Madder Red: A Story of Art and Science

Imagine for a moment that you could travel four thousand years into the past, to a marketplace in Egypt. Not just any marketplace. You are in Thebes, in Upper Egypt. In the year 2000 BC. The pharaoh Mentuhotep II has recently died, but in the course of his reign Egypt was reunified and Thebes is now the capital. Thebes is growing into a powerful city. And where there is power, there is colour.

You come across an archer’s quiver, and marvel at its intricate woven design. But it’s the colour that impresses you most. It’s a beautiful, intense red. What you hold in your hands is no minor achievement. There is ingenuity there, a great deal of skill, and a secret.

EG148 -quiver

Quiver fragment circa 2124 – 1981 BC; Middle Kingdom, Upper Egypt (Thebes)
source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Herein lies the artisan’s challenge.  Nature is full of colour. But extracting that colour and getting it to permanently adhere to stone, to cloth, to pottery, to leather, that is not easy at all.

The colours come to Thebes from all over the kingdom and beyond it. Ochres in brownish yellows and reds are easy enough to procure. Gold is mined from Nubia in the south. Green rock (malachite) is mined in Maadi just south of Cairo to your north, but demand is so high for the colour that mining has begun in Sinai. Blue rock (lapis lazuli) is imported from the distant northeast, this is rare indeed and worth more than gold. But artisans are not easily dissuaded when it comes to the colour of the heavens. They have found a way to make blue of their own, crush the green rock, mix with sand and limestone. The heat required is intense, and difficult to sustain. The salts they add foul the air but, despite complaints, this is necessary.  The process is arduous and painstaking, an apprentice’s bane no doubt, but the result is a blue powder that seems to appear as if by magic – summoned by an exacting ritual of ingenuity, hard work and days of an artisan’s life. When used in paints and applied to stone, it is beautiful and endures.

But this red, which has seeped into the soft, pliable leather and remains there, well this has you intrigued. It’s a strong colour, vibrant. It catches the eye. You’ve seen other items, too, not just leather but cloth as well. It’s not as if red dye has never been attempted here, but nothing has worked quite so well as this. Whatever method is being used to make this pigment, it’s foreign to Thebes. You want to learn and learning requires a journey.

First, you must reach Memphis, 400 miles to the north. The voyage is nearly two weeks by land and faster along the Nile, if the boat is light and the wind in your favour. In 2000 BC, Memphis is no longer the capital but it is still the heart of commerce and has been for centuries.

There are artisans here and merchants, and you find spices, and craftwork and what might catch your eye most of all would be the wonder of colours. You follow the red: red fabric and red-stained leather. A shoe perhaps. A blanket. Another quiver for an archer. The craftsmanship is exquisite. You ask questions and follow the answers, joining a caravan travelling into northeast along the Mediterranean coast.

The weeks pass as you journey through Jerusalem and into Damascus, following the colour. Goods from Mesopotamia are brought in from trade routes that run through Damascus. You see more and more of the red everywhere you go, you ask questions and learn that Mesopotamia is your destination. This is far away to the south east, but crossing the desert is not the wisest of decisions, so instead you would follow the trade routes. Continue north, edging east along the inner curve of a fertile crescent, until you reach the Euphrates.

That this great river runs south would be a strange thing to someone more familiar with the north-running Nile. You’ve come this far, so south you go.

If your mind doesn’t wander too much beneath the warm sun you might notice an increasing abundance of tall stemmed bushes, with long, pointed leaves and small yellow flowers. They are pleasant, and green the landscape, but are otherwise unremarkable if you knew nothing of their potential. There is no red that you can see. But initial appearances can be deceiving.


Rubia tinctorum L.
source:  Wikimedia; contributed by user:H Zell

You stop in a port town called Babylon. It’s young and still small, unremarkable too, and prone to the floods of a temperamental Euphrates. There is no indication that it will one day become a centre of power. There is no hanging garden yet, no steep manmade embankments. No great temple of E-temen-an-ki (Sumerian for House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth) that will one day rise some seven levels high and inspire cautionary myths about the perils of hubristic engineering. For now, it is still only the 20th century BC. Even Hammurabi will not show up until another two hundred years pass. These are early, early days.

The river splits and splits again as you travel toward the once great Sumerian city of Ur, but this is not your destination. You’ve spoken to many merchants on the way, told them about the red leather and learned that its Larsa you want. You veer east along a tributary. Larsa is small but strategic, a tiny hub of commerce in the river delta of the Tigris and Euphrates and not far from the northern tip of the Persian Gulf.  As you arrive, it is the final days of the Sumerian empire, already fractured into city states. But Larsa is valuable and in the sights of rising powers.

Map_of_Southern_Mesopotamia -20th C BCE

Map of Mesopotamia circa 20th C BC 
source:  Wikimedia; contributed by user:S%C3%A9mhur

But then, you aren’t here for the politics. There are artisans here, and good ones at that.  This is what you’ve come for.

One would imagine their knowledge is fiercely protected. But perhaps you find yourself in luck, or make your own by offering gold, or some knowledge worth even more. One doesn’t follow trade routes if one doesn’t intend to trade.

This is what you learn:

In your journey from Damascus, all those green bushes you saw — the tall, weedy ones with yellow flowers and no hint of red whatsoever — this is where the red dye comes from.  Here, these plants are called hurratu, it’s an old Akkadian word. One day, elsewhere in the world, they will be called madder. There are two species actually, both native to this area: wild madder (Rubia peregrina L.) and another which lends itself better to cultivation (Rubia tinctorum L).

The question, then, is how do you make red from something with ostensibly so little of it?

The madder is grown to the north, it prefers the dryer soil than what is found in the flood prone delta. Fields and fields are grown, harvested and brought in. The stem and the flowers are of little interest to the artisans, but when you see the long narrow roots, you begin to get an idea of the plant’s value. They are a dark colour, more blood-brown than anything. When sliced though they are brighter at the centre, almost red-orange. This will stain, but that stain won’t last so there’s little point. We’re only at the beginning.


source: Wikimedia commons Deutschlands Flora in Abbildungen

Bushels and bushels of madder root are collected and pre-soaked, while water is warmed in the sun. You want warm water, but not too hot. The madder is chopped into small pieces and added to the water and allowed to ferment in the open for days, sometimes weeks. Slowly the roots release their colour. If you stopped here, the water would stain fabric, but not very well. For one thing the colour doesn’t seem to stay in solution that well, nor does it adhere to cloth or leather in any lasting way.

