It’s a grand scale family reunion – London’s Natural History Museum is turning back the clock a million years for the first ever exhibition bringing together the country’s most important human fossils.
Featuring more than 200 specimens and objects, including specially commissioned lifelike models of a Neanderthal and a homo sapiens, the exhibition was masterminded by Britain’s leading paleontologist Chris Stringer.
“If we go back to the very beginning, 900,000 years ago, Britain was a very different place. So at times, yes, it was warm enough that there were elephants, rhinos, hippopotamuses swimming in the River Thames, and other times, when this guy was around (pointing to Homo sapiens) it was much colder. There were reindeer, mammoths and (they) are cold adapted. So Britain swings from one extreme to the other,” says Chris Stringer, lead researcher at London’s Natural History Museum.
The human bones on show lay bare what could be one of the darker secrets of our human ancestry according to Simon Parfitt, an archaeologist at University College London.
He says some remains dating back 500,000 years provide clear evidence that our ancestors ate their dead relatives.
“I think it is, in fact, tied up in ritual, because what we’ve also discovered is that the skulls were actually worked very differently and made into cups, made into skull cups. There are no tooth marks on any of the bones on the face and the jaw, so the head was actually treated differently and we’re wondering whether it was in fact part of the ritual. So instead of burying their dead this was a normal part of their ritual,” says Simon Parfitt.
The show’s creators are already looking ahead to their next project – an exhibition that would display the waves of human occupation of Britain within a few thousand years as the climate oscillated between earthly paradise and inhospitable ice desert.
‘Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story’ runs at London’s Natural History Museum until September.