You and the other 8 billion humans alive today are members of the only species that has survived in the genus Homo since its 2.5-million-year evolutionary journey began. Many other species we know of and perhaps dozens yet to be discovered have all come and gone. Who were these long-ago ancestors? Where and how did they live and die? And how are we even able to learn about these humans, some of whom became extinct millions of years ago? In 20 captivating lectures, Professor Suzanne Pilaar Birch shares her expertise and passion for discovery as she peels back the years to expose the emergence and lives of early humans in Early Humans: Ice, Stone, and Survival.
Early Humans: Ice, Stone, and Survival
Suzanne Pilaar Birch is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the University of Georgia. She earned a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Cambridge. She is an experienced field archaeologist, the editor of the book Multispecies Archaeology, and the author of more than 30 scholarly articles and book chapters. She is also a cofounder of TrowelBlazers, a nonprofit organization dedicated to highlighting women in archaeology, paleontology, and geology. Her research has been funded by the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, and the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council.
01: What Does It Mean to Be Human?
Discover when humans developed and consider the questions we need to ask to explore early life. In setting the framework for our species’ development, you’ll learn about some of the large-scale changes in Earth’s climate, sea level, and land masses in the past several million years.
02: Stones and Bones: The First Fossil Families
Meet Homo habilis, the earliest known species of our genus. Discovered in 1960, at that time it was the first species known to have used tools. We have since discovered tool use in many animal species. But what does distinguish H. habilis from all previously evolved organisms? It’s the brain that allowed them to survive in a variety of locations, navigating different environmental conditions and climate shifts.
03: Bio-Cultural Adaptation and Homo erectus
Meet Homo erectus, the first of our genus to walk completely upright. Being one of the longest-lasting hominin species—more than 1.5 million years—H. erectus learned to adapt to a wide range of environmental challenges. But how did H. erectus get all the way from Africa, where they most likely originated, to Java, where their remains were first discovered?
04: How Homo sapiens Left Africa
How did H. sapiens adapt to new environments by changing our diet and using technology as we spread across the Old World? Learn how the study of prehistory through molecular genetics has both transformed and confounded our understanding of the human fossil record. Explore the roles of gene flow, and the exchanges of artifacts, ideas, territory, and social structure as populations ebbed and flowed out of Africa.
05: X-Woman! Meet Our Ancient Relatives
Discover the complexity of early human history by meeting “Denny”—a female specimen whose mother was an H. neanderthalensis and whose father was an H. denisova. We also now know that early H. sapiens also interbred with H. neanderthalensis and produced fertile offspring. In fact, both Denisovan and Neanderthal DNA have been found to be present in modern human populations.
06: Did the Neanderthals Really Go Extinct?
Explore the culture-rich lives of the Neanderthals, who existed for more than 300,000 years across a vast geographic space—from Siberia and Central Asia to westernmost Europe and the Near East. They thrived with multifaceted lives in a time of massive climate change with multiple ice ages, both before and after the arrival of modern humans in Europe. Why did they go extinct … or did they?
07: Sailing to Australia 60,000-Plus Years Ago
How were Homo sapiens able to get to Australia 60,000-plus years ago without a land bridge to travel? Discover the evidence that exists for their travel by water and the scientific methods used to date the earliest H. sapiens discovered in Australia. To what extent were the First Australians responsible for the extinction of the continent’s megafauna?
08: The Origins of Language and Music
Learn about the combination of fossil and DNA evidence that have helped us understand when and how human language evolved. But what about the full range of human communications—including music and singing? Explore the difficulties archaeologists have in trying to discover whether or not our predecessors developed music and how and when it shows up in our own past.
09: Handprints in Time: Early Art and Objects
Consider the earliest evidence for human modification of physical material for aesthetic purposes: art. What can we learn from the fact that artwork surfaced everywhere early humans were found, not just in one region? From cave paintings to rock art and figurines to human-made pigments, who were the people who created these artifacts and what were they wanting to accomplish?
10: Ancient Jewelry as Extensions of the Mind
We might not like to think about body lice as a source of information about our history, but it is genetic evidence from this insect that points to humans wearing clothes as early as 170,000 years ago. Discover what we can learn about our early cognition by exploring the ways we adorned ourselves, from clothing to jewelry to tattoos.
11: Death and Burial in the Prehistoric World
When did people first start to bury their dead and grapple with the meaning of death? Explore the many varied burial practices of our ancestors and how those practices reveal their social structures and relationships with their environment. Was H. sapiens the only species to use ritual burials long ago, or did the Neanderthals also develop this practice?
12: Feast or Famine? The Paleolithic Diet
Explore the varied human diet that existed even before the domestication of plants and animals. Learn about the research tools—including proteomics and DNA analysis—that have allowed us to not just generate lists of the species our ancestors ate, but to reconstruct entire ancient economies.
13: Why There’s No Such Thing as Cavemen
While our ancestors did utilize caves in some capacity—as we know from cave paintings and multiple artifacts—there’s little evidence that they lived in caves, contrary to the ideas that have been popularized in our culture. Instead, discover the earliest evidence for built structures and the materials early humans used for bedding.
14: Early Technology: Axes, Harpoons, and Hooks
Changes in tool form and function are among the foremost markers of the arrival of the modern mind. Explore the materials used and the many new tool forms that appeared tens of thousands of years ago. From fishing hooks to sewing needles to the use of natural poisons for hunting, evidence shows an explosion of new technologies developed by our ancestors well before the appearance of agriculture.
15: Coming to the Americas 20,000-Plus Years Ago
The Bering Land Bridge between modern-day Russia and Canada, also called Beringia, was a temporary 240,000 square miles of land that allowed the first people to enter the North American continent. Not covered in ice, the land supported steppe vegetation and fauna. But when did early humans arrive? Discover the fascinating scientific journey archaeologists have taken to try to answer that question.
16: Living Dangerously as the Last Ice Age Ended
Explore the world of 15,000 years ago as the last ice age ended, and the vast ice sheets began to melt. Discover the scientific advances that have allowed us to describe that world in detail, a world with H. sapiens living on every continent except Antarctica. How did those people—very much like us today in appearance and thought—cope with such drastic change in their environment?
17: Brewing Beer and Baking Bread in the Levant
About 15,000 years ago, people began to settle down and adopt certain aspects of sedentary agricultural lifestyles in the eastern Mediterranean region. Explore the exciting discoveries of this time period, including the purposeful brewing of beer; possibly some of the earliest human efforts at written record-keeping; and other developments of the Natufian people, including the domestication of dogs.
18: The Hunter-Gatherers Begin to Settle Down
As the world began to warm and vegetation changed, people turned to new dietary options instead of having to follow large migratory herds across the landscape. Discover the scientific methods used to reveal exactly what our ancestors ate during this period—including evidence that we might have turned away from gathering food from the sea and quite possibly farmed snails in addition to plant crops.
19: Secrets of Cave Art, Ceramics, and Cattle
Explore the recent scientific discoveries that have revealed more nuanced lifeways about the last Ice Age than were previously known. Learn why the narrative about life in North Africa has also shifted. Learn about the ritual practice of dental evulsion that seems to reveal population and cultural exchanges between North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean, the Levant, throughout this period.
20: Was Agriculture a Revolution or an Accident?
Although agriculture was historically framed as a “revolution,” we now know it was the result of thousands of years of process. Learn about the recent archaeological evidence showing that the phenomenon of domestication occurred independently in many places around the world, unfolding sometimes with and sometimes without accompanying Neolithic cultural shifts.