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Becoming Human - ARC00018M

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  • Department: Archaeology
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Penny Spikins
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2021-22

Module summary

In this course we consider the fascinating question of what it means to be human. We ask if there are critical characteristics of humans which mark us as different from other species, and how, when and where we might identify them in the archaeological record.

We address human societies from those of our common ancestor with chimpanzees, to early human activities 2 million years ago in East Africa, Homo ergaster and Homo heidelbergensis and lastly Neanderthals. We question the key changes taking place in each period and in each consider what defining patterns of humanity we might identify emerging within the archaeological record.

We aim to provide a broad understanding of the key phases in the evolution of 'humanity' and a critical awareness of how the evidence is interpreted.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2021-22

Module aims

  • to provide an overview of archaeological evidence from the lower and middle Palaeolithic

  •  to develop an understanding some of the key debates over key social transitions in thought, social relationships and culture

  • to encourage critical appraisal of how archaeological evidence can be used to build up an understanding of the progressive emergence of key human traits

Module learning outcomes

  • Have a familiarity with archaeological evidence from the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic

  • Have a good understanding of the key transitions in the emergence of human thought, social relationships and culture

  • Be able to critically discuss interpretations of the origins of uniquely ‘human’ traits and their potential significance

  • Have developed their writing skills through assessed essays

  • Have presented their research through seminar presentations

Module content

We begin by considering some of the ‘golden barriers’ that have been constructed between humans and other animals, and the extent to which our nearest living relatives, other apes, have crossed these barriers. We then consider archaeological evidence for the lifestyles and behaviours of early hominins in Africa, archaic humans in Africa and Europe and the Neanderthals. We consider what archaeological evidence might tell us about the emergence of ‘human’ traits including care for the vulnerable, art, mortuary practices and culture and the extent to which Neanderthals followed a different evolutionary path to ourselves.


Task Length % of module mark
Coursework - Evolving Minds and Societies
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Coursework - Evolving Minds and Societies
N/A 100

Module feedback

Feedback will be available within 6 weeks

Indicative reading

Toth, N. and Shick, K. 2018. African Origins, in C. Scarre (ed.) The Human Past: World Prehistory and the Development of Human Societies, Thames and Hudson  (p47-70)

Spikins, Penny (2015). How compassion made us human: The evolutionary origins of tenderness, trust and morality. Pen and Sword.

Zilhao, J. (2014) The Neanderthals, Evolution, Palaeoecology and Extinction in V. Cummings, P. Jordan and M. Zvelebil (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-gatherers

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.