Category Archives: Students and Learning

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.

Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

The Peabody has a new name! The Phillips Academy Board of Trustees, at their November 5, 2017 meeting, approved the Peabody’s new name. We are now known as the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology. Part of our proposal for a name change–included below–addresses the history of our institution’s name, issues of identity, and practical concerns:

Throughout the Peabody’s strategic planning work in 2014 and 2015 there was frequent discussion about the need for focused work on branding. These conversations included Museum personnel, members of the Peabody Advisory Committee, and the broader Phillips Academy community. There was general agreement that one issue was the name Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology. Discussants pointed out that the name “Peabody” often leads to confusion with the other, larger institutions in Salem, Cambridge, and New Haven, and that the term “museum” is misleading.

The topic of branding was revisited during the Peabody Advisory Committee’s 2016 summer retreat and November 2016 meeting and the group proposed a name change.

Department of Archaeology engraved on entablature over door of Peabody building.
“Department of Archaeology” engraved in the granite entablature above the door was part of architect Guy Lowell’s original 1901 building design and reflects Robert S. Peabody’s interest in seeing the institution as an integral part of campus pedagogy.

The topic of a potential name change has been considered in three ways:

1) Historical— Past names for our institution include Department of Archaeology (1901-1938); Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology (1938-1995); and Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology (1990-present). The most recent name change occurred in the 1990s and was made to reflect the interest in creating an exhibition driven institution like the Addison Gallery of American Art. That program ended in 2002 with a shift to our current focus on teaching and learning.

Image of old Peabody logo, on glass panel, from front door.
The logo from the Peabody’s front doors is based on a shell gorget from the Etowah site in Georgia.

2) Identity—Museum personnel and advisory committee members have discussed whether or not we are a museum. For example, Eugene Dillenberg’s 2011 article in Exhibitionist emphasizes exhibitions as the core defining aspect of a museum, with exhibits as the primary mission and goal of the institution. The Peabody’s current mission is to provide archaeological and anthropological learning opportunities to the students of Phillips Academy, returning to Robert Peabody’s original vision for the institution, which was to introduce students to the emerging disciplines of archaeology and anthropology, to conduct scientific research, and to provide a place for student activities. There also was general agreement that it was important to retain the name “Peabody,” despite the proliferation of Peabody museums in New England. The sense was that we would continue to be called “The Peabody” on campus and in the broader Phillips Academy community.

Other “Peabody Museums” in New England include:

Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA.

Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven, CT.

Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Image of blue sign for the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology on Andover's Main Street.
Blue sign for the Robert S. Peabody Museum of Archaeology on Andover’s Main Street.

3) Practical—the word “museum” creates considerable confusion as people come here expecting a more typical museum experience. While we are happy to have people come for tours and events (and classes, of course!) we are a pretty disappointing experience to a growing number of casual visitors. As we become more well-known in the area more people have become curious about what is inside the building and come in to find out.

In his gift letter to the Board of Trustees and the Academy administrators in 1901 Robert S. Peabody shared that he did not want to create a museum on campus, but rather to find ways to introduce students to the fields of archaeology and anthropology. We’ve come to recognize the prescience and vision of Peabody’s original idea for our institution. We trust the name change will help avoid confusion and emphasize our commitment to teaching and learning on campus and beyond.

A Visit to Brookwood School

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

Packing up my car with artifacts always signals that I am off on an adventure!

Recently I traveled to Brookwood School in Manchester-by-the-Sea to work with the 4th grade classes. The students had recently begun learning about ancient cultures and how historians and scientists study them, particularly when there are no written records – or at least ones that we can read!

To help everyone better understand how archaeology allows us to investigate cultures of the past, I brought our mock excavation site. The faux dig is made up of painted canvas squares and real artifacts. It is based on a real archaeological dig that took place in Andover decades ago at a pre-contact Native American site, approximately 500 years old.

