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ARCH3042 Ecology of human evolution: biological, social and cultural approaches to hominin adaptations.

Module Overview

This module explores human evolution in terms of physiological, social and cultural adaptations. It explores human ecology in the broad sense, combining not just cultural and social variability, but also physiological adaptations in past and present-day hunter-gatherers and great apes. These physiological adaptations are not just skeletal, but are also reflected in soft tissues and in surviving genotypes. We shall cover six main themes: different models of biocultural change; Human Behavioural Ecology; hominin energy budgets; brain size changes; dexterity, handedness and tool-use; social organisation over time and space. Evidence derived from primatology, ethnoarchaeology, ancient DNA, stable isotopes and Palaeolithic assemblages can be used to test models such as the Social Brain hypothesis, Daily Energy Expenditures, hominin thermoregulation and mobility/locomotion costs, and the applicability of different evolutionary mechanisms to change in the archaeological record (e.g. Lamarck versus Darwin). Lectures will be augmented by student-led seminars on key debates in palaeoanthropology and Human Behavioural Ecology.

Aims and Objectives

Module Aims

• examine the driving factors behind hominin behavioural and physiological variation. • examine evidence for the ecologies and adaptations of present-day hunter-gatherers and great apes. • evaluate key interdisciplinary debates in palaeoanthropology.

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • the effects of palaeoenvironmental conditions on hominin behavioural and physiological variability and change (speciation and extinction);
  • contribute towards team discussion and consensus;
  • develop within your peer group written and oral presentation skills;
  • the different analytical scales needed to examine processes of change in hominin populations;
  • evaluate published arguments, and present information and opinion concisely to audiences of different abilities.
  • specific models from evolutionary ecology in relation to subsistence behaviour among hunter-gatherers and great apes;
  • the increasing extent to which stable isotopic and genetic data can be combined to inform palaeoanthropological interpretations of human evolution;
  • the role of social choice and epigenetics in hominin diversity.
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • acquire study skills using a range of archaeological, primatological/ethnographic, biological and palaeoenvironmental data;
  • become familiar with interdisciplinary fields of knowledge, and how to communicate these approaches to different audiences.


This module will combine approaches from human origins and biological anthropological research to evaluate how we can reconstruct the ecologies (in the broad sense) of hominins. We shall focus on hominin records between 6 million and 10,000 years ago. Multiple frameworks and lines of evidence will be evaluated, using a mix of lectures, seminars, group-based and individual research. You will have the opportunity to evaluate the latest techniques (many operating at the microscopic and molecular levels) that are helping to revolutionise palaeoanthropology. Each of the six frameworks/themes comprising the module will be spread over 2-4 double lecture slots, augmented by three seminars.

Learning and Teaching

Teaching and learning methods

Teaching methods include • Lectures • Classes/Seminars • Group-based outreach project Learning activities include • Lectures • Classes/Seminars • Group-produced outreach materials • Independent study

Completion of assessment task84
Preparation for scheduled sessions15
Wider reading or practice20
Follow-up work5
Project supervision1
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

Allen, N.J., Callan, H., Dunbar, R. & W. James (eds.) (2011). Early Human Kinship: From sex to social reproduction. 

de Beaune, S.A., Coolidge, F.L. & T. Wynn (eds.) (2009). Cognitive Archaeology and Human Evolution. 

Dunbar, R. (2014). Human Evolution: A Pelican Introduction. 

Panter-Brick, C., Layton, R.H. & P. Rowley-Conwy (eds.) (2001). Hunter-Gatherers: An interdisciplinary perspective. 

Stringer, C. & P. Andrews (2005). The complete world of human evolution. 

Whallon, R., Lovis, W.A. & R.K. Hitchcock (eds.) (2011). Information and its role in hunter-gatherer bands. 

Shryock, A. & DD.L. Smail (et al.) (2011). Deep History: The architecture of past and present. 

Kelly, R.L. (2013). The Lifeways of Hunter-Gatherers: The foraging spectrum. 

Strier, K.B. (2011). Primate Behavioral Ecology. 

Dunbar, R.I.M., Gamble, C. & J.A.J. Gowlett (eds.) (2014). Lucy to Language: The benchmark papers. 

Gamble, C.S (1999). The Palaeolithic Societies of Europe. 

Lee, R.B. & R. Daly (eds.) (1999). The Cambridge Encyclopedia of hunters & gatherers. 

Klein, R.G. (2009). The human career: human biological and cultural origins. 

Collection of fossil casts and Palaeolithic artefacts in the John Wymer Laboratory. 65a/1205

Gamble, C. (2013). Settling the Earth: The Archaeology of deep human history. 

Gamble C.S. (2007). Origins and revolutions: human identity in earliest prehistory. 



MethodPercentage contribution
Essay  (2500 words) 60%
Group project  (1500 words) 40%


MethodPercentage contribution
Resubmit assessments 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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