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Neanderthal model, copyright Trustees of NHM

First Footsteps: early human history at the Natural History Museum

12 February 2014 Charlie Kenber

"12,000 years ago, our current phase of human occupation began. It is unlikely to be the last.”

We all know the earth has been around for a long time. But it’s so easy to lose count of the millions, billions, trillions of years that life in different forms has roamed its surface that it can be hard to get a real sense of it.

A new exhibition at the Natural History Museum however aims to do just that. Tracing the history of humanity in Britain, the displays go back a remarkable one million years, to our first knowledge of people here. Visitors are then taken through the journey of man since, encompassing ice ages, huge geographical shifts, and the transitions between branches of ancestry, finally arriving at Homo sapiens as we are today.

Based upon work carried out by the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (which started in October 2001), it’s been something of a long road to bringing the show to fruition. “We’ve been thinking about it for ten years,” Professor Chris Stringer, human origins researcher at the Museum and head of the project tells us, “it’s had its trials and tribulations, it almost fell by the wayside a few times, but we’ve stuck with it and I’m really glad that we’re finally here!”

One of the most remarkable things about the exhibition, as noted by Chris, is how much of this history exists in Britain itself. Rather than merely being a distant intangible past, archaeological finds are ongoing. “The important thing is to grab peoples’ interests,” he says. “Even on a beach in Norfolk or Suffolk you could have fantastic evidence right under your feet!”

The bringing together of all these incredible discoveries is a particular source of pride for Chris, and one of the driving forces behind staging the exhibition today. “It’s just wonderful to get all the important human fossil material in one place for the first time ever,” he continues, “that’s never been done before.”

A particularly emotive find on display is the oldest piece of human found here – a male tibia from 500,000 years ago. Incredibly still easily recognisable after so many years, the remarkable size of the bone also reflects the strength and stature of the Neanderthals. “That was on show just for a few weeks when it was first found in the 1990s, and it’s been locked away ever since!” Chris tells us. “So it’s wonderful that people can see the real objects that we’ve been talking about and studying.”

The exhibition also includes two specially commissioned silicon rubber models, built by ‘paleo-artists’ the Kennis brothers. “They have built up the body of a Neanderthal and the body of a human from the skeletons, so it’s based on the real fossil evidence,” Chris says. “These are really scientific reconstructions, built on the muscle and the skin. Obviously we have to use some imagination and speculation when it comes to the colour of the skin, the hair and things like that, but I think scientifically these are the most accurate models we can produce at the moment.”

The exhibition also brings together the work of a whole range of scientists in an effective manner. The various sections as you walk through focus in turn on particular archaeological discoveries, often detailed through short video documentaries. “I think they are tremendous…they show different aspects of the story,” Chris enthuses. “We’ve got a modern experimental archaeologist actually using the tools he’s made to butcher animals to show how effective these are. And of course we’ve got videos visiting the sites: footprint discoveries in Happisburgh, sites in Jersey, Silvio Bello talking about research on 15,000 year old human skull cups from Cheddar.”

These modern tool reconstructions are on display, available to touch. “Some of the hand axes and other tools were the ones he actually used for butchery experiments,” Chris says. “We’ve got those out so people can feel the objects – the originals of course are behind glass because they are very precious. Also we’ve got some fossil skulls where people can actually feel the shape of the skulls and compare the differences between a modern human and a homo heidelbergensis.”

So for a true appreciation of the banality of so many of our day-to-day struggles, and to really put life in perspective, head down to the Natural History Museum, for an exhibition which ensures that you leave with a clear idea of our place within an ever changing world, and its inherent uncertainty. As a sign by the exit notes somewhat ominously, “landscapes and climates have changed and waves of human species have been and gone. 12,000 years ago, our current phase of human occupation began. It is unlikely to be the last.”

Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story opens on 13th February, and runs until 28th September 2014 at the Natural History Museum. Admission costs £4 - £9. Further details and tickets available here.

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