Week 8: Comparative Osteology

Physical anthropologists rely on osteology, or the scientific study of bones, to identify individual species, learn about the lives of an individual, or even to identify ancient illnesses (aka paleopathology). The skeletal features of bones reflect the life histories of individuals, and trained osteologists can use those features to identify the age, sex, diet, and, at times, even the cause of death of a particular specimen.

However, analyzing and comparing the bones from different species can also tell us about the evolutionary history of those species and the degree to which different species are related. For example, the overall form and organization of a dog’s skeletal features would be very similar to those of wolves, as those species are related. The same could be said for different species of fish, reptiles, turtles, etc.

In anthropology, osteologists often compare human skeletons with those of other primates so that we can learn about our ancient human past. In today’s activity, our TMSE students compared cranial features of human, chimpanzee, and coyote skulls, to learn about cranial capacity, dental formulas, diet, and the overall degree of similarity among species. For this activity, students were encouraged to think about the similarities and differences between each of the individual specimens. If they are similar, what makes them similar? If they are different, then how could we explain those differences in an evolutionary context?

To begin with, the students compared the skeletal characteristics of human, chimpanzee, and coyote skulls. Students were able to identify the human skull and distinguish it from the chimpanzee skull rather quickly, but additional analysis was needed to characterize precisely why the students thought they were so different.


The human chimpanzee skulls differed, for example, in the size of the teeth, the size of the cranium, and even the shape of the skull itself. Students also learned a new term, prognathism, to describe the degree to which the facial features extend out from the face. Chimpanzees are definitely more prognathic than humans, as are coyotes. However, the human and chimpanzee skulls were more similar to each other than they were to the coyote, which had a completely different structure.


In seeking a better way to describe the possible differences and similarities, we then analyzed two key features on each skull: teeth and cranial size.

To analyze the similarity in dentition, students were asked to come up with the dental formula for each specimen. A dental formula is essentially a count of the different types of teeth for a specimen, beginning with incisors (cutting teeth in the front of the mouth), canines (teeth for slashing), premolars (for stabilizing food and for grinding); and molars (grinders).


By counting the tooth types for the human, chimpanzee, and coyote skulls, our TMSE students figured out that humans and chimpanzees have the exact same dental formula! However, coyotes have a different formula.

Our students quickly ascertained that this similarity is likely due to the fact that humans and chimpanzees are related, both as primates and by our shared evolutionary past.


To continue to address some of these differences, we then compared the size of the cavity that houses the brain, also known as the cranial capacity.


By comparing across species, our students figured out that humans have the largest brain, followed by the chimpanzee, and then the coyote. After a lively discussion of the brain size of dolphins, humans, dinosaurs, and dogs, we reached the conclusion that our human brains are MASSIVE relative to our body size. Which, of course, means that we are intelligent creatures.

Our comparative analysis led us to hypothesize that the dental formula and cranial capacity may help determine whether a particular specimen is related to humans or not. To test out our theory, we then threw an unknown skull into the mix. After figuring out the dental formula, describing the tooth size, and looking at the cranial characteristics, our students concluded that the unknown skull was, in fact, related to humans because it shared a dental formula and had a cranial capacity that was in between that of the human and of the chimpanzees.

As it turns out, our students were absolutely correct! The unknown skull was Australopithecus afarensis, one of our evolutionary ancestors.

This activity ended up being a lot of fun, as everyone got a chance to handle castes of skulls and learn about how physical anthropologists may characterize skeletons. Moreover, by learning about basic skeletal features and interspecies variation, our students were able to conduct a comparative analysis of those features and to critically analyze the results based on that analysis.

All in all, a great day!


The lesson plan for this activity can be downloaded here.

Week 8 Skeletal Features

Week 5: Meddling Monkeys Scavenger Hunt

One of the ways that physical anthropologists learn about people is to study our nearest living relatives – primates. Primates include any member of the group of animals that includes human beings, apes, and monkeys. Learning about how primates navigate their world helps us understand the challenges and survival strategies that humans had to face in the past.

Primatologists, or specialists who study primates, are especially interested in learning how primates address one of the biggest issues that we all face: how to feed your family. Each primate species has a different from of social organization, although all primate species have to figure out how to survive against the odds. Factors that figure in to those odds include the proximity of other groups, competition for resources, the availability of high-calorie foods, and the need to protect the sensitive members of one’s group from predators.

This week’s activity pitted student groups against each other in a Meddling Monkeys Scavenger Hunt. In the MMSH, student groups were tasked with getting as many calories as possible by “foraging” throughout the classroom. Foods were represented by different colors of slips of paper and were placed with varying frequency throughout the classroom. The highest calorie foods, fruits, were worth 5 points. Fruits were present but were not the most common type of food in the scavenger hunt. Animal protein accounted for another category of the food in the scavenger hunt, being worth 2 points. Common sources include ants, insects, or grubs. The most common food source in the scavenger hunt, and in actual environments, included leaves and vegetation. In the game, a cluster of leaves was worth 1 point.

Students were divided into groups and were asked to come up with a survival strategy that permitted them to gather the most calories while still protecting the two primate babies that were given to each group. These babies were worth 10 points and could be stolen if the nest was not properly guarded. At the end, the group with the most calories (points) won.



Students can only carry one item at a time, as primates are not bipedal (except humans).

Students were asked to walk in various ways to lengthen the game, including hopping on one foot, knuckle-walking, crab-walking, and walking with their hands behind their back.

Babies can be stolen if not guarded. Two group members must be at the nest to protect the babies (not one).

If a group loses both of their babies, the group automatically loses.


At the end of the class period, the scores were tallied and each group was asked to weigh their choices against their relative success. Interestingly, only one group was able to steal a baby. And while such an acquisition may seem to signal success, a different group ended up with the highest number of points (or calories). That suggests that the most effective strategy for success may be more complex that focusing on a single, high-calorie resource.

At the end of the day, our class also got to try one of the delicacies of the primate diet – roasted crickets!

Here are a few of the brave TMSE students who elected to give our crickets a try!

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Others were more reluctant, but most of our students were willing to give it a shot.

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In the end, our  TMSE students learned about foraging strategies, the benefits of group membership, and even some of the downsides of being social. AND they got to sample a tasty treat!

Check back in next week, as we will start talking about human variation and genetic variability.




Week 3: Archaeology and Garbology

After a brief hiatus, the TMSE blog is finally being updated!


For this week’s lesson, our students learned about another branch of anthropology – archaeology.  Archaeology is the branch of anthropology that focuses on studying people in the past. However, since archaeologists cannot follow the lead of ethnographers and ask ancient peoples about their lives, archaeologists have to rely on other evidence to learn about ancient societies. Specifically, archaeologists have to rely on looking at the material remains of human activity. Specifically, archaeologists study artifacts, or items that were made and used by humans, as well as sites, or concentrations of artifacts.


While the idea of “material remains” or the “archaeological record” may at first sound obtuse, nearly every human activity leaves a trace, and, archaeologists are trained to compare those material traces to learn about human behavior.


My favorite example of the material record always begins with a family picnic, which at first seems to be a fairly ephemeral event. However, even though much of the food has disappeared by the end of the meal, the associated refuse would likely tell us much about the event. For example, inedible food remains (e.g., bones, fruit peels, etc.) and the quantity of associated trash would tell us how many people were present (3 or 20?), what was being served (friend chicken, hot dogs, or fresh veggies), and even the nature of the event (birthday party? Family reunion? Wedding party?). While it may seem strange, studying both ancient and modern trash is one of the best ways to learn about a society.


Accordingly, for this week’s activity, our students were introduced to archaeology by becoming Garbologists! They sifted through assemblages of household trash to learn about the individuals who created it. By comparing the types of materials within each assemblage, student groups were able to categorize the materials and discern the types of activities that led to its creation.


For example, one group’s assemblage consisted of wood blanks, nails, household glue, snack food wrappers, and random paper items. Based on this information, our group concluded that they were looking at the remains from a workshop or a toolshed.


Another group’s assemblage consisted of numerous food wrappers, office paper, used envelopes, broken pens, broken toys, mother’s day cards, nursery items, and paper towel rolls. Based on this information, the group concluded that they were looking at the remains of a household that contained, at a minimum, a mother and children of various ages.


Our TMSE students effectively learned about modern activities by looking at trash, which is the same thing that archaeologists do for ancient peoples. By looking at the detailed material culture associated with archaeological sites, archaeologists can reconstruct the lives of ancient societies.

The lesson plan for the Archaeology and Garbology activity can be downloaded here:

Week 3 Archaeology and Garbology

Thanks for checking in-

Dr. A. Brooke Persons


Week 1: Introduction to Anthropology & Creating a Clan

Dr. Brooke Persons, reporting for duty.

Our first week of the UA-TMSE partnership was a resounding success. We started off the semester with a brief introduction to Anthropology and a discussion of culture, a concept that unifies the four fields of anthropology. Culture, or the shared knowledge that guides behavior and distinguishes one group from another, permeates every aspect of our lives. In fact, as humans we soak up culture and react to cultural clues from childhood through adulthood, thereby providing the tools that we need to be successful within a given society.

The students provided examples of how culture guides behavior and then described the symbols, ideas, and characteristics of American culture. Their examples included:

-speaking English

-our national flag

-our national anthem

-our government

-the foods that we eat

-playing sports for recreation, including baseball, basketball, and soccer

To illustrate both how culture is created and differs between groups, the students were divided into small groups and they were asked to create a clan, or a group of people who share a common ancestor. Each student filled out the Creating A Clan Worksheet and then drew their own version of the clan totem. (The worksheet is available for download at the end of this post).

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(above) Sally working with the Wolverine Clan. (below) Rachel and Sophia working with the Predator Hunger Games Clan (front) and the Shadow Clan (back).

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Each clan created a unique culture and defined it by choosing a name, selecting a totem, identifying clan symbols, and deciding on a leadership style. Clan members collaborated to generate greetings and behaviors that were unique, including a clan chant and a ritual handshake. The Shadow Clan created an amazing clan chant that highlights their exploits, while the Wolverine Clan created an intricate handshake to help them identify fellow wolverines. The Predator Hunger Games Clan created a series of special holidays and chose a cat’s face with star emblems as a totem.

Here is the totem of the Predator Hunger Games Clan.

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Here is the totem of the Wolverine clan, which includes a wolverine print, a spider web, and a description of how colors are used as symbols. Green stands for encouragement, red stands for blood, while black stands for anthropology and prosperity.

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The clans were diverse and unique, although there were a few similarities. Next week we will discuss how anthropologists study culture as we continue our investigation into Cultural Anthropology.

The lesson plan for Week 1 can be downloaded here:

Week 1 Anthropology and Creating a Clan Lesson Plan

See you next week!

Welcome to UA-TMSE Anthropology Spring 2014!

Welcome to the blog of the Spring 2014 partnership between the University of Alabama’s Department of Anthropology and the Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools – Elementary (TMSE)! Over the next 12 weeks, this blog will follow our exploits as we teach an Introduction to Anthropology class to a group of 3rd and 4th graders from TMSE.

The goals of the TMSE-UA partnership are manifold, but our primary goal is to introduce elementary students to the exciting world of Anthropology through discussion, directed learning, and goal-oriented instruction. The students will learn about the four fields of Anthropology through classroom activities that will focus on Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology, Linguistic Anthropology, and Physical Anthropology.  An important part of this experience will also offer an opportunity for us (as educators) to gain experience sharing our world with elementary age children. The Spring 2014 TMSE partnership uses many of the activities that have been tested in previous iterations of the class, but we also hope to develop a few new activities and contribute to a growing body of outreach activities.

While the partnership has been a success for many years, this semester will bring a few new faces into the program. The TMSE partnership will be under the direction of Dr. A. Brooke Persons, an anthropological archaeologist and recent Ph.D. graduate from the Department of Anthropology. The TMSE will also benefit from the assistance of a select few upper-level Anthropology undergraduate students, including Sophia Fazal, Rachel Miller, and Sally Skelton. Throughout the semester, we will also be coordinating with Dr. Christopher Lynn, a Department of Anthropology professor, founder of the partnership, and developer of many of the classroom activities. Each of us will be blogging throughout the semester to share our experience of teaching anthropology inside of an elementary classroom.

By creating a digital presence for the Department of Anthropology-TMSE partnership, we hope to contribute to a broader dialogue about anthropology outreach and to confirm the place of anthropology in modern education. We will be posting a weekly update of our activities, including the lesson plans and classroom aids.

We look forward to receiving your comments and questions!