Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations

Course No. 380
Professor Brian M. Fagan, Ph.D.
University of California, Santa Barbara
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Course No. 380
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Course Overview

Where do we come from? How did our ancestors settle this planet? How did the great historic civilizations of the world develop? How does a past so shadowy that it has to be painstakingly reconstructed from fragmentary, largely unwritten records nonetheless make us who and what we are?

This course brings you the answers that scientific and archaeological research and theorizing suggest about human origins, how populations developed, and the ways in which civilizations spread throughout the globe.

It is a narrative of the story of human origins and the many ties that still bind us deeply to the world before writing.

Your professor is Brian M. Fagan, Ph.D., Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Professor Fagan was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1973 and has received numerous awards, among them the Public Service Award of the Society of Professional Archaeologists and the Public Education Award of the Society for American Archaeology. He received a Distinguished Teaching Award from the University of California at Santa Barbara. His excavations have made him a pioneer of multidisciplinary African history.

Dr. Fagan's numerous books include People of the Earth and In the Beginning, two widely used university and college textbooks in archaeology and prehistory. His other works include The Rape of the Nile, The Adventure of Archaeology, Time Detectives, and The Little Ice Age. He also edited The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Professor Fagan was born and educated in Britain and speaks with a British accent.

AudioFile® magazine writes about Dr. Fagan: "Vibrant and dynamic. It's easy to hear why he has been lauded by faculty and students at The University of California, Santa Barbara, for his teaching and academic excellence since 1967."

What Is "Prehistory"?

Prehistory—meaning human societies without writing or widespread written records—survived until Western culture and industrial society completed their globalization in the 20th century, making the topic of a course that begins with some very old fossils seem more current than you may think.

You learn about dozens of archaeological sites all over the world and learn about stone-tool making, mammoth hunting, and temple building as you explore man's earliest origins and the earliest civilizations.

Themes to Remember: Human Achievement

Woven through this narrative is a set of pervasive themes:

  • Emerging human biological and cultural diversity (as well as our remarkable similarities across surprising expanses of time and space)
  • The impact of human adaptations to climatic and environmental change
  • The importance of seeing prehistory not merely as a chronicle of archaeological sites and artifacts, but of people behaving with the extraordinary intellectual, spiritual, and emotional dynamism that distinguish the human.

This is a world tour of prehistory with profound links to who we are and how we live today.

2.5 Million Years of History

This 36-lecture narrative covers human prehistory from our beginnings more than 2.5 million years ago up to and beyond the advent of the world's first preindustrial civilizations.

Due to the large spans of time and geography covered in this series, these lectures are divided into six sections:

Section I: Beginnings

This section surveys the archaic world of the first humans, you travel into the remote past, learning why the late Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould was probably right to observe that we all come from the same African twig on the bushy tree of human evolution.

You examine prehistory from Australopithecus africanus through Homo habilis (the first tool-making hominid), and Homo erectus (whose remains were first found on Java but whose origins lie in Africa) through the hardy Neanderthals who lived and hunted successfully in Europe despite the bitter grip of the last Ice Age 100,000 and more years ago. You focus on the first human settlement of Africa as early as 800,000 years ago.

Section II: Modern Humans

This section tells the story of the great diaspora of anatomically modern humans in the late Ice Age. Whether and how these modern humans spread from the African tropics into southwestern Asia and beyond remains one of the great controversies among scholars of prehistory.

You follow Homo sapiens sapiens north into Europe some 45,000 years ago. You meet the Cro-Magnons, among the first known artists as well as hunter-gatherers, who exhibited degrees of spiritual awareness, social interaction, and fluid intelligence.

You venture into the frigid open plains of the Ukraine and Eurasia, where big-game hunters flourished in spite of nine-month winters. Moving to the Americas, debate over the origins of the first human settlement continues.

Section III: Farmers and Herders

This section describes perhaps the most important development in all human prehistory: the beginnings of agriculture and animal domestication.

This defining chapter began about 12,000 years ago, when hunter-gatherers in the Near East broke from the long human tradition of intensely mobile foraging and turned to more settled ways of life built around cultivating cereal grains or tending animals.

Section IV: Eastern Mediterranean Civilizations

Professor Fagan describes early civilizations in an increasingly complex eastern Mediterranean world, discussing many theories accounting for the appearance of urban civilization and overall attributes of preindustrial civilizations.

You examine Sumerian civilization in Mesopotamia and the intricate patchwork of city-states between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. You explore ancient Egypt, the Minoan civilization of Crete, the Mycenaeans, and the Hittites.

You learn about the Uluburun shipwreck of southern Turkey, a sealed capsule of international trade from 3,000 years ago.

