ANTH207x: Introduction to Human Evolution


Professor Adam Van Arsdale

avanarsd [at], @APV2000

Class starts: September 25, 2013

Class ends: December 18, 2013

As contemporary humans, we are a product of our evolutionary past. That past can be directly observed through the study of the human fossil record, the materials preserved for archaeological study, and the DNA of living and extinct human populations. This course will provide an overview of human evolutionary history from the present--contemporary human variation in a comparative context--through our last common ancestor with the living great apes, some 5-7 million years in the past. Emphasis will be placed on major evolutionary changes in the development of humans and the methodological approaches used by paleoanthropologists and related investigators to develop that knowledge. 

The course will begin by asking basic questions about how evolution operates to shape biological variation and what patterns of variation look like in living humans and apes. We will then look at how the human lineage first began to differentiate from apes, the rise and fall of the Australopithecines, the origin and dispersal of the genus Homo, and eventually the radical evolutionary changes associated with the development of agricultural practices and complex societies in the past 15,000 years. Throughout the course students will be exposed to the primary data, places and theories that shape our understanding of human evolution.

Course Goals:

  • Develop a familiarity with the basic outline of human evolution over the past 5-7 million years, including major evolutionary developments and important fossil sites and specimens

  • Understand how paleoanthropologists and related colleagues develop scientific knowledge about human evolution, including some of the specific methodologies used by experts in the field

  • Appreciate the breadth of biological variation in living humans and human activity through your 207x classmates

Expectations of you:


  • 4 – 6 hours a week of reading, listening, activities

  • Active participation in course forums

  • Curiosity, respect, and openness

Course Structure:


Each week, new course content will be released via the EdX course website. This weekly content will include a number of regular core components to the course:

Course lectures – Pre-recorded lectures will provide an overview of most of the key concepts covered by this course. All video content will be available for on-demand streaming via the course website, with most segments lasting between 5-10 minutes.

Virtual labs – Beginning in week 2, each week will include a virtual lab exercise. The purpose of these labs is to guide you through some of the basic materials and methodologies used by researchers in the field to develop knowledge about our evolutionary past. These labs will be available through your web browser and are designed to take you step by step through a set of exercises.

Explorations – In order to facilitate your introduction to the human fossil record, “explorations” of key fossil sites will be available throughout the course. These explorations will provide you with a better sense of the history, location, key fossils, and evolutionary significance of important sites in the study of human evolution.

Assessments – Lectures, labs, explorations, and readings will often be followed by short assessments, intended to reinforce key concepts and check on your progress throughout the course.

“Your turn”  - One of the goals of 207x is to take advantage of the MOOC environment by creating a platform to generate teaching content relevant for understanding human evolution. Each week you will have the opportunity to contribute anonymous information about yourself related to concepts being discussed that week. For example, we know that primates differ in the relative proportion of their upper and lower limbs, and that this reflects different locomotor strategies. Furthermore, we know that humans experience a movement towards modern limb proportions sometime around 2 million years ago, corresponding to the origin of the genus Homo. What kind of variation exists within the 207x population in this respect?

Readings – Open-source readings have been selected and placed throughout the course. Additional reading suggestions for those interested in further exploring specific topics will also be provided.

Discussion forums – You will be taking 207x with thousands of other bright, motivated students, all with their own ideas on the topics at hand. The discussion forums will provide you with an opportunity to interact with your fellow students on specific topics or simply share general thoughts on the course as it develops.

Exams – 207x will have a midterm and final exam, covering the first half and second half, respectively. These exams will form a key component to your overall course grade. Students that receive an overall grade of 60% of higher on all of the course assessments and exams will be eligible for a certificate of completion.

More… 207x is meant to provide an introduction to human evolution within a flexible online structure with the course website serving as the content hub. Outside of that, it is possible for you to develop additional course experiences using social media, in-person meet-ups, or your own creativity!

Course Schedule:

Week 1 (9/25/13) – What is Evolution? What is Anthropology?

  • How to take Anth 207x
  • What is anthropology?
  • What is evolution?
  • How does evolution work?


Week 2 (10/2/13) – Biological variation in the living apes and humans

  • Primates, apes, and humans
  • Ape and human anatomy
  • Ape and human life history
  • Ape and human behavior


Week 3 (10/9/13) – Studying the human fossil record

  • What is a fossil and where do they come from?
  • Dating the fossil record
  • What is it? Identifying function
  • What is it? Identifying species


Week 4 (10/16/13) – The origin of the Hominins

  • The Miocene soup and the Age of Apes
  • What makes a hominin, part 1 – canine reduction
  • What makes a hominin, part 2 – bipedality
  • The fossils: Sahelanthropus, Orrorin, and Ardipithecus


Week 5 (10/23/13) – The early Australopithecines

  • Australopithecus anamensis and obligate bipedality
  • “Lucy” and the first family
  • Australopithecus afarensis
  • Australopithecine biology


Week 6 (10/30/13) – The later Australopithecines

  • The original apeman – Australopithecus africanus
  • Behavior in the Australopithecines
  • Australopithecus sediba
  • Review: Australopithecines as the missing link



Week 7 (11/6/13) – Evolution of the “Robust” Australopithecines

  • Dental expansion and dietary ecology
  • East and South: A. boisei and A. robustus
  • Variation across time and space
  • The evolutionary dead end


Week 8 (11/13/13) – The beginnings of humanity and the origin of Homo

  • Olduvai Gorge and the original earliest Homo
  • A new adaptive plan – the ecology of early Homo
  • The chicken and the egg – stone tools and large brains
  • Radiation or anagenesis?


Week 9 (11/20/13) – Human evolution, the first million years

  • Homo erectus, the cosmopolitan ancestor
  • Regional variation in the Pleistocene
  • A day in the life – Pleistocene human existence
  • Cultural and cognitive evolution


Week 10 (11/27/13) – Archaic humans and the rising wave of modernity

  • Climate change in the Pleistocene
  • The rise of the Neandertals
  • Behavior and demography
  • Defining “modernity”


Week 11 (12/4/13) – “Modern” human origins

  • Genetics and human origins
  • Replacement and admixture
  • Behavioral “revolutions”
  • What is the human species?


Week 12 (12/11/13) – Evolution past, present, and future

  • Evolution did not stop – the strange case of H. florisiensis
  • Evolution did not stop – population expansion and evolutionary acceleration
  • Evolution did not stop – intensification, domestication, urbanization
  • Evolutionary perspectives on living humans