Working in groups, students rotated around each square or “unit” to look at the artifacts and to hypothesize what human activities were taking place. The groups were able to correctly identify which unit was similar to a kitchen, where the house stood, and where pottery was being made – proving that they had become experts in deciphering the clues left behind!

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Curator of Education Lindsay Randall working with students to identify a fire pit and pottery making.

More to Xi’an than terracotta warriors

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

In June 2017 I had the opportunity to visit China in preparation for a potential student trip—part of the Phillips Academy Learning in the World program. My traveling companions included Anne Martin-Montgomery and Jingya Ma, who aided in developing the itinerary, which delves into China’s ancient past. With a dizzying number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites (52 on the list, with even more proposed sites), our goal was to create a student travel experience that blends adventure, archaeology, and learning.

One destination was Xi’an in Shaanxi Province. Xi’an boasts lots of historical and archaeological sites, most notably the mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang. The mausoleum is best known for Emperor Qin’s terracotta army, which doesn’t disappoint. Pictures don’t do it justice and it is fun to look at the sea of soldiers lined up, ready to march up ramps and out the false doors. The site—located in Bingmayong outside of Xi’an, was mobbed with visitors, all ready to pose for a selfie with some of the emperor’s immortal warriors. Xi’an, however, includes other ancient sites, which can be found in other suburbs like Bànpō.

Bànpō Neolithic Village is tucked into a neighborhood of this Xi’an suburb. It was found in the 1950s during construction for an industrial site, and if you peek over the fence today you will see a factory complex, including a billiard table manufactory.

Image of interior, Banpo excavation hall, with features like the moat and postholes from structures.
Interior of Banpo excavation hall–the moat is in the foreground, posthole outlines of structures can be seen as well.

Bànpō was the oldest site on our itinerary, dating to the Neolithic Yangshao culture, with occupation going back to 6,500 years ago. Like Emperor Qin’s mausoleum, the excavation site is covered by a fairly substantial structure, so visitors can observe the outlines of houses, the moat, burials, and in place features. Exhibit halls showcase artifacts from the site, along with dioramas of Yangshao life. Markings on the early pottery from the site have suggested to some precursors to the writing systems known from the Bronze Age.

At the rear of the museum property are the remains of the Bànpō Matriarchal Clan Village, which apparently offered a living history interpretation of Neolithic life. This has been replaced with a newer area that showcases Neolithic activities on the weekend, including thatching your hut, fire making, and other early technology and skills.

Marxist ideology has heavily influenced the interpretation of Bànpō, emphasizing that this was a matriarchal culture. This is not surprising, since in Marxist thought matriarchal clan based society was a hallmark of early stages in a unilinear social evolution that moved inevitably toward patriarchal family based society. These ideas have been largely abandoned today, though the site is replete with signage that emphasizes this interpretation.

Image of Peabody director Ryan Wheeler with reconstructions of Banpo woman and man.
Ryan Wheeler with Banpo woman and man.

A cute 2015 graphic novel style guide book tells the story of the site and the Yangshao culture. The matriarchal focus is still there (one of the main characters is Bànpō girl), but there is lots of accessible info on foodways, pottery making techniques, and the layout of the village.

We are looking forward to visiting Bànpō again and catching some of the Neolithic lifeways demonstrations. Interactive and hands on activities have become the norm in US museums, but we encountered few such programs in China.

Steeped in Archaeology

Contributed by Lindsay Randall

On Monday May 22nd students and teachers from Brookwood School came to the Peabody Museum to kick off their “Steep Week.” During Steep Week, students immerse themselves in an intensive program related to an area of interest, in this case archaeology.

When the students arrived they were very proud to announce that archaeologists “DON’T DIG DINOSAURS!” Clearly their two teachers (one of whom is a trained archaeologist) had worked VERY hard to prep them for their visit to the Peabody, as well as for the rest of the week’s activities.

