Hominid Evolution Module
The hominid family, characterized by bipedal locomotion, appeared between four and five million years ago. This defining event in human evolution was followed by other key events: increased brain size, the initial migration of hominids out of the tropics, and a transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture. While anthropologists agree on this broad sweep of our history, limited data and differing perspectives result in various interpretations and lively debate in the field. In the Hominid Evolution module, the investigation of key events is combined with an examination of this dynamic field.
The first lesson, Introduction, begins the module with a concept map pre-assessment of students' ideas about human origins. At this time students are also given long-term research assignments to study a particular hominid species and the changes that are introduced throughout the module.
In Hominids Stand Up, the second lesson, students examine the characteristics that we share with our closest living relatives, the primate order, with particular attention to differences in locomotion. A footprint puzzle introduces students to the types of evidence and to the reasoning used by anthropologists. Students then analyze primate and hominid skeletons for differences related to bipedal locomotion. They propose their own hypotheses for the selective advantages of bipedal locomotion prior to examining the hypotheses of three anthropologists.
In the third lesson, Bigger Brains, students observe and compare images of modern and fossil hominid skulls and use their observations to propose a temporal sequence for the species. Additional data on predicted body masses are then plotted against estimated cranial capacities to explore the relationship between cranial capacity and body mass. At the end of the lesson, students construct a timeline that positions human evolution in the context of important dates in the cosmic calendar.
At the beginning of the fourth lesson, Migration & Variation, students construct a map of fossil finds to help visualize the first migration out of Africa by a fully bipedal hominid with a somewhat larger brain. The lesson continues with activities that challenge students to explore and explain the variations in human skin pigmentation and other traits as adaptations to differing local conditions. The lesson concludes with a look at DNA similarities within our own species and with other primates.
The fifth lesson, Tools & Speech, covers the next developments in hominid evolution, the use of increasingly complex stone tools and articulate speech. Students examine drawings of stone tools from early hominid toolkits and relate changes in stone tools to changes in cranial capacity. Students engage in a miming activity to examine how speech extends communication to more abstract levels and speculate on the temporal relationships among tools, cranial capacity, and speech. Then students examine compiled data and differing hypotheses regarding Neandertals' ability to speak.
The sixth lesson, Agriculture, focuses on what food sources are important to humans today and how humans' ways of making a living changed about 10,000 years ago. Students first examine their own diets and discover the important role of grains (grasses). They then study the different ways that food was obtained and the effects on populations and the environment. In the Extension Activity, students complete their posters and evaluate posters made by other teams.
The Closing lesson provides students opportunities to demonstrate what they have learned in the Hominid Evolution module. They complete a concept map post-assessment and a traditional pencil and paper test.
The module made impressive use of current research in both the student readers and in experiments that really brought the world of scientific inquiry to life for my students. I also found the extensive use of the computer, both for the students (in the lab) and for the teacher (in lecture presentations) to be very engaging for the students. Specifically, the computer imaging of the difference in human and chimp skeletons as they walked really emphasized and made real the adaptations humans have made to walking upright.
- Julia Waggener, Miramonte HS, Orinda, CA
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