September 28 Link Roundup

A giant inflatable duck in Glasgow takes a journey!

The Museum of London discusses how they select objects for a handling table.

Faking your own death: a flowchart.

More on the ethics of driverless cars, although this time with a data-sharing argument.

Small talk should be banned and new social conventions for deep conversation should replace it, argues this dinner party host:

By establishing a common rule for behaviour we created an environment with a new set of social norms that redefined peoples’ best interests. And everyone was happier. As added proof, two dates came out of the evening. Perhaps meaningful conversation also makes us more attractive?

A horrifying photo and accompanying essay about the Belgian practice of cutting off the hands of rubber workers who didn’t meet their quota.

My colleague Gabe Moshenska has a content warning for his class on archaeology of warfare, and the Daily Mail is deeply unhappy about it.

The Americas are now measles-free! That doesn’t mean we can stop vaccinating any time soon, though — international travel could bring it back and harm those who can’t have vaccines.

Jigsaw shows all of Google’s awesome projects, including some that help re-route internet users in restrictive countries, protect journalists from hacks, and which Syrian officials support which side in the conflict.

I’m off to PrimTech this weekend – it’s UCL’s award-winning course for first-year archaeology students to learn bushcraft, pottery-making, flint-knapping, yurt-building, wood-working, etc. I’m teaching foraging and hoping not to make anyone too ill; on the menu this year (based on last year’s reconnaissance) are hawthorn ketchup, nettle stir-fry, and rosehip syrup. I think this is the most en-dashes I’ve ever used in one paragraph!

Teaching kids not to eat under-ripe berries.

Teaching kids not to eat under-ripe berries.


September 23 Link Roundup

Turns out the Great Pacific Garbage Patch isn’t what we thought, but it’s hard for people to conceptualize environmental devastation without concrete objects on which to focus.

What did our ancient predecessors look like? Have we found the gene(s) that code for permanent breasts on adult females yet? Would Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis) have had breasts? (Also, they use the word “gender” instead of “sex”.)

The five-second rule is bunk! The composition of the food and the floor surface matter more than the time it’s on the floor, and bacteria transfer is immediate (although food left for longer will pick up more bacteria, there’s no escape once it’s touched the floor).

This 2013 article on how the belief that family names were changed at Ellis Island isn’t true has a fascinating report on Frank Woodhull, a woman who chose to live as a man in 1912 and America was all, sure why not?

Garment pockets are evidence of sexism in clothing.

Costica Bradatan meditates on nothingness and procrastination:

“I am lured only by what precedes me,” he writes, by “the numberless moments when I was not: the non-born.” From that perspective, he looks at the world with new eyes, and gains a deeper understanding of himself: “I have never taken myself for a being. A noncitizen, a marginal type, a nothing who exists only by the excess, by the superabundance of his nothingness.”

Was Roald Dahl an anti-Semite, a misogynist, an angry, unpleasant, and retaliatory old man forced into writing for children as his relationships with publishers diminished, as Alex Carnevale writes? Or was he anarchic, a lover of the subversive, a keen observer of human behavior, driven to writing for children due to his deep depression over his son’s illness and daughter’s death, as Lucy Mangan writes?  (Why can’t he be both? We all have multiple reasons for any decision, whether we think so or not.) I’m fascinated by the authors’ theses have influenced their opinion. Also, I’m interested in the actual reason for changing the Oompa Loompas from pygmies to hippie-aliens: was it that Dahl didn’t realise that he was being racist until it was pointed out, or was it just marketing?

Andy Sullivan’s essay on being addicted to wired connection bemoans a family all on their phones being “alone together”. But why is that a bad thing? Why do we assume that being present is the ideal at all times? Certainly if groups are always alone together there might be negative social consequences, but sometimes we need breaks, no?


Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children”

Who what am I? My answer: I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me. I am everyone everything whose being-in-the-world affected was affected by mine. I am anything that happens after I’ve gone which would not have happened if I had not come. Nor am I particularly exceptional in this matter; each “I,” every one of the now-six-hundred-million-plus of us, contains a similar multitude. I repeat for the last time: to understand me, you’ll have to swallow a world.

