Peabody director leads Human Origins course

Students enrolled in Human Origins (SCIE 470) this fall will come face to face with our distant human ancestors as well as contemporary issues like race and scientific racism that are part and parcel of paleoanthropology’s legacy. Between reading and discussion on a variety of topics, ranging from the so-called “Hobbit” fossil—Homo floresiensis to the debate over multiregionalism, students will do some experimental archaeology, including flint knapping, fire making, and throwing a dart with an atlatl. We also will be visiting “The Nest”—the makerspace at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library, where we will be 3D printing casts of the newest fossil discovery from South Africa—Homo naledi and comparing them to traditional plaster casts and resin models of other fossil hominins. Other hands-on projects will include looking for clues to human evolution in the bones of a modern human, bone flute making, and creating our own Mesolithic symbol system, akin to the painted pebbles found in Mas d’Azil cave in the French Pyrenees. Throughout the course students will explore some of the most recent discoveries and newest ideas about human evolution and the scientific discourse and debate that ensue. Students will be challenged to develop their critical thinking skills as we evaluate these new discoveries in light of broader discourse on race and the scientific method.

Image of students in Human Origins make bone flutes with bow drills while their instructor Jerry Hagler looks on.
Biology instructor Jerry Hagler looks on as students in Human Origins make bone flutes using bow drills, spring 2016.

Human Origins is an interdisciplinary science course developed collaboratively by biology instructor Jerry Hagler and personnel at the Peabody Museum and was first taught in 2007. Since then it has been offered most years as a senior elective. The pace of new discoveries—like Svante Pääbo’s work on the introgression of Neanderthal DNA into the modern human genome in 2011—means that the curriculum is constantly shifting, making for an exciting and lively class. Dr. Hagler is on sabbatical this year so Dr. Wheeler–Peabody Museum director–is leading the course.

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