Volcán Acatenango

Hola, chicos!
As per a request from a follower, I’d like to spend some time today writing about my recent experience climbing my first mountain, Volcán Acatenango. As you may have guessed from its name, Acatenango is a stratovolcano in Guatemala which overlooks its more active sister Volcán Fuego. Stratovolcanoes are formed from layer upon layer of volcanic deposits, such as ash and lava, and in the case of Acatenango and Fuego, creating cinder cones. At 3,976 meters (13.045 ft), Acatenango is a monster of a hike. It was absolutely the most difficult, and even the loneliest, experience of my entire life.
My first reaction to the Acatenango hike was incredulity. The first person I met in Antigua left to climb Acatenango and returned the same afternoon, having vomited uncontrollably from altitude sickness at the mouth of the trail! It was common knowledge that several girls had died near the summit in January from hypothermia. As more of my friends took on the challenge and succeeded I began to collect the expressions of exhaustion and misery on their faces upon their return—mostly as reasons never to climb the blasted thing. Then to my luck, I met a person who not only climbed Acatenango, he climbed it multiple times for fun. He even helped rescue a lost hiker who had wandered off mid-trek. This person, who wields a certain emotional influence as my boyfriend, spoke excitedly about how we should climb it together. I agreed but on the condition that I climb it on my own first, for I knew that I didn’t want him to see me in the wretched state that was inevitable my first time up.
Embracing my fate, I tried to brace myself for the physically and spiritually decimating experience that lay ahead of me. But, as I would discover, this was impossible. I asked each person I could about how difficult the climb was, what the hardest parts were, what advice they had for me. One person, overhearing that I have asthma, jumped into the conversation and said I shouldn’t even try climbing it, but luckily ‘pretty blonde girls don’t get left on top of Acatenango.’ Thanks, creepy guy.
I knew my breathing issues would be a tremendous obstacle at high altitudes, and my limited cardio fitness as a result of those breathing problems would be debilitating hiking these steep inclines. But for some reason, I decided something along the lines of ‘screw it, I’ll inch up the summit if I have to,’ and signed up for a guided overnight trip. The day before my hike was set to start, I decided to do the afternoon Volcán Pacaya hike as a warm up. The guide told us to expect a 1.5 hour hike to the top, and we set off. At first, I stayed with the majority of the group, but 35 minutes in I fell behind significantly. I could hardly breathe, needing to stop every 10 feet or so to get my pulse down from 130 bpm. I thought I would never make it, as I thought we had almost an hour left. But 10 minutes later, I was scrambling up the summit. It took us 45 minutes to make a 1.5 journey. This is where I learned something that would potentially save my life on Acatenango the next day, volcano guides will go as fast as they possibly can and will not stop to accommodate the slower, or even average, hikers. Had I gone as fast as was comfortable for me, I would have made it up in the normal time.

