Tag Archives: culture

Facebook ads can be used to gauge cultural similarity between countries

The cultural similarity between countries and international migration patterns can be measured quite reliably using Facebook data, a new study reports.

Image via Pixabay.

“Cultural hotspot” isn’t the first thing that pops into mind when thinking about social media for most of us. However, new research from the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research in Rostock, Germany shows that data from Facebook can be used to gauge cultural closeness between countries, and overall migration trends.

And the way to do it is to track ads for food and drink on the platform.

We are what we eat

“[A] few years ago, after reading a work of a colleague using data from the Facebook Advertising Platform, I was surprised to find how much information we share online and how much these social media platforms know about us,” said Carolina Coimbra Vieira, a Ph.D. student in the Laboratory of Digital and Computational Demography at the Max Planck institute and lead author of the research, in an email for ZME Science.

“After that, I decided to work with this social media data to propose new ways of answering old questions related to society. In this specific case, I wanted to propose a measure of cultural similarity between countries using data regarding Facebook users’ food and drink preferences.”

For the study, the team developed a new approach that uses Facebook data to gauge cultural similarity between countries, by making associations between immigration patterns and the overall preference for food and drink across various locations.

They employed this approach as migrants have a very important role to play in shaping cultural similarities between countries. However, they explain, it’s hard to study their influence directly, in part because it is hard to ‘measure’ culture reliably. The traditional way of gauging culture comes in the form of surveys, but these have several drawbacks such as cost, the chances of bias in question construction, and difficulties in applying them to a large sample of countries.

The team chose to draw on previous findings that show food and drink preferences may be a proxy for cultural similarities between countries, and build a new analytical method based on this knowledge. They drew on Facebook’s top 50 food and drink preferences in various countries — as captured by the Facebook Advertising Platform — in order to see what people in different areas liked to dine on.

“This platform allows marketers and researchers to obtain an estimate of the number of Facebook monthly active users for a proposed advertisement that matches the given input criteria based on a list of demographic attributes, such as age, gender, home location, and interests, that can be customized by the advertiser,” Vieira explained for ZME Science. “Because we focus on food and drink as cultural markers, we selected the interests classified by Facebook as related to food and drink. We selected the top 50 most popular foods and drinks in each one of the sixteen countries we analyzed to construct a vector indicator of each country in terms of these foods and drinks to finally measure the cultural similarity between them.”

In order to validate their findings, the team applied the method to 16 countries. They report that food and drink interests, as reflected by Facebook ads, generally align with documented immigration patterns. Preferences for foreign food and drink align with domestic preferences in the countries from which most immigrants came. On the other hand, countries that tend to have few immigrants also showed lower preferences for foreign foods and drinks, and were interested in a narrower range of such products more consistently.

The team cites the example of the asymmetry between Mexico and the U.S. as an example of the validity of their model. The top 50 foods and drinks from Mexico are more popular in the U.S. than the top 50 U.S. foods and drinks are in Mexico, they explain, aligning well with the greater degree of immigration coming from Mexico into the U.S. than the other way around.

All in all, the findings strongly suggest that immigrants help shape the culture of various countries. In the future, the team hopes to expand their methodology to include other areas of preference beyond food and drink, and see whether these align with known immigration patterns.

“The food and drink preferences shared by Facebook users from two different countries might indicate a high immigrant population from one country living in the other. In our results we observed that immigration is associated with higher cultural similarity between countries. For example, there are a lot of immigrants from Argentina living in Spain and our measure showed that one of the most similar countries to Spain is Argentina. This means that foods and drinks popular between Facebook users in Argentina are also really popular in Spain,” she adds.

“The most surprising aspect of this study is the methodology and more precisely, the data we used to study culture. Differently from surveys, our methodology is timely, [cost-effective], and easily scalable because it uses passively-collected information internationally available on Facebook.”

Overall, the researchers say, this study suggests that immigrants indeed help shape the culture of their destination country. Future research could refine the new method outlined in this study or repurpose it to examine and compare other interests beyond food and drink.

“I would like to see our proposed measure of cultural similarity being used in different contexts, such as to predict migration. For instance, it would be interesting to use our measure of cultural similarity to answer the question: Do the migrants prefer to migrate to a country culturally similar to their origin country?” Vieira concludes in her email.”More generally, I hope our work contributes to increasing the development of research using social media data as an alternative to complement more traditional data sources to study society.”

The paper “The interplay of migration and cultural similarity between countries: Evidence from Facebook data on food and drink interests” has been published in the journal PLoS ONE.


New research takes a look into how superstitions develop and enshrine themselves

A new study is looking into how superstitions pop up — and why they endure.


Image credits Benjamin Nelan.

If we’re being honest, we’re not always the most logical of species. Roman leaders looked to the patterns of flying birds for guidance on important decisions, and builders today still sometimes omit the thirteenth floor from building plans. Humanity has harbored superstition for a long, long time now, and we’ll probably keep doing it for a while yet.

We know the number 13 doesn’t really invite bad luck, so why do we keep these superstitions going? Well, in a surprising twist of fate, a new paper reports that it is, sometimes, rational, to hold onto irrational behaviors. That is, if most other people hold onto them, too.

We’re wrong, but we’re wrong together!

“What’s interesting here is that we show that, beginning in a system where no one has any particular belief system, a set of beliefs can emerge, and from those, a set of coordinated behaviors,” says Erol Akçay, an assistant professor of biology at Penn, and the paper’s second author.

The researchers analyzed superstitions by applying the principles of game theory. They devised a model that shows how groups of people, each starting with distinct belief systems, can evolve a coordinated set of behaviors. These behaviors, in time, become enforced by consistent social norms.

Game theory is a branch of science that tries to model and predict how people interact and how they make decisions in a group or social setting. Akçay, alongside Bryce Morsky, a postdoctoral researcher, focused specifically on ‘correlated equilibria’ — scenarios in which all actors are given correlated signals that dictate their response to any given situation — to look into the issue.

