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. A graduate of Barnard College, McCarter holds
a doctorate in prehistoric Aegean archaeology from
Brandeis. She 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
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 appears in a current TV ad
campaign for GEICO car insurance, in which a duo of hairy,
heavy-browed men are shown as sensitive sophisticates whose
feelings are hurt by their knuckle-dragging public
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,
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 class
presentation summarizing the 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. Auel; The Inheritors, by William Golding;
Dance of the Tiger: A Novel of the Ice Age, by Bjorn
Kurten; Evolution Man: Or, How I Ate My Father, by
Roy Lewis; Hominids (Neanderthal Parallax), by
Robert J. Sawyer; "Grisly Folk," by H.G. Wells; "Ugly
Little Boy," by Isaac Asimov.
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."
— Susan McCarter, during a class meeting focused
on early-20th-century short stories about Neanderthal.
(Note: Anthropologists and archaeologists pronounce the
word with a "t" sound rather than "th" because the word is
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 of society."
— Rachel Pierson, 18, Baltimore
"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
— Elspeth Berry, 18, Midlothian, Va.