Friday, 27 May 2011

Neolithic Adventures

I haven't really been using this blog completely in the way I intended... I guess I intended I would write a lot more (then an evening class and a startup jewellery business got in the way)!  But I wanted this to be a bit of documentation of the adventures of the foray into the world of academia, from the perspective of one who is just starting out.  And things keep happening, and I'm not documenting!!

I think I've missed my opportunity to properly recall a great day of lectures in Oxford entitled Neanderthals and Modern Humans (could there ever be a more interesting title for a day of lectures?? It also included a tour of their C14 dating Accelerator Mass Spectrometer unit!! But this month, my partner and I went on a lovely trip to Wiltshire to check out some of the amazing Neolithic monuments and earthworks only a short drive (to this Canadian anyway!) away.  To the right you will see - of course - the famous Stonehenge, which isn't actually even a henge...

It was great to be in the landscape, and my company and I had a lot of discussion of 'phenomenology', the study of archaeological areas through the experiences of the senses - it seems a bit of a fluffy approach but is really fascinating and cannot be ignored when trying to more fully understand a site.  Going beyond a positivist framework of facts and figures and ignoring the human experience, we can miss criucal pieces of what it was, and is, like to experience these ancient places.

We walked from Stonehenge down a long path in an effort to locate Durrington Walls.  It was a great way to take in th entire landscape - Stonehenge is but a part of this neolithic centre of activity, and when you see the huge amount of barrows dotted around the horizon it's really made clear.  We walked along fields with sheep and young lambs skipping about, and got a bit lost, but it was all worth it as it was a lovely walk.  When we finally found Durrington Walls, across from woodhenge, we realised it would have been a lot easier to drive - but then I couldn't look at molehills or collect pinecones and bits of iron slag off the ground, could I??

We next visited the West Kennet Longbarrow, perhaps the oldest of the sites mentioned here, and probably the one I found most fascinating.  It's located on top of a hill and is very windswept, and offers a great view around the landscape.  It's about a day's walk from Stonehenge (dont worry - we drove), and is also one of many monuments on a busy landscabe which includes Silbury Hill, and Avebury (a stone circle with a bank that makes Stonehenge look puny).  The longbarrow has an interesting entrance that keeps out the wind, and has a number of chambers off the long corridor once inside.  When it was opened to the public, they reconstructed the roof which had fallen in and installed plexiglass skylights that let in the light, so you can walk around inside and see inside the chambers.  Interestingly, a lot of newagers leave little stones and candles and flower petals everywhere, hints of the modern day uses of the barrow! 
The best thing about Avebury, which we visited last, is that you can walk up and touch the stones (which are in an around the village and fields) which is a greater experience than standing behind the rope at Stonehenge.  It seems like a great town to visit and spend some time in - we witnessed a very 'free spirited' wedding, and all the new agers you could ask for making merry in the local pub.  I bet it attracts the most interesting of people... unfortunately, as we got to Avebury in the evening, the gift shop had already closed!  I love gift shops...

Having all this prehistory on your doorstep is something that I absolutely love about living in Britain.  Wood rots away unfortunately, and although the Museum of Anthropology at UBC is one of the most fabulous places to visit, it's hard to find any accessable bits of British Columbian PRE-history. 

My parter and I are now dreaming of living in a van for a couple of months and driving around to all the prehistoric sites in Britain - what an adventure that would be! 

This day was a great window into the ancient past - well - not too ancient.  The Neolithic was only a couple thousand years ago, really...

And for anyone who's interested in learning more about Britain's Neolithic past, I've been reading/keeping this book by my bed for the last 6 months or so now!  But don't let that fool you, it's really good... I'm just bad at finishing books these days!  Francis Pryor is a wonderful writer and makes you feel like your his buddy in the pub as he talks to you engagingly about this era.  He's a fantastic writer and balances the academic topics well in an accessable way.  Highly recommended, even if you're like me and know virtually nothing about the Neolithic... if it happened after 50,000 years ago, chances are it's news to me!

Monday, 23 May 2011

Languages that lack abstract concepts of time

An article being published in many news sources this week ( claims that an Amazonian tribe called the Amondawa lack a concepts of time - but again, I find the headlines to be a bit misleading.

