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Human Origins and Environmental Change



[BSc], S

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 cooperation

  • Understand the key hypotheses about the evolution of human demography

  • Understand the limitations as well as strengths of the fossil and archaeological record of human origins

  • 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.


In-class participation: 20%
Weekly web-postings (500 words): 30%
Exam: 20%
Final review essay (2000 words): 30%


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: Room 1.16, Reuvensplaats 4, 2311 BE Leiden

Weekly Overview

Week 1. Introduction to key-issues.
Session 1. Plenary session: Does the human past matter?
Session 2. Plenary session: What makes us human?

Week 2. The basic framework – part I.
Session 3. Quiz: who is who in human evolution?
Session 4. Plenary session: Is human evolution shaped by climate change?

Week 3. The basic framework – part II.
Session 5. Plenary session: “Stand up and walk”.
Session 6. Plenary session: What are brains for?

Week 4. Assessment on Blackboard: basic knowledge.
The evolutionary history of our diet.
Session 7. Plenary session: Hunter or hunted?.
Session 8. Plenary session: “The raw and the cooked” revisited.

Week 5. The evolutionary history of 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: What made modern humans expand?

Week 7. Learning from the human past? Session 13.
Final discussion: Whose origins are human origins? Can we learn from the human past?
Session 14: N/A

Week 8. Reading week: final assignment, book review

Preparation for first session

In preparation of the first session, read the prologue and chapter 15 of Boyd & Silk How Humans Evolved and consider your answer to the central question: does the human past matter?