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After a week of full-on media attention and VIP events, our Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story exhibition is open to the public. Its first few days of opening for the February school holidays has seen it bustling with visitors.

 

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Comedian Bill Bailey and the Museum's Emily Smith celebrate the opening of our Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story exhibition at the VIP event last week. Bailey is one of six well-known figures to have their genetic ancestry traced for a film that features in the last part of the exhibition.

 

The exhibition is full of amazing archaeological finds, all beautifully displayed against spectacular backdrops, and here are a few pictured below you shouldn't miss.

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Seeing is believing: they may not look like much but these cones of pine and spruce date back to more than 800,000 years ago. They're from Happisburgh on the Norfolk coast and would have greeted the first human pioneers to Britain.

 

Standing in the presence of some of Britain's earliest human remains and artefacts in our dramatic story of evolution, surrounded by the animals these early ancestors pursued for survival and the tools they used to eek out their existence, it's hard to not be awestruck.

 

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The Swanscombe skull. This skull belongs to an early Neanderthal woman and is about 400,000 years old. She could have been the earliest Neanderthal in Britain.

 

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Trafalgar Square jaw-droppers: a hippopotamus canine from 125,000 years ago that was uncovered in 1960. This remarkable find is displayed next to other animal fossils and specimens against a stunning backdrop of a modern-day Trafalgar Square.

 

But it's not only the ancient treasures that grab your attention. Some of the show stoppers are in fact the products of very modern humans, such as the specially commissioned models of a Neanderthal and Homo sapiens made by twin Dutch artists, the Kennis brothers, along with several ground-breaking short films made by our excellent Museum film unit. Featured footage includes the big discovery of ancient human footprints on the Norfolk coast - the oldest to have been discovered outside of Africa - and the exhibition's final film tracing the genetic ancestry of famous names like Bill Bailey and Dr Alice Roberts.

 

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The exhibition's public face: Ned the Neanderthal, so named by you in an Evening Standard competition, is undeniably an attention-grabber in the exhibition's central room. Ned stands near to the other life-size model of a Homo sapiens. Both are incredibly life-like and offer visitors the chance to compare and contrast the two species.

 

Also look out for and take hold of the touch objects in the gallery, including flints, human skull casts and more.

 

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Touch obects: compare the head casts of the four human species thought to have lived in Britain in the past million years and featured at the start of your exhibition journey.

 

We will be adding more films and a great prize draw to the exhibition website soon, so check back in the next few weeks.

 

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Homo arrivus in What's new at the Museum

Posted by Rose Jan 13, 2014

The arrival of two naked male models at the Museum just before Christmas, unsurprisingly, caused a stir among staff. Cameras to hand, a few in the know caught some early glimpses as our unclad guests were bustled in at dusk. Now we release official photographs of them and a film about their brief yet prehistoric beginnings as the publicity revs up for the show they will appear in.

 

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Meet the Neanderthal (1m 55cm, in his 20s, European origin) and Homo sapiens (1m 75cm, in his 50s, European origin) stars of Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story. These life-size models were created by Dutch artists Alfons and Adrie Kennis. Homo sapiens stands taller, the darker-skinned male who chews a tool used to adorn his body with ink. Select images to enlarge.

 

The models were made by the Dutch duo, Alfons and Adrie Kennis, in their studio in the Netherlands for our next major exhibition, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, opening here on 13 February.

 

The Kennis brothers specialise in creating scientifically accurate sculptures of ancient humans and animals. The specially commissioned models blend scientific and aesthetic interpretation uniquely. They pose proudly, faces full of character - and some speculation as to which famous personalities might have been the inspiration - and are sure to attract attention when they take pride of place in the exhibition gallery.

 

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Adrie (left) and Alfons (right) Kennis in their studio, creating our two ancient men of silicon. Watch the short film of their work in progress below.

 

 

 

Our male models will share the limelight in the exhibition with striking graphic recreations of Neanderthal women and children and Homo sapiens family members, amidst more than 200 rare and intriguing archaeological specimens and objects. The story of our beginnings and how we have become what we are today, is one that touches us all.

 

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Graphic of a Neanderthal child reconstruction. Few Neanderthals lived beyond their late 20s. © PS Plailly/E Daynes/Science Photo Library

 

Elin Simonsson, the exhibition's interpretation manager, gives us the latest on its progress:

 

'Opening is only a month away and the exhibition build is now nearly complete. Walls are up and painted, cases and graphics are in place and our two life-size models are now in the gallery, wrapped up and waiting to be revealed. This week we will start the installation of specimens and objects in their display cases, which will really bring the whole exhibition together.'