So this is an important step: add soda ash, a powdery substance found on dry lake beds.

But you still aren’t finished.

In Larsa, they use a type of rock that is tart to the taste. The locals call it allaharum. It’s used for many things, but in this instance the allaharum is crushed and added to the fermented roots.  It’s such a critical step in the dye making process that allaharum will earn a place next to the word ‘hurratu’ on texts relating to the dye. They are equal partners:

hurratu + allaharum

For more modern sensibilities:

madder + aluminium

Dyeing a cloth can take only a day or two, then allowed to dry in the sun.

Dyeing leather takes longer.

To do it well, dying ox hide with madder dye can take up to two years.

All of this is reached through trial and error, and a great deal of ingenuity. The recipes are passed down, the skills learned and, over time, the knowledge spreads.

That quiver, with its red dyed leather, the one that made it all the way from southern Mesopotamia to Upper Egypt is buried in Thebes during the time of the Middle Kingdom (around 2000 BC).  Nearly 4000 years later, in 1911, an 11cm by 13 cm fragment is discovered during a museum excavation.  After all this time, the dyed leather is still red.

Let’s now take a closer look at madder with a modern eye. Madder contains organic anthraquinone compounds: ruberythic acid and pseudopurpurin. They are found at similar concentrations in cultivated madder (Rubia tinctorum L). Wild madder (Rubia peregrina L.) contains more pseudopurpurin. During fermentation, ruberythic acid converts to alizarin, and psuedopurpurin decomposes into purpurin. Both alizarin and purpurin are red in colour, though alizarin is has a bit more of an orange hue. Purpurin skews toward pink.


1,2,4-trihydroxyanthracene-9,10-dione_200.svg                        Alizaryna.svg

purpurin                                                              alizarin

In 2009 Dr Marco Leona and his colleagues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, develop a new technique for safely analysing dye content of ancient and priceless works of art. They examine the quiver from Thebes and the chemical fingerprint is unambiguously that of an anthroquinone confirming that the leather’s dye came from madder.

Ancient Mesopotamians may not have known about anthroquinones, much less their chemical structure, but they did know that for the best results they needed the colour to stay in solution rather than precipitating to the bottom of the vat.

There would have been a great deal of trial and error to arrive at the discovery that allaharum could do help them with this. It was essentially the discovery, around 2000BC and possibly earlier, that aluminium can make certain chemicals soluble in water.

Fixing the dye to a fabric or other surface, was yet another step in ancient ingenuity.

One must imagine many things that were tried before finding good use for that salty powdery stuff on surface of dry lake beds.  This is soda ash. It’s sodium carbonate:  Na2CO3

It’s an alkaline and sets the dye well.

Evidence suggests that artisans varied elements of the dyeing procedure to produce different shades, producing more alizarin for a more orange red, or enriching with more purpurin for a more vibrant pink-red.


       alizarin powder

source: wikimedia commons; contributor Benjah-bmm27

Sometime around the middle of the second millennium BC (~1500 BC), there are reports that a Phoenician trader arrived at Nuzi in Mesopotamia presenting a variety of coloured wool. Among them is a crimson blanket, made with a red dye ‘produced from worms’.  This is the earliest evidence of a new red dye made from Kermes insects (specifically females containing eggs). Extracting an enduring dye from crushed insects is another tale of ingenuity, and now Madder has competition. Kermes dye is a bold, rich red and rises in popularity in biblical times. Power and colour and all that. The word ‘crimson’ derives from kermes. But although Kermes technically grows on trees (the insects live on the Kermes oak), it is expensive, and madder continues to be widely used until the invention of synthetic pigments in the 1800s. It is still used today, just to a lesser extent.

This story isn’t just about the surprising sophistication of artisanal chemistry 4000 years ago. Yes, it is impressive, but equally interesting is the fact that the artisans who developed the technique were also using the dye. In other words, development of technology was not separate to artistic expression and the creation of beauty.

Curiosity, experimentation, an understanding of the natural world, the making of beautiful things. It was all part and parcel.

The Metropolitan Museum’s Marco Leona recently explained at the 2017 World Science Festival Brisbane that well into the European middle ages you don’t really see much distinction between art, craft, and technology.

Of course there were practical separations between certain occupations. Indeed division of labour and specialisation have arguably enabled stunning advances throughout human civilisation. Organised agriculture frees up a lot of time for rocket science. So yes, the blacksmith did the blacksmithing and generally left the pottery to the potter. And as far as we’re aware, no one asked a glassblower to paint the Sistine Chapel, though apparently a sculptor decided to branch out a bit. Anyway, you get the idea. Specialisation existed, but the idea of delving within an artisanal specialty and extracting out the technology and setting that aside as something separate and unrelated to the art form for which it was used, well that wasn’t done. The tools, and the development of those tools, were as much a part of the artisan’s life and work as what they created with them.

But stirrings began in the Middle Ages and by the Renaissance a cultural split begins in earnest. According to Leona, the liberal arts eventually become separated from the mechanical arts.  One was better than the other, of course. It just depended on whom you asked and in what year. And within those divisions, further divisions emerged. By the time Romanticism emerges in the late 18th century, says Leona, we encounter the idea of an artist as a visionary existing quite separately from reality. Enter the concept of the solitary, tortured genius. This would have been a wholly unrecognisable concept to artisans of Larsa and Thebes, the likes of Da Vinci and his ilk, and anyone else from antiquity to early modern times for whom artistic vision was inextricably entwined with skill and practice.

This strange notion has since compounded into stereotypes about scientists and artists, and fierce academic divisions. This was not at all helped by the popularisation of the idea that we have a left brain and a right brain, where the left is wholly analytical and the right brain is full of creative rainbows.

Professor Marcello Costa, a neuroscientist at Flinders University explains that this idea began in the middle of the twentieth century with the observation that we process concrete language in a different side of the brain (left) than where we process abstract language (right). Consider the following:

Red leather

Beautiful leather

The first is more concrete. The second more abstract. Your brain just processed those two statements using different regions.

The problem, Costa says, is that this concept of lateralisation was extrapolated way too far beyond language. Unfortunately, too many of us have been told that a scientist is more analytical and therefore ‘left brained’ and that an artist is more creative and therefore ‘right brained’.

