Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
May 9th, 2010
Digging for the Truth
Lesson Activities

Introductory Activity

1. Distribute the “Early Human Milestones” student organizer to students and allow them a few minutes to complete the “Chronological Sequence” column with a number from 1 to 9 representing their best estimation of which milestone occurred first, second, and so on. When students have finished completing their organizers, call on a volunteer to offer his or her response to which milestone occurred most recently (i.e. #9 on the organizer). Encourage discussion among the class to establish consent (or dissent) before referring to the Student Organizer Answer Key to confirm or correct each given answer in turn. [Note that the “Approximate Date Range” and “Location” columns will remain incomplete until the Culminating Activity.]

2. Ask students if they found the sequence of any of these milestones surprising? If so, why? (Accept all answers.) Ask students how many of these milestones they think occurred before the invention of written language? (All of them.) Ask students if they can think of a familiar term which is used to describe events which occurred before any sort of written record? (Pre-historic.) Ask students to guess what percentage of human history more generally is considered to be pre-historic. (99%.) Tell students that there is a type of science which largely focuses on human pre-history—can anyone name it? (Archaeology.) Explain that archeology is the study of past human societies through the discovery, recovery, and analysis of the material culture they have left behind. Ask students what they think “material history” is. (The history of objects, artwork, and other physical evidence of humanity.) Explain that while archaeology is not limited to studying pre-history, its focus on material history allows it to probe further back in time than the written history records.

3. Pull up the “What Do You Know?” website on the projected classroom computer and tell students that the class as a whole will now be taking a quick online quiz to test their knowledge of archaeology. For each question, ask volunteers for answers and encourage class discussion about whether or not everyone agrees. Once the quiz has been completed and the answers submitted, examine the results with students and continue discussion of any incorrect answers until all students understand the basic principles as archeology as outlined in the quiz. Explain that the remainder of the lesson will provide a more in-depth understanding of archeological methodologies, technologies, and analysis using video segments from the PBS series The Human Spark .

Learning Activities

1. Frame the first video segment by explaining that it follows series host Alan Alda to France as he views some of the earliest and most dramatic evidence of prehistoric human sophistication. Provide a focus question by asking students to watch for what that evidence is, and why it might offer a glimpse into what Alda calls “the human spark.” PLAY Clip 1, “The Art Spark.”

2. Review the focus question: what is the evidence in this clip of prehistoric human intellectual sophistication? (Artwork—sculpture and painting.) Why it might offer a glimpse into “the human spark?” (Accept all answers, but encourage an understanding that no other species—including Neanderthals—ever created works of art.)

Ask students what they think the existence of such cave carvings and paintings tell us about the lives of those who made them? (Accept all answers, but point out that we at least know that the artists had a lot of free time.) Ask students how we can conclude this? (Because art is a “luxury” activity, serving no immediate practical purpose, its existence in the caves presupposes that the artists’ basic requirements of survival had already been met.) Tell students that this simple conclusion is an archaeological deduction: an understanding of a human society based not on written history or verbal description, but by an examination of physical evidence combined with the application of preexisting knowledge, logic, speculation, and even some imagination. Explain that the interpretative nature of archaeology means it is often considered a “soft” or “social” science rather than a “hard” science like physics or chemistry, which are generally based on observable facts and realities. Ask students if they can think of any other examples of “soft” or “social” science. (Psychology, sociology, etc.)

3. Tell students that our closest biological relatives are not around anymore. Ask if anyone knows who they were. (Neanderthals.) Explain that Neanderthals constitute a branch of the “Homo” genus—which includes Homo sapiens, or modern humans—that became extinct approximately 30,000 years ago. Like humans, Neanderthals walked upright, made tools, and may have even interbred with humans, but scientific opinion is divided about whether Neanderthals should be considered merely a separate Homo sapien race or a different species altogether. What is known is that Neanderthals ventured from Africa into Europe long before modern humans, leaving behind traces of a society similar to our own, but somehow lacking the “human spark.” Since we know that Neanderthals did not make art, ask students where else we might find those traces? (Accept all answers.) Tell students that in the next video clip, Alan Alda travels to another cave where archaeologists are engaged in one of their most fundamental activities: excavation. Provide a focus for students by asking them to watch for what clues the archaeologists are seeking in their excavations. PLAY Clip 2, “The Neanderthal Way.”

4. PAUSE at 11:28 (after Alda says “For generation after generation, they stuck to the same way of doing things”). Review the focus question: what clues are archaeologists looking for in their excavations? (The “debris of everyday life”: stone tools and animal remains.) How much have they found? (17,000 artifacts.) Why do they use brushes to remove the surrounding dirt? (To avoid damaging the artifact.) How do they keep track of where they found each artifact? (Lasers.) Why is it important to know where each artifact was discovered? (Accept all answers, but be sure students understand that in general, older artifacts are found in deeper layers of earth, and broken fragments of the same artifact are often found in proximity to each other.)

5. Tell students that they will now be conducting a classroom simulation of how archaeologists record their findings. Have each student take one small object—a stapler, an eraser, a book, etc.—and place it somewhere in the room. Make sure that objects are placed at different heights (e.g. on the floor, on a chair, on a desk, on top of a cabinet, etc). Tell students that the volume of the classroom itself represents an equivalent volume of soil, and that the objects they’ve placed represent artifacts buried within that soil. Explain that the first step of an archaeological dig is to impose a two dimensional grid (imaginary or otherwise) over the excavation site. Have students use yardsticks and masking tape to mark the room’s floor into a grid of three foot squares. On the blackboard or whiteboard, draw and label an alphanumeric chart of the room grid according to the following model:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

[Note that exact chart proportions will vary according to the dimensions of your classroom, and that some “squares” may be less than 3 feet across.]

6. Have each student determine in which masking tape grid square their “artifact” is placed, and use a yardstick to determine the vertical dimension of its location (i.e. “depth”), and enter the object’s name and its depth on the appropriate square on the blackboard or whiteboard chart (e.g. “Ben’s stapler at 37 inches” in square B4.) When all students have thus entered their objects, explain that archaeological charts like this one provide three-dimensional references of where artifacts are located, allowing the artifacts to be removed for study and exhibition without compromising the archaeological integrity of the site and the information it contains.

7. Explain that as simple as this three-dimensional mapping procedure seems, it was only relatively recently adopted; many early archaeological excavations, being more concerned with the artifacts themselves, kept little or no record of their precise location Ask students how the chart could be made more precise? (By shrinking the size of the grid, or better yet, recording the exact location of an object rather than use an approximate grid location.) Explain that this is the idea of the lasers used by the archaeologists in the video—to determine the most precise location possible. Tell students that they will now be returning to the video clip of Alan Alda in the Neanderthals’ cave. Provide a focus by asking what the archaeologists have concluded about Neanderthal society based on their findings, and why? RESUME playing Clip 2 through to the end.

8. Review the focus question: what have archaeologists concluded about Neanderthal society based on their findings, and why? (That Neanderthals were “flexible but not innovative”; this is indicated by the relative stasis of their tool-making technology over hundreds of thousands of years.) Ask students why they think this might have been? (Accept all answers.) Tell students that “why” is as fundamental a question for archaeologists as the “what,” “where,” or “when” of the artifacts they discover. While subjective speculation plays a very important role in seeking archaeological answers, modern technology is constantly pushing the boundaries of what may be discovered objectively. Provide a focus for the next video clip by asking students what the latest theory is about why Neanderthals weren’t as innovative as humans, and what new technology assisted its formulation. PLAY Clip 3, “What Teeth Can Tell.”

9. Review the focus questions: what is the latest theory about why Neanderthals weren’t as innovative as humans, and what new technology assisted its formulation?

