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Ancient Teachings, Modern Methods: Using Open Pedagogy to Raise Awareness of Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Published onJun 06, 2023
Ancient Teachings, Modern Methods: Using Open Pedagogy to Raise Awareness of Traditional Ecological Knowledge

In the book chapter “Open Pedagogy” published in A Guide to Making Open Textbooks with Students, open pedagogy is defined as “a site of praxis, a place where theories about learning, teaching, technology, and social justice enter a conversation with each other and inform the development of educational practices and structures. This site is dynamic, contested, constantly under revision, and resists static definitional claims. But it is not a space vacant of meaning or political conviction” (Derosa and Jhangiani). As a practice, open pedagogy wants learners and educators to be able to fully use, share, and adapt within digital environments while exploring, traversing, and immersing themselves in the various degrees of openness (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition). These degrees include social, technical, legal, and financial openness, and constitute a complex network of decision-making that addresses how these factors impact the ways in which educators and learners are allowed to share, access, reuse, remix, co-create, and preserve educational materials, as well as research and teaching strategies that foster open research and digital fluencies (Hodgkinson-Williams and Gray).

This paper describes how Michelle Scalise Sugiyama, an evolutionary psychologist/anthropologist, and Kate Thornhill, a digital scholarship librarian, formed a collaborative partnership in Fall 2020 to transform an in-person University of Oregon (UO) freshman seminar into an interactive online course in which students (1) developed research and digital literacy skills while (2) engaging in an open education movement as equal partners (Frison and Melacarne) in the making of Talking Stories, an Open Educational Resource (OER).

Scalise Sugiyama’s freshman seminar is part of a First-Year Interest Group (FIG). FIGs are blocks of three interrelated courses aimed at engaging students inside and outside the classroom, while helping them acclimate to the campus both academically and socially. Offered every fall to first-year students, each FIG consists of two 4-credit lecture courses (one of which is taught by the instructor who teaches the freshman seminar) and a 1-credit seminar, all of which are connected by an overarching academic topic. The seminar is dedicated to exploring connections between the two lecture courses. Scalise Sugiyama’s FIG comprised a biology course (Introduction to Animal Behavior) and her anthropology course (Origins of Storytelling). Her FIG seminar, The Human Animal, explored storytelling as a behavior that appears to be unique to our species and is thus part of what it means to be human.

More broadly, the Human Animal FIG seminar examined the role that storytelling has played in human evolution. Because storytelling emerged long before the advent of agriculture and writing (Scalise Sugiyama, “Literary Prehistory”), the FIG focused on storytelling in oral hunter-gatherer (as opposed to literate agrarian or industrialized) societies. These societies teach us that making a living by hunting and gathering requires extensive ecological knowledge (Boyd et al.; Tooby and DeVore), and that storytelling is one of the means used to transmit it (Basso; Cruikshank; Ludwin et al.; Masse and Masse; Minc; Nunn et al.; Scalise Sugiyama, “Animal Story Songs,” “Etiological Animal Tales,” “Ostensive Communication”; Scalise Sugiyama et al.; Sobel and Bettles). Accordingly, Scalise Sugiyama’s FIG examined hunter-gatherer storytelling in terms of the ecological knowledge it encodes. This is also the focus of Talking Stories, which situates the origins of literature and science in the oral traditions of hunter-gatherer peoples. Organized as an encyclopedia, the website aggregates traditional narratives from diverse hunter-gatherer nations and explicates the ecological knowledge they encode vis-à-vis the contexts in which it was used.

This last point is critical: the teaching of hunter-gatherer literature necessitates contextualization. Western literary tropes, themes, and aesthetic criteria are ill suited to unlocking the complexity, richness, and artistry of traditional oral narrative. Native American literature is a case in point. As Paula Gunn Allen explains, “traditional American Indian literature is not similar to Western literature, because [...] the basic reality experienced by tribal peoples and by Western peoples are not the same” (4). The “basic reality” of many tribal peoples across the globe is a hunting-and-gathering lifeway, with which Western industrialized peoples are largely unfamiliar. Thus, a key aim of Talking Stories is to “bridge barriers of sociocultural and esthetic unintelligibility” (Jacobs 98) by acquainting Westerners with fundamental challenges of forager life and distinctive aspects of oral expressive forms. As Melville Jacobs pointed out six decades ago, socio-ecological contextualization is standard practice in the study of world literature, and Indigenous literatures deserve the same consideration: “Today a printed play by Shakespeare must appear with annotations. So must the plays and poetry of classical Greece. Food gatherers’ art forms, verbal and others, have to be given even more background and explication” (98).