Section V: Africans and Asians

You analyze the beginnings of South Asian civilization and the mysterious Harappan civilization of the Indus, which traded with Mesopotamia. Professor Fagan resumes the story of South Asian civilization after the collapse of the Harappan and shows how Mauryan rulers on the Ganges encouraged trading much farther afield.

You see the impact of monsoons which revolutionized maritime trading among Africa, India, and Southeast Asia, and explore Meroe, Aksum, and the coastal civilization of East Africa.

Several lectures cover the beginnings of civilization in China and Southeast Asia.

Section VI: Ancient Americans

Professor Fagan takes you into sophisticated chiefdoms and civilizations that developed in the Americas over the past 3,500 years, including Pueblo cultures of the North American Southwest and the Mississippian culture of the South and Southeast. You learn about Mesoamerican civilization, primordial Olmec culture of the lowlands, and the spectacular ancient Maya civilization.

Moving to the highlands, you visit the city-states of Monte Albán in the Valley of Oaxaca and Teotihuacán near the Valley of Mexico. Professor Fagan also describes the rise of Aztec civilization, followed by a journey to the Andes. Finally, you explore the southern highlands, with the rise of Tiwanaku near Lake Titicaca, the Chimu civilization of the coast, and the huge Inka empire.

The series closes by analyzing the closing centuries of prehistoric times during the European age of discovery and summarizing the main issues and themes of the course:

  • What was involved in the archaic world
  • The appearance and spread of modern humans
  • Food production
  • The development of states
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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Introducing Human Prehistory
    The themes of the course include emerging human biological and cultural diversity as well as our similarities, the importance of climatic and environmental change, and the importance of seeing prehistory as a tale of people and their beliefs, not just archaeological sites. x
  • 2
    In the Beginning
    Evidence of human origins dates from between 6 million and 3 million years ago. What anatomical and behavioral changes occurred among hominids across this vast expanse of time? What fossil forms define the earliest stages of human evolution? x
  • 3
    Our Earliest Ancestors
    The earliest tool-making hominids appeared between 3 million and 2 million years ago. Evidence from Louis and Mary Leakey's excavations at the famous Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania suggests that Homo habilis, the first toolmaker, used these stone implements as aids in scavenging and foraging. x
  • 4
    The First Human Diaspora
    Until about 730,000 years ago, world climate seems to have been fairly stable. Since then, climate shifts including Ice Ages have played a major role in human biological and cultural evolution, as we can see by considering theories of how humans first moved from Africa to Asia. x
  • 5
    The First Europeans
    Europe seems to have been colonized only about 800,000 years ago—the dating is controversial. Archaeological research indicates people who lived a flexible and highly mobile life, but with cognitive and linguistic abilities that seem no match for those of modern humans. x
  • 6
    The Neanderthals
    This lecture clears away many of the misleading stereotypes about these nimble, efficient hunters who used simple but versatile tools in order to adapt impressively to the harsh climate of late Ice Age Europe and Eurasia. x
  • 7
    The Origins of Homo sapiens sapiens
    You learn the compelling evidence from molecular biology that shows the origins of Homo sapiens sapiens, modern humans, lie in tropical Africa more than 100,000 years ago. x
  • 8
    The Great Diaspora
    The spread of modern humans from Africa into other parts of the world is one of the great dramas of prehistory. Why did it occur, and how did the Sahara Desert play a critical role in it? x
  • 9
    The World of the Cro-Magnons
    The modern humans whom we call Cro-Magnons began to settle Europe 45,000 years ago. What was their crucial advantage over Neanderthals and other more archaic people? How did the Cro-Magnons bring together the material and spiritual worlds in ways never before seen? x
  • 10
    Artists and Mammoth Hunters
    What are the major features of Cro-Magnon mobile and cave art? How can we evaluate the various theories that have been put forward to explain what it means? How did the unique big-game hunting societies of the late Ice Age cope with their exceptionally harsh environment? x
  • 11
    The First Americans
    How and when the Americas were first settled is one of the most controversial questions in the entire field of prehistory. This talk outlines the basic issues and describes the two major competing hypotheses and the relevant evidence. x
  • 12
    The Paleo-Indians and Afterward
    Hunter-gatherer societies began to flourish in North America about 14,000 years ago. They differed across regions, from the more densely peopled Eastern woodlands to the plains and the drier West, but all had elaborate beliefs reflected in art, burial customs, and ceremonial objects. x
  • 13
    After the Ice Age
    What vast climatic changes followed the end of the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago? How did a huge glacial-meltwater release in Canada affect the climate thousands of miles away in the Near East so profoundly that it may have sparked the development of agriculture? x
  • 14
    The First Farmers
    What do excavations of early farming settlements at Abu Hureyra, Syria, and Jericho, Jordan, tell us about how the change from hunting and collecting to herding and farming took place? x
  • 15
    Why Farming?
    What are the leading theories about the beginnings of agriculture? Why is it the case that the consequences of agriculture are more interesting than its origins? How do the remains of early farming societies in southwestern Asia and the Nile Valley help us to trace these effects? x
  • 16
    The First European Farmers
    Europe was a sparsely inhabited place until farmers began to spread rapidly across it from southeast to northwest beginning in about 7,000 B.C. Could the sudden formation of the Black Sea by the rising waters of the Mediterranean have been the trigger for this diffusion? x
  • 17
    Farming in Asia and Settling the Pacific
    Rice has been grown in the Yangtze Valley of southern China since before 7,000 B.C., with millet farming in the Huangho Valley of the north about a millennium behind. But the many islands lying far off Asia could not be settled until root crops like taro and yams were domesticated. x
  • 18
    The Story of Maize
    The tale of how researchers traced domestic corn or maize to its wild Mesoamerican ancestor (a grass called teosinte) is one of the great detective stories in prehistory. Spreading both north and south, the farming of maize and associated crops such as beans would transform the landscape of both Americas. x
  • 19
    The Origins of States and Civilization
    The world's first civilizations appeared in southwest Asia about 5,000 years ago. What makes a "civilization," and what do all preindustrial civilizations have in common? What are the theories accounting for civilizations' expansions? x
  • 20
    Sumerian Civilization
    Evolving out of innovative farming societies that used irrigation to grow food between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the small, competing city-states of Sumer were engaging in long-distance trade by 4000 B.C. and then became parts of a drive to form much larger empires. x
  • 21
    Ancient Egyptian Civilization to the Old Kingdom
    The long, fertile, green ribbon of the Nile Valley is the setting for this most famous and flamboyant of ancient civilizations. Beginning, as had Sumer, in a series of smaller kingdoms along the river, Egypt's pyramid-building "Old Kingdom" flourished till 2180 B.C. x
  • 22
    Ancient Egypt—Middle and New Kingdoms
    How did Mentuhotep, the politically gifted ruler who restored the Middle Kingdom, redefine his own role as pharaoh in order to achieve this? How did the New Kingdom of Ramses II and company redefine it as Egyptian military and imperial power grew? x
  • 23
    The Minoan Civilization of Crete
    In journeying north across the eastern Mediterranean from Egypt, we come across the Minoan civilization of Crete, whose site was the Palace of Minos at Knossos on that island. What made the religious beliefs at the heart of Minoan civilization so different from those found in other early states? x
  • 24
    The Eastern Mediterranean World
    Among the high points of this talk is the discussion of the remarkable Uluburun shipwreck, an amazing 1984 find off the coast of Turkey that contains a rich cargo drawn from nine regions and gives us a superb window on the burgeoning world of international trade c. 1300 B.C. x
  • 25
    The Harappan Civilization of South Asia
    This civilization rose in the Indus Valley of what is now Pakistan before 2500 B.C. In a way, it was a result of the rise of cities in Mesopotamia because trade with that area seems to have stimulated the rise of cities along the Indus. Were Harappan religious beliefs the ancestors of Hinduism? x
  • 26
    South and Southeast Asia
    Starting with the Harappan collapse (c. 1700 B.C.), we enter the Vedic period, when far-reaching cultural, religious, and technological changes swept South Asia, culminating in the discovery of the monsoon wind cycle (c. 100 B.C.), which opened the door to travel and trade across the Indian Ocean and beyond. x
  • 27
    Africa—A World of Interconnectedness
    Ranging over sites on the continent from the caravan routes of Sudan to the great cattle-raising kingdoms of the south-central plateau around Zimbabwe, this talk shows how Africa played a major role in the Indian Ocean world during the first millennium A.D. x
  • 28
    The Origins of Chinese Civilization
    Here we explore the increasingly complex Longshanoid cultures that grew up over a wide swath of northern China after 3000 B.C. What do we know about the three early dynasties—Xia, Shang, and Zhou—and the realms over which they presided? x
  • 29
    China—Zhou to the Han
    The Western and Eastern Zhou periods were times of endemic warfare until Emperor Qin Shihuangdi unified China in 221 B.C. The Han Dynasty brought China into contact with the West via the Silk Road, and with India by connecting to the ancient monsoon-wind routes of Southeast Asia. x
  • 30
    Southeast Asian Civilizations
    While these civilizations possess indigenous roots, it is also true that China and India had a large impact on them. The famous sites of Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom give us insight on the uniquely centripetal Khmer civilization and its notions of divine kingship. x
  • 31
    Pueblos and Moundbuilders in North America
    With this talk we change hemispheres to examine the chiefdoms and states of the Americas before Columbus. Topics include the Pueblo sites of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, the moundbuilders of the Eastern woodlands, and the great chiefdoms of the Mississippian tradition. x
  • 32
    Ancient Maya Civilization
    We explore the rise and decline of the Maya, who ran the greatest lowland civilization of pre-Columbian times, analyze their origins, study their central institutions such as kingship, describe key Maya sites such as Nakbe and El Mirador, and examine the reasons for their collapse c. A.D. 900. x
  • 33
    Highland Mesoamerican Civilization
    Like the lowlands, the highlands of Mesoamerica were also a cradle of civilizations beginning around the first millennium B.C. The last and most famous was that of the Aztecs, who rose from obscurity to become masters of Mesoamerica in just two dizzying centuries, only to fall themselves before a tiny band of Spanish conquistadors. x
  • 34
    The Origins of Andean Civilization
    This civilization developed between two poles: one on Peru's North Coast, the other in the south-central Andes. Around the former grew up the remarkable Moche state (c. 200 B.C. to A.D. 600), which provides a case study of how a civilization can be overcome by natural disasters. x
  • 35
    The Inka and Their Predecessors
    The Inka were imperial conquerors who took over smaller kingdoms in both the Andean highlands and Peru's north coast sometime after A.D. 1000. Aside from their passion for organization, what institutions fueled the Inkas' endless conquests? And how did a tiny band of Spanish adventurers seize this vast empire so quickly in 1532? x
  • 36
    Here you cast a backward glance over the four main chapters of human prehistory—the archaic world, the appearance and spread of modern humans, food production, and the development of states. Why does knowledge of this matter in today's world? How does it strengthen our understanding of the human condition? x

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  • 36 lectures on 6 DVDs
  • 248-page printed course guidebook
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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 248-page printed course guidebook
  • Maps
  • List of archaeological sites
  • Suggested readings

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Your professor

Brian M. Fagan

About Your Professor

Brian M. Fagan, Ph.D.
University of California, Santa Barbara
Dr. Brian M. Fagan is Professor Emeritus of Archaeology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Born in England, Dr. Fagan earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in Archaeology and Anthropology from Pembroke College, Cambridge University. Professor Fagan's excavations in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) from 1959 to 1965 earned him recognition as a pioneer of multidisciplinary African history. He has served as Director of...
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Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations is rated 3.9 out of 5 by 118.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Terribly dated, but still worth it Let me say that I've read most of, if not all of, the negative reviews, and I think they are largely unfair. The course has a number of problems. Chief among those is the fact that the course is badly dated. The course was apparently recorded in 2003, and much has changed since then. Specifically, much of what Prof. Fagan says about the Neanderthals is no longer current. However, the flaws of the course are more than made up for by the excellent overview of prehistory and early civilizations. Overall, I'm torn between a three and a four star rating. I liked the presentation and enjoyed prof. Fagan a good bit. Is he perfect? By no means. But he is a very interesting and engaging speaker. A number of reviewers had a problem with Prof. Fagan's delivery. (One reviewer went so far as to call him a "non-native English speaker". Note: he's British - the original native-English speakers....) Some called his delivery pompous or overwrought. That (again) is unfair. Prof. Fagan's style is somewhere between David Attenborough and Pontus Pilate in Monty Python's Life of Bryan (or "Bwian", if you will). While it may sound a bit posh to American ears, it is easy enough to get used to. Similarly, a large number of negative reviews were based on the lack of visuals. I listened to the course while driving, so I can only speak to the audio. However, the audio was excellent. Based on those reviews, it would appear that the video is not worth the increment, but I prefer the audio anyway. The content of the course is very good. Although much of the material is dated, it still serves to remind us of how far we've come in a very short time. DNA analysis and new finds in Africa and Southwest Asia (to say nothing of South and Central Asia) have led to nothing short of a revolution in our understanding of human migration and the relations between and among pre-modern humans. But we would do well to listen to the state of play back in 2003 to help us understand the shape of that revolution. That's true, in part, because we may yet return to some form of that prior understanding. For example, much is made of Prof. Fagan's comment that no gene flow occurred between early modern humans and Neanderthals. We now know that is incorrect. One commenter pointed out that as much as 4% of modern human genetic material came from Neanderthals. However, that same commenter suggested that there was continuous interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals during the period when their ranges overlapped. More recent research, however, suggests that this may not be the case. There may have been as little as a single interbreeding period between Neanderthals and modern humans and only two interbreeding periods between modern humans and Denisovans. (Whether this research suggests "periods" or "events" I don't know.) Our state of knowledge is constantly changing. And this is something that Prof. Fagan does a good job of reminding us of frequently. I would also be remiss in not mentioning that much of what Prof. Fagan says about early art being attributable exclusively to modern humans has similarly come under question more recently. The dated nature of some of the material does not necessarily take away from some of the other fascinating insights that Prof. Fagan offers. For example, I had never understood what it was that kept humans from migrating out of Africa on a continuous basis. Why do humans migrate? What are the pressures that push us to move out of Africa, across the Bering Strait, or into the Pacific? Prof. Fagan does an excellent job of offering (possible) insights into these pressures. The nature of the relationship between the Sahara and human settlement and migration was one I had never understood. Prof. Fagan illuminates this issue and explains how this relationship led to humans migrating out of Africa in waves, in response to climatic change that drove changes in the Sahara. This is only one example of the many insights that he offers (at least to me). There are many others. These lectures were time well spent. I enjoyed the lectures. I learned a great deal. But I also had a relatively firm grounding in some of the more recent research in human prehistory. Much of that was from the popular press, so no need to rush out top buy Svante Paabo's "Neanderthal Man" just to prepare for this course. (Though it doesn't hurt, and is a great, reasonably accessible, read.) Buy the course, do some Wikipedia research, and enjoy what is on offer here. ___________________ One side note to the Teaching Company itself. As several commenters have argued, you really do need to publish the recording date of the lectures on the website. I realize this could hurt sales of these courses, but as detective Cleese explained in "Crunchy Frog", he's not interested in your sales. He's got to protect the general public. It is, after all, only fair that we should be fully informed of what we're buying. In addition, it appears that Prof. Fagan is still with us and I wonder if he wouldn't be willing to do an additional thirty-minute lecture updating some of the knowledge that have been gained since he recorded this course. If not he, then perhaps another of the esteemed professors who have recorded courses for the teaching company would be willing to do so. This kind of update would be most welcome to your listeners.
Date published: 2018-05-05
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Dated and in places misleading This course is 15 years old, and the field of paleoanthropology has made some dramatic strides in the past 15 years. I’m certain that Professor Fagan no longer stands by his repeated and unqualified statements that homo sapiens sapiens did not and COULD NOT interbreed with Neanderthals, to take a glaring example; and of course there is no coverage of the “hobbits,” which have been studied since this course was recorded. And the presentation is dated. It may well have been state-of-the-art when it was made, but more current lectures rely much less on the “professor stands at the front of the class” model and are far richer with additional visuals. I can’t count the number of times that I wished for a picture of a tool, site, or artifact that he struggled to capture in words. Finally, I agree with the other commenters who objected to Prof Fagan’s habit of making generalizations about beliefs or habits without delving into why archeologists have come to these conclusions. The course needs supporting examples, or the information becomes meaningless. I realize that, as Prof Fagan himself tells us, this topic is unmanageably large and complex for a single course of lectures. I STRONGLY recommend that TLC rethink and redesign their approach, and issue one or more revised and updated courses — and be prepared to do so again (and again) as this vibrant field continues to advance.
Date published: 2018-03-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A fine plunge into early human civilizations! I enjoy the narrative of Professor Fagan. I have read several of his books, attempting to bring recent scholarship and significance of archaeology to my high school students. This series should assist well the efforts of high school teachers.
Date published: 2018-02-13
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Good speaker! I have only finished 22 lectures so far. Dr. Fagan is an excellent speaker with great knowledge of the subject. However, I feel this series doesn't use enough video assets. When professor Fagan speaks of Sumerian or Egyptian villages it would help if we could see what they looked like, either through archaeological digs or in artist's concepts or modern photos.
Date published: 2018-02-11
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great Features This is a great course. Some aspects are very speculative but scientific history often is. The teacher tries hard to make sense of limited, pragmatic data. He does it well. A good course based on fragmented data.
Date published: 2018-02-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This man is a legend! An academic and archaeologist of world-wide note. An author of countless books. This man does NOT have a speech impediment! He speaks with an English accent, with a slight dialect polished by years of academia in top universities. Dare I say, I find the speech of some of TGC American accents difficult to understand at times! It depends upon culture and familiarity.
Date published: 2018-01-28
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Highly interesting Thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the subject. Would love an update. A lot has been discovered in the last 15 or so years.
Date published: 2017-12-09
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Dated This course was released in 2003, but I could not get this information from the catalog on this or any other of the several courses I have ordered. Information was very dated. The Great Courses really needs to issue release dates on courses, especially those in the sciences.
Date published: 2017-11-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations Just finished the first disc and I really like it. Very educational.
Date published: 2017-08-24
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Useful background to the origins on the human race Good fundamentals to ancient history (BUT TEDIOUS)
Date published: 2017-06-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent I like the way that this goes into detail on what life was like back then.
Date published: 2017-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Easily Understood Easy to follow and informative. I read reviews prior to purchase and was hesitant to buy. I found the lecture informative and highly interesting. It shed light on areas that I was unfamiliar with.
Date published: 2017-03-20
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Shallow material, poor presentation Pace too slow, material too thin, inadequate graphics, too much quick summarizing of issues because the topic is "controversial" and there is no time to really delve into it. It got to the point where the description of various civilizations all sounded the same. It was as if the prior lecture was being repeated but with a new locale inserted. I also found the accent irritating but good material would have made that irrelevant.
Date published: 2016-09-18
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Takes effort to get through it, but it's worth it. I have to say that while I enjoyed every lecture in this broad, panoramic course and learned much that I didn't know before, I actually expected a little more. Don't get me wrong; the course was absolutely worth the time & money I invested into it, but I have to agree with other reviewers who have stated that the course could have been so much better if the professor had used his time more efficiently. In a course of only 36 lectures that attempts to cover 3 million years of pre-history, he spends far too much time reviewing what he has already told us and previewing what he is about to tell us. I don't mind the preview/review format of lectures, but in a course this broad, if he's going to do that, it would have been worth it to expand to 48 lectures. So much material was only briefly mentioned and then passed right over. It sometimes felt like walking down a grand buffet line and only being able to see and smell the foods without being able to taste. Also, as others have pointed out, the course is also beginning to show its age as more recent discoveries (Neanderthal DNA, for example) make parts of it obsolete. It may be time to reboot this one.
Date published: 2016-09-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Detailed Survey of the Origins of our Species For those interested in the origins of Homo Sapiens this is a wonderful course. Not only does the professor cover the roots of our species going back over 6 million years, but he also explores the changeover from a hunter gatherer culture to a more sedentary lifestyle relying on farming and domestication of animals. My only criticism (and it is a minor one )is that the course is a little light on visual aids (photos of artifacts, computer graphics, etc) instead relies a little more on verbal content than other courses I have purchased.
Date published: 2016-08-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from There is more to a course then it's content ... Let me start by saying that this is less a critical review then it is a brief reflection of my overall thoughts on this course (Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations). For the record, I experienced this course in it's video format and did find the maps, photos and visual aids (timelines, etc) helpful and worthwhile, although not necessarily essential to the course. The course is well organized, divided into six parts and ultimately supporting 4 major time divisions, defined by Dr Fagan. While the course covers a huge swath of time, measured on a geological time scale (some 2.5 million years), it is necessarily superficial on many details that are covered in greater depth in other Great Courses (courses with a narrower scope). In spite of that, I did learn new things from this course and appreciated the broader context of history, offered by this course. At the same time, the lack of detail in each lecture made it feel more like a High School level course (broad overview) then perhaps a College level course. This is in no way a fault of the professor but more a consequence of the breadth of subject material and time being covered in the course. Where the course failed to deliver, for me, was in "presentation." I found the pace of this course mind-numbing. Professor Fagan has a rich Irish Brogue and may speak very slowly for the benefit of his large non-Irish audiance. However, that slow pace very nearly put me to sleep on many occasions. The content was not especially cognitively difficult to absorb, so I could have followed at a much faster pace then offered by Professor Fagan. That, coupled with his tendency to spend 25% of the lecture time, stating what the lecture was going to be about (the body of the lecture often