Blogging Archaeology Week 4, Part Two: What could a group Archaeology blog look like?

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I’ve been think­ing over vari­ous prob­lems in set­ting up a group blog for archae­ology for a while. The thought pro­cess usu­ally fol­lows four steps.

  1. Hmm… here’s a tech­nical prob­lem that could need to be solved for a group blog.
  2. Aha! Here’s a solu­tion that would be nifty.
  3. Of course, you’d need someone to organ­ise people and enthuse them…
  4. That sounds far too much like hard work. I’ll leave it.

For example I think Terry Brock is right, a group archae­ology blog could be a good idea. But for reas­ons you really don’t need to know about I can’t com­mit to any­thing before mid-April at the earli­est. So my con­tri­bu­tion is lim­ited to say­ing “Great Idea!” without actu­ally doing any­thing that could be mis­taken for work. I have been in a group blog though, so I could flag some prob­lems that need to be solved.

I was a mem­ber of HNN’s Revise & Dissent. I don’t think it was a suc­cess­ful group blog. It had good blog­gers as well as me, but I think col­lect­ively the blog was less than the sum of its parts. One reason is that it wasn’t a coher­ent col­lect­ive. We had interests in dif­fer­ent peri­ods of his­tory and dif­fer­ent regions. I thought that was a good thing because it meant that we covered history’s diversity. Instead I get the impres­sion there was no com­mon thread to the blog other than ‘the past’. Terry Brock points out that archae­olo­gists aren’t that well con­nec­ted at the moment. I think he’s right, but cre­at­ing a group blog will not inher­ently make us con­nec­ted. I read Dirt. I like it, but I don’t com­ment as I don’t have any­thing of value to say there. I think if Terry and I were on the same group blog then I’d simply not com­ment on that blog instead of not com­ment­ing on Dirt.

In con­trast some­thing like Play the Past, isn’t just about his­tory. It’s about a shared approach to his­tory. Possibly you could say that archae­ology is a spe­cific approach to his­tory, but some people think archae­ology is a branch of anthro­po­logy. I’m some­times a his­tor­ian and some­times an archae­olo­gist. I’m inter­ested in human action in the past and I’m not really con­scious of delib­er­ately switch­ing between two approaches. However, I am not an anthro­po­lo­gist. Anthropology is rel­ev­ant to archae­ology, but they are not the same dis­cip­line. I don’t think archae­ology is inher­ently focussed enough for a group blog to gel.

A second prob­lem with Revise & Dissent is that we made it demand­ing. We already all had blogs that were our home. I don’t know if any of us felt at home at Revise & Dissent, which sat on HNN’s sys­tem. It meant that writ­ing posts for R&D was a con­scious effort because we wanted to put up some­thing ser­i­ous there. There was no pres­sure from HNN to do this, I was some­thing we inflic­ted on ourselves.

I think this con­trib­uted to a third prob­lem, which was when to con­trib­ute? I con­sciously held back some posts, and didn’t sub­mit oth­ers because I didn’t want the blog to be Me and Revise & Dissent. This could have been a mis­take. Cliopatria works per­fectly well with Ralph Luker doing much of the blog­ging. I don’t think we tackled this prob­lem of what to post and when. It’s not a com­plaint that oth­ers were not doing enough — I have long peri­ods I can­not blog. We simply didn’t organ­ise the work, in my case because I don’t want to try boss­ing people around when they’re doing some­thing in their free time.

xf8n An archae­o­b­log not com­ing to a screen near you any time soon.

So a suc­cess­ful group archae­ology blog should have entries from vari­ous people relat­ing to each other on a reg­u­lar basis and not feel too much like hard work.

One way to cre­ate rela­tion­ships between blog­gers is to get them talk­ing about the same thing. This is what Colleen has done with her Blogging Archaeology car­ni­val. So a group blog could adopt a theme each month e.g. Origins, Power, Food, Religion… and release a series of posts by dif­fer­ent blog­gers through­out that month. Bloggers would be dis­cuss­ing the regions and peri­ods they were inter­ested in, but by talk­ing about some com­mon human exper­i­ence you get to com­pare and con­trast actions in dif­fer­ent times and places. You get to see what’s spe­cial about what you’re work­ing on by see­ing what other people are doing elsewhere.