Through their involvement in the development of website content, Scalise Sugiyama’s FIG students gain experience not solely as consumers but as creators and sharers of information. By engaging students in a web publishing group project, the course helps students become more effective at working in collaborative settings. The subject matter of the course—hunter-gatherer literature, science, and philosophy—and its interdisciplinary nature encourage students to think expansively and approach questions from diverse perspectives, while providing them with 21st century digital literacy skills aligned with the International Society for Technology in Education student standards (“ISTE Standards: Students”). These digital literacy skills include producing original works and repurposing digital resources to form new creations; presenting customized content within a medium for a public audience; collecting data (in the form of digital images) that represents decision-making connected to writing an essay for a webpage; using technology to demonstrate fundamental concepts of how a technology (WordPress) operates; demonstrating understanding of copyright and fair sharing of others’ intellectual property within a Western knowledge system; and contributing constructively to a group project. All of these learning outcomes are addressed in the following ISTE standards: 1.1 Empowered Learner, 1.2 Digital Citizen, 1.3 Knowledge Constructor, 1.5 Computational Thinker, 1.6 Creative Communicator, and 1.7 Global Collaborator.

With new content being added each time the FIG is taught, the website can be used repeatedly for teaching a range of digital literacy and related skills. In addition to those enumerated above, these skills include the following: application of research strategies for locating publicly available digital resources; presentation of content in an accessible format for a global audience; and development of cultural literacy through exposure to diverse Indigenous nations and traditional knowledge sets via the ethnographic record.

Framing the Talking Stories OER within the Class Project

When designing The Human Animal seminar, Scalise Sugiyama and Thornhill framed the end digital project, the Talking Stories website, as an open educational resource that provides freely available information and resources through a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Nonderivative International 4.0 license. This Creative Commons license allows anyone in the world to share the project through copy and redistribution in any medium or format. However, those wanting to use Talking Stories are required to give attribution to the creator and may not use the project for commercial purposes, distribute a modified version of the project if they have transformed or built upon the work, or apply any legal measures or technical terms to stop people doing what this Creative Commons License allows.

The website is designed for educators and students interested in traditional ecological knowledge and/or the origins of storytelling. As an OER, it makes this knowledge available to people who might not have the means to attend college or access a university library. The website consists of three main components: (1) a series of lessons (each with a dedicated page) that provide the context for the encyclopedia, as well as links to relevant articles, books, and films; (2) an Encyclopedia of hunter-gatherer stories and the ecological knowledge they encode; and (3) a Blog featuring the research, insights, and perspectives of Indigenous and Western knowledge holders. A key aim of the website is to provide educators with framings and resources they can use to incorporate Indigenous literature, science, and philosophy into their courses and curricula.

When developing the OER, Scalise Sugiyama and Thornhill did not want it to be a standalone one-time project. It was therefore designed to be ongoing, with a new group of students participating each year in the creation of content for the site’s encyclopedia component. To this end, the design process included the creation of a companion curriculum centered on the development of an encyclopedia entry as the student’s research product and contribution. This decision was motivated in part by the FIG program goal of integrating incoming students into the UO community academically and socially, a challenge that was compounded by the launching of the course during the first fall term of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hope was that involvement in a group project would help combat student feelings of isolation and loneliness. In time, the decision to make Talking Stories an ongoing project will create a community of currently and past-enrolled students who share this experience.

Before embarking upon this assignment, Scalise Sugiyama and Thornhill knew that student contributions to the OER should comply with federal and university guidelines according to the United States Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the university’s intellectual property rights policy. Thus, instead of requiring all students to make their work publicly available, they were given the option either to have their work licensed and available on the Talking Stories website or not have it published. To this end, Scalise Sugiyama and Thornhill worked with UO’s Innovative Partnership Services to create a consent agreement that allowed students to waive their FERPA rights and have their work licensed with a Creative Commons license. The students who passed on this option submitted their research findings to Scalise Sugiyama, and she authored the encyclopedia entry.