A classical example of a correlated equilibria scenario, Akçay explains, “is a traffic light.” If two people are approaching an intersection, he goes on to say, one will see a ‘stop’ signal and the other one a ‘go’ signal, and both actors know this is the case. The rational way forward, then, is for both actors to obey the signal they see. In this example, the traffic light acts a ‘correlating device’ or a ‘choreographer’, as it informs the behavior of all actors combined.

What the team wanted to see was how this would go down if the correlating device was taken out of the picture. If people had to pay attention to other signals that could direct their actions, and then shape their beliefs according to the success of their actions, would coordinated behaviors arise? Essentially, this would show the team whether evolution can act as a “blind choreographer” of sorts.

“What if a cyclist is riding toward an intersection, and instead of a traffic light they see a cat,” Akçay says. “The cat is irrelevant to the intersection, but maybe the person decides that if they see a black cat, that means they should stop, or that maybe that means the approaching cyclist is going to stop.”

What color the is cat obviously has no bearing on anything else happening in the intersection. A black cat won’t make it more likely that a cyclist enters the intersection any more than a white cat would make it less likely that he wouldn’t. But, and here’s the crux, different colors of cats would have a consistent effect if enough people believed different-colored cats had an effect. It’s a type of conditional strategy that might result in a higher payoff to the cyclist if it is correlated with superstitions of other cyclists, the team explains.

The team’s model assumes that individuals are rational and don’t blindly follow norms, but will do so when the norms seem to have a beneficial effect. They would thus change their beliefs to more closely resemble those of successful people. In effect, this creates a dynamic similar to natural evolution where norms “compete” against one another inside the group.

This process eventually leads to the formation of new social norms. Whether or not these norms are stable, the team also found, comes down to whether they are consistent — meaning that they successfully coordinate individual behavior even in the absence of an external “choreographer.”

“Slowly, these actors accumulate superstitions,” adds Morsky, the study’s first author. “They may say, ‘Ok, well I believe that when I observe this event I should behave this way because another person will behave that way,’ and over time, if they have success in using that kind of a strategy, the superstitions catch on and can become evolutionarily stable.”

“Sometimes it may be rational to hold these irrational beliefs.”

Norms that are able to prescribe how one actor should behave while also giving them a reliable idea of how others will behave in any given situation give rise to superstitions because they help us coordinate large groups even in the absence of outside choreographers, such as traffic lights. To further explore their findings, the researchers hope to engage in social experiments to see whether individuals might start devising their own superstitions or beliefs when none are provided.

“What I like about this work,” says Morsky, “is that these beliefs are made-up superstitions, but they become real because everybody actually follows them, so you create this social reality. I’m really interested in testing that further.”

The paper “Evolution of social norms and correlated equilibria” has been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Experimental setup.

Humans don’t need to understand what they’re doing to create new technology

Humanity didn’t rise to where it is today because of their smarts alone — we got here because we had no issue copying whatever our neighbors invented.

Experimental setup.

Participants could modify the position of 4 weights attached to the wheel’s spokes, in an attempt to increase its speed along the sloping rail.
Image credits Maxime Derex.

An international research team including members from the University of Exeter, the Université Catholique de Lille, CNRS, and Arizona State University, say that new technology doesn’t necessarily hinge on competence. In fact, the creation of effective new technologies doesn’t even require that we understand them, they write.

Monkey see monkey do

It’s easy — and let’s admit it, pleasant — to believe that our success relies on us being smarter and more ingenious than other species. Our fancy tools allowed us to adapt to a variety of environments and out-compete native species, leading us to the world of today, so, naturally, they must be the product of a deeply capable species.

While that may be true, it’s not all brains, says the team. The functionality of many traditional technologies — the bow and arrow or kayaks for example — depends to some extent on parameters that are hard to understand or model even today. This makes some anthropologists suspect that technology arises from our propensity to copy other members of the group, not raw smarts. In such a system, small improvements to any existing technology will be selected for — similarly to biological evolution — eventually generating technologies that are effective despite not being understood by individuals.

The team tested this theory in the lab by asking students to optimize a wheel traveling down on a set of rails. Each was allowed five attempts to produce the most effective configuration they could, before filling out a questionnaire that gauged their knowledge of the physics involved. To simulate successive generations of people, the team created ‘chains’ of students: each individual had access to the wheel configuration and effectiveness from the final two attempts made by the preceding participant.

The set-up did become more efficient (as judged by the wheel’s speed) over the course of these simulated generations, the team reports. However, each individual’s understanding of the physical mechanisms impacting its speed remained mediocre. This strongly suggests that the wheel’s speed wasn’t linked to the participant’s levels of understanding. Each student produced more or less random configurations, but the sum of their trials and errors — as well as the ability to copy the fastest known configuration from previous uses — was enough to refine the ‘technology’ over time.

The team also carried out a second experiment in which participants handed down their last two attempts to the following student. This included the system’s set-up and a piece of text describing their theory on the wheel’s effectiveness. Once again, the wheel would move faster over time, but the individuals were oblivious as to why. The team says that this step shows how transmission of false or incomplete theories could hinder or even prevent later generations properly understanding the system in a way, blinding them to a part of the problem.

All in all, the experiments show how important cultural processes are in the emergence of complex tools, the team explains. Our ability to copy others lets us create technology that no single individual could generate on their own. The authors say the findings suggest we should be more reserved in interpreting archeological remains in terms of cognitive capacity, as their results show that the later does not necessarily drive the former.

Paper DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0567-9


Chimpanzees grooming.

Human interference is destroying chimpanzee culture, a new paper reports

Chimpanzees stand out among other non-human species for their diverse behavior and culture. But, that may not keep true for long, as human activity is essentially destroying that culture, a new study reports.

