The historical and social framework

The changing historical and social frameworks over the last 150 or so years greatly affected the ideas and theories regarding human evolution and even the direction of the story itself. 

Changing theories

Late 1800s - ‘Man the Toolmaker’

The human ability to make tools was considered the driving force behind our evolution. This idea was greatly influenced by the attitudes of the Victorian era, where life was seen as a battle to be won by physical efforts.

Early 1900s - ‘Man the Thinker’

The Edwardian period was one of optimism, and large brains and intelligence were believed to have been the first human characteristics to appear in our ancestors. This theory was partly responsible for the ready acceptance of the large-brained Piltdown Man as a genuine human ancestor.

Late 1940s - ‘Man the Killer’

The Second World War left many feeling that man’s innate ability for violence led to the evolutionary success of our species.

1950s - ‘Man the Toolmaker’

This was a period of great technological change, focusing theories about our origins back on the human ability to make and use tools.

1960-70s - ‘Man the Hunter’

The interest in anthropological studies of modern hunter-gatherers influenced theories about what propelled human evolution. This coincided with the rise of environmentalism that occurred during this period.

1970-80s - ‘Woman the Gatherer’

Feminist movements of the 1970s start to affect scientific theory with the suggestion that it was women that played a major role in evolutionary change.

1990s - 2000s - ‘Humans the Food Sharers’

The focus shifts from the role of culture as a force in our evolution to the role of biology, particularly that of bipedalism. The importance of male and female relationships in evolutionary change is emphasised for the first time. 


Fran Dorey , Exhibition Project Coordinator
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