Neurologically speaking, Costa says that artists and scientists are intensely similar. The stereotype of a creative person as intuitive and irrational is simply wrong.  Artists, he points out, must have discipline, skills, and persistence. So, too, for scientists.

And the funny thing is, during all this time we were told that the artistic mindset and the scientific mindset were so terribly different, painters were playing with colour and light and shape. Impressionists, neo-impressionists, cubists and more were tapping into the way the brain sees form and motion, developing novel techniques that play tricks on the mind. This is now helping modern neuroscience better understand mechanisms of perception in the brain. And all the while, Leona says, artists continued to have a close relationship to the materials they use. This never stops.

Meanwhile, scientists were changing the way we live and understand the universe not only through analytical reasoning and experimentation but also through improvisation and wild imagination. Professor Tanya Monro, a physicist at the University of South Australia puts it nicely: there is a great deal of creativity in deciding what questions to ask.

In other words, Science is analytical but it is also an immensely creative endeavour. Art is imaginative, but it also requires thoughtful trial and error, and the honing of skills. They are more similar than they are different.

The artisans of Larsa could have told us that.

After all, as Marcello Costa points out, the word artisan only ever meant one who does something well through learning and practice. Such expertise is something to be celebrated.

We should probably tell the kids.




Special thanks to Dr Marco Leona (Metropolitan Museum of Art), Professor Marcello Costa (Flinders University) and Prof Tanya Monro for sharing their insights into art and science leading up to and during the 2017 World Science Festival Brisbane.  I would also love to thank Prof Judith McLean (QPAC) and Dr Drew Berry who were also involved in the Art and Science panel discussions, and conversations with whom also helped me better understand the nexus of art and science.

Additional sources:

Leona, Marco (2009) “Microanalysis of organic pigments and glazes in polychrome works of art by surface-enhanced resonance Raman scattering” PNAS vol 106 no 35, 14757-14762.

Daniels, Vincent (2014) “Technological Insights into Madder Pigment Production in Antiquity” British Museum Technical Research Bulletin, volume 8

Bucklow, Spike (2016) Red: The Art and Science of a Colour

A Second Wind: Biocontrol on Lord Howe Island

A collaboration between CSIRO researchers and community members on Lord Howe Island is making headway in the fight to protect the island’s biodiversity from an invasive noxious weed.

Read the full article at Australian Geographic online


Crofton weed is growing out of control particularly in the southern mountains of the World Heritage Listed Lord Howe Island. As you can see from the image above, and here again below, the weeds are thriving on the cliffsides.



This threatens a number of native species, including the critically endangered twiner Calystegia affinis (pictured below).


But there’s hope on the horizon in the form of a rust fungus from Mexico.  Read the full story and find out!

This was a fascinating story to research and write, and I couldn’t have done it without the wonderful input from lead researcher Dr Louise Morin (CSIRO) and Sue Bower (Flora Management Officer with the Lord Howe Island Board).

Hopefully next time I’ll get the chance to go on location – though by the look of some of those cliffs, I’ll have to do some serious training first!


Photo credits:  photos generously supplied by Sue Bower


The Best Australian Science Writing 2016


Great news!  My story Lucy’s Lullaby has been selected for inclusion in The Best Australian Science Writing 2016! I’m joined by wonderful writers around the country, people whose work I admire and truly enjoy.  The anthology is edited by the amazing Jo Chandler and will be published by NewSouth Books very soon… in fact it will be officially launched in early November in plenty of time for holiday gift giving (hint hint) and you can pre-order now.  It’s also beautifully high vis, so you can’t miss it.


Lucy’s Lullaby: How losing our grip 3 million years ago may have set us on the path to language

It was dark when the pain began, I remember that much. I blinked half-awake into an unfamiliar room, wrenched too quickly from the depth of sleep. Consciousness was reluctant, and slow in coming. The glow of the small digital clock said 2 a.m. The pain faded and sleep tugged at me. I was only just at the surface, still within its grasp. I drifted, remembering combinations of the last words I’d heard or perhaps dreamed, “Get some sleep, as much as you can. It will be the last for a long time.” Before I could sink back into the abyss, the pain returned. This time it was urgent and sharp and very real. And it had rhythm; a slow, certain mechanism like the turning of a wheel. My heart began to race.

I was awake now, truly.

I took a slow, deep breath and ran a hand over my swollen belly. There was a kick, and another. I began to hum the song I had been singing for months, the Rainbow Connection with its words of love, exploration and refraction of light. This was our lullaby. I was offering a tether of familiarity that I hoped would see us both through this. This time when I spoke, my tone was different. Lighter, reassuring, melodic.

“Yeeees, I knoooow. I’ll see you soon.”

It wouldn’t be long now, or so I thought. The hours came and went, then came and went again. Pain pinned me to the here and now, preventing sleep and a wandering mind in equal measure. Monitors blinked, midwives made notes and said reassuring things. As the amniotic fluid dwindled, the familiar dome of my pregnant form withered and the baby’s shape took on an alien strangeness. Still, nothing progressed. But when everything is new to you, it’s hard to know what is unusual. Sixteen hours had passed when the obstetrician stood at my side and informed me the baby’s head was stuck.

“We’ll have to use the sunroof,” he quipped, trying to keep things light.

“OK,” I replied, equal parts worry, gratitude and surrender.

Time moved swiftly then, the bed transfer, being wheeled to the operating theatre, the quick and practiced medical choreography under bright lights, the calm competence of the staff. My tired mind was slow to catch on to true nature of the subdued emergency, and when it did it was met with the gentle pedantry of a veteran anaesthetist: “Dear, if you are able to tell me you can’t breathe, then you can breathe.”

And then, in an instant, I had a daughter. She was out and she was mine, all bundled and perfect in my arms, bleating like a tiny lamb. I quietly began our song again. Love, exploration and refraction of light. When I spoke to her, by way of introduction, I used that slow, melodic tone. For a moment it was just us and our music. I’d all but forgotten that the surgery continued, and scarcely noticed how someone held a tiny oxygen mask close to her nose as I held her. I didn’t realise it was not normal for a newborn to bleat like a lamb. But when everything is new…

Then they took her from my arms and to another hospital entirely. It’s hard to know whether, if the birth had progressed normally, if she hadn’t become stuck, if that would have kicked her lungs into full gear and she would have immediately filled the room with a lusty cry. But this was our reality. The complications of human birth. And according to an interesting theory, it began not sixteen hours earlier, or even 9 months before that, but more than 3 million years ago.