An on the contrary, E.M Cioran:

“I am lured only by what precedes me,” he writes, by “the numberless moments when I was not: the non-born.” From that perspective, he looks at the world with new eyes, and gains a deeper understanding of himself: “I have never taken myself for a being. A noncitizen, a marginal type, a nothing who exists only by the excess, by the superabundance of his nothingness.”

September 16 Link Roundup

Monday’s xkcd is a great infographic/timeline of climate change.

How the Sugar Industry Shifted Blame to Fat, featuring some immoral scientific practices, and a good example of “why research should be supported by public funding rather than depending on industry funding.”

Harvard researchers have filmed bacteria evolving antibiotic resistance on a huge plate.

Kristina Killgrove, writing for Forbes, traces the origins of the tooth fairy to postwar capitalism:

“The market system,” Tuleja writes, “cannot function without the continued surrender of hoarded goods: free exchange is its lifeblood.”  Parents are teaching their children about monetization and the free market when they exchange a tooth for money.

There have been sightings of creepy clowns in the Carolinas, and this reporter is crazy happy to write about it.

This twee newsreel about Burning Man in the 90s. Worth it to see a newscaster say the words “a proto-apocalyptic hippie neo-pagan freak fest”.

“Some people believe that Burning Man is the physical manifestation of the internet – a kaleidoscopic, no-holds barred communal experiment. And just as the internet is interactive, so is Burning Man.”

Melanie Martin critiques the Open Syllabus Project’s evolutionary anthropology list, and has started her own google doc open to contributions.

Stop kissing chickens now.Stop kissing chickens now.

Researchers weigh in on whether Neanderthals and modern humans could have fallen in love, featuring this fantastic fact:

“You see, most primates, and indeed many mammals, have at least some spines on their penises,” Hawks explains on his website. “‘Spine’ means more or less what you would expect: little projections that are covered in hard material, generally keratin, curving toward the base of the penis. These spines are sometimes called ‘horny papillae.’”

Like humans, Neanderthals were missing the genes that codes for spiny penises.

Stress in non-human animals

Originally published on Student Engagers on October 14, 2015, in association with our exhibition Stress: Approaches to the First World War.

This post is associated with our exhibit Stress: Approaches to the First World War, open October 12-November 20.

A pig’s skull may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of stress. You may not think of non-human animals at all. However, humans are not the only animals that experience stress and related emotions. Many of the behaviors associated with human psychological disorders can be seen in domestic animals. Divorced from the dialogue of consciousness and cognition, animals have been seen exhibiting symptoms of depression, mourning, and anxiety. Wild animals in captivity ranging from elephants to wolves have exhibited signs of post-traumatic stress disorder; this is also an argument for why orcas in captivity suddenly turn violent. According to noted animal behaviorist Temple Grandin, animals that live in impoverished environments or are prevented from performing natural behaviors develop “stereotypic behaviors” such as rocking, pacing, biting the bars of their enclosure or themselves, and increased aggression. Many of these bear similarities to individuals with a variety of psychological conditions, and (most interestingly) when given psychopharmaceuticals, the behaviors cease.

The First World War unleashed horrors on human soldiers, resulting in shell shock (now called PTSD). However, many animals were also used, including more than one million horses on the Allied side, mostly supplied by the colonies – but 900,000 did not return home. Mules and donkeys were also used for traction and transport, and dogs and pigeons were used as messengers. (Actually, the Belgians used dogs to pull small wagons.) Since the advent of canning in the 19th century, armies no longer had to herd their food along, but apparently the Gloucestershire Regiment brought along a dairy cow to provide fresh milk, although she may have served as a regimental mascot as well – some units kept dogs and cats too.

Horses in gas masks. Sadly, they often confused these with feed bags and proceeded to eat them. Credit Great War Photos.

Horses in gas masks. Sadly, they often confused these with feed bags and proceeded to eat them. Credit Great War PhotosGreat War Photos.

The RSPCA set up a fund for wounded war horses and operated field veterinary hospitals. They treated 2.5 million animals and returned 85% of those to duty. 484,143 British large animals were killed in combat, which is roughly half the number of British soldiers killed. Estimates place the total number of horses killed at around 8 million.

