Happy new year!

I hope that everyone has a wonderful holiday. If you’d like to read something about science, I have a new-ish post up at Forbes to close the year out: “Five Amazing Things We Learned About History From Ancient DNA In 2018“.

Every year ancient DNA research deepens our understanding of history a bit more, and 2018 was truly a remarkable year for ancient DNA research. By February the total number of genomes characterized from ancient individuals surpassed 1,300. I want to highlight five of what I think are the most interesting discoveries made this year

Thanks, as always, for reading!

–Jennifer and Colin

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Some archaeology reading to kick off this week

My latest for Forbes discusses the new paper by Rascovan and colleagues, “Emergence and Spread of Basal Lineages of Yersinia pestis during the Neolithic Decline.”

Researchers investigated the hypothesis that the so-called “Neolithic Decline”—population decreases throughout Europe—was caused at least in part by pandemics. To do this, they cleverly made use of one feature of paleogenomics that often causes researchers to tear their hair out. When we sequence or genotype ancient DNA extractions, we get back data from all the DNA extracted from the ancient source, including large amounts of microbial DNA. This can be incredibly frustrating if you’re trying to reconstruct a genome of the human whose bone (or tooth, or hair) you’re extracting from; it can be enormously expensive to sequence enough DNA to get a whole human genome. However, in this case, the researchers were able to look at published datasets to see if they could find evidence of pathogens in DNA published from Neolithic individuals buried in a high-density passage grave in the Frälsegården cemetery in Falbygden (western Sweden).

You can read more here.

@ArchaeOhlrau, who works on Trypillia mega-sites (which Rascovan et al. implicated in the origins of plague), did a Twitter thread on this paper critiquing some of their interpretations and providing some much-needed context. For example,

I highly recommend you check out his thread on the subject (h/t @monicaMedHist).

For more Forbes archaeology awesomeness, check out this story by David Anderson about the resilience of Hohokam canal builders in the face of environmental disasters:

Despite the odds, members of the Hohokam culture were able to work together to bring an agricultural lifestyle to a harsh desert environment for one-thousand years. This success required collaborative labor to maintain a system of civil infrastructure in the form of an extensive system of canals. Repeated environmental catastrophes, however, can wear down even the most prepared societies. Something people today should perhaps keep in mind.

And Kristina Killgrove tackled the fascinating question of whether or not a gold artifact was a Roman nipple cover, connecting the difficulties of interpreting the purpose of ancient artifacts without projecting our own ideas upon the past to Tumblr’s new terms of service:

In response to recent terms-of-service changes at Tumblr that ban “adult content,” many users of the microblogging site are firing back, trolling the site’s administrators with non-pornographic images that they worry will be banned by the new policy. This “ancient Roman nipple cover” posted by peashooter85 is one such image, and it has gained tens of thousands of responses in a couple days’ time. There’s one problem, though: archaeologists are unsure about that identification.

You can read the full post here.

If you have any questions, feel free to drop them in the comment section or hit me up on Twitter. (Although if you see me on there too much, feel free to remind me that I should be working on my book or academic papers instead).

 

Edited to add: If you’d rather listen to a podcast than read, a new Archaeological Fantasies episode that I’m on just dropped!

 

Round up of Forbes blogs

I am absolutely terrible at promoting my writing. I’m going to try to remedy that by posting links to my Forbes blogs regularly here.

I didn’t write very much last month (I was extremely busy with academic stuff and drafting the first chapter of my book), but usually I aim for about 5 pieces a month, covering topics in genetics and anthropology.

Here’s my latest, on the origins of milk pastoralism in Northern Mongolia: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferraff/2018/12/07/how-bronze-age-northern-mongolian-peoples-got-milk/#40b24b841588

And here’s a page with links to all my past pieces. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jenniferraff/#350bd02f3eef

Would you rather I post them here as they come out, or do a monthly round-up of links? I don’t want to clog up your inboxes, and I do post them as they come out on my Twitter. Let me know what you prefer in the comments. And as always, thanks for reading!

Exciting news!

For the last year, alongside learning about the joys and challenges of new motherhood and doing my academic work, I’ve also been quietly working on a new project. That new project is finally in a place where I can share it with people: I’m thrilled to announce that last week I signed a book contract with Twelve Books !

My book (which is tentatively titled “Origin”) will be a history of the Americas, from initial peopling to the present day, through the lens of genetics. But I’m also going to use this as an opportunity to continue my blogging mission on a bigger scale: to teach people about the fundamentals of genetics, ancient DNA, and showcase stories from the remarkable work of my colleagues in the field of anthropological genetics.

I’m not just going to be talking about the science either. The news of Elizabeth Warren’s genetic testing results this week has highlighted just how interested the public is in the intersection of questions about ancestry and identity…and just how confused people are about what DNA testing results mean and don’t mean. I want to do my small part to help people understand these issues, particularly when it comes to claims about Native American ancestry, as I did earlier this week in my new piece for Forbes. And oh yes…. I will be talking about race and genetics. I may do it imperfectly, but I’m not going to shy away from that topic when it’s so critical to this present moment.

I’m acutely aware of the fact that I’m a non-Native person writing about extraordinarily sensitive issues, and I am grateful for the help that many of my Native American colleagues have generously offered for this project. I’m also grateful to the many scientists (both Native and non-Native) whose research I will be featuring (if you would like to chat with me about your work, email me or hit me up at the AAPAs!).

So, if all goes well, I should have a finished manuscript in about a year from now, and a published book a little while after that. I’ll let everyone know more when we are closer to having a book (!) for you to read. Thank you all so much for your support and good wishes–they really mean the world to me.

Book review: What does heredity mean these days?

I don’t do very many book reviews, but I jumped at the opportunity when the New York Times recently asked me to review Carl Zimmer’s new book “She has her mother’s laugh: The powers, perversions, and potential of heredity.”* As I was very familiar with Carl’s science writing, I had high expectations as I began reading, and he definitely exceeded them. This is a delightful monster of a book; 500+ pages that roam through subjects as diverse as Tasmanian devils’ facial tumors, CRISPR’d mosquitoes, and the legal system of property inheritance in ancient Rome. The theme connecting all these stories is our conception of heredity: what does it actually mean in an age of gene editing and surrogacy? (the title suggested for my review by my editor).

9781101984598

 

I found this subject personally fascinating, because I was able to connect with it strongly from the perspective of a new mother. Here is an excerpt from my review:

“She Has Her Mother’s Laugh” challenges our conventional wisdom about heredity, especially as we enter the new realms of surrogate pregnancy and gene editing. One of the most astonishing insights is that mothers don’t just pass traits to their children — they receive them as well. I read Zimmer’s book (occasionally out loud) while feeding my baby son. Like Zimmer, I had genetic counseling and my partner and I experienced the same anxieties as he did. But unlike Zimmer, I was able to assuage our fears using a drop of my own blood. That’s because my baby’s DNA, floating freely in my bloodstream, could be tested for hundreds of genetic disorders at an early point in my pregnancy. We took great comfort in the test, without realizing all of its implications. The baby wasn’t just sharing his genetic secrets during the pregnancy. Fetal cells can persist for years after birth; as I sit and write these sentences, I may very well be a chimera: a mixture of some of my son’s cells and my own. This microchimerism may even have eventual effects on my health, although it isn’t fully understood. And he may carry some of my immune cells, too.

I knew a bit about post-pregnancy microchimerism before reading this, but there’s a ton of details that I was unaware of, and now I want to go read the whole literature on the subject. Here’s a quote from the book that just astonished me:

“Fetal cells don’t simply migrate around their mothers’ bodies. They sense the tissue around them and develop into the same type of cells. In 2010, Gerald Udolph, a biologist in Singapore, and his colleagues documented this transformation with a line of engineered mice. they altered the Y chromosomes in the male mice so they glowed with the addition of a chemical. Udolph and his colleagues bred the mice, and then later they dissected the brains of the mothers. They found that the fetal cells from their sons reached into their brains, sprouted branches, and pumped out neurotransmitters. Their sons helped shape their thoughts.”

!!!!!

Even if that’s not been established as occurring in humans as well, that is really incredible.