The students began by learning how to “read” modern trash to make a biography about an individual based solely on the objects that the person had thrown away. The clean trash that the students looked through was mine that I had split into three different bags related to different activities that I do: kayaking and running, cooking, quilting and reading. The group that had the container with an old Doritos bag declared that their person (me!) was a guy who was either “failing at adulting” or “had student loans” – very interesting assumptions they were making!!!  They were then shocked to learn that the person who had the Doritos was also the same person who had run a half marathon and made quilts. This allowed us to have a great conversation about assumptions that we make and how that can impact our understanding and interpretation of the past.

The next two activities were mock excavations of a prehistoric site as well as a historic one.  Both helped the students prepare for the real archaeological dig that they were going to conduct on their school property later in the week, particularly the historic example, since they had already been looking at old maps of the school’s property to see what they could learn about it before putting a shovel into the ground.

 

The rain mostly held off for the group and we were able to conclude the day with a fierce atlatl competition!

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A little rain could not sop us from our atlatl competition.

“Our introduction to Archaeology at the Peabody Museum at Phillips Academy, Andover successfully prepared our students to investigate archaeological problems at a high level by concentrating on the conceptual basis of archaeological thought and filtering it through readily understandable, local examples. Our students enjoyed themselves while having their minds opened to a different way of investigatory thought that they relied on heavily to ask questions and achieve understanding.” – Mike Wise, Brookwood teacher

 

 

 

Stone Soup

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

I’ve been interested in indirect cooking technology since the early 1990s when I worked with archaeologists Barbara Purdy and Ray McGee in an excavation of an Archaic period site in central Florida where we found evidence of this ancient American Indian culinary technique. At the site, submerged beneath the waters of Lake Monroe and not too far from Orlando, in levels pre-dating ceramic pottery, we found fragments of fired-clay objects. Ray and I were fascinated by the shapes—balls, patties, cylinders, and biconical forms—and speculated about their purpose. They were similar to clay and stone objects found at other early sites and thought to be used in a variety of indirect cooking, either for boiling or steaming. Ray ultimately studied the clay objects for his 1994 University of Florida master’s thesis, which combined aspects of experimental archaeology and materials science. I was lucky enough to be around to help with his study, which began with replicas of the Lake Monroe clay objects. We dug clay from near the site, it was processed to remove impurities, and used to make numerous clay object replicas, which were then subject to extensive experimental trials. Ray demonstrated that not only could the clay objects be used for boiling, but that the different shapes had different thermal properties. And, not only did the clay objects survive successive heating and drenching cycles, the objects fragmented to closely match the fragments we had found in archaeological deposits. Thousands of years before the first pottery was made and used in the Southeastern United States, the clay ball chefs understood how to manipulate clay into ceramic objects and the distinct differences between shapes with greater and lesser surface area and other details. In a final experiment Ray and I tried to cook with the clay objects, heating water in wooden bowls to boil shrimp and corn meal. The meal was successful!

Image of fired-clay objects used in cooking experiment.
Several shapes of fired-clay cooking objects: balls, patties, biconical forms, and cylinders.

During spring term 2017 I’ve been fortunate to mentor a senior independent research project, or IP. The student’s spring project is a continuation of a project begun in winter term, which investigates ancient pottery making technology, with a particular focus on temper—additives to clay that help with making pottery vessels, firing survivability, and use life after firing. I shared Ray McGee’s thesis with the IP student, who was equally fascinated by the clay objects and their use in cooking. Much of the student IP focused on collecting and using native clay sourced from West Newbury, MA, and then experimenting with firing vessels made using a variety of traditional tempers, including sand, crushed shell, and decomposed granite, as well as untempered clay. The almost innumerable variables have presented some real challenges, but also open a tiny window into pottery making thousands of years ago. We agreed too that part of the project this spring would include making, firing, and using replicas of the fired-clay objects, using the varying tempers and shapes described above. An article in Indian Country Today indicates that hot stones were used by American Indians in the Northeast in both steaming pits and boiling.

