The Gift of Fire

A student makes a fire in a J-term first year seminar in 2016.

What the course catalog says:

The ability to control fire represents one of the most important developments in the human saga. This class will explore the central issues associated with this development, ranging from the evidence for the initial use and production of fire, to fire's technological functions in preindustrial societies, to a consideration of its symbolic meaning. As part of this inquiry, students will research and replicate preindustrial fire-making techniques.

What the professor says:

I have a strong interest in what is called experimental archaeology—recreating past forms of technology to see how they work as a way of better understanding the past. 

Through this approach and this class, I hope my students learned how anthropologists go about the process of understanding other cultures (whether in the past or present) and how archaeologists go about reconstructing what people's lives were like in the past. More specifically, I hope they learned just how central the ability to control and make fire was in both our species' biological and cultural development. I also hope they came to appreciate the technical aspects of making fire.

Sometimes the best way to learn about things is to do them yourself. This kind of learning can provide insights that simply reading about things cannot.

Colin Betts, professor of anthropology

What the students say:

One thing that made this class different to me was the hands-on learning. During the first half of the term, my classmates and I were able to carve our own hearth boards, spindles, and bows, which made up the majority of our fire kits.

Another interesting thing that happened that I had not anticipated was the ability of fire to help people bond. Everyone is always nervous during the first few classes, being with a new teacher or not knowing anyone, but I think that by helping each other make fire kits or giving pointers on how to properly use the bow-and-spindle technique, my classmates and I were really able to enjoy the class.

—Alexandra Frank

In less than a month, we covered the amount of material that we would have covered in an entire semester, which made it much more important to pick things up during class. This being said, it was so much fun to focus on a single subject and really come to understand the concepts being taught. In the end, I feel as if I retained much more information than I have when taking multiple classes.

I learned so much about an area of study that I had no idea existed. Now that the class has ended, I find myself still researching different aspects that I question.

—Sam Poppen