The goal I set forth for myself in creating this Anthropology class was the recreate the joys I felt when I took my adviser’s very first course, Introduction to Anthropology. My professor, Richard, became one of the best teachers I had in my career as a student. Sure, I had other amazing educators in my life, but few were able to fill me with the desire to move outside of my comfort zone and trek to the Brazilian Amazon and then spend a year attending a university in Rio. This first class that I took from him became the basis for how I decided to organize my course.
The first unit I covered after the introductory section was Bio – Physical Anthropology. In my estimation, covering concepts of human relatives and the origins of modern humans is an effective way of scaffolding the content as we move forward. The goal is to create a better sense of humanity’s connectedness to the world as a whole. Students can recognize that Homo sapiens are not alone across the globe, but rather than we are closely related to all primates, connected through a common ancestor.
For the fist full week of the course, we delved into Anthropological Ethics developed and adopted by the American Anthropological Association, considering how they varied from the previous set of guidelines and debated whether they are superior or inferior. The following day we discussed evolution as a theoretical framework to help us as we moved into primate evolution. We spent a full day discussing the extinction of the dinosaurs and the slow development of organisms into early mammals and then further into prosimian – like animals. This led us to the beginning of our first research project. But first, my students needed a basis for understanding the basics of primate morphology and behavior, as well as the basics of variation in the primate world.
Our first major assignment in the course, a short essay on the Field of Primatology set up the specific learning goals I designed for the class after our week long discussion. The parameters were very simple:
- Students should define Primatology as a field of study. What do Primatologists study? What are various research projects may they undertake? Who employs them?
- Students should discuss primate evolution. What are the first examples of early primates? What geologic, climatic, and competitive factors created the populations that now exist? How have primates changed over time, which traits appear to have been the most advantageous? What reasons may have led these traits to become so effective in primate evolution?
- Students should explain the key physiological traits and tendencies that all primates share. How is primate morphology different from other mammals? How do primates interact with their environments? How is parenting behavior different in primates as compared to other mammals? What role does gregariousness play in primate behavior? How does brain size compare with other mammals?
- Students should discuss the taxonomies of non – human primates across the planet today. How are prosimians, monkeys, and apes different from one another? What variations exist between old world and new world monkeys?
After writing the essay, students were able to demonstrate their basic understanding both Primatology and variations between non – human primates, the concept upon which I wanted to build for the Primate Research Project. My goal was for students to be able to give simple and straightforward examples of variations between higher order primates, specifically monkeys and apes. I designed the project to allow each student the chance to research a single primate and then to come into the class to discuss that primate with several others. I gave each of them a week to prepare and gave them specific criteria to discuss, including:
- Morphology: This would include size, color patterns, hair, tail length, and the like.
- Environment & Range: This simply entails where the species can be found and how large its territory may be.
- Social Organization & Communication: This includes the role of males and females in group politics, how the group (or individual in a few cases) organizes itself, and how they communicate in the wild.
- Parenting Behavior: This requires students to explain whether males or females are involved in parenting, how long children stay with parents, and how protective parents are.
- Conservation Efforts: Not all students had to delve into this concept, as many species are not threatened; but for those that are, students must discuss organization and government activities aimed at preserving populations.
I assigned all students to categories, but generally I allowed them the opportunity to choose the species they preferred to research. The only ones I chose species for were those who had apes; I decided this was simply easier because of the small overall selection available. Ultimately, we came to the following species:
New World Monkeys
- Golden Lion Tamarin
- Red Howler Monkey
- Owl Monkey
- Squirrel Monkey
Old World Monkeys
- Red Colobus Monkey
- Golden Snub – Nosed Monkey
- Gelada Baboon
- Grey Langur
- Patas Monkey
- Pigtail Macaque
- White – Cheeked Gibbon
The day the research was due, students came in and used graphic organizers to record the basic information required from five different individuals. They had to have two examples from each of the three categories; the primate they researched counted as one. I chose a block day for this project so that my students could have a full hour and a half to go around, share, and discuss their research with one another. I helped to facilitate by directing students looking for a person to share their information with as they finished up with others. What I had expected was individuals talking to one another face to face. What actually happened was small groups of four to six sitting around and sharing their research one by one in a circle, fulfilling everyone’s requirements one by one. Either way, this wound up being an incredibly effective lesson.
The following class day, students came in with their graphic organizers and began going through them attempting to find similarities and differences between species and between classes of primates. The extended goal was to get students to be able to cite specific variations between new and old world monkeys and between monkeys and apes. Concepts they discovered through this portion of the assignment was that parental behavior appeared to vary between old and new world monkeys; that new world monkeys were more likely to have prehensile tails, while it is non – existent in old world monkeys; that new world monkeys are almost exclusively arboreal, while old world monkeys vary much more between arboreal and terrestrial; and finally that the Great Apes are gregarious…except for Orangutans. This one variation led to much debate and discussion as to why this would be the case and what factors would have led to this.
As that discussion carried on in separate groups around the room, I stood in the back and appreciated how brilliant the students I have truly are.