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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: 2024-25

Module summary

In this module 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 cover the span of human (and pre human) societies from three million years ago until the origins of our own species, and include early human activities 2 million years ago in Africa, Homo ergaster and Homo heidelbergensis and lastly Neanderthals. We discuss and develop key themes, including the origins of uniquely human social relationships, interdependence and collaboration, care practices, aesthetic sensibilities and mortuary practices and you have an opportunity to explore one theme in detail in your essay.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 1 2024-25

Module aims

This module aims to:

  • to develop an understanding some of the key debates over the origins of key human traits in thought, social relationships and culture
  • to provide an overview of key changes taking place in human societies during the lower and middle Palaeolithic periods
  • to encourage critical appraisal of how archaeological evidence can be used to build up an understanding of the progressive emergence of key human capacities

Module learning outcomes

Upon completion of this module students should be able to:

  • Demonstrate a systematic 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
  • Demonstrate critical engagement with interpretations of and debates surrounding archaeological and related evidence from the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic
  • Communicate complex ideas in an analytical framework through essay writing and 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 key traits which have been seen as dividing humanity from other animals and the possible archaeological evidence for these traits in 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 particular human capacities including care for the vulnerable, art, mortuary practices and culture. We also consider the extent to which Neanderthals followed a different evolutionary path to ourselves.


Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Special assessment rules




Module feedback

Formative: oral feedback from module leaders

Summative: written feedback within the University's turnaround policy

Indicative reading

Spikins, P. A. 2022. Hidden depths: the origins of human connection. White Rose University Press.

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)

Wragg Sykes, R. 2020. Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death and art. Bloomsbury Sigma.

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.