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The Human Planet: How and Why We Began to Shape the Earth System


Admission requirements

Admission to the Master Archaeology programme.


Today, we face complicated challenges resulting from the global human-caused impact on climate and biodiversity. This course aims to contextualise the current crisis using the extended time perspective of the archaeologist.

For how long has human action caused (global) environmental change? How can we distinguish between natural and anthropogenic causes of environmental change? How have changes in population density, technology, and socio-economic organisation affected the nature of human impact on the environment? Did unsustainable practices cause the decline of particular societies (and vice versa)? And can modern study of past environments and societies contribute to sustainable strategies now and in the future?

Humans are particularly effective at altering their environments, and have been engaging in ‘niche construction’ for tens of thousands of years. In this way they shaped their own environments (and those of other species), with implications for human evolution and responses to environmental change.

Understanding the impact of humans and human ancestors requires an understanding of Quaternary environmental change. Starting from the geological background, we will learn how to evaluate archaeological evidence for human modifications of the environment, discuss the antiquity and diversity of human niche construction, and consider case studies of human-environment interaction from a range of periods and regions.

The lectures/seminars focus on examples from deep prehistory (hunter-gatherers and early farmers). Because of the importance of emphasising the context of hominins in their ecosystems, and integrating short and very long timespans, an evolutionary biology and ecology framework, with a particular emphasis on niche construction, is used.

This course will enable you to become familiar with data about the past that are relevant for thinking about – and possibly helping to solve – current challenges of meeting the needs for a habitable world, now and in the near future.

Course objectives

  • Assess human impact on past and present landscapes, faunal communities, and climates, at varied spatial scales;

  • Obtain knowledge of Quaternary environmental changes;

  • Gain insight into different palaeo-environmental proxies and methods;

  • Understand the challenges of distinguishing human and environmental impacts;

  • Practice the ability to communicate and collaborate on a research project in a group;

  • Produce and present a research topic in an academic poster;

  • Gain the ability to apply a long-term perspective in discussion of present-day problems.


Course schedule details can be found in MyTimetable.
Log in with your ULCN account, and add this course using the 'Add timetable' button.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars and lectures;

  • Discussion based on literature.

Course load

  • 7 x 2 hours of lectures (1 ec);

  • 280 pages of literature and weekly discussion points (2 ec);

  • Final essay of 1,000-1,200 words (0.75 ec);

  • Group paper on selected topic and peer review (1.25 ec).

Assessment method

  • Individual paper (40%);

  • Group project (60%).

A retake is possible for the individual paper only, if all other requirements have been met (including submission of weekly discussion points and participation in the group efforts).
If the group project receives a fail, it must be improved to the level required for a pass.

Assessment deadlines

All assessment deadlines (exams, retakes, paper deadlines etc.) can be found in MyTimetable.
Log in with your ULCN account, and add this course using the 'Add timetable' button. To view the assessment deadline(s), make sure to select the course with a code ending in T and/or R.

The group project needs to be submitted in week 6, the final paper is submitted one week after the end of the course.

Reading list

Other papers will used as well.
The complete reading list will be published on Brightspace.


Registration in uSis is mandatory. You can register for this course until 5 days before the first class.

Registration in uSis automatically leads to enrollment in the corresponding Brightspace module. Therefore you do not need to enroll in Brightspace, but make sure to register for this course in uSis.

You are required to register for all lectures and tutorials well in time. The Administration Office registers all students for their exams, you are not required to do this in uSis.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Prospective students website for information on how to apply.

All information (costs, registration, entry requirements, etc.) for those who are interested in taking this course as a Contractstudent is on the Contractonderwijs Archeologie webpage (in Dutch).


For more information about this course, please contact dr. ir. F. (Fulco) Scherjon or dr. K. (Kathy) MacDonald.


It is compulsory to provide the weekly online discussion points.