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Unit information: Early Human Origins in 2020/21

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Unit name Early Human Origins
Unit code ARCH20005
Credit points 20
Level of study I/5
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Brimacombe
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of Anthropology and Archaeology
Faculty Faculty of Arts

Description including Unit Aims

The premise that "to understand human evolution we need to know what makes us human" structures this unit. Basic human traits such as bipedalism, large brain size, tool dependency and the use of symbols are explores from an evolutionary perspective. This unit introduces students to the main elements used in model building including hunter-gatherer ethnography, genetics, physiology, primate studies, taphonomy and archaeology. The time span covered includes the evolution of australopithecines between 5 - 7 million years ago to the arrival of modern humans in the New World about 20,000 BC.


  • To provide you with an overview of the fossil, archaeological, molecular, and environmental evidence for the pattern of human evolution, which will permit you to assess the relative importance of these categories of information in different contexts.
  • To enable you to assess the importance of an evolutionary perspective to the human sciences and our perception of what it means to be human.

Intended Learning Outcomes

By the end of this unit successful students will be able to:

  1. Define the term ‘Primate’, describe the structure of primate phylogeny, and explain how humans fit into this phylogenetic framework.
  2. Explain the role of studies of modern primate social structures and anatomy in the interpretation of human evolution.
  3. Discuss critically the major categories of palaeoanthropological investigative procedure.
  4. Understand the key stages in the pattern of human evolution, both in terms of anatomical changes and cultural changes, as they are currently understood.
  5. Name the geographical location of major sites and finds.
  6. Describe critically the main developments in the history of the science of human evolution, and be able to assess the contribution of key scientists.

Teaching Information

Weekly lectures/practicals or seminars, supported by self-directed activities

Assessment Information

1) An open book exam (50%). Assesses ILOs 2-4

2) One 2500 word essay (50%). Assesses ILOs 1-6

Reading and References

As the lectures progress you will receive some handouts directing you to particular groups of readings for specific topics, and you are encouraged to explore these week by week in your own time. If you wish to read a textbook to support this course, I recommend the following:

Boyd, R & Silk J. (2003). How humans evolved . New York ; London.

DeSalle, R and Tattersall, I. (2008). Human Origins: What bones and genomes tell us about ourselves. College Station: Texas A&M University Press.

Lewin, R and Foley, R. (2005). Principles of Human Evolution. Oxford: Blackwell.

Scarre, CJ ed (2005). The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies. London: Thames and Hudson.

The field of human evolution is a particularly dynamic discipline, so it is important not to rely on text books alone. Most of the new discoveries from the last two years are not yet incorporated into these. Much more reliable are journals such as the Journal of Human Evolution, Current Anthropology, and the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, and others listed below, all of which can be accessed through the libraries or online.