Paleo Patrol: A hominin family reunion at the Smithsonian

by Erin Wayman
Thursday, January 5, 2012

Erin Wayman (pictured in Cardiff, Wales) writes Paleo Patrol for EARTH. Spencer Wayman

Last month, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., unveiled its new (permanent) human evolution exhibit: the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. The exhibit seeks to answer the millennia-old question, What does it mean to be human?

Of course, that question has a different answer depending on who you ask. For anthropologists, the hallmarks of humanity evolved over more than 6 million years, beginning with the first African apes that walked upright and culminating with us: big-brained, technologically savvy humans.

What I like about the exhibit is that it’s not a just series of displays of hominin species in succession with lists of their vital statistics; instead, the exhibit is organized around milestones in human evolution: the origin of walking upright, evolving bigger brains, the development of language, etc. It’s the combination of these attributes that makes us human.

That’s not to say our extinct ancestors aren’t the stars of the show. All of our long-dead family members make appearances throughout the exhibit. You’ll meet Lucy, Neanderthals and the infamous “hobbit” (Homo floresiensis), as well as some lesser-known members of our family tree, including my personal favorite, Homo heidelbergensis (in addition to having a great name, the species is the most likely common ancestor of modern humans and Neanderthals). The exhibit uses the fossil evidence of these species — as well as life-like reconstructions and artifacts — to explain how human attributes emerged over time and to illustrate how scientists study human evolution.

Even if you’re not a fan of human evolution, you’ll still probably find something in the exhibit that catches your eye. Some of my favorite parts were:

• A hominin morphing station: Ever wonder what you’d look like as a Neanderthal? The exhibit’s morphing station transforms your face into an extinct hominin; you can even e-mail yourself the resulting portrait. (But then again, you might want to forget the horrifying image. Just ask Anderson Cooper.)
• Fossil skulls galore: In the middle of the exhibit, there is a display of 76 hominin skulls — from Sahelanthropus tchadensis to Cro-Magnon (aka early European Homo sapiens) — it’s a really cool snapshot of more than 6 million years' worth of evolution.
• Life-like reconstructions: Near the end of the exhibit are fleshed-out hominin “busts” that show what our ancestors might have looked like in real life.
• A real Neanderthal: Almost all of the exhibit’s fossils are replicas because most of the fossils remain in the country where they were found. The exception in this exhibit is the skeleton of a Neanderthal found in Shanidar Cave in Iraq in 1957.

After taking in all of the exhibit’s fossils and interactive displays, I realized the Human Hall of Origins isn’t just about what makes us human; it also has a second, equally important theme — that humans are adaptable, resilient creatures that have evolved in response to millions of years of climatic and environmental changes. This fact greets you the minute you walk into the hall. A large plaque displays fluctuations in global temperatures over millions of years, establishing the importance of climate change in shaping the bodies and intellect of our ancestors, and ultimately, us. The key here is change. Hominins did not evolve their unique characteristics in response to a specific environment but rather to the challenges of an ever-changing landscape.

That’s a take-home message that’s hard to miss, but you won’t leave the Smithsonian with exact answers to how climate change led to the specific features of humans; that’s still ongoing research. In fact, the National Research Council released a report last month on this very topic: “Understanding Climate’s Influence on Human Evolution.” More than a dozen anthropologists and earth scientists collaborated to determine what steps are needed to better address this fundamental question. They say we need more fossil sites across a larger percentage of Africa, more drilling programs to recover seafloor and lake sediments that record information about African paleoclimates, and more integrated climate modeling that’s tailored to human evolution.

That this report was released in the same month that the exhibit opened reinforces the fact that the Smithsonian’s take on human evolution really is forward-thinking and in line with the latest developments in the field of human origins.

Don’t worry, even if you can’t make it to the nation’s capital anytime soon, you can still explore the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins — either online or with the companion book “What Does It Mean to Be Human?" by Smithsonian curator Richard Potts and National Geographic’s Christopher Sloan.

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