Sunday, September 14, 2014

Bookmarks Festival 2014

So, this past weekend (9/6) Noell and I went to Winston-Salem to check out the 2014 Bookmarks Festival. This is our second visit (I posted on last year's event here), and this year's events were housed in some shiny new buildings and very nice auditoriums. What drew us this time around was the presentation by Sam Kean, who talked about his newest book, The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons, which presents stories of individuals suffering brain damage and what they can tell science about how the brain works. Kean is an insightful and witty writer, the perfect sort to present science to a popular audience. I was about 3/4 of the way through the book when we saw him speak (I've since finished it, and it was great). Some interesting points:
  • Kean said that what originally interested him in the topic was skepticism: he simply didn't believe some of the stories he had heard about. For example, neurologists reported that some people simply could not recognize plants, while others had no idea how to deal with animals. It turns out, however, that there are in fact particular areas of the brain that deal with different types of things, and damage to these areas can compromise our ability to recognize those objects, and only those objects
  • The main irony is that, in order to study how the brain actually works, neurologists, because it is in many cases unethical to operate on healthy brains (although this was not always the case), often had to wait for an accident or disease to knock out particular areas to determine their function. One example from the book is the case of S.M. (initials are used in the medical literature to protect patients' identities), who suffers (she is alive and well and living in Iowa) from a rare condition that leaves her with a non-functioning amygdala. This part of the brain, among other things, helps to process our fear response. Neurologists have been studying S.M. for many years now (with her informed consent), and she is not afraid of snakes, death threats, assaults, or robberies. (Actually, a recent paper suggests that she did experience the fear of suffocation, which suggests that while the amygdala controls our response to external fears, other pathways must process fear associated with internal threats like suffocation or heart attacks.)
  • Noell asked a question about amnesia and whether or not Kean ran across any examples of people who completely lost track of their own identity. He responded, in an echo of one of the book's major points, that it seems as if someone's identity or sense of self is an extremely difficult, if not impossible, aspect of the mind to wipe out completely. 
  • Kean also talked about his writing style, which is story-focused. He said that people seem to learn best when issues are presented as stories: a beginning, a middle, and an end, all populated with characters. Perhaps this can be a lesson for those of us trying to teach science.   
After lunch at one of the many food trucks, we went to see Karen Abbott talk about her new book Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. Abbott is a former journalist who contributes to the Smithsonian Magazine's history blog. The book is the story of four women, two from the North and two from the South, who lied, slept, seduced, and killed their way into spy networks. One of the most interesting points that Abbott made was that these (and other) women were able to exploit 19th century notions of femininity to conceal messages and contraband. Hoop skirts, for example, which most males would never search, were regularly used to smuggle items like guns. I have not yet read the book, but after her presentation I will definitely add it to my "to-read" list on Goodreads.


Kean, S (2014). The tale of the dueling neurosurgeons: the history of the human brain as revealed by true stories of trauma, madness, and recovery. Little, Brown and Company, New York.

Abbott, K (2014). Liar, temptress, soldier, spy: four women undercover in the Civil War. Harper, New York.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Field dispatch: Back from the gorge

We just got into Arusha this evening after breaking camp at Olduvai and having a great visit through Ngorongoro Crater. I am very happy to report that the 2014 University of North Carolina at Greensboro Olduvai Gorge Paleoanthropology Field School was a fantastic success, and so was this year's campaign. The students, pictured below, were absolutely fantastic. I'll provide more specifics later once I get settled back in North Carolina...

The 2014 UNCG Olduvai Gorge Paleoanthropology Field School. Top row (from left): Victoria Johnson (Teaching Assistant, NYU), Kathryn Dunn (Berea), Rachel Burroughs (Western Michigan), Meaghan Davey (Ohio State), Curran Fitzgerald (UNCG), Jim McClanahan (Miami-Ohio), Adam Darkow (Akron); Bottom row (from left): Andy Ritz (UConn), Cindy Teears (UNCG), Heather Easterbrook (South Florida), Alexa Uberseder (UNCG), Zach Pierce (Texas-San Antonio).