Chimpanzees grooming.

Young chimpanzees grooming one another.
Image credits Tambako The Jaguar / Flickr.

All great apes, chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) included, are feeling immense pressure as a result of human activity destroying their habitats. Tropical rainforests and savannas (prime habitats for many of these species) are especially-taxed, as they’re being cleared away to make room for croplands, infrastructure, or real estate.

So, it’s not surprising that loss of wildlife is mostly looked at through the lens of biodiversity loss — the decline in the overall number of species or genetic diversity in an ecosystem. However, that’s only part of the picture, a new paper explains. We should also look to what toll our activities take on behavioral diversity in the wild, which is a rarely-looked-at facet of biodiversity.

How chimps are faring

The team, led by Hjalmar Kühl and Ammie Kalan of the Department of Primatology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), worked with a dataset detailing the behavior of 31 chimpanzees from 144 different social groups or communities spread across the ape’s entire geographic range.

Part of this data was available from previous research, and the rest was recorded by the team at 46 locations over the last 9 years, as part of the Pan African Programme (not to be confused with the EU’s Pan-African Programme). The data focused mainly on extraction and consumption of termites, ants, algae, nuts, and honey, tool use, along with the use of stones, pools, and caves for shelter among several other factors. Such activities, the team writes, are passed down socially in chimpanzee communities and vary from group to group, essentially forming a ‘cultural’ background.

The occurence of each type of behavior was analyzed in regards to an overall measure of human impact at each site. This figure aggregates several factors (such as human population density and, road, river, and forest cover) that indicate the level of disturbance and the degree of habitat change caused by human activity.

“The analysis revealed a strong and robust pattern: chimpanzees had reduced behavioral diversity at sites where human impact was high,” explains Kalan.

“This pattern was consistent, independent of the grouping or categorization of behaviors. On average, chimpanzee behavioral diversity was reduced by 88 percent when human impact was highest compared to locations with the least human impact.”

Population size and integrity play a key role in the maintenance of cultural traits in humans, the team writes. It likely functions the same way in chimpanzee groups, they add. Another possible cause for the observed reduction in behavioral diversity may stem from the chimps avoiding conspicuous behaviors that may draw in hunters, such as nut cracking.

Habitat degradation (and its associated resource depletion) may also limit opportunities for social learning in chimpanzee communities — which would prevent them from passing down traditions between generations. The team also cites climate change as a likely cause, as it may influence the growth cycles of the chimps’ food resources, making them unpredictable.

However, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the observed effects are caused by a combination of these factors.

“Our findings suggest that strategies for the conservation of biodiversity should be extended to include the protection of animal behavioral diversity as well,” says Kühl.

“Locations with exceptional sets of behaviors may be protected as ‘Chimpanzee cultural heritage sites’ and this concept can be extended to other species with high degree of cultural variability as well, including orangutans, capuchin monkeys or whales.”

The paper “Human impact erodes chimpanzee behavioral diversity” has been published in the journal Science.

For banded mongooses, ‘cultural inheritance’ decides what’s for dinner

It’s no surprise that for humans, culture decides a vast majority of our preferences: from the language we speak to the food we like. But surprisingly, animals also make decisions based on cultural preferences.

Image credits: Feargus Cooney.

Why do we do the things that we do? We might think it’s in our genes or it’s just who we are (and that’s partially true), but our culture also plays an important role.

“Cultural inheritance, the transmission of socially learned information across generations, is a huge influence on human behavior: we behave the way we do not just because of our genes, but also because of what we learn from parents, teachers, and cultural role models,” says Michael Cant from the University of Exeter. “It is less well appreciated that cultural inheritance is a major force shaping behavior in a wide range of non-human animals, from insects to apes.”

Intriguingly, this is not something limited to humans — or to primates, for that matter. Among others, whales and birds have been shown to exhibit cultural inheritance, and it makes a lot of sense: parents pass information off to their offspring, helping them adapt to the world more quickly and waste less energy learning useful skills.

Along with these useful skills, parents also pass down preference, but this has been notoriously difficult to study in mammals. In a new study, Cant and colleagues had to take advantage of a quirk in banded mongoose society. Banded mongooses live in highly cooperative groups. The groups trust other members of the society so much that offspring form exclusive one-to-one caring relationships with unrelated adults — called escorts. Escorts aren’t really related to the offspring, it’s just a case of simple fostering.

Cant and his team closely followed this relationship and surprisingly, found that the younglings tend to follow the foraging behavior of the escorts who took care of them — not their parents. In other words, the mongoose exhibit cultural, and not genetic, inheritance.

“It was a big surprise to discover that foraging behavior learned in the first three months of life lasts a lifetime,” Cant says. “To illustrate, our data show that even middle-aged mongooses are still copying the foraging behavior of the escort that looked after them for a short period when they were a small pup, years before. This is pretty remarkable, since we have no evidence that pups and escorts preferentially hang out together after pups become independent.”

The study seems to suggest that cultural inheritance may be a much more pervasive behavior than we thought. It doesn’t require a large brain or mental complexity, Cant says, and might, therefore, be much more common than we once thought it to be.

Ultimately, researchers say they’d like “to understand not just how different early life influences on development work in social organisms, but why they evolved.”

Journal Reference: Sheppard & Marshall et al.: “Decoupling of Genetic and Cultural Inheritance in a Wild Mammal”. Current Biology. https://www.cell.com/current-biology/fulltext/S0960-9822(18)30603-1


Political preference doesn’t dictate your views on climate — except if you’re American

Climate skepticism has nothing to do with science — and everything to do with culture and politics, one study reveals.


Seen at the People’s Climate March in 2017, in Washington DC.
Image via Wikimedia.

