New anthropology syllabi for 2017

This Fall I’m teaching three courses at Vassar, two in Anthropology and one in Environmental Studies. Syllabi are posted to my Teaching page in case anyone wants to use them – here are the highlights:

Anth 235: Central Asian Prehistory

Anth 235 site map

I taught this for the first time last Spring, so the Fall syllabus is updated based on how things went in the first go around. This time, students will get more more in depth with the fossil hominins and less on the lithics on the early side. On the more recent end, there are now readings expressly concerned with sites of the Bactrian-Margiana Archaeological Complex, as well as archaeology of both the Tarim and Pazyryk mummies.

Anth 305: Human Evolutionary Developmental Biology


This is a seminar version of the first class I ever made on my own, previously taught at the University of Michigan and Nazarbayev University. There have been lots of new discoveries and I’ve published more on this topic since the last time I taught the class. I’m  also excited to see how this class goes as a seminar in which students contribute more to discussion, rather than me rambling on about osteoblasts, morphological integration, and the like.

Enst 187: A Prehistoric Perspective on Climate Change


This is a 100% brand spankin new class, that uses the climate-denialist argument, “But climate has always been changing,” as a basis for comparing the past and the present. In this First-year Writing Seminar, we’ll compare arguments for defining the “Anthropocene,” examine how climate change may have impacted human evolution, and study archaeological evidence for how climate change has impacted different prehistoric societies.

Climate change works fast

A study just came out in Science showing that the water cycle – the process of water being evaporated to the atmosphere, condensed into clouds, and returned to Earth as rain – has sped up dramatically in just the past 50 years (Durack et al. 2012). From news coverage of the research (Kerr 2012), here’s a reason why this speed-up sucks and has the potential to suck more:

Such a revved-up water cycle would have “a lot of implications for how extreme events would change in a warming climate,” says meteorologist Brian Soden of the University of Miami in Florida. Water cycling from the surface to the atmosphere carries heat energy that can ultimately fuel violent storms, from tornadoes to tropical cyclones. The faster water cycles, the more abundant and more violent those storms might be. And wet places getting wetter can lead to more severe and more frequent flooding. Dry places getting drier would mean longer and more intense droughts.

Durack and colleagues’ findings are important because they show just how rapidly and drastically the Earth is changing, right before our eyes. Unlike humans, most plants and animals are adapted to fairly specific ecological circumstances, and departure from the norm can spell extinction, especially in long-lived, slow-reproducing species. We humans are adept at altering our environment to our likings, and until recently we’ve managed to avoid (or at least be ignorant of) the consequences of our earthworks. This is serious stuff that we can actually do something about, but only if we make scientifically-informed decisions.

ResearchBlogging.orgI don’t know that I’ve ever gotten political on this blog, but I’d like to stress now that climate change is an issue people should be thinking about in this election year. The Republican primaries have largely been centered around shitshow discussions of straw man issues and Dominionist fluff – it would have been laughable if none of those clowns were seriously trying to become the president. But now that Romney will be the Republican candidate to run against Obama, hopefully debates will come down to real world issues. (Read more about the role of climate change in candidates’ campaigns here at the Huffington Post)

UPDATE 02 SEPTEMBER – Nope. The Republican National Convention was just held in Tampa, FL, where Mitt Romney mocked Obama’s pledge to address climate change (not as bad as critics made him sound). Mitt and his running mate Paul Ryan have insisted for the past few weeks that they’d bring solutions to the issues they say Democrats have failed to address, yet these Republican candidates have continuously lied about the past and been deplorably vague about how they plan to improve America. It will be upsetting on several levels if these buffoons end up in the White House.

The good news & the bad news
Durack, P., Wijffels, S., & Matear, R. (2012). Ocean Salinities Reveal Strong Global Water Cycle Intensification During 1950 to 2000 Science, 336 (6080), 455-458 DOI: 10.1126/science.1212222

Kerr, R. (2012). The Greenhouse Is Making the Water-Poor Even Poorer Science, 336 (6080), 405-405 DOI: 10.1126/science.336.6080.405