As far back as the John Scopes’ Trial of 1925, otherwise known as the “Monkey Trial,” humans have questioned their evolutionary origins. Spearheaded by the efforts of Charles Darwin pinning religion against scientific discovery, the 20th century introduced a new approach for understanding our ancestry. As we enter the 21st century, after more than 75 years of international research and discovery, “Fossil Fragments: The Riddle of Human Origins,” a new exhibit at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, proves that the intrigue endures.
Under the curatorial leadership of Professor Andrew Hill, the exhibit presents the complete history of paleoanthropology (beginning with the publication of Darwin’s influential On the Origin of Species in 1859 and continuing through the present) without sacrificing interesting details.
A multi-media display, the exhibit begins with a large-scale wall projection; Newsweek covers, evolutionary questions (i.e. “Are chimps our cousins?” or “When did humans first use fire?”), photographs, and other artifacts flash across the screen. Nearby, an optical illusion demonstrates the transformation from fossilized skull to ancient hominid. And, as you enter the first room, the initial plaque foreshadows your coming experience: “Many cultures have myths and tales suggesting that at some remote time their ancestors were not exactly like themselves.” Now, too, science suggests the same.
The first area presents, in chronological order, the leading figures of paleoanthropology, from Charles Darwin to Maeve Leakey. The signage, featuring key facts, accomplishments and contributions, works with the accompanying video clips, fossils (reproductions and originals), old letters and newspaper clippings to create a cohesive understanding of each scientist and his findings.
Largely influenced by Darwin, Thomas “Darwin’s Bulldog” Huxley furthered the study of evolutionary theory. Working in the aftermath of the discovery of the first fossil, a skull cap found in the Neander Valley of Germany in 1856, Huxley suggested that our earliest ancestors were most like the great apes of Africa, and thus early hominids probably came from that continent.
Less than thirty years later, Eugene Dubois unearthed another skull cap while on an archaeological expedition in Asia. His find, later classified as the skull of a Homo erectus, offered two important contributions to the ongoing debate: it indicated that human origins might be traced to places other than Africa, and it added yet another link in the evolutionary chain.
In later years, Raymond Dart, Davidson Black, Pei Wen Chung and Robert Broom (among others) added their own contributions to the growing database of evolutionary materials. With unique fossil discoveries — representative of the manifold hominids — in diverse locales, these men confirmed the complex origin of our species.
Still, perhaps the name most synonymous with paleoanthropology and significant fossil discovery is Leakey, as Mary, Louis, Richard, and Maeve each worked to answer the age-old question of human origin. In 1974, Mary Leakey, perhaps the most famous of the four, found evidence of a bipedal hominid while digging for fossils in Tanzania. Bipedalism — the ability to walk habitually on two legs — is extremely uncommon in mammals, and helped to tighten the connection between modern humans (Homo sapiens) and earlier hominid species. In this instance, her discovery was categorized as Australopithecus afarensis. As recently as 2001, the Leakey family continues to leave its mark, as Maeve Leakey unearthed yet another species of hominid: the Kenyanthropus platyops.
The second room of the exhibit expands in more detail upon the scientific discoveries of the first, as evolutionary maps, fact sheets and encased fossils line the walls.
In addition, there are four virtual-tour computer screens on which you can compare the modern human skull to other hominid species and to a modern chimpanzee. The floor, with the help of local artist Tony Falcone, depicts a recreation of one of Mary Leakey’s site plan from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. And, in the middle of the room, rests the skeleton of a young Homo erectus male (approximately 1.6 million years old) discovered in Kenya in 1984.
The second room also provides an explanation of the Neanderthals’ extinction. Setting up home-base in Europe, the Neanderthals apparently lived quite comfortably until the arrival of our ancestors anywhere from 32,000 to 300, 000 years ago. As they were more evolved than the Neanderthals, the new species eventually took over the area, forcing the Neanderthals into extinction.
Returning full circle in the tour of the exhibit, an early plaque reads: “Interesting questions are easy to ask, but difficult to answer.” And though doubts and uncertainties remain in missing links and conflicting beliefs, it is more than safe to say that several strides have been taken to find those difficult answers.
And in the end, doesn’t a little “monkeying around” help us all? Consider Andrew Hill’s success story, related on a “Yale Tale” plaque in the second room. On a trip to see Mary Leakey in 1976, Hill discovered fossil footprints at Laetoli:
“While walking back to camp one evening, he fell while trying to avoid a large ball of elephant dung foolishly thrown at him by a colleague. With his face only inches from the rock, Hill recognized footprints made by antelopes and rhinos preserved in the volcanic ash.”
Perhaps there’s room for monkey business after all.
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