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The Prehistoric Autopsy exhibition in Edinburgh


At the end of November last year I had a VERY IMPORTANT MEETING which I can't tell you about yet which was at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. It was a school day and so I had permission to go off school to go to this meeting, and Dad and I took the train and arrived early. 

We looked around the museum (which is brilliant, I wrote about it before) and there was a special exhibition based on a programme on BBC2 called Prehistoric Autopsy. I didn't see the programme when it was on but it was about doing autopsies on skeletons from human ancestors from millions of years ago. This is what the exhibition was like:

The exhibition showed replicas of skulls that were mostly millions of years old and which later evolved (gradually changed over a long long time) into humans:

Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy)

The exhibition said Australopithecus afarensis was from 3.2 million years ago (about the same time Dad last changed his car) but Wikipedia says it existed between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago. The most famous fossil found of it is called Lucy which was found in Ethiopia and was from 3.2 million years ago. This shows what Lucy would have looked like next to the skeleton in the same post.

How did they know Lucy would have looked like this ? They only found tiny parts of Lucy's skeleton (the bits in grey) and had to guess the rest (the bits in white):

Some bits would have been easy to guess if they had a bone from one side, since the bone on the other side would be a mirror image, but it would be harder for the skull where only tiny bits were found.  I think they probably used guesswork for some of it. 

The other problem is how you know whether Lucy was average for the time. If aliens in a million years in the future come to Earth and dug up just one  skeleton from our time that was 6ft tall, then they wouldn't know whether that person was tall or short or average for that time. 

Scientists weren't originally even sure whether Lucy definitely walked on two feet but they thought so from the way the femur (thigh bone) angles into towards the knee. Then in 2011 they found another specimen of Australopithecus afarensis which showed the foot was arched which meant it walked on two feet.

Lucy was only found in 1974 which is quite recent compared to the 3,199,961 years when she wasn't found. When you think about it it's amazing anything was found after that time.

In 2000, a few miles from where Lucy was found they found a skeleton of a young Australopithecus afarensis which they called Selam which had almost the entire skull. Skulls change shape from child to adult but it would have definitely helped with working out what Lucy's skull was like.

Homo erectus

This skull (it's a replica) is from Homo Erectus and it looks a lot like a human skull apart from the ridge over the eyes and the braincase isn't as big. This said it was 1.8m years old, and Wikipedia says Homo Erectus was around from about 1.8m years ago to just (!) 300,000 years ago.

(That doesn't mean that as soon as they got to 300,000 years ago that they suddenly changed into something different overnight. The change was always happening like the colours in a rainbow change gradually from red to orange to yellow).

Even though the braincase was much smaller than modern humans it was twice as big as Lucy's meaning it was smarter and better with tools and could probably remember more and adapt more. Again they had the skeleton next to a reconstruction of one running:

They could tell it was good at running because of the muscle attachments on the bone with long legs and short arms and a narrower pelvis. Homo erectus also had a special muscle from the back of the skull to the shoulders which is called a nuchal ligament which stops the skull flopping forward. Humans have this but earlier ancestors didn't.

This skeleton was based on a find they called Nariokotome Boy which is the most complete early human skeleton found and dates from 1.5 million years ago. There is some gum disease on the lower jaw which might have led to his death.

Paranthropus boisei (Nutcracker man)

This one was nicknamed the Nutcracker man because it had big back teeth and strong jaws. You can tell it had strong jaws because of the saggital crest (the ridge along the top centre of the skull where muscles attach, badgers and big cats have them) and the big space alongside the top of the jaws.

The exhibition said it existed 1.8million years ago, and Wikipedia says between 2.3 million to 1.2 million years ago. The braincase was quite small.


Chimpanzees are the closest relative to humans. They had a common ancestor (like a great-great-great-etc-grandfather) about 6 or 7 million years ago so they are like distant cousins to humans that didn't evolve in the same way. This is quite like my monkey skulls but with a thicker bottom jaw. Their brain is smaller than Lucy's but even so we share 99% of our DNA with them. Some boys in my class at school share even more.

Homo sapiens (human skull)

This is the only one I felt a bit weird about because it was so human (even though it was a replica)

This was a really good exhibition but it was only there for a week or so so I was lucky I saw it. There were lots of things to do like quizzes (I got full marks, obviously !) and interactive computer displays.

BUT....I think it was a shame there were signs like this:

I know in museums you're not supposed to touch things but with bones it really helps to get a feel for them and stop kids being scared of them. These were only replicas so they should have ones that you could proper look at.

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tai haku said...

Interesting reconstruction of Lucy there Jake - here's one I saw at the American Museum of Natural History....

Did they have a cast of the Taung Child? I'd assume that one would interest you given what the bones eventually told us about what ate it...

Jake said...

No they didn't have that one, I had to look it up, it's really interesting !

Jack N said...

awesome, when will we find out about your VERY IMPORTANT MEETING?

Jake said...

Soon, I hope ! It'll be mentioned in a newspaper magazine article soon but I don't know when that'll be published. When I know I'll post about it here before.

Psydrache said...

Evolution is an interesting part of our life. The human body in general. Do you also like Gunter von Hagens bodyworlds?

Jack N said...

I went to see his animal inside out exhibition when it was in London last year.It was amazing, it even had an elephant and giraffe

Psydrache said...

I missed his animal exhibition last year, I only saw the gorilla, some house animals and the cow. But I was two times at his "normal" exhibitions. Its a bit creepy, but amazing and always awesome!

Jake said...

I haven't ! I had to look it up. It looks gross but cool.

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