Monday, September 5, 2011

Twinning in South Brazil

Brushing off the cobwebs from this blog tonight with an article on a fairly morbid topic: the potential legacy of Dr. Joesph Mengele on the populations of South America.  For years there has been rampant speculation regarding the seemingly high numbers of twins within the municipality of Cândido Godói in South Brazil.  Seeing as twinning was an obsession for Mengele, the question reigned as to whether or not the high instance of twins is the result of some unknown experimentation upon the population.  However, as this article by Tagliani-Ribeiro et al. demonstrates that no spike in twinning occurred in association with Mengele's presence in the area.   In addition, isonymy studies demonstrate that the twining often occurred among women with a significantly higher inbreeding coefficient,pointing to a founder effect as the cause for the higher incidents of twinning in Cândido Godói.

Tagliani-Ribeiro A, Oliveira M, Sassi AK, Rodrigues MR, Zagonel-Oliveira M, et al. (2011) Twin Town in South Brazil: A Nazi's Experiment or a Genetic Founder Effect? PLoS ONE 6(6): e20328.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Reminder - The Battle of Newtown

Just a quick reminder - the Battle of Newtown reenactment will take place August 27 and 28.  My family went two years ago and had a great time.  Even if the sound of cannon and musket fire is not your bag, there is Sutler Row with a wide variety of merchants and craftspeople (my then nine-month old son was fascinated with the blacksmith). 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Online degrees (and the perils thereof)

One of the reasons I have been horribly slacking on the blog is that I'm currently constructing a number of online courses for future semesters.  I've taught them for two semesters, and found them rather enjoyable for myself and my students.  So when I'm confronted with stories of the how bad these courses can be, particularly as taught by for-profit colleges, I feel an instinctive need to reexamine my own course construction to make sure everything is up to the rigor of my institution.  For the record, I teach out of an established, public university, and rather resent the perceived monopoly that for-profit "colleges" have on the medium.  For some quick background, here is an amusing yet informative bit from Cracked Magazine (I've always thought of them as a sad MAD Magazine wannabe, but funny is funny).  I came across the bit via Amy Hale, who relates some of her experiences teaching for a for-profit institution (hint: not pretty).

All this came back into my mind lately when I chanced across a story from the Albany Times Union, in which a police recruit was fired a day after he was hired due to questions about his online degree in criminal justice.  Apparently, the degree was from Ashwood University, a rather obvious diploma mill that awards degrees based on "life experience."  I suppose I could take the easy and obvious route, wag my finger at the phony degree holder and intone Caveat emptor, but I have to wonder just how informed high school guidance councilors are about online colleges.  Did anyone warn the student about these scams when he was a junior in high school?  Or has the proliferation of for-profit institutions become so widespread that quality control only goes into effect after the checks have been cashed and a hapless graduate finds himself the subject of media ridicule due to his useless degree?

And yes, I have heard rumors of online, for-profit institutions that don't offer shoddy courses ending in useless degrees.  By all means, show them to me.  I'm always up for new experiences.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Surnames and Vikings

Just finished reading Leif the Lucky to my 2 year old, who sat with very un-bedtime like, rapt attention through the whole thing.  This reminded me of a recent article in Molecular Biology and Evolution regarding the covariance of Scandinavian-derived surnames and Y-chromosomal signatures in northwestern England.  Lest I begin to sound like a broken record, here we have yet another example of how classic marker studies are being validated by modern molecular methods.

Bowden, G et al., 2010, Excavating Past Population Structures by Surname-Based Sampling: The Genetic Legacy of the Vikings in Northwest England.  Molecular Biology and Evolution 25 (2): pp. 301-309.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

New blog bundle on Google Reader

I was recently made aware via Neuroanthropology of a great new blog bundle on Google Reader.  The Bioanthropology bundle brings together posts from a number of prominent bioblogs for your easy perusal.  The result is impressive, although it did have the effect of depressing me by pointing out this story about the Miss America pageant.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Gould, Morton and Anthropology

This story has already been around the blogosphere (particularly the bioanthropology blogs) but it does bear some further comment.  In a nutshell, the late Stephen Jay Gould had frequently commented on the work of 19th century researcher Samuel Morton as an example of how personal bias can skew scientific data.  Morton was famous for measuring the skulls of individuals from various world populations ("races"), which Gould claimed was intended to justify a racial hierarchy based on skull size.  Gould claimed, via re-examination of Morton's data, that Morton had fudged the numbers in order to justify Caucasian superiority.  Gould made this claim both in a 1978 article in Science and in his famous 1981 work The Mismeasure of Man.  What is often lost in Gould's narrative is that his conclusions are based on Morton data tables, NOT any reexamination of the original skulls.  Now, a team of anthropologists led by Jason Lewis has reexamined the skulls using Samuel Morton's methods, and the results don't bode well for Gould's legacy on this point.  It appears that Morton accurately measured the skulls in his collection, while it was Gould who fudged the numbers in order to paint Morton as a biased researcher.

