Gearing Up for Human Origins

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

The fall 2022 term at Phillips Academy is a little less than a month away and this time every summer my thoughts turn to Human Origins. Human Origins is the interdisciplinary science elective that I have been teaching since 2016 (the course originated with Jere Hagler and Peabody Institute staff in 2007).

Hands on activities are a mainstay of Human Origins, including work with our collection of fossil human casts and models, spear throwing, ancient paint making, fire making, and stone tool making. Many of these activities explore ancient human technologies and give students a glimpse into life in the Upper Paleolithic.

Human Origins student crafting a stone tool during fall 2020.

Stone tool making—or flint knapping—requires a little preparation each summer to make certain that we have the necessary safety gear, equipment, and raw stone for the students in the fall. In fall 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic when all courses moved online, we continued to flint knap in Human Origins by sending out kits with all the needed materials. This gave students a few weeks to familiarize themselves with the tools and techniques (after watching my safety video), rather than just one class period. Pedagogically this seemed like a good shift, so I’ve kept this as part of the course.

Knapping safety gear and tools for Human Origins.

I’ve also had a few colleagues ask about how I assemble the flint knapping kits. It is possible to find ready made kits online, these often don’t have the greatest materials, and lack safety gear like gloves, goggles, and leather pads. Here’s a list of some of the items that we typically put together in a Human Origins flint knapping kit:

  • Safety goggles
  • Leather gloves or cut proof gloves
  • A six-inch leather pad (helps protect legs and grip the flint spall)
  • An antler billet as a soft hammer
  • A river cobble as a hard hammer
  • A copper topped “bopper” for percussion flaking
  • A deer antler flaker (for pressure flaking)
  • A copper tipped flaker (for pressure flaking)
  • Large spalls of dacite and Georgetown flint (I’ve found these two materials work best for students—they knap uniformly, have few irregularities or inclusions, and can be readily obtained on online)
Dacite (left) and Georgetown flint spalls are good raw materials for beginners.

A variety of YouTube videos are available that introduce the techniques, which we also discuss in class. Students are encouraged to experiment with both percussion and pressure flaking, the different tools and materials, and making tools solo or in a group. As an instructor, I consider it a success if students are able to produce flakes (and name the different parts of a flake)!

Bifacial stone tools made by Human Origins students in fall 2020.

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