November 19th, 2018

The major professional organization for physical or biological anthropology is the AAPA, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. Founded in 1930, the group has prospered to the present day as a force of scientific anthropology. The organization today is at a crossroads in determining its identity and its future. For the past year, the group has been considering changing its name for the first time ever. 

For better or for worse, the AAPA name has accumulated meaning that informs our current work. ‘Physical anthropology’ harkens back to a time when scientists measured the ill-obtained bones of oppressed groups and made racial conclusions from them. We… don’t do that anymore, so the pro-name-changers believe that our group’s name should better reflect what we actually do now. However, I think names can be inaccurate, a teaching point, a tradition, an albatross, and inspirational all at the same time. Changing the name is a stowing away from our messy history, which may be intended as a good public relations move to literally clear our name, but can also be seen as an effort to hide where our field came from. From the perspective of the student just hearing about anthropology for the first time, well they don’t really care how loaded the name is (source: how their eyes glaze over when I talk about the naming controversy).  

As the AAPA moves towards its name change, the organization put out a survey asking for opinions on the change in general and which potential name to adopt. Here, I will opine on the options. I have slightly reorganized the list to consolidate my thoughts.

  • American Association of Anthropological Sciences
  • American Association of Bio Cultural Anthropology
  • American Association of Biological Anthropologists
  • American Association of Evolutionary Anthropologists
  • American Association of Integrated Integrative Biological Anthropology
  • American Association of Physical and Biological Anthropology


  • Biological Anthropology Association of the United States
  • Society for American Biological Anthropologists

The AAPA was founded in the United States, but from the start it was open to international membership. Over the decades, more members from other nations have joined, making the group less and less American in makeup. This is to our strength, but it does make the name less and less accurate. The human world overall is more internationally connected today, too. The organization still emanates from the United States, but is that really worth naming the organization ‘American’ for that fact? If we are changing names, keeping this flawed label would be counter-productive. 

  • Association of Biological Anthropologists

This works, but is plain. While we’re scientists, some pizazz would be good to attract potential newcomers and get some name recognition. We have to consider media and social media today and how to bring attention to ourselves to spread our knowledge.

  • Biological Anthropology Association

BAA is a sheep sound, so no.

  • Biological Anthropology Association of North America

Sounds too much like BANANA, which is a disgusting fruit.

  • International Association of Biocultural Anthropologists
  • International Association of Biological Anthropologists
  • International Conference for Biological Anthropologists

Just as I’m not keen on pinning us to a particular nation, I think it’s implied that organizations are international unless if specifically named otherwise.

  • International Bio, Cultural Anthropology and Outreach Association

This one is very wordy and cultural anthropology is somehow more prominent in the name than our actual field of anthropology. Nope! And, while outreach is important and should be a part of every professional’s life, it’s not really name-worthy. It’s like adding Reading or Analysis into the name because it’s part of what we do. This name may be the one that sets the low bar so the other names are second-worst at worst. 

  • Society for Biological Anthropologists

The group is definitely a society (ranked hierarchy of interacting members) so it’s accurate. One problem is that the big archaeology group in the United States is the Society of American Archaeologists, so SBA name seems like a copy of SAA. Also, it’s a little plain and unpronounceable. Being able to be spoken as its own word (an acronym) makes the organization sound more open compared to being a string of letters (an initialism). Think of NASA or SHIELD versus IRS and CIA.

While I’m inclined to keep the current name, I do have some suggestions for possible name changes. These names are accurate and they’re true acronyms in that they’re pronounceable as words. We could be the:

  • Associate Body of Biological Anthropologists (ABBA)

I don’t think this name is taken?

Or, we could be:

  • Biological Anthropology Deme And Scientific Society (BADASS)

I know I am.


Summer Interacts Journal Debrief

October 19th, 2018

Fitting my physical/biological anthropology course into different time frames and formats throughout the school year brings up challenges. For example, putting the same number of assignments in the condensed summer schedule would mean that I would never stop grading. Many assignments were fixed in their placement in the schedule. That left the Interacts as the type that could be better adjusted to fit the situation. One way to keep the assignment but reduce grading is to change how often the assignment is due. If I made the Interacts take the same amount of work but due just at the end of the summer session, then students get the same experience while I save time. The easiest option was to do the Interacts as usual but due at the final exam. But, a change in the assignment format could make use of the scheduling change. The assignment is typically done with a strong online component as students search the Internet and peruse useful sites and apps. The issue is that students would be more inclined to put it off until the last minute if the assignment was not readily accessible. 

My solution was to make the Interacts into a paper journal assignment. I bought two cases of blank mini-journals from Dollar Tree, which arrived just in time for the start of the summer session. I adapted a lot of the usual Interact activities to be paper based. There was less online work, but more writing, drawing, and mind mapping. I wrote a list of general suggested activities. The main instruction: fill this journal by the final. In the participant observation spirit, I had my own journal, too. 

{ Pretty proud of this page, tbh. }

{ Pretty proud of this page, tbh. }

The goal of the Interacts Journal was similar to the usual version of the assignment: get students thinking about anthropology and science in their daily lives. The paper journal was a way to always make the assignment available as students went about their day. I also made two points. One was that they could do anything related to anthropology (which was everything). The other was that the journal was theirs to keep after I graded them at the final, so they should make it ‘their own.’ 

Doing my own new assignment was a valuable experience. I went through several phases of journaling. First I started out with drawing, but found that it was very time consuming. I switched to making lists and mind maps, then to the fastest way I discovered to finish a page: glue newspaper clippings related to the course. Even so, I found out that 60 4 x 6” pages were a lot to fill. When it was grading time, I managed my expectations accordingly. No student did the whole 60 pages. The ones who were engaged did 45 at the most. Most people did around 30, which was actually how many I had completed. The students who did the worst had around 10 pages with a suspiciously consistent look to the handwriting and very spread out content.

There were some unexpected outcomes that I could account for next summer. Two students lost their journals during the six week course and bought their own replacements. If I had known, I would have given them one of my extra journals. In a more uplifting development, a number of students went far in decorating the journal and putting a lot of work in the contents. Among the surprises was a 3D paper model of a DNA molecule, several thank-you notes to me on the last pages, and a list of the weird things I said during lecture. This last surprise was the best thing to have come out of my teaching career so far:

{ Did I say that? }

{ Did I say that? }

I could tweak the assignment next summer to make it even more successful for more students. For example, I could remind students about working on their journals more during the summer session. Having progress checkpoints may also keep work on the journals going, even if they were not graded until the end. While I kept my own journal, but could have shared what I had done to remind and inspire the class.

I made the Interacts Journal assignment partly to solve a time management problem as partly on a whim to try something different. I was very happy with the results even though my expectations going in were too high. Next time, I will have a tuned grading scheme and ready solutions for lost journals. Having journal check-in times over the course may also help stop procrastinators.

The Long Way

August 20th, 2018

It was my first semester of graduate school, fall of 2001. I was in a seminar class on paleoethnobotany, the study of ancient human-plant interactions, taught by Deborah Pearsall, who later become one of my doctoral advisors. In the ground floor meeting room of Swallow Hall, a small group and I were discussing what we read on the peopling of the Americas. What do we know for sure about the first Native Americans? We brought up key sites like Monte Verde and the evidence for different paths that people could have used at different times. There were a lot of data to explore, but they did not seem to form a consensus. Dr. Pearsall rephrased the topic to keep the talk going: what would you tell a class of undergraduate students about what we know about the peopling of the Americas?

“We don’t really know anything for certain,” I answered. Amused, Dr. Pearsall pushed for more: “Well you have to tell them something.”

Summer of 2018. I was now far from graduate school and writing a textbook chapter on modern human origins. I covered key evidence of an African origin and expansion through the Middle East, across Asia, and to Australia. The next section was about the peopling of the Americas.

I have to tell them something.

