independent

Saturday 19 April 2014

Burgos: Getting to grips with origin of the species

A visit to the new Museum of Human Evolution in the Spanish city of Burgos is enough to get Padraic McKiernan thinking seriously about where we came from

Burgos’ Gothic cathedral

A recent visit to the Castilla y Leon area of north-central Spain brought a whole new meaning to the idea of what constitutes a Spanish Inquisition. Who are we? Where do we come from? And where are we going? Obviously not questions you would normally expect to confront on a short city break, but when that city is Burgos and the trip revolves around a visit to the Museum of Human Evolution, which has recently opened in the town, then they are questions less easily avoided.

With the dramatic spires of its world-renowned Gothic cathedral dominating the skyline and its position as a landmark staging post for pilgrims making their way along the historic Camino de Santiago, the picturesque Burgos is much better known as a bulwark of religious belief but all that seems destined to change if this dramatic glass edifice designed by Spanish architect, Juan Navarro Baldeweg achieves its intended global visitor targets.

Not that the choice of Burgos for the museum's location is in any way random. During the Seventies, excavations around a disused railway line in the nearby Atapuerca Mountain Range led to the discovery of an ancient cave system that turned out to be a veritable treasure trove of fossilised remains dating from 1.1 million and 1.2 million years ago. Numerous animal bones from a variety of species including rats, ferrets, bison and big cats were found while the subsequent discovery of a fossilised jawbone and teeth, together with work tools and hunting implements, delivered fascinating insights into the lifestyle of our cave-dwelling European predecessors.

The finishing touches had yet to be applied to the museum on the day we arrived so we were offered the opportunity to view the site of the archaeological dig in Atapuerca. It didn't disappoint. The process is extensively explained in the museum but it's a working dig and the chance to witness the painstaking extremes taken by the archaeologists to separate the sedimentary wheat from the chaff shouldn't be missed and added greatly to the subsequent museum experience. Cutting the lawn with scissors comes to mind.

Once bagged and tagged, using an elaborate grid system, the sediment is brought to a nearby river where another highly skilled team including archaeology students from around the world help with sifting and the fossils are extracted using the proverbial fine-tooth comb.

A degree of fossil fatigue was setting in at this stage so I was thrilled to hear the museum was finally open for viewing. With the divisions between evolutionists and proponents of intelligent design such a hot topic these days, I was curious to see what sort of light the museum would shed on the origin of the species.

Research involved a rereading of evolution biologist Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I'm borderline agnostic when it comes to these matters but I wasn't impressed with Dawkins puerile and dreadfully superficial dismissal of dissenting viewpoints. If this is the best the contemporary anti-God squad can do in terms of providing a star to steer by then it's time to look for a new constellation.

First impressions lack nothing in terms of visual wow factor. Think Disneyland for Darwinists and you're well on the way to knowing what to expect from this exercise in bringing the theory of evolution to the masses. The museum is housed in an imposing glass structure built on four levels. The first level is subterreanean with its focus on the Atapuerca Mountain Range. It includes reproductions of the various caves excavated on location and will be the departure point for the shuttle bus that will carry visitors between the museum and the site.

The next level recreates the four key moments of the Atapuerca Mountain Range during the prehistoric period and features real minerals and plants that existed during each of the phases, as well as reproductions of animals and hominoids as they carried out their tasks. No evolution museum would be complete without a display dedicated to Darwin and a recreation of the stern of the HMS Beagle, the ship that carried him on the global explorations that would lead him to write his theory of evolution, is undeniably striking. Visitors will eventually be able to go inside the ship and enjoy some experimentation with objects and documents dating from this period, detailing the evolution of living beings.

The final two levels could be described as a one-stop-shop for those seeking insight into the mysteries of evolution -- in short, all you wanted to know about the alleged chimp to chump story arc but never got around to asking. Highlights include a spectacular light show built around an installation that takes visitors on a tour of the human brain while in the Gallery of Human Evolutions, one of the key spaces, there's a dramatic display explaining the general system of our evolution. The most outstanding objects are the hyper-realistic reproductions of 10 hominoids, ranging from Australopithecus to Homo Neanderthal, distributed around the perimeter of a circular room. From what I could deduce, the missing link is still missing but fascinating theories on the story so far abound.

The experience comes to a stunning conclusion on the upper level where a large cube projects eye-dazzling images of the Earth's ecosystems -- forest, steppe-tundra and savannah. This level also offers spectacular views out over the city of Burgos and the spires of the cathedral in the distance. Dedicated respectively to both the scientific and the supernatural, these two remarkable edifices throw up a thought-provoking juxtaposition. So who are we? Where do we come from? And where are we going? The museum is obviously stronger on the first two than it is on the third but two out of three isn't bad.

GETTING THERE

Padraic travelled with Iberia, for more information on flight deals see www.iberia.com

For more information on the Museum of Human Evolution see www.museo evolucionhumana.com For more information about the region see www.turismo castillayleon.com

Sunday Independent

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