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Natural History Museum unveils new Human Origins Gallery

Posted September 19, 2013 in Articles

Author: James Ewinger

Humans have been evolving for almost 6 million years. The Cleveland Museum of Natural History's Human Origins Gallery has been evolving much more briskly.

The latest iteration debuts Friday morning, with two updated reconstructiions of Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old ancestor known formally as Australopithecus afarensis.

Dr. Donald Johanson, a former curator at the museum, unearthed Lucy near Hadar, a small village in the Afar region of Ethiopia in 1974.

Dr. Yohannes Haile-Selassie, the museum's curator of physical anthropology, called the reconstruction the most accurate presentation of the species in the world.

The fossil specimen that Johanson founded 39 years ago represented about 40% of Lucy's skeletal remains.

"The first reconstruction occurred in the 1980s," Haile-Selassie said. "Researchers thought modern chimpanzees were the best models for the earliest human ancestors."

Subsequent analysis and fossil discoveries led to the latest presentation, with a more accurate curvature to the spine and a different shape to rib cage.

But wait, there's more. A lot more.

There are now two visions, one of the skeleton and the other a mirror-image lifelike version with flesh, hair, and hauntingly realistic eyes. The latter is shown in full stride.

The skeleton is cast in resin and foam. Darker pieces represent the replicas of the actual bones that were found in Ethiopia. White portions represent pieces that were mirror-imaged inferred or based on remains of other Australopithecus afarensis finds.

John Gurche, a renowned paleo artist who lives near Ithaca, N.Y., used the new skeleton as the basis for his lifelike reconstruction.

Haile-Selassie said Gurche used silicone for the tissue and painstakingly implanted each hair by hand. Gurche produced the likeness with remarkable speed, he said, completing it in seven months.

Joel Alpern, the museum's exhibition director, said the entire 1,000-square-foot gallery has been revised as well, starting with the initial conceptual design nine months ago.

"We are trying to appeal to a wider array of people," Alpern said Wednesday over the din of power tools as artisans were putting the finishing touches on the gallery.

The old space, "had a lot of things in cases," he said. New explanatory text is much more layman friendly.

There are new interactive components, including one whimsical touch screen that allows visitors to compose speculative caricatures of what Homo sapiens and their possible descendants might look like a million years in the future.

The two Lucys are the centerpiece of the gallery featuring 40 specimens.

Among the other species in the gallery are casts of the 1.4 million-year-old Homo erectus (Turkana boy found in Kenya); Australopithecus anamensis that lived 4.2 million years ago; and life-sized photograph of the 4.4 million-year-old partial skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus. Nicknamed Ardi, it was discovered in Ethiopia in 1994 by Yohannes Haile-Selassie.

Haile-Selassie said Australopithecus garhi, dating back 2.5 million years, is probably the earliest known tool maker. There are cut marks on some specimens associated with the species, indicating that it was capable of making and using tools.

Modern apes and monkeys can use crude tools, but they do not really make them, he said.

The earliest-known primate probably goes back 80 million years. The earliest ancestor shared by apes and humans dates back only about 7 or 8 million years. Homo sapiens – our species – appears between 160,000 to 200,000 years ago.

The gallery opens to the public at 11:30 a.m. Friday.

There will also be a public symposium Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

It is jointly hosted by Case Western Reserve University, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Institute for the Science of Origins and The Leakey Foundation.

Scientists from across the nation will discuss human origins, our ancestors who lived between 3 and 4 million years ago, including Lucy.

Admission is $10 per person, and it is free for college and high school students. Pre-registration online is recommended.

Original Article: http://www.cleveland.com/metro/index.ssf/2013/09/natural_history_museum_unveils.html

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