Exploring Human History

What You Need

Exploring Human History Photo Credit: Clipart.com


To help students explore how anthropologists go about scientific inquiry.


This lesson is part of a group of lessons that focus on the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. These lessons are developed by AAAS and funded by the National Science Foundation Grant No. SES-0549096. For more lessons and activities that take a closer look at the social, behavioral, and economic sciences, be sure to check out the SBE Project page.

Scientists have been exploring and studying the history of humans since the 15th century. Today, anthropologists around the world continue to dig deep into the history and culture of the world and its people and have discovered that the human species is far more complex than originally thought.

In this lesson, students will learn that anthropology is divided into four main subdivisions (archaeology, linguistics, cultural, and physical), and anthropologists often work in more than one subdivision at the same time. They will explore the careers of several contemporary anthropologists and their fieldwork, comparing the methods and applications of their work. They will learn that scientists differ from one another in what is studied, techniques used, and outcomes sought, but that they share a common purpose and philosophy, and all are part of the same scientific enterprise. They will learn that some anthropologists spend part of their time doing fieldwork and then return to the lab or their affiliated academic or research institution to do research, while others may conduct most of their work at their institution.

Students should already know that scientific investigations involve observation as well as collecting samples for analysis and experimentation. They should be aware that scientists explain their findings based on observation, but also based on what they already know and what opinions they have about what they know. We learn about others through understanding our differences and similarities. It is important that students be able to explain how they reach their conclusions and be able to listen with an open mind to how others reached theirs. (Benchmarks for Science Literacy, pp. 10-13.)

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Planning Ahead

We suggest you refer to the Anthropology Tutorials on the Palomar College site for background information before you teach this lesson.


Classifying information is part of the anthropologist’s job. When we classify people or things, we put them into categories based on what we know about them.

Give students 15-20 pictures of items from a 1950's American home and a diagram of where these items might be found in an archaeological dig. Items can be common or obscure and include things like kitchen utensils (showing steel use and electrical appliances); broken dishes; food containers; clothing with zippers and buttons; electrical lights; mechanical and non-mechanical toys; cleaning agents; and personal hygiene products. Do not label the products; instead allow students to do that.

Divide the class into small groups. Ask each group to classify the items by use (no more than three or four classifications per item) and develop hypotheses as to how the people who used these items are different and similar from people today.

Each group can then share what classifications they gave the items, the reasons they chose those classifications, and the hypotheses they formed about the users.


In this part of the lesson, we will take a closer look at how anthropologists go about studying human beings and their physical, linguistic, and cultural characteristics, from ancient times to the present.

Anthropology is divided into four areas of study: archaeology, physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, and linguistics.

Have students use the Exploring Human History student esheet to go to and read What is Anthropology? so they have a general understanding of the four subdivisions. Once they are done reading this page, have a class discussion about the four main areas of study.

So that students can gain a better understanding about the four main areas of anthropology, have them use their student esheet again to go to and read the resources listed below. After students have gone through a resource (or set of resources), have them stop their reading and conduct a class discussion using questions like the ones provided.

Physical Anthropology

Ask students:

  • What methods do scientists use to classify the human race?
  • How do the typological, populational, and clinal models of classification differ?

Cultural Anthropology

Ask students:

  • What are some survival skills that Americans use today that their ancestors probably did not have?
  • What survival skills do you use today that you think will still be used in 50 years? What evidence do you have for that?


Ask students:

  • Why do you think it is important to uncover ancient societies?
  • Aside from excavation, what might be some other methods for obtaining data about ancient cultures?


Ask students:

  • Why do you think the English language is one of the hardest languages to learn?
  • How and why do you think different dialects within a society distinguish social status?

In this part of the Development, students will have the chance to see how some anthropologists do their work by viewing videos found on National Geographic’s Emerging Explorers site.

Ask students to use their studentesheet to go to these six resources and read about how contemporary anthropologists have gone about exploring the history of humans and what it is like to be an anthropologist. Also ask students to use the What It’s Like to be an Anthropologist student sheet to answer questions about each anthropologist. Follow this with a class discussion and ask the students to compare and contrast the work of these scientists.

Then ask students to go to Kira Salak and read about this explorer, who is a writer and adventurer. Students can discuss in class how what Salak does as an “adventurer” differs from the explorations of the anthropologists.


Ask students to imagine what our civilization will be like in 200 years and to write an essay based on these questions:

  • Where might archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, linguists, and physical anthropologists find data about our civilization 200 years from now?
  • What forms might these data take? (For example, what things do you think anthropologists would find if they excavated your community?)
  • What hypotheses might they draw from their findings?


Have students read Piecing Together the Past, a profile of a biocultural anthropologist, Rachael Watkins. Have students research information about the collection of 600 African American skeletons housed at Howard University that Dr. Watkins is studying.

You also may have students read about forensic anthropology in Skeleton Keys: How Forensic Anthropologists Identify Victims and Solve Crimes. Follow this reading with a discussion of the differences between what biocultural and forensic anthropologists do.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks