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Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category

How can tissue engineering help zoology?

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 31 May 2018

Animals come in all shapes, sizes and textures. Some have fur, while others have scales. Some lay eggs and others are jelly-like. Ever wonder how all these structures are created or why animals are so different? When zoology museums were first created, they served as a place to preserve animals brought from distant lands, animals no one had ever seen. People were fascinated by the then curiosities, but they were more than curiosities—preserved animals were also used for study. Naturalists were interested in deciphering how all these animals came into being, why they had their unique features and how they all linked together. In order to understand a new species, they would need to compare them to the ones they already knew. This way, they could classify new species and study how they developed.

Scientists would go to great lengths to understand animal biology. Edward Wilson was the scientific advisor for Robert Falco Scott’s final expedition to Antarctica. To study how species evolved, Wilson wanted to collect emperor penguin eggs. Thinking that penguins were primitive birds, he thought he might find a link between reptiles and birds by studying penguin embryos. They managed to collect five eggs but two of them cracked. With great difficulty and under adverse weather conditions, to say the least, they managed to return the three remaining eggs back to camp. Ultimately all but one of the men in the expedition died, but the eggs made their way back to London and the embryos were dissected. The link they were looking for was never found, but their story illustrates the incredible lengths they went to further their understanding of animal biology. This was how scientists studied animals and overall the natural world and its evolution: by collecting, studying and comparing.

Emperor penguin eggs brought back from the 1911 Terra Nova expedition to the Antarctic. The holes were made to allow investigation of the embryos. (Image: © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London. Licensed under the Open Government Licence)

Nowadays there are more tools to understand animal biology and evolution. Tissue engineering is the branch of biology that is concerned with studying cells, the materials that support the cells and the chemicals that control the cells. It studies how tissues, like bone or cartilage, are formed. And it aims to build organs, like a liver or a heart. At the same time, tissue engineering goes hand in hand with stem cells, which are immature cells that have the capacity to form any tissue in the body. Thus, organs can be created by growing stem cells together with materials that function as scaffolds.

Tissue-engineered porcine heart (Image: courtesy of Otto Lab for Organ Engineering and Regeneration, Massachusetts General Hospital)

Stem cells and tissue engineering are aiding in the study of evolution and animal biology. At the moment it is very hard to obtain a fully mature and functioning organ, but scientists are growing organoids. These are bulks of stem cells that can grow into similar structures that replicate an organ. In other words, organoids are growths of cells that resemble an organ. Organoids are immature but they are useful to study how organs develop and behave.

Scientists are interested in growing organoids from different animal’s stem cells. This way they can directly compare how they grow and analyse their differences. Imagine growing a lion, a whale and a chimp’s heart organoid side by side in the lab. This is a new way of doing comparative anatomy—organoids. One day, tissue engineering will allow researchers to grow mature functioning organs and, why not, maybe even whole animals in the lab. This way, researchers won’t have to go all the way to Antarctica to collect eggs, they could just grow them closer to home! But until that day comes, organoids provide an invaluable opportunity to study the evolution and development of species by analysing their similarities and differences.

Intestinal organoids (Image: Gianmaria Liccardi, PhD/The Institute of Cancer Research)

Cerebral organoid (Image by Lisa Nguyen, Yaoming Wang and Angeliki Nikolakopoulou, USC Stem Cell)

References:

Hampton T. Organoids Reveal Clues to Gut-Brain Communication. JAMA. 2017;318(9):787–788. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.11545

Introducing the new Student Engagers!

By Arendse I Lund, on 1 May 2018

We have a new cohort of Student Engagers joining the team! We are incredibly pleased to welcome eight new PhD students working on everything from George Orwell to gibbon decline. Starting this month, you can look for them in the UCL Art Museum, Grant Museum of Zoology, and Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. You can also read a little about them and their research in their own words below.

Alexandra Bridarolli:

I am a 2nd year PhD student at Eastman Dental Institute at UCL in London. I am also part of SEAHA, the centre for doctoral training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology, a research centre also based at UCL bringing together other PhD students promoting heritage science in research. My background is in chemistry and I have a strong interest in material science. I have always been fascinated by the detective work carried out by scientists working on art objects, studying the materials they are made of, their stability, their properties.

My current research explores the use of innovative nanoparticles of cellulose for the consolidation of the canvas of modern paintings. These treatments could offer an alternative to current practices and materials in use in conservation which are known to put paintings at risks. This research greatly benefits from a close collaboration with painting conservators across Europe.

Mark Kearney:

I am a 2nd year PhD student based at the SEAHA CDT in the Institute of Sustainable Heritage. My research is concerned with the decay of plastic objects of art and design. Contrary to popular belief, many plastics do not last forever, with some suffering rapid and often catastrophic decay patterns within the first 20 – 50 years of acquisition. As plastics have been one of the most important materials of the modern era, they now form central parts of museum’s collections.

My project will exploit the information gained from the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are naturally emitted from plastics objects with the aim to detect and monitor their decay museum environments. I will work with Tate museums to study their sculpture collection, looking at cellulose acetate works of art, a polymer known to be problematic within museums.

Anna Pokorska:

I am a second year PhD student at the Institute for Sustainable Heritage and SEAHA-CDT (Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology Centre for Doctoral Training). My research project is focused on the stability of modern synthetic and semi-synthetic materials to visible light and is carried out at in association with the V&A museum and Philips.