The importance of these results cannot be overemphasized, since Gould's conception of Morton's work as an example of racial bias have become part of the popular narrative of the impossibility of "value-free science," especially when it comes to anthropometric and craniometric analysis.  I remember, as a newly minted graduate student, being essentially handed The Mismeasure of Man as required reading when the topic of race came up.  Of course, there are some very legitimate criticisms to be made of Mortons work from the standpoint of population biology and life history.  For example, many of the African skulls apparently came from slave populations, which would have been subject to greater disease load and nutritional insults.  But this only underlines the fact that Gould's fudging of data was both unnecessary and damaging to the overall cause of combating academic and pseudo-scientific racism.  I still remember a talk by intelligence researcher James Flynn at Binghamton University, where he referred to Gould's "awful" book.  Flynn, of course, is the discoverer of the "Flynn Effect" (the overall continuous rise in IQ scores worldwide), and is one of the most trenchant critics of the idea of race-based heirarchies. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


I was just made aware of this program through the Facebook page for the Community Archaeology ProgramCyArk is a program dedicated to digitally preserving cultural heritage sites using a battery of state of the art mapping and scanning techniques.  The methods described herein are becoming more and more essential to archaeology AND biological anthropology, and should likely be required training in many four-field programs. 

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Battle of Newtown - This Summer

A combination of bad internet connections, overwork, and old-fashioned hot weather laziness has stifled the blog a bit, but not for long.  One item that I'd been waiting for confirmation of was the reopening of the Newtown Battlefield this summer.  Unfortunately, the Memorial Day Civil War event did not take place this year, but the annual re-enactment of the Revolutionary War event will happen in August.  Although I have always been a bit ambivalent about "living history" events, they are one of the primary venues for the general public to engage with history and the social sciences.  The Battle of Newtown is of particular interest to me, as it was a seminal event in the population history of the Euroamerican settlement of Chemung County, NY. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Records don't tell the whole story

One topic that pulled me into archaeology was my fascination with the Norse exploration of North America.  Early on as an undergrad I had grand designs centered on working in this field, only to have numerous professors and teaching assistants assure me that there was zero interest and no future in this area.  Granted, Norse sites in North America are anything but plentiful, and it would have been quite a niche field to get into.  But I do wonder sometimes...

What brought about this bit of reminiscence was a recent piece in Science Daily regarding the climate history of Greenland and the effect it had on the various cultures settled there.  Recent ice core samplings appear to give credence to the "Little Ice Age" theory regarding the demise of the Norse Greenland settlements, although the proximal factors likely included conflict with the Inuit populations (as well as an unwillingness to adopt "Skraeling" survival strategies), raids from European pirates, and the erosion of the soil from over-farming.  What is interesting is that the Norse Greenland settlements represented a literate society which provided some record (albeit sporadic) of social and environmental factors relevant to its eventual demise.  For example, the Landnamabok (Book of Settlements) describes famine winters in which "the old and the helpless were thrown over cliffs."

Friday, May 27, 2011

Wealth and poverty in historical samples

Since the lightning outside seems loath to end (great for atmosphere, lousy for electronics), I will be brief and to the point with this post.  Simple premise; how do we measure relative wealth and poverty in historical populations?  Two applications that I have used both at work and in my own research come to mind.  The first is this engine for converting historical currencies into present-day value (apparently, the $20 on my desk was worth $414.63 in 1700).  Second, the University of Virginia Library has an online Historical Census Browser that includes census data down to the county level since 1790 (although it does not enable finer, census tract analysis).  I have used this particular application for assessing the relative wealth of farmsteads at the county level using the agricultural schedule function.  It is also quite useful for assessing the ethnic composition of historical populations.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Peer-review in the blogosphere

A few years ago I caught one of my favorite authors, Harlan Ellison, expounding on the virtues (or lack thereof) of the world wide web as it related to the quality of information and opinion.  This was prior to the release of the new Star Trek movie, which someone initially claimed on-line contained elements from Ellisons script of City on the Edge of Forever.  Of course, this wasn't true, and when interviewed on the picket line of the writers strike, Harlans first remark was that this is one of the reasons the Internet deserves to be bombed out of existence immediately; the fact the the Internet now gives an easy worldwide forum to any ill-informed voice where years ago they would have been limited to mimeographed handbills.

