Stones, bones, and how humans have grown: Stout’s human evolution class

Left, Alexis Chambers, a biology grad student at FDU’s Metropolitan Campus, examines stone tools in Joseph Stout’s human evolution class. 
Right, Stout shows off a 6,000-year-old human femur bone that he uses in his human evolution class.  

Story and photos by Dan Landau

It’s a Monday morning in November and Joseph Stout, a biology lecturer in University College: Arts • Sciences • Professional Studies, is teaching his graduate-level human evolution class in Dickinson Hall on FDU’s Metropolitan Campus. The classroom is hot and stuffy, but no one seems to mind. They’re all focused on the small stones Stout is holding up and passing around the room. 

These aren’t ordinary stones, they are actual tools used by early humans (homo erectus) that date back tens, and even hundreds of thousands of years ago. Officially known as “bifacial tools” (hand axes), the stones range in size from tiny chips, less than an inch across, to larger hand axes several inches across. 

Stout passes the primitive tools around the class, allowing his students to handle the ancient artifacts. As he does so, a sense of wonder pervades the room as the students literally hold history in their hands. 

The oldest of these hand axes is a small, unassuming brown rock, conservatively dated at 500,000 years old. “It could be as old as a million years,” says Stout. The newer hand axes Stout has are about 10,000 to 40,000 years old—making them contemporaries of woolly mammoths. 

“The students like that they can touch and see these things,” says Stout. “I think it gives them a more visceral sense of the history. 

“By holding the tools, they can easily understand how they were made and how they were used. If you don’t hold the tools, then this class would be a very dry discussion of chipping techniques,” continues Stout. 

Stout’s students certainly appreciate the artifacts he brings to class. “I am a pretty visual learner,” says biology graduate student Jake O’Neill. “I think with this class it makes it a lot easier to handle the items and see them for ourselves, instead of someone just telling what the tool was and what it was used for.” 

Old bones and old stones: above, FDU’s collection of ancient human bones, dating back 6,000 years includes leg and arm bones, a piece of a hip bone, and several vertebrae. Below, the ancient stone tools Stout uses in his class. The brown specimens date back tens and even hundreds of thousands of years ago. The gray ones on the right are concrete casts Stout made himself.

The Stone Age tools are not the only prehistoric artifacts Stout brings to his class. He also shows his students ancient human bones, approximately 6,000 years old from the specimen collection of University College’s natural sciences department. “We don’t know much about these bones, other then that they came from Africa and they are quite old,” says Stout. “They could be as old as 10,000 years and as recent as 2,000, so 6,000 is a good estimate.  

“The bones don’t match up with each other, so they were from different people,” explains Stout. “These people were certainly not kings — they were workers. Based on the ridges on the bones, we can tell that these people were very muscular.”

Stout’s human evolution class covers about 30 million years of history, starting with the late Eocene era, covering the beginning of lemurs, and very quickly progressing through to apes and ending as early humans began leaving their caves, nearly 10,000 years ago. 

“I’m trying to show them that we as humans haven’t changed all that much as we evolved,” says Stout. “We’re certainly different than we used to be, but we have the same desires and abilities and we think the same way. That’s one of the major things I am trying to show in this class — how we as humans have developed, but we’ve still been humans this entire time.” 

Editor’s note: Stout was previously featured here for his innovative and hands-on class “Intro to Aquaculture and Hydroponics,” where students learn about farming aquatic animals and plants. 

Feature Story from the FDU Newsroom

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