Our attempt today to use the fired-clay objects in boiling followed much like the experiment that Ray McGee and I conducted during his thesis research in the early 1990s. The clay objects had been prepared, dried, and pit fired several weeks earlier. We noted that the cylinder-shaped objects were rather delicate, and many of the objects had small cracks. In general, the ball and biconical forms were intact, while the patties had more cracks. A supply of the fired-clay objects were added to a small oak wood fire, which quickly climbed in temperature, ultimately leveling off around 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. After objects had been in the fire a small number were cycled through a wooden bowl containing about a quart of water. The water temperature rose quickly, though it got a bit murky from charcoal. We decided that we had the capability to boil water. We prepared a fresh bowl of water and corn meal grits—three cups of water and one cup of grits—as directed by the package. We cycled fired-clay objects in and out of the bowl until the water was absorbed and the grits were cooked—about five minutes. A little salt and butter made the grits a tasty treat. Next we replicated the experiment with about half a pound of shell-on shrimp. More water was used and by this point we had become more proficient at cycling the clay objects from the fire to the bowl and back. The water boiled and shrimp were quickly cooked. Lemon and butter completed this course. For the most part the clay objects were holding up, though more of the cylinders broke and some of the patty shapes also cracked and split in the fire. Some broke while they were in the wooden bowl. The ball and biconical shapes seemed to hold up the best and were perhaps best suited to our purpose—getting the water boiling quickly. After the shrimp, we were a bit more ambitious and agreed to try a handful of spaghetti pasta. This would be a real test, since the water would have to boil continuously for 9 to 10 minutes. We added more clay objects to the fire, recognizing that we might need more to keep the water going. Quickly cycling the clay objects in and out of the fire produced a rolling boil that easily cooked the noodles. Our wooden bowl, however, suffered, and we had two pretty substantial cracks that developed on either side. Adding more water and fewer cooking objects may have helped—it seemed like 2 or 3 at a time in the wooden bowl were enough to keep the boil going.

Image of Phillips Academy senior cooking with fired-clay objects.
Phillips Academy senior adding heated fired-clay objects to his cooking pot.

Data crunching and correlating is ongoing in this student project, and at least one additional outdoor firing is planned in order to test a few additional variables and observations gleaned from experiment and research. The fired-clay cooking objects, however, are evidence of indirect cooking in antiquity, long before the creation of pottery vessels. It’s not clear if fired-clay cooking objects were made and used in the Northeast in the long distant past, and the more recent accounts mention cooking with hot stones. Pottery was adopted in the Northeast around 3,000 years ago, perhaps introduced from neighboring areas. In Florida and other parts of the Southeast, pottery is much older—made and used at least 5,000 years ago—and appears to be an in situ development. Perhaps the fired-clay cooking objects were precursors of pottery and gave people insights into manipulating clay and the properties of fired-clay. As this student project has demonstrated, making pottery by hand and firing it in the open air presents considerable challenges that could only be overcome with significant knowledge of clay, temper, fuel, weather conditions, and more.

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.

Birch bark, maple sap, and a visit to the White Earth Reservation

Contributed by Ryan Wheeler

This blog represents the fifth entry in a blog series – Peabody 25 – that will delve into the history of the Peabody Museum through objects in our collection. A new post will be out with each newsletter, so keep your eyes peeled for the Peabody 25 tag!

The winter 2017 issue of the Andover magazine includes a great piece by Jane Dornbusch on our repatriation of a sacred birch bark scroll to the White Earth Nation in Minnesota. In a nutshell, Peabody curator Warren Moorehead received a number of items from the White Earth Anishinaabeg in 1909 during his investigation of fraud on the reservation. That collection—principally men’s ceremonial regalia and beaded bandolier bags—also included a pictographic bark scroll used in the ceremonies of the Midewiwin, or Grand Medicine Society. Jane’s story also mentions my visit to White Earth in March 2016. The following essay was written right after I returned from Minnesota and provides a few additional details about that visit.