Seventeen years after that seminar, research on the peopling of the Americas has filled in some details, but unanswered questions and competing theories still exist. Back then, the Ice-Free Corridor was the strongest theory. It stated that Asians crossed the land bridge of Beringia inland between two glaciers. One conflicting piece of evidence came from the Chilean site of Monte Verde, which was dated too early for the Ice-Free Corridor theory to work barring a full spring from Alaska to Chile. The date of Monte Verde was just confirmed a few years before the seminar, so researchers were just starting to take the implications of that site seriously. I did not keep up with developments until recently when I started teaching my own introductory course. That was when I started hearing more about the Coastal Migration theory, that people expanded along the coast of Beringia before the inland route was available. I was skeptical at first since I was already settled on the Ice-Free corridor. As I read recent papers, though, I became increasingly convinced. Tracing the coasts was a common theme in modern human expansion. Evidence of this pattern appears in all of the continents. The growing collection of early sites in the Americas weakened the Ice Free Corridor theory but was compatible with Coastal Migration. While there was no absolute direct evidence for expansion along the coast, there was no absolutely contradictory evidence either.

I finally knew what to say to students about the peopling of the Americas. I touched on the transition between models and the accumulating evidence for Coastal Migration. Satisfied that I had done that topic justice, I moved on to other sections in my chapter.

The day before my textbook draft was due, a new article came out stating that both major theories are still viable given the evidence (Potter et al. 2018). (A between-the-lines reading of the article is that it greatly supports the Ice Free Corridor over Coastal Migration). The article was not enough to bring me back to the Ice Free Corridor, though, especially as the earlier of the two options. Still, given this new publication I decided that I should adjust my section since it reminded me that the issue was not settled.

After so many years, I thought archaeology had finally arrived at a single explanation of the peopling of the Americas and I was ready to bring upcoming students the news. Perhaps I was too optimistic. Unlike other introductory science classes, the fundamentals of biological anthropology change rapidly and textbook authors have to work with that. Maybe we still don’t really know anything for certain, but I know more about what to tell students. I show them the current state of research and own summary of it, and let students go from there.


Potter, B. A., Baichtal, J. F., Beaudoin, A. B., Fehren-Schmitz, L., Haynes, C. V., Holliday, V. T., . . . Surovell, T. A. (2018). Current evidence allows multiple models for the peopling of the Americas. Sci Adv, 4(8), eaat5473. doi:10.1126/sciadv.aat5473

Summer Fun Project 2018

July 23rd, 2018

It’s nearly summertime when my teaching schedule thins out and I do something extra to stay busy. Previously, I worked on Anthropomotron, my comic, and 3D printing. My outside fun project this summer is again very related to teaching: I’m one of the writers for an Open Education Resource textbook for biological anthropology. I somehow missed the original call for authors, but a colleague connected me with the editorial staff. My chapter is one of my favorites from my lectures: the evolution of modern Homo sapiens. This topic covers our species from their origin in Africa 300 thousand years ago, their expansion around the world, major cultural shifts to the present, and ideas about our future. So, a small topic.

It’s been years since my last big writing project so I am excited to do this type of work again and also practice what I preach to my students about effective writing. My ‘filler’ lecture, which I give to synchronize the lecture schedule across my two colleges, is half about making mind maps and half about writing effectively for science. The lecture sounds boring, but it generates a lot of thoughtful discussion on what clear and effective writing means and how to think about the use of language. To pass the lecture’s message to you, I suggest reading William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, which is inspirational.

As a demonstration on how I research and write, I set up to livestream some of my work on Twitch.tv. (Just some of my work because I also do Starbucks and library work). I streamed a few times but ran into some obstacles with this setup. One was that I worked sporadically between other timely tasks like grading. The closest I got to planning a writing time was to start after I was done grading for the night, which varied. Another issue was that it really slowed me down to set up the stream and then narrate my own work. Other writing streams on Twitch just show the writing process without the author’s explanation, which could be something I could try. I would still have to address the last issue: streaming really fired up my computer, which heated up my little bedroom/office, so I became increasingly uncomfortable. 