The horses in particular had a strong impact on the soldiers. Researcher Jane Flynn points out that a positive horse-rider relationship was imperative for both on the battlefield. She cites a description of the painting Goodbye Old Man: “Imagine the terror of the horse that once calmly delivered   goods   in   quiet   suburban   streets   as, standing hitched to a gun­carriage amid the wreck and ruin at the back of the firing line, he hears above and all around him the crash of bursting shells. He starts, sets his ears back, and trembles; in his wondering eyes is the light of fear. He knows nothing of duty, patriotism, glory, heroism, honour — but he does know that he is in danger.”

"Goodbye, Old Man" used in a poster. Credit RSPCA.

“Goodbye, Old Man” used in a poster. Credit RSPCA.

Historical texts tend to consider horses and other animals used in war as equipment secondary to humans, and even the RSPCA only covers their physical health. Horses don’t only have relationships with their riders, but with the other horses nearby and with the environment. They can easily be frightened by loud noises, not to mention explosions, ground tremors from trench cave-ins, and other things that scared humans sharing their situation. Many horse owners (many pet owners, in fact) argue that their horses have and express human-like emotions. Even if we can’t verify this scientifically, we can observe that horses experience fear, rage, confusion, gain, loss, happiness and sadness. Grandin argues that horses have the capacity to experience and express these simple emotions as well as recall and react to past experiences, but are unable to rationalize these emotions: they simply feel. It’s impossible to say whether that makes it more frightening for a horse or a human to wade through a field of dead comrades. In Egypt, I took a horse ride around the pyramids. The trail led us through what turned out to be an area of the desert where stable owners execute their old horses, resulting in a swath of rotting corpses. I was shocked, and my horse displayed all the signs of fear: ears pinned back, wide eyes, tensed muscles. He recovered after we’d left the area, but I wondered what psychological impact having that experience day after day would cause. If they are able to remember frightening experiences, they might be able to experience post-traumatic stress and be as shell-shocked as the returning soldiers. British soldiers reported that well-bred horses experienced more “shell-shock” than less-pedigreed stock, bolting, stampeding, and going berserk on the battlefield – all typical behaviors of horses under duress, – but did not elaborate on the long-term consequences of this behavior. It would be interesting to explore accounts of horses that survived the war (and were returned to their original owners instead of being sold in Europe or slaughtered) to see whether they exhibited more stereotypical behaviors of stress and shell-shock just as human soldiers did.


Thanks to Anna Sarfaty for advice.

Animals in World War One.

Bekoff, Mark. Nov 29, 2011. Do wild animals suffer from PTSD and other psychological disorders? Psychology Today (online).

Flynn, Jane. 2012. Sense and sentimentality: a critical study of the influence of myth in portrayals of the soldier and horse during World War One. Critical Perspectives on Animals in Society: Conference Proceedings.

Grandin, Temple and Johnson, Catherine. 2005. Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior. New York: Scribner.

Shaw, Matthew. ND. Animals and war. British Library Online: World War One. 

Tucker, Spencer C. (ed.) 1996. The European Powers in the First World War: An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland.

Question of the Week: What is that object?

Originally published on Student Engagers on February 18, 2015.

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked isn’t about history or osteology. It’s “can you tell me what that thing is?” Many objects in the UCL Museums don’t have explanatory labels, so it’s understandable that visitors don’t know. However, it’s usually the case that we don’t know either! In archaeology, a number of excavated items are recorded with detailed descriptions of size, weight, material, but no conclusion as to the purpose of the object. The Petrie houses a number of smooth pebbles from predynastic-era graves. When those people had the technology to make wheel-thrown pottery and intricately carved stone vessels, why be buried with a simple stone? The anthropological answer is that it served a ritualistic purpose; the humanistic answer is that somebody saw a smooth stone they liked, one that felt good to keep in the hand and rub, and it became important to them. I have stones that remained in coat pockets for years, getting smoother and smoother from my touch. It doesn’t necessarily have to be “totemic”. Other artifacts are confusing because they look like modern items. One visitor asked me about a clay object that looked like a cog.


