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Our ancient Britons are all yours

Posted by Rose Feb 18, 2014

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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Neanderthal woman in pieces

Posted by Rose Feb 11, 2014

She's 400,000 years old and her faceless skull is now mounted in an elegant display case in readiness for the Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story exhibition opening at the Museum on 13 February.

 

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Could this 400,000-year-old skull, belonging to an early Neanderthal woman, be one of the first Neanderthals in Britain? The skull is one of more than 120 specimens and objects on show in the Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story exhibition.

 

The early Neanderthal woman's skull was found in Swanscombe, Kent and, despite its age, it reveals a great deal. Her brain left its mark on the surrounding bone. Faint impressions of folds and blood vessels show it was a similar size as a human's brain today.

 

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The back of the Swanscombe skull has characteristic Neanderthal features, including a small pit where the neck muscles attached to the skull.

 

You'll see this striking specimen assembled as one exhibit in the exhibition, but look closely and you'll discover it actually comprises three parts.

 

Observing Museum curator, Rob Kruszynski, steadily hold the three skull pieces together at a recent photo shoot we attended, I listened intently as he recounted how remarkably well they fit together. Especially when you consider that they were found at different times in Swanscombe.

 

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The central skull section (occipital) was found in June 1935 in Swanscombe, Kent, by a local dentist A. T. Marston. The left part (parietal) was found at Swanscombe in March 1936 also by Marston. And the right parietal was found years later in 1955, by archaeologists J. Wymer and A. Gibson. Select images to enlarge.

 

Being so close to this ancient woman's skull and watching Rob handle it so carefully, I found myself wondering who she was and what her life must have been like? Did she die alone or with her family around her? We don't know as much as we would like about Neanderthal lifestyles because nothing was written down, but we do know that they sometimes buried their dead, that it's likely they did have some form of communication and that they lived together in family groups.

 

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This graphic reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman model appears in the exhibition. © PS Plailly/E Daynes/Science Photo Library

 

'There is analysis going on now on a large family group of possibly 12 Neanderthal individuals discovered in a cave site near to El Sidrón in Spain's Asturias,' Rob tells me. 'All had been cannibalised. And evidence suggests there were six adults (three males and one female), three adolescents between 12 and 15 years of age, two juveniles between five and nine years of age, and one infant, and that they were related.

 

'As of 2012, over 1,800 Neanderthal fossil remains and 400 tools have been recovered at El Sidrón, making it one of the largest collections of Neanderthal fossils in Europe to date.'

 

These El Sidrón finds are nowhere near as old as our Swanscombe skull, as they only date back to about 42,000 to 50,000 years, but they have been invaluable in revealing the Neanderthal's own story.

 

Our scientists and archaeologists continue to unravel more about our prehistoric ancestors with such amazing discoveries about the men, women, children, animals and objects they uncover and analyse.

 

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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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There was a moment on Monday night, at the author's book launch event here, when I actually expected a Neanderthal to walk onto the stage and join novelist Jean M Auel and Museum scientist Chris Stringer in their conversation about prehistoric life and the Earth's Children books.

 

Both modern humans entertained us for an hour chatting about the wonders of cave art and craft, Neanderthal veggies, the interbreeding of Neanderthals and early humans, and the possiblity of cloning Neanderthals in the future.

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Left: Novelist Jean M Auel and Museum palaeoanthropologist Chris Stringer admire a Venus statuette as an example of early cave art at the author's book launch event on 28 February in the Museum's Flett Theatre. Right, Jean compares a Neanderthal skull with an early human one. The Land of Painted Caves is out on 29 March.

The age-defying, 75-year-old American novelist arrived with several family members and various literary and publishing aides, to find a packed Flett Theatre in the Museum. Chris Stringer brought some rare, prehistoric objects and remains. The event marked a step closer to the long-awaited release of Jean’s sixth and final book, The Land of Painted Caves, in her bestselling Earth’s Children series. The series follows the epic adventures of Ayla, an early modern human girl adopted by Neanderthals, growing up and adapting in Ice Age Europe.

 

Stepping back about 30,000 years, it was fascinating to hear the two speakers talk about the similarities and differences between Neanderthals and Cro-Magnons (early modern humans) who populate Jean’s books. And to discover the comparative views of a bestselling novelist and renowned palaeoanthropologist on the advances in our understanding of these species. The conversation wasn't so much fact versus fiction, more fact enriching fiction.

 

It was clear that Chris and Jean were equally intrigued by the Neanderthal race. And I discovered how close we all really are when Chris pointed out that recent research shows that most of us in the audience would have about two and half per cent Neanderthal DNA in our genes.

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Jean told us how she researches her books, visiting caves and conferences, learning how to make snow fires and stone tools, and even treat deer buckskins with brains! Chris drew attention to the historic detail in her books of animals, objects and the Ice Age landscape.

 

So what was the inspiration for the Earth’s Children epic? ‘It started out as a short story. But I quickly found I only “do long”, joked Jean. ‘What if we were sharing this world with another kind of human? That was my original thought, which sparked the idea.’

 

The author didn’t give away much about the content of The Land of Painted Caves, except to mention that all but one of the caves in the final book are based on real caves, many of these she has visited. ‘Life got in the way,’ was her answer to the questions of why the long gap since her last book and why the series has taken 30 years to complete.