 

For one lucky person, there's a chance to win a pair of free exhibition tickets and an exhibition book by entering our free prize draw online.

 

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The hour is fast approaching when we open our doors to the Museum's greatest show of the year on Friday, 27 September to mark the Europe-wide event of the year, European Resarchers' Night. Of course, Science Uncovered is much more than just a show, it gives visitors exclusive and extensive access to hundreds of scientists and our collections and research. But this year, in particular. there are some unmissable star attractions. A few are hot off the press.

 

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Must-sees at Science Uncovered on 27 September include a beautifully-presented Archaeopteryx fossil and hologram on show at the Extinction Science Station from 16.00-22.00 in Fossil Way. Image courtesy of The Munich Show.

 

Following its sensation at the Munich Mineral Show - and thanks to a private collector - we are showcasing a rare Archaeopteryx fossil (thought to be the 11th known example of Archaeopteryx) at the Extinction Science Station throughout the evening. In addition to getting a glimpse of the fossil up close, a hologram brings the Archaeopteryx to life. Alan Hart, Museum Collection Manager, hails it as 'an amazing specimen, especially in the way it is presented. And the hologram reconstruction is a really innovative way of examining it.'

 

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Watch the video of Archaeopteryx and its hologram unveiled at the Munich Mineral Show

 

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Satisfy your app-etite for dinosaurs at Science Uncovered. Catch T. rex on the prowl in the Darwin Centre, using an iOS or Android device. A massive Stegasaurus can be stalked in the Central Hall.

 

Excitingly, we will also be joined by digital dinosaurs roaming the Museum around the Central Hall and Darwin Centre atrium. But to see the 3D animated dinosaurs, you'll need to download the free Aurasma app on an iOS or Android device. Then watch and listen as a realistic-looking dinosaur strides into view, using augmented reality. Museum volunteers will be on hand to help out if needed. Once you've found a dinosaur, you can take a photo of your friends with it and tweet it using the hashtag #SU2013.

 

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We've just had news that the incredibly rare T. rex fossil (pictured above being unpacked in readiness), featuring in Dr Paul Barret's Dinosaur Extinction studio event at 17.00, will now make an appearance at the Extinction Science Station from 20.30-22.00. Remember, you'll need tickets for the free Attenborough Studio events, but they are on a first-come, first-served basis, so this is another way for you to see this incredible specimen if you don't make it to the talk.

 

Along with these big blasts from the past and other amazing highlights on the night, make sure you soak up some of the really cool and quirky stuff too.

 

Get more out of gin than you can imagine over at the Darwin Centre's Food station, use a seismometer to create your own earthquake at the Natural Environment station, examine sticky crime scene evidence (and we're not just talking blood samples) at the Forensics station, or peel away layers to see the intricate insides of specimens using the Insider Explorer Table and 3D Imaging unit in the Earth Hall. And much, much more all over the Museum.

 

Family-oriented activities kick off earlier in the day, so check the website for details.

 

food-soapbox-art.jpgThe ‘beautiful’ future of food: Soapbox Art speakers from the Royal College of Art divulge their creative culinary tactics.

 

Don't forget to stop a while in the Lasting Impressions gallery (near the Birds gallery) to hear what Soapbox Art speakers have to say about their creative tactics for the future of food and where babies will come from.

 

Download a map online, or grab one when you arrive, to plan your exploration and entertainment for the evening. Keep an eye out for the scientists wearing 'talk to me' badges on your travels.

 

Download the Science Uncovered map listing all activities and locations [PDF]

 

Find out what's on at Science Uncovered

 

Countdown to Science Uncovered blogs

 

Read the recent news story about what scientists will be confronting at Science Uncovered

 

Can't make it to the event? Keep in touch with what happens on Twitter via @NHM_Live and #SU2013

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Eight days to go and the Museum is starting to buzz with excitement about the biggest event of the year in our busy calendar. Stephen Roberts, lead co-ordinator, gives us a warm welcome and introduction to this year's fabulous Science Uncovered. Put 27 September 2013 in your diaries now.

 

'Every single day that the Museum is open there are usually scientists and researchers on hand to talk with our visitors and friends. But Science Uncovered will see an amazing 400 scientists joining in a Friday night opening with a difference.

