Rocky Horror allegations throw a spotlight on acting boundaries, on and off stage

Craig McLachlan (centre),playing the role of Frank-N-Furter, 
rehearses with the cast of the Rocky Horror Show in 2015. Paul Miller/AAP

Where do the boundaries lie between exploring every possibility an acting role offers and still behaving appropriately, with respect to other performers?

This week Victoria Police confirmed they were investigating allegations of indecent assault and sexual harassment involving actor Craig McLachlan in his lead role as Dr Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show musical during 2014. Three actresses have complained about McLachlan’s behaviour. McLachlan, who strenuously denies the allegations, has since left the production.

McLachlan has reportedly described Rocky Horror as “a confrontational musical oozing with sexuality”. To “make” the show, he said, “actors have to perform certain actions, all of which flow from the show itself”.

While I cannot comment directly on the McLachlan case, as an actor and theatre director, I am very aware that a production’s content and style can impact greatly on the atmosphere both in the rehearsal room and on stage. It can also affect the actors’ behaviour. It is a very different experience rehearsing a deep and meaningful drama compared to a light comedy or an in-your-face, sexy musical. However, regardless of the creative environments, actors – like other professionals – are expected to treat each other with respect.

Rocky Horror’s creator Richard O’Brien told the Herald Sun last year that McLachlan “pushes the boundaries of both good and bad taste to the extremes, and wins … Of course, we have to rein him in occasionally.”

“Reining in” an actor is the responsibility of the stage manager, the director, and the producer – usually in that order. It should not be left to fellow actors to deal with difficult situations if performers “go too far”. While it is understood that a performance can “grow” during the course of a production, cast members allege McLachlan ramped up the sexual tone of his performances and prolonged intimate scenes with them.

Most actors work under the Performance Collective Agreement, a contract that states “no performer shall alter his/her part or omit any portion thereof without the express permission of the Employer or its representative”. Correct protocol is to ask permission of a fellow actor if trying something new in rehearsal. Once in performance, changes need to be approved by the director and discussed with fellow actors.

Directors usually recognise that sensitive scenes need to be talked through with the actors involved to acknowledge any levels of discomfort. If material is confronting or involves physical contact, great care needs to be taken to counsel the cast about protocols and the need for sensitivity. If sex scenes or nudity are required this is disclosed at the time of the initial auditions.

Still, although theatre etiquette is taught in drama schools and acted upon by most practitioners, it can be difficult to enforce.

Craig McLachlan performing as Frank-N-Furter in Perth in 2014. Angie Raphael/AAP

Boundary blurring

One of McLachlan’s accusers said she felt his raunchy role on stage in the highly sexualised show was “was creeping into backstage behaviour”. Theorists of acting acknowledge a phenomenon known as boundary blurring, in which emotional connections to a role spill over into everyday life as a result of actors transforming themselves and engaging in words, actions and feelings that are not their own.

For instance, psychoanalyst and actor Janice Rule  writes that “living oneself into the part” can make the separation between on and off stage extremely difficult. Cast and crew often reinforce this, she argues, by treating actors on stage and off as if they were their characters. She maintains that the process of steeping oneself in a character day in and day out can train actors to become more like their characters and less like themselves.

As a result of such “hangovers”, it is important for actors to “de-role” after a performance – but this is not something they routinely do. In my experience, actors are quite diligent about “warming up” beforehand but almost never “cool down”. I recently researched the stresses incurred by acting students at leading Australian drama schools and most teachers I interviewed said their students did not take the time and space to separate themselves from their roles. And the 2015 Australian Actors’ Wellbeing Study found that almost 40% of actors surveyed had difficulty shaking off intense emotional and/or physical roles.

I have long advocated the adoption of cast debriefing sessions after performances to help in the separation of role and self. There are many other de-roling strategies such as consciously disrobing in order to let go of the costume and the character or participating in a “stepping out” process. But it is a rare cast prepared to participate in such closure rituals – going to the bar for a drink seems to be the preferred form of de-roling.

Sexual harassment in theatre

recent survey by MEAA’s Actors Equity branch found at least 40% of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment in theatre. More than 60% said they had been bullied and 47% said the situation was not handled well – indeed for many, it got worse after they raised the matter.

Australian clinical psychologist and actor Sarah Borg, co-chair of MEAA’s Equity Wellness Committee, told me this week she was infuriated by how often performers who reported their experiences ended up feeling blamed, disbelieved, silenced and even punished for their disclosure.

It would seem that disclosure processes need to be clarified and the chain of responsibility in theatre productions more clearly delineated. For example, who do I complain to and what can I expect that person to do in response? Claims of harassment must be investigated promptly.

The McLachlan case involves very specific allegations of inappropriate behaviour. Regardless of its outcome, it has thrown a spotlight on the question of boundaries on and off stage and the need to enforce them more vigorously. Roles played on stage should be left on stage.


This article was written by:
Image of Leith TaylorLeith Taylor – [Casual lecturer W.A.Academy of Performing Arts, Edith Cowan University]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

It’s time to get ready for augmented reality

WayRay’s holographic AR device displays information 
tailored to drivers and passengers. WayRay

The world’s largest annual consumer technology show — CES 2018 in Las Vegas — ends today and some of the most exciting gadgets this year were on display in the augmented reality (AR) marketplace.

This follows the news, announced in December, that 2018 will be the year the previously secretive company Magic Leap joins the likes of MicrosoftMetaODGMira and DAQRI to launch an AR headset.


At the same time we are seeing Apple, Google, Facebook, 
Snap and others rushing to release platforms for smartphone-based AR.

But this is only the beginning of the AR computing future. New AR technologies are set to change industries – from construction to retail – and transform the way we interact with the digital world in everyday life.

What is augmented reality?

Augmented reality (sometimes also referred to as “mixed reality”) is the technique of adding computer graphics to a user’s view of the physical world.

You might have experienced this on your smartphone if you played the game Pokémon GO. Or perhaps you have tried placing furniture in your house using the IKEA Place app or the AR View feature on Amazon’s smartphone app.

IKEA Place is an augmented reality application that lets people experiment with how furniture would look in their home before they buy it. IKEA Place

But placing objects on the floor near you – whether furniture or monsters – is only a taste of what mainstream AR technologies could offer in the future.

The real potential for this new computing platform comes when computer graphics merge with, and behave in ways consistent with, their physical surroundings.

This is not just a challenge of matching the same lighting, or ensuring physical objects occlude synthetic ones.

Computer-generated objects will increasingly become more interactive (responding to voice, gesture and even touch), more persistent over time (enabling users to leave a virtual object next to a physical one for someone else to find), and develop a greater understanding of the objects in their physical surroundings (such that they immediately react to changes in the environment).

A simple example of the trend of graphics merging with the physical environment is the difference between playing a game like Minecraft as an isolated and self-contained digital board game sitting only on your dining table and playing such a game on any surface in your home.

