  The seminar is free to SAA members only.

For more information about these seminars and to learn about future offerings in the SAA Online Seminar Series, visit
 Sounds great! Please share with your students.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Cave research in Nicaragua

This should be a short post because there has been very little archaeological research on caves in Nicaragua. One probable reason for the dearth of research is the paucity of caves in Nicaragua, which is mostly volcanic. There are a few caves of volcanic origin, but they are not common. The only limestone area of the country, where caves should be (and may be) more common, is a small expanse of karst in a remote and inaccessible stretch along the northern border. There, Suzanne Baker recently discovered a significant cave with paintings that she named Cueva la Conga. There's a fine article on it in the new number of Latin American Antiquity that just came in the mail.

Baker, Suzanne M. and Ruth Ann Armitage (2013). Cueva La Conga: First Karst Cave Archaeology in Nicaragua. Latin American Antiquity Vol. 24, No. 3, pp. 302-329.

This is not the first article published about the cave. You can also see

Li, Ran, Suzanne Baker, Cathy Selvius DeRoo, and Ruth Ann Armitage (2012). Characterization of the Binders and Pigments in the Rock Paintings of Cueva La Conga, Nicaragua. In Collaborative Endeavors in the Chemical Analysis of Art and Cultural Heritage Materials, edited Patricia L. Lang and Ruth A. Armitage, pp. 75-89. American Chemical Society. ACS Symposium Series, Vol. 1103. DOI: 10.1021/bk-2012-1103.ch004.

Here you can find a nice web site about the project too.

Continuing on the theme of Nicaraguan cave research, I'm in the process of translating (from Spanish to English) long excerpts from the reports of Fray Antonio Margil de Jesús and Fray Rodrigo Betancourt describing their attempt to evangelize the central highlands of Nicaragua in 1703. Transcriptions of the documents have been published by both Ruz and Van Broekhoven. The latter transcription appears to be more complete and is certainly easier to parse because of the highly creative but unconventional organization of Ruz's article. The two transcriptions also differ, at least slightly, because they come from two different copies of the reports. Ruz found his copies in the Franciscan archives in Rome, the Archivio Generale de la Ordine dei Fratri Minori, while Van Broekhoven's come from a conventual archive in Querétaro, México. What do these have to do with cave archaeology? They contain remarkable descriptions of cave worship and rites, so much so that the majority of the text concerns the religious use of caves in one way or another. It's great stuff! The cultural-religious patterns they describe sound very Mesoamerican, so it is relevant to all those Mayanist and Mexicanist cave archaeologists, though I have never seen it cited by them. I plan to include my translations in a book, the manuscript of which is nearing completion. Wish me luck in the proposal and submission process. Here are the full references for Ruz and Van Broekhoven:

Ruz, Mario Humberto (1994). Atajar los ríos, poner puertas al campo. Loa sacramental para los dioses de Nicaragua, 1703. Estudios de Cultura Novohispana, Vol. 14, pp. 61-115, México, UNAM: Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas.

Electronic copies of Ruz's article are available on the internet.

Van Broekhoven, Laura N. K. (2002) Conquistando Lo Invencible: Fuentes Históricas sobre las Culturas Indígenas de la Región Central de Nicaragua.Leiden (The Netherlands): CNWS Publications.

This book is out of print and difficult to obtain, except through InterLibrary Loan here in the United States.  It merits reprinting.

Request: Do you know of any archaeological research on the domestication of tea?

One of my graduate students has an interest in tea. I have not had much success in finding articles that offer primary archaeological data on the origin and domestication of tea. It is such an important crop that the apparent lack of literature seems odd. If you can share with me any references or articles, I'd be grateful. If the lack of research is not merely apparent but real, then perhaps the topic merits more study.


Video of Yucatec song: "My Culture Will Never Die"

Here is moving video of a young Yucatec Maya man singing his song "My Culture Will Never Die" in Yucatec.
You don't hear a lot of music performed in Yucatec.

The man who posted the video has a number of other Yucatec language videos on his YouTube channel.


Friday, September 13, 2013

Flint knapping and language--follow-up

The best comment I've seen on this study (see the previous post): "More proof that flintknapping is the origin of swearing" by Peter Mills (on the university press release website).

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Flint Knapping and the Evolution of Human Language

The idea that tool-making and the human capacity for language were linked has been floating around for a while, but a new article in PLoS ONE uses brain imaging to show they really are connected, through the activation of the same lateralized parts of the brain.


Uomini, Natalie Thaïs and Georg Friedrich Meyer (2013) Shared Brain Lateralization Patterns in Language and Acheulean Stone Tool Production: A Functional Transcranial Doppler Ultrasound Study PLoS ONE 8(8): e72693. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072693.

They actually hooked flint knappers up to a functional transcranial Doppler Ultrasound machine while they made Acheulean handaxes and, alternately, produced words based on initial letter cues. The latter is evidently an established test for brain lateralization in linguistic production. The two tasks are reported to have produced very similar and highly correlated brain activity as measured by blood flow. If you're wondering why they didn't use one of the better known brain imaging techniques, such as functional MRI, think about the knapping. Most imaging techniques won't work properly if you're whacking away a big nodule of stone. They found some pretty handy knappers. The handaxes are pretty impressive (see Figure 2, but note that the captions of Figures 2 and 3 seem to have been swapped). Don't miss the video of one of the knappers.

The authors suggest that tool making by flint knapping may have played a role in the co-evolution of language, starting with the Acheuleans (Lower Paleolithic). This would be earlier than many of the chronological estimates for the emergence of language, which often rely upon analyses of anatomy and morphology. Overall, the PLoS ONE article is pretty interesting and clever research. I knew there had to be a reason I was studying those chips of stone.

