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New gallery will reveal the intertwined history of human species

Visitors will be able to trace the origins and evolution of our species and explore what makes us human in a new free gallery opening at the Museum on 18 December 2015.

Spanning seven million years of evolution, the Human Evolution gallery will present some of the most important specimens from the Museum's world-renowned collection alongside the latest research evidence.

Highlights will include the first adult female Neanderthal cranium ever discovered and the primary cast of the 'Peking Man' skull, which represents some of the oldest evidence of human habitation in China. They will be accompanied by the most scientifically accurate life-size Neanderthal and early Homo sapiens models ever made.

Homo erectus skull cast, known as 'Peking Man'

The original 'Peking Man' fossils, now recognised as Homo erectus, disappeared during the Second World War. Fortunately, accurate casts were made, such as the one going into the Human Evolution gallery. This image shows a composite reconstruction of the skull, which is based on casts of multiple fossil fragments.

Professor Chris Stringer, research leader in human origins at the Museum says:

'Over the past decade, we and our colleagues have unravelled many astonishing ideas and discoveries using the Museum's collection of human and pre-human fossils.

'With the latest investigative research techniques that are available here, such as CT scanning and DNA analysis, we continue to uncover the origins and dispersals of humans in an ever-changing world and present these advances in this permanent display.'

Casts of the reconstructed skull and hand of the ancient human Homo naledi will also be on show. This new species was announced to the public in September this year, following the discovery of fossil remains in a remove cave location in late 2013 and early 2014.

Prof Stringer adds, 'This new ancient relative of ours was discovered only two years ago in the Rising Star Cave in South Africa, adding a new branch to our family tree.

'Ground-breaking discoveries such as these show just how crucial human origins research is for understanding our place in the natural world. I'm delighted that the Museum can now connect people with this developing research and demonstrate the changes in behaviour, physique and technology over time.'

Multiple views of Homo naledi skull and jaw fragments

Skull and jaw fragments of Homo naledi. A cast of the reconstructed skull of this new ancient human species will be one of the new gallery exhibits. © Berger et al (2015). eLife

The gallery will explore what a hominin is and introduce the many ancient relatives from the human family tree. It will encompass our latest scientific research, including new archaeological findings, advanced DNA analysis and the direct dating of bones and teeth.

Visitors will be able to investigate the changes in physical characteristics, diet, lifestyles and environments that have shaped modern humans.

As well as full skeleton casts and original skull, tooth and jawbone fossils, the gallery will feature stone tools that offer clues on how humans interacted with their surroundings. Fossils of animals that shared the same environments as different human species will also be on display.

Sir Michael Dixon, Director of the Museum, says:

'Behind the scenes here every day, our scientists are working hard to understand the origins and evolution of humans and fill in the gaps in our knowledge.

'This new gallery will inspire the next generation to explore our place in the natural world. Our sincere thanks go to the DCMS/Wolfson Museum and Galleries Improvement Fund for the funding that has enabled us to open this display of our pioneering research and collection.'