Out of Africa: The Discovery of a Human Ancestor

Volunteer archivist Ian Gregory shines his unique torch on another murky corner of Buxton Museum’s collections:

In 1921, miners working at Broken Hill, Zambia (then called Northern Rhodesia) discovered the skull of an ancestor of humanity. Reports of this discovery came into the collections at Buxton Museum, via the geologists William Boyd Dawkins and J.W. Jackson. Both men took a keen interest in scientific discoveries outside of as well as within the British Isles and in many different fields.

DERSB-71609-Primative Skull from Rhodesia

It is interesting to compare scientific knowledge from the 1920s with that of the time of writing. Experts compared the skull from Zambia with the remains from Piltdown in Britain in the hope of shedding some light on it. They were wasting their time; the fossils from Piltdown were later exposed as a hoax. One expert lacking the benefit of hindsight, found the Zambian skull was less important than Piltdown in our understanding of early humans. Radiocarbon dating had not been developed so there were arguments over the African fossil’s age. Since it was buried under layers of stones and animal bones it was certainly old, but no one could be sure how ancient.


Despite all that, I was struck by how contemporary some of the comments were. One report said that Charles Darwin had predicted that Africa would yield important fossil humans, indeed might be the cradle of humanity. This was a minority opinion until the 1950s but clearly not unheard of before then. Experts also deduced that the skull’s owner had walked upright as well as modern humans can. Comparisons were made with a fossil called Pithecanthropus which came from Java. This has then been re-classified as Homo Erectus but unlike Piltdown man, it is still accepted as a genuine prehistoric material. Remains of European Neanderthals were also used for comparison. One writer says “the Rhodesian man has one of the links in the chain of which many species would be found.” That turned out to be correct.

Today the fossil from Zambia is classified as Homo Heidelbergensis a probable ancestor of both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that lived in Europe and Africa from 700,000 to 300,000 years ago. Scientists have dated their bones, measured their brain cases and collected their stone tools. Yet questions remain: Did they have language? If not, how close to it did they come? Did they bury their dead? Or tell stories? Or paint themselves with ochre? Many believe that they did but can we be sure? Even in 2019, we don’t know everything about our ancestors.

Curiosity of the Month

May’s Curiosity of the Month has been written by Ian Gregory. Photos by Ben Jones.

lion skull in situ

We have in Buxton Museum, a replica of a gentleman’s study called The Boyd Dawkins Room. On one of the desks sits the skull of a cave lion. It must have been powerful. Sharp canines touch polished wood. Wide flanges of bone on either side once carried muscles. There would have been alert eyes where now there are empty sockets. The lion would have seen a very different world to our own; one of mammoths and woolly rhinos. A large hollow at the front held a nose far keener than mine.

lion skull front

Despite their physical power, cave lions became extinct at the end of the last Ice Age. Some say that a changing climate killed them; others think that humans over-hunted the game which lions relied on. Whatever happened, who would have thought that 10,000 years ago, a physically puny primate would outlast such mighty predators. Homo sapiens coped with whatever felled the cave lion.

lion skull rear

I don’t know how this animal died but it would be nice to think that when it did, its pride was around it.

J. Wilfrid Jackson and Museums

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery holds archive material relating to Sir William Boyd Dawkins and  Dr. J. Wilfrid Jackson.   Over the last five years Dr. Brian Goodwin has been researching the archive, looking at the correspondence, photographs, manuscripts and personalia belonging to the two men.  As part of this project, Brian has written articles on aspects of their life and work, ranging from Dawkins’ involvement in public education to Jackson’s time spent in Egypt.

We will be publishing the articles regularly on this blog and also uploading them to the museum’s website.  This week we are kicking off with J.  Wilfrid Jackson and Museums, an article exploring Jackson’s role as Assistant Keeper at Manchester Museum and his appointment as ‘Honorary Consultant’ to Buxton Museum in 1929.




                                                J.  Wilfrid Jackson and Museums

Wilfrid Jackson joined Manchester Museum as an Assistant Keeper under W.E. Hoyle in 1907. William Boyd Dawkins was part of the appointment panel and in Jackson’s words gave him a “rigorous interview”. Dawkins seems to have taken Jackson ‘under his wing’ and not only supervised him in his curatorial duties (related to geology) but also introduced him to ‘cave hunting’ and the study of mammalian osteology.  Jackson quickly became expert in these fields and built up a strong reputation.  Initially, in the 1910s and 1920s, he concentrated on geology and palaeontology, especially fieldwork, but he was increasingly called upon to identify bone remains from archaeological sites around the country.  He ended up having authored more than 80 bone reports, many from important sites such as Stonehenge, Woodhenge, Creswell Crags and Glastonbury Lake Village.  A further 120 or so unpublished bone reports are present in the Buxton Museum and Art Gallery archive.

Jackson in 1937, working at Manchester Museum on a skull of a cave bear from Italy

Jackson in 1937, working at Manchester Museum on a skull of a cave bear from Italy

In addition to research and the publication of scientific studies, museum work included more mundane work such as the organisation, cataloguing and labeling of collections, answering queries from members of the public and escorting parties round the museum.  A good idea of the nature of the work can be gained from reading the Annual Reports published by Manchester Museum during Jackson’s tenure.   Among the more unusual tasks performed was the famous unrolling of the mummy in 1908 (see ‘Jackson in Egypt’ article), and the packing of precious items for removal and safe storage during the two wars. He was also active in promoting the work of museums and a long-standing member of the North West Federation of Museums & Art Galleries.  He acted as President in 1943 and was made an honorary member in 1946, following his retirement from Manchester Museum.

Earlier in his career, Jackson had spent a good deal of time investigating the geology and archaeology of Derbyshire and in 1928 he began a close association with Buxton that saw him appointed as an ‘Honorary Consultant’ to Buxton Museum the following year. This link with the Museum was strengthened in 1945 when he moved (on retirement) to Buxton to live and he served on the Buxton Library and Museum Committee from 1947 to 1951.  On his death in 1978, his daughter Alicia donated most of his papers, letters and other memorabilia to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery where they form an important archive.  The Museum also has a large collection of his fossils, collected in the surrounding area.  Jackson is commemorated at BMAG through various displays and the Boyd Dawkins room, which is a period style study room (circa 1900) and is actually dedicated to both Dawkins and Jackson.

The Boyd Dawkins Room at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

The Boyd Dawkins Room at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery



Dr. Brian Goodwin – June 2014

Buxton Museum and Art Gallery





Access to Boyd Dawkins

Museums and art galleries are always aiming to improve access to their collections. It is an unending cycle of analysis and development. Access covers many issues; opening times, admission charges, presenting information for different requirements, online content and so on. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of visitors being able to see the displays! The Boyd Dawkins Study at Buxton Museum is a popular exhibit. It presents the room of the pioneering archaeologist and geologist as it once was.

Boyd Dawkins study
Boyd Dawkins study

The problem is that the big chunky wooden cases at the front of the room prevent anyone under a metre tall from seeing the rest of the display, an oversight from when it was installed in the early 1980s.

BJ in BD room

Never happy with exclusion of any kind, Buxton Museum is pleased to announce that the old cases have now been replaced by contemporary British Museum standard versions from Armour Systems to a design developed by the museum. We have really had an interesting experience watching the cases come in as flat packs and then be built in the gallery. They have state of the art lighting and locking systems.


For the first time ever, everyone will be able to see the Professor’s fascinating bounty of books and artefacts. Once the digital interpretation which we commissioned last year is fitted into the cabinets, we will bring 21st century technology to help you understand this Victorian scientist in his own room. Come along and see what you think!