This is the story of not one lullaby, but perhaps all of them.


It begins with Family.  Or to be more precise, it begins with Tribe, which sits subtly between Family and Genus on the major taxonomic rank:

Domain > Kingdom > Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species

As humans (Homo sapiens), we belong to the tribe Hominini. We aren’t the only ‘hominins’ in the tribe; but we are the only ones who are still alive. The other members include our extinct predecessors and close relatives. Several million years ago, hominins began the slow evolutionary process of walking upright. The fossil record is rich with evidence for this. The foramen magnum, for example, is a hole in the underside of your skull that the top of the spinal column fits into. Humans are unique among primates in having a foramen magnum placed so centrally underneath the skull, it is one of many features that facilitates upright locomotion, making it easier to keep your head erect as you walk. By comparison, other primates like chimpanzees and apes have their foramen magnum located toward the back of the skull. Our tree dwelling common ancestor would have shared this feature. The emergence of a more centred foramen magnum sometime between 6 and 7 million years ago suggests that the shift toward bipedal locomotion had begun. Over time, a number of other changes slowly took place. Walking upright, after all, was an unusual mode of transport. It was strange, ungainly, and for a long time not very efficient. The shift towards bipedal locomotion required a whole body re-structure to provide support, balance and ease of motion. This included changes to the foot, knee, femur, the lumbar vertebrae, the curvature of the spine and the sacrum at its base, and of course, the pelvis.

There was another change, too. It’s one that you might not intuitively associate with walking upright, yet it may have played an important role in setting us on the path toward language and symphonies and quantum physics.  But we’ll get to that.

First, imagine this: it 3.66 million years ago, in what is now northern Tanzania, near the edge of the Serengeti. A nearby volcano has recently erupted, leaving a layer of ash covering the ground. It rains, and the ash becomes damp and pliant. Three hominins make their way across the landscape, heading north. Perhaps they are a family travelling together, it’s almost romantic to think so. Or perhaps they are three individuals travelling one after another. They are in no hurry. Their pace is easy. They make impressions in the rain damp ash as they go. One pauses for a moment, and for reasons we’ll never know, turns west, then resumes course and continues on beyond the ash field. Soon the ash dries, hardening like clay. Subsequent volcanic eruptions soon blanket the footprints in more ash, preserving them for millions of years. The fossilised footprints are discovered in 1978 by Mary Leakey and her team, and are called the Laetoli Footprints. They tell us this: these hominins were fully bipedal, walking upright with a heel to toe motion. The big toes were no longer recessed and opposable like that of a chimpanzee or gorilla. The feet of the ash walkers had a similar appearance to our own.


The Laetoli Footprints            Image Credit: NegesoMuso CC-BY NC 2.0


The trio most likely belonged to the same species as the famed ‘Lucy’: Australopithecus afarensis. Lucy lived 3.2 million years ago, in what is now Ethiopia. She was a fully grown adult, but still quite small. I’m not that tall, but I would have towered over her diminutive 3 foot 7 inches. In 1974 around 40% of Lucy’s bones were recovered and we know from the position of her pelvis, her knee and ankle that Lucy was an upright walker. Although her cranium was incomplete, the pieces that were discovered gave an indication of her skull size. This, along with information provided by a number of discoveries of other A. afarensis remains, tells us that although they had begun to walk upright, Lucy’s species still had quite small brains (around 500 cubic centimetres), roughly one-third the size of the average human brain.

Lucy_blackbg (2) wikimedia

Cast of Lucy’s skeleton    Image Credit:  120 via Wikimedia Commons  CC 3.0



The point here, is that bipedalism evolved while the brain sizes of ancient hominins remained small. Yet here we are today, modern humans with lovely big brains an average size of around 1.4 kg (~ 3 pounds). They’re staggering complex, too, with around 86 billion neurons functioning in a dizzying array of neural networks. When and why did this happen?

The majority of the increase in our ancestors’ brain sizes took place between 800,000 years ago and 200,000 years ago culminating in the appearance of Homo sapiens, with our complex stone tools and eventually our iPhones. Interestingly, our brains haven’t grown since our species first appeared. In fact, they’re actually shrinking. We’ve lost about 100 – 150 cubic centimetres of brain volume since the first Homo sapiens appeared. In other words, the iPhone using brain is smaller than the stone tool using brain was. But don’t panic. It’s thought that this is most likely to do with a slight decline in overall body size compared to the first humans due to changes in environment and lifestyle. After all, brains aren’t just for puzzling over string theory and Sudoku, they also regulate body functions. Smaller bodies can be run by slightly smaller brains without sacrificing intelligence. Einstein’s brain was smaller than average, and he was also shorter than average. This body-size/brain-size connection is believed to have played a role in the initial gradual increase in brain size (between 1.8 million years ago to 800,000 years ago) that took place prior to the big brain-growth spurt. During this time hominins gradually grew bigger overall, and they were able to improve their calorie intake by using stone tools to cut meat into easily digestible pieces, which certainly would have helped fuel larger bodies and bigger energy-hungry brains.  However, the fossil evidence suggests that bigger brains weren’t only dedicated to running the increasingly demanding bodily functions of bigger hominins.  Something else was going on. Technology was becoming decidedly more complex.

A surprise discovery announced in May 2015 revealed that scores of stone tools had been found west of Lake Turkana, Kenya around six hundred miles north of the Laetoli footprints. Once again, thanks to layers of volcanic ash, they could be dated. They are 3.3 million years old. This is 700,000 years earlier than any other discovery of deliberately modified stone tools. It suggests a remarkable cognitive leap. These hominins, with their small brains, were beginning to think differently.

Unfortunately, we can’t directly examine the brains of these extinct hominins. They are lost to time. However, we can do the next best thing. Endocranial casts, or ‘endocasts’, are molds made of the brain casing of a fossilised skull, and sometimes palaeontologists can see patterns left by the surface of the brain. It’s no MRI, I’ll grant you, but it can give us an idea of brain structure and how it has changed over time. Endocasts of A. afarensis tell us that the relatively small brains of Lucy’s species were gradually taking on a new structure.

