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Human Origins and Environmental Change




Admission Requirements



Human Origins investigates the evolution of the human lineage. Environmental change is a key force in the shaping of human origins. Complementary to other courses in the Sustainability Major that identify humankind as part and parcel of the Earth processes, the present course aims to explore the theme of human evolution itself. Influencing human decision making by governments, ngo’s and other stakeholders has to take evolved biases in human preferences and behaviour into account.

In the course we will focus first on the basic outline of what makes us human. We will introduce the main characters of the human lineage and the key developments of bipedality and increase in brain size. The second part will explore the evolutionary history of our dietary preferences, social cooperation and demography and their relevance for current societal and environmental problems. The final session will discuss social and political questions about the study of human origins – (what) can we learn from the human past?

Course Objectives

After completion of the course students will know:

  • The main features that make us human

  • The main fossil species of the human lineage

  • The main developments in human evolution

  • The main features of environmental change over the last 4 million years

After completion of the course students will be able to:

  • Understand the key hypotheses about the evolution of human diet

  • Understand the key hypotheses about the evolution of human social life

  • Argue their view on the relevance of the human past for the future

Mode of Instruction

The course will center on plenary sessions and discussion about weekly assignments.


Assessment: In-class participation
Deadline: Ongoing Weeks 1-7

Assessment: Weekly web-postings (200 words)
Percentage: 30%
Deadline: Weeks 1 – 7 (Monday 12:00)

Assessment: Exam
Percentage: 30%
Deadline: TBA

Assessment: Final review essay (2500 words)
Percentage: 30%
Deadline: Week 8 (Friday 17:00)


Boyd, R. & J.B. Silk 2012 (6th edition) How Humans Evolved, New York / London: W.W.Norton & company.

Other literature will consist of scientific or other papers available electronically in the university library or elsewhere.

Contact Information

Dr. A. Verpoorte E-mail:
Faculty/Department: Faculty of Archaeology, Human Origins Group, Leiden University
Office address: Van Steenis Building, Room A1.11, Einsteinweg 2, 2333 CC Leiden.

Weekly Overview

Week 1. Introduction to key-issues
Session 1. Plenary session: Human evolution, what does it matter?
Session 2. Plenary session: What makes us human? (relative to other primates)

Week 2. The basic framework – part I
Session 3. Plenary session: Australopiths and the problem of walking upright.
Session 4. Plenary session: Homo erectus and the brain.

Week 3. The basic framework – part II
Session 5. Plenary session: The trouble with Neanderthals.
Session 6. Plenary session: Homo sapiens.

Week 4 The evolutionary history of our diet
Session 7. Plenary session: The climate context.
Session 8. Plenary session: What to eat – “The raw and the cooked” revisited.

Week 5 The evolutionary history of culture and social life
Session 9. Plenary session: Is culture an adaptation to environmental variability?
Session 10. Plenary session: Why should I cooperate with you?

Week 6. Human expansions
Session 11. Plenary session: The human demographic transition.
Session 12. Plenary session: Humans as invasive species – an ecological perspective

Week 7 Learning from the human past?
Session 13. Plenary session: The evolution of political systems.
Session 14: Final discussion: Whose origins? Can we learn from the human past?

Week 8
Reading week: final assignment, book review

Preparation for first session

In preparation of the first session, read prologue and part 1 of Boyd & Silk How Humans Evolved, page 1-99.