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Stone Age to Iron Age – where to begin?

Links to the Primary National Curriculum - History:

Teaching ‘Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age’ is now firmly part of the KS2 curriculum in England, and so knowledge about the Stone Age can be seen as pre-requisite. As well as being part of teaching a coherent knowledge and understanding of Britain’s past, teaching the various ‘ages’ within the Stone Age for example can also be a great way to achieve some of the aims of the history curriculum.

The first thing to note is that archaeologists have divided the Stone Age into 3 distinct periods – the Palaeolithic or Old Stone Age, the Mesolithic or Middle Stone Age and the Neolithic or New Stone Age. In Britain, the broad dates for each of the are now considered to be that the Palaeolithic covers everything up to the end of the last Ice Age, around 10,000 BC, the Mesolithic 10,000-4,000 BC and the Neolithic 4,000-2,000 BC.

Let's say you want to help the children consider the connections and similarities and changes and differences over time, the question of what makes us the same as and different from our early ancestors can be a topic. Of course things are never easy as we think they might be, and the biggest problem facing teachers and children alike is the enormous time-span involved. Whilst the story of human evolution stretches back to about 6 million years the presence of humans in Britain has a far shorter history – only some 800,000 years. Even so, you can see how much time is involved and we realise we can only glimpse the tip of the iceberg in terms of what to teach!

How do we select what to teach KS2?

A question at the heart of many discussions about this early part of our history concerns the rise and subsequent success of Homo Sapiens or AMH (Anatomically Modern Humans) over all other hominin species. What makes us human and why were we ultimately more successful? Is it our use of art, clothing, expanding repertoire of stone tools, for example? I have even heard it suggested that we succeeded where the Neanderthals didn’t because we could be devious, but I’m not sure what the evidence for this is! Watching The Croods could also be useful – this is a light-hearted take on the question of did Neanderthals meet Homo sapiens (and is perhaps also one explanation of how we have all (nearly) got Neanderthal DNA in our genes!).

Because the Palaeolithic is such a long period, it is also a good way to look at trends over time, for example in evolutionary terms – from walking on all fours to two legs, from climbing trees to living at ground level, to discovering fire and making increasingly sophisticated stone tools (more on this later) and in terms of the spread of humans from Africa across the rest of the world.

The Palaeolithic is also a great case study for considering methods of enquiry and how the evidence is used rigorously (and not so rigorously in some cases!). Archaeology is all about possibilities and probabilities, not absolute truths and so conflicting ideas do exist. Just looking at the various websites – even those from the big institutions like the Smithsonian and The Natural History Museum - may bring some of these to light, such as conflicting dates and missing species.

Excavations in this unremarkable looking cave in the Derbyshire Peak District revealed traces of the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic, as well as several Neolithic burials.

The significance of this period cannot be over-stated. After all it was when we, our species, first began. We will look at other significant points in more detail as the blogs progress but just to whet your appetite, keep in mind the ‘discovery’ of fire and cooking. This will also be a good one for considering causes and consequences.

To be continued…


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