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ASU student uncovers ancient stone ritual act for the deceased.
April 7, 2017

ASU student finds clues to ancient funerary customs in broken pieces of stone

Arizona State University archaeology student Claudine Gravel-Miguel went into her field of study 10 years ago simply for love of travel. Now, after falling in love with the science as well, her research has taken her to the Caverna delle Arene Candide in Italy, where she made a surprising discovery that is changing the way scientists look at human culture in the Paleolithic.

Gravel-Miguel, a doctoral student in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, freely admits that she initially chose to study archaeology because she wanted a job that would let her see new places. But after her first class, it was questions about people — past and present — that soon captured her interest.

Her research focuses on using new tools like computational modeling to see how climate change and geography impacted prehistoric human mobility and social networks. Although that's not as effused with Hollywood glam, Gravel-Miguel argues that this is the reality of 21st-century archaeology.

“It may be cliché, but I think there is still a misconception that archaeologists do all their work in the field,” she said. “One of the first things I tell people when I talk about my work is that most of us spend more time in the lab and on computers than out on the terrain.”

This ability to bring new perspectives to old archaeological puzzles is exactly what led Gravel-Miguel to a recent, groundbreaking discovery in the Caverna delle Arene Candide.

photo of Gravel-Miguel photographing pebbles on the beach
ASU archaeology student Claudine Gravel-Miguel documents pebbles on a beach near the site. Photo by Genevieve Pothier Bouchard

 This site, a cave high up a limestone cliff, was made famous in the 1940s when researchers found the remains of around 20 hunter-gatherers who were buried there 13,000–11,000 years ago. Throughout decades of excavation, archaeologists have found (and mostly ignored) pieces of small oblong-shaped stones. But Gravel-Miguel and the site director, Julien Riel-Salvatore, noticed that the stones were out of place in the cave — they had smooth surfaces like river rocks and all shared the same long, flat shape.

When she expressed interest in these peculiar stones, Riel-Salvatore encouraged her to investigate them further.

“The pebble project actually almost fell in my lap,” she said. “To be honest, I thought it would be a very simple study.”

Gravel-Miguel and her team quickly deduced that the hunter-gatherers had looked for and specifically chosen these stones from nearby beaches. However, microscopic analysis also revealed that the stones held traces of ochre, a red pigment frequently used by prehistoric people to paint the bodies of the deceased.

So why were the majority of these stone application tools carefully selected, only to wind up broken in a cave some distance away? In her recently published paper, Gravel-Miguel proposes that people smashed them intentionally after use.

“One would have had to handle the pebble by wrapping the hand around it, which should have prevented a break along the short axis,” she said. “Therefore, the shape and use wear of the piece tell us that the pebbles were not likely broken by accident while they were being used.”

The intention behind the breaks suggests it was likely part of a ritual act that symbolically killed the stones’ power over the dead. Such practice has been documented in the Neolithic, but never before in the Paleolithic, making this case the oldest example ever recorded.

Additionally, Gravel-Miguel found that each broken stone the team excavated had pieces missing from its fragments. She found only two refitting parts, but these gave her a clue about the fate of the other absent pieces.

“The two pieces of one refitted pebble have very different patinas,” she explained. “One is red and the other white. This shows that the two pieces were not discarded in the same place after the break, which suggests that the break may have had some meaning and that some of the pieces may have been curated.”

In her paper, Gravel-Miguel uses this data to support a hypothesis that one piece of each stone was left at the cave, while another was taken by a loved one as a way to remember and connect with the dead.

“This research reveals a new dimension of the burial rituals that took place this far back in time and strengthens our assumption that death has always been a very important component in the life of the living,” she said.

One of the next steps for this project is to expand research into other nearby archaeological sites from the same time period. This will help the team figure out if the practice of stone-smashing and fragment-keeping is something that was done locally by one group, or something that was part of a broader culture shared throughout the region.

Gravel-Miguel has also been left curious about whether the ritually broken stones were deposited as grave goods — that is, intentionally placed in the burial — or if they were just tossed away after the ritual. To find out, she will need to go back to the artifact collection of the archaeologist who excavated the site in the 1940s.

“There’s a lot more work to be done on this topic. It’s exciting,” she said.

 

Top photo: Public-domain photo of cliffs on the coast of Liguria, Italy.

Mikala Kass

communications assistant , School of Human Evolution and Social Change

480-727-6577

 
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Paralyzed ASU engineering student wins $35,000 prize for therapy invention.
April 7, 2017

Engineering major wins $35,000 for inventing a therapy device for patients with paralysis

An Arizona State University student has won $35,000 for inventing a therapy device that could change his life and help thousands of people who can’t walk.

