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Merrick, Harry, 3.986 The Human Past: Introduction to Archaeology, Fall 2006. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), (Accessed 10 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The Human Past: Introduction to Archaeology

Fall 2006

Cave painting with intricate geometric patterns.

A Chumash cave painting in Santa Barbara County, California.
(Photo courtesy of Gyrus.)

Course Highlights

This course features an extensive list of readings, plus summaries of key terms, concepts and characters in the lecture notes section.

Course Description

This class introduces the multidisciplinary nature of archaeology, both in theory and practice. Lectures provide a comparative examination of the origins of agriculture and the rise of early civilizations in the ancient Near East and Mesoamerica. The laboratory sessions provide practical experience in aspects of archaeological field methods and analytical techniques including the examination of stone, ceramic, and metal artifacts and bone materials. Lab sessions have occasional problem sets which are completed outside of class.


This page includes a course calendar summarizing the lecture and lab topics.


Prior to 13,000 years ago all humans lived in relatively mobile small scale societies characterized by egalitarian social structures. Their subsistence depended on foraging for wild foods (often called "hunting and gathering") and reciprocity of exchange. The total human population at 13,000 years bp (before present) has been estimated at about ten million. In the last 13,000 years the human population has increased several hundredfold, and numerous diverse complex societies characterized by food production (agriculture), permanent settlements, hierarchically ranked social structures, and redistributive economic systems developed in most parts of the Old and New Worlds. The attainment of this degree of complexity is often referred to as achieving "civilization." The central theme of this class is the study of the processes leading to the earliest appearance of such societies in the Middle East/eastern Mediterranean region and Mesoamerica. We are interested in examining the similarity and difference in the trajectory of developments in these two regions to better understand the environmental contexts and the cultural processes involved with these changes.

Class Requirements and Mechanics

To fulfill the HASS-D requirements this subject includes two one hour lectures per week, one hour of recitation, and two hours of lab.

The required written work includes three papers (ca. 7-8 pages each), a midterm examination and a final examination as scheduled below. Weekly lab exercises and problem sets will be assigned in conjunction with the labs. Attendance and participation in all class activities (lecture, recitation/discussion and lab) will be considered in evaluating your performance in this class. (Students not fulfilling the HASS-D writing requirement will not receive a passing grade.)


 Lamberg-Karlovsky, C. C., and J. A. Sabloff. Ancient Civilizations: The Near East and Mesoamerica. 2nd ed. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1995. ISBN: 9780881338348.

Additional readings are assigned from journal articles, journal abstracts, and papers from books.


1st Paper Assignment 15%
First Midterm Examination 17%
2nd Paper Assignment 15%
3rd Paper Assignment 15%
Final Examination (Exam Period) 20%
Labs Assignments are Issued Weekly and Due the Following Week 18%


The calendar below provides information on the course's lecture (Lec) and lab (Lab) sessions.

Lec1 Introductory Remarks - Overview and Class and Lab Logistics  
Lec2 Archaeology: Nature and Goals; Historical Development as a Discipline  
Lab1 Chronology and Dating Techniques  
Unit 1 - Earlier Prehistory: A Brief Overview
Lec3 Becoming Human: Early Hominids and the Earliest Technology  
Lec4 Becoming Human: Early Humans and Emerging Cultural Behavior  
Lec5 Becoming Human: Modern Humans and the Advent of Modern Behaviors  
Lab2 Chronology and Dating Techniques (cont.)  
Unit 2 - The Near East Case Study
Lec6 Theoretical Perspectives; Variables to be Considered in Comparative Studies. The Environmental Setting for Domestication and the Evolution of Social Complexity in the Near East  
Lec7 Pre-Neolithic Adaptations and the Natufian in the Near East  
Lab3 Site Documentation - Map Reading, Site Location  
Lec8 Domestication: Recognition, Processes and Impact  
Lec9 Origins and Expansion of Agriculture and Pastoralism in the Near East Context  
Lab4 Site Documentation - Mapping  
Lec10 Early Village Farming Communities: Geographic Expansion, Emerging Class Stratification and Centralization of Religion First paper due
Lab5 Stone Technology Lab: Manufacturing Techniques  
Lec11 The Earliest Stages of Urbanization: Ubaid and Eridu  
Lec12 Urbanization and City States: Uruk, Civilization and Writing  
Lab6 Stone Technology Lab: Debitage Identification / Classification  
Lec13 Urbanization and City States: Ur Political and Social Environments, Material Achievements, the Critical Factors Interacting in the Development of Stratified Society in the Near East  
  Midterm Examination  
Lec14 Refocusing on the Comparative Theme: Eurasia - The Americas  
Unit 3 - The Mesoamerica Case Study
Lec15 Peopling of The Americas. The Mesoamerican Environmental Setting: Lowlands and Highlands  
Lab7 Stone Technology Lab: Artifact Identification / Classification  
Lec16 Plant and Animal Domestication and the Emergence of Settled Village Life: Tehuacan and Oaxaca  
Lec17 Plant and Animal Domestication and the Emergence of Settled Village Life: Comparing Processes in Mesoamerica and the Near East Second paper due
Lab8 Ceramics Lab: Ceramics as Archaeological Materials, Forming and Firing Ceramic Vessels  
Lec18 The Emergence of the Olmec and Early Lowland Civilization - La Venta  
Lec19 Olmec Accomplishments  
Lab9 Ceramics Lab: Analysis of Ceramics as Materials  
Lec20 The Maya: The Rise of Tropical Rain Forest City-states  
Lec21 Maya Achievements and the Decline of the Classic Maya  
Lec22 Prof. Dorothy Hosler: West Mexican Metallurgy and its Importance in Interregional Contact Third paper due
Lab10 Faunal Analysis Lab: Bone / Element Identification  
Lec23 Teotihuacan: The Rise and Fall of a Highland State: Its Social Consequences  
Unit 4 - Decline and Collapse
Lec24 Decline of Early Civilizations - Social, Political, Economic - An Examination of Potential Causes in Mesopotamia and Mesoamerica  
Lab11 Faunal Analysis Lab: Bone / Faunal Identification  
Lec25 Decline of Early Civilizations (cont.)   Tell A Friend