Teaching Human Origins: High School Edition

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

Human Origins at Phillips Academy began in 2007 and represented one of the early collaborations between faculty and the Peabody. In its initial incarnation the course was led by Jerry Hagler, science faculty, and co-taught by personnel at the Peabody. The content was strongly interdisciplinary, mirroring the reality of archaeology and anthropology, which draw heavily on science, history, historiography, psychology, and other fields. Three years ago I began leading the course solo, but have endeavored to maintain the strong interdisciplinary flavor. The course is now among those offered by the Academy’s new Department of Interdisciplinary Studies. The course description states:

This interdisciplinary science course uses insights drawn from history, art, archaeology, and other disciplines to chart the human journey from hominid to the first civilizations that forecast the modern world. Hands-on laboratory exercises emphasize use of Peabody Institute of Archaeology collections and challenge students to apply ancient techniques to solve daily problems of survival.

Image of books used in Human Origins course.
The Human Origins bookshelf. These are some of the texts from which class readings are drawn.

In the fast paced world of human evolution, I’ve found it imperative to focus on some of the big questions and issues, rather than on the details, as new finds and discoveries rewrite our evolutionary history nearly monthly. In June 2017 a new discovery in Morocco pushed back the antiquity of modern humans (us!) by nearly 100,000 years and called into question the predominant view that our earliest ancestors first appeared in eastern and southern Africa. We also only have 10 weeks to cover some 7 million years of human evolution, so judicious pruning of the syllabus is necessary.

On the first day of class some students are surprised to learn that we will spend a great deal of time talking about race. When you understand that the scientists who first studied fossil humans were also the scientists that were interested in human diversity this connection becomes clearer. We encounter ideas like polygenesis, which suggests that so-called races today had different evolutionary origins and trajectories. Despite the widespread adherence to the “Out of Africa” hypothesis, polygenism casts a long shadow and continues to crop up in new guises.

Image of Big Foot casts.
Casts of Bigfoot or Sasquatch footprint impressions, Washington State, cast and reconstructed by Dr. Grover Krantz, Professor of Anthropology at Washington State University. Casts from Bone Clones Inc.

Early in the term we tackle pseudoscience and read a chapter from Michael Shermer’s 1997 book Why People Believe Weird Things. We get to talk about Big Foot. It was with great reluctance that I dropped a reading from Daniel Loxton and Donald R. Prothero’s 2013 book Abominable Science: Origins of the Yeti, Nessie, and Other Famous Cryptids. They review every piece of evidence for the existence of these creatures (and more!), pointing out over and over that scientific inquiry requires falsifiability beyond all else. The importance of falsifiability in science will remain central, but the Loxton and Prothero readings were just too long!

Image of Neanderthal skull cast.
The Peabody’s vintage plaster cast of a Neanderthal from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France.

We also spend some time talking about Neanderthals, and the incredible shifts in our understanding of one of our closest human relatives. As much as possible I try to have students read things written by the scientists on the front line of human origins research, including Svante Pääbo, who less than ten years ago reconstructed the Neanderthal genome and demonstrated that many of us carry a little Neanderthal DNA, the product of interbreeding between what most scientists had though two separate species.  The recent discovery of an individual from 90,000 years ago that had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father will no doubt be front and center in our discussion. Denisovans are another recently discovered fossil human group that overlapped geographically and temporally with Neanderthals in eastern Europe and Asia. Students presenting on Neanderthals in the popular imagination will explore everything from the GEICO caveman to the Flintstones.

Image of students flint knapping or making stone tools.
Students try their hand at flint knapping in Human Origins, fall 2017.

During our extended periods we will explore a variety of early technologies, from flint knapping to fire making. In order to contextualize these early technologies, students will read some of Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene, where he introduces the concept of the “meme.” Many are surprised to find that the term meme, now embedded in the culture of social media, originated with Dawkins as he wrestled with ways to model the origins and transmission of ideas. We discuss innovation versus transmission, and how both are necessary for an idea to persist and spread. Fire and stone tool making are particularly good examples, sparking discussion of the earliest evidence for each and if they were independently invented over and over (and how one might tell).

Image of students using calipers to measure skulls.
Students apply the Giles & Elliot discriminant functions to models of human skulls, a basic forensic technique that is often used to distinguish “race.” We explore why it works, its limitations, and the problems with scientific explorations of race and human diversity.

We revisit race again with an entire week dedicated to readings and discussion of the problematical origin of the concept, and how it melds physical traits with cultural ones. We delve into paleontologist Stephen J. Gould’s campaign against the idea of race as a biological or scientific concept, and how scientists have continued to study race despite Gould’s protests. The focus here is on creating a context for future discussions of race—the cultural construct—versus biological diversity. We’ll tackle the complexities of forensic methods used to distinguish race, why these work so well, and how physical anthropologists struggle with ideas about race. Other lab days visit the Peabody’s collection of fossil human cranial casts, how to read the story of human evolution in one skeleton, and a special trip to the campus Makerspace where we will 3D print a fossil of Homo naledi, a recently discovered fossil human species from South Africa that overlaps with modern humans in space and time and blends ancient and modern characteristics.

Image of student debate.
The NAGPRA debate unfolds in Human Origins, spring 2015. The class is divided into teams, each representing one of the parties in the case of Spirit Cave Man, a 10,600-year old individual found in Nevada. Materials from the Fallon Paiute-Shoshone tribe’s legal battle for the remains are used as primary source material.

The term will finish with some time dedicated to the Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), explored through a classroom debate and using the legal documents from the Spirit Cave Man case. The Peabody has been deeply involved in NAGPRA since its implementation in 1990 and it seems appropriate to share this work with students and investigate the arguments on all sides of the repatriation debate.

Stay tuned for updates from this fall’s Human Origins course. Let’s see how new discoveries in the field and lab change our conversations in the classroom!

 

Collections Summer Summary

Contributed by Marla Taylor

Another summer is nearly gone and the school year is about to begin.  Sometimes, I get asked “what do you do when the students aren’t here?” Well… everything!

In the past couple of months, the collections department has inventoried and rehoused over 100 artifact drawers! This included an ambitious project (and maybe a little bit crazy) to reorganize the ceramics from the Scotty MacNeish collection. MacNeish stored the ceramics by typology – useful for analysis, but really unhelpful for collections management.  Objects with the same catalog number were spread out over 8 to 12 different drawers and were not easy to locate for researcher or class use. It took over a week to empty, consolidate, and inventory 55 drawers. But now everything is easy to access!

I have also been teaching Annie Greco, inventory specialist, and Rachel Manning, our new collections assistant, the basics of pest management and mitigation. We inspected artifacts for insect activity and damage and then learned how to properly clean objects that have been affected. Fortunately, nothing serious was found and it was a valuable exercise for all of us.

Annie and Rachel pest
Annie and Rachel examine an artifact for pest activity.

Also, outside research does not follow the school year patterns. I have been working with several professors to facilitate access to Peabody collections for a variety of projects.

Summer at the Peabody is a different pace than the school year, but not any slower!

Gedney House of Salem, MA

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

In July, I once again partnered with Dr. Bethany Jay of Salem State University to teach the graduate class for history teachers that focuses on using archaeology in the classroom to teach about marginalized individuals, who are often overlooked.

Since it is now our fifth year running this class, it is always exciting when we get to experience something new ourselves. This year we added a tour of the Gedney House in Salem to our listing of sites we were visiting. One of the students in the class, Tom, is a tour guide for the Gedney House and took us all around the historic house – we even got to go into the creepy basement!

The Gedney House is owned by Historic New England and was built in 1665, making it one of the oldest houses in Salem. Given the fire that swept through Salem in 1914, it is amazing that this structure still stands today.

image 3.jpg
Gedney House (wikimedia commons via Daderot)

The house has gone through a lot of iterations throughout its history and they have left their marks on the building. Starting first as a single family home, for shipwright Eleazer Gedney, major renovations to the façade were added in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Later it became a tenement in Salem’s Italian-American neighborhood.