Playing Minecraft using the HoloLens augmented reality headset enhances the possibilities of play. The potential for AR systems is greater when they understand and interact with the whole environment. Microsoft

Two systems that show how tightly computer graphics can align with the real world were announced at CES: Nvidia’s new Drive platform and WayRay’s holographic car navigation system.

Both aim to augment the road, buildings and other objects ahead of a vehicle, using sensors designed for autonomous cars.

NVIDIA DRIVE AR will enable next-generation interfaces that deliver information points of interest along a drive, create alerts, and navigate safely and easily. http://nvda.ws/2ACkN32 
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Another example is Disney Research’s new interactive AR characters that can understand and react to different physical objects.

Record investment in 2017 expected to grow

The combination of AR capable consumer hardware and intelligent software systems is getting investors excited.

Investment in augmented reality and virtual reality (VR) companies set a new record of more than US$3 billion in 2017. One estimate suggests that overall total spending on AR/VR products and services will increase from US$11.4 billion in 2017 to nearly US$215 billion in 2021, some US$30 billion of which will be due to sales of AR headsets alone.

The forecasts for growth in AR have typically been much higher than for VR. This is partly due to the perception that VR will have success in some relatively specific vertical markets (gaming, 360 degree cinema, training, data visualisation, and so on), which mainly benefit from the solo, immersive user experience, while AR has the potential to change many aspects of the way we interact with digital systems in our work and at home.

How will AR go mainstream?

For a glimpse of some of the ways we can expect to soon be interacting with computers using AR, we can look at the innovations coming out of research organisations, industrial innovation labs and startup companies.

Retail

In the retail space, we are now starting to see AR used for more than just a view of a 3D product model. Nissan recently launched an AR experience in the United States that lets customers view cars in dealerships through a smartphone and receive an annotated tour from Star Wars droids

Researchers at MIT Media Lab have demonstrated how results of a product search can be displayed directly on the supermarket shelf. And in Australia, CHOICE has seen great success with its CluckAR app that augments egg cartons with an indication of how happy the hens are back at the respective egg farm.

Choice created an AR app that enables people to see whether eggs are free range.

Manufacturing

In CSIRO’s Advanced Manufacturing Roadmap, AR is identified as a way for manufacturers to increase productivity and customisation.

Elevator manufacturer Thyssenkrupp claims that AR has enabled it to achieve a four times faster workflow for the custom design of in-home chair lifts. Ford Motor Company’s design team is using HoloLens to make rapid decisions about complex geometrical problems such as rear-view mirror blindspots. And systems like ASTOR use AR directly in the manufacturing process to give a machine operator real-time information such as the force on the tip of a milling tool.

Construction

In the construction industry, buildings are usually designed using 3D modelling software but built using 2D plans. Bentley Systems has been figuring out ways to use AR to help make the mental connection on site between the 2D plans and the intended 3D design.

Maintenance and training

For maintenance workers, emerging products such as SCOPE AR and CSIRO’s own Guardian Remote allow remote experts to provide instructions directly within the task space. Just think about how much better this is than a phone call for help that consists mainly of “look up and left. No, no, the other left…”

For worker training, the HoloCrane is an example of how AR will enable a novice to practise a skill in situ, without the risk of damage to expensive equipment.

Internet of Things

Augmented Reality will allow us to have greater awareness and control of Internet of Things (IoT) devices in smart homes, factories, farms and offices. At CSIRO’s new “Synergy” building in Canberra, we have developed a smart glasses system that displays historical and real-time energy usage data overlaid directly on the appliances consuming the energy.

Meanwhile the ground breaking Reality Editor system from MIT shows how AR can provide intuitive interfaces with which to instruct the smart devices in our everyday life.

The challenges ahead

While some form of AR in the future is a near certainty, there are a range of socio-technical challenges to address before AR technologies see mainstream adoption.

User interaction with wearable computers is still tricky, especially when users prefer not to have to hold an input device. And if developers of AR services are not careful to respect the privacy and security desires of their users, they can expect user backlash.

Visual clutter is also an issue. When we make use of virtual augmentations on specific parts of the physical world, there is usually limited real estate. We need solutions that help us manage what we see.


Too much visual clutter is a problem AR systems will need to avoid.

Whoever manages to solve these sorts of challenges first may well own the de facto standard of AR computing, and therefore the interface between people and their digital life. It is no surprise that all the major tech companies, and many startups, are rushing to get AR technology to users before anyone else.

One alternative to central “winner takes all” ownership is to deliver cross-platform AR services via the web. Mozilla has been particularly active in this area and recently launched an experimental WebAR browser that works on today’s iPhones. At last year’s Web3D conference in Brisbane we demonstrated some of CSIRO’s work towards enabling WebAR services on HoloLens.

One way or another, AR computing is coming – it’s time to get ready.


This article was written by:
Matt Adcock – [Senior Research Engineer and Experimental Scientist, Data61]

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

A month in, Tesla’s SA battery is surpassing expectations

 A month into operation, the Tesla lithium-ion  
battery at Neoen wind farm in Hornsdale, South Australia is already providing 
essential grid services. REUTERS/Sonali Paul

It’s just over one month since the Hornsdale power reserve was officially opened in South Australia. The excitement surrounding the project has generated acres of media interest, both locally and abroad.

The aspect that has generated the most interest is the battery’s rapid response time in smoothing out several major energy outages that have occurred since it was installed.

Following the early success of the SA model, Victoria has also secured an agreement to get its own Tesla battery built near the town of Stawell. Victoria’s government will be tracking the Hornsdale battery’s early performance with interest.

Generation and Consumption

Over the full month of December, the Hornsdale power reserve generated 2.42 gigawatt-hours of energy, and consumed 3.06GWh.

Since there are losses associated with energy storage, it is a net consumer of energy. This is often described in terms of “round trip efficiency”, a measure of the energy out to the energy in. In this case, the round trip efficiency appears to be roughly 80%.

The figure below shows the input and output from the battery over the month. As can be seen, on several occasions the battery has generated as much as 100MW of power, and consumed 70MW of power. The regular operation of battery moves between generating 30MW and consuming 30MW of power.

Generation and consumption of the Hornsdale Power Reserve over the month of December 2018. Author provided [data from AEMO]

As can be seen, the the generation and consumption pattern is rather “noisy”, and doesn’t really appear to have a pattern at all. This is true even on a daily basis, as can be seen below. This is related to services provided by the battery.

Generation and consumption of the Hornsdale Power Reserve on the 6th of Jan 2018. Author provided [data from AEMO]

Frequency Control Ancillary Services

There are eight different Frequency Control Ancillary Services (FCAS) markets in the National Electricity Market (NEM). These can be put into two broad categories: contingency services and regulation services.

Contingency services

Contingency services essentially stabilise the system when something unexpected occurs. This are called credible contingencies. The tripping (isolation from the grid) of large generator is one example.

