With expert movement, chemistry major Storm Nylen wove three long, thin strands of cotton together to form a braid. Stationed at a counter in the USC Archaeology Research Center laboratory, she concentrated on her work, surrounded by classmates who were equally engrossed in the task of braiding.
Nylen and her peers, who were making wicks for ceramic oil lamps, hoped their carefully constructed cords would be able to light their way in a darkened room after the sun went down.
The exercise was an assignment for the First-Year Investigations (FYI) seminar “Human Survival: Learning From the Past,” in which students grasped what it took to subsist in the Neolithic period approximately 8,000 years ago.
Way back then, tools were made from stone and obsidian, and most of a person’s energy was dedicated to fulfilling the needs of everyday life — seeking food, shelter and clothing.
The bottom line: How did people survive before electric light and In-N-Out Burger?
Freshmen who took the FYI course found out by learning to make fire, smelt copper, grind grain and create mud bricks, among other activities. Of making mud bricks, the syllabus warned: “You will get wet, dirty and generally mucky. For those of you with manicures, kiss them goodbye.”
In each two-unit, credit/no credit course, freshmen explored Los Angeles literature, Renaissance fashion, evolutional physiology and medicine in small classroom settings taught by eminent faculty.
“Human Survival” is popular with students, and its creative premise caught the attention of LA Weekly, which named the seminar among the “Best of LA Classes” in 2012. The distinction recognized the city’s classes that teach life lessons transcending their specific subject matter in imaginative and innovative ways. The FYI course “The Art of Political Bargaining,” taught by Jeb Barnes, associate professor of political science, was also selected among the best by LA Weekly editors.
Lynn Swartz Dodd, lecturer in religion and curator of USC’s Archaeology Research Center, which is housed in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, developed and led the course. In “Human Survival,” students engaged in activities they often take for granted in their daily lives.
“They come to appreciate the innovation of the people who lived long ago,” she said.
Putting a man on the moon is one thing, but the technological advancements that simplify what we do each day — turning on a faucet for water or grabbing dinner from the refrigerator — are equally remarkable, Dodd said. People in the Neolithic period hunted and fished for food. They set bits of rock into wooden handles to create tools like sickles that were used to harvest grain, which they would grind for bread and brew into beer.
“When we wake up, we have food at the ready,” she said. “We flip on a light and suddenly we can see; it doesn’t matter what time of day or night it is. We have a fair distance between us and the original sources of energy and food.
“After someone has spent a couple of hours trying to make cheese, their next cheeseburger is eaten with a greater sense of appreciation,” she added with a smile.
Students in her course do, in fact, make cheese, a food staple of the Neolithic period, or New Stone age, that could be stored for future consumption. Her students took the painstaking steps of preparing food the way it was done thousands of years ago.
Divided into teams, each group was given a leg of lamb, a squash and a bowl of grain, then asked to select time-appropriate tools — shards of obsidian for slicing meat or rocks for grinding grain into flour — and turned each item into edible ingredients for cooking. Each team competed to see who could produce the most usable food.
“We cut up entire raw legs of lamb using obsidian chunks, which was difficult, but interesting,” said Wolfgang Paulson, whose major is undecided. “It was very messy.”
Students could also “steal” food from one another, which Dodd called “strategic resource acquisition.” After all, ancient people had to improvise to ensure that they had a meal in their belly each day.
The interdisciplinary course combined elements of art history, microbiology, history, chemistry and material science. Students worked with Karen Koblitz, senior lecturer in ceramics at the USC Roski School of Fine Arts, and fine arts and archaeology student Tim Linden to make pottery, including trays to toast grain over a fire, jars for brewing beer, decorative figurines and oil lamps for a light source — the last for which Nylen and her classmates were preparing wicks.
Nylen said learning to survive as her Neolithic ancestors did by replicating their experiences offered a deeper insight into the past.
“You can read about artifacts and the ways people function all you want,” she said, “but you can’t appreciate, for instance, how difficult it is to ground a reasonable amount of flour until you try and do it yourself.”
As for the wick she wove, Nylen dipped her homespun creation into a lamp she had filled with olive oil, then let the wick soak for a few minutes. She lit the wick.
Success! A clear, bright flame appeared.
“The best part of this day was just experiencing this very ancient technology and seeing how easy and effective it is to use,” Nylen wrote on the class blog.