Students in the "Pre-Tech" classes at Stanford University are falling way behind. On any given day one might find them trying to make fire by rubbing two sticks together, or attempting to fashion a stone ax or "knapping" flint chips.
But then falling behind is the whole idea. Although the students in this particular class, taught by archeologist John Rick, generously refer to it as "Pre-Tech," its full title is "Prehistoric Technology and Culture."
And Silicon Valley never saw such a thing.
Right here in the flanks of Silicon Valley, that epitome of technological progress, Rick teaches (with fellow archeologist Curtis Runnels) a course on prehistoric skills. The irony is certainly not lost on him. Nor, he says, is the appropriateness. Nor even the inevitability.
The point, says Rick, is that sometimes you have to step back in order to move forward, and few people can appreciate that quite like he, an archeologist in Stanford's Anthropology Department, who sees the prehistoric, what he occasionally refers to as "the musty, reeking past," as the cutting edge.
Here in Pre-Tech, students from English Literature or mathematics or industrial engineering learn -- or try to learn -- skills that have fallen from human use in all but a very few Paleolithic tribes scattered in the remotest South Pacific and Australia.
A hundred thousand years later, and perhaps not a moment too soon, Rick, along with a few literally diehard academic stone toolmakers, are intent on reviving a knowledge of prehistoric skills before they die out.
"I want them to wonder," Rick says, "in working with these vestiges of prehistoric skills, which of our own technologies will eventually disappear. As it is, we'll see the end of stone toolmaking among tribes within our lifetimes."
About 10 academic prehistory courses of this ilk have sprung up in universities and other centers, teaching everything from general "aboriginal life skills" (finding water, making clothes, surviving in the woods) to techniques like tanning hides, laying snares and traps and knapping -- or shaping -- chips of flint.
Prehistory courses like these, says Jeffrey Flenniken, an anthropologist and fellow flint knapper at Washington State University, help keep the world's heritage alive, the same way classes in restoring antique autos do.
Perhaps, Flenniken hints, the growing number of classes like this taught around the country are also a response to a certain cultural phenomenon: When societies feel themselves losing control of technology, people often retreat into mysticism, "and there is certainly a mystique about prehistory," he says.
Rick himself holds forth from a small excavation site that he fondly refers to as his office. There, behind a door that reads, "John Rick -- Dirt Baron," he pads about in Birkenstocks, a flannel shirt, old cords and a riotous beard. Here and there are "Far Side" cartoons, tribal doodads of one sort and another, and, of course, the office itself is the requisite archeological dig of books, texts, artifacts, photos, papers and -- somewhere down there -- a desk and a floor.
If humility is one of Rick's tendencies, it sets a fitting tone for the Pre-Tech course itself, where students eloquent in microchips are confounded by flint chips.
Laura Jones, an anthropology graduate student at Stanford, who took Rick's class three years ago, admitted to gaining "a tremendous respect for how complicated life was back then, something we don't appreciate when we can just flick a Bic or order things from the Yellow Pages."
Students say the class is valuable in reviving art forms and history, as well as teaching them survival skills. "I really learned how to scavenge the environment for raw materials, to have a high level of awareness, and that technology doesn't always have to be industrial," says Jones.
Nonetheless, a typical response at the end of the course, says Rick, "is students saying, 'I wouldn't have made it.' "
They get an A for acknowledgment, Rick says, but humility is not the idea, only the outcome.
"The idea is to learn that primitive doesn't necessarily mean simple." Or rough-hewn.
"I want the students to appreciate that we weren't monkeys with hoes. We had books," he says, "but they were in our heads. We had skill, even intelligence, that was no less great than what we have today."
Holding a stone ax or spear in your hand, Rick says, is a fascination all its own. "In it, you see the origin of knives and scalpels. You see what people used before there was a Black & Decker." In your imagination, he says, you can trace the lineage of the blade from flint to metal to laser beam.
"The idea of primitive-as-simple comes from our colonialist mentality. If a people could be shown to be simple, then you could justify colonizing them. The closer to apes, the more in need of zoo keepers," says Rick.
Rick's students, in gaining a certain competence in skills such as stone toolmaking, which has been around for some 3 million years, can better understand, "the trajectory of history," and the endless human perambulation of intent and consequence.
Just as importantly, Rick hopes they may develop a kind of primordial self-esteem, an appreciation and reverence of having made it so far.
Rick's own fascination with things primordial dates far back. At the age of 6, he vividly recalls, his father, a plant geneticist at the University of California, Davis, took the family on an expedition to South America, to stalk wild tomatoes in Peru, Ecuador and Chile -- cultures, Rick says, which have a "richness of archeology that we have no concept of."
"I have very strong memories of wandering around ancient cities, of happening upon mummies that were blown out of the sand by the wind," says Rick.
Nearly 20 years later, Rick accompanied an archeological team to the excavation of a Paiute Indian village in the northeast corner of California. And there, for the first time, he tried his own hand at a few prehistoric skills. "I had plenty of spare time, and there was plenty of obsidian (a black volcanic glass) and antler lying around. I started experimenting with what is called pressure-flaking, pressing an antler against the edge at very precise angles, with barely a 1-degree tolerance either way."
Occasionally, as Rick hopes to demonstrate in his class, the answers to our technological conundrums lie not in the future, but in the past. The search for ever-finer surgical tools provides such an example.
Back in the 1960s, a flint knapper at Idaho State University rediscovered the making of obsidian blades. Today, with the expertise and counsel of people like Rick, who has honed this skill to near-mastery, these blades are now being used in brain surgery.
Magnified 10,000 times, the finest scalpel looks like a saw, according to Rick. Obsidian blades are perfectly smooth. They also are harder than metal, and their edges are poised at a molecular level of thickness, giving them the edge, literally, in allowing surgery with minimal tissue damage.
The technology, surgeons are finding, has never been improved.