What it means to be a human – the Pitt Rivers museum in Oxford

Bows, spears, axes, blowpipes, darts, boomerangs, traps, and harpoons, are things that humans have made so that they can trap and eat animal flesh.

A shrunken human head from Amazonia

Humans make baskets and bowls to carry and prepare food. They have sleds, canoes, and kayaks to get around and stick and shell maps to follow winds to new islands. They have baskets, boards, and slings to carry their babies. They have many ways to make fire, to grind food, and to cook food.

The Pitt Rivers museumis a stunning collection of everything humans have made to survive in their environment over the millennia. It is not organized by culture. It is organized mostly by item, so we can see what we have in common, not what separates us. We are given flashlights to make our way around the dim back museum, tucked like an afterthought in the Oxford Museum of Natural History. They tell us we can open the drawers, poke in the corners, uncover the treasures, only a small fraction of which are in these displays.


The things are painstakingly made, baskets, boards, sheds of moss and spinning sticks for fire. Boats, sleds, clothing, shoes, weapons, all take months to make, I would imagine. These things are old, so they are made mostly of natural ingredients, wood, feathers, stones, bark, shells, bones, skin. Walk through the court on the main floor and you get an inkling of what life was like. Sheltering, staying warm and dry, finding food, paddling around for food all seem overwhelming, especially compared to the simple nests over in the natural history part of the museum.

But what surprised me the most was the room for joy these hard working world-wide people had. Food, shelter, child-rearing, and medicine mattered, but so did toys, games, paintings, stimulants, and decorations that can only satisfy our love of beauty and fun. We also kept track of what others did, with writing and tallying systems. We threatened others with our religions, with magic, with masks, in additions to weapons and defensive devices.

If Pitt Rivers has it right, our ancestors did not make a basket but they decorated it. They did not carve a paddle, but they painted it. They did not make warm clothing without adorning it. Without art, joy, love, we cannot live. Plain tools did not come before art. Once we learned to build, we learned to embellish. It is as much a part of being human as is fire. I am glad.

If we had hours more time we could explore this museum and categorize things more carefully. We could decide what things are for cooperation, what things are for conflict, and what things are to keep others honest. It is hard not to feel that the very secrets of humanity are in these dusty shelves and drawers. I hope I make it back there soon.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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