Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Neanderthal or Neandertal?

Both of these spellings (and pronunciations) are commonly found - is either more correct to use?

In short, nope!

Neanderthals get their name from the Neander Valley (or Neandertal in German), near Dusseldorf in Germany.  This valley is where the first Neanderthal fossils were found, around 150 years ago.

OMG, it's a Neandertal baby!!
Or is it a Neanderthal baby...?
'Thal' is an old form of the word 'valley', so Neandertal (the place) used to be called Neanderthal.  Nowadays 'thal' is spelled as 'tal' after a German spelling reform at the beginning of the 20th century (people loved those back then, didn't they?), which is probably why we see Neandertal in spelling now and again.  It tends to be less
common I get the impression...

Neanderthals' taxon is Homo neanderthaensis, with the 'th', so I guess purists could argue that it's better to spell it with the 'th'.  But what is appropriate in language is defined by what people use (generally), so whichever!

'Thal' and 'tal' in the German are both pronounced the same, which reflects how some people (like me!) spell Neanderthal but say 'Neander-tal'.  However, pronouncing the 'th' is totally common and often used in the English pronunciation of the species.

In short, say whatever, spell whatever... it's language!  As I said, what is 'appropriate' is all about what people use, and in what situation.  It's all about conventions, and there are conventions of using both :)

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Neanderthal Language: did we once have a linguistic cousin?

In a recent paper ("On the antiquity of language: the reinterpretation of Neandertal linguistic capacities and its consequences"), Dan Dediu and Stephen Levinson argue that modern language was a feature of both Neanderthals and modern humans, and therefore of our common ancestor as well.  This takes their date for the origin of language to around 4-500,000 years ago at least, far beyond the common (though what I consider as very conservative!) view that language emerged around 100,000 years ago.

Illustration of hypothesized dates and
communication systems, shown alongside
tool technologies and hominin species 
Whether or not Neanderthals had complex language, or any form of complex communication system such as a protolanguage, has been debated for decades.  More and more though, the evidence seems to bolster the idea that our very close cousins were more similar to us than the classical brutish view, both cognitively as well as behaviourally.

In my previous post "Are we being a bit unfair to Neanderthals?", I discussed the tendency for people to be quite negative when thinking about Neanderthals, to compare their culture to more modern examples of our own, and scorn them as "the other" - languageless, dumb, and trying-to-be-human-but-not-quite-getting-it.  It's an unbalanced view, when humans and Neanderthals had broadly similar behavioural and cultural signature in the record, especially when you look at contemporary examples in the record.

Some might say that the classic image of the Neanderthal has had a makeover - we now know that sometimes, some of them buried their dead.  Sometimes, some of them pierced teeth or shells, and used red ochre and black manganese as colourants.  Often, they made beautiful stone tools with great skill and knowledge of flint working.  Sometimes they interbred with modern humans.

But still, the nul hypothesis for some has remained that Neanderthals are crap versions of humans.  Equally, if you are going to attribute intelligence to a species, don't you also need evidence to attribute them with a lack of intelligence?

Now, with evidence of interbreeding between the species, and the Neanderthal genome sequenced, it's harder to think of Neanderthals so simply as 'the other'.  Dediu and Levinson's article doesn't contain the Neanderthal racism I often find myself complaining about.

Most interesting and unique about their article is the implications for studying language evolution and linguistics, suggesting for example,
the present-day linguistic diversity might better reflect the properties of the design space for language and not just the vagaries of history, and could also contain traces of the languages spoken by other human forms such as the Neandertals.
It's a great article synthesizing lots of relevant information on Neanderthals as well as language origins research, and I recommend it as a good read for anyone with an interest!

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Book Launch Tour: The Vesuvius Isotope, by Kristen Elise, Ph.D.

This post is part of a book launch tour for the release of The Vesuvius Isotope, a new book by drug discovery biologist Kristen Elise.  This book might be of interest to those of use that enjoy a thriller with a bit of archaeology thrown in :)  All the posts on Kristen's blog tour are related in some way to the content of her new novel - see below and be intrigued, maybe you've found your next Summer read!

The Crocodile Library of Tebtunis

[F]or some of the Egyptians the crocodiles are sacred animals... and each of these two peoples keeps one crocodile selected from the whole number, which has been trained to tameness, and they put hanging ornaments of molten stone and of gold into the ears of these and anklets round the front feet, and they give them food appointed and victims of sacrifices and treat them as well as possible while they live, and after they are dead they bury them in sacred tombs, embalming them.
-The Histories, Herodotus (ca. 484–425 BCE) 

In the winter of 1899/1900, an expedition into the Fayoum Oasis outside of Cairo, Egypt was initiated. The expedition was led by the University of California at Berkeley and the Hearst Foundation. Its goal was to excavate an ancient site: the ancient city of Tebtunis. The researchers were looking for human mummies; what they found instead were mummified crocodiles.

