Journeys, again

Last month I wrote about the Journey of Man thematic study, looking at the routes used by our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, as they colonized all the world’s land except Antarctica. Recently I was thrilled to find a cache of student work samples from the first year of that study.

It’s timely. Over the next few weeks, some of the kids from that first Journey of Man class will graduate from college. They’re dancing in their last undergraduate dance concerts; giving senior voice recitals; helping younger students prepare to take over the leadership of campus organizations; getting ready to go off and be teachers themselves.

All of you from that class, wherever you are in your journeys, should have that buzzy feeling that says someone is thinking of you, because my mind has been full of the journeys I watched you make, from question to question, draft to draft, project to project.

Although I’m in touch with some of you, I’m not sure how to find others. So I’m going to hide names and identify you, if at all, only by first initial.  I’m assembling these samples out of the impact of the whole stack, in which I read every word. So in some sense all of you are reflected here.

JOM evidence stack

Over the summer before we started this study, I asked students to find and read a book related to the journeys we would be examining: the evolution of hominin species over millions of years; the travels of modern humans colonizing the globe; and the immigrant journeys that populated New England. Students could choose books relating to any of these topics, and I asked them to copy a passage that had been particularly meaningful for them.

Many students read about relatively recent immigration. Here’s one student’s heartbreaking choice of passage, from Ellis Island: Gateway to the New World by Leonard Everett Fisher:

JOM passage from Ellis Island bk editJOM copied passage geneticsI had offered genetics as a possible book topic, knowing that we’d be doing a side-trip into some learning about genes. We needed that to help us understand the role of Y chromosome genetics in the book by Spencer Wells from which we had borrowed our thematic study’s name, The Journey of Man. One student read Why Are People Different? from Usborne Publishing, and copied a fascinating passage.

 

JOM copied passage evolution

One faJOM copied passage evolution p2mily found a beautiful picture book about evolution, Our Family Tree: an Evolution Story by Lisa Westberg Peters. It’s become one of my favorite nonfiction books for people of any age,

I’ve scanned both the copied passage and the student’s explanation for why she chose that book.

 

Other students jumped right into paleoanthropology. The passage below came from The Origins of Man, by John Napier.

JOM copied passage origins editReading through these, child by child, I am so moved by what grabbed them, when they were just sampling our topics to create an overview for each other. All four of those kids, J, J, S, and J, were drawn to story interpreting evidence–historical evidence, evidence from biological research, evidence from paleoanthropology and archaeology–all of it warmed and made coherent by a little bit of storytelling.

The first part of our exploration, about the evolution of species increasingly like us, focused on the first time clap, which I’ve already described. Here’s one student’s species sign, scanned to show the directions on the back.

JOM Homo erectus directions

I love that two word direction at the bottom, probably written by one of the students who carried copies of the sign. Those two short words take sides in a controversy still not fully settled by the interested scientists. Clearly we decided, for the purpose of the time clap, that Homo erectus really was able to control fire and use it at will–and that the dramatic growth of brain volume in Homo erectus fossil skulls indicates something revolutionary: cooked food. (You can watch this video to hear some of the evidence.)

Once we turned to the voyages of early modern humans, we were all grateful for Spencer Wells’s own effort to give his genetic evidence a human face and a story line:

JOM hunting with San

JOM target practice with SanJOM Spencer learning P editLike some of the other pieces I’ll include, these were quick pieces of writing done overnight for homework, in response to an open-ended invitation to write about something that stood out for each student. They had a word limit–probably no more than 60 words, judging from the ones that show a word count. Sometimes pairs or small groups of students shared what they had written; sometimes volunteers read theirs out loud to the full class, as a preparation for watching the next chunk of video.

Much of The Journey of Man is based on genetic evidence involving the Y chromosome. We did some other work to help us understand this, isolating DNA with help from parent volunteers, making models, reading other books. But all the kids were really taken with Spencer’s own treatment, using monkey oranges to lay out a big graphic on the ground near the San Bushmen camp.

JOM monkey oranges R editThe crosses indicate a second mutation; so R’s diagram would have been even better if he’d shown that second mutation happening in an individual who had already inherited a first one. Overall, though, he showed real understanding, and like so many Touchstone students, he didn’t hesitate to critique and appreciate Spencer’s teaching technique!

How did I handle informational errors in this kind of writing? Case by case. Sometimes I talked with the individual kid, or wrote a comment (which I’m cropping out here, mostly.) Often, I let signs of widespread confusion guide what steps the whole group would take next.

