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

Hong Kong Democracy Calls Spread to Macau

Macau and Hong Kong are China’s two 'special administrative regions' which gives them a measure of autonomy More

After Nearly 2 Years, Pistorius Remains Elusive

Reporter Anita Powell reflects on her experience covering the Olympic athlete's murder trial More

Kenyan Coastal Town Struggles With Deadly June Attacks

Three months after al-Shabab militants allegedly attacked their town, some Mpeketoni residents are still bitter, question who was really behind the assaults More

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.
Obama to Ramp Up Anti-Ebola Efforts in Africai
X
Luis Ramirez
September 15, 2014 11:01 PM
President Barack Obama on Tuesday will unveil his plan to ramp up efforts against the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. VOA White House Correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Obama to Ramp Up Anti-Ebola Efforts in Africa

President Barack Obama on Tuesday will unveil his plan to ramp up efforts against the spread of the Ebola virus in Africa. VOA White House Correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video West Trades Accusations Over Ransoms

As world leaders try to forge a common response to the threat posed by Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria, there is simmering tension over differing policies on paying ransoms. In the past month, the jihadist group has beheaded two Americans and one Briton. Both countries refuse to pay ransom money. As Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London, there is uncertainty in the approach of some other European nations.
Video

Video Scotland Independence Bid Stokes Global Interest

The people of Scotland are preparing to vote on whether to become independent and break away from the rest of Britain, in a referendum being watched carefully in many other countries. Some see it as a risky experiment; while others hope a successful vote for independence might energize their own separatist demands. Foreign immigrants to Scotland have a front row seat for the vote. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell spoke to some of them in Edinburgh.
Video

Video Washington DC Mural Artists Help Beautify City

Like many cities, Washington has a graffiti problem. Buildings and homes, especially in low-income neighborhoods, are often targets of illegal artwork. But as we hear from VOA’s Julie Taboh, officials in the nation's capital have come up with an innovative program that uses the talents of local artists to beautify the city.
Video

Video US Muslim Leaders Condemn Islamic State

Leaders of America's Muslim community are condemning the violent extremism of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. Muslim leaders say militants are exploiting their faith in a failed effort to justify violent extremism. VOA correspondent Meredith Buel reports.
Video

Video Americans' Reaction Mixed on Obama Strategy for Islamic State Militants

President Barack Obama’s televised speech on how the United States plans to “degrade and destroy” the group known as the Islamic State reached a prime-time audience of millions. And it came as Americans appear more willing to embrace a bolder, tougher approach to foreign policy. VOA producer Katherine Gypson and reporter Jeff Seldin have this report from Washington.
Video

Video Authorities Allege LA Fashion Industry-Cartel Ties

U.S. officials say they have broken up crime rings that funneled tens of millions of dollars from Mexican drug cartels through fashion businesses in Los Angeles. Mike O'Sullivan reports that authorities announced nine arrests, as 1,000 law enforcement agents fanned out through the city on Wednesday.
Video

Video Bedouin Woman Runs Successful Business in Palestinian City

A Bedouin woman is breaking social taboos by running a successful vacation resort in the Palestinian town of Jericho. Bedouins are a sub-group of Arabs known for their semi-nomadic lifestyle. Zlatica Hoke says the resort in the West Bank's Jordan Valley is a model of success for women in the region.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid