Category Archives: Classes

Cats in the Collections

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

The collections staff at the Peabody keep telling me that I can’t have a cat. Which I guess was fair, until I found out that all this time they have been hiding a jaguar in our basement!

A JAGUAR!

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An adorable jaguar cub who would love to live at the Peabody and get belly scratches. Look at those mitts!!! By User:MatthiasKabel – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8837354

A few weeks ago I was approached by Elizabeth Aureden, instructor in music, to design an interactive class for her Music 410 course, The Musical Brain. While looking through our collections for musical instruments, I learned from collections assistant Samantha Hixson that she had just found and catalogued some effigy rattles.

The objects were made of clay and painted a variety of colors, and some still rattled.

This new find seemed very promising and so I wanted to learn more about them. Research indicated that these objects were from the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica and most likely date from AD 1000 – 1350.

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Map showing the Nicoya cultural region. By Rodtico21 (Own work)[CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0
The parts we have are clearly broken and part of a much larger artifact. These are the remnants of the tripod legs of a rattle effigy vessel. Each of the three legs would have contained three clay balls and had openings on the side for the sound. When shaken a rhythmic sound can be heard.

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Image of a complete vessel. Notice the holes in the side of the legs.  By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
That’s pretty neat! But the story became even cooler as I found more information about this style of pottery.

The bowls were used to add a percussive sound to a ceremony. And the sound it made was not an accidental rattling sound, but rather a deliberate and meaningful one. When the bowl is shaken or moved about, and the clay balls rattle together, they create a deep, rumble. This sound is mimicking the low growl of an actual jaguar!!!!! Researchers have even noted that when the bowl is tilted and moving forward – like a jaguar lunging at prey – the sound is more prominent.

If your interest is now piqued about other objects from the Nicoya Peninsula, check out Dr. Rebecca Stone’s book, The Jaguar Within.

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So next time you are at the Peabody be on the lookout, because you never know what other predatory animals might be lurking!!!

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Scary lion from the 1995 movie Jumanji.
Sometimes the Peabody seems like it’s playing its own version of the game Jumanji, with all the random artifacts that mysteriously present themselves to staff members.

 

 

 

A Life in Beads

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

I recently received two requests from history faculty for our class on Westward Expansion. Unfortunately, we recently determined that the majority of the objects used for that class should be further investigated to see if they are potential NAGPRA objects – specifically items of cultural patrimony.  Which meant that if I was to fulfill the requests of these teachers I needed to come up with a new activity FAST! I had less than two working weeks to formulate and flesh out what the seventy-minute class would do.

While I was scrolling online for ideas my colleague Samantha Hixson mentioned a Plains dress that we had – thus giving me an “A HA!!!!” moment.  I had seen a lesson related to a Plains dress from the National Museum of the American Indian. That got me thinking and served as a foundation for my own lesson.

I decided to use multiple objects from the Peabody Institute’s collection to understand the long standing close connection that Plains tribes had to their surroundings and communities through traditions. Through the lens of one aspect of life – clothing – the impact that Westward Expansion had on tribes will be more clearly defined.

In addition to the dress I also selected a pair of beaded moccasins, one of the muslin pencil drawings (reproduction), a defleshing tool, as well as a bison skin rattle (reproduction). The class begins with students wandering around the room, simply exploring the objects scattered about before working together to dive more deeply into the material culture.

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Students look at a reproduction of one of the Sioux pencil drawings in our collection.

Some of the questions students are asked are basic observational ones: “what material is the dress made from.” Others begin to stretch their understanding of the process of making clothing: “what role did men and boys have in the creation of the dress and shoes.” We also delve into why decorations are important, not only in the culture we are studying, but our own as well.

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Students answering questions about the material culture.

We then pause as a class to talk about traditions and what they mean to us personally. We talk about the positive influence they have on us and how they bring us closer together as a community (Head of School Day was a favorite tradition that was mentioned. One can tell that the speculation amongst students of when it will be called is going strong!!).

We then discuss how the actions of white settlers and the government destroyed the traditions of Plains tribes and how this affected communities. This was a very emotional part of the class for many students. It is certainly one thing to read about atrocities in the past through the emotional barrier of a textbook – and quite another to “see” it when looking at the clothing that a real person wore. And based on an email I received from one of the faculty asking for more resources for students to further investigate the impact on tribes and how they are dealing with it today, it is a lesson that has already had a lasting impact on the students.

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Lindsay Randall pointing out details in the clothing.

But I do not want to end my post on such a heavy note, so I will tell you about a great way that everyone at the Peabody supports the work of each other. For the first class Samantha sat in on the activity and was VERY helpful. While she did answer some of the student questions – which was very nice and I do not mean to diminish how helpful that was – but more importantly SHE WAS WEARING QUILL EARRINGS!!!!! And in the lesson I mentioned QUILLING!! So I may have made asked her to take them out so that I could show them to students.

She also noticed that I mention elk tooth beads in my lesson and shared with me that students had recently discovered one in our collections! SCORE!!!! Collaboration for the WIN!

Decoding a woven language

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

Cloth was the books the Spanish could not burn.

During Fall Term I worked with Meg Bednarcik and Nick Zufelt – both Instructors in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science – to create a class that would focus on the computer science concepts of looping and parameters.

We decided to utilize the extensive Guatemalan textile collection at the Peabody, as they are brightly colored and engaging and most have repeating, or looping, motifs. We also liked the idea of incorporating clothing made and worn exclusively by indigenous women into a subject where they are woefully underrepresented.

Eighteen huipils (wee-peels) were pulled for the class, with the images of another twelve scanned. A huipil is a traditional Maya women’s shirt.

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The first activity was a matching game to show students how huipils had silent information encoded into them about the wearer’s home community. Each village has its own distinctive design. The students were given twelve cards with images of other huipils in our collection and asked to match them to huipils that were laid out in the room. The following images are from three villages, highlighting how the differences between villages, as well as the variation within a particular village.

Huipils from San Mateo

Huipils from San Ildefonso

Huipils from Almolongo

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Students participating in the village sorting game.

Then students worked with either Meg or Nick to find designs that had looping designs, or nested loops. Then they worked on creating parameters for the designs they had found.

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Meg Bednarcik points out looping patterns to her students.

The third activity was asking students to identify certain motifs that are common in Maya imagery. Some, such as a deer, were more literal then others, such as the feathered water serpent or portals.

And as you learn in the write up bellow by Meg, this class served as the starting point for a term long project the students will be working on:

My AP CS A students ventured to the Peabody Institute to learn of Guatemalan huipils and the stories these women’s clothes tell of personal identity. The students will complete follow-up assignments to program their own design defining their personal identity here at the academy and beyond utilizing programming concepts learned in class such as objects and repetitions. Though many students were shocked to be at the Peabody for a CS class, they left reflecting on the many ways these programming ideas apply to other aspects of our world. I am eager to continue to utilize these resources at our fingertips to allow students the space to ponder their place in our interconnected world beyond PA, and consider the beneficial impact their work as computer scientists can have on others outside of the classroom.

~ Meg Bednarcik, Instructor in Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science

This has been one of the most interesting and fun classes for me to develop. I really enjoyed working with and learning about part of our collection that is underutilized. But most of all, I have been thoroughly engrossed by the current action Maya women are taking to ensure that their designs are protected and not appropriated. Based on the information I gleaned from my research, I included a huipil from Santiago Sacatepéquez, which is the only community so far that has been able to give legal protection to their woven intellectual property.

To learn more about huipils and their images, visit Guatemala City’s Ixchel Museum of Indigenous Textiles and Clothing website.

 

Below are symbols found in some of the huipils in the Peabody’s collection:

Serpent motif – geometric designs known as “kumatz’in”. “The Kaqchikel term kumatz means snake, or the feathered serpent.

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 Deer – Deer held particular significance in Maya mythology and the Dance of the Deer, originating from pre-Conquest times, is still performed at festivals today.

