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May 9th, 2010
Digging for the Truth
Lesson Overview

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Grade Level: 9-12

Time Allotment: two to three 45-minute class periods

OVERVIEW: In this lesson, students will use selected segments from the PBS series The Human Spark, to learn how archeologists discover and examine physical evidence and use it to formulate theories explaining how and why humans were able to advance beyond our now-extinct cousins the Neanderthals.

The Introductory Activity establishes the scope and focus of archeological research by challenging students to properly sequence a series of early human milestones, while an online quiz tests for prior knowledge. In the Learning Activities, students learn about archeological methodology as they watch The Human Spark segments featuring archeologists at work in both the field and the laboratory, and conduct a hands-on classroom activity simulating an archaeological excavation. In the Culminating Activity, students apply their new archaeological knowledge to a group project researching the early human milestones featured in the Introductory Activity.

This lesson is best used as an introduction to a science unit on archaeology or anthropology.

SUBJECT MATTER: Archaeology, Anthropology


Students will be able to:

  • Describe the nature and limitations of Neanderthal culture.
  • Discuss various theories about what enabled early humans to supersede the Neanderthals.
  • Outline traditional archaeological methods and how they are being augmented by modern technology.
  • Distinguish between “hard” and “social” sciences.
  • Give specific examples of what the “debris of everyday life” can tell us about our early human ancestors.
  • Offer theories of what might constitute a unique “human spark.”


From the National Science Education Standards at

CONTENT STANDARD G: History and Nature of Science

As a result of activities in grades 9-12, all students should develop understanding of


  • Individuals and teams have contributed and will continue to contribute to the scientific enterprise. Doing science or engineering can be as simple as an individual conducting field studies or as complex as hundreds of people working on a major scientific question or technological problem. Pursuing science as a career or as a hobby can be both fascinating and intellectually rewarding.
  • Scientists are influenced by societal, cultural, and personal beliefs and ways of viewing the world. Science is not separate from society but rather science is a part of society.


  • Science distinguishes itself from other ways of knowing and from other bodies of knowledge through the use of empirical standards, logical arguments, and skepticism, as scientists strive for the best possible explanations about the natural world.
  • Scientific explanations must meet certain criteria. First and foremost, they must be consistent with experimental and observational evidence about nature, and must make accurate predictions, when appropriate, about systems being studied. They should also be logical, respect the rules of evidence, be open to criticism, report methods and procedures, and make knowledge public. Explanations on how the natural world changes based on myths, personal beliefs, religious values, mystical inspiration, superstition, or authority may be personally useful and socially relevant, but they are not scientific.
  • Because all scientific ideas depend on experimental and observational confirmation, all scientific knowledge is, in principle, subject to change as new evidence becomes available. The core ideas of science such as the conservation of energy or the laws of motion have been subjected to a wide variety of confirmations and are therefore unlikely to change in the areas in which they have been tested. In areas where data or understanding are incomplete, such as the details of human evolution or questions surrounding global warming, new data may well lead to changes in current ideas or resolve current conflicts. In situations where information is still fragmentary, it is normal for scientific ideas to be incomplete, but this is also where the opportunity for making advances may be greatest.
  • Science distinguishes itself from other ways of knowing and from other bodies of knowledge through the use of empirical standards, logical arguments, and skepticism.


  • Usually, changes in science occur as small modifications in extant knowledge. The daily work of science and engineering results in incremental advances in our understanding of the world and our ability to meet human needs and aspirations. Much can be learned about the internal workings of science and the nature of science from study of individual scientists, their daily work, and their efforts to advance scientific knowledge in their area of study.



The Human Spark: Becoming Us, selected segments

The Art Spark

An exploration of early cave art and what it tells us about our ancestors.

The Neanderthal Way

A glimpse into the excavation of a cave once inhabited by our close relatives the Neanderthals, and what it tells us about their archeological methodology.

What Teeth Can Tell

An example of how modern technology is informing archeological methodology.

The Garbage of Everyday Life

A tour of an archeological dig of an early human settlement, and some clues it offers about our ancestors.

The Community of Symbolism

Archeologists explain the significance of early ornamental beads.

Social Advantages

An explanation of the evolutionary advantage of human social organization.


“What Do You Know?”

A quiz testing students’ knowledge about archaeology from the American Museum of Natural History.


For the teacher:

For each group of several students:

  • A computer with internet access.

For each student:


Prior to teaching this lesson, you will need to:

Preview all of the video segments and websites used in the lesson.

Download the video segments used in the lesson to your classroom computer, or prepare to watch them using your classroom’s internet connection.

Bookmark the website used in the lesson on each computer in your classroom. Using a social bookmarking tool such as or diigo (or an online bookmarking utility such as portaportal) will allow you to organize all the links in a central location.

Print and make copies of “Early Human Milestones” Student Organizer and Answer Key.

Proceed to Lesson Activities.

Inside This Lesson

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