Pretend-Excavating Australopithecus afarensis, Part 2

February 10th, 2016

A little while ago, I received a present that I secretly wanted: an excavation and model kit of Australopithecus afarensis. After a short break to rest the fingers, the next field season continued the amazing discoveries of the first. One surprise from last time was the existence of a hair in the gypsum matrix. Further excavation revealed more hair in separate locations.

{ Exposed hair is circled for your convenience. }

{ Exposed hair is circled for your convenience. }



Could this be one giant hair? Interested scholars quickly formed into single-hair and multi-hair camps with no room for a middle ground. Revealing more and more of the hair(s) showed that it led into one of the foot impressions that was being preserved. With a heavy heart, I broke through the impression to see where the hair went. The single-hair camp won out in the end as it became evident that we are dealing with one rather long piece.


{ Click to enlarge to view hair detail. }


{ Click to enlarge to view hair detail. }

From there the project got a bit old so excavation proceeded more quickly. While the documentation showed that the skull had to be assembled from three pieces, it was found whole. While convenient, the skull did have to be partially separated into its constituent parts in order fit it to the vertebral column.


A wash in the sink removed the bulk of the gypsum matrix from the skeletal remains. The parts easily fit together into a complete skeleton with little effort. Pegs on the feet went into the display stand. (I tossed the hair: it’s gross). One surprise was that the shoulder and hip joints were rotatable and the skull was very possible due to the ball joint.

{ A. afarensis along with some other prized possessions. }

{ A. afarensis along with some other prized possessions. }

As you can tell, this model kit was a lot of fun to excavate and produced a good looking model for the price. I wouldn’t be opposed to checking out more of the Geoworld line, though I may speed up the excavation in the future.

A Little More Keeley: Comic Hero Extraordinaire!

January 19th, 2016

My comic got a little attention this break as I finished two pages, bringing the total to 10 (out of 20 for this issue). Pages 7-10 are new to the web. To be continued spring break, perhaps?

Pretend-Excavating Australopithecus afarensis, Part 1

January 15th, 2016

As December rolled around, I found myself on Amazon browsing for good gifts. I settled on a large Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton for my brother (which looks amazing) and was ready to shut the browser window, when Amazon dangled another model in front of my eyes: an Australopithecus afarensis (e.g. Lucy) model! I had already gotten myself something so I begrudgingly surfed away without buying it. As luck and a great significant other would have it, I got one for Christmas even though I told no one about it! It has been a long time since I was on an archaeological dig, so I wanted to do this block of plastic bones justice. First, the unboxing:


The model is branded “Cave Girl” since it is ostensibly a female afarensis, not because the toy was made for girls. In fact, as Megan McCullen pointed out, the metadata for this model states that it was intended for boys. Another bit of marketing sexism: there is a “Cave Man” model, of a Neanderthal. “Girl” versus “Man,” :/.


{ Brochure of the different models. The sea, flying, and ice age sets are especially neat. }

In any case, the cover is a flap that opens to reveal the actual block of stuff that encloses the model pieces, as well as three plastic tools.


The tools are sturdy, much hardier than what comes with a Halloween pumpkin carving kit. There is a hammer/scraper, chisel, and brush. The brief instructions state that the hammer and chisel are the way to go, but I found the scraper to be much more accurate and effective at removing the gypsum matrix. As a good archaeologist would do, I started at the surface and slowly dug away as evenly as possible.


{ The newspaper was very worth it. Dust got everywhere, including my hands and phone. }

A few pieces appear! The light brown piece was puzzling until I realized that it was the display stand, upside-down. An excellent find, since the stand should have lots to say about the bipedalism of this species.



A hand emerges, and to the right of it, another plastic bone and a hair! Maybe we can DNA test the hair and do an isotope study of the keratin for any dietary clues.


The display stand has text imprinted on it. Early language?!


Taking the stand away reveals an impression of an impression of the feet. They may be worth preserving so I started excavating around them.


As I wrap up after around three hours (I went slow over two days), a lot of skeletal elements can be identified. All limbs are visible, as well as the pelvis, sacrum, and ribcage. I am definitely getting my money’s worth out of this kit. So far, I highly recommend getting one for yourself or the young person in your life. Who knows what future excavating will uncover!

