Out of the Cave: Prehistory in Fact and Fiction
The course: Out of the Cave: Prehistory in Fact and Fiction. 3 credits. Freshmen only. Offered by the Department of Near Eastern Studies in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.
The instructor: Susan Foster McCarter, adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. She's a graduate of Barnard College, and holds a doctorate in prehistoric Aegean archaeology from Brandeis. McCarter is a prehistorian with more than 25 years of experience teaching in Europe, Asia and the United States. She has excavated in Cyprus and Syria; has headed international academic organizations including The American Schools of Oriental Research and The Society of Architectural Historians; and has won national awards for the teaching videos she has produced. McCarter has also been named a "superstar teacher" by the Teaching Company, which produces educational DVDs and CDs featuring renowned professors. McCarter is currently writing an overview of the Neolithic period, to be published by Routledge Press in 2006.
Meeting time: 2 to 3:50 p.m. on Thursdays, fall 2005
Syllabus: This course compares some of the depictions of Stone Age man in literature and pop culture with what archaeologists tell us about life in the Paleolithic world. Books, movies and television typically portray pre-historic people as ignorant savages, furthering the notion of the ludicrous and childish "caveman." To date, one of the most sensitive, if sarcastic, mass media renderings of so-called cavemen appeared in a current TV ad campaign for GEICO car insurance, where a pair of hairy, heavy-browed men are shown as sensitive sophisticates whose feelings are hurt by their knuckle-dragging public image. When writing about the Stone Age, modern authors use cavemen as metaphors for society's deepest prejudices and fears — a situation that is particularly apparent in stories dealing with contact between our closest ancestors, the Neanderthals, and ourselves. In reality, the Stone Age is the time during which human culture was born, McCarter says. Prehistory began about 2.5 million years ago and ends with the invention of writing 5,500 years ago in western Asia. Between 200,000 and 30,000 years ago, during the Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods, humans evolved morphologically to our current state, began making tools, invented art and music, and became superb hunters and developed the foundations for modern social, political, and religious systems.
Course work: Sixty-five percent of a student's grade is determined by a 15-page term paper exploring the popular depictions of the Stone Age. Students choose a relevant work and discuss its scientific accuracy as well as its underlying societal messages. A 20-minute, in-class presentation summarizing the term paper's main points counts for another 10 percent of the final grade. The remaining 25 percent is based on class participation.
Required reading: Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M.
Overheard in class: "Not a single one of these
stories is actually about Neanderthal. Neanderthal was used
as a mirror for social conditions of the 20th century, to
explore things that were bothering an author or the culture
that the author came from."
Students say: Students say: "I've seen Neanderthals
and early humans in art, books, movies and museums before,
but I've never really thought much about them or how
accurately they were being portrayed. The early readings
where we learned the actual facts about the
Neanderthals could get a bit boring, but I absorbed a lot
of information. The readings we are doing now, even the
stories that would normally be quite dull, are highly
amusing. It's interesting to see how people have warped
information about Neanderthals to fit their own perceptions
"I decided to take Out of the Cave because, first of all, I
knew very little about prehistory in general. I also
thought that I should try out an all-freshmen seminar just
for the experience. I love literature, so being able to
read fiction books and compare them with scientific
fact is a great exercise for me! Overall, a great class, I
Members of the media interested in writing about this class should contact Amy Cowles at 443-287-9960. A high resolution digital photo of McCarter is available for downloading at tinyurl.com/bbyqd.
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