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Personal profile

Scholarly biography

James Cole is a Principal Lecturer in Archaeology and the Subject Lead for Geography and Environment within the School of Environment and Technology. James is primarily interested in Human Evolution with particular emphasis on the development of symbolism and language within hominin ancestors. In order to further his research along these themes James conducts a number of fieldwork projects in East Africa and the United Kingdom. James is a member of the Past Human and Environment Dynamics and Society Space and Environment research groups.

James has authored a number of publications including refereed journal papers and book chapters. James' research has been supported by the British Academy, AHRC, Society of Antiquaries and the University of Brighton.

James was recently awarded an Ig Nobel prize for Nutrition (2018) for his research on Prehistoric Cannibalism. More details of this can be seen here.

Approach to teaching

My teaching is focused around student engagement and discussion using specific case studies and the latest published research. I try to get my students to think for themselves, to question the status quo and engage with a wide range of published literature to formulate and support their own opinions. This is exemplified in my module ‘Human Origins and Evolution’ where students are expected to engage in class discussions on the ever changing evidence for human evolution involving Palaeogenetics, the fossil record, and the archaeological record.

I also like to encourage practical components to my teaching which is also evidenced with the ‘Human Origins and Evolution’ module where we visit the Brighton Museum collections to look at and learn from the amazing range of Palaeolithic artefacts stored there. In the first year module I lead but team teach with colleagues across the subject area ‘Global Environmental Issues’ we encourage students to think critically on set themes (such as climate change and the biodiversity crisis) and discuss their opinions and positions within active workshops and discussion panels. Whilst my final year module ‘Humans of Ice Age Britain’ assesses my students across a range of mediums including a presentation and extended essay on a site in Britain that plays a significant role in understanding the past behaviours of our human ancestors.

Research interests

My research interests focus around understanding the fundamental question of what it means to be human. I am interested in knowing whether certain abilities that we all take for granted such as language, symbolism, and abstract thought are unique to our species (Homo sapiens) or were present in other ancient human species such as Homo heidelbergensis or the Neanderthals. In order to ascertain this I look at a range of evidence strands but I primarily focus on the stone tools left behind by our ancestors for clues to their mental capabilities. I am also interested in what cognitive, behavioural and social thresholds are needed by hominins in order to allow them to successfully disperse across the globe and overcome any environmental constraints. Finally, I am fascinated by how ancient hominins treated their dead, particularly how and why some of them seem to have practiced cannibalism. By understanding the treatment of the dead, we can gain greater insights to the lifeways and social structures of the living.

In order to try and understand our hominin ancestors I am involved with a number of archaeological projects here in the UK and in East Africa. My main research project is the Isimila Stone Age Project where I am the Director of a multi-institutional and international research collaboration between academic institutions in the UK and Tanzania.

Supervisory Interests

I am interested in supervising postgraduate research students in the following areas: Human Evolution; Palaeolithic Archaeology; Acheulean handaxes; hominin dispersals; evolution of language; evolution of symbolism. 

Education/Academic qualification

PhD, University of Southampton

Award Date: 16 Dec 2011

Master, University of Southampton

Award Date: 1 Jul 2008

Bachelor, University of Southampton

Award Date: 1 Jul 2004

Higher Education Academy, UK

External positions


Sep 2020 → …

Fellow, Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

9 Nov 2018 → …


  • CC Archaeology
  • Human Evolution
  • Palaeolithic
  • Stone Age Archaeology
  • Cognitive Evolution
  • origins of language
  • origins of symbolism
  • Cannibalism

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Coping with climate: the legacy of homo heidelbergensis

Cole, J.

Arts and Humanities Research Council


Project: Research Councils / Government Depts.

Research Output

Landscapes of Human Evolution: Contributions in honour of John Gowlett

Cole, J. (ed.), McNabb, J. (ed.), Grove, M. (ed.) & Hosfield, R. (ed.), 13 Feb 2020, 203 p. Archaeopress.

Research output: Other contribution

  • Aspects of human physical and behavioural evolution during the last 1 million years

    Galway-Witham, J., Cole, J. & Stringer, C., 14 Aug 2019, In : Journal of Quaternary Science. 34, 6, p. 355-378 24 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    Open Access
  • Earliest Europeans: Integrating perspectives from archaeology, palaeoanthropology and palaeoclimatology

    Hosfield, R. & Cole, J., 25 Feb 2019, In : Quaternary Science Reviews. 208, p. 140-142 3 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalEditorial

    Open Access

    The Application of Elliptic Fourier Analysis in Understanding Biface Shape and Symmetry Through the British Acheulean

    Hoggard, C., McNabb, J. & Cole, J., 21 Feb 2019, In : Journal of Paleolithic Archaeology . 2, 2, p. 115–133

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    Open Access