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Originally published in Castine Patriot, October 11, 2012
Wilson Museum hosts hands-on learning about the past

Riva Berleant, Professor Emerita of Anthropology

Riva Berleant, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut, talks about the tools used by homo erectus and Neanderthal.

Photo by Jessica Brophy Order prints of selected PBP photos.

by Jessica Brophy

Holding a biface hand ax used in Northern France by homo erectus more than 350,000 years ago is one way to learn about the lives of the earliest humans and their forbearers—a way that stretches the imagination and challenges students to picture what life was like for homo erectus or Neanderthal.

On Friday, October 5, students from Stillwater Montessori in Old Town visited the Wilson Museum to attend a presentation by Riva Berleant, Professor Emerita of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut and guest curator of the exhibit featuring the tools of prehistoric humans.

The Wilson Museum is home to an extensive collection of prehistoric tools used by homo erectus, Neanderthal and early homo sapiens.

Joe Alex, director of Stillwater Montessori, said the elementary school students, ranging in ages from 9 to 12, were studying prehistoric man this year with teacher Lola Ellis, from homo erectus to homo sapiens—modern human.

Berleant began the presentation by asking students what they knew about homo erectus. “They had fire,” said one student.

Berleant agreed. “Homo erectus did discover fire, and they were the first to move out of Africa,” she continued. “They were shorter than we are, around 5 foot 5 inches on average.”

The brain capacity of homo erectus was also smaller than modern humans, Berleant explained, with about 1,200 cubic centimeters of space for homo erectus, compared to the average of 1,500 cubic centimeters today. Evidence has been found dating homo erectus back to 1.7 million years ago, and as recently as 300,000 years.

It was unlikely homo erectus had language, said Berleant, but it is obvious they communicated in other ways from sites where herds of animals had been driven over the side of a cliff to be killed for food. Such an event would require coordination, and coordination requires communication.

Berleant shared examples of tools such as blades and axes the students could hold. Students held the pieces of stone hundreds of thousands of years old, turning them over and fitting them to their palms.

The tools made by homo erectus were sometimes picked up much later—like 1,000,000 years later—by homo sapiens and reworked.

“It’s like an early form of recycling,” said teacher Lola Ellis.

One of the students asked if homo erectus was covered with hair. “We don’t know,” said Berleant. “All we have are bones, skin and hair doesn’t survive.”

Berleant asked students to consider what the tools might be used for. Several students responded the tools would be used for hunting and killing animals. Berleant encouraged the students to imagine other uses for the tools—chopping and grinding vegetables, scraping hides and more. Scientists can tell what kinds of vegetables were eaten by the residue left on stones, said Berleant. Current technology, like electron microscopes, is helping scientists learn more and more about how tools were made and used.

“The point is to learn more about homo erectus, not about the tool,” said Berleant.

In terms of spear tips, Berleant said it was likely homo erectus used a throwing spear, but it’s unknown whether the spear had stone tips or was just sharpened wood.

The group then moved on to consider Neanderthal—which students insisted be pronounced in the German way with “tall” at the end instead of “thall.”

Neanderthals had a more human face, said Berleant, and a large head with a different shape than modern humans. Neanderthal’s brains were actually, on average, slightly larger than modern human brains at 1,600 cubic centimeters.

Berleant shared a recent discovery with the students. “At archeological sites in Isreal, around 90,000 years ago, there are skeletal remains with characteristics of Neanderthal and modern humans,” said Berleant. For a long time, scientists wondered if that meant Neanderthals evolved into modern humans or if they bred with each other.

“Research by geneticists now prove that the remains show a mixture of Neanderthal and modern human DNA,” said Berleant. This means early modern man and Neanderthal interbred. And, she continued, it means that approximately 4 percent of modern living Europeans have some Neanderthal ancestry. “And, since many of us in America are descended from Europeans, what does that mean?”

On cue, an excited student called out, “I am part Neanderthal!”

Berleant said it’s likely that Europeans with Neanderthal DNA have strong immune systems.

Another student asked if Neanderthals had religion. Berleant said it was likely, because deep in caves where Neanderthals lived, little hollows were carved out in the walls and bear skulls were placed there. “That kind of thing doesn’t happen by accident,” said Berleant. A Neanderthal burial in a cave in modern-day Iraq included flowers brought from a distance—a tradition still carried out for funerals today.

In terms of the tools used by Neanderthals, many were smaller, more delicate flake tools than those created by homo erectus. Neanderthal used flakes, which meant that one piece of rock could be used to make multiple tools. “It was more efficient,” said Berleant.

Berleant then shared some information about modern humans with the students. The tools used by modern humans were made from bone and many types of rock—some of which was traded long distances, such as obsidian.

“It’s with modern humans you have the first cultural differences,” said Berleant. “With homo erectus and Neanderthal, societies were basically the same everywhere.”

For more information about the Wilson Museum, visit