One thing that’s really strange about the US to outsiders is how neatly divided the climate change debate seems to be across political cohorts: conservatives say it’s a Chinese hoax, liberals argue that it’s real. For the rest of us (scientists and laymen both), there’s hardly a debate at all — climate change is happening, and we’re the cause. It’s especially striking since the US doesn’t have a monopoly on conservatives, but it does seem to hold one over climate-change-denying conservatives.

So what gives?

Wanting to get to the bottom of things, a team from the University of Queensland in Australia surveyed over 5,000 people in 25 countries. Respondents were asked to answer several questions that placed them on four different political scales: left vs. right, liberal vs. conservative, individualist vs. communitarian, and hierarchical vs. egalitarian. Other questions in the survey probed into their views on conspiracy theories in order to test if conspirationist thinking was linked to the idea that climate change is a hoax.

The study did indeed reveal that the US is in a category of its own with regards to climate change: it is the only country in the world with a strong, statistically significant correlation between all four political scales and opinion on climate. In other words, every group on the political spectrum has its own view on the subject, and identifying with a political group will be a strong predictor of the views you hold on climate change — but only if you’re an American. The US also showed a statistically significant correlation between climate views and conspiracy theories– although it’s not unique in this regard: a few other countries, for example Singapore, showed similar correlations.

The closest similarities to the US that the team could find were Australia and Canada. They too showed statistically significant correlations between political ideology and opinions on climate, but these were much weaker and only held true for three of the four political scales investigated. Brazil showed correlation for two of the four scales. The UK, although boasting its own climate-skeptics, didn’t have a single statistically significant correlation.


Correlations between the different parameters and views on climate change.
Image credits Hornsey et al., 2018 / Nature Climate Change

One thing the US, Australia, Canada, and Brazil have in common, the team notes, is that they are among the highest per capita greenhouse emitters in the world. They admit that it could be a simple coincidence, but also point out that countries who use the most fossil fuels (so have the highest emissions) per capita also stand to lose the most should they acknowledge the climate change reality.

“It may be that per capita carbon emissions is a proxy for vested interests around climate change, both collectively (in terms of the fossil fuel industry’s investment in that country) and individually (in terms of the perceived sacrifices and changes that citizens feel they need to make to live a low-carbon lifestyle),” the team writes.

What the team proposes is that climate skepticism is actually a cultural phenomenon, not something inherent in political ideology. If cultural leaders promote an idea long enough, their cultural group picks up on it and embeds it in the group’s mentality and identity — it becomes part of what it means to belong to that group. If nobody influential enough is there to promote these ideas, they simply don’t catch on — which is what happened with most other scientific debates in America.

The team considers this to be good news. There are few countries where climate science and political identities are merged together — the US is an exception, rather than the rule. It’s not an ideal scenario, with the US being one of the largest global emitters, as well as an economic and technological powerhouse, but at least it means that, in other places around the world, people are willing to do something to fix climate change no matter where they stand on politics.

The paper “Relationships among conspiratorial beliefs, conservatism and climate scepticism across nations” has been published in the journal Nature.

According to scientists, these are the three kinds of smile

People smile in a number of ways and in a wide range of contexts, but according to a new study, all of them fall into one of three categories: rewardaffiliation, and dominance.

A smile can change the world

A smile is a strange thing. We do it by using our facial muscles, but more often than not, it’s more than just the mouth that smiles. A smile which doesn’t involve contracting the corners of the eyes, for instance, always looks a bit weird. It’s also not a completely involuntary reaction (like a grimace) — cross cultural studies have found significant differences in the way different cultures smile; obviously, we can also fake a smile. But no matter how people smile around the world, smiling is one of the most important social cues, and people have been doing it since forever. Actually, smiling predates the existence of modern people by quite a lot.

Primatologist Signe Preuschoft traces the smile back over 30 million years of evolution to a “fear grin” stemming from monkeys and apes. Across history, smiling evolved differently in different species, and in humans, in different cultures.

Also contrary to popular belief, smiling isn’t really a precursor for laughing — although we use it a lot when we’re amused. More than anything, smiling is used to convey social information. Sexual advertisement is one of its main functions. Every flirt starts with a smile, and smiling to someone is one of the simplest and more effective ways of telling someone you find them appealing. But a smile can do much more than that. It can show reinforcement, it can be used for manipulation, or even to mask confusion. Different people smile in a lot of different ways, but according to researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, they all fall in one of three categories.

Smike like you mean it

“When distinguishing among smiles, both scientists and laypeople have tended to focus on true and false smiles,” said Paula Niedenthal, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The classical belief, she adds, is that a person smiles but isn’t happy, the smile isn’t sincere. But smiling is associated with so many emotional states, that belief is simply not true. In fact, it’s more than not true, it’s counterproductive. Believing that smiles are intrinsically linked to happiness skews our understanding of the process, and scientists want to change that idea.

  • The first type of smile, they say, is the reward smile. This is the most intuitive one, “the kind of smile you would use with a baby, so he will smile back or do things you like”, says Niedenthal. It’s basically a way of saying you’re feeling good about something. It’s the “I like you” smile. The study describes them thusly:

Reward smiles are displayed to reward the self or other people and to communicate positive experiences or intentions… the reward smile may have evolved from the play face of primates and canids.

  • The second type is the affiliative smile, which above anything, communicates tolerance. It’s the “I don’t necessarily like you, but you’re OK” smile. It’s used to ease in social bonding.

Affiliative smiles facilitate social bonding by communicating approachability, acknowledgment, and appeasement and thus may be functionally similar to the silent baredteeth display in chimpanzees that occurs during grooming, sexual solicitation, and submission.

  • The third type has a darker side. The dominance smile is used to signify social status, but it also involves facial movement that is associated with joyfulness, which makes it a bit confusing.

