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Big Era One: Panorama Unit

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How Did We Get Here, Anyway?
The Foundations of Human History
13,000,000,000-200,000 Years Ago

Why This Unit?

Have humans always been here on earth? Will we always be here? These are questions of central and enduring interest and importance. Human history is set on the stage of Planet Earth. We cannot understand our own history as a species during the time that we have been on earth without understanding the long-term physical and natural setting in which human history has taken place. It is a setting that all people share regardless of the differences between us that we so often emphasize.

Human evolution has occurred over a huge span of time when compared to the lifetime of any individual. Yet the time it has taken us to evolve into Homo sapiens, a species distinct from our predecessors and from other animals, is only the blink of an eye compared to the scale of astronomical and geological change. Understanding the vast scales of time within which Homo sapiens arose is critical to appreciating how little time it has taken us to develop into the most influential species in our planet’s history. Big Eras Two through Nine encompass the entire history of Homo sapiens – yet, together those eras cover only 1/6500 of 1% of the time span of Big Era One, the period before our species appeared on earth!

The lessons in this panorama unit highlight three issues that establish the context in which human history has taken place:

  • Lesson 1 explores the scales of time in which the evolution of our universe, the earth within that universe, and humans on that earth has occurred. Through kinesthetic exercises, students compare the scale of such changes with scales of time to which they can relate from their own experiences. The purpose of the lesson is to develop students’ “chronological literacy.”
  • Lesson Two examines how humans fit into the biological realm by distinguishing the physical characteristics that make us different from any other organism.
  • Lesson Three further establishes our distinctive nature in terms of the cultural characteristics, notably language, that define us as uniquely human. This lesson sets the stage for Big Era Two, in which students explore how humans development of symbolic language led to the immense cultural changes that make up our history.

Unit Objectives

Upon completing this unit, students will be able to:

1. Construct a simple timeline incorporating important events in the history of the universe, the earth, and human evolution.

2. Explain the length of a human life compared to the time since humans first appeared on earth to the time since the universe, the sun, the earth, and life on earth came into existence.

3. List dates of important events in the evolution of the universe, the earth, life on earth, and the human species and describe the relative lengths of time between these dates.

4. Identify the important physical differences that distinguish humans from other organisms.

5. Identify the important cultural differences that distinguish humans from other organisms, notably from ancestral hominids.

Time and Materials

The total instructional time required to cover the central concepts of the three lessons should be about 250 minutes, for example, five single fifty-minute class periods. Use of extension activities may increase that time.

Almost all materials used in the lessons, including student worksheets (to be printed in multiples) are included here. You will also need:

  • One sheet of 13" x 18" colored construction paper and one sheet of 13" x 18" heavyweight construction paper per student (Lesson One).
  • Scissors, glue, crayons, colored pencils, markers, and assorted scrap materials such as fabric, buttons, and string (Lesson One).
  • One roll of cash register tape to construct a "Timeline of the Universe" (Lesson One).
  • Power Point Overview Presentation for this teaching unit.

Table of Contents

Why This Unit?


Unit Objectives


Time and Materials




Lesson One: How Long Is “A Long Time”?


Lesson Two: Humans and Physical Evolution: What Makes Us Physically Human?


Lesson Three: Humans And Cultural Evolution: What Makes Us Culturally Human?


Final Assessment


This unit and the Standards in Historical Thinking




Correlations to National and State Standards


Complete Panorama Unit in PDF format


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