A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
It's obvious the moment you walk into the Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) that there is a revolution underway in the science of human evolution. The hall's modern design and lava-lamp-like entryway reflect the fact that high technology now drives evolutionary studies as much as ancient fossils. Just 12 years after opening an exhibit on human origins, the advent of DNA studies, computer modeling, and new fossil discoveries have pushed the AMNH to radically update their old displays and make an ambitious attempt to bring together genetic and fossil data.
Holographic archaeologists excavating a model site and a re-created excavation unit from South Africa's Sterkfontein Cave give visitors a feel for archaeological fieldwork. And an evolutionary family tree, complete with casts of skulls from each subspecies, reveals how ancient hominids are related to modern humans. A Homo ergaster diorama depicts a man and woman butchering a dead animal while fighting off a vulture and jackal. I can't fault the exhibit's accuracy, but I am thinking the same thing I hear a high-school student say to her friend: "He looks like the caveman from the Geico commercial."
The rear of the hall is devoted to the question of what makes us human--the short answer is symbolic thought. Interactive kiosks show how humanity developed art and language; they also challenge visitors to use their own creativity. I wander over to the music display, where a young museum guard is passing time composing a song on the touchscreen. "Has working here made you an expert in human evolution?" I ask. He shakes his head, "I've looked at a few of the exhibits," he says. "I believe in evolution, sort of, but I don't believe in it all the way. I mean if there is evolution why are there still monkeys? And, if we are so closely related to them, why can't we... I'm not saying anyone would want to... but why can't we mate with them?" I'm a little stunned, but I suppose no exhibit can answer every question.
Zach Zorich is associate editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.