Friday, June 13, 2014

Field dispatch: Off to the gorge!

I am sitting in Amsterdam's Schiphol International Airport waiting for my connection into Kiliminjaro International Airport so we can begin the 2014 field season at Olduvai Gorge. This will also be the inaugural year of the Olduvai Gorge Paleoanthropology Field School, which I am directing through UNCG. We have 11 students from all over the U.S. participating, and we are looking forward to a productive work season over the next month.

Internet access is, of course, spotty at best out at the gorge, but I will try and post a couple updates over the course of the next month... 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Kansas is, in fact, flatter than a pancake

I'm enrolled in a GIS course here at UNCG (faculty get three free credit hours a semester), and we were talking about vertical profiling today. One of the case studies, from the journal Annals of Improbable Research, actually compared the vertical profiles of the state of Kansas (using a DEM) with that of a cooked pancake (using, incredibly, a confocal laser microscope) to test whether or not said state is, in fact, "flatter than a pancake." One can quibble with their selection of pancake (all pancakes, after all, are probably not equally flat), but they found that Kansas is the flatter of the two.

A couple of great quotes from the study:
Barring the acquisition of either a Kansas-sized pancake or a pancake-sized Kansas, mathematical techniques are needed to do a proper comparison.
The importance of this research dictated that we not be daunted by the 'No Food or Drink' sign posted in the microscopy room.
I am laughing out loud in my office as I write this...

Preliminary results from Bagratashen 1

I returned from Yerevan on Sunday night, having been forced to sprint to my last connection into Raleigh/Durham because Air France was unable to get the cargo hold open to release our baggage. This was my first experience with an Armenian spring, and there were some brisk days at ~3,000 feet (I'm usually there in the summer, when it can be broiling, particularly in the arid north where we work).

As I mentioned in my previous post, the goal of this trip was to conduct a preliminary analysis of the stone tools from Bagratashen 1 and, after having looked at them over the past two weeks, it appears as if they are going to be very interesting indeed. My colleague, Boris Gasparian, and I examined over 500 pieces from our excavations.

The Bagratashen 1 lithic material laid out for analysis.
While it's obviously going to take some time to sort out what's going on (not to mention additional excavations to recover a larger sample size−this stuff came from a small 6m2 excavation), I can relate some observations:
  • There's definitely (and unsurprisingly) Levallois technology represented. 
  • We've got quite a few points and point fragments in the assemblage (over ten). What's interesting is that we have both unretouched and retouched Levallois pieces and non-Levallois pieces. So, MP folks used different techniques to produce stone tools with the same characteristic; i.e., pointy ends. I took some measurements on tip cross sectional area, which can, according to John Shea (2006) and others, help determine whether a point could have been used as an effective projectile (note that this attribute cannot say that a point definitively was used as such). A couple of these points look, at least in a general morphological sense, very similar to the elongated retouched points found in Levels 1 and 2 at Djruchula Cave (Georgian Republic) and Lower E at Hayonim (Israel). This is potentially significant for us, since we have yet to successfully date the Bagratashen 1 sediments and Djruchula and Hayonim have been dated to between about 300,000 and 150,000 years ago. We have to be careful here, though: morphological similarity does not necessarily mean temporal similarity, since technology, especially lithic technology, is subject to independent development. 
  • Boris and I noticed that a number of the artifacts, most of which are dacite, display a "rotted" surface texture, and some even feel lighter, as if they've been leached somehow. Boris suspects that this may be related to thermal damage and, sure enough, another colleague of ours, Dmitri Arakelyan, told us that he has tossed dacite into fire before and it does indeed show this sort of modification. More systematic experiments are of course in order, but we may have some indirect evidence for fire at the site (whether its natural or anthropogenic is also another issue).
  • Nearly all the pieces were covered by carbonate crust, likely imparted well after the materials had been buried. We recorded what face of each artifact was facing skyward before it was pulled out of the ground and, because carbonates tend to form on the "downward" faces of clasts, we should therefore get an idea of whether or not they moved around in the sediment post-depostionally.
  • There also appears to be quite a bit of truncation going on. In essence, this means that after knocking off a flake, hominins chose to subsequently remove, either through a single, massive blow or finer retouch, one or both ends of the piece. Why one would bother to truncate a seemingly well-made flake is another question. One possibility is that this truncation provides a new platform for the removal of smaller flakes from the original piece. The knappers may have wanted to remove the old platform and/or the bulky bulb of percussion to artificially thin the piece, for instance. Whatever the reason, people were doing it at Bagratashen 1.
Alright, enough chatter, let's get to the analysis....