Big Mound City

Big Mound City is one of the largest prehistoric mound sites in Florida, if not in the whole southeast. It's poorly known and quite inaccessible. There are two ways to get there. From the west, you can drive to within about 500 m of the site, but that last half kilometer is a doozy. It's a four-foot deep swamp full of alligators and water moccasins. From the east, it's over 20 km down a muddy road that can only be traversed in a giant mud buggy with 2 m high tires. The first time I went, in 2008, we came in from the west and it was mortally exhausting. The next time, we took the mud buggy. The isolation may have helped preserve the site (it's hard to get there, which limits the mischief), but it also leaves it vulnerable to those who do manage to get there, who seem to be mostly 3- and 4-wheel ATV enthusiasts and hunters. We saw little evidence of purposeful or effective looting, but plenty of destruction was visible. It has come from culling trees, off-roading, and, most significant, rooting and wallowing by herds of feral hogs. The latter is shockingly deleterious for archaeological deposits because it completely disturbs the top layer of soil, down perhaps 30 or 40 cm over large areas. Here are pictures from the first trip.

Ruins of a hut on one of the mounds

Recently (2008) felled large trees on the mounds

Feral hog rooting

More feral hog rooting

Yet more feral hog rooting
Here are pictures from the second trip, in 2011. This is in winter, in December. With the wind from the mud buggy, I was actually very cold. It's the only time I can remember being cold in Palm Beach County, Florida.

Mound in winter

Big mound covered with palmetto


The site deserves intensive archaeological investigation. It has great potential for tourism, but access would have to be created, though that would not be particularly difficult. Before the site could be opened for tourism, we would have to do some archaeology, if only to provide sensible interpretation. The site needs to be properly mapped and dated. It sure would be nice to know about the functions of the mounds and the causeways connecting them. There may also be a charnel pond there that ought to be located and properly protected and conserved.

The feral hogs need to be controlled. The site is located within a large state wildlife management facility. The hogs can be shot during the appropriate interval of hunting season. We probably need to do that. Don't ask me who "we" is.

(I started this blog post in April 2011. I just finished it after having noted a draft post languishing in cyber-oblivion.)


Apologies for the long hiatus....I should probably change the name of the blog to "Sorry for not posting recently," but perhaps it would be easier to stipulate that I'm always sorry for not posting more frequently. Okay?

My contrition for infrequent posting pales, however, compared to my remorse for the quality of the posts. I recently found myself reading Elif Batuman's moribund blog. (Digression alert--For the less hip, Elif is a brilliant young writer, author of The Possessed. She writes frequently for The New Yorker. I recently read an interesting article by her in The New Yorker entitled "Poisoned Land". It was about a mysterious kidney disease in the Balkans and the various theories that have been proposed to explain it. I found the piece interesting in part because of the relationships it illustrated among disease, hydrology, geology, and geomorphology. The article made me think about the multiplicity of possible causes for the even-more-mysterious kidney disease killing people along the Pacific Coast of Central America. --End digression) I just don't understand how someone--and she is not alone--can generate such quantities of graceful and interesting prose. It reminds of Michael Smith's lament for his clear but not vivid prose. I agree with him. Most of would be overjoyed just to achieve clarity.

Pausing the self-flagellation just momentarily, I can at least point to credible excuses for not posting lately. At the time of the last post, in March, I was racing to prepare and submit my permit request for this summer’s field work in Nicaragua.  Then I became trapped in the regular end-of-semester crush, while simultaneously ordering equipment, arranging travel, and preparing for the fieldwork.

This year I went into the field earlier —from mid-May to early July—than on previous occasions, when I went during the second half of our summer. Turns out that it rains more in the first half of the summer. Not enough to ruin the fieldwork, but we definitely lost more time to rain than we have in the past. I took with me two grad students, Kelin Flanagan and Ashley Hampton. They were great. The house we rented was mediocre: too small, with poor access and only intermittent running water. At one point, the little bridge leading to our street collapsed, and we had to drive several blocks around to get home. On several occasions, we had to bathe out of buckets for lack of running water.  Still, it was better than the Side Track Tap we rented last time.

Kelin and Ashley, very cool.

We found a number of sites but only worked at four of them, of which three were particularly interesting: Dulce Nombre de Jesus, Cosmapa Oriental, and La Trinidad. (Actually, we had discovered the first site a number of years ago, but we explored it more thoroughly this summer and found a bunch of cool stuff. [Sorry about that fancy archaeology jargon.]) Here is a map showing the locations of the sites we have found so far in the Department of Chinandega.

Map showing the location of archaeological sites we have identified to date (2013) in the Department of Chinandega.
If you want more information about the results of our fieldwork, feel free to consult the preliminary report of our fieldwork that I have posted on my website. Follow the link to "Nicaraguan Research" page where you will find a link to the MicroSoft Word document.

After returning from Nicaragua, I had, according to the terms of my permit, only 30 days to prepare this preliminary report. Actually, I had less than 30 days because it took several days for Fedex to ship the document to Managua. Given the short time available for it s preparation, I'm proud of the report. If you find any errors (there are of course omissions, like the lab results, which are still not finished), please let me know at my office e-mail address, ctbrown "at"

To continue with my excuses, writing the preliminary report sucked up the rest of my summer, which flashed by in a blur--I was working in the office early in the morning the day after I got back from the field. Then the new semester started, and I inexplicably agreed to chair a couple of committees. I should probably get a brain scan to see if I have a tumor pressing on the part of the brain responsible for generating the word "no." Maybe they'll name a new kind of aphasia after me.