That sounds good, but as Mick Morrisson can tell you get­ting people to respond to a theme isn’t so easy. For example I could see that some people could pro­pose Slavery as a topic. That’s some­thing rel­ev­ant to the ancient world, but it’s not some­thing I spend much time look­ing at. So do I ignore it when it comes round, or to I grind out some­thing to con­trib­ute in the hope that when I put for­ward some­thing I’d like to see oth­ers will do the same? As pos­sible solu­tion is that people pro­pose and pre­pare drafts on a theme in a back chan­nel. So I could write a gender piece and announce it on the back chan­nel. Someone else could pre­pare some­thing on Travel and I might see that and draft a post as well. When it comes round to choos­ing the next month’s topic instead of assign­ing the topic, you could see which topic has the most drafts ready to go and that becomes the next theme on the blog. Four or five posts mean that you’d have a top­ical post once a week. To get those four or five posts though you’ll need more than four or five blog­gers because people get busy and run into gluts of work. It’ll take some social wrangling.

A purely ‘theme of the month’ based group blog is rather nar­row in focus. There are some other things where a col­lect­ive blog could add value. One is blogged reviews. Michael E. Smith at Publishing Archaeology has lamen­ted the lack of a good out­let for reviews. I agree with him on this and on the fact that BMCR does an excel­lent job of pub­lish­ing reviews. I some­times get offered things for review, and it’s likely that a group blog would also get offers. Initially you’d need to prove that the concept works by blog­gers review­ing things they’ve read in their own research, but a review stream would be a valu­able addi­tion to archae­ology that doesn’t seem to be act­ive elsewhere.

An assump­tion above is that blog­gers con­trib­ut­ing to both of these strands would get links back to their own blog. They would, but what about people who have some­thing to say, but don’t want to start a whole blog when they’d only have some­thing per­haps once every three or four months? A third cat­egory News & Comment could offer this. I don’t think this would work just as a col­la­tion of head­lines. David Meadows already does that, and bet­ter, with the Explorator. If there was com­ment­ary on a story, for example why beer and wine mat­ter like SciAm does here then you have some­thing more worth­while. You could also throw in com­ment­ary from occa­sional blog­gers. If you get a large audi­ence it would also make sense to add requests for help, like look­ing for people to answer ques­tion­naires on out­reach, here. Hopefully the con­trast with the themed blog posts would make it less of a strain to blog inform­ally in this category.

The final cat­egory I’d sug­gest is just per­sonal axe-grinding. Photography. Partly because Colleen Morgan pro­duces some great pho­tos and there’s plenty of inter­est­ing images appear­ing on Flickr. Also it’s some­thing that formal pub­lic­a­tion doesn’t do so much. In some cases some dire pho­tos are pub­lished. Photo of the Day would be hard work, but a Photo Phriday would be pos­sible with sub­mis­sions or CC-licenced images from Flickr.

I’ve been think­ing about this for a while and there are prob­lems that need to be tackled. The big one is social. You need a core who are will­ing to slog for six months blog­ging on your monthly themes. Also one post a week is not going to build up an audi­ence rap­idly, so you’d need that core to each be com­mit­ted to one post a week on aver­age. It doesn’t sound a lot, but keep­ing that up for a long period is a ser­i­ous commitment.

You also need people who can encour­age people out­side the core to con­trib­ute and also keep an eye on qual­ity con­trol. That’s going to need tact. You won’t want rub­bish on the site. At the same time you don’t want to block people simply because you don’t agree with them. It’s likely to be some very good mater­ial that isn’t a suit­able fit for the site. You need someone who can turn that down without giv­ing the impres­sion that it’s rub­bish. I’d find set­ting up a site and telling people to take part, then say­ing ‘No thanks’ to some stressful.

There are tech­nical issues. Some are trivial. You won’t get a theme that every­one will like, so it’ll just have some­thing that people can live with that does the job. Some are more dif­fi­cult. A big­ger blog is going to be more of a tar­get for hack­ers. I’m using VaultPress with AoBBlog, and some­thing sim­ilar would make sense for a ser­i­ous group blog. There are plu­gins to man­age (Zotpress, Mendeley or both?) and they can clash in unfore­seen ways. New fea­tures in WordPress can break themes in unex­pec­ted ways and the big­ger the site the more vis­ible a fault is. Ideally the tech­nical side should be done so that people who aren’t inter­ested in the nut ‘n’ bolts don’t notice what’s going on.