Another major focus of the book that’s perhaps even more important from a social perspective was its treatment of the complex topics of heredity, biological race, and eugenics.  In this regard, I think that it’s a much better book than most that I’ve read on the subject, up there with Adam Rutherford’s “A brief history of everyone who ever lived”. It’s accessible without sacrificing accuracy, contextualizing the science with history and nuance.

This book is Zimmer at his best: obliterating misconceptions about science with gentle prose. He brings the reader on his journey of discovery as he visits laboratory after laboratory, peering at mutant mosquitoes and talking to scientists about traces of Neanderthal ancestry within his own genome. Any fan of his previous books or his journalism will appreciate this work. But so, too, will parents wishing to understand the magnitude of the legacy they’re bequeathing to their children, people who want to grasp their history through genetic ancestry testing and those seeking a fuller context for the discussions about race and genetics so prevalent today.

Here’s a link to my full review: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/31/books/review/she-has-her-mothers-laugh-carl-zimmer.html

If you’re looking for some stimulating reading this summer, I highly recommend it!

 

 

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*I’m posting this a bit late because the moment I finished writing the review I had to turn to developing my online summer course. Now I have a bit more breathing room, and time to blog more!

In the wake of Wakefield

Colin and I were just interviewed on BBC Radio 4 for a commemoration of sorts. It’s been 20 years since Andrew Wakefield published his infamous paper, “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in childrenalleging an MMR vaccine/colitis/autism link. This paper was retracted after Brian Deer’s and the Lancet’s investigations revealed:

-severe undisclosed conflicts of interest,

-unethical treatment of the children in the study, and

-fraudulent manipulation of data in the study.

However, the damage was done. Vaccination rates dropped not only in the UK, but in the US and worldwide. Outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases resulted. Although Wakefield denies any part of this, his role is undeniable…especially since his advocacy against vaccinations continues to this present day.

Yesterday BBC Radio 4 aired an hour long program that explored “the continuing legacy of the anti-vaccine movement on the anniversary of one of its most notorious episodes, and explore its impact on health, on research and on culture both at home and abroad.”

The indefatigable science journalist Adam Rutherford explored the history of Wakefield’s attempts to promote the link between vaccines and adverse health effects on the program, interspersing clips of Wakefield speaking in the media with interviews by journalist Brian Deer and public health officials. In the last third of the program, he interviewed both Colin and myself about the ongoing consequences of Wakefield’s advocacy here in the United States. We discussed how Wakefield has tapped into the world of conspiracy theories and a larger movement of distrust of expertise and institutions to promote his ideas (it didn’t make the final cut in the program, but as one example Colin wrote extensively about hearing Wakefield speak on the Conspira-Sea Cruise). We talked about communication with vaccine-hesitant parents and how empathy and good scientific information spread through networks of family, friends, and community leaders can overcome fearmongering. We discussed how being new parents affects our experiences as science communicators, particularly in the realm of vaccine issues. We also spoke about our experiences going to see Andrew Wakefield’s documentary Vaxxed, and how the movie (and the anti-vaccine movement in general) spreads false, damaging, and hurtful rhetoric about persons with autism. (To the ASAN members who were protesting at the movie, I hope you get a chance to listen to this! We talked about how shamefully you were treated in response to your excellent outreach efforts).

Many thanks to Adam and Graihagh Jackson for having us on. I think it’s a fitting commemoration of a shameful incident in the history of medicine, and I hope it helps at least a little bit to push back against the harmful and wrong ideas being spread by Wakefield.

Jenny and Colin BBC
selfie from the NPR studio where we recorded.

 

A Vax for Ox

We closed 2017 with some actual good news: the W.H.O. reported that measles deaths in 2016 worldwide fell to an all time low of 89,780.  According to the New York Times, “the decline — a public health triumph, as measles has long been a leading killer of malnourished children — was accomplished by widespread donor-supported vaccination that began in the early 2000s.”

This is fantastic news! But unfortunately the NYT chose to illustrate their article with yet another photo of a terrified child being held down by two adults, one of whom is jamming a needle into his arm.

As many of us repeatedly point out on twitter, these photos provoke fear and mistrust rather than convey a positive message about vaccination.