Professor Dean Falk is an evolutionary anthropologist at Florida State University, and recently at the 2015 World Science Festival, she explained that there’s an intricate link between the way stone tools were becoming smaller and more complex, and the fact that the hominin brain was becoming larger, reorganised and rewired.

The question remains: why did this happen?

Falk proposes that a critical piece in the puzzle wasn’t something we gained, but something we lost. She also believes that it has quite a lot to do with why birth is more difficult for modern humans than any other primate.


The Devolution of Us

Hold your hands out in front of you for a moment and wiggle your thumbs. You wouldn’t intuitively think they had much to do with walking upright, much less with the development of bigger brains.

“With bipedalism, the entire motor system rearranged,” says Falk, “and it wasn’t just feet. Hands are genetically linked.”

Genetic adaptations for walking upright led to changes in hand structure, including longer thumbs, making it easier to make and manipulate tools. But this came at a high price.

As Falk explains in her new paper in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences, “By the time of Australopithecines, hands and feet had lost important adaptations for grasping.”

Moreover, this would have had a significant impact on infants during a time when they were more helpless than they’d ever been.

We tend to think of bipedalism as an evolutionary step forward, but first steps can be awkward and hazardous. As bipedalism evolved, infants required a longer time to develop the body structures required for fully independent motion. Falk points out that we still see this in modern human babies, who take longer to hold their heads up, crawl, stand and move around than their distant primate cousins. That might not have been much of a big deal for our ancestors if it hadn’t been for those changes in their hands. It wasn’t just tree branches they needed to grasp; infants needed to hold onto their mother’s hair.

A chimpanzee mother will carry her baby in front of her up to approximately 6 months; around this time the baby is then able to climb onto her back and grasp onto her hair for long periods of time.  Gorillas follow a similar pattern.  One thing chimpanzee and gorilla mothers don’t normally do is put an infant down so they can use their hands for other things. They don’t have to.

Mother Chimpansee walking by with carrying young.

Image Credit:  Andreanita copyright Dollar Photo Club



Our ancestors would have most likely still had plenty of hair to hold onto around 3 million years ago. Although there’s no consensus on precisely when hominins began to lose their body hair, genetic evidence suggests they may have been quite hirsute until around 1.2 million years ago.  So around 3 million years ago, the hair was still there, but changes to the infant’s hands and feet would have made it difficult to cling for long periods of time. Arguably, it would have been even trickier to hold onto an upright mother versus one leaning forward and moving on all fours.  We still see a grasping reflex in infants’ hands and feet today, and though we often marvel at its strength, it’s not nearly as strong or enduring as it would have needed to be.

And so, Falk proposes this: “helpless nurslings must have been carried in caregivers’ arms and on their hips and, for the first time in prehistory, would have sometimes been put down nearby.”

It seems like such an unremarkable thing to do: set the baby down for a little while so mum can rest her arms, her back; perhaps have something to eat. It sounds so very ordinary. But Falk proposes that this was a critical moment in the evolution of language and brain structure.


The First Conversation

Bipedal infants, who had lost the ability to grasp onto their mothers, still needed contact comfort, says Falk.

“They want to hang on, but they can’t, so there was a trend to seek contact comfort.” She believes this opened up a ‘vocal channel’ between mothers and their infants.

“It is likely that pre-historic mothers whose babies were unable to sustain clinging were the originators of stimuli that are still used to soothe and hush unhappy infants, including physical placaters (hugging, rocking, bouncing, picking them up ) and vocalizations (lullabies, shushing).” {JAS 2016}

This vocal channel, she says, could have enabled increasingly more complex give and take between mother and child, involving prolonged eye contact and vocal communication between them. She also believes that this would have played a role in the evolution of babies’ emotional crying and signals to be picked up, and proposes that this early life communication was a step on the path to early forms of language. Again, we can’t directly examine our ancestors’ brains, but we can look at the cognitive processes that take place in modern infants during this same highly dependent, pre-walking period to see where we’ve ended up. We can also look at the way we talk to babies.

Today, ‘motherese’ or ‘infant-directed speech’ persists, and it goes by many names, including ‘baby talk’. It is melodious. It’s slower. Vowels are emphasised, as are individual syllables and words. Moreover, it is a wide spread human phenomenon. Research shows that it helps babies discriminate between speech sounds, making it easier for them to break down speech into its components.  And modern human babies, in turn, are primed to process this information.  They are capable of an astounding level of statistical analysis.


Baby, the statistician 

Across all the world’s languages there around 600 consonants and 200 vowels. Moreover, each language has a particular set of speech sounds, called phonemes. English, for example, has around 40 phonemes and the differences between them can be incredibly small, such as the subtle but critical difference between /b/ and /p/, which can change the entire meaning of a word.

Human infants begin discriminating between phonemes from birth.  By six months they can distinguish between the 800 consonants and vowels across every language; they are learning and listening, their brains cataloguing patterns, noting acoustic regularities and unconsciously processing the statistics of everything they hear. As Moti Lieberman of The Ling Space points out, if they weren’t doing this, they’d be making way more mistakes when they start speaking than they actually do. By 12 months infants have honed in on their own language; they lose the ability to distinguish phonemes of other languages but can hear and process those in their own language extremely well. We hold onto these phonemes so tightly, says Lieberman, that when we learn other languages as adults, we tend to bring our accents with us.

Research by Professor Patricia Kuhl at the University of Washington and her colleagues shows that these linguistic processes are given a boost by the brain’s reward systems, highlighting the importance of social interaction in language acquisition. Interactions such as the mutual gaze between parent and infant, as well as the child’s ability to follow the parent’s gaze provide social cues that boost comprehension. As Kuhl explains in her recent overview for Scientific American, the result is “a mastery that occurs more quickly than any complex skill acquired during the course of a lifetime”.

And so, we have gone from an early ancestor infant who was physically a late bloomer who could no longer hold onto its mother to a human infant who is still quite functionally helpless in the first year, but who can now process a stunning array of linguistic information. Falk reasons that the development of give and take communication between caregiver and infant would have helped compensate for that lost-grip and longer physical development; and it would have conferred a survival advantage. Moreover, she hypothesises that it could have triggered the development of larger, more complex brains.

