Journal Club roundup

Post by Catherine

We at the excd.lab are a highly interdisciplinary bunch, with backgrounds spanning anthropology, linguistics, psychology, philosophy, music, biology, and statistics. Nowhere is this more evident than in our weekly journal club, where we come together (in an archaeology laboratory!) to discuss cultural evolution and learn more about each other’s areas of research.

The first rotation of papers was intended to be an introduction to each other’s fields. If you could inflict on (er, ‘present to’) your colleagues one paper from your specialty, what would it be?



The second set of journal club readings fell under the theme ‘classic papers in your field.’ What early paper in your field’s history best showcases why your specialty is so exciting? Note: we interpreted ‘early’ in a metaphorical sense.



The third sequence of papers explicitly focused on the present day. What’s an exciting paper in your field from the past few years?



We’re now partway into our fourth cycle of journal club papers. We don’t have a theme so far, aside from the entirely independent selection of two papers by Richard McElreath, but we’re beginning to learn what sort of papers make for interesting journal club discussions. Ideally, we’re looking for papers that bring together big ideas from multiple disciplines, that clearly explain their hypotheses and methodologies to a generalist audience, and that have implications that we can tie into our own specialities. (Easier said than done, right?!)



What papers have you been reading recently? Do you have any suggestions for our lab group? Let us know in the comments here or on Twitter, @excd_lab!

excd.lab summer by the numbers


How big is your N?

Over summer, lab members have been super-busy on their various projects, taking advantage of the quiet(er) environment out of the teaching term. In the autumn, we have PhD upgrades, submissions, and vivas; papers to submit; some lab members to farewell (boo), and excitingly, a number of folk will be presenting at the Inaugural Cultural Evolution Society conference in Jena, Germany.

As a round-up, here’s “EXCD by the numbers”:

SeanThe Great Language Game is a large-scale online game where players listen to an audio speech sample and guess which language that they think they’re hearing. We analysed 15 million judgements from 964,000 participants from 80 countries. We found that people are more likely to confuse languages that are closely related in time and space.

Simon: As my research focuses on the micro rather than the macro, the most impressive number I can give in relation to this work is one – to represent each of the international student sojourners who make up my research participants, and the unique quality of their experiences that furnishes my data.

Catherine: I’ve collected Australian kinship terms from the Pama-Nyungan language family. This section of Kinbank, our database of kinship terminologies for the VariKin Evolution project, contains 13,338 words across 77 languages, while the Atlantic-Congo section that we’ve just started currently stands at 802 words across 23 languages. We are analysing 29 Pama-Nyungan languages to investigate the potential link between community marriage norms and the words one uses to talk about one’s grandparents. In my ornithological life, I was part of a recently-published study that analysed images of 49,175 eggs from 1,400 species of birds, demonstrating that egg shape is linked to avian flight ability.

Sam: There are a theoretical 10,480,142,147 different ways to classify 16 different family members. In KinBank right now we have data on 407 languages and have collected 52,408 kin-terms.

Alice: During ongoing fieldwork for the VariKin Acquisition subproject, I have collected around 38 hours of recordings of Datooga children’s interactions with adults and other children. We have so far transcribed 18,300 words of these recordings. The youngest speaker currently has 1 kinship term in his active vocabulary: ‘mother’, which he only uses in the expression “mother’s stomach!”, meaning “I swear!”

Peter: I compiled a frequency database for the VariKin Usage project. It contains information on the frequency of use of 45 distinct kin term types (such as “mother” or “mother’s father”) from 21 Indo-European languages, covering 498 distinct forms in three separate textual genres, sampling spoken, written, and on-line use. Sam and I are using these data to estimate the rate of change of a set of kin terms in Indo-European and compare it to the rate of change of basic vocabulary items. I am working on a similar database in Arabic and other non-Indo-European languages.

Rebecca: As part of my MSc project I have analysed data on marriage practices and parental investment strategies for 262 societies in four different language families. We are determining whether these cultural traits are evolving differently in each language family and whether they have a co-evolutionary relationship.

Alarna5’33” is the length of each of the recordings of two creation stories we are inviting participants in the UK and US to listen to. These stories combined contain 538 propositions that participants are asked to recall, and contain at least 6 types of content bias. The Transmission project has currently collected 1,439 minutes (23 hours and 59 minutes) of audio recordings from participants.

Cecilia: There are over 10,000 possible permutations of pitch and tone elaboration (lengthening, decoration etc) offered by the music systems of 15 worldwide music cultures (thanks to Sean for doing the math). And yet in 182 musical endings randomly selected from a project-wide sample of over 1,500 pieces, most final tones fall into one or other of only two combinations.

