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Learning How to Survive the Ice Age, Hands-On


John J. Shea is a paleoanthropologist — he studies human origins through archaeology, tapping into our mysterious, prehistoric past.

No stranger to fieldwork, Shea’s traversed the Horn of Africa and the Middle East to investigate the origin of Homo sapiens, the extinction of the Neanderthals and the development of projectile weapons.

But for 23 years, Professor Shea has returned from his worldwide research for a different type of fieldwork – teaching anthropology students at Stony Brook University his favorite course, Primitive Technology.

“Prim Tech,” as Shea and his students affectionately dub the class, teaches about the solutions to problems that got our ancestors through the Ice Age, such as how to make and use fire and stone tools, and how to communicate with symbols.

But rather than have his students just read books and research papers, Shea takes a uniquely practical approach. Students study ancestral technology, then use their wits and their own hands to create and test that technology in the natural world.

“This is not the typical kind of curriculum you find at a university,” said Shea. “There’s only one other college that I know of offering a class like this in the United States.”

It’s an approach that his students appreciate.

“This class is awesome. In other classes, you may learn about this technology, but you don’t get to use it,” said Maggie Myers, a senior anthropology major. “Here, you get a much deeper understanding of what people were really doing, and experience the pros and cons of the technology yourself.”

The students appreciate Shea, too.

“Dr. Shea is very respected in his field. It’s nice to learn from someone with that kind of reputation,” said Zach McKeeby, senior anthropology major. “Not only that, he has passion for his students. It’s been really good.”

But it’s Shea’s appreciation for the outdoors that drives his teaching.

“When I take the students into the woods at the beginning of the class, they see paths, trees and bushes,” said Shea. “But at the end of the semester, they can see the trails deer left in the leaves, what kind of wood is good for fire or for making buildings, and which plants are edible or not.”

“They see with a different set of eyes at the end of the semester. That, to me, is the most gratifying experience as an educator. I’ve changed the way they see the world.”

— Brian Smith

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