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The Double Headed Eagle – The double headed eagle in Maya mythology represents the Great God with two faces, one looking to good and the other to evil, or to heaven and earth. Double-headed birds are motifs frequently used for decorating ceremonial garments. The image to the right outlines the shape of the double headed eagle.

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Sky bands – represents the path of the sun with the Xs formed in the “empty” space refers to the end of the solstices.

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Offering plate / Portal – “portal” or “door” was the Maya name for the entrance into the “other world” (spirit world). The dot in the center represents the door through which an ancestor can travel.

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The Star That Proceeds The Sun – This motif has been a part of Mesoamerican cosmology since Olmec times. It can be seen in celestial bands along with the sun, the moon, and particularly Venus. It is also featured in codices, such as the Popol Vuh.

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Bird – At the beginning of the rains, and when maize is sowed, they can be seen in large quantities on the rivers and lakes.

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Sun – A sun is embroidered around the neckline. If a woman in the village just became a widow, she would wear her huipil without the sun around the neck, because she would have lost her sun

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Lightning – Vertical zigzag lines are associated with rain and lightning.

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Lion / Jaguar – The animal has been given a mane, indicating European influence. The cougar or American lion has no mane.

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Homo naledi and 3D printing

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

Since the announcement of Homo naledi’s discovery in 2015, this South African fossil hominin has made an appearance in the multidisciplinary science course Human Origins, taught at the Peabody and offered as a senior science elective by Phillips Academy.

Over 100 specimens of Homo naledi have been scanned and made available via Duke University’s MorphoSource website. This represents unprecedented access to the fossils. Typically, we rely on older casts (our plaster casts from Wenner-Gren’s twentieth century casting program have become quite fragile!) or models made from photos and measurements.

Image of Homo naledi hand from Morphosource website.
Reconstruction of Homo naledi hand from MorphoSource website.

Last year in Human Origins Phillips Academy Makerspace guru Claudia Wessner helped us 3D print Homo naledi’s femur, which includes some unusual features, including a distinct sulcus or furrow on the femoral neck that is not known in other hominins. Students and instructor alike puzzled over the femur, and compared it to other casts and models in the Peabody collection.

This year Ms. Wessner was kind enough to host us again and discuss different types of 3D scanning and printing and help us think how these might be useful in paleoanthropology and physical anthropology.

Image of students and Makerspace guru Claudia Wessner with 3D print of Homo naledi hand.
Human Origins students look on as Claudia Wessner prepares the resin print of Homo naledi’s hand for a bath in alcohol.

Instead of the femur, we chose to do a 3D print of Homo naledi’s hand, also available via the MorphoSource website. We were treated to side by side 3D prints using the Makerspace’s filament and resin printers. While the prints with the filament printer were interesting, the resin print is at a level comparable with a cast or model, in terms of finish and detail. Lee Berger and his colleagues, involved in discovery and study of Homo naledi, have pointed out that the hand is quite similar to that of a modern human, but also has curved bones likely related to tree climbing. Students in Human Origins 2017 got a chance to see Homo naledi’s hand up close and compare with bones of a modern human, noting the similarities and differences.

Image of resin 3D hand print.
Resin 3D hand print.

In the intervening months between the 2016 and 2017 Human Origins classes we’ve learned a lot more about Homo naledi. Lee Berger’s book, Almost Human, was published, adding lots of exciting details to the discovery and quest to date the remains, and perhaps most important, we now understand the dating of the fossils. In May 2017 we learned that Homo naledi dates between 236,000 and 335,000 years ago, making them a cousin, rather than great-grandparent of modern humans. It is fascinating to imagine, however, that a hominin that combined aspects of Australopithecines and much more modern features existed around the same time as the earliest anatomically modern humans.

Image with comparison of four hands: from upper left, clockwise: 3D resin print of Homo naledi; plastic anatomical model, modern human; 3D filament print, Homo naledi; real bone anatomical model, modern human.
Comparison of hands, from upper left, clockwise: 3D resin print of Homo naledi; plastic anatomical model, modern human; 3D filament print, Homo naledi; real bone anatomical model, modern human.

