The Origin of Modern Humans
HHMI 2011, Howard Hughes Medical Institute

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The two DVD discs in this package focus on various aspects of human evolution. Three very good speakers present those aspects quite effectively. They are engaging, and their rich content presents multiple lines of compelling evidence all pointing to the reality of human evolution. Many students, with little understanding of evolution or science, may have some difficulties, because so many examples are given in fairly rapid succession. For that reason, if teachers use these materials, they should plan to either pace their presentation, with frequent stops for questions, clarifications and replays of critical segments, or only show selected parts in a context suitable for their students that helps them understand those parts. [CLICK on title at top of this page to view and/or order the package from HHMI].

The eight selected Video Clips (on disk one) are convenient for doing this with some of the material. In addition, there are three “Click and Learn” modules on the second disk. Each one has a number (14-24) of slides and short video clips arranged in a meaningful sequence. And each one has a short list of Key Concepts and Teaching Notes. These modules could serve as tutorials for individual study, or used interactively with the entire class. The third module “Using Science Process to Study Human Evolution” is an excellent example. It shows vividly how paleoanthropology involves the asking of questions and subsequent testing of the possible answers, nice examples of “historical” science, using one of the processes of science seldom pointed out in science classes, much less experienced there. Students will also notice that the usual “steps of the scientific method” are properly replaced with a simpler flow, and adapted to the historical science questions: Be curious, Ask questions, Collect & analyze data, Make logical conclusions (the last two being part of the “testing” process). Later, students are shown how logical conclusions often lead to asking more questions, and those new questions can be further tested, or send one to read the scientific literature and/or to consult experts.

Lecture 1 Human Evolution and the Nature of Science (30’)
Prof. Tim White (of UC Berkeley) introduces the series. He provides an overview of the subject and its historical context. He also provides insights into the nature of science, its importance for understanding evolution in general, and human evolution in particular.

Lecture 2 Chapters: Genetics of Human Origins and Adaptation (1 hr)
Dr. Sarah Tishkoff (of the University of Pennsylvania) explores various aspects of how genetics and DNA knowledge provide insight to human evolution. She shows how these patterns parallel cultural and language patterns. She also discusses examples of natural selection in humans, especially the condition of lactose intolerance, or lactase persistence.

Lecture 3 Chapters: Stone Tools and Evolution of Human Behavior (1 hr)
Dr. John Shea (of Stony Brook University) shares the many aspects of archaeology and how stone tools and other artifacts shed light on how early humans probably lived. This includes how stone tools are recognized as such, how they’re classified, how they are made, how they’re dated, and how human tool use compares with chimp tool use.

Lecture 4 Chapters: Hominid Paleobiology (1h 30’)
Prof. Tim White (of UC Berkeley) shares his experiences in paleoanthropology and the many aspects of this study. He shows how fossils are found, processed, and interpreted. He shows how new discoveries relate to previous discoveries, and how the model of human evolution “evolves.”

Many of the ENSI lessons provide experiences touching on all of these areas. Note especially the lessons under Human Evolution Patterns and Geological Patterns sections. Introducing your evolution unit with the ENSI Skulls Lab (Hominid Cranial Comparison) and the Chronology Lab make for an exciting and engaging intro to evolution in general. And the “Click and Learn” Module #3 (on disk 2 of this HHMI set): Using Science Process to Study Human Evolution would provide either an interesting preliminary experience or follow-up to the Skulls lab. Note: the Skulls Lab works best if you can use full scale resin copies of the representative skulls (as described there), but until your budget can afford them, you can use the full scale 4-view photos of those skulls (available in that lesson on the ENSI site).

I know you will find this HHMI set of disks very useful, and will ease you into the most engaging and important parts of evolution, those dealing with our own evolution. I recommend them very highly, a real bargain at any price, and the set is free from HHMI.


This can give you a good idea of content and sequence in each lecture, as well as an idea for where to go for specific segments to re-show and discuss (not conveniently provided with the DVD):

Bones, Stones, and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans
Chapters in each of 4 lectures:
Lecture 1 Chapters: Human Evolution and the Nature of Science (30’)

  • Start of Lecture One
  • Profile of Dr. Tim White
  • Civilization’s attention span
  • Overview of the lecture
  • Where do we come from?
  • Ancient humans in the Western Hemisphere
  • What is science?
  • Relationship between medical science and evolution
  • Biomedical implications of human evolution
  • Basic classification of great apes and human origins
  • Difficulty of conceptualizing millions of years
  • Phases of human evolution

Lecture 2 Chapters: Genetics of Human Origins and Adaptation (1 hr)

  • Start of Lecture One
  • Profile of Dr. Sarah Tishkoff
  • The human genome and how we differ from others genetically
  • What is our place in the tree of life?
  • Genetic variation is greater among apes than among humans
  • Fossil and genetic evidence inform us about human history
  • Nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)
  • Tracking lineages by mtDNA to Mitochondrial Eve
  • Using genetic variation to reconstruct lineage history
  • The evidence for African origin of all modern humans
  • Human dispersal out of Africa and the founder effect
  • Other species of Homo left Africa earlier than Homo sapiens
  • Ancient mtDNA reveals human and Neanderthal genomes
  • Comparison of human and Neanderthal genomes
  • Q&A: How can different species admix?
  • Q&A: Why do ape species show more genetic diversity than humans?
  • Q&A: Can you speculate on the future of human evolution?
  • Types of genetic variability in nuclear DNA
  • Short tandem repeats (STRs) are highly variable genetic markers
  • Using STRs and other markers to study human genetic variation
  • African linguistic families and cultures
  • Challenges and ethics of human genetic studies in Africa
  • Human genetic diversity is greatest in Africa
  • Individual in the same region are more genetically similar
  • Different populations show characteristics of genetic admixture
  • Genetic diversity in Africa reveals admixture patterns
  • Lactase persistence as an example of human adaptation
  • Global distribution of lactose tolerance
  • A simple test for lactase persistence
  • The genetic basis of lactase persistence in Europe and Africa
  • The genetic footprint of recent natural selection
  • Lactase persistence: An example of gene-culture coevolution
  • Other examples of natural selection in humans
  • Q&A: Why is lactose intolerance so low in my community?
  • Q&A: How does gene expression affect the lactose intolerance trait?

Lecture 3 Chapters: Stone Tools and Evolution of Human Behavior (1 hr)

  • Start of Lecture Three
  • Profile of Dr. John Shea
  • The science of archaeology and the importance of context
  • Archaeology is the science of human residues
  • Stratigraphic principles of superposition and association
  • Demo: Stratigraphic Principles
  • Principles of radiocarbon dating
  • Principles of radio-potassium dating
  • Uniformitarianism: The present as a guide to the past
  • Archaeological fieldwork at Omo Kibish site, Ethiopia
  • Introduction to stone tools
  • Video: Making Stone Tools by Flintknapping
  • Modern flintknapping experiments inform us about the past
  • Q&A: Are there any trends in the evolution of stone tools?
  • Q&A: What has been your most exciting discovery?
  • Narrative and comparative approaches to studying prehistory
  • Demo: Classifying Stone Tools
  • Archaeological evidence of complex human behavior
  • Snapshot of human prehistory: 5,000 years ago
  • Snapshot of human prehistory: 30,000 years ago
  • Snapshot of hominin prehistory: 500,000 years ago
  • Snapshot of hominin prehistory: 2 million years ago
  • Comparing human behavior in the snapshots of prehistory
  • Origin of distinctively hominin behavior
  • Video: Comparing Human and Chimpanzee Tool Use
  • Factors influencing the emergence of hominin stone tool use
  • The archaeological records of humans and early hominins
  • Hypotheses for the evolution of human behavioral complexity
  • Testing hypotheses on how human behavioral complexity evolved
  • Conclusion and message to potential archaeologists
  • Q&A: Is the type of stone tool associated with complexity of people?
  • Q&A: What is the evidence for controlled use of fire?
  • Q&A: What caused early hominins to trend toward carnivory?
  • Q&A: Why did humans begin to cook meat?

