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UNIT 3: Human Migrations



From their origins in Africa, humans now claim and occupy every continent except Antarctica. Today, we seem to accept without question the notion that humans are migratory creatures. But how did this unlikely primate become so numerous and so widespread across the globe? How did humans survive as they moved across the earth's various landscapes? From where did they start and where did they go?

This unit explores both the history of human migration and the means by which scholars have begun to unravel the clues of this ancient story. The story of human migration began when the first humans picked up bundles, weapons, and children, and moved toward a different location. They moved because they had to — whether their reasons were decreasing access to food and shelter, population pressure, or environmental degradation. They moved, in other words, when the risks of staying in place exceeded the perceived dangers of venturing to a new area. In doing so, they hoped to better their chances of surviving, thriving, and reproducing.

Eventually, humans moved across nearly all of the earth's landscapes, including rainforests, deserts, tundra, ice, oceans, and mountains. Scholars speculate that their upright stance and large brains assisted humans in developing the means and the strategies to move over long distances. These same features enabled humans to overcome environmental and physical barriers in a variety of landscapes, and to adapt successfully to the social, political, and ecological realities of their new homes. The result has been the expansion of the species from a mere ten thousand to twenty thousand individuals at the beginnings of human migrations to more than six billion individuals today.


Time Period: Foundations

The major feature of world populations through time is their increasing numbers. It is likely that many early human migrations resulted from the pressure of such demographic increases on limited food resources; disease, drought, famine, war, and natural disaster figure among the most important causes of early human migrations. Approximately 100,000 years ago, the first migrations of Homo sapiens out of their African homeland likely coincided with the ability to use spoken language and to control fire. Over the next 87,000 years humans migrated to every continent, encompassing a wide variety of natural environments. The Americas were the last continents to be reached by Homo sapiens, about 13,000 years ago.

AP Themes:

  • Explores interactions in economies and politics because conflict between peoples was likely one of the reasons early humans migrated away from their homelands.
  • Examines change and continuity by focusing on global changes in human population distribution in the Foundations period.
  • Discusses technology, demography, and environment by looking at the ways in which technologies such as fire were critical to changing global human demography. In turn, these changes had profound effects on natural environments.


  • Question 1: How and why did early humans migrate out of Africa and across the earth's varied landscapes?
  • Question 2: What kinds of evidence do scholars use to trace the paths of early human migrations?
  • Question 3: How can contemporary people's creation myths and spoken language give scholars clues about the paths of early human migrations?
  • Question 4: Early humans moved across the earth's landscapes in response to the challenges and opportunities posed by the environment. Global migration continues today. How have the reasons for human migration changed over time?


How is this topic related to Increasing Integration?

All humans are linked through their common origins in Africa.

How is this topic related to Proliferating Difference?

Since the time humans began to migrate out of Africa 100,000 years ago, human populations have developed different myths, languages, cultures, and physical features.

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