Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story – Natural History Museum

At the weekend I went to see a couple of exhibitions at the Natural History Museum. The first was Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, inspired by the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, a three-phase study investigating humans from Palaeolithic and Mesolithic northern Europe.

The exhibition told a chronological story from the earliest evidence of human presence in the British Isles, through to the first appearance of Homo sapiens in Britain. I found it fascinating to learn about the presence of early humans. Among the items on display were a skull from the earliest known Neanderthal in Britain, bones from the animals that lived during that time, and tools and other evidence of human habitation. Over the last million years, humans have been present in Britain on and off, depending on weather and other conditions. Other amazing creatures have been here too, including mammoths, rhinos and lions.

Evidence of human presence has been found mainly in the south: the north and Scotland experienced longer and more severe freezes, meaning that evidence could have been destroyed. Finds have been discovered at places such as Kent’s Cavern in Devon and Happisburgh in Norfolk.

I was interested to learn that when Homo sapiens superseded Neanderthals, the latter’s genes were not wiped out entirely. Apparently most humans (except for those most closely descended to the original Homo sapiens who came out of Africa) have some Neanderthal genes. Two purpose-built models show how the species differed.

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Neanderthal man
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Homo sapiens

At the end of the exhibition, there was a video with six celebrities talking about the results of their own DNA analysis. It was interesting to see the huge range and scope of their DNA origins, from Scandinavian and Asian to Native American. I wonder what mine would say?

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind – British Museum

I’d originally planned to see Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind on Friday night a few weeks ago, but when I went along to the British Museum after work I found that the exhibition was completely sold out. I ended up buying an advance ticket for the 10th of March, so that I could visit before going to the Manet exhibition a bit later on.

Although timed entry was in operation, the exhibition hall was still really full and there was a bit of queuing and waiting around. I was surprised at how popular this exhibition was. What struck me about most of the exhibits was how small they were: some of them were only as big as a finger, very few larger than my fist. I suppose it would be easier to transport these smaller pieces from wherever they are held permanently, but I also found myself wondering if they were made so small to make them easier to carry around at the time, whether as pieces of jewellery or amulets, or just because smaller items were easier to transport in a nomadic society.

The first half of the exhibition displayed art from 40, 000 to 20, 000 years ago, the majority of it from Siberian Russia or central Europe. Several pieces stood out for me: the ‘Lion Man’, which, in its representation of something that does not exist in reality, reveals the creative and imaginative capabilities of Ice Age humans, and a flute, which shows that they enjoyed playing music. Several animals, such as bison, lions or mammoths, are depicted, a reflection of the world in which these people lived, and in fact many of the sculptures are made of mammoth ivory.

Images of nude women abound in Ice Age art, and it’s unclear whether these represent real women or a symbol. Their nudity clearly indicates an artistic convention – in Ice Age society, clothes were a necessity – but were they made for and by women, perhaps to protect them in pregnancy and childbirth, or did they serve some other purpose?

Later in the exhibition, art from the later time of 20, 000 to 10, 000 years ago is displayed. The sheer number of horse sculptures and pictures are astounding, and some of them are really beautiful. The exhibition questions whether these pictures are designed to represent individual horses, or the horse, a symbolic creature. Horses were undoubtedly hugely important to Ice Age people, and it is possible that they worshipped a deity that took the form of a horse. Perhaps we’ll never know.

The reasons for and meanings behind many of the sculptures and artworks here are shrouded in mystery. We can only speculate as to the purpose they served and the role they played in the lives of Ice Age society. However, we can certainly appreciate the artistic ability of their creators, and if it is true that the ability to make art is what distinguishes modern humanity from the animals, then these artworks are crucially important in helping us understand how we evolved.

Alongside the ancient artworks, several modern pieces from the 20th century are displayed. I don’t feel these are really necessary, but they do seem to illustrate that in some ways art has come full circle – the representations of the body, for instance, in several modern sculptures and images closely resembles those of the Ice Age.

Ice Age Art: Arrival of the Modern Mind is on at the British Museum until 26th May.