 

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Above: Last year's Oceans Science Station was a jaw-dropping experience for many and beetlemania was rife at the Entomology Station. Both return for this year's Science Uncovered night on 27 September.  (With the beetles at the Forests Station this time.)

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'Our event is one of hundreds taking place in more than 35 countries on European Researchers' Night, all made free by the EU, and we are pulling out all the stops for this celebration of science.

 

As well as meeting the people behind ground-breaking discoveries at this unique event, you'll see masses of amazing specimens from our collections, normally carefully stored behind the scenes. Some live creatures too.

 

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The lower jaw of the first-ever T. rex skull discovered makes a rare appearance at Paul Barrett's Dinosaur Extinction talk at 17.00 (this talk is also BSL-interpreted.)

 

'Highlights not to be missed include the Dinosaur Extinction studio event revealng extremely rare T. rex remains that have never been on display anywhere in Europe before, and a piece of Mars from our collections that you can explore its insides at the Space Station, just as our researchers do.

 

These are two among hundreds of other amazing objects that could help answer big questions about life and indeed the solar system.

 

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Cave art and live creatures: among the many tactile experiences coming your way on the night.

 

'From creating your own cave art to linking-live with NASA scientists, or presenting your own weather forecast, touring our rare books library or trying our science-inspired cocktail - check out what's on at Science Uncovered on or website and download the map showing you where everything is happening.

 

'Or just come along and see what takes your fancy on the night. Have a think about the questions or puzzles you've always wanted to quizz a scientist about. There are even Science Fess Up tell-all sessions going on in the Central Hall if you're game enough. And you can tweet your photos and comments using #SU2013.

 

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Cool vibes and candid confessions at the Science Bar and Science Fess Up sessions...

 

'This exclusive interaction with our science and scientists is at the heart of Science Uncovered, but we also want you to have a great evening out in one of the most famous and historic venues in London.

 

'We've got a choice of 6 bars and the Restaurant open across the Museum's galleries offering delicious food and drink. As activities wind down from 22.00 you can chill out in the Science Bar which stays open with a DJ until midnight.

 

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Nocturnal Creatures at the Natural History Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire will be part of their festivities

 

'Our sister Museum at Tring in Hertfordshire is also joining in the Science Uncovered festivities and will showcase its latest bird research, with a chance to catch the Nocturnal Creatures exhibition open after hours too (above).

 

'About 1,000,000 people across Europe are expected to join in on the night. We'd be delighted if for you to come and be one of those million yourself!'

 

Keep up to date with Science Uncovered on the website

Download the map and activity details

Read blogs by our scientists

Find out about booking for BSL activities

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The story of the origin of our species Homo sapiens (and sometimes I need to remind myself it means 'wise man') is a convoluted one which continues to intrigue us more and more in the light of recent findings. So this year's Annual Science Lecture by our very own wise man, Museum palaeoanthropologist and human origins expert Professor Chris Stringer, is sure to be a popular one and is bound to shed light on some of our human evolutionary conundrums.

 

Chris's presentation will bring together elements covered in his recently published book on the subject of our origins, and beyond. I asked him for a taster of what we can expect on Wednesday evening and to introduce one of the rare specimens he will show at the lecture. He says:

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Rhodesian Man 'one of the most beautiful fossil human relics' will join Chris Stringer who presents the Annual Science Lecture on The Origin of Our Species, Wednesday evening, 30 November.

'It took me two years to write my book The Origin of our Species. Most of it in my “spare time” and I sometimes regretted the time it was taking, and the impact this had on my research work and my personal life. But I changed my mind on Christmas Eve last year, when the science journal Nature published a paper on a new kind of human from Siberia, the Denisovans, identified from distinctive DNA in fragmentary fossils from Denisova Cave in southern Siberia. By then I had finished the chapter on the DNA evidence, but because I had another month of writing ahead of me, I was able to incorporate a discussion of the Denisovans and their possible interbreeding with modern humans in the final parts of my book.

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'Another example of ongoing research in the book concerns the famous fossil skull from Broken Hill in Zambia (‘Rhodesian Man’ pictured above), which is one of the most beautiful fossil human relics and a real treasure of the Museum's collections.

 

'This skull representing one of our possible African ancestors, is generally thought to be about 500,000 years old, but in the last chapter of the book I discuss my research with a group of collaborators that suggests the fossil could be much younger than previously believed, with intriguing implications for our evolution. The skull will make a very rare public appearance alongside me, while I give my lecture!'