I was thinking about all of this during the latest firestorm over something ejected from the keyboard of Satoshi Kanazawa.  For those of you not in the know, Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist with the London School of Economics who has a blog at Psychology Today called the Scientific Fundamentalist.  Recently he published a post of his alleged research titled "Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?    In a nutshell, Kanazawa uses data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (which included subjective measures on the part of interviewers on the physical attractiveness of the interviewees) in order to claim that African-American women are objectively less attractive than other women (based on the subjective responses of the interviewers) due to the fact that African-American women have higher testosterone levels than other women.  Don't bother looking for the original post, since apparently Psychology Today scrubbed it right quick (although you can probably find an archived copy somewhere online).

What drew me to this subject was the fact that I do have an interest is at least the idea of evolutionary psychology (lower case), in the sense that it is important to acknowledge that our behaviors are the product of an evolutionary process and should be understood and studies as such.  This view can still make large segments of the anthropological community very uncomfortable to the point of hostility.  Thus, it pains me when something like the above "research" comes out under the banner of evolutionary psychology, since it has the oroboros-like effect of engendering the kind of justifiable anti-EP backlash and then feeding on that backlash in the pose of the heroic researcher standing up to the forces of political correctness (whatever that means these days).  Fortunately, much of the initial criticism of Kanazawa appears to be coming from evolutionary biologists and psychologists, particularly bloggers such as PZ Myers over at Pharyngula.  Daniel Hawes, who also blogs at Psychology Today, published a decent criticism of the Kanazawa piece.  And Scott Barry Kaufman conducted an independent analysis of the original data, and found no statistically significant relationship between ethnicity and attractiveness. 

Beyond anything, the fairly minor controversy (in the grand scheme of academic pseudo-science) did have at least one positive effect; it demonstrated that there is a viable peer-review process operating on the science bloggosphere.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Everyone loves maps

Apparently my last posting was a bit depressing for certain demographics (of which I suppose I can claim membership).  As such, I've decided on something a bit more calming and fun for this round, namely maps.  Graphic presentation of demographic and biological data, particularly derived from GIS systems, is quickly becoming required practice in biological anthropology.  In later posts I hope to share some exciting research in this area that was presented at the last AAPA meeting.  Until then, here are a few quickly acessable maps for you perusal available via the internets:

American English Dialects - Here you'll find a wealth of linguistic and demographic information regarding the various permutations of the English language within the United States and Canada.  You can even contribute to the project by providing a recording of your own voice to the database of dialect samples.  

Ancestry Distribution in the US - 2000 Census - To date, I have not found any comparable maps for historical census data, either at the national level or more local levels.  Local maps in particular would be quite valuable in representing the historic depth of various population histories in the United States.

Pop vs. Soda - This one has been of interest ever since my undergraduate days at SUNY Oswego back in PI (pre-internet) 1991-1995.  Apparently, Oswego sits at the pop-soda frontier, which rings true with my own memory of the frequency of usage for either (and "coke" was never used as a generic term for soft drinks).  I'm not sure if there is a map of the "pizza" vs. "pie" distribution, but my prediction is that it would follow a similar distribution.

Friday, May 13, 2011

"Going to grad school's a suicide mission."

I am a fairly long standing fan of the NPR show Car Talk, and make every effort to catch it on the weekends.  However, there are times when the jokes Tom and Ray constantly sling about PhD hotdog venders in Harvard Square ring a bit too true for anyone whose gone through the long, slow process of obtaining an advanced degree.  Since this blog came about in no small part as an attempt to link my graduate education with my career choice, a post on graduate education is certainly not too far afield.  Via Neuroanthropology, I came across this article on the problems of academia by literary critic and former Yale professor of English William Deresiewicz.  Although I cannot complain overmuch on my own current situation (after all, I have a fairly substantial position within my chosen field, even if it is not exactly what I had in mind on beginning grad school), I have seen plenty of burnout and stress among a substantial body of young scholars with no clear path to their original career goals. 

In any case, the take away message, both from the article and my own experience, is this; DON'T enter any graduate program without a clear idea of what you want to study, how you intend to complete your thesis and/or dissertation topic, an a brutally honest assessment of what your post-grad school living situation will be like. 

