September 2012

This is a First Year Investigations Course at USC’s Dornsife College. 

Short course description: 

Have you ever wanted to learn how to make your own stone tools? Brew beer? Make cheese? Smelt copper? 

If you had lived 6,000 years ago, you were part of a culture that taught you how to do these things, in order to survive. You would have fished, hunted, used stone and metal tools to cut up and skin animals, plants and many other things. You would have learned how to create sickles to harvest grain and other plants. Grain went into bread and beer – and we’ll make both in this class. If you wanted to warm or protect your naked body, you would have spun wool or plant fibers into cloth or tanned skins. Some cheese could be stored for more than a year – a ready, portable food source that we will make ourselves.  And you would have needed to know how to transform bits of rock into molten metal that would harden into wonderful things. 

This is an active learning course that enables you –through weekly hands-on activities and field trips– to acquire and experience skills that humans devised in order to survive in pre-modern times.  

This course is ideal for students in any major. You’ll learn how to survive 6,000 years ago while gaining skills of value in medicine, economics, business, psychology, politics, and history, too. 

If you want to get an insider view of the course, check out

This class was developed and taught by Lynn Dodd of the USC Archaeology Research Center

Week 1  

Introduction, What do you know about ancient ways? Games People Play

Week 2  

Warmth, Visions and Graffiti: making fire and making paint for rock art (paint reprise in week 11)

Week 3  

Building the world around us: mudbricks

(You will get wet, dirty and generally mucky. For those of you with manicures, kiss them goodbye)

Week 4  

Visiting lecture: Karen Koblitz, Chair, Ceramics, USC Roski School of Fine Arts, Ceramic artist extraordinaire; and Tim Linden (Archaeology and Fine Arts major)

Making pottery: grain toasting trays, jars for brewing, figurines, oil lamps

=========Reflection #1 DUE=============

Week 5  

Food for the Future: Cheese and other fun with milk

Week 6  

Bread (grain grinding, making, baking, eating)

Week 7 

Neolithic Food Preparation (meat, veggies, grains with “period-appropriate” tools)

This week involves competition. No tackles are allowed but you may steal resources from another team.

Week 8 

Where are my tools? Flint knapping

Week 9 

Smelting copper: will be scheduled at another location (to avoid burning the campus down)

========Reflection #2 DUE =========

Week 10  

Transformed foods: making a mash for beer

 Week 11  

Transformed foods: brewing. The long boil. (and redux paint for rock art)

Week 12  

No class

Week 13 

Clothing and Feeding our Bodies: Skinning Animals and other interesting things to do with animal skin

Week 14

Clothing our Bodies: Weaving and spinning

=========Reflection #3 DUE =============

 Week 15

Feeling Better: Herbal remedies and completion of brewing

Week 16

There is no final exam in this course. Hopefully, you will survive.


Making cheese was an eye opening experience. I never quite understood what really went into cheese. It’s amazing how concentrated of a food source cheese! I can imagine how valuable a food source like this would be in ancient times. Not only is cheese a super condensed form of nutrition but, if prepared correctly, can be stored for years. While sitting down at the end of class snacking on the delicious mozzarella we made earlier, I found myself wondering how did the first person to make cheese figure it out. How would somebody know to mix citric acid in milk? It’s a complex process and the ingenuity required to finish successfully is astonishing.

To be honest, in the beginning I wasn’t confident that our group would end up with a viable product. So when we did, I was pleasantly surprised and quite proud. I certainly appreciate cheese in general now a bit more, but I am also more aware that I am consuming a gallon of condensed milk with every portion. I can only picture the cream on top of the pasteurized milk slowly spilling out and splashing into the bowl. It was interesting how every group’s result products were unique. Either by having texture or a different shape they were all different. This just confirms the notion that cheese making is an art form, and one that I now respect much more

Based on the class description I didn’t know what to expect from “Human Survival: Learning from the Past”, but it has become hands down my favorite class so far. I am excited to see what other endeavors we attempt.

– Steve Anderson

Roughly during the first three weeks of class, we covered various survival skills. The first artistry that the class attempted to tackle was creating a fire. The process takes a lot of time and energy and, in my opinion, the task is tedious. Materials that we used to for the operation were a plank of wood, a wooden stick, a saw, dried leaves and other fuel and a carving knife. The goal, as claimed by the Youtube videos seen in class, is to make a deep, narrow hole close to the edge of one of the plank’s sides. When this is done, the wooden stick is to be inserted into the hole and twist rapidly, shredding hot sawdust. The hot sawdust would then start a fire when contacted by a little oxygen and the dried leaves. In reality, though, the process is more complicated than instructed. You need to possess a skill at twisting the wooden stick in order to get really hot sawdust, which none of the students were able to do. We were at this activity for the whole hour and a half of class and fire was not created. We did not even get the chance to make paint for rock art. Professor Dodd, however, promised us that we would make a fire before the semester finishes, so I am excited to see what she has in mind.

The next project that we completed in class was making mud bricks. I did not find the activity to be fun or that interesting, but at least we were successful in making sturdy bricks. The ingredients for this job consisted of water, dirt and hay. We imprinted USC logos onto our creation and I am curious to see how our bricks turned out once they are completely dried. My favorite undertakings that we have done thus far are the mozzarella-cheese-making and the making of clay oil lamps, trays and jars.

