Do We Need a New Timeline of Humans?

Montessori Timeline of Humans, Third Great Lesson Materials

What Is the Purpose of the Third Great Lesson?

In the past, when I was presenting the Third Great Lesson, it was falling flat- the children weren’t inspired. Follow-up work was bland and small, it was difficult to make connections to the other areas of the curriculum (what do early humans have to do with the Renaissance?), and after the initial buzz, children never took the Timeline of Humans out to explore it themselves (by contrast, the Timeline of Life is rarely put away!).

I think one of the most important questions you need to ask yourself before you present any lesson is “What is the purpose of this lesson?”

The Purpose of the Great Lessons

These five lessons are the cornerstone of Montessori Elementary Education. They are not a nicety, but an indispensable element, on par with mixed-age classrooms and hands-on materials. A Montessori elementary classroom that does not use some version of the Great Lessons, is not implementing the Montessori Method fully.

These lessons have a dual purpose, the first is to provide an integrating framework for the child to connect all of human knowledge together and the second purpose is to arouse interest and wonder. This interest is then used to motivate every lesson within the classroom and beyond for a lifetime of learning.

The Integrating Purpose

As a guide, you should be helping the child connect every lesson and piece of knowledge into a larger whole and the Great Lessons are purposely designed to do this. When you begin a new lesson, you can say things like:

  • “Do you remember on the Timeline of Humans, when people foraged for their food? How do you think they knew which plants to eat? Today I’m going to show you something about leaf identification.”
  • “In the Third Great Lesson, we learned that people made clothes out of wool. Do you know where wool comes from? Sheep! Sheep are mammals, which means their body is covered in hair. Today we’re going to learn more about mammals.” 
  • “Early humans didn’t have a calendar. How do you think they knew when to plant? Let me show you this lesson about seasons and we’ll see if we notice anything.”

As a general practice, you should be integrating every lesson you give to at least one other piece of information, whether it’s a Great Lesson, a previous lesson, or the child’s own experience. This helps ensure that all of the child’s knowledge is integrated and not a mess of “random facts.”

The Motivating Purpose

In our classrooms, we give children a lot of freedom to choose what and when they’ll learn. How do we make sure they want to learn something other than Pokemon? The Great Lessons are a key tool of motivation.

We use the lessons to “plant seeds of interest” that will later “blossom into culture.” We get the children curious about things they may not have thought of (Why is night dark? What do plants eat? Who invented fire?) and then release them into the prepared environment where they have the freedom to discover the answers to those questions.

Each of these five Great Lessons acts as a major motivator. This is why they are “impressionistic” and not lectures. This is why we use imaginative illustrations and big timelines. This is why we give live storytelling and not video recordings. Our job is to hook their imagination and interest onto reality. We need to show the children that there are interesting things worth learning.

If the interest is not aroused, then the student will not be motivated to learn more. Class work becomes a duty without joy. Knowledge will not be something they value and crave, instead they will prefer the world of fantasy (and Pokemon).

The responses and conversations with your students will let you know if they are interested! Interest can only come from within, but we can provide stories and information that awakens that interest. Are they asking more questions? Are they excited for follow-up? Do they have imaginative answers? Do they make creative connections between areas of the curriculum? Do their games and play feature elements of these lessons? Do they make-believe they are characters from your lessons?

I’ve been fiddling around with the Third Great Lesson and timeline for about a year, not because the research was difficult, but because I didn’t know what this lesson about. I easily knew the answer for the first two Great Lessons:

  • The First Great Lesson: The Coming of the Universe
  • Integrating Purpose: This lesson sets the foundation for the idea that the universe is predictable and follows laws of nature. This makes it possible for us to study the physical sciences.
  • Motivating Purpose: Where did we come from? Where are we in the universe? What’s out there?
  • The Second Great Lesson: The Coming of Life
  • Integrating Purpose: This lesson shows how all life on Earth is connected. It shows how Earth has changed over time and how life has adapted to those changes. This makes it possible for us to study biological sciences.
  • Motivating Purpose: Why are there so many different kinds of animals? Why do some creatures live in the water and some on land?

My breakthrough came when I was rethinking the Fundamental Needs Chart.

The purpose of the Third Great Lesson is to show, on the grandest scale, the development of human culture. To show how people have worked together, invented products that fulfill our needs, and thought about what is true and good. The purpose of this lesson is to show the children what it means to be human and their place in this great story. To inspire appreciation for all the people that came before and to show the children that they too are capable of great work.

“What is necessary is the the individual from the earliest years should be placed in relation with humanity. There is no love in our hearts for the human beings from whom we have received, and are receiving so much in bread and clothing, and numerous inventions for our benefit.”

Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 17

  • The Third Great Lesson: The Coming of Humans
  • Integrating Purpose: This lesson unlocks human history and all of human culture. Every invention, person, and idea that has ever been! This lesson unlocks all of history, technology, literature, creative arts, and the remaining two Great Lessons..
  • Motivating Purpose: What does it mean to be human? Who am I? What can I become? What is good?
  • The Fourth Great Lesson: The Story of Writing
  • Integrating Purpose: To show that written language is an invention for transmitting spoken language over space and time. This lesson unlocks all of the Language Arts curriculum.
  • Motivating Purpose: Written language is our ultimate tool for sharing information (culture) with each other. We can learn from people who are separated by space and time. We can write things down and others will learn from us.
  • The Fifth Great Lesson: The Story of Numbers
  • Integrating Purpose: This lesson unlocks all of the Mathematics and Geometry Curriculum, and economics.
  • Motivating Purpose: The world is knowable in a precise way. We can represent the world in a precise way. Precision lets us use our resources in the most useful way and lets us make definite plans.

The Third Great Lesson is the master motivator. It shows children that they can play a part in the human story, and that through hard work they can achieve anything they set their minds to.

I also think that the Third Great Lesson is the master integrator. Because everything we know comes from the work and effort of some person, that makes it a product of human culture. For example when studying the sun and Earth chapter, you might explore Galileo discovery of the craters on the moon and the moons of Jupiter.

“The child will have greater pleasure in all subjects, and find them easier to learn if he be led to realize how these subjects first came to be studies and who studied them.”

Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 17

The Timeline of Humans

The Timeline of Humans is a material used to support this lesson. The original Timeline of Humans was actually two timelines. These timelines, and the original Great Stories, were not made by Maria Montessori herself, they were developed by her son Mario Montessori a few years after her death.

These two original timelines have their pros and cons. We know that our earliest human ancestors originated in Africa, likely in what is modern day Ethiopia, and the illustrations obviously do not depict people from those regions.

Aesthetically: I can’t stand Comic Sans font and it’s disappointing that the first timeline doesn’t show modernity. The visuals are sparse and the lack of labels makes it hard to know what everything is. The population graph (the red wavy background) on the second timeline is a testament to our abilities to feed everyone and our improved healthcare since the Paleolithic, but it’s a little overwhelming to the design.

I like the depictions of glacial periods and interglacial periods on the first timeline (the up and down line in the center). I like that both timelines are to scale, showing how enormously long the Paleolithic time was.

Over the years, various creators have made new versions of the Timeline of Humans and I think there are two categories of timelines on the market right now: there are remakes of the original, and there are technical timelines.

Many of the remade timelines are perfectly acceptable. They are nicely illustrated, adding in a lot more detail than the originals did, but still impressionistic- displaying vignettes of early humans living out their lives. Before making my own, I used “remade” timeline and it was totally fine.

The other option is what I’m calling a “technical timeline.” These ones depict real photos of skulls, bones, and archaeological evidence. The captions are long and factually correct; these technical timelines are updated regularly to stay in line with the latest research. Personally, they feel very much like textbooks designed for high school students.

So Why Did I Remake the Timeline?

What I hoped to improve on from the original, and other remakes, was to bring more depth to the characterization of ancient humans. (I consider my timeline to be in the “remake” category.)

I wanted to dispel the “caveman myth” that surrounds our ancestors. These were real, developed cultures: people had modes of transportation, art, cuisine, language, entertainment, trade, and skilled jobs.