When I told my friends who had hiked both Pacaya and Acatenango that I found Pacaya difficult, they looked at me in what can only be described as abject horror. ‘Pacaya is nothing compared to Acatenango, Sarah. Absolutely nothing.’ This was followed by a look of ‘well I guess I’ll see you at your funeral.’ As you can imagine, this did nothing to calm my pre-trek nerves. Neither did the boyfriend saying that even he suffers from altitude sickness when he goes up. I lay in bed the morning of the hike, thinking critically about every life decision that led me to this point. Yet somehow I got up, put on my pack which held 4 litres of water, a winter coat, hat, gloves, sweater, an inhaler, and an entire loaf of banana bread, and headed to the pick up point.
I looked around at my hiking comrades, and had a sinking feeling for I knew that I would be the slowest one of the entire group. The guides gave each of us a cheap sleeping bag, pad, and a piece of tent to carry with us. When we were all geared up, we set off up the trail, at first passing farmland and pasturing horses. But by 30 minutes in, I began to fall behind. I remember choosing points 10 ft ahead, or sometimes less, and thinking ‘just get to that point, at the weird looking plant you can rest.’ I did this for the rest of the trek. To contextualise how bad this was, the hike was to last 6 hours. I fell so far behind that for the majority of the hike I was only walking with the guide that brought up the rear of the group. To be clear, I was the entirety of the rear.
It was hot. I stopped every minute or two to lower my heart rate and I wipe streams of sweat from my forehead. Tito, the rear guide, spoke in slow and simple Spanish to me, small talk to maybe take my mind off what was clearly a gruelling process for me. Right before our first proper rest, an hour into the hike, Tito looked at me and said in a worried tone that the mountain was much higher than what we had just climbed. In what was definitely a ‘lost in translation’ moment, he literally pushed me up the last few steps by the bum. An entirely useless, unwanted, but hilarious action that had my hiking companions asking who they had to pay for the ‘special’ hiking experience.
From there we ascended into the rain forest section of the mountain. Acatenango is so tall that it can harbour several types of distinct environments in its hot lower sections, and cool higher sections. The path here was overhung by vines and verdant trees, roots were the main footholds in the compact dirt and mud. By this point, Tito realised that he could catch up with my glacial pace in minutes and decided to hang out and text his girlfriend for a while before following on. So I spent most of the hike walking alone on increasingly misty paths as we ascended into the pine forests.
I was so high up, that what had appeared to be mist was actually cloud, hanging densely around me. The mud became hard and the ground was scattered with pine needles. The trees thinned, and around 3,400 metres there was no question you had entered an entirely different environment. I could hear thunder rumbling in the distance. I thought about the girls who had died and genuinely prayed that we wouldn’t get caught in a storm. When I caught up with the rest of the group, they were having burritos for lunch. It’s an unfair truth that the hikers who are suffering the most get fewer and shorter rests, as the majority of the group rests while waiting for us to catch them up. The air was properly cold now, but we knew that putting on layers would be a big mistake, as we would only sweat through it when we started moving.
The path here was winding and grassy. It swerved back and forth, yet somehow remained impossibly steep. The clouds clung to us. To my complete surprise I couldn’t feel the thinning air. Perhaps because I had ascended so slowly, I had time to adjust, but at least one person started to fall behind, his pulse rising to match mine. I estimate that my pulse-rate remained at or above 120 bmp for the entire 6 hour hike. We hiked through the cloud pine forest for 2 hours, always with the threat of rain around us. But what we thought was thunder would soon reveal itself to be something more incredible than we could imagine. Halfway through the pine forest, I realised that I would actually make it to basecamp, and for the first time during this entire challenge I was genuinely proud of myself.
The guides gathered us together and told us that basecamp was only 30 minutes away. I don’t recall ever being so happy. We stepped through the last of the pines and onto an ashy, gravelly path that snaked around the rocky summit that extended 300 metres above us. We climbed up and down rocky protrusions, gnarled trees and their roots, and through ash that had wasted onto the trail. The enormous rumblings were growing louder and before we knew it, we came to a small clearing and saw the source of the noise. Volcán Fuego stood before us, enormous at 3,763 metres, and fiercely active. Within minutes of our arrival to basecamp, she was throwing up magma in massive eruptions and lava was streaming down her sides. No camera could ever capture the terrifying and cathartic magnitude of such a sight, but we certainly tried.

To be honest, I fell into the trap of relaxing after the first haul of the hike. I let my body get used to the rest and low pulse rate. In my mind, I knew the last leg of the hike was only 1.5 hours and wouldn’t be for many hours and after we slept. But even after a nice spaghetti dinner and warming up by the fire, the wind rattled the tent badly and the 3 Celsius air slipped into our sleeping bags so thoroughly that I don’t think I slept at all. When the guides started yelling ‘chicos chicos buenos dias’ at 4am, a collective groan emanated from each tent. When I sat up, I was nauseated, I was shivering uncontrollably, and the very real desire to bail on the summit climb edged its way into my mind. Putting on all of my kit, getting my torch, and picking up my walking sticks were some of the hardest challenges of the trek. After all, every hiker will tell you Acatenango is 20% physical 80% mental. My bones felt too heavy to carry, but I kept telling myself ‘you can’t make it to basecamp just to give up now.’ I fell behind the group immediately, but looking back maybe this was a blessing. I missed my boyfriend (who was at fault for all of this really), I missed my friends who I knew would be cheering me on, I missed my parents who I knew would be so stupidly proud. As patient as Tito was, I could tell he wasn’t in this challenge with me. But clambering over the steep rocks on a path only Tito could see, slipping backwards as the loose, ashy soil gave way under my feet in the darkness, accompanied only by my heavy panting, the booming encouragement of Fuego behind me, and the quivering light of my torch, was all immensely revealing about myself. I have never in my life wanted to quit so badly so many times in the course of an hour, it was like part of my brain was screaming at the other to make the pain stop. And I looked at myself each time, and said ‘not on your goddamn life.’

I’m truly afraid of very few things. Those of you who know me well know that I sought out my biological family without hesitation, I moved to a foreign country, I’ve travelled alone, I’ve taken on rigorous degrees, I’ve gotten tattoos, I’ve eaten things I couldn’t identify, I’ve given lectures to hundreds of people, I would jump out of a plane tomorrow. But Acatenango terrified me. It terrified me in part because I genuinely thought I couldn’t tackle it. It terrified me because it would require my body to come through for me, when in so many ways it has not. I summited as the sun rose. With a broken body and no fear.

