Fall 2005

The Evolution of the Human Female


09/12/2005 - 12/17/2005
Wednesday 06:30 PM - 09:00 PM

Science Tower 139

The evolution of humankind is distinguished by a number of unique traits - bipedal locomotion, the highest brain to body size ratio of all mammals, complex and open-ended communication and symbolizing behavior, the developmental stage of "childhood," short birth-spacing, and a long period of female menopause. The relationships between these traits form a complex web of biosocial adaptation that can be argued to center on the female, motherhood, and biological and cultural adaptations for female reproductive success. This course examines the evolution of the human female (and all humankind) by surveying female life history research and the fossil and archaeological evidence for human evolution.

The underpinnings of our unique adaptations lay in our mammalian heritage and the core traits defining the primates. We explore this inheritance with readings on the natural history and life histories of several non-human primate populations. We then move on to investigate the evolution of our human anatomy and physiology, covering such topics as reproductive costs, attended birth, menopause and osteoporosis, the function of adipose tissue (fat) in female physiology, social intelligence, and the evolution of human sex differences. Moving on to cultural issues, we examine division of labor and various contexts of gender role definition. The "grandmother hypothesis" and "woman the gatherer" (versus "man the hunter") model will be explored in detail.

Reading assignments include The Evolving Female, by Morbeck et. al (1997) and a short list of selected articles from the primary literature.

Students are responsible for participating in discussions, posting online responses to the reading material, and writing a research paper on a topic chosen in consultation with the instructor. The writing process will be supervised in steps, from the formulation of the topic and argument, through the writing of one graded draft, and the final graded paper.

A syllabus for this course is available at:

Jolee West (B.A., M.A., Ph.D. University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) is Director of Academic Computing Services and Digital Projects at Wesleyan University, and a Research Affiliate of the Department of Anthropology. She has conducted archaeological and taphonomic research in Illinois and northern Kenya. Specializing in physical anthropology, faunal analysis and archaeological taphonomy, she has published on topics in forensic anthropology, Illinois bioarchaeology, and archaeological and palaeontological taphonomy. Click here for more information about Jolee West.


Consent of Instructor Required: No

Format: Seminar

Level: GLSP Credits: 3 Enrollment Limit: 18

Texts to purchase for this course:

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