Lecture 4 Chapters: Hominid Paleobiology (1h 30’)

  • Start of Lecture Four
  • Profile of Dr. Tim White
  • Introduction to Part 1: Our Last Four Million Years
  • Video: Rift Valleys of Africa and Plate Tectonics
  • Geography of the Afar Rift
  • A tour of the Middle Awash study area
  • Video: Floods Supply Sediments for Fossil Formation
  • “Drilling down” in the Middle Awash
  • Using volcanic rocks to date sediment
  • Scope of Middle Awash project
  • Sites and findings of the Middle Awash project research area
  • Zooming into Herto village, a site of hominid fossil discovery
  • Paleoanthropology: From discovery to publication
  • Building research capacity in Ethiopia
  • Testing a hypothesis by comparing skulls
  • Earliest Homo sapiens: Herto
  • Video: The Delicate Process of Excavating and Cleaning Fossils
  • Herto skull compared with modern human skull
  • Evidence of stone tool use by Herto man
  • Bodo man from 0.5 mya and Daka man from 1 mya
  • Invention of stone tools affected  human evolution
  • Australopithecus from 2.5 mya used stone tools
  • “Lucy” and other australopithecines, 4.1-3.2 mya
  • Australopithecus lineage, 4.2-2 mya
  • Robust Australopithecus lineage, 2.7-1.2 mya
  • Homo erectus expands from Africa, 1.8 mya
  • Neanderthal lineage in Europe, 0.6-0.03 mya
  • H. florensiensis: An 18,000 year-old extinct species
  • How many species are in the human family tree?
  • Did adaptive radiation occur in human evolution?
  • The big picture: Hominid evolution from ~4.2 mya to the present
  • Q&A: How has our diet changed from our ancestors’ diet?
  • Q&A: How can you tell the age of the individuals?
  • Q&A: How can you reconstruct a skull from an incomplete fossil?
  • Q&A: Advantage of a small brain for our most recent relative? (H. floresiensis)
  • Intro to Part 2: Ardipithecus and Our Place in Nature
  • Lamarck’s ideas as the roots of the savanna hypothesis
  • Darwin knew chimpanzees did not evolve into humans
  • Ardipithecus: A hominid close to the common ancestor
  • Central Awash Complex: Where Ardipithecus was found
  • Video: Dung Beetles and Their Fossilized Evidence
  • Fossils of many types of animals found at the “Ardi” site
  • Discovery of hominid bones from 4.4 mya
  • Video: Hardening Fragile Fossils for Extraction
  • Returning solidified fossils to museum
  • Reconstructing past environment from fossils evidence
  • Early hominid skeletons
  • Comparing “Ardi” with “Lucy”
  • Digitally reconstructing “Ardi” skull and what it tells us
  • Comparing pelvises: “Ardi,” “Lucy,” human, and chimpanzee
  • Comparing hands: “Ardi,” human, and chimpanzee
  • Comparing feet: “Ardi” and primates
  • Making sense of “Ardi’s” characteristics
  • Teeth as indicators of behavior
  • Chimpanzee-human common ancestor was not a chimpanzee
  • Why human medicine must be evolution minded
  • Evolution’s perspective: Geographic range and preferred habitat
  • Humans are the sole surviving hominid species
  • Q&A: Procedures to be followed to get permission to dig?
  • Q&A: Why should validity of our beliefs be based on a theory?
  • Q&A: What will the chimpanzee-human common ancestor be like?


From Dr. Shea’s Lecture:

  • Stratigraphic Principles (2:21)
  • Making Stone Tools by Flintknapping (1:23)
  • Classifying Stone Tools (3:04)
  • Comparing Human & Chimp Tool Use (0:29)

From Dr. White’s Lecture:

  • Rift Valleys and Plate Tectonics (1:01)
  • Floods Supply Sediments for Fossil Formation (1:27)
  • Delicate Process of Excavating and Cleaning Fossils (0.39)
  • Hardening Fragile Fossils for Extraction (0:19)



Interviews with speakers
Profiles of young scientists working in labs
Discussion of bitter taste perception (PTC)
Reporting science results to public

Click and Learn Modules on:

  • Recent Adaptations in Humans
  • Regulation of Lactase Gene
  • Using Science Process to Study Human Evolution