The make-up of each encyclopedia entry consists of three sections. The first section reproduces a copyright-free story, as originally published, and identifies the source, narrator, and culture of origin, as well as the author or authors of the encyclopedia entry. The second section identifies the “commonsense” (Deloria Jr. 36) ecological knowledge encoded in the story, which is divided into six types or disciplines: zoology, botany, astronomy, physical geography, cultural geography, and technology. The third section provides an ethnographic description of the culture and land the story comes from, as well as a map, to show the context in which the story’s ecological knowledge was used. Each entry also features a reference section, with links to all the works cited in the entry. For their first encyclopedia entry task, each student had to type up the story they were assigned and add it to the Talking Stories website. Next, they used various library research databases to research the culture and environment their story came from and the ecological knowledge it contained. Then they had to find a public domain or Creative Commons licensed image for each section of the entry and add them to the website. Next, students had to identify the geographic region the story came from, map it using Google Maps, and add the Google Map’s embed code to the website. Finally, they had to upload their bibliography and insert links to the sources they cited. When the course was over, Scalise Sugiyama acted as the entry editor to polish the writings and web pages before formally incorporating them into the encyclopedia.

Talking Stories OER as Open Pedagogy

Before launching the course, Scalise Sugiyama and Thornhill spent several months redesigning the course, adding curriculum to engage and support students in developing content. Scalise Sugiyama reached out to the UO Libraries Digital Scholarship Services Department (DSS) for a consultation on how to make a website on which first-year students could gain digital literacy and research skills in the FIG seminar she was to lead in the Fall. Because she reached out to DSS at least three months before her course was scheduled to start, she connected with Thornhill to learn how to customize a WordPress website to enact her vision for the Talking Stories OER website. Together they spent several weeks discussing the types of content, style guide, wireframes, information architecture, and design elements to be developed for the site. Thornhill taught Scalise Sugiyama how to use Divi, a WordPress theme available through the UO’s WordPress enterprise software license. They also created styled templates for students to use for their encyclopedia entries. Thornhill also taught Scalise Sugiyama about how to frame the building of Talking Stories to make it an open educational resource. These interactions then led to conversations about curriculum, lesson plan design, and creation of the project consent agreement. This partnership enabled the formation of a trusting relationship between two faculty members with expertise in different disciplines—anthropology/psychology/literature and library and science/information science—who shared the goals of centering students and project-based learning. In their interdisciplinary collaboration, Scalise Sugiyama and Thornhill were open to making mistakes, asking questions, identifying where they needed help, and sharing a project vision that could be used as a pedagogical model not only for Scalise Sugiyama’s future classes, but for other educators as well.

The two educators wanted to create a learning environment in which students could make mistakes, fix them, and get help from specialists in working through learning challenges. This led to Thornhill becoming an embedded librarian. The embedded librarian within course design is a common model librarians use to partner with other educators to integrate digital, data, and information literacies into the classroom. Traditionally, librarians usually engage with course instructors as invited lecturers to show off library databases and resources. We call this the one-shot instruction session. However, with the embedded librarian partnership model, librarians collaborate as co-creators of curricula and assignments, and join the course to heavily support student acquisition of professional research and communication skills (Carlson and Kneale).

In the course of working with Scalise Sugiyama, Thornhill outlined the skills she felt it was important for students to learn: using library resources (e.g., how to use research databases, how to cite books and journal articles); downloading and citing copyright-free or Creative Commons licensed digital images; understanding the foundations of copyright, fair use, and Creative Commons; applying foundational web accessibility content standards; and using WordPress and Google Maps. Scalise Sugiyama and Thornhill structured the class so that digital literacy connected to these objectives and skills throughout. Thornhill also brought in two additional librarians—Franny Gaede, Director of Digital Scholarship Services, and Miriam Rigby, Social Science Liaison Librarian—to contribute to the teaching of specific research and digital skills.