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Race and health in historical perspective

The article I am profiling today by Carlina de la Cova is of a study of 19th century health disparities between Euro-Americans and African Americans.  I chose this article since it is an excellent example of how historical data can act to compliment other methodologies in biological anthropology (in this case, skeletal biology and paleopathology).  In fact, the entire study should fall within the purview of archival research, since the skeletal data were derived from three archived anatomical collections; the Hamann-Todd, the Robert J. Terry, and the William Montague Cobb.

From the abstract:  This study analyzed skeletal health disparities among African American and Euro-American males of low socioeconomic status born between 1825 and 1877. A total of 651 skeletons from the Cobb, Hamann-Todd, and Terry anatomical collections were macroscopically examined for skeletal pathologies related to dietary deficiencies and disease. Individuals were separated into age, ancestry, birth (Antebellum, Civil War, Pre-Reconstruction, and Reconstruction), combined ancestry/birth, enslaved versus liberated, and collection cohorts.

de la Cova, Carlina (2010), Race, health, and disease in 19th-century-born males.  American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 144(4):526-537.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Demography of the Aleutian Islands

The Oct-Dec 2010 issue of Human Biology is dedicated to various biological, archaeological and biohistorical studies of the indigenous populations of the Aleutian Islands.  Of particular interest to this blog is the article by Katherine Reedy-Maschner regarding the demographic shifts that impacted the male Aleut population throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  Using both historical data and ethnographic fieldwork, Reedy-Maschner recounts how various political and economic forces acted to effectively replace the male population via cultural assimilation and displacement.  Today, many Aleuts bear Russian, Scandinavian and other European ancestry within their lineages.  This article also contains a cautionary tale for demographers using surnames as genetic analogs.  Aleut men baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church often took the names of their Russian sponsors, which obviously complicates the direct analogy between surnames and Y-chromosome pattern. 

Reedy-Maschner, Katherine, 2010.  Where did all the Aleut men go? Aleut male attrition and related patterns in Aleutian historical demography and social organization.  Human Biology, 82(5-6): 583.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Flooding, now and then

After several days of significant rain, it now appears that conditions are right for a repeat of the flood of 2006.  There is a large storm cell bearing down on us, tracking to the northeast and stretching all the way to Alabama.  It will be interesting (in the sense of the Chinese curse) whether we will see history repeat itself, and whether the local municipalities will be better prepared. 

Naturally, this gave me the idea of looking into the history of natural disasters and the applicability of demographic and vital records to understanding the effects.  One genealogical site with a specific focus on disasters is on Cyndi's List under Disasters: Natural and Man Made.  In some cases the information for historical disasters includes specific information regarding disaster-related deaths, such as with the failure of the Austin Dam.  In situations where definitive mortality lists are not available, methods such as those described by Sattenspiel and Stoops combined with sites such as (thanks, Erin) can be employed to establish what demographic impact occurs from historical natural disasters. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Selection in surnames - Italy, 1926-1943

I have been searching the literature for information on potential selection in surname dynamics.  To date I have not found specific research integrating selection into isonymy research.  However, there is plenty on cultural selection for surnames in various contexts.  As an example I've chosen this article from the Journal of Modern Italian Studies regarding the attempts of the Italian Fascist government to forcibly acculturate the populace to a nationalistic ideal.  In such a case of forcible surname change, what we should see in a study of random isonymy from 1926-1942 is a surname "bottleneck" comparable to a genetic one.

From the abstract - This article places the surname Italianization campaign in Italy's Adriatic   borderlands from 1927 to 1943 in the broader context of fascist schemes to promote Italian nationalism and construct the Italian national community. A facet of legislative ethnic engineering, surname alteration policy was common to most successor states in the interwar period. In eastern Italy, while ethnic Slovenes and Croats bore the brunt of forcible acculturation, the measures intended to support nationalist, irredentist and imperial aspirations not to persecute Slavs. The fascist authorities' approach to minorities was more nuanced than scholars have recognized in their attentions to competition between west and east, 'European' and 'Balkan', Italian and Slav.

Hametz, Maura, 2010,  Naming Italians in the borderland, 1926-1943.  The Journal of Modern Italian Studies, Vol. 3 (15), pp. 410-430.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Poster on Kin-Structured Migration

Here is my poster presentation from the annual meeting of the AAPA last week in Minneapolis.  I am still working on attaching PDF files to the blog, but since I have had several requests for it I've done the poster as a jpeg. 

