Human Origins – UCT Summer School 2017

How did we end up with over seven billion people straining the planet to its sustainable limit? This course, Human Origins, narrates the major events leading up to the present.

Deep evolutionary history – starting with the Big Bang – is based on the integration of the latest evidence from fossil bones and stone tool artefacts, ancient DNA and past climates and landscapes.

This evidence reveals the timing, places and possibly the reasons for events that led to our speciation.

Climate and geography shaped many of our uniquely human features, as our ancestors made stone tools, ate diverse foods and took control of fire in order to survive in a highly unsettled, variable world.

Did our species, Homo sapiens, originate in the southern coastal region of South Africa in groups, isolated and under pressure, eating seafood for the first time?

Does the first appearance of symbolic artefacts at the far northern and southern tips of Africa indicate that these areas served as the initial engine rooms of our cultural evolution?

How did farming and the Industrial Revolution give rise to the human superorganism and propel us to where we are today?


Human Origins 1. Big history: all life is one Length: 1hr

Human Origins 2. Humans emerge out of an unsettled world Length: 1hr

Human Origins 3. African cradle: Where and how did our species evolve? Length: 1hr

Human Origins 4. Acquiring culture and going global Length: 1hr

Human Origins 5. Success of the human superorganism: Can it last? Length: 1hr

Recommended reading

• Compton, J. 2016. Human Origins

About the Author

Human Origins John Compton
Professor John S. Compton

Professor John Compton has been on the staff at the University of Cape Town for twenty years pursuing a broad range of research topics related to Earth history: past climates, environments and processes. John has a particular interest in geoarchaeology and the role of past climates in human evolution. He has also been involved in studies of marine geology and the history of Benguela upwelling on the West Coast and the role of dust in supplying nutrients to the fynbos ecosystem. He published a popular science book, The Rocks & Mountains of Cape Town in 2004.