Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Archaeology for English Majors

One of the most unforgettable courses I took as an undergraduate was an archaeology course on human origins taught by Dr. Birute Galdikas, who announced on the first day, quite peevishly, that any English majors present shouldn't think the course was an easy"A."

I very nearly dropped out, fearing I would be made fun of or made to feel that I shouldn't be there. I was an English major, just not the type Galdikas was addressing. I persevered and am very glad I did.

I had no idea that this rather abrupt and assertive professor was a renowned primatologist, known the world over as one of Leakey's Angels (a term she coined).

Louis Leakey was a world-famous archaeologist, known for his work in Oldavi gorge in Kenya, work in which he found and documented links in human evolution. He appointed three women to carry on some of his work, especially with primates and all three became famous. Dian Fossey lived and eventually died for her work with mountain gorillas. Jane Goodall is a feature on shows about chimpanzees. Birute Galdikas works for the understanding and preservation of orangutans.

Of the three women, Galdikas is probably the least famous as a media star, as she has concentrated her efforts for nearly 40 years on preservation, living in Borneo caring for and studying the orangutans and trying to prevent the demise of both the species and individuals. She is also a professor at Simon Fraser University, my alma mater.

Galdikas's lectures always fascinated me, as she ranged wide in her discussions of evolution, primates, and human ancestors. And my interest was authentic, but only at the most general level.

The textbook had the real nitty-gritty on hominid features through several eons of evolution. Parabolic dental arcades and numbers of bumps (I don't think "bumps" was the official term) on molars were not my cup of tea.

The tutorials were interesting, as we looked at bones of various species. Plus,the TA actually allowed me to write a literary analysis of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. It's surprisingly interesting and engagingly written.

I did what any self-respecting English major would do. I more or less memorized the textbook. Short-term memory stuff. I no longer remember how many molars of what type with how many bumps Australopithecus afarensis has, but am glad I know why such knowledge is important.

Definitely one of the most memorable courses of my undergraduate years.

And Dr. Galdikas, if you ever happen to read this, I got an "A," I was an English major, but it was hard work - and work I don't regret doing.


Pearl said...

hadn't heard of the third. interesting to get the chance to hear what she'd want to impart. what was her spirit intensity, personality like?

ChrisJ said...


She was very passionate about orangutans, but seemed more focused on the local rather than the world mission as the others were. Who knows, maybe orangs aren't as "sexy" for the media!

People don't know her as much because of this - not the number of TV specials, etc, although National Geographic spotlighted her.

One of The Guys said...

My Aunt and Uncle just spent time with the orangutans. They mentioned the three women who ended up working with the gorillas, chimps and orangutans. And they mentioned that Galdikas was the least renowned of the three. Of course I knew the other two.

A funny coincidence that you're posting about it!

ChrisJ said...


Synchronicity, or what?

It must have been so awesome to see the orangs in the wild or at least in the protected habitat.

Ciss B said...

Passion always makes a great instructor! She sounds like such a great teacher too.

My challenge in college was a Professor of Middle East history. He had us learning the people, the culture, some of the languages, and of course that history of this part of the world! It taught me so much more and I loved his enthusiasm and passion for the people and history of this part of the world.

ChrisJ said...


The ones who made us struggle were some of the best, I believe.

Trulyfool said...

Anthro was my first 'declared' college major way back when, chosen on the strength of a terrific experience under a prof named Herman Bleibtreu, then at UCLA.

It was the physical anthro stuff that moved me -- genetics, fossil man, animal behavior. I left the major when it showed itself so largely composed (then and there, anyway) of 'kinship patterns', etc.

Went to history. Then to English, where my mind, fingers, and not-so-prognathous jaw have been since.

Wrote a poem recently entitled "Australopithecine" based on NPR gossip about Louis Leakey's eye for the ladies.

ChrisJ said...


I had not heard that gossip; of course, he did choose three women to carry on some of the work!

Thanks for commenting.