I looked at Tito, wanting to share that moment. He said ‘bueno’ and walked away.
The wind felt like it would sweep me off the zenith. It burned my face as I looked over Fuego, Volcán de Agua, Antigua, and the blanket of clouds below tinted yellow by the dawn. The caldera of the volcano was a smooth dip in the ash, as if someone had taken a giant spoon and pressed down firmly. I trudged up each peak around it, trying to make the reality of our height sink in. I tried to take a photo and discovered to my dismay and disgust that I had shorted out my phone by sweating through my coat pockets and drenching it.
When it was time to descend, we were all grateful. I couldn’t feel my fingers. It was like skiing in dirt with my walking sticks. Back at basecamp, we broke down our tents, repacked our bags, and had a hearty breakfast of cup ramen and instant coffee. I had little energy left, but I knew I could never gain any from staying up in the cold where I couldn’t sleep.
In all my interviews with people who had climbed Acatenango, everyone said the first 30 minutes up and the last 30 minutes to the summit are the hardest. Not one person mentioned that going down was just as brutal as going up. While some of the fitter young men of the group literally ran down the mountain, I slipped and slid. Falling not one, not two, not three, not four, but five times, landing like an upside down turtle–at one point getting rammed into by one of those young men running down the path as I tried to lift myself and my pack onto my feet. At this fateful point, the guide decided that going down didn’t require any breaks. I fell behind quickly. My toes were getting crushed badly by my shoes. While my breathing was no longer an issue, my muscles, which had offered no complaint going up, started to tremble. I had nothing left to give, I had foolishly put everything I had into the summit push. I was hysterical halfway down. The utter exhaustion, the pain, the thought of the journey ahead of me, the compulsion to finish the trek without help, all manifested as tears. I may have climbed Acatenango, but she was repaying me in kind. I had blisters on my hands and feet, the sun was scorching my skin, my toenails felt like they were being ripped off. One girl stayed behind with me, and Tito trailed after us, offering to carry my pack for the last 20 minutes. Which I refused.
In those last few minutes, I wasn’t a person anymore. The mountain had taken everything from me. My spirit, my dignity, my cellphone. Even as I write this, 24 hours after finishing the trek, I’m having trouble feeling anything. Except a concavity in my chest and searing pain when I try to sit down anywhere. At least my toenails have returned to normal.
Was it worth it? It’s a good question. Was it worth it for the view? No. Was it worth it for the boy? Nah. Was it worth it because I learned a valuable lesson about myself? Hell yes. I gave everything I had to this journey, I gave more of my strength and my spirit to Acatenango than I’ve ever given anything. I said to myself that I would try my best, and my best brought me to the top of a mountain. And if that’s not worth it, I don’t know what is.


Fieldwork Entry 1: Antigua and Semana Santa

As some of you undoubtedly know, I’m now in the beautiful Guatemala for the first leg of my research–and honestly, the words to properly describe this place escape me. I’ve done quite a bit of traveling in my short life, but Guatemala is hands down the most beautiful country I have ever seen. The seismic activity of the area has carved out a landscape of enormous volcanoes, jutting ridges, black sand beaches that sparkle gold, and vast lakes that shift from grey to bright green with the changing light. I have yet to see a monkey, but everything in its time I suppose.

Without realising, I booked my flights for the beginning of something called Semana Santa, the celebratory week before Easter Sunday. This meant that when I arrived in Antigua, the locals were preparing for a week of religious processions that would shut down the city, and for the overwhelming influx of people from the surrounding areas.


Locals and visitors alike composed carpets of flowers and coloured sawdust along the cobble streets. These lined the path of the processors who hold aloft enormous wooden floats with statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, transforming the Central American city into the Via Dolorosa. There was something haunting about how these floats swayed in time with the slow march of their bearers, and even a staunch agnostic like me couldn’t help but feel catharsis as these believers carried their god upon their shoulders, with a full orchestra following behind. To add to this impressive spectacle, men in full purple or black robes walk ahead of the floats and filled the air with thick incense.
Semana Santa also presented some problems as a newly arrived anthropologist, it was nearly impossible to be seen as anything but a gullible tourist. To be fair, this was the peak of the tourist season, but attitudes towards my presence seem to have softened now that Semana Santa is over. And maybe I come across as less of a tourist now that I know how to hail a chicken bus–the flamboyantly painted American style school busses that act as the cheapest form of public transport–from the side of the highway and not get ripped off by the driver. Or maybe because I’m slowly becoming able to communicate with those who speak no English at all.
After a bit of tourism, I’m now set up in an apartment just outside of Antigua with a local I befriended, and can make my own tortillas and pepián, a local dish resembling mole. On my first day in Antigua, I made the interesting decision to try and navigate the enormous open air market by myself without any Spanish and no Google Translate. After getting ripped off fantastically for some onions, I came across the only English speaker in the entire place, who directed me to a stall that sold lemongrass. And in a wonderfully serendipitous moment, this gentleman ran the cooking class I turned up to later in the evening!
In fact, most of this trip can be described as serendipitous. On my second day, when I took my camera out for the first time, a pigeon pooed on me–a clear sign of good luck back in Brooklyn. In my short time here I’ve met some really amazing people, and one who even contributed significantly to my research already. So here’s hoping that luck holds.

Keep your eyes out for my next post on Lake Atitlan and the first stages of my research with the FAFG!

Archaeology – An Overview

For my final four-field overview post, I want to talk a little bit about archaeology.  You can find some more specific information about bioarchaeology in my previous posts, but there’s far more to archaeology than just the bones!

First and foremost, let’s clarify, archaeology is not the study of dinosaur fossils.  That would be paleontology, which is a subfield of geology.  Archaeology is, broadly speaking, the study of ancient communities through what they left behind–i.e. their artifacts, architecture, their bones etc. It may seem like an obvious distinction, but it’s a mistake made hilariously often.  My supervisor at the American Museum of Natural History volunteered to talk to a kid on a radio show, and this boy was only interested in dinosaur bones. So please learn the difference and save the soul of an archaeologist today.

Much like biological anthropology, archaeology has some pretty iffy roots in colonialism and eurocentricity.  The first ‘archaeologists’ emerged from something called Antiquarianism.  Interest in artifacts, or even bodies, was superficial in the sense that antiquarians were only concerned with aesthetic.  Provenience (the artifact’s location of origin) and context (what the artifact was associated with in situ, including geological features) were incidental to these early ‘archaeologists,’ and whatever deductions were made about these ancient cultures were correspondingly superficial. A PRIME example of the antiquarian archaeologist is Indiana Jones.  Another good way to break an archaeologist’s heart is to compare them to this particular character.  From an archaeological perspective, the boobytraps that Indy nonchalantly destroys are far more informative in regard to the community that created them than the shiny statue!  These early attitudes lead to the pillaging of colonized countries for their national treasures under the guise of ‘rescuing history.’  The Ishtar Gate, which now resides in Berlin, was originally ‘saved’ from Iraq, and the museum even uses this kind of language to justify their continued possession of this beautiful Babylonian treasure.  Even here in merrie olde England, the debate rages on about many of the collections in British museums across the United Kingdom.  The most famous, or infamous really, is the case of the Elgin Marbles. The British Museum came by these sculptures while Greece was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, bought from a man who literally lassoed them down from the Parthenon and sold them for pennies.  Most of the damage done to these statues is not because of age, rather their acquirement by the British.

This is a cringeworthy history, on a social level by stealing the ancient heritage of disenfranchised peoples, and on an academic level because we could no longer examine these artifacts and monuments in context. Thankfully archaeology has come a long way, producing truckloads of theory. With some stops in between, Antiquarianism morphed into Processual Archaeology, meaning that archaeologists began to look at artifacts in order to learn about the culture they came from.  To the Processualists, artifacts were culture manifested outside of the body and could be used to objectively examine the ‘evolution of culture’ through the scientific method. I put the phrase ‘evolution of culture’ in quotation marks as this concept is based upon the erroneous notion that evolution is a strict line of progression, with civilization (i.e. European civilization) as the pinnacle of progress to which every other culture naturally aspires.  Processualism then became Post-Processualism, which emphasizes the subjectivity of the archaeologist when analyzing archaeological remains. To the Post-Processualists, archaeological finds could only be interpreted in relationship to material that exists in the archaeologist’s experience, and in order to gain the most insight, archaeologists must remain as reflexive as possible.  And when archaeology became a subjective practice, it opened up the discipline to all types of different paradigms of analysis. With this mindset, archaeologists could look at artifacts through a Marxist, structuralist, or feminist lens to name a few. And these conversations are still happening today. Some of my thesis is based upon something called Sensorial Archaeology, which deals with the preeminence of the visual in the practice of archaeology, and how problems with the western hierarchy of the senses manifest in excavations.

Hopefully that didn’t put you straight to sleep, although I wouldn’t blame you. The methods used in archaeological excavations and analysis are a bit more interesting, but probably not nearly as exciting as the movies make them out to be. There is a lot of tedious digging in spots where you’ll inevitably find nothing. My first proper fieldwork was the test pitting stage of an excavation run through Cambridge University. It involved wading through endless fields of rapeseed in the rain, with a grim sandwich for lunch, and looking for lithics (manipulated stone) in a field brimming with flint deposits. It was an exercise in character development.