Disregarding The Sun and The Daily Mail, since it's generally a cheap shot to pick at their science news, we'll take a look at the BBC, who ran the headline: "Amondawa tribe lacks abstract idea of time, study says", while directly below by a few lines, they quote one of the researchers as saying, "We're really not saying these are a 'people without time' or 'outside time'... Amondawa people, like any other people, can talk about events and sequences of events..."

Isn't that contractictory?  

The researchers seem to be commenting more on the way the Amandowan people use their language, and do not appear to map time onto space such as with words like 'hour' and 'year'.  They still seem to use a concept of time, as it is mentioned people's names change as they age and come into a different stage of their life - it sounds like a pretty strong concept of time to me!  Just perhaps different linguistically from the languages we are used to in societies that are constantly watching the clock.

One of the research team along with an Amandowan child and their parent

It is noted, of course, that Amandowans who speak Portuguese are completely able to use these time-space mappings.  This supports how our culture affects our language - while the influence the other way around might be much smaller.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Phonetic Hints towards Language Origins

An article was published in Science and covered in the New York Times on April 14th.  Entitled, "Phonetic Clues Hint Language Is Africa-Born", I was understandably intrigued!!  Here is the online coverage:

Two young girls from Kalahari, Namibia. 
San is one of the languages famous for its 'clicks'
I haven't read the article published in Science yet, so maybe I shoud withold my judgements... but any theory that makes claims about the specific characteristics of an ancestral language farther back than 10,000 years makes me brace for a lot of skepticism!

The article in the Times says, "Quentin D. Atkinson, a biologist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, has shattered this time barrier, if his claim is correct, by looking not at words but at phonemes — the consonants, vowels and tones that are the simplest elements of language.  Dr. Atkinson, an expert at applying mathematical methods to linguistics, has found a simple but striking pattern in some 500 languages spoken throughout the world: A language area uses fewer phonemes the farther that early humans had to travel from Africa to reach it."

But surely this can't always be the case - there are quite a few language areas that have considerably high phonemic inventories, for example the Northwest Coast of North America, and the Caucasian mountain regions.  The African Continent is covered mainly by very large language families, with a few isolates.  I was looking through some papers on African Language Diversity, and this one here: speaks of 10, which isn't very much when I wouldn't be suprised if North America, a continent that has been populated by a speaking species for only a tiny fraction of the time, probably can equal or succeed that number (I'm guessing, I haven't checked!)

To me Africa looks like a continent that has had major language shifts and growths over so many millenia that looking back in time to try and retrieve information on the first languages spoken and what they sounded like, or what phonemes they contained - seems very far fetched to me.  But then again, this is coming from someone who has not yet read the article.  Or the abstract for that matter.  That is great science.  Anyhoo, here is a link to the abstract (which I have yet to read):

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Affordable Japan?

Next year's Evolang conference (Evolang 9 is set to take place from 13-16 March, in Kyoto, Japan.  I'm excited about this for a number of reasons, one, that I have been itching to return to Japan ever since my lone travelling experience there in 2006, and two, because I hope this will be my first Evolang conference where I will contribute with a poster or a presentation.  The call for papers is already open, and abstracts are to be in by 15 August.

I have been wondering lately what impact the recent earthquake and tsunami will have on the conference - I hope that it is a positive generator of tourism as I'm expecting Japan will be on the road to recovery next March and will benefit from having a few hundred evolutionary linguists bobbing around.  I was already thinking the location of this conference might put some people off because of the associated cost and distance, but I hope recent events have not prevented people from wanting to experience this amazing country for themselves and having a chance to meet Japanese researchers in language evolution on their own turf.

I hope to encourage people if I can by dispelling some of the ideas that Japan is a really expensive place - the ticket, for most, will be pricy - once you are in the country, things really are no more expensive (and maybe even a bit cheaper!) than parts of Europe.  I'm sure North Americans and Europeans alike will be shelling out close to $800 US to get there.  I have no idea what flights are like within Asia and from the Australian area.  The price of the actual conference has always been a bit pricy for this poor recovering former student.  I can't remember offhand what the cost was in 2010, but in 2008 it was 280 Euros for the non-student early bird fee, plus workshops and dinner. 

