Where do we come from?

Who were the first representatives of the human lineage? How many were there? How did they live? Why did some species die out? Did Neanderthal and Homo sapiens ever cross paths? In what way did our ancestors differ from us? What was the Neolithic transition?

Drawing on fragments from the past, the second part of the visit
retraces the bushy branching out of human lineages that ended
with the radical shift of the Neolithic :

  • the emergence of the human lineage ( 6 to  4 million years ago)
  • the african and tropical cradle of humanity ( 4 to  2 million years ago)
  • the spread of the genus Homo ( 2 million to 200,000 years ago)
  • parallel humans ( 200,000 to 10,000 years ago)
  • the past 10,000 years

The chronological and thematic breakdown invites the visitor to discover how the human species and our biological, social, cultural and symbolic traits have come down through the ages along a path that was not linear as once thought, and how several lineages evolved and sometimes even co-existed, each bringing its own response to the environmental challenges it faced.

The idea is not to enter into great detail about the sequence and co-existence of paleoanthropological species, which are bound to be revisited regularly over the course of new discoveries, but to present the life and productions of humans from prehistoric times and the continuity between our ancestors and ourselves.


An invitation travel through time

To get to know our distant ancestors and take measure of the impact of the earliest unearthing of human fossils during the 19th century, which sees in the rise of two new disciplines: prehistory and paleoanthropology.

To change the perception of prehistoric humans, and the earliest species of the human lineage in order to better appreciate their aptitude for constant technological and cultural innovation and to discover what made even the earliest members of the Homo lineage “modern”.

To follow the great hominid migrations that travelled away from our birthplace in Africa for Eurasia and Western Europe.

To understand the human shift toward a production economy that began 10,000 years ago. Prior to that, humans had mainly hunted, gathered and fished. Then some communities began to settle down and produce their food. A number of plant and animal species were domesticated. New tools for new needs appeared and diversified.

To get a feel for Neolithic diversity. The various human populations around the world experimented with their newfound interaction with plants and animals in their own way, at their own pace, according to their own culture.


Content

Spread over three levels, each with its own focus. The presentation of different human species is located on level 1 and ends with the presentation of original specimens in The Ancestors helter.

The mezzanine offers a more contemplative experience, especially with the “Buried treasure” where prized pieces illustrate the symbolic and artistic achievements of the Cro-Magnons during the Upper Palaeolithic. Visitors once again encounter Homo sapiens on level 2, during the Neolithic, the dawn of the first globalization…

4 vast white platforms situate the timeframe. Representatives of the human lineage stand upright on these platforms: with cast reproductions of their skulls presented on metal stands and their silhouettes, like shadows, presented in relief on the platform.

1 reconstruction of an actual dig (Barogali in Djibouti) dating 1.6 to 1.3 million years ago, unearths the social behaviour of a small group of African Homo ergaster and illustrates how field work can give a voice to fragments, this at a site for cutting up elephant meat and making tools.

2 rooms present original human fossils and examples of artistic and symbolic production.

1 vast wall case (12 m long) reconstructs the European environment during the Palaeolithic, including dozens of stuffed animals of which superb specimens of reindeer, horse and the skull of a cave bear.

1 original installation consisting of embroidered felt panels that aid in understanding the process of neolithization in seven parts of the world (China, Near-East, Japan, Europe, Central Asia, Africa and the Americas).

3 large themed display cases containing hundreds of objects that attest to the new way in which humans began to relate to their environment beginning around 10,000 years ago: the process of domestication seen from technical and cultural perspectives, the transformation of minerals and clay, and the development of a cultural and symbolic life revolving around domesticated plants and animals.

1 alcove case prepares the visitor for the third part of the visit—our modern world—displaying objects that illustrate the appearance of new temporal and spiritual powers, the transformation of dwellings, and the rise of organized conflicts and trade between communities. Changes in our morphology as well as the emergence of new diseases are also presented, demonstrating how cultural changes can lead to changes in our bodies.


Treasures from the collections

The museum’s collections of original human fossils and prehistoric archaeological artefacts are showcased in two areas designed to elicit contemplation and stir emotion.

The ancestor shelter

A special area off the main pathway has been reserved for a close-up encounter with the actual fragmented remains of Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis. Skulls, fossilized bones and adornment are presented like the treasures that they are in carefully designed glass cases. Details regarding the circumstances surrounding their discovery are provided. In 1868, at a Cro-Magnon shelter in Eyzies-de-Tayac, France, Louis Lartet discovered several bones including the skull of an adult who lived approximately 28,000 years ago, as well as adornments. Familiarly called  “the old man” , he is presented with a woman from the Pataud shelter and the head of the “Lady of Cavillon”, covered in shells.

 

Crâne de Cro-Magnon dit le vieillard, Paléolithique supérieur, France © MNHN - JC Domenech

Crâne de Cro-Magnon dit le vieillard, Paléolithique supérieur, France © MNHN - JC Domenech, par JC Domenech

Presented next to these representatives of Homo sapiens are Neanderthals: the Man from La Chapelle-aux-Saints, the Man from Ferrassie, and the Child from Pech-de-l’Azé.

Buried treasure 

Art is the common denominator for the works presented in a dedicated room on the mezzanine. Lights dimmed, four major objects dating from the Upper Palaeolithic are exhibited in shallow display cases to give visitors an up-close view: the Venus of Lespugue, a statuette in mammoth ivory; the Madeleine plate, representing a mammoth; the notched stick from Montgaudier, France, made of reindeer antler and the Fighting ibexes spear thrower, also made from reindeer antler, from Grotte d’Enlène in Ariège, France. A 7 m. long multimedia installation (5 min. film) against one wall reveals the beauty and variety of cave art, from painted walls to sculpted one, and illustrates the permanence of a form of universal language, both abstract and figurative. Paintings and sculptures from the 19th and early 20th centuries illustrate the cliché ways in which we have tended to view prehistoric humans since their discovery.

 

Vénus de Lespugue, Paléolithique supérieur, Ivoire de mammouth, France © MNHN - JC Domenech

Vénus de Lespugue, Paléolithique supérieur, Ivoire de mammouth, France © MNHN - JC Domenech, par JC Domenech