Why Do We Study
To be human is to be curious, questioning, and inquisitive.
We know that our ancient ancestors stared at the night
sky with wonder, that they experienced fear as the sun
disappeared during solar eclipses and joy at its return,
that they witnessed the cycles of births and deaths,
seasons and years, and that for all of these events
they sought explanation and meaning. The search for
and discovery of explanations and meaning contributed
to the development of culture—that shared body
of acquired knowledge that humans live by and pass on
to each successive generation. Human curiosity and ingenuity
have allowed cultures to evolve and flourish in almost
every environmental niche on the earth.
Though people today understand much more than our
ancestors did about the earth and the heavens, some
old questions remain unanswered while new discoveries
have yielded new questions. As long as humans exist
we will ponder the mysteries around us and seek to acquire
the knowledge and understanding necessary to satisfy
our needs and solve our problems.
This thirst for knowledge reaches into the past, even
when one is focused on solving contemporary problems.
The search for solutions often requires an understanding
of how problems developed or how our elders might have
approached analogous problems in the past. We study
both our collective pasts and our individual pasts to
gain a better understanding of who we are today and
where we are going in the future. Lessons learned from
the past can influence—hopefully for the better—the
social, political, and environmental actions we take
By studying the past we learn how and why people lived
as they did throughout the world and the changes and
causes of such changes, that occurred within these cultures.
We study the past to acquire a broader and richer understanding
of our world today and our place in it.
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How do we Learn About the
We learn about the past in many ways. Space science
now allows us to peer back in time to the birth of our
universe 8 billion years ago, while the geologic sciences
look at the origin and structure of our planet earth
4. 5 billion years in the past. Paleontology looks at
the origin of life on our planet through the fossilized
remains of plant and animal forms-- from the earliest
invertebrate creatures through the era of dinosaurs
to the development of our primate ancestors into our
current species. History and archaeology are also fields
that study the past. It is a common misconception that
archaeologists study dinosaurs, but in fact archaeologists,
like historians, study only the human
past—the last one million years. Each of these
fields has developed its own methods for studying the
past. In this unit we will look at ways in which archaeologists
learn about our human past.
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This image is a dramatic illustration of the short
length of time that humans have inhabited the earth,
compared to other forms of life.
- Teaching the Concept of the Past
This series of activities provides an introduction to, and helps students to develop, a concept of the past.
- Why is the Past Important
(Adapted from Intrigue of the Past, Smith et. al. 1996.) This activity will help students begin to discover why we study the past.
Click here for more Lesson Plans and Activities
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