National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: April Nowell

Affiliation: University of Victoria

Dr. April Nowell is a Paleolithic archaeologist and Professor and Chair of Anthropology at the University of Victoria.  She directs an international team of researchers in the study of Lower and Middle Paleolithic sites in Jordan and collaborates with colleagues on the study of Pleistocene rock art in Australia and Europe.  She is known for her publications on cognitive archaeology, Paleolithic art, the archaeology of children and the relationship between science, pop culture, and the media. Her edited volumes include  Stone Tools and the Evolution of Human Cognition (2010)  and Making Scenes: Global Perspectives on Scenes in Rock Art (2020), both with Prof. Iain Davidson; Archaeology of Night: Life After Dark in the Ancient World (2018) with Dr. Nancy Gonlin, and the forthcoming Culturing the Body: Prehistoric Perspectives on Identity and Sociality with Dr. Benjamin Collins.  Her single authored book Growing up in the Ice Age: Archaeological and Fossil Evidence of the Lived Lives of Pleistocene Children will be available in June 2021.


What today is a barren desert in Azraq, NW Jordan was once a thriving wetland, teeming with life—a true oasis. Azraq, as part of the Levantine corridor, lies at the crossroads between the Eurasian and African continents.  Over the millennia, Azraq has borne witness to multiple migrations of early human ancestors including Homo erectus and Neandertals, many of whom left behind clues about their ways of life in an often challenging environment. One particularly rich archaeological locale is the 250,000 year-old Shishan Marsh site in southern Azraq.  Based on studies of the inhabitants’ stone tools, including our detailed analysis of the oldest identifiable protein residues in the world, and of the diverse strategies they used to hunt and scavenge their prey, our team discovered that these early humans were surprisingly sophisticated technologically, socially and cognitively.

More than 40,000 years ago humans began to paint animals, mysterious symbols and even people on cave walls. For over a century, researchers have been interested in how these images were created  and what they might have meant.  Drawing on Dr. Nowell’s most recent work in Australia and Europe, this lecture will look at the science behind the art, and how it is leading to a new understanding of the lived lives of Ice Age peoples including children and teens.

Human evolution can be traced back 7,000,000 years.  Modern humans evolved in Africa only 200,000 years ago and as recently as 26,000 years ago we shared parts of the world with at least one other species—the Neandertals. Since the discovery of the first Neandertal remains in 1856 in Germany, this species has generated controversy, whether it is questions concerning their genetic relationship to modern humans, their capacity for language and artistic expression, or the reasons for their extinction. This lecture will present current research findings that are transforming our understanding of these ancient people and will focus, in particular, on the last surviving populations of Neandertals in Gibraltar.

As twilight settled in the ancient world, a host of activities ensued, some of which were significantly different from what people did during the daytime.  Some artifacts, features, and buildings associated with these activities were particular to the dark, while other material culture was transformed in meaning as the sun set. So much of our economic, social, and ritual lives take place at night and yet, until recently, relatively little archaeological research has been undertaken specifically on nocturnal quotidian practices. Many tasks are uniquely suited to the affordances of nighttime.  Night is often quieter, and its darkness provides refuge from heat and offers freedom from surveillance and from the demands of the day. In this talk, I consider those who worked the “nightshift” in ancient societies—from the hunters, agriculturists, sewage workers, and ironsmiths to the poets, navigators, and rebellion leaders.  Drawing on archaeological data and textual evidence, I argue that nighttime in the ancient world was anything but sleepy.

It is estimated that in prehistoric societies children comprised at between forty to sixty-five percent of the population, yet by default, our ancestral landscapes are peopled by adults who hunt, gather, fish, knap tools and make art.  But these adults were also parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles (however they would have codified these kin relationships) who had to make space physically, emotionally, intellectually, and cognitively for the infants, children and adolescents around them.  The economic, social, and political roles of Paleolithic children are often understudied because they are assumed to be unknowable or negligible.  Drawing on the most recent data from the cognitive sciences and from the ethnographic, fossil, archaeological, and primate records, this talk challenges these assumptions. By rendering the “invisible” children visible, you  will gain a new understanding not only of the contributions that children have made to the biological and cultural entities we are today but also of the Paleolithic period as whole.

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