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Short Term Class Gets Primitive

The following article was written and submitted by student Margaret Greene.

Student Sally Christopher works on a hammerhead in ANR 117.

Dr. Gary Neil Douglas, nutritionist and professor for the agriculture and natural resources department, and his student "tribe" of 18 members focused this short term on the primitive arts, technology and survival skills of Native Americans. The inspiration, Dr. Douglas said, originated in childhood when he learned about their ingenuity and skills with making simple and effective tools. “My mother and grandmother would always visit these historical sites and it was so fascinating to me." In 1990, Dr. Douglas realized his passion for history while studying anthropology at the University of Kentucky as an undergraduate. In 2000, as a graduate student, Dr. Douglas made his very first pump drill.

The pump drill, as he explained, was a tool made for drilling holes in soft objects such as pulpy wood, fibers, or even bone. It can also be used to create fire. This tool, and many others, were both created and utilized by Dr. Douglas’s students during the course. They used materials that were as authentic as possible. Even the bailing twine used from the farm was unwound and rewound so that students could experience, hands-on, what the natives had to do to create rope. The cord was originally made of basswood bark, but for the purpose of convenience and due to a lack of time and resources, Dr. Douglas collected bailing twine from the farm. He required students to unravel the twine and re-ravel it to create their own cordage for their bows. In fact, he required them to do many things that required such patience.

For many a morning during short term, loud clacking could be heard from every floor of the agriculture building. The noise was coming from the next phase of the tribe’s project, the creation of a hammer and axe. Students repeatedly and tediously banged various rocks together to create just the right edge and indention to make a primitive hammer and axe. “Pick the wrong materials and you will almost always fail,” Douglas told his class during a presentation. Students were taught to apply the concept of trial and error to their hard work and though they often experienced frustration, Dr. Douglas stressed the mantra, “You can do it! Have patience," to his students.

Students also made an atlatl which Dr. Douglas called “a primitive bow and arrow from the Aztecs.” It is a kind of dart thrower that was used to kill mastodons and mammoths during the earliest centuries in America. This project was a course favorite. Groups of throwers took aim and fired at a few unfortunate cardboard boxes 10-20 feet away.

As you might imagine, these tools were effective and could be dangerous. Dr. Douglas consistently emphasized safety. Before students got their hands on any materials, they learned about the cultural history of the natives and then knife and fire safety. Class materials included a serrated utility knife and part of the course was to learn how to make and keep a fire. It was his hope, Dr. Douglas said, that his third time teaching this class would keep the record of no serious injuries. When asked if this class was in keeping with the past, he said, “So far. We had somebody get a paper cut so bad it bled, but that’s about it.”

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