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Big Era Two: Panorama Unit

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What Does It Mean To Be Human?
The Early Career of Homo sapiens
200,000 – 10,000 B.C.E.

Why This Unit?

This unit aims to help students understand what makes our species, known as Homo sapiens, unique. It also shows what humans shared with their near relatives among the genus Homo. Ninety-five per cent of human history falls within this Big Era, which spans the period from the emergence of Homo sapiens to the beginnings of agriculture.

The unit raises several big questions:

  • What makes a human being human?
  • In what ways did early Homo sapiens, the species "like us," differ from or resemble other representatives of the genus Homo, particularly our near relatives, the Neanderthals?
  • What can historical evidence tell us about how our ancestors lived before about 10,000 years ago? How reliable are our conclusions from that evidence?
  • What features of the way of life of modern humans before 10,000 years ago paved the way for the emergence of the complex societies, or civilizations?
  • How do we assess what is historically important using information about this Big Era?

The lessons in this unit focus on three important aspects of the era.

  • In Lesson 1 students compare Neanderthals with Homo sapiens of pre-30,00 years ago, discussing the question, "Should the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights apply to both species? One of them? Neither of them? Why?
  • In Lesson 2 students draw conclusions about the way of life in an imaginary sub-arctic settlement of about 24,000 years ago. Their investigation is based on site-plans, pictures of finds, and descriptions in form of field-notes.
  • Lesson 3 considers on the questions of how well art of this era fits definitions of art, what part it played in the societies creating it, what attempts have been made to decode its meaning, and what it reveals about ways of life and thought of its creators.

Unit Objectives

Upon completing this unit, students will be able to:

1. Explain large-scale patterns of change that occurred between 200,000 and 10,000 BCE.

2. Explain the shift in human history from change associated with biological evolution to change associated with culture.

3. Evaluate cause and effect connections between developments in Big Era Two and the emergence of complex societies (civilizations), which occurred in Big Era Three.

4. Assess archaeological evidence, including both its strengths and limitations, and to infer conclusions from archeological evidence.

5. Pose and assess questions about the meaning and significance of historical events.

Time and Materials

Each of the three lessons may stand on its own, and each should take one to two 50-minute class periods. Time taken will vary, depending on how long the class spends on introductory activities, discussions, and assessments. If teachers have time for only one lesson, Lesson 2 is recommended.

Table of Contents

Why this unit?


Unit objectives


Time and materials




Introductory activities


Lesson 1: Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens: Kissing cousins or distant relatives?


Lesson 2: Be an archaeologist at a 24,000 year-old settlement


Lesson 3: Art before 10,000 years ago


Unit summary activity: What is important?


This unit and the Standards in Historical Thinking




Correlations to National and State Standards



Complete Teaching Unit in PDF format

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