Being based in New York City affords many opportunities for museum visits. As a bone company, we are primarily interested in the opportunities the city’s museums provide to study osteology. There is no better place for that than the American Natural History Museum. Between the Hall of Human Origins, Advanced Mammals, Primitive Mammals, and Primates, we had many bones to explore.
Our first stop was in the Hall of Primates. In the whole of the museum, there are only two skeletons we believe to be genuine human osteology, and they are displayed in this hall. The skeleton of an adult, and the skeleton of a young child are posed in comparison with the skeleton of Chimpansee troglodytes. The goal of the Hall of Primates is to demonstrate the commonality of all primates, including homo sapiens. The juxtaposition of the human child’s skeleton and the chimpanzee’s shows how these similarities are much more apparent in early development and adolescence.
This theme is expanded upon in the Hall of Human Origins. In exploring the trajectory of human beings, one must understand that humans are part of a group of bipedal primates, called hominids. Some hominids, like Homo neanderthalensis and Homo floresiensis are offshoots of a common ancestor we share such as Homo heidelbergensis. Even though some early humans interbred with neanderthals, resulting in many modern humans having neanderthal DNA.
A fascinating aspect of the Hall of Human Origins is the attention to scientific processes that result in our understanding of our hominid relatives. A display with three vials of DNA caught Persephone’s eye. One: a vial of human DNA taken from a cheek swab, another: a vial of chimpanzee DNA, and a third: a vial of neanderthal DNA taken and amplified from a fossilized specimen. The process of extracting DNA is fascinating, and seeing how museums and scientists are working to further understand our origins is deeply beneficial.
Another display in the Hall of Human Origins that caught our attention was the facial reconstruction of a neanderthal. Much in the way modern forensic sculptors work, a facial reconstruction of a neanderthal was made, using cues from the skull fragments, and educated estimations of skin color and body hair placement based on environmental factors.
Due to the harsh environment of a busy museum, most skeletons are too fragile for actual constant display, especially those that are tens of thousands of years old. Most skeletons in the museum are cast replicas, to avoid damage from dust, harsh lighting, air exposure, or human error.
This is especially relevant in the Halls of Advanced and Primitive Mammals, and the Halls of Dinosaurs. With specimens that are sometimes millions of years old, the damage the air, sun, and passerby could do necessitates the use of high-quality casts for display. Even so, the knowledge that can be gained from the bones on display is immense. Jon’s knowledge of mammalian anatomy shined here, in demonstrating how almost all mammals possess scapula, femurs, and other bones that show how we have common ancestry.
While not many human specimens are on display at the AMNH, we know that the collection they have beyond the displays is incredible. Hopefully one day they will find a way to make these pieces available for public viewing. For now, we have the wonderful experience of learning from this institution about our own origins, in tandem with the species around us.