Teaching Preschoolers about Anthropology

After reading a few of Matt Thompson‘s “Illustrated Man” posts over at Savage Minds, I decided to search for children’s books that go beyond the ubiquitous kiddie-adventure-with-moralistic-underpinnings storylines.  Now, those books aren’t all bad.  My 2-year-old daughter and I both really like the Adventures of Patrick Brown book series, which is lushly illustrated in an almost graphic novel style and which employs a good level of vocabulary that doesn’t talk down to kids whose language skills are increasing at an astounding pace.  But my ultimate goal was to find books related to my life-long interests – archaeology and biological anthropology – that I could share with my daughter.  More importantly, I wanted to find books that won’t make me pull my hair out when I inevitably have to read them over and over and over again.

I discovered, though, that it’s surprisingly difficult to find books geared towards the preschooler set that aren’t board books with too little dialogue (half of the words in Fifteen Animals are “Bob”) or lightweight stories about everyday activities that reinforce old gender norms (I’m looking at you, Berenstain Bears).  Most of the books that interested me and that tried to communicate a small part of what I do for a living seemed to be written for kids in late elementary school.  Fortunately, I managed to stumble upon a couple books that captivate the attention of a squirmy toddler and her academically-inclined mother.


Archaeologists Dig for CluesAmazon.com lists over 1,100 results for children’s books about archaeology.  It’s pretty daunting, and I ended up getting some duds.  The best one by far – which I highly recommend – is Archaeologists Dig for Clues by Kate Duke.  The format has some graphic novel qualities to it, with little dialogue bubbles in addition to the text and side-bar explanations, which cover everything from water screening to ceramic typology.  The characters are quite diverse in their gender, age, and race.  Although the story – a day in the life of a field archaeologist – condenses basically an entire field and lab season into one day, the portrayal of the field archaeologist, the explanations about the tasks she undertakes, and the demonstration of what specialists do at the lab are all quite good.

Biological Anthropology

The WatcherA recent New York Times Sunday book review profiled two works about the life of Jane Goodall:  The Watcher and Me, Jane.  One of my friends sent a copy of each for my daughter’s birthday.  Jeanette Winter’s The Watcher is definitely the better book – with more words and better vocabulary, the story introduces children to some basic concepts in primatology and anthropology. Winter’s illustrations can be used to get children involved in watching too: Jane doesn’t immediately see the chimps, who are hiding in the trees, and it’s fun to ask my daughter to point them out and count them.  This book also deals with events like Goodall’s bout of malaria and the progressive endangerment of chimpanzees because of poaching and deforestation, all while remaining approachable by kids. One of the things I dislike about Patrick McDonnell’s Me, Jane (other than the title, which irrationally annoys me) is that he jumps from little Jane dreaming about chimps to Goodall in the field, skipping the trouble, hardships, and work she had to put in to get from interested kid to adult researcher.  Anthropology isn’t as simple as digging a hole in your backyard or looking at an ape through a zoo window for a few minutes, and The Watcher manages to get this point across quite well. It’s a surprisingly thorough (for a kids’ book) story of Jane Goodall’s life written in a way that challenges younger readers but at the same time doesn’t talk down to them.  I definitely recommend The Watcher, but I’d give Me, Jane a pass.

Another good place to look for anthropology books may be your local science or art museum.  My colleagues at the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma, for example, created an illustrated pamphlet for children that explains what bioarchaeologists do (and helped me learn the Italian version of various bioarchaeological terms).  The cartoonish dead Romans are adorable, even though they’re not a great match for the higher-level text that discusses such heady topics as palaeopathology.  Unfortunately, you can’t all rush out and buy this, but I suspect there are similar English-language pamphlets floating around somewhere.  If not, well, I guess my next project will be writing a children’s book on bioarchaeology!  (Anyone want to illustrate it?)

Kristina Killgrove is a bioarchaeologist who blogs regularly at Powered by Osteons and tweets as @BoneGirlPhD.

What Distance Taught Me in Bioarchaeology

When the topic of distance was proposed for blog posts in archaeology, my first thought was not distance as a spatial measure in ancient cultures, or distance in time between the archaeologist and the material under investigation. I thought of the distance of both theory and space between the various academic programs I have attended. The biological side of Bioarchaeology has been treated in a manner similar to that of anatomy, a hard science with a focus on hands-on lab work and the determination of fact. The archaeology component of bioarchaeology, like all things in anthropology, requires interpretation. How we make this interpretation and how to determine the demographic characteristics of the people we study is highly dependent upon the methods we employ and the theories that guide us.

Over my academic career I have taken a multitude of courses in archaeology and human osteology in three different countries. Not only has this variation expanded my background in the field, it has also shown me the diversity within it. What I have learned from the diversity of bioarchaeology classes I have taken is that it is not a discipline built on fact… unless truth varies by country. From my initial training in New York, to my fieldwork in Poland, then my masters in the United Kingdom, and now back to working on my PhD in Michigan I have learned a valuable lesson about the distance between theories and methods.

US - UK blended flasg
Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/ commons/9/9a/US-UK-blend.png

My primary osteological training came from SUNY Geneseo, a small state school in Upstate New York, and my first fieldwork in bioarchaeology was in Poland (although it was taught by US graduate students). In bioarchaeology, analysis is conducted through the use of standards. These standards have been well defined, and any student who’s taken bioarchaeology knows that when you want to know something about a skeleton you check your Buikstra and Ubelaker’s Standards (1994) or Bass’s  Human Osteology (1995) or White’s Bone Manual (2005). These were my sacred books, they were my guide to reconstructing populations in the past, and they were the only way I knew how.

Then, in 2009, I moved to Scotland and enrolled in the University of Edinburgh to obtain my MSc in Human Osteoarchaeology. Given my prior experience, I wasn’t too worried about the coursework. The overall skeletal identification was the same, excluding the slight shifts in pronunciation. It was when we began learning about the methods for determining demographic characteristics that I began to see that what I had assumed were universal standards were actually a selection of methods from a wide range of possibilities. It was as if I had been wearing blinders for the past five years. I learned new methods for aging, since the emphasis was on dentition rather than other indicators, and a different way of cataloging remains. The most salient moment was when I was working on an independent volunteer project for the city of Edinburgh. I needed to classify the preservation. Instead of using my Buikstra and Ubelaker Standards (1994), whose method for classifying preservation relies on a study and method done on animal bone, I used the method in the UK standards by Brickley and McKinley (2004). The UK standards for classifying taphonomy were based on human remains and were easier to apply than the US standards. I had never considered preservation to be important to bioarchaeological reports, because the method for classifying it seemed too clumsy to be applicable, but with this new method for preservation analysis I now found it an important part of my assessment.

The archaeological world is one of interpretation. This applies to all aspects of archaeology, including bioarchaeology. As archaeologists, we can benefit from recognizing the diversity of approaches that are out there, as well as understanding their advantages and disadvantages. With the introduction of new technology and new perspectives we need to be open to them.

Had I not gone to the UK for school I wouldn’t have had this lesson so strongly demonstrated. Now, my methodological tool kit includes a combination of methods from a variety of countries. I think its important that we grow beyond the theories and methods we are first taught. I don’t think everyone needs to travel across a great distance to make this realization. With the rise of the digital resources (and blogs such as this one) there is increased communication between countries.

Through increased international collaboration we can bridge this distance. With an increasingly digital world, we can directly connect to other nations, we can share new methods and techniques, and we don’t have to be limited by distance.