– Leticia Samaniego

While I was considering what I should do with my 2 extra credits during my first semester at USC, I realized just how many different options I had in front of me. I could take anything from golf lessons to dance. However, I wasn’t quite sure that I wanted to do something that extreme during my first semester. I had been advised several times, from several different people, that given the opportunity I should take advantage of a Freshman Seminar. I was told it was a great way to meet people and it seemed like a low stress class that would help me adjust. So when I saw that a seminar actually fit into my schedule I was excited and quickly signed up for FSEM 180. Well, if I thought I was taking the normal route, I could not have been in for any more of a surprise.

After four weeks of class, I am quickly starting to realize just what an experience I signed myself up for. We have only had four classes and have already made mudbricks and various things with clay for our later activities. Not to mention I have discovered the hard way (literally the hard way; my hands have begun to form calluses where my blisters once were) that I have absolutely no future in old school fire-making. Let’s just leave it at I do not think I will be getting my own show on the Discovery channel anytime soon. My hands over the last three weeks or so have been a physical reminder of how much easier things are today. Make fire once in 4000 BC, feel it for 3 weeks. Make fire once in 2012, takes more time to find a lighter than to actually make a flame.

As a result of the first weeks, I find myself with a new found respect for people in ancient times. But furthermore, I find myself with a desire to be able to successfully complete some of the activities in the coming weeks. I look forward to each of the challenges ahead.

Beren Chandler

On September 4th, our class attempted to make fire the “human survival” way: using only a simple wooden stick and board. During the first 20 minutes or so of class, we watched an expert fire maker build a fire using only these resources. He built the fire rather easily and my first thought was: seems easy enough, let’s go. Once we started this process, however, it turned out to be a whole different story. And in the end, every one of us failed to get a fire going.

As for the process, we first had to make a small place on the board for the stick to rotate and create friction in. Luckily, one of the members in our team had a pocket knife set, which we took advantage of in order to create that little hole for our dowel to rotate in. Then we sharpened the end of the dowel, also using the pocket knife, and started to rotate it with our hands as fast and consistently as possible in order to create the friction and start to build up some heat. As easy as rubbing your hands together sounds, it was really hard to go for long stretches of time. One reason is that we just didn’t have the stamina to keep doing this simple task. Another reason is that it hurt, and it hurt pretty badly. By the time class was over, many of the students had to get bandages for their hands because they were starting to blister from all the friction. In the end, our group got some smoke going, but that was pretty much it.

In today’s world, making fire is such an easy task. All you need is a match or a lighter. Through this activity, I realized just how much we take these small things for granted. Building a fire from scratch is super hard. That man on YouTube has my respect.


-Stephen Kim

I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into when I signed up for this class. Ostensibly it promised to be an exploration of the tools and techniques used by early man to accomplish everyday life, but practically I looked at it as more of a series on apocalypse preparation. It’s been exactly what I imagined: the chance to weekly attempt some absurdly anachronistic activity in the name of hands-on-history.

What’s more, I think it can be looked at as a terrific study of sociology, rather unintentionally, in a dozen small ways. Take for example our week 3 attempt at creating mud bricks. Superficially, this was just another agreeably antediluvian activity to pass an afternoon, but more deeply, it was a series of puzzles that must be solved by a score of people with little experience working together, and none whatsoever working with clay bricks. We had the raw materials laid out before us, and had to collectively apportion ourselves out to the various tasks at hand, working together to produce primitive construction supplies. A handful of people set to work constructing molds (and in doing so, solving the puzzle of how to efficiently use our lumber); others felt their skills would be best used tromping in the muck. Some were saddled with the task of digging out an uncooperative ditch, and in one of my favorite instances, a handful of people were set to gathering water from the adjacent vending kiosk. The bathroom inside did not, of course, have a conveniently placed spigot, so we wound up with a rather involved apparatus of sinks, boards, exhumed tubes, and garbage bags all attempting to funnel water into our little bucket.  It was really a marvel of engineering. I was quite proud. (more…)

Put me back a few thousand years in the past and I would not last a single night. I’d call the cause of death hypothermia. To some of us, myself included, even starting a fire with the strike of a match seems rather primitive, let alone with a few pieces of wood. Nonetheless our task was as simple as emulating a youtube video in an attempt to create Prometheus’s gift to mankind. However, copying a three-minute Youtube video of some southerner making fire from wood, as we soon (if an hour and a half counts as that) found out, was as painful as it was difficult. A few hundred, maybe a thousand semi-rotations of a wooden stick on a wooden plank after beginning with high hopes and aspirations, our goals went up in smoke, literally. Too bad smoke was the best thing we achieved. If blackened, very warm wood was the goal, mission accomplished. Unfortunately ancient society would not have survived living by warm wood. The good thing? Failure was an option! Thank God this class does not give grades for the quality of the end product, or else my GPA would land me nothing but a home in the streets, and my inability to produce a flame would leave me a very short life.

I still don’t quite understand what we did wrong in our quest to produce fire. Perhaps our equipment was not up for the task, or we didn’t have enough time. But most likely, it is because our skin is too soft; we aren’t tough enough for the wild. As Ms. Dodd walked around offering band-aids for our blistered hands we realized how delicate our skin is, not attuned for life in the rough. Hopefully the following weeks will toughen us up some more so we don’t fell like we wouldn’t last a minute without technology.

-Jeffery Zhang

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