As a website built in part by students, the Talking Stories OER serves as a pedagogical tool that places digital literacy as core to the curriculum. Thornhill and Scalise Sugiyama co-strategized their pedagogical methodologies to bring online student learning alive. Through the course’s focus on content development, students were taught how to conduct academic research, how to present that research to a diverse educated audience, and how to use web technologies. During the class, students were surveyed to assess their experience with web publishing technology: None of them had ever used WordPress or been exposed to copyright, fair use, or Creative Commons. Exposure to these skills and topics early in undergraduate education is important because it sets the stage for long-term success with publicly available research projects and for ethical and legal creation of digital content and reuse of digital content owned by others.

In total, UO librarians taught nearly half of the 1-credit course’s online class sessions. These four sessions were scaffolded such that they built upon each other. Across the four online class meetings, student learning outcomes connected to digital literacy included the following:

  • Create a blog post using WordPress and a Divi template design for story entries;

  • Apply citations and give attribution to all resources used on a story entry;

  • Reuse public domain or Creative Commons licensed digital images;

  • Make a Google map that can be embedded within a story entry page; and

  • Find textual resources using the UO Libraries databased to inform and develop a story entry.

For each class, the librarians used the flipped classroom teaching method because it allows students to learn at their own pace, encourages students to actively engage with lecture material, and frees up actual class time for more effective learning (Hertz). This method was also selected because all students had personal laptops and access to Canvas, the university’s learning management system, by means of which they could join the class and complete course work. Students were assigned asynchronous materials that included tutorial videos and how-to documentation for modules that were to be completed before class and aligned with weekly assignments and activities for creating encyclopedia entries. After students completed the asynchronous modules, class time was used for active learning.

The reuse of public domain or Creative Commons licensed digital images was a major requirement for the student encyclopedia entries. Together Thornhill and Gaede designed a Canvas module for students to complete before the in-person session. It included two videos that explained copyright and fair use and Creative Commons. They also directed students to resources (Digital Public Library of America, Library of Congress, Creative Commons, and Unsplash) where they could find copyright-free and openly licensed digital images, as well as helpful copyright evaluation tools such as the American Library Association’s Fair Use Evaluator. After students completed the asynchronous module, they were required to bring one visual primary source to class that they planned to use for their project, for a group discussion addressing the question, “Can I Use It?” Remote instruction over Zoom included periodic checks for understanding in which students responded to question prompts using a virtual poll. Thornhill and Gaede also used class time to clarify confusions or explain why creative works were licensed in a specific way. Instruction also included the use of Zoom breakout rooms for discussions of the copyright and reuse status of the primary source brought to class.

Because the Talking Stories OER is dedicated to the study of hunter-gatherer intellectual artifacts (i.e., stories, ecological knowledge, worldviews), the FIG also engaged issues regarding fair and respectful use of Indigenous cultural materials. In class, this was addressed through discussions of appropriate/inappropriate ethnonyms, proper attribution, harmful content in early ethnographic resources, images that perpetuate harmful stereotypes, and contextualization (i.e., understanding a people’s intellectual culture on its own terms). On the website, these issues are primarily addressed on the Methods page and in the licensing information in the website’s footer. These discussions and materials provide a guideline for students to follow as they develop their content.

Once students were introduced to the foundations of copyright, fair use, Creative Commons, and digital image databases, Thornhill introduced them to the WordPress content management system. Instruction included how to use the Talking Stories OER encyclopedia entry template, how to follow best practices in making text and images web accessible, and how to make a Google Map and embed it into the encyclopedia entry. Because WordPress, web accessibility, and making a Google Map were all new to students, Thornhill provided students with how-to materials before and after class, and Scalise Sugiyama recorded the two live click-along how-to sessions so that students would have access to instructions in video as well as written form. Instead of Thornhill doing a show-and-tell while the students passively watched her build a web page, she had the students build along with her. For this task, she enlisted support from DSS student workers and librarians to help with classroom management in case students fell behind. This made the classroom a space where learners could feel supported and confident that there would be someone ready to assist them if necessary.

Key concepts that students learned in this phase of the course included the mechanics of making WordPress pages and using Divi’s builder to format, add, and edit content. Specifically, students were taught how to use appropriate Divi modules for text, images, and pasting in embed codes. They were also taught how to make hyperlinks, which turned out to be a new concept for many of the students. While learning the mechanics of WordPress, students were taught practical ways to incorporate web accessibility concepts into their encyclopedia entries. They were shown how to use hierarchical text and apply alternative text to their images, which they then implemented on their own. An end-of-class reflective assessment exercise revealed that most of the students had been unaware that web accessibility existed and should be applied to content that is made available through the Internet.

