An Encounter with Prehistory

 

A fascinating exhibition Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story at the Natural History Museum is closing on the 28th of September. If you are quick, you can still touch a cast of a foot imprint left by a Homo Antecessor on the English coast one million years ago or look into the face of a Neanderthal and an early modern human- an experience which, I admit, made me almost emotional.

“The project took 13 years to complete”, Professor Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum told Vastari. “It was wonderful for the whole research team to see this exhibition come to fruition”, he says.

The recent research pushed back the date of the first human arrival to the British Isles to one million years ago. Many people are unaware of the fact, that it was not us who put the first dibs on Britain.  For some of us it is hard to believe that more than one species of hominids occupied the planet at the same time. When homo sapiens left Africa and arrived in Europe around 40,000 years ago, it was already taken. We shared it with our cousins the Neanderthals for 10-30,000 years. New discoveries by the Max Planck Institute show that contrary to an early belief, the two species interacted and interbred. Every person born outside of Africa carries 1-4% of the Neanderthal genome.

The show gives the opportunity to learn more about our distant cousins and our relationships in the murky prehistoric times. The fascinating finds are part of the trend of new developments in the research of this unclear period of our history.  

After recognising Neanderthals as a separate species during the 19th century, it was widely assumed they were a crude, unintelligent and brutal race. However further discoveries throughout the 20th century show that they actually cared for their sick, buried their dead, used ochre as adhesive and body paint, supposedly adorned themselves with feathers. They were also highly sophisticated hunters, which indicate use of a form of language to pass knowledge and experience to one another.

If they spoke, what were their stories? If they nursed the weak, they must have loved. All those thoughts revolved around the main questions stated by the exhibition curators: what does it mean to be human? The only difference with homo sapiens was that the Neanderthals did not produce jewellery and art (that survived), but even that has been recently disputed by new findings in Gibraltar.

Physically better adapted to the changing climate of Europe, they dominated the continent for almost 350,000 years, which makes our 60,000 of existence seem unimpressive.  Having survived climate changes we haven’t dreamed of they suddenly disappeared about 30,000 years ago. The reasons for this abrupt end still remain a mystery.

In their book The Neanderthals Rediscovered, Dimitra Papagianni and Michael A. Morse speak of a whole trend of Neanderthal tourism. This ranges from the Neanderthal Museum in Mettmann, Germany on the site where the first Neanderthal remains were found at the top of the list, to the the replica of a Neanderthal as a Rodin’s Thinker in the Prehistoric Museum of Halle, Eastern Germany.

“We have had so many positive comments, both from other researchers and from members of the public, and it has been really satisfying to see the impact it has had in its eight months. Parts of it will re-appear at venues around the country”, says Professor Stringer.

Whether you embrace your inner Neanderthal or not, the exhibition is a must-see and a fascinating food for thought, putting our daily lives and problems into a much wider perspective. Highly recommended for both kids and parents.