Monday, November 23, 2015

PBS Nova: The Dawn of Humanity

Check out this cool new episode of Nova that details the latest developments of Lee Berger and his crew in tracing the origins of the human species.

Hunters and Gatherers

You've read the passage from A Message of Ancient Days about the development of early humans from the time of Homo erectus until the group of people known as Cro-Magnons who lived in what is modern France and made phenomenal cave art. One of the first things you may notice is that the reading talks about Homo heidelbergensis.

The important point to know is that Homo heidelbergensis is just a type of Homo erectus that lived in Europe about 500,000 years ago in what is today Germany, France, and Spain. This type of human ancestor exhibited the first aspects of culture in the human species: living together, making and using tools, making and controlling fire, adapting to colder climates, and hunting in coordinated groups.

A few interesting points of information came out of the reading.

1. First, human culture became more complex from the time of Homo heidelbergensis to the time of Cro Magnons:
  •  Homo heidelbergensis lived in small groups of 20-30 people who traveled over a wide area hunting animals and gathering plants for food. These people had some loose social organization and probably had some type of language to help them coordinate a hunt.
  • Later, Neanderthals developed a more complex culture than Homo heidelbergensis with a sense of community becoming more important to them. Neanderthals lived in larger groups of 20-50 people and stayed in one place longer. The Neanderthals buried their dead, giving us the earliest examples of funeral ceremonies, and a belief in the afterlife.
  • Finally, Cro-Magnons have the most advanced culture of the early humans. Cro-Magnons were a type of Homo sapiens that lived in caves in western Europe around 30,000 years ago. The Cro-Magnons lived a life similar to modern hunter-gatherers. They made the most complex tools to that point: fishing nets, spear throwers, and bows and arrows. Cro-Magnons also left very advanced artwork in sculptured objects and cave art. 

2. Over time, the image of the Neanderthal has changed a great deal. People used to imagine Neanderthals as stupid, brutish, primitive, and with bad posture. New findings have demonstrated that this image is false. Neanderthals were actually pretty advanced in terms of the early humans. They had a belief in life after death, they cared for the sick and elderly members of their tribe, and they adapted well to the cold environment of Europe in the winter. So the expression, "So easy a caveman can do it!" is actually pretty insulting.

3. Homo erectus first developed the ability to make and control fire. This was really important for several reasons:
  • Fire kept people warm (and alive!) during the cold climate of the Ice Ages in Europe and Asia.
  • Fire was used to scare off predators that might try and eat the early humans
  • Fire was used to cook food--this kills bacteria and makes meat easier to digest

4. Cro-Magnons were the most advanced of the early humans. They were of the species Homo sapiens, just like modern humans. The best evidence of the Cro-Magnons' culture is found in their amazing artwork. Cro-Magnons painted very lifelike designs on the walls and ceilings of thier cave homes, often showing animals and nature scenes. The Cro-Magnons also carved animal bones and wood into detailed depictions of animals. Aside from being a little dirtier and shaggier, a Cro-Magnon would look a lot like a human today.

Check out the location of this amazing prehistoric artwork in Lascaux, France:

Paleolithic Cave Art: Lascaux, France

In 1940, in southwestern France, a group of school boys stumbled upon an amazing sight--a huge cave complex housing over 600 paintings and over 1500 engravings. The images showed several kinds of animals--birds, as well as cattle, bison, deer, and horses--and hundreds of "signs," shapes, dots, and other patterns. After archaeologists had a chance to study the cave art, they determined that the imagines were left by hunter-gatherers more than 15,000 years ago.

The caves at Lascaux contain some of the earliest known art in human history, dating back to somewhere between 15,000 and as far back as 27,000 years ago. The Paleolithic cave paintings consist mostly of realistic images of large animals. The other common theme of the paintings is a number of human hand prints. Pigments (paints) are made from ingredients such as plants, berries, rust, charcoal and dirt. The paintings demonstrate the advancement of Cro-Magnon humans and their way of life, and actually show the quality of the art and of the materials used getting better over time.

The cave complex at Lascaux is huge, with many rooms and tunnels underground. Such a place would have offered shelter and protection for a band of hunter-gatherers. The evidence shows that groups of humans returned to Lascaux year after year, and added their own paintings to earlier ones.

There is some mystery surrounding the purpose of the cave paintings. Aside from just a human desire to express ideas and artistic visions, the paintings might have also had a religious or spiritual significance. There is some evidence that the Paleolithic people at Lascaux threw spears or shot arrows at pictures of animals to ensure a successful hunt through magic. This had the added benefit of acting as a sort of target practice, making the hunt more likely to be successful anyway.

Because the water vapor and heat from people going to visit the site at Lascaux, along with certain bacteria and fungi, started to damage the paintings, the French government built an exact replica of the caves and closed off the original to the public.

Luckily the official website for the Lascaux caves has a fantastic virtual tour. It is really worth taking a few minutes to check it out.

Finally, to some up some of the concepts of the Early Humans Unit--Let Tim and Moby explain how humans evolved the way they did:

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Uncovering Clues to Our Past

In class, we are reading about the development of humans from a small ape-like creature that lived in eastern Africa called Australopithecus afarensis to the Homo sapiens hunter-gatherers who survived the Ice Ages.

Remember to put your NAME, BLOCK, the DATE and TITLE on the top in a proper heading!

In the blue book, A Message of Ancient Days, students read pages 90-95 and completed questions 1, 2, 3, and 4 on page 95. Put a mini-check next to correct answers, but add any details that you might have missed...

