CALS summer course investigates relationships between animals and people throughout history
Animals are an essential aspect to our daily lives. They provide food, resources, recreation, and companionship. But human interactions with animals have varied through time — did you know that chickens were once considered high-status in ancient Egypt? Or that our human ancestors were once predated upon by birds of prey? While the history between humans and animals is long and complex, CALS summer course Animal Science 240: Ancient Animals and People makes it easier to understand.
“Essentially, the goal of the class is to look at the changing relationship that humans and animals have had from prehistory to the modern era,” says instructor Jason Miszaniec, a lecturer in the Department of Animal and Dairy Sciences and museum scientist for the UW Zoological Museum. “In CALS, we have students who are working with animals now, but what were those relationships like 20,000 years ago? These relationships that we take for granted are a product of thousands of years of interspecies interactions and shared evolution.”
The introductory course is designed to satisfy the interests of students in any major. The class begins with students retracing our histories as a non-human primate, returning to when early humans spent their days hunting, gathering and scavenging. As early humans became more complex, so did their relationships — and intentions — with animals.
Students then dive into the science with evolution, natural selection and artificial selection. This leads into a core idea of the course: domestication. Domesticated animals are vastly different from their ancient counterparts in both appearance and temperament, and this is largely due to direct and indirect pressures of human selection.
“People have really had an impact on the animals that they use,” said animal science major Jackson Guthart, “it’s amazing to see how much they changed because of [human] intentions. I thought that was very interesting.”
The course introduces students to the expansive list of domesticated animals by covering the more well-known examples, such as dogs, cats, bovines, pigs, horses and chickens, as well as some more unfamiliar ones including certain species of insects and fish.
While most of the course focuses on ancient animals and people, Miszaniec wants his students to come away with skills that they can apply elsewhere. Students explored citation software, participated in a research paper workshop and became familiar with different online databases.
“Part of the larger mission for this course is to educate students on how to conduct independent research in the long run” says Miszaniec. “It’s a practical skill that can help these students out in the long term.”
He puts his students’ new skills to the test with a hefty research paper on a domestic species not covered in class, complete with a presentation of their findings to their peers.
In addition to lectures, workshops, and research papers, students also participate in various activities outside the classroom. One class took place in the UW Zoological Museum, which houses a large collection of canine bones. Students were given various dog and wolf skulls to measure, and based on those measurements, could determine what species the skull belonged to. Other days, students toured historical sites on campus, such as effigy mounds and the Lakeshore Nature Reserve. Guthart appreciated how the course differed from some of his other classes. “Typically, most of my classes are about modern-day topics. They’re mostly focused on animals themselves, rather than their interactions with their human counterparts,” says Guthart. “I think the historical value of this class is really important.”