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Rise of Humans: Great Scientific Debates

Rise of Humans: Great Scientific Debates

Professor John Hawks Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Course No.  1612
Course No.  1612
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Course Overview

About This Course

24 lectures  |  32 minutes per lecture

Trying to understand our human origins has always been a fundamental part of who we are. One of the core things we want to know is how we came to be. Thousands of years ago, human civilizations developed elaborate stories to explain the origins of humans. But today, with the help of dramatic archaeological discoveries and groundbreaking advancements in technology and scientific understanding, we are closer than ever before to learning the true story. In recent decades, paleoanthropology has exploded, bringing us closer than ever before to making sense of this controversial subject and providing us with a richer understanding of our origins. It's also sparked continued debate among the greatest minds in the field and prompted anthropologists to revise, update, and even, in some cases, overturn ideas and theories about key issues in human evolution.

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Trying to understand our human origins has always been a fundamental part of who we are. One of the core things we want to know is how we came to be. Thousands of years ago, human civilizations developed elaborate stories to explain the origins of humans. But today, with the help of dramatic archaeological discoveries and groundbreaking advancements in technology and scientific understanding, we are closer than ever before to learning the true story. In recent decades, paleoanthropology has exploded, bringing us closer than ever before to making sense of this controversial subject and providing us with a richer understanding of our origins. It's also sparked continued debate among the greatest minds in the field and prompted anthropologists to revise, update, and even, in some cases, overturn ideas and theories about key issues in human evolution.

  • Was Australopithecus afarensis really our earliest ancestor?
  • Did early humans evolve in Africa alone, or in regions throughout the world?
  • Do Neandertals play an important role in our genetic heritage and, if so, how?
  • Why did prehistoric humans form cooperative communities and create art?

Complete your understanding of the most up-to-date science behind our origins with The Rise of Humans: Great Scientific Debates. Delivered by expert paleoanthropologist and professor John Hawks of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, these 24 lectures bring you to the forefront of scientific arguments and questions that will become more important in the coming years. Surveying both the questions that continue to rile the world's greatest minds in anthropology and the cutting-edge science responsible for them, this course is an expert guide to the wide-ranging debates over the most essential questions we can ask. Meticulously crafted and packed with insights, this rewarding and sometimes even provocative course is a fascinating investigation of the branches, trunk, and roots of the greatest family tree there is.

Profound Answers to Questions about Your Origins

Each lecture of The Rise of Humans focuses on a single profound question about human origins and the sometimes surprising, sometimes fierce, and always illuminating debates surrounding them. You'll learn how paleoanthropologists have used everything from the tiniest fossil remains (such as teeth and fragments of jawbones) and stone tools to DNA sequencing and genetic mapping in an effort to definitively determine how we got to be the way we are today.

Here are just four of the many exciting debates Professor Hawks describes in this masterful course.

  • Was Africa or Asia more central to human origins? Charles Darwin believed that Africa was the most likely place for humans to have originated because of our relationship to African apes. Other scientists, such as Ernst Haeckel, argued that Southeast Asia was the most likely site of human origins because geography would have differentiated us from African apes. While it's now clear that early hominins were all found in Africa, debate continues over whether our genus Homo might have involved a time of evolution in Asia.
  • What did prehistoric cultural groups look like? Early archaeologists systematized the stone tool traditions in prehistory by recognizing types of artifacts that might be found in one tradition and not others. The debate over two different perspectives on differences in stone tools—that they reflect different traditions or that they reflect the tasks a single group of prehistoric people performed—has deepened our understanding of rich archaeological sites.
  • How long ago did humans reach the New World? Scrutiny over archaeological discoveries in the United States led to the "Clovis first" hypothesis, which held that the first humans to enter the New World came over ice sheets that once covered northern North America about 12,000 years ago. Yet during the 1990s, geneticists began to contribute to the debate, tracing the origins of today's American Indians to a small population that left Asia sometime closer to 15,000 years ago.
  • How important was symbolic representation to modern humans? Prehistoric art found in caves throughout France and Spain show a growing interest among our ancestors for artistically representing the world. Anthropologists still debate the importance of this kind of representation to our evolution; some argue that prehistoric art is fundamental to our cultural abilities, while others posit that it's merely a side effect of human intelligence.

Reunite with Some of Your Earliest Ancestors

With these lectures, you'll travel across time and around the world, from Ethiopia and Tanzania to Pakistan and Java to Sumatra and North America. You'll peer over the shoulders of archaeologists as they unearth fossils, tools, and other artifacts from the earth and reconstruct the bodies and lives of our earliest ancestors. You'll follow geneticists as they use mitochondrial DNA to draw startling connections between prehistoric human populations from around the world. And you'll encounter some of our most intriguing distant relatives.

