Going beyond the bones

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The day felt primeval as I walked up the path to the Natural History Museum with mist after the rain cooling in the air and rumbles of early morning traffic behind me. It was unnaturally quiet and still inside as I made my way past the diplodocus skeleton standing in Central Hall and down a dim corridor to start my time journey.

I was here before opening hours for a breakfast viewing of Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, a temporary exhibition running from 13 February 2014 to 28 September 2014. The exhibition builds on the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain research project led by Professor Chris Stringer, the Natural History Museum’s expert on early humans and a Fellow of the Royal Society. As I work for Royal Society, I’d been lucky to be invited along.

The 13-year research project had unearthed evidence that pushed back the arrival of early humans in Britain from 500,000 years ago to 950,000 years ago. So while Homo sapiens only appeared on the scene in Britain around 40,000 years ago, the story of our ancestry begins, almost, one million years in the past. This is where the breakfast tour of the exhibition started – with the earliest glimpses of human life viewed through fossil evidence of flint tool flakes and ancient pine cones. Our guide, curator Ellen Simonssen, led us through each room – through a different time, a different climate, and a different step in our history.

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In the room of the rhino butchers we were shown how our ancestors had a taste for large animals like rhino, horses and deer. But this was a time zone that they shared with other predators, ‘So holding on to a large carcass meant competing with lions and hyenas,’ said Ellen. Leaving behind one brutal existence for the next, we entered the big freeze. This zone was the Ice Age with sound effects of a desolate wind-blown landscape.

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Emerging from the thaw were the Neanderthals who came to Britain around 400,000 years ago, and again 50,000 years ago. We stood with exhibits of skulls and teeth against a backdrop of painted walls and video installations – pictures and sounds opening a window into a lost world. ‘We wanted to go beyond the bones and show what these people were really like.’ The bones might not have looked like much, we were told, but they were amazing discoveries that had never been displayed together before.

Our time journey continued apace into a world that heated up and rising sea levels pushed humans out. We were now 125,000 years ago. There was not even an echo of human life here, just the sound of the waves and the roars of roaming beasts. ‘But it was quite an exciting world. Imagine hippos in the Thames, and also rhinos and elephants.’ I felt quite disappointed that Charing Cross doesn’t look like this when I get off the tube each morning.

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We turned the corner as the Neanderthals returned to Britain and the first evidence of Homo sapiens was found. Two specially commissioned model reconstructions – Ned the Neanderthal and Quentin the Homo sapien – gave us a feel for how these ancient neighbours lived, as did the cannibalised remains of skulls fashioned into bowls. It was still a cold, harsh climate with humans rationalising the need to eat meat. On that note, we ended our time journey just 12,000 years after the Ice Age.

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We had reached the story of modern science as curator Jenny Wong introduced us to a project that explored our genetic ancestry in more detail and put the exhibits into greater context. Scientists analysed the DNA of six well-known personalities to unearth the roots of the wider human family tree.

The exhibition had collected 200 of the most important fossil specimens and archaeological objects in Britain and woven the tapestry of our steps through time. Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story had gone far beyond the bones.

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Thanks to Jonathan Tyzack and Emily Williamson at the Natural History Museum for inviting me to the breakfast viewing. I highly recommend going!

Find out more about Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story on the official website and view the fantastic films on the YouTube playlist including how the life-like early human models were made.

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Monkey Bones

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Deep within the greenness of the rainforest, a very long time ago, lived a group of chimpanzees. They travelled through the trees and climbed down from branches to forage on the forest floor. On the hottest days the females lay on mossy rocks beside narrow streams to feel the cool spray of the water. Crouched high above the rest of the group, a baby chimpanzee watched his mother and aunts, and looked beyond his family to the darkness between the trees. The sound of a cracking twig and the rustle of leaves attracted his attention and, unnoticed by his mother, he clambered across the rocks and disappeared into the trees never to be seen again.

That is, until a small skeleton of a baby chimpanzee was crated from the Horniman Museum to the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) in London. Standing erect and staring out behind a glass case on the marble hall, this little chimp led an ‘exploration of ideas’ at the evening lectures ‘A race of mankind’: Chimpanzees and anatomy at the RCP.

I went along to the talks on Monday 24 June to see the most recent unusual monkey from the Horniman Museum on display at the RCP.

‘Some of you might remember a monkey who was here last year who was so popular that we couldn’t resist getting another,’ said Beth Wilkey, assistant curator at the RCP. She was, of course, referring to another weird monkey that I blogged about: Monkey-fish.