When such unexpected events occur, supply and demand are no longer balanced, and the frequency of the power system moves away from the normal operating range. This happens on a very short timescale. The contingency services ensure that the system is brought back into balance and that the frequency is returned to normal within 5 minutes.

In the NEM there are three separate timescales over which these contingency services should be delivered: 6 seconds, 60 seconds, and 5 minutes. As the service may have to increase or decrease the frequency, there is thus a total of six contingency markets (three that raise frequency in the timescales above, and three that reduce it).

This is usually done by rapidly increasing or decreasing output from a generator (or battery in this case), or rapidly reducing or increasing load. This response is triggered at the power station by the change in frequency.

Tesla’s lithium-ion battery in South Australia has provided essential grid services on many occasions throughout December, according to the Australian Energy Market Operator. Reuters

To do this, generators (or loads) have some of their capacity “enabled” in the FCAS market. This essentially means that a proportion of its capacity is set aside, and available to respond if the frequency changes. Providers get paid for for the amount of megawatts they have enabled in the FCAS market.

This is one of the services that the Hornsdale Power Reserve has been providing. The figure below shows how the Hornsdale Power Reserve responded to one incident on power outage, when one of the units at Loy Yang A tripped on December 14, 2017.

The Hornsdale Power Reserve responding to a drop in system frequency. Author provide [data from AEMO]

Regulation services

The regulation services are a bit different. Similar to the contingency services, they help maintain the frequency in the normal operating range. And like contingency, regulation may have to raise or lower the frequency, and as such there are two regulation markets.

However, unlike contingency services, which essentially wait for an unexpected change in frequency, the response is governed by a control signal, sent from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).

In essence, AEMO controls the throttle, monitors the system frequency, and sends a control signal out at a 4-second interval. This control signal alters the output of the generator such that the supply and demand balanced is maintained.

This is one of the main services that the battery has been providing. As can be seen, the output of the battery closely follows the amount of capacity it has enabled in the regulation market.

Output of Horndale Power Reserve compared with enablement in the regulation raise FCAS market. Author provided [data from AEMO]

More batteries to come

Not to be outdone by it’s neighbouring state, the Victorian government has also recently secured an agreement for its own Tesla battery. This agreement, in conjunction with a wind farm near the town of Stawell, should see a battery providing similar services in Victoria.

This battery may also provide additional benefits to the grid. The project is located in a part of the transmission network that AEMO has indicated may need augmentation in the future. This project might illustrate the benefits the batteries can provide in strengthening the transmission network.

It still early days for the Hornsdale Power Reserve, but it’s clear that it has been busy performing essential services and doing so at impressive speeds. Importantly, it has provided regular frequency control ancillary services – not simply shifting electricity around.

With the costs and need for frequency control service increasing in recent years, the boost to supply through the Hornsdale power reserve is good news for consumers, and a timely addition to Australia’s energy market.


This article was written by:
Image of Dylan McConnell Dylan McConnell – [Researcher at the Australian German Climate and Energy College, University of Melbourne]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

Sudanese heritage youth in Australia are frequently maligned by fear-mongering and racism

 Hip hop star Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier for 
the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in Ethiopia, visiting Sudanese 
school children in a Fitzroy community centre. David Crosling/AAP

Recent criminal incidents in Melbourne involving young people of African heritage have enabled the media and politicians such as Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton to again capitalise on the opportunity to demonise those of African descent in Australia.

This has become a common occurrence, traceable back at least to the media reporting of the murder of South Sudanese Melbournian Liep Gony in 2007. The then immigration minister, Kevin Andrews, responded by restricting the numbers of refugees resettled in Australia, citing “African gangs” and the failure of African refugees to integrate.

Reporting after the 2008 murder of Daniel Thongjang Awak in Adelaide suggested that his death was tribal and gang-related, despite no evidence to prove this.

After the murder of Alex Ngong Akol in Adelaide in 2009, his alleged criminality was used in an attempt to justify his murder and the Sudanese community was likened to grieving chimpanzees.

More recently, the “Apex gang” in Melbourne has been portrayed by the media as a violent gang of predominantly young African-heritage men. Clarifications were later given from those including Victorian Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Leane suggesting that they were not a gang, but a culturally diverse group of youth connected through social media.

Child soldiers or Aussies

Media and political discourse about South Sudanese and African-heritage young people positions them with deficits. It depicts them as having experiences of trauma and war or as child soldiers, and having low levels of literacy and education.

This line of thought holds that this results in their supposed inability to integrate into Australian society and their predisposition to violence and criminality.

Almost none of the young people currently accused of criminal behaviour are in the age-bracket to have been born or lived in Sudan. Most families who were resettled in Australia had been living in refugee camps or as urban refugees in Kenya, Uganda or Egypt for at least ten years prior to arriving in Australia.

Therefore, most of the current youth (aged 15-24 years) are unlikely to have experienced war directly or been child soldiers.

Since the mid-1990s, 27,679 people who identify their birthplace as Sudan or South Sudan have migrated to Australia. South Sudan became an independent country in 2011 after more than 20 years of civil war between northern and southern Sudanese.

The second civil war in Sudan, which ran from 1983 to 2005, resulted in the death of more than 2 million people and the displacement of more than 4 million.

A small number of those displaced by this conflict were resettled in Australia under Australia’s Humanitarian Entrant Program for refugees. The peak period of resettlement of Sudanese-born refugees was from 2003 to 2006.

Only about 3,000 Sudanese or South Sudanese born people have been resettled in Australia in the past ten years. A young person of South Sudanese heritage who is currently 20 years old was likely to be no more than eight when they arrived in Australia, meaning they have experienced most of their life and schooling in Australia.

Impacts of education and employment

While there is acknowledgement that there are young people of South Sudanese heritage who are engaging in criminal activity, it is debated as to whether the crime rates are any higher in this group than in the wider Australian population.

For those young people who are engaging in criminal activities, there are a range of underlying factors that must be tackled to improve future outcomes for this group.

For young people with South Sudanese heritage, racism is one of the key causes of early school-leaving and dropout. A study of refugee youth arrivals (more than 60% African heritage) found that school completion rates for refugee students are significantly lower (62%) than for other Australians (86%).

One of the key predictors of school completion was experiences of discrimination. Little is being done in many schools and communities to tackle underlying racism. If anything, current media and political discourses further fuel racism and discrimination.

Despite some of the early educational challenges, South Sudanese Australians are successfully completing tertiary education in significant numbers. But this is not transferring into professional employment.

A recent study in the ACT found that while 42% of the 72 South Sudanese participants had tertiary qualifications, 96% of this participant group were seeking employment – with many unemployed or underemployed, despite their qualifications.

The unemployment rate in the South Sudanese community is 28.6%: five times the national unemployment rate of 5.7%. This unemployment rate impedes integration to the Australian community. Research from the US and UK suggest the need for urgent investigation of the impact of racism on the employment of South Sudanese in Australia.

Underpinning media portrayals and educational and employment outcomes is a key theme. Call it what you like – racism, discrimination or simply not fitting the mould of what people like Dutton would have you believe is Australian.

