New Smithsonian human origins hall

Thanks to all those readers who sent me links to the new human origins hall at the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington D.C. The NY Times’ Edward Rothstein reviews the new exhibit:

During the brief 200,000-year life of Homo sapiens, at least three other human species also existed. And while this might seem to diminish any remnants of pride left to the human animal in the wake of Darwins theory, the exhibition actually does the opposite. It puts the human at the center, tracing how through these varied species, central characteristics developed, and we became the sole survivors. The show humanizes evolution. It is, in part, a story of human triumph.

I pointed to a feature about the John Gurche reconstructions last month. You can see many of these along with some 3-d models of fossil casts at the exhibition’s website. The online component of the exhibit, titled, “What does it mean to be human,” has been given a lot of effort. It includes essays about several areas of paleoanthropological research, some interactive features (including the 3-d casts), and a forum for teachers. As you might imagine from the quote above, I don’t agree with everything in the exhibit, but they’ve done a very nice job creating a storyline (focused on human adaptability to climate and environment) and illustrating it.

I’m having a bit of a laugh about the “Human Family Tree”, though. It’s an interactive feature so I can’t paste a copy. They’ve taken care to make sure that every fossil is on a side-branch, not on the “main trunk” of human evolution. But what tickled me is that some of the “branches” appear to ramify from lots of different places in the tree – like “Paranthropus” for example is paraphyletic. Also I love how some of the species weren’t specifically given facial reconstructions (some don’t have crania), so they have a generic “caveman mugshot” on the tree. It’s a reminder of the contentious scientific politics that lie hidden behind certain hypotheses, no matter how accessible-looking they are!