Human Evolution and the Environment

« Return to Course Catalog

This course is no longer being offered.

Course Description

Why did humans evolve and what environmental changes forced humans to move throughout the world? How did Homo sapiens become the most adaptable species on Earth today? The convergence of anthropology and climatology forms a fascinating field of study into our species’ past. In Human Evolution and the Environment, we will take a journey through the emergence of humankind beginning 6 million years ago. We will follow our ancestors in Africa and their dispersal throughout the world. By studying this fascinating history, students will learn about past climate change and how the environment drove humans to evolve into the people we are today. On this journey, we will stop to tell the story of stone tool development, the Ice Age, cultural advances, and geoengineering. The objective of this course is to understand how the past environment drove our ancestors to stand upright, develop tools, and migrate across the world.

Human Evolution and the Environment will focus on the fascinating development and expansion of our human ancestors and their relationship with a changing environment. We will use human evolution as the lens to learn about climate change in the deep- to near-past and venture into the future impacts of a warming climate. First, we will begin in the Cradle of Humankind: East Africa. By holding, touching, and analyzing hominin skulls from millions of years ago, we will embark on a journey of understanding the various hominin evolutionary hypotheses and the beginnings of our species' environmental relationship. Moving forward in time, we will evolve with our ancestors in Africa and learn how to make stone tools to begin to get an idea of what makes humans humans. Once the "out-of-Africa" dispersal occurs, we will transition to our species, Homo sapiens, and examine their relationship with Neanderthals and their enhanced ability to spread throughout the world. Climate records and archaeological evidence will show us why our species has become what it is today.

We will then be transported to the last Ice Age, when Homo sapiens became very efficient travelers, and where we can examine the human behavior during very cold intervals. Looking at controlled burning and agricultural practices, we can better understand the location of the ice sheet and use these observations to analyze glacial-interglacial cycles. By examining real paleoclimate data (charcoal, lithology, and organic compounds), students will develop critical thinking and quantitative reasoning skills. We will also delve into the ways in which paleoclimatologists measure climate signals in sediment and rock records. A field trip to take a sediment core will give students the real experience of a climate scientist. Back in the laboratory, students will have the opportunity to analyze the core as well as historical data to develop a climate history of the area. We will take this opportunity to discuss the current and future relationship between humans and the environment.

Students will learn to make connections and think critically about issues surrounding human evolution and global climate change. They will learn about tools used by real paleoclimatologists and paleoanthropologists. Students will then apply these techniques to a class project. Students will have fun while obtaining skills of quantitative reasoning, data analysis, and field work. A scientific approach to global climate change and evolution will prepare students for conversations on these often-controversial topics with their peers.


Course Information

  • Course Code: CEES0606
  • Length: 2 weeks

Program Information

STEM for Rising 9th and 10th Graders

Two-week, non-credit residential program focused on STEM subjects and taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 8-9 by June 2019; minimum age of 14 and maximum age of 15 by the start of the program.

Visit Program Page Learn How to Apply
Back to Top