CSI Alabama

Dr. Duke teaching bioarchaeology methods (& the kids asking, "Where's the blood trail?").

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…


Human Variation

Dem Bones

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 human males and females and how to figure out approximately how old people are.  Next week, they will put these skills to the test in solving an actual murder (OK, a fake actual murder).


Sorting "Race Cards"

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 describe skin color, Native American and Hispanic/Latino describe ancestry.  Also, what if someone of African ancestry was born and raised in Latin America, as is the case with most people from the Dominican Republic?  Or people from India are typically brown-skinned like many Latinos but are technically Asian, using this system.  Some kids pointed out that when they get tan, their skin gets darker than some people who consider themselves to be of dark-skinned ancestory.  Finally, we used this exercise to discuss some of the problems this causes in our culture, such as the recent anti-immigration law.  Using skin or hair color or other visible traits to make other assumptions about a person is very dangerous and can cause much harm.

Mendelian Genetics

Tongue Rollers

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 was assigned a different traits and asked to collect data on that trait from each person in the class, including the teachers and Mrs. Burkhalter and our new City of Tuscaloosa superintendent, who just happened to stop by.

Some of the traits they were looking at were mid-digit knuckle hair (the hair on the middle part of your fingers), tongue-rolling, earlobe attachment, widow’s peaks, eye color, and finger crossing.  When they had collected all their data, what they found astonished everyone–no two groups of people, organized by the sharing of a trait, was alike!  What we hope the kids came away understanding is that, just because someone is a tongue roller doesn’t mean they have attached earlobes.  Even more interesting, just because you have mid-digit knuckle hair doesn’t mean your brother or sister will!

Attached Lobes

Primate Locomotion

Young primates getting ready to square off to display their preferred modes of 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 with extra long kangaroo-like feet by wearing swim fins. The other had to wear a backpack of bricks on their front to demonstrate how we carry all of our weight over our knees (our center of gravity). For all you moms out there, this latter clan should have gotten some insight into what it’s like to try to move efficiently while leaning back to accommodate that bowling ball during pregnancy, albeit for a much shorter period of time! The goal of the race was to reach a patch of delicious wheat grass, which they were free to eat upon reaching (video of primate races and devouring the “kill”). Of course, this was only truly motivating for the baboons, since the only true grass-eaters among primates are a group of baboons called gelada baboons. The knuckle-walkers and bipeds were far less interested in the grass treat and so lagged behind. After the race, we took a quadrupedal tour of the school yard and talked about some of the aches and pains we were experiencing in our necks, backs, and fingers and what some of the anatomical differences between us and other primates might be that leads to different modes of locomotion to be efficient for different types of primates.

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 involved presenting the kids with a variety of possible primate foods, but not the kind human primates from Tuscaloosa are necessarily used to seeing. We presented them with an omnivore’s dilemma–what do I eat when my choices are insects (roasted crickets with salt, in this case), nuts (without nutcrackers), a variety of plant leaves and vegetables, and a giant spiky fruit that smells like dirty sweat socks? The differences in the wild, of course, are that our young primates would have to catch the bugs (but we are preadapted for that with 3-D vision and nimble fingers), climb to the leaves, figure out how to open the nut without pulverizing it, and avoid poisoning oneself (we brought in all non-toxic vegetation for this exercise). As the kids discovered, the best ways to figure out what to eat are to watch what other animals of your species eat and then take a little nibble. One child found he had a taste for insectivory, eating the crickets like dry roasted peanuts, while another found he had a taste for banana peppers straight off the vine. Most found the spikes of the durian fruit formidable when there was so much else available. However, many of the leaves were tough and chewy without something to wash them down.

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.

Discussing Blood Clan Rituals


Among the lessons we hope to have conveyed through these activities are that cultural practices that may seem strange when one first visits need to be understood in context (ritual greeting of the Tasmanian Devil Clan). Sometimes there are good reasons for a culture to behave in a way that may initially seem strange to outsiders. The second thing we wanted to impress upon the kids is that cultural practices spread through the types of visits they engaged in, but, in getting removed from their original context, often get modified or understood erroneously. So, whereas the Guitar clan tried to show others what the Tazmanian Devil clan’s dance looked like, it wasn’t quite the same. Cultural diffusion is much like the game of telephone, in that information tends to get distorted the further it gets from its original source.



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 respective clan, though not always by outsiders.

Wu-Tang-Clan (This is the proper orientation)
Blood Clan
Tasmanian Devil Clan
Guitar Clan