Dominance smiles serve to maintain and negotiate social or moral status and are associated with superiority or pride, defiance, derision, and contempt. Unlike reward and affiliative smiles, dominance smiles are assumed to elicit negative feelings in observers. No homologous primate facial expression is known; however, some facial expressions displayed by high-status animal aggressors involve smile components.

Smile, humanz

Rather ironically, in order to understand how humans smile, researchers analyzed thousands of computer-generated expressions, involving different (random) combinations of facial muscles. They asked volunteers to say whether each was a reward or affiliative or a dominance smile, or not a smile at all. After this, researchers looked at the algorithm that generated each smile and identified the ‘recipe’ for each type of smile.

“We now know which movements we should look for when we describe smiles from real life,” said Magdalena Rychlowska from Cardiff University, who was the lead author of the study. “We can treat smiles as a set of mathematical parameters, create models of people using different types of smiles, and use them in new studies.”

It’s not the first time a trichotomy of smiles has been proposed. Some of the current authors proposed it back in 2010, but this latest work does a lot to solidify that theory. Rychlowska et al. also published a paper in 2015 discussing the “main reasons for smiling” — but that study, just like this one, had a major limitation: participants were all white, American college students, and the virtual faces were also white. But taking this into consideration, the study concludes that “results highlight the versatile nature of the human smile, which can be used for multiple social tasks, including love, sympathy, and war.”

Two boys smiling in Bangladesh. Image credits: Sumon Mallick.

Aside from better understanding our social cues, this study can also have a more pragmatic result: it can help plastic and reconstructive surgeons better repair and reconstruct people’s face bones and muscles, making them seem more realistic.

Journal Reference: Magdalena Rychlowska et al Functional Smiles: Tools for Love, Sympathy, and War. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797617706082

Killer Whales Orcas

Culture drives distinct genetic evolution in killer whales — the first non-human animal to do so

Researchers at University of Bern, Switzerland, found that Orcinus orca (killer whales) populations have evolved distinct genetic lineages due to unique hunting strategies. Adults pass down knowledge about what and how to hunt to the young, a form of cultural transfer. This implies that culture has had such a profound effect on the orcas that individual groups have started to diverge. This has only been observed in humans before.

Killer Whales Orcas

Credit: Pixabay

Humans are a globally dispersed species, but the populations vary in their genetic makeup. Environmental cues like temperature, food availability, the seasons and such force adaptations like dark skin in Africa, for instance. But besides the natural ecosystem, humans also receive inputs from their own fabricated microcosmos. We wear clothes, live in homes that shelter us from the elements and farm food.

These cultural cues will also trigger genetic changes, which will vary from population to population. Perhaps the clearest example is the domestication of cattle which forced the adaptation of lactose tolerance genes. Lactose tolerance varies greatly by geographical distribution, though. Up to 90 percent of Northern European populations are lactose tolerant, but in some Asian countries, 90 percent of the population is lactose intolerant.

Lactose Tolerance map

Credit; Nature

Like humans, orcas are also highly dispersed around the globe, living in waters ranging from the tropics to the poles. Like humans, orcas form communities which occupy a certain single area for a very long time, like a permanent settlement. In these communities, the orcas will develop their own hunting strategies, adapting to the kind of prey available. Some will target fish, while other groups or pods will specialize on seals.

These very niched strategies are sophisticated and require the kind of coordination and knowledge which isn’t available from birth. Instead, the adults will train the juveniles over decades if necessary.

Knowing this, some biologists wondered: will these distinct cultural trends result in distinct genetic populations in orcas just like in humans? Andrew Foote at the University of Bern and colleagues set out to answer this question. The team sampled and sequenced genetic material from 50 killer whales belonging to five distinct niches.

Results suggest the five cultural niches corresponded to exactly five distinct genomes, confirming the hypothesis. All of these groups share a common ancestor which lived as recently as 200,000 years ago, the researchers wrote in Nature Communications. 

Foote says each niche was occupied initially by a small group of founding members then gradually expanded. These founding members, which we can call eccentrics because they decided to venture into a new niche, were successful thanks to their individual flexibility. But the survival of the entire pod over centuries in the same niche relies on know-how transfer, hence culture.

This research is striking because it proves culture is powerful enough to transform the genetic makeup of populations, in humans and non-human animals alike. Is this the case of other animals besides humans and orcas? Should be, but there aren’t that many that can boast the necessary characteristics like sophisticated social structure, longevity and high-order intelligence. Whales and other primates might also confirm the findings.

Spectacular Archaeological Discovery: Lost City Belonging to Mysterious Culture Discovered in the Honduran Rain Forest

An expedition in the Honduras has emerged from the jungle with a spectacular announcement: they have discovered the remains of a lost city belonging to an unknown, mysterious culture.

A “were-jaguar” effigy, likely representing a combination of a human and spirit animal, is part of a still-buried ceremonial seat, or metate, one of many artifacts discovered in a cache in ruins deep in the Honduran jungle.  PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A “were-jaguar” effigy, likely representing a combination of a human and spirit animal, is part of a still-buried ceremonial seat, or metate, one of many artifacts discovered in a cache in ruins deep in the Honduran jungle.

The team was investigating a lead regarding the site of a storied “White City,” also referred to in legend as the “City of the Monkey God.”  La Ciudad Blanca (the White City) is a legendary settlement said to be located in the Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras. Interest in Ciudad Blanca grew in the 1990s as numerous explorers searched for it and news of archeological work in the area was chronicled in popular media but today, many archaeologists and historians doubt it exists. Over 200 archeological sites have been discovered and documented in Mosquitia during the last century, with no palpable indication of the White City… but archaeologists are still giving it a shot.