By propagating a fear of “African gangs” with the comment that “people are scared to go out to restaurants of a night-time”, Dutton feeds discourses of white nationalism where the black African “other” cannot belong in Australia.

Many Melburnians have rebutted this negative discourse, filling Twitter feeds with #MelbourneBitesBack, taking photos as they dine out in Melbourne.

However, the long-term impacts for the South Sudanese community are likely to be increased exclusion, fear and contempt, rather than what is really required for successful integration – a sense of belonging and inclusion.


This article was written by:
Image of Melanie Baak Melanie Baak – [Convener, Migration and Refugee Research Network, University of South Australia]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

How music festivals can change the tune on sexual violence

 Music festivals tend to be geared toward  
young audiences and may constitute the site of sexual harassment and assault 
against younger women

This year’s summer music festival season has again been marred by several incidents of sexual assault. Three incidents of sexual assault were reported at the Falls Festival at Tasmania’s Marion Bay, in a repeat of similar incidents at last year’s festival. And disturbing footage of a man groping a woman at the Rhythm and Vines Festival in New Zealand on New Year’s Eve quickly went viral.

A groundswell of activism around sexual harassment and assault at music festivals is taking place. Australian band Camp Cope’s It Takes One campaign is calling on organisers and artists to change the culture underpinning sexual violence at festivals.

Similarly, the Your Choice movement, which was launched in 2017, promotes cultural change and encourages bystander intervention at music events.

Internationally, the UK-based Safe Gigs for Women works with venues and festivals to eliminate sexual harassment and assault.

All of these developments are occurring alongside an increasing public outcry about the pervasive and systemic nature of sexual violence. But what do we actually know about sexual violence at music festivals? And what is it about these spaces (and their patrons) that facilitate acts of sexual violence?

 Camp Cope’s It Takes One campaign.

How common is sexual violence and harassment?

Social media campaigns like #MeToo have demonstrated that sexual harassment and assault are widespread and not limited to any one social or cultural setting. Nonetheless, a string of high-profile incidents and campaigns suggests that music festivals could be a hotspot for this type of violence.

There is virtually no research on sexual violence at music festivals; we are aiming to change this with our current research project. This lack of research makes it difficult to know how prevalent sexual violence at festivals is beyond high-profile, anecdotal cases that have been picked up by the media.

However, we can draw on research on sexual violence and harassment from other settings to gain some insight into what might be happening at festivals.

Young women are consistently identified as the age group most at risk of being sexually harassed or assaulted. In Australia, women aged 18-34 are the most likely to have experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months. Also, 38% of 18-24-year-olds and 25% of 25-34-year-olds have experienced sexual harassment in the past year.

Gender- and sexuality-diverse people also face disproportionately high rates of sexual harassment and assault.

These statistics suggest we need to look at the social and cultural locations that young people inhabit when thinking about sexual violence.

Although most sexual assault takes place in private, residential locations between people who know each other, younger people are more likely to experience sexual assault in a wider range of locations and to be assaulted by someone other than an intimate partner.

So, sexual harassment and assault are common experiences in general. There is no reason to assume this is any different at music festivals. Music festivals tend to be geared toward young audiences, and, as such, may constitute the site of sexual harassment and assault against younger women, and gender- and sexuality-diverse people.

Research in analogous settings, such as licensed venues, suggests that sexual harassment and assault are commonplace. One of the co-authors’ research on unwanted sexual attention in licensed venues in Melbourne found that young people perceived this behaviour as being pervasive and commonplace.

Canadian study similarly reported that 75% of women in their sample had experienced unwanted sexual touching or persistence in bar-room environments.

Music festivals share many features with licensed venues that are likely to facilitate sexual violence. Large crowds of patrons, and the anonymity this provides, can enable perpetrators to sexually harass with apparent impunity.

Consumption of drugs and alcohol in these settings can also work to perpetrators’ advantage. For example, it can help downplay their own behaviour (“they were drunk and didn’t know what they were doing”), or target those who may have overindulged and become incapacitated.

Gender inequality

Australia’s music industry is male-dominated; male artists tend to dominate festival line-ups.

Gender inequality permeates the entire industry. Research shows that women (and, almost certainly, gender-diverse people) are underrepresented, undervalued and underpaid in virtually all facets of the Australian music industry.

Sexual violence is known to be more likely to occur in contexts of gender inequality. This suggests music festivals – and the Australian music industry generally – may provide a cultural context in which the preconditions for sexual and gender-based violence abound.

THE PERSON WEARING THIS SHIRT TAKES A STAND AGAINST SEXUAL ASSAULT AND DEMANDS A CHANGE. There have been numerous reports of sexual assault on ground at falls this year. Be brave. Stand with us. Call it what it is. We have some free gifts for falls artists & attendees.
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Changing the beat

Given all this, it’s reassuring that efforts to prevent sexual violence at festivals, and to generate broader cultural change within the industry, are taking place. However, change is slow, and pockets of resistance persist within the sector. This has led some to call for festival boycotts or to ban men from festivals.

The current campaigns feature some promising elements, particularly in their focus on bystander intervention, and encouraging influential artists and industry leaders to call out inappropriate behaviour and take a stand against sexual violence.

However, there are many other steps festival organisers could take to prevent or reduce sexual violence, and to ensure they respond appropriately when it occurs. These include:

  • introducing a policy on sexual harassment and assault that takes a zero-tolerance stance against this behaviour. This should include specifying consequences for perpetrators (like being ejected or banned from the festival, and potential legal ramifications). This should be clearly communicated to festival patrons, staff and volunteers, and consistently enforced;
  • training all festival staff, security and volunteers to identify and respond appropriately to incidents of sexual harassment and assault;
  • encouraging artists to take a stand against sexual violence, and to call out any bad behaviour they witness from the stage;
  • running high-profile prevention and bystander intervention campaigns; and
  • ensuring there are clear avenues for patrons to report incidents that occur at festivals.

Such actions need to occur alongside more widespread efforts and interventions. Ensuring all young people receive comprehensive sexuality and respectful relationships education is vital. And continued efforts to tackle the broader issue of gender inequality in the music industry are required.


We’d like to talk to people who have experienced sexual harassment or assault at an Australian music festival. You can find out more about our project here.

If you require support for sexual harassment or assault, contact details for national services are available here.


This article was co-authored by:
Image of Bianca Fileborn
Bianca Fileborn – [Lecturer in Criminology, UNSW]
 and
Image of Phillip Wadds
Phillip Wadds – [Lecturer in Criminology, UNSW]

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

 

 

 

Can I prevent food allergies in my kids?

 There’s still a lot we don’t know about why 
more children have food allergy today

With the rise in food allergies over the last ten to 20 years, parents are understandably concerned about what – if anything – can be done to reduce the chances of their child developing a food allergy. Expectant mums often ask whether there’s anything they should eat, or avoid eating, to reduce the risk of food allergy in their child.