Anthropomotron 2.1.1 is Out!

October 29th, 2015

My now-yearly update to Anthropomotron should be rolling out on iOS, Android, and this website today! I spent a few weeks here and there getting the app updated for iOS9. While I was staring at the code, I added two new sources of stature estimation formulae from adult limb bone length. One, Sjøvold (1990), is one of my personal favorite sets of formulae as it was the first to use a global sample (making them ‘race-less’) and also use a form of the reduced major axis type of regression, which is less biased at the extremes compared to linear regression. Someone’s attempt to bring both of these innovations back to stature estimation a few years ago went down in flames, but we’ll always have Sjøvold.

Sjøvold, T. (1990). Estimation of stature from long bones utilizing the line of organic correlation. Human Evolution, 5(5), 431-447.

Skeletal Voltron: An Activity to Teach Introductory Human Osteology

August 12th, 2015

Possibly, Skeletal Voltron was the highlight of my summer class. I had thought of it back when I first heard that I could be teaching physical anthropology back in January, though it did not come to pass until the summer session.

The goal of Skeletal Voltron is to combine many ideas about teaching anthropology to liven up a topic that can be dry*. Kristina Killgrove (2014) has students draw or mold bones out of clay in order to experience their morphology. Megan McCullen (2010) has her students do a class-wide random mating event to learn the forces of evolution. From great ideas such as these, I thought it would be fun for the whole class to get together and embody a giant human skeleton outside. Each student would be in charge of bone, or part of the skeleton. While I had thought of having the students lay down to form the skeleton, I settled on having each student make a small poster of their assigned bone, held aloft by a stick like a picket sign so that it is visible. Everyone will then present their part and some memorized facts to the rest of the class. Here is what I did with the class to make Skeletal Voltron happen at its inaugural outing.


I went shopping for some crafting materials. Big Lots and dollar stores had all of the following for good prices**:

  • 35 14 x 22″ white poster boards: $7
  • 50 sticks (irregular bamboo sticks for gardening): $9
  • 3 sets of markers: $6
  • 1 roll of packing tape: $2

I asked the class to bring their own markers and other art supplies. Some brought extensive collections of markers to share, being non-traditional students with young children.

I also took some time to divide up the skeleton into as many parts as there are students in my class, 28. Some students were responsible for several bones, such as each half of the pelvis. With more students, I could break up each half of the pelvis into two or three parts for students to represent. There are many parts of the skeleton that could be consolidated or expanded to fit the size of the class.

The parts were further organized into sets of four related regions, to fit the teams I had made early in the semester. I wrote each set of four parts on a notecard, producing as many notecards as there were teams (seven). For example, these were the parts grouped for each team:

Cervical vertebrae
Thoracic vertebrae

Left femur
Right femur
Left tibia, fibula, and foot
Right tibia, fibula, and foot

Left humerus
Right humerus
Left radius, ulna, and hand
Right radius, ulna, and hand

Left pelvis (ilium, ischium, and pubis)
Right pelvis (ilium, ischium, and pubis)
Lumbar vertebrae
Sacrum and coccyx

Left true ribs
Right true ribs
Left false ribs
Right false ribs

Left scapula and clavicle
Right scapula and clavicle
Sternal body and xiphoid process

Right patella
Left patella
Hyoid bone
Inner ear bones

The Activity

Just before Skeletal Voltron, I gave my lecture on the human skeleton, moving from the cranium inferiorly to the feet. For each bone or part, I had a slide explaining its function and notable features. One side note: I found that asking for stories about breaking bones kept the class interested during this fact-heavy lecture. Lots of stories were told about clavicles, forearms, and ankles!

To start the activity, I showed the following video to set the mood:

Only the older students were familiar with Voltron. Others related the concept to Power Rangers. I had the class form their teams then asked a representative of each group to come up and pick up a notecard with their four skeletal parts. I explained theft of the activity. It seemed like the class wanted an example, so I sketched a quick mockup of a poster on the white board:

{ Ta-daa. }

{ Ta-daa. }

From there, the students had forty-five minutes to make their own sign based on their skeletal part. Some students kept working right up to the stop time, but I think a half-hour would work as well. I patrolled the class to answer questions and keep people working.

