Stories from Stone, Body and Bone

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Each year the Museum works with members of the community on a wide variety of projects using our collections to enthuse and engage people in natural history. These projects often result in some amazing outcomes but until now we have been unable to find the right space to celebrate this work in the Museum. So this month we are very happy to unveil our new Community Case, dedicated to doing just that.

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Stories from Stone, Body and Bone in the new community case

Our opening display focuses on the Children in Need-funded Story Makers programme. In partnership with Fusion Arts, this initiative helps Oxford primary school pupils to develop their communication skills by taking inspiration from museum collections. And this year they teamed up with us to create Stories from Stone, Body and Bone.

Pupils from New Marston, Wood Farm, and Rose Hill Primary schools worked with Story Makers founder and arts psychotherapist Helen Edwards in two visits to the Museum, stimulating and developing imaginative ideas, stories and artwork.

During these visits the Story Makers met with our education officer Chris Jarvis and together they looked at rocks and minerals, tectonic plate formation, and the evolution of skeletons and animal posture. They explored the collections creatively through sensory observation, using the hands, body and senses to develop self-awareness and self-confidence.

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Getting creative with chalks and textiles

We work with the children as artists and we carefully designed a series of sessions that enabled them to have direct sensory engagement with objects in the museum. We then used art processes to portray their experiences and feelings about their interactions.
Helen Edwards, Integrative Arts Psychotherapist

Back at school, the pupils used visual art, drama, movement and modelling to communicate feelings and ideas that emerged from these museum encounters, sharing thoughts with the group in a playful and trusting atmosphere.

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Group sessions back at school involving movement, drama and art

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Detail from one of the Stone Age caves

Each Story Maker then created a Stone Age character – someone who might dream up and pass on stories full of meaning and myth. They imagined places in which their Stone Age characters might live, thinking about what they might see looking out from these spaces, through the cracks, crevices and windows in their caves.

From these ideas emerged beautiful, bright, and colourful models of these fictional abodes, as well as stories and poetry about their characters.

Story Makers built the children’s capacity to think reflectively, enriching their speech and language, and helped them to develop their writing skills as the stories were compiled into Story Makers books.

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Stone Age houses and landscapes as part of the Stories from Stone, Body and Bone project

Everyone should get to do this, it is like a dream come true
Story Maker, from the Stories from Stone, Body and Bone project

Stories from Stone, Body and Bone is on display until Sunday 21 May in our new Community Case. The next display, installed on 22 May, will feature artwork by our community of artists who use the collections as inspiration for their work.

Climbing down the primate family tree

This is the first in a short series of articles to accompany the new Stone Age Primates temporary display at the Museum, created with the Primate Archaeology group at Oxford University. Here, Michael Haslam, ERC Senior Research Fellow in Primate Archaeology, outlines the importance of this emerging field of study.

Humans evolved over millions of years. You can see displays about this in natural history museums all over the world, usually with skulls of extinct ancestors such as Homo erectus. Alongside these bones there are often stone tools of various shapes and sizes, showing how our technology has also changed over time. Ultimately, human tool use has led all the way from sticks and stones to the computer, phone or tablet that you’re using to read these words.

However, for all those millions of years other members of our family were evolving too. What if we had an archaeological record for non-human animals as well? The Primate Archaeology project at Oxford University exists to answer this question.

Rise of Modern Humans display
‘The Rise of Modern Humans’ display in the Museum

Primates, the group that humans belong to, also includes apes and monkeys, as well as more remotely related animals such as lemurs. Yet when we see these animals in museums, they very rarely have a set of their own extinct ancestors on display, or any examples of the technologies that they have developed.

Why not? For one thing, it is difficult to find fossil ancestors of animals that live mostly in tropical forests because their bones aren’t preserved well in that environment. And most primates, like most animals, don’t use tools in the wild, so there is nothing left behind to tell us about their past behaviour.

But there is another reason. We view the human past as a series of ancestors evolving towards the way we are now; yet we tend to see monkeys and apes as unchanging over time. If asked to imagine a chimpanzee three million years ago, you would probably picture something that looks like a chimpanzee today. But modern chimpanzees didn’t exist back then, just as modern humans didn’t.

Wild chimpanzee at Bossou, Guinea. Photo by Michael Haslam.
Wild chimpanzee at Bossou, Guinea. Photo by Michael Haslam.

The main reason we think of humans as changing and evolving is because of the archaeological evidence that we’ve collected. As we discovered more and more bones and stones it became clear that dozens of human ancestor species have lived on Earth, including close relatives such as the Neanderthals in Europe and Asia.

A hammerstone used by a capuchin, on display in the Museum
A hammerstone used by a capuchin, on display in the Museum

So what would we find if we looked for the archaeology of other primates? They don’t build cathedrals, or use pottery or metal, and they don’t leave behind written messages like the Egyptians, Maya or Romans did. That’s a problem. But the solution to the problem is actually the same one that archaeologists have always used for human ancestors: find the stone tools.

There are three types of wild primate that use stone tools: the chimpanzees of West Africa (Pan troglodytes verus); the Bearded Capuchin monkeys of Brazil (Sapajus libidinosus); and the Burmese Long-tailed Macaques of Southeast Asia (Macaca fasciaulria aurea). They mainly use stones as hand-held hammers, to break open hard foods such as nuts and shellfish. The capuchins also use stones to dig in the hard ground, which helps to protect their fingers when searching for roots or spiders to eat.

Wild long-tailed macaque using a stone tool at Laem Son National Park, Thailand. Photo by Michael Gumert.
Wild long-tailed macaque using a stone tool at Laem Son National Park, Thailand. Photo by Michael Gumert.

The Primate Archaeology Project was set up at Oxford University in 2012, supported by the European Research Council. Since that time, our team has spent many months watching these animals use stone tools in the wild. We record how they select certain sizes and types of stones (you wouldn’t use a soft sponge as a hammer, and neither would they!), and how they carry their tools around from job to job like a modern tradesman. We used these observations to work out what primate tools look like today, and then we went digging into the past.

We found macaque tools buried in beach sands in western Thailand, and ancient capuchin tools in the forests of northeast Brazil. In both cases, we recognized the tools because they were similar to ones still in use today. Importantly, we also found that the tools were damaged in very particular ways by the monkeys that had used them, because hitting hard things together usually means that one of them gets broken.

Primate archaeology excavation, Serra da Capivara National Park, Brazil. Photo by Michael Haslam
Primate archaeology excavation, Serra da Capivara National Park, Brazil. Photo by Michael Haslam.

We used radiocarbon dating to work out that the archaeological capuchin tools were at least 600 years old. That means that there were monkeys sitting around in Brazil with stone hammers, cracking and eating nuts, before Christopher Columbus ever left Europe. Previous excavations in the Ivory Coast have found even older primate tools – chimpanzees there were using stone hammers more than 4,000 years ago!

Primate archaeology is still a new research field, with more questions than answers, but then so was human archaeology when it began. We really don’t know what technology apes and monkeys were using during the millions of years that they have evolved, but we are taking the first steps towards solving that mystery.

Stone Age Primates display in the Museum
Stone Age Primates display in the Museum

Working with the Museum, the Primate Archaeology project team has put together a new temporary display, ‘Stone Age Primates’, to sit alongside the current human evolution cases in the Museum. In the display you can learn more about the research and see tools used by primates past and present. You can also follow the group on Twitter @primatearch.