Essex rhinos, Kent lions, Norfolk hyenas – nope, not a list of obscure rugby league teams, but an actual selection of native wildlife with which our prehistoric ancestors would have contended on this very isle. It’s a funny idea, isn’t it, imposing on something as raw as a massive excavated elephant tooth a human construct as abstract and bureaucratic as a county. But then, Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story is at its strongest when searching for fanciful ways of relating ancient to modern. Found bones in central London? Evoke the image of mammoths rampaging down Fleet Street, and the kids’ll come rampaging too.
That the expected half-term struggle to gain entry to the show becomes a bona-fide survival of the fittest is a testament to 200 captivating artefacts selected to illustrate the drama that is ‘man in Britain: the first million years’. Sparing us from excessive annotative bumf, Chris Stringer’s curatorial team cannily zooms in on archaeological finds from several key locations to convey that narrative.
It’s a story of dodging ice caps and exotic predators, of ten separate colonisations of this land by humans, of graft and huntsmanship. Homo sapiens encounter Neanderthals, and evolve alongside each other — perhaps occasionally eating each other. Consult that smashed-‘n’-scooped skull from Somerset or the human jaw that has been nibbled clean — this was not the polite Britain of cultural myth.
But DNA is a hard thing to shake and, always, the imperative is to liken ‘them’ to ‘us’. "With no written records, we will never know the details of a Neanderthal’s social life," lament the exhibition notes, offering a consolatory titbit that early Homo sapiens, at least, had "larger social networks". ‘What would prehistoric man make of Facebook?’ is the woolly mammoth in the room, but fortunately it’s a question which goes unasked.
In this Age of Information — of never-ending internet ‘top ten’ lists — it’s so easy to become blasé about superlatives. Among these skulls and lumps of flint can be seen the world’s oldest wooden spear, the continent’s largest hand-axe, and the country’s oldest Homo heidelbergensis remains – all remarkable specimens. A 14,000 year-old deer antler harpoon has been crafted with astonishing beauty and is reminiscent of those stunning items in last year’s Ice Age Art event at the British Museum. Again the emergence of aesthetic sensibilities proves a useful way of tracking the development of what we consider modern man.
Nowhere does the exhibition pander to arrogance or to Anglo-centrism. There’s a stark reminder that we are just bare, forked animals still working our way along an evolutionary timescale – and another reminder, for any UKIP attendees, that Britain "is an island of immigrants and always has been". Our diversity and survival as a species merit celebration, but many of the greatest challenges are yet to come. We’ve had 40,000 years in the sun (only 12,000 in Britain) — but that hairy fella, the Neanderthal mannequin? He managed 350,000...in the ice.
One Million Years Of The Human Story is at the Natural History Museum until 28 September 2014. Tickets are £8, child and concession £4.
By James FitzGerald
See also: our map of prehistoric London finds.