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Special Topic: Human Evolution - ARC00052H

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  • Department: Archaeology
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Penny Spikins
  • Credit value: 30 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23
    • See module specification for other years: 2021-22

Module summary

Our distant evolutionary origins has always been a source of fascination and in this module we focus on the skeletal and archaeological evidence for what happened in the distant past to lead to our own species today. We will find that the story of our evolutionary origins is more complex, more chaotic and more surprising than we might imagine – there has never been any goal or intention, and multiple species of hominin and many different branches have been the norm for most of our evolutionary past.

Starting from our last common ancestor with other apes living around 7-8 million years ago we will look at the evolutionary processes which created and changed our bodies and minds over millions of years and how we as humans and human culture emerged. We draw on a range of evidence from the archaeological to anatomical to comparative primatology and on a range of disciplines to build up our understanding of our origins. Who is ‘nutcracker man’? Why are we bipedal? Are humans domesticated? What are the evolutionary explanations for art or mortuary practices? In this module we hope to address some of these questions as well as many others.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Autumn Term 2022-23

Module aims

Special Topics focus upon the archaeology of a well defined time, space or theme and the modules seek to allow students, in small groups to focus upon primary source material and to apply to it the theoretical and thematic perspectives learned over your first and second years. The aim is to facilitate the acquisition of deeper knowledge of one aspect of the past than has been possible in more general courses.

Specifically this module aims to:

  • Introduce the history of research and broad timeline of human evolution and background to our understanding of evolutionary processes

  • Overview key evolutionary changes in the hominin lineage by drawing on anatomical and archaeological evidence to consider skeletal, behavioural and cognitive changes

  • Consider differing sources of evidence for understanding evolutionary changes

  • Critically assess different explanations for key transitions in human evolution

Module learning outcomes

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 consolidated understanding generated in the course through formative essay-writing.

Module content

We start with the basics of evolutionary theory and with historical approaches to human origins before considering our evolutionary past from a chronological perspective. We begin with our evolutionary history as primates and the influence this has on our minds and bodies, before moving on to some of the earliest human ancestors, australopithecines, the emergence of the genus Homo and onto archaic and modern humans. We cover key topics including interpretations of stone tools, the evolution of cognition, the evolution of social and cultural behaviours and special issues such as alternative pathways and domestication. The module is team taught by Penny Spikins (evolutionary anthropology and palaeolithic archaeology) and Sam Cobb and Paul O’Higgins (evolutionary anatomy).

Indicative assessment

Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Indicative reassessment

Task Length % of module mark
N/A 100

Module feedback

Formative: The marker will share written feedback with you in a timetabled one-to-one meeting and you will have the opportunity to ask further questions about how to improve your work before your summative assessment. If you are unable to attend the feedback session, your tutor will share the formative feedback with you digitally.

Summative: Written feedback sheets will be uploaded to your e:vision account (your personal University of York online services account) within 20 working days of the submission deadline, along with your overall mark for the module. If you have any questions about your mark and/or your written feedback, you will be able to sign up for office hours with the marker.

Indicative reading

Scarre C. (ed.) 2019. The Human Past: World Prehistory and the development of human societies. Part I: The Evolution of Humanity: 6 million to 11,600 years ago

Galway-Witham J, Cole J, Stringer C 2019. Aspects of human physical and behavioural evolution during the last 1 million years. Journal of Quaternary Science 34 (6) : 355 - 378. doi: 10.1002/jqs.3137

Kuykendall, Kevin L. . And Heyerdahl-King, Isabelle S . 2014. Modern Human Origins in Africa: A Review of the Fossil, Archaeological, and Genetic Perspectives on Early Homo sapiens in Vicki Cummings, Peter Jordan, and Marek Zvelebil (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter gatherers

Detailed reading for the module will be available via YorkShare (the University's virtual learning environment). When you have enrolled on a module, you will be able to access the full reading list.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University constantly explores 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. In some instances it may be appropriate for the University to notify and consult with affected students about module changes in accordance with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.