An unknown culture

The team, which returned from the site less than a week ago, reported finding an entire city from an unknown culture; they surveyed and mapped extensive plazas, earthworks, mounds, and an earthen pyramid, as well as numerous spectacular stone statues. All the findings show that the culture thrived for hundreds (maybe even thousands) of years before disappearing.

nat geo 3

Anna Cohen, a University of Washington anthropology grad student, documents a cache of more than 50 artifacts discovered in the jungle. Following scientific protocol, no objects were removed from the site. PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC


Contrary to the nearby Maya civilization, which is well known and studied, we don’t even have a name for this one – until recently, no one even knew they existed. Christopher Fisher, a Mesoamerican archaeologist on the team from Colorado State University, said the pristine, unlooted condition of the site was “incredibly rare.”

“The undisturbed context is unique,” Fisher said. “This is a powerful ritual display, to take wealth objects like this out of circulation.”

No less than 52 artifacts were found peeking from the earth, while even more potentially lie below, buried; they may have been an offering or part of a ritual. Out of all of them, the most spectacular find is a type of “were-jaguar”, depicting what seems to be a shaman in a transformed, spirit state. It could also be a part of a ritualized ball game that mesoamerican cultures are known to have played.

“The figure seems to be wearing a helmet,” said Fisher. Team member Oscar Neil Cruz, head archaeologist at the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History (IHAH), believes the artifacts date to A.D. 1000 to 1400.

Needless to say, the location has not been disclosed to the public, to protect the site from looters.

Surveying the unknown

The ruins were first identified in May 2012, during an aerial survey of a remote valley in La Mosquitia, which is basically a network of swamps, rivers, mountains and rainforests. The survey was done with a LIDAR scanner, a remote sensing technology that measures distance by illuminating a target with a laser and analyzing the reflected light. The LIDAR is able to map the ground and identify man-made structures even through (or in some cases, under) the thick rainforest.

A unexplored valley in Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, a region long rumored to contain a legendary “White City,” also called the City of the Monkey God.  PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

A unexplored valley in Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, a region long rumored to contain a legendary “White City,” also called the City of the Monkey God.

As scientists were analysing and processing the images, they started to observe an emerging pattern – unnatural features stretching for more than a mile through the valley. They quickly learned that the entire terrain had been altered by humans, and this could only mean one thing – a long lasting civilization reshaped the environment by hand. Ceremonial architecture, giant earthworks and house mounds, possible irrigation canals and reservoirs, all led Fisher to conclude that the settlement was, indeed, a pre-Columbian city.

But nothing in archaeology is confirmed until it is observed on the ground level, so the team set to find and observe the place for themselves.

“The ground exploration team consisted of American and Honduran archaeologists, a lidar engineer, an anthropologist, an ethnobotanist, documentary filmmakers, and support personnel. Sixteen Honduran Special Forces soldiers provided security. The National Geographic Society sent a photographer and a writer,” writes National Geographic.

The expedition confirmed the LIDAR expectations, and found even more spectacular features. While they may have not found the White City, they found something which can be even more important – a lost civilization.

“This is clearly the most undisturbed rain forest in Central America,” said the expedition’s ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin, who spent 30 years in Amazonia. “The importance of this place can’t be overestimated.”

Indeed, it seems very likely that the rainforests both in South and Central America harbor ancient, yet undiscovered civilizations. In 2013, archaeologist and professor Martti Pärssinen from the University of Helsinki found evidence of an entirely new, unknown civilization in the rainforests in Brazil. But the problem is that these clues might not be around forever. Deforestation is running rampant throughout the entire continent, with huge swaths of forests being cleared out illegally, to make way for agriculture or cattle (or simply for wood sale).

In addition to looting, another threat to the newly discovered ruins is deforestation for cattle ranching, seen here on a hillside on the way to the site. At its present pace, deforestation could reach the valley within a few years.  PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVE YODER, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

In addition to looting, another threat to the newly discovered ruins is deforestation for cattle ranching, seen here on a hillside on the way to the site. At its present pace, deforestation could reach the valley within a few years.

Virgilio Paredes Trapero, the director of the Institute for Anthropology and History (IHAH) made a grim estimate about the future of the area:

“If we don’t do something right away, most of this forest and valley will be gone in eight years.” He spread his hands. “The Honduran government is committed to protecting this area, but doesn’t have the money. We urgently need international support.”

Hopefully, the removal of the rainforests can be stopped or at least heavily slowed down soon – if not for these amazing cultures, then for the planet.

Source: National Geographic.



The cost of culture and learning is disease, but it’s been worth it

Transferring knowledge from one individual to the other forms the basis of all human cultures, whether we’re talking about learning how to chop wood, how the Earth actually revolves in a counter-intuitive manner around the sun and no the other way around, or how the Earth is a planet in the first place and everything it entails. Each human consciousness starts as a clean state and it’s up to our families, society and its legacy to guide us through and teach us. History, science, philosophy or even the study of religion (often overlooked for all the bad reasons in modern society) – where would we be without them? Well, for one a bit healthier if we’re to lean credence to a Harvard study which found a direct link between learning and an increased risk of contacting diseases.

A curiosity-killed-the-cat scenario


Image: Royal Society

The whole idea is that learning from others brings us closer, literally. We need to be close to another person to learn from his behavior or listen to what he has to say, so there’s this sort of intuitive idea that learning drives socially transmitted diseases, like the flu. Likewise, learning through exploration exposes you to previously unknown pathogens and parasites from the environment. Of course, today in the age of the internet no one is bound by these rules. You could very well live in your basement all your life and study all the wealth of human knowledge without being at risk of contacting a disease from some other human. But that’s besides the point, so bear with me.

[ALSO READ] Chimps Pass down Skills to Peers and Establish Cultures

Collin McCabe, a doctoral student in Harvard’s Department of Human Evolutionary Biology,  and colleagues  examined data on social learning and exploratory behavior across 127 primate species and compared these with the diversity of pathogens and parasites within the same species.