“Modern” materials such as plastics are a very important part of modern and contemporary art and design as well as social history collections from the 20th century. From high-profile artworks destined for a life in a gallery to everyday objects meant to be disposed of, more and more of plastic objects can be found in heritage institutions. However, our knowledge of their light sensitivity from a heritage perspective as well as the guidelines for their display and preservation are still limited. The project will, therefore, investigate the light stability of plastics to understand whether and how their light degradation is spectrally dependent. This will be done using visible radiation only as it would normally be in a museum or gallery environment.

Hannah Page:

I am a fourth year part-time PhD student in the Archaeology department. My thesis focuses on sociocultural and political organisation and change in the early 2nd millennium AD in Uganda. My research aims to reconstruct key aspects of life at the site of Ntuusi through the detailed archaeometric (scientific) analysis of pottery. This type of ceramic analysis can be used to understand scale and organisation of production practices, identify cultural groups and understand networks of local and long-distance trade and exchange. I am also active in running excavations and coordinating field schools and outreach events in the UK and sub-saharan Africa.

Sarah Gibbs:

I completed an MA in English at Queen’s University and a Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) degree at McGill University in Canada. My doctoral dissertation at UCL focuses on George Orwell’s epistemology. My research combines concepts and methodologies from literary scholarship, philosophy, and library and information studies to discern how the ‘Tory-Anarchist-Turned-Socialist’ author of Nineteen Eighty-Four conceived of the relationship between knowledge and power, and what tools his epistemology offers to address current political realities.

Cerys Jones:

Multispectral imaging involves capturing images of an object illuminated in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light, in order to reveal features, such as faded text and underdrawings, that cannot be seen by the naked eye. My PhD research will optimise the workflow of multispectral imaging of heritage artefacts to enable heritage practitioners to capture and process images of their own collections without the need for a specialist imaging scientist.

 

Caz Thompson:

I am a PhD student studying the patterns and drivers of gibbon decline in China and Myanmar. Gibbons are the smallest of the apes known for their ability to sing and move gracefully through the trees. Nineteen of the twenty known species are on the brink of extinction, yet in the shadow of their great ape cousins, gibbons receive less funding and research attention. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach, involving both biological and social sciences, I aim to understand the relationship between co-existing humans and gibbons. I currently focus on two species threatened by habitat loss and hunting: the Hainan gibbon, which is the rarest primate in the world with only 26 individuals, and the newly discovered Skywalker Hoolock gibbon with only 200 individuals remaining.

Jen Datiles:

I am a PhD student at the UCL School of Pharmacy studying food and medicinal plants that were exchanged between Asia and the Americas via the Spanish Galleon Trade (1565-1815). Using selected plant species as case studies, my research aims to link historical documentation with modern use-knowledge of traditional food-medicines through fieldwork and work in various archives and herbaria.

 

Welcome to the team!

Why did Ancient Egyptians Love Cats?

By Josephine Mills, on 17 April 2018

You really wouldn’t want to get into a cat versus dog argument with me (cats are superior obviously) and as it turns out the Ancient Egyptians agree! Ancient Egyptian iconography is packed with representations of cats — from tomb paintings to statues, their feline friends were everywhere. But did they always love cats? And why did they love them so much?

It’s thought that humans and cats began interacting in Ancient Egypt after 4000 BCE as this is when cats start to appear in visual representations like hieroglyphs and tomb paintings. It’s unlikely that these cats were fully domesticated and were probably one of the two species of wild cat that existed in Egypt at the time: the Jungle Cat and the African Wild Cat. Interestingly, although there was more than one type of cat, Egyptians only had a single word for feline, the onomatopoeic ‘miu’ or ‘miit’, meaning literally ‘he or she who mews’.

 

A fragment of the wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun, which is dated to 1350 BCE. The scene shows Nebamun fishing in the marshes with his wife and daughter. Just to the left of his right knee is a cat amongst the wildfowl. (Courtesy of the British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum. Museum number EA37977)

 

Between 4000 – 2000 BC humans and cats gradually began to live in closer company. Archaeologists believe that the main driving force behind initial cat domestication was their usefulness as pest control. Ancient Egyptian economy was largely based on farming with grain and its distribution was important to many Egyptians livelihoods. Grain was held in buildings called granaries and people realised that granaries visited by roaming cats had fewer problems with vermin. These cats, who had initially just stopped off to snack on mice, were encouraged to stick around and treated with kindness — finally slinking their way into the domestic home around 2000 BC.

However, cats didn’t just chow down on small vermin like rodents; they were also known to kill poisonous snakes. Snakes were a real issue in Ancient Egypt and the presence of cats reduced the threat of poisoning. Through this behaviour, cats were perceived to have a protective nature which, combined with their ability to have lots of kittens, made them a symbol of the home, women, and fertility. Tomb paintings dated to the New Kingdom often feature cats as dedicated companions of women, usually seated under their chairs.

 

This image shows a wall painting from the tomb of Ipuy, at Deir el-Medina. Ipuy has a small kitten sitting on his lap whilst a cat sits under his wife’s chair (Image credit: https://www.nilemagazine.com.au/march-2015-archive/2015/3/22/ancient-egypts-best-dressed-cats)

 

Their representation in popular culture and usefulness around the home and workplace gave cats a prominent position in Egyptian society. Some people were even named after cats, Miut and Miit, Ta-mitt (female cat) and Pa-mitt (tom cat). Killing a cat was punishable by death, even if it was an accident, and when a family cat died it was common for its owners to shave their eyebrows as part of the mourning process. See I wasn’t kitten when I told you cats were important!