UC18527. Image courtesy Petrie Catalogue.

I had no idea what it was! We do have various sorts of cogs from ancient times, like waterwheels and the Antikythera mechanism, but in this case I thought I could solve the mystery quite easily. The object had a UC number, indicating its place in thePetrie catalogue. I looked it up on the web (the catalogue is open-access) and found out it’s actually an oil lamp: if you look closely, you can see traces of burning in the centre. The same goes for the Grant Museum’s catalogue – if you can find the specimen’s number, you can look up the name. Then it’s fun to Google the animal and see what it looked like with all its fur on – the tenrec is my favourite example. With only the skeleton it looks like any other small mammal, but when complete it’s like a cross between a hedgehog and a fiery caterpillar.

If you’d like to know what something is, please do ask! We may not know, but love to learn about all the amazing objects around us.

Did we evolve to run?

Originally published on Student Engagers on January 15, 2015.

A few years ago, spurred by my research on just how deleterious the sedentary lifestyle of a student can be on one’s health, I decided to start running. Slowly at first, then building up longer distances with greater efficiency. A few months ago, I ran a half-marathon. At the end, exhausted and depleted, I wondered: why can we do this? Why do we do this? What makes humans want to run ridiculous distances? A half-marathon isn’t even the start – there are people who do full marathons back-to-back, ultra-marathons of 50 miles or more, and occasionally one amazing individual like Zoe Romano, who surpassed all expectations and ran across the US and then ran the Tour de France.[1] Yes, ran is the correct verb – not cycled.

I’ve met so many people who tell me they can’t run. They’re too ungainly, their bums are wobbly, they’re worried about their knees, they’re too out of shape. Evolution argues otherwise. There are a number of researchers investigating the evolutionary trends for humans to be efficient runners, arguing that we are all biomechanically equipped to run (wobbly bums or not). If you have any question whether you can or can not run, just check out the categories of races in the Paralympic Games. For example, the T-35 athletics classification is for athletes with impairments in ability to control their muscles; in 2012, Iiuri Tsaruk set a world record for the 200m at 25.86s, which is only 6 seconds off Bolt’s world record at 19.19 and 4 seconds off Flo-Jo’s womens record (doping aside). 2012 also saw the world record for an athlete with visual impairment: Assia El Hannouni ran 200m in 24.46.[2] You try running that fast. Now try running with significant difficulty controlling your limbs or seeing. If you’re impressed, think about these athletes the next time you say you can’t run.


Paralympian Scott Rearden. Credit Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s think about bipedalism for a bit. Which other animals walk on two legs besides us? Birds, for a start, although flight is usually the primary mode of transport for all except penguins and ostriches. On the ground, birds are more likely to hop quickly than to walk or run. Kangaroos also hop. Apes are able to walk bipedally, but normally use their arms as well. Cockroaches and lizards can get some speed over short distances by running on their back legs. However, humans are different as we always walk on two legs, keep the trunk erect rather than bending forward as apes do, keep the entire body relatively still, and use less energy due to stored kinetic energy in the tendons during the gait.[3] Apparently we can group our species of strange hairless apes into the category “really weird sorts of locomotion” along with kangaroos and ostriches.

Following this logic, Lieberman et al point out that a human could be bested in a fight with a chimp based on pure strength and agility, can easily be outrun by a horse or a cheetah in a 100m race, and have no claws or sharp teeth: “we are weak, slow, and awkward creatures.”[4]We do have two strokes in our favor, though – enhanced cognitive capabilities and the ability to run really long distances. Our being awkwardly bipedal naked apes actually helps more than one would think. First, bipedalism decouples breathing from stride. Imagine a quadruped running – as the legs come together in a gallop, the back arches and forces the lungs to exhale like a bellows. Since humans are upright, the motion of our legs doesn’t necessarily affect our breathing pattern. Second, we sweat in order to cool down during physical exertion. (In particular, I sweat loads.) Panting is the most effective way for a hairy animal to cool down, as hair or fur traps sweat and doesn’t allow for effective convection (imagine standing in a cool breeze while covered in sweat – this doesn’t work for a dog.) But it’s impossible to pant while running. So not only are humans able to regulate breathing at speed, but we can cool down without stopping for breath.

