Human Origins Initiative

March 17, 2010
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The Human Origins Initiative has three main components: a large permanent exhibition (“What Does It Mean to Be Human?”), an educational program using the Web and an endowed chair to support ongoing scientific research. It builds on a long tradition of research at the Smithsonian, as well as more than 60 national and international collaborating institutions, including the National Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The initiative began four years ago, and has been underpinned by long-term research in Kenya and China led by Richard Potts, and supported by the National Science Foundation. Potts was appointed the first Peter Buck Chair in Human Origins.


The centerpiece of the initiative will be the opening of the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins, March 17, on the occasion of the centennial of the opening of the National Museum of Natural History building on the National Mall. By presenting the scientific findings and process of discovering how our species has evolved over time, the exhibition, “Human Origins: What Does It Mean to Be Human?,” takes the most comprehensive perspective on human beings of any Smithsonian exhibition. Visitors to the 15,000-square-foot hall, showcasing nearly 300 objects, will be immersed in a unique, interactive museum experience illuminating the major milestones in the origin and evolution of human beings and the drama of climate change, survival and extinction that have characterized humans’ ancient past.

The goal of the exhibition is to engage visitors in what science reveals about how humans have evolved over millions of years in response to a changing world. The exhibition highlights the only original fossil Neanderthal skeleton in the United States—one of the treasures of the human fossil collection at the Smithsonian—along with important artifacts that showcase an enormous range of archeological evidence from around the world. For example, two original fossil skulls of Cro-Magnon and the La Ferrassie Neanderthal (the most complete skull of this species in the world) are in the exhibition as a temporary three-month loan from the Musée de l’Homme in France.

Also, there are a series of interactive stations that help museum visitors explore scientific evidence about the lives of early human ancestors and have fun while doing it. For example, there is a face-morphing station where visitors can see their faces transform into an ancient species of their choosing. Other features include interactive snapshots in time using the actual field sites where research is conducted; an interactive human family tree showcasing 6 million years of evolutionary evidence; a “One Species Living Worldwide” theater show; and a special “Humans Change the World” gallery in which visitors can address issues surrounding human impact on the Earth.


Research conducted as part of the initiative is managed by the Human Origins Program. One of the program’s fundamental goals is to advance scientific understanding of humans’ evolutionary history. A special focus of this understanding is the intricate interplay of early human populations and the environments in which they lived. The support and visionary commitment of Peter Buck, a Connecticut-based physicist and co-founder of Subway restaurants, to the museum’s study of human origins established the Peter Buck Chair in Human Origins for ongoing research efforts.

The Human Origins Program will build on its leadership in investigating the ecological aspects of human origins. International teams of paleontologists, anthropologists, geologists and scientists from other disciplines have been organized to research the fossil, archeological and climatic records of early human sites from around the world. Ongoing field projects of the program include excavations in Kenya, China and India.


The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins serves as an invaluable learning resource. Its exhibits are designed to make what is known about human evolution exciting and accessible to all of the museum’s visitors.

The museum has launched a compelling new Smithsonian Human Origins Web site, It will include many of the interactive displays and content from the exhibition plus additional features visitors can only experience on the Web.

Educators will also have access to lesson plans for field trips to the museum and for use in the classroom, Web-based activities for students and other resources that can help educators teach about human evolutionary history and ongoing Smithsonian research in paleoanthropology.

The National Museum of Natural History has raised more than $30 million for the Human Origins Initiative over the past four years, including two leadership gifts by board members David H. Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries Inc., and Peter Buck.

Broader Social Impacts Committee

In addition, the initiative has formed a Broader Social Impacts Committee, composed of representatives of diverse religious communities from around the United States, to assist in public communication and dialogue surrounding the exhibition and outreach efforts in human origins.

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Solo Medios 

Randall Kremer


National Museum of Natural History
Press Office

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