Cats also had a significant impact on religion in Ancient Egypt, despite being a relatively late addition to the Pantheon (c. 2000 – 1000 BC). The earliest representation of a cat or lion in Egyptian religion  was the fur-midable Mafdet, a cat-like deity associated with justice and execution. Interestingly Mafdet probably translates as ‘runner’, and it’s possible she embodied a cheetah or jaguar.

Mafdet was followed by Sekhmet, meaning strength and ferocity, a lion-headed goddess. She played a key part in the Egyptian creation myth when Hathor, daughter of Ra, was transformed into Sekhmet to remind humans of the God’s power (seriously gruesome events ensued). She has a reputation as a ferocious deity but also a stalwart protector of the innocent.

Bastet is probably the most famous cat-headed goddess. Much more moderate than her predecessors, she was associated with fertility, womanhood, and the home. Bastet was a very popular goddess through to the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods in Egypt; she even had a cult centre of worship called Bubastis.

The Cult of the Cat was not restricted to Bubastis and spread across Ancient Egypt with large temples dedicated to the cat goddesses, which house and cared for hundreds of cats. Cats were even mummified in a similar way to humans and placed in temples after their death. The Petrie Museum has its very own mummified cat (sort of), which is part of the Langton Collection, a substantial bequest of artefacts that are all cat related. They were originally brought together by Mr and Mrs Langton, who excavated and worked in Egypt in the early twentieth century, who wanted to highlight the importance of the Cult of the Cat!

 

Mummified remains inside linen bandages shaped to look like a cat. An x-ray of this artefact revealed that it only contained two leg bones! Dated to the Late/Roman Period (Petrie Museum, 45976)

 

The popularity of cats in a religious context peaked during the Ptolemaic period (332 – 30 BC), when political unrest was rife across Egypt. One of the reasons that I know about this period (when I should really be concentrating on Neanderthals) is through playing the video game Assassin’s Creed Origins, which is set during the reign of the Ptolemies. The game is incredibly accurate and a recent update allows you to play in discovery mode, effectively turning Ancient Egypt into a virtual museum. One of my favourite features of the game are the little cats that weave around your feet as you explore towns and villages. These cats have sandy, light red brown or striped coats inspired by cats painted in tombs. Hilariously, and much to my initial frustration, cats can choose whether to interact with you or not! In my opinion greatly adding to the realistic nature of the game…

 

On the left a cat petting fail, on the right a cat petting success! Screenshots taken from Assassin’s Creed Origins made by Ubisoft

 

There’s ample evidence that Ancient Egyptians loved cats and the prominent role they played in day-to-day life and religious worship. Five thousand years later I’m not sure how much has changed. Incidentally if you’d like to read more about cats in a medieval context (of course you would!) check out my fellow engager Arendse’s blog post.

References

Challis, D. 2015. Miw: the Langton Cat Collection. In: Stevenson, A (ed.) Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology Characters and Collections. UCL Press: London 72-74

Malek, J. 1993. The Cat in Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cats_in_ancient_Egypt

 

Move over priceless artefacts – 3 interventions that show labels are the most important aspect of museums

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 10 April 2018

Welcome back to Label Detective, a blog series that flips things around by investigating how museum labels can reveal fundamental principles about how museums are put together.

Labels may not get much attention, but they’re one of the key things that make a museum feel like a museum—along with features like glass cases, and special lighting. Take those away, and it’s not a museum but a garage. One of my favourite examples of the impact of labels comes from a tweet by Dr Eric Massicotte of Ontario.

Although it’s not a museum setting, this shows how the layering of museum features like a label and a frame can radically change the context and the feel of something. In this case, they transform the frustrating evidence of a child defacing your walls to a mock-celebrated piece of artwork that’s been shared on the internet over 120,000 times.

Changing or altering the expected format or content of ‘normal’ museum labels can also have dramatic impact on how objects are perceived. I’ve picked three of my favorite examples of label interventions, starting chronologically with:

 

1. The work of artist Fred Wilson

Since his 1992 exhibition, ‘Mining the Museum’ at the Maryland Historical Society, Fred Wilson’s artistic interventions into the interpretation of race and American history have had a huge impact on the museum world. In ‘Mining the Museum’, Wilson re-organised and re-installed the Maryland Historical Society’s collection, creating labels for objects that draw attention to how everyday racism made both shocking presences and absences in the collection. Many of his labels sound innocuous. A case labeled ‘Metalwork 1793-1880’ displays an ornate silver tea set alongside a pair of slave shackles. ‘Cabinetmaking 1820-1860’ arranges a series of elaborate side chairs and armchairs to face a whipping post. In another area, pedestals with busts of Henry Clay, Napoleon Bonaparte and Andrew Jackson are mirrored by empty pedestals, labelled with the names of Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass.

Check out interviews with Wilson and more pictures of his work here and here.

