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Weekly theme: Making us human

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David Prudames, British Museum David Prudames, British Museum | 10:05 UK time, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Clovis spear pointIn this strand of the History of the World blog I'll be exploring the themes behind the programmes: the big ideas revealed by the 100 objects.

Each week you'll be able to spin the globe to hear about five objects made in different places during the same time period and bound together by a common concept. First up, I've been talking to JD Hill, lead curator of A History of the World, about the opening week of programmes. He explains:

Naturally you want to start with the oldest objects in the Museum, which are also some of the oldest surviving artefacts in the world but from the very beginning it was quite clear that week one was always about becoming human. What we wanted to say was you can't be human without things.

Human life began in Africa and our ancestors created the first stone tools to chop meat, bones and wood. Without these tools the evolution of our species could not have happened. It was making and using objects that allowed humans to adapt to different and changing environments, to build, to cultivate the land.

Under the title 'Making us human', the objects that start the series include a stone chopping tool from Africa, which dates as far back as two million years ago, a stone handaxe and a spear point, evidence of the first inhabitants of the Americas.

But the programmes don't just look at tools. From about 40,000 years ago, during the last Ice Age, humans created the world's first representational art. At 13,000 years old, the Swimming Reindeer is one of the earliest pieces of art we have.

It's difficult to really understand the degree to which we are made by things. It's only when we go back in time to see how this began that this fact hits home. It isn't that we are the only animal to use tools; it's that we rely on them for survival and we depend on them, to say who we are.

We use these things to make statements about ourselves, express our ideals, our imaginations, in ways in which no other animal does. The first week of programmes is about telling the story of how that happened.

But why did the week start with an ancient Egyptian mummy?

Ancient Egypt and its mummies are often the first encounter many of us have with historical objects and museums. So, says JD, this is a fitting way to kick the whole series off.

Most of us came into the British Museum for the first time to see the mummies but this Museum is far, far more than just mummies and in some ways that's a good metaphor for this series. As a child I had to be dragged through the mummy gallery with my eyes firmly shut. I was too scared to even look at them.

It's good to know that embarking on such a voyage of discovery is daunting even for the keenest academic minds.


  • Comment number 1.

    Before I became a Curator i worked at another museum on a training programme. Towards the end of period I was deciding what to do next and as i had finished the work I was doing the Curator asked me to do some of his enquiries. This included looking for a skull from the Olduvai Gorge which had been misslaid. I found it and on the label it said "leakey" and the name that the skull had been given. I knew I was holding one of the oldest human beings and once of the most important objects in the world. I became a Museum Curator.
    Michael McGinnes

  • Comment number 2.

    The Museum of London has so many hand axes it allows visitors to touch them. At first they were chained so they couldn't be stolen but it was possible to hold one in your hand and feel an extraordinary sense of connection with the maker and users of the axe. Unfortunately last time I visited the health and safety police had been in action. The sharp edges of the axes one could touch had been smoothed off and the axes were nailed down and couldn't be held, just touched. The sense of connection had gone. I did e-mail the museum to tell them of my disappointment but did not get a reply.

  • Comment number 3.

    I've just used the podcast of the first programme in the series in conjunction with the transcript for a proficiency level English language class. It was very well received by students from a wide variety of nationalities. Thank you Mr MacGregor and all involved in this production.

    Is it possible to set up a system whereby transcripts could be sent by email to registered users?

    Many Thanks
    Graham MacKenzie Spence

  • Comment number 4.

    I was enjoying this series and had rescheduled my days to listen to it then you had to introduce Rowan Williams and spoil it all. I cannot see any justification for introducing religion into this theme. The only ways religion has influenced human development have been negative. Development has been slowed by wasting resources on sacrifices and infrastructure and time on worship. Society has been damaged by the creation privilege, restriction of knowledge, stifling of scientific progress and adoption of the selfishness of personal redemption. Let's stick to the objects and leave out the fairy stories.

  • Comment number 5.

    A History of the World that completely ignores religion! - What a novel idea and one that I think would make a nonsense of the entire project. To ignore such a massive part of culture whether you agree with it or not would be to ignore a huge part of what makes us who we are today - to speak of Ancient Greece, Rome, The Aztec civilisation and Egypt ignoring all religious influences on their cultures would be a very dull and incorrect history I think. Let’s enjoy this series with a mind open to every aspect of history and the stories these objects..... Just sit back and enjoy this vast and courageous project - bravo!

  • Comment number 6.

    Has anyone noticed that the Clovis Spear Point looks like a fish? In the illustration it even seems to have an eye in the right place. Coincidence?

  • Comment number 7.

    I injoy the programme, it is very interesting. After I heard the last episode I sadly thought: making us human means making us polluter.

  • Comment number 8.

    The programme on the Olduvai handaxe contained a number of assertions that just do not stand up to the evidence. The narrator, Neil MacGregor, alleged that an example of the handaxe from 1.2 million years ago showed that the maker was able to speak, probably with the vocabulary of a “7 year old child”. He goes on to allege that these pre-cursors of humankind could therefore “exchange ideas, plan their work together or just gossip”. Frankly this is ludicrous, all the evidence actually points to speech not emerging until less than 150,000 years ago. Starting initially from the same premise that the handaxe showed the existence of speech, Alan Walker, along with Richard Leakey, discovered and investigated the most complete statue of Homo Erectus ever found. After very thorough examination of the evidence over several years he reluctantly concludes that it is not possible that the makers of the Olduvai handaxe could speak. MacGregor claims we would have recognised the producer of the Olduvai handaxe as “someone like us”. Walker unequivocally concludes the opposite, saying that we have to reluctantly accept that “He was not one of us”. (The Wisdom of Bones. 1996)

    MacGregor actually avoids the real fascination of the Olduvai handaxe as an object. It is an enigma with a puzzle that still needs to be solved. How did its makers consistently reproduce it over a period of more than two million years without the power of speech and hence no ability to conceptualise?

  • Comment number 9.

    After the episode on Ain Sakhri lovers Neil MacGregor will never be accused of homophobia nor, sadly, will he be praised for his courage and originality of thought. Surely, not in our time and with our mores. He may now relax and, we hope, get down to business. Or can he? Think of the countless politically correct concepts, movements and policies that will need to be somehow accommodated...
    Incidentally, trying to please everyone is not necessarily conducive to common sense, for is it not the case that, given a preoccupation with fertility, the sculptor need not draw the distinction between which of the two is the male and which female as sharply as he would in symbolising a pure act of love and sex?


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