Working on the more advanced stages of an excavation was far more satisfying.  Barring the 5am wake up call, the excavation of a Roman Necropolis in Spain was incredibly enjoyable. Each dig produced finds, as we were trained how to identify the graves before we began troweling. You can see the edges of the tomb beginning to emerge here after 4 days with a literal broom and dust pan.


From my personal experience, putting eager young undergrads into the field is an entertaining yet probably foolhardy decision.  I was so keen to get to the bottom of the grave that it took every fiber of my being to excavate slowly.  I could see from the grave I had taken over from the previous field school group, that they had suffered from the same problem. There were two individuals in this grave, with one full individual laying supine (on his back), which was a rare find, but in their excitement they had removed the femurs before the skeleton had been fully excavated.

Lecture Image

Look at all the loose femurs!

In these scenarios we need to be careful. A fundamental paradox in archaeology is that we excavate to reveal the context, but in so doing we destroy the context. So each step needs to be documented through field notes and sketches at the very least.  This can be a glacial process that the untrained archaeological student can mess up in a matter of minutes. Nothing is more tempting than to pull out a pesky root as you would when gardening, but roots are sneaky and you cannot risk damaging any artifacts they may have grown through by pulling them willy nilly. And as a novice I was so excited to do things like cranial reconstructions, but the taphonomy that lead to the breakage of the skull in the first place is just as much part of the context as anything else in the grave, and so it’s actually frowned upon now to glue pieces of the skeleton back together.  Undergrad Sarah didn’t understand that the reconstructed skull on the left was actually inferior to the one on the right held together by soil.

Forensic anthropology is, of course, a bit different because if we reconstruct a cranium we can then attempt a facial reconstruction or to match dental records. And in the instances when we do find relatives to return the skeleton to, a full skull helps to humanize the skeleton–which is incidentally another aspect of my doctoral thesis!

Have any questions about archaeological theory or methods?

As always, ask away!



Linguistic Anthropology – An Overview

A similar subfield to Cultural Anthropology is Linguistic Anthropology. Contrary to popular belief, linguistics is not the study of languages for translation or speaking purposes, rather it is the study of how languages evolve and function within a cultural context. Some subfields of linguistics include:

Linguistic Analysis – the technical study of language

Sociolinguistics – how language influences and is influenced by culture

Ethnolinguistics – the study of languages of specific ethnic groups

Linguistics is a vital aspect of anthropology because there’s a mountain of evidence that suggests language is incredibly influential in the development of culture, and that culture will influence language as well. The popular movie Arrival, which is about a linguist’s interactions with an alien species, touches upon this aspect of linguistic theory. Our thinking is limited by our means of expression—for example some languages have words that cannot be translated into other languages because that concept doesn’t exist in other cultures. While this may seem like a chicken and egg issue, linguists argue that the blade cuts both ways. We may not have a word for a concept because we do not have the concept at all, but our inability to express concepts verbally also then hinders the development of those concepts within our culture. A famous example of this is the Inuit lexicon for snow. The context of their lifestyle necessitates 50 or so terms for snow, where English-speaking peoples would struggle to find even 10, and would correspondingly struggle to perceive the distinctions between these 50 types of snow that the Inuit can easily see. Another Inuit example is the concept of ‘raw’ vs. ‘cooked.’ In order to maintain a healthy intake of vitamins, the Inuit will eat ‘raw’ seal meat. It wasn’t until English-speaking people tried to communicate with them that they had any notion of what ‘raw’ even was, let alone that some people didn’t like ‘raw’ food!  Linguistic anthropologists will also look at how subcultures’ dialects develop and differ. My mentor in undergrad, the late Dr. Denise Szafran, ran a module on AAVE (African American Vernacular English) and the many means of communication utilized in rap music.  And this type of analysis can extend to all forms of dialects, including combinations of languages called creoles, the independent languages formed through the combination of preexisting languages (i.e. French Creole), or pidgins, a combination of a speaker’s first language and second language.

Referring back to my post on social anthropology, linguistics can be conducted as an ethnographic study with language as its focus. In this way, linguistics is absolutely interconnected with social anthropology, but linguistics is very much interconnected with biological anthropology as well. Primatologists will examine primate communication in the context of linguistics, often looking for similarities to human language to inform our understanding of evolution and the brain. There have been many fascinating studies on vervet monkeys and how they communicate danger to one another. Their alarm-call system is the closest thing to human language that primatologists have yet observed, with specific cries for leopards, hawks, and snakes, each stimulating a different group reaction.Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 7.48.35 PM

Primatologists have also explored communication with other apes through sign language. Chimps especially are quite good at learning the meaning of each sign, like the famous Washoe, but cannot seem to figure out syntax, the rules of sentence structure, and therefore cannot form proper sentences. They can spontaneously recombine signs, but in a disjointed way.