 

2. ‘The Past is Now’ at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (on until 24 June)

‘The Past is Now’ addresses the city of Birmingham’s relationship to the British Empire. The exhibition was co-curated by the museum and a group of local activists who worked to challenge the ‘neutral’ tone of museum interpretation, which often assumes a white writer talking to a white audience. Sumaya Kassim, one of the co-curators, describes how this not only meant bringing new stories into the museum but also sharing fuller and more accurate stories about what was already there. When addressing the legacy of Joseph Chamberlain, often called the ‘father’ of the city of Birmingham, Kassim writes, ‘we gave [Chamberlain] room to explain his imperialist, racist ideology, exploring how his social reforms in Birmingham were made at the expense of the colonies’ (italics mine).

Read more about Kassim’s experience of co-curating the exhibition here.

 

3. The Museum of Transology at Brighton Museum (ongoing until summer 2018)

The Museum of Transology’s curator E-J Scott didn’t have an existing collection to reinterpret because there was no major collection of transgender material before he started soliciting donations. The majority of the Museum of Transology’s objects are extremely ordinary, made up of contemporary mass-produced artefacts like makeup, clothing, and printed ephemera. However, each object has a unique label tags, written by the person who donated the object, that contextualize and elevate them out of the everyday. Each handwritten tag shares informative, funny, and touching stories about trans identity and expression. In the Museum of Transology, the labels and objects are truly interdependent—neither could be in the museum without the other.

A tag next to a tube of lipstick says, ‘This lipstick was from my wonderful sister who was the first family member to accept and support my transition’. The tag on a pair of purple-striped boxer shorts reads: ‘Stripey Monstrosity. At the start of my transition I asked my mom for boxers and she came up with this! As lovely as she is, I couldn’t wait to pluck up the courage to buy something less tragic!’.

More on the Museum of Transology here and here.

 

Check back next month, when I’ll be exploring three more interventions on a similar theme. In the meantime, you can read past Label Detective blogs, on topics from the legacy of eugenics in Egyptian archaeology, why a Portuguese Man O’War isn’t an individual, evolutionary theory, and more.

 

Did Neanderthals Eat Brains?

By Josephine Mills, on 11 March 2018

In short, we think so…

In the archaeological record, ‘cannibalism’, also known as ‘anthropophagy’, is usually identified through studying human bones and analysing any cut marks left on them that were made by stone tools. These cut marks would have occurred during the process of de-fleshing, or excarnating, the individual.

Cutmarks are used as evidence of cannibalism and have been reported at several different Neanderthal sites, like El Sidron and Goyet Cave; however, incontrovertible proof of intentional cannibalism is relatively rare. When analysing marks on bones, archaeologists observe the taphonomy of the find; this means trying to untangle what has happened to it since it was deposited from its systemic (or life-time) context. In some cases, reports of cutmarks made by Neanderthals have been re-analysed and interpreted as damage from carnivore activity or environmental processes.

Cutmarks are found in predictable patterns. For example, upper limbs are usually disarticulated (removed from the body) whereas lower limbs, which have a higher nutritional value, are de-fleshed. At Goyet Cave in Belgium, cutmarks found on Neanderthal rib bones have been used to suggest evisceration and removal of the chest muscles (Rougier et al. 2016). There is also evidence of percussion marks on thigh bones where they have been struck to extract the bone-marrow, which is highly calorific.

The main evidence for brain-eating derives from cut marks and percussion marks found on Neanderthal crania, suggesting skulls were exploited to get to the brain, which is also a very nutritious organ.

Figure 1: A summary of all the cutmarks and percussion marks/pits recorded on the Neanderthal remains from the Troisième Caverne of Goyet (Belgium). Note the prevalence of cutmarks on the calorific areas of the femur and tibia. (Image reference: Rougier, H., Crevecoeur, I., Beauval, C., Posth, C., Flas, D., Wißing, C., Furtwängler, A., Germonpré, M., Gómez-Olivencia, A., Semal, P. and van der Plicht, J., 2016. Neandertal cannibalism and Neandertal bones used as tools in Northern Europe. Scientific reports6, p.29005)

Human bones often occur alongside animal remains and one of the most important criterion for identifying cannibalism is whether both types of bones have been treated in the same way. If this is the case and human bones are butchered just like animal bones, then it’s likely that nutritional cannibalism took place.

It’s hard to say whether all Neanderthals practised nutritional cannibalism as we know that their behaviour varied across different regions and timescales. It may have been a behaviour that occurred out of necessity during periods of nutritional-deficit, when sufficient animal and plant resources were scarce.

What are the repercussions of anthropophagy?

Anthropophagy is taboo and it’s a bad idea to eat people; in a modern context it’s socially unacceptable but there are also potential health issues particularly related to eating certain parts of the body.

Eating brains can expose you to prions, a type of protein generally found in the central nervous system. Everybody has them, however some types of prion can act as infectious agents inducing abnormal folding of otherwise healthy prions. These abnormal prions can occur through genetic inheritance, sporadic mutation, or infection.

The brain is the most vulnerable organ if exposed to infectious prions. Abnormal folding causes the degeneration of white matter, making the important parts of the brain spongy. This explains why prion diseases are neurodegenerative, causing symptoms like loss of co-ordination (cerebellar ataxia) and muscle control. They are fatal and there is no current cure.

You might have heard of the prion diseases Creutzfeld-Jakob disease (CJD) or Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE – ‘mad cow’ disease). One of the reasons that the BSE scare occurred in the ‘90s was that farmers were feeding cattle a form of slurry that was made by combining the carcasses of other livestock, greatly increasing the living animal’s likelihood of ingesting infected brains or parts of the nervous system. This became illegal and when the practice stopped so did the elevated cases of BSE.