From a purely skeletal perspective, there is more evidence for the evolution of running. Human heads are stabilized via the nuchal ligament in the neck, which is present only in species that run (and some with particularly large heads), and we have a complex vestibular system that becomes immediately activated to ensure stability while running. The insertion on the calcaneus (heel bone) for the Achilles tendon is long in humans, increasing the spring action of the Achilles.[5] Humans have relatively long legs and a huge gluteus maximus muscle (the source of the wobbly bum). All of these changes are seen in Homo erectus, which evolved 1.9 million years ago.[6]

H. erectus skeleton with adaptations for running (r) and walking (w). From Lieberman 2010.

Diagram of a Homo erectus skeleton with adaptations for running (r) and walking (w). From Lieberman 2010.

The evolutionary explanation for this is the concept of endurance or persistence hunting. In a hot climate, ancient Homo could theoretically run an animal to death by inducing hyperthermia. This is also where we come full circle and bring in the cognitive capabilities of group work. A single individual can’t chase an antelope until it expires from heat stroke because it’ll keep going back into the herd and then the herd will scatter. But a team of persistence hunters can. If persistence hunting is how humans (or other Homo species) evolved to be great at long distance running, that’s also the why humans developed larger brains: the calories in meat generated an excess of calories that allowed nourishment of the great energy-suck that is the brain. However, persistence hunting is a skill that mostly went by the wayside as soon as projectile weapons (arrowheads and spears) were invented, possibly around 300,000 years ago. Why? Because humans, due to our large brains, are very inventive, but also very lazy. Any expenditure of energy must be made up for by calories consumed later, at least in a hunting and gathering environment – so less energy output means less energy input; a metabolic balance. Thus we have the reason why humans can run, but also why we don’t really want to. (As an aside, some groups such as the Kalahari Bushmen practiced persistence hunting until recently, although they had projectile weapon technology, probably because of skill traditions and retaining cultural practices. Humans are always confounding like that.)

Which brings up another point: gathering. As I’ve written before, contemporary hunter-gatherers like the Hadza rely much more on gathering than hunting. Additionally, it is possible that the first meat eaten by Homo species was scavenged rather than hunted. There is no such evolutionary argument as endurance gathering. If ancient humans spent much more time gathering, why would we evolve these particular running mechanisms? As with many queries into human evolution, these questions have yet to be answered. Either way, it’s clear that humans have a unique ability. Your wobbly bum is, in fact, the key to your running. Another remaining question is why we still have the desire to continue running these ridiculous distances – a topic for a future post, perhaps.



[2] Check out all the records at

[3] Alexander, RM. Bipedal Animals, and their differences from humans. J Anat, May 2004: 204(5), 321-330.

[4] Lieberman, DE, Bramble, DM, Raichlen, DA, Shea, JJ. 2009. Brains, Brawn, and the Evolution of Human Endurance Running Capabilities. In The First Humans – Origins and Early Evolution of the Genus Homo (Grine, FE, Fleagle, JG, Leakey, RE, eds.) New York: Springer, pp 77-98.

[5] Raichlen, DA, Armstrong, H, Lieberman, DE. 2011. Calcaneus length determines running economy: implications for endurance running performance in modern humans and Neandertals. J Human Evol 60(3): 299-308.

[6] Lieberman, DE. 2010. Four Legs Good, Two Legs Fortuitous: Brains, Brawn, and the Evolution of Human Bipedalism. In In the Light of Evolution (Jonathan B Losos, ed.) Greenwood Village, CO: Roberts & Co, pp 55-71.

Movement Taster – Movement in Premodern Societies

Originally published on Student Engagers on May 14, 2014, to advertise our event Movement.

The following is a taster for the Student Engagers’ Movement event taking place at UCL on Friday 23 May. Stacy, a researcher in Archaeology, will be discussing movement through the lens of biomechanics.