Dan Campbell, a robotics engineering major at ASU’s Polytechnic campus, invented AmbulAid to help people with neurological damage — like himself. Campbell, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a wrestling accident five years ago, uses a wheelchair.

He beat three other student-led entrepreneurial teams in the first ever Glowing Minds Consumer Product Challenge on Thursday at ASU's Tempe campus. Another team, called Shockingly Simple, won $10,000 for its invention — the Skeeter Eater, a non-chemical pest-control device.

Campbell said he invented the AmbulAid because nothing like it exists. The invention, a system of straps and supports, is used with a physical therapist in conjunction with a treadmill to help patients with “gait training” — essentially simulated walking. Gait training is important for people who have paralysis because it prevents osteoporosis, increases blood flow and, most importantly, can create neural connections between the muscles and the brain, sometimes leading to improved sensation and muscle use.

Campbell showed a video of himself using a sophisticated robotic exoskeleton gait trainer during his initial therapy after his injury. But those devices are expensive and rare. When he left the state-of-the-art facility for a regular clinic, his progress reversed.

“The day you’re discharged from therapy is typically the day your recovery ends,” he said. “For a lot of people that means losing sleep for the rest of your life wondering if your body’s potential to heal was actually reached.”

So he partnered with a doctor of physical therapy to launch his business, DK Therapeutics, and to create AmbulAid.

“Now I’m ready to bring it to millions of others who desperately need it,” he said.

He has a patent pending on the device and plans to sell it for about $2,000.

The panel of four judges, all longtime entrepreneurs, were impressed with Campbell’s simple design and well-executed business plan.

“The reason we got involved in putting this on was to try to bring out this entrepreneurial spirit in people. You’re living this nightmare and you’re making it into a dream,” said David Watson, who was a co-founder of the Philosophy line of skin-care products and founded Revolution Tea. He donated the prize money to the competition, which was sponsored by the Center for Entrepreneurship in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

“You are what this product represents, and I think being first to market will be gigantic.”

Campbell said even with high education, fewer than half of people resume working after a spinal-cord injury, so he would like to hire people with spinal injuries to be his sales force.

“They will carry on my advantage of belonging in the user group and being emotionally invested in the product,” he said.

Eventually he would like to integrate functional electronic stimulation in the AmbulAid, a process that uses electrical impulses to facilitate muscle movement.

“But that will need years of development, and I want to get this to market fast because there’s a glaring need for it,” Campbell said.

Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Michael Court, an MBA student and a founder of Shockingly Simple, said he thought of the Skeeter Eater after facing a mosquito problem at his house.

“I did some research, and I found out that mosquitoes are weak fliers. They can’t stand even a small breeze. There’s no product that exploits this right now,” he said.

The Skeeter Eater, which looks like a typical box fan, incorporates an electric grid inside it.

“A mosquito flies by and gets sucked into the intake, gets plastered into our electric grid and boom! It’s dead,” he said.

Court said the team plans to sell the device on its website, as well as Amazon and eBay, for $50 to $100.

Terry Lee, one of the judges, said he loved the idea and thought it would make a great infomercial product.

“Everyone wants to solve their mosquito problem, and everyone hates chemicals,” he said.

Court said the team is considering a one-for-one business model, like Tom’s Shoes, where the retail price pays for one device for the consumer and another for a country that is dealing with mosquito-borne diseases.

The other two finalist teams were M33 Labs, which created a “smart desk,” and Epic Creek, which developed a fly-fishing kit.

Brandon Smith, a technological entrepreneurship major at the Polytechnic campus, said M33 Labs wanted its product, Space, a high-technology desk with integrated hardware and high-density touch-screen display, to be beautiful as well as functional.

“We thought, what if we could take a computer and could pack all the power and all the functionality that a designer or engineer would need into one beautiful, unified package that would be ready to go out of the box?” said Smith, who is CEO of M33 Labs.

The company hopes to sell Space for $3,500, or $4,500 for a version for high-end design and animation professionals.

Jeff Ward, a technological entrepreneurship major and founder of Epic Creek, is a fly fisherman and decided to invent a streamlined system for using and buying flies. The box would hold cards of flies that are interchangeable and customized.

“You need a lot of equipment for fly fishing. You need different flies for different species of fish for different seasons and for different streams. And you need something to put those flies in,” he said.  

He is hoping to crowd-source the expertise to determine each set of flies and will distribute prototypes to celebrity fishermen.

“There are a lot of anglers who are avid. They want to preach, ‘This is what works,’ ” he said.

 

Top photo: Dan Campbell, a robotics engineering major at the Polytechnic campus, pitched his idea for AmbulAid during the Glowing Minds Consumer Product Challenge on Thursday. He won $35,000. Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now

Mary Beth Faller

reporter , ASU Now

480-727-4503