This is because brain research that compares hummingbirds to whales, and humans to other primates tells us that as brains change size, they tend to do so in a coordinated manner. They grow as a whole, not one section at a time. Falk puts it another way: for the brain structures related to a particular behaviour (like the emergence of language) to get bigger, the rest of the brain must become bigger, too. Evolving larger, more complex neural networks to facilitate the parent-infant communication in the first year of life, she argues, could have set the ball rolling for a brain that became bigger and more complex over time.

Naturally, there’s a catch.


Birth of a big brain

The fastest growth of the human brain takes place not only in the first year of life but also in the last trimester of gestation. This is not seen in any other primate.

Overall, human gestation is just a bit longer than a chimpanzee’s by about 30 days. They follow a fairly similar pattern of growth and growth acceleration up until around week 22.  Then something interesting happens. In chimpanzees, brain growth starts to slow down. But in humans it does the opposite: it continues to accelerate. By 32 weeks, chimpanzee brains are only growing at 4 cubic cm per week, while the human brain is growing at around 26 cubic cm per week. The stark divergence is remarkable. Consequently, the average human is born with a brain that is one third the size of an adult human brain, and is already similar in size to that of a fully grown adult chimpanzee, and not much smaller than that of an adult gorilla.

For humans, this comes with risks.

While brain size was changing over the course of roughly three million years, so was the bipedal anatomy. It underwent its own fine tuning, evolving from the short stature and wide pelvis of Lucy’s time, to the now familiar human form. Among other things, this involved narrowing of the pelvis and, consequently, the birth canal. It was long thought that a narrower pelvis allowed more energy efficient locomotion, but a recent study suggests that this was not the case, and that a wide pelvis is just as energy efficient. As such, the evolutionary advantage of the modern pelvis is not entirely clear; it’s possible that a narrower pelvis can facilitate higher running speeds or reduce injury. Whatever the reason, the alterations to the human female pelvis coupled with infants’ pre-term cranial growth-spurt have contributed to a situation where human births are much more difficult than those of other primates. An infant with a large noggin ready for phoneme parsing is an extremely tight fit in the human birth canal. Sometimes, it simply doesn’t fit at all.


It’s the next day in the maternity ward. I’ve been asking for updates as often as I can get them. I’m told my daughter has improved, her cries now full and robust. This is wonderful but bittersweet because I still haven’t held her since the moment we met. We had just that song and nothing more. I tell them that if she is to remain at the other hospital then I’m coming, too. Given my post-surgical bed-ridden state, the logistics are unclear to me, but I don’t care. Then I get the call. They’re bringing her back. I have no recollection of getting into the wheelchair, but I doubt it was graceful. Soon I’m in the neonatal ICU, surrounded by a dozen or so incubators, each containing a newborn. Tiny chests rising and falling, to each their own rhythm. Maybe it’s this that reminds me of the sea, or how precious they are, contained and watched over. They me think of ships in bottles, each with their own journey ahead. Mine is among them. It takes an excruciatingly long time to remove all the tubes and the tape. And then at last I get to hold her again, and she lays that big beautiful head of hers on my chest, and we are alright.

More than 9 years have passed since that moment. It’s a school day and she’s meant to be getting ready, but I can hear her at the piano. She’s composing something off the top of her head again and I’m elated at how random and kind of beautiful it is. I also know I will never hear it again in exactly like this, so I keep quiet and still the way you do when you’re close something you don’t want to frighten away but is not yours to keep. That’s what the music is for me, a momentary glimpse into the world inside her mind. Later we talk of where stars come from, whether pandas have whiskers and how to spell various dinosaur names (which is not easy before coffee, I might add). There’s a lot going on in there.

The evolution of the brain is itself a complex story, with many contributing factors, and that story is far from complete. So, too, the story of language. Whether it will ever be possible to identify a single trigger that started us toward language and symphonies and quantum physics is difficult to say. But Falk’s hypothesis has me intrigued. I’ll certainly never look at my thumbs in quite the same way again, nor the strength of a baby’s grasp, as well as its limits. It’s possible that the moment an infant lets go contains within it another moment millions of years old: a mother in the tall grass with an infant who is now too heavy to carry but who cannot hold on; a mutual gaze held a little longer than it had ever been before, and within it the first glimmer of a lullaby.






Further Reading and Viewing:

World Science Festival 2015  — Planet of the Humans: The Leap to the Top

Falk, Dean (2016) “Evolution of brain and culture: the neurological and cognitive journey from Australopithecus to Albert Einstein” Journal of Anthropological Sciences Vol. 94 (2016), pp. 1-14 

Kuhl, Patricia (2015) “How Babies Learn Language” Scientific American 

Nadja Reissland and Barbara Kisilevsky, eds. Fetal Development: Research on Brain and Behavior, Environmental Influences, and Emerging Technologies. 2016.  Springer International Publishing

The Ling Space gives a good overview of phonemes and how different languages ‘carve up the sound spectrum’ [Ling space on Phonemes]


Copyright of gazing baby feature image belongs to Fiona McMillan

Copyright of the last baby image in the article belongs to Michael Webster and Fiona McMillan

The Vanishing Writers

the curious tale of the scribbles left behind


It begins with a tree.

Start a blog, I told myself. Then you can write about anything you want.

The idea was enticing, but the promise of writing about anything led very quickly to indecision and that led rather rapidly to no writing at all.

Galaxies, immune cells, archaeological digs, neurons, human behaviour, string theory. Where to begin? Specialise, they say, and there is indeed wisdom in that. But part of the fun of this blog is the chance to explore, to tread new ground, to learn new things, to be amazed, puzzled, delighted, and to then share all of that.

Indecision settled in and grew comfy. I became concerned. Was it really paralysing wonderment? Or was I just chicken?  It’s hard to tell some days, but I suspect it’s a bit of both.

I went for a walk to figure it out and on my way I saw a tree. I slowed. I stopped. I took a good look at this tree I’d passed many times before without so much as a glance. Standing there, it became quite clear that if you want to explore the entire universe, you can start quite close to home. This tree had a story. It was, quite literally, scribbled all over it. The markings were rough beneath my fingertips, the author nowhere to be seen.

A tale to decipher.

A decision made.

The universe starts here.

(Actually it does, by the way. The universe starts everywhere, so this is as good a place as any.)

So this is how the Luminous blog begins: with the story of a tree that took me more than 180 million years into the past.