These people weren’t mindless brutes swinging clubs, eating raw meat, and dragging women around; they built homes, invented tools, fell in love, taught their children, sang songs, had parties, played pranks on each other, and mourned their dead. They were human.

Their lives were more like ours that you might imagine, just on a smaller scale.

“Beyond everything I should work to inspire a faith in the greatness of man, the greatness that has been proved by enormous progress. Make clear to them man’s place in the world as the improver of the environment of nature, how he has always struggled on […].”

Montessori, Child, Society and the World, p. 104

What I hoped to improve on from the technical timelines was to shift the focus from biological changes, to one of human achievement. I wanted to tell the story of how our early ancestors, mere figures in the landscape, became shapers of the landscape. I wanted to bring life and character to the archeological evidence.

“Let us in education always call the attention of children to the hosts of men and women who are hidden from the light of fame, so kindling a love of humanity; not the vague and anaemic sentiment preached today as brotherhood […]. What is most wanted is no patronizing charity for humanity, but a reverent consciousness of its dignity and worth. This should be cultivated in the same way as a religious sentiment, which indeed should be in us all, for we should not need to be reminded that no man can love God while remaining indifferent to his neighbor.”

Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 17

Is Your Great Lesson All About Skull Sizes?

Maria Montessori did not write the Third Great Lesson, but she has very definite opinions about what Cosmic Education (the philosophical basis of the Great Lessons) should contain.

“To interest the children in the universe, we must not begin by giving them elementary facts about it, to make them merely understand its mechanism, but start with far loftier notions of a philosophical nature, put in an acceptable manner suited to the child’s psychology.”

Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 19

The Third Great Lesson is fundamentally different from the Second Great Lesson. The Second Great Lesson is about the evolution of all life on Earth, it shows how life has adapted and changed over the 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history. The Third Great Lesson is not about human evolution. It is not about the genetic, or physiological changes that hominids have undergone over the last 5 million years.

Here’s my controversial opinion: If you bring out skulls to show how the shape and volume of our craniums have changed over time, you’re doing it wrong.

These technical timelines feel sanitized to me. Like the creators wanted sidestep the spiritual aspect of the great lesson entirely, or maybe they felt icky about nudity or trying to generalize the entire human story into such a small set of images.

“I consider it a crime to present [history and geography] as may be noble and creative aids to the imaginative faculty in such a manner as to deny its use, and on the other hand to require the child to memorize that which he has not been able to visualize.”

Montessori, To Educate the Human Potential, p. 10

But I believe those problems need to be faced head on because this lesson, and the materials that accompany it, must fulfill a deep spiritual need of the child.

This lesson helps to answer some of the deepest spiritual questions the child may have. What is my purpose? Where do I fit in the world?

Maria Montessori had very definite opinions about what it means to be human and what man’s purpose is. She is explicit and this philosophical viewpoint is embedded in every aspect of the method. She believed that our purpose was to work. To create, to invent, to discover. This lesson is an invitation to the child to join in the Great Story of Humanity.

Further Reading

This article is essentially Part 2 to my “Culture” blogpost. You ought to read that if you haven’t already.

A philosophical underpinning of the Montessori Method and the core premise of this timeline is that all work is noble. This article by Matt Bateman explains the idea more powerfully than I can, it is absolutely worth reading.

Do you know someone who would find this interesting? Share it!


  1. Ah, the ‘right’ perspective! Thank you!
    One small hint for you: Have someone who is a good copy editor review your work before publishing. There are small errors here and there, and your Great Work of Rhyme and Reason deserves it! For example: it’s, a comma before the verb in a sentence, repeated word ‘the’ somewhere.
    FYI: I did teach lower elementary for a few years, and now volunteer. I am mostly interested in your materials for my two granddaughters who are not in Montessori, and whom I see just one day a week going to and from school. I have such limited time with them, and am trying to bring them perspectives and materials that are key and that will interest them.
    Thank you.

    1. Thank you for the feedback. It would be awesome if I had a copy editor! Alas, I am head of school, lead teacher, writer, materials creator, and copy editor all-in-one! It has its perks, but the downside is that some details aren’t caught- especially pesky it’s/its.
      I will go over the article again with a special eye out for your fixes.

Leave a Reply