Hominin Iron Chef

The way I've set up this semester's upper-level Human Origins class includes an in-class lecture on Tuesdays and then an in-class lab period on Thursdays.  For most of the semester, we've been poring over hominin skull casts, but that's gotten a bit repetitive and the students and I are all fatigued by the varying sagittal crests, supraorbital ridges, and foramina magna positions.  To shake things up, this week I asked the students to create dishes to bring to a pot-luck hominin dinner party.  Here's the lab:

Lab 7 - Australopithecines to H. habilis 

Exercise 1 – Hominin Dinner Party!

To illustrate both hominin diets and the first use of tools in food processing, we are holding a hominin pot-luck dinner party! Invited to the party, which will take place over a 3-million-year span, are: the early australopiths (A. anamensis and A. afarensis), the robust australopiths (A. robustus and A. aethiopicus), the gracile australopiths (A. garhi and A. africanus), and the habilines (H. habilis and H. rudolfensis).

As the party is pot-luck, each group needs to bring a dish. The host has allocated dishes based on the primary component of the group’s diet. The four groups will prepare four dishes as follows: 
· Early Australopiths – Dessert. As their diet was largely frugivorous, complemented by nuts and seeds, this group needs to create a dessert made out of fruit and nuts. [For this, I bought an assortment of unshelled nuts, a coconut, a watermelon, a pear, and a plum.]
· Gracile Australopiths – Vegetables. These species ate a wide variety of foods, including vegetables. This group therefore needs to create a vegetable dish out of the available ingredients. [For this, I bought cabbage, broccoli, and carrots.]
· Robust Australopiths – Starch. The robusts ate a lot of fruit but also a lot of hard tubers and root vegetables. This group is therefore creating a starchy, carb-heavy dish, much like the modern potato salad. [For this, I bought sweet potato, potato, yuca (yes, I know that's New World), and shallot.]
· Habilines – Meat and Marrow. While there is evidence that earlier species also scavenged meat, we are fairly confident the habilines were comfortable processing and eating meat. This group will therefore butcher a chicken and extract marrow from bones. [For this, I bought a small chicken and some large soup (beef) bones with marrow.] 
All food will need to be prepared with the stone tools at your disposal. All group members will need to take an active role in food preparation, as hominin species likely had no sexual division of labor and everyone had to pull his or her own weight. If there are leftover ingredients, you may share among groups to make your dish more appetizing! (But you probably shouldn’t eat what you’ve made, as you never know where those tools have been…) 


1. What ended up being in your dish? Write out the approximate “recipe” including amounts (e.g., two pears) and instructions (e.g., using the chopper, bash open the coconut). 
2. What was in the other dishes? Whose dish looked the tastiest and why? Which dish would you prefer to eat as a habiline? Would your preference change if you suddenly evolved and were able to cook your food? 
3. Using the group that you were in, do some further research about the diet of those hominins (your textbook, wikipedia, and the internet will help). How closely do you think your dish approximated what your hominins would have eaten? In what ways could you make the dish more closely match those hominins’ diet? 
4. Before you started, how easy/difficult did you think it would be to process the foodstuffs you were given with the stone tools? After you did it, were you right or wrong? Which group/individuals had the easiest/most difficult time using the tools and why? Discuss your experience processing food using the stone tools and what you observed of others trying to use the tools.
The students seemed to like this activity and did some things I didn't expect... like use the marrow they'd extracted to make a "cheese" ball, rolled in crushed nuts, and hollow out a watermelon to hold the fruit salad.  There was even scavenging and bartering between groups!  Only a couple cuts (for which I had band-aids on hand).  If I do this again, I'll bring a ton of hand-sanitizing wipes (I only had the kind you clean your house with).

Enjoy this slideshow of class this morning (there are photo captions that you may have to click to turn on):


Jason E. Miller said…
This sounds fabulous! I wonder where I could get my hands on some stone tools to do this in my food and culture class when we talk about food and human evolution? Thanks for sharing!
I got the stone tools from our archaeology lab manager. Apparently, during the lab class, there is usually a knapping demonstration. So she had literally buckets of flakes and cores and debitage lying around. I don't know where to get them otherwise. Maybe she needs to start a side business shipping sets of stone tools off to other academics in need! :-)
Rachel Perash said…
You can buy knapping supplies online for fairly cheap and then make your own tools!

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