The questions and notes from class:

1. What have scientists learned about our earliest ancestors?
  • That the earliest humans lived between 1 and 4 million years ago
  • Early humans used simple tools at first, but more complicated ones as time went on
  • Humans walked on two feet (were bipedal), which is different from modern apes
  • Humans had smaller brains than modern humans (an australopithecus's brain was 1/3 the size of us)
  • Humans' appearance (bone structure) changed over time
  • "Lucy" was only about 3.5 feet tall
  • Humans began in Africa, but migrated to Europe, Asia, and the Americas
  • Humans adapted to their new environments (by making fire in cold climates, for example)

2. What method would archaeologists use to date the remains of Cro Magnons?
  • Archaeologists could radiocarbon date the remains (bones, not fossils) of a Cro Magnon because it is once-living material from a human that lived about 40,000 years ago.
  • Also, archaeologists could relatively date the remains depending on where they were found, and by analyzing objects that are found nearby.

3. How did conditions during the Ice Age make it possible for human settlement to spread to new areas?
  • During the Ice Age the sea levels dropped and land bridges formed, allowing humans to travel to new areas like the Americas and Australia.

4. What evidence might scientists have used to discover that Homo erectus was able to make fires?

A scientist might find any of the following evidence located among Homo erectus remains (1.5 million to 200,000 years ago):
  • burnt wood (charcoal)
  • fire pit (circle of stones)
  • ashes (blackened soil)
  • cooked animal remains
  • fire-making tools (flint)

And for those students that want to be wicked smaht...

Check out this video of a comparison between modern and early human skulls (and narrated by a super-chill British dude)

And here's a more detailed documentary about the Neaderthals...

Want to know more about the Ice Ages? Check this out...

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Early Humans Word Cards/ Book Creator

In class this week we are working on our Early Humans Word Cards on the Book Creator app for iPad. Be sure yours are legible, neat, and all the information is accurate. You will be able to use them on our quiz.

Human Origins Study Cards

Objective: To show the progression of human evolution from Ardipithecus ramidus to Homo sapiens.

After reading the instructions for creating a set of Early Human word cards, use the following information to fill out each page of your Book Creator Book. Copy accurately and neatly. Check with me BEFORE looking for any images!

Ardipithecus ramidus ("Ardi") is one of the latest human species found. National Geographic magazine featured an interesting article last year that is worth checking out.

There are five major stages of human development:

What Ardipithecus probably looked like
Ardipithecus ramidus ("Ardi")
  • Lived about 4.4 million years ago
  • Walked upright on two feet (bipedal)
  • Had a grasping toe (for climbing)
  • About 4 feet tall
  • Human form of teeth for eating
  • Found in Ethiopia (Great Rift Valley)

Meet "Lucy" the Australopithecus

Australopithecus afarensis ("Lucy")
  • Lived over 3 million years ago
  • Walked on two feet (bipedal)
  • Human form of teeth
  • Brain 1/3 the size of a modern human
  • Found by Donald Johanson in Hadar, Ethiopia
  • Great Rift Valley

Homo habilis uses simple tools

Homo Habilis ("Handy Human")

  • Lived between 1.5 and 2.5 million years ago
  • Walked on two feet (bipedal)
  • Human form of teeth
  • Slightly larger brain than "Lucy"
  • Made simple tools
  • Found by Mary Leakey in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania
  • Great Rift Valley

Homo erectus first leaves Africa
Homo Erectus ("Upright Human")

  • Lived between 1.8 million and 200,000 years ago
  • Walked on two feet (bipedal)
  • Human form of teeth
  • Even larger brain than Homo Habilis
  • Made more complex tools
  • Able to make and control fire
  • Left Africa for Europe and Asia

Homo sapiens first lived as hunter-gatherers
Homo Sapiens ("Wise Humans")
  • Live between 300,000 years ago until the present day
  • Walks on two feet (bipedal)
  • Human form of teeth
  • Largest brain of any human species
  • Makes the most complex tools
  • Ability to make and control fire
  • Makes clothing from animal skins
  • Buries the dead (has spiritual life)
  • Farms crops
  • Uses symbols/drawings to communicate (invention of language)
  • Lives on all continents

In class we started watching a PBS video of the show NOVA. The episode is called "Becoming Human," and it traces the earliest human ancestors to our present day species. The entire video is quite long, but in case you were interested in more than we got to in class, the entire show is posted in the previous Blog entry.

Also, here are a couple of websites that might be interesting to explore:

NOVA's official website for the "Becoming Human" show

Monday, November 16, 2015

PBS Nova: Becoming Human

In class we started watching a PBS video of the show NOVA. The episode is called "Becoming Human," and it traces the earliest human ancestors to our present day species. The entire video is quite long, but in case you were interested in more than we got to in class, here is the entire show.

Also, here are a couple of websites that might be interesting to explore:

NOVA's official website for the "Becoming Human" show

Also, check out this really cool website of a journalist from National Geographic that is walking the same route taken by human ancestors from East Africa to the rest of the populated areas of the world. Here's a description from the website:


Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek is retracing on foot the global migration of our ancestors in a 21,000-mile, seven-year odyssey that begins in Ethiopia and ends in Tierra del Fuego. This site houses our experimental journalism, cartography and educational initiatives. For the walk’s storytelling, please visit
By the year 2020, the Out of Eden Walk will have accumulated an unprecedented chronicle of human life on Earth, 2,500 generations after our restless forebears set out on the long, slow walk into our becoming — a journey out of Eden that continues to this day.