Fiona: I’m lucky to have eleven fantastic graduate students and postdocs in the excd.lab. Since last September we’ve had around eight visitors to the lab, two summer interns, and acquired 1 honorary lab member, Rob Ross. In a few weeks we’ll be welcoming two data collection assistants (Lucy Harries (back) and Luis Henrique), and hosting two visitors, Andreea Calude from New Zealand, and Joshua Birchall from Brazil. I have learned and used functions from about 14 R packages in the pursuit of analysing data on Pacific agricultural systems, and am writing 1 new undergraduate course for the autumn.

Big Bang Science Fair


Lucy, Shakti, and Sam at the excd.lab stall.

Last week, the excd.lab sent a team to “Big Bang Bristol“, a two day science, technology, engineering, and maths extravaganza.

Guest post by Shakti Puri & Lucy Harries.

The fair had the purpose of introducing children to research through hands-on experiments, activities, and live demonstrations. Our stall, entitled the ‘Science of Culture’, consisted of a range of activities based on ongoing lab work, such as kinship, cultural transmission, linguistic relativity, and ecology, with the aim of engaging and educating students on the science behind cultural diversity. We (Alarna, Lucy, Shakti, and Sam) originally targeted activities at students aged 11-15, but we had unexpected interest from younger children and families, so our activities were adapted to suit the wide range of enthusiastic participants.


Day 1 consisted of a school session in the morning, followed by an afternoon open to the general public. The most engaging activities appeared to be those based on linguistic relativity, specifically with regards to colour and body parts. Giving the children a blank cartoon person, we first asked them to colour in and label different parts of the body, such as ‘the right arm’ or ‘the left foot’, before moving on to more general terms, such as ‘limb’. These instructions brought about a wide range of responses, particularly with the term ‘limb’, which varied even across peers (e.g., some would colour in the arms or legs, some would colour in the head!). 

The colour activity gained the most interest across age groups, and proved to be quite controversial at times! We first asked the children to name as many colours as they could, before showing them charts illustrating variation in the number of basic colour terms cross-culturally. They were then asked to draw the boundaries between colours on a chart, such as ‘green’ and ‘blue’, which showed variation. Despite arguments, the children seemed fascinated to learn that “different languages had different colours”, a concept they had never considered before.


The second day consisted of predominantly secondary schools, with one or two primary schools attending the fair later in the afternoon. Due to a smaller number of participants, we were able to engage more with the students, who were able to complete all of the activities on offer. Of particular interest were the D-PLACE related activities, which were being trialled for the first time. Our D-PLACE dominoes, which consisted of using D-PLACE’s search option to pair societies and languages, introduced the children to D-PLACE’s wide database of information, as well as encouraging them to consider the links between linguistic, cultural and environmental practices. We also showed children D-PLACE maps based on climate and number of languages to see if they could infer any patterns. This activity engaged the children with linguistic spread, introducing them, in a simplified manner, to the study of diversity and phylogeny.

Shakti and Alarna distract students with a memory task before getting them to re-tell a story.
Lucy and Shakti explain latitudinal gradients.

Overall, the fair was a fantastic opportunity to obtain useful feedback about our resources, as well as to engage the wider public with university research. The children’s positive feedback and enthusiasm for our work introduced them to the use of scientific methods in the study of diversity, and was a great opportunity to engage them with the ‘Science of Culture’.



Welcome to Summer Research Interns

Today we welcomed two new members of the lab as Summer Research Interns. Shakti Puri and Lucy Harries have both just finished their final year as Modern Languages students and will be with us for four weeks over the summer working on bringing D-PLACE to the wider public.

Lucy Harries
Shakti Puri










Lucy: I am a French and Italian graduate interested in the link between linguistic, cultural and environmental elements and practices. I am currently undertaking a research assistantship with the aim of making D-PLACE accessible to the wider public, in particular for school teaching. This involves developing resources, such as lesson plans and tutorials, in order to encourage use of the database in communities outside of academia.

Shakti: I am a graduate in Spanish and Portuguese interested in linguistic diversity and how this is reflected in various cultures. As a Summer Research Intern I will be hoping to expand the accessibility of the online database D-PLACE. This development aims to increase the use of these resources amongst the general public with a focus on students and teachers, aiding a deeper understanding of diverse communities.

Thanks to the Faculty of Arts Research Committee for funding Lucy and Shakti this summer!

