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Special Topic: Human Evolution - ARC00082H

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  • Department: Archaeology
  • Module co-ordinator: Prof. Penny Spikins
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: H
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24
    • See module specification for other years: 2024-25

Module summary

Where did we come from? And how did we end up here? The question of our distant evolutionary origins and what they mean for today has perhaps never seemed more important. In this module we explore precisely these questions. 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.

Related modules

A directed option - students must pick a Special Topic module and have a choice of which to take

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching period
A Semester 2 2023-24

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 examine the history of research and broad timeline of human evolution and background to our understanding of evolutionary processes
  • To evaluate and critique different explanations for key transitions in human evolution
  • To develop research, analytical and communication skills.

Module learning outcomes

In completing this module, students should be able to:

  • demonstrate a broad and comparative knowledge of key phases and transitions in human evolution
  • critically discuss and assess key theories and debates in human biological, cognitive and social origins
  • critically evaluate how different types of evidence can be used to further our understanding of human biological, cognitive and social evolution
  • communicate an in-depth, logical and structured argument, supported by archaeological evidence

Module content

We cover the period of our origins starting from our earliest ancestors living 7-8 million years ago and ending with the evolution of our own species. We begin with the basics of evolutionary theory and with approaches to human origins before considering our evolutionary history as primates and the influence this has on our minds and bodies, then moving on to some of the earliest hominin ancestors, australopithecines, the emergence of the genus Homo and onto archaic and modern humans. We cover key topics drawing on archaeological and anatomical evidence including changes in diet, bipedalism, interpretations of stone tools, the evolution of cognition, the evolution of social and cultural behaviours as well as special issues such as alternative pathways and domestication. Lastly we question the role of our distant past on our human present and futures today.


Task Length % of module mark
Oral presentation/seminar/exam
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Oral presentation/seminar/exam
Pre-recorded presentation
N/A 100

Module feedback

Formative: oral feedback from module leaders in class

Summative: written feedback within the University's turnaround policy

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

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

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.