I found one page I’d written when I was disappointed with an activity,  brainstorming and evaluating ways we could approach the material differently. After all, I wasn’t doing this to grade students on their various levels of understanding; I was aiming for the greatest possible understanding by everyone–and all of us were being pioneers, including me.

Sometimes I asked kids to write about what they thought, before we watched the video or explored the evidence:

JOM ice bridge A editClearly this student had heard about ice bridges as a part of human migration from one continent to another. But as a way to get from Africa to Australia, an ice bridge couldn’t really work, and he realized that as we moved forward. Later he wrote again:

JOM to Australia new idea Here, K argues for her version using a terrific sketch map:

JOM Africa to Australia with map

JOM time clap 2  plan sheetI’ve already shared some artifacts from the second time clap, in which we worked intensively with material in the book version of The Journey of Man,  to recreate early modern humans’ routes from continent to continent. For all of us, I think, when we say “time claps” we’re remembering that one, because it was so intense. Finding additional materials from that second time clap, I was thrilled by evidence for what I had remembered, that kids themselves did most of the organizing and preparation. So, to the left here’s a planning sheet that is pretty difficult to decipher if you’re not one of the kids at work on the plan. (I know that the numbers refer to Y-chromosome mutations, and that the colors refer to colors of streamers carried on the routes.)

Here’s one student’s individual sheet, to help her know what to do when:

JOM time clap 2 indiv sheet editThe learning spiraled; it was cumulative. We reviewed in a variety of ways, acted things out in a variety of ways, made obnoxious comments about guest scientists having bad hair days, and reached a point of intimacy with the material that was extraordinary, given its challenges.

No Unit Test. Instead, kids wrote final pieces that we revised to a pretty good polish. Here’s part of one:JOM final essay E first paragraphs

Later, we carried these ideas into the work we did in the spring, thinking about the history of human technology and the evidence of archaeology, in connection with The Second Voyage of the Mimi.

Nothing I’ve ever learned about has fascinated me more than this big picture view of human history, and I couldn’t have had better learning companions. Writing about it, organizing my own artifacts, I’ve started rewatching videos, reading books and blogs. I’m excited by new evidence, and also by new attempts to convey the story as a story.

I’ve also been struggling to understand online blogs and comments written by people who dismiss the Out of Africa evidence, for reasons that often seem transparently racist.

At any moment, on my bicycle, folding laundry, driving to the other end of the state, I’m liable to be thinking:

  • How did we get from Africa to Australia as lickety-split as the genetic and archaeological evidence indicates–not just traveling but colonizing? Just what role did bamboo rafts play? Is there any way I could wrangle myself an opportunity to make a bamboo raft?
  • And what about the evidence that even Homo erectus, much longer ago, used some kind of transport across water?
  • But also: what can be done to heal the increasing polarization between people who are excited by scientific evidence–even when it’s confusing or contradictory–and people who are threatened by it? How will my past students navigate that crossfire?

Ultimately, for me, this is the question: How can we build and share a new evidence-based story of our origins? Part of the answer, of course, as always: together.

Time Claps, Part II

The paragraphs go by much faster than the learning did. If you let each paragraph equal a day, or a week, or maybe even five years of our own process, alternately scrambling like mad and sitting back soaking it all in–then you might have just about the right scale.

Kate Keller’s genius invention of the time claps was partly about time, but also about scale: using the small as a window on the huge. Of course, sometimes we make scale models in which something made large is used as a window on the small–much larger models of the DNA helix, for example. But here, we were definitely trying to grasp huge, and the time clap model was a way to compress very long periods of time into periods of time we could experience.

The time claps were also about changing the scale. The 5,000,000 years of hominid evolution we considered for the first time clap (and the previous post) are a drop in the bucket compared to the history of life, or an infinitesimal speck compared to the history of our universe, which we only waved at. Hello, history of universe, we are breaking off a tiny chunk of you, which seems enormous to us.

Five million years is one hundred times as long as the 50,000 years of our own species’ wanderings across the continents. When our class went from the first time clap to the second, we were thinking about one-hundredth as long a stretch of time all together, and each clap was worth one-hundredth as much time as before.

Our species had been around for a while before some of us took the chance of leaving Africa, almost certainly unaware that we were switching continents, but meeting considerable challenges to expand our territory. Following Spencer Wells’s account, based on research with Y chromosome mutations, we tracked our way from continent to continent.

At each stage, through weeks of learning, we investigated some of the remaining indigenous peoples, again following Wells’s lead and using his video, The Journey of Man, in which he visits Aboriginal Australians, people from remote villages on the Indian subcontinent, central Asians, Chukchi people from eastern Siberia, and Navajo in North America.

The time clap itself was a way to summarize what we’d learned: about genetics, about the challenges of human expansion into new environments, about ways the human body had evolved to handle those new places.

Clapping and counting together–clap, two, three, four–we let each four-second interval, each clap, be worth 500 years. Each student, or a pair, was responsible for moving onto the map at the right time, and placing one of our crepe paper streamer lengths. He or she placed one end in the area where that y-chromosome mutation is thought to have arisen, then carried the streamer following a simplified, summarized version of that mutation’s spread.

across the continents time clap croppedWe worked hard to figure out all the logistical problems in showing these things. Here’s a detail from the photo I used in an earlier post, so you can see that Russell is poised to do his job as the time line person, responsible for showing at each clap where we were on the time line. The pieces of brown paper on the floor are continents.

I folded the first section of this time line, so I could show two labels almost in focus.

folded timeclap section

Here’s a detail from a map in The Journey of Man. which we used as our way of timing the spread of groups of Homo sapiens across our own paper continents. Each arrow is a schematic representation of the spread of the  y-chromosome mutations that have let scientists reconstruct this sequence of expansions.

JOM map detail

Here’s the map key that helped us connect mutation numbers with times in our time clap and on our time line:

JOM map key cropped

Because I’m a nearly total failure at throwing things away, I still have some of the crepe paper streamer lengths we cut and used to represent the paths. The photo below shows two rolled-up streamer lengths for M130. These were placed beginning at the northern end of the short length for M168 (the Y chromosome shared by all men not indigenous to Africa.)

One student carried one of the M130 streamers by the coastal route around the Indian subcontinent, and then through southeast Asia to Australia. There was much less water to cross, in the time this happened, because the sea level was so much lower, with lots of water locked up in ice. Much more of southeast Asia and the nearby islands stretched in one long continuous land mass. But still, there were many miles of open ocean to cross, to get to Australia. Somehow people did it, spreading around the perimeter of the Indian Ocean astonishingly quickly.

Another student carried the second M130 streamer northeast to Siberia and then to North America–a very long expansion into harsh conditions, that took a much longer time.

JOM M130 croppedThis whole field of human population genetics is moving fast. M130 is now designated as C-M130, and on Wikipedia you can find an excellent, very technical article about the C-M130 lineage, or haplogroup. I love the labels on these streamers, made by students, full of pride in their own technical knowledge at that point.

JOM multicolored mutation streamerI’m not sure about this streamer with its many colors, mutation group leading to subgroup, leading to further subgroup, but I think it has the earliest journey on the outside: out of Africa leading to the Middle East, to south central Asia, to central Asia, to Siberia.

If you want to start a fight at a meeting of the folks who pay attention to such things, just ask about how we arrived in the Americas. Increasing numbers of  scientists now say that boats must have been involved, small boats made probably out of walrus or other large marine mammal skins stretched over frames, like the ones coastal Chukchi people still make and use. Spreading across the northern edge of the Pacific Ocean west to east, we probably kept fairly close to the coastline or ice pack, and in each new venture moved only far enough to come to an ice-free coastal area that had what we needed. Alice Roberts describes her own take on this in her video called The Incredible Human Journey.

Because of lower sea levels at the time, that ancient coastline is far out to sea now. Boats wouldn’t last to be found, and coastal settlements would currently be under many feet of water–so there’s not much archaeological trail of any kind, so far. The evidence is all circumstantial: somehow we arrived in places that involved crossing wide stretches of water, no matter how low the sea level had dropped.

However they did it, some very small percentage of my own ancestors made that ancient journey into North America. Still, that’s not why I say “we.” I’ve come to feel that all of this story belongs to all of us.

The rest of the ancestors of our class (including most of mine, and Kate’s) came to North America more recently. We wanted to end this thematic study of who we are and how we got here by learning about our recent immigrant ancestors, and the patterns of goodbye and hello that shaped their lives.

So we changed the scale again. In our preparations for the third time clap, we looked at just the last 500 years of immigration to North America, and focused on stories we had gathered, about people related to us and about family friends. Those included Pilgrims who traveled on the Mayflower, representatives of the huge influx from eastern and southern Europe in the early 20th century, and more recent immigrants from Latin America, some with mixed African heritage.

For this time clap we made a very simplified geographical representation that could fit in our classroom. Simpler props–but we were moved and focused by representing individual real people whose stories we knew. Clapping and counting, holding signs, we showed their individual arrivals decade by decade.