As new parents ourselves, we are now intimately acquainted with the terror that goes along with suddenly being responsible for a precious new life. We question and second guess every decision we make about play, feeding, clothing, childcare and traveling. It doesn’t matter that we know rationally how adaptable children are—the emotions take over.

One decision we don’t question is our choice to vaccinate our child Ox (not what it says on his birth certificate) on time and according to schedule. We’d actually been looking forward to his two-month pediatrician appointment, because after he received his shots we would feel much better about our upcoming holiday travels.

mighty bear
Even mighty bears need help fighting off pertussis.

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Updates: writing, radio, and podcasts!

It’s been a little while since I’ve updated this blog! I’ve spent all summer working extremely hard to get some academic writing done before our new baby arrives (he’s doing great, and due on Monday!). But although I’ve been fairly quiet here at Violent Metaphors, I’ve been doing some things elsewhere and I thought I should do a quick end-of-summer roundup of everything in one place.

I’ve been writing once a month or so about genetics and archaeology over at The Guardian’s science blog The Past and the Curious along with a fantastic team of archaeologists (my posts are archived here). If you’re interested in human history/prehistory, do check out our blog! That’s where most of my genetics/arch posts are going to be going in the future, with the science literacy/conspiracy theory/vaccine stuff staying here.

My archaeologist colleague Professor Fred Sellet and I were recently interviewed by Ira Flatow about North American prehistory on a live show of Science Friday. Getting to be on a science program that I’ve listened to for over a decade was one of the highlights of the year for me (although there are some things I wish I’d said differently/more clearly in retrospect. It turns out that it’s incredibly nerve-wracking to do a show in front of a large audience, and I could definitely use more practice!).

Finally, I was delighted to be on Tides of History, an incredibly cool history podcast by Patrick Wyman. Patrick’s not only an incredibly smart historian, he’s also my go-to guy for boxing and MMA analysis. Definitely give him a follow on Twitter if you are interested in either of these subjects!

That’s about it for now…I’m working on a series of posts about vaccinating as a brand-new parent, and the first should be up here in a couple of days, so keep an eye on this space!

 

 

Sean David Morton: Please Call A Lawyer

This will be a relatively short post, updating my series about the ConspiraSea Cruise and the people I met there. For those who haven’t read it, the cruise was a week-long conference for conspiracy theorists. One of the speakers was Sean David Morton, who claimed he could teach people to stop paying taxes, win any court case, and make money by creating esoteric financial instruments. Eighteen months later, he’s been convicted of tax fraud and issuing false financial instruments. And on Monday, he skipped his sentencing hearing and became a fugitive.

Sean, if you’re reading this, call a lawyer. Please. You tried your legal theories in court and they failed, just like they’ve always failed every time anyone has ever tested them in court. They haven’t worked. They don’t work. They won’t ever work. I know you don’t want to hear this from a skeptic and a critic, but I think you also know it’s the best thing you can do for yourself and your family. Call a lawyer, and get some expert advice. They’re going to tell you to turn yourself in, and you should. It’s the best way to get ahead of this situation.

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What Napoleon’s army ate

I have a new blog on archaeology out over at The Guardian’s science page, where I’m contributing a piece about once a month on archaeology and biological anthropology. As I write things there, I’ll link to them here for interested readers. Here’s an excerpt:

Napoleon’s Russian campaign of 1812 was marked by terrible logistical disaster and resulted in profound loss of life within his own army. Although his forces reached Moscow, they found the city abandoned and burning—a deliberate tactic on the part of the Russian army to prevent the French soldiers from finding provisions.

The practice of requiring soldiers to “live off the land” to supplement their rations likely contributed a great deal to this loss of life. This rendered them extremely vulnerable to the Russians’ scorched earth tactics which left them little to forage or steal. But Napoleon’s Grande Armée was ethnically and socially heterogeneous. Were their origins, social status, and access to food during this time of deprivation reflected in their diet? This is one of the questions that Holder et al. set out to address in their new paper, Reconstructing diet in Napoleon’s Grand Army using stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis.

You can read the rest of my discussion of this paper at  The Past and the Curious.