Image of White Earth Land Recovery Project Executive Director Bob Shimek talking to tribal members and college service learning students, March 2016.
White Earth Land Recovery Project Executive Director Bob Shimek talks to tribal members and college service learning students, March 2016.

At the end of March 2016 I flew into Fargo and drove east, headed for the White Earth Indian Reservation. As I drove I passed an occasional cluster of houses, farmland with lots of black, rich soil, as well as lakes, streams, and groves of trees dotting the horizon of a really big sky. I learned later from Bob Shimek, executive director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project, that I had driven across a variety of ecosystems, from oak savanna to pothole prairie.

That first evening in Minnesota I sat in the White Earth community center along with college students on a spring break service learning trip while Bob told us about the White Earth Anishinaabeg. We heard about the land and how this Indian reservation—established in 1867—was designed to succeed, starting with 829,440 acres of forest lands with timber and game, good farmland, lakes and streams with fish. Greedy timber companies and their henchmen defrauded tribal members of their lands and by 1934 less than 800 acres were held by the Anishinaabeg.

Image of the drum hall at the White Earth tribal college, taken March 2016.
Drum hall at the White Earth tribal college, March 2016.

Since the 1930s the White Earth Anishinaabeg have done what Bob Shimek refers to as nation building. Efforts include a casino in Mahnomen, an annual indigenous farming conference, the Gizhiigin Art Place, a tribal college, the Niijii radio station, and more. Even repatriation, the recovery of sacred objects stored in museums for decades, is nation building. A lot of these nation building activities revolve around traditional food and foodways, like wild rice and maple sugar.

When the sap runs it is all hands on deck. Even the service learning students abandoned other projects and were recruited to haul sap to the boilers. Like New England, maple sugaring is a big deal in northern Minnesota. Among the Anishinaabeg maple sugar has a deep meaning—hauling and boiling sap recalls the origins of the Anishinaabeg. Ojibwe oral literature tells how in the beginning the maple trees were full of thick, sweet syrup that could be easily collected. Manabozho—the Ojibwe trickster and culture hero—decided the people had it too easy and made the syrup thin and watery. He gave the Anishinaabeg the technology to process the sap, but only during the end of winter. The rest of the year was to be spent fishing, hunting, and in other endeavors needed to earn a living.

Image of mural on the Niiji radio building, White Earth Reservation, taken March 2016.
Mural at the Niiji radio station, White Earth Reservation, March 2016.

But afterwards, in the evening, there was time for more learning. My last night at White Earth I attended the Big Drum ceremony. This began with a potluck dinner, followed by a pipe ceremony, and then Keller Paap, one of the ceremony leaders, told the story of the Big Drum in Ojibwe. This was pretty remarkable, but things got even more interesting.

Keller and Anton Treuer, another ceremony leader, invited the college students to sit around the drum. Then they told the story of the Big Drum ceremony in English. But there was more. Paap is from Wisconsin and teaches at Waadookodading, an Ojibwe language immersion school, while Treuer is on the faculty at Bemidji State University. Together they shared the stories of religious suppression and how this didn’t change until 1978’s American Indian Religious Freedom Act, along with the importance of teaching and learning the Ojibwe language.

Image of three college students talking with tribal member Diana King, taken March 2016.
College service learning students talking with White Earth tribal member Diana King, March 2016.

So, there are lots of stories at White Earth. Some are written on birch bark scrolls, others are found in the pages of the Congressional inquiry into fraud and deceit, some drip in slightly sweet maple sap, while others still float on the night air in words of Ojibwe. For us, however, perhaps most remarkable is that we—Andover, Phillips Academy, the Peabody Museum—are a tiny part of the story too.

In January 2017 we met with representatives of the tribe again and agreed to the repatriation of several additional objects that, like the birch bark scroll, are examples of cultural patrimony under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Anton Treuer will be speaking at All School Meeting on Wednesday, April 5, 2017.

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.