MA/MSc in Early Prehistory and Human Origins

Course director: Dr Penny Spikins

 

At a glance

Explore what it means to be human

Why choose this course?

If you’re interested in what it means to be human, where we came from and how humans developed and adapted, the MA/MSc in Early Prehistory is for you. You will work alongside the UK’s foremost academics in early prehistory to delve into the origins of humanity and explore the evolution of cultures, customs, religions, art and technology. The flexible nature of the course enables you to pursue your own particular interests.

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The archaeology of human origins is a fascinating and dynamic area of research, with new evidence and theories constantly changing our interpretation of who we are. The work of staff and researchers on this course regularly gains media attention, with recent studies of Neanderthal children and the origins of compassion attracting widespread coverage.

  • Explore the archaeology and approaches to human origins
  • Work alongside internationally renowned specialists in early prehistoric archaeology and human evolution
  • Work on pioneering studies with the potential for significant media exposure
  • Gain ‘hands on’ experience of museum collections at the York Museum
  • Visit Upper Palaeolithic rock art on a field trip to Creswell Crags
  • Choose modules to support your own research interests
  • Use the latest techniques and equipment to build key practical skills
  • Receive advice on developing your career and research interests from knowledgeable staff

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What does the course cover?

The course addresses fascinating questions such as: what makes us ‘human’? How did early human societies work? How different were Neanderthals from ourselves and why did they die out? What was life like in the Ice Age? We debate these questions and many others within a lively research environment as you build up your knowledge and experience of early prehistoric societies from three million to 5,000 years ago.

Who is it for?

This course is designed for anyone with an interest in human origins, human evolution and what defines us as a species. Most students taking the course have a degree in archaeology or a related subject. However, people with relevant experience or a passionate interest in the subject may also be admitted to the course

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What can it lead to?

This course does not lead directly to a specific vocation, but offers a broad range of essential skills and expertise, specialist knowledge and insight, which are relevant to a wide variety of careers or further study. Many of our students go on to pursue research at PhD level while others have taken up careers in heritage, conservation, the archaeology sector and academia.

See what our alumni have to say about the course:

“This course forces us to search more deeply into our origins, into what it means to be human ... it has been to me the most inspiring part of my studies. Clearly, the staff’s dedication and passion for these topics are highly contagious! Watch out!”

Lucile Crété (2011), research student, University of Bordeaux

“The MSc in early prehistory provides the intellectual freedom to tackle the big questions in human origins studies head on, gaining interdisciplinary skills and insights, from psychological and neurological perspectives to the more familiar anthropological, as you proceed through the course.”

Andy Needham (2010), PhD student

Course content

Your voyage of discovery into the origins of humanity

This one-year MA/MSc course is taught via a combination of lectures, seminars and field trips. You will study two core modules, two optional modules and four shorter skills modules of your choice. Finally, you will hone your research skills by producing a dissertation and presenting an assessed lecture on your chosen topic.  The MA/MSc are differentiated by the dissertation topic and approach.

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AUTUMN AND SPRING TERMS

During the autumn and spring terms, you will study two core modules, each worth 20 credits. These are:

Becoming human: evolving minds and societies
Consider the fascinating question of what it means to be ‘human’. Study the key phases in the evolution of human cognitive abilities and social systems, and gain a critical awareness of how the evidence is interpreted. Explore the archaeological evidence for Lower and Middle Palaeolithic societies.

Hunting and gathering societies
Explore the nature of hunter-gatherer lifestyles, and how studies of hunter-gatherers can contribute to interpretations of past societies, focusing on the Upper Palaeolithic period. Develop a critical awareness of archaeological and anthropological approaches to hunter-gatherer societies.

You will study two further 20-credit modules and four shorter 'skills' modules. 

We always try to give everyone their first choice of modules, although this cannot be guaranteed. Some skills modules required by particular programmes may be over-subscribed. Take a look at the full modules list for scheduling information, as some modules run concurrently.  

SUMMER TERM

In your final term of study, you will carry out research for your dissertation and give an assessed lecture on your dissertation topic.

Previous dissertation topics have included:

  • Narratives within Upper Palaeolithic cave art
  • The prehistory of compassion
  • Neanderthal children and burial
  • Childhood in evolutionary perspectives
  • Venus figurines
  • Reinterpreting Clactonian and Acheulian assemblages
  • New perspectives on microliths and social status

This programme is also available for study as a Postgraduate Diploma or Certificate in Early Prehistory.


“This course is essential for anyone interested in the antiquity of humankind with its diverse cultures, customs, religions, art and technologies. It may, as it has with me, take you in a completely new and unexpected direction.”

Elle Clifford (2013), novelist

“York allows its Masters students the opportunity to take a broad range of additional modules outside of their specific topic. I used this opportunity to choose modules from various other topics, including the cultural heritage sector, which helped me to further broaden my interests and knowledge.”

Holly Rutherford (2012), House and Collections Manager for the National Trust, Fermanagh Properties

Staff

Work with internationally renowned specialists

Teaching for this course is conducted in small groups by an internationally renowned group of staff from the Archaeology department and Hull-York Medical School.

As Director of Studies, Dr Penny Spikins provides the principal teaching and support for the course. Penny’s research interests cover Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Archaeology. She has particular interests in modern hunter-gatherers and in the evolution of human moral emotions.

Additional teaching, support and practical training is provided by other specialists who lead various optional modules on the course. These include Prof. Nicky Milner, Prof. Geoff Bailey, Dr David Orton, Prof. Don Brothwell, Prof. Matthew Collins, Dr Laura Fitton and Prof. Paul O’Higgins.