Let me explain.

The eucalypts grow everywhere around here. This is Australia after all. This neighbourhood was carved out of bushland, and farmland that had once been bushland. But the creeks and the catchments were mostly left alone. There’s a path that winds through. It’s a little bit wild in there, a bit dangerous. It’s marshy in some places, dry in others. Trees tower, some leaning precariously, ready to fall. The underbrush is dense and beautiful. Venomous snakes hide in the tall grass and bulbous spiders dangle patiently on expansive webs.

Some of the wildlife are more benign. There are rainbow lorikeets, kookaburras, and brush turkeys. Recently, I spied a wallaby. It regarded me for a moment then hopped away, almost dismissively. It’s summer now, and the cicadas are singing. They chorus in perfectly synchronised waves, the crests of which are deafening. It thrums in your chest and drowns out the human world. The cicadas are here because they rather like the eucalyptus trees. And the eucalypts, in turn, have brought something else: tiny, elusive writers.

Australia is home to several hundred species of eucalypt. And it seems a modest variety make their home in this narrow stretch of wilderness. One of the most curious is the Scribbly Gum.

The name Scribbly Gum actually refers to a cluster of different eucalypt species found on the eastern seaboard of Australia. Their common signature, as it were, are the scribbles all over their pale, smooth-barked trunks.

These markings have become something of a national icon, weaving their way into Australian folklore and literature.

Australian poet Judith Wright once wrote

The gum-tree stands by the spring
I peeled its splitting bark
And found the written track
Of a life I could not read.


The tiny writers are exquisitely shy, they leave their marks and vanish. They’re the elusive graffiti artists of the natural world. The work of beetles, was a common guess. Then, in 1934 the culprit was identified: a moth, scarcely a few millimetres big. A specimen was sent to England into the care of a school teacher named Edward Meyrick. Meyrick, himself, was a curious entity. An amateur entomologist, he had a remarkable hobby of describing, naming, and cataloguing insect species. Moths were a particular favourite. Over his lifetime, he bestowed carefully thought out scientific names to more than 14,000 of them. And so, with due care, he named this one Ogmograptis Scribula. Literally, the writer of the Ogam script. It’s said that he chose the name because the scribbles bore some resemblance to an ancient Celtic writing form called Ogam. There is also a second layer of meaning. Ogmos is not Celtic, it’s Greek; it means furrow – a groove or a narrow trench. When you look closely at the meandering lines on the scribbly gum, you’ll see that’s exactly what they are. For Meyrick, these strange patterns were unique. For all his expertise, his meticulous cataloguing of thousands of moth species, and his passion for taxonomy, Ogmograptis presented an enigma. Where it fit with all the other families, genera and species of moths, he couldn’t say.

And so the story of the diminutive creature remained unreadable for many years. This was exacerbated by the fact that they are difficult to capture in the wild. In defiance of the wide reputation of many moths, Ogmograptis is not lured by light. The larvae are equally recalcitrant. They are so dependent on the eucalypt, they’re difficult to rear in captivity.

In the 1990s, CSIRO entomologist Ted Edwards suggested that the scribbles are formed by the larvae as they mine their way through the bark, feeding as they grow, zigzagging, then doubling back. Still, it was thought there was only one species responsible. Moreover, the scribbles had never been quantified in detail. The math of these moths remained a secret.


photo credit: Natalie Barnett courtesy CSIRO

Then a unique collaboration set the little moth’s story on a new course. Julia Cooke was high school student who wanted to do a project on scribbly gum moths. Edwards had retired, but agreed to mentor Julia. So together they embarked on a study of the scribbles of three different species of eucalypt in the Canberra area. They measured everything they could. The height, the width, the length. The thickness of the furrow, the direction, the distribution. Were they on the north side of the tree, or the south?  The east or the west? Were the paths random, or was there something more to it, an innate algorithm? How many zigs, how many zags?

No matter where the scribbles were found, they each showed three clear stages. ‘A’ is the beginning, a very thin random scrawl that follows no rhyme or reason on any tree. ‘B’ is the thicker darker, zigzag, the tunnelling in earnest. ‘C’ is the loop – they all do indeed make a U-turn and follow the path back to the start of ‘B’. And yet, there were distinct differences. For each of the three species of eucalypt they studied, there were slight variations, particularly in the length of the furrow and, remarkably, in the number of direction changes. It was as if these scribbles represented different dialects. A new theory emerged. There wasn’t one species of scribbling moth, there were at least three, possibly more.

This finding inspired a new endeavour, this time botanists and entomologists at CSIRO teamed up with geneticists and imaging specialists. Pairing field data with DNA analysis and scanning electron microscopy, they discovered that there are 14 different species of this tiny Ogmograptis moth, and that they can be divided into three distinct groups. Marriane Horak, one of the chief investigators, explains here in further detail in the Conversation. They were also able to achieve what Meyrick had been unable to. They now knew exactly where it belonged.

Their analysis, particularly the high resolution images of the jaw, linked Ogmograptis with the Australian Tritymba moths and the African Leucoedemia moths. Together they form the southern group of a larger family called Bucculactricidae. The implication of the African connection is profound — it suggests they share a common ancestor who lived on the supercontinent of Gondwana, which comprised the land masses that eventually became the southern hemisphere continents of Australia, Africa, South America and Antarctica (Gondwana also included what is now the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Peninsula). Indeed, Ogmograptis’ ancestor would have had a home; the recent discovery of a eucalyptus fossil in South America, contributes to strong evidence that eucalypts also have a Gondwanan origin. They seem to have thrived there, and where the eucalypts went the moths followed.

It’s a hot day and I’m walking along the path with my young daughter. Over the song of the cicadas, I tell her to keep an eye out. Smooth bark, not rough, I say. Look for the scribbles.

I see the tree first, but let her find it on her own. “There!” she calls out.