Probably the most famous outbreak of prion disease is the Kuru, which originated amongst the Fore tribe in Papua New Guinea. In Fore, Kuru literally means ‘the shakes’ referring to loss of muscle control. It’s believed that Kuru originated from one individual in the tribe who experienced a sporadic prion mutation but that it spread so effectively because the Fore practiced ritual anthropophagy until around 1950. Anthropophagy was a key part of their mortuary practice as it involved both honouring and passing on the strength of the deceased. Kuru was most prevalent in women and children as they consumed most of the nervous system and were responsible for the practical excarnation of the dead. At its height, the Kuru epidemic killed around 2% of the Fore women annually.

If you’ve played the video game Far Cry Primal, the tribe based on Neanderthals, ‘The Udam’, suffer from the fictional terminal disease ‘skull-fire’ that is probably inspired by Kuru. This disease is instrumental in their ensuing demise and the supremacy of modern humans (in the video game!).

Neanderthals likely lived in small family groups and were highly mobile. Therefore it seems unlikely that a prion disease could become ubiquitous and have had long-term impacts on their overall survival as a species. Although there are fringe theories that do suggest this, there are many Neanderthal remains found without signs of cannibalism. As more information about genetics and population dispersal becomes available, it seems very unlikely that the assimilation/extinction of Neanderthals was down to prion disease.

The reason that Kuru was so established within the Fore tribe is a combination of both the presence of infectious prions and a very established routine of ritual cannibalism. Basically, eating more brains does not cumulatively give you prion disease but if you do consume brains the probability that you will ingest a brain that has infected prions is much higher – making you much more likely to catch a prion disease.

Anatomically modern humans and ritual cannibalism.

Ritual cannibalism is harder to recognise in the archaeological record than nutritional cannibalism and, so far, hasn’t concretely been reported in Neanderthal populations. However, osteoarchaeological finds from a site in Southern England called Goughs Cave strongly imply that anatomically modern humans practiced ritual cannibalism. The evidence is quite gory with bones even showing signs of being chewed by other humans! Ritual cannibalism is suggested because three of the skulls were shaped to create cups or bowls and one bone has been engraved.

So yes, Neanderthals probably did eat brains, but so did our more modern ancestors, perhaps something to think about if you’ve been looking into trying out the palaeodiet…

Reference:

Rougier, H., Crevecoeur, I., Beauval, C., Posth, C., Flas, D., Wißing, C., Furtwängler, A., Germonpré, M., Gómez-Olivencia, A., Semal, P. and van der Plicht, J., 2016. Neandertal cannibalism and Neandertal bones used as tools in Northern Europe. Scientific reports6, p.29005.

Neuroscience in Ancient Egypt

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 21 February 2018

You might think that ancient Egypt has nothing to do with neuroscience but you would be wrong. When ancient Egyptians practiced mummification, the brain was usually liquefied and pulled out from the cranium through the nose using a hook-like tool—a method known as excerebration. the brain by making a hole in the back of the neck and withdraw it through the foramen, which is the opening at the bottom of the skull where the spinal cord exits the cranium. [2]

Interestingly, the Greek writer Herodotus described this process of removing the brain in the 5th century BC. He writes, “ Since the brain was not perceived as important as the heart, it was deemed useless for the afterlife, and so it was disposed of. But in some cases, the brain was not removed and it was simply left in the skull. [2]

 

Copies of hooks or cranial crochets used to remove the brain from the skull. (Image: Science Museum, London, A634908 Pt1).

 

Even though the brain was not considered of high importance, it was the Egyptians who first described the cerebral cortex. The first ever written description of the human brain was found in the Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus written around 1700 BC, which is a copy of a much older text dating around the 30th century BC.[4]

This papyrus describes various cases of patients and their illnesses. In one of the cases, a patient had a hole in the head and the brain was left exposed. The author writes how he saw “corrugations” like the ones in molten copper. These “corrugations” are the first known written description of the cerebral cortex, which has grooves and gives the brain its characteristically wrinkly appearance. Notably, the author also writes about the cerebrospinal fluid, aphasia—an injury related to impairment of language—and he even describes seizures as “he shudders exceedingly”. [4]

 

“Corrugations” of the cerebral cortex. (Image: Author’s own photo)

 

Although the author may not have been fully aware of the importance of the brain, this papyrus is meaningful because of its rational descriptions at a time when most medical writings were filled with mysticism and magic. At the same time, it represents the beginnings of the amazing journey to discover the workings of the human brain, which has now flourished into modern-day neuroscience.

 

References:

  1. Fanous, A.A. and W.T. Couldwell, Transnasal excerebration surgery in ancient Egypt: Historical vignette. Journal of neurosurgery, 2012. 116(4): p. 743-748.
  2. Lamb, D.S., Mummification, Especially of the Brain. American Anthropologist, 1901. 3(2): p. 294-307.
  3. Godley, A.D., Herodotus, the histories. 1920, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  4. Gross, C.G., From imhotep to hubel and wiesel, in Extrastriate Cortex in Primates. 1997, Springer. p. 1-58.

Is Burial a Modern Human Behaviour?

By Josephine Mills, on 16 January 2018

Both the Grant and the Petrie Museums contain regular reminders of death, burial, and what comes after. The animals and skeletons preserved in the Grant continue to contribute to studies of comparative anatomy, education, and public outreach in the museum. In the Petrie, there are many examples of how Ancient Egyptians treated death and the afterlife, including the wooden coffin of Nairetisetnefer on display at the back of the main room (figure 1).