“With teaching staff who are at the forefront of this area of study, you are encouraged to challenge accepted theories with calculated debate and discourse.”
Robert Johnson (2013)

“Only by searching our origins can we begin to comprehend the human condition fully. This course will take you on a voyage of discovery, and the teaching is second to none.”
Elle Clifford (2013), novelist

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Careers

A firm foundation for varied careers and research

By the end of your MA/MSc in Early Prehistory you will:

  • have developed an awareness of the scope of Early Prehistory and knowledge of key early prehistoric societies
  • be able to identify key transitions in human evolution
  • be aware of the issues of interpreting archaeological evidence for early prehistoric societies
  • have developed a critical understanding of the key debates in the period
  • have developed your ability to gather and organise information and arguments in a critical and independent manner through writing essays and producing projects
  • have undertaken a piece of independent research on a topic within early prehistory
  • have developed your presentational skills through the delivery of seminar papers on a range of diverse themes

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The skills, knowledge and insights gained on the course can provide a launchpad for a wide range of archaeological and heritage careers, as well as further study and research.

Course postgraduates have gone on to take up research degrees, academic posts and careers with prominent heritage, conservation and archaeological organisations.

Find out what some of our alumni have said about the course and how it improved their career prospects:

“The course has made me more employable, working as a research assistant in the psychology department on an interdisciplinary research project and publishing research in academic journals that had their origins in discussions during the masters course.”

Andy Needham (2010), PhD student

“I found my MSc a valuable asset to my career after university and truly feel I wouldn’t be in the position I am now without it. The skills and experience I gained while at York, from time management and research skills to the personal confidence gained in areas such as public speaking and presentation, have been invaluable.”

Holly Rutherford (2012), House and Collections Manager for the National Trust, Fermanagh Properties

Alumni

Where next? A word from our alumni

Alumni of the MA/MSc in Early Prehistory have gone on to take up varied careers in the archaeology sector and in a whole range of associated fields, thanks to the experience and knowledge gained during their studies at York.

Here’s what some recent graduates had to say about the course:

Holly Rutherford (2012) currently House and Collections Manager for the National Trust, Fermanagh Properties

Holly Rutherford

“I found my MSc a valuable asset to my career after university and truly feel I wouldn’t be in the position I am now without it. The skills and experience I gained while at York, from time management and research skills to the personal confidence gained in areas such as public speaking and presentation, have been invaluable.

“York also allows its Masters students the opportunity to take a broad range of additional modules outside of their specific topic. I used this opportunity to choose modules from various other topics, including the cultural heritage sector, which helped me to further broaden my interests and knowledge. Any career path in the heritage or history sector is likely to be competitive, but by offering such opportunities York ensures its students have the best possible chance of progressing in this sector.

“The department is a friendly and supportive one, as are the students! The city is fantastic for students as well, small enough to always feel friendly but big enough so there is always something to see or do. I can’t recommend study at York highly enough.”

Elle Clifford (2013), currently writing a palaeolothic novel

Elle Clifford

“Who and what are we? How did we become human? If, like me, these questions excite you, then this is the course for you! I studied prehistory after many years as a social psychologist; an unusual crossover, but these subjects have a great deal to offer each other, and I have been personally rewarded.

“Only by searching our origins can we begin to comprehend the human condition fully. This course will take you on a voyage of discovery, and the teaching is second to none. You will be encouraged to rethink many of your assumptions and your ideas will be challenged. This course is essential for anyone interested in the antiquity of humankind with its diverse cultures, customs, religions, art and technologies. It may, as it has with me, take you in a completely new and unexpected direction.”

Robert Johnson (2013), currently applying for a PGCE

“This course pushes you to re-evaluate concepts of human development and to explore and create your own ideas and explanations. With teaching staff who are at the forefront of this area of study, you are encouraged to challenge accepted theories with calculated debate and discourse. My mind was opened up to new ways of thinking, not just in relation to my academic work but also my wider life as I found the study of human origins can inform you about the state of our world today.”

Andy Needham (2010), currently PhD student, University of York

Andy Needham

“Having completed an undergraduate degree in Archaeology at the University of York, I knew that I wanted to stay and continue my studies with a masters degree. York is a fantastic place to live and the department is a great place to study. I never get tired of walking through the King’s Manor, the building acting as a point of inspiration in its own right, even before you sit down and talk archaeology with your peers.

“The MSc in early prehistory is an excellent course that provides the intellectual freedom to tackle the big questions in human origins studies head on, gaining interdisciplinary skills and insights, from psychological and neurological perspectives to the more familiar anthropological, as you proceed through the course. I felt like we were really trying to tackle current problems and points of debate in the discipline and that our discussions and ideas really mattered.

“This was the perfect primer to my PhD research, also at the University of York, dealing with Palaeolithic art. The interdisciplinary perspectives explored within the course have left me well equipped to explore both my scientific and theoretical interests, improving the overall standard of my work. The course has made me more employable, working as a research assistant in the psychology department on an interdisciplinary research project and publishing research in academic journals that had their origins in discussions during the masters course. I would do it all over again without a moments hesitation!”

Entry

How to apply

To apply for this course, you will need:

  • A good honours degree (upper second or first class) or an equivalent qualification from an overseas institution in archaeology, anthropology or a related field.  

Mature students or those with less conventional qualifications but with relevant experience in this field will be considered. If you are uncertain whether your qualifications or experience are appropriate, please contact the Course Director. 

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First, check our How to apply page, which explains what information the Department needs from you.

 

Penny Spikins 218

“York is frequently in the media spotlight for our pioneering research into the origins of humankind and how our earliest ancestors lived. If you’re curious about the evolution of humanity, there’s no better place in the UK to explore how humans emerged, developed and adapted over time to make us what we are today.” 

Dr Penny Spikins