Human Evolution

Module Code: 4430104-A

Module leader: Penny Spikins

Teaching staff: Penny Spikins, Paul O'Higgins, Sam Cobb 



Although archaeology studies people as cultural entities, our highly-developed social and cultural activities are a reflection of what makes us human; of our characteristics as a species. The study of human evolution thus seeks to address some basic questions concerning our origins as a biological species and the emergence of those social and cultural traits. It also addresses what we are, and the problematic issue of variation in modern humans, with its dark overtones of ethnicity and race. In this module, we start at the beginning, and have to forget two things that are so familiar and ingrained that we rarely think about them.

First, forget that we are the end of the story; We know, of course, that we are the current end result of human evolution, and it is all too easy to study the evidence of human evolution with that end in view. But evolution is not purposive and directional, and our study of human evolution should follow the plot as it unfolds, forgetting that we have already read the last few pages.

Second, forget that our Family are currently represented on Earth by just one species - us. That has been the case since the last Neanderthals and the Flores hobbits shambled quietly into extinction, but for much of human evolution there have been two, three, or more different species of hominin existing on this planet. The study of hominin fossils has been complicated by two things in particular: the habit of a few palaeoanthropologists to ascribe nearly every new fossil to a new species, and the need felt by others to put those fossils into a linear evolutionary sequence, one species at a time. That view also side-lines as 'failures' or 'unsuccessful' any species that seem not to be in our direct ancestry. One such side-branch, Paranthropus robustus, may be extinct, but it was around for at least five times as long as our species has managed so far.

So, two or more co-existing hominin species has been the norm, and we are the outcome but not necessarily the aim. Start with those two things in mind.





  • this module enables students to study the origins and variation of the human species in small-group seminars that encourage close engagement with primary source material and critical discussion of the principles and methods involved.



In completing this module, you will:

  • have an understanding of the key theories and debates concerning the origins of our species
  • have a detailed knowledge of the history of research into the study of human evolution, both physical and cultural
  • have a critical awareness of the limitations of the dataset
  • be able to evaluate different lines of evidence and consider different temporal scales
  • have prepared formal contribution to two seminars, and engaged in discussion at the others
  • have produced two formative essays, consolidating the understanding generated in the course


During this module you will be building on the skills you have learnt in the first and second years. The Special Topic will particularly help you develop:
  • Self management: you have learnt to plan your time and work autonomously in the last couple of years but it is even more important that you take the initiative this term and manage your time effectively to cope with the demands of this module (for which you should be dedicating about 3-4 days of your time per week) against the demands of the dissertation, and your other committments
  • Communication: this is the last chance to practice your verbal communication skills and take account of your feedback, before you do presentations in Assessed Seminars which will count towards your final degree. You also need to make sure you have really understood how to write a strong academic argument which is required in the exam, but you will have the chance to practice this further in essays during the module- make sure you attend feedback sessions so that you understand how to improve
  • Team working: it may be of benefit to form your own study groups and work together with others in the class in order to cover all the reading you have been set
  • Problem solving: you will be developing your skills in retrieving, analysing and evaluating information from a range of different sources
  • Social, cultural and global awareness: you should be developing your awareness of international issues and particularly ethical issues
  • Application of IT: you will be developing your word processing skills and should concentrate on presentation of your work, both in essays but also the Powerpoints you create