“What we were trying to understand was what the causal relationship, if any, might be between how an animal learns and its disease burden,” McCabe said. “The question was whether animals that have more diseases are forced to come up with new solutions for coping with these infections. That idea, what we call the compensation hypothesis, takes the disease as a given and argues that behavior develops in response to diseases.

“The alternative — what we called the exposure hypothesis — suggests that animals that are more exploratory and learn more from others expose themselves to more diseases through more-frequent contact with other individuals or the environment,” McCabe continued. “That is, disease is a consequence, not a cause of behavioral flexibility.”

The results speak for themselves: more social learning was associated with an increased risk of socially transmitted disease, and more exploratory learning was associated with an increased risk of environmentally transmitted disease, no other correlations were found. Of course, because human culture is so diverse and complex it’s nearly impossible to make an accurate judgement on how disease carrying was influenced by it. The researchers believe, however, that there’s no reason why the result shouldn’t also apply to humans. The paper was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

[BEAUTIFUL DATA] How culture migrated and expanded from city to city in the past 2,000 years

“The same processes — innovation and social learning — that lead to non-human primate cultural transmission are the very building blocks of human culture.

“On one hand, I think this might be a good explanation for why we don’t see every animal inhabiting the same brainy niche that humans do,” McCabe said. “Because there are significant costs that go along with learning, and each species is equipped with varying behaviors and other coping mechanisms, it doesn’t really make sense for every animal to become a great learner.

“There’s also a good amount of irony in the fact that the same set of behaviors that allowed us to domesticate livestock and build the pyramids is also what exposed us to the sort of diseases that occur when people live in close contact and start to try new things, so this provides an interesting perspective on human evolution.”

I found the findings really interesting for a number of different reasons. Humans are social creatures – keep a person alone for a year and you’ll turn him into a lunatic. Obviously, at some point there was a tradeoff: human ancestors, guided by an unseen mechanism, realized there’s a net benefit to sticking together and sharing knowledge, food or wealth, despite the risk of transmitting diseases. The opportunity of transmitting an idea, is well worth the risk. Then again, look at us now. If humans didn’t know to cooperate and form cultures, we’d never have a cure for the thousands variants of diseases that affect or used to affect people since the dawn of mankind. Somewhere, sometime a line was drawn and we all chanted in rapture: it was all worth it!

Killer whales are so smart they can learn to speak “dolphin”

Killer whales are smart, we already know that; they’re also really scary. But a new study has shown that they are actually scary smart – up to the point where they can learn the language of another species.

Killer Smart

Image via Animal National.

Killer whales are actually a species of dolphins found in all oceans, from the frigid Arctic and Antarctic regions to tropical seas. They have extremely diverse diets and can adapt to what the local environment can provide. Killer whales are notable for their complex societies. Only elephants and higher primates, such as humans, live in comparably complex social structures. Due to the fact that they have complex social bonds, many scientists have argued that it is not humane to keep orcas (as they are also called) in captivity.

Killer whales have the second-heaviest brains among marine mammals, after Sperm whales. They are known to teach their offspring and to imitate other creatures. They also have advanced communication skills. The killer whale’s use of dialects and the passing of other learned behaviours from generation to generation have been described as a form of animal culture.

“The complex and stable vocal and behavioural cultures of sympatric groups of killer whales (Orcinus orca) appear to have no parallel outside humans and represent an independent evolution of cultural faculties” – a 2001 Cambridge study concluded.

Talk like a Dolphin

Image source.

In this new study, orcas who were familiar with bottlenose dolphins started making similar sounds to the dolphins, with more clicks and fewer longer calls; basically, they started to mimic the bottlenose dolphin language. This could indicate that orcas have their own language and dialects, University of San Diego graduate student Whitney Musser and Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute senior research scientist Dr. Ann Bowles published in The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America suggest. More proof is needed however.

“There’s been an idea for a long time that killer whales learn their dialect, but it isn’t enough to say they all have different dialects so therefore they learn. There needs to be some experimental proof so you can say how well they learn and what context promotes learning,” Bowles said.

Considering orcas have different dialects and even express different cultural behavior from one population to another, it seems entirely reasonable (and remarkable) that they are able to learn the language of another cetacean. The fact that they have similar vocal chords also helps in this aspect. However, the fact that they are larger makes it more difficult for them to vocalize.

But why do they do this? It’s still not clear. Researchers are currently more interested in to the how of the story:

“It’s important to understand how they acquire [their vocalization patterns], and lifelong, to what degree they can change it, because there are a number of different populations on the decline right now,” Bowles said. “And where killer whales go, we can expect other small whale species to go — it’s a broader question.”

The Killer whales of Eden, Australia

This story has nothing to do with the study I described above, but I think it paints a good picture on how adaptable orcas really are. The killer whales of Eden, Australia were a group of killer whales known for their co-operation with human hunters of other whale species. Basically, for one orca generation (about 90 years, from 1840 and 1930) they were seen near the port of Eden in southeastern Australia.

The killer whales would find target whales, shepherd them into Twofold Bay, and then alert the whalers to their presence and often help to kill the whales. The whalers would come in, kill the whales, and then allow the orcas to feed off the whales before the whalers brought the whales in. The leader of the orca group was called Old Tom; he would alert the human whalers to the presence of a baleen whale in the bay by breaching or tailslapping at the mouth of the Kiah River.

The unique behaviour of killer whales in the area was recorded in the 1840s by whaling overseer Sir Oswald Brierly in his extensive diaries. It was discussed in many scientific circles and described in many scientific studies. While co-operative hunting between humans and wild cetaceans exists in other parts of the world, the relationship between whalers and killer whales in Eden appears to be unique. What’s interesting is that the initiative for this cooperation came from the orcas – not from humans. It’s not clear how they came up with this idea or how they developed this behavior, but it highlights once again that killer whales are able to develop long-standing relationships with other species – even some as different as humans.

