Anthropological Sciences 410

ANSC 410: Paleoanthropology

Prerequisite: ANSC 201 and ANSC 302

Credit Hours: (3)

Reviews the fossil evidence for human evolution, with an emphasis on past and present scientific principles governing the study of human origins and the interaction of culture and biology in human evolutionary development. The archaeological record as it pertains to our human past is also explored. Students will critically examine major controversies in human evolution from a biocultural perspective.

Note(s): Students cannot receive credit for both ANTH 410 and ANSC 410.

Detailed Description of Content of Course

I. A review of the methodological approaches to studying the human fossil record, focusing on how we know what we know about human origins

            A. The process of fossilization--taphonomy (the laws of burial)
            B. Identification and curation of human fossils
            C. Dating sites of early humans
            D. Classification of human fossils (e.g., cladistics)

II. A historical review of major developments in the field of human paleontology

            A. The first human fossils--how and where they were found and how they were interpreted by scientists throughout history
            B. A critical analysis of how historical, social, and scientific atmospheres have shaped interpretations (and misinterpretations) of human fossils

III. An examination of modern paleontological theory as it specifically applies to the human fossil record

            A. The mechanisms of evolution: natural selection, genetic drift, migration, mutation, non-random mating
            B. Competing theories of evolution: punctuated equilibrium and phyletic gradualism
            C. Processes of evolution: speciation, extinction

IV. A survey of the hominid fossil record from 5 million years ago to present, including

            A. The first hominids (Plio-Pleistocene hominids)
            B. Homo erectus
            C. Neandertals
            D. Early modern Homo sapiens

This unit will consist of identification of major human fossils (with the help of slides and fossil casts) and a study of their distinct morphological features in a functional context. Changes in this morphology through time will be used to establish major trends in human evolution (such as increased brain size, decreased posterior tooth size).

V. These major trends in human evolution will be examined in an adaptive, biocultural context. Thus, the interaction between biology and culture over five million years of hominid prehistory will be greatly emphasized in this course.
VI. A detailed analysis of current controversies concerning the human fossil record: why they occur, what they involve, and how they might be resolved.

Detailed Description of Conduct of Course

This course will entail a traditional lecture format in addition to more innovative approaches to learning course material. For example, a minimum of three self-paced laboratory exercises (conducted at the Human Osteology and Archaeology Laboratory at Radford) will be required involving students’ hands-on study of human fossil casts and slides and interpretation of evolutionary morphology from them. Regular and frequent group and individual class presentations will be required which critique both popular and scientific literature dealing with human origins. Students will also be encouraged to write more formal analyses of this literature, as well as explore one topic in human origins in greater detail as their semester research project. Finally, three examinations (mostly essay and short answer) will be given. Guest speakers and field trips may be scheduled, if possible.

Goals and Objectives of the Course

Having successfully completed this course, a student will be able to

l. Trace the historical development of the field of human paleontology
2. Understand how interpretations ( and misinterpretations) of human origins have correlated with the social and scientific context of the day
3. Understand modern paleontological theories and methodological approaches as they pertain to the human fossil record
4. Trace the human fossil record from 5 million years to present
5. Understand the major trends in human evolution and how and how they occurred
6. Understand the complex interrelationships between culture and biology in shaping human origins
7. Read, understand, discuss (orally ) and critique both popular and scientific literature on human origins
8. Analyze and understand current controversies in human evolution
9. Examine one aspect of human origins in detail

Assessment Measures

Three examinations (mostly essay and short identification) will be required, as well as a minimum of three self-paced laboratory exercises. Weekly summaries of readings (of text books as well as outside literary sources) will be formally written and randomly presented orally to the class. Finally, a research project of the students’ choosing (either individual or group) will entail a detailed investigation of some topic relating to human origins.

Other Course Information

Review and Approval


September, 2001

December, 2009