Now none of that was very encouraging...  but I promise, other than that, once you are in Japan things are relatively cheap.  Here are some examples of costs while staying in Kyoto:

1) Well first of course you have to get to Kyoto.  If you are flying into Narita airport in Tokyo, you will need to take the train to Kyoto and that can be a bit costly.  However, tourists can benefit from a Japan Rail Pass ( that is well worth its price if you plan on doing a bit of travelling while you are in the country.  A one week ticket is 28,300 yen ($335 US or £206 GBP), and it allows you to go practically anywhere in Japan except on the super fast trains - and apparently now they also allow you to go on the Tokyo's metro system as well.  A trip or two back and forth to Kyoto makes it well worth the price, and there are also 2 and 3 week tickets.  Anyone who lives in Britain and travels by rail wont find these prices uncomfortable!  Of course you can also fly into Osaka which is much closer to Kyoto.

2) For accomodation, prices are quite reasonable.  I'm speaking from the point of view of cheap hostels, of which I have stayed in 4 in Japan (plus a ryokan and a standard hotel), and found them really well run and very clean, and very affordable at between 2500-3000 yen a night (about $30 USD or £20 GBP). 

Here is an example of a hostel I stayed in in 2006 that was very central in Kyoto:

3) Food is the loveliest thing about prices in Japan to discuss, as it is delicious and can be very affordable!  Restaurants can of course be very expensive, but a giant bowl of ramen will only set you back 5-700 yen and green tea is complementary.  There is an udon restaurant called Hanamaru Udon that is very cheap - 100 yen for a plain bowl and then you can add extra bits like tempura.  The food was definitly the highlight of my trip.  Convenience stores and vending machines are everywhere so you will never go hungry or thirsty, and being in Kyoto do make sure you try a regional favourite called okonomiyaki, a type of savoury cabbage pancake with meat.  I'd only budget about 1500 yen a day for eating three meals - you'll be on a budget but will still have a full belly (although if you eat more than a 120 pound girl you might disagree a little).

As an aside, one of my fondest memories of Japan was waking up and going to this strange cafeteria place in Tokyo on the grounds where my hostel was, and paying 400 yen for an amazing buffet breakfast.  I usually had a couple cups of coffee, orange juice, miso soup and a croissant, scrambled eggs, spaghetti and salad(omnipresent at western breakfasts??).  I would sit in a large room full of people about to head off to school or the office and was a really fun way to people watch.

So for my own personal budget for a trip to Japan for next years conference, to get an idea, will probably look something like this (in pounds):

  • Flight to Osaka - £450 (train to Kyoto, less than £5)
  • Accomodation in a hotel for 5 days - £100
  • Food not provided by conference fee - £40
  • Conference fee - £300 (hopefully overestimating here!)
  • Omiyage (Souvenirs!!) - £100

= rougly £1000 pounds total.  So not pocket change, and more expensive than The Netherlands last year for those from Europe, but doable if you start saving now!! ...I hope to see you there in March!

Please comment with any helpful links or tips for saving a bit of cash in Japan.

Monday, 28 March 2011

The Final Fall of the Pre-Clovis Barrier?

New 15,500 tools found in Texas
Back when I was an undegrad and I was learning about New World archaeology, I became fascinated with the topic of the peopleing of Americas.  I loved how it involved not only archaeological data, but linguistic and genetic as well.  SFU's own Knut Fladmark had popularised a theory which I found more plausible than the common idea of the first peoples entering North America through Beringia and down through an 'ice-free corridor' down near the British Columbia-Alberta border into the States, between the Cordilleran and Laurentide ice sheets.  Fladmark proposed that first peoples could have came through a coastal migration along the coast, island hopping and living in refugia - areas not covered by mountains of ice, such as Haida Gwaii.

Haida Gwaii (previously known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) have a unique ecology because they have a few thousand years less time spent under the ice than the rest of Canada.  Apparently I've been there when I was very yound, to Sandspit, but I have no memory and would love to visit what I imagine to be Vancouver Island but a bit more rugged and desolate.