There’s also the mat­ter of fund­ing. I’d be will­ing to con­trib­ute, but I couldn’t guar­an­tee fund­ing in per­petu­ity and there’s very few people who could. It would make sense to try to make the site self-funding. I’m against Google Ads. I don’t think they’re suit­able for a site dis­cuss­ing arte­facts as it’s impossible to pre­vent ads for illi­cit antiquit­ies appear­ing on site. If you’re not inter­ested in mak­ing a profit then fund­ing by other means might be a sol­uble prob­lem, but it’s hard to raise exactly the right amount of money and no more. So what do you do with a sur­plus? One answer would be to donate it an archae­olo­gical fund, but it’ll make life so much easier if this you can clearly demon­strate it hap­pen­ing. This is even more import­ant when if the sur­plus is tiny or non-existent so you rarely see dona­tions being made. It’s nat­ural to ask where the money is going.

The above is just one model of what an archae­olo­gical group blog could look like. Digital Archaeology might be enough of a niche that a group blog could work. There’s a few archae­ode­bunk sites, they too might work as group blog. A group blog does bring bene­fits, but I can see it being a long slog to keep it run­ning. If one was set up now it wouldn’t be live till May, when exam mark­ing starts in the UK so it’s a tough time to launch. June brings more mark­ing and towards the end it fades into field­work sea­son, which will also make July and August dif­fi­cult months. September and October will be bad because terms start… and so on.

It can be done, but would enough people want to?

What can the short form do for (insert discipline here)?

Google drink. Photo (cc) Peter Kaminski.
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Colleen Morgan is get­ting ready for the SAA con­fer­ence ses­sion on blog­ging. To open up the ses­sion to people bey­ond those who can get to the USA, she’s ask­ing a series of ques­tions to the world at large. Her first ques­tion is:

The emer­gence of the short form, or blog entry, is becom­ing a pop­u­lar way to trans­mit a wide range of archae­olo­gical know­ledge. What is the place of this con­ver­sa­tion within aca­demic, pro­fes­sional, and pub­lic dis­course? Simply put, what can the short form do for archaeology?

This is a topic that’s being dis­cussed else­where. At Ether Wave Propaganda (h/t Jonathan Dresner) Will Thomas notes that blog entries are cre­at­ing extra interest in papers. At AoB Blog for Botany, we’re find­ing that the blog is increas­ing interest in art­icles. So what is it that helps?

First up there’s the simple act of telling people that there’s research out. This is why there isn’t just a blog for the Annals of Botany, there’s also a Facebook page and Twitter account. These aren’t repla­cing other meth­ods of com­mu­nic­a­tion, they sup­ple­ment them and they work.

Another issue is that there are ser­i­ous aca­demic con­cerns that can be aided with dis­cus­sion that don’t belong in a journal. Exhibit one is Mick Morrisson’s post on a Digital Archaeology Workshop. Nearly every aca­demic is going to have expert­ise that’s unique to their depart­ment that is also shared with other people around the world. A blog is a tool that can open dis­cus­sion with col­leagues around the world. I’m sure Mick could write up his blog post in long form with ref­er­ences and sub­mit it to a sub­scrip­tion only journal with a read­er­ship that’s well over 100 people, but would the extra effort be worth the extra (or just dif­fer­ent?) response?

Google drink. Photo (cc) Peter Kaminski.

Downloadable drink, they’re work­ing on it.
Photo (cc) Peter Kaminski.

Which leads me to the third point. Short form doesn’t apply to just blog­ging. It applies to com­ments as well. We’re used to the 20 minute talk at con­fer­ences. Social con­ven­tion means you don’t hear 20 minute ram­bling replies at a con­fer­ence unless the ram­bler is old and the ori­ginal speaker is young. Even then the abil­ity to reply without pause for breath, coher­ence or mercy doesn’t work. Likewise blogs also offer oppor­tun­it­ies for short com­ments and if you see a long ram­bling reply with CAPITAL LETTERS lib­er­ally sprinkled around, scroll on.

Blogging is writ­ten, so there’s a tend­ency to see it as a com­pet­itor for aca­demic pub­lic­a­tion. Instead the short form means it can be more inter­act­ive and dis­curs­ive. For an example fol­low the many links in Bora Zivkovic’s post Roosevelts on Toilets for dis­cus­sion about what blogs can dis­cuss and an example of an event becom­ing a mat­ter of ser­i­ous and pas­sion­ate debate. Blogs are more a com­ple­ment to con­fer­ences. Just as one con­fer­ence doesn’t really pre­clude the exist­ence of oth­ers, so too blog­ging is not going to replace any con­fer­ences. At least not till you can down­load alco­hol and brief but embar­rass­ing romantic encoun­ters over the internet.