Without streaming, I’ve settled on a regular work pattern. For each section of the book, I do some research in the scientific literature to confirm what I want to write and make sure that my interpretation of the evidence is supported. This part is done with the Bookends reference manager on both my Mac and on my iPad. I read and highlight PDFs on the iPad and then sync them to the Mac side. On the computer, I open those PDFs along with my Scrivener chapter and put down what I want to say in writing. I start out just listing the main points, then build structured paragraphs with them by adding details and moving things around to a logical order of presentation. For the sections about hominins sites in different regions, I pick up to five to mention in each part of the world. The earliest in each region make it in, then others that have notable finds, a lot of finds (i.e., many fossils or artifacts) or tie into the discussion of other regions. I average about 200 words a night with this method, which is around what I did during dissertation writing. I started this blog post before the book chapter and I’m now at over 8000 words there.

This project has truly been a fun project and I look forward to the current writing phase and other tasks as well, such as determining the illustrations. I’ve learned a lot about modern Homo sapiens getting caught up with the amazing discoveries made since I was a graduate student and hope that I convey what I now know to future readers in a clear and accurate way.

Spring 2018 Semester Wrap-Up

June 4th, 2018

The recent semester was a quiet one as I stuck more to my established system. The Interacts continue to be a favorite part of the course, balanced by the more demanding article summaries. The Pre-Lecture slides got better with more content, including more embedded video clips and gifs. The coffee meetings with students were still extremely valuable in letting me see what the lives of my students are like and their comments on the course. One student told me that he does every single Interact activity, though the assignment only requires doing half of them. It would have been harder to learn that kind of detail during the usual schedule of the class.

One event during the semester was my trip to the AAPA meeting in Austin, which was meaningful beyond what I expected. I haven’t been to a professional meeting since I became an instructor (even further than that, my Photos says my last meeting was the SAAs in Honolulu in 2013). Attending as an educator made me interact differently with the presenters. I had numerous conversations about how the latest findings fit in with the material taught to introductory students. Even my off-time was useful. While at Toy Joy in downtown, I saw an inflatable globe that solved my issue of lacking a world map at one of my schools in an unexpected way:

Class Globe

The globe was also useful in the final review Bean Pong game as a new type of question (e.g., “Show the maximum range of Neanderthals on the globe.”). I also learned that I could request a large plastic folding table from Facilities for Bean Pong instead of working with just the furniture in the classroom. It only took me four years of teaching to know that I could order furniture!

My sixteen-week online class saw a big addition with weekly introductory videos. These short videos, all under two minutes long, were added to the weekly announcement and gave a short multimedia summary of the current course topic. Making one video a week, which involved writing a script, filming myself, filming other original footage, recording separate audio on a good mic, finding Creative Commons media, occasional screen-captured video, and fighting iMovie, took a lot of time and sometimes I was working right up to the start of the week when the announcement must be posted. The videos got around four weekly views out of a class of 40, but I was happy with the results. I also enjoyed filming in a variety of places and linking them to biological anthropology. I filmed in a pet store, Target, a supermarket, and the San Diego Zoo. I am now always on the lookout for better footage that I can use to improve the videos. Since the iMovie process is modular, I can swap out footage easily. The videos live in a private playlist, but if you’ve read this post this far, you can watch them here. Make sure to see the Week 6 one.

For the summer session and fall semester, I planned on again sticking with the established structure since I will be working on a big side project as well. Still, I already have some new ideas to try out. What if the summer students had a paper Interacts journal that they worked on over the six-week course and turned it in at the final? We’ll hear how that goes (if it goes) in the next wrap-up!

Tuning Up for Next Semester

January 22nd, 2018

My winter break project this year was replacing graphics in my lectures that I didn’t like. Each semester, I wince a little at certain points when an illustration from the Internet is the best available, but still flawed in some way. Some of these illustrations have typos in them. Others are low resolution, which is especially glaring with the fancy projector at one of my schools. Here is what I have done:

  1. Drew over graph of hominin cranial capacities. Reason: there are typos in the names. Also, the original uses the many ‘splitter’ names for different hominins while my class is a ‘lumper’ zone with fewer but safer names. I made the text larger and color coded the lines too.
    { Before. }