Conclusions and Future Directions

The 2020 Human Animal FIG was an ambitious project and was not without its challenges. Chief of these was time: a one-hour weekly seminar does not allow students sufficient time to develop and complete a story entry entirely on their own. Further compounding this problem, the seminar is only worth one unit and is graded P/NP. Thus, despite being excited by the project, students were not motivated to invest the same amount of effort in the FIG as they did in their other classes. As a result, Scalise Sugiyama had to assist with the composition, editing, and formatting of entries. To remedy this problem, her fall 2022 FIG (which has been renamed the Talking Stories FIG) will be partnered with a four-unit freshman writing course, in which students will receive writing support and course credit for their FIG project.

Despite this setback, the Human Animal FIG was a success. Teaching digital literacy in the Human Animal FIG within the context of open pedagogy not only prepared students to complete their course assignment, but also provided them with skills foundational to becoming a successful contemporary researcher working in public scholarship. The work produced in The Human Animal FIG goes beyond the classroom and understanding the mechanics of a digital tool. The knowledge students gained can be framed as skills crucial to becoming a better digital citizen by understanding and applying precepts regarding web inclusion, intellectual property rights, and creative works ownership within a Western knowledge context.

Students who make OERs are more likely to learn about these concepts because their research is produced for public consumption rather than for their teacher’s eyes only. Indeed, projects such as the Talking Stories OER, which does not take shape as a traditional academic textbook, can be used for multiple purposes—for example, as a primary text for a class or as a resource for the conduct of research.

Accordingly, the Talking Stories OER was designed with several pedagogical purposes in mind. For example, in Fall 2021, Scalise Sugiyama piloted an assignment for the Origins of Storytelling lecture course associated with the FIG, which has an enrollment of two hundred. For this assignment, students were required to browse Talking Stories for a story featuring an animal, and then use the story entry to complete a worksheet. Worksheet questions were aimed at teaching students how to use an OER to find specific kinds of information—in essence, how to use an OER to conduct academic research. Information categories covered by the worksheet include the following: bibliographic (e.g., story title and Indigenous author); ethnographic (e.g., autonym, language, and traditional homeland of the story’s culture of origin); geographic (e.g., continent and region of the story’s origin), ecological (e.g., climate and topography of the story’s region of origin); zoological (e.g., diet, habitat, traits, and behavior of the animal featured in the story), and economic (e.g., role of the animal in the story’s culture of origin). Student performance on this assignment was excellent, providing indirect user-experience feedback on website navigability and organization, as well as accessibility of content.

Yet another pedagogical application is currently in development, slated for launch in 2022. This consists of a Teaching Resources page on which educators can share pedagogical materials they have developed using and/or for use with the Talking Stories OER. Organized by type, these resources include assignments, lesson plans, study units, and syllabi, and will be stored on OER Commons’ Open Author. The page also guides users to educational films, videos, and websites that deal with related subject matter. For each resource, information is provided about grade level and discipline(s) of study to which it is applicable.

A third application involves the open pedagogy practices developed in The Human Animal FIG. The UO Libraries Digital Scholarship Services (DSS) is continuing its investigation of how to frame programming and instructional design approaches when working with UO faculty who want to make digital literacy a focus of their class. This includes the possibility of the library offering credit-bearing classes on building openly licensed digital humanities projects to prepare students for the creation of public scholarship with digital fluencies in their advanced liberal arts classes. Since the launch of the Talking Stories OER, demand for embedded digital librarians has increased. Much of DSS’ approach to scalability includes continuing to make reusable modules that are course content agnostic and do not require librarian involvement in a high touch capacity. Thus far, however, the department is finding that UO faculty who come to them for support want this type of educational partnership.

In sum, without course design and planning informed by open pedagogy theory, the digital literacy skills discussed herein would not have been taught to students. The deep collaboration and intentionality involved in Scalise Sugiyama and Thornhill’s interdisciplinary partnership brought forth a course model that can be adapted and applied in other disciplines by teaching faculty who want to incorporate digital literacy into their curriculum.

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