{ Hard at work. }

{ Hard at work. }

When time was up, I had the students all go outside with their creations. Since it was an evening class, it was dusk, but there was ample lighting in our part of campus. I indicated generally where the head and feet of Voltron should be on the ground and asked the class to find their place in the skeleton relative to each other. The completed Voltron in place, I started with the student who made a sign for the skull and asked her to explain the main features of that part. I then went down the skeleton, mimicking the earlier lecture, asking each student to talk a little about the bone they worked on. As the activity wrapped up, I had the class pose with their signs in class:



I heard in the end-of-course comments that the Skeletal Voltron activity was the highlight of the past six weeks. Maybe a third of the students kept their poster-on-a-stick. I had a great time seeing it come to life and I will definitely do it again in future classes.

Update (October 27, 2015)

I have had two more opportunities to do this activity and learned a few valuable lessons to make Skeletal Voltron go as smoothly as possible:

  • 30 minutes is the bare minimum time for devote towards making posters. I had to cut the time available in one of my classes to get caught up with the previous lecture. Some students declared that it was asking a lot to make a poster in a half hour and everyone seemed too rushed.
  • The sticks are actually important! I had not realized that cheap bamboo sticks were a seasonal item in the spring, so by the time my fall classes rolled around, I only had enough sticks for one of my two classes. The sticks were extremely valuable for making the posters visible when standing as a group outside in Voltron formation. The stickless group’s Voltron dissolved as students had to move around to see each other’s posters.


Killgrove, K. (2014, February 21). Hyoidkus – 17 syllables about the hyoid [Weblog post]. Powered By Osteons. Retrieved from

McCullen, M. (2010, September 18). Encouraging college students to mate randomly: teaching population genetics in the classroom [Weblog post]. Great Lakes Ethnohistorian. Retrieved from



*All puns definitely intended.

**The federal tax deduction for teaching supplies unfortunately does not extend to community college instructors. If it did, I would get at least Target-level supplies. Write your legislators!

How I’m Spending My Summer Vacation

July 30th, 2015

When I was making Powerpoint presentations for the summer class, I had to put them together in a hurry. For illustrations, I pulled from the Internet, but I did not like many of the ones that I had to use. Since I have a few weeks before the next class starts, I started making my own illustrations to replace the ones I liked the least. For example, I found this simple diagram showing how genotype relates to phenotype:


{ From }

The issue is that the illustration leaves out a critical part of the cause-and-effect: environmental conditions play a role in phenotype as well. For the lecture, I slapped together a quick edit to show this concept:

Genotype to Phenotype

{ Ta-daa }

Now, with a little more time, I made my own version that is tailored to a physical anthropology class:

Genotype Plus Environment

I used Affinity Designer, a new Mac vector graphics program, to make the illustration. I have used Illustrator before, but vector art is more unfamiliar to me than pixel art. It has been a good learning experience seeing what I can do in Designer!

So far, I have made a few simple illustrations. The genotype plus environment one is the most complex work so far. Drawing the double helix took several hours to get the fake depth right, since it is actually all two dimensional (well, with layers I guess, but not a true three-dimensional structure). The final DNA was the fourth one I made, using various techniques to draw the strands and base pairs to avoid any Escher-esque gaffes. I settled on having each curve (colored light or dark blue) be its own object, pasted end-to-end into a strand. The landscape and the sifaka took less than an hour each.

I have been uploading the illustrations to Wikimedia Commons. I like venues where it is basically impossible to be rejected! Maybe one day I’ll see my own illustration in some other work.

How I Spent My Summer Session

July 26th, 2015

My summer physical anthropology course has ended, so my summer vacation has officially started. I get a few weeks of relatively less work to think about how prior classes turned out and start improving on the next semester’s version. Here are a few quick notes and lessons based on my most recent class.

