One Million Years of the Human Story in Britain

Just before half-term our Director, Kim Biddulph, visited a new exhibition at the Natural History Museum in London that just might be worth looking at if you’re a teacher planning to teach prehistory for the first time. It is called Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story and is fronted by a pensive Neanderthal model created by artists from the Netherlands. He has a Homo sapiens companion and the character in each is breathtaking.

The exhibition is on until September so it’s a perfect time for teachers to visit and learn about the first million years of human prehistory in Britain. It’s not just a story of two species. As you walk in you are greeted by busts, also by the Kennis brothers, of other human species that visited this part of the world, starting with Homo antecessor, which may have been the human species responsible for leaving muddy footprints on a Norfolk beach 800,000 years ago.

The news about the extreme age of the Happisburgh footprints was released just before the exhibition opened, and there is a section dedicated to this amazing find. What was most incredible to see were some preserved pine cones from the coniferous forest close by at the time these early humans walked across the land bridge from the continent.

The exhibition gives you some idea of how we know what we know about the last million years – mainly it’s from butchered animal bone and the flint tools that did it. There is also the end of a wooden spear found on the foreshore at Clacton in 1911 and thought to date to about 420,000 to 360,000 years ago. Videos along the exhibition give a flavour of different time periods, with new ways of making stone tools coupled with images of the animals they were intended to butcher.

Dipping dark band is burned horizon at Cutting 2, Beeches Pit, Suffolk 1992. © Tim Holt-Wilson

Dipping dark band under the seated person is the earliest hearth in Britain at Cutting 2, Beeches Pit, Suffolk 1992. © Tim Holt-Wilson

One of the most difficult ideas to get your head around is the changing environment over this immense period, and the exhibition tackles this with the videos, images of landscapes and strategically placed taxidermy throughout. The Clacton spear was exhibited alongside the cranium found in a quarry in Swanscombe, Kent, probably that of an early Neanderthal woman. The accompanying video showed the site of the earliest evidence for fire in Britain, around 400,000 years ago at Beeches Pit near West Stow in Suffolk. Britain was a peninsula of Europe for most of the past million years, but was cut off by rising sea levels more than once during this time, the last occasion being about 6000 BC.

But the Neanderthal man and the anatomically modern human man facing each other in the final room is the most amazing sight, and quite touching. Homo sapiens arrived in Europe from Africa to find another human species with white skin living here, and it looks like at least a few of our species interbred with these cousins of ours. Whether we also wiped them out is a matter worth debating with students. How would they feel to meet a member of another human species?

This is where the story ends; the exhibition doesn’t take it into the period when we were the only human species left on the planet. That’s just an addendum to an amazing story of human perseverance, ingenuity and adaptation.

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