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CSI Alabama
The very last class brought us full circle. The kids encountered scenes with bones and material remains and used their skills in interpreting the symbolic information in so-called "garbage" and bone evidence to determine important facts about the scene. They were able to tell us if the death scene was that of a human or animal, if the person was young or old, and provide an interpretation of how the person might have lived or--gasp!--been murdered...   read more ❯

Human Variation
Even though we taught the kids last week that we have to be careful in assuming too much about a person just because of the way he or she looks, we can tell a lot about a person by even just looking at bones.  Forensic anthropologists have to do this all the time, as we have seen on shows like CSI, Bones, or NCIS.  Unfortunately, it's usually not as easy or hi-tech as those shows make it out to me.  However, the kids got to the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of how to make some basic forensic diagnoses.  They were provided examples of deer bones and (fake) human skulls and pelvises.  They already knew how to tell an animal bone from a human bone after their experiences running like baboons and gorillas.  In this activity, they also learned how to tell the difference between... read more ❯

This activity followed up on the genetics activity from the week before.  We really want the kids to recognize the uniqueness and similarities of humans, both of which get mixed up a lot.  For instance, we use the term "ancestry" to group people more accurately than the terms most people use, which are "race" or "ethnicity."  To illustrate why so-called racial categories are a problem, we had a series of flash cards of people from all over the world.  We asked the kids to be census takers and categorize each face by "white/Caucasian," "black/African-American," "Native American," "Asian," or "Hispanic/Latino."  The cards depict real people, who have all identified themselves and their ancestory or self-described race.  Out of 15 cards, no one got more the five of these cards correct.  The problems with how we categorize people were discussed.  For instance, whereas white and black... read more ❯

Mendelian Genetics
Next the kids waded into the deep water.  We brought in centrifuges and had them extracted DNA...Kidding.  Mendelian traits are simple traits coded for by single genes.  Most of the kids have heard of genes and some already knew that genes are simply operating manuals in our bodies' cells for making and running all the machinery and design features of our bodies.  Some of these machines and designs are more simple than others and are coded for by just one gene, rather than several.  Because it's hard for us to see the machines genes code for that are inside of our bodies, we focused on design features, or visible traits.  The objective was to have the kids demonstrate that we're all independent assortments of different genes, regardless of how similar or different we appear to be from each other at first glance.  Each young anthropologist... read more ❯

Primate Locomotion
In understanding some of the changes that took place over the course of evolutionary history that led to the differences between humans and other primates, we had the kids discuss and experience some different forms of primate locomotion--that is, walking. To do this, we had the clans divide up as teams and assigned each one a locomotion style. One clan competed as baboons, which meant they had to run as terrestrial quadrupeds, down on all fours. Another clan competed as chimp or gorilla knuckle walkers, placing weight on their first set of knuckles as they raced along. The other two clans were bipeds, but they were handicapped to demonstrate how specialized bipedalism is (since we are, of course, evolved to be very efficient at what we do regularly). One clan had to run... read more ❯

Primate Food and Communication
Speaking of communication (pun intended--get it?), we wanted to share with the kids how our closest living non-human relatives communicate. How is human communication and symbolic behavior similar or different than other primates? We started by talking about some of the basic similarities and differences between us and other primates (video of primate skulls). For instance, the kids suggested that the space program sent chimps into space before humans because they are so much like humans, that we would be able to understand how human bodies would respond by seeing how chimp bodies responded. But what we really wanted to get at is how primates learn. Do they learn by going to school like humans? Certainly not. Humans purposefully teach, while other primates tend to learn by watching. For instance, how does a young ape or monkey know what to eat or what not to eat? To explore this, our activity... read more ❯

Cultural Diffusion
Once the clans were established, we asked each clan to define themselves. What makes you a unique people? Do you share a common language? Where do you live? What foods do you eat? Members of each clan visited other clans to learn some of each clan's unique practices and then returned to their own telling some wild stories. For instance, the Wu-Tang Clan were fairly hostile to strangers and unforgiving of visitors not familiar with their customs. Visitors from other clans initially thought they were an unfriendly people, but it turned out the Wu-Tang Clan has suffered a history of warfare with neighboring peoples, leaving them wary of strangers. The Guitar and Tazmanian Devil clans have some fascinating ritual dances (video link) that were observed.   Among the lessons we hope to have conveyed through these activities are that cultural practices that may seem strange... read more ❯

So we're catching up well after the fact, for which we apologize, but we wanted to share with you what the kids have been up to this semester by topics. Naturally, what the museum exhibits the kids constructed conveyed is symbolic information. The garbage symbolized something about a culture, and our young archaeologists were left to interpret these symbols without a handy Rosetta Stone (not the language software, but the Egyptian decoder key that facilitated reading of hieroglyphs). To help the kids understand this, the kids divided into groups, which would become their own clans, and each developed their own symbol system. There would be four clans that would innovate and share cultural practices throughout the rest of the semester. They were the Wu-Tang Clan clan, the Blood clan, the Guitar clan, and the Tazmanian Devil clan. The photos here are their symbols, which have meaning understood by all members of the... read more ❯

Museum Anthropology
As we told the kids today, anthropology is like a great pair of glasses for seeing things about the world that are otherwise fuzzy. Today our intrepid anthropologists climbed out of their midden piles (that's trash heap for you folks in the audience) to help clarify what they're doing there in the first place. They are interpreting the cultural significance (hey, isn't that a vocabulary word this week?) of these precious artifacts to help us understand the cultures of the peoples who left them behind. Since "culture" is shared, learned behavior, our young researchers analyzed the material remains to try to understand what behaviors the people who left it behind may have shared with each other and with us. What did they eat? Where did they live? What language(s) did they speak? How did THEY learn? And to help US understand what... read more ❯

Hello all. This blog is intended to provide information about the University of Alabama Outreach Anthropology session at Tuscaloosa Magnet School Elementary.  So far, we have had two sessions, both exciting, and both interesting.  For the first class, we talked about what is anthropology (the study of humans), what kind of things anthropologists do, and talked a bit about how and why anthropologists study people.  All the students were encouraged to embrace the idea that now, they are anthropologists too! The first class also included the wonderful exercise of...Digging Through Trash!!!  Yippee!  Really, the students went through trash.  Specially prepared trash: clean and not yucky.  The purpose of this exercise was to introduce everyone to one of the facets of human culture that anthropologists study: material culture, i.e., artifacts.  This is generally the specialty of archaeology, one of the subdisciplines of anthropology.  Students categorized the... read more ❯

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