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Advanced Studies on the Human Planet: How and Why We Began to Shape the Earth System


Admission requirements

Admission to the Research Master Archaeology programme.


Today, we face complicated challenges resulting from the global human-caused impact on climate and biodiversity. This course aims to contextualise the current crisis using the extended time perspective of the archaeologist.

For how long has human action caused (global) environmental change? How can we distinguish between natural and anthropogenic causes of environmental change? How have changes in population density, technology, and socio-economic organisation affected the nature of human impact on the environment? Did unsustainable practices cause the decline of particular societies (and vice versa)? And can modern study of past environments and societies contribute to sustainable strategies now and in the future?

Humans are particularly effective at altering their environments, and have been engaging in ‘niche construction’ for tens of thousands of years. In this way they shaped their own environments (and those of other species), with implications for human evolution and responses to environmental change.

Understanding the impact of humans and human ancestors requires an understanding of Quaternary environmental change. Starting from the geological background, we will learn how to evaluate archaeological evidence for human modifications of the environment, discuss the antiquity and diversity of human niche construction, and consider case studies of human-environment interaction from a range of periods and regions.

The lectures/seminars focus on examples from deep prehistory (hunter-gatherers and early farmers). Because of the importance of emphasising the context of hominins in their ecosystems, and integrating short and very long timespans, an evolutionary biology and ecology framework, with a particular emphasis on niche construction, is used.

This course will enable you to become familiar with data about the past that are relevant for thinking about – and possibly helping to solve – current challenges of meeting the needs for a habitable world, now and in the near future.

Research Master students take part in the same sessions as Master students, but approach the research topics in a different way.
In the final essay, RMA's are asked to bring together information from multiple regions and/or time periods. They are also challenged to identify future directions for research (or other activities, e.g. outreach).
There will be opportunities to develop and practise skills relevant in academic research and other contexts, specifically, organising a discussion, summing up an argument, group work, and making a poster.

Course objectives

  • In-depth knowledge of major changes in human-environment interactions in the Pleistocene and Holocene;

  • Ability to evaluate different theories using a comparative (multi-regional, long time-depth) approach;

  • Multi-disciplinary perspective: background knowledge of other disciplines relevant to human-environment interactions in the past and present;

  • Ability to present a critical review orally and in writing;

  • Ability to evaluate opinions and theories and develop ideas for future research and/or outreach;

  • Ability to start and stimulate discussions;

  • Produce and present a research topic in an academic poster;

  • Development of a critical perspective on whether and how archaeologists can help to address current challenges facing society.


Course schedule details can be found in MyTimetable.
Log in with your ULCN account, and add this course using the 'Add timetable' button.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars and lectures;

  • Discussion based on literature.

Course load

  • 7 x 2 hours of lectures (1 ec);

  • 280 pages of literature and organisation of class discussion (2 ec);

  • Final essay of 1,600 words (0.75 ec);

  • Group paper on selected topic and peer review (1.25 ec).

Assessment method

  • Individual paper (40%);

  • Group project (40%);

  • Organisation of a class discussion (20%).

A retake is possible for the individual paper only, if all other requirements have been met (including submission of weekly discussion points and participation in the group efforts).

If the group project receives a fail, it must be improved to the level required for a pass. For RMA students a more comprehensive take on the individual paper is expected.

Assessment deadlines

All assessment deadlines (exams, retakes, paper deadlines etc.) can be found in MyTimetable.
Log in with your ULCN account, and add this course using the 'Add timetable' button. To view the assessment deadline(s), make sure to select the course with a code ending in T and/or R.

The group project needs to be submitted in week 6, the final paper is submitted one week after the end of the course.

Reading list

Other papers will used as well.
The complete reading list will be published on Brightspace.


Registration in uSis is mandatory. You can register for this course until 5 days before the first class.

Registration in uSis automatically leads to enrollment in the corresponding Brightspace module. Therefore you do not need to enroll in Brightspace, but make sure to register for this course in uSis.

You are required to register for all lectures and tutorials well in time. The Administration Office registers all students for their exams, you are not required to do this in uSis.


For more information about this course, please contact dr. ir. F. (Fulco) Scherjon or dr. K. (Kathy) MacDonald.