Special thanks goes out to Edgar at the FedEx store in downtown Minneapolis, possibly one of THE most helpful and knowledgeable clerks from a print store I have ever met. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Isonymy in small populations

Just another follow up on the responses to my isonymy poster presentation:  one comment that came up a few times was from both students and professors was that they would love to use isonymy in their own work, but since they were working with a single population it was impractical.  In those cases, I recommend two articles by Lasker and Mascie-Taylor dealing that use isonymy at very small scales, including between and within households. 

Lasker, GW and Mascie-Taylor CGN,  2001, The genetic structure of English villages:  surname diversity changes between 1976 and 1997.  Annals of Human Biology, 28 (5): 546-553.

Lasker, GW, 1997, Census versus sample data in isonymy studies:  relationship at short distances.  Human Biology, 69 (5): 733-738.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The need for a new journal?

While it is sometimes difficult to gauge the impact of a poster presentation, I was very pleased with the responses to my presentation on kin-structured migration in 19th century Chemung County, NY (soon to be posted here) at the annual meetings for the AAPA.  What struck me, though, was how novel the idea of isonymy studies seemed to many of the members I spoke to, and not just younger graduate students.  Surname studies have been a part of biological anthropology for at least four decades, and yet one of the most frequent responses I got was something akin to "wow, I didn't know you could do that." 

This got me thinking of the need for more exposure and impact for biohistorical research programs.  One fairly obvious way to do this would be with a new journal dedicated to the topic.  Although biohistory more or less represents a methodological approach, there is no shortage of methodological and area-based journals within anthropology alone.  The growth of genealogical and historical population data online should presage an comparative growth for anthropological studies requiring such data.  Not just isonymy, but historical demographics, epidemiology and hybrid studies combining historical data with modern molecular methods.  Such studies do get occasionally appear in journals such as AJPA and Human Biology, but they are no doubt competing with the numerous other papers from areas some consider more "current."  A "Journal of Biohistorical Research" would provide an outlet for any number of viable articles that would otherwise go unpublished.  I do know there is no shortage of experienced practitioners of biohistorical research spread throughout academia, so finding a base of knowledge for peer-review would not be a problem. 

More on this in the posts to come.  At the moment I need to help my 2 year old get to sleep with some stories...

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Westward bound

The family and I are on our way to the AAPA meetings in Minneapolis, MN.  Except for a few minor snags, we made the first leg of our journey from Binghamton, NY to Fremont, OH (on one tank of gas; thank you, Ford Focus).  Curious about the general utility of the internet for historical demography and isonymy research, I decided to do a quick Google search using "Fremont, OH" and "history."  I also did a search for Sandusky County, Ohio on Rootsweb.  Almost immediately, I came up with Sandusky County Geneaology and History, a USGenWeb page run by Maggie Stewart and Bonnie Walsh.  Census records were available for 1820, 1830 and 1850.  In addition, the page linked to a series of similar USGenWeb pages for the entire state of Ohio, which included similar census data.  These sites are largely volunteer efforts made by dedicated online genealogists, which expand and develop over time into large repositories of historical data.  Although I cannot readily assess the content of such pages for the entire country, there appears to be a significant groundswell of genealogical websites housing historical data of potential interest to biological anthropologists.  Ideally, bioanthropologists interested in isonymy and historical demography should first investigate what's online in their own back yard.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Annual Meeting of the AAPA

I've been neglecting the blog of late, mainly due to the lions share of my time going into preparation for the American Association of Physical Anthropologists annual meeting in Minneapolis, April 13-16.  I will be presenting a poster on some recent research I have done regarding kinship in 19th century Chemung County, NY.  This year will include a session on April 16th for high school teachers called "Fossils, Bones, and Primates: Enriching High School Teaching."  The meetings also piggyback with the Human Biology Association, the Paleoanthropology Society, and the Paleopathology Association, all of which are highly recommended. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Historical Demography Data

I am pleased to see that, for those interested in historical demography, there appears to be no small number of organizations and websites with various levels of population statistics throughout the world.  For those interested in general trends the world over, there is the Populations Statistics website of Jan Lahmeyer.  This site breaks down the population levels of various nations throughout the world by administrative division and municipalities, along with some general data about individuals countries and, in the case of the US, individual states.  I'll be reviewing and linking to a number of other historical demography sites in the days to come.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Irish Isonymy Project

For an example of how to conduct a multidimensional project in isonymy, have a look at the Irish Isonymy Project of Don MacRaild and Malcolm Smith.  The main focus of the project is the use of random isonymy to track 19th century Irish migration into Britain.  One particularly interesting sub project is their exploration of the use of first names as a research tool.  Naturally, first names don't track genetic trends, but they can be used to measure cultural trends (such as the spread of non-Irish first names among the population of Ireland).

