Monday, April 19, 2010

back in the saddle, and a video recommendation

Between preparing to go and actually attending the SAAs, I haven't had time to blog in a week. Well, I'm baaaack. The conference, as usual, was wonderful. I feel inspired, excited, and ready to dive into that research.

Not to mention the giant pile of exams I have to grade.

Well, damn.

So, while I'm working on the exam, I'm going to punt on blogging and just leave a quick video recommendation. I discovered Nova's Becoming Human series earlier this semester. I've been trying to find a good video for my Intro BioAnth class for years. This 3-part series aired this past November, and it is available on-line for free. Part I covers the earliest finds (Sahelanthropus, in particular) through Homo habilis. Since it's a Nova special, they rather over-state the differences in early Homo, for dramatic effect, but it's generally a good show.

Part II covers Homo erectus, and although they obviously don't go into as much detail as I can in class, the list of topics looks like it was taken straight from my lecture notes. Brownie points to the producers for the way my students cracked up to hear Richard Wrangham say, in his impeccable British accent, "As for how we got our pubic lice from gorillas, I wouldn't care to speculate."

Part III - OK, I have to admit, I haven't actually watched Part III yet. So far, I've loved the series, though. Highly recommended for intro classes. It covers a lot of the important "big-picture" issues, and I can bore them with the details of anatomy and taxonomy in class. My students liked it too. I showed Part I a week ago, and today when I showed Part II in class, some students had already seen it. They liked Part I so much, they found the rest of the series on Netflix!

I decided to watch Part III (origins of the anatomically moderns), and I don't like it nearly as much as the rest of the series. They gave a hard-line replacement perspective, and didn't present any of the alternative evidence. For example, they implied that all genetic information supports total replacement, without mentioning any of the work by people like Hammer, which suggests some admixture. They skimmed over the controversies surrounding the "bottleneck" hypothesis, and implied that the entire continent of Africa was a desert, with only a few small places where humans could survive. (How chimpanzees and other apes would have escaped from a similar bottleneck, under those conditions, is not explained.) They played up the scanty evidence for symbolic behavior prior to 50kya, without mentioning Neandertal burial practices. They also implied that only modern humans were mentally capable of exploiting marine resources, when Stiner's work in Italy showed significant shellfish use, and Finlayson's work at the caves in Gibraltar suggest fishing, shellfishing, and hunting of sea mammals. I won't be showing this episode in my class, unless I stop the video every once in a while to discuss the various viewpoints on the topic.

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