Emergence of the Modern Human Mind: An African Perspective


Our species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa around 300,000 years ago but did the first members of our species have minds like us, or were advanced cognition and language later developments?

It has long been argued that the modern mind emerged relatively suddenly sometime between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago, the time of the Middle to Upper Palaeolithic transition in Europe and the Near East. However, this view can no longer be supported. Instead, we have to look to the birthplace of our species, Africa.

Recent fieldwork in various parts of the continent has revealed many important discoveries that suggest we have been fully modern in mind as well as body for a very long time. Early modern humans in Africa are associated with Middle Stone Age (MSA) material culture, a prehistoric period that begins around 300,000 years ago and gives way to the Later Stone Age at various times in different areas, mainly between 50,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Although the MSA may not be as familiar as the Middle and Upper Palaeolithic of Europe, it deserves to be much more widely known and appreciated if we want to understand the emergence of the modern human mind.

Programme details

Courses starts: 25 Apr 2022

Week 0: An Introduction to Teams

No class 2nd May - UK Bank Holiday

Week 1:  The evolution of modern humans

Week 2:  What is modern cognition and how do we detect it archaeologically?

Week 3:  Behavioural changes accompanying the emergence of modern humans

Week 4:  Technological innovations during the African Middle Stone Age (MSA)

Week 5:  A land of many cultures

Week 6:  Middle Stone Age lives: case studies from southern Africa

Week 7:  Advances in hunting technology: bows and arrows

Week 8:  Pigments, patterns, and the earliest figurative art in Africa

Week 9:  Additional symbolic behaviours: use of personal ornaments, mortuary practices, and ritual

Week 10:  What is the significance of the Middle to Later Stone Age transition?


Students who register for CATS points will receive a Record of CATS points on successful completion of their course assessment.

To earn credit (CATS points) you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Coursework is an integral part of all weekly classes and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework in order to benefit fully from the course. Only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard.

Students who do not register for CATS points during the enrolment process can either register for CATS points prior to the start of their course or retrospectively from the January 1st after the current full academic year has been completed. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee.


Description Costs
Course Fee £229.00
Take this course for CATS points £10.00


Dr Diane Holmes

Diane Holmes has been teaching courses on human evolution and Palaeolithic archaeology for the OUDCE for many years.  Her main interests are Palaeolithic technology and early African prehistory.

Course aims

This course examines the archaeological evidence for the emergence of the modern human mind, a process now understood to have taken place in Africa. 

Course Objectives:

  1. To introduce students to the key concepts and areas of debate concerning research into the origins of modern human cognition and symbolic communication. 
  2. To provide an introduction to the archaeology associated with modern humans in Africa from around 300,000 years ago to the time of the MSA-LSA transition.
  3. To show how behavioural evidence preserved in the African archaeological record may be used to shed light on the emergence of modern human cognition. 

Teaching methods

This online course will consist of a 1-hour pre-recorded lecture released in advance of each live session. The pre-recorded lectures will be complemented by a 1-hour live, structured discussion session.

Each week students will be asked to look at online resources concerning a particular topic that will then be discussed in the live sessions. They will also have the opportunity to ask questions more generally about each week’s lecture.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students will be expected to:

  1. Acquire a good introductory knowledge of the Middle Stone Age of Africa.
  2. Develop a understanding of the main issues and sources of evidence concerning the emergence of complex cognition and language in modern humans.
  3. Have an appreciation of the some of the challenges and limitations of recognising evidence of modern human behaviour from the archaeological record.

Assessment methods

Students will have the choice of preparing either several shorter pieces of coursework (total approx. 1500 words; Option A), or a single 1500-word assignment (Option B). The Option A coursework will be based on class discussion topics, while there will be a list of assignment questions to choose from for students who prefer to work on a single 1500-word assignment (Option B). Advice on producing coursework will be given by the tutor during the course.      

Students must submit a completed Declaration of Authorship form at the end of term when submitting your final piece of work. CATS points cannot be awarded without the aforementioned form - Declaration of Authorship form


Each course will close for enrolments 7 days prior to the start date to allow us to complete the course set up. We will email you at that time (7 days before the course begins) with further information and joining instructions. As always, students will want to check spam and junk folders during this period to ensure that these emails are received.

To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an application form.

Level and demands

This is an introductory course suitable for anyone with an interest in early prehistory. No previous knowledge is assumed.

Most of the Department's weekly classes have 10 or 20 CATS points assigned to them. 10 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of ten 2-hour sessions. 20 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of twenty 2-hour sessions. It is expected that, for every 2 hours of tuition you are given, you will engage in eight hours of private study.

Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS)