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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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 119.
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Outdated The professor in this course takes too much time on each topic. He introduces the topic for the first ten minutes, then closes the topic for 5 minutes, making each lesson really only 15 mins long. He could condense the whole course down to a lot less videos. Further, the professor is very outdated in the research he quotes. He is obsessed with saying that Neanderthals were genetically not compatible with other pre-humans. This was disproven at least six years ago when Neanderthal DNA was found in small percentages of people around the planet.
Date published: 2020-09-22
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting and informative I listen while I am walking. It is interesting and well presented. Pitched at the level of a lay person - just right.
Date published: 2019-11-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Described course well The teacher was knowledgeable and clear. I learned a great deal from tis course and looked forward to each lecture. Three comments: (1) The teacher paced back and forth continually, which was distracting and annoying. (2) The teacher stated incorrectly that Neanderthals and humans did not interbreed. This is now refuted by the fact that humans have about 3% Neanderthal genes. You should consider updating courses by inserting appropriate written comments into the boxes before they are shipped. (3) Add more visual illustrations of what the teacher was discussing.
Date published: 2019-06-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Best of the Great Courses I have completed over a dozen Great Courses, enjoyed all of them, and this one is the best! The instructor is knowledgeable, passionate about his subject, and an excellent teacher.
Date published: 2019-04-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Narrator, Fascinating Course Bought this on Audible and have listened to it numerous times. Love this course, though as several others have mentioned there have been a few significant updates since the material was written.
Date published: 2019-02-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Comprehensive intrioduction I just finished the course and was very pleased. This is a comprehensive and entertaining introduction to a complex topic. Dr Fagan is a fantastic lecturer
Date published: 2019-01-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from One of the best! I have purchased over 60 courses and this one by Professor Fagan is in the top 5, perhaps the top 2! Maybe even the best of all. He has a vast storehouse of knowledge at his fingertips and his lectures would be the envy of Demosthenes and Cicero!
Date published: 2018-12-05
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Pretty Good BUT! Excellent in most ways yet Disappointing in others. Needs to be undated to reflect latest DNA knowledge that Modern Humans DID interbreed with both Neanderthals and Denisovans.
Date published: 2018-06-27
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