The question “where did we come from?” has interested theologians for millennia and scientists for centuries. In the permanent exhibition, Human Origins, the McClung Museum presents a comprehensive overview of the scientific understanding of the last six million years of the evolution of hominids—humans and our ancestors.
Guiding the museum in the creation of this exhibition was Andrew Kramer, head of UT’s Department of Anthropology. Kramer is a physical anthropologist specializing in paleoanthropology, the study of human evolution. He has conducted fieldwork and research in Indonesia, focusing on our fossil hominid ancestor, Homo erectus, who lived there more than one million years ago.
The exhibition employs numerous casts of fossil hominids, artists’ reconstructions of life scenes, maps, diagrams, videos, and artifacts. Of special interest are life-size and extremely lifelike reconstructions of two hominids by artist John Gurche. The earliest is that of a male Australopithecus afarensis (ca. 3–3.5 million years ago), and the other is that of “Turkana Boy,” a young Homo erectus (ca. 1.6 million years ago).
Humans are just one of millions of animal species on this planet. Initially, the new exhibit places humans in the context of life on earth by displaying our commonalities and differences with other mammals, particularly other primates. Humans are primates and our closest living relative is the chimpanzee, with whom we share more than 99 percent of our genetic material. This means that chimpanzees and humans share a recent common ancestor, and current evidence indicates that ancestor lived 4–8 million years ago. From this common ancestor, living chimps and modern humans arose; the remainder of the exhibit traces the evolutionary history of humanity since that divergence.
Fiber optic lights on a large globe pinpoint the locations where fossils have been found that support the reconstruction of human origins. The earliest sites are in Africa where hominid evolution began. Between one to two million years ago, populations of early humans spread out of Africa to populate the Old World, from Europe, to China, and Southeast Asia.
The American Museum of Natural History in New York produces an online, high definition video series called Science Bulletins. One of these, Human Bulletin, plays in the exhibit and is updated biweekly with news stories relating the latest findings with real scientific models and data. These bulletins explore the science of our species, covering fossils and genetic research on human evolution as well as studies on human health and neuroscience. Feature stories focus on key scientific questions about the past, present, and future of Homo sapiens.
In addition to the fourteen exhibit cases, two interactive flip books answer commonly asked questions about science and evolution. Inseparable from the story of human biological evolution is the emergence of human culture—tool making, use of fire, language, art, and religion. These subjects are also addressed in the exhibition.
The exhibition is made more dramatic by the ceiling installation of a reconstructed portion of the painted cave walls at Lascaux in the Dordogne region of France. These colorful images of animals, a human, and abstract symbols were painted over 17,000 years ago. More than 30,000 years ago, humans began to create representational art, which reflects those human qualities of creativity, imagination, and abstract thought.