  • Australopithecus afarensis: In the 1970s, paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey uncovered evidence for the earliest known hominin in Tanzania, at a site that preserved not only the jaws and teeth of this prehistoric species but also fossil footprints showing its adaptation to upright walking. Paleoanthropologists still argue over whether better evidence for the ancestry of Homo will come from A. afarensis or some earlier, as-yet-unknown species.
  • Homo habilis: A series of skulls dating back to around 2 million years, with larger brains than other species, was described by paleoanthropologist Philip Tobias as the earliest members of our genus Homo. With a body like Australopithecus and a meat-based diet, H. habilis could be part of our genus; although with some evidence of Homo erectus dating back to the same age as these fossils, it could be a totally different kind of hominin.
  • Homo floresiensis: A recent burning debate in paleoanthropology is over the identity of Homo floresiensis. A fossil skull found on the island of Flores suggests an extremely small-bodied population with individuals about three to four feet tall. Found together with indigenous animals such as pygmy mastodons and giant storks, these "hobbits" could represent a unique population of humans isolated from the rest of humanity.
  • Neandertals: Neandertals were the earliest fossil humans to have been found and, at the time of their discovery, there was debate over whether they were our ancestors or part of a much less specialized population. We now understand that humans and Neandertals trace a common ancestry to sometime before 250,000 years ago and that the early population of Europe may reflect the emerging Neandertal population. In fact, people of European descent can have up to 4% of Neandertal genes in their DNA.

Your Guide to Human Evolutionary History

What makes The Rise of Humans so unique is the approach Professor Hawks brings toward explaining the field's hottest debates. One of the first paleoanthropologists to study fossil evidence and genetic information together in order to test hypotheses about human prehistory, Professor Hawks is adept at looking at human origins not just with one lens, but with two.

He has traveled around the world to examine delicate skeletal remains and pore over the complex results of genetic testing. His research and scholarship on human evolutionary history has been featured in a variety of publications, including Science, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Slate, and Journal of Human Evolution.

But more than that, Professor Hawks has crafted a course that demonstrates the passion and excitement involved in the field of paleoanthropology. With his engaging lecturing style and his use of fossil finds taken from his personal collection, Professor Hawks will capture your attention and show you all the drama and excitement to be found in eavesdropping on the latest debates about human evolutionary history.

So join him for this engrossing and eye-opening learning experience—one that will bring you to the cusp of our 21st-century knowledge about the origin of humans, that will fill in critical gaps in your understanding of where we come from, and that will better prepare you for the great discoveries and fresh debates of tomorrow.

