Painstaking research in genetics, archaeology and palaeontology has transformed what we know about prehistory over the last twenty years. Since the turn of the century, at least four previously unknown species of extinct human have been discovered, while a continuous flow of new fossils, especially from China, have overturned what we thought we knew about the dinosaurs. When science is changing so fast, how can stories help us to reimagine past worlds?
Professor John Holmes and Dr Will Tattersdill from the Literature and Science Lab at the University of Birmingham brought together scientists, writers and scholars for two public events at Oxford University Museum of Natural History to explore how storytelling, fiction and even fantasy are fundamental to how we reconstruct prehistoric worlds.
When a new species of tiny human called Homo floresiensis was discovered on the island of Flores in Indonesia in 2003, it immediately became known ‘the hobbit’. For ‘On Hobbits and Hominins’ on 6 December 2022, Professor Holmes interviewed the palaeoanthropologists and writers Rebecca Wragg Sykes and Tom Higham to discuss the role of the imagination in the science of human prehistory. Dr Wragg Sykes spoke about how novels such as William Golding’s The Inheritors and Jean M. Auel’s The Clan of the Cave Bear fuelled her interest in the lives of Neanderthals. Professor Higham explained how J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth helps us to imagine the world between 200,000 and 50,000 years ago, when modern humans shared the world with ‘hobbits’ and many other different kinds of people. Stories like these help scientists to communicate with a wider public, but they can also anticipate the findings of science itself and even suggest new hypotheses about how different species interacted in the deep past.
Tolkien conceived of Middle-earth as an earlier period in our own Earth’s history. It is a testimony to his extraordinary imagination that the world he imagined in his fiction should be helping scientists to understand and communicate their discoveries about the distant past today.Professor John Holmes
Tolkien is not only relevant to how we think about human evolution. In ‘On Dragons and Dinosaurs’, Professor Holmes recreated for the first time Tolkien’s lecture on dragons, originally given at the museum in Oxford on New Year’s Day, 1938. The museum still has the slides from the original lecture, including some made from Tolkien’s own drawings alongside early twentieth-century illustrations of dinosaurs and other ancient reptiles. These were projected from a magic lantern, just as they were over eighty years ago. After the lecture, Dr Tattersdill chaired a panel of experts to respond to Tolkien’s thoughts on the relationship between the dinosaurs reconstructed by scientists and the dragons of old legend.
The fantasy novelist Sir Philip Pullman was joined by the palaeontologists Elsa Panciroli and Thomas Halliday and Birmingham student Humma Mouzam, who is currently completing her PhD on dragons in medieval literature. The house was full in spite of difficulties on the rail network, and the evening included ancient bestiaries, dinosaur jawbones, seahorses in jars and a dragon-slaying sword. Professor Paul Smith, Director of the museum, commented that ‘On Dragons and Dinosaurs was a wonderful culmination to the museum’s event programme, just as it was in 1938’, while Sir Philip Pullman remarked that ‘The Tolkien lecture was a brilliant idea, carried out wonderfully, and the panel was so interesting that I think we would all have been happy to carry on for hours’. Both events closed with book-signings and enthusiastic one-to-one conversations with all the academics, authors and scientists involved.