Resources collected from around the web for teaching human evolution

Whether you’re tackling human evolution from a science perspective or as part of a Stone Age Britain topic, here are some resources collected from around the web that might be of use.

Making your own footprint casts

The Fossils and Dinosaurs topic from the Hamilton Trust is free to download and there is a block of work of five sessions specifically on human evolution that I wrote, from creating a family tree of the hominids, tracing human dispersal around the world and particularly exploring what it would be like for modern humans and Neanderthals to meet. There is also one lesson plan (session 5) and resources in a block on fossilised footprints that looks at human footprints at Laetoli in Tanzania, Happisburgh in Norfolk and Pehuen-Co in Argentina.

I also wrote the file for this handaxe found at Happisburgh for the Teaching History in 100 Objects website by the British Museum. Handaxes are some of the earliest tools created by ancient humans, and this one dates to around 850,000 years ago, the same time that early humans (probably Homo antecessor) left footprints in the mud. The file also includes links and images of other handaxes and gives you some teaching ideas on how to use these images to explore the capabilities of ancient humans.

Make your own modroc hominid skull

I wrote more in depth resources for the Coping with Climate project run by the Universities of Reading and Brighton. These include image banks, timelines, fact-sheets and instructions for doing practical activities to explore what kind of tasks ancient humans were able to do, focusing on Homo heidelbergensis in southern England and on Neanderthals and the first modern humans into Europe. They are free to download.

One area I haven’t worked in is creating 3D scans of images, but many other people have! This site at the Smithsonian Museum’s website has a fantastic collection of scans of tools, art objects and fossil hominids which can be searched by species name. There are lots of skulls so you can see how this changes over time.

The Smithsonian have also just created some new video resources called Snapshots in Time that introduce pupils to Swartkrans in South Africa, Olorgasailie in Kenya and Shanidar cave in Iraq. Each site and what was found there is introduced bit by bit in a series of videos that allow pauses for discussion of the significance and meaning of the finds, before the narrative is woven together in the final video.

Sketchfab 3D fossils

New scans of material related to human evolution are uploaded to Sketchfab all the time. There are 3D scans of tools, art objects, pendants, sub-fossil bones, caves, excavations and more. Just go to Sketchfab and search for human evolution or Palaeolithic.

Finally, for another great list of resources for teaching human evolution, but aimed at older students, go to Caitlin Schrein’s list on her website.

If you have any other suggestions for human evolution resources you like to use, let me know!

New resource for teaching about the Stone Age written by Canterbury Christ Church University

Front page of the new resource pack on the Stone Age from Canterbury Christ Church University

Emilie Sibbesson of Canterbury Christ Church University has written a guide to the Stone Age with lots of factsheets, twelve lesson plans, supporting resources and loads of beautiful illustrations that is free for teachers to download and use. The information in there is not exclusive to Kent, though the suggested places to visit are all in Kent.

You need to create an account with them to download it, but it is free. Go to their website to get hold of this great resource.

There are great ideas like using toilet roll (though it has to be 1000 sheet!) for a timeline, challenging children to try to move balls across a room on all fours, guidelines for cooking fish wrapped in nettle and dandelion leaves and clay, and some great drama to undertake at the end of the block. The resource has been piloted with several Kent schools and so the activities have all been well tested.

Example illustration from the resource pack

The illustrations by Penny Bernard are also fantastic and give a sense of the richness of culture in this remote time.

Coping with Climate: the legacy of Homo heidelbergensis

Handaxe from Boxgrove, West Sussex, made by Homo heidelbergensis. By Midnightblueowl – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In a project led by Dr Rob Hosfield of the University of Reading and Dr James Cole of the University of Brighton on understanding how the early human species Homo heidelbergensis coped with climate changes during the Pleistocene era we have contributed some teaching resources linked to both the history topic, Stone Age to Iron Age Britain and the science topic of evolution.

Homo heidelbergensis was a fore-runner of Neanderthals and lived around 500,000 years ago. At one of the most iconic sites for this species in Britain, Boxgrove in West Sussex, H. heidelbergensis seems to have lived in a relatively warm climate and either hunted or scavenged rhinoceros among other animals.

The resources also take in a number of other hominin species and start to ask the question what makes us human? Were other hominin species human? Did earlier species wear clothes, make fire, make art, have language? The resources also explore how archaeologists, palaeogeneticists and other scientists try to work out the answers to these questions.

There are lesson plans and supporting resources available as PDFs, Word documents, and PowerPoint presentations including image banks, guides for running practical activities and experiments, and fact sheets on these ancient human species. They’re all free to download, so take a look, use them and send us feedback!

Book review: The First Drawing by Mordicai Gerstein

This is a wonderful picturebook that invites children to imagine they lived thousands of years ago and invented drawing. You see animals in rocks and clouds, watch animals all day and even come face to face with a woolly mammoth. You see animals running and dancing in the firelight on the walls of the cave where you sleep with your extended family. But no-one else can see what you can see until you pick up a charred stick from the fire and start making marks on the wall where you can see the animals: the first drawing. Then everyone can see what you see and everyone draws on the cave.

Being written in second person is really engaging and different, and the detail in the pictures really backs up that feeling of the reader being the main character in the story and being misunderstood by others. The book could easily be read without any words, with the pictures themselves telling the story. If you focus on the pictures you can see the expressions of the wider family as they disbelieve, fear and finally see the animals on the walls. If children look really carefully they can see that one member of the extended family does see, a baby, the most innocent and least socialised person in the group.

If you examine the end papers either before or after reading the book, you can find some clues as to why certain aspects of the book are in there. There is the dedication which reads:

For Susan, with love. Your beautiful drawings open our eyes to our own imaginations. –MG

Who is Susan? Who is referred to in ‘our eyes’? Perhaps Susan is the author’s daughter and she opens her parents eyes to their own imagination, like the hero of the story eventually opens his/her parents and relations eyes to their imaginations. Under the dedication is the hero looking at an elephant in the zoo, which might link to the hero coming face to face with a woolly mammoth. Perhaps that is a memory of the author’s visit to a zoo. Children will have other ideas too.

A focus on the text will provide opportunities for philosophical discussion. The phrases “Why can’t they see what I see?”, “being a mammoth might not be so different from being you.” and “It is magic.” the ‘it’ being drawing, are a few starting points that would lead to very rich dicussions.

The Author’s Note at the back gives more detail about the prehistorical background, explaining that the book was inspired by the cave paintings found in Chauvet cave in southern France. The author tells us that he had always thought children had invented drawing and when the footprint of a child, perhaps aged about 8, was found in the cave, alongside that of a wolf, he felt vindicated. It would be great to compare the drawings in the book to the drawings in Chauvet Cave, which you can find on the Bradshaw Foundation’s website.

Children could even investigate the premise of the book, which is that art was invented in Europe around 30,000 years ago. This eurocentric viewpoint can be challenged as it may be that anatomically modern humans (AMH) created art long before that but not on cave walls where it has been preserved. AMHs first arrived in Australia, it is thought, about 60,000 years ago and they may have already been drawing. A recent find of a scored shell has been dated to before AMH evolved, about 500,000 years ago. It is likely that an earlier human species, Homo erectus, had scored the abstract patterns on the shell found on Java in Indonesia.

It is also not likely that humans lived in the caves that they decorated, and it would be good to read this book alongside Satoshi Kitamura’s Stone Age Boy book that shows a more authentic way of life of these Ice Age people, living in tents by rock shelters.