In the past, some guidelines recommended mums avoid eating “allergenic” foods (foods that commonly cause reactions in individuals with food allergy) during pregnancy and breastfeeding. This advice has now been removed because it hasn’t prevented food allergies in the child. So what do we know (and not know) about the link between foods eaten during pregnancy and food allergies in children?

What is a food allergy?

There are many different types of reactions to foods. Those involving the immune system are classified as allergies.

The type of allergy most studied is called “IgE-mediated” food allergy (IgE refers to immunoglobulin – the antibodies produced by our immune system). In IgE-mediated food allergy, the immune system responds to a particular food or foods in the same way it would respond to something dangerous. It causes symptoms that we call an allergic reaction. Food allergy can occur to a wide range of foods, but common culprits are peanut, tree nuts, egg, milk, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish.

For people with this type of food allergy, reactions generally occur rapidly, sometimes within minutes of ingesting the food. Common symptoms include hives (raised wheals that resemble mosquito bites), vomiting, and swelling of the lips, eyes, or face. Less commonly, reactions can involve the airways or circulation, resulting in potentially life-threatening symptoms like difficulty breathing, wheezing or collapse.

Peanuts should be introduced before one year of age. from www.shutterstock.com

In Australia, IgE-mediated food allergy now affects around one in every ten babies, and around one in 20 older children. It usually develops in infancy or early childhood, and can be lifelong.

Can we prevent children from developing food allergy?

The normal response to eating a food is “tolerance”. In other words, the immune system sees the food as harmless and does not mount a response. Interventions to prevent food allergy aim to promote the development of tolerance.

Ten years ago, no one knew how this could be achieved. Since then, there have been major advances. Perhaps the most important is the recent discovery by researchers in the UK that peanut allergy can be prevented in some children who are at high risk of developing it.

In a study in which 600 children with eczema or egg allergy were randomly assigned to either eat or avoid peanut, those who started eating peanut earlier (before they were one year old) were less likely to have peanut allergy at age five than those who avoided peanut. Studies have also shown eating egg earlier may protect against egg allergy, although this protective effect does not appear to be as strong as for peanuts.

As a result of this study, parents are now advised to introduce foods like peanut and egg to infants before one year of age.

Although this is an important advance in knowledge, the research also showed this isn’t effective for everyone. Some children develop food allergy very early in life, too early to benefit from being given foods like peanut before one year.

It’s also clear infant diet isn’t the only factor that determines whether a child develops a food allergy, since most children do not develop food allergy regardless of the age when foods like peanut and egg are first given. And some children develop food allergy even with an optimal diet.

Maternal diet and food allergy

Immune responses to foods like egg and peanut can be detected in some infants in the first few months of life, before these foods are introduced into the infant diet. This means food allergy prevention might need to start earlier than previously thought.

recent study in mice reported that milk from mothers exposed to egg protein protected offspring from developing allergic reactions to egg. This protection was strongest when the mothers were exposed to egg proteins during both pregnancy and breastfeeding. At the moment it’s not known whether this is also the case in people.

The Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy does not recommend excluding allergenic foods during pregnancy or breastfeeding.

We don’t know yet whether eating more of foods like peanuts or eggs in pregnancy can reduce the risk of the child developing a food allergy. But answers should be available soon. A study led by researchers at the University of Western Australia is about to look in detail at how the amount of egg and peanut eaten by mums relates to their child’s risk of having an egg or peanut allergy.

This is a large study which will take several years to complete, but hopefully we will be able to provide evidence-based advice for maternal diet, the same way we can for infant diet, very soon.


This article was written by:
Image of Jennifer KoplinJennifer Koplin – [Research Fellow, Population Health, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute]

 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

(At least) five reasons you should wear gardening gloves

 Not just to avoid creepy crawlies. 
from www.shutterstock.com

Gardening is a great way to relax, be one with nature and get your hands dirty. But lurking in that pleasant environment are some nasty bacteria and fungi, with the potential to cause you serious harm. So we need to be vigilant with gardening gloves and other protective wear.

Soils contain all sorts of bacteria and fungi, most of which are beneficial and do helpful things like breaking down organic matter. But just as there are pathogenic bacteria that live on your body amid the useful ones, some microorganisms in soil can cause serious damage when given the opportunity to enter the body. This commonly happens through cuts, scrapes or splinters.

Plants, animal manure, and compost are also sources of bacteria and fungi that can cause infections.

1. Tetanus

Traditionally, the most common and well-known infection is tetanus, caused by Clostridium tetani, which lives in soil and manure. Infections occur through contamination of cuts and scrapes caused by things in contact with the soil, such as garden tools or rose thorns.

Fortunately, most people have been vaccinated against tetanus, which means even if you are infected, your body is able to fight back against the bacteria to prevent it becoming serious. Symptoms include weakness, stiffness and cramps, with the toxins released leading to muscular paralysis and difficulty chewing and swallowing – hence the common term for tetanus of lockjaw.

2. Sepsis

Bacteria such as Escherichia coliSalmonellaCampylobacter jejuni, and Listeria monocytogenes are often present in gardens as a result of using cow, horse, chicken or other animal manure. Bacterial infections can lead to sepsis, where the bacteria enter the blood and rapidly grow, causing the body to respond with an inflammatory response that causes septic shock, organ failure, and, if not treated quickly enough, death.

high-profile case recently occurred in England, where a 43-year-old solicitor and mother of two died five days after scratching her hand while gardening. This hits close to home, as a number of years ago my mother spent ten days in intensive care recovering from severe sepsis, believed to be caused by a splinter from the garden.

3. Legionellosis

Standing pools of water may hold Legionella pneumophila, the bacteria causing Legionnaires’ disease, more commonly known to be associated with outbreaks from contaminated air conditioning systems in buildings.

Related bacteria, Legionella longbeachae, are found in soil and compost. In 2016 there were 29 confirmed cases of legionellosis in New Zealand, including a Wellington man who picked up the bug from handling potting mix.

Potting mix should be handled with gloves, while wearing a dust mask. from www.shutterstock.com

Another ten cases were reported in Wellington in 2017, again associated with potting soil. In New Zealand and Australia, Legionella longbeachae from potting mix accounts for approximately half of reported cases of Legionnaires’ disease. There were around 400 total cases of Legionellosis in Australia in 2014.

The bacteria is usually inhaled, so wearing a dust mask when handling potting soil and dampening the soil to prevent dust are recommended.

4. Melioidosis

An additional concern for residents of northern Australia is an infection called melioidosis. These bacteria (Burkholderia pseudomallei) live in the soil but end up on the surface and in puddles after rain, entering the body through cuts or grazes, and sometimes through inhalation or drinking groundwater.

Infection causes a range of symptoms, such as cough and difficulty breathing, fever or sporadic fever, confusion, headache, and weight loss, with up to 21 days before these develop.

