Simplying History

This post appears as a guest post on Sheila Deeth’s blog.

diorama, lions, Denver Musuem of Nature and Science

When I was growing up, dioramas were popular exhibits in museums.  Maybe you remember them.  They ranged from miniature battle scenes with scores of carefully painted tin soldiers to life-size spreads featuring dead, stuffed animals of specific areas, like the Northwoods or the African Plains.  They were at once appealing and simplified, or perhaps appealing because they were simplified.  Yet ultimately, their simplification robbed them of truth.

Diorama with lions and termite mound, Denver Museum


Battle_of_Bosworth_Field_dioramaThe battle scene was probably carefully researched, the background carefully painted, the uniforms and insignia of the combatants, their flags, even the terrain recreated as closely as possible.  But in the end, everyone looking at it, even children, knew they were toys.  No one gasped at the horror and the bloodshed of the battle, the confusion of a terror-filled valley, the horses stuck in the mud or impaled by a lance, the screams of the wounded.  The display was safe and distant, a tableau of toy soldiers on a toy battlefield.

Diorama of the Battle of Bosworth Field

diorama with dinosaursIn the dinosaur exhibits, the museum had to encase the displays in Plexiglas to prevent viewers from rearranging the plastic animals.  They simply begged to be played with, moved, made to come alive with roars and fights.  Even children knew that dinosaurs didn’t stand still.

In the big dioramas, the museums put together preserved specimens from particular ecosystems.  In some cases, they were exotic beasts from far-away lands:diorama from the  Congo National Museum

a rhino and a lion from Africa, a jaguar from Mexico, a grizzly bear from Canada.  They were once alive, these creatures on display, but few viewers were filled with dread or even taken by surprise.  Something about these figures behind their protective glass enclosure told everyone they were long dead, curiosities shot to death years ago because someone felt museums needed to have these.

Display from the Congo National Museum

There’s something incredibly sad about these fierce predators now staring endlessly out of their glass eyes at a public who doesn’t care except to feel mildly embarrassed for the ones that are obviously getting a little threadbare.  So some viewers make jokes while others move on or check their smart phones.

It isn’t real, the life presented in these displays.  Real life is seen in moments.  A real bear is glimpsed as it crosses a road far ahead, a lumbering figure surprisingly quick as it plows through the underbrush and disappears.  Out west, a cougar may be watching you without your ever knowing it’s there.  But you might catch the mark of its paw in the mud or the flash of its long tail as it disappears into the forest – if you’re watching.

There’s another kind of unreality as well, also perpetrated by these displays: false information. For a long time, James Horner maintained that some dinosaurs were quite smart and very fast, yet when he proclaimed that idea in the Smithsonian Museum dinosaur exhibit, he was escorted out.  It took Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park bestseller and Spielberg’s blockbuster movie based on it to change people’s mind (and the Smithsonian exhibit).

This happens in exhibits of early humans as well.  We see them huddled around their tiny fire, leading a miserable life.  That’s obvious because they look terrible, with long straggly hair, rough hide clothing, and a cave littered with old bones.  Whew!  Lucky we’ve come a long way since then, eh?

caveman diorama

And yet, some of the very earliest archaeological finds we have indicate that people cared very much about the way they looked.  Some of the oldest finds are jewelry – pierced, dyed shells strung together.  The contenders for oldest jewelry in the world include shell necklaces found in present-day Algeria and Israel (100,000 years old), Morocco (82,000 years old), and South Africa, (80,000 years old).  Included with the pierced shells found in Blombos Cave, South Africa (See photo) was an incised block of red ochre, mineral clay widely used in face painting in many cultures, right up to today.  It’s a common ingredient in women’s makeup “blusher.”

Pierced, dyed beads and incised block of red ochre from Blombos Cave, South Africa

At the same time people were making marks on blocks of red clay and making strings of shell beads, they were burying their dead with fine tools and jewelry, indicating a sense of the afterlife where these people would need these fine goods.

Breakthroughs in archaeology in the last twenty years have re-written the human story as we know it, yet they don’t get a lot of press, perhaps because people hate to shake up the tidy pictures they’ve internalized as truth.  DNA analyses have shown that many western Eurasians today carry traces of Neanderthal genes.  Obviously the story of human development is a little more complicated than we were led to believe!  Similarly, some people in the Philippines, New Guinea, and Australia have been shown to carry traces of Denisovan DNA.  Denisovans, once living in eastern Eurasia, are believed to be related to the Neanderthals.

I’m writing a series of novels about ancient explorers in the Americas, about 14,000 years ago.  That’s not all that long ago.  Pedra Furada, a site in northeast Brazil, dated over 30,000 years ago, includes atlatls (dart-throwers) and darts, as well as rock art and pottery.  Monte Verde, in southern Chile, showing evidence of humans hunting mastodons, was also dated over 30,000 years ago.  In the Topper Hill site, in South Carolina, Albert Goodyear has found evidence of human presence 16,000 years ago and possibly 50,000 years ago.

All these dates pale next to finds in Great Britain, which establish the presence of tool-making hominids more than 500,000 years ago, dubbed homo ancestrus, apparently later killed or driven out by the encroaching Ice Age.

All of this, to me, is very exciting – and reassuring.  We humans, a complicated species with a turbulent history, have faced difficulties before, including drastic climate changes that remade our world.  Yet we found a way to survive.  And maintain our spiritual connection to the world.  And look nice too.

Sources and interesting reading:

Henshilwood, Christopher, et al.  “A 100,000 year-old ochre processing workshop at Blombos Cave, South Africa,” Science, 14 October 2011, 33:219-222

Mayell, Hillary.  “Oldest Jewelry?  Beads Discovered in African Cave” National Geographic News, April 15, 2004

Ravilious, Kate.  “Oldest Jewelry Found in Morocco Cave” National Geographic News, June 7, 2007

Randolph, W. Schmid.  “Ancient Shells May be Oldest Jewelry”  Live Science, 22 June, 2006

Sample, Ian.  “First Humans Arrived in Britain 250,000 years earlier than thought” The Guardian, 7 July 2010

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