Project Based Learning: Early Humans

Having tired of the evolution charts and polysyllabic mouthfuls of species, I suggested to my grade 8 students that we try something different. I proposed we do a SimSurvival project within which we would learn about human evolution and the rise of civilizations in an open simulation.

The scenario is simple: for whatever reason, some apocalyptic disaster has occurred wiping out all remnants of human civilization returning us to prehistoric environmental conditions. We (me and the students) are the only survivors. We a still at the same geographic coordinates and at the same time as the present.

Now what?

There are no structural remnants to cobble together a shelter, no grocery stores to raid, no medicines to recover... nothing. Just what exists naturally here in in this location. We carry out this simulate in real time (kind of). I remind them that we need a plan before nightfall and that winter is fast approaching.

In small groups students talk about the dilemma and come to some conclusions then share them with the larger group. They debate and priorize their actions In what usually turns out to be a model of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.


In the following days, they explore what resources in the area are available for shelter, water, and food needs. They design shelters using available natural material realizing they have no axes, let alone chain saws, no rope, no fasteners, etc. it is a great piece of engineering problem solving. We look at instructions on how to build simple temporary shelters. water, they are challenged to find it quickly being the most critical need, then somehow find a
Food is an urgent need, particularly for these young teenagers. We take a tour of the neighborhood to see what plants are available, what might be edible, then bring samples back to the classroom to identify. Of course we don't eat any, but we do research methods for testing edibility. way to clean it knowing they have no bleach, filters, or even a pot to boil it in. We researched techniques for cleaning and sterilizing water using primitive techniques. is always fun - they have myriad ideas for getting a fire going. One of my favourite parts of the exercise is our field trip to the back field where I challenge them to start a fire, but not before talking about safety and what to do should they actually succeed. No one has ever succeeded. The closest anyone got was a few whips of smoke only because they brought dry wood from the woodworking shop. Again we researched methods and techniques.Throughout this exercise, we discuss ancient technology, we explore what they must have valued, we imagine what skills they possessed and taught to their children. Students inevitably come away with a greater respect for, and understanding of how intelligent these "primitive" ancestors really were.Because the students were so engaged I the activity we kept going and played with the time frame. As we learned ancient skills we made assumptions from that point forward that we had reliable access to water, food and simple shelter. That allowed us to focus on improving those conditions: creating storage vessels, making more permanent shelters, planning a harvest of our found food supplies.With winter approaching, some students wanted to move south for the winter. This caused a split in the group with others who wanted to stay in the known space. They debated the challenges and hazards of travel talking about how much of their learned primitive skills were portable. Hunting and gathering will change when you move to a different place where your gathered food supply may not exist.The migration group researched possible locates, distances, rates of travel, logistics for the journey. The group staying started how much food they would need for the winter, how much fuel to gather, and ensuring shelters were suitable warm.

Leadership issues also arose - ensuring everyone was dong their fair share, organizing work groups to pursue skills development in specialized areas. students talked about leadership, governance, rules and how to deal with transgressions.

Students journaled regularly about their progress, frustrations, strategies, experiences, and included their diagrams, maps, instructions, and descriptions of achieved technologies. It was an awesome experience. My role was to act as the environmental proving ground - to punch holes in their logic, to challenge their strategies, and to force them to really think through the problem.

In the space of a month, students transformed their classroom community from a prehistoric stone-age group, to a civilization with social organization and a solid foundation of technologies. With little guidance from me, they established a primitive skill set, developed a sense community, agriculture, connection to the seasons, ability to plan, collaborative decision making and a system of governance in a context they understood. Very powerful, and one of the highlights of the social studies program.



  1. Brynae says:

    This sounds like an amazing experience for both you and the students. Wow!!! I'm assuming you used more than SS time to do this? Would love to have witnessed this in action.

  2. Zack says:

    This looks like a really (really) great activity! After reading some of your other posts, I wonder, too, how something like this might be replicated in the world of Minecraft. Of course, in this case, I think students probably got more out of interacting with their actual environment than they could have in a virtual world, but, many of the conversations that are being had around the use of Minecraft in the classroom center around such community building and project-based scenarios. Perhaps in a more urban setting we could justify the use of virtual worlds to supplement some of these authentic experiences you created. Very cool!

    • admin says:

      You're right. I think these primitive technologies are best experienced in "the wild". Lighting a fire in minecraft is the same skill as setting a block of granite (which is he same as breeding pigs): point and click. The real value to this project is actually trying to do simple surviva and appreciating how difficult it is.

  3. Anasa Washington says:

    I am working on an early man unit with my 6th grade class. Would this be appropriate for that grade? Also, we are in the Antelope Valley and our school is in a business district. There isn't a ton of nature around us. Any suggestions?

    • milesmac says:

      I expect you could do something similar with your group. The key is to let students try their hand at that primitive technology which doesn't all need to be indoors. In the end, if students come away with an appreciation for how knowledgeable so-called "cavemen" were, we've gone a long way to having them value traditional knowledge and respecting other people that appear less advanced. We did our outings in the sport field behind the school using whatever we could find. Maybe you have a similar space, or can walk to a nearby greenspace? All the best with it! Would love to hear how things go 🙂

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