This aspect of anthropological research has also been used to study human development. For example, we’ve discovered that babies can easily understand sign language and respond to parents in sign language at 6 months old, before they are able to physically speak. This is because infant throats are formed to safely breathe and swallow simultaneously, which makes speech impossible.

The technical aspect of linguistic analysis also seeks to inform the evolution of the brain and human development, as well as human migration and cultural diffusion. The well-known Noam Chomsky introduced the concept of language as a genetic imperative–that all human brains are set up to form language, and will do so with regardless of the quality of language exposure.  Meaning that all languages will have universal similarities in grammar, if not phonetics (how words sound).  We can also tell how different languages are interconnected, giving us insight into divergence of groups across the world.

Language Map

Any questions about Linguistic Anthropology?

As always, let me know!

Who were the Neanderthals?

After several weeks of eager anticipation, yesterday was finally the day.

Yesterday I received my results for 23andMe, the DNA analysis programme that gives you the lowdown on your ancestry and any genetic health risk factors you may carry.
And while my results were pretty much as I suspected, I found out something pretty cool. According to 23andMe, 2.6% of my genes come from Neanderthals!
Now that’s actually slightly lower than average for someone with who is predominantly European. But what exactly are Neanderthals and why are they so cool?

If you managed to take a look at my post about evolution from last week, you’ll remember that anthropologists have actually found a number of our evolutionary ancestors. Most of these ancestors died out before anatomically modern humans were on the scene — but not so with the Neanderthal! We had a pretty significant overlap, which we clearly made the most of in a reproductive sense. As we (humans) could successfully mate with Neanderthals, this makes us fellow subspecies of human. Modern humans are known as Homo sapiens sapiens, and Neanderthals are known as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis. There has been a lot of back and forth between their species classification, but the DNA evidence proves we could and did mate with them, so they are absolutely positively a subspecies.  So if anyone, including an anthropologist, gives you flack for this subspecies attribution–send them to me.
Neanderthals are called this because the first fossil associated with the subspecies, or holotype, was found in the Neander Valley in Germany. Although other Neanderthal remains had been found before this, they were only later categorised as such.  Here is the geographical area that Neanderthals were thought to inhabit courtesy of Wikipedia:

So what makes a Neanderthal different from a modern human? There are a few notable differences.
Neanderthals had prominent supraorbital tori and occipital buns, meaning that their foreheads and the base of their skulls were quite large. And because their skulls were shaped differently, their brain architecture was also different. In fact, their cranial capacity was higher than ours, but because the parts of the brain responsible for speech, like Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, were smaller in Neanderthals they would not have had the same capabilities for language.

Image source 

In this sense, the stereotypical grunting caveman is correct. BUT there are several studies that indicate their hyoid bone, the bone in our throat, was situated higher than ours. This would make their voices correspondingly higher! So imagine a caveman with a high pitched grunt instead.
Neanderthals also had larger nasal apertures (where your nose goes). This is an adaptation to cold weather, as the air they breathed through their noses was warmed more effectively before entering their lungs. And we can still see a similar adaptation in populations from colder climates, although not as big as the Neanderthals.


Image source Fun fact: this is Gibraltar I, and my absolute favourite. I grew up with a cast of it in my house.

Neanderthals were barrel chested and their arms burly. This has been attributed to spear thrusting but also to the scraping of animal skins. Click here for some interesting reading on the subject.

As part of the genus Homo, Neanderthals were tool makers and are also thought to have made clothing, the only other animal to have made clothing besides us.

This brings us to the question of cultural diffusion.  We know that humans and Neanderthals were living near each other and having sex, what we don’t quite know is how much influence there really was between the two groups in terms of material culture. We can identify tool making techniques that are associated with one subspecies or the other, what is slightly strange is that there seems to be little or no crossover–even when we know they were interacting with each other.  Some anthropologists argue that this makes us different species, but that is a remnant of archaic palaeoanthropological theory (more on that later).

Some anthropologists posit that the reason why humans eventually outlived Neanderthals is that we are better at learning new techniques and thinking outside the box, and Neanderthals just couldn’t keep up. But it’s still unclear. We may have just killed them all off. What we know is that they went extinct about 40,000 years ago.

Have any Neanderthal related questions? Let me know!

Cultural Anthropology – An Overview

When anthropologists study different societies and their cultures, we look at many different things.

We study:

Religion and mythology
Interpersonal dynamics
Family structures
Economic structures
Clothing and fashion
Body modification
And much much more

And the way we study most of these things is through participant observation. This means that we do our best to join in everyday activities, experiencing first hand what people do, how they act, and their motivations. Participant observation is no easy task, anthropologists were often thrown headfirst into a community without so much as a ‘goodbye and good luck.’ Some anthropologists had no understanding of the language before they left for fieldwork!

