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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


The Last of the Neanderthal… Blog Posts!

Josie RMills26 June 2019

Since I started working for UCL Culture, the picture researchers have of human evolution has changed dramatically. There’s no surprises that I think the most exciting relate to Neanderthals; it’s now widely accepted that they possessed complex material culture, adapted to different climates and environments, and expressed themselves through art and symbolism. Researchers are giving the Neanderthals space to be both similar and different to Anatomically Modern Humans, and questioning whether the comparison between the two species is the most useful way to understand behaviour.

The evolutionary tree has also been updated multiple times as new genomic and anatomical data emerges. We know a whole species, the Denisovans, by evidence almost wholly gleaned from ancient DNA and proteins. The Denisovans were a species with a huge range from Siberia to SE Asia; they were distantly related to Neanderthals and possessed distinct adaptations relating to survival in cold climates. A huge breakthrough in the past few months identified a jawbone, found in 1980 by monks in a cave on the Tibetan Plateau, that actually belonged to an adolescent Denisovan. It’s the largest piece of anatomical evidence found of the species and also greatly expands their known geographical range. The fossil was identified by the presence of ancient proteins preserved in the teeth, via a type of analysis called palaeoproteomics  a revolutionary technique that provides an alternative to identification of ancient DNA, which doesn’t always preserve well.

A schematic of the relationship between Neanderthals, Denisovans, Chimpanzees and Anatomically Modern Humans that demonstrates the genetic link between Denisovans and Neanderthals (Image Credit: Frido Welker from this blog post, which discusses the mandible).

Discoveries like this both simplify and complicate our understanding of how humans evolved; it’s really interesting to see how the development of scientific techniques can draw information from finds both in museum archives and within local communities. One of the highlights of being a Student Engager is the chance to be involved with outreach activities like Curiosi-teas, a group that aims to bring local people together with the UCL Collections, fostering a sense of community and taking the museums out of a traditional academic setting. It’s often these sessions that produce the most interesting and also difficult to answer questions about Neanderthals (think cannibalism, brains, sex…). Or one of my personal favourites, did Neanderthals wear clothes? The origin of clothes is a tricky topic because organic material doesn’t preserve well in the archaeological record. We know that Neanderthals lived in cold climates, and although they had certain adaptations to cope with this, I think it’s incredibly unlikely they were wandering around in their birthday suits.  Although during this discussion it was suggested that they may have coped with the cold by being excessively hairy…

This will be my final blog post for UCL Researchers in Museums, as our funding has been withdrawn by UCL Culture – we’re facing an Engager-wide extinction event! I want to take a line to thank my colleagues (all 13 of them) and I hope this blog and our presence in UCL Museums has been interesting and engaging for readers and visitors – Although sad, we are leaving on a high as we have just been awarded The Dr Katharine Giles science blog award by the Association of British Science Writers! It’s been a wonderful place to talk about my PhD research and the amazing collections held at UCL and we’ve all learnt a lot from each other – did you know that – did you know that wombats poop cubes?!

I thought I’d finish by pointing you in the direction of a few human evolution and palaeolithic archaeology highlights in the UCL Museums. Firstly, the collection of handaxes and other stone tools in the  Petrie Museum. You’ll find them clustered under Flinders Petrie’s watchful gaze in the museum cases located at the earliest point of Egypt’s chronology. They represent some of the first finds from Egypt before it was really Egypt as we know it now, I’ve written about them here. A hot tip, the drawers under the display cases pull out and are chock full of more lovely lithics!

A late Acheulean (Lower Palaeolithic) handaxe found at what is now Thebes. From the collection of Montague Porch 1905, presented to the museum by the public museum of Weston-Super-Mare, January 1960. Dimensions 95mm. (Image Credit: Petrie Museum, UC13676).

Moving to the Grant Museum, you can see some great examples of comparative anatomy of both primates and hominins. This image is a skull cast from a cranium and mandible discovered at La Chappelle-Aux-Saints in France. It’s estimated that this person lived 50,000 years ago, to the ripe old age of 40, which is pretty good for a Neanderthal! It’s one of the most complete Neanderthal skeletons found, and thought to be a deliberate burial. It’s also a fossil that has been discussed in terms of prehistoric altruism and social care, as the skeleton shows signs of bad health, for example arthritis and tooth loss; these pathologies have been used to suggest that the ‘old man’ was cared for by others, which has important implications for group dynamics and is something we associate with humanity. The whole display case provides a great range of different hominin and non-human primate fossil casts, where you can see the differences and similarities between our ancestors.

Model of H. neanderthalensis skull, modelled after La Chapelle-Aux-Saints (Grant Museum, Z2020).

So, that’s it from your resident Neanderthal enthusiast, if you are interested in human evolution, prehistoric archaeology, ot rocks – follow me on Twitter @josiemills!