In 2012, there were over 50 cases in the Northern Territory leading to three deaths, with another case receiving publicity in 2015. Preventative measures include wearing waterproof boots when walking in mud or puddles, gloves when handling muddy items, and, if you have a weakened immune system, avoiding being outdoors during heavy rain.

5. Rose gardener’s disease

A relatively rare infection is sporotrichosis, “rose gardener’s disease”, caused by a fungus (Sporothrix) that lives in soil and plant matter such as rose bushes and hay. Again, infections through skin cuts are most common, but inhalation can also occur.

Skin infection leads to a small bump up to 12 weeks later, which grows bigger and may develop into an open sore. An outbreak of ten cases was reported in the Northern Territory in 2014.

Aspergillus, usually Aspergillus fumigatus, and Cryptococcus neoformans are other fungi that can cause lung infections when inhaled, usually in people with weakened immune systems. Gardening activities such as turning over moist compost can release spores into the air.

Of course, there are plenty of other dangers in the garden that shouldn’t be ignored, ranging from poisonous spiders, snakes and stinging insects, to hazardous pesticides and fungicides, poisonous plants, and physical injuries from strains, over-exertion, sunburn, allergies, or sharp gardening tools.

So enjoy your time in the garden, but wear gloves and shoes, and a dust mask if handling potting soil or compost. And be aware if you do get a cut or scrape then end up with signs of infection, don’t delay seeing your doctor, and make sure you let them know what you’ve been doing.


This article was written by:
Image of Mark BlaskovichMark Blaskovich – [Senior Research Officer, The University of Queensland]

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

 

Stereotypes in the courtroom can prejudice our justice system – here’s how that can be fixed

 As an extra-legal factor stereotypes can undermine fairness. 
UQx Crime101x The Psychology of Criminal Justice

In 2015, Canadian judge Brian Camp acquitted Alexander Scott for the rape of a woman at a party. According to reports, Camp questioned why the victim had not done more to resist the attack. He said:

She knew she was drunk … Is not an onus on her to be more careful?

Camp also noted the alleged victim’s lack of physical and verbal resistance, and her low socioeconomic status. Four law professors subsequently filed a complaint criticising the decision: they characterised it as being sexist and reflecting stereotypical thinking.

Stereotypes like these have an undesirable influence on decisions in the legal system. While they can have a functional influence on how we form impressions of others, stereotypes can undermine fairness.

Stereotypes and thinking

One useful way to think about a criminal trial is as a series of persuasive messages directed at the fact-finder. In many jurisdictions, the fact-finder is a judge, and for more serious matters it is a jury.

We can use research on persuasion to understand and counter the effect of stereotypes. It generally finds there are two ways in which persuasive messages can influence people.

These processes are described in the dual process models – specifically the heuristic systematic and the elaboration likelihood models.

According to these models, there are two modes of thinking. The central or systematic route involves careful deliberative thought. In contrast, the peripheral or heuristic route relies more on shortcuts and pre-existing knowledge – such as stereotypes.

While the central route sounds like the best way of making decisions, people can only use effort in their thinking when they have the motivation and ability to do so.

What influences jurors?

It is not just judges like Camp who are influenced by stereotypes in cases of sexual assault or rape: jurors’ perceptions are also affected.

Convictions for sexual assault are often dependent on circumstantial evidence, as there is typically little corroborating evidence. This means jurors in these cases are likely to draw on their stereotypes to interpret what happened and who should be blamed.

Jurors are also often influenced by defendants’ characteristics, such as their attractivenessrace, and socioeconomic status. Defendants are seen as more likely to be guilty when they come from social categories that are stereotypically linked to the features of the particular crime they are alleged to have committed.

It is not just stereotypes about the defendant’s appearance that influence perceptions: those derived from courtroom design also affect how jurors decide a case. In one of our studies, a defendant sitting at the bar table with his lawyer was seen as less likely to be guilty than a defendant who was sitting either in an open dock or glass-enclosed dock.

Why stereotyping happens, and what can be done about it

One assumption as to why stereotypes exert such an effect is that perceivers want to use the least mental effort possible, and so use stereotypes to reduce the amount of effort required.

However, there is evidence that perceivers think more carefully about unexpected, or stereotype inconsistent, information. Our research suggests that stereotypes can actually be used to maximise the amount of information that is evaluated under taxing conditions.

Despite stereotypes being pervasive and often functional, in the justice system their influence on fact-finders can lead to unfair outcomes for both victims and the accused. This reduces confidence in the justice system and is undesirable for the community.

So, what changes can we make to reduce the negative effects of stereotypes?

One suggestion is that we should get rid of juries and have judge-only trials. But, as the Camp example shows, judges are sometimes also influenced by stereotypes. And research shows that judges, just like juries, have difficulty ignoring inadmissible information and stereotypes.

This is not a criticism of jurors or judges. Rather, it is a recognition that they are human.

Another possibility is to change how jurors are asked to do their job so that they rely less on stereotypes. One option could be to use structured question trails to instruct jurors, rather than the traditional way of giving verbal instructions.

We could also redesign courtrooms to remove elaborate docks, which can make stereotypes about the threat posed by the defendant.

Whatever strategy is decided upon, there is a real need for empirical evidence to inform law reform and practice. This will increase the chance that change will actually improve the fairness of the criminal justice system.


This article is based on the author’s chapter in New Directions for Law in Australia: Essays in Contemporary Law Reform, published by ANU Press.


This article was written by:
Image of Blake McKimmieBlake McKimmie – [Associate Professor, School of Psychology, The University of Queensland]
 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

Explainer: how does sunscreen work, what is SPF and can I still tan with it on?

 Sunscreen protects from skin cancer, burning 
and from the sun’s ageing effects. PRONicki Dugan Pogue/Flickr

Sunscreen use not only reduces the risk of skin cancer and sunburn, it also reduces the ageing effect of the sun.

But whenever summer rolls around, it’s easy to forget the basics – like, how should I apply sunscreen? How long should I wait after applying it to go in the sun, and how long can I stay in the sun with it on? And how does it work anyway?

How does sunscreen work ?

There are two main parts to all sunscreens. The active ingredient and the emulsion.

Sunscreens either absorb UV radiation or reflect it. from shuttersrock.com

The active ingredient does the sun protection work. These come in two categories: UV absorbers and UV reflectors.

UV absorbers are chemicals that absorb UV radiation and convert it to a very low level of heat. So low most don’t notice it, but a small proportion of people do report sunscreens make them feel uncomfortably warm.

UV absorber chemicals are also called “organic”, because they contain carbon atoms, a basis for all organic matter.

Some absorb the UVB part of the spectrum, which is known to cause sunburn and contribute to skin cancer risk. Others absorb the UVA part of the spectrum. Recent research suggests the longer UVA wavelengths not only penetrate to deeper layers of the skin but contribute to skin cancer through compromising immune response to DNA damage.

For that reason, sunscreen labelled “broad spectrum” is recommended as it offers the best protection.