The product of this type of fieldwork is called ethnography, which is a body of research pertaining to a particular culture. The slightly less common ethnology is research that compares aspects of different cultures. For example, the project I did in undergrad that looked at the use of candles by different religions was an ethnological study.  We can also use other mediums to present our research, like ethnographic film. Nanook of the North is considered the first ethnographic film, and you can find the significantly less important ethnographic film I made in undergrad on gender in zombie pop culture on YouTube somewhere.


Nothing says participant observation like getting trampled in the final round of Human vs. Zombies.

There are a few challenges that anthropologists have to deal with during ethnographic fieldwork. While anthropologists are academics, we’re also human beings with biases that can get in the way of objective observation. And these biases can often lead to ethnocentrism, the mindset that your culture’s values are superior to others. Very often, people don’t even realise their attitudes are ethnocentric as these biases are so insidious. A way we combat this is through something called cultural relativism, which is the acceptance of the legitimacy of a people’s way if life to them, even if it’s not legitimate to you. And if that makes some of you uncomfortable, well, it’s supposed to. Cultural relativism is an exercise in being uncomfortable.
It’s not about forcing yourself to accept a practice or way of life as legitimate, which is what anthropologists call amoral relativism, but merely embracing that some people will find them legitimate. As one of the foremothers of anthropology, Ruth Benedict, said, ‘the purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.’

This system is not without problems, especially for an anthropologist like me who studies forensic anthropology within a social anthropological context. After genocide, it can be difficult to maintain objectivity while studying victimisers when you’ve just excavated 200 of their victims. And this extends to other controversial circumstances as well. The noted anthropologist, and cool dad, Dr. David Rosen, is largely known for his research into child soldiers. He encourages the abandonment of the ethnocentric Western narrative of the child soldier as the product of adult abuse, for the far more complex understanding of children as autonomous actors.

If you are a Harry Potter fan who wants to know more about child soldiers, check out our work here.

For more information on what cultural anthropologists study, look out for upcoming posts or ask in the comments section!

Question re: Sticks and Stones

A good friend of mine, Nicole, has asked a great question about the post Sticks and Stones: Basics of Skeletal Trauma.


She says: “Love this! Also if this is the superior view would you say that the trauma occurred along any suture lines? Also out of curiosity, which bone of the skull is pictured?”

Thanks for the question, Nicole! This gives me a great opportunity to talk a little bit about the anatomy of the skull.

As the original picture only shows a bit of the skull, I’ll bring in my lovely assistant!

Here is Stan the Standard Scientific Skeleton. And here is the top of Stan’s head.

You can see that this image of Stan’s head corresponds to the left side of the image above Nicole’s question.  I’ll just take the top of Stan’s head off to make it easier to handle.

Cool. If you look carefully, you’ll see something on Stan’s skull that you can’t see on original skull. Those squiggly lines are called sutures. These sutures connect the different bones of the skull. Yes, the skull contains multiple bones! When we’re born, in order to fit through the birth canal and then give our brains enough room to grow, our skulls are divided into many different pieces. As we get older, these bones grow and then fuse at these suture lines. This is why babies have soft spots, or what anthropologists call fontanelles. Their skulls aren’t fused yet.

Nicole wants to know if the trauma on the first skull involved these sutures, and which bones of the skull are pictured.

The bones of the superior aspect of the skull are as follows:

One frontal bone (pictured pointing downwards here), two parietal bones, and the top bit of the occipital bone.

The angle of the trauma to the first skull looks approximately this. The frontal bone is now facing upwards.


As you can see, there are two sutures involved. The vertical suture, called the saggital suture, is cut transversely.  The horizontal suture, called the coronal suture, is impacted on the right.

But why are the sutures visible on Stan and not the first skull?  Well there are two options.

As we get older the sutures fuse, but it doesn’t just end there! Often the sutures will begin to fade and become obliterated. Sometimes anthropologists will use the level of fading to establish age at death. Buuuuut they shouldn’t. Sometimes the sutures don’t fade at all, and they certainly never fade on a predictable timeline.

The second option might be that the surface of the bone is poorly preserved.

As I don’t currently have access to the bone in question, I can’t confirm, but looking at the picture I suspect it’s a mix of both.

Thanks Nicole!

Sticks and Stones: Basics of Skeletal Trauma

What you’re looking at above is the superior aspect of a human cranium, i.e. the top of someone’s head.

If your first thought was ‘holy hell, what happened to that poor guy?’ well done. You have the makings of a human osteologist.  The answer is what forensic anthropologists and bioarchaeologists call sharp force trauma, or when a sharp object injures tissue.  This unfortunate fellow was most likely the victim of a broadsword attack.

