‘Hands-on hominids’

Written by The Acorn School

dsc02689You might be forgiven for thinking that we at The Acorn School are opening our own charnel house, or possibly holding auditions for the graveyard scene in Hamlet! You would be wrong in both cases.

Our upper school pupils have been learning about human evolution by studying a rare collection of hominid (early human) skulls from Bristol University. Dr Judyth Sassoon, a palaeontologist and researcher at the University’s School of Earth Sciences, brought the specimens to the school and pupils have been using them in their evolutionary biology Main Lesson. “I love it when students can work directly with objects from museum collections” says Judyth. “It makes for an entirely different learning experience, especially as this set of specimens demonstrates the dynamics of form change over time so very beautifully.”

In the lessons, students were able to tackle real research questions. For example, they were asked to identify and compare anatomical parts that varied significantly over the 4 million years of early human history. They also measured evolutionary trends in skull proportions using callipers, which the students constructed themselves.

The earliest specimen in the collection is called “Proconsul”. It is an extinct genus of primate that lived 23-25 million years ago in Kenya and Uganda and is thought to belong to the same biological group as gibbons, great apes and humans. There are also two examples of Australopithecus, a creature that evolved in Africa around 4 million years ago, before spreading throughout the continent. This group is widely known because of a well preserved immature female Australopithecus found in 1974. The skeleton, discovered in Hadar, Ethiopia, is called “Lucy”.

dsc02676At the other end of the evolutionary scale, the collection includes a stunning representative of Cro-Magnon man, an “archaic Homo sapiens” which, in spite of being “archaic” is nevertheless anatomically like modern humans. Cro-Magnon people date back 40,000 years and it is believed they produced the surreal cave paintings in the Lascaux caves of south-western France.

The Bristol hominid skull collection has now been used in several lesson blocks at Acorn, including evolutionary biology, anatomy and art. Mark, our art teacher says, “to have Dr Sassoon at the school with her amazing collection of skulls was a great opportunity for the students. During their art lessons, the upper school students availed themselves of the chance to draw from such a great variety of hominid skulls. This tied in perfectly with the scheme of work I had planned for the students to focus on this term: the human head and figure. The students rose to the occasion and produced stunning drawings.”

Graeme, the headmaster, says, “it has been a very great pleasure to have Dr Judyth Sassoon at the school, bringing high-quality Zoological and Evolutionary expertise to my students, accompanied by a fantastic collection of specimens from Bristol University. The arrival of the specimens caused great excitement throughout the school and I was delighted to see them being used in  several different upper school lessons, displaying a great example of truly integrated learning. I would like to extend my thanks to Bristol University for allowing Dr Sassoon to bring the specimens to the school.”

All photographs were taken by a member of upper school.