    { Before. }

    { After. }

    { After. }

  2. Made my own chart of blending inheritance. Reason: found illustration was very pixelated. I used a photo of a red flower from Wikicommons and made white and pink versions for my chart. The higher photorealism reduces clarity a little, but the boost in resolution is worth it. I also made the symbols match the cultural anthropology kinship chart.
    { Before. }

    { Before. }

    { After. }

    { After. }

  3. Made a new graphic for founder effect. Reason: I used a common Internet picture of just different shapes, which looked terrible. Keynote has great vector objects, including a monkey, so I used that to make my own illustration of founder effect. Since I made it within Keynote, I could really use the slide space and holy shit it looks gorgeous.
    { Before. }

    { Before. }

    { After. }

    { After. }

Made my own geologic time clock. Reason: This was another case where the best Internet graphic still had deep flaws. This one had too much text, the labels are also incorrect for a few of them, pointing to a different place on the clock relative to what the text says, and the text is small and pixelated. Also, why does this hour-long clock have an hour hand that shows nothing?

{ Before. }

{ Before. }

My version makes the clock less clock-like but focused on the purpose of conveying one hour in the circle. Since I made the clock myself out of individual elements in Keynote, I could also have the slide step through each event with the hand rotating along instead of hitting the class with everything at once. All of it is done using Keynote’s image tools, transitions, and build order. Keynote has great graphical capability with a large library of vector art that was introduced in a recent update as well as flexible line drawing.

{ After. }

{ After. }

Flipping through the slides, nothing else caught my eye as needing a change. Maybe there will be other things that bug me this semester. At least there will be less wincing.

By the way, here is a little presentation tip: having bullet points come in one at a time is great for lecture since everyone is focused on the same part of the slide. That’s not the tip. The tip is that I make the last bullet slightly different (◉) to let me know that there are no more bullet points on that slide. Once I see that, I know that the slide is almost done with no surprises showing up that I forgot about.

The Pre-Show Lecture

January 18th, 2018

Anyone who arrives at a movie theater early knows about the slide presentation that plays before the show starts. There is typically a mix of ads and movie trivia, given as still images or short clips. Waiting for Doctor Strange over the summer, I got the idea to do a “Pre-Show” for my lectures.

I developed my Pre-Show last semester and it became an important part of how I ran the class, adding to several different aspects. The Pre-Show gets students thinking about anthropology before the class starts, so they start the new material already warmed up. The title slide of the day’s lecture, which used to be the only thing on screen before class starts, now shares the time with other images, such as media that did not make their way into past lectures. Having an additional illustration or striking National Geographic photograph about an old topic keeps the old material on their mind. Images of recent discoveries also have a place in the Pre-Show, demonstrating the practice of scientific research as it happens.

{ Archaeology from Historic Jamestowne. }

{ Archaeology from Historic Jamestowne. }

The slides are also a good way to get students to talk with each other and meet their neighbors. They range from icebreakers or conversation starters to asking about recent topics. I also include example multiple choice questions sprinkled in there, which also sparks some discussion before class.

The Pre-Show also handles a lot of ‘housekeeping’ by showing course and campus announcements. The most important matters still get time after the class starts, but the Pre-Show can keep students in touch with the many activities that are always going on at the college.

{ Hyping the campus art show. }

{ Hyping the campus art show. }

The Pre-Show presentation autoplays with slides changing every thirty seconds (a timing that balances getting people’s attention and showing more things) and loops as well while I do any other class preparation.  When it is time to start, I can talk about one of the slides in more detail as a warmup period for my students and I before switching presentation files to the actual topic for the day. For slides that are more important, such as announcements and conversation topics, I duplicate those slides and evenly intersperse them in the presentation among the other content.

The only problem I’ve had is that the Pre-Show is another presentation that I have to customize before class. Removing old announcements and old images and finding new ones can take time that is already scarce. My way of addressing this issue is to save old slides into their own file (called Pre-Show Snippets) that I can use to quickly refresh the presentation with pre-made slides. Sometimes my commute or my schedule goes awry and I don’t have time to put the Pre-Show lecture up before class starts. In all, the setup is worth the time since it takes care of different necessities in my class.

