Mar
16
2010

Smithsonian celebrates a new exhibition hall (oh, and a 100-year anniversary)

Old school way of thinking: This idea of man as the be-all, end-all of evolution- the unchanging, final edit of nature- is exactly what the Smithsonian's new exhibition hall is trying to negate.
Old school way of thinking: This idea of man as the be-all, end-all of evolution- the unchanging, final edit of nature- is exactly what the Smithsonian's new exhibition hall is trying to negate.Courtesy wikimedia
The Smithsonian Institute will open a new exhibition hall tomorrow (March 17, 2010), the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins (this opening coincides with the institute’s 100-year anniversary). The 15,000-square-foot hall will focus on what it means to be human, examining how our defining characteristics emerged over time. One cool thing about the new exhibition (in addition to…everything) is the highlight (in the form of bronze statues) of a-typical hominid species. There’s a statue of Homo heidelbergensis, Paranthropus boisei, and even Homo floresiensis (the “hobbit” species). Now, I know what you’re thinking, “What?! Where’s the Australopithecus africanus?!!” Well, it’s not in this exhibition (at least not in the form of a shiny effigy). The reason for this is to emphasize that our ancestry is not a straight line (as A. africanus might imply because it is a possible direct ancestor of Homo sapiens). Instead, our lineage is much less tidy; there’s species overlap, some species die off… the diagrams are messy. The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins is trying to get at the fact that we Homo sapiens are just another iteration in our branch-laden tree, not the pinnacle of evolutionary development. I think that’s a great point to remind people of.

Other features of the exhibition include forensically reconstructed life-sized faces of some of our ancestors, 75 skull reproductions, key events in humanity’s evolution (environmental changes, behavioral innovations, etc.), a human family tree, and virtual tours of important research sites. I haven’t had the chance to visit it yet, but the American Museum of Natural History in New York also has a relatively new human origins exhibition. I think it’s exciting that more and more museums are taking on this topic. In the past museums have shied away from it for fear of stirring up controversy. The Milwaukee Public Museum, for example has an exhibit about evolution- it’s on a tiny wall in a dark corner…but at least they have one. It’s important for museums to present scientific research, and the exciting exploration of human evolution is no exception. So if you’re in the D.C. area, be sure to check out the new Smithsonian Hall of Human Origins.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Brian Switek's picture

Nice post, but I have one minor quibble. When you say "Australopithecus africanus" I think you mean "Australopithecus afarensis" (the species 'Lucy' belongs to). A. africanus has been recognized as one of our evolutionary cousins about as far removed from us as the other hominins you mentioned, while A. afarensis is closer to the common ancestry of the earliest members of our genus and other australopithecines. I used to get the two confused all the time, though. Add the two species of Ardipithecus into the jumble and no wonder people get early hominins mixed up!

posted on Wed, 03/17/2010 - 10:01am
KelsiDayle's picture
KelsiDayle says:

Why do you think it's important to remind people of "the fact that we Homo sapiens are just another iteration in our branch-laden tree, not the pinnacle of evolutionary development"?

I think it's important because it underscores the reality that we were not, are not, and will never be (at least not for long) the only organisms on this planet. In turn, that's important for folks to realize because if we want to survive, we must coexist in harmony with this beautiful planet we call Home. Homo sapien means "wise man" or "knowing man" (alternately "wise woman" or "knowing woman"). Let's use our sizable crania to do the right things by each other and Earth.

posted on Wed, 03/17/2010 - 1:10pm
kso's picture
kso says:

Oops! You're right, Brian. Australopithecus afarensis is more closely related to us. A. africanus is a distant cousin- the kind of distant cousin that your brother tries to pick up at a wedding, not knowing that they are related. Way to go, bro. Anyway, thanks for the correction!

posted on Fri, 03/19/2010 - 6:21pm

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