Human Origins Hall – Bio on the Mall, Part 2

Before I left the U.S. Botanic Gardens last Thursday, I took a stroll through the rooms of cacti, banana trees, jungle plants, and my personal favorite, the orchids. After taking one last look at the corpse flower (it’s blooming now, by the way!), I headed over to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. I’ve been there many times, as a visitor and a former intern, but it always manages to draw me back again.

First, I looked into one of the newer permanent exhibits, the Human Origins Hall. This exhibit takes visitors on an exploration from early human evolution all the way to the challenges that modern humans face. I’m no anthropologist, but the exhibit distills what is clearly a large body of information into a few key concepts: humans have evolved over time, with changes in their appearance and behavior, and we continue to evolve today.

I admit, I’m one of those people who loves to comb through every word of an exhibit, but you don’t have to do that to enjoy the Human Origins Hall. The displays are interactive and engaging – there are sliding tabs to compare early and modern humans, touch-screens that answer questions on evolution, and even a “photo booth” that shows you what you would look like as an ancient human.

For a couple of hours while I was at the museum, Dr. Briana Pobiner, an anthropologist with the Smithsonian Institution, stood at a small cart in the middle of the Human Origins Hall. She was part of a museum program called “The Scientist Is In.” For a couple hours on certain days, a scientist stands in an exhibit hall, answering visitor questions and discussing their area of research – in Dr. Pobiner’s case, early human diets. I think this is a great program! It gives researchers the chance to share their enthusiasm with visitors, and to showcase research that all too often remains backstage at the Smithsonian.

I listened to Dr. Pobiner answer a lot of interesting questions on topics ranging from early human scavengers, to animal and plant domestication, to the modern “paleo diet” fad. Did you realize how much intelligence and resourcefulness it requires to be a successful scavenger? Or that many animal predators can’t break open bones for marrow, but humans can – and that marrow is an excellent source of high-fat nutrition? And it turns out that the real “paleo diet” was extremely diverse – as you might imagine, populations in different places and different situations had widely varying diets.

If you’re interested, you can look up the next “The Scientist Is In” event, or attend one of the other upcoming special events. For instance, on this Friday, the 26th of July, the Human Origins Hall will hold an open public dialogue on “how scientific and religious organizations can cooperate on the public understanding of human evolution.” Sounds pretty interesting!

The Human Origins Hall is visually interesting and informative; I recommend a visit. If you can’t make it to D.C., then you can always take a look at the exhibit web page.

Before I left the museum, I stopped in at one of the museum’s temporary exhibits. I’ll talk more about that next time!

Have you visited the National Museum of Natural History or the Botanic Gardens? Do you have a favorite place to visit on the Mall? Leave a comment below!

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