The East London Museum treasure rewriting human prehistory

Updated: Jul 3, 2020


The East London Museum is internationally known for its remarkable coelacanth and humanoid trace footprints specimens.


A third, globally important exhibit, the Hofmeyr Skull , is less well known. However, as scientists are discovering, the skulls is hugely significant in understanding human evolution.


In fact, it might isnglehandedly rewrite some of what we know - or thought we knew - about an early human ancestor.


In fact, such is its tremendous palaeoanthropological importance that a cast of the skull currently enjoys pride of place in one of the most comprehensive human evolution displays in any museum in the world: the Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.


The East London Museum has also been acknowledged by the Smithsonian as an international institutional partner on this project.


The Hofmeyr Skull enjoys pride of place in one of the most comprehensive human evolution displays in any museum in the world: the Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

The Hofmeyr Skull was discovered along the banks of the Vlekpoort River near Hofmeyr in the Eastern Cape (hence the name), and was donated to the East London Museum in 1954.


It was not until fairly recently, however, that the skull was confirmed to be about 36 000 years old.


"The skull is significant because it carried all the features of an anatomically modern human being with some archaic features such as thicker arches above the brow, large molar crowns and a prominent glabella (the space between the eyebrows and the nose)," says East London Museum Natural Scientist Kevin Cole.


East London Museum Natural Scientist Kevin Cole discusses the Hofmeyr Skull with young museum visitors.

"Although the skull travelled to the University of the Witwatersrand to be studied it was never deemed to be of much significance as a specimen until well into the new millennium. At this time ideas of human origins were well developed such as the Out-of-Africa theory (that all modern humans in the world today originated from a population in Africa)."


"When the Hofmeyr skull was finally put under scientific scrutiny and dated at 36 000 years it gave scientists the opportunity to compare it to other finds in the palaeoanthropological re