Saturday, September 25, 2010

How We Misunderstand that Vastness of Human History: One Recent Example

In my 5th grade classroom last month, I showed students a 1.7 million year old hand axe that I acquired at an auction many years ago. This tool was made by homo habilis, an ancestor of modern humans. I used this artifact to represent the end point on a timeline we were to construct that morning, a timeline that would illustrate how long humans have lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers. In addition to visually and dramatically representing our long tribal past with a 500-foot piece of yarn stretched across a field, I also wanted to make the point that our modern social studies books ignore the large bulk of human history. I make the case that we ignore the past because: (1) it is hard to fathom big numbers; and (2) beyond stone tools, fire pits, and cave paintings, we tend to think that there is little to impress us about these early humans. Prior to the relatively recent bronze age, there are almost no examples of monumental architecture like the Egyptian pyramids to attract the attention of scholars and tourists. Many people think the pyramids are 'old', but on our 500-foot timeline, in which one yard equaled about 10,000 years, the pyramids were only 18 inches from the present. The voyage of the Mayflower was less than two inches away. At a full yard away from the present moment, we already have entered into the vast era of human prehistory during which time we lived as nomadic, tribal, hunters and gatherers. The timeline that my 26 students and I excitedly stretched across Mariposa Elementary School's vast grass field used up an entire 170 yards of bright red yarn. At one far end was our beautiful stone tool, while at the other was the present moment. We marked several other key points, including the discovery of fire 800,000 years ago. Then we climbed up the nearby hill and looked down at our creation. The bright yarn was clearly visible. Clustered at one end was the voyage of the Mayflower, the agricultural revolution, and the Egyptian pyramids. They were all within the first yard of the timeline. At the other end, fully 520 feet away across the field, was the stone hand axe of our tool-making ancestors. Everything in between represented thousands of generations of nomadic tribal ancestors. Civilization, including the pyramids of Egypt, just happened 'yesterday' on this timeline.

Ironically, a reporter and photographer from a local newspaper were at our school the day we made our timeline and they photo-graphed our class at work. When the article came out, and a photo was published on the website, I was not
surprised that -much like the textbooks I had been lamenting to my students- the local reporter misrepresented and sadly underestimated the vastness of human prehistory that our lesson was striving to reveal. The caption read, "Paul Astin, a teacher at Mariposa Elementary School of Global Education in Agoura Hills joins his students as they create a timeline of events back to the Egyptian Pyramids." Granted, the reported never interviewed me to see what we were doing. I imagine that for most people, any timeline going 'way into the past' probably goes back to the Egyptian Pyramids, right?
A few days later we diagrammed this same timeline, adding the famous Laetoli Footprints of Tanzania, made by another human ancestor, Australopithecus. These very human-looking footprints from 3.75 million years ago extended our timeline backwards in time to well over 1,100 feet in length.

Until we humans can begin to grasp the expanses of time during which our ancestors lived in direct contact with wild nature, sharing rituals of celebration for the earth's cycles of regeneration, creating stories and myths to guide their lives through the terrain of space and mind, until we grasp the relative spans of time and see how recently we emerged from this home in a tribal world, we will continue to struggle with the reality of who we really are.

1 comment:

  1. Very nice. And so many adults would benefit from this exercise too.