 

We were enlightened further when the speakers answered questions from fans, like, ‘Where did Ayla’s name come from?’ ‘Is Ayla a feminist character?’ 'What inspired the memories and sign language of the Neanderthals in your story? ‘How did you get your first book published?’ 'Is it true Neanderthals had rickets?’ And ‘What is the scientific evidence of interbreeding between humans and other species?’

 

But you’ll have to wait to watch the film of the event to find out some of the answers. We will have a short video clip on our website soon. And there will be more film coverage on the publisher's website. Our event was followed by an author's signing session (pictured above).

 

The Land of Painted Caves is published on 29 March by Hodder & Stoughton. Their Jean M Auel website has all the details.

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You can get a limited edition of the new book featuring an AR (augmented reality) Ayla showing what she might have looked like. Some of Jean’s fans helped decide on this here earlier on in the author's visit to the Museum.

 

In the meantime get to know Neanderthal man more closely in our latest Neanderthal factfile animation (left) and if you have a webcam you can have an augmented reality Neanderthal in your home.

 

 

 

Come and find out more from Chris Stringer at our free talk on 11 March at 14.30: Are we Neanderthals?

 

Read my earlier blog about the Jean M Auel in Conversation event

 

Find out more about human evolution and the ancient human occupation of Britain

 

See a 14,700-year-old human skull cup replica on display at the Musem

 

Compare 3D hominid skulls in our online interactive

 

Enjoy more pictures from the event. Select them to enlarge

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Jean Auel meets fans here to help choose the augmented reality image of her books' heroine, Ayla

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Sharon Ament, the Museum's Public Engagement Group director intoduces Jean Auel and Chris Stringer in the Flett Theatre

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A captivated audience in the packed Flett Theatre

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Chris Stringer shows a rare, ritualistic 14,700-year-old human skull-cup replica, now on public display here

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The author gets ready to sign books for her fans

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A happy fan gets the first book, The Clan of the Cave Bear, signed
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I wonder what's going to happen on Monday evening, 28 February, when bestselling fiction writer Jean M Auel and the Museum's esteemed human evolution expert Professor Chris Stringer meet to talk about ice age cave clans? Will flint sparks fly? Will they share a drink from ritualistic skull-cups?

 

We're not entirely sure of the details of their conversation, but the theme will certainly be earthy.

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Ayla and Jondalar - the main characters in Jean M Auel's latest book - as depicted in the book's film trailer. Her popular Earth's Children series follows the epic story of Cro-Magnons and Neanderthal cave dwellers in ice age Britain. She talks to Chris Stringer about the books here on 28 February

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Our event, Jean M Auel in Conversation, marks the release of the sixth and final book in the author's popular Earth's Children historical fiction series. The Land of Painted Caves is published on 29 March and is a highly-anticipated book for Jean Auel readers - the finale they've been waiting 30 years for. The fifth book appeared in 2002, and the first, The Clan of the Cave Bear, came out in 1980 .

 

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Jean Auel (left) is well-known for her meticulous research of archaeological findings in preparation of her novels and Chris Stringer (below) is the Museum's leading palaeoanthropologist with extensive knowledge of human evolution and the ancient human occupation of Britain.

 

Chris told me: 'I first remember meeting Jean at a human evolution conference in New York in 1984. I was able to spend more time with her when she co-sponsored another conference, in Santa Fe, in 1986. I have a lot of contact with the public through the talks I give and the enquiries I answer. Jean’s books regularly come up as having first inspired an interest in prehistory or as the source of an enquiry about some aspect of our evolutionary past.


'Palaeoanthropology is a fast-moving field, where new finds make us constantly update our ideas about ancient people like the Neanderthals and the Cro-Magnons who feature in Jean’s books. So I look forward to discussing with her how we both meet the challenges of these advances of knowledge in our research and writing about the past.'

 

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Jean Auel's publicist, Kerry Hood from Hodder, says: ‘I know that Jean is fantastically excited about coming to London to talk about the Earth’s Children series, and the last book. She is also really looking forward to renewing her very good acquaintance with Professor Stringer.’

 

After Jean and Chris converse, the audience will get the chance to ask questions. This is followed by an author signing session.

 

I've also just heard that the Gough's Cave human skull-cup replica will be on show at the event before it goes on public display in the Museum. Chris Stringer and the 14,700 human skull-cup discoveries have been receiving lots of recent media attention. So this is a rare treat for Jean Auel fans.

 


Find out about the Jean M Auel in Conversation event

 

Book tickets for Jean M Auel in Conversation - £10, starts at 19.30 on 28 February

 

Discover more about the human skull-cups and human evolution

 

Read the recent news story about the Earliest human skull-cups in the UK

About Earth's Children

For those of you may not know Jean Auel's Earth's Children, the series of historical novels traces the prehistoric adventures of Ayla, a young blue-eyed, blonde-haired Cro-Magnon (early human) orphan girl. In the first book, Ayla is adopted by a Neanderthal clan after a cataclysmic earthquake. The story is set in a harsh ice age landscape, about 30,000 years ago. In The Land of Painted Caves - the final forthcoming book -  Ayla is now a woman and a mother. With her young daughter Jonayla and loving mate Jondalar they face new challenges in the land of the Zelandonii.

 

Find out more about The Land of Painted Caves and the series and watch the official trailer for the new book