One of the workers from the expedition was so disgruntled that he took a machete and began hacking at one of the mummified crocodiles. And this was how it was discovered that within some of the crocodiles, an incredibly large collection of papyrus documents had been preserved for two thousand years. Papyri were found both in the crocodiles, where they were sometimes used as part of the mummification process, and within the city itself. More than 30,000 ancient texts were eventually recovered from Tebtunis, comprising the largest collection of ancient papyri that exists in the United States today.
Mummified crocodile, Naples Archeological Museum

The majority of the texts date to the second century BC, although others hail from the first or second centuries AD. This is the same era that produced the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, offering an Egyptian counterpart to the Roman resource that is still mostly buried beneath the ash from Mount Vesuvius. And, like the texts from the Villa dei Papiri, the ancient papyri of the Tebtunis excavation are still legible to this day.

Mummified baby crocodile, Naples Archeological Museum
Within the library were more than a dozen fragments of Homer's Odyssey and Iliad. Also found were birth, death, and tax certificates, and petitions to Queen Cleopatra from her subjects. It is unfortunate that no texts have ever been found - either in this database or any other - that were actually written in the hand of Egypt's enigmatic last pharaoh.

Also excavated at Tebtunis were several scientific and medical texts, including at least one example of an illustrated treatise on the medicinal properties of plants. Contrasting with these are a number of astrology and magic texts. The juxtaposition between magic and medicine in the same era underscores a critical transition that was underway at that time - the transition from superstition to true science.

Tebtunis illustrated medical text
It is interesting to note that the Tebtunis papyri are written in both Egyptian and Greek - sometimes within a single document. The demotic Egyptian language was common among earlier pharaohs but rarely used in the later years of the first milleneum BC. A gradual replacement of Egyptian with Greek evolved with the Ptolemaic Dynasty, and the Roman conquest of Egypt brought with it an increase in the use of Latin.

Cleopatra, the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, was the only one to speak all three languages.

For more information about the Tebtunis Papyri, visit the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri.

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, a novel by Kristen Elise, Ph.D. Order your copy at

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope. She lives in San Diego,  California, with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her websites at and The Vesuvius Isotope is available in both print and and e-book formats ( for Kindle, for Nook, for Kobo reader.) 

The Vesuvius Isotope_ebook_cover 12.5.jpeg
The Vesuvius Isotope:
When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the 

secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to 

a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic 
women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend 
as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest 
will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the 
twenty-first century.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Exavation en France à Menez Dregan!

This August I will be off to beautiful Brittany in France, to dig at a Lower Palaeolithic site called Menez Dregan for 6 weeks. 

C'est un éclat!
The site has layers rich in stone tools dated to between 350,000 and 500,000 years BP.  It also has some of the earliest evidence of controlled use of fire.

I've never dug at a Lower Palaeolithic site before, which makes it exciting, but I'm also excited for working outside in some (hopefully) good weather, and getting to practice my French.  And eating French food.  Lots of it.

I've made a list of a bunch of French words that one might come across in an archaeological situation, that I'm trying to remember.  Here's a sample:

  • Pierre (stone)
  • Caillou, galet (pebble)
  • Feu (fire)
  • Ancien (ancient/old)
  • Niveaux (levels)
  • Charbon de bois (charcoal)
  • Silex (flint)
  • L'industrie lithique (lithic industry)
  • éclat (flake)
  • Chantier (site)
  • Fouille (excavation)
Another exciting aspect of this trip is that I (and my husband who will be there too) will effectively be homeless - we finish the contract on our flat days before we leave, so everything's going into storage, and then we're off!  We have a place secured for when we return, but not until a few weeks after... so there might be some couch surfing!  

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Online courses related to human evolution

There is a great resource that some of you might have heard of, called Coursera.  It is a website with a collection of online classes offered from top universities around the world that you can take for free.  Sound good?  It's great!

You can take many of them in real time and follow along with a class, with weekly lectures and assignments, and you even get a certificate of completion at the end.  Or, you can look into the archive for a class that has already happened, and use the material at your own pace.

The courses cover loads of topics and disciplines, from medicine to computer science to nutrition, but I thought I'd share some links to ones that might be interesting for students of human evolution:

(already started): Archaeology's Dirty Little Secret, Brown University
Beginning July 7th: A Brief History of Humankind, University of Jerusalem
Beginning August 19th: Animal Behaviour, University of Melbourne
Beginning January 3rd 2014: Introduction to Genetics and Evolution, Duke University
Beginning January 21st 2014: Human Evolution: Past and Future, University of Wisconsin-Madison

I've been perusing a course on Writing in the Sciences, which has video lectures of powerpoint presentations, led by an instructor, and I'm finding it really useful.  I'm sure this course, Introduction to Public Speaking, might be useful for the student as well!

I've signed up for Human Evolution: Past and Future, which is being run by the lovely John Hawks of John Hawks' Weblog.  You can read his posts about MOOCs, or 'Massive Open Online Courses" here:

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