David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins

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Editorial Review

Finding your way in the Hall of Human Origins

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, March 19, 2010

Photo Gallery: Preview the exhibit

Four years in the making and built at a cost of $20.7 million, the Hall of Human Origins is part of a broader Smithsonian project called "The Human Origins Initiative." There's a wealth of information packed into a relatively small space. Navigating it will probably take most visitors between 30 minutes and two hours, depending on level of interest. Here's how to make the most of your visit.

If you're just passing through: Head straight for the "Meet Your Ancestors" area. The hall is shaped like an L, and it's where the two wings come together. Access is via either of two entrances: the first, just off the Ocean Hall; the other, through the Hall of Mammals. There, you'll find artist John Gurche's hyperrealistic facial reconstructions of several of our earliest cousins. Trust me, you won't want to miss them. The same corner is home to a massive display wall of cast fossil skulls, along with what curator Rick Potts calls the exhibition's "Hope Diamonds." In a rotating, high-security area that will be devoted to some of the world's most priceless artifacts, you'll find the only Neanderthal skeleton in the United States, along with the original Cro-Magnon skull, discovered in 1868 in a French cave of the same name. But act fast. That Cro-Magnon skull is on loan from the Musee de l'Homme in France, and will return home, along with a nearby Neanderthal noggin, after three months. [Tip: Don't pronounce the "g" in "Magnon." Say it like "filet mignon." Impress - or merely annoy - your friends.]

If you're there on your lunch hour: Potts calls the "spine" of the exhibition a series of display cases that fall under the category of "Evolutionary Milestones." In them, you'll learn answers to the exhibition's central question "What makes us human?" (Bigger brains, walking upright, speech, social networks, etc.) For fun, check out the morphing station, where you can have a picture of your face taken and then digitally transformed into an early-human version of yourself. You can even e-mail it to yourself, for free. Then stop in at one of the three interactive "Snapshot in Time" booths, each of which uses fossil evidence, video and animation to tell a story about a day in the life of early man. [Hint: The plot of the "Snapshot" nearest the Ocean Hall is kind of grisly, and involves a guy who gets eaten by a leopard. "Remember," says Potts, "we were not always at the top of the food chain."]

If you've got nothing but time: Watch the five-minute film "One Species, Living Worldwide." Play one of two computer games. (The challenge? Keep the human race from going extinct. Another offers a sort of virtual Mr. Potato Head, in which you can speed up the evolutionary process by creating a human being of the future with, say, webbed feet, or stilt-like legs.) Visit the mock-up of a cave, with replicas of early human artworks. Don't miss the series of dramatic, life-size bronze sculptures installed throughout the hall. One features a terrified-looking Homo floresiensis, nicknamed the "Hobbit" for her tiny stature. In another, Homo heidelbergensis offers visitors a piece of antelope thigh for dinner. [Tip: You're encouraged to touch them, climb on them, even embrace them. It's all meant to break down the traditional barriers between visitors and the sometimes dry scientific material. "How can you break it down more than by hugging one of your relatives?" says Potts.]

It's all about us

Every fossil tells a story.

That's a central premise of the National Museum of Natural History's newest permanent exhibition, a gallery devoted to telling the story of human evolution. Walking through the David H. Koch (pronounced "coke") Hall of Human Origins, a 15,000-square-foot exhibition space that opened this week on the museum's first floor, it's hard not to feel the sense of, well, drama. This is a story replete with mystery, wonder, bloody violence and, yes, even a little tenderness. (It contains evidence of the earliest human burials.) Like a movie, it even comes with its own soundtrack: a recording of eerie music composed by a contemporary musician for a reconstructed, 35,000-year-old flute.

There's also a cast of characters to guide you through the tale.

You'll meet them for the first time at the show's main entrance, a curving, futuristic archway known as the Time Tunnel, which is designed to pull you out of the modern world and put you through a kind of metaphorical regression. The faces of these characters stare out from the wall: Homo floresiensis, Homo neanderthalensis, Homo heidelbergensis, Homo erectus; Paranthropus boisei, Australopithecus africanus and Australopithecus afarensis. You may not recognize the names, but you're meant to look deep into their eyes and to feel a kind of personal connection.