Imagine you’re in the grocery store. You start in the produce section, taking small steps between items. You hover by the bananas, decide you won’t take them, and walk a few steps further for apples, carrots, and cabbage. You then take a longer walk, carefully avoiding the ice cream on your way to the dairy fridge for some milk. You hover, picking out the semi-skimmed and some yogurt, before taking another long walk to the bakery. This pattern repeats until you’re at the checkout.

What you may not realize is that this pattern of stops and starts with long strides in between may be intrinsic to human movement, if not common to many foraging animals. A recent study of the Hadza, a hunting and gathering group in Tanzania, shows that they practice this type of movement known as the Lévy walk (or Lévy flight in birds and bumblebees). It makes sense on a gathering level: you’ve exhausted all your resources in one area, so you move to another locale further afield, then another, before returning to your base. When the Hadza have finished all the resources in an area, they’ll move camp, allowing them to regrow (for us, this is the shelves being restocked). This study links us with the Hadza, and the Hadza with what we can loosely term “ancient humans and their ancestors”.

Diagram of a Levy walk.

Diagram of a Levy walk. Credit Leif Svalgaard.

It’s unsurprising that the Hadza were used to examine the Lévy walk and probabilistic foraging strategies. As they are one of the few remaining hunter-gatherer groups on the planet, they are often used in scientific studies aiming to find out how humans lived, ate, and moved thousands of years ago, before the invention of agriculture. The Hadza have been remarkably amenable to being studied by researchers investigating concepts including female waist-to-hip ratios, the gut microbiome, botanical surveys, and body fat percentage. Tracking their movement around the landscape using GPS units is one of the most ingenious!

Much of the theoretical background to my work is based on human movement around the landscape. The more an individual moves, the more his or her leg bones will adapt to that type of movement. Thus it is important to examine how much movement cultures practicing different subsistence strategies perform. The oft-cited hypothesis is that hunter-gatherers perform the most walking or running activity, and the transition to agriculture decreased movement. An implicit assumption in this is that males, no matter the society, always performed more work requiring mobility than females. This has been upheld in a number of archaeological studies: between the Italian Late Upper Paleolithic and the Italian Neolithic, individuals’ overall femoral strength decreased, but the males decreased more; over the course of the Classical Maya period (350-900 AD), the difference in leg strength between males and females decreased, solely due a reduction in strength of the males. The authors posit that this is due to an economic shift allowing the males to be free from hard physical labour.

However, I take issue with the hypothesis that females always performed less work. The prevailing idea of a hunting man settling down to farm work while the gathering woman retains her adherence to household chores and finding local vegetables is not borne out by the Hadza. First, both Hadza men and women gather. Their resources and methods differ – men gather alone and hunt small game while women and children gather in groups – but another GPS study found that Hadza women walk up to 15 km per day on a gathering excursion (men get up to 18 km). 15 km is not exactly sitting around the camp peeling tubers. Another discrepancy from bone research is the effect of testosterone: given similar levels of activity, a man is likely to build more bone than a woman, leading archaeologists to believe he did more work. Finally, hunting for big game – at least for the Hadza – occurs rarely (about once every 30 hunter-days, according to one researcher) and may be of more social significance than biomechanical, and berries gathered account for as many calories as meat; perhaps we should rethink our nomenclature and call pre-agricultural groups gatherer-gatherers or just foragers.

For a video of Hadza foraging techniques, click here.

For a National Geographic photo article, click here.


Marchi, D. 2008. Relationships between lower limb cross-sectional geometry and mobility: the case of a Neolithic sample from Italy. AJPA 137, 188-200.

Marlowe, FW. 2010. The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania. Berkeley: Univ. California Press.

O’Connell, J and Hawkes, K. 1998. Grandmothers, gathering, and the evolution of human diets. 14th International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences.

Raichlen, DA, Gordon, AD, AZP Mabulla, FW Marlowe, and H Pontzer. 2014. Evidence of Lévy walk foraging patterns in human hunter–gatherers. PNAS 111:2, 728-733.

Wanner, IS, T Sierra Sosa, KW Alt, and VT Blos. 2007. Lifestyle, occupation, and whole bone morphology of the pre-Hispanic Maya coastal population from Xcambó, Yucatan, Mexico. IJO17, 253-268.