What do Kate and I think about, looking back at all this?

I often recall a memory that is uneasy. A girl who had been adopted from China represented herself in our third time clap, and “traveled” east to North America. She joined us from another class, and we were proud and excited to have her take part. Only afterwards, and with regret, I realized that she was embarrassed, unhappy to have been identified as a recent immigrant.

Kate remembers worrying that we were all focused so intensely on our parts in each time clap’s execution, struggling to move and do the right things at the right moment, that it was hard to pay attention to the whole as it happened around us. At least for us, for Kate and me and the invaluable parent volunteers who helped us pull it off, each of those not-quite-seven-minute stretches went by in a blur. So we might be tempted, doing it again, to change the scale and make each time clap last longer, not in what it represents but in how long it takes in the present. Of course, then we might lose people in the long stretches with not much happening. Trade-offs. Probably we’d let the kids decide.

For sure, the value was not so much in the observed performance, but in the experience from the inside–all the preparation, and that immediate sense of taking part in something huge.

Lucky-and-a-half, both grown-ups and students, we felt like explorers ourselves, opening up new knowledge, sharing that with our families and with each other, imagining eyes focused on new horizons.

 

A Reunion of Cousins: Out of Africa

We came to New England from many places, by many routes, for many reasons.

No humans lived in this part of North America until after the late glacial maximum, what we call the Ice Age. Anthropologists think that as soon as tundra developed in isolated spots, replacing ice and bare rock, small bands of humans moved in, roughly 12,000 to 9,000 years ago.

That’s an eyeblink in geological time. No matter what famous names we might cite as forefathers or foremothers, we’re all newcomers.

We’re also all cousins.

The first hunters who entered New England’s gradually recovering ecosystem descended from Native American Indian tribes to the south and west. They walked here, spreading into newly available territories. Compressing the story of thousands of years before that, we can say that their ancestors had come from Africa, by way of Asia.

The Pilgrims and Puritans of early colonial Massachusetts, and all the other groups who came from various parts of Europe, are also not-so-distant descendants of people–in fact, one specific man about 60,000 years ago–in Africa. They arrived in Europe by way of the Middle East and the Mediterranean, or more often by way of Asia. They came to North America much later, by boat, and later by airplane.

African slaves came from Africa more directly, and earlier than most European Americans, transported by boats and brutal force.

Still more recent immigrants from Asia and Latin America and Asia and Africa came to North America and New England by choice, although often out of desperation, as political or economic refugees.

All of us, reunited cousins from all over the world, belong to a very young species that emerged only 200,000 years or so ago. Furthermore, those of us who call ourselves European Americans, Asian Americans, Native American Indians, or Latin Americans all descend from a tiny handful of people who left the African continent about 50,000 years ago, whose descendants spread across the world.

Most modern Africans are descended from the ones who stayed in Africa. They show much greater genetic diversity, not having passed through that tiny genetic gauntlet of the small group who left Africa and survived. But all of us, everywhere in the world, descend from that one man long ago. We’re cousins.

How do scientists know all this? How did I learn it, and how did my classes come to learn it?

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be alive and interested in our species and how it came to be. Like toddlers who’ve just learned to walk (or talk), full of the enthusiasm of new powers of inquiry, scientists are busily synthesizing the discoveries of multiple fields, including physical anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, and genetics. In the process they’re coming up with new answers to the questions, ‟How did we get here?” and ‟Who are we?”

Journey of Man videoSpencer Wells, an American geneticist, helped some of this knowledge reach ordinary people like me, by writing a book meant for us, and at the same time working with a British filmmaker to create a video. There’s some pretty complex science in the video, particularly the sections about genetics. I read and reread the book, and some other books, in order to understand it more fully. Still, when I watched the video (and rewatched, and rewatched again) I thought, ‟What else could matter more than this, for 11 and 12 year old students who are trying to understand themselves and the world?”

Knowing the ambition and eagerness of my students, I predicted accurately that they would become deeply engaged in the video, and be able to understand large parts of it–so long as I prepared adequately. I got to know the video very well myself, and thought carefully about how to divide it into digestible portions of no more than 20 minutes or so.

Some bits we watched more than once. We talked about it all a lot, asking questions and helping each other understand, never rushing. The book’s photographic portraits of people from all over the world helped us have a sense of real people behind the science.

