Posts Tagged With: human evolution

Human Origins at the Smithsonian

Last in our student series is the first to make me jealous. Saskia Lascarez Casanova was a Smithsonian intern this past summer. I’ve been behind the scenes at the Smithsonian twice, and I can attest to what an amazing opportunity this must have been! Saskia reviews her visit to the Human Origins exhibit at the National Museum of Natural Science.

Human Origins: the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural Science’s exhibit on the origins and evolution of our ancestors.

This past summer, I was privileged enough to intern at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and with that internship came lots of perks! My favorite one was the unlimited access to museums. We had special “museum day” outings where all Smithsonian interns got to go to select museums around the National Mall before opening to the public and explore the exhibits, along with behind-the-scenes events and access to various lectures. My first museum day was at the National Museum of Natural Science (NMNH), and I quickly realized that just an hour would not be enough time to explore the vast 1.5 million square foot museum.

hall entrance

Entrance to the Human Origins Hall

The most impressive exhibit by far was the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, which holds skull reconstruction of what our ancestors would have looked like, spanning the last six million years, down to the purported height along with incredible detail, making them seem life-like.

Skull wall

Replica skulls showing the sweep of human evolution.

The Human Origins Hall opened to the public in March of 2010, marking the museum’s 100th anniversary and inaugurating the intensive work of over 100 researchers from as many as 60 different educational and research organizations around the globe. Having just finished my introduction to anthropology class, this was a great chance to test the knowledge I had just learned and further educate myself on the subject. The 15,000 square foot exhibit begins with Lucy— one of the earliest hominins ever found, and continues on to show the different aspects of life during those times, like the new tools produced, the adaptation to social life, the use of symbols and their meaning, and the different changes that brought about the extinction of the Neanderthals.


Reconstruction of a Neandertal (photo courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History website)

Throughout the exhibit, there are various interactive tables and screens, which allow users to further look into certain topics. Archaeological field site information and interactive snapshots let you explore the methods archaeologists used to process their finds, along with a small overview of how the site was found and who was credited with the find. There is also an interactive family tree and a camera, which takes a picture of you and shows you what you would have looked like as a different species. The “One Species Living Worldwide” theater plays a 5-minute video, which tells the story of our adaptation and survival and takes you through the entire history of Homo sapiens.

This exhibit took me an hour alone to explore, and that was one corner of one floor out of three. I visited the NMNH on two other occasions, and spent a total of about 12 hours in the museum walking the three floors and soaking up the different exhibits. If you ever get the opportunity to go to the National Mall, be sure to make the NMNH your first stop as this is the second most popular museum and fills up quickly! Mammal Hall, Butterfly Pavilion, and the Bones exhibits are others worthy of mention, although Butterfly Pavilion is usually sold out up to hours in advance. And you cannot leave without seeing the Hope Diamond along with the entire Geology, Gems, and Minerals section. There is even a section dedicated to Egypt and the mummification process. If you cannot make the trip up to D.C., do not worry! All of the permanent exhibits in the NMNH are accessible online through their virtual tour webpage, but be warned, you will spend hours looking through it all!

For further exploration:

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural Science’s Virtual exhibitions

Human Origins Exhibition information page

Human Origins: One Species, Living Worldwide Video

More information on Lucy


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A Broader Perspective

Up next in our student series, Jenna Ason looks at Lee Berger’s recent Homo naledi discovery.

A Broader Perspective

In today’s world it can be easy to get caught up and lost in the complexities that dictate our everyday lives. One can easily become distracted and overwhelmed and lose sight of the fact that there is a great big wonderful world out there beyond our day-to-day existence. A world that has been here long before any of us were born, and a world that will be here long after all of us are gone. It is invaluable therefore to sometimes take a step back to examine that broad and wonderful world that we all call home. Perhaps one of the best ways to do that is to take a look at a small sliver of this incredible world, a treasure trove of history, the Rising Star Cave.

The Rising Star Cave is located just outside of Johannesburg in South Africa. In 2013, two cavers discovered an unknown cavern within the Rising Star Cave system that contained, what they believed to be, the fossilized remains from an early hominid. Lee Berger, an archaeologist known for his involvement in the discovery of Australopithecus sediba, quickly put together a team to excavate the chamber. The challenging part for him was the difficulty of getting into the chamber itself. With a very narrow and treacherous entrance (no bigger than 18cm at some points), Berger had to find very specialized individuals who were not only willing to drop everything to come to Africa, but additionally they had to be very small.

Within that chamber they discovered something new and extraordinary, Homo naledi. It was not remains from just one or two individuals that occupied this chamber. It was remains from many individuals ranging in age from infants to the very elderly. Reportedly, this age range is what one would expect to find in a graveyard or cemetery. Something incredibly interesting about the fossil remains was the fact that they seemed to have a mosaic of features. Some of the features seem nearly indistinguishable from modern man and some features resemble Australopithecus. A combination like that is a really rare find. Then there is the question of how the remains got there. One theory that was quickly discarded was that a predator dropped them there. With the remains from no other species (save those of a lone owl) found there, this theory could be difficult to find true as predators tend to prey on multiple species. Another theory is that perhaps this cave was a very early form of burial and disposal of the dead. This is very significant in that this could be an indication of a far more complex social structure before anyone ever dreamed it could exist.

Beyond being an incredibly exciting and interesting topic, for those of us who are students of Georgia Southern University, this story has a more personal appeal. Lee Berger got his undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Archaeology from Georgia Southern nearly thirty years ago. There is still much to be learned from the Rising Star Cave system. Perhaps it will a yield a great wealth of information about an ancestor of modern humanity, and perhaps not. Researchers say the surface has only been scratched and the future of Rising Star Cave appears to be promising. Regardless of what information it may or may not yield to us, it is a good reminder of the vastness that is our world.

Further Exploration and Sources:

‘Medium’ article talking about excavations in 2017

View story at

A short overview of Lee Berger’s Life

The documentary: “Nova ‘Dawn of Humanity”, PBS/NOVA, 2014. Season 42 ep 15.

And more National Geographic articles than you can shake a stick at




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