Natural History Exhibit Asks: ‘What Does It Mean to Be Human?’

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When scientists announced earlier this month they had discovered the fossils of what appears to be a new hominid species dating back almost 2 million years ago, it sparked new excitement — and debate — among researchers about our ever-growing understanding of the connections between our ape-like ancestors and the earliest human-like species.

For many of us, it’s hard to make sense of, and distinguish between, the different species on the various branches of the human family tree. A new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is intended to guide non-scientists through key milestones in evolutionary development.

The $20 million exhibit is built around a central question: “What does it mean to be human?” says paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and curator of the project.

The 15,000-square-foot [display](http://humanorigins.si.edu/) includes a number of unique features: An exploration of the role climate change may have played millions of years ago in evolution and the way our predecessors adapted; fossils and other artifacts from 48 countries; detailed artist renditions of earlier species; and a huge case of more than 70 skull replicas that helps convey the changes in brain size that distinguish homo sapiens.

Potts first began thinking about the exhibit after the landmark discovery of the hominid “Lucy.”

“When I first came to the Smithsonian … I was thinking about doing something like this,” he says. “For 25 years, the vision has been there.”

Video editing by Mike Fritz.

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