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    Hall of Human Origins

The Hall of Human Origins

The museum’s Hall of Human Origins shows how humans have evolved over the past 6 million years, in three major areas: the separation into a distinct branch of the apes; the adaptation to a changing Earth’s climate; and the changes needed to survive as humans spread to all corners of the globe.

Unofficial Tip: Learn more about the origins of the human species at

The museum begins the story by noting that humans are primates and part of the “great apes” family that includes orangutans, gorillas, bonobos, and chimpanzees. We share a common ancestor with chimpanzees, one that lived between 6 and 8 million years ago. Two of the major things that set human ancestors apart from other ancient apes are the ability to walk upright on a regular basis; and small canine teeth in both males and females. Walking upright makes it easier to get around a wide variety of landscapes, and smaller teeth may have been the result of eating more meat and fewer plants, since plants required bigger teeth to tear and chew.

The first display you’ll see when entering the hall is that of four fossil skulls from human ancestors, the earliest of which dates to around 6 to 7 million years old. Along with each skull is a short explanation of how ape-like and human-like the species was. The oldest fossil, known as sahelanthropus tchadensis, was found in Chad in 2001. What’s interesting about this fossil is that it shows the place where the spinal cord meets the brain shifting to underneath the skull from the back of the skull. That’s an indication that the animal could walk upright on a regular basis. Coupled with small canine teeth, it’s enough for many scientists to accept s. tchandensis as the earliest entry on our branch of the family tree.

If you’ve got kids, they’ll enjoy the pair of photos to your right, showing the similarities between a small child hanging from a playground toy and a chimpanzee hanging from a tree: flexible wrists, elbows, and shoulders; a broad chest and shoulders; and a stable backbone. As parents who’ve encouraged their children to make monkey noises as they play on jungle gyms, we’re not surprised at this observation.

To the side of the hall is a set of interactive games. In one, you’re the ruler of a country, trying to guide it through economic growth, natural disasters, and social change. Another deals with rising carbon dioxide levels associated with global warming, and a third covers how humans have changed the world through things such as agriculture and animal domestication. None of these are directly related to human origins, but they’re short, fun diversions if your children look like they need a break.

The next major display, titled One Species, Living Worldwide, is a collection of human (homo sapiens) skulls from around the world, dating from 4,700 to 200,000 years old. These skulls show how these populations spread from Africa to Europe, Asia, and beyond. There’s a short movie that goes along with the display – view it here. The interesting thing about the movie is its observation that modern biologists reject the idea of human “races”, reasoning that the DNA of all people is 99.9% identical, and differences in things like skin, eye, and hair color are variations along a spectrum of colors.

What were humans like before 200,000 years ago? The next section discusses that, in a display titled Two Species, One Survivor, comparing Neanderthals to modern humans.

Neanderthals (homo neanderthalensis) are the closest extinct relative to modern humans, sharing a common ancestor from around half a million years ago. Both species evolved to live in a wide variety of climates, used tools and fire, and lived in shelters. Sometime between 40,000 and 28,000 years ago, however, when both humans and Neanderthals were living in Europe, a combination of climate change, competition and other forces drove the Neanderthals to extinction. The illustrations here show how each of those factors may have played a role in their demise. (Not shown here is a relatively new theory, put forth in 2014, that says fallout from the eruption of the Campi Flegrei volcano in Italy around 39,000 years ago may have also contributed.)

On a more cheerful tone, the wall opposite the Neanderthals contains Imagination Takes Wing and A World of Symbols, a look at the art, language, music, and decorative arts created by early humans between 30,000 and 60,000 years ago. There’s a replica cave wall, with paintings of people and animals, and background music made with a reproduction of a 35,000 year-old flute. In nearby cases are small sculptures of everything from mammoths and horses, to swans and geometric designs; examples of early writing; and personal jewelry and cosmetics, which may have first been used in funeral ceremonies.

Farther down the hall are two large, walk-in, interactive displays showing how researchers evaluate a site for potential clues regarding the humans that lived there. In the Burying the Dead display, you’ll see the clues that researchers uncovered in Shanidar Cave, Iraq, showed Neanderthals buried their dead as early as 65,000 years ago – a first among primates and humans. And in Surviving the Dry Times, from Olorgesailie, Kenya, million-year old fossils give clues as to how early humans worked together in social groups to share food and raise their young.

A museum display such as Human Origins runs the risk of fossil fatigue, where all the skulls start to look the same, and important but tiny distinctions are often overlooked or skipped. To get around that, Human Origins has built a series of replica heads, with hair, eyes, and skin, of the major human ancestors, including homo heidelbergensis, homo erectus, and Neanderthals. Each head is in a glass case, set to the average height of that species. We’d love to see these sold in the gift shop.

Beyond the replica heads is another interactive kiosk, titled What Would You Look Like as an Early Human? A small digital camera takes your photo, and slowly morphs your face so that it has the features of one of eight species. Kids love it, and although there are several kiosks available, there’s usually a short wait of a few minutes to get in front of a camera.

The next set of displays covers how human brains evolved faster during the last big round of climate changes – good news for us today! Nearby, another display shows how different body shapes evolved based on their local climate, from the short, round bodies that conserve heat in colder climates, to the taller, thinner frames found in warmer areas. Finally, a set of panels that show how the use of stone tools and fire helped humans access different food sources not otherwise easily available. There’s a mesmerizing video in this display, showing you how to make your own hand axe to butcher meat and scrape bone marrow, in case you’re looking for ideas for dinner.

The last model in Human Origins is that of an australopithecus afarensi, commonly known as Lucy. Found in Ethiopia, these 3.2-million year old bone fragments continue the story of ape-to-human transition started at the beginning of the hall. Among Lucy’s human-like traits are angled knees and a short, broad pelvis, both indications that Lucy spent a great deal of time walking upright. But, as we said with Morgie the mammal, evolution is a slow process, and Lucy still retains some ape-like traits, including long arms and fingers, and flexible feet. All of these characteristics indicate that Lucy spent a lot of time in trees, too.

Other Lands at Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History