Human Origins and Evolution >> Content Detail



Scope of the Subject

An introductory subject which presents the main outlines of human evolution, both physical and cultural. The subject's scope encompasses our immediate pre-hominid ancestors of the Miocene, dating to between 6 and 22 million years ago, and all subsequent hominids including anatomically modern Homo sapiens who first appear within the past 150,000 years. The class charts hominid evolution from savanna/woodland dwelling primates with a distribution in tropical Africa to modern humans whose mental abilities and complex technology have enabled them to colonize all corners of the world. The class includes a survey of the late Pleistocene human cultural adaptations which formed the basis for the subsequent development of agricultural and pastoral based economies and urbanization which are the hallmarks of many human societies of the past 10,000 years. The subject concludes with discussion of modern human morphological variation and races.

The subject integrates recent research in human palaeontology and archaeology to examine the interconnections between human physical and cultural development during the course of human evolution. Beginning with the Oligocene and Miocene primate substratum, the subject examines the five subsequent major stages of hominid evolution: 1) the earliest hominids (australopithecines), 2) the earliest Homo, 3) Homo erectus, 4) Homo heidelbergensis and neanderthalensis, and 5) modern Homo sapiens. For each stage a synopsis of the historical highlights of previous research will be presented, as will a description of the hard fossil evidence contributing to our knowledge of the hominid's physical form. The archaeological evidence for the cultural behavior (including symbolic behavior, subsistence patterns, and the level of technological capabilities) represented in each stage will be discussed using the format of mini-case studies using selected archaeological sites including Olduvai Gorge, East Turkana, Olorgesailie, Terra Amata, Dolni Vestonice and Abu Hureyra.

By the very nature of the fossil and archaeological record the detailed history of human evolution can never be certainly known, but it is the subject's aim to provide students with an appreciation of what is reliably known (the "facts") about human evolution, what must remain informed speculation, and what avenues still remain to be investigated.

Subject Mechanics

  1. Two meetings per week: a combination of lectures, discussions, and practical handling of fossil casts and artifactual materials.
  2. Required work: includes a midterm exam, several short lab exercises, quizzes, two reading commentaries and two 4-5 page response papers, a group based presentation in class and a second midterm exam given during exam period.

N.B. attendance at lectures and participation in the discussions will be considered in evaluating your performance in this class.

Overall Weight of Assignments

Reading Response - Waal and Mitani et al Papers (3 Pages)6%
Osteology Quiz5%
Early Hominid Variation Discussion12%
Isaac / Lovejoy / Bingham Reading Discussion (4-5 Pages)11%
First Midterm Examination22%
Shipman et al Reading - Logic Evaluation - 1 Page Outline4%
Binford - Mousterian Critique (4-5 Pages)11%
Reading Response - Diamond / Molleson Papers (3 Pages)6%
Second Midterm Examination (Exam Period)23%


1-2Introduction: The Search for Human Ancestors, Approaches to the Study of Human Evolution and an Introduction to Human Osteology
3-4Evolutionary Processes and Time Scales
5Modern Primates and Their Relevance to Understanding Human Origins
6Tertiary Higher Primates: Our Pre-Hominid Predecessors
7-8Earliest Hominids: The Australopithecines and Affines
9Early Hominids - Variations and Taxonomy - Presentations
10Hominid / Human Origins: Hypotheses and Speculation
11Early Homo: How Should Homo Be Defined?
12-13The Archaeology of the Early Hominids I: Olduvai Gorge and Koobi Fora
14The Archaeology of the Early Hominids II: Interpreting Early Hominid Behavior and Current Research Directions
15Midterm Exam
16Homo ergaster and erectus: Emerging Modern Morphology
17Slowly Emerging Modern Behaviors: Early Stone Age / Lower Palaeolithic Age
18Homo heidelbergensis and neanderthalensis or Early "Archaic" H. sapiens?
19-20"Archaics": Not Quite Us Physically, Not Quite Us Mentally
21Origin of Modern Homo sapiens: Morphology and Genetic Evidence
22-23Modern Homo sapiens I: Cultural Diversity Becomes the Norm
24Modern Homo sapiens II: To the Threshold of Civilization
25-26Modern Human Diversity: Distribution, Morphological Variation and "Races"


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