Shea, JD (2006). The origins of lithic projectile technology: evidence from Africa, the Levant, and Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science 33, 823-846.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Off to Armenia

I just arrived in Yerevan yesterday evening. As part of my spring research leave, I will be here studying the lithic collections from sites that our team excavated between 2010 and 2011. I'll concentrate on Bagratashen 1, which is an open-air site discovered during our 2009 survey. Excavations in 2011 and 2012 recovered several hundred well-preserved Middle Paleolithic artifacts from a discrete find horizon. Unfortunately, no fauna has yet been uncovered; we are pretty excited about it the site nonetheless, since geological work suggests that the assemblage is largely undisturbed. So, we hope to extract some fine-grained behavioral information.

Look out for more updates as the analyses proceed....

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ashby Dialogue, Part 3

Our third Ashby meeting was held this past Monday (March 24). The theme for this meeting was disasters, in particular the adaptations of contemporary humans populations to disasters, and was mediated by UNCG's Eric Jones and Art Murphy from Anthropology and Steve Kroll-Smith from Sociology. Another interesting discussion with great student participation. We started off with a veiwing of Trouble the Water, a documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Some of the more salient points that arose:
  • Steve argued that the term "natural disaster" is actually a misnomer: including the word "natural," he said, actually furnishes nature with far too much agency and, in doing so, makes culture and human organization less culpable. In other words, and to quote Anthony Oliver-Smith (1994: 74):
...that is, disasters [are] interpreted less as the result of geophysical extremes such as storms, earthquakes, avalanches, droughts, etc., and much more as functions of an ongoing social order, the structure of human environment relations, and the larger framework of historical processes that shaped these phenomena.
Disasters are seen to be far more characteristic of societies than they are of simple physical environments.
  • Disasters can also provide an incisive window into capitalist relationships. While it is of course important to make sure that relief makes it to people after a crisis, it is interesting to see which organizations are awarded contracts to do so; oftentimes they have ties to important government personnel or their close friends
  • Eric Jones made the important point that, in terms of human social adaptation, there is a big difference between expecting a disaster and being prepared for one. One criticism that is often floated around after a disaster is "well, why didn't these people leave the area?" As Eric pointed out, there are several reasons, including (1) a lack of family or friends outside of the area that would facilitate a move; (2) a lack of transportation (public or personal); and, even if the former two are present, (3) fear of theft in peoples' absence. This highlights the fact that an important component of human adaptation to disaster is rooted in social relationships, or, as Eric's research refers to it, social networks.
  • In a similar vein, Art made the distinction between preparedness and recovery, arguing further that race and class effects seem to be much stronger in the latter. The structure of social organization (i.e., how we determine the haves versus the have-nots) determines how recovery proceeds. This in turn tends to put certain types of people (usually poorer folks) into more susceptible positions.
  • One of our best students, Jessica Haynes, brought up the issue of indigenous knowledge and how it is often ignored at our own peril. Art mentioned that drought conditions in California may eventually cause growers to move their operations to states with climates more conducive to particular crops. Jessica saw this as a case in point−why not grow indigenous plants that are adapted to their respective environments?
This was, overall, another really successful get-together, and we're looking forward to our last session, which will look at human adaptation from the perspective of interior architecture...


Oliver-Smith, A (1995).Peru's five-hundred-year earthquake: vulnerability in historical context. In (Varley, A Ed) Disaster, Development and Environment, pp. 74-88.