News / Science & Technology

    Smithsonian Opens New Exhibit on Human Origins

    Human skulls on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural Museum of Natural History
    Human skulls on display at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural Museum of Natural History

    Multimedia

    Rosanne Skirble

    Scientists writing in the journal Science report that two skeletons found in a cave in South Africa belong to a previously unclassified species of hominid or early human relative.  This discovery may shed new light on the evolution of our own species, homo sapien, and spark greater interest in human evolution. So may a new exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's Natural Museum of Natural History. It's based on developments of more than a century of scientific research.

    The National Museum of Natural History is marking its 100th anniversary by welcoming visitors to its newest hall.  

    They're here to explore the age-old question: "What does it mean to be human?"

    Curator Rick Potts says the 300 fossils and other artifacts on display illustrate a mosaic of physical traits and behaviors that evolved over time.   

    "And all of those species are now gone, their ways of life no longer on earth," said Potts.  "We are the only ones left of the diverse family tree."

    Visitors peer into the eyes of replicas of early humans, sit down at their ancestral hearth and walk in footprints molded from those left almost 4 million years ago in Tanzania.

    "And those footprints are exactly at the spacing, the size of the footprints, where three individuals walked across an African plain that long ago," added Potts.

    Two prized fossils are in this case. One is the 28,000 year-old skull of a Cro-Magnon, the first modern humans in Europe. The other is the skull of a Neanderthal, a species of upright primates that co-existed with Cro-Magnon until they disappeared about 30,000 years ago.  

    Both skulls are on loan from the Musee de l'Homme in Paris.  They were discovered in France around the same time that Charles Darwin published his famous "On the Origin of Species" in 1859.  

    Alain Froment, who curates the French museum's anthropology collection, says Darwin's work played a crucial role.     

    "It fueled the debate on the origin of mankind and the surprise was to find such a modern human in the fossil context with extinct animals," said Froment.   

    Visitors are invited to touch the ancestral replicas, to transform an image of their face into an early-human version and to engage with dioramas that convey evolution.

    This six-million-year-old story also unfolds during an era of dramatic climate change. Rick Potts says the exhibit shows how, during great swings between warm and cool, moist and dry, humans adapted.

    "Not only adapted to an African savannah or how Neanderthals became adapted to an ice age, but rather how our ability to make tools, our ability to have an expanded and complex brain, even our ability to use symbols and speak to one another, are not just adaptations to a past ancestral environment, but an adaptation to being flexible, to being adaptable," explained Potts.

    Elementary school teacher Neisha Speights-Burno plans to share that lesson with her students.   

    "I think it just gives them more of a first-hand account that this stuff really did exist," noted Speights-Burno.  

    The sense of connection is important for Charla Weiswurm visiting Washington from Texas.   

    "I think that with all the conflict with everyone in the world, that you come back saying we all came from the same place originally, and why can't we just all get along because we are all exactly alike," said Weiswurm.  

    Rick Potts hopes the exhibit answers that question by showing that our ancient relatives are worth getting to know.  And in knowing them, he adds, they can teach us what it means to be human.

    You May Like

    Native Americans Ask: What About Our Water Supply?

    They say they have been facing a dangerous water contaminant for decades - uranium – but the problem has received far less attention than water contamination by lead in Flint, Michigan

    Pakistan's President Urges Nation Not to Celebrate Valentine's Day

    Mamnoon Hussain criticizes Valentine's Day, which falls on Sunday this year, as a Western import that threatens to undermine the Islamic values of Pakistan

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.