Human Origins Go on Display

Visitors to the new Hall of Human Origins exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History are greeted by the skeletons of a chimpanzee, human and a Neanderthal. (Image credit: AMNH)

NEW YORK—Three vials tucked into a corner of the American Museum of Natural History in New York might be small, but their contents are remarkable: The white powder suspended in clear liquid within is human, chimp and extremely rare Neanderthal DNA.

“You’ll notice that there’s very little there,” Rob DeSalle, curator in the museum’s Division of Invertebrate Zoology, said about the Neanderthal sample. “As a matter of fact, we had to amplify it using polymerase chain reaction to get it to give us anything.”

The vial of human DNA contains the genomes of about 30 geographically and ethnically diverse people who work at the Museum.

“My DNA is in there,” DeSalle admitted.

The DNA vials are part of an ambitious new exhibition on human evolution opening at the museum this weekend that explores not only where we came from, but also what makes us human and our species' future.

Entire exhibitions could be created around any one of these topics, but the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins aims to address all three, and it is largely successful.

Three questions

During a media preview of the exhibition here on Tuesday, museum President Ellen Futter explained that the Hall is designed to explore three fundamental questions about human evolution: “Where did we come from? Who are we? What lies ahead for us?”

For answers, the exhibition draws upon findings from two seemingly disparate sciences. One is paleoanthropology, the study of hominid fossils, and the other a relatively new field of genomics that focuses on the function of genes.

“The Spitzer Hall of Human Origins is the first major exhibition hall of its kind to present the fossil record and genomic science side by side, offering mutually reinforcing evidence that tells a grand and sweeping story of humanity,” Futter said.

As a preview of this dual approach, visitors entering the exhibition are greeted by three skeletons—a chimp, a modern human and a Neanderthal—posed against a multimedia backdrop depicting images of cells and genetic material [image].

Throughout the hall, visitors can view human evolution through the lenses of fossil specimens as well as depictions of genetic discoveries.

“The paleoanthropological story can tell us certain things, and the genomics story can tell us certain things,” said Rob DeSalle, who is also a co-curator of the new exhibition.  “Sometimes they overlap. When they do, it’s satisfying that they agree so well.”

The two fields reinforce and complement one another, DeSalle said. Scientists rely mostly on fossils to glean information about the what, when and where of our ancient ancestors, but use DNA to patch together a family tree of sorts, including how modern humans are related to one another and evolutionary ancestors. Genetic analyses have also proved useful for understanding which traits make us human.

“For instance, how did we obtain symbolic logic?” DeSalle said. “Those changes are almost certainly in the make-up of our brain, and the makeup of our brain is controlled by our genomes.”

The stars our destination? One of the first things visitors see upon entering the exhibition is a large mural depicting extinct primates that lived millions of years ago swinging through a sparse jungle canopy. Upon leaving the exhibition, one of the last items people will see is a poster, text against a background of glowing stars, speculating about whether our species might one day seed planets beyond Earth.

Sandwiched between these symbols of humanity’s past and possible future are a plethora of fossils, artifacts, skeletal reconstructions and dioramas representing more than 7 million years of hominid evolution.

At center stage is a full-sized reconstruction of a diminutive Australopithecus couple, dubbed “Lucy” and “Desi,” walking together across an open plain covered in ash from a then-recent volcanic eruption 3.5 million years ago [image].

Other exhibition notables include an interactive “Tree of Life” showing how humans are related to hundreds of other species, a reconstructed “Hobbit” skull and Neanderthal skeleton, and a step-by-step tutorial showing how sculptors recreate the faces of our hominid ancestors from skull fragments.

A rock engraving of a horse [image] dating back to the Ice Age, 25,000 years ago, is a favorite of Hall of Human Origin's co-curator Ian Tattersall. “That’s a masterpiece that’s on display there,” said Tattersall, who is also acurator in the museum’s Division of Anthropology.

Opposite the DNA vials is a cast of a Neanderthal skullcap discovered in 1856; it represents the first recognized proof that other kinds of humans once walked the Earth and marks the start of paleoanthropology as a field of study.

Dioramas remind visitors that for most of human history, our hominid ancestors were vulnerable, often prey rather than predator, and at the mercy of the elements. In one of these windows to the past, an unsuspecting Homo erectus is about to be pounced upon by a giant hyena. Nearby in another diorama, a Homo ergaster couple defends an antelope carcass against a vulture and jackal [image].

Two other dioramas reveal a Neanderthal family making tools and preparing animal hides, and Cro Magnons dressed in warm animal fur and living in a hut constructed of mammoth bones and tusks.

What it means to be human

The last section of the Hall of Human Origins explores the things that make us human, such as language, art and tool use. It also touches upon the problems and dilemmas that modern humans face as a result of our technology and intelligence, including the promises and pitfalls of genetic engineering and our impact on the environment.

The challenges confronting modern humans are “very, very different from the challenges our ancestors faced, largely because they are challenges of our own making,” Tattersall told LiveScience. “In a sense, there’s something truly new and unprecedented about our species. We are changing the world in ways that no other species has managed to do, and we have to find some way of coping with that.”

Tattersall believes a main message of the exhibition is that “if we are going to survive and come into some kind of equilibrium with the world, we have to do it in the context of ourselves as we are. We can’t wait for evolution to come in on its white horse and fine tune us a bit more so that we’ll react in a more responsible way with the world around us.”

The Hall of Human Origins will open to the public on Feb. 10, 2007.