SciAm and Stonehenge

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Scientific American has an art­icle on Stonehenge up this month. My first reac­tion would be dis­ap­point­ment if I’d bought a copy just to read the Stonehenge art­icle. It’s not bad, but there’s a lot of ideas being gen­er­ated by archae­olo­gists at the moment. The lack of space means that the three main pro­jects all get skimmed. I can see that it works for someone who hasn’t been fol­low­ing news at the site, but if you’re a henge nut it’ll add noth­ing new.

On the other hand, I did like the sup­ple­ment­ary mater­ial that SciAm has added online. This goes into a bit more detail about the work by Birmingham University. Adding this to the ori­ginal art­icle makes it a lot bet­ter. Instead of being stan­dalone, the ori­ginal art­icle works well as an intro­duc­tion to the addi­tional mater­ial. Without chan­ging a word in the ori­ginal my opin­ion has gone from dis­ap­point­ment to think­ing it’s actu­ally quite clever. It means the magazine’s web­site is more than a bro­chure for the art­icles, or a copy of them.

It’s also a crafty way of get­ting their advert­ising out on other people’s sites, but the wait (if the pre-load advert plays) is worth­while. The actual video is 5m40s.

Archaeologists prove the secret to a successful date is knowing what is on the menu

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Bora Bora Dining and Food at Sunset

Knowing about food will increase the suc­cess of your dating

ResearchBlogging.orgLooking from the out­side, one of the most under­rated areas of archae­olo­gical research at the moment is the Archaeology of the Pacific. It’s pos­sible to make excit­ing dis­cov­er­ies any­where in the world. In Polynesia though, it’s hard not to. The reason is that Polynesian archae­ology has an odd con­tra­dic­tion. There’s been some excel­lent research done in the Pacific, yet it’s likely to be wrong. The prob­lem is in the dating.

Take Easter Island. The big story there is the eco­lo­gical col­lapse of the island. We know there was an eco­lo­gical col­lapse because set­tlers arrived AD 800, their set­tle­ment pat­terns changed around AD 1200 and when they were dis­covered by Europeans there were rel­at­ively few people on the island. We know they were on the island in AD 800 because that’s been radiocar­bon dated. If those dates were wrong, like if they were too old and set­tlers arrived later, then it’s not just a mat­ter of tweak­ing dates on the timeline in text­books. Suddenly there’s no native-caused pop­u­la­tion crash to explain.

Across the Pacific it turns out that many radiocar­bon dates are too old. Testing the human factor: radiocar­bon dat­ing the first peoples of the South Pacific by Petchey et al. (2011) is a paper that helps explain why, but also shows which dates are accur­ate. First here’s a brief reminder on how radiocar­bon dat­ing works.
Continue read­ing

There are more things in heaven and earth, cobber, than are dreamt of in your philosophy

Astronomically inspired indigenous art at the Ilgarijiri exhibition on display in Geraldton. Photo (cc) AstroMeg.
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This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org Studying astro­nomy in cul­ture should be simple. There’s only so much that is vis­ible by the naked eye, and it fol­lows pre­dict­able pat­terns. Modern astro­nomy means that we can recon­struct what was vis­ible any­where in the world in human his­tory, within cer­tain bound­ar­ies for errors. If we know what hap­pens when, then study­ing a cul­ture should just be a case of tak­ing a shop­ping list of astro­nom­ical phe­nom­ena and see­ing what a cul­ture does with them. And some bad his­tor­ies of astro­nomy read like the author is award­ing marks to cul­tures for astro­nom­ical achievements.

There’s vari­ous things that don’t work with that plan, but the biggest is that you sup­posedly are examin­ing cul­ture and are fit­ting a study to a very spe­cific view of astro­nomy, a mod­ern west­ern view. It’s awk­ward because we live in a cul­ture where a mod­ern Platonic view of sci­ence is rarely chal­lenged. There’s a good reason for that. Our view of sci­ence makes sense within our cul­ture. But if we don’t acknow­ledge that sci­ence is a social con­struct then we don’t fully under­stand other cul­tures. Reality is the same for all of us, but not our way of mak­ing sense of it. An Overview of Australian Aboriginal Astronomy by Philip A. Clarke in Archaeoastronomy is a good paper that helps show the dif­fer­ence between under­stand­ing the use of astro­nomy in a cul­ture and com­par­ing an indi­gen­ous astro­nomy with ours to see how much they got right.

