Cavemen and Cannibals: One Million Years of the Human Story

A lot can happen in a million years. Hell, a lot can happen in a day, let alone a million years. In this post, I’ve been looking at a new exhibition from the Natural History Museum that explores what has happened in Britain over the last 100,000,000 years. You know what? It was a surprisingly small exhibition considering the extraordinary vast span of time it was covering.

This exhibition is all about tracing our ancestors; not just great-great-great-great (great?) grandparents. No, the museum is taking us back even further than that – to the earliest humans to be found in Britain. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about this narrow focus – why look at just Britain? Is it supposed to make us feel patriotic? To give even more of a sense of history to the people of this green and pleasant land?

It seems the museum struggled a bit with this too. Let’s look at the first face we meet…

Homo Antecessor from Spain
Homo Antecessor from Spain

Meet Homo Antecessor he is about 800,000 years old. Not quite the million we were aiming for, but close enough. But wait, this guy isn’t British, he’s Spanish! Well, according to the label anyway. Although we haven’t found any remains for Homo Antecessor in the UK yet, we have found tools that he might have used.

(It’s fun to think what the Daily Mail reviewer would have made of this, I imagine the headline would be something like IMMIGRANTS COME TO UK:  TAKE OUR JOBS AND LEAVE THEIR TOOLS, or something. It would lack the wit of a Sun headline, that’s for sure.)

We’re also treated to some taxidermy, I do so love some taxidermy – could you even imagine hyenas living in Sussex?

A Hyena from Sussex..?
A Hyena from Sussex..?

Or lions anywhere that isn’t Longleat?

A lioness
A lioness

To keep on message that this is Britain: One Million Years ago, this graphic was produced. I quite like it, although I wonder if the National Gallery had to pay for the ad space?

Mammoths in Trafalgar Square
Mammoths in Trafalgar Square

But wait – this is supposed to be the human  story. So far we’ve only met Homo Antecessor… Never fear, homos Neanderthal and Sapiens are just around the corner, both in terms of timeline and location within the exhibition.

Before we meet them in the latex flesh, we’re invited to compare the skulls of these two relatives.

Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthal skull
Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthal skull

Quite something, eh?

In the likelihood you’re not a trained forensic scientist who can immediately flesh out the skeletal remains, the museum has commissioned a pair of models, some hi-tech museum dummies, to really help you grasp the differences (and yes, similarities) between the two tribes of early man.

Neanderthal man
Neanderthal man
Homo Sapiens
Homo Sapiens

Although the skull of Neanderthal Man looks a little animalistic, the magnificent model of him manages to capture the twinkle of intelligence, something that is utterly human about him.

A wise looking Neanderthal man.
A wise looking Neanderthal man.

As he stands across the room from Homo Sapiens, we’re invited to imagine the uneasy relationship between these two rival species. For me, it brought to mind the struggles that play out in the pages of any X-Men comic, that tense relationship between one stage of development and the next.

Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthal
Homo Sapiens and Homo Neanderthal

I really didn’t expect the cannibalism. That came as a shock.

This skull from Gough’s cave in Somerset. It’s around 14,700 years old. It has been carefully shaped into a bowl. The other specimens in the display all show signs of cannibalism and of further use after the meaty bits had been consumed.

A human skull from 14,700 years ago. Now it's a bowl
A human skull from 14,700 years ago. Now it’s a bowl

There’s something you won’t see in an X-Men comic…

If you’re interested in tracking down our ancient ancestors, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story is on until 28th  September.


5 Comments Add yours

  1. sapphiradoll says:

    Homo Sapiens looks a bit like Humphrey Bogart to me!

  2. Amy Dale says:

    I’ve been looking forward to seeing this exhibition for a while, so was interested to read you post about it. Does the exhibition present much in the way of current research?

    Amy @

    1. There was nothing that screamed THIS IS CURRENT RESEARCH but there is every chance that there was some, but it was subtle/I missed it.

      1. Amy Dale says:

        Interesting. I’m looking forward to checking it out to see if it’s any good.

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