It is this last aspect of the Irish Isonymy Project which leads into a particular line of questions I've had for isonymy research in general.  Ever since its inception, surnames have been vetted as a neutral marker for population studies.  But are there situations in which selective pressure should be taken into account?  I will be exploring this topic in posts to come.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Community Archaeology Program

One of the intereting things about working at PAF is the relative prominance an archaeological organization can have within the community.  Much of this stems from our various community outreach programs.  One of our strongest by far is the Community Archaeology Program, which allows children and adults to participate in laboratory and field excavations during the summer season.  The website has a wealth of information for anyone interested, and a facebook page has just been added.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

What is an archive?

The essence of biohistorical research is the archive.  Despite the fact that the word archive tends to conjure up images of dusty, basement shelves filled with books and ledgers, the term can mean a great number of things for our research purposes.  Below, I have written a by no means exhaustive list of potential sources of archival data;
Government documents (censuses, marriage records, vital statistics, military anthropometric records)
Privately published documents (19th century directories, phonebooks)
Personal records (family genealogies)
Unpublished data from previous anthropological fieldwork (including photographs, ethnographic data)
Compendiums of comparative ethnographic data (HRAF)
Online records of gene frequency data (ALFRED and HapMap)
Blood serum samples
Tissue samples
Archived cell lines

Friday, March 11, 2011

Flood and Earthquake

Taking a break from the usual posts today.  It is always a bit disconcerting when your hometown makes the national headlines due to a disaster, or even the potential for one.  This was the case in 2006, when the Susquehanna River crept to within about 6 blocks of my house.  Fortunately, for now the danger for flooding appears to receding.  Unfortunately, this has all been dwarfed by the horror of what is happening in Japan.  The 8.9 earthquake, the worst in recorded history for the nation, combined with 6.0 aftershocks.  CNN and the BBC have been running real-time coverage all day. 

For my part, I recommend supporting two organizations that have a proven track record in these situations, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Doctors without Borders.  Just spend five minutes looking at some of the devestation online and you will see what will be required in the comming weeks and months.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

1000 year old canoe excavated in Florida

The Saint-Petersburg Times has a video of the excavation of a 1000 year old canoe on Weedon Island, Florida.  The fact that the canoe survived to the extent that it did in the salt-water environment of the island is quite remarkable.  The clip gives a respectable amount of screen time to the archaeologists, as well as the cultural context of the find.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Binghamton Neighborhood Project

Today I wanted to quickly highlight a major project undertaken by my former advison, David Sloan Wilson.  The Binghamton Neighborhood Project is a multidisciplinary academic and community effort to understand the culture and ecology of urban living in the city of Binghamton, New York.  The goal is not just to study but to improve the quality of life within the city.  In many ways, my own research into the historical demography of the Southern Tier grew out of a desire to add a historical dimension to the project. 

Saturday, March 5, 2011

More on diseases and surnames

As a follow-up on the previous post, here is another journal article using surnames as potential indicators of disease inheritance (in this case, chronic hypothyroidism).  What is interesting about this study is that Rocci employs two fairly novel methods for isonymy research.  One is the rarefaction method developed by Howard Sanders to measure species richness, and the other is a statistical randomization method. 


Rocchi, M.B. 2006. Surnames as markers of pathologies-two statistical techniques and their applications.  Coll. Antropol. 30: 383-385.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Surnames and cancer

After my first few postings introducing surname genetics (isonymy), I wanted to bring up a very important practical application of this research; the application of surname studies to cancer research.  In a 1992 study on the potential genetic influence on certain cancers, Holloway and Sofear compared the rates of various cancers identified in Scottish males with the coefficent of relatedness (Random Isonymy / 2) derived from surname data.  They were able to conclude that a strong genetic component underscores colon and prostate cancer, with a lesser genetic influence on stomach and rectal cancers.  This study underscores just how useful surnames can be as simple, readily available markers of kinship.