Figure 1: The wooden coffin of Egyptian woman Nairetisetnefer, which is covered in gesso and painted with religious scenes and inscriptions. It was found in the Besenmut family burial(s) at Thebes. Petrie accession number: UC14230

Burial and mourning have long been associated with human-ness. Historically, we’ve thought of the process of understanding death, and what may come after, as something that can only be conceptualised by Homo sapiens. However recent observations of mammals (like the elephant) suggest that mourning, or observation and reaction to death, are not unique to humans as a species.

From an archaeological perspective, burial is generally classed within the suite of ‘advanced’ behaviours (alongside personal adornment, symbolic behaviour etc.) that appear in the archaeological record around 40,000 years ago, coinciding with the widespread dispersal of anatomically modern humans (aka H. sapiens). The timing and proliferation of these burials means that they are generally associated with a period called the Upper Palaeolithic.

Some Upper Palaeolithic burials are easy to recognise in the archaeological record as the individual(s) is interred in a well-cut grave alongside grave goods, like the burials found at Sungir in Russia (figure 2). These well-known burials are probably not representative of widespread mortuary practice instead representing high-status individuals. Types of burial varied substantially across the Upper Palaeolithic world, for an overview of the diversity of burials in Eurasia check out Riel-Salvatore and Gravel-Miguel (2013).

Figure 2: These images show the burial of a male individual known as Sungir 1. The skeleton is incredibly well preserved and although the outfit the individual was buried in has not survived you can see the mammoth ivory beads that would have adorned it. Image credit: Trinkhaus, E., Buzhilova, A. P. 2012. “The Death and Burial of Sunghir 1.” International Journal of Osteoarchaeology. 22: 665-666

Did other hominins further back into the past practice burial? One of the most important things to consider is what the word ‘burial’ means. In a way, it can be a loaded term indicating direct intention to preserve or honour an individual, hinting at aspects of the deceased’s relationship with the living and perhaps thoughts for their journey into something like an afterlife. This process demonstrates a whole lot of complex thoughts and ideas. However, from a practical perspective the idea of burial also encompasses things like the removal of deceased from occupation sites, thereby minimising the risk of disease and attraction of dangerous carnivores, a behaviour Pettit (2013) calls ‘funerary caching’. This would make some burials in the past a slightly more practical option.


Figure 3: This reconstructed skull belongs to a Neanderthal child known as Dederiyeh 1, who was around two years old. I think one of the most striking features of this skull is the presence of so many teeth! Image credit: http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/fossils/dederiyeh-1

In an archaeological (particularly a Palaeolithic context) how do you tell when somebody has been deliberately buried?

  • Bones in the skeleton remaining in the correct anatomical location and still being attached to one another indicating a high degree of skeletal articulation, which suggests that the deceased was interred relatively rapidly after death and was not disturbed post-mortem. The preservation state of the bones can also hint at deliberate burial as they are less likely to be broken by disturbance if the individual has been protected by a grave-like structure or set aside in a specific place. This is seen in the articulated burial of a two-year-old child Neanderthal child (Dedriyeh 1) in Syria (Pettit 2013; figure 3).
  • Association of grave goods with burials, such as flint arrowheads or inclusion of animal remains, like the red deer maxilla associated with Amud 7 Neanderthal burial (Pettit 2012). These items are particularly important if they are unusual or uncommon in the surrounding excavated area, making it more likely that they were placed with the deceased on purpose.
  • Looking for some sort of grave-like depression, a hollow dug into the ground or an area to the side of a cave where a body is placed under a rock or in a natural shelf.

 

Figure 4: This image shows the burial of a Neanderthal child known as Amud 7, excavated from Amud Cave in Israel. Although it is relatively difficult to see from the photo the skeleton was found alongside several items that have been interpreted as grave goods, for example flint tools and a red deer bone. Image credit: Hovers, E., Ullman, M., & Rak, Y. (2017). Palaeolithic Occupations in Nahal Amud. In Y. Enzel & O. Bar-Yosef (Eds.), Quaternary of the Levant: Environments, Climate Change, and Humans (pp. 255-266). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781316106754.029

I study Neanderthals and have written in the past about how they are often given a tough time in popular media for being brutish, unintelligent and lacking in the advanced behaviours of modern humans. The burials mentioned above were made by Neanderthals, however all post-date 70,000 years ago meaning they occurred relatively late in the Middle Palaeolithic (the time when Neanderthals were around); they are also not found consistently across the Neanderthal world (Pettit 2013). From the available evidence, it seems that burial was not a ubiquitous behaviour; however, a preservation bias probably exists because the further you get into the past the more likely archaeological remains are disturbed. Equally Neanderthals were highly mobile hunter gatherers so the chance of finding and excavating their occupation and burial sites is rare and finds are generally seen in cave systems. This is both due to the shelter from environmental processes provided by caves and their recognised potential as archaeological sites, meaning they are excavated more often than open-air sites.

Neanderthal burial is a controversial topic and some of burials are contested, particularly if the term is defined by modern human standards, e.g. the deceased is found interred in a dug grave alongside grave goods. It’s likely that the origin of burial, as suggest by Pettit (2013) who has written in detail about the subject, is in the Palaeolithic but it is improbable that somebody somewhere in the past woke up and invented the concept of burial as we understand it today. It is more plausible that mortuary practice evolved in various places at separate times and has some roots in the practicalities of death for living populations.

