A Human Connection

GW faculty and students help Smithsonian launch new Hall of Human Origins.

Opening of new Hall of Human origins at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
March 22, 2010

By Danny Freedman

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History recently took the wraps off its David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, a colossal undertaking that involved the expertise and aid of several members of the GW community.

The new exhibit hall, which opened in mid-March, traces the 6-million-year path of human evolution and the quest to define what it means to be human.

“Who are we as human beings? How did we come to be here, and where are we going?” said Rick Potts, director of Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, speaking during the opening of the nearly $21 million hall. The questions “get to the center of human curiosity.”

Dr. Potts, who is a professorial lecturer in anthropology at GW, said the exhibit is the first to examine human evolution within the context of climate change; how swings in climate and the environment fueled adaptations and the march of species.

The fossils of more than 6,000 individuals have been found, belonging to more than a dozen species of early humans. And before it was winnowed down to just Homo sapiens, there were periods when multiple human species—including our own—simultaneously roamed the earth. “These relatives,” said Dr. Potts, “are worth getting to know.”

And that’s surprisingly easy to do at the new 15,000-square-foot hall. The family reunion showcases nearly 300 objects, including the only Neanderthal skeleton in the United States, a display of dozens of skulls illustrating human development, a series of amazingly lifelike busts of human ancestors created from latex, and a face-morphing station where museumgoers can see their images transformed into those of (impressively hairy) ancient species.

Visitors can also walk in a cast of the footsteps of early humans preserved for 3.6 million years in volcanic ash and, for the next three months, see a French Cro-Magnon skull—one of the first fossils ever found of a modern human, in 1868–on loan from Paris’ Musée de l’Homme.

“This was a dream come true,” says doctoral student Kes Schroer, one of a handful of students and alumni who helped create the exhibit. “My parents will tell you I’ve been wanting to work at the Smithsonian since I was old enough to say ‘Smithsonian.’”

As part of her Ph.D. track at GW’s Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology, Ms. Schroer took an internship with the museum’s Human Origins Program. For nine months last year, Ms. Schroer worked on the exhibit’s companion Web site, expanding on concepts and artifacts noted in the exhibit.

Web modules she worked on explain how DNA illuminates evolutionary theory, the variation of human skin, and the forensics of a male Neanderthal fossil found with an apparent stab wound on one of his ribs. That finding “really suggests that Neanderthals were very similar to us in terms of behavior,” she says.

(Scientists think the cut would have been deep enough to collapse the Neanderthal’s lung, making the poor fellow perhaps the oldest-known homicide victim. Talk about a cold case.)

For GW anthropology professor Alison Brooks, history was repeating itself on opening day. In the early 1970s she helped the Smithsonian create its previous exhibit on human evolution.

In the meantime Dr. Brooks, a research associate at the Smithsonian and an expert on the behavior and culture of earlier humans, worked on keeping the old exhibit up-to-date as her own research challenged the existing conventions of behavioral evolution.

A decade ago research by Dr. Brooks and a colleague suggested that, contrary to prevailing thought, the emergence of modern human behaviors—including the use of bone tools, long-distance trade and art—came about gradually, instead of suddenly; that it originated in Africa rather than Europe; and that it began tens of thousands of years earlier than previously believed.

Her work on the new Hall of Human Origins started several years ago, helping to develop the overarching plan for the hall and weighing in on details, like the selection of objects to be shown—some of which are casts made from artifacts in her own collection, like a bone with a series of notches in it that she established as dating to 20,000-to-25,000 years ago. The fossil, she says, suggests that its users “understood the concept of multiplication by two.”

Efforts were made this time around to create an exhibit with room built-in for, well, evolution. The old exhibit had grown out-of-date within a decade, she says, and since then there’s been “an explosion of data.” To account for the current speed of science some of the exhibit’s objects are kept in cases rather than stuck to the wall, and there’s space to detail the latest findings.

“We think we have a lot of the general [evolution] outline,” says Dr. Brooks, “but they’ve tried to leave a lot of leeway for understanding new parts and swapping specimens.”

Passersby reading the exhibit’s wall panels might also glimpse a photo of professor Bernard Wood, director of the university’s Center for the Advanced Study of Hominid Paleobiology, alongside his explanation of how scientists know how long it took our ancestors to mature; or a photo of anthropology professor Brian G. Richmond, amid a display of skulls, with an explanation of how scientists identified them as belonging to humans.

Both professors also are affiliated with the museum (Dr. Wood as an adjunct senior scientist; Dr. Richmond as a research associate) and were consulted on the fundamentals of what to include in the exhibit, as well as on facts and some displays. For instance, Dr. Richmond, an expert on the evolution of the human skeleton, advised on how long the toes should be on the reconstruction of the famous 3.2 million year-old “Lucy” fossil.

Near “Lucy” is also an artifact tied to Dr. Richmond: a replica of a thigh bone which, due to his analysis, is recognized as among the oldest evidence of upright walking, dating back 6 million years—around 1.5 million earlier than previously thought.

Dr. Wood, who studies the family ties between ancient species, says the new exhibit goes beyond its predecessor, in part, by showcasing the science behind the results. “It’s not so much just what we know, but how we came to know it,” he says. And it aims “to help people understand the implications of this evidence.”

A hope for Dr. Richmond is that the effort will bridge a gulf, for some, between science and theology.

“Science can’t answer questions about religion, those are separate things,” he says. But the trove of existing artifacts offers “a very rich record of our heritage. And I don’t think that should challenge people’s faith, just as discovering that the Earth was not the center of the universe shouldn’t have challenged people’s faith 400 years ago.”

When visitors encounter the exhibit’s population of life-sized statues and fantastically realistic facial reconstructions, Ms. Schroer, the doctoral student, says she hopes they “find a connection with these other humans that have existed over time. I think it’s pretty special that we’re the only humans left, but there were other species that came before and lived during our time period,” she says. “I hope people find a human connection with this history.”

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