Archaeologists find 3.900 year old armor made from bones

Archaeologists are intrigued by the discovery of a complete and well preserved warrior armor made from bones. This highly valuable find was probably a war trophy, and was worn by an elite warrior or warchief. The armour was in ‘perfect condition’, and nothing similar was ever found in the area (or anywhere else).


It was buried separate from its owner, and was found around Omsk, in south-western Siberia. It is probably an artifact from the Krotov culture, which is well documented in the area. The Krotov were animal breeders in the steppe and forest-steppe area of the Western Siberia Altai mountainous area of Russia. However, this armor seems more like something made by the Samus-Seyminskaya culture, who inhabited an area 1000 km southwest of the find. If this is indeed the case, then the armor may have been a gift or perhaps spoils of war.

Boris Konikov, curator of excavations, said:

‘It is unique first of all because such armour was highly valued. It was more precious than life, because it saved life.Secondly, it was found in a settlement, and this has never happened before. There were found separate fragments in burials, like on Rostovka burial ground.’


Archaeologists still haven’t figured out what from what animal bones the armor was made, but that should be fairly easy to figure out – after it is washed and cleaned.

‘We ourselves can not wait to see it, but at the moment it undergoing restoration, which is a is long, painstaking process. As a result we hope to reconstruct an exact copy’, Boris Konikov said.

It’s not clear if the armor was used in combat or if it was more a trophy, but archaeologists believe it definitely would have been useful in fights. But one thing is for sure – due to its rarity and the difficulty of craftsmanship, the armor almost certainly belonged to a ‘hero’, a warrior of legendary status.

‘While there is no indication that the place of discovery of the armour was a place of worship, it is very likely. Armour had great material value. There was no sense to dig it in the ground or hide it for a long time – because the fixings and the bones would be ruined. Such armour needs constant care. At the moment we can only fantasise – who dug it into the ground and for what purpose. Was it some ritual or sacrifice? We do not know yet.’


The site where the armor was found also included a complex series of monuments belonging to different epochs. There are settlements, burial grounds, and manufacturing sites. Burials have been found here from the  Early Neolithic period to the Middle Ages. The main, long term goal is to preserve and promote the site, helping the nearby community in the process.

‘Our goal is to save the site, to research it and to promote it. We organise excursions for schoolchildren and draw the attention of citizens to this unique site.’

The migration of the world's intellectuals traced back in history.

How culture migrated and expanded from city to city in the past 2,000 years

Using nothing but birth and death records, sociologists at North­eastern Uni­ver­sity  developed a working framework that details the migration patterns of some of humanity’s most notable intellectuals in North America and Europe in the past 2,000 years. The data allowed the researchers to iden­tify the major cul­tural cen­ters on the two con­ti­nents over two millennia. Rome, Paris, London and New York are some of the world’s prolific cultural centers in history.

A history of culture

The migration of the world's intellectuals traced back in history.

The migration of the world’s intellectuals traced back in history.

The researchers extensively relied on big datasets, like the Gen­eral Artist Lex­icon that con­sists exclu­sively of artists and includes more than 150,000 names and Free­base with roughly 120,000 indi­vid­uals, 2,200 of whom are artists. Using network tools and complexity theory, the researchers drew migration patterns that helped paint a broad picture of how culture converged and migrated from hub to hub, retracing the cultural narratives of Europe and North America.

“By tracking the migra­tion of notable indi­vid­uals for over two mil­lennia, we could for the first time explore the boom and bust of the cul­tural cen­ters of the world,” said Albert-​​László Barabási, Robert Gray Dodge Pro­fessor of Net­work Sci­ence and director of Northeastern’s Center for Com­plex Net­work Research. “The observed rapid changes offer a fas­ci­nating view of the tran­sience of intel­lec­tual supremacy.”

For example, Rome was a major cul­tural hub until the late 18th cen­tury, at which point Paris took over the reins. Around the 16th century, in Europe at least, two distinct approaches could be identified:  countries with intellectual ‘monster hubs’ that attract a sub­stan­tial and con­stant flow of intel­lec­tuals (i.e.: Paris, France) and a more dispersed regime with cities within a fed­eral region (i.e.: Ger­many) com­peting with each other for their share of intel­lec­tuals, clearly outnumbered by the monster hubs but well above average, compensating in numbers.

Where culture goes to die

The dawn of the XXth century saw New York not only a bustling cultural center where many intellectuals would flock, but also a fantastic breeding ground where many notable figures of the time were born. Addi­tion­ally, loca­tions like Hol­ly­wood, the Alps, and the French Riv­iera, which have not pro­duced a large number of notable fig­ures, have become, at dif­ferent points in his­tory, major des­ti­na­tions for intel­lec­tuals, per­haps ini­tially emerging for rea­sons such as the location’s beauty or climate.

“We’re starting out to do some­thing which is called cul­tural sci­ence where we’re in a very sim­ilar tra­jec­tory as sys­tems biology for example,” said Schich, now an asso­ciate pro­fessor in arts and tech­nology at the Uni­ver­sity of Texas at Dallas. “As data sets about birth and death loca­tions grow, the approach will be able to reveal an even more com­plete pic­ture of his­tory. In the next five to 10 years, we’ll have con­sid­er­ably larger amounts of data and then we can do more and better, address more questions.”

Possibly the most interesting tidbit from the study is the fact that over the past eight centuries, the migration distance people have undertaken has not increased considerably, despite considerable transportation advancements (motor cars, trains) or extensive colonization. The findings seem to support Ernst Georg Ravenstein’s empirical findings based on the migration patterns he studied in the XIX century: most migrants do not go very far, those who do aim for big cities, urban centres grow from immigration far more than procreation, and so on.

The findings were reported in the journal Science. Below you can watch a beautiful time lapse video of how culture migrated in history.