There are several types of trauma that we can see in human bone. When the injury is caused by a blunt object we call it blunt force trauma.  When the injury is caused by a projectile, like a bullet, we call it projectile trauma.  Pretty self explanatory.

Trauma is classified as antemortem (before death), perimortem (at the time of death), or postmortem (after death).  We can tell when an injury occurred by looking for remodeling, by looking at the manner in which the bone was broken, and by the colouration of the trauma itself.

Remodeling, which is the term for bone healing, will only be present in antemortem injuries.  If we can see remodeling, the injury must have happened before death.  This is the reason why doctors must set bones.  Bones are smart and will try to heal themselves, even if they are no longer aligned. So we find individuals with bones like this:


We can also look at how the bone actually broke. The bones in living bodies, which are considered wet bone, react to force differently than long dead bone, or dry bone.  When we see fractures that could have only happened to wet bone, we know that the trauma was antemortem or perimortem.  Greenstick fractures are an excellent example of this.  Much in the same way that a stick is easier to break in half if it’s dead, so is bone.  The wet, fragmented bone will stick together like a twig from a living tree.

(Access the original image and some complicated reading on trees here)


Here you can see a greenstick fracture of the fibula (original image)

Comminuted fractures are another good example. This is when a fracture contains multiple fragmented pieces of bone. Below is an example of a comminuted fracture created by blunt force trauma.

This would never happen to dry bone, as it would simply shatter the skull.

In less clear cases, we can look for differences in the colouration of the fracture and the surrounding bone.  If the fractured area is lighter, it usually means that it has not been exposed to the elements as long and has therefore occurred after death in the grave or after excavation.  When damage happens after a person has been buried it’s called the taphonomic process, when it happens after excavation we call it students.


For more information about skeletal trauma, as always, feel free to comment or follow up in a message!

A Bone to Pick: Basics of Palaeopathology

Palaeopathology is the study of ancient diseases, trauma, disability etc. by examining human remains. Like forensic anthropologists, palaeopathologists also work with a degree of uncertainty. When most of our data comes from the examination of human bones, there are specific limitations we must contend with.

Bone can only react in one of two ways when something is wrong; the bone tissue can either grow or it can resorb. Both bone growth and resorption are normal and happen throughout your life–this process is caused by cells called osteoblasts and osteoclasts–but disease, trauma, and malnutrition can create abnormal formations of bone called lesions. The lesions formed by excess bone growth are called proliferative, and lesions formed from resorption are called lytic.

Each disease will affect bone in slightly different ways, that is if they affect the bone at all. But because of these limited types of bone reaction, certain diseases can look very similar. For example, scurvy and cribra orbitalia are both characterised by lesions in the orbitals (eye sockets) which can be hard to distinguish without training and practice.

Scurvy is a metabolic disease caused by a lack of vitamin C. As our bodies need vitamin C to form collagen, and our blood vessels require collagen for structural stability, the capillaries in the eye sockets of those with scurvy begin to bleed. The presence of blood in the orbit stimulates new bone growth and creates proliferative lesions.

Cribra orbitalia, which is often attributed to iron difficiency anaemia (rightly or wrongly is still up for debate), is charaterised by lytic lesions in the same area.

Below are pictures of both conditions, can you tell which one is which?


These are excellent examples of each type of lesion, so this is pretty much as easy as it gets. Most presentations of these lesions will be less pronounced, more fragmented, or both. Which makes our job a bit harder.

You can check your answers and access the original images here and here.

Too easy? Let’s try this one:

Do these skulls all feature the same pathology? Or are there two pathologies? Or even three?

What differences in these lesions, if any, can you observe?


Hint: there are two diseases and one trauma featured above. Can you tell which ones are which?


The first skull is an example of caries sicca, a major sign of venereal syphilis.

The second skull has a penetrating gunshot wound to the forehead.

And the third skull is an example of lesions associated with calvarial tuberculosis.

We can differentiate all of these conditions by looking at the remodeling (healing) process, or the origin of the lesion–for example, did it start inside the skull and move outwards or start on the surface and move inwards?

Another practical issue palaeopathologists face is something called the osteological paradox.  And while this term seems big and scary it’s actually pretty simple.  In order for a disease to show up in the bone, it has to be around long enough in a living body. We call this kind of disease chronic.  If a disease is too deadly and kills a person quickly, it won’t have time to affect the bone.  We call this kind of disease acute.  Therefore, when we see an individual from an archaeological site with a pathology, we know that actually this individual was probably one of the healthier ones. So ironically, when palaeopathologists study pathology, we’re usually studying the healthier individuals of a community.  This can be problematic when trying to ascertain general health trends and quality of life.


If you’re interested in the diagnostic criteria for any specific diseases or want more info about bone biology, keep your eye out for upcoming posts or comment below!