Broad action sunscreen is recommended. from shutterstock.com

UV “reflectors” are mostly made up of metals, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, that scatter UV radiation. The tiny flakes of metal act like mirrors to reflect the UV away from the skin.

There is normally more than one and often up to six or more active ingredients in most sunscreens.

The emulsion – the lotion, milk, cream, oil, foam or gel – is what carries the active ingredient. It is usually made up of some combination of oil and water, plus other goodies. These are important as they preserve the product so it lasts on the shelf or in your cupboard. They also help with water resistance, influence how the sunscreen feels and smells, and how well it binds to the skin.

What does SPF mean and how is it measured?

Sunscreen provides a screen, not a block. Think of a fly-screen door: air gets though but flies don’t. In the same way, the sun lotion or potion of your choice allows some small amount of UV radiation onto your skin.

A sunscreen with SPF 30 isn’t much lower in protection than SPF 50. Mike Mozart/Flickr
SPF stands for sun protection factor. It’s the measure of how much UV gets through the screen. The higher the number, the less UV passes through.

An SPF of 30 allows one-thirtieth or 3.3% of UV to reach your skin. This means it filters 96.7% of UV. With an SPF of 50, 98% is filtered and one-fiftieth or 2% gets through.

So while the difference between SPF 30 and SPF 50 sounds like a lot – it is a pretty modest (1.3%) – difference in protection.

Put another way, if your unprotected skin would take ten minutes to show signs of burning, then properly applying SPF 30 sunscreen would slow the rate of burning to the point where it would take 30 times longer, or 300 minutes in total. SPF 15 would take 150 minutes, while SPF 50, 500 minutes.

But this is perfect world stuff. If you extend your stay in the sun for 500 minutes (over eight hours!) only relying on sunscreen, you will very likely still burn!

When and how do I put it on?

At a microscopic level, the skin is a series of peaks and troughs. Layering on sunscreen around 20 minutes before going into the sun allows the product to flow into the troughs and bind properly to the skin.

The skin is a series of peaks and troughs. from shutterstock.com

Many sunscreens recommend reapplying every two hours. But another way to look at it is like painting a wall of your house. The first coat gets a reasonable coverage, but a reapplication 20-30 minutes after being in the sun – after the first coat has “dried” – gets you much more reliable coverage. And this will cover the bits you may have missed, or covered too thinly, on first pass.

Also, use it generously. Most people use too little (between a quarter and three-quarters) of the amount of sunscreen necessary to achieve the sun protection claimed on the label. A teaspoon per limb is a good rule of thumb. Add another teaspoon for your face, front and back. This comes to seven teaspoons (35ml) in all if you are at the beach in board shorts or a bikini.

You need to apply around seven teaspoons of sunscreen in all if you’re at the beach in a bikini. Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash

Layer it on and spread it around. Reapply every two hours or more often if you are active (sweating, towelling off, skin making physical contact with anything that might rub it off), even if the bottle claims four-hour water resistance. And a good idea is to check if the lotion hasn’t passed its use-by date.

Use other things to protect your skin too. Hats, shade, clothing and even staying indoors at the highest UV periods. The closer to solar noon, usually between midday and 12.30pm, the higher the UV.


Read more: Will I damage my eyes if I don’t wear sunglasses?


The World Health Organisation recommends protecting skin from the sun when the UV Index is 3 or above. The Bureau of Meteorology reports on the UV Index around Australiaand the SunSmart App allows you to get live readings on your smartphone.

How long can I stay in the sun with sunscreen on?

It’s wise to stay in the sun no longer than is necessary to do your planned activity. Staying out longer just because you have the sunscreen “suit of armour” (which it is not) is a bad idea.

Even following all the best advice, the normal daily activity – wiping water from your eyes, scratching an itch, cuddling the kids, brushing against a tree or your best buddy – will remove sunscreen and diminish its performance. And remember it is screening, not blocking the sun.

And will you still get a tan if you put on sunscreen properly? Well, no. If sunscreen is properly applied to do its job of reducing UV radiation exposure, it prevents the biological process of tanning.


This article was written by:
Image of Terry SlevinTerry Slevin – [Adjunct Professor, School of Psychology, Curtin University; Education and Research Director, Cancer Council WA; Chair, Occupational and Environmental Cancer Committee, Cancer Council Australia]
 

 

 

 

This article is part of a syndicated news program via

The origin of ‘us’: what we know so far about where we humans come from

 The story of where we come from evolves 
almost every year. Shutterstock/Eugenio Marongiu

The question of where we humans come from is one many people ask, and the answer is getting more complicated as new evidence is emerging all the time.

For most of recorded history humankind has been placed on a metaphorical, and sometimes literal, pedestal. Sure, modern humans were flesh and blood like other animals.

But they were regarded as being so special that in the Linnaean taxonomy that prevailed well into the second half of the 20th century they were given their own family, the Hominidae.

This distinguished them from the Pongidae, the separate family used for the three African great apes – the common chimpanzee, bonobo and gorilla – plus the orangutan from Southeast Asia.

We now realise that modern humans are just one of the African great apes.

So when and how did this radically changed perception come about?

Early observations

In the 19th century the only evidence available for determining the closeness of the relationship between any two living animals was how similar they were in terms of what the naked eye could tell from their bones, teeth, muscles and organs.

Biologist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895).Wikimedia/Carte de Visite Fotografie

The first person to undertake a systematic comparative review of these differences between modern humans and the apes was English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley.

In the central section of a small book he published in 1863, called Evidence as to Man’s Place in Nature, Huxley concluded that the differences between modern humans and African apes were less than those between African apes and orangutans.

This was the evidence the English naturalist Charles Darwin referred to in The Descent of Man in 1871.

He speculated that because African apes were morphologically closer to modern humans than the apes from Asia, then the ancestors of modern humans were more likely to be found in Africa than elsewhere.

A closer inspection

Developments in biochemistry and immunology during the first half of the 20th century enabled the search for evidence of the relationships between modern humans and the apes to shift from macroscopic morphology to the morphology of molecules.

The results of applying a new generation of analytical methods to proteins were reported by the Austrian-born French biologist Emile Zuckerkandl and American biologist Morris Goodman in the early 1960s.

Zuckerkandl used enzymes to break up the protein component of haemoglobin into its peptide components. He showed that the patterns of the peptides from modern humans, gorilla and chimpanzee were indistinguishable.

Goodman used a different method, immunodiffusion, to study albumin, a serum protein. He showed that the patterns produced by the albumins of modern humans and the chimpanzee were identical. He concluded that this was because the albumin molecules were, to all intents and purposes, identical.

Apes and humans: related

Proteins are made up of a string of amino acids and in many instances one amino acid can be substituted for another without changing the function of the protein.

In the late 1960s, the American anthropologist Vince Sarich and New Zealand biologist Allan Wilson exploited these minor differences in protein structure and concluded that modern humans and the African apes were very closely related.

They also provided the first molecular clock estimate of modern human-African ape divergence, dating the split to only around five million years ago. This date was less than half of contemporary estimates based on fossil evidence.