My Plastic Menagerie

January 2nd, 2018

When I was in the fifth grade, our classroom got a Visible Man plastic model, which shows the internal organs of a human body. In hindsight, the missing parts suggested that it was a thrift store purchase by my teacher (our country really should fund education more), but it was enough to get my young science mind going.

I still keep up with scientific plastic models, now with the financial mobility to get them myself. One company, TEDCO Toys has a line of imported see-through models for both biological subjects called 4D Vision. Looking for something to spice up my non-existent future office, I went for the gorilla model first.

( Front of the box. }

( Front of the box. }

{ Back of the box. }

{ Back of the box. }

The completed model came out to around a foot tall and long, much larger than I expected. IThe internal organs were very solid and brightly painted. It really gave perspective to the large digestive system. The robusticity of the bones is also highlighted in the artistically transparent areas. While most of the abdomen is visible, the head and limbs have clear areas on the left side, with hair and skin rendered on the right. The booklet has pictorial instructions for where the parts go, plus blurbs on each organ. Some facts are more random than others:

{ Odd unit of measurement for length. }

{ Odd unit of measurement for length. }

{ Posterior torso piece waiting for more. }

{ Posterior torso piece waiting for more. }

{ Assembled torso, minus the anterior cover. }

{ Assembled torso, minus the anterior cover. }

There is also a section for writing down your time trials in assembling the gorilla, if you want to turn it into a race. The suggested times are very generous since the model is not complicated.

{ Cool cutaway to see the robust skull. }

{ Cool cutaway to see the robust skull. }

After the gorilla model, I wanted more so I bought an imported Ein-O BioSigns Red Blood Cell after a price drop on Amazon. It was a red translucent red rubber disc assembled from four quarters and a center plug.

Moving on, I went back to 4D Vision with a Human Anatomy Muscle & Skeleton model. This one stood around six inches tall and had many intricate parts. Confusingly, the model came partially assembled, but they had to be disassembled to complete the construction. The fitting of the pieces would be an engineering marvel if it was not so instructionless and hard to manipulate. For example, the right torso could only be closed by joining the right arm and leg simultaneously. Then, the rectus abdominus piece has to be placed to hold the torso together. The problem is that the torso came with the rectus abdominus already in place, with only a tiny picture in the booklet to hint that it even could be removed. After that process is done, then the torso has to be pried slightly open to fit the right arms and legs. Even after it was completed, the right limbs could spontaneously fall out of the loosening torso without a little glue to keep it together (no more time trials).

{ Model-assembly success! }

{ Model-assembly success! }

While I was obsessed with models, animal toy vendors were having sales to capitalize on the holiday season. I indulged a lot before I stopped myself:

{ My plastic menagerie. }

{ My plastic menagerie. }

My non-existent future office is going to be sweet.

‘Interacts’: An RPG Quest Board Assignment

December 23rd, 2017

I’ve been teaching physical anthropology for just over three years so I have still been making changes every semester.  Changes include staying up to date with new discoveries and looking for useful websites or thinking of ways to engage with the topic in daily life. For example, reading a biography of Darwin on the web could make him relatable and bring some insight into how he figured out natural selection, but it would be hard to make a whole assignment out of it. Or, to get people to see the natural world, I could have students take a picture of a plant on campus, where there are labeled plants and look up information about it online, but it is also too short and may run into access problems for the distant online students. I wanted to remove online quizzes for my campus classes, so I got rid of those assignments and made a new type called Interacts that are a collection of short activities.

{ One of the neat native plants at Grossmont College. }

{ One of the neat native plants at Grossmont College. }

The Interacts goal is to engage students with the physical and online world around them in terms of anthropology. The framework is set for fun as a way to make these activities habits in their lives. The model is from the daily quests of online roleplaying games. To keep players playing, these games have a rotating set of quests to do each day that involve some mundane activity for a long term reward. Adapting that model, I can have students do a batch of short activities as part of one assignment.