For a final thought, although excavated burials generally post-date around 70,000 years ago (late in Neanderthal evolution), new discoveries like the structures in Bruniquel Cave (Jaubert et al. 2016), which have been reliably dated to 170,000 years ago, reveal a deepening complexity in observed Neanderthal behaviour; alongside finds like this, it doesn’t seem out of this world to think that some form of mortuary behaviour was seen earlier in the human record.

Incidentally there’s also rather a lot of evidence for excarnation by Neanderthals and Anatomically Modern Humans, but that’s for another blogpost!

References:

Jaubert, J., Verheyden, D., Genty, D., Michel, Soulier., Cheng, H., Blamart, D., Burlet, C., Camus, H., Delaby, S., Deldicque, D., Edwards, R. E., Ferrier, C., Lacrampe-Cuyaubère, F., Lévêque, F., Maksud, F., Mora, P., Muth, X., Régnier., E., Rouzaud, J., Santos, F. 2016. Early Neanderthal constructions deep in Bruniquel Cave in southwestern France. Nature 534:111–114

Pettitt, P. (2013). The Palaeolithic origins of human burial. Routledge.

 

 

Why are animals 3D?

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 23 November 2017

 

Have you heard that our body is mainly composed of 70% water? Although true, the percentage varies from 55% of water in adult women, all the way up to 78% in babies, with the percentage for adult men somewhere in between. This is also true for animals, where some — like the jellyfish — have even 90% of their body composed of water. With this in mind, why don’t animals, including us, look like a soup? How can animals have a defined 3D structure?

Aurelia aurita, moon jellyfish, 5 preserved specimens (C193)

Aurelia aurita, moon jellyfish, 5 preserved specimens (C193)

 

Animals are made out of cells, the building blocks of our organs and tissues. But cells are basically a bag of water and chemicals; so again, why don’t animals look like giant bags of chemicals? The most obvious reason is that animals have bones that give structure to the rest of the body. But even bones are 31% water, and organs with no bones, such as hearts, still have a unique 3D form. Hearts have defined chambers (see the elephant heart below); they’re not just a mush of cells. The answer lies not in the cells themselves but in what surrounds them.

Elephant dried heart (Z639)

Elephant dried heart (Z639)

Cells are engulfed by the extracellular matrix (ECM) which is mainly composed of proteins. This matrix encompasses the space in-between cells, gives them structural support and acts like a scaffold. It can also act as a pathway for cells to migrate along and it gives out chemical and physical cues that cells respond to. The ECM varies from organ to organ. The brain, for example, is mainly composed of cells with an ECM of only 20% of the total mass. In contrast, cartilage has fewer cells and around 70% of its mass is ECM. Every cell type is surrounded by a specific matrix that will affect its function. Studying this extracellular environment is important to understand how cells develop, how they interact with each other, and how they react to disease.

At the same time, by studying the ECM, researchers can get an idea of how an organ or tissue is structured and how to replicate its intricate architecture. Scientists that work in tissue engineering use a technique which consists of washing away the cells of an organ, literally. By using detergents, the cells are washed away in cycles until just the extracellular matrix is left. In this manner, they can analyse its composition and experiment with the matrix with the end goal of growing an organ in the lab. Therefore, one day we could replace diseased or aged organs with new ones without the need for transplantation. The unique composition of the ECM provides cells with the support they need to survive, and at the same time, gives animals and their organs a defined 3D structure.

 

Sources:

https://water.usgs.gov/edu/propertyyou.html

Make a Museum about Pokémon!

By Josephine Mills, on 21 November 2017

Post-it Note found on the visitor feedback board in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (if this was left by you - do get in touch!)

Post-it Note found on the visitor feedback board in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (if this was left by you – get in touch!)

 

While working in the Petrie Museum last week I glanced at the board reserved for visitor feedback, noticed this post-it and couldn’t resist taking a photo… As a child of the nineties I have a soft spot for Pokémon and have wholeheartedly embraced revival of the plucky little critters. I’ve particularly enjoyed the nostalgia of sharing the new games with my younger brother, Daniel; if only there were a degree in poké-studies!

Last year the app Pokémon Go made headlines world-wide and the presence of the virtual creatures in museums and archives was widely discussed within the heritage industry. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’m team positive for Pokémon Go in museums, and the staff at UCL Museums have written some great blog posts on the subject. See this post by Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby and Research Engager Arendse’s blog.

 

A wild Pigeotto appears as I am doing my PXRF analysis (Image: J Mills 2016)

A wild Pigeotto appears as I am doing my PXRF analysis (Image: Author’s own photo)

 

In fact, museums, archaeological ruins, and science labs also feature in the Pokémon games, serving as venues to transform fossils found in the wild into rare Pokémon. These Pokémon, like those mentioned in Arendse’s post, were inspired by real fossils, for example Omanyte from ammonites, and Aerodactyl from pterodactyl. My personal favourite is Relicanth, a fish bearing a close resemblance to the Lazarus species the coeleocanth!