The tree is tall and covered in Ogmograptis graffiti. I cannot tell how far up they go, they disappear into the brightness of the day. There must be thousands of them. We take a good look at the ones right in front of us. My daughter reaches out, picks a scribble that she has decided is the best, traces its path. It follows the pattern perfectly. The random thin scrawl, like a languorous, drunken scratch. Then the regular zigzags, where the larvae grow larger, gnawing through the cork layer. This is why it doubles back. It doesn’t just tunnel, it harvests. It’s a neat trick: the first pass wounds the tree; as the tree repairs itself, it produces a scar tissue – tiny, thin-walled cells full of nutrients. The larvae then does its best 180 — some species have a tighter turning circle than others — and eats its way back again. When it’s had its fill, it bores to the surface, finds its way to the base of the tree, pupates, emerges, and flies away. When the bark sheds, the scribbles are revealed.


photo credit: Fiona McMillan

Somewhere around 180 million years ago, during the Jurassic period, the Gondwanan supercontinent split up. During this slow, tectonic tantrum Australia separated from Africa. Primates had not yet evolved. Dinosaurs roamed, and the world was still millions of years from the asteroid impact that would trigger their demise (well, not all of them, but that’s another story).

Ogmograptis’ life cycle is annual, an evolutionary refinement in keeping with the yearly shedding of eucalyptus bark. The scribbles you see are this year’s scribbles. It is feasible, then, that the scribble my daughter has traced is at least the 180 millionth generation. Arguably more.

It’s time to head back, the day is getting on and my fellow explorer wants lunch. We leave without finding the adult moth, though I didn’t expect to given its reputation for being furtive and so profoundly small. Its body is only 2mm long. It’s wingspan 10-12mm, if that. And yet what it has written, and left behind, is larger than it will ever be itself.

And I think there’s poetry in that.






For more detail on the scribbly gum story and the scientists who deciphered the moth’s tale, see Max Whitten’s article in Meanjin

Marienne Horak’s article in The Conversation outlines the findings of the 2012 paper, where she and her colleagues revealed the DNA analysis and detailed anatomy of Ogmograptis.

Horak, M et al (2012) Systematics and biology of the iconic Australian scribbly gum moths Ogmograptis Meyrick (Lepidoptera : Bucculatricidae) and their unique insect–plant interaction. Invertebrate Systematics 26(4) 357-398.

Cooke, J., and Edwards, T. (2007). The behaviour of scribbly gum moth larvae Ogmograptis sp. Meyrick (Lepidoptera: Bucculatricidae) in the Australian Capital Territory. Australian Journal of Entomology 46, 269–275.


Additional sources:

E D Edwards and Marianne Horak “The Scribbly Gum Moth study, Ogmograptis (Lepidoptera: Bucculatricidae)” September 2012 issue of ANICdotes (the official newsletter of the Australian National Insect Collection)



By the way…

Incidentally, Edward Merrick was a member of the Linnean Society of NSW, which is still active today.


Runner-up Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing 2016

Very happy! My story ‘Lucy’s Lullaby’ was awarded runner-up for the Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing 2016. 

The prize winners were announced at the launch of the Best Australian Science Writing 2016 anthology. It was such a wonderful evening, and very exciting to be on a panel with Jo Chandler (editor of the Best Australian Science Writing 2016), my fellow runner-up Susan Double and the winner Ashley Hay.  We had a wonderful time talking about science and storytelling, which is basically the convergence of my two favourite topics!



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Math is beautiful…

If you haven’t yet discovered the stunningly beautiful mathematical animations of Cristóbal Vila, then you’ve been missing out.  My favourite is this mesmerising video ‘Nature by Numbers’. Do yourself a favour and take a few minutes to watch!




Dragonfly & flower photo credits: Fiona McMillan

Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing 2016 Shortlist!


So this happened…

My story, Lucy’s Lullaby has been shortlisted for the Bragg UNSW Press Prize for Science Writing 2016.

Yes, I’ve happy danced. And I’m still happy dancing.

I was already over the moon that it’s being included in the Best Australian Science Writing 2016.

I can still remember a time, earlier this year, sitting at my desk. It was late at night. The house was quiet and the heavily marked up pages were taunting me from where they lay in the light of the small lamp.  The story wasn’t coming together. There was just so much information I wanted to share. So many different paths to wander down.  It was all interesting stuff, too, and the idea of leaving anything out was kind of heartbreaking. But leaving everything in, well that wasn’t working either because the story was no longer a story. It had become instead something else, something large and unwieldy.  I couldn’t find the story anymore. I had many trees and no forest. That night, at that hour. I really almost gave up.

Then I remembered I’d once read something about exactly this problem, and from one of my favourite science writers, too.  I googled and googled and googled until I found it again.

Bobbie Johnson from Medium had recently interviewed science writer Carl Zimmer about writing. He asked, quite simply, what was the one thing he wished he’d known when he was starting out?

Zimmer answered, “I wish someone told me I shouldn’t be making ships in a bottle.”

It seems an obscure thing to say but he explains himself here, and it’s excellent advice so I want to pass it on.

In essence, the story needs you to leave things out.

That night, I took a break, thought about this and when I went back to work, and started taking things out. To soften the blow, I kept telling myself, ‘yes, this is for a story, but not this story’.  I edited and edited, and there beneath all that amorphous interestingness I found the story.

I’m so glad I didn’t give up that night.


The Best Australian Science Writing 2015

Joy and much excitement!



I’m thrilled that my writing has been selected for inclusion in The Best Australian Science Writing 2015! The anthology is edited by Bianca Nogrady and published by NewSouth Books, and was launched this week.  I can’t wait to hold my copy in my hot little hands.  The fact that I’m not currently holding it is entirely my own fault for moving house and forgetting to tell NewSouth Books where to send my copy, as if they were supposed to just sense my location somehow.  So I must wait a little longer for mail-forwarding to do its thing. I’m not finding the wait easy, not simply because of the tangibility, that buzz of physically holding a published story, but also because the whole thing promises to be a great read — I mean just look at that list of contributors. I’ve found myself in some wonderful company here.

The Best Australian Science Writing 2015 is available now from NewSouth Books and will soon be available internationally on Amazon.  Happy reading!



Back on board…

Well, this has certainly turned out to be a hectic year.  I can’t complain, though, it’s been chaotic in a good way. Indeed, there have been some brilliant adventures. At one point, I even climbed a mountain quite by accident. Some of my friends might point out that this is becoming an unfortunate habit of mine and that I should really start making a point of consulting topology maps before ever leaving the house.  They are of course right, but more on that later.

For now, I’m glad that it’s all calming down now and I can settle back into a writing routine, so watch this space for more science and life. Ideas are brewing.

In the mean time, say hello to this little guy, who we met in the wilds of Tasmania.