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DRPS : Course Catalogue : School of Social and Political Science : Postgrad (School of Social and Political Studies)

Postgraduate Course: Human Origins and the Genesis of Symbolic Thought (PGSP11307)

Course Outline
SchoolSchool of Social and Political Science CollegeCollege of Humanities and Social Science
Credit level (Normal year taken)SCQF Level 11 (Postgraduate) AvailabilityAvailable to all students
SCQF Credits20 ECTS Credits10
SummaryThe course covers human origins from a social anthropological point of view. Topics include the history of the idea of 'human origins' in social anthropology and in other disciplines; comparisons between humans and chimpanzees; fossil finds from Sahelanthropus (ca. 7mya) to Homo (from 2.4mya); group size and settlement from early prehistory to the Neolithic (from 14,000 BP); hominin pedagogy, sharing and exchange; origins of language and symbolism; the evolution of kinship structures; and the relevance of social anthropology to ideas from sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and other disciplines. A key focus of the course will be the period from the African Middle Stone Age evidence of symbolic culture (200,000 77,000 BP) to the Out of Africa H. sapiens migrations of the ancestors of non-African populations (125,000 60,000 BP) and early rock art (from 32,000 BP), all interpreted through methods and theories from within social anthropology. The thematic heart of the course is the explosion of art, religion and language at the 'Symbolic Revolution', and the social consequences of these. That is normally dated at between 130,000 and 60,000 BP). The course will involve debate on such issues, and will concentrate on the contribution social anthropology can make, and is now making. Students will be encouraged to employ their general social anthropological (theoretical and ethnographic) knowledge to answer questions all too often left to those in other disciplines. Since the 1990s, these themes have re-emerged within British social anthropology after having lain dormant for many decades.
Course description 1. Introduction and overview
This class will be broad and general. Through informal discussion we will get to know each other and our respective interests related to human origins. The meeting will also explore the course outline and include a brief overview of the course content.

2. A history of the study of human origins
Here we try to understand the outline Western thinking on the study of human origins from the 17th to the 21st centuries, both in their own terms and from what we know now. Of special concern is the development of anthropological ideas and of the discipline of anthropology, especially in Europe and North America. The class will also include a review of essential material from the previous week.

3. Primates and humans
This class includes an overview of relevant primate studies, and encourages comparisons between non-human (especially bonobo and common chimpanzee) and human behaviour. We look at differences between chimpanzee 'cultures' and ask why they are present. We also explore recent ideas on the origin of language in primate communication.

4. Fossils and what they tell us
The aim of this meeting is to ensure that every member of the class is familiar not only with the historical trajectory of fossil discovery, but also with the fossil record known today and with relevant archaeological periods. It takes the australopithecines as a baseline for the evolution of Homo, and with Homo the development of cognition and culture.

5. The evolution of Homo
This is an in-depth exploration of the evidence of human evolution from human biology, archaeology, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, followed by an attempt to answer the question: what can social anthropology add? Background topics include things like 'Dunbar's number', and the 'hand to mouth' theory of the evolution of language.

Reading period: no class

6. The 'Symbolic Revolution'
Views differ on whether this is a 'revolution' or not, and (if so) of course, on when it was. We review the evidence for rapid and for slow evolution of language and symbolism, and look at ideas from within social anthropology, for example by Chris Knight and his followers, and evidence from other fields too, notably archaeology and linguistics.

7. Early symbolic thought
We continue with some of the ideas brought out in the previous week. We look at the implications of Blombos Cave and other important sites, at the degree to which ethnographic comparison is relevant, and at the implications of differentiating hunter-gatherer universals from human universals. We also examine ideas on the origins of religion and art.

8. Early kinship
This topic is straightforward. Was early Homo sapiens sapiens kinship ordered and embedded in symbolic structures (as in modern Aboriginal Australia), or was it flexible and a realm separate from the symbolic (as among modern African hunter-gatherers)? Did the 'Neolithic Revolution' result in the destruction of the fundamental principles of human society? In other words, are humans in the 'modern' (African post-Middle and Later Stone Age) fundamentally non-human?

9. Music, art, myth, metaphor, grammar
Why are languages so ridiculously complicated? Does language originate in biology, or in music or art? What is the role of mythology in the evolution of grammatical complexity? Why are the same myths found the world over? What does social anthropology tell us about these things? Here we examine important, if neglected, theoretical ideas in social anthropology's past which shed direct light on such issues.

10. Out of Africa
All humanity is one, and all humanity is African. Here we look at the migrations from Africa, and at the peopling of the continents. We examine cultural similarities and differences especially among hunter-gatherers around the world. We also explore minority views such as multi-regional evolution, the notion of recent genetic drift, and their implications for the monogenic consensus.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
Pre-requisites Co-requisites
Prohibited Combinations Other requirements None
Information for Visiting Students
High Demand Course? Yes
Course Delivery Information
Not being delivered
Learning Outcomes
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
  1. demonstrate a critical understanding of the debates and issues in social anthropological aspects of human origins, and especially of the origins of symbolic culture.
  2. engage in discussions of issues of great importance to understanding the social nature of humanity
  3. acquire an advanced knowledge of species names and reputed cognitive abilities of species, and a similar knowledge of important archaeological sites, and of relevant dates.
  4. debate with confidence issues such the social anthropological significance of the relation between neocortex size and group size; and how and why language emerged
  5. know how to employ ethnographic evidence, for example, from modern hunter-gatherer societies to examine such issues
Reading List
Short list of indicative readings:
Allen, Nicholas J., Hilary Callan, Robin Dunbar and Wendy James (eds.). 2008. Early human kinship: from sex to social reproduction. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing
Barnard, Alan. 2011. Social anthropology and human origins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Coolidge, Frederick L. and Thomas Wynn. 2009. The rise of Homo sapiens: the evolution of modern thinking. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell
Dunbar, Robin, Chris Knight and Camilla Power (eds.). 1999. The evolution of culture: an interdisciplinary view. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
Oppenheimer, Stephen. 2003. Out of Eden: the peopling of the world. Constable & Robinson
Renfrew, Colin and Ian Morley (eds.). 2009. Becoming human: innovation in prehistoric material and spiritual culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Additional Information
Graduate Attributes and Skills Not entered
KeywordsNot entered
Course organiserProf Alan Barnard
Tel: (0131 6)50 3938
Course secretaryMr Fraser Maxwell
Tel: (0131 6)51 1183
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