Britain: One Million Years of Human History sparks superlatives at Natural History Museum

By Rachel Teskey | 24 April 2014

Exhibition Review: Britain: One Million Years of Human History, Natural History Museum, London, until September 28 2014

A close-up photo of a prehistoric man's face
A Homo Sapien model at the Natural History Museum's One Million Years of Human History show© Trustees of NHM
Hyenas prowling the plains of Norfolk; prehistoric elephants rampaging across Trafalgar Square; a band of Neanderthal hunters stalking a reindeer herd across a barren British prairie. This exhibition creates vivid portraits of the landscapes, animals and people of Britain across vast spans of time.

A photo of a large piece of prehistoric wood against a black background
Boxgrove tibia© Trustees of NHM
It tells a very ancient story with a very modern approach, showing how the latest research and technological developments are constantly changing the way we think about our past and our ancestors.

Britain: One Million Years of Human History celebrates the work of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project, a multidisciplinary collaboration led by the Natural History Museum.

It brings together recent discoveries and never-before-seen objects, communicating the findings of the project to new audiences.

The exhibition explores how four ancient human species - Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens - tried to settle in Britain, how they lived and how just one species – our own – was ultimately able to survive and thrive.  

This is an exhibition of superlatives: the first, the earliest, the oldest. Tiny, unassuming pieces are displayed as treasures, including a fragment of a jawbone from the earliest known Homo sapiens in Great Britain, and the oldest wooden spear in the world, dating to 400,000 years ago.

Stone tools from throughout Britain’s history – including the largest hand axe ever found in Europe – are displayed throughout the exhibition, showing the development of skills and technology that eventually enabled Homo sapiens to flourish.

Throughout the exhibition, a series of short films explain the very latest findings of the AHOB project. One examines the fossilized hominin footprints uncovered on the beach at Happisburgh in Norfolk last year.

A photo of a prehistoric man with wild hair and a large beard
A Neanderthal  model© Trustees of NHM
These are the oldest known footprints of this type outside Africa. The results of research at the site were published only a week before the exhibition opened.

The film shows how everything from 3D modelling to pollen analysis was used to help archaeologists identify that the footprints were left by a family group of the species Homo antecessor some time between 850,000 and 950,000 years ago.

Alongside the hard scientific facts are light touches to humanise and personalise the story. Descriptive text and atmospheric audio conjure up the sights and sounds of Britain’s distant past, and you are encouraged to test the sharp edges of modern-made versions of ancient stone tools.

Anecdotes from excavators and researchers really bring the objects to life. An account of how flint flakes were found in a pattern outlining a pair of human legs where, tens of thousands of years before, someone had sat to craft stone tools, make you look at the artefacts on display in a whole new light.

Some of the most popular elements of the exhibition are the life-size models of different species. The startlingly convincing Neanderthal in the classic pose of an earnest museum-goer – hands clasped behind his back, head tilted a little to one side, a gentle smile – is a particular favourite.

A photo of three prehistoric pieces of wood and rock
Hoxnian anters, bones and a hand axe from Swanscombe© Trustees of NHM
The final part of the exhibition brings the human story right up to date. Using DNA analysis, it shows how we fit into the one million years (and counting) of the human occupation of Britain, tracing global migrations over the millennia with some well-known faces including Professor Alice Roberts and comedian Bill Bailey, who discover more about their ancient ancestors.

This early period in human history is extremely difficult to display: so few objects survive and so much remains uncertain. However, the Natural History Museum’s exhibition excels.

It is thought-provoking, challenging you to make your own connections and draw your own conclusions. It explains not only what we know, but how we know it, and at the same time embraces the fact that much remains unknown, with many more exciting discoveries yet to be made.

  • Open 10am-5.50pm (10.30pm final Friday of each month). Admission £9/£4.50 (free for under-4s, family ticket £24). Book online. Follow the museum on Twitter @NHM_London‎.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a v-shaped prehistoric rock against a black background
Pakefiled steppe mammoth jaw© Trustees of NHM
A photo of a large thin wooden spear
The Clacton spear© Trustees of NHM
A photo of a pair of hands holding a large amber prehistoric rock
The Furze Platt hand axe© Trustees of NHM
A photo of a large craggy prehistoric rock
The Happisburgh pine cone© Trustees of NHM
More exhibition reviews:

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I Cheer A Dead Man's Sweetheart: A show about the life of painting at De La Warr Pavilion

From Beachy Head to Muggery Pope: John Skoog sees the dark side of Eric Ravilious
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