Our Mission

Knowledge of the human past has entered a revolutionary age of discovery as specialists from the natural sciences, the social sciences, and humanities use new evidence and new techniques to transform our understanding of human history. 

Dramatic initiatives synthesizing archaeology and paleoanthropology, cognitive sciences, computer science, digital humanities, environmental and climate studies, genetics, Geographic Information Systems, linguistics, and ancient molecules are remaking our understanding of the human past at centers across the world. Numerous Harvard faculty are involved in these initiatives. Undergraduates are galvanized by the new knowledge, and by the new ways of discovering the past. This intellectual ferment redefines and expands the very idea of history as it leads to the consilience of the natural and the human sciences. It is taking hold in other major U.S. research centers, particularly Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, U.C.L.A., and even the I.A.S.

The moment has come to integrate these initiatives into an Initiative for the Science of the Human Past (SoHP). We envision the creation of a supra-departmental network that will bring historians together with other scholars and scientists to chart bold new answers to the age-old question: what is history? SoHP will serve as a center for scholarly programming and innovative new courses and will network new research collaborations across departments and disciplines. We hope to develop a certificate program and/or an undergraduate major or minor as well as postgraduate degree programs that will attract students interested in redrawing the map of the human past with the tools of 21st-century science and history.

Thanks to its resources, Harvard University is uniquely situated to lead the nation and the world in developing the science of the human past. We believe that an Initiative for the Science of the Human Past will make tomorrow’s students think of Harvard as the place to remake our understanding of the human past, and to discover the past’s powerful and enduring environmental, cultural, biological, and material impact on the human present and future. We propose to initiate a human and institutional group of inquiry without precedent at Harvard or indeed, in the world.

Prime Objectives: 

  • To create a critical mass of researchers united in a project to redefine the nature of historical inquiry.
  • To promote new knowledge of the past and the present by bringing the power of twenty-first-century science to bear on the historical and archaeological exploration of the human past
  • To facilitate communication across divisional and disciplinary boundaries among an elite cadre of Harvard researchers and their students
  • To engage students at all levels in the creation of new knowledge

Scientists and scholars who have taken lead roles in conceptualizing the Inititiative for the Science of the Human Past: Thomas Benjamin (HMS Pathology), Michael McCormick (FAS History), Nick Patterson (Broad Institute), David Reich (HMS Genetics), Stuart M. Shieber (SEAS Computer Science), Daniel Lord Smail (FAS History), Noreen Tuross (FAS Anthropology) and Walter Willett (SPH, Nutrition). Scientists and scholars who have provided significant counsel and support in preliminary discussions and workshops include: Bernard Bailyn (FAS History, emeritus), Peter Huybers (FAS, Earth and Planetary Science), Steven E. Hyman (HMS), Irwin Shapiro (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), Frans Spaepen (SEAS), E.O. Wilson (FAS, MCZ, emeritus).

Phase I of the Initiative begins in September 2011; preliminary funding will allow the launch of a sampling of its innovations over the coming 24 months.