The paper starts at the very best place to start, as after a brief intro­duc­tion it con­siders the sources of the data. It’s a key point because if the source data is full of lead­ing ques­tions and pre­con­ceived notions then you’ll only get the answers you were look­ing for.

Clarke then looks at how Aboriginal peoples saw their world. If you’re going to exam­ine the sky, it helps to know how the people describ­ing it saw it in rela­tion to the rest of the world. A com­mon fea­ture of abori­ginal cos­mo­logy is that the sky was seen as con­nec­ted to the land. Clarke refers to the sky as the “Land of the Dead” or the “Land to the West”, because spir­its are thought to travel to the west to enter the sky. The meth­ods of get­ting there var­ied. Tasmanians saw their foot tracks in the forest as lead­ing to the Milky Way. This reminds me a bit of the Greenlandic idea that the shaman could walk to the moon. In the far north the moon can roll across the hori­zon, so that it has a vis­ible con­nec­tion to the Earth. From that view the idea that the Milky Way is a foot track con­nec­ted to the Earth where it meets the hori­zon makes sense. Others have the idea that birds could trans­port people to the Skyworld, which again matches obser­va­tions of birds being between land and sky. Still more say that you can reach the Skyworld by climb­ing tall trees and get­ting help from a passing tornado.

The abori­ginal Skyworld seems to be a very richly described place. The abori­gin­als have no truck with celes­tial spheres. Their Skyworld has topo­graphy, trees and inhab­it­ants. The Skyworld is where the ancest­ors live, and so it’s a handy place to visit if you’re in need of a bit of ancient wis­dom. They should be easy enough to find as some of the ancest­ors are thought to be vis­ible as stars.

The iden­ti­fic­a­tion of ancest­ors in the sky brings a whole series of fur­ther factors. Kinship is import­ant in abori­ginal soci­ety and the same is true for the ancest­ors. Antares is Butt Kuee Tuukuung in south­w­est Victoria, and the fainter close stars are his wives. Brightness and loc­a­tion explains a lot of the other rela­tion­ships that Clarke lists. Time is also an issue. In north­ern Queensland the Evening Star is Dog and the Morning Star is Bitch. All these fea­tures are cat­egor­ised in clans and sec­tions just like the rest of the abori­ginal world includ­ing anim­als and plants on the land.

Opinion is divided on how the Sun and Moon return from the west to the east. For some people this is through a path in the under­world. The people of Arnhem land have a tale the Sun becomes a great fish and swims under the land through the ocean. That appeals to me at a nar­rat­ive level. Other regions have other tales and some include the pas­sage of stars beneath the earth as well as the Sun and Moon.

One of the inter­est­ing fea­tures that comes out of this paper is that the Aboriginal people seem to have a concept of stars, but not so much of stick-figure con­stel­la­tions. Clarke men­tions a sur­vey by Haynes that finds evid­ence of some faint stars being Unwala the Crab Ancestor [PDF], but not both­er­ing with Procyon and Regulus — two much brighter stars close by. My reac­tion was that maybe this shouldn’t be too much of a sur­prise. If a bright star is an ancestor then it’s an indi­vidual not part of a lar­ger fig­ure. There are already kin­ship con­nec­tions between stars so the idea of Greco-Roman style con­stel­la­tions is prob­ably a bit too con­fus­ing. Another factor is that because the Milky Way is so vis­ible, there are already plenty of dark-cloud con­stel­la­tions that actu­ally look like things. For example one patch of neb­ula in the Milky Way blots out the stars mak­ing the sil­hou­ette of an emu in the sky. That makes draw­ing stick fig­ures between stars an uncon­vin­cing altern­at­ive for con­stel­la­tions. But there are other bet­ter reas­ons too.

Clarke makes the point that col­our is very import­ant in abori­ginal cos­mo­lo­gies. One example he gives are the Arrente people of Central Australia who give more import­ance to red­dish or white stars than yel­low or blue stars. It won’t sur­prise you the same people value red ochres and white clays as sym­bols of power. Colour becomes more com­plic­ated when you exam­ine the Sun or Moon, which are red at the hori­zon but change col­our as they climb and fall. A red Sun seems to a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem as it’s a fem­in­ine sym­bol and red is a power­ful col­our. One tra­di­tion describes it as a kangaroo skin dress that is given to her by men who spend the night with her. The mottled face of the Moon seems to be explained by scars of con­flict, but the exact nature of the fight var­ies from region to region.

Clarke cov­ers time­keep­ing, espe­cially sea­son­al­ity in depth. The only thing I’ve found miss­ing here is when the day starts. Some cul­tures see it start­ing at sun­rise, oth­ers at sun­set but I’ve no idea if there’s a shared day concept in Aboriginal cul­ture. The Pleiades seem to be par­tic­u­larly import­ant in the turn­ing of the sea­sons [PDF]. Clarke notes that Tindale has fifty dif­fer­ent ver­sions of Pleiades myth­o­logy con­nect­ing them to chan­ging of the sea­sons. That might indic­ate a lot of dis­agree­ment, but the fact that so many abori­ginal cul­tures over such a large area are using the same gen­eral idea and dis­agree­ing on the details points to inter­con­nec­tion between peoples.

The sad­dest sec­tion is The Collapse and Rebirth of the Cosmos. Aboriginals did not pass­ively sit wait­ing for white set­tle­ment and news of the Europeans pre­ceded their arrival in many places. Clarke can show this is reflec­ted in their cos­mo­logy. The British arrived in the east and thanks to small­pox brought death with them. Visions of the Aurora Australis and met­eors were inter­preted as omens of dire times. Given the res­ults it’s easy to see how the arrival of the British could be seen as a cos­mic apo­ca­lypse.

The com­mon theme in this paper, apart from sheer vari­ety and oth­er­ness of abori­ginal astro­nomy is that this is also a con­tinu­ing tra­di­tion. I’m acutely aware I may have mixed up tenses in the descrip­tion because some of these ways of life have gone, while oth­ers are still alive. This life isn’t simply a rut that people return to, but a tra­di­tion that can adapt can appro­pri­ate new ideas, like Aboriginal beliefs about UFOs, or sci­entific dis­cov­er­ies. Clarke men­tions the met­eor­ite strike that cre­ated the Wolfe Creek Crater has been woven into tales of the Dreamtime.

Astronomically inspired indigenous art at the Ilgarijiri exhibition on display in Geraldton. Photo (cc) AstroMeg.
Astronomically inspired indi­gen­ous art at the Ilgarijiri exhib­i­tion on dis­play in Geraldton. Photo (cc) AstroMeg.

Good writ­ing can trans­port you to strange new places. Sometimes its an evoc­at­ive geo­graph­ical descrip­tion, but it can also show you the uni­verse in a new light. Astronomy can show the majesty of the cos­mos and the sheer scale of cre­ation. At the oppos­ite end of the scale you can go on safari with micro­scopic bac­teria far too small to be seen by the human eye. In the case of work like Clarke’s, it can be a guide to show how spe­cial the appar­ently mundane is. The night sky we see is more or less the same as seen by the abori­ginal peoples of Australia, allow­ing for some effects of lat­it­ude of the observer.

What I like about this paper is that at each step Clarke is link­ing back to the cul­ture that the astro­nomy is in. The fact that abori­ginal astro­nomers are inter­ested in the col­ours of stars is, by itself, a foible. Because Clarke makes that point that col­our is con­nec­ted to all sorts of ter­restrial sym­bol­ism and mean­ing then the con­nec­tions between sky and soci­ety become much more mean­ing­ful. Likewise the lack of con­stel­la­tions might be taken as a sign that Aboriginal peoples aren’t that inter­ested in many stars. Knowing about the kin­ship sys­tem shows how mis­taken that is, and that state­ments about the Skyworld are also strong polit­ical state­ments about life in the world below.

The many pages of ref­er­ences at the end of the art­icle are the icing on the cake, because this paper is very much an over­view. Any single sec­tion of the paper is a gate­way to many many more art­icles research­ing abori­ginal astro­nomy and cul­ture. You never want to take one author’s work as the last word on a sub­ject, but if you’re inter­ested in Australian indi­gen­ous astro­nomy you could do a lot worse than take Clarke’s art­icle as the start­ing point.

ResearchBlogging.orgClarke, P.A. (2007). An Overview of Australian Aboriginal Ethnoastronomy Archaeoastronomy: The Journal of Astronomy in Culture, XXI, 39–58 (Mendeley link)

8000 years of genetic engineering in your fruitbowl

Kadali. Photo (cc) Dinesh Valke
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More blog­ging about research, without a Research Blogging logo, because this is way out­side my area of expert­ise — but it looks inter­est­ing. I spot­ted it going through the accep­ted papers list at Annals of Botany and ser­i­ously con­sidered put­ting this for­ward for a press release. I decided not to — I don’t fully under­stand it — and blog it instead. So I’ve been wait­ing for this to come out and slightly miffed that I missed it due to a cold. It’s not in the prin­ted journal yet, but you can see it now, and look at what I get wrong because it’s an open access paper.

The reason I’m going to make a fool of myself and blog it any­way is that this is research that is import­ant to the ori­gins of agri­cul­ture, one of the BIG archae­olo­gical prob­lems. And it’s about bana­nas, and everyone’s famil­iar with bananas.

Bananas are actu­ally strange. Aside from the fact that banana plants ‘walk’ (not really, see this excel­lent blog post), they’re also all clones. I also have to admit that if I saw a banana in the trop­ics I prob­ably wouldn’t recog­nise it. The big yel­low curvy fruit I think of as a banana is just one of many vari­et­ies. As a starchy plantain Musa (some of which are bana­nas) are a staple diet in Asia. They have been for thou­sands of years and they’re sterile so there’s a bit of a mys­tery. How can they still be here?

Kadali. Photo (cc) Dinesh Valke
Kadali, a type of Musa plantain, like banana. Photo (cc) Dinesh Valke.

The bana­nas we have today are the products of thou­sands of years of care­ful selec­tion for spe­cific traits by farm­ers. The ancient people doing this had no concept of ‘genes’, but if we were to do the same sort of thing today we’d be genet­ic­ally engin­eer­ing the plant. The reason ancient people did this is because edib­il­ity and seeds are prob­ably not com­pat­ible in bana­nas. Get a muta­tion without seeds and you have an edible berry. You don’t have seeds though so you have to start propagat­ing it more inventively.

Lack of banana sex means that the genetic diversity of these plants is very lim­ited. If you have a pest that can kill one plant, you’ve got a pest that can wipe your entire crop and you neigh­bours’ crops. So it would be amaz­ingly help­ful to be able to trace back the genetic his­tory of bana­nas to see where they came from and how they were domest­ic­ated into their cur­rent form. That’s what the authors of ‘Did back­cross­ing con­trib­ute to the ori­gin of hybrid edible bana­nas?’ pro­pose to do.

What they’ve found is that it looks like edible bana­nas are hybrids. That might not be such a sur­prise. What they’ve also found though is evid­ence of care­ful thought in hybrid­isa­tion to favour some traits over oth­ers, using a tech­nique called back­cross­ing. I had to have this explained to me.

You have two banana plants A and B. If you cross them you can get a hybrid banana AB.

Basic diagram of banana genetics

Banana Genetics

Backcrossing is when you take this hybrid and cross it back with an earlier gen­er­a­tion. So if you take your AB banana and back­cross it with an A banana you get banana with much more A genes in it than B genes. You can take this new hybrid and back­cross it again with A or B to pro­duce the next gen­er­a­tion and so on. The authors have a math­em­at­ical model for this and I won’t pre­tend I under­stand it. It’s a shame, because that’s most of the paper.

With my archae­olo­gical hat on, it’s a use­ful paper. If you’re inter­ested in how the trans­ition to agri­cul­ture occurred in south Asia then clearly under­stand­ing banana domest­ic­a­tion is import­ant. The ancient bana­nas them­selves have long rot­ted away, to being able to pull apart the genes of a banana to see how it was domest­ic­ated is a massive help. If this paper is right, and the authors pro­pose a few exper­i­ments to test the idea, then the banana is the res­ult of some very clever and select­ive breeding.

The reason I’m par­tic­u­larly excited is that Annals of Botany also had a paper on domest­ic­a­tion of Pitaya di Mayo recently by eth­no­bot­an­ists. This was a study of domest­ic­a­tion as it hap­pens. The kind of local selec­tions for spe­cific traits that Mexican farm­ers are using for pitaya look like they’d pro­duce the kind of com­plex genetic his­tory being found in bananas.

I live in a tem­per­ate zone, so the limit of my banana exper­i­ence till now has been that it’s a deli­cious, yel­low and some­times humour­ous fruit. Papers like this show that the banana going soft in your fruit bowl is an eight thou­sand year old con­nec­tion to some very clever farmers.