‘You may think: what has a monkey and physicians got in common?’ Beth introduced the evening’s speakers, Dr Bernard Wood of the George Washington University and the Smithsonian Institution, and Paolo Viscardi of the Horniman Museum, who would tell us.

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‘When physicians were polymaths’

Dr Bernard Wood traced the history of comparative anatomy (the study of anatomy between species) and molecular biology by pioneering scientists, and fellows of the RCP, who studied the close relationships between modern humans and primates.

Starting with Charles Darwin’s Tree of Life that shows how all species on Earth have evolved from common ancestors and are closely related, Bernard pointed to the tips of the tree and its neighbouring branches: ‘All the animals that are alive today are on the top branches, and the lower branches show all the species that have existed and are now extinct.’ Humans belong on the same branch of the tree as apes and chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, and we share a common ancestor who lived around 8 million years ago.

From the origins of mankind, we were taken back to a time when our understanding of our place in nature was a blank canvas waiting to be painted by minds burning with scientific curiosity. Such a mind was RCP fellow Edward Tyson (1651–1708), widely considered to be the founder of modern comparative anatomy. A fellow of the then College of Physicians, Tyson was an anatomy reader at Surgeons’ Hall – and maybe not a physician at all: ‘He spent most of his time cutting for surgery, so if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then this guy’s a surgeon,’ said Bernard.

There was, frankly, nothing Tyson wouldn’t dissect, Bernard commented. But it was his dissection of a chimpanzee in 1698 which led him to write Orang-Outang, sive Homo Sylvestris: or, the Anatomy of a Pygmie Compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man (catchy title), the book that was the common link between the skeleton on loan and the evening’s lectures. Tyson’s exploration of the anatomy of the chimpanzee, particularly the brain, resulted in his conclusion that humans and chimpanzees were closely related.

The exploration of the similarities in anatomy between humans and apes continued with RCP fellow Emil Zuckerkandl (1849–1910), a Hungarian-Austrian anatomist who made significant contributions to the field of morphology (the study of the structural features of organisms such as bone, organs, muscle and tissue). ‘Although dissection seems old fashioned and low-tech, it is still going on,’ said Bernard on why dissection was crucial to our understanding of the human body and of evolution.

With a better understanding of what monkeys and physicians have in common, we moved on from the discussion of physicians as polymaths – exploring our place in the great scheme of things – to another perspective of the evening’s fascinating specimen.

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‘The monkey tree puzzle’

‘He’s a rather nice little specimen,’ said Paolo Viscardi of the Horniman Museum, whose talk also opened with Darwin’s Tree of Life, or ‘the monkey tree puzzle’.

Paolo traced the paths of curious explorers of the past who collected and brought back strange and wonderful objects from different parts of the world. Their discoveries and accounts of what they had seen were collected together as ‘cabinets of curiosities’, which would eventually become vast repositories of our knowledge of natural history – or museums.

An illustration of Ole Worm’s cabinet of curiosities showed that when you have a lot of stuff you need a way of grouping and storing it. ‘I say this from bitter experience of working in a museum,’ said Paolo. These early collectors’ attempts at categorising their collections could be seen as steps towards modern taxonomy.

It wasn’t until Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778), Swedish botanist, physician, zoologist and reputed father of modern taxonomy, that we looked at ways of logically categorising species: ‘He grouped humans with apes and sloths!’ Paolo explained how we continue to group things – building bigger and bigger categories by looking for similar characteristics through comparative anatomy.

Paolo’s exploration of comparative anatomy and theories of evolution led to the famous evolution debate at Oxford University Museum in 1860 where eminent scientists and philosophers argued about Darwin’s recently published On the Origin of the Species. There was a heated exchange between two scientists Samuel Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley: ‘Wilberforce asked Huxley whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he was descended from apes.’

These various ideas on the origin of mankind and of our close relationship with apes has captured our imagination for centuries from King Kong, to Tarzan, to chimpanzees dressed up as humans. Paolo finished on the star of the show, the unusual baby chimpanzee skeleton standing on the marble hall about whose origins ‘we don’t know very much – yet!’ and who will be investigated closely.

‘A race of mankind’: Chimpanzees and anatomy at the RCP

The chimpanzee skeleton is on temporary display at the RCP as part of the ‘Object in Focus’ loan scheme from the Horniman Museum and alongside other rare objects from the RCP’s collection including rare books and a portrait of Tyson.

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