Online resource explores the history of humanity

Online resource explores the history of humanity

Human evolution

Experts from LJMU’s Research Centre in Evolutionary Anthropology and Palaeoecology (RCEAP) have collaborated with DigiArt to develop an interactive online resource: the Virtual Anthropology Museum. We catch up with human evolution expert, Dr Isabelle De Groote to find out more about the project and the research taking place within RCEAP.

Without a physical exhibition space to display the vast skeletal collection housed at LJMU, it made sense to create the Virtual Anthropology Museum. Featuring a number of interactive 3D models that users can move and manipulate, in-depth online exhibitions and the latest anthropology news, the site is a valuable resource for anyone fascinated by the subject, as Isabelle explains:

“We want to show how even when you do not have an actual museum, but you have collections (of human skeletons in our case), you can still have a museum, albeit a virtual one. We show not only how anthropologists study human skeletons, but also share some of the research we do on our collections. For example, how do you solve a murder that happened hundreds of years ago? What was life like growing up in medieval Gloucester?”

Along with RCEAP staff, both undergraduate and postgraduate students of anthropology and zoology helped with the project, some making 3D models and others contributing their research to the exhibitions. Coinciding with the online project, students have also assessed the current human evolution gallery housed within Liverpool's World Museum to help Isabelle plan its revamp.

Virtual anthropology model

Model of skull found at excavation site at Poulton. Just one of the skeletal models that users can interact with on the Virtual Anthropology Museum website.

Isabelle is hoping both the online and in gallery exhibitions will spark the public’s interest in anthropology in the same way that she was first introduced to the subject: “I just happened to sit in an anthropology lecture on human evolution one day and I was fascinated from the first minute.”

Isabelle on human evolution, research and LJMU...

Can you tell us three things about human evolution we might not know?

1. Early humans left Africa over 1.5 million years ago. Most of us know modern humans (Homo sapiens) spread into Europe and Asia around 80 000 years ago, but our ancestor Homo erectus, was taking the same routes out of Africa more than 1 million years before we did.

2. Humans have very low genetic diversity. We all descended from a small group of humans who lived in East Africa. Pretty incredible if you consider how many of us there are now.

3. Humans are still evolving and one day our descendants will be as different to us as Homo habilis is to us now. Geneticists have noticed some areas in the human genome are under rapid selection. Some of these are related to brain size, others have to do with disease resistance and food intolerances.

What research is the team currently working on?

Richard Jennings has been excavating in Gorham Cave in Gibraltar. Every year he takes students out into the field with him. In the last couple of years, a new Neanderthal tooth, a wall engraving and bird bones with signs of feather extraction were found. The engraving and the use of feathers are possible evidence for Neanderthal's culture. A new Neanderthal skull was also recovered from Shanidar Cave, Iraq, an excavation where Professor Chris Hunt has been digging. Myself and colleagues in Belgium have been busy trying to find out whether Neanderthals and modern humans met in Belgium or whether Neanderthals were already extinct when modern humans arrived there.

Professor Joel Irish discovered the earliest known infant cemetery in the world in Egypt. He is also involved with the research on the recently discovered two new hominin species from South Africa.

Closer to home, Richard Jennings and colleagues are searching for the earliest people in Ireland. Although no human remains have been found they have started recovering ice age animals in the process. James Ohman and Professor Irish recently featured in a Channel 5 documentary, “Digging up Britain”, about the skeletons recovered at Poulton, Cheshire. All of our anthropology students go out to Poulton to learn about excavating human burials and we curate most of the 1,000 skeletons from the site here at LJMU. Watch the episode of "Digging up Britain".

Matteo Borrini went to Barra Musa Khebir Island, Sudan to recover the remains of a WWII Italian marine, Carlo Acefalo, who died in 1940 when his submarine was sunk. The work was featured in a film “Tornando a casa” by Ricardo Preve. Constantine Eliopoulos has been carrying out forensic consultancy work for the identification of those who died during the 1974 conflict in Cyprus.

What do you enjoy most about working at LJMU?

I enjoy being able to work with colleagues from within the Research Centre but also working with colleagues in sport science and engineering. I particularly enjoy it when students are excited about learning about biological anthropology and take part in our archaeological fieldwork on Neanderthals.

One of the questions posed by the Virtual Anthropology Museum is ‘What does it mean to be human?', how would you respond to this?

Being human for me is being able to be the best person we can be, without the need to be perfect.

The Virtual Anthropology Museum was set up as part of the DigiArt project, a European-funded project that looks at sharing cultural heritage in innovative ways. Learn more about the human story at the Virtual Anthropology Museum.

Interested in studying anthropology? Take a look at the courses available at LJMU.


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