Review: Meet the Ancestors

A jazzy new Hall of Human Origins opens at the American Museum of Natural History.

By Josie Glausiusz|Monday, May 21, 2007
RELATED TAGS: HUMAN EVOLUTION
neanderthal
neanderthal
Courtesy of Denis Finnin/AMNH

In days of old, when our ancestors roamed Earth—that is to say, in November 1993—a pair of naked, hairy australopithecines strolled arm in arm across the cover of DISCOVER. The 3.5-million-year-old hominids appeared as models in an exhibit that had just opened at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; the replicas were based, in part, on fossilized footprints preserved in volcanic ash at Laetoli, Tanzania, which showed unequivocally that these creatures had walked upright. But with breasts and genitalia clearly visible, the ancient primates sparked an uproar. In Texas, supermarkets banned copies of our magazine that month. In response, a DISCOVER editor fashioned paper cutout clothes—a fringed skirt and lacy bra for the female, cowboy hat and shorts for the male—and pasted them on the offending figures. Modesty was redeemed.

That same diminutive primate pair—he, 4 feet 6 inches tall; she, 3 feet 5 inches—today form the centerpiece of the museum’s revamped Hall of Human Origins, which opened in February. Now, however, the two australopithecines are surrounded by digital displays, computer animations, and a multimedia Human Bulletin that broadcasts the latest news in human genetics, brain science, and evolution. The Hall of Human Origins has gone jazzy and interactive—and that’s excellent, as both science and museumgoing have changed dramatically since the days when dusty dioramas dominated the exhibits. Most significantly, DNA evidence charting human evolution has proliferated, and the new hall—funded with a $15 million grant from Anne and Bernard Spitzer—now rightly gives equal weight to both the molecular and the fossil sides of human history.

The opening display offers a taste of what is to come: Three skeletons—a crouching chimpanzee, an upright Homo sapiens (or modern human), and a slightly stooped Neanderthal—grace the entrance to the hall. Behind them, huge video screens show sperm swimming toward a giant egg, interspersed with images of floating rainbow-colored chromosomes, puffy like Cheese Doodles. Nearby, interactive electronic displays explain the differences among the three species. Just inside the hall, a digital tree of life shows how humans are related to all other species, including a ­Streptococcus bacterium, a morel mushroom, and an orchid. A big interactive map traces the emergence of modern humans in Africa more than 150,000 years ago and how they spread worldwide—travels that have been tracked by studying fossils, artifacts, and the DNA of humans from all over the globe. A video collage of people from around the planet reminds us that all living humans, regardless of geographical origin or skin color, are still 99.9 percent genetically identical to one another.

Several dioramas remain from the hall’s earlier incarnations, and they clearly retain their power to shock. (On opening day, a 4-year-old boy stared at a pair of 1.8-million-year-old Homo ergaster, protecting their half-butchered antelope from a vulture’s attack, and blurted: “They’re naked! I don’t want to look at them! They’re not even wearing underwear!”) Bones and artifacts still figure prominently as well. One display case contains the casts of an array of hominid skulls: the robust, massive-jawed 1.6-million-year-old Paranthropus robustus from Swartkrans, South Africa; the flat-faced 1.7-million-year-old Paranthropus boisei from East Turkana, Kenya; the tiny skull and fossilized brain of the 2.5-million-year-old Taung child, or Australopithecus africanus, found at Sterkfontein, South Africa. A note reminds us that between 3.5 and 1.5 million years ago, at least 11 different hominid species lived in Africa—many of them (like our notorious strolling couple) members of the genus Australopithecus, which went extinct about 1.4 million years ago.

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