Perhaps I like the coastal migration theory a bit because as a west coast Canadian girl, it puts my homeland right in the way of the first migrations, but it also sounds more plausable for a number of other reasons.  One is that the ice free corridor might not have been open at the time - and if it was, the harsh environment between the glaciers would offer a puzzling mystery of why people ventured down between into a stormy place with no fish in the rivers and high mountains of ice on either side.  Where did they think they were heading?

Another reason I find the ice free corridor idea imnplausable is the archaeological and linguistic evidence do not support it.  The oldest accepted site (until now) in the New World has been Monte Verde, a 12,500 year old site at the bottom tip of South America - nothing near that old has been found on Beringia or Alaska.

An old undergraduate essay I wrote, back when I was even worse at academic essays, wrote about this coastal migration hypothesis and the evidence supporting it.  The linguistic evidence was one of the most interesting supporting factors.  The longer people have been in one place, the more languages and language isolates you usually find.  If one follows the ice-free corridor hypothesis, you would expect to find the most linguistic diversity in the central area of America, but you find it along the west coast of North America.

If a coastal people entered America with watercraft, it wouldn't be too suprising if their migration south was a bit quicker than overland - making the Monte Verde site less of a mystery.  But now, a 15,500 year old site, quite a bit older than even Monte Verde, has been found in Texas.  The reason this is so special, is that if people entered North America at this time, there was probably no open ice free corridor at the time.  There has been a well known resistance to sites with suggested dates that put them at a pre-Clovis date, such as Meadowcroft and Pedra Furada.  If this new site is accepted by the archaeological community though, perhaps the coastal migration hypothesis will be lent new support.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Dreams of Neanderthal Paintings at Chauvet

An article in the guardian ( discusses a new documentary on the Upper Palaeolithic paintings at Chauvet cave in France, called Cave of Forgotten Dreams and directed by Werner Herzog.

I looked forward to reading about this documentary, but my excitement was soon overshadowed by a glaring error by the reviewer, Peter Bradshaw.  To be fair, he is a film critic, not an archaeologist, but I'm suprised after having viewed the documentary he's still left fuzzy about who the artists of Chauvet's paintings were:

"...the extraordinary Chauvet cave in the south of France, named after Jean-Marie Chauvet, the explorer who in 1994 made a Tutankhamun-level discovery: hundreds of pictures of animals drawn with flair, sophistication and detail by Neanderthal man around 32,000 years ago."

I don't think I'm being a pedant by being offended by this error...!  At 32,000 years ago, in current understanding, Neanderthals were limited to the Iberian peninsula - and have never been associated with cave paintings of any kind.  Until recently, no form of art was attributed to Neanderthals with any consensus at all - so the attribution of this equvalent of the painted ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is a bit suprising to anyone who has had a passing interest in human prehistory.

I think this is a good example of the public perception of human prehistory, our own ancestry - we see titles in newspapers about Neanderthals wearing makeup and how Neanderthals never died out because they live on in our genes, and these are the sort of ideas we carry around in our heads about our past.  Cave men - were they Neanderthals or humans?  Did humans evolve from Neanderthals?  What was the difference?  I suspect most peoples answers deviate quite far from current (or even past) research.  Readers have picked up on the error in the comment section, but further misunderstandings about Neanderthals are quickly raised. 

Solutions?  Do we need one?  This makes me wonder how prehistory is covered in school...

Thursday, 10 March 2011

3 Upcoming conferences for language evolution

Apologies everyone for the hiatus... 

Excitingly, there are three conferences over the next year (and across the world) where language evolution feature:

1. HBES 2011
Date: 29 June - 03 July 2011
Call deadine: 1 May 2011
Location: Montpellier, France

2. Protolang 2
Date: 19-21 September, 2011
Call deadline: 30 May 2011
Location: Torun, Poland

3. Evolang 9
Date: 13-16 March 2012
Call Deadline: 15 August 2011
Location: Kyoto, Japan

Will I be seeing anyone there?
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