 

Ammonite

Left: Omanyte (Image: Bulbapedia; Right: Ammonite (Image: British Geological Survey)

 

Omanyte and Ammonite

Here you can see the similarities between the shell of the Pokémon and the preserved ammonite Mantelliceras, which lived during the Late Cretaceous/Cenomanian period around 100 million years ago. This was a time when much of the Chalk in England formed and Cretaceous ammonite fossils are common in chalky areas of the South Coast. Interestingly fossil ammonites are often displayed ‘upside down’ (effectively with their head in the air!) whereas the Pokémon are orientated to move with their tentacles at the base, more like the original creatures.

 

Top: Aerodactyl (Image: https://bulbapedia.bulbagarden.net/wiki/Aerodactyl_(Pok%C3%A9mon ); Bottom: Pterodactyl (Image: http://dinosaurpictures.org/Pterodactyl-pictures)

Top: Aerodactyl (Image: Bulbapedia); Bottom: Pterodactyl (Image: Dinosaur Pictures)

 

 

Aerodactyl and Pterodactyl

Perhaps the most literal translation of the three are the obvious similarities between the Aerodactyl Pokémon and the extinct Pterodactyl, which lived during the Jurassic period 200-150 million years ago. The fossils on the game are rare and can only be found in certain areas; similarly pterodactyl fossils are also localised in real life, with most excavated from the Solnhofen limestone in Germany.

Top: Relicanth (Image: https://vignette3.wikia.nocookie.net/pokemon/images/a/ad/369Relicanth_AG_anime.png/revision/latest?cb=20141006041759); Bottom: Coelacanth (Image: http://vertebrates.si.edu/fishes/coelacanth/coelacanth_wider.html)

Top: Relicanth (Image: Bulbapedia); Bottom: Coelacanth (Image: Smithsonian)

 

Relicanth and Coelacanth

Even Relicanth’s name nods to the antiquity and mysterious-ness of the real-life fish the Coelacanth. The Coelacanth is a ‘Lazarus’ species, a term that refers to a taxon that was thought to be extinct but reappears again in the wild. The cryptic nature of the Coelacanth is reflected by the camouflage cartoon pattern of the Pokémon, a graphic allegory of the fish’s complex history!

Although the Pokémon hype has gradually dwindled, perhaps this message from our younger audience (or any nineties kids out there), highlights what we can take from Pokémon: the appeal of learning about animals and artefacts, the surprise of finding new things where you didn’t expect them, and the lure of encountering the rare and interesting.

More practically, specimens that have inspired both fossils and non-fossil Pokémon are on display across the Grant Museum. However, if anybody is interested in funding a museum solely about Pokémon, please get in touch: I know someone who might be suitable for curator *cough*…

How to visualize the insides of an animal?

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 26 October 2017

When studying animals, sometimes we need to study them from the inside out —literally. One way to do this is to cut them open and looking at their internal structures, such as with the bisected heads or the microscope slides in the Grant Museum of Zoology. Another way to visualize the inside of an animal is to stain a particular body part while making everything else clear; researchers can do this by using chemicals and colour stains. For example, in the Grant Museum of Zoology, we can find specimens like the tarsier, with its skeleton stained in red, or the zebrafish with red and blue parts.

Adult tarsier stained with Alizarin Red to show calcium (Z2718)

Adult tarsier stained with Alizarin Red to show calcium (Z2718)

Adult zebrafish stained with Alcian Blue and Alizarin Red (V1550)

Adult zebrafish stained with Alcian Blue and Alizarin Red (V1550)

 

The process of staining these animals begins with the removal of the skin, viscera and fat tissue.  Then, soft tissues like muscle are cleared using a variety of different methods which mostly involve exposing the specimen to different baths of chemicals. Next, the bones are stained with Alizarin Red and the cartilage with Alcian Blue. It’s a long process that can take a couple of days because the stain needs to properly penetrate the tissues, but the results are amazing.

Initially, both Alizarin Red and Alcian Blue were used as textile dyes, but now they also have numerous biological applications. Alizarin Red staining is a method to visualize mineralized tissue because it stains calcium and Alcian Blue stains specific structures mainly found in cartilage. These stains constitute an important part of research because they allow researchers to visualize the intricate structure of tissues and thus understand how they form throughout development.

ADSCs

Image credit: Eleonora Zucchelli

In the lab where I study, researchers work with adipose (fat) derived stem cells which have the capacity to become different kinds of mature cells. These stem cells are grown under specific conditions and by changing these conditions scientists can direct them into becoming mature cells like fat, bone or cartilage — a process called differentiation. But this process can take anywhere from a couple of weeks up to a couple of months! In order to determine if the differentiation is working, researchers stain the stem cells with Alizarin Red and Alcian Blue to identify if they are in fact turning into bone or cartilage. In the images depicted, undifferentiated adipose derived stem cells (ADSCs) on the top appear clear but their differentiated counterparts are stained in blue or red. This means the differentiation is working.

There are many other stains used on animals or cells. The process of clearing and staining can be very complicated depending on the specimen and what one wishes to stain, but the results can be quite fascinating. What animal would you like to see stained from the inside.

 

Mouse stained with alizarin red (Z3155)

Mouse stained with alizarin red (Z3155)

 

References:

PUCHTLER, H., Meloan, S. N., & TERRY, M. S. (1969). On the history and mechanism of alizarin and alizarin red S stains for calcium. Journal of Histochemistry & Cytochemistry17(2), 110-124.

McLeod, M. J. (1980). Differential staining of cartilage and bone in whole mouse fetuses by alcian blue and alizarin red S. Teratology22(3), 299-301.