Students generally choose a handful out of ten options. They range from poking around a website and writing what they saw, to taking photos or drawing pictures of course topics. The variety made it so students who could not make it to campus in the timeframe or could not run a Flash plugin on their device could just pick something else to do. For each week, I tried to mix up the activity types so some had to be done outside, some could be done at home, some involved writing, some drawing, and so on.

{ Work-in-progress image when I was on a break. }

Since the instructions could be repetitive, I made up acronyms for different assignment types: WASPA for Write a Short Paragraph About, ATQ Answer This Question with a sentence, TAPO and DAPO for Take a Photo Of and Draw a Picture Of, and LOF as a Look Online For action. My secret hope is that this lingo will make its way into the rest of the world (they are true acronyms since they’re pronounced as words), but for now it does the job of consolidating the same instructions.

I made up activities as the semester went along. Some weeks were harder than others, such as finding things to do for the race and forensic anthropology sections. I also ran out of creative steam towards the end in the paleoanthropology weeks, so some of the later assignments just asked students to go back and do options they have not tried. One of the later activities asked for suggestions, which was very fruitful and kept the new activities train going a little longer. I also had sequels of earlier activities, such as looking up the etymology of a word or browsing sapiens.org for an article to summarize. Now that the semester is done, I can plan ahead for the next semester by spreading out the activities. For the more bare weeks, I can save some activities about earlier topics such as natural selection and genetics for those times. Students can still do older activities they skipped the first time too.

Some Interact activities were wildly popular across all of my sections. Early on, an archaeology activity of examining one’s trash can for material culture (borrowed from when I was a student at Berkeley) got a lot of positive comments. Interview activities, one asking a younger person about their interests, and one asking an older person about their upbringing, were popular and inspired some great writeups. Asking for stories about breaking bones got a lot of wince-inducing responses. A linguistic anthropology activity of explaining a meme also provoked a lot of analysis. Drawing activities were also popular with students. I was surprised when many students told me that they never really drew before but enjoyed that type of activity and found it useful for studying.

Some activities were not as successful. Not surprisingly, the un-standouts were in the race section. One involved categorizing people into racial groups at the PBS site to show that surface traits are unreliable in racial categorization. A small number of people took the activity and its no-win rules personally. The game is also showing its age with very poor resolution for the images. I knew that another race activity was risky: searching for and watching a stand up comedy routine about race on YouTube and examining its message objectively. While most of the students who did that activity had great insights on how professional comedians joke about a serious topic like racism, one student took the activity very poorly but yet went through with it to tell me how displeased he was. Due to the likelihood that the activity could do more harm than good, as well as the plummeting reputation of stand-up comedians, that activity is one of the choices to be dropped.

Next semester, the lineup will be adjusted to drop some of the boring activities and include some fresh ones. I didn’t realize that students found the drawing activities useful until the three-quarters point of the semester. I will sprinkle some DAPO activities at the start. A lot of things from the early topics could be drawn, from Darwin’s finches to cells and proteins. I am going to add a new type of activity: DTA, or Download The App. There are a few free smartphone apps that could be great activities: iNaturalist, Google’s Arts & Culture, History Here, and Ayumu are what I’ve found so far.

Interacts became one of the most popular assignments in my classes last semester. For the students, it offset the more boring and draining assignments while learning the life lesson that science and anthropology are all around us. For me, grading their work let me see more of the students’ personalities (offsetting the boring and draining grading). Instructors looking to make use of a great website, video, or outside activity could consider bundling a few together and having students choose what they want to do among them.

The Cerutti Mastodon Site and the Elephant in the Room

August 14th, 2017

One of the joys of being an anthropology instructor is that I am constantly in the stream of science news that regularly changes what we know about humans past and present. Sometimes news of research findings add a little interesting information to what we knew before. Other times, the news completely changes how we view our history and prehistory. One find of the latter category made waves in April of 2017 with the announcement that humans may have been in North America for over 100,000 years longer than previously thought. Digging further into this monumental change in our past, I was surprised to hear that the find and research organization were both local. The evidence of this deep human occupation of North America came from San Diego County and was excavated by the San Diego Museum of Natural History, led by Tom Deméré. Called the Cerutti Mastodon site, the evidence of very ancient humans consist of worn stones that appear to have been intentionally used to break associated mastodon bones.

