The University of Southampton
HumanitiesPostgraduate study

ARCH6121 Contexts for Human Origins Research

Module Overview

The module will focus on the major questions which have been, and are being, asked of Palaeolithic data. These include such issues as language origins, global colonisation, population replacement. We shall explore these in two ways: thematically, showing how each independent research framework contributes to origins research (conducted in the seminars), and site-based, using records from key sites to evaluate the extent and durability of traits in the Palaeolithic (achieved within oral presentations).

Aims and Objectives


The aims of this module are to:

  • Examine the variety of major research questions and frameworks in the Palaeolithic.
  • Provide a sound working knowledge of current themes in Palaeolithic archaeology that are explored through these research frameworks.
  • Introduce you to the kind of information that constitutes the material cultural record of human origins.
  • Introduce you to the differences between the African, Asian, and European records.
  • Look in some detail at the Palaeolithic variability seen over time and space, and what it might mean for the reconstruction of the behaviour of hominins.
  • Look at how data are used to reconstruct hominin behaviour.

Knowledge and Understanding
Having successfully completed this module you will be able to demonstrate:

  • Understanding of the interdisciplinary environment of Palaeolithic studies.
  • Understanding of the major research themes for the period.
  • Knowledge of the historical basis for Palaeolithic research.
  • Evaluation of the applicability of different conceptual frameworks to the investigation of Palaeolithic data.

Cognitive (thinking) skills
Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Understand how to evaluate research questions.
  • Integrate data and concepts to answer research questions.
  • Critically assess the concepts of others.
  • Evaluate the interpretation of data.

Practical (subject specific) skills
Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Integrate theoretical issues and archaeological questions with published data from key archaeological sites.
  • Identify key areas of research in the study of human origins and Palaeolithic archaeology.

Key transferable skills
Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Demonstrate effective use of a variety of information sources – book, journal, internet.
  • Present information to a group through regular seminar contributions.
  • Contribute effectively to group seminar discussions, and to lead them.
  • Undertake oral presentations.
  • Distil a wide variety of data and ideas to address key issues within oral presentations and a PowerPoint summary of a seminar discussion.
  • Evaluate information on an independent basis.


 Typically, the syllabus will cover the following:



Orientation & introduction to the course

Chimpanzee technology; Oldowan and Acheulean.

The use of analogy in archaeological interpretation

Acheulean makers and lifestyles; Acheulean as a technological mode.

Evolutionary and social models: frameworks for analysis.

Middle Pleistocene regional variability; the "Acheulean World."

Integrity & resolution in the archaeological record

Homo ergaster colonisation; Lower Palaeolithic chronologies

Groups and individuals in the Palaeolithic

The origins of Prepared Core Technologies; PCT as a technological mode

Time & temporality

Neanderthal specialised hunting; characterising Neanderthal society

Place and space

Homo sapiens & Neanderthals; European Upper Palaeolithic "revolution."

Transitions (i): biological (brains, populations and genes).

Defining "modern humans"; why is "modernity" an odd concept?

Transitions (ii): social (technology, mind and identity/ethnicity)

Aurignacian dispersal; Gravettian as truly "Upper Palaeolithic."

Transitions (iii): society (language, symbolism and social evolution).

Cave art and refugia; characterising the late Upper Palaeolithic.


Hominins on the move

Colonisation of Australia; Tasmanian prehistoric settlement & technology.

Hunters, foragers and farmers.

Colonising the Americas; dispersal routes into the Americas.

Learning and Teaching

Study time allocation

Contact hours:24
Private study hours:126
Total study time: 150 hours

Teaching and learning methods

The module examines in detail the leading questions of contemporary enquiry into the Palaeolithic. Who are we, and how did we come to be the way we are? Discussion is conducted through student-led seminars and presentations on given topics given by students. The approach is essentially theoretical, but the practical applications of this theory to the Palaeolithic record will be emphasised. You will have the opportunity of testing ideas with leading figures in interpreting the Palaeolithic record.

The module will be taught through a mixture of student-led seminars and presentations, for which reading lists are provided. Independent study will include preparation for an essay, for presentations and seminars.

Resources and reading list

Binford, L.R. 2001.  Constructing Frames of Reference: An analytical method for archaeological theory building using ethnographic and environmental datasets.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dobres, M.-A. 2000.  Technology and social agency.  Oxford: Blackwell.

Gamble, C.S. 1999.  Palaeolithic Societies of Europe.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gamble, C.S. 2007.  Origins and Revolutions: Human identity in earliest prehistory.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gamble, C. & M. Porr 2005.  The Hominid Individual in Context: Archaeological investigations of Lower and Middle Palaeolithic landscapes, locales and artefacts.  London: Routledge.

Gosden, C. 1999.  Anthropology and archaeology: a changing relationship.  London: Routledge.

Klein, R. 1999.  The Human Career: Human biological and cultural origins.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lowe, J.J. & M.J.C. Walker 1997.  Reconstructing Quaternary Environments.  Longman.

Mithen, S. 2003.  After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000-5000 BC.   London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Petraglia, M. & R. Korisettar (eds.) 1998.  Early human behaviour in global context.  London: Routledge.

Stringer, C. & P. Andrews 2005.  The Complete World of Human Evolution.  London: Thames & Hudson.

van Andel, T.H. & W. Davies (eds.) 2003.  Neanderthals and modern humans in the European landscape during the last glaciation.  Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research Monographs.


Assessment methods

  • Essay (2500 words) - 40%
  • Approximately 3 powerpoint presentations (20 minutes each) - 40%
  • Powerpoint summary of one seminar led by the student - 20%


Programmes in which this module is compulsory

MA Palaeolithic Archaeology and Human Origins

ProgrammeUCAS CodeProgramme length
MA Palaeolithic Archaeology and Human OriginsV4001 years
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