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24 Lectures
  • 1
    Ramapithecus—Ape Man
    There’s no better illustration of scientific debates over the rise of humans than the story of how Ramapithecus was cast out of our ancestry. In this first lecture, witness how fossil evidence and molecular evidence—working both together and independently—can help explain some of anthropology’s most complex issues. x
  • 2
    Australopithecus afarensis—Ancestor or Not?
    One of the most famous scientific debates in anthropology took place in the 1970s, with the discovery of fossil remains of a possible Homo ancestor, Australopithecus afarensis. Where exactly did Homo come from? Follow this highly public story from the perspective of the key personalities involved: scientists Don Johanson and Richard Leakey. x
  • 3
    Ardipithecus—Hominin or Not?
    In 1994, paleontologists discovered the 4.4-million-year-old remains of Ardipithecus ramidus. Is it a true hominin? What skeletal features suggest the tradeoffs between being an effective climber and walking bipedally? Answer these and other questions by closely examining the fossil and genetic evidence of this fascinating “ground ape.” x
  • 4
    Brain Structure versus Brain Size
    Your brain separates you more from apes than any other anatomical feature. Investigate the gradual increase in hominid brain size in the fossil record. Looking at what fossil skulls (such as the Taung skull) reveal about blood circulation and cooling, you’ll shed new light on brain size and skull structure. x
  • 5
    The Dietary Hypothesis
    Explore the relationship between diet and morphology in this lecture on Australopithecus robustus and Australopithecus africanus. The teeth and jaws of these two species, you’ll discover, offer intriguing windows into the fierce debate surrounding the dietary hypothesis and the true adaptive differences between robust and gracile hominids. x
  • 6
    Africa or Asia?
    Was Africa or Asia more central to human origins? How can we tell? Drawing on the ideas and theories of prominent scientists, including Charles Darwin, Ernst Haeckel, and Louis Leakey, learn how we found the truth about where our genus Homo came from—and where it evolved. x
  • 7
    An Ape’s View of the Oldowan
    Tool use marks a tremendously important step in evolution. But how important is it really, considering chimpanzees can also make and use tools? Professor Martin offers you a detailed picture of what early stone toolmakers were like, as well as some of the primitive tools found in parts of Africa. x
  • 8
    Who Was Homo habilis?
    Examine what the fossil record reveals about Homo habilis, a species that serves as a transitional marker between Australopithecines and the rest of the genus Homo. A key mystery in this lecture: how Homo habilis can have the anatomy to be our ancestor yet not exist at the right time in evolutionary history. x
  • 9
    How Big Was Homo erectus?
    Using a magnificent find of the skeleton of a 1.5-million-year-old boy (known as the Nariokotome skeleton), delve into the issue of how important size was to becoming human. Recent discoveries of Homo erectus remains, as you’ll discover, have led to a reevaluation of the growth process of these hunters and gatherers. x
  • 10
    The Movius Line
    Professor Hawks explains the complexities of the Movius Line, a fairly clear line that separates the Western distribution of hand axes from areas in the East where they were rarely made. Central to this constant puzzler in the story of evolution are the more than 500,000-year-old remains of the Peking Man. x
  • 11
    The Hobbits of Flores
    The identity of Homo floresiensis, a species of small-brained humans that averaged a height of 3.5 feet, is the most burning debate in paleoanthropology. Investigate the origins of these mysterious “hobbits” and whether they represented a new species of human or were merely the remains of abnormally developed modern humans. x
  • 12
    Archaeology and Cooperation
    Explore what archaeology tells us about cooperation and compassion in prehistoric people with this insightful lecture. Professor Hawks reveals how archaeological remains and other kinds of evidence offer intriguing clues about how prehistoric people worked together to make tools, hunt animals, share meals, and even take care of their injured. x
  • 13
    Presapiens or Preneandertal?
    Working with the European fossil record, examine the debate over whether Neandertals were our true ancestors, or simply a much less specialized population. Along the way, you’ll comb through remains from Spanish caves in Atapuerca and encounter the notorious evolutionary forgery known as the Piltdown Man. x
  • 14
    What Do Stone Tools Reveal about Early Man?
    French archaeologist Francois Bordes interpreted variations in stone tool remains as evidence of different groups of people who existed in the past. American archaeologist Lewis Binford, however, believed these variations reflected different activities. Who was right? Find out in this lecture on the way scientists interpret the archaeological record. x
  • 15
    Did Neandertals Speak?
    How important was language to shaping human evolution? Discover the answer to this question by studying the skeletal remains of Neandertals discovered in the late 20th century. Learn how anthropologists, with the help of a specific bone and a key language gene, determined that Neandertals could—contrary to earlier beliefs—talk. x
  • 16
    Neandertals—Extinct or Ancestors?
    Follow along as scientists examine Neandertal genes to determine just how close our ties are to this primitive species, which disappeared about 30,000 years ago. What scientists found when the entire genome sequence of Neandertals was reconstructed in 2010—and what it reveals about the true fate of Neandertals—may surprise you. x
  • 17
    Is Our Neandertal Heritage Important?
    Are there behaviors we can trace back to our Neandertal heritage by closely studying mitochondrial DNA? If so, what’s useful? What isn’t? It’s a debate nearly as old as anthropology itself—and Professor Hawks’s explanation of how it works forms the subject of this provocative and insightful lecture. x
  • 18
    Multiregional Evolution versus Out of Africa
    Did modern humans emerge from Africa? Or did they evolve in regions around the world? These two competing questions became the most persistent debate in anthropology in the late 20th century. Consider evidence for either scenario and learn how scientists reached their current understanding of the dispersal of modern humans. x
  • 19
    Climate’s Impact on Our Evolution
    Investigate the important role of climate change events—specifically the catastrophic eruption of Mount Toba around 74,000 years ago—in shaping the rise of man. Did this event cause a population crash among prehistoric humans, finishing off some populations and paving the way for the spread of modern humanity? x
  • 20
    Language—Adaptation or Spandrel?
    For decades, scientists debated over whether language was a target of natural selection in evolution or merely a side effect. Blending anthropology and linguistics, Professor Hawks helps you make sense of what Charles Darwin, Noam Chomsky, and others had to say about evolution’s role in the development of human language. x
  • 21
    Why Did Humans Start Creating Art?
    Is prehistoric art just a side-effect of our intelligence, or is it somehow fundamental to our cultural abilities? Explore this perplexing question by closely examining beads, utilitarian tools, decorative objects, rock art, and other primitive art forms unearthed at archaeological sites in Europe, Africa, and Australia. x
  • 22
    Clovis or Pre-Clovis?
    Professor Hawks discusses the continuing debate over the arrival of humans in the New World. Some anthropologists believe that the Clovis culture was the first to spread south across North America about 12,000 years ago. Others believe there may have been even earlier migrations to the Americas. x
  • 23
    Farming—Migration or Diffusion?
    In this lecture, investigate the relationship between agriculture and the spread of early human societies throughout Europe. Central to this is the argument over whether agriculture spread through population movements into widespread areas, or whether adjacent populations simply adopted farming practices (as well as new languages) without mass migration. x
  • 24
    Are Humans Still Evolving?
    To conclude the course, Professor Hawks addresses some of 21st-century anthropology’s most important questions. Are we still evolving? Is human evolution slowing down or speeding up? What are we going to look like in the future? And is it possible for us to actually bring evolution under our control? x

