Professor Clubs Caveman Myths

From USA Today: 

The guys in ABC’s Cavemen look the part from the neck up, but that’s where their similarity to Neanderthals ends, and that’s too bad, says a professor who has spent almost 20 years teaching students about the real thing.

“The commercials were clever, but the sitcom is just a tremendously missed opportunity,” says John Barthelme, a professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. “They’re just young guys with hair that talk about chicks.”

Barthelme’s course, “The Neanderthals: Fact, Fiction and Fantasy,” explores the popular misconceptions about these pre-humans that have been perpetuated through literature, movies and now television.

To debunk some of the myths, students read a number of novels, including William Golding’s The Inheritors and Jean M. Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear, and watch such movies as Iceman, Caveman and Encino Man.

Then they learn how popular culture got it all wrong.

Neanderthals are “more sophisticated than we give them credit for,” says Lindsey Taylor, a senior anthropology major who took the class last year.

The real Neanderthals were very intelligent “evolutionary cousins” to humans who lived between 240,000 and 28,000 years ago, says Barthelme. They stood upright, not hunched over. And although they lived in caves in parts of Europe, they also built huts with mammoth bones and furs in other areas.

They also made exquisite stone tools, says Barthelme, who learned how to replicate these ancient artifacts through his archaeological studies in Kenya. He teaches the class how to make cutting implements out of obsidian or chert, an extremely dense quartz. Barthelme says students are always amazed by how sharp the tools are.

This month, a dead deer will hang from the ceiling of a carwash on the campus, and Barthelme’s students, handmade stone tools ready to go, will cut the carcass for meat.

This has been the culminating assignment of his course since he started teaching it almost 20 years ago. (In other years he also has used sheep, chickens and rabbits.)

After the students finish their work, they enjoy grilled venison in one of the dining halls on campus — but they have to bring their stone tools to cut their dinner.

Barthelme says he doesn’t require any of the students to eat the meat or even to dress the carcass if they don’t want to, but everyone has to make the tools.

The final assignment for the course? To write a creative, entertaining, scientifically accurate movie script about Neanderthals. Barthelme says he has received a lot of good work over the years — much better than Cavemen.

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