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Merrick, Harry, 3.987 Human Origins and Evolution, Spring 2006. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), (Accessed 10 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Human Origins and Evolution

Spring 2006

The Venus of Willendorf.
The Venus of Willendorf, carved between 24,000 and 22,000 BC. (Photograph courtesy of Mary Harrsch.)

Course Highlights

This course features lecture notes.

Course Description

This course examines the dynamic interrelations among physical and behavioral traits of humans, environment, and culture to provide an integrated framework for studying human biological evolution and modern diversity. Topics include issues in morphological evolution and adaptation; fossil and cultural evidence for human evolution from earliest times through the Pleistocene; evolution of tool use and social behavior; modern human variation and concepts of race. The class also studies stone artifacts and fossil specimens.


Scope of the Subject

An introductory subject which presents the main outlines of human evolution, both physical and cultural. The subject's scope encompasses our immediate pre-hominid ancestors of the Miocene, dating to between 6 and 22 million years ago, and all subsequent hominids including anatomically modern Homo sapiens who first appear within the past 150,000 years. The class charts hominid evolution from savanna/woodland dwelling primates with a distribution in tropical Africa to modern humans whose mental abilities and complex technology have enabled them to colonize all corners of the world. The class includes a survey of the late Pleistocene human cultural adaptations which formed the basis for the subsequent development of agricultural and pastoral based economies and urbanization which are the hallmarks of many human societies of the past 10,000 years. The subject concludes with discussion of modern human morphological variation and races.

The subject integrates recent research in human palaeontology and archaeology to examine the interconnections between human physical and cultural development during the course of human evolution. Beginning with the Oligocene and Miocene primate substratum, the subject examines the five subsequent major stages of hominid evolution: 1) the earliest hominids (australopithecines), 2) the earliest Homo, 3) Homo erectus, 4) Homo heidelbergensis and neanderthalensis, and 5) modern Homo sapiens. For each stage a synopsis of the historical highlights of previous research will be presented, as will a description of the hard fossil evidence contributing to our knowledge of the hominid's physical form. The archaeological evidence for the cultural behavior (including symbolic behavior, subsistence patterns, and the level of technological capabilities) represented in each stage will be discussed using the format of mini-case studies using selected archaeological sites including Olduvai Gorge, East Turkana, Olorgesailie, Terra Amata, Dolni Vestonice and Abu Hureyra.

By the very nature of the fossil and archaeological record the detailed history of human evolution can never be certainly known, but it is the subject's aim to provide students with an appreciation of what is reliably known (the "facts") about human evolution, what must remain informed speculation, and what avenues still remain to be investigated.

Subject Mechanics

  1. Two meetings per week: a combination of lectures, discussions, and practical handling of fossil casts and artifactual materials.
  2. Required work: includes a midterm exam, several short lab exercises, quizzes, two reading commentaries and two 4-5 page response papers, a group based presentation in class and a second midterm exam given during exam period.

N.B. attendance at lectures and participation in the discussions will be considered in evaluating your performance in this class.

Overall Weight of Assignments

Reading Response - Waal and Mitani et al Papers (3 Pages) 6%
Osteology Quiz 5%
Early Hominid Variation Discussion 12%
Isaac / Lovejoy / Bingham Reading Discussion (4-5 Pages) 11%
First Midterm Examination 22%
Shipman et al Reading - Logic Evaluation - 1 Page Outline 4%
Binford - Mousterian Critique (4-5 Pages) 11%
Reading Response - Diamond / Molleson Papers (3 Pages) 6%
Second Midterm Examination (Exam Period) 23


1-2 Introduction: The Search for Human Ancestors, Approaches to the Study of Human Evolution and an Introduction to Human Osteology
3-4 Evolutionary Processes and Time Scales
5 Modern Primates and Their Relevance to Understanding Human Origins
6 Tertiary Higher Primates: Our Pre-Hominid Predecessors
7-8 Earliest Hominids: The Australopithecines and Affines
9 Early Hominids - Variations and Taxonomy - Presentations
10 Hominid / Human Origins: Hypotheses and Speculation
11 Early Homo: How Should Homo Be Defined?
12-13 The Archaeology of the Early Hominids I: Olduvai Gorge and Koobi Fora
14 The Archaeology of the Early Hominids II: Interpreting Early Hominid Behavior and Current Research Directions
15 Midterm Exam
16 Homo ergaster and erectus: Emerging Modern Morphology
17 Slowly Emerging Modern Behaviors: Early Stone Age / Lower Palaeolithic Age
18 Homo heidelbergensis and neanderthalensis or Early "Archaic" H. sapiens?
19-20 "Archaics": Not Quite Us Physically, Not Quite Us Mentally
21 Origin of Modern Homo sapiens: Morphology and Genetic Evidence
22-23 Modern Homo sapiens I: Cultural Diversity Becomes the Norm
24 Modern Homo sapiens II: To the Threshold of Civilization
25-26 Modern Human Diversity: Distribution, Morphological Variation and "Races"   Tell A Friend