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Teaching the Stone Age to Iron Age – where to begin?

Teaching ‘Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age’ is now required as part of KS2 History curriculum in England. For many teachers, this means tackling a completely new subject and facing the task of finding appropriate sources to build up their knowledge.

Whilst there are many sources of information out there, they can be difficult to navigate and know which to trust. So, as promised in an earlier blog post and encouraged by teachers we have spoken to, we are here to help.

Over a series of blogs, we will address each aspect of the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age to give you an overview of each period as well as pointing you towards other reliable sources of information. We will begin each period with an few suggestions on how the teaching of these subjects can address aims of the Primary History Curriculum, so that you can have these in mind as you read through the ‘facts’. We are also developing a glossary page where you can find explanations for terms with one click.

So, where to begin?

I have heard it been said that the very beginning is a very good place to start. In this case that means the Stone Age and in particular the Old Stone Age.

Teaching the Stone Age:

The first thing to note is that the Stone Age covers a vast period of time and, because of this, archaeologists have divided it 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 these are:

Palaeolithic: 800,000 years ago lasting up to the end of the last Ice Age (around 10,000 years ago) Mesolithic: 10,000 years ago to 4,000 BC Neolithic: 4,000BC to 2,300 BC

(NB before the Neolithic we tend to talk in terms of ‘years ago’ rather than BC dates).

Teaching the Palaeolithic – addressing aims of the Primary History Curriculum:

Through learning about the Palaeolithic, children can consider connections, similarities, changes and differences over time. One way this can be done is through considering the question of what makes us the same as and different from our early ancestors.

At first, this may seem to cause a dilemma: as you may be aware, children are not expected to learn about evolution until Y6 as part of the Science curriculum, whilst Stone Age to Iron Age is for the most part being taught in lower KS2. Similarly, a big problem facing children (and teachers) is the enormous time-span involved, which can be very hard to grasp.

There are, however, possible ways round this: the Y6 Science programme of study covers the evolution of all living things, whilst within a Stone Age topic the focus can be on human evolution.  But, with human evolution stretching back some 6 million years, this may still be considered too much too soon by some.

However, the presence of humans in Britain has a far shorter history – only some 800,000 years (only!). Therefore, the teaching of human evolution in any depth could still be left to Y6, and the idea that humans have changed since they first came to Britain can be introduced in Y3.

How do we select what to teach at KS2?

Because the Palaeolithic is such a long period, it is possible to look at changes and trends over a great expanse of time beyond Britain, for example in evolutionary terms as mentioned above. If you did want to go down this route, you could consider changes such as from walking on all fours to two legs, from climbing trees to living at ground level, to discovering fire, making increasingly sophisticated stone tools and in terms of the spread of humans from Africa across the rest of the world.

However, a more suitable line of enquiry might stem from a question which concerns the rise and subsequent success of us – Homo Sapiens or AMH (Anatomically Modern Humans) – over all other hominin species: What makes us human and why were we ultimately successful?

This question perhaps works better for the ‘Changes in Stone Age to Iron Age’ topic because there is evidence in Britain of a least three hominin species besides Homo sapiensHomo antecessor; Homo heidelbergensis; and Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals) (see the The First Britons for an overview). The focus can then be on AMH surviving, whilst Neanderthals didn’t. They are known to have co-existed in parts of Europe and possibly also in Britain. However, the evidence for Neanderthals in Britain is still very limited.

The purported answers are many and varied. Is it our use of art, clothing, expanding repertoire of stone tools, or our adaptability 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 is for this! An interesting article can be found here.

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!). It is also something that will certainly engage Lower KS2. What does this film suggest the difference is?

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 Institute and The Natural History Museum – may bring some of these to light, such as conflicting dates and ‘missing’ species.

The significance of this period cannot be over-stated. After all it was when we, our species, first began.

We are currently preparing our next blog to give you more details about the Palaeolithic, so you can really get to grips with its importance.

To be continued…


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