did not go into significantly greater depth than his introduction) and summarizing with the same comments at the end of each lecture, made it feel as if the same material could have been satisfactorily covered in much less time and fewer lectures. Some of the other Great Course Professors that I have listened to, might have covered all of the same material that Professor Fagan dedicated 36 lectures to in, perhaps, just 18 lectures. Personally, this course would have worked much better for me at a much faster pace and with much less repetition. I found myself longing for the end of this particular course, by the middle of the course (yes, I did watch all 36 lectures) and, when finishing a lecture, did not feel excited about moving on to the next lecture. I am neutral on Professor Fagan's Brogue. His pronunciation of the word 'controversy,' for example, sounds like ... Kahn trav essy. I acclimated to the Professor's accent quickly and, given that the words were used in the context of a sentence (helping the listener to figure out the meaning of the word that Professor Fagan may have pronounced differently than I do), had little trouble with his accent. Overall, I found this course to be "okay." It was not bad, but it was far from one of the many much better Great Courses that I have had the pleasure of viewing. My faults with this course were primarily with the Professor's style of presentation (lots of repetition) and the painfully slow pace of the course. Others may find the slower pace refreshing, so please do keep that in mind. If at all possible, watch a 5 minute segment of the course to see if Professor Fagan's pace works for you, before buying. Cheers.
Date published: 2016-04-06
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Out of Date Information I've reviewed this course once before, and I gave it 4 stars for lack of visuals. Now I'm downgrading it to 3 stars because I've realized it is not at all current. This course is described as "...brings you the answers that the latest scientific and archeological research and theorizing suggest about human origins..." However, the information the professor gives on our NOT interbreeding with Neanderthals was disproven by genetic research 3 years ago. The course itself is 12 years out of date--the copyright date on the course guide is 2003. You have no way of knowing this until you have already bought the course. If I had realized this, I would have searched for something more current instead. The Great Courses should make the information on the age of a course readily apparent BEFORE you buy it, instead of misrepresenting it as current. VERY DISAPPOINTING.
Date published: 2016-02-15
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Interesting but could have been better The content was very interesting, but many opportunities to show pictures of what was being discussed were missed. One wonders if these lectures were all shot in one marathon session, since the professor's clothes never change. He was certainly very clear, but a bit tiring.
Date published: 2016-01-26
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointment From a Writer I Like I have enjoyed many of Brian Fagan's books and have heard him speak so I bought this set with high expectations. Unfortunately these lectures suffer from severe padding and repetition. Each lecture begins with an outline of the lecture topics followed by the lecture and then closes with a summary of the lecture topics. Each lecture only has about 15 minutes of material which is then padded to 30 minutes with the introductory and closing remarks. After the immensely enjoyable lectures of John R Hale on the Classical World, Edwin Barnhart's lectures on Ancient America, and Scott MacEachern's series on the Origins of Civilization, I was very disappointed with this lecture series from Brian Fagan.
Date published: 2015-11-10
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Difficult to watch but decent content I didn't make it all the way through but did discover the information that caused me to purchase the course in the first place. I think the course would have been better with a different presenter. The professor's presentation style comes across as quite pompous so I found watching it irritating. It got to point I couldn't bear listening any more. But I admit it's been 40 years since I left college so I am not in tune with current university teaching methods..
Date published: 2015-08-23
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Desperately boring Although the course is well-organised, the content is extremely shallow, and poorly supported with graphics/images. Moreover, the dreary, plodding, laboured delivery, peppered with long, drawn out sentences, eg ...two....million... years ...ago, are mind-numbing. One can only feel that the students at the University of California are slightly slow-witted. My wife and I usually nodded off through boredom before the end of the lecture. I could only endure the course as far as Lecture 23, and then I gave up. This sort of material has been done so much better in other GCs. Possessing over seventy GCs (most of which are excellent), I can speak with some authority. The material in Prof Fagan's course is suited to those people with virtually no knowledge of ancient history, or an eleven-year old. i suspect that the range of views by other Reviewers is very much related to their own knowledge/background on this type of subject.
Date published: 2015-06-11
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Meh The lecturer is adequate, a bit pompous, but not hopeless, and there is certainly the makings of a competent broad overview of the subject. (n.b.: no linguistics, no genetics, no materials dating technologies, no discussion of modern stone-age peoples, prehistoric migrations, or the profusion of artifact-identified cultures). However, this review is mainly to point out the incredible lack of images and pictures that would have made the course much more enjoyable. By far the most common images are just maps showing where the sites are. Other graphic material: pictures of artifacts, tombs, mummies, sites, cave paintings, archaeologists, landscapes, plants, animals, excavations, skeletons, etc. are almost completely absent. Dry material when you're just watching the lecturer wander about the stage saying "interconnectedness!" (drink!) and "we just don't know" (drink!) over and over again. This subject is due for an update from TGC.
Date published: 2015-05-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Efficiency This is a good, compact, and introductory course on a horribly complex subject. Great for college entery level studies. The presentation is engaging and maintains a good interest level. A winner.
Date published: 2015-02-19
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Prehistory and the First Civilizations Dr. Fagan is an excellent and knowledgeable instructor. The problem with the course is that it is outdated. An update of the course is overdue.
Date published: 2014-11-06
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Ranges widely in time and space I enjoyed this course overall. The professor's language style takes some getting used to - odd pronunciations (and I'm English!!). I liked the range. I learned a lot and felt I had a good sense of the "global-ness' of prehistory. I liked the respect for different viewpoints and the clear indication of what is known and what is hypothesized; what is agreed upon and what is debated. I have several observations: I recognized the professor's strategy of saying what he was going to discuss, discussing it, and then telling us what we had discussed. This is a recommended strategy for teachers and may work in the context of a three hour lecture. It got to be very wearisome for every one of 36 half-hour segments! The Neanderthal segment needs updating. Using BC and AD felt particularly bothersome in this course that ranges so widely across space and time: Before Christ is arguably just a label; Anno Domini is a specific reference to a belief system that is a very small part of the overall historic perspective taken. It felt wrong.
Date published: 2014-10-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Human Adventure through Time A fascinating course, taught with verve and aplomb! Professor Fagan does a superb job of covering vast reaches of time -- and the challenge of presenting numerous early civilizations -- in a continuously engaging way. Before this course, I was not aware of how interconnected human society has been from the very beginning: intimately tied not only to the animals they hunted, the plants upon which they also depended for food, and their landscape which they had to know so well, but also through extensive trade routes. My previous, obviously limited, understanding was of early humanity as living in relative isolation in small family units. But it appears that our earliest ancestors learned early that it was with and through others that safety and relative sufficiency of food stuffs could best be achieved. Their reverence for the great herds of deer and bison was captured in cave art dating back 30,000 to 40,000 years. Also, unlike we "modern" humans who in so many ways have lost our link to the land and our kinship to other species, they saw no sharp distinction between the material and spiritual worlds. I also much better appreciate now how vulnerable they all were to both natural catastrophes -- such as earthquakes and floods -- as well as to both climate change and over-farming or over-fishing available resources. Professor Fagan's superbly taught course caused me to reflect ruefully on our own society's seeming indifference to how the climate change we are contributing to can have unforeseen consequences and how -- combined with our overloading of the planet's carrying capacity -- we often seem to have learned little from those who have preceded us. This course can easily stand alone as a wonderful adventure in learning, but it also serves as a very useful introduction to other Great Courses which focus on the earliest civilizations in much greater detail, such as those on Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China. Because Dr. Fagan does not just address the viewer through the camera but, rather, paces back and forth frequently, gesturing expansively, his eyes sweeping the room "behind" the viewer, this is one of the very few Great Courses I have seen (and that number now is in the upper 30s) in which I have felt as if I were in a classroom with unseen others. I enjoyed that sense. Dr. Fagan may be the very best of all of the excellent teachers I have had the pleasure to "meet" through the Great Courses so far. Kudos to him and to the Teaching Company for this offering!
Date published: 2014-08-01
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Foundational introduction to history Audio download This is a very ambitious survey set of lectures that traces the origins of homo sapien sapien from Africa to the four corners of the world...a 2.5 my journey. Dr Fagan's presentation is extremely well-organized and delivered in a college lecture series style...describing what will be discussed, followed by the discussion and concluding with a summary. His style reminded me of David Attenborough's many nature productions that have been around for years. The lecture material is organized around a summary of human anthropology (just enough to get you started) and moves to defining moments in human development (e.g. farming, art and commerce), culminating in the establishment of organized communities that morphed into what we call civilization. Good course, well presented. Needs more graphics, of course...following the lectures on line with all the well-known resources can extend this 18 hour course into one that might take years to complete. Recommended...on sale, with a coupon.
Date published: 2014-07-20
Rated 4 out of 5 by from An Essential Background to History. "DVD format. For anyone with an interest in ancient history, this course on "pre-history" (the time before written records) provides an essential background to "history". Professor Brian Fagan, an archeologist, guides us through 2-½ million years of human prehistory, a period based on archaeological data, geology and a lot of conjecture. But, it's the best that can be done, lacking a written record. Professor Fagan is an excellent, well-organized lecturer who keeps us fully attentive through the 36 lectures. Having to span this vast world, he necessarily condensed this course into the essentials of this broad topic, so don't expect too much detail on specific eras or regions, and forgive him for what is left out. However, you can expect a comprehensive and enticing background to further studies. While I rated this course "4-stars", it's actually deserving of 4.5 stars. The weakness of the course is its (relative) dearth of graphics (maps and illustrations), more of which would have helped immensely. (This course was produced in 2002, a time when digital graphics were significant less available than today). Despite this shortcoming, the content and quality of the lectures are well worth purchasing this course. I viewed this course twice -a complement to Professor Fagan. Best regards, jkh"
Date published: 2014-07-03
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Fagan Fan! This was the second course I ordered from Great Courses (seems like moons ago!) and just listened to it again after a few year lapse. My initial listen prompted me to get some of Prof Fagan's books, to begin to explore archaeology in more depth until now, I can safely say it is an avocation. What more could you want from an introductory course? Obviously, there are shortcomings to any survey class, primarily because it IS a broad introduction. It gets more difficult when dealing with a science, and I have discovered that archaeology IS a science these days. Geology and chemistry, botany and biology are not stagnant, so to keep a course such as this completely current would be difficult to impossible. Pick up a current issue of any archaeology journal or magazine to see. I won't even begin to address those who complain about the professor's accent, etc. People speak how they speak and you either like it or not. I personally had no trouble at all with the delivery. For those who are intrigued by the origins of man, of archaeology, of where we may be going on this earth, this is a good introduction to the subject. If you want more on individual early empires and cultures, there are specific classes that cover those. But for my money, this is still a good class, and if you want more detail than a survey can give you, pursue your interest in greater detail.
Date published: 2014-05-13
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointing This course is disappointingly shallow. In a subject such as this, where evidence is limited and needs to be filled in by creativity and imagination, I very much want to know what the evidence is. What is the basis for the arguments and the conclusions? Here instead way too much time was spent saying that topics were controversial - rather than explaining the basis of the controversy or the evidence. Overall there is too much wasted time and too little information.
Date published: 2014-05-01
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