What makes the house so interesting to history lovers (and archaeologists!) is that the house was originally set for total rehab in the 1960s and so the inside was completely gutted. That means that you can now see the original structure as well as the evidence for later renovations. It really sets the house apart from other first period houses located in New England. Dr. Abbott Lowell Cummings, a prominent architectural historian, once said that the “Gedney House in Salem, Massachusetts is the example par excellence which must be protected under a glass bell jar” due to the scholarly impact its raw architectural state offers to historic preservationists seeking to better understand the construction methods of these early houses so that they can more faithfully restore such structures.

Cummings was also the first scholar to suggest that dendrochronology (the study of tree rings for dating purposes) be used in New England to date the earliest colonial houses, using the Gedney House as one of the first structures on which to test this technique. After the former owner had stripped away much of the interior trim down to the frame, a beam that had been cut into at some point in the house’s history was exposed. The cut revealed an almost complete cross-section of the beam’s tree rings. Cummings used the rings to date the construction of the house to 1664-1665 based on a set of specific drought rings that coincided with the 1590s and 1615-1620.

If you happen to find yourself in Salem, MA during one of the days the house is open for limited tours (first Saturdays in April-October), I can’t recommend it enough. As you walk through the building, you can see the signs of each of the unique periods, as well as how they overlap with each other. So many people have called that house their home and their stories are literally carved into the frame of the house.

What a life the Gedney House has lived!!

Exciting Changes!

I have been working as the Inventory Specialist at the Peabody for the past year. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience and I have learned a great deal, not only about the collections at the Peabody, but about collections and artifacts from other institutions throughout the United States as well.

IMG_6487

It is with great pleasure that I will be taking on the position of Collections Assistant at the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology! With this new position comes a variety of new responsibilities that I am ready to undertake. While I will still be inventorying drawers as time allows, I will focus more on drawers that have been adopted through our Adopt A Drawer program. Through this program, donors can “adopt” a drawer housed at the Peabody! They receive updates on the progress of the inventory and rehousing of the artifacts in the drawer and pictures of what is inside. Upon completion, a write-up with information pertaining to the age, origin and various other details about the artifacts within the drawer is sent to the donor. Interested in participating? Contact Peabody director Ryan Wheeler (rwheeler@andover.edu).

Another major part of the position will be monitoring the environment in the various collections spaces. Maintaining proper relative humidity and temperature is imperative to keeping a healthy collection. Fluctuations in these variables can be detrimental to the collection and cause damage to and have other undesirable effects on the artifacts. In addition to environmental monitoring, I will also be in control of the Integrated Pest Management program. Keeping on top of pest activity in any institution is the best way to avoid an infestation. This is especially important in museums where irreplaceable artifacts can be damaged by insect activity.

IMG_6483
Here I am, monitoring the environment.

A third big change will be working more closely with our volunteers and work duty students who spend time at the Peabody helping us with a few of the many tasks that need to be accomplished. Once a week groups of students from Phillips Academy assigned work duty at the Peabody will take time doing anything from inventorying drawers to digitally inputting information from catalog cards and ledgers. We also have a group of volunteers who join us once a week to inventory drawers, perform inspections of our ethnographic materials, or do other tasks as they present themselves. If this sounds like something interesting to you or anyone you know, feel free to contact us about volunteering at the Peabody!

I am very excited to be able to contribute to the Peabody in new ways!

Allow me to introduce myself…

Welcome to my inaugural blog post. I have been working at the Peabody Institute for three months, so it is high time I introduce myself. I am the new Inventory Specialist. It is my job to inventory and rehouse the collections in storage for the next year.

I am a graduate student at UMass Boston and am passionate about Indigenous studies, both in and outside of archaeology. I interned for National NAGPRA last fall where I learned the importance of employing ethical daily practices at museums, especially when looking through the lens of civil rights issues. I have also worked on various archaeological projects in New England, New Mexico, California, and Iceland.

I have learned a lot in my time here so far, the diversity of regional material culture across North America, the importance of preservation, the most effective rehousing practices…even how to throw an atlatl. (Although my success rate is nothing to brag about.)

While most of my work experience is with freshly excavated archaeological collections, I am excited to transition my focus to the preservation of older collections, including collections on which the foundations of Native American archaeology were built. At least once a week, I am blown away by the Peabody’s collections. Objects I have only had the pleasure of reading about appear in their drawers. Needless to say, I am happy to be here and happy to help with the rehousing inventory project.