Archaeologists are constantly on the lookout for fresh tracks and new artifacts. They lie in stone-age grottos and refuse pits clawed out of river sediment and archaeological digs. They are found in the remains of human and animal bones, hand axes and spearheads, the remnants of food preparation and early settlements. It is out of this entire inventory that researchers have had to piece together the evolution of the human character.
These different strands of human exploration have been brought together in a new German exhibition. The artifacts come from digs as far away as Dmanisi, Georgia, and also include finds from German cities like Gönnersdorf and Niederbieber.
The Monrepos or “Castle of Discovery,” as the archaeological research center calls itself, plays host to the new permanent exhibition that was three years in the making. It is located in Neuwied, a midsized city in the western German state of Rhineland-Pfalz, just off the banks of the river Rhine.
The story begins 2.5 million years ago, in a “time of hunting or being hunted, when man was prey and helpless as one of the last links in the food chain,” said Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser, head of the Castle Monrepos’ research center.
Ms. Gaudzinski-Windheuser said the exhibition opens by trying to give its visitors a sense of what this time of uncertainty might have felt like – it starts in semi-darkness, portraying a vast landscape with imposingly large species and dangers lurking around every corner. Humans, with only their natural instinct to survive, are confronted with elephants and big cats. Their mantra is “avoid and don’t intervene.”
“The story begins in a time of hunting or being hunted, when man was prey and helpless as one of the last links in the food chain.”
Necessity breeds invention: one of the first exhibits in the museum features the oldest tool known to man – the rock. It is the size of a billiard ball, a specimen from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania.
The second room deals with the rise of humans between 1.6 million and 300,000 years ago, when man becomes a sort of “wonder child” who discovers and invents new tools. Hurling objects, hunting strategies, pyrotechnics – basic tools that slowly evolve into more complicated weapons like the “Schöningen Spear” and also throwing sticks unearthed in the German state of Lower Saxony.
Throughout, the exhibition tries to draw parallels with behaviors and character traits of today – sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding in its thesis that many of mankind’s emotional developments began in the Stone Age.
The next stage in the exhibition, for example, introduces the concept of heroes – individuals that were critical in turning disorganized groups of humans into early hunting packs. These early heroes appear in many forms, caring for the arthritic and toothless older members of society or single-handedly defeating large herds of reptiles.
These exhibits behind the glass are contrasted with pictures of modern heroes, such as the firemen of New York on September 11, 2001. Whether the comparison works is questionable as the exhibition doesn’t really pose the question of what role our current culture plays in creating heroes.
Other modern-day comparisons are more thought-provoking, such as portraying the discovery of a mass grave that is thousands of years old, through the eyes of a modern news television program. A reporter is filmed on the scene while a helicopter whirs in the background. The screen displays the stock prices of raw materials such as oil and gold that were already important in those days while a running ticker shows other news bulletins (“Death toll rises to 34”).
The exhibitors also attempt to chronicle the start of human emotions, though it plays a little loosely with dates. Jealousy, greed, inhumanity and violence are all said to have appeared around 8,000 years ago. Other exhibits also seem fanciful and not backed up by facts: Mysterious engravings, which are about 16,000 years old, are from a group of Ice Age settlers in France and are held up as the first examples of copulation and cunnilingus. Early communities around Gönnersdorf are said to have used tents as sweat-inducing venues for cleansing body and soul – a sort of early-age sauna.
The exhibition’s conclusions at times seem a stretch. Sadly, bones and stone drawings don’t easily lend themselves to offering insights into the personal thoughts and ideas of early humans living in the Stone Age.
This knowledge vacuum is filled in part by wishful-thinking declarations on the part of the exhibitors, who confidently write: “Lust and passion governed the emotions of these societal animals. Their intimate sphere seems limitless, sexuality is everywhere contemporary, unrestrained and without taboos.”
Of course, none of the early humans are around to disagree.
This article first appeared in Die Zeit.
Christopher Cermak translated this story.