February 2017 events in the excd.lab

  1. As part of the British Academy International Partnership Mobility award that enabled Josh Birchall from the Museu Goeldi to visit us back in October, Fiona is currently in Belém, Brazil to meet with collaborators on an incipient comparative database of South American language and kinship.
  2. As part of her trip, Fiona gave a talk on “As dinâmicas da diversidade cultural e linguística” (The Dynamics of Cultural and Linguistic Diversity).
  3. Friend-of-the-lab, Bristol Anthropology PhD student Janet Howard published a paper titled Frequency-dependent female genital cutting behaviour confers evolutionary fitness benefits in Nature Ecology & Evolution. Read The Economist’s summary here.
  4. Peter Racz’s paper Social Salience Discriminates Learnability of Contextual Cues in an Artificial Language has been published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Welcome to two new lab members

As the new year dawns, we welcome two new members to the excd.lab:

Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow Sean Roberts joins us from a postdoc position in the Language and Cognition group at the MPI Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. His research is in evolutionary linguistics and statistical approaches to modelling cross-cultural data. He’ll be with us for three years, developing computational and statistical workflows for identifying causal effects in linguistic and cultural data.

Rebecca O’Connor is an MSc Palaeobiology student. She’s doing a phylogenetic comparative analysis of marriage, looking at the evolution of marriage (monogamy and polygyny) in different language families.

We’re excited to have you both on board!

Hosting visiting researchers

As part of the Varikin project, we are able to host visiting researchers who are funded by the National Science Foundation in the United States; the Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning in South Korea; the Ministry of Science, Technology and Productive Innovationin Argentina; the Society for the Promotion of Science in Japan; the National Natural Science Foundation in China; the National Research Foundation in South Africa; the National Council of Science and Technology (Conacyt) in Mexico; the Canadian Tri-agency Institutional Programs Secretariat (TIPS) in Canada; or the Brazilian National Council of the State Funding Agencies (CONFAP) in Brazil.

Applications for this scheme are due in early 2017 (depending on the country of the visitor), and visits can begin in mid- to late-2017. We are particularly interested in hosting individuals with active field research sites and who may be able to contribute to our VariKin-Development subproject on how children learn kinship concepts. However, we would welcome proposals from scholars in all fields of anthropology, linguistics, and cognitive science, who may be interested in cross-cultural diversity in kinship from any angle. More information can be found here. Please get in touch with Fiona as soon as possible to discuss applications.

We also hope to be able to host visitors from Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, or Slovenia through the ERC Visiting Research Fellowships program during the academic year 2017-2018. More information about this program will be available in June 2017.

South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership

UK/EU students interested in applying for the AHRC South, West and Wales Doctoral Training Partnership (SWW DTP), a funding scheme for PhD students in the arts and humanities, are invited to attend the SWW DTP Information Day on November 28 in Cardiff. Registration is free but must be completed by November 13:

Students interested in joining the excd.lab through this scheme are advised to get in contact with Fiona as soon as possible. The SWW DTP provides full funding and a stipend for three years, as well as additional research funds and opportunities for training and professional development (including placements of up to six months with national and international consortium partners). A unique advantage of the SWW DTP is co-supervision across two different universities, allowing students to take advantage of the academic and social resources of two different institutions. Potential students who projects are anthropological and/or linguistic in nature can refer to the Joint Guidance from the AHRC and ESRC on these “interface” subjects. The 2017 deadline is January 12.

October 2016 events in the excd.lab

1. We welcomed Sam Passmore and Simon Bishop as new PhD students in the lab. Sam will be working on the Varikin-Evolution project and Simon on cultural adjustment in overseas students at the University of Bristol.

2. We are excited to host Joshua Birchall from the Museu Goeldi in Belém, Brazil, for three weeks as part of a British Academy grant. Josh works on Amazonian languages, and we’re working toward establishing a comparative database of South American language and kinship.

3. We are holding a one-day interdisciplinary workshop on “Quantitative Comparative Approaches to Language and Culture” (QCALC).

September 2016 events in the excd.lab

1. We welcomed Dr Alice Mitchell and Dr Catherine Sheard to the VariKin project. Alice will be working on VariKin-Development, studying children’s understanding of kinship relations in Bristol and Tanzania, and Catherine will be working on Varikin-Evolution and providing admin support.

2. Fiona, Alice, and Peter are at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology this week for the Kinship Cognition and Practiceconference.

3. Fiona will also be speaking at the Cultural Evolution Workshop at the MPI for the Science of Human History on September 26, talking about the value of kinship to the field of cultural evolution.