You'll see them throughout the hall. Not just in the bones and other artifacts on view -- nearly 300 objects in all, including more than 75 skulls -- but in a series of lifelike latex heads created for the museum by sculptor John Gurche, using state-of-the-art forensic reconstruction. Called "Meet Your Ancestors," it's meant to knock your socks off, and it probably will.

"We thought a lot about the emotion of the story," says curator Rick Potts, who alternately compares the exhibition's story arc to a Shakespearean play and an episode of "C.S.I." Several displays concern what Potts calls the "survival challenges" that our ancestors faced and that we continue to face: a Homo habilis bone revealing a crocodile bite; a broken rib belonging to a Neanderthal, showing signs that it was injured by a man-made weapon.

There are really two parallel narratives here, each of which Potts defines with a question. The first has to do with science: "What does it mean to be human?" Our complex brains, the acquisition of language, tool use and the ability to walk upright are just some of the evolutionary milestones -- those defining characteristics that make us who we are -- that the show discusses.

The second is more philosophical: "Why does it matter?" For at the heart of this story is the reminder that we are, as Potts says, "the last remaining species of a once-diverse family tree." As you stand face to face with Gurche's heads -- which are mounted, in one of the hall's most shiver-y touches, at the height each species stood -- you might just feel like the last Man standing.

And that's the whole point. We shouldn't just look backward, but forward. Yes, we are wondrous creatures. ("What a piece of work is a man," and all that, as Shakespeare wrote.) But if the exhibition reminds us of anything about ourselves, it's that life -- and our place on this earth -- is fragile.

Exhibit highlights

There are several notable artifacts in the Hall of Human Origins: the only Neanderthal skeleton in America; the original French Cro-Magnon skull; the first-ever display of a tiny Homo floresiensis skeleton (known as the "Hobbit").

But the exhibition breaks ground in other ways, too, with a goal of connecting visitors directly with the subject matter. Sometimes literally so. Be sure and look at the floor near the diorama featuring "Lucy," the first-known Australopithecus afarensis. You'll see several footprints, reproduced in the exhibition's floor from fossilized volcanic ash. At 3.6 million years old, they represent evidence of the oldest-known early-human footsteps. Go ahead and walk in them.

Perhaps the biggest first, however, is the exhibition's expanded emphasis on the theme of environmental and climate change as an engine of evolutionary growth. In the past, curator Rick Potts explains, a similar hall might have presented one early human species as particularly adapted to, say, the hot, dry weather of the savannah, another to the ice age. Today, our understanding is more nuanced. According to Potts, who we are as a species isn't the result of any single change, or even any combination of changes. "Maybe what we are adapted to," he explains, "is change itself."

What about creationism?

We had to ask: What about creationism? "There's no Adam and Eve here," curator Rick Potts says flatly. If you believe that the world -- and man -- was created in seven days, and that it's only thousands of years old, you might have a little problem with an exhibition that talks about a process of 6 million to 8 million years. Not to mention with the wall panel stating that we're not just related to apes, but to the banana tree, too.

For the majority of people, regardless of their beliefs, the material in the Hall of Human Origins should not be about conflict. "This is not a classroom. Remember, the themes of the show are questions," Potts says. The scientific evidence is presented in such a way that most visitors can weigh it on the scale of the belief system they entered with. "We believe in putting all the fossil evidence out there," he says, "where everyone can see it."

That being said, the hall does make several strong arguments against certain claims used to rebut the theory of evolution, such as the assertion that the fossil record is weak or filled with unexplained gaps. "Some have said that you could fit all the evidence in a cigar box," Potts says. He gestures to the hall's vast array of early human skulls, more than 75 in all. "Well, no."

According to Potts, the Smithsonian's view is that there need not be any disconnect between science and religion. In fact, if there's anything he hopes visitors will take away from the exhibition, it's what he calls a "sense of the sacred."