Image: G.J. Sawyer
Dima Gavrysh  /  AP
Physical anthropologist G.J. Sawyer discusses the process of making a bust from a replica of an ancient skull in a research laboratory at the new Hall of Human Origins of the American Museum of Natural History.
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updated 2/6/2007 8:39:38 PM ET 2007-02-07T01:39:38

In the beginning were the bones. Fossils dating back hundreds of thousands- even millions- of years used by anthropologists to trace how the human species evolved.

Recent times brought new technologies and new ways of looking, using genomics and DNA research to show our connections to other species through common ancestors.

A new exhibition hall at the American Museum of Natural History is breaking ground by combining the two, using the fossil record and genomics to tell the story of human development and evolution. The Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins opens to the public on Saturday.

"I think this is the first major exhibition in the world where the fossil evidence and the genomic science are brought together to tell a mutually reinforcing story," museum President Ellen Futter said at a media preview on Tuesday. "Bringing the two stories together is extraordinarily powerful."

The hall, covering more than 9,000 square feet, succeeds the Hall of Human Biology and Evolution and was a couple of years in the planning and installation. It features the casts of more than 200 fossils and artifacts as well as DNA evidence, a host of technology and interactive features and of course the dioramas for which the museum is well known.

"I think what we've done here is we brought them together quite nicely," said Rob DeSalle, co-curator of the hall. "The stories can each tell us certain things. ... When they overlap, it's kind of amazing they agree quite well."

Visitors to the hall are met at the entrance by three skeletons — a chimpanzee, a Neanderthal and a modern human — in front of an animated display that shows cells and other genetic material. One side of the first gallery shows the tools that paleontologists use and casts of some famous finds, such as the Neanderthal skull cap found in Germany in 1856.

The other side of the room introduces genomics concepts and shows how close our DNA is to that of other primates such as bonobos and chimpanzees. Among the display items is a vial containing DNA removed from a 40,000-year-old Neanderthal fossil, the first public display of the DNA extracted by a German lab.

The center section of the hall contains dioramas, including one showing Neanderthals preparing hides and another showing how artistic and creative humans have been.

The last section covers ground such as what separates humans from other species and what the future might hold.

The museum has set aside a small theater space in the hall for a series of programs on the latest research and discoveries.

It has planned a series of public programs for the opening, including lectures and workshops.

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