Out of the Sea

How have the world’s oceans shaped human experience, and what is it that people find so alluring about the ocean? Is it that our ancient evolutionary origins trace back to a marine fish that walked up on land? Is it that the oceans have been, and continue to be, a major route of human migration? Is it the fear, awe, and sense of mystery that oceans can instill in us?

Inside the Classroom

This course begins by addressing the fact that human existence would not have been possible without the world's oceans. We will explore the role oceans have played in shaping human history from three distinct, but related, perspectives. The first perspective places our biological species (Homo sapiens) in its appropriate evolutionary context. We will consider animal evolution on deep time scales. The signs of our marine origins can be found throughout our bodies, and we will explore human form and function by examining our “Inner Fish”.

The second perspective focuses on more recent time scales, and evaluates the role of oceans in human migration around the planet. We first consider the physical separation that occurred during the earliest migrations out of Africa tens of thousands of years ago. Oceans helped generate physically separated populations in places like Africa, Australia, the Polynesian islands, Eurasia, and the "new world." In more recent times, i.e., within the last 500 years, oceans also permitted very rapid mixing of previously separated human populations. To fully understand what it means to be a "modern" human, we must first understand how and why these recent forced and unforced migration events occurred. We must also understand the lingering consequences of those migrations. In the process of "finding our roots," a goal of this course is to demonstrate the connections all humans share, and to deconstruct erroneous typological concepts of human race. We will use natural history and modern genome studies to guide our inquiries.

Finally, oceans control global climate, and are major factors in a global economy. Thus, they play an important role in any conversation about environmental challenges of the future. We will explore human-induced changes to global environments, and how oceans offer solutions to sustainable existence for an emerging 21st century.

Outside the Classroom

Students will have the opportunity to travel to the Caribbean to visit one of the regions where modern human populations from different parts of the globe crashed into each other 500 years ago. At the end of the fall semester, we will visit Belize, where we will snorkel on the coral reefs in this part of the world to gain a first-hand appreciation of marine diversity, and the depth of our ocean roots. Students should expect to be in the water everyday during the trip.

We will also visit historic sites in Belize and closer to home (e.g., the Chesapeake Bay). We will visit Manchester Docks, a major port in the massive downriver slave trade that made Richmond the largest source of enslaved Africans on the east coast of American from 1830-60. Our work will challenge us to think locally, nationally, globally, and historically as we confront aspects of our shared human experience.

Research and Capstone Project

Over the course of the fall semester, students will conduct a research project focused on building a genographic “archive” around one aspect of human origins. This work will include examining evidence from historical migration patterns as well as genome and DNA markers from people around the world. Over the spring semester, students will:

  1. work in groups to map the influence ocean’s have had on modern humans
  2. explore their own connections to the world’s oceans
  3. assess ways that oceans might shape human’s future on this planet