  • 5 Hour Energy Drink is my hero. I used it for my dissertation defense, knowing that I tap out at around 45 minutes during an oral exam. I still think that my defense was the best presentation I ever gave. Having a half bottle before my class kept me focused for my 4 hour summer lectures.
  • Addressing student concerns reminded me of an article about the two types of favor askers (Burkeman, 2010). While I only ask for something when I am reasonably sure that I will get it (the guesser type), there are also people who ask for favors just to see what he or she could get. That is totally fine, but I have to remember to keep in mind that a favor being asked of me may not be rooted in an actual need.
  • Asking about their favorite part of class, I was gratified to hear that the Skeletal Voltron activity was a hit. One of the full documentaries that I showed, Of Dolls & Murder, also got a few mentions.
  • There was a surprise when I asked students to vote on the most confusing lecture. I expected genetics and evolution to be ranked high, but most votes went to modern primates primate/human evolution. Maybe it was because those were the most recent lectures, or it was the volume of information being presented about unfamiliar topics.
  • One thing I have to work on is my leniency for student excuses for things. I tended to be very allowing in having students turn in assignments way pass the due date or missing class. There may be a personal issue involved as sometimes I feel in hindsight that I care more about late points and unexcused absences than the students care about those penalties themselves! I should keep letting the course rules do their thing in the future instead of relaxing them once the class starts.
  • I had enough extra credit opportunities to move up a full grade. I noticed that the students with the lowest scores did none of them, or did not come close to the full amount. The B to low A students were the ones who did the maximum number of assignments, generally resulting in an A. I had a very skewed distribution of grades due to this trend, with few Bs compared to As and Cs.

The next semester starts in a little under a month! I look forward to a normal semester schedule instead of a hectic summer.



Burkeman, O. (2010, May 7). Are you an asker or a guesser? [Web article]. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Marks, S. (Director). (2012). Of Dolls & Murder [Film].

Summer Nights

June 30th, 2015

I have passed the halfway point of my physical anthropology class, so it is a good time to check in with an update of my experiences!

First, hi class! I inadvertently blasted my site’s address on the projector screen when I was demoing Anthropomotron for my forensic anthropology lecture. This is a publicly-accessible site, of course, but I’ve never known of a student who was reading it while taking my class.

Teaching physical anthropology summer night class has indeed kept me very busy. Just as the class is learning the subject at a rapid pace, I have to keep up with course planning. Each week brings eight hours of class, which translates to around a hundred lecture slides! Using my own online course material as inspiration, I could make a lecture of fifty slides in three days, a pace that fits the schedule. On average, I spend a day making a slide outline of topics that makes sense, a day filling the slides with text, and the last day finding illustrations and videos. By the time I actually give the lecture, I’m usually already far into the next outline.

I do try to add activities to the class. One particular activity that I was looking forward to trying was Skeletal Voltron. I will detail this in its own post, but it involved students going outside to form a giant skeleton on the ground. I also had more typical activities such as discussions of articles. For the next class, I plan of having teams of students make posters about primates to present to each other. At the halfway point, and just after the first midterm, a short team project should keep the energy going.

Actually, I have been surprised by how attentive the class I’ve been. I’ve seen some zoned-out audiences in my time, but as I look out at my class, I see only a few sleepy faces. Especially surprising for a class that ends after 10 PM! I’ve been getting a lot of good questions and comments as well. Working off of what students say has been a fun exercise.

Alright, break is over. Prehistoric primates, australopithecines, Homo, and then it’s time for finals!

Cultural Anthropology Final Exam: ‘Dee-Now-Ment’

June 7th, 2015

And so the course comes to an end. Getting ready for the final, I greatly underestimated the time I needed to make the final exam. The previous exams went relatively smoothly: the first exam had fewer than fifteen questions and the second was mostly done in an hour and a half of nothing-else-to-do. The final was scheduled to be two hours, so I had originally planned a seventy multiple question exam (plus a few short answer). As I wrote the questions, I fell behind schedule and made the test fifty multiple choice questions instead, along with the short answer questions.

The final exam has a different purpose than the previous exams, so I structured it differently. The midterms have the dual role of evaluating students so far and reinforcing the information for further evaluating later. In this situation, mixing up the questions so that the exam jumps around the lectures makes sense. Asking questions out of the order in which the material was taught discourages students from memorizing the material as a sequence of events. Instead, the students hopefully make connections based on synthesizing the material. The final exam is the end of the course, so I did want to wrap up the experience of cultural anthropology as the students leave this topic for whatever is next. This is why I thought that asking the questions in order from lecture one to fourteen was appropriate. There is some continuity across lectures, so this order does make some sense epistemologically. (It was also less time-intensive to not mix up the questions after writing them).

As the students took the final, I was reading the book on teaching that I had mentioned earlier. I was too engrossed in the book because I looked up to see one of the students trying to clandestinely look at a smartphone! I had a few options on what to do about the cheating. Instead of busting the student, I gave a general class warning about having devices out, which seemed to have spooked him enough to stop. From then on, I also kept a closer eye on the test takers to make sure that nothing else was going on. I thanked the students as they turned in their exams, and then it was just me alone with the three posters, which no one had wanted to take with them.

After the exams were turned in, I went straight to the Datalink grading machine so I did not have to return to campus later. I had the exams fully graded that night. Overall the class did well! I went fairly easy on the attendance and participation grades, which helped everyone. I have some thoughts on how to tweak the grading system. I plan to have a blog post about lessons learned and thoughts on future improvements.

I have a summer night course starting next week, which I may document week-to-week depending on how much free time I have. I’m teaching physical anthropology on campus for the first time, so there are a lot of preparations to make. I did not consider how much material needs to be made for eight hours of class per week! There are also logistical issues to consider as I need to consider the class’s stamina, as well as my own. On the plus side, having taught the course online last semester gives me a slight advantage. Thank you for following along as I taught my first classroom lecture course! See you after… some time?

Cultural Anthropology Week 15: The Final Countdown

May 30th, 2015

The last lecture wraps the course material back around from globalization and applied anthropology back to the fundamentals of anthropological research. Like a good conclusion, the last lecture should not have any startling new materials, so I created it out of past slides. I took the most eye-catching and discussion-generating photos and overlaid the main points of each lecture. The result was a fairly dynamic trip down memory lane, if I do say so myself.

The process involved looking at all of the previous lectures. Like an old yearbook photo, the first lecture looks a bit cringeworthy to me now. Back then, I was slavishly following the textbook, cramming in ten slides just on the definition of culture. For the final lecture, culture was just ‘shared and learned beliefs and behaviors.’ I definitely have to redo the first lecture for the future, even though it got good comments from the students. I should at least make its style fall in line with the groove I got into by the fifth week. The first lecture did not even start with a fullscreen attention-getting image! It was just black text on a white background.

Class went well without any major concerns or regrets, though I ran into some technical difficulties at the start. In the excitement of going to the museum last week, I left my lecture thumb drive in class. I loaded up today’s lecture on another drive at home, but the classroom computer would not read it. Luckily, I had the slides with everything but the presenter’s notes uploaded on Blackboard! I signed in and downloaded that version to use. One shudders at what would have happened if I had kept uploading text-less slides to Blackboard as I did at the beginning of the semester.

I had made a final exam study guide to hand to the students. Learning from last time, I did not elaborate too much on it after passing it out. I then gave the final lecture, which mostly matched the study guide. During one of the breaks in the lecture, I was checking Facebook on my phone outside when I saw someone post a link talking about takanakuy, or ritualized Andean fist fighting. Held on Christmas, the event is a festival where people with grudges engaged in refereed combat to settle their differences and start anew for the next year. (Yes, the article on Facebook used Festivus as a reference point). I immediately went to the computer to find a good video and I showed it impromptu to my students after the break! Besides really rousing the class, it also had a lot of tie-ins to talking about rituals, social control, and the function of alcohol (which is the final glue used to mend the fences).

After lecture, I had the last team present their poster, since it was not ready last week. There was still the issue of poster grading. In my poster instructions, I had stated that there would be a peer component in which the team members would rate each other’s performance. Sensing some discord in at least two of the groups, I was not sure if that was the best idea anymore. Like past conundrums, I put it to the students: should they grade each other or not? The class was overwhelmingly against individual poster grades, possibly sensing some type of prisoner’s dilemma shenanigans. With that settled, I told them each team would get a shared grade based on the poster and everyone seemed pleased.

With that, it was time for the last end-of-class question. It was a simple “Which was your favorite lecture, and why?” Then, the last class was done. See you after… the final!