Journey of Man portraits 2 edited

From the portraits section of The Journey of Man, these are people from Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, north central Mexico, Poland, New Mexico, Tanzania, Kenya, and Japan

We also did a lot in class, hands-on, to make it as real as possible for all of us.

For example, one year we made big brown paper continents to spread out on the Common Room floor. With the help of maps in the book, we modeled the migrations of modern humans, complete with colorful party streamers labeled with the designations for the Y chromosome mutations that let geneticists do all this tracking. I will never forget hearing 12-year-olds talk knowledgeably and confidently about those mutation numbers, having mastered them more thoroughly than I had myself.

across the continents time clapWhen Spencer Wells visited rock paintings in Australia, we turned one of our whiteboards into the wall of a cave, covered with symbols of our own identities.

class photos archaeology0001Another year, the class was particularly interested in a section of the video based on Spencer Wells’s visit with the reindeer-herding Chukchi, a people in far northeastern Asia. In the video, Wells sits by a fire, chews on reindeer meat, sleeps in a yaranga through a night when the temperature dips far below zero—all in an effort to help us imagine what it took, or still takes, to live in the tundra.

chukchi family edited

Here, as throughout the video, Wells expresses his respect for the resourcefulness, resilience, and skill humans have shown in the course of settling the globe. We decided to enter that more deeply by doing additional research about the Chukchi, and writing and illustrating our own picture book about them.

VOM chukchi cover crop  VOM chukchi picture book yaranga without textVOM chukchi picture book yaranga text onlyVOM chukchi shamanism

Incredible Human JourneyIn more recent years, we’ve used a BBC video series, The Incredible Human Journey, which follows Alice Roberts, a British medical doctor, anatomist, and anthropologist, as she travels from continent to continent searching for evidence and meeting with scientists from many disciplines, to understand the history of our own species, modern humans.

human journey trackersShe goes stalking with highly skilled San trackers in Namibia, and measures their body temperature as they run for hours in pursuit. She watches Lapp women use sinew to sew clothing from furs, an ancient skill essential for life outside the tropics. She works with Chinese experimental archaeoligists trying out possible early methods for making clay pots.

human journey bamboo raftShe crosses from one Indonesian island to another on a bamboo raft built entirely with technology that would have been available to ancient people.  She considers the evidence of ancient human occupation on an island off California that could only have been reached by boat, providing support for the theory that many of the earliest North Americans paddled here, around the coastline.

It’s a five hour series. Each time I used it with a class I could only show parts. Mostly I used it to support our work on the history of technology–and if you read back through that list I think you’ll see why. Once I’d shown one section, the kids would watch me setting up to show a video and ask hopefully, ‟Is it Alice?”

Alice Roberts now holds a very special appointment at the University of Birmingham, in England, as a professor of Public Engagement in Science. In a recent video interview, she talked about the importance of science to our modern survival as a species, and the importance of scientists reaching out to the general public—as she herself has done. She also writes unusually readable pieces about human evolution for the Guardian, including a fascinating piece about recent evidence that modern Europeans carry traces of Neanderthal DNA.

In The Incredible Human Journey, Alice Roberts talks about ‟bones, stones, and genes”—her way of summarizing the diverse sources of evidence on which she most focuses. Throughout the video, she shares her own point of view as an anatomist and physical anthropologist, speculating, reflecting, celebrating.

At the end of the series, though, Roberts speaks as an ordinary human heart, sharing the sorrow I feel myself, about the terrible calamity of what happened when European Americans traveled to Africa and North and South America. ‟We didn’t recognize each other,” she says, in poignant understatement.

Europeans saw dark skin as a sign of savagery, not as a functional natural sunscreen that pale Europeans suffer without. (But the ancestors of northern Europeans had to lose that melanin protection in order to get enough sunlight for the manufacture of vitamin D, in places where it’s rarely okay to be mostly bare.)

All unaware, we were cousins, which makes the devastating cruelty and loss of life that attended our reunion even more heartbreaking.

Like Alice Roberts, Spencer Wells also hoped that his video would change us, modern humans, by showing us how closely we are all connected. He hoped that it would be illuminating for us to know that we are all Africans, and to know how close we may have come, as a species, to dying out, as other hominid species did.

For both Wells and Roberts, our species’ past is sobering but also inspiring. Exploring their story with kids, I’ve known both emotions.

So I’d like to know: For past students who explored the history of our species with me and with other teachers, how has that touched you? Were we right in thinking that few ways of looking at the world could be more important to share?

And for other adults who’ve been like me, spellbound amateur riders on this pretty amazing scientific train, how has it changed you?