In 1975 the American human geneticist Mary-Claire King and Allan Wilson showed that 99% of the amino-acid sequences of chimpanzee and modern human blood proteins were identical.

Enter DNA

The discovery by James Watson and Francis Crick, with unwitting help from Rosalind Franklin, of the basic structure of DNA, and the subsequent discovery by Crick and others of the nature of the genetic code, meant that the relationships among organisms could be pursued at the level of the genome.

Nowadays technological advances mean that whole genomes can be sequenced. Over the past decade researchers have published good draft sequences of the nuclear genomes of the chimpanzeeorangutangorilla and the bonobo.

How close? (Top left) A chimpanzee (top right), an orangutan, (bottom left) a gorilla and (bottom right) a bonobo. Shutterstock/Sergey Uryadnikov/Petr Masek/Sergey Uryadnikov/Eric Gevaert

More and better data are steadily being accumulated, and in 2013 a review of ape DNA based on the genomes of 79 great apes was published.

These new ape genome sequences support the results of earlier analyses of both nuclear and mitochondrial DNA that suggested modern humans and chimpanzees are more closely related to each other than either is to the gorilla.

When DNA differences among modern humans and the great apes are calibrated using the best palaeontological evidence for the split between the apes and the old world monkeys, those differences predict that the hypothetical common ancestor of modern humans, chimpanzees and bonobos lived about 8 million years ago.

The rise of the hominins

Most researchers now recognise the modern human as hominins.

Still, the question “where do we come from” can from a scientific perspective be difficult for someone outside of the discipline to come to grips with. In part this is because the fossil record for human evolution seems to grow exponentially, with the author of each new discovery often claiming that the textbooks need to be rewritten.

The interdisciplinary nature of palaeoanthropology also means that new evidence that helps us make sense of our ancestry does not always come in the form of new fossils.

It comes from advances in a range of disciplines that include archaeology, comparative anatomy, earth sciences, evolutionary biology, genomics and primatology.

A further complicating factor is that the human fossil record does not just consist of the fossil evidence of our direct ancestors.

Many of the fossils belong to lineages that do not make it to the surface of the Tree of Life. They belong to extinct close relatives, and the task of sorting close relatives from ancestors is one with which we are only just now beginning to grapple.

There is a lineage that leads to today’s Homo sapiens, but there are also a host of side experiments that are equally important to understand. They represent some of the most interesting chapters in human evolution.

Origins of the genus Homo

Understanding the origins of our own genus Homo means establishing what fossils we recognise as being the first early humans.

Sometime before 4 million years ago we see the first evidence of the genus Australopithecus. These fossils sample the kind of creature that was most likely the ancestor to the genus Homo.

Around 2.5 million years ago we see the first fossil evidence of species in Africa that many argue belong to our own lineage. One of these, Homo habilis, almost certainly made stone tools, had a slightly larger brain than Australopithecus, stood upright and regularly walked on two legs.

Some recognise a second species, Homo rudolfensis, about which we know even less.

These possible human ancestors lived alongside close relatives that were almost certainly not our ancestors. These species are called Paranthropus or robust australopiths – they had small brains, big jaw bones, large flat faces, and huge chewing teeth.

They lasted for at least a million years, so whatever they were eating (which is still a mystery) they were successful in the sense that they lasted as long in the fossil record as the average mammal.

But some researchers think that Homo habilis and Homo rudolfensis are not different enough from the australopiths that preceded them to justify being included in the genus Homo.

They claim that the size and shape of their body and the size of their teeth and jaws was little different from that of the australopiths. This means that their locomotion and diet had not shifted far enough in the direction of pre-modern Homo species such as Homo erectus to justify inclusion in Homo.

Tool making is not enough

Also, because it is becoming evident that australopiths may have been making tools earlier than Homo habilis it means that tool-making can no longer be seen as the sole prerogative of Homo.

There is a developing consensus that the relaxation of the criteria more than 50 years ago that saw the inclusion of Homo habilis into the genus Homo needs to be reconsidered.

Species that emerge slightly later from Africa, such as Homo ergaster, fit much more clearly within what we understand by the genus Homo. That species probably left Africa around 2 million years ago and migrated ultimately as far east as China and Indonesia where it evolved, eventually, into Homo erectus.

A number of further migrations out of Africa probably occurred after the initial Homo ergaster migration, one of which, Homo heidelbergensis, is considered by many palaeoanthropologists to be the ancestor of both Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and modern humans (Homo sapiens).

As far as we know, Neanderthals evolved outside of Africa, perhaps in response to the ice ages of Europe. Our ancestors remained in Africa where perhaps as early as 300,000 years ago, as revealed from recent redating of the Moroccan site of Jebel Irhoud, were well along in the process of evolving into modern humans.

So the origins of ‘us’

Once we get to the origins of our own species Homo sapiens we have the added advantage that we are able to now use next generation sequencing methods to recover ancient DNA (aDNA).

As geneticists recover ancient genomes from different extinct hominin species, they are generating insights that are not possible from comparing the anatomy of the fossils alone.

There is now fossil evidence from teeth to suggest that Homo sapiens may have been in China by 120,000 years ago and in South East Asia by 67,000 years.

The discovery of some distinctive modern human DNA within the DNA recovered from a Neanderthal fossil suggests that modest interbreeding was occurring between Neanderthals and modern humans in Central Asia by 100,000 years ago.

Modern humans have not shared the planet with another hominin species for several tens of thousands of years. But before that, in the past 300,000 years or so, there is fossil and DNA evidence of several hominin species, including the recently reported archaic hominin Homo naledi

First and foremost there was Homo neanderthalensis, whose range overlapped with modern humans in the Near East. Neanderthals most likely became extinct as a result of direct competition with the more technologically sophisticated Homo sapiens.

The evidence from DNA shows that there was interbreeding between our species and pre-modern humans, including the Neanderthals and the other enigmatic hominin referred to as the Denisovans.

We do not yet know how and when Homo erectus became extinct. It would appear that another unexpected side experiment in hominin evolution, known from the island of Flores and called Homo floresiensis most likely became extinct sometime after 60,000 years ago.

Indeed this hominin may represent something far more significant than simply an interesting side experiment, with many leading palaeoanthropologists arguing that the Hobbit may represent a pre-ergaster migration out of Africa.

What next?

Even though thousands of hominin fossils have now been recovered and described there is still much work to be done.

Was there a hominin that successfully migrated out of Africa prior to Homo ergaster? Did most of human evolution occur in Africa? Did some important transitions occur outside of Africa?

When did Homo erectus become extinct, and was there genetic exchange between erectus, sapiens and perhaps other hominin species?

As is often the case in science, with the recovery of additional data, in this case fossils and DNA extracted from fossils, we generate more questions than answers.

But ultimately all of this new evidence will result in a far more sophisticated appreciation of not only our evolution, but also the evolution of our extinct fossil cousins.


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