An end of the term assignment, Human Origins in the News, asks students to find recent and relevant news stories and share them with the class. One story—from September 2017—reports on new fossils found at the Rising Star Cave system. Also members of the new genus and species, these fossils may help understand how Homo naledi accessed the cave and if they were being interred there.

Beyond the classroom, Homo naledi inspired some excitement in one of the seniors who took the course in 2016. I was delighted when she wrote to me in May 2017 to report that Lee Berger’s Almost Human book was out–she had pre-ordered on Amazon and her copy had arrived. A few months later she had a chance to hear Dr Berger deliver a lecture on Homo naledi at the Chautauqua Institute in New York.

Computer science, binary searches, and a card catalog

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

When you think of the binary search algorithm you immediately think an archaeology museum is the perfect place for students to get a hands on example. Right?

Well it certainly was not what students in Nick Zufelt’s Computer Science 500 class expected when they showed up at the museum. To many of the students who had been to the Peabody with their history or science class to look at objects, it was a bit perplexing how they could be combining archaeology with computer science.

What many do not know is that the Peabody has many other resources that PA faculty can tap into.  Mr. Zufelt discovered something that Peabody Museum still had that no other place on campus (not even the OWHL!) still had: our card catalog.

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The card catalog at the Peabody Museum

When Nick first came up with the idea to use our card catalog in an interactive lab activity for his students, we were ecstatic. We love when Peabody resources are utilized for learning in such out of the box ways.  The card catalog was a perfect hands on example for students to understand the binary search algorithm.

To those who are not familiar with this concept (and I was certainly one of them!) Nick began the class with this simple introduction:

When you look up a word in the dictionary, do you start at page 1, look for the word, then move onto page 2, etc.? No, of course not. You have a more sophisticated way of searching through the massive list of words. This activity hones in on the algorithm underlying this process: the binary search algorithm. The basic idea is: chop in half, go to the half that will have your item in it; repeat.

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Nick Zufelt, computer science faculty, explaining the project to the students

Each student was then given a page listing 23 different cards from our card catalog system and told to pick one of them. Then they had to find the card and write down the process of how they found it, but in a manner that a computer could follow.

At this point, you might be saying to yourself, “wow that seems like a pretty easy project….” WRONG!

While this activity may strike us as simple, it actually turned into a battle of the wills for many students as they struggled throughout the period to create a very simple process that was also accurate. And when some students had a friend try their process, they often found that what they had devised was incorrect (Arrrgggg!!! The FRUSTRATION!!!!)

This type of learning helps to make abstract concepts more accessible for students as they begin learning something that forces them to think in a completely new and different manner.

Mr. Zufelt has already talked about bringing future students back for the activity and we look forward to working with him and his students on this and other computer science adventures at the Peabody!

NOTE: Despite still having a card catalog, the Peabody library is completely cataloged in the system used by the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. Our librarian Mary Beth Clack is currently updating records to make monographic series more accessible.

Dipping into Trade Connections

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

Recently the History and Social Sciences Department has implemented significant changes to their History 100 curriculum, required of all ninth graders. One of the new features of the curriculum is the inclusion of “dips” or week long periods where students can delve more deeply into a subject. This allows students to practice historical literacy skills in a more targeted manner, while also offering the opportunity for more hands-on and experiential learning.

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Students looking at a mock excavation site from Andover, MA to learn how to “read” objects as text.

That’s where the Peabody comes in.

Both the Education and Collections programs at the Peabody have teamed up with the History and Social Sciences faculty to offer a week long intensive investigation of trade networks in the Americas. The focus of the week is to learn how to read objects as primary sources and to look for patterns and similarities between cultures to learn about the connections between the groups. The cultures that students will be focusing on are the Hopewell, Pueblo, Maya, and Moche.