 

After the lecture there is a chance to ask Professor Chris Stringer questions and he will sign copies of his new book, The Origin of Our Species (left).

 

Find out about the Annual Science Lecture

Book tickets online

 

Explore our human origins' research online

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'We have not explored this planet!' announced Professor Lee Berger excitedly earlier this week at the handover presentation here (pictured below) of the replicas of two 1.98 million-year-old early human fossil skeletons for our research.

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The remarkable fossils belong to the ancient human-like species, Australopithecus sediba, which could be the ancestor to the first humans. The two replica casts, one an adult female and the other a young adolescent male skeleton, have been donated by the University of the Witwatersrand and the Government of the Republic of South Africa. The cast of the male skull - the female skull is still missing - went on public display in the Museum this week.

 

Prof Berger (below left) is lead palaeoanthropological researcher with the University of Witwatersrand's Institute for Human Evolution in Johannesburg. In his presentation he told us how Google Earth had inadvertently led his team to new archaeological locations and the subsequent discovery of 600 caves and fossil sites around Johannesburg, including Malapa.

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Left: Prof Lee Berger demonstrates the human-like hand of the female specimens found. Right: 3D model created by paleo-artist John Gurche of the young male skull (Gurche's model recently won a palaeontology award). The male skeleton has been named Karabo (meaning 'the answer') by the local Malapa people.

Prof Berger spoke of the historic moment on 15 August 2008 when, after 17 years of digging, his nine-year-old son spotted the tip of a clavicle in the rock that turned out later to belong to one of the most complete early human skeletons ever found. 'When he pointed it out, I almost didn't want to look, for fear it would be just another antelope fossil!' Apparently as many as 250,000 antelope fossils are discovered for every one hominid fossil.

 

You can read more about the replica casts arriving here in our news story and the media. BBC News online described it as 'currently the hottest topic in palaeoanthropology'.

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Scientists and journalists gather around to view the Malapa Cave Sediba fossils donated to the Museum at the recent  presentation in the Attenborough Studio.

During Prof Berger's discussion with our own human origins expert Prof Chris Stringer it became clear that the finds at Malapa are set to reveal a lot more in the future, not only because of the light they shed on the evolution of modern humans (Homo sapiens), but because of their potentially mummified nature (the protein keratin may exist) and the way they can be so accurately dated. It is likely that they will unearth more in Malapa, and when asked what he would like to find next, Prof Berger replied, 'our female's skull... and a complete foot.'

 

You can see the Australopithecus sediba replica skull cast now on special display in Dinosaur Way at the Museum. It is one of several sets of casts that will in the next few weeks be handed over to public institutions and universities in the UK and Europe.

 

Find out more about Chris Stringer's work and human evolution online

 

Above model reconstruction image of Karabo © Courtesy of National Geographic, August 2011 issue /Reconstruction by John Gurche/ Photo by Brett Stirton

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Museum Palaeontology scientists Silvia Bello and Chris Stringer—with Simon Parfitt from University College London—have produced a fascinating paper (Bello et al., 2011) on the post-mortem treatment of human bodies in the UK in the Magdalenian period, around 14,700 years ago.

Ancient human cannibalism and use of skulls as cups—it is an inherently fascinating view of the distant past and the unfamiliarity of cultural practice, and of the Museum science that makes this view possible.

 

The remains from Gough’s Cave in Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, were thoroughly cleaned of flesh soon after death, leaving characteristic scratches and marks, and the crowns of the skulls were skilfully isolated by cutting around the skull, breaking the bone along a horizontal line and tidying the broken edge to give a more even effect.

 

Given comparisons with the preparation of animal remains in the same site, it seems likely that the flesh was removed to be eaten—bone marrow was also extracted from human bones by breaking them in the same way as animal bones. But why the treatment of the skull in this way?

 

These practices are also known from other European sites of the same period, and human skulls have been prepared as vessels in a number of cultures to quite recent times—in some cultures it is not uncommon to prepare and use human tissue for particular purposes associated with funerals or other rituals.  In the case of Gough’s Cave, we can observe the behaviour but when it comes to explaining the reasons we can only speculate.

 

Removal of tissue in this way and preparation of the skull required complex use of tools and probably needed considerable practice.  Scientific examination of the remains of five people, ranging from an older adult to a three-year old child, required the use of advanced imaging equipment to define how the cuts were made, and radiocarbon dating.

