Face to face with the first Europeans: Marek Kohn looks at an exhibition that will challenge established ideas on the evolution of human beings

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THE centrepiece of the Natural History Museum's exhibition First Europeans, which opens on Friday, is a collection of human remains from Atapuerca, near Burgos in northern Spain, perhaps a quarter of a million years old. It may be the biggest find of fossil human remains to date, and its significance is enormous.

The Atapuerca fossils, discovered over the past five years in a deep cave chamber, will provide scope for decades of investigation. Chris Stringer, head of the museum's Human Origins Group, says: 'It's going to be one of the most important sites in Europe for the early stages of human evolution. Before the Neanderthals - about 100,000 years ago - we really had only scraps from Europe: a few teeth, a jawbone, a piece of a leg bone. Suddenly, from one site, we have got parts of skeletons from at least 23 individuals.'

Dr Stringer specialises in the relationship between Neanderthals and modern humans - a central theme of the exhibition, which is part of the European Arts Festival linked with Britain's presidency of the EC.

'The Europe that these people lived in did not have frontiers,' he says. 'These populations moved through these areas at will. Provided they could overcome the geographical barriers, the whole of Europe was their home. They may have spent the summer in Britain and the winter in France.'

In relating prehistoric ways of life to contemporary concerns, Dr Stringer is following the traditions of his discipline.

Professor Raymond Dart, who discovered a very early fossil known as the Taung Baby in Botswana, wrote of man's predecessors 'slaking their ravenous thirst with the hot blood of victims and greedily devouring livid writhing flesh'. Everything he saw in his specimens deepened his misanthropic conviction that humanity bore an evolutionary 'mark of Cain'.

From a liberal humanist position, Richard Leakey writes of being emotionally drawn to the argument that we are all descended from a single small group of ancestors. This would confirm the superficiality of racial differences: 'The roots would be shallow.'

When the first Neanderthal skeleton was found in Germany in 1857, the only terms of reference were racial. German authorities considered it to be a Dutchman or a Cossack; a Frenchman, working along the prevailing lines of ethnic prejudice, decided that the robust frame had been that of a man of Irish type, low in mental capacity. The debate over human origins began with those remains, and continues still. Neanderthal Man has come to epitomise prehistoric humanity in the popular imagination, where he is still conceived as nasty, brutish and short.

This view is rooted in a traditional scientific ordering of the fossil record, which put Neanderthals, with their primitive stone tools, before modern humans, who made more sophisticated artefacts. The implication was that they either evolved into us or were replaced by us.

But this simple scheme has been thrown into confusion by the development of new dating techniques. A group of early modern humans in Israel was found to be around 100,000 years old - predating the area's Neanderthal fossils by 40,000 years.

Conversely, Neanderthal remains found at Saint-Cesaire, in western France, have shown that Neanderthals upgraded their toolmaking skills in their later days. The artefacts look like Neanderthal objects made with techniques used by modern-type humans. Thermoluminescence dating, a relatively recent technique applied to burnt flints, suggests that the Saint-Cesaire remains are about 36,000 years old.

Dr Stringer argues that this is evidence for a lengthy period of coexistence between Neanderthals and moderns in Europe. It seems as though the Neanderthals learnt a few tricks from their successors before they disappeared.

Dr Stringer is an out-of-Africa man, holding to the view that all existing people are descended from a single small African population. His opponent, Professor Milford Wolpoff, of the University of Michigan, argues that the various ancient varietiesof human contributed different characteristics to the modern type, which finally evolved through a sort of intercontinental networking process. Thus Europeans have large Neanderthal noses, Australian Aborigines the prominent cheekbones of Java Man. In other words, racial differences are even older than modern humanity.

Dr Stringer rejects the idea that the moderns eradicated the Neanderthals in a 'Pleistocene holocaust'. He believes the two populations may have traded with each other, leading to cultural exchanges. They may also have interbred; but not, he thinks,to such an extent that Neanderthal genes were established in the modern population.

'These two populations were competing for the same resources, and eventually the Neanderthals lost out,' he says. 'They would have been gradually pushed out to the marginal areas of Europe. The moderns occupied the prime areas, particularly the sheltered valleys; their numbers would have grown at the expense of the Neanderthals. So the Neanderthals gradually just faded away.'

Dr Stringer uses the phrase 'economic competition' to describe the downfall of a group that relied on physical strength rather than behavioural flexibility. But he also makes a more positive connection: 'We have a very vain interest in our own ancestry, and I think that's unfortunate. Neanderthals are interesting whether or not they are our own ancestors. I think they give us a message that it is possible to be human and not to be like us. You can be different, and you can still be human.'

'First Europeans', Natural History Museum, 23 October to 31 January, Monday to Saturday 10-6, Sunday 11-6; adults pounds 4, children pounds 2, concessions pounds 2.30; free after 4.30 weekdays, 5 Saturday/Sunday.

(Photograph omitted)