For an entire week each Winter and Spring terms the majority of ninth graders will descend upon the Peabody to work extensively with our collections from the four cultures. The objects will be set up in “stations” according to their cultural groups and working in teams, students will rotate through each station examining the object and collaboratively answering questions.

Afterward, the teams will get images of all the objects and will be asked to sort them – using any criteria they want – before sharing their decisions with the class. Looking at objects creatively in this manner has often helped archaeologists to make connections that they might have missed otherwise.

One example of a trade connection is our cylinder jar from Chaco Canyon, which shares its shape with cylinder jars produced by the Maya. Many of the Maya cylinder jars held drinks made from cacao, and so it was thought that perhaps chocolate residue might be found in the ones from Chaco Canyon. And it was!!!

We look forward to working with students and faculty on this amazing adventure! (Although you will probably find us drinking soda or other caffeinated beverages after as we recover from the onslaught of the entire Junior class.)

Human Origins–innovation & transmission

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

As the fall term wraps up this week it’s a great time to reflect on some of the big ideas that we have discussed in the multidisciplinary science course Human Origins, taught here at the Peabody. In many of our extended period labs we have replicated ancient technologies like chipped stone tools, fire making, the atlatl or spear thrower, and more. As we try launching a spear with a simple lever—the atlatl, or use a bow drill to produce heat, smoke, and (hopefully) fire, we wonder about whom first thought of and tried these things. In other words, who was the first innovator who discovered a technique to make fire or launch a dart? Innovation is a popular word today. In fact, it’s easy to find blogs, news stories, and more that suggest this word is a bit overused. Some writers have tracked the history of the term innovation and its divergence from invention, often indicating that innovation has economic and market implications.

Student in Human Origins course tries to make fire with a bow drill.
Human Origins students experimented with fire making two ways–the bow drill and percussion. Notice a few wisps of smoke rising from the fire board.

One piece that seems to be missing from many of these stories about innovation is that it doesn’t amount to much without a means for transmission. The ability to put the innovation into production, to teach and train others, to demonstrate and sell the new idea may, in fact, be even more important than the act of discovery or invention. Now some ideas—like fire—might sell themselves, but there are different methods and techniques. In Human Origins we experimented with two very different approaches: friction—using a bow drill and fire board, and percussion—essentially banging two rocks together. There are, however, lots of opportunities for innovation here, large and small. Which rocks will work best? Which wood makes the best fire board? How does one direct a spark or ember into a nest of kindling?

Student in Human Origins course experiments with the percussion method of fire making by banging two rocks together.
Making fire by percussion–banging two rocks together–isn’t so easy! This Human Origins student uses flint and iron ore. Lots of sparks and smoke, but no fire. The earliest evidence for control of fire comes from a Homo erectus site in Africa and dates to 1 million years ago.

Archaeologists—intent on the exploration of culture change through time—often claim that thinking about innovation and transmission of new ideas falls well within their province. But others have famously weighed in as well. Perhaps best known is evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins notion of the “meme,” introduced in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins styles the meme—“an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture,” in evolutionary terms, subject to natural selection, mutation, and the like. This idea has been popular, but has its detractors. One problem in the application of evolution to culture is that there is always an explanation, but sometimes at the benefit of understanding. Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin tackle this in their 1979 article “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm,” another staple of Human Origins. Here Gould and Lewontin argue that some features—both natural and cultural—are merely spandrels, or by-products of other evolutionary processes. The interpretation of these spandrels as adaptive will lead to erroneous conclusions.

Student in Human Origins course throws a spear using an atlatl or spear thrower. The target in the distance has already been hit with other darts.
The earliest atlatls or spear throwers date to around 20,000 years ago in France. The simple lever allowed a hunter to throw a dart with more power and precision. In many places the atlatl was replaced by the bow and arrow, but in some areas both coexist.

