Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story

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The Swanscombe skull, from the earliest known Neanderthal in Britain, and the Clacton spear, the oldest wooden spear in the world, are just some of the incredible objects from Britain’s past that will go on show for the first time in Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story.

Remarkable finds from sites such as Kents Cavern in Devon, Pontnewydd in North Wales and Happisburgh in Norfolk will take you back nearly one million years to uncover what life was really like for our ancient relatives.

Drawing on 12 years’ of research by an extended network of scientists, led by the Natural History Museum, this new exhibition tells the enchanting story of the changing faces and spaces of prehistoric Britain. The latest scientific techniques and life-size models bring rarely seen specimens to life so you can look back, long before the Romans, Saxons and Vikings, to piece together how humans came and went in Britain over the last million years.

Professor Chris Stringer, palaeontologist and world-leading human origins researcher at the Natural History Museum comments: ‘From the earliest human fossils in Britain to one of the oldest wooden tools in the world, you will be surprised by the history hidden beneath your feet. The story behind the humans who inhabited ancient Britain has taken us more than a decade to piece together. This gives us an exciting glimpse into our past, which also leads us to reflect on our future.’

Britain has one of the richest yet underappreciated records of early human history in the world. While human fossils are rare, ancient Britons left behind tools and animal bones in river deposits and caves that reveal tantalising details of their behaviour and way of life. By analysing this trail of evidence, a 50-strong team of archaeologists, palaeontologists and geologists from more than 20 research institutions have collaborated to unlock the secrets of our ancient past.

This includes the surprising fact that for most of the last one million years Britain has not been an island. Over this time, its climate swung between multiple ice-ages and Mediterranean-like climates warmer than we experience in Britain today. These dramatic changes meant humans could establish a temporary foothold, but would then be swept away time and time again. There were 100,000 year gaps when people completely deserted Britain, before re-inhabiting it once again.


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Today’s Britons are the product of the tenth attempt humans made to re-populate Britain, only 12,000 years ago. We are one of the youngest populations in the world, compared to Australians, Africans and our continental neighbours.

But what about the first arrivals? Recent evidence shows that humans first made it to Britain around 900,000 years ago, 400,000 years earlier than we initially thought. Britons have included at least four different species of human at various points in time.

Stringer comments: ‘Some of the big questions have yet to be answered – did we meet and even interbreed with Neanderthals in Britain? Why did we outlive other human species? How will climate change affect our survival in the future? With further research, we hope to be able to fill in even more of the gaps and add new insights to our story.’

Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story will also explore the varying landscapes and extraordinary wildlife that was living here as well: hyenas in Yorkshire, mammoths in Kensington, lions and rhinos in Trafalgar Square, and hippos swimming in the Thames, some of which were hunted and eaten by our relatives. These animals and plants tell of the ever-changing landscapes with which ancient humans had to contend.

Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story will open to the public on 13 February 2014 at the Natural History Museum.

Contributing Source : Natural History Museum

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