The Weirdest Courses at KPU: Fall 2017
Features / October 11, 2017
Three of the university’s Anthropology courses are offering an out-of-this-world approach to education this semester
Anthropology and archeology are both studies of humanity, and since time immemorial one thing has always been true about humans: we are weird.
It’s not surprising, then, that some of the strangest courses being offered at KPU this semester come from its Anthropology department. This is The Runner’s run-down of the three strangest anthropology courses being offered throughout the fall 2017 semester.
ANTH 3503: Frauds & Pseudoscience in Archaeology
Did you know that aliens built the pyramids? Or that the Vikings built a city on Vancouver Island? No? That’s good, because neither of those things are true.
Offered this semester as a special topics course, “Frauds & Pseudoscience in Archaeology” is about giving students the tools to separate ideas with a basis in real evidence from compete fiction being presented as fact.
“The underlying fundamentals are that if we have opinions on the world we should base them on evidence, not what someone tells us, not faith or whatever, but with evidence,” says course instructor Brian Pegg. “Then we apply that to archeology and anthropology.”
Pegg says that it’s common for unsubstantiated ideas associated with archeology to be presented as fact. Students in his course look at some of these ideas, along with the pieces of “evidence” commonly used to mask them as legitimate, and the missing information that can be used to debunk them. Students in “Frauds & Pseudoscience in Archaeology” specifically examine the myths of ancient aliens, psychic energy in Stonehenge, Sasquatch, psychics, crop circles, and more.
“If you read through some of this stuff superficially, it kind of makes sense. But when you dig into it a little more deeply, it starts to not make a lot of sense,” says Pegg.
Largely thanks to the History Channel, the idea of ancient aliens has become pervasive and several television shows attempt to make the concept seem plausible. As one might expect, this topic attracts plenty of discussion in Pegg’s class.
Pegg says that the appearance of what looks like technology such as tanks and helicopters in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs are often used to support these claims. However, as students in the class discover, hieroglyphs weather away and are often re-carved by new artists many times over the centuries, giving them new and often radically different appearance than what was originally depicted. These images can often be wrongfully interpreted as familier technology to the modern eye—a fact that’s usually conveniently omitted on the History Channel.
Another example of myth used in the class is the famous “Starchild” skull, a malformed human skull that was presented as an alien-human hybrid by paranormalist Lloyd Pye. He claimed that tests showed evidence of non-human DNA within the skull but never released his lab results. While it’s plausible that the skull would contain unknown DNA, that’s not at all unusual for ancient human remains, and certainly not evidence of its alien origin, according to Pegg.
He says that the point of the class is not to tell students where to stand on any specific example, but to learn how to look critically at evidence that is presented and to identify when support for a claim doesn’t add up.
“The intent is to introduce tools [so students can] evaluate this stuff for themselves, not to tell them what to think,” says Pegg. “One of the messages of the class is that, if people tell you what to think, you shouldn’t listen to them. You should evaluate for yourself what to think.”
ANTH 2133: Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft
The myths, legends, and folklore of a society are far more than just fiction to an anthropologist. Instructor Sam Migliore’s “Religion, Magic, and Witchcraft” is about what those elements can reveal about cultures and communities.
The course examines popular myths throughout history, how they have evolved over time, and the circumstances that inspired their themes.
Vampires, being the pervasive entity of folklore and literature that they are, get plenty of attention in the class. Students study the blood suckers from their first appearances in ancient myth to the modern depiction in Bram Stoker’s Dracula and its integration into modern day popular culture.
Migliore says that the incarnation of vampiric myth from the days of Vlad the Impaler is of particular interest to the course because of its link to religious conflicts of the day between Roman Catholics and followers of the Eastern Orthodox church, which lead to accusations of vampirism from both sides.
Students also look at witchcraft, studying its origins, how it was used as persecution against pagan religions by early Christians, and the depiction of witches in modern film and literature.
Relatively new to the class is the studying of zombies. Migliore looks at early rituals and drugs used to create “zombies” as mindless laborers in Haiti as well as the more recent representation of the undead hordes we know and love from the works of George Romero and on shows like The Walking Dead.
“One of the reasons that zombies are so popular is that there’s this notion of infection,” says Migliore. “We see things about ebola and other infections and how it could easily spread around the world, and there are these fears in society about that happening. So through these myths and legends, we can actually get at current issues, current fears in society.”
ANTH 2310: Archaeology of Death
Ernest Bumann, the instructor teaching “Archaeology of Death” this semester, says that how any given culture approaches the subject of death tells us a lot about its nature.
“Burial remains are usually considered some the most sensitive and also most resilient indicators of how a society lived and how they saw themselves,” says Bumann. “Often, how they portrayed themselves in burial was very similar to how they lived in real life.”
Students taking “Archaeology of Death” explore the burial rights of a range of societies all over the world and throughout time, from the Incas—who plastered and displayed the heads of dead family members in their homes so that they would remain a part of their daily lives—to the Wari’in tribe in South America, who used to consume part of the body as a form of compassion to the deceased.
The class explores how funeral rituals change as a society develops, and how some societies, like many of those in Mesopotamia, kept their dead close to everyday life while others, such as many of those in Ancient Egypt, kept the dead well-separated from the living. The course also asks students to look at what the differences in graves across social classes tell us about social stratification. Other topics, such as human sacrifice, are examined to show what such practices tell us about what a society believed in or valued.
“We, of course, come from a civilization that often tries to avoid death,” says Bumann. “We don’t really want to talk about it until it happens, and even then we deal with it very efficiently. It’s interesting to see that some societies wanted to live with the dead.”