So, does archaeology offer another approach to understanding innovation and transmission of ideas in our distant past? Archaeologist Michael Brian Schiffer would answer affirmatively. Schiffer helped define behavioral archaeology, which is predicated on the idea that people in the past made decisions in ways that parallel present-day decision making. This model points out that people often make choices that are seemingly contrary to common sense, but take into account a variety of factors including tradition, peer pressure, social and political alliances, and the like. The atlatl or spear thrower is a good example. As far as we know, the earliest atlatls were made in France some 20,000 years ago. Within a few millennia we find highly decorated examples. It’s unclear if there are separate centers of innovation, but atlatls are known over much of the world, including the Americas and in Australia. In many places the atlatl is replaced by the bow and arrow, which offered several distinct advantages, but in some places both technologies coexist, suggesting that processes of innovation, transmission, adoption, and discontinuation may have varied considerably. Overall, however, our attempts to replicate ancient technology gave us new respect for the first innovators and some insight into the complexities around transmission of new ideas.

Dia de los Muertos

November 1 is still a few weeks away but Dia de los Muertos—the Mexican Day of the Dead—came early to the Peabody.  On Thursday September 29 Dr. Marisela Ramos of the History and Social Sciences Department brought her History 200 class.  The class has been learning about different civilizations from around the world and the Peabody’s Dia de los Muertos lesson is a fun and interactive way for the students to learn about a holiday that is still celebrated today, but which has deep roots to a time before Europeans came to the Americas.

The holiday is celebrated in Mexico and is a mix of traditional native beliefs (primarily from the Maya and Aztec cultures) that were combined with European Catholic traditions. It is believed that between October 31 and November 2—coinciding with Catholicism’s All Saints Day and All Souls Day—that the souls of loved ones return. Many homes have alters with images of the deceased.  Marigolds are often placed on the alters, as the smell helps guide the souls home, and food is left out for the souls to eat after their long journey.

Tissue paper marigolds
Tissue paper marigolds

Our alter has images of notable people connected with the Peabody:

  • Robert Singlton Peabody – Our founder and PA class of 1857. His image is always in a place of honor.
  • Charles Peabody – Son of Robert and the first director of the Peabody Museum.
  • Warren Moorehead – Excavated many important archaeological sites and appointed by Theodore Roosevelt to the federal Board of Indian Commissioners.
  • Alfred Kidder – Considered the “Grandfather of American Archaeology” for his work at Pecos Pueblo.
  • Douglas Byers – Helped to professionalize the field of archaeology into a legitimate science.
  • Frederick Johnson – One of the first archaeologists to engage experts from other fields while investigating the Boylston Street Fishweir site in Boston.
  • Adelaide Bullen – Excavated the Lucy Foster Site in Andover, one of the first archaeological studies of a free Black
  • Ripley Bullen – Husband of Adelaide. Excavated many sites locally in and around Andover while doing graduate work at Harvard.
  • Richard “Scotty” MacNeish – Investigated the origins of agriculture and civilization in the Americas.
  • Gene Winter – Served as museum caretaker in the 1980s and served as honorary curator. He was associated with the museum for over 70 years.

Students in Dr. Ramos’s class helped arrange the altar and made paper flowers to decorate the shrine as they also enjoyed traditional Mexican candy given out during the holiday.

The completed alter as arranged by the students
The completed alter as arranged by the students

Ancient fossils meet modern technology in Human Origins

In Human Origins—the Phillips Academy interdisciplinary science course being taught this fall by Peabody Museum director Ryan Wheeler—our once-a-week extended period gives us an opportunity to do some hands-on work with ancient tools or fossil human casts. During our extended period on Wednesday, September 21 we visited The Nest, the campus makerspace at the Oliver Wendell Holmes Library. There we worked with Claudia Wessner, makerspace coordinator, who was helping us 3D print a model of the world’s newest fossil hominin, Homo naledi.

Image of Claudia Wessner with Phillips Academy students looking at a 3D image of Homo naledi's skull on the computer.
Claudia Wessner (right) shares the 3D model of Homo naledi with students in Human Origins.