 

Scientific research on human evolution is an essential part of the Museum’s work: our common human origins, relatives and ancestors; human variation; and the impacts of disease and life events are some of the major foci of interest.  A collection of almost 20,000 remains are cared for in the Museum from all parts of the world, with around 10,000 from the UK, and provides an essential resource for research.

 

The work overall casts light on the complexity of the human story and our origins, and the connections between modern and ancient groups of people—both genetic and cultural.  Humans have been a highly mobile species, adapting to many different environments and developing a wide range of cultural practices over time.

 

The work of Chris and Silvia in the collaborative Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project shows a pattern of successive groups of humans moving in and out of Britain over the past million years as climate and environment changed.  The people at Gough’s cave, at less than 15,000 years, are relatively recent in this context.

 

We might argue that part of the fascination and popular interest of this science is the connection with ourselves, pursuing the instruction to “know thyself” by Socrates.  Given the apparent consumption of humans by these people, one might also suggest an early and rather too literal enthusiasm captured in the aphorism of Brillat-Savarin “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es”: tell me what you eat, I will tell you what you are.

There is active scientific debate on human evolution and variation, human behaviour and the meaning of behaviour. The physical and behavioural similarities and contrasts between people in different places and times are compelling and often examined.

 

Part of the interest of this particular work is that the remains provide evidence on both physical form and behaviour, and this is where there is debate on whether the term “modern” is relevant or useful in understanding.  We think about physical modernity in terms of similarity to living people, but what of behaviour?

 

Although in simple terms these people would be described physically as modern humans—there is very little physical difference from living people—given the strangeness of the practices in Gough’s Cave to our culture, it might have been assumed in the past that these people were somehow different from modern-day humans in terms of their essential nature: possibly, in crude terms, more primitive in some way.

 

A paper just published by John Shea (2011) is a useful focus for the scientific debate, arguing that to think of certain behavioural characters as representing “modern” humans is problematic because it is based too much on evidence from European archaeology. He argues that we should not see the evolution of human behaviour in progressive terms, but instead as a process giving rise to a much more variable set of characteristics that cannot as such be used to define modern humans.

 

This paper is a focus of active debate in science, and the pattern of thinking, research and discussion in this area of science is constantly changing: was there a sudden evolutionary leap that made us what we are? Was there a cultural or linguistic revolution of some sort? Did our ancestors start to think in different ways at a particular time, and why? How can genetics inform our understanding? What does new archaeology suggest? What makes us what we are, and are we in essence the same as those people in Gough’s Cave?

 

Bello SM, Parfitt SA, Stringer CB (2011) Earliest Directly-Dated Human Skull-Cups. PLoS ONE 6(2): e17026. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0017026


Shea, JJ (2011) Homo sapiens Is as Homo sapiens Was Current Anthropology Vol. 52, No. 1 (February 2011), pp. 1-35. DOI: 10.1086/658067

 

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The differences between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, our own species, have been widely debated since the discovery of the remains of Homo neanderthalensis in the 19th Century.  Professor Chris Stringer, one of the Museum's leading research scientists from the Department of Palaeontology, is a specialist on the origins and variation of humans, their ancestors and their relatives.  In particular, he has worked for many years on Neanderthals.

 

One characteristic of Neanderthals that captures both public and scientific imagination is their different physical appearance, having pronounced brow ridges on the skull, a prognathous face, wide nose and a stongly-built body with short legs.  It has traditionally been argued that Neanderthals have relatively larger sinuses as a response to living in cold climates - they are know to have lived in Europe during periods of lower temperatures - the ice ages.  The traditional argument has been that this characteristic warmed the air as it was breathed in.

 

However, new research published in the Journal of Human Evolution from Todd Rae from the University of Roehampton, Thomas Koppe from the University of Griefswald, Germany, and Chris Stringer, NHM, suggests that the range of sinus size for Neanderthals was in the same proportion to body size as that of European Homo sapiens.  They also argue that the normal response of mammal species in cold climates is actually to develop smaller sinuses.  Their conclusion is that the differences between ourselves and Neanderthals for this characteristic can be explained simply by genetic drift - the random genetic changes that occur in different populations and species over time - and not as a response to their environment.

 

Rae, T. C., T. Koppe and C. Stringer (2011). "The Neanderthal face is not cold adapted." Journal of Human Evolution 60(2): 234-239. doi:10.1016/j.jhevol.2010.10.003