What are the Oldest Artefacts in Egypt?

Josie RMills21 September 2018

The oldest artefacts in the Petrie Museum weren’t made by the Ancient Egyptians or at least the people we associate with pyramids, mummies and hieroglyphs. They may look unassuming, but these amber coloured stones are handaxes that were made by our human ancestors around half a million years ago. These are my favourite artefacts in the museum even though they aren’t shiny or gilded but because they shed light on hominin behaviour in Egypt before the Egyptians.

These stone tools were made by hominins who lived in Egypt around half a million years ago, making them around 495,000 years older than the earliest ‘Egyptians’! It’s likely that Egypt was occupied by hominins during cooler periods when river systems and vegetation provided a suitable habitat. Lots of these handaxes were found on river terraces suggesting these waterways were an important part of life. Petrie Museum accession numbers: UC 13572 UC75136 UC13579 UC13527 left to right. (Author’s own image)


Archaeologists call this type of artefact a lithic, which means ‘made of stone’, usually flint or other siliceous rock. Flint is a very hard rock that is part of the chert family and is particularly useful for making tools because it fractures like glass creating very sharp edges. Stone tools are a very important record left behind by hominins and they are often the only thing we find on stone age sites because they preserve well and don’t decay. Handaxes, also called bifaces, are a particularly recognisable tool because of their distinctive shape.

Handaxe is a term we use to describe a stone tool that has been shaped bifacially (on both sides) by the removal of flint flakes, a process called knapping. There are lots of different shapes of handaxe; for example, those that are more oval are called ovate handaxes whereas those with a wider butt (technical term!) and shaped to a point are called ficrons. They were used throughout the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic.


This is an example of a ficron handaxe. A lot of ficrons are made on pebbles, often from flint cobbles transported by rivers or glaciers. Here you can see that the natural shape of the pebble has been used as the base of the handaxe with the remaining portion knapped into a point. (Image credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ © The Trustees of the British Museum)


It’s likely that handaxes had many different uses but were primarily employed to process carcasses, enabling hominins to get the most meat possible from the animals they hunted or scavenged. It’s thought that they were also used to dig for tubers and process organic materials. The shape of the tool meant that they could be easily re-sharpened by removing the blunted edge revealing sharp flint underneath. This ability to rejuvenate the tool means that handaxes were highly portable tools that could be shaped and adapted on the move.


This handaxe is from the Middle Palaeolithic site La Cotte a La Chèvre on Jersey. It is relatively small and has probably been re-sharpened multiple times. During the Middle Palaeolithic the landscape to the north of Jersey was used by highly mobile Neanderthals hunting and gathering. It’s likely that this handaxe was part of a Neanderthal tool-kit and may have been discarded at the cave because it had been re-sharpened so much it was too small to use! (Image Credit: Jersey Heritage)


The idea that handaxes were made by humans rather than environmental or supernatural processes was popularised by John Frere in 1800. Frere discovered an assemblage of handaxes and animal bones in a gravel deposit at the site of Hoxne in Sussex. Although Frere was the first to publish this idea others before him, for example John Conyers who was present at the discover of the Gray’s Inn Handaxe in 1679, had suggested it but not been taken seriously. Prior to the 19th Century the origin of handaxes was often explained through folklore, they were often called ‘thunder stones’, the lithified remnants of lightning bolts, or ‘elf-shot’, the preserved remains of tiny weapons.


This is the handaxe found at the Gray’s Inn Road site by John Conyers in 1679. (Image credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum)


Although it’s generally accepted that handaxes are a practical tool, there are several instances of bifaces that are simply too big to function. This handaxe (below) discovered at Furze Platt in Maidenhead, UK, is around 30cm long and would have been very heavy! These oversized axes led to the theory that bifaces influenced sexual selection; the larger your handaxe, the more proficient you were at provisioning resources and important raw material. In this scenario your giant handaxe suggests that you are a great option for a partner or somebody to have children with! Equally it has been suggested that these larger handaxes were status symbols hinting at social hierarchy. However, these types of behaviours are hard to reconstruct in the past and these theories are definitely not set in stone.


The Furze Platt handaxe. (Image Credit: © Trustees of NHM)


Overall, it’s evident that handaxes were very useful in the prehistoric—but even back then it seems hominins also found the tools aesthetically pleasing… I’ll leave you with this beauty.


This handaxe was made around 500 – 300, 000 years ago and was found at West Tofts in Norfolk, UK. It appears that the knapper has carefully preserved the outline of a shell in the cortex, the calcareous outer surface of flint. (Image Copyright: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge. Museum ID 1916.82/Record 2)


Follow this link for a 3D model of the artefact: https://sketchfab.com/models/343ae7d92a384327aebec8f0ec8e5e54