A Primitive Way to Learn Global History

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Ask a child what comes to mind with the word “technology,” and he or she is likely to say iPods, cellphones and play stations. Not campfires, boomerangs and stone tools.

“I thought rocks were just there to be there, to occupy space,” said Josue Perez, 14, who attends the Mott Haven campus of the Urban Assembly School for Careers in Sports, where his class on global history is studying the Paleolithic and Neolithic eras. “I never thought that we would use rocks to cut things and make things and be useful.”

Josue and his ninth-grade class stepped back in time last week at their South Bronx school. Instead of the usual teaching methods — classroom lectures and textbooks to encourage students to visualize the time when bands of humans subsisted as hunters and gatherers — they were able to touch and try out some of civilization’s earliest technological innovations in a hands-on workshop presented by experts in primitive tool and weaponry making.

The students sliced through leather with sharp rocks. They tested how far they could throw hunting sticks. They learned to make natural fiber cord so resilient the strongest children in the class could not break it. And they watched as their guest instructors made a fire using a bow and drill in less time than it takes Bear Grylls, the host of Discovery Channel’s "Man vs. Wild" program.

“Wow,” said the students, jerking slightly backward when flames erupted from a tiny man-made ember that one instructor created with friction, transferred to a small bundle of fiber kindling and blew into, during a demonstration alongside their school's football field.

Not as profound, but also surprising, was the level of attentiveness that the young teenagers, a cross-section of New York City schoolchildren, paid to the vivid history lesson.

“See that kid,” said Jessica Wolckenhauer, a global history instructor, nodding toward a student who she says can easily become distracted or bored and act out during class. “Look,” she said, with a satisfied smile, “he’s sitting and paying attention.”

Responsible for the event was Bob Armistead, a co-teacher who advocates for special ed students and other students in need of support. He recognizes that it is often easier for students to grasp lessons through experience, and he organized a similar, less ambitious workshop last year.

The principal, Johanny Garcia, says, “The 10th graders still talk about that experience.” Mr. Armistead predicts that this year’s students will similarly refer to this interactive session for a long time.

“This will be something for them to hang their ideas on,” Mr. Armistead said. “They may not appreciate, until it’s demonstrated, the technology used to take a stone and turn it into a spear point. The may not understand the technology of making fire, or the technology of having a weapon that can bring down an animal that is bigger than an elephant. They may not even understand that as technology.”

Bringing those concepts home were two instructors, Eddie Starnater and Julie Martin, the co-founders of Practical Primitive, a New Jersey organization devoted to hands-on learning about traditional, primitive and self-reliance skills.

They encouraged the students to touch the animal hides, arrowheads and other handmade, primitive objects set out — things that are normally off limits, locked inside display cases that these schoolchildren might have only brushed past during infrequent school trips to the Museum of Natural History or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Tools took us from being scavengers to being predators,” Ms. Martin said. “It allowed us to get faster, smarter and move up the food chain. Before that, we were food. Things ate us.”

“This is our first stone tool,” Mr. Starnater explained, taking a palm-size, humanly flaked rock similar to those discovered in archaeological digs. He applied its sharp edge to a tree branch, similar to the way Stone Age dwellers would have cut wood, built shelters and processed game.

“This is two million years later,” he continued, holding up a more refined, pointier chopper. “Most important, I can put this on the end of a stick,” showing how, with sinew, early hunters would fashion a spear for attacking large animals. “Wouldn’t you rather be at the end of a stick?” he asked the children.

A Texas twang gives away Mr. Starnater’s roots. “I’ve been outdoors hunting and fishing my entire life,” he told the children, describing how he harvested his first deer at age 10 and learned early on how to build rudimentary shelters and encampments. “Can we go camping with you?” one student asked.

Ms. Martin is the daughter of Old Order Mennonites, a religion that advocates the use of horse and buggies over motorized vehicles. Her family’s farm had chickens, pigs and an abundant vegetable garden. She crowed over the wild edible plants growing like weeds alongside the ball field. “Oh, yummy, pink clover. And there are tons of lamb's-quarters,” she remarked.

Passionately self-directed learners, Mr. Starnater and Ms. Martin largely taught themselves the bushcraft and primitive skills they now teach others. Mr. Starnater mastered flint knapping — a traditional method of creating stone tools and arrow points that is currently experiencing a renaissance in the United States and Europe — from years of practice.

Using only natural materials, they offer instruction on such varied activities as brain-tanning, building a reed boat, constructing soap using lye from wood ash, foraging for medicinal plants, acorn processing, and dozens of others.

They met at Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School in southern New Jersey, where Mr. Starnater was teaching classes in tracking, nature awareness and wilderness survival. Ms. Martin was an administrator. Four years ago, as a couple, they struck out on their own. They primarily teach adults in small groups, which they prefer. They also offer workshops to schoolchildren, scouts and other interested youth groups for sliding fees.

They say their goal is to teach not just history and techniques, but also respect for the ecosystem.

“Because the more you can look around you and realize that the wall of green out there isn’t just a wall of green, but it is food and medicine and shelter and clothing and habitat and all these amazing and wonderful things, then it means something to people,” Ms. Martin said. “It just makes life cooler.”

After a while, the action moved onto the football field. To catch small game, the instructors explained, boomerangs were tossed skyward, creating hawk-like shadows that caused smaller, vulnerable animals to freeze. “’Cause it’s a lot easier to hit something that’s not moving,” said Mr. Starnater, showing how hunters then flung hunting sticks that skirted the ground.

A student threw a spear as far as he could. Mr. Starnater took hold of an atlatl, a spear with an extra shaft — another early development — and with a flick of his wrist, sailed it considerably farther. A chorus of “ah’s” ensued.

“I think that’s smart technology in their time,” Jay Diaz remarked.

His schoolmate, Kevon Bolt, was also taken aback by prehistoric peoples’ ingenuity. “Before, I thought everything they invented was by mistake,” he said. “’Cause in the pictures, they didn’t look too smart.”