Holloway, S.M. and Sofaer, J.A. 1992. Coefficents of relationship by isonymy among registrations for five common cancers is Scottish Males.  Journal of Epidemiology and Comunity Health 46: 368-372.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sources for Surname Data

Continuing from the previous post on surname studies, today I'll talk a bit about where to find surname data.  Historically, there have been three main sources of data:  marriage records, census data and directories (later phonebooks).  Marriage records are used for measuring non-random isonymy, which I will discus in a later post.

Census data is useful since state and federal censuses often contain additional demographic data, such as vital statistics (births, deaths, marriages), as well as state or country of origin, which can aid in immigration studies.  When using census data it is generally accepted practice to utilize a single generational component, usually the heads of households only.  

Another source of data are town directories.  Throughout the 19th century, directories of town residents were often produced, though somewhat irregularly.  These directories essentially functioned like phonebooks without the phone number, giving the name of the head of household and address.  Directories have the advantage of being typed records, rather than handwritten census records.  With the advent of the telephone, naturally the phonebook took the place of directories.  Phonebooks have been used extensively in isonymy studies, particularly when the information is available via CD-ROM.

Beyond the three major sources listed above, data sources are only limited to the creativity of the researcher.  Indeed, any specific record of individuals may represent a biological sample of some population.  For example, Gabriel Lasker utilized militia roles from the Revolutionary War as random samples of males from bounded populations.  Another possible source of data are cemeteries.  Many cemeteries include grave markers listing married couples, which would constitute a source of marital isonymy data.

One of the most significant developments for surname research is the fact that many of these data sources are now becoming available online.  Historical societies and genealogical websites are beginning to transcribe census and historical directory data on to the internet.  Of course, you are taking a risk of sorts when utilizing transcribed data alone since you are relying on the accuracy of the transcriber.  This may be especially problematic when the information was originally hand-written.  Then again, much of this work is being done by dedicated volunteers, who can be quite adept at both translating hand-writing and identifying alternate spellings of words.  When in doubt, check out the hard copies yourself at the county offices or local historical society.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A short introduction to Isonymy (surname genetics)

Think you need a lab to do population genetics research?  Chances are, you already have everything you need for basic population structure analysis right at home. All you really need is a phonebook, a set of equation and either a pencil, paper and a calculator or, preferably, a computer with a good spreadsheet program.  What follows here is a very short introduction to using surnames as genetic markers in population and kinship studies.

In our culture, along with other European derived societies, surnames are inherited from the father.  As such, they behave as a system analogous to Y-chromosome inheritance, which has been shown to reflect actual genetic within and between populations.  Surnames have been used for decades by biological anthropologists as measures of genetic relationships.  Medical geneticists have also used surnames to study genetic linkages with various diseases, such as certain cancers. 

There are two basic types of isonymy (literally "same name") studies; random and non-random.  Non-random studies are generally geared toward analyses of inbreeding levels in a population, and are usually centered on levels of surname repetition among married couples.  This was the technique employed by George Darwin (son of Charles Darwin) in his landmark study of inbreeding in first-cousin marriages in England.   

Random isonymy,  by contrast, involves calculating the kinship coefficient for a population based on the repetition of surnames throughout that population.  Calculating the random isonymy of either a single population or between two populations is the first step in any kinship study.  Unfortunately, there are many different methods of computing this figure, since many different researchers have worked out their own methods of calculating random isonymy.  One common method for calculating isonymy within a single population is:

Iii = nik (nik – 1)
Ni ( Ni-1)

            Iii equals random isonymy.  nik equals the number of occurrences of a particular surname within a population (say, for example, Anderson).  This is multiplied with the same number of the occurrences of Anderson minus 1.  So let’s say that Anderson occurs 6 times in a population.  You would multiply 6 * 5, getting 30.  The next step is to repeat this for every surname in the population.  Surnames that only occur once drop out of the equation (since 1 * 0 is always 0).  Then take the results of all these calculations and add them up, which is indicated by the sigma () symbol.  Moving to the bottom of the equation, Ni equals the total number of surnames in the population.  This is multiplied by the total number of surnames minus 1.  Then divide the numerator by the denominator and you have the random isonymy for that population.

From the random isonymy score, you can calculate other metrics of kinship within a population.  The simplest of these are Laskers coefficient of relationship (which corresponds to Wrights coefficient of relationship) which is obtained by dividing random isonymy by 2 (Lasker, 1977).  Divide random isonymy by 4 and you have the coefficient of inbreeding.  These are the very basic elements of surname genetics, which I hope to explore in greater depth in the course of this blog.