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John Hawks
Ph.D. John Hawks
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Dr. John Hawks is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of WisconsinñMadison, where he has taught courses ranging from biological anthropology to brain evolution since 2002. He earned his B.S. in Anthropology from Kansas State University and M.S. and Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Michigan. Early in his career, Dr. Hawks focused on fossil and archaeological evidence for human evolution. But as the Human Genome Project was completed, he became one of the first paleoanthropologists to use both genetic and fossil information to test hypotheses about human prehistory. More recently, his work on Neandertals has broken new ground, and his prediction that humans and Neandertals likely interbred has been confirmed by the analysis of Neandertal DNA. He is the author of groundbreaking research papers, and he has a devoted following on his science blog, where readers can follow the latest news in paleoanthropology.
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Reviews

Rated 4.4 out of 5 by 24 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Outstanding! Knowing close to nothing about paleoanthropology before I watched this course, I won't presume to comment on any technical issues. I will say only that Professor Hawks is a great lecturer; his understanding of and enthusiasm for the subject matter is inspiring; the subject is fascinating; the format (great debates) is original; and of the many Great Courses I've watched or listened to, this clearly is one of the best - on a par with the courses given by Professor Elizabeth Vandiver. I would hope that Professor Hawks can be persuaded to do another one. August 15, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Excellent Course! I loved this course! I had many questions going into it, and he managed to answer all of them! I loved the format. The instructor did a great job of explaining both sides of these scientific debates and made it so much easier to understand and appreciate the process scientists go through before they say "we now know..." Other reviewers have criticized his hand movements. I didn't find anything objectionable about his presentation. His enthusiasm was contagious. Loved the course. May 8, 2014
Rated 5 out of 5 by Fsacinating survey course of human evolution Prior to hearing this course, I heard another TGC course in which twelve lectures (a third of the full course) were on the subject of early human evolution: "human prehistory and the first civilizations" by professor Fagan. After finishing the course, I felt that I was not satisfied with the extent to which this topic was covered, and found this course on the topic. This is one of the courses that I had enjoyed most so far in the TGC. Professor Hawks describes in some detail current understandings of the field, and how firm these understandings are. This is usually done by presenting in some detail the scientific techniques used in arriving at some of the conclusions; what other evidence can support the theory and what evidence weakens the theory or even invalidates it. He takes great care that at the end of each lecture, the listener has a pretty good idea of how firm the theory is on the specific aspect that was discussed. Some of the techniques described were extremely interesting within themselves, such as using differences in neutral regions of genomes (non functional regions), in order to date a divergence in evolution of two related species or populations. The field appears to be extremely multidisciplinary, involving research from as diverse fields as biology, linguistics, archeology and genetics (to name just a few). The way in which all of these different fields of research are harnessed in order to substantiate or invalidate a particular theory (or even one tiny aspect of a particular theory) is fascsinating, and all of this is presented in profound detail and talent by professor Hawks. Wonderful course... December 20, 2013
Rated 5 out of 5 by How we got to be human I found all of the information interesting, but what I enjoyed most was the description of how paleoanthropologists work with other scientists to advance knowledge in their field. Anthropology, archaeology, biology, genetics, geology,and other fields are combined to give us a window into ancient hominid history. November 19, 2013
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