The similarities between the Cerutti Mastodon with another tale from archaeology, the Folsom Site discovery, was not lost on anthropologists. In 1926, excavation at Folsom found the bones of an extinct bison with a clearly human-made stone point embedded in the same hardened matrix. This tangible evidence confirmed that people lived in North America at the same time as animals that went extinct over 10,000 years ago, pushing the widely accepted date of this event thousands of years into the past. The Folsom discovery would have been less convincing if the stone point and the bison bones were further cleaned up and separated. Being together and viewable to skeptics made the conclusion derived from it inarguable.

The San Diego Museum of Natural History did the public and science a huge favor by publicly showing key items from the Cerutti Mastodon site. Being a skeptic based on what I read online about the site and its interpretation, I made visited the museum to see these important objects for myself. There was a new installation front-and-center in one of the building’s foyers, replacing an interactive globe. While the exhibit was advertised outside by a huge banner, I did not see the exhibit get any other visitors. Maybe the importance of what the SDMNH had found was lost on the general public that has no point of reference on how long scientists think people have been in the Americas. This meant that I had the whole section to myself to take everything in.

{ Caption: Very attractive banner for the exciting find inside. }

{ Caption: Very attractive banner for the exciting find inside. }

The exhibit had several cases of recovered items, wall-mounted displays with text and illustrations, as well as a video on loop. The first eye-catching object is a section of tusk that is mounted vertically on a free-standing display to simulate how it was found. The display emphasizes the looseness of the soil and that the tusk must have been purposely placed vertically instead of being naturally propped up.

{ Caption: Mastodon tusk displayed as found in sediment. }

{ Caption: Mastodon tusk displayed as found in sediment. }

Past this, a case contained the unusually bisected femoral head of a mastodon, with a plaque showing their unusual context amongst other bones. Another case had the most controversial of the discoveries: the stones that show wear against the nearby mastodon bones. In person, the stones are larger than I imagined, exceeding the size of a typical human head. Plaques point out the signs of wear and their significance in the interpretation.  The fourth case had more stone and bone fragments, explaining how the researchers achieved the same looking results by using large stones as hammers on bone. Having made a semi-circle around the area, the last display I encountered had a video summary of the site and presented information on the dating of the objects. Each section had several plaques with very clear writing that explains to visitors what is notable and interesting about each object.

{ Caption: One of the displays showing rock fragments that fit together. }

{ Caption: One of the displays showing rock fragments that fit together. }

As I perused the exhibit, I thought over what the researchers presented and their interpretation. Some conclusions are very solid: a tusk fragment was found vertically in loose sediment, other bones are found in odd positions, the objects date to over 100,000 years ago (though see Andrew Millard’s blog post “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence“), and the mastodon bones and stones are associated and not deposited separately. Despite the surface similarities with the Folsom discovery, the Cerutti site presented less absolute evidence of human occupation. I am definitely treading on ground worn by other skeptics, but seeing the items and the presentation of interpretation myself, I noted signs that the stones were not human-manipulated artifacts. They were large and unworked, dissimilar to any post-Homo habilis stone tool style. The breaks in the bones do not correspond with the usual places to butcher bones.

If not an archaeological site of human activity, then what is the Cerutti Mastodon site? There must be an explanation for the unusual arrangement of bones and stones. There must be an explanation of the wear found on the stones and the broken fragments. Who could have produced these results that we solidly know lived over 100,000 years ago in what is now San Diego County? The being must have been strong, had prehensile ability, and maybe even have possessed some ability to intelligently interact with the environment. In other words:


I think another mastodon created the Cerutti Mastodon site. While hard to imagine the whys of a mastodon picking up large rocks and breaking another mastodon’s bones, as well as sticking a tusk fragment vertically in the sediment, this interpretation fits everything found at the site and involves an organism that indisputably lived at that time and place. We will see whose interpretation bears out with more evidence. In the meantime, I highly recommend visiting the San Diego Museum of Natural History to see the Cerutti Mastodon and the many other interesting exhibits.