In 2013 cave explorers alerted scientists to the presence of fossils in the Rising Star cave system in South Africa. Within two years an international team led by paleoanthropologist Lee Berger had recovered the remains of at least fifteen individuals represented by over 1,500 specimens. In September 2015 Berger and his associates published their preliminary findings in the online, open source journal eLife, dubbing the new fossil Homo naledi. Naledi means “star” in the Sotho language. The fossil hominin has features that are similar to the ape-like Australopithecines and early members of our genus, Homo. Even more exciting for students and scholars is the availability of 3D files for 108 of the fossils, available on Morphosource. Despite the availability of this data, Homo naledi remains a bit of a mystery. For example, the fossils remain undated, though the excavators suggest they may date between 1 and 2 million years ago. This would make them contemporaries of early members of our genus, like Homo habilis (2.4 to 1.4 M years ago), as well as Homo erectus (1.89 M to 143,000 years ago). Dates will help show if Homo naledi is a potential ancestor of ours or another branch on the already bushy human family tree.

Image from Morphosource website with 3D data on Homo naledi's proximal femur.
Screen capture of the Morphosource website with the 3D data on Homo naledi. Both scans and photographs of a right proximal femur are shown here.

For our 3D print we selected the proximal end of a femur. Berger and his associates report in their eLife article that Homo naledi’s femur is unique. The femoral neck—the part connecting the ball-like head of the bone with the shaft—possess two pillars that define a sulcus, or shallow groove. The origins and functions of these features remain unclear. This was, however, an opportunity to continue our ongoing conversation about the femur and its relationship to bipedalism in modern humans and our fossil ancestors. Claudia had wisely made several prints, including one life sized and one larger than life; another print was ongoing while we visited. We compared these 3D prints to several models and casts from the Peabody Museum, including the femur of modern humans, Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and robust and gracile Australopithecines.  It was clear that Homo naledi did indeed combine ancient and more modern features. For example, the hands and feet of Homo naledi are very human-like, while the trunk and crania are more like those of Australopithecines. We saw this when comparing the 3D print with the femurs of Homo erectus and Australopithecines.

Image of modern human and fossil hominin femurs
Femurs, from top to bottom: Homo erectus, life size and enlarged 3D print of Homo naledi, Paranthropus (two proximal fragments), Homo sapiens sapiens (two complete specimens).

Students were quite engaged with this lesson and there was considerable interest in printing other Homo naledi fossils. Claudia demonstrated the technology involved in creating 3D scans, manipulating the files with 3D software, and generating the print. The models produced of the femur took from 5 to 9 hours. We looked at the 3D files of the reconstructed skull and marveled at the software estimates of 60 hours to create a life sized 3D print. A number of the students were already quite familiar with the makerspace and the 3D technology and shared their own experiences with 3D scanning and printing.

Animated gif of a Neanderthal skull from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France.
An animated gif of Marcellin Boule’s 1911 stereo card of the Neanderthal crania from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, from Lydia Pyne’s blog post on The Public Domain Review.

We learned at the end of September that this was not the first time 3D data for a fossil human had been publicly shared. In his 1911 publication on the Neanderthal skeleton excavated at the French site of La Chapelle-aux-Saints, Marcellin Boule included stereo views of the skull that could be viewed with a stereoscope. Lydia Pyne—in her terrific 2016 book Seven Skulls: The Evolution of the World’s Most Famous Human Fossils—talks about Boule’s work and the stereo views (also see her blog post that highlights free, online versions of Boule’s publication and animated gifs of the skull). Unfortunately, it is difficult (or down right impossible) and expensive to obtain plaster casts or models of most human fossils. Hopefully the sharing of the Homo naledi 3D data will continue with future discoveries and with older fossils that exist in museum collections.

Conversations about the 3D print of the Homo naledi femur continued in classes well after the visit to the makerspace as we talked about the origins of bipedalism, its great antiquity to at least 6 or 7 million years ago and the fossil hominin Sahelanthropus tchadensis, and the multiplicity of ideas about the adaptive advantages and disadvantages of bipedalism in hominins (there are at least 13!).

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.