Darwin, G.  1875.  Marriage between first cousins and their effects.  The Journal of the Statistical Society of London, 38: 153-184.

Lasker, GW. 1977.  A coefficient of relationship by isonymy: a method for estimating the genetic relationship between populations.  Human Biology, 49: 489-493.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Archaic medical terms

Just a quick post today, but one hopefully valuable to archival researchers.  Anyone interested in historical epidemiology has to deal with the often widely varied terminology for diseases and medical conditions.  For example, ever had a case of Prairie Dig?  How about a bout of Bronze John?  Not to mention the ever-present scourge of Knifegrinders Rot.  Fortunately, there are some handy search references online designed for just this occasion.  One of the best I've found thus far is Rudy's List of Archaic Medical Terms at  This one is worth just browsing for a look into the state of the art of medicine a century or two ago, such as the notation that "Love is occasionally a cause of disease, especially of insanity (Dunglison, 1855)." 

Here's an instructive quiz question; how many conditions can you find throughout the list somehow related to tuberculosis?

Finally, I'd like to welcome my very first blog follower.  Go to her weblog for a look at her agricultural prowess.


Rudy's List of Archaic Medical Terms.  Accessed February, 2011.

Dunglison, R, 1855.  Dunglinsons Medical Dictionary: A Dictionary of Medical Science.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Cemeteries in Historical Demography

In their excellent article in the May 2010 issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Lisa Sattenspiel and Melissa Stoops outline a demographic study utilizing data gathered from cemetery headstones in the city of Columbia, Missouri.  They summarize quite well the potential utility cemetery data have for studies in historical demography, namely that mortality rates gleaned from headstones can fill in the gaps in the historical record.  As the authors note, death registrations were not required for rural areas as late as 1910, leaving some rather sizable gaps in the vital statistics of these areas.  Cemetery data thus provide a supplement to the historical record of mortality statistics, and can be used to tease out significant events in local urban ecology (such as disease outbreaks, seasonality of epidemics, or improvements in sanitation).

This article also points to a sizable gap in historical demographic studies in that the majority of such work is centered on urban populations.  Clearly there is a need to expand the scope of such research into rural communities.  The challenge for cemetery studies within such a rural context is that internments are often far less centralized as in larger population centers.  For example, in many early Euroamerican rural settlements internments often centered on small, family plots now isolated from the general view shed of the modern community.  This would seem to entail a fair amount of field research for the aspiring rural demographer interested in historical mortality rates, although the need for such work is no less apparent.


Saturday, February 19, 2011

Welcome to Southern Tier Biohistory

Welcome to the inaugural post for Southern Tier Biohistory.  My goal for this blog will be to create a nexus for information and research centering on an important subset of anthropological research, namely the use of archival and historical data sources.  My own background as a biological anthropologist will inevitably reflect the emphasis topics relevant to human biology.  However, as this weblog grows I hope to include posting relevant to all four subfields as they relate to the topic of archival data mining.

The genesis for this project lies within my circuitous route to my Ph.D in anthropology.  Prior to my graduate studies, I had been working as a field technician for contract archaeology firms in Upstate New York.  Initially starting graduate school as an archaeology student, I quickly became enamored of biological anthropology and evolutionary theory, which eventually saw me obtaining my Ph.D at Binghamton University with David Sloan Wilson.  However, throughout my graduate studies up to this very day, I continued working as a professional archaeologist, and am currently a project director for the Public Archaeology Facility of Binghamton University.  This then was my dilemma – I needed to unify the academic pursuit I had been engaged in for a significant part of my adult life with the occupation I had been engaged in for an even longer period of my life.  How would I do that?

The answer came in part when I got a hold of the edited volume Human Biologists in the Archives (edited by Ann Herring and Alan Swedlund).  This led to my interest in historical demography and the use of surnames as genetic markers (isonymy), which became a springboard for my current research focus.  Further book hoarding (a fairly common condition among both current and former graduate students, or so I am told) led me to Laskers Surnames and Genetic Structure.  The historical focus of these and other works in biological anthropology forms the nucleus of what I hope to cover in this weblog, and I am eager to hear from other anthropologists working the same vein (especially other bloggers).

Finally, a word about the blog title.  Southern Tier refers to the Southern Tier of New York State.  This is both my home and the focus of the lions share of my current research.  Thus I thought it appropriate to contextualize the work I am doing and create a more “localized” feel to the blog.  Context is essential in any historical (or biohistorical) work, and so the Southern Tier will occasionally figure prominently in the posts ahead.