Dr George McGavin brings the original Naked Rambler - a Neanderthal man - to Edinburgh

George McGavin with a reconstructed skeleton
George McGavin with a reconstructed skeleton
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FORGET the Naked Rambler – meet the nude Neanderthal. With his twinkling eyes, animated features and messy hair, you wouldn’t be surprised if he gave a wink and told a ribald joke before asking you to groom his chest hair.

However this ancient ancestor from around 70,000 years ago is in fact one of the three extremely lifelike silicon models created by experts for the recent BBC Prehistoric Autopsy science show – and is the centrepiece of an exhibition based on the programme set to be launched at the National Museum of Scotland next week.

It’s hoped that by getting up close – and a bit personal – with him and his friends Homo Erectus and Australopithecus Afarensis (or Lucy to you and me) generally held perceptions about extinct human species will change.

No longer will we think of Neanderthals as brainless, brutish Ug and Nug types. Instead we will realise they were cultured and community orientated, and that muscular arms did not come from hunting mammoths, but from scraping hides to make them wearable.

“Yes,” laughs Dr George McGavin, the Edinburgh-born zoologist who presented the BBC three-parter with anatomist Professor Alice Roberts. “We did wonder about just why their right arms seemed to be more developed, which we could tell from the bones.

“You can imagine there were a few jokes made before we discovered it was all to do with treating animal hides.”

If Dr McGavin seemed an odd choice to present a TV show about our primitive ancestors, given that he’s The One Show’s resident bug man and an entomology expert who likes nothing better than being dropped into jungles to discover a new species of creepy crawly, it turns out otherwise.

For one thing he’s done no little teaching about the subject himself and it also turns out he’s 2.6 per cent Neanderthal.

“At Oxford I did teach human sciences as well – it’s not my research area but my role was really as a foil to Alice’s expertise. I was the educated lay person asking the questions on behalf of the viewers – like how the hell can we know x, y or z just from 
analysing a bone.”

He adds: “But also, anyone in Western Europe will be between one and four per cent Neanderthal and it turns out my genetic make-up includes 2.6 per cent Neanderthal genes, while Alice has 2.1 per cent.

“This suggests that Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens got a bit jiggy jiggy and it was probably more Neanderthal
man with a female Homo Sapien, or it could be that we share a common evolutionary route and we’ve not found who that might be yet. My argument would tend towards the former... men have never really changed instinctively.”

The “missing link” has long been speculated in theories about human evolution, but the Prehistoric Autopsy programmes, and exhibition, focus more on the ancestors that archaeologists have found. And it was using the fragmented remains of ancient bones, as well as cutting edge technology and research, that the team of international experts was able to rebuild the three bodies in amazing detail.

It’s these which Emma Webb, learning manager with the National Museums of Scotland believes will prove the major draw when they arrive at the Chambers Street museum next week.

“The exhibition has been at four other museums in England already and it’s been seen by 18,000 people so we are expecting a very large turnout,” she says.

“It’s been devised by the BBC, and it’s aimed at the seven to 12 years bracket, but we know that other children will still enjoy it. The main event will be the skeletons and models from the programme and we hope the fact that they’re naked won’t put parents off,” she laughs.

Dr McGavin adds: “People really need to see these models, they’re amazing. You need to look them in the eye, get up close... honestly with the Neanderthal you’d expect him to blink, you might even feel you know someone who looks like him. If he was in a suit and had a haircut you probably wouldn’t look twice.”

To make the reconstructions as accurate as possible, evidence was gathered from scientists around the world, then fed to a team of model makers, led by paleoartist Viktor Deak, who spent months painstakingly reconstructing skeletons, muscles, skin and hair.

The research casts a new light on Neanderthals – not just in the way they may have hunted, clothed their families and even painted jewellery, but also what they may have sounded like.

As to Homo Erectus, the show revealed that while they were good hunters they were also compassionate, helping those who couldn’t help themselves, and it also looked at why Lucy’s species traded life in the trees for life on the ground and began to walk upright.

“Part of the exhibition is a game called ‘Can You Walk Like Lucy?’ with footprints on the floor to see how their stride pattern changes,” says Emma. “Children will also be able to make shell decorations as Neanderthals did – they were more interested in making themselves look nice than 
people might imagine.”

The exhibition also includes a mock archaeological dig. “People have to identify which hominids’ bones are laid out in front of them and they have UV torches to look for clues. There are also interactive video games with quizzes and puzzles and clips from the shows.”

While the TV series showed us what our prehistoric ancestors looked like, how they lived, and how they compare with us today, unravelling the story of bones also tried to answer the big question: why did Homo Sapiens make it, while other hominids did not?

According to Professor Roberts, it’s all just been luck.

“There is a tendency for academics and TV producers to come up with an answer for why humans are so wonderful. Not so. There is an enormous amount of serendipity about it,” she says. “It could have been quite easy for things to have happened the other way round, with Neanderthal Man being here, not us.”

Dr George McGavin - Biography

A former Daniel Stewart’s pupil, Dr George McGavin is Edinburgh’s answer to Sir David Attenborough.

The 58-year-old grew up in Belford Road with a weekend job selling ice-cream and cola at Edinburgh Zoo, and a childhood passion for insects which has never left him.

Despite being bullied at school for his red hair and stammer, by the time he was 17 he was studying zoology at Edinburgh University before going on to complete a doctorate at the British Museum of Natural History and Imperial College, London.

He then spent the next 25 years teaching at Oxford University where he is still an Honorary Research Associate.

His research has taken him to the tropics of Papua New Guinea (where Lost Land of the Jaguar was filmed) to the caves of Thailand – and more recently back to Edinburgh Zoo for BBC Four’s award-winning science documentary Afterlife.

In that, a special “rot box” was built, in which a family home and garden was encased in glass, and all foodstuffs allowed to decompose over a month, with Dr McGavin entering periodically to discover what the bluebottles and beetles were feasting on.

He will be back on our screens soon in a variety of new programmes including Swarm, Miniature Britain, Ant World and Planet Primate.

Taking a trip back in time

THE Prehistoric Autopsy programmes, broadcast live from Glasgow, looked at three of the earliest human life forms and from bone fragments and scientific research restructured life-like models and attempted to answer the big question: why we, Homo Sapiens, survived.

The programmes cover Neanderthal man, who lived 70,000 years ago, Homo Erectus from 1.5 million years ago and primate Australopithecus Afarensis which lived 3.2 million years ago.

• The Prehistoric Autopsy roadshow will be at the Learning Centre of the National Museum of Scotland from November 23 to 25. Open from 10.30am to 4.30pm, entry is free.