(The latest theory is that Neanderthals reached maturity sooner than humans and thus had shorter childhoods in which to absorb, question, and revise inherited notions about how to do things. The theory was assisted by state-of the-art X-ray technology.) Ask students if counting the layers of tooth enamel on the fossilized teeth reminds them of anything? (Counting the rings of a tree to determine its age.) Ask students if this new understanding about the relative ages of maturity between Neanderthals and humans simply reflects advances in X-ray technology. (No. New technologies are merely tools which still require proper application by humans to provide results. Archaeological breakthroughs still require our own “human spark” to make the final connection.)

10. Explain that as much as new technology can increase the amount of information which can be extracted from an artifact, the artifact itself still generally has to be extracted through old-fashioned excavation. Provide students with a focus for the next video segment by asking them what archaeologists have learned about the prehistoric humans who once lived in the caves of Abri Castanet. PLAY Clip 4, “The Garbage of Everyday Life.”

11. Review the focus question: what have archaeologists learned about the prehistoric humans who once lived in the caves of Abri Castanet? (They hunted reindeer, had large fires in the caves, made artistic engravings in the cave walls, and did NOT bury their dead in the caves, but rather extracted and wore the deceased’s teeth as a primitive type of jewelry.) Ask students why they think the teeth of the deceased might have been worn. (Accept all answers.) Tell students that in the next clip they will be learning about some archaeological hypotheses about pre-historic jewelry—dental and otherwise. Provide a focus for students by asking them what prehistoric jewelry may have in common with modern-day national flags. PLAY Clip 5, “The Community of Symbolism.”

12. Review the focus question: what does prehistoric jewelry have in common with modern-day national flags? (They are both symbols extending a sense of community and a network of cooperation to a larger group of individuals than would otherwise be connected.) What does manmade jewelry carved from soapstone have in common with cave art? (Accept all answers, but point out that they both took “ridiculous amounts of time” to create.) What does that suggest about the human societies that made them? (That basic survival needs have been met.) Does this suggest that jewelry was a cause or an effect for human evolutionary advances? (Most students will answer that is an effect—that jewelry was a time-consuming product of human societies which had already advanced beyond simple survival.)

13. Point out that archaeologist Randall White thinks pre-historic jewelry might also be “evolutionarily important”—specifically, that it “stand[s] for a change in social organization that allowed Neanderthals to be replaced by humans.” Ask students what role they think social organization plays in evolution? (Accept all answers, but encourage an understanding that the more extended networks of cooperation and communication afforded by greater social organization allow innovations to spread faster and more easily.) Provide students with a focus for the next clip by asking what theory White describes for why humans’ social organization was superior to that of the Neanderthals. PLAY Clip 6, “Social Advantages.”

14. Review the focus question: what theory does White describe for why humans’ social organization was superior to the Neanderthals? (Humans were more numerous and therefore less isolated than Neanderthals, allowing for quicker exchange and spread of innovations.) Ask students if they think population density might still play a role in human advancement? (Accept all answers, but point out that human technological breakthroughs and advancement have always tended to be focused in cities and densely crowded regions.)

Culminating Activity

1. Have students pull out their “Early Human Milestones” student organizers. Divide the class into nine groups and assign each group one of the nine milestones listed on the organizer. Explain that each group will be conducting further research together in order to complete the “Approximate Date Range” and “Location” columns for their milestone in Part 1 of the organizer, and to answer the questions in Part 2 of the organizer. Explain that because archaeology is such an inexact and interpretive science, and so subject to new discoveries and revised methodologies, different sources will probably cite widely varying answers for even the approximate times and location of various human milestones; the groups’ task here is to compile a brief summary of the range of possible answers, and that ambiguity and even contradiction is an accepted part of the discipline.

2. Once the groups have conducted their research and completed their organizers, have them give a brief report about their assigned milestone in front of the class.

Proceed to Video Segments.

Inside This Lesson

Produced by THIRTEEN    ©2014 Educational Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.