By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 19, 2010; WE22
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."