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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University October 17, 2005 | Vol. 35 No. 7
Course Catalog
Out of the Cave: Prehistory in Fact and Fiction

Susan Foster McCarter's freshman course, offered in Near Eastern Studies, examines Stone Age man as seen through literature, pop